Spring of Fire first chapters

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Cory Marin woke to sunlight flooding through the glass doors that opened out onto the leafy green of the ravine. She took a moment to locate herself. Her father Jack’s house.

She felt Marty’s warmth beside her and turned to see him on his side, watching her, his gray-blue eyes serious. For an instant, she felt violated, as if he were stealing her soul by watching her wake.

He smiled slowly, warmly, and his eyes kindled heat that licked up from her belly.

“Good morning,” he said. The sunlight fell over his muscled, brown arm, and she could not stop herself from touching his shoulder as if to confirm his reality.

“Good morning.” She smiled, the warmth from her belly blooming in her eyes.

“What?” he asked.

She took a breath, letting it out slowly. “I’m happy,” she said simply. She turned onto her side, facing him, her face inches from his. “I can’t remember ever being so happy.” Her eyes held his, and she touched the side of his face tenderly. She wanted him to know this unassailable truth, no matter how much she might waffle or skitter away from him in the future. “Or safe.” These past months with Marty were the longest spell of sustained happiness she’d ever known.

His eyes smiled as if nothing could make him happier. “You know there’s nothing I want more than to—”

She held a finger to his lips, silencing him. There was no need for words. She knew he loved her, knew he wanted to marry her. They had been over it often enough. She hoped he understood she wasn’t ready and why. He seemed to have accepted her decision for now, and she hoped their agreement to focus on the present would hold.

“Show me,” she said.

He smiled as his strong arm came around her and pulled her close.

 

Afterward, she lay in bed, listening to Marty in the shower, imagining the water beating against his chest, running down his abdomen and thighs. She smiled, feeling buoyant, as if she might float up off the bed. Her happiness was a physical thing, emanating like warmth from her core, rising like bubbles that burst to the surface in a smile. She touched the unmistakable swell of her belly. She hadn’t realized how worried she was that because of her age, thirty-four, something might be wrong with the baby, but the amnio results had come back, and the baby was fine. For the first time since she had learned she was pregnant, she could relax and enjoy it. Her body was a miraculous machine that was creating a person inside her, building bones and organs and fingernails and eyelashes.

Until now, she hadn’t allowed herself to hope that this thing she had wanted but had given up on was coming true. She had wanted a baby when she was married to Mike. Then, in the instant she opened the bedroom door and saw Mike in bed with another woman, the possibility of marriage and family disappeared.

She had thought she had to give up the dream of having a baby with the dream of married life, but when she discovered she was pregnant, even if it were by Fletcher Manning, a man who had deceived her, she had known instantly this might be her only chance, and she had to take it. In that moment of decision, she had willingly surrendered her life to chance. As her friend Janelle was only too happy to point out, once she had the baby, she would never not be a mother, whatever heartbreak or joy that might entail. Once she had the baby, her heart would live outside her body for the rest of her life.

Marty appeared in the bathroom door, knotting a lightly-striped blue tie over his starched white shirt. She found his every move undeniably sexy.

“See you at the office,” he said, crossing the room to bend and kiss her.

They maintained the fiction that they were no more than colleagues even though several of the detectives on her squad had sussed out their involvement.

She showered and dressed for the office, her shirt untucked over elastic-waist pants. The belt with her holster and badge would not hide the bump much longer. Soon, she would have to announce the pregnancy to her squad, but she dreaded making this intensely private joy public.

 

In the kitchen, Jack was dressed and reading the paper at the breakfast table.

“Morning,” she said. She was still getting used to thinking of him as her father, his appearance in her life was so recent. It had only been three months since he swept into her life like a knight in shining armor, having found her through a news interview during one of her most disastrous cases. Jack had suspected Cory was his daughter because she had his green eyes and the face of the beautiful Puerto Rican girl he had an affair with in New York City as a freshman. Cory knew she had her mother’s face, her dark curly hair, and her permanently suntanned skin, but she had always wondered where she got the green eyes. The second she met Jack, she had recognized his eyes as her own. Jack presented himself as a genie who wanted to make her every wish come true. He wanted to make up for all the years he had not been there for her, and through some strange symbiosis, she had given him a new lease on life after the dual tragedies of his daughter’s death in an automobile accident and his wife’s death of breast cancer a year later, tragedies that had turned his once red hair white virtually overnight.

Jack made her feel safe in part because with his status and money behind her, no one could pull the rug out from under her or make her life disappear in the blink of an eye like a nightmarish card trick. That was what had so nearly happened when Fletcher Manning accused her of being a heavy drinker and a woman with emotional problems. In the glare of Manning’s press conference, most of the department had drawn away from her, and Cory had felt the very real possibility that she could lose her job in disgrace.

The tip of Jack’s paper dipped, and he smiled even though his eyes seemed troubled. “You look happy.”

She grinned and rested a hand on her belly. “I am. I feel like I’m listening to my blood.” For the first time, she felt confident that her body was growing this baby right. Everything would be OK.

Jack smiled. “I think I understand.”

Pretty Boy popped out from under the table, cocking his head and eyeing her. “‘Ello,” he chirped as he crab-walked toward her, his gray claws clicking on the tile. She stooped to extend her hand, allowing him to side-step up to her shoulder, where he let out a caw that said king of the mountain.

Jack turned back to the paper and frowned.

“What is it?” she asked even though she knew that if whatever was bothering him was the news, she didn’t want to hear it before she had a chance to eat something to settle her stomach. “Maybe let me get some oatmeal first.”

He nodded and went back to his paper.

She stirred milk into her oatmeal and set it in the microwave for two minutes. Surprisingly, she didn’t feel the slightest bit queasy. She felt herself grin. Maybe the worst of the morning sickness was behind her.

She carried her oatmeal to the table, took a breath, and felt her heart catch with happiness.

Jack lowered the paper. “There’s a nutcase preacher threatening to burn a Koran because it’s a book of the devil.” He shook his head in disgust. “Along with the Talmud and the Hindu Vedas and the Buddhist sutras, all books of the devil.” Jack waved the paper in annoyance and dove back in. “He’s also going to burn books that advocate homosexuality and miscegenation. Oh, good,” he said in disgust. “Harry Potter is on the burn list for advocating witchcraft.”

Cory shook her head and took another bite of oatmeal.

“Aren’t you worried?” Jack asked.

“About what?” For the first time since her doctor had told her this was a high-risk pregnancy due to her age, she was too happy, too focused inward to worry about anything.

“About a repeat of what happened last time. Wasn’t Terry Jones, the guy who threatened to burn a Koran for every person killed in the World Trade Center, from Gainesville?”

She nodded reluctantly, remembering only too well the incident that had exploded into international headlines. Despite appeals from the President and the Secretary of State, Jones had persisted in his threats. The police department had been helpless to stop him because burning books was protected as freedom of speech. The strategy that stopped the event was denying him a burn permit, but tempers had been so inflamed that riots broke out in Afghanistan and Pakistan that left dozens dead. The Jones incident had cost GPD several hundred thousand dollars, an amount they billed to him, a ploy that recovered no money but drove Jones out of the county.

“I don’t think it could happen again,” Cory said, willing it to be so.

“We may be about to find out,” Jack said as he folded the paper.

 

By the time Cory crossed Sixth Street to police headquarters, she felt moisture bead on her forehead and between her shoulder blades. Her jacket was too hot, but the idea of crossing the street in her shirtsleeves seemed undignified somehow. She glanced at her watch. It was before eight and already too hot. Maybe her pregnancy made her sensitive to the heat, but if it was this hot in March, what would it be like in July?

 

Cory slung her jacket over the back of her chair and looked up to see Marty in her open door, one hand raised to knock, a coffee cup raised in the other.

She felt herself warm like a teenager at the sight of him, remembering him in bed beside her. Marty was six two and broad shouldered, still as graceful and agile as when he played basketball for Tulane.

“Help yourself,” she said, aware of the edge of flirtation in her voice and the current that passed between them.

He glanced up from pouring his coffee and smiled, acknowledging the flirtation. Then his eyes and voice changed, signaling all business. “Did you see the story about the book burning?”

She nodded. “Jack told me. He’s my personal twenty-four seven news feed. Let’s hope it’s nothing.”

Marty looked skeptical but didn’t say anything. Turning, he glanced back, giving her one of his devilish, sexy smiles. “See you in briefing.”

He had a way of making her want him, especially when they were out of each other’s reach here at work. Now, if she could just maintain that desire to pull him close instead of pushing him away. Marty put up with a lot from her, trying his level best not to get his feelings hurt when she pulled one of her insensitive moves like when she asked Janelle to accompany her to the amnio appointment.

When she told Marty, his eyes flinched as if she’d slapped him and his brow furrowed as if to ask, Why not me?

She’d said, “I’m not sure I can explain it. I just wanted to be with a woman,” feeling a twinge of resentment. She shouldn’t have to explain herself, not about something as personal as the amnio. This was her baby, her problem, not his, even though he had made it abundantly clear that he was all too happy to make it his problem. If he had accompanied her, everyone would have assumed he was her husband, the father of her baby, that the decision, if any decision needed to be made, was theirs to make together. But it wasn’t. It was hers alone. She didn’t want him asserting his rights, however symbolically. It was too soon for that.

As he headed back to his detective cubicle, Cory saw Mackena Neal, Mac, her newest hire, crossing the pit, looking, as always, like a teenager.

Mac was slight—she couldn’t weigh much over a hundred pounds—and pale. With her blond hair pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck, she managed to seem young and androgynous, which had the effect of making her disappear. Although Cory had worried when she hired Mac whether she would have the authority to pull her own weight in investigations, that concern had proved groundless. What at first appeared as a disability turned out to be one of her strengths. Mac was perceptive and clever and had proved herself an invaluable team member. Cory glanced at her watch. Mac just barely made it in time for briefing. The drive from Ocala must be kicking her butt.

 

Morning briefing included every detective under the umbrella of the Criminal Investigation Division. That included Cory’s Major Crime squad, Benny Field’s Property Crime squad, and her friend Janelle Ramos’s combined Sex Crimes, Crimes Against Children, and Internet Crime squad.

Janelle flounced in to the briefing room, causing an electric disturbance in the air as always. Janelle was an exotic bird with her plumage tamped down for work. Her dark pants and pastel yellow GPD polo, the approved casual wear for those who didn’t want to wear the traditional coat and tie most of the older detectives wore, did nothing to disguise her Beyonce curves. Her shoulder-length mass of electric curls was held back by a yellow headband but fell in wild abandon over her shoulders, giving her a rock star air.

She gave Cory a wink as she slipped into her seat.

Jordan Bennett, head of CID, cleared his throat. “Let’s get started.” He removed the trademark matchstick from the corner of his mouth and smiled. “I’ve got a couple of general items on the agenda before we get to roll call.” During roll call, each detective outlined his work plan for the day. It keept everyone apprised of what everyone else was working on so they could see possible connections.

Bennett, tall, lean, and tan, had always struck Cory as something of a cowboy, in part because he owned a forty acre cattle farm he had inherited from his father, and in part because he wore a tan straw cowboy hat when he left the office. She liked and respected him since he had been her sergeant when she was promoted into Major Crime squad.

“Number one,” Bennett said, “counsel has advised the city commission that holding a sign asking for money while standing on a city street is protected speech under the constitution. Therefore, the city will no longer be ticketing, arresting, or otherwise interfering with panhandlers.”

Dick Casey let out a groan and leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “Might as well announce we’re giving out free money in Gainesville. This is going to draw them like flies.”

Bennett gave a slight shrug. “Florida Supreme Court made some decision and this is the result. You got a problem, talk to them.”

“That’s a load of malarkey. We’re putting out a welcome mat. We offer ’em Grace Marketplace, where they can get just about anything they want, and Dignity Village where they can camp and drink and smoke and drug to their heart’s content. Not every city lays out the welcome mat like us. It may be a state ruling, but plenty of cities enforce it differently. You can bet Ocala finds ways to make it plenty clear bums aren’t welcome.”

Cory had to bite her tongue to keep from saying, Why don’t you go work for Ocala PD if you like it so much?

“Take it up with the city attorney,” Bennett said, ready to move on. “Item number two is,” he slapped the Gainesville Sun on the table, “this story about Rev. John Lord threatening to burn every holy book known to man, except the King James Bible, of course. We know what happened last time a nutcase threatened to burn the Koran, and we do not want a repeat. Marin, I want your squad to start looking into this guy. Find out how much of a threat he is.”

She nodded. “Yes, sir. When is this book burning supposed to take place?”

“He hasn’t announced a date. He’s got to give himself enough time to get the publicity he needs.” He shook his head. “We do not want our resources wasted on every loudmouth with a penchant for self-promotion.”

“I suspect the only way to avoid that is to keep the media from blowing it up into a national story like they did the last time.”

He scoffed. “You might as well ask me to make it snow here on St. Patty’s Day.”

“There must be something we can do to keep the press from having a field day with this,” Cory said. “They’re the ones who make it into a story.”

He waved his hand. “Talk with the reporters you know. See if it does any good.” He turned to the table. “All right, let’s get started. Who’s working on what?”

 

As usual, Bennett ended the briefing with, “Be safe and have fun.”

Cory spoke up. “I’d like Squad A to stay, please.” When the other detectives had filed out, she said, “We need to do a quick assessment of John Lord.”

“This is bullshit,” Casey complained. “If panhandlers are protected by freedom of speech, then some poor schmuck preacher who wants to express his beliefs should be, too. I’m not keen on gathering intel on some local preacher and his flock.”

Cory faced him. “You know how much the department spent last time this happened, and even though we managed to stop the actual book burning, people were still killed in the riots that broke out in Afghanistan.”

“There’s no controlling people who have been at each other’s throats for centuries and whose religion endorses violence,” Casey said.

Cory took a breath. “We’ve got a job to do. If you don’t feel you can do it, maybe you should take a couple of days leave.”

Casey glared at her as if willing her to catch fire. Luckily, he didn’t possess superpowers.

“I’m hoping everyone can spare a couple of hours to start putting together a profile of this guy. Who is he? What’s his story? What’s the story on his church? Who are his parishioners?”

Casey shook his head. “Sandy and I have a pre-trial review with Joey this morning.” He smiled, pleased that their assistant district attorney gave him an excuse to back out of the assignment.

“Fine. Alex, why don’t you and Mac see what you can find out about this guy. I don’t want to go in blind when we talk to him.” As the detectives rose to get started on their day, Cory said, “Mac, you got a minute?”

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Mac followed Cory back to her office.

“How are you doing with driving back and forth to Ocala every day?”

Mac shrugged. “It’s not too bad. As long as I’m out of the house by seven fifteen, I’m fine. After seven thirty, traffic is a bitch.”

Cory nodded. “How’s it going with the girls?”

“Good,” Mac said. “They’re good kids. They come home and do their homework. They’re no trouble at all.”

Mac had volunteered to look after her two nieces, ages sixteen and seventeen, after their stepfather died suddenly of a heart attack. To do so with the least disruption to their lives, Mac had moved in with them in their Ocala country club home. Cory worried that Mac was taking on more than she could handle by moving in with two teenage girls she barely knew.

For the past ten years, Mac hadn’t been allowed to see the girls because their stepfather had taken out a restraining order against Mac and her mother after his wife, Mary, Mac’s older sister, had died unexpectedly. Mac was convinced the husband, a doctor who had been in the room with her sister when she died, had somehow killed her sister. The sister was planning on leaving him and taking her two daughters from a previous marriage with her. Mac and her mother were furious that Mary’s death was ruled accidental with no investigation, but there was nothing Mac, then seventeen, could do about it.

“Is the fiancé still causing trouble?” Cory asked.

Mac shook her head. “The autopsy showed the doc died from a massive coronary that was waiting to happen. The fiancé’s claim that the girls are somehow responsible is absurd. They weren’t even home when it happened. They were next door at a pool party.”

Cory imagined that if it were a murder investigation, she would ask folks at the pool party if either girl could have been gone for a period of time during the day. But it wasn’t a murder investigation. She let it drop. Just because their stepfather’s death benefited the girls did not mean they were in any way responsible.

“It’s sour grapes,” Mac said, “and no one is listening, but it doesn’t stop the fiancé from squawking. She claims she has no means of support because she quit her job to plan the wedding. He had promised her he would take care of her girls, pay for their education, and she counted on him. My guess is she’s pissed that she’s missing out on her cushy happily-ever-after with the doc footing the bills.”

It was more than a little creepy, Cory thought, that the doc had been engaged to marry a woman half his age with two blonde-headed girls the same age as Olivia and Maddy had been when he married their mother.

“I have to hand it to the girls. They feel sorry for the woman, even though she’s been beastly to them. They’re thinking they should offer her something, a cash payment to tide her and the girls over until she finds another job. Hopefully, she’ll take the money and go away.”

“What kind of money are they talking about?”

“I don’t know. They have to talk to the accountant. But it looks like there’s quite a bit of money. The doctor owned the diagnostic center where he referred his patients. The irony is that he bought the building with money from their mom’s life insurance policy.”

“That didn’t raise any eyebrows at the time?“ Cory asked.

Mac shook her head. “I’ve let that go. Water under the bridge at this point. Anyway, the girls stand to inherit quite a bit. The radiology building alone is worth several million.”

Cory had trouble imagining two young girls with that much money.

“They don’t seem to care much about the money except that it can fund their move to Gainesville.” Mac said. “If anything worries me about the girls, it’s that they’re too serious.”

“Serious about what?” Cory asked.

“About the world,” Mac said, glancing out the window. “Climate change. They come home spouting facts like there’s a thirty-year horizon to save the world, or we won’t be able to avoid catastrophic changes that could lead to the next extinction. It blows my mind. These kids are living with the knowledge of their own doom.” Mac shook her head. “We may not see the worst of it in our lifetimes, but the girls certainly will. I don’t know how they deal with the stress. It’s definitely easier to keep your head stuck in the sand.”

Cory put a protective hand on her belly. Mac tracked the gesture.

“Olivia gets almost incapacitated by worry. If she reads some particularly bad climate report online, she’s paralyzed by it and doesn’t want to get out of bed for hours. It’s like she’s having a panic attack.”

“Do you think she should see someone?” Cory asked. “A counselor maybe?”

“They’re both seeing a counselor, what with their dad’s death and,” Mac waved her hand vaguely, “everything.”

The girls were having to grow up fast, going from being completely sheltered by their overly-protective father to being on their own, zero to sixty in a matter of days.

“The one thing that seems to keep them going is that they’re inspired by activists like the Parkland kids and the Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg.”

Cory cocked her head quizzically.

“She started the movement to walk out of schools to protest climate change. She’s had a huge impact. On Earth Day, students walked out of schools all over the world. Olivia and Maddy have come up with a website to encourage students to get involved.” Mac turned from the window. “It worries me that they were inspired by the Resist website.”

Two high school girls that Cory, Janelle, and Mac had talked to as part of their last case had created a website to protest sexual harassment at school, but they had taken the idea of justice a little too far, with nearly disastrous consequences.

“You’re not worried they’ll do anything they’re not supposed to, are you?” Cory asked.

“Not really. They’re wanting to protest in front of city hall the way Greta Thunberg did, but Ocala’s a pretty conservative, business-oriented town. I can’t imagine it will go over well. I’m more worried that they’ll get discouraged if they can’t make changes as fast as they’d like to.”

“I’d like to meet the girls sometime. Maybe you could bring them to work with you one day. Isn’t there a Bring Your Child to Work day?”

Mac frowned. “In Homicide? You’ve got to be kidding?”

Cory thought about it for a minute. “They couldn’t very well go out with you. They’d have to stay in the office, but you have days you have to do paperwork. If you got called out, they could spend time talking to me and Janelle.”

Mac shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“I just think it would be good for them to have some strong female role models. In addition to you, I mean. It would be good for them to see women acting to try to make the world a better place. It would be good for them to see that you don’t give up if it’s not easy.”

Mac turned and smiled. “Thanks. Sometimes it feels daunting to be dealing with teenage girls all by myself. They’re complicated and vulnerable, and I want more than anything to protect them. Except,” she gestured toward the window, “how do you protect them from reality?”

“I wish I could do something to help.”

Mac smiled. “I know you and Janelle are there for me. It means a lot.”

Cory nodded. “Maybe we could all go out to dinner sometime.”

They both smiled at the inadequacy of that response in the face of everything the girls and Mac were facing, but what else could you do but set the table and go on taking care of the small things in life even if you were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

 

When Mac left, Cory called Randy White, the Gainesville Sun reporter with whom she had the best relationship.

“Randy,” she said when he picked up the phone, “how are you?”

“Something tells me you’re not calling to see how I’m doing, as fascinating as that might be to some.”

“Got me there. I was wondering how you came across the book burning story?”

“The preacher sent me a press release saying he was going to do it.”

“You cover any wacko who says he’s going to do something crazy?” Cory couldn’t keep the edge from her voice.

Randy White was silent for a moment. “No,” he said, barely masking his annoyance. “That’s not the way it works, and you know it.”

“Here’s what I’m seeing about the way it works. You guys blow up a story like this and make one lone wacko into national news. That’s exactly what he wants. You’re playing into his hands.”

“The sort of intolerance he champions is a threat to the community. People have a right to know and respond.”

“But that’s what this guy wants, a reaction. Don’t give him the satisfaction.”

“It’s not me you have to worry about. My guess is he sent the press release to other news outlets. Someone’s going to pick up on it. It’s red meat and the public needs to be fed.”

“Can I quote you on that?” Cory asked, reversing their roles.

“Be my guest,” Randy said. “You think this is going to blow up like the last time?”

“Let’s hope not. Let’s sure as hell hope not.”

 

At a knock on her door, Cory called, “Come in,” and Alex poked his head in.

Although Alex had given up his title as rookie when Mac came on board, his curly dark hair and youthful clean-shaven face made him look like a college kid. Cory could never forget his description of himself on Match.com as having the body of a Greek god. He was trim and fit and rode his bike to work most days, but really, a Greek god? Cory supposed Mac could make an assessment of that since the two of them seemed to have gotten involved when they worked undercover as a couple during the Chucho Mendez murder investigation. Their youthful appearance had made them fit in easily with the college kids who were the target of the investigation.

“I’ve got the preacher’s website up. Thought you would want to take a look at it too. I set it up in an incident room.”

 

Marty and Mac were already at the table, their laptops open in front of them. Marty looked up and jerked his chin in greeting.

Cory was glad Sandy and Casey were not back from their obligations with the assistant district attorney. They could all breathe a little easier without Casey’s attitude and anger. She wished she had the power to get rid of him for the good of the squad, but the police union would be on her with both feet if she didn’t have legitimate cause. Being a pain in everyone’s side was not legitimate cause. Then she realized the oversight that stayed her hand was a good thing. She certainly wouldn’t want to be at Casey’s mercy if he were her supervisor and didn’t have constraints on his behavior. Cory would be a mound of ashes if Casey had his way.

Alex cued the website on a large monitor at the end of the table.

The website banner read The Hand of God. Beneath it was a crude graphic of an open palm inside a triangle, an image that evoked the dollar bill.

“Take a look at this,” Alex said as he clicked on the heading Beliefs.

The man who appeared on screen was balding, wiry, intense, and reminded Cory of an aging John Malkovich. The hair that circled the bald top of his head was brown streaked with grey, worn shoulder length like Jesus. He had a greying handlebar mustache and wore an ill-fitting suit jacket that he could have picked up at a thrift store. He could easily be mistaken for a street person.

He extended his hand as if to shake hands with the camera. “God’s hand is extended to you. He welcomes you into his fold and promises to forgive your sins and grant you everlasting life. If you repent your sins.” He shook his head sadly. “But make no mistake about it, the hand of God will smite you down if you do not receive his word and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.”

Lord straightened and faced the camera. “Here’s what we believe. America is a Christian country. That’s why the pledge of allegiance says one nation under God. You got that? Under God. We are God’s subjects and we are subject to God’s law. Sometimes I think we forget that with all the filth we see on TV. God’s law is that men should be men and women should be women. Men trying to be women or men marrying other men, that’s a perversion of God’s law and is punishable by death and everlasting hellfire.”

“No peace and love here,” Cory said.

Lord continued. “We have wandered too far from the ways of our founding fathers, from God’s way. Our founding fathers would turn over in their graves if they could see our world today, our kids pierced and tattooed, looking like convicts or savages. Our forefathers didn’t sacrifice and give their lives for this, for what we have today. Just turn on your TV. You’ll see nudity. You’ll see pornography. You’ll see every kind of abomination. Sodom and Gomorrah is what we have today. And you know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? God warned Abraham he would destroy the cities with sulfur and fire. Abraham begged God to spare the life of his nephew, Lot, and his family who were living in the city. God said he would if Abraham could find ten God-fearing people in the entire city. But you know what? Abraham could not. Not ten people in all the city. So God said, “Get the hell out and do not look back. Do not have any regrets.”

Lord took a step closer to the camera. “You know what happened to Lot’s wife when she disobeyed God’s word and turned to look back at the city? When she had even a moment’s hesitation? She was turned to a pillar of salt. God has no pity on heathens and sinners. He will destroy them in sulphur and fire, and he will turn you to salt if you doubt his justice.” He took a breath and stepped back.

“Look around you and you will see Sodom and Gomorrah. Walk around downtown Gainesville at night and you will know Gomorrah—drunkenness, sodomy, fornication. Let us not flinch from our Christian duty to rid the earth of such abominations. We need to return to the ways of our forefathers, the ways of a law-abiding Christian society. If we don’t, we will face the wrath of God.”

“All right,” Cory said when the video clip ended. “First impressions, how much of a threat is this guy?”

Mac shook her head. “Hard to say.”

“You never know with these guys ’til they go off, do you?” Alex agreed.

“Let’s hear what you’ve got.”

Mac started. “John David Lord, born John David Smith, is sixty-seven, born in Knoxville, Tennessee, served two terms in Afghanistan, home in 2004. In o-five he changed his name to Lord and opened a storefront ministry, literally a storefront in Johnson City, Tennessee. Married since ninety-five to Helen Elizabeth Lord.” Mac raised an eyebrow in sympathy and said, “The wife had to change her name, too when he did. Two daughters, twenty-three and fifteen. Looks like one child before he served and one after the first deployment.”

“Any priors?” Marty asked.

“One DUI in o-four, not long after he got home.” Mac glanced up. “We can assume he found Jesus after that.”

“Doesn’t mean he gave up the bottle,” Cory said. “We should keep that in mind if we ever have reason to pull him over.” Nothing would be sweeter than bringing Lord in on a DUI. “What can you tell me about the church?” Cory asked.

“Not much,” Alex said. “It’s small, maybe eight hundred square feet. Can’t be much of a congregation.” He tapped his keyboard and the image of a white cinderblock church set in a grassy clearing appeared on the monitor. “Google Earth images.”

The church looked innocuous, almost quaint.

“According to Lord, everyone who isn’t white, Anglo-Saxon, and protestant is an infidel. Everyone else—immigrants, homosexuals, Jews, and I suspect blacks although he doesn’t come right out and say so—is an infidel.”

Cory said, “I thought we were supposed to be the infidels, Westerners, Americans.”

“It all depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?,” Alex said. “What it boils down to is if you don’t look like me and agree with me, you’re an infidel.”

“How much interest or support is he likely to generate?” Marty asked.

“I want to say none, but I wouldn’t put money on it.”

“The church has a Facebook page where he posts rants,” Mac said. “Alex, you want to bring it up?”

A Facebook page with a banner of an open hand filled the screen. “Not much in the way of comments or Likes, so it could be a pretty small to non-existent congregation. This book burning thing could be a non-event.”

“Except that there are lots of groups out there that would love to jump on the bandwagon and fan the anti-Islamic fire.”

“Do we have any ins, any sources on this guy?” Cory asked.

Mac and Alex both shook their heads. “The older daughter is clearly alienated from the church. She posted a comment that she doesn’t agree with her father’s views. In response, he posted a rant about how everyone who strays from the path will roast in hell. Lovely stuff.”

“Can you message the daughter to see if she will talk to us?” Cory asked.

Mac nodded and typed.

“Give her my number,” Cory said.

Mac typed again and pressed send.

“So what’s the plan?” Alex asked.

“I asked the Gainesville Sun reporter to downplay the story. He says it won’t be him who throws gasoline on the fire, but there’s likely no way to keep other stations from picking up on the story.”

“What can we do to keep this from blowing up?” Alex asked.

Cory shrugged. “Marty and I will take a drive out and have a talk with John Lord, see if we can get him to back off. In the interest of safety if nothing else.”

Alex shook his head. “Right. What are the chances that a guy who announces he’s going to torch books of the devil is going to listen to reason?”

Cory shook her head, acknowledging the futility of the attempt. “We need to check into the feasibility of denying him a burn permit. That’s the way we stopped the Koran burning last time.”

“For all the good it did,” Marty said sadly.

 

When Cory and Marty pulled up to Lord’s white cinderblock church at the end of a sandy lane, a Fox News van was parked out front and a pretty blonde in a curve-hugging suit extended a microphone to John Lord, her cameraman behind her.

Cory could see the gasoline being flung on the fire.

As Cory and Marty were getting out of the car, the blonde reporter noticed them and motioned the cameraman toward them.

Here we go, Cory thought.

“Excuse me, but are you police representatives by any chance?”

Cory didn’t like to think they were that obvious, but the suits and the white sedan were a tipoff. She buttoned her jacket, hoping to disguise the more and more unmistakable bump.

“Do you have a comment on Preacher John’s plan to burn the Koran?”

Cory didn’t like that the reporter was already calling him Preacher John, a folksy, unthreatening nickname. She didn’t like that the Koran was the only book she mentioned. It was all designed to grab attention.

“We are here to have a conversation with Reverend Lord.” That name sounded ridiculous coming out of her mouth, like she was calling him Lord. She couldn’t keep calling him that.

“Do the police expect a large turnout for Preacher John’s event?”

Was this girl promoting the event? “We sincerely hope that in the interest of public safety there will be no event.”

The reporter lowered the mic to signal the cameraman she was done, but not before she gave Cory a look that said, we’ll see who has the last word on that. If Cory had to guess, she would say the woman’s sympathy lay with John Lord, like the kid who secretly sympathized with the playground bully’s challenge to authority. The reporter turned back to the news van with the cameraman lugging his camera behind her.

Cory didn’t want to watch the six o’clock news to see how they spun the story, but she supposed she would have to.

John Lord waited for them outside the door of his church, wearing a plaid shirt and overalls, his expression a combination of grim determination and excitement that he was getting the attention he wanted. Since his website tape, he had grown a full beard that was shot through with white, giving him the look of a Biblical prophet. Above the beard, the face was as tanned and wrinkled as a cowboy’s. His eyes glinted with intensity of a zealot.

“I’m Sergeant Marin, and this is Detective Washington.”

Lord nodded but did not extend his hand. “Call me Preacher John. Everyone does.”

“We’d like to have a word,” Cory said.

Lord turned to the double white doors of the church, which swung inward onto a shadowy space illuminated only by narrow slit windows set with yellow glass that gave the room a jaundiced, sickly look.

The interior of the church was long and narrow, with a raised wooden pulpit at the front, but no altar, no crucified Christ. The exposed rafters of the roof gave it a barn-like feel. No frills, no flowers, and no pretensions.

John Lord turned to them when they were halfway down the aisle. “If you’re here to tell me not to do what the Lord has set me on this earth to do, you can save your breath. I have a mission, and that is to bring the word of God to the people. Nothing will stop me from carrying out that mission.”

“That’s all well and good, sir,” Cory said, “but maybe you could leave other religions out of it, not step on so many toes.”

“If it’s the devil’s toes I am stepping on, I am obligated to do it. There is but one true God. There is but one way, and that is through Christ our Savior. All other gods are false gods. They are infidels, of and from the devil.”

“One of the tenets of our democracy is freedom of religion,” Marty said.

“And freedom of speech is another,” Preacher John boomed. “I am exercising my right to speak my mind.” He paused, his eyes twinkling. “A right you have an obligation to protect, I might add.” He grinned. “Protect and defend, right?”

“That’s right. We have an obligation to protect and defend everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to practice their religion without threat or harassment.”

“I’m not threatening anyone. That’s what you’re doing right now. Harassing me to keep my mouth shut. Well, I ain’t gonna do it. I’m gonna go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Cory was afraid he was going to break into song or burst into flames. He had a crazed, prophetic look to him. She believed he might be capable of anything, fired up as he was by belief and the certainty he was right.

“Where do you propose to carry out this book burning?” Marty asked.

“We’ve got a burn pile out back. We’ll add the books to the pile when it’s burning good. It will serve as a symbol to all Americans that it’s time to stop the erosion of our Christian values before it’s too late.”

“You need to be aware that freedom of speech does not allow you to advocate violence or incite people to violence or use trigger words that would incite action.”

Lord raised his chin so that he appeared to look down his nose at them. “I can preach the word of God. I can speak of the fire and brimstone that will rain down on this land of Sodom and Gomorrah unless we turn our backs on sin, unless we cast out the devil from our midst.”

Marty gave Cory a look that said, we’re waisting our breath. “Consider yourself cautioned. If your words lead to damage to property or persons, you are criminally liable.”

“The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. Lo, though he lead me through the valley of death, I will fear not.”

 

“I don’t like the business of walking through the valley of death, not in this context, not one bit,” Cory said as she buckled her seatbelt.

“As dry as it is, no one’s granting him a burn permit,” Marty said with assurance. “We’re stopping this thing dead in its tracks.”

She wished she felt as confident as he sounded.

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