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Faithful Unto Death

Faithful Unto Death

Excerpt

Chapter One

"I'm a preacher, I'm a teacher, and I'm a fellow human creature so don't worry about minding your p's and q's when we're together, we'll both be judged, but it won't be by me." That's what Daniel Brotherton had liked to say, and it had sounded corny to me even five hundred years ago when I was a five-year-old boy. Or maybe I just picked up on the corniness from my dad; certainly I always knew that he had to gird himself for his encounters with Mr. Brotherton, who was an emotional man, easily moved to tears by a touching story, always laughing too hard at anyone's attempt at a joke.

But as corny as the "preacher, teacher, creature" line was, I can relate to it now in a way I couldn't then. It's how I felt when Detective James Wanderley strode into my office, ignored my offer of a chair, and walked around, his hands jammed into the pockets of a navy linen jacket so faded it was almost gray. Not that he was minding his p's and q's.

I knew what he'd come about. He wanted to ask me "a few general questions about a member of the congregation." That's the way he'd put it. Rebecca had filled me in on the phone before she let him in my office. Rebecca Rutland is the church CEO who pretends to be my secretary.

Wanderley was a good-looking guy, not that I notice that kind of thing, but I knew my wife, Annie Laurie, would think he was handsome. He wore his longish dark hair brushed straight back off his forehead. His brows were thick and dark, and so close together he only just missed having what my daughters would call a unibrow. He would have been a little over six feet tall in his socks; the cowboy boots probably added another two inches.

It's hard to tell about cowboy boots. This is Texas, after all, so when a guy wears them, they might be an affectation, or they might be the most comfortable footwear he's got in his closet. These boots looked old enough that I was willing to give Wanderley the benefit of a doubt. They were worn but immaculate, polished and buffed to a soft glow. He wore jeans with that faded linen blazer—the blazer had me stymied. It was good-quality stuff, but at least a generation older than he was. You could tell by the cut. That and the fact that it was faded past ignoring.

He gave my beige, brown, standard-issue preacher's office a focused scrutiny it had never before been accorded. He stopped at my bookshelves, ran his eyes over the spines, pulling books out, riffling the pages. He held up Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian, a paperback copy from Half Price Books.

"Funny book for a minister to have, don't you think?"

"Oh, I don't know," I said. He was getting on my nerves, the familiar way he was touching my things. "It's a good idea to know the opposition's position, don't you think?" As soon as I'd said it, I was sorry I'd echoed that "don't you think?" He wavered in front of the bookcase, looking for the space he'd pulled the paperback from, couldn't find it, and wedged the book in sideways, spine turned in.

I flinched when his hand moved over my own slim volumes, my name clearly printed on the spines. Lots of people have been happy to share with me their opinions about my writing skills, and over the six years it took me to write, and rewrite, and finally publish each of the commentaries, I've had time to grow a shell to the criticism. But I haven't.

He pulled out my latest effort, Grace and the Book of Romans, and turned it on its back to read the blurbs. I'd gotten some good ones. Not from James Patterson, you understand, but then it is a book of theology.

"Is it funny?" he asked.

"Not intentionally."

"Umm." He put it back. The right way.

Wanderley next stopped in front of my diplomas. Annie Laurie had had them matted and framed for our fifth anniversary. I'd been horrified when I found out how much she spent; they do look good, though.

"Walker Wells? That your real name?"

I said it was. I'm not sure I could imagine the circumstances under which a preacher might have diplomas made out in a fake name.

"Some crazy names people give their kids. University of Texas, huh? Class of 1985 . . . that'd make you, what?"

"Old," I said. This guy didn't even look thirty. Maybe twenty-eight? Certainly he was young to be a detective.

He smiled up at me. I may be old, but I was a good three inches taller, and glad for every one of those inches right then. I'm not sure how it happened, but the minute James Wanderley walked into my office, we were engaged in a competition—over what, I couldn't have said, but I always play to win.

"Way back then, UT took just about everybody, didn't they? None of that top ten percent of the class business?"

I drew in air to tell him that yes, way back then before the combustion engine was invented, University of Texas did take a goodly number of C students, but I had been offered an athletic and an academic scholarship. Naturally I took the athletic scholarship as it was a full ride. I'd been a starting tight guard, too, no small accomplishment at UT no matter what decade you played in. But I didn't say it. I shut my mouth and smiled as best I could. Annie Laurie would have been proud of me. Maybe He would have been, too. Then again, maybe not. He would have heard the snap of my teeth when I shut my mouth.

"Whoa! Master of Divinity from freaking Princeton University! And a Doctorate in Theology from Rice! Well, you are a very learned man, Brother Wells. I'm impressed."

"Oh, good. I had so hoped you would be." I couldn't help it; it slipped out. Wanderley laughed out loud. It was a good-natured laugh. That surprised me.

A family picture on my desk caught his eye, and he strolled over to get a better look. As he passed a window, he drew his finger across the sill and checked it for dust. I swear I'm not making that up. He was real open about it, too. Wanderley picked up the framed portrait and held it close to his face.

"Nice-looking family. Pretty girls. Is it a recent picture?"

I nodded yes. It had been taken about six months ago, one of those pictures we get every three or four years for the new church pictorial directory. I'm in a houndstooth blazer, and Annie and the girls are in red. Red goes great with Annie and Merrie's blond hair but it was maybe the wrong shade for Jo. Made her look pale.

Wanderley tapped the photo under Jo's face. "You've got a changeling."

Jo's hair is dark brown, and wavy, and she's built smaller than Merrie, but if you look at their eyes, well, not the eyes so much, but their mouths are shaped just the . . . "She looks like my mother. At that age."

He glanced over at me, nodded, and then back to the picture. "I guess it's that dark-haired delicacy with the rest of you being so blond and athletic. You were a blond, weren't you?"

I drew my hand over my hair without thinking. I'm still a blond, a little gray on the sides . . . at least I have plenty on top. Wanderley looked to me to be the type to go bald early.

He held on to the photo.

"Let me guess. No, let me deduce. You're easy; with that bulk, you had to have been a football player."

Did you catch that? Bulk. I nodded.

"You married a pretty woman, Mr. Wells. You're a lucky man."

I am. I know it.

"The statuesque blonde, she's, what? Eighteen? Nineteen?"

I nodded. Merrie would be nineteen this summer.

"Okay, she's a volleyball player. Could be track, she's got the long, lean build you need for track, but the cool girls, they all play volleyball and this one, yeah, she'd be with the cool girls. Am I right?" He looked up at me with a cocky grin.

I'd had enough. "I'd appreciate it," I said tersely, "if you stopped looking at my girls like that."

Wanderely's mouth dropped, and he flushed up to his hairline. "Stopped loo—oh. Damn. I beg your pardon. And I mean that sincerely. I think I'd shoot a man who laid a leering eye on my own daughter's picture."

"You've got a daughter?" I felt better. If a man has daughters of his own, he's going to understand.

"She's two. Molly."

"Molly Wanderley. Nice name."

"Not Wanderley. It's . . . complicated."

I had a tug of sympathy. Life is often so much more complicated now.

Wanderley stood and pulled his cell phone from his jeans pocket. He scrolled to a photo and passed it over. A dark-haired beauty gazed at me with saucer-sized eyes, her baby mouth not quite smiling. Her café au lait skin and loose curls told me something about Molly's mother, and something about Wanderley, too.

I handed it back.

"She's lovely," I said.

Wanderley looked into the little face for a moment, nodding gravely. He tucked the phone away.

"She is, yes."

"So was that your Sherlock Holmes act?"

Wanderley tilted his head. "Depends. How'd I do?"

I relented. "Merrie is at Texas Tech on a volleyball scholarship, but she doesn't compete because it's the cool thing to do, Merrie competes because she loves it. She did track, too. In high school."

He gave a small smile and turned back to the photo. I don't think I've ever looked as closely at the picture as this guy did.

"It's your little changeling who's interesting," he continued. "She's what, fourteen?"

If Wanderley ever lost his job with the department, he could always be the "Guess Your Age" guy at the carnival.

"She's too small for volleyball. And I'm going to guess this one is not a team player; you can see it in her eyes. Way she holds her head, yeah, that's the tell, the way she holds her head, the way she holds her whole body; this one is a dancer."

He looked up. "So?" he asked. "Am I right?"

"Jo is a dancer," I admitted, "But dancing, ballet dancing at least, is a team sport." At least that's the way Jo had sold me on it.

"Oh, not for this one, I'm betting. She looks like a star, doesn't she?"

He held the photo out for me to see and I took it from him. You know, Jo does have a regal tilt to her chin. She has spent her time in the corps, the chorus line of a ballet company, but even then, she stood out.

"She does. Mr. Wanderley . . ."

"Detective. And your title is . . ."

"Mister. Mr. Wells."

"Not Reverend Wells? Not Doctor Wells? Not your holiness?"

"Mr. Wells will do fine."

Again the grin.

"And you can call me Detective Wanderley."

"Detective Wanderley, Rebecca said you needed to see me urgently, and I'm a little lost right now about where the urgency lies because . . ."

Wanderley took the picture from my hand and set it back on my desk, facing toward him. I turned the frame around to face me. He finally took the swivel chair across from my desk and sat in it or rode it, I don't know which. He rocked it back and forth and swung it from side to side the whole time we talked. I thought he was going to bust the spring.

Wanderley leaned forward. He'd fished something out of one of his pockets and was turning it over and over between his finger and thumb. "Let me tell you what I've come about."

Which would be good, since I had about a hundred things I needed to get done. I sat down at my desk and gave him my patient, expectant smile, the one I use for elders' meetings.

"There's a member of your congregation," Wanderly said. "His name is Graham Garcia."

My heart grew still inside me. Something bad is coming. It's not my fault. It's on you now. Graham's voice.

I took a careful breath. Whatever it was Wanderley had come to tell me, it wasn't going to be good news. It would be nothing I wanted to hear.

"Well," I said, "Graham Garcia isn't a member, but his wife, Honey, is. And their son, Alex. I think Graham goes to St. Laurence; he's Catholic, their daughter, too, I think. Jenasy. She's at Southwestern in Georgetown. You've got the wrong church, Mr. Wanderley—"

"Detective," he interrupted.

"'Detective,' you'll want to talk to one of the priests over at St. Laurence. Probably Father Fontana. You want me to call him for you?" I had my cell in my hand, waiting for the word. I'd be glad to turn this fellow over to my comrades down the street. I needed this to be the wrong church for whatever bad news was going to come out of his mouth.

Wanderley shook his head no and I put my cell down and picked up a pencil instead. Put that down and picked up a pen. No more use to me than the pencil was. I was about to hear bad news and busywork wasn't going to make it go away.

"I'll talk to Father Fontana later. It's you I want right now. From talking to Mrs. Garcia, I think you might have some information Father Fontana won't."

Whatever it was Wanderley had been turning in his fingers, he popped it into his mouth. I could see little glints of red when he talked.

"What's this about, Detective Wanderley? Is Graham joining Homeland Security or the FBI? You doing background checks? Is that a guitar pick in your mouth?"

He did some maneuvering with his tongue and smiled, the bit of red plastic held between his front teeth for me to see. It was indeed a guitar pick.

"How did Graham Garcia get to be a Garcia?" he asked, paying no mind to my questions. "I've never in my life seen such an Aryan-looking Garcia."

I wanted to tell Wanderley that the word "Aryan" had been misappropriated by the Nazis, that "Aryan" didn't originally mean anything like a blond-haired, blue-eyed Northern European, but instead referred to the ancient Indo-Iranian peoples, whose descendants now occupy Iran, Afghanistan, and India, but I gave Wanderley the short answer.

"His mother married Dr. Garcia."

I put the pen down and straightened my papers. If this was all on account of Homeland Security or such, I was going to be sending Pete Olson, my representative, another e-mail, and this one wouldn't be on behalf of PBS and NPR. I would be relieved, too.

Wanderley nodded his head like he had it all figured out now. He was in my office, head nodding, chair rocking, fingers drumming, and tongue working that red plastic pick around in his mouth so I could hear it click against his teeth.

"Detective Wanderley, are you going to tell me why you're asking about Honey's husband, or are you the only one who gets to ask questions?"

"He had a meeting with you last Friday." Wanderley lifted his butt, fished a notebook out of the back pocket of his jeans, and flipped it open one-handed, pretended to consult it. He kicked out one long, skinny, jean-clad leg and rested the ankle on his knee. Gave me a look at those boots. They were good-quality cowboy boots, possibly from the same era as the jacket. They had the "cowboy heel"—angled and two inches high, so either Wanderly was a rider, or whoever first wore those boots was a rider, or Wanderly was a poseur. I'm not judging, I'm just saying.

"At three o'clock," he added, in case I'd forgotten, me being of advanced age and all.

"He did, yes."

"Even though he's not a member of your congregation; doesn't even belong to your religion." He gave me a bland, inquisitive look that he stole from Fox Mulder. Totally over the top, this guy.

"Broadly speaking, we're both Christians, but yes, we come from different religious traditions."

He stopped rocking in the chair and got still. The stillness was a relief. "Do you mind telling me what you talked about, the reason for the meeting?"

I leaned back in my chair and pushed it until it leaned against the window. The air was noticeably warmer close to the window. This visit was making me feel increasingly anxious; my system was on that "high alert" setting that gets you ready for that whole fight-or-flight thing. "I do mind. Enormously. If this information is important to you, and I can't see how it could be, I believe I'd be more comfortable letting Graham share it with you."

Wanderley was shaking his head before I stopped speaking, and he pulled his own chair up until his knees were against my desk.

"No, nope, that's not going to work, and I'll tell you why. Somebody murdered Mr. Garcia early this morning. Graham Garcia is dead."

So there was the bad news. And it was so much worse than I had been preparing for. Dead. Finished. Final. Over. Time's up. Something bad is coming. It's not my fault. It's on you now. Ohhh. I did not want this to be on me.

Two heartbeats later I scooted my chair over to the intercom, pressed the button that gave me Rebecca's desk. I said, "Rebecca, please call Annie Laurie, try her cell if you don't catch her at home; tell her I'm going to need to pick her up in ten minutes if she can get free, we've got an emergency in the church family. Make sure she knows it's not Merrie or Jo."

I buzzed off and buzzed right back on.

"Tell her if she's got one of her pound cakes in the freezer, this would be a good time to haul one out."

Rebecca's voice from the speaker said, "Bear, is there any chance you're going to let me know what this emergency is?"

I grabbed my Bible, didn't bother with my jacket, this was shirtsleeves work anyway, and opened the office door so I was talking to the back of Rebecca's head while she was talking to the speaker.

"There is. I'll call you from the car. No, you call me after you get Annie."

Rebecca nodded, already dialing my home number. I bypassed the elevator and took the stairs two at a time, noticing that Wanderley wasn't having any trouble keeping up with me even though I had to have the longer stride, what with me having those three inches on him.

"Wells, we weren't done in there."

"We're done for right now."

"Listen, there's some questions I'd like answered. I've got a job to do."

He was the one irritated now; I could hear it in his voice. Not that I cared. The guy ran his fingers over the balusters like he was twelve. The air filled with the thrum.

The soft, wet air closed around me when I stepped out of the air-conditioned building. My keys were in my hand and I beeped the door locks open. I shut the door harder than I needed to, but lowered the window as I pulled out of the space marked OFFICE STAFF ONLY, PLEASE and looked back at the young man standing there, nearer Merrie's age than mine.

"Mr. Wanderley—"

"Detective."

"Right. I've got a job, too. And I'm going to go do it now. If you still want to talk later, we'll talk later." I didn't wait to see if this was agreeable with him.


© Stephanie Jaye Evans