23

5:45 PM
AMY

    “Brothers and sisters, are you keeping on the watch? As the scene of this world continues to change, rest assured that it will align with God’s purpose to bring an end to false religion once and for all. As students of the Bible, we know that it is Jehovah who ‘puts it into their hearts’. Does this mean that the Great Tribulation to follow will only bring hardships for those who belong to Satan’s system? To answer, let’s turn our Bibles to Matthew chapter twenty-four…”

    My mind wanders as the program continues. I saw it last week after my study when I was at Chelsea’s. Walter and her were particularly interested to see if the broadcast was going to formally announce the beginning of the Great Tribulation. Everyone suspects that it’s already begun, but our organization has been cautious to label it. According to Walter, the brothers may be waiting for something more significant to happen on a global scale, since the attack on Babylon the Great comes from the image of the wild beast, the United Nations, and not just the government of a single nation.
    I still find some of the symbols and prophecies in Revelation difficult to grasp, but Chelsea and Walter have been patient, explaining things simply and even helping me to put together my own timelines for personal study. Regardless of my limited grasp of everything right now, it’s exciting to be living through such a clear fulfillment of Bible prophecy.
    Still, I can’t help but feel distracted by an equally pressing issue in my life: my marriage. I glance at the kitchen door leading in from the hallway, knowing that as soon as it swings open I’ll be faced with the task of confronting Luke. It can’t wait any longer, though I still don’t have the words. How could I? Until just a couple of weeks ago, I thought our marriage was just fine. I look back at the screen, tuning in for just long enough to catch the following:

    “What kind of tribulation can we expect to face? Well, in the first century C.E., what trials did Christians fleeing Jerusalem have to face? The material sacrifices were many. They would’ve had to leave behind homes, businesses, material possessions. Many likely faced opposition from unbelieving family members…”

    I hear footsteps in the hallway come to a halt at our front door and realize that Luke is home. I turn and take a deep breath. But instead of the familiar sound of keys slipping past the tumblers, there’s a loud thud on the front door as someone begins to knock.
    “Who is it?” I yell as I scrabble for the door.
    “FBI. Please open up.”
    FBI? Is this a joke? I wonder if it’s Gabe out there and he’s expecting to catch Luke at home. I angrily lean into the peephole, only to find two strangers in black jackets looking back at me impatiently. One of them holds a golden badge to my eye.
    “Give me a minute,” I say, going through the five step process of unlocking our front door. A man and a woman step inside.
    “Can I see some ID?” I ask. The question doesn’t seem to phase them but they briefly exchange glances and allow me a closer look at their badges.
    “We’re with federal bureau of investigation, ma’am. You’re the wife of Officer Luke Harding, is that correct?” I nod, suddenly terror flooding my veins.
    “Has something happened to him?”
    “No ma’am, I can assure you he’s perfectly fine. However, his precinct is currently under an investigation. We’re here with a seizure warrant…” The man pauses slightly as his partner produces a notaried document from a jacket pocket. “Are you familiar with what this is?”
    “It means you’re here to take something,” I say, glancing over the papers.
    “That’s right. We won’t be but a minute. Perhaps you can show us where Luke keeps his laptop computer.”
    I nod hesitantly. I feel very violated by this intrusion, having two strangers walk into my apartment and take whatever they want. Worse yet with me guiding them through my home and showing them what to take. We get to the living room and I point to Luke’s desk. The man yanks cables from the walls and throws everything into a black duffel bag. The woman looks around our apartment smugly while she waits. Her eyes seem to be taking everything in. It unnerves and angers me.
    “Is that all?” I ask irritably when Luke’s computer is packed away.
    “That should be it, yes,” says the man. He pulls a card from his wallet and hands it to me before he leaves. “If you or your husband wishes to get in touch, here’s my number.”
    I take it from him and, without a word, escort them to the door.

6:37 PM
LUKE

    I come home to a quiet apartment and find leftover meatloaf wrapped in foil on the stove. I shovel a piece onto a plate on the counter and collapse into one of the dining chairs in our kitchen. I’m exhausted. I’ve barely slept the last couple of nights and it’s finally catching up. I’ve been running on caffeine and adrenaline, but even these have their limits. I’m halfway through my dinner when Amy enters the kitchen quietly and takes a seat. She’s got a funny expression on her face. I ask her what’s going on.
    “Some men came by here today,” she says, crossing her arms and staring at the floor.
    “Men? What do you mean?”
    “They said they were with the FBI.” That’s all it takes. My mind is reeling again. This nightmare never ends.
    “What did they want?” I demand, knowing full well what the answer must be.
    “They took your computer,” Amy says. I curse loudly and slam my fist on the table, startling my wife.
    “What’s going on, Luke?” I shake my head and cover my face. It’s the worst possible news.    “Are you in trouble?” Amy pleads, gently pulling at one of my sleeves.    “I don’t know,” I groan.
    “What does that mean? Have you done something wrong?”
    “No, I haven’t. They may think I did, but I haven’t. I just talked to a reporter a few times, and now they think I’m somehow mixed up in this mess.”
    “What mess?”
    I sigh. There’s no real harm in letting Amy in on everything, though it’s anyone’s guess how she’ll react. I decide to take my chances.
    “There were some leaked files posted online. The documents incriminate the government for some of the arson attacks on churches around the country.” I glance up at Amy. She seems to be frozen, her mouth open, eyes staring off into space.
    “But why would they do that?” she asks quietly.
    “I have some ideas, but I don’t even know how legitimate the documents are.”
    “Why did they come here, though? How are you involved?”
    I take a deep breath and pause before answering. “I talked to the reporter who leaked the documents. They must think I know something.”
    “Do you?”
    “Only the little that the reporter gave me.”
    “Did you have any of it on that computer?”
    My head drops and the next word takes tremendous courage to utter. “Yes.”
    “Oh, Luke… But what does that mean? Can they come after you? Can they come after us? Can you be… charged with anything?”
    “No, no, I don’t think so. All I had were a few files from the reporter. I knew so little about her investigation. I can’t see how that could be a crime…”
    “Her investigation?” Amy asks, her voice taking on a new quality.
    “Yes, her. Eva Richards, that reporter from The Herald I told you about.”
    There’s a long silence before Amy asks, “Was she the woman who came to see you in the hospital?”
    I nod, surprised that Amy remembers this detail. “Yeah, that’s right,” I say.
    “Are you still in contact with her?” Amy asks.
    “No,” I say simply, trying my best to avoid reliving a tragedy that’s still heavy on my conscience.
    “So what happens next then?”
    “I’m not sure, babe,” I say shakily. And I mean it.

22

Tuesday, November 24

10:09 AM
AMY

    It’s hard to put my feelings into words–they’re still a disorganized jumble in my head and to be honest I’m not sure exactly how to feel. I mean, I’ve always trusted Luke. We’ve known each other for almost a decade, and nothing’s come between us. But lately… I’ve been having doubts.
    It started with that woman at the hospital. Luke had acted so strangely, especially when I questioned him later. It’s not hard to tell when your man is being dishonest with you, and I saw all the telltale signs. I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the time; he’d been through so much trauma, so I wasn’t about to pry.
    I didn’t mention it to anyone; not even Chelsea. But as I sit in her kitchen waiting for her to gather her materials for our study, I realize how badly I need to talk about this. I need to know what I’m supposed to do. The thought of Luke and I not being together anymore is terrifying. If we’re not together, how will he ever make it through the end?
    And now I’m crying.
    Chelsea enters the kitchen and stops abruptly at the sight of me with my hands over my face quietly sobbing. She pulls a chair to my side and tries to console me. “Amy? What’s going on? What happened?”
    I realize how strange this must all look to her. Moments ago we were enjoying her homemade macaroons–a small celebration of how successful our dinner together last week had been. Luke had opened up and Walter and him even seemed to hit it off. Five minutes later, I’m an inexplicable bawling mess.
    It takes me a few minutes to get the anguish out of my system. I decide to let it just run its course, and Chelsea, in her typical motherly fashion, patiently accepts it. She pulls my head onto her shoulder and doesn’t say a word. There are more tears than I was expecting, and I begin to suspect that there was a lot of pent-up anxiety that’s been needing to come out.
    I’ve got a small mountain of crumpled tissues in my lap by the time I’ve finally regained composure. Chelsea, still silent, is gently patting my shoulder and watching her husband bag dead leaves outside.
    “I’m sorry,” I finally manage with a pathetic whimper.
    “It’s ok, those weren’t our only tissues,” Chelsea says, and I can’t help but laugh despite everything. “Do you want to talk about it?” I nod, and she cleans up the spongy tissues as I clear my throat and try to figure out where to start. I decide to cut right to it.
    “I think Luke might be having an affair.”
    “What?” Chelsea says, shocked. She’s frozen in the corner of the kitchen, one hand holding a trashcan and the other my mess of tissues.
    “I caught him the other night looking at this woman’s Facebook photos. I’ve seen her before, too–she came to visit him once in the hospital.”
    Chelsea slides back into her seat, looking at me intently. “Have you talked with him about this?”    “No.”
    “You need to talk with him, Amy. Before you get all caught up in this. It could be a misunderstanding.”
    “A misunderstanding? Chelsea, he was sneaking around on his computer checking some woman out at three in the morning!”
    “Oh dear,” Chelsea says, putting her hand on her forehead.
    “I should’ve seen this coming. I feel so stupid,” I’m saying. “He’s been so distant lately. We’re such different people. That’s why he agreed to the dinner, and that’s why he doesn’t mind me studying. He’s found someone else!”
    “Stop, Amy,” Chelsea says. The sharpness in her voice catches me off guard. “Don’t act like your marriage is already over. It’s not. Talk to him.”
    “And what if he just keeps lying about everything?”
    “Amy, it’s like you’ve already convicted him in your mind. At least give him a chance to explain himself. I know how much you love him, and he seems to genuinely care about you as well. Men like that don’t cheat.”
    “And if he is cheating?”
    Chelsea shakes her head, her eyes misting slightly as she stares into mine. “We’ll cross that road if and when we come to it.”




Wednesday, November 25

8:05 AM
LUKE

    I push through the station doors and freeze. The entire precinct is in a frenzy of activity. Officers are running every which way, many of them carrying manila folders stuffed with reams of paper. There are faces I don’t recognize in here too, with stares that seem to be carefully surveying the chaos. It doesn’t take long to figure out where they’re from. Dark suits and navy blue windbreakers in this line of work can only mean one thing: FBI.
    I spot Pryce scowling from the entrance of the hallway. His bandaged stump of an arm is still hanging in a white sling, while his good arm ends in a clenched fist at his side. I make my way over to the captain cautiously, nearly colliding with a female agent carrying a cardboard box full of files. Her snakelike eyes flash me a threatening look and I jump out of her way.
    “What’s going on here?” I ask, sidling up to Pryce’s side.
    “The Feds have decided we have a leak,” Pryce growls.
    “A leak?”
    Pryce jerks his head in the direction of his office and the two of us enter and close the door. Standing behind his desk, he swivels his laptop around to let me look at the screen. He’s opened a web browser. I glance at the familiar logo of two globes suspended in an hourglass and realize I’m looking at the homepage for the notorious Wikileaks website.
    “Nearly two hundred files were uploaded over the weekend. No one knows where they came from, but there are some references to Haliford. Apparently it’s tied to our police department. The feds put two and two together and here we are.”
    “When did they get here?”
    “I was here at six thirty; they had already let themselves in.”
    “They can do that?”
    Pryce shrugs. “Who knows? Laws can change overnight.”
    I think for a second about how true this is and nod.
    “So what were the leaked files about?” I ask.
    “What, you think I’ve had time to comb through it with these snakes in our living room?”
    “No, I guess not. May I?” My hands hover over the keyboard of the laptop, waiting for Pryce’s approval, which come a second later in a curt nod. I click once on the search box and enter the keyphrase ‘Haliford’. I scan through the results that spill onto the screen. The first few are unrelated articles leaked from the Syrian War, all of which mention some soldier with the same last name as our municipality. But further down the page, I see it.

    RE: INVESTIGATION INTO ANTI-CHRISTIAN ARSON

    I click the hyperlink as the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. The document that loads on the screen is riddled with odd symbols, numbers, and indecipherable strings of letters, making it all appear to be some sort of gibberish spit out by a malfunctioning computer. But as I study the lines carefully, the pieces begin coming together. It seems the letters are a form of shorthand, and the symbols are inserted to denote dates and timestamps.
    I read over a paragraph in the middle of the document carefully.

    %101419”” 8th mo. resrch church arsn, seek advc from Haliford PD. Dead end. Subj not clear w/ MO, INT. “”

    I feel a knot forming in the pit of my stomach. ‘PD’ is doubtless none other than a reference to our police department. There’s only one person I can think of that was doing an investigation into the arson, and that’s Eva. Somehow, from beyond the grave, she’d leaked the files she’d collected during her year-long investigation. Maybe it’s the ‘contingency’ she’d mentioned in the motel last week, though I have no way of being certain.
    I suddenly wonder if any of this will somehow trace back to me. Pryce, Gabe, and a handful of other officers had known about the interview Eva had first conducted with me, but I’d given up nothing worth leaking because I hadn’t known anything at the time. But if anyone had been following us or watching during any of our other meetings, or if Eva had included my name in any of the leaked files, I could very well find myself the suspect in a federal investigation. The realization is enough to tie my stomach in knots.
    “Find anything?” Pryce grumbles from the window of his office, where he stands picking at the blinds as he watches the disarray in the pen. It takes me a moment to register the question.
    “Yeah. Looks like there’s a reference to our PD.”
    Pryce spins around with a look of fury and is instantly on my side of the desk seething at the screen. He scans the text and takes just a fraction of a second longer than I had needed to make sense of it.
    “This is from that reporter, Richards, isn’t it?”
    “I think so,” I say cautiously.
    “Well, then why are the feds at our throats? Why not go after the reporter. Heck, bury the whole paper in agents for all I care. Why come after us?” Pryce fumes.
    “They can’t,” I say quietly.
    “They can’t what?”
    “They can’t go after Eva. She’s dead.” I explain the story as I heard it on the news. Pryce furls his eyebrows and lets out a soft groan. There’s nothing I feel like saying in response. Pryce studies me for a few moments before he returns to his weathered green chair with a grunt.
    “Anything else you want to tell me about why these people are raiding our precinct?” he inquires with a shrewd stare.
    “Sorry?”
    “I know you two were in contact, Harding. I saw the day you left with her, and Rodriguez told me she paid you a visit at St. Mary’s. If there’s something I need to know, you’d better come clean now.”
    My voice catches suddenly as if my neck is held fast in a noose. I try to speak, but my tongue is dry and stiff. There are no words, and all I can do is slowly shake my head. “No, sir,” I finally manage.
    “You’re saying you didn’t divulge any classified information, ever, to Miss Richards?”
    “No, sir,” I repeat firmly, eager to convey the truthfulness of my response. “She wanted to know if I had information and I told her I didn’t. I knew next to nothing about her investigation at the time.”
    Pryce frowns in a way that nearly stops my heart. It’s the look a man might give to an animal about to be euthanized. But something tells me the worst is yet to come.
    The next hour drags on in quiet agony as I sit at my desk and fight the urge to crawl over the Wikileaks documents Eva posted. Did she mention me by name? I’d like to think that she considered me enough of a friend not to indict me like that, but what can I really be sure of? It’s clear to me now that she put the story before everything, even her life. Why should I expect preferential treatment?
    Still, I realize that whether or not she mentioned my name matters not. Eventually the feds will realize she’d talked to me, and I’ll be a prime suspect. My concentration is broken by a sharp rapping of knuckles against the corner of my desk.
    I look up to see a sallow-faced man in a dark suit. His eyes narrow slightly as he looks down at me and motions for us to take a walk. I hear another set of footprints behind me and, in the glass of one of the hallway windows, catch the reflection of a second federal officer a few paces behind me, his thin windbreaker bunched at his side around a clearly visible sidearm.
    A thousand worrisome thoughts race through my mind as we walk. How will this affect my standing in the station? My promotion? I’m well aware that my superiors could just as easily revoke the uniform after this fiasco. But under those personal fears is another set of questions that I can’t quite get past. Why are these agents here? As a law enforcement officer myself, I’m fairly clear on the scope of FBI operations, and I also know that they tend to move slowly on lower priority investigations. It’s hard for me to imagine what could’ve brought them to our little precinct here in Haliford with such speed and show of force.
    As I enter the interrogation room, I’m struck by the irony of it all. I think of how many times I’ve been the one leading a suspect through these same doors to an interrogation. Most perps are handcuffed as they take the walk to the hot seat, but the especially cooperative ones get to move without restraints. Is that what I am now? A suspect? My pulse quickens as I’m seated in a chair bolted to the ground. Things do look different from this side of the table. The double-sided mirror. The bright lights. It’s all very menacing.
    The agent sits opposite from me. He takes his time sorting through papers in a manila folder and booting his laptop. It feels like an hour has gone by before he finally acknowledges me. He nods and smiles, but his eyes are cold, two black steel bolts screwed tightly in metallic eye sockets.
    “You thirsty? Want a coke? Coffee?” he asks.
    “Coke is fine,” I mutter. The agent snaps his fingers and I can hear feet jogging down the hallway outside. They’ve at least left the door open, which I appreciate.
    “I’m sorry to have to do this, dragging you in here and making it seem like a… I dunno, some kind of criminal investigation. But unfortunately it’s one of the best places for a conversation like this.”
    “I shrug,” pretending not to be bothered by the setting, though I suspect that this room was picked out exactly for its connotations.
    “Anyhow, I’m Agent Logan Meade. You’re… Luke Harding, correct?” the agent says, frowning at a piece of paper in his folder. “You’ve been with the department for, what now, five years?”
    “Six.”
    “Six, right. My mistake,” Meade says with a cocky expression, clearly inferring that the extra year makes no difference to him. He’s a typical federal agent, seeing himself in a class above local law enforcement.
    “I’m a sergeant with the department here,” I say.
    “Yeah, I noted it in your file. Recent promotion?”
    “Yeah.”
    “I see. Congratulations,” Agent Meade says in a voice that sounds anything but congratulatory.
    “Yeah, thanks. Mind if I ask what this is all about?”
    Agent Meade studies me for a moment, a predatory grin forming on his lips before finally speaking. His voice is still nonchalant but the ferocity in his eyes is unmistakable. “You’ve heard about the leaked documents, I assume?”
    “Sure, the Captain mentioned it to me this morning.”
    “Yeah, well, it’s causing a nightmare for the Bureau. Apparently some of the things suggested… Point fingers in our direction. It’s all very conspiratorial, of course, speculation and heresay, like someone was trying to write a spy novel. But here we are all the same, doing clean up.”
    “What do you mean, pointing fingers?” I ask cooly.
    “Apparently, someone anonymously uploaded files that supposedly incriminate the U.S. government in connection with these church burnings.”
    And there it is. This was what Eva had been saying at all along. It’s the terminal point of a trail of clues she’d been following for months. I had sensed it as well, but in all the evidence that I had thus seen, there’s been nothing nearly as incriminating as what this federal agent has just offhandedly mentioned. If only Eva could be here now to see this, I think.
    “Have you seen the files, Luke?” Meade asks as he sips from a silver thermos.
    I shrug. “I got a glimpse in Pryce’s office this morning.”
    “And? Any idea where they might’ve come from?”
    I weigh my possible responses carefully, acutely aware that every second of silence has the potential to make me look guiltier. But then it occurs to me that bringing up Eva’s name can do her no harm. She’s gone for good and nobody can hurt her.
    “There was a reporter that came around here a few times, she might’ve had access to some of that info.”
    “You got a name?”
    “Yeah, I think it was Eva. Eva Richards.”
    “Think? So you didn’t, like, know her well or what? Did you guys ever talk?”
    I swallow hard, back at another crossroads. “Yeah, we talked. She interviewed me once or twice.”
    “She interviewed you?”
    “Yeah. I’d been at the scene of a fire, rescued an elderly couple from a church. It was in the papers.”
    “Uh huh. So that was it? You had no further communication with her?”
    A pause. “I may have run into her occasionally after that, but I wasn’t able to give her any more information.”
    “Be more specific. What kind of information?”
    “Info on the church arson. That was the story she was after.”
    “Didn’t you say she was after your story?”
    “Yes, she was. But she was also working on something bigger.”
    “Oh?”
    “Yeah, something on a national scale.”
    “Having to do with church arson.”
    “Right.”
    Agent Meade takes a moment to make a note in his legal pad. “How many times did you and Miss Richards meet, then?”
    “Just a few.”
    “Give me a number, Luke. Was it two? Three?”
    “We talked a couple times, and she came to see me once in the hospital.”
    “So three times.”
    Another pause. “Yes, I believe so.”
    “Anything else she might’ve mentioned to you when you two talked?”
    I shake my head. “She had been doing some research but didn’t share a lot of it with me. I think she wanted me as a source of more information, but when I didn’t have anything to give, she gave up.”
    “Ok,” Meade says, scribbling on his pad again.
    The questioning wraps up a few minutes later, and I’m left with the impression that my role in their investigation is over, but as an officer of law enforcement, I know this is just the beginning.

Design update

As I recently blogged about here, I'm happy to announce that the cover design for Critical Times was finalized this week! (Check out a sneak peek below) To keep the visuals consistent, I've gone ahead and updated this blog's design.

Additionally, you can now purchase paperbacks of the first two novels, All Things New and The Unrighteous at Amazon.com. (For Kindle users, you can also grab the download directly from Amazon.)

For those still waiting on grabbing the finished copy of Critical Times, thanks so much for your patience! It's been a busy summer, but I'm nearly there! Stay tuned...


21


10:23 PM
LUKE

            Well, that didn’t go exactly as planned.
            I thought I had the whole thing figured out: I’d gather some information from them and try to get to the bottom of their relationship with my wife. I’d pry without being too nosy and begin the task of opening my wife’s eyes. I even kept my uniform on just to make the distance between us clear. I figured the Witnesses were like most other church-goers: more or less good people, but going along with the routines of religion for the sake of tradition. Now, I’m not so sure.
            In the end, we spent about two hours talking, and I was surprised to find that it was past ten o’clock when they finally left. Amy doesn’t say much as she clears off the table and tidies the kitchen. She tells me to jump in the bath first, that she’ll finish up the dishes on her own, and I comply. I’m exhausted after my first day back at work and still processing the events from this evening. 
            And as for Eva, well… To be honest, I’m at my wit’s end with that woman. First she drags me out to a motel in the middle of the night, scares me half to death with her girl-in-hiding routine, and then vanishes. Despite her promise to contact me, there’s been no news all day. I never asked to be a part of her mess, but I’m invested in her plight all the same and I’m totally in the dark. The audio clips I heard back at the office didn’t help with my mounting frustration. My curiosity about what she’s been digging into is eating away at me. I feel her obsession gnawing at my own bones now.
            When I step out of the shower I hear Amy calling my name. I’m still dripping wet when I poke my head from the bathroom and reach for my phone from her hands. It’s buzzing, and Gabe’s name is on the screen.
            “Yeah? What’s up?” I say, trying not to get water on the device.
            “Luke,” Gabe says in flat voice. “Turn on the news. Now. Channel 7.”
            I stumble into the living room, drying myself off as I go, and flip on the television. They’re showing footage of a smoldering car wreck. The wreckage is circled by police cars and fire trucks, but no ambulances. In the corner of the screen, they’ve plastered a still photo of a young woman’s smiling face and my heart stops. It’s Eva Richards.
            I jam my finger into the volume button, hoping to dismiss my fears. I must be misreading this.

            …was found at approximately 6:30 this evening by a group of local teenagers, who reported seeing a large fire near the exit ramp of the highway. The fire department was able to extinguish the flames, and the remains of a single person were recovered. Although the coroner has still been unable to positively identify the body, police have determined that the vehicle was owned by a young female reporter working at The Herald named Eva Richards. Her employer confirmed that she had not reported for work for the last couple days…

            My stomach twists in horror, my body suddenly light and weak and cold. I slide into the couch with a hand on my forehead. The report cuts to a segment of an earlier interview with the local chief of police, a man whom I don’t recognize. He explains that Eva’s car had been found in a county to the north of us.

            While we’re still conducting an investigation into the cause of the accident, judging from preliminary evidence, we believe the driver lost control of the vehicle, whereupon the vehicle left the road, was overturned, and ignited. Unfortunately, we believe the driver was killed in the accident, and we do not currently suspect foul play.”

            The cameras cut back to the news anchor, who continues the story. I find it difficult to breathe. My mind is reeling. Dead? But how? I saw her, talked to her, just a few days ago. How could something like this happen? And why had she been driving so far out of the county? And why had she not contacted me like she’d promised? Why had she been so stupid? I shake my head, feeling myself grow angrier and angrier with the woman that burst so suddenly into my life and vanished just as quickly.
            There’s no way I’ll be able to sleep tonight, I realize, as Amy lathers lotion on her face and arms and slips into bed. When she asks what I’m doing still up, I tell her I’ve just thought of some work I need to get done for the office. I get up and wander around the apartment for a while until she falls asleep. I find myself an hour later still sitting on our living room couch in the cold darkness. I’m holding Eva’s flash drive in my hands, turning it over in my fingers and wondering what to do next.
            I’d only known Eva for a month. We met a few times, but the effect she had on me is undeniable. As a man who firmly believes in fidelity, I was never tempted to step beyond the boundaries when it came to our relationship, but had I met Eva when I was still single, it’s not difficult to imagine a romance might’ve budded down the road.
            I think back to the first time I met her at the station. It was easy to admire her; she was determined, sharp, intrepid. When I saw her that last time in the motel, it was like looking at a shell of the former woman. She was jittery, paranoid, ready to run. A hunted animal.
            It’s difficult to ignore the fact that this small piece of plastic in my hands may be her untold legacy. And I, its keeper. I go over to my desk and slip the USB into my laptop. It mounts, and as I stare at the words “ER’s Flash” on my screen, I feel a chill go up my spine.
            Then I get to work.
            I begin by browsing through the info labels on each of the folders. There are a total of 217 files on the drive. I’m guessing most are text documents, and if Eva was as fastidious as she came across, I’m betting that most of these files are password protected. The rest, most of which seem to be audio files, I hope to access without problems. I copy all of the contents to my hard drive and begin reorganizing everything, putting all the audio files into a single folder. When this is done, I import these files into my audio player. The software tells me that the total play time is 1,232 minutes. About twenty hours’ worth.
            Between work and sleep and everything else, this will probably take me the better part of a week to get through, especially if I’m meticulous about documenting everything. But I don’t have a choice. Suddenly it’s all that matters. If I’ve failed at keeping Eva safe, at least I can embark on the task she’d set out to accomplish.
            I take a deep breath and attempt to decipher the file names.
           
            190804HA01
            190907HA02
            200119JLP01
           
            I bring up the info pane again for each of the audio files to check the modification dates and make my first discovery. The first six digits of each folder are simply the date. YYMMDD. Easy enough. August 4th, 2019. September 7th, 2019. January 19th, 2020. The letters after the date are more curious. Is it a code Eva had come up with to organize the interviews? Perhaps an abbreviation based on the location of the interview? Or the name of the interviewee?
            I drag the first audio file back into my music player, insert my earbuds, and listen carefully. Sure enough, throughout the interview, Eva calls the man by his first name, Harley. I make a notation on a text file in my computer and turn up the volume. Like the other files I heard back at the office, there’s an unmistakable sense of discomfort in the man’s voice. There’s a constant ruffling noise followed by a dropping out of the interviewee’s words, as if he can’t keep still and keeps moving his head around, watching his back.
            I go through the files in order, making little notes as I progress. Many of the interviews are similar. Eva asks the same questions, her subjects make the same dodges. Why had they even agreed to these interviews in the first place? And how had Eva managed to track them down? From what I can piece together, many of these people had been approached by an organization through different agents and been given similar assignments. In the beginning, the contracts had involved some form of destruction of church property. But as time went on, there’s a sense that things had become far more sinister, though few of the interviewees say so plainly.
            But what disturbs me most is the way the interviewees describe their meetings with the agents who’d been sent to recruit them. By the descriptions provided, these men were precise, well-informed, and clearly part of an organized unit. It operated with the professionalism of a criminal organization, but without the telltale signs of such. They met with their potential contractors in broad daylight, in public areas. How could they afford to be so brazen? They acted as if they had nothing to fear.
            I glance at the blinking clock in the corner of my laptop’s screen. It’s already past three in the morning, and I’m beginning to feel it, but my brain doesn’t want to stop unravelling the mystery. I close down the audio player and open my web browser. I only need to type in “f” and it can already read my mind. Good ol’ Facebook.
            I was a lot more active on the site years ago, back before I was dating Amy and trying to be a police officer. I log in and am unsurprised to see that I have hundreds of unchecked messages and alerts. I brush past them and do a user search. I enter the city, name, and all the other details I can think of. It doesn’t take long to track her down.
            Eva’s profile pic is a photo of herself smiling with a Boston terrier in her arms. I scroll down and find a few dozen messages from friends who’ve apparently heard the news of her death. The notes are heartbreaking. I scroll back up and click through to her album. She was only twenty-nine. A tear leaks from my eye and I wipe it away with a knuckle.
            I nearly jump as I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to find Amy looking down at me and my computer with a frown.
            “Luke? What are you doing up…?”
            “Just some research,” I say, honestly enough.
            “What time is it?” Amy asks, yawning.
            “Late. I’m going to bed,” I say, leading my wife gently back to the bedroom. I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow, though my dreams are anything but restful.

20


Thursday, November 19




5:49 PM
AMY

            It’s almost six o’clock and I’m in the kitchen adding radish slices to a salad, the final touch for tonight’s meal. The oven is just about done with the main course and our little apartment already smells like mozzarella and Italian spices. Lasagna’s a pain and I rarely have the patience, but it’s Luke’s favorite dish and tonight must be a success. I’ve thought of nothing else all week. The fact that Luke even agreed to this at all was a surprise, but that’s just how he is sometimes. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve prayed for everything to go smoothly, but Chelsea says that prayers are like coats, and you just keep putting them on until the cold goes away, so I close my eyes once again and repeat my petition.
            Chelsea and Walter Novak arrive a few minutes later. They’ve brought another bottle of wine, this time a cabernet that Walter has specially selected to pair with the lasagna. He explains that the acids in this particular red wine helps to cut through the flavors of cheese in the dish. I nod as if I understand, but it’s all way over my head. The Novaks may live simply, but they’re by far some of the classiest people I know.
            Chelsea helps out around the kitchen, getting the table set and starting on the dirty oven pans while Walter tends to the wine. He’s very methodical about the whole process; he’s even brought along a funny looking device that apparently airs out the wine to enhance the flavor. When everything’s set on the table, Walter suggests that we say a prayer now, to avoid causing Luke any embarrassment later. I agree gratefully, but before Walter can say another word we realize it’s too late. The locks on the front door are sliding open. Luke is home.
            He enters the apartment and I can immediately sense his discomfort. Chelsea and Walter are gracious as always, though, and Luke seems to relax a little after everyone has been reintroduced.
            “Did you want to change, hon?” I offer as I begin cutting the lasagna on the counter.
            “Nah, I’m good like this,” Luke says cooly.
            “So, tell us about your work, Luke,” Chelsea beams, handing my husband a glass of wine.
            He rattles off some statistics in response: how long he’s been on the force, how many officers work at his precinct, how much paperwork his desk job involves.
            “He just got a promotion, actually,” I add as I remove my apron and sit at the table.
            “Oh? I’ll bet it had to do with that couple you saved from the fire. That was quite heroic,” Walter says.
            Luke shrugs, “Any officer would’ve done the same thing. It was all reflex and training.”
            “Well, whatever you call it, we’re grateful. The Harrises are good friends of ours. We’ve known them for years. They’re an incredible couple,” Chelsea says.
            “Have you gotten a chance to meet them, Luke?” Walter asks.
            “Yeah, a few weeks ago Mr. Harris called me and asked me to come by the hospital. He seemed… nice.”
            “I’m glad you paid him a visit. I’m sure it meant a lot to him. He wouldn’t have liked it if he hadn’t had the chance to thank you face-to-face.”
            With all of us seated at the table and a meal steaming in front of us, I wonder anxiously what will happen next. I exchange quick glances with Walter and Chelsea and they seem to sense the unspoken question. Walter turns to Luke and smiles warmly. “Luke, typically before we eat a meal, my wife and I like to say a prayer. Would that be ok with you?”
            Luke shrugs indifferently. “It’s your religion, do what you like.”
            “Very well, thank you,” Walter says.
            My heart is beating away in my chest and I can barely focus on what Walter is saying. I can’t help but wonder what’s going through my husband’s head.
            I open my eyes to find that Luke has already served himself to a portion of lasagna and doesn’t seem very engaged. I try to not let it bother me and soon Walter and Chelsea and myself are talking about something we saw recently on the news. The president has been giving speech after speech decrying the rising wave of religious violence, and it’s clear the nation’s patience is wearing thin.
            “This just goes to show how important it is to show respect to the superior authorities,” Walter says with a pointed glance at Luke, and I realize that everything we’ve been talking about is for my husband’s benefit. They want him to know we aren’t a threat. We’re not extremists. Luke doesn’t seem to pick up the cue.
            “So Luke, how are the officers in your department faring since the attack?” Chelsea asks gently. It takes a moment for Luke to process the question. He glances at me before answering.
            “We lost a couple of good officers in that blast. Our department was shaken up by it, but we have a plan.”
            “I saw on the news that one of them had a wife and kids. It’s just awful,” Walter says.
            “His name was Jared Cole. He was a good cop.”
            “Luke’s Captain was seriously injured as well. They had to amputate his hand,” I say carefully. Still, I catch Luke’s glare from across the table. Maybe this isn’t public knowledge. I bite my lip and offer an apologetic glance, deciding to keep myself out of the rest of this conversation.
            “Oh! That’s just horrible. This world is just a mess, isn’t it?” Chelsea says as she shakes her head and frowns at us.
            “Well, that’s why I do what I do. Try to keep the mess at bay,” Luke says.
            “Well, we all appreciate the work you do, Luke. And we’re very cooperative whenever we come across law enforcement,” Walter chimes in.
            “You two often have run-ins with the police?” Luke says with a sardonic smile. The question is posed in an ambiguous tone somewhere between accusation and playful banter, and none of us quite knows what to make of it.
            Walter chuckles. “No, I suppose we don’t. But I was talking about Jehovah’s Witnesses in general.”
            “Oh?”
            “Sure. We abide by local laws and always show respect to those in charge, and that includes the men and women in uniform.”
            “I guess you’re trying to assure me I won’t have to respond to another bomb threat with one of your people on the other end, huh?”
            “Luke,” I say in a mildly scolding tone.
            “Sorry, I have nothing against your people. I just feel like I’ve been watching an endless stream of news and police reports involving religious violence. I have a hard time believing that your churchgoers are any different. No offense.”
            “None taken,” Walter says easily. “Trust me, I’ve heard much worse.”
            “You’ve said worse,” Chelsea says, shaking her head with a laugh.
            “What does she mean?” Luke asks.
            “I wasn’t raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Luke. In fact, neither was Chelsea. We met in high school, and when she went off to college, I signed up for the Air Force.”
            “You were in the armed forces?”
            “17th Air Division, Desert Shield.”
            “You fought in the Gulf War?”
            “Fought, not so much. Our division was in charge of refueling active-duty units. We didn’t do much else, other than sit around the base drinking and gambling.”
            “And then you came home and became a Jehovah Witness?”
            Walter smiles. “It wasn’t so simple. Chelsea and I had been dating long distance while I was on tour. The Witnesses knocked on her door one day and she said she had found science and didn’t need God. They asked why she thought the two were mutually exclusive and she didn’t know the answer. They ended up talking for over an hour and she realized there was a lot she didn’t know about the Bible. She agreed to study it with them and liked what she learned. When I came back from duty and found out, I was furious. I prohibited her from seeing them anymore, or else our relationship was over.”
            “Why were you so angry?” I ask. It’s the first time I’ve heard the story from Walter’s side.
            “Well, like anyone else, I’d heard nasty things about the Witnesses. They let their kids die rather than getting blood transfusions, wouldn’t celebrate holidays or birthdays, wouldn’t serve their country, and so on. All negative stuff.”
            “Was any of it true?” Luke asks.
            “Well, like most prejudices, there’s always a thread of truth somewhere, but there’s also a lot of blind emotion mixed in to make it seem worse than it is. But it took me a while to see all that. In the meantime, I put the woman I loved through a lot of heartache.”
            I glance over at Chelsea, who smiles through faintly glistening eyes.
            “So what changed? Why didn’t you break up with her?” Luke asks.
            “I guess I came to my senses. Does it really make sense for a man to leave a woman who is honest, respectful, and loving? I mean, regardless of her beliefs, isn’t her personality what really counts? The other thing was, I started observing the marriages of my buddies–the ones I’d been in the Gulf with–and they were all the same. Ruined one way or another, sometimes by alcohol, sometimes by drugs, sometimes by another woman, or even another man. And I began to realize that I didn’t want that. I did a lot of thinking about life and what’s important in it, and I came to the decision that I wanted her, as a Witness or not.”
            “That still doesn’t explain how you became a Witness yourself, though,” Luke says.
            “I suppose it doesn’t. However, I believe there’s still a cheesecake on the counter, and to be honest I’d rather hear the story of how you two met than hear myself talk. What do you say?”
            Luke glances at the counter and nods. “Yeah, ok, that’s fine,” he says, standing and fetching some desert saucers as the three of us exchange hopeful glances.

19


1:57 PM
LUKE

            It’s just before two o’clock in the afternoon when I finally return to the station. I slide the flash drive out from my pocket and study it carefully. It’s a Sony Micro Vault, and an older model from the looks of it. Most current flash drives on the market are 64 gigs and up. This one is only 4. I uncap it and nudge it into the side of my laptop. It takes a second for the drive to appear on my desktop as “ER’s Flash”. Eva’s initials.
            I double-click on the drive and begin scrolling through the nested directories and files. It’s all very well organized, just as I’d expect from Eva, though I can’t make sense of a thing. Each folder has been labelled with a cryptic string of numbers and letters. I check the dates and find that the oldest files go back a year or so and the newest ones are from just days ago. I click one at random and find it packed with text documents. I try to open one but I’m locked out by a password. I close it down and inspect the other files, most of which are mp3s. Audio files, but of what? Music?
            I drag one of the mp3s from the folder to the audio player on my computer. Before it starts, it displays the play time: twenty-seven minutes. I plug in my earbuds and turn the volume up. My pulse quickens in anticipation.
            It’s an audio recording, outside noises: kids laughing, cheerful voices coming and going. A dog barks. Probably a park. Then something else, something louder and closer. A man’s voice. He speaks in short, tense sentences.
            “Where do you want me to start?” he asks, barely audible over the squeals of a few children running past, their feet scuffling along the gravel.
            “Wherever you feel comfortable,” says a familiar voice. Eva is calm, reassuring.
            “It’s complicated,” says the man, his voice dropping out again. Eva waits, says nothing.
            “We shouldn’t be talking like this, out here in the open,” the man says, agitated.
            “We both agreed this was the best way, Frank. We’re safe here.”
            “Safe. Yeah, thanks for the reassurance. You’re so naïve. We’re not safe anywhere. Not in our houses, not on our phones. Certainly not here.”
            “We’re not safe from whom, Frank?”
            “You think this is a game, don’t you? Well, they sure don’t.”
            “I never said it was a game. But if we don’t talk here, today, I can’t do anything to help you.”
            “And what, you think writing some article in a newspaper is really going to help me? You’re dead wrong.”
            “Words are powerful, Frank.”
            “Yeah, not as powerful as you think.”
            “Then why meet at all? Why are we here?”
            “I’m not here for me, lady. I know my neck’s already on the chopping block. I can feel it. Time running out, I mean. I’m just here to expose ‘em.” I stop the recording as someone collapses into the empty chair beside my desk.
            “What’s that?” Gabe asks. He’s chewing the end of a taco that I recognize as being from a restaurant at the corner of the street across form the precinct.
            “Nothing much,” I shrug, pulling the buds from my ears and tossing them on the desk.
            “You seemed pretty absorbed.”
            “Yeah, well, just something to do with a case I came across.”
            “Right,” Gabe says. He tosses the last bit of the taco into his mouth and brushes his hands off on his pants. “Hey, by the way, you still seeing that girl from The Herald?”
            “I was never ‘seeing’ Eva, Gabe. She stopped by a couple of times with some questions, that’s all.”
            “You two still in touch?”
            I shrug. “From time to time.”
            “Yeah well, next time you see her, pass my number on, would you?”
            “Yeah, right. I’ll be sure to do that.”
            Gabe smiles widely and saunters back to his corner of the office. I roll my eyes and return my attention to the audio files. I select another one from a file created several months ago and drag it into the player.
            There are new sounds in this one, rhythmic and mechanical. I hear the pitch change as the sounds bounce around. Cars passing, perhaps on a nearby overpass.
            “Ok, start when you’re ready,” Eva says. I’m struck by the change in her voice from the previous recording. It was close to the way she’d spoken when I saw her last night in the motel.           “I’ll tell you what you want to know, but I want my personal details left out of it,” says a man’s voice.
            “That’s fine. I’m not here to expose your identity. Why don’t we start with your time in the Middle East. How long were you there?”
            “Two tours, a total of eight years.”
            “Can I ask about the nature of the operations you were involved in?”
            “I was part of a team of highly trained soldiers that would track down and eliminate hostile targets. I can’t be any more specific than that.”
            “No, that’s fine. What happened when you came home?”
            “Shortly after the end of my second tour, I was approached by this guy from a private security firm. Basically their company was hired by all sorts of wealthy people to protect their assets. Sometimes that meant guarding things, like houses or boats or cars, and sometimes it meant protecting people. It was standard private sector security stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary. I took a few jobs when I needed the money. That went on for a year or so.
            “Then, one night, while I was on a security detail for one of these hotshot’s parties–I think he was some sheik or something–one of the guests had too much to drink and crashed their Lamborghini into a hedge next to where I was standing. The car was doing nearly fifty miles an hour when it hit the hedge, which would’ve been more than enough to kill me instantly, but it missed me by inches. But some of the branches from the hedge didn’t. They went into my leg and the side of my body. It took the doctors more than twenty-four hours to perform the surgery that saved all my limbs–which was paid for by the contract, of course–but I could never work again, at least, not in private security.
            “The problem, of course, was that that was my only skill set. I was raised on military bases as a kid. My mom and dad were both Air Force. I signed up for the Army when I was nineteen, and that became my life.”
            “So what did you do for work after the injury?”
            “Nothing for a while. I lived with a friend and his wife for a few months while I tried to figure things out, but that didn’t really work out. I finally got a job at a grocery store. It was barely enough to pay my rent, and I was miserable.”
            “Is that when you met Mr. Donner?”
            “That’s correct.”
            “What can you tell me about your encounter with him?”
            There was a pause before the man spoke again. “Mr. Donner was… pretty straightforward with his proposition. He said that he had a job for me that would pay well, and asked if I was willing to do anything required of me. That made me nervous but I needed the cash bad, and felt I’d seen just about everything overseas anyway. He wouldn’t give me any more details until I agreed to take the job. Had I not been so desperate, I would’ve had second thoughts, but at the time…”
            “And what was the job?”
            “After we shook hands, he handed me an envelope with some photographs of a building and an address, and told me, in so many words, to demolish it. That was it. So I did, and I got a stack of cash in an envelope. It was four grand. We met again, and he gave me a new target. This went on for a while.”
            “And the targets?”
            “They were all churches. Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, you name it.”
            “And you didn’t have a problem with these ‘missions’?”
            “Not really. Most of the buildings were in disrepair anyway. Their congregations were dwindling. I’d usually burn them at night, when no one was around.”
            “Did you have any idea who Mr. Donner was working for?”
            “I thought he might actually be working for the churches, trying to make them money on insurance claims, but those suspicions died out after a while.”
            “Why?”
            “Because one day, when Mr. Donner handed me a new list of targets, the pictures didn’t contain buildings. They contained people.”