Thursday, September 29, 2016

A MOMENT ON THE EDGE: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women – ed. Elizabeth George

I committed a crime a year ago paying a mere 50¢ at my public library’s used-book sale for an excellent copy of A Moment on the Edge: 100 Years of Crime Stories by Women. I take some comfort knowing my crime was shared by the library itself for letting this sterling anthology of exemplary fiction go for what would be called in the ironically apt vernacular “a steal.”

The book, one of hundreds piled on long tables stretching across the library’s community room and arranged in no recognizable order, caught my attention with the name of its editor, Elizabeth George, a top-tier crime fiction author. Aha, I might actually have muttered aloud, as crime fiction is quite definitely an area of particular interest to me. Closer scrutiny of the cover revealed some of the contributors’ names scrolled around the perimeter. A few were already favorites of mine, and others I recognized as long overdue to feed my insatiable appetite for good crime stories. Clockwise from the top: Antonia Fraser, Nadine Gordimer, Shirley Jackson, J.A. Jance, Ngaio Marsh, Joyce Carol Oates, Sara Peretsky, Ruth Rendell, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

With these august names reaching out for me I could not afford to dawdle long enough to open the cover for the other 17 contributors and risk missing out on other treasures among the other volumes tempting the mob of other insatiable bibliophilic appetites stalking the narrow aisles I’d not yet attempted to navigate. I therefore thrust the intriguing volume into my voluminous Friends of the Library canvas bag, eventually making my way to the cashier who relieved me of five bucks and change for a bagful of books the combined weight of which came near to dislocating my shoulder by the time I’d toted it out to my pickup and thence from pickup to apartment where they’re yet stacked on the floor, those anyway that did not find room in the three nearby bookcases.

A Moment on the Edge remains in a special stack next to my descendent of the favorite-of-Anthony-Boucher Morris Chair (which I had to Google after seeing its ubiquitous mention in The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars and to my delight learned of its ancestry to the recliner I’ve just this second named “Morris” in Mr. Boucher’s honor.) Ensconced thus in the privileged pile, A Moment on the Edge has served me faithfully female contrived crime fiction over the past year as the occasional cerebral aperitif, dessert, or nightcap. I should suggest a precaution regarding my most recent sampling of the anthology’s piquant offerings: Ms. Oates’s Murder-Two likely is not the most tranquilizing bedtime reading one might choose. But then anyone who knows Ms. Oates’s work knows she does dark so dark it can leave one wondering if light ever really exists (we’re speaking metaphorically here, as one might wish to leave the bedside lamp lit after inadvisedly reading Murder-Two while nestled between the sheets). I read it this morning, and might well leave my bedroom light burning throughout this night as a ward against awakening in the dark, sweat-soaked from a dream of coming home to find my beloved mother dead at the foot of the stairs, her head in a pool of black fluid.

Squid ink”, teenage Derek Peck says is what it seemed like to him when he came home and found his mother in said circumstance. He’s horrified, in retrospect anyway. We’ve little doubt his horror is less for his loss than for the murder he’s suppressing. We strongly suspect this for two reasons. The first is that Ms. Oates loves to build suspense in the manner of a boa constrictor strangling its prey, wrapping muscular coil upon muscular coil upon muscular coil, squeezing and, the reader. She doesn’t do surprises. You see everything coming. Coming incrementally into focus, gathering definition in a maddeningly glacial pace.

The second reason we suspect Derek Peck smashed the back of his mother’s skull in with one of her golf clubs is that the story’s very first sentence tells us to: This, he swore. Yeah, right, son, the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God uh huh. Oh, we know the little punk did it, and we know Oates will string it out as she loves to do, building building building. And this is no police procedural. In fact I don’t recall a police presence in the form of a character appearing at all. Everything takes place, as is Oates’s genius, in the characters’ heads. Essentially there are only two characters besides the mother-murdering punk: his brilliant defense attorney, who’d gone to school with the mother, and, we gradually see, hated her, and, we quickly see, is helplessly in lust with her client.

The other character? The mother, of course.

Joyce Carol Oates

Oates’s sleight of voice moves with the slippery grace of a psychic viper through the living characters’ heads. Starting from an omniscient viewpoint, soon, quick as a wink, she has slithered into the head of the character she’s describing, becoming that character, and then back out again, and in and out, floating in through one eye and out the other. The way Robin Williams did with personae in his stand-up routines, only in writing—and there’s no laughter in Murder-Two.

But the writing. As girls of Derek Peck’s milieu would say: Oh. My. God. Snake-slick. Deathly deep. Super savvy. Astonishing. Sample? Here you go:

When Marina Dyer was introduced to Derek Peck the boy stared at her hungrily. Yet he didn’t get to his feet like the other men in the room. He leaned forward in his chair, the tendons standing out in his neck and the strain of seeing, thinking visible in his young face. His handshake was fumbling at first then suddenly strong, assured as an adult man’s, hurtful. Unsmiling, the boy shook hair out of his eyes like a horse rearing its beautiful brute head and a painful sensation ran through Marina Dyer like an electric shock. She had not experienced such a sensation in a long time.

In her soft contralto voice that gave nothing away, Marina said, “Derek, hi.”

Her? The mother-murdering punk’s lawyer. 

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Death's Honesty (11)

Chris Curtis’s hand was steady as he raised the coffee cup to his lips, but there was a tension in his voice as he described what had happened in the parking lot. His articulation was more precise, his word choice less casual.
I thought they were coming here. For me,” he said, and laughed in his throat. There was no humor in his face. Blow stared at him. “Some trouble back at Mecklenburg. Nothing to it, but the rumors, you know, the bishop decided--” He shrugged. “Anyway, Joan saw them pull in. Said they’d stopped a speeder. And that’s what it looked like when I got here. Both unmarked cars, and I could see the grill lights flashing on one, the black one. Blue and red, the lights, you know. The other car looked like the one this morning, when you and the deputy were here. Sort of a light blue. Couldn’t tell the make, but it was the same car because the woman got out. It was her. The deputy. But in plainclothes now, shorts, T-shirt, blonde hair back in a ponytail. Cute as a bug, you know.” He grinned, Blow nodded.
And she starts over toward the black car, but one of the guys getting out of it yells something at her, maybe to get back in her car, but she keeps walking toward them--”
Guys? More than one?”
Yeah, two that I saw. Two that got out, anyway. One was in uniform, the driver, and the other in plainclothes. They both looked familiar. The driver was stocky, black hair, thick mustache. Chicago mustache, you know? Like Ditka’s? The other guy was completely bald, probly shaved. He was taller than the driver. Thinner, like a basketball player. Looked fit, too. Moved like a cat. Anyway, it looked like they were arguing, but suddenly the tall guy spun her around and pushed her up against her car and cuffed her. She kicked him when he turned her back around to put her in the black car. Looked like she was trying for his balls, but he stepped back and she caught him on the shin, just below the knee. I was thinking a little higher and she might’ve gotten the knee, put him on the ground. But the other guy grabbed one of her arms and they wrestled her into the back of the car. She was kicking and shouting at them. Only thing I could make out was she said they were dead. You assholes are dead, were her exact words. After they got her in the back, they took off. The tall guy drove her car.
You know, I wanted to go out there and ask them what they were doing but, well, you know...” He shrugged, shook his head. “I was gonna call 911 but I figured I better call you, you having been with her this morning and all. I’m thinking now maybe those two guys weren’t really cops, or maybe I was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t the same girl, but it sure looked like her. And the car.”

Looking back, Blow guessed it was right about then, within seconds of hearing “And the car,” that he began plunging into a fugue state that blocked out everything but the chaos in his head. He’d been able to text Homer the situation was “clear,” and remembered hearing the hood slam down on the Price Hardware van almost hidden on a dirt lane in the woodsy stretch across from Patmos. He couldn’t recall seeing the van leave. The next thing he remembered was hearing his name and becoming aware Chris Curtis was gently lifting the half-full, still hot coffee cup from his hands.
Something out there, Mr. Stone?” Blow recognized he’d been staring out the window for some time pondering the barely comprehensible implications of what the pastor had told him moments before but seemingly ages ago. He now came fully alert. His instinct was to mumble an excuse and leave, as he’d done earlier after learning Moriarty apparently had not come to the church, angering him to the point of nearly resigning as her attorney. This time he couldn’t leave abruptly without appearing rude or raising inappropriate questions. He dared not reveal that Moriarty was a fake deputy, and he had to take care discussing her at all, as technically she remained his client. He couldn’t imagine how to address—he was having trouble grasping it himself—the jolt Curtis had given him describing the two men who had taken Moriarty. By their descriptions and actions they clearly were cops, and what confused and frightened Blow even more was that they sure as hell sounded like Teach and Callahan.
This has been a pretty awful day,” Curtis said when it appeared Blow wasn’t going to answer his question. Blow took comfort in this gesture of pastoral sensitivity and tact. He nodded, tilting his head toward Curtis but continuing to stare out the window. “I learned just a few minutes ago, while you were on your way here, that one of our parishioners was killed last night. It seems he and a friend were shot by another friend. It’s truly awful.”
Blow turned from the window and directed his full attention on the pastor. Curtis had remained standing next to the couch after taking the cup from him and setting it on the end table.
Tyrone?” Blow said, thinking his voice sounded mechanical. Curtis nodded.
Oh, you know about it,” Curtis said. Blow assented with a dip of his head. Not taking his eyes from the other man’s face, he reached for the coffee. The pastor waited a beat, and continued, “Tyrone Genét. Brilliant young man. Valedictorian here, in Leicester, last year. Full scholarship to M.I.T. Just an awful loss, Blow. Terrible terrible tragedy.”

[Chapter 12 --]

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


When I was in high school my dad ran in the Democratic primary for a state senate seat. I was his campaign manager. We didn't have any money and I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and we got the crap kicked out of us. If we'd had money we could have hired someone like Dev Conrad. I would have been out of a job but my dad might have had a fighting chance--even if someone had tried to murder him.

Dev Conrad's the kind of consultant you want running your campaign especially if the race is so hot people try to kill your candidate. He's an ex-Army investigator and a second-generation political op and, unfortunately, only a fictional character. But his creator, novelist Ed Gorman, himself a former political speechwriter and TV producer, knows the game and the milieu so well his main character could step straight out of the novel’s pages and take a seat opposite Hardball interviewer Chris Matthews.
Dev's also a political operative of the sort that would take some of the stigma from politics in a day when sleaze, suspicion and scandal have become the norm. Don’t get me wrong, he's tough enough, and wily to boot. Talking about the ops working for his candidate's opponent, he says, "They’d be telling the same kind of lies I usually did. Just earning their paychecks."
His self-effacing humor is a welcome grace. There's this: "God had personally given me a daily allotment of one hundred and twenty-three lies. I was, after all, in politics."
At the same time, he allows his pragmatism to take him only so far. He’s a decent sort. The filthy political arena is where he makes his living, and he is good at it, but there are lines he will not cross. It's his honoring these limits that ultimately makes Dev Conrad a man worth honoring. And it helps that he prefers to work for candidates of a liberal bent.
In Elimination, he's signed on to run the campaign of a congresswoman in a tight race for reelection. Her opponent is a yahoo with a stinking rich uncle who is pouring a fortune into the campaign to send the incumbent home. She's being bombarded with all of the standard right-wing accusations and threats, and this assault is shrinking her lead in the polls the way big money always buys the minds of the shallowest voters, who always also tend to be the loudest. And the most dangerous.

Ed Gorman
Two wingnuts even show up at a crucial debate carrying AK-47 military rifles. Dev's candidate kicks the pus out of her moron opponent in the debate, but someone takes a couple of shots at her afterward. She's uninjured, and the resulting public sympathy shoots her lead back up to a margin of safety that virtually guarantees victory. Then the local police chief holds a surprise news conference and claims a rifle has been found in the trunk of a volunteer worker for Dev's candidate.
Faster than you can say “turnaround” the poll gap quickly narrows amid widespread talk that the “assassination” attempt was staged, presumably by the candidate herself.
Dev Conrad's job now is to find out what really happened. Calling upon his old training as an Army investigator, he soon learns the police chief and a small group of his officers are dedicated supporters of the right-wing candidate, and have some secrets of their own.
Complicating things is the candidate's husband, a vainglorious womanizer who thinks he knows more about running a campaign than the professional his wife has hired to do it.
The action is taut, fast-paced and fraught with surprises.
Elimination is the fourth in Gorman's Dev Conrad series, which promises to enjoy a run at least as long as his ten-book Sam McCain lawyer/detective series. Then there's his Jack Dwyer detective series. Yes, it is safe to say Gorman is prolific. Award-winning, too. He's copped the Shamus, Anthony, Ellery Queen, Spur and international fiction awards, and has been on the short list twice for an Edgar and once for the Silver Dagger.
Am I a fan? Well, let's just say I sure could have used me some Dev Conrad advice when I tried to manage my dad's disastrous run for a state senate nomination back in the day.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Monday, September 19, 2016

Death's Honesty (10)

The plan matured as he scuffed across the dusty gravel so that by the time he got to his truck Blow’s initial, seething impulse to end immediately his legal relationship with Moriarty by texting her the word “finis!” had evolved to a recognition of the need to inquire, albeit with a sense of urgency, which he intended to express with the paired symbols “?!”
Grateful for having left the driver side window down but regretting not placing the metallic sunscreen across his windshield to keep the sun from baking the steering wheel and seat, he pulled open the door, reached gingerly into the cab with his ignition key and started the engine and a/c. He raised the driver side window, reached the sunscreen on the passenger-side floor and maneuvered it into place over the steering wheel, then shut the door and walked around the front of the truck into the shade of the tulip poplar. He figured the truck had enough fuel to give him time to send the text and cool the cab enough for him to drive in relative comfort to the nearest gas station. This plan received a slight bump when he flipped open his phone and found a text message waiting to be read. Odd, he thought, that he’d missed it despite having the phone on vibrate rather than that damnable beat me daddy ringtone he’d thought was cool at first and gradually come to hate but kept forgetting to change. He pressed OK to read the message.
It was from “Gloria.” All it said was “no!”
Several seconds after the burst of adrenaline the text had loosed into his veins Blow was able to prioritize his next immediate moves, the first being to get back to his truck, climb in and, enduring whatever heat remained there, get the hell out of the church lot and to the nearest gas station. He knew instinctively the exclamation point was the most important part of Moriarty’s message—a code that communicated directly with his gut, telling him the “no” was not voluntary. It was a warning. It had to be from her, he reasoned, because the message would be different if someone else had gotten the phone or if the number had been reassigned. If the latter were true and his message were not ignored, the return would either inquire, or would be an auto response. In what seemed to Blow the virtually impossible chance the phone had fallen into unfriendly hands, the message likely would be telling him to wait, and maybe would set a later time—either one he could not imagine Moriarty doing--or would be trying to lure him somewhere else. From the time stamp on the message he figured it had arrived about a half hour ago while he and Chris were between the truck and the church. Still disoriented from his nap and with the scuffing along the gravel, he obviously hadn’t noticed the phone vibrating. Anything was possible with Moriarty, but in this instance he knew at least the phone was still in her possession. That presumption nudged his focus away from wondering skeptically at her intent regarding the Morowitz case to wondering at her circumstances. The new wonderment took on a deeper significance when he got home and checked the answering machine on his office phone. The message was from a woman claiming to be the secretary at Patmos Evangelical Church, saying “something happened” and he needed to “come back here as soon as possible.”
The woman, whose voice was flat and professional—sounding almost bored--had identified herself as Joan Bismark. She didn’t leave a number, and Blow, finding no listing for the church in the phone book, called directory assistance. When he got through to the church the same woman answered. She told Blow “the reverend” was unable to come to the phone, and that she was “not at liberty” to say more than to advise “Mr. Stone” to return to the church. She emphasized that the matter was “extremely urgent.”
Blow returned the phone to its base, stared at it a moment, then pulled his cellphone from its holster and speed-dialed a number on his contact list.
I don’t know, Homer, it’s getting squirrelly. Heading back up there.
Yeah, Patmos. Little white church on Arrowhead Lane.
That’s it. I was hoping you could get away for a bit.
Just to cover me.
Sure, and your camera.
Right, near but not dear. Ha ha, ‘stand by in the vicinity’ or whatever you cops say.
I just don’t know yet. Fifteen, if I don’t get a ticket.
Thanks, buddy. Next meal’s on me.
Buttonhook, my ass.
Yup, down and out.”

[Chapter 11 --]


Thursday, September 15, 2016


My lawyer dad loved Shakespeare. So far as I know his Bard thing extended only to the beauty and wisdom in Shakespeare’s poetry. I grew so accustomed to his dropping quotes here and there that years later in a college Shakespeare course certain passages I’d heard countless times growing up would leap out of some vaguely familiar context in a play I was reading and bring me to tears. They were tears of reunion and of discovery. I’ve found it to be one of the many wonders of Shakespeare that his brilliance, his intuitive depth and his sheer artistry teach me something new with every reading of virtually every line.

And I’m no Shakespeare scholar. Not by a long shot, not even a short shot. Never had the patience to learn the language much beyond those familiar passages I absorbed long ago. I learned a few more passages in the college course, along with some helpful interpretation and sense of story, of narrative architecture. But until I read A Thousand Times More Fair, I understand now, to pun a Joni Mitchell paraphrase, it was Shakespeare’s allusions I recalled; I really didn’t know Shakespeare at all.
I still don’t know him as well as I should, but a farside better now than before, thanks to Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University, whose book, subtitled What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice, would have been the perfect gift for my dad, or would be for any lawyer no matter the extent of his or her wiliness or ruthlessness. Shakespeare shows us again and again with exquisite clarity just how effective wiles and a cold eye can be in the practice of law, as well as how a judicious capacity for mercy is needed to keep its application from being unreasonable. In his introduction to A Thousand Times More Fair, Yoshino disputes Mark Twain's argument that Shakespeare was a lawyer: “I believe Shakespeare knew a lot about the law, but only as a by-product of knowing a lot about everything.”
Yoshino chose law school after majoring in English as an undergraduate with an eye toward pursuing a career as a writer or a professor of literature, “because I wanted to acquire the language of power, for myself and for my causes.” But, finding his law books drier and more limiting in scope than he’d expected, he carried his regard for literature with him despite the advice of one of his law professors to put such “childish pastimes” away while learning to “think like a lawyer.” Yoshino contends that literature is a more valuable resource than cold theory, saying he “would rather deal with the messy, fine-grained, gloriously idiosyncratic lives of human beings than with vaulting abstractions.” Yet, he points out, the law contains timeless principles intended to serve as fair measures for determining and administering justice in a society of these real human beings.
Prof. Yoshino
As a professor he created what has become his most popular course—Justice in Shakespeare—because Shakespeare’s plays “contain practically every word I know, practically every character type I have ever met, and practically every idea I have ever had.” Not surprisingly the plays in his course, and in the book, raise issues that address timeless principles in the law. To illustrate this timelessness, Yoshino matches issues raised in the plays with comparable issues of today:
  • The handkerchief that fooled Othello and the glove that persuaded O.J. Simpson’s jury to acquit both suggest the fallibility of visual evidence.
  • Titus Andronicus shows how a society without laws can spawn cycles of vengeance that jeopardize the society itself. A stretch, perhaps, but Yoshino uses the U.S.’s attacking Iraq and Afghanistan in response to 9-11 as an example of “revenge cycles [escalating] when no credible central authority exists,” considering that these wars had the effect of recruiting more terrorists to avenge their cause.
  • Most interesting to me is the question of legal trickery raised in The Merchant of Venice and compared with President Bill Clinton’s defense on impeachment charges in the Monica Lewinsky episode. Yoshino explains that while laws are necessary for a stable society, their interpretation and manipulation by shyster lawyers arouses mistrust of lawyers in general. In his words:

We submit to the rule of law to quiet private vengeance, giving the state a monopoly over all violence. Yet this means we must protect ourselves against governmental abuses of power. We do so by requiring that laws be written down and applied in standardized ways—that is what it means to live under “a government of laws and not of men.” But in every society, some individuals will be unusually adept at manipulating those words for their own interest. The fear and mistrust of lawyers is at heart a fear and mistrust of skillful rhetoricians.

The character Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, “represents a lawyer so verbally proficient that no law can bind her. There are three major legal instruments in the play—the will of Portia’s father, the notarized bond signed by Shylock and Antonio, and the marriage contract entered into by Portia and Bassanio. Yet Portia is able to manipulate each of these instruments to secure her own ends.”
I initially admire Portia because only she can stop Shylock,” Yoshino says, but adds that ultimately “I wonder who can stop her.”

He points out that “This concern about the rhetorical skill of lawyers both predates and postdates Portia. It stretches back to the original lawyers, the Sophists of antiquity, who took pride in using rhetoric to make ‘the weaker argument appear the stronger.’ And it reaches forward to speak in our times, when lawyers are feared and hated for our sophistry.”
His description of the Clinton-Lewinsky example of modern lawyerly sophistry enabled me at long last to understand the president’s seemingly absurd statement during a deposition in which he questioned the meaning of “is.” This came after a grueling series of attempts to pin Clinton down to an admission that he and Lewinsky had had sexual relations—attempts Clinton sidestepped with an agility astounding presumably to anyone who doesn’t “think like a lawyer.” Here’s how things got down to the “is” question:

Clinton still had some explaining to do. He had sat by in silence as his 1attorney in the Paula Jones deposition maintained that Lewinsky had filed an affidavit in which she said “there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton.” This statement would seem to be framed broadly enough to be irrefutably false, whether one took a layperson’s or a lawyer’s view.
Asked whether the statement was false, Clinton produced his coup de grâce: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.” Clinton was relying on the tense of the verb “to be.” As he elaborated: “Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

But of course!
With this in mind, is it redundant to suggest that A Thousand Times More Fair is a great read for lovers of Shakespeare as well as for anyone studying law and society?

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Death's Honesty (9)

Blow could see two vehicles in Patmos Evangelical’s gravel lot when when the church came into view. One was a full-size white pickup. The other a pale sedan. He couldn’t make out the car’s color until he’d entered the lot and gotten closer. The two vehicles were parked together beside the door Rev. Kirschbaum had entered after greeting them that morning. When Blow saw that the car was not pale blue, and was darker than the one Moriarty had driven--more a sooty gray—and that it had personalized tags proclaiming a biblical passage, and that both it and the pickup were empty, he circled back and parked near the entrance, facing the road. He decided to wait about half an hour before sending another text to the number Moriarty had given him and which she might well no longer have. The cab had cooled down during the drive from town, and because his fuel gauge needle was touching just above empty he turned the engine and a/c off. He reclined his seat a couple of clicks, leaned back, laid his head against the rest, closed his eyes, and, despite the two cups he’d had of Homer Price’s not-too-awful coffee, fell almost immediately asleep.
Consciousness began returning with the tickle of sweat rivulets down his temples and the sides of his face in the hot glare of a powerful light overhead, and with an urgent sequence of sharp, percussive tappings so near it could not be ignored. He kept his eyes shut while he struggled to reconcile the intrusions with whatever it was he guessed he’d been dreaming, the substance of which already had slipped out of reach trailing insolent shadows of futility and chagrin. A voice cut through this melee of irritations, pulling him fully awake with its insistent calling of his name.
“Stone! Stone!” Blow opened his eyes to the blazing face of an unclouded mid-afternoon sun he realized had emerged from behind the shield of a giant tulip poplar across the road. “Mr. Stone...” He heard the “mister” now, coming from the left with the tapping of something hard against the window next to his ear. He turned his head, but his sun-stunned eyes could make out only a vague semblance of what appeared to be someone staring at him. He pressed the button on his door to lower the window, but nothing happened. He felt around to ensure he had the right button, and pressed it again with the same result. He was about to act on an angry impulse to lower his head with its inadequate vision so near the button console he couldn’t mistake which one was right, when he remembered the engine was off, along with the truck’s electrics. His eyesight had improved enough by the time he’d turned the ignition and engaged its battery that he now recognized the face outside his truck.
Reverend Kirschbaum,” he said, when he’d gotten the window down. His voice sounded alien, almost as scratchy as the pastor’s, whose promise of iced tea along with a window view of the parking lot, lured Blow out of his truck’s stifling heat onto the graveled frying pan. A sporadic rustle of heaven-sent breeze blessed them on the trek to the gleaming white building that welcomed “all sinners.” The pastor had changed from his bathrobe and sandals to jeans, a T-shirt, and bright red sneakers. Still wearing the Jump Jackson ball cap.
I’m supposed to meet someone here,” Blow said, checking his phone to see if he’d gotten any calls. He grimaced when he saw the time. He’d been parked nearly an hour. “I guess I dozed off. You didn’t happen to see anyone else out here before, ah--”
Nobody came up to the church, Mr. Stone. I was in the kitchen helping Joan and Loretta get lunch ready for tomorrow. We always have something to eat after the service. You’re more than welcome to join us, you know. Love to have you.” Blow nodded and mumbled thanks. He pulled a tissue from the little pack he kept in a pocket and began dabbing sweat from his face. “I ducked into the Joan’s office to check the answering machine, just now, and saw you sitting out here. You coulda cooked you sat in that truck much longer, windows rolled up like that.”
They entered through the side door, which was near the rear of the building and opened to a space about six feet behind and to the side of the altar. A set of three steps led up to the altar platform. The pastor led Blow down the side aisle past twin rows of empty pews to a vestibule, where the school lunch room aroma he’d noticed entering the building, grew stronger.
Seems a lot bigger than it looks like from the parking lot,” Blow said when he’d stepped into the nave.
I guess you don’t go to church much,” the pastor said, nodding, a wide smile showing coffee-darkened teeth behind the beard and mustache. He didn’t wait for Blow to ask what made him say that. “Most churches look bigger once you get inside. It’s the open nave, what the architects call a cathedral ceiling. Looks nice, doesn’t it?”
Blow agreed sheepishly with the assessment of his church habits, which were limited to the occasional funeral or wedding. “I guess I’m one of those sinners your sign says are welcome here.”
And so you are—welcome, that is. I wouldn’t know the state of your soul, Mr. Stone, but I’m getting a good sense from you that you’re not as bad as you might think. Hey, the girls are making fresh bean soup in the kitchen. Soaked the beans overnight. Smell’s pretty good, doesn’t it. Let’s go into Joan’s office, where we can keep an eye on your truck, and I’ll get us a couple bowls of soup. How does that sound?”
It does smell good, but I’ll pass on the soup, Reverend. I had lunch about an hour ago just before heading out here. I could use a glass of that iced tea, though. Just mentioning that out there perked me right up.”
Ah yes. I’ll grab us a pitcher and a couple glasses. I’m thirsty, too.” They turned right after entering the vestibule, and went through an open doorway into a larger meeting room where Blow saw through another open doorway a tiny kitchen. A hefty woman was busy at a table in the kitchen, and did not look up when they passed through the meeting room to a closed door at the front of the church. This door opened to the church secretary’s office, where the pastor ushered Blow to a small couch against the wall facing a small window in front of the secretary’s desk. The window gave Blow a good view of his truck and the parking lot entrance. He was so intent on watching for anyone entering he hadn’t noticed the pastor leave the office.
Blow was still staring out the window when the pastor returned with the iced tea. He set the pitcher and glasses on the secretary’s desk, filled the glasses and set one on an end table next to Blow. “I forgot to ask if you like it sweet. I don’t, but I can get you some sugar or that artificial stuff? I can never remember what it’s called, but we have both.” Blow shook his head. “Thanks, Rev. Kirschbaum. This is fine.” He took a sip, smiled, then drank deeply, rattling the ice cubes when he set his glass back on the table. When he look up, the pastor was seated behind the desk, staring at Blow, a queer expression on his face. “Something wrong?” Blow said.
After a moment the pastor’s face relaxed. “Just my name.” He paused, as Blow’s face registered puzzlement, then he said, “I meant to say something when the deputy called me ‘Kirschbaum’ this morning, but I let it go. She said you were running late, and I figured she knew me from somewhere before.”
I’m confused, Reverend. Isn’t that how you introduced yourself this morning?”
Gee, if I did, it was a slip, but I don’t think so. I’m pretty careful, and I don’t believe in that Freudian stuff.” He laughed.
Now I’m even more confused. Are you saying you’ve changed your name? That you used to be Kirschbaum?”
That is my name, but I dropped the ‘Kirschbaum’ when I came here. Just go by my first and middle names now—Christopher Curtis. Please call me Chris. You can leave the “reverend” off, too. I’m not much for formalities, as you can probly tell.”
I feel kind of embarrassed, Chris--”
Don’t! You had no way of knowing, Mr. Stone. I figured the deputy knew me from Mecklenburg, or maybe from the license application I filled out at the clerk’s office.”
Blow’s sudden anger threatened to disrupt his poise, and he knew he had to leave before his host caught on. The lawyer/client agreement with Moriarty still bound him to confidentiality, but, blood near boiling, he intended to sever that relationship as soon as he was back in his truck. He drank more of the tea, then took a long deep breath and let it out in a loud sigh.
He stood. “Chris, I’m not much for formalities, either. My first name is Joe, but my friends call me Blow. Please call me whichever you’re most comfortable with.” He looked up, grinning. “Don’t ask. It’s not what you might think, and I’ll explain it next time we have a chance to talk, but it looks like I’ve been stood up here, by my client, and I’m overdue at the office. Thanks for rescuing me. And for the life-saving tea. Oh, and for getting me into your lovely church. It’s about time someone took an interest in trying to save my soul. As MacArthur said in the Philippines, “I shall return.”
He held up a hand, palm down to keep the pastor from rising, and was out the door quicker, as his mother would have said, than you could say Jack Robinson.