The blood plunged from Blow’s face to his intestines with the force of a crashing elevator. He saw the black sedan the instant the church came into view as he rounded the curve. It was parked by the side entrance. He somehow knew it wasn’t Joan Bismark’s. She had said she always parked in the back.
He was glad now he hadn’t stopped at home to get his sister’s revolver. At least he’d gotten to the church before the car left. He also wished he had the revolver instead of the clip-on knife even though it had the ingenious Emerson hook on its blade that pulled it open with a snap from the pocket. He parked beside the car, took a deep breath, patted the knife clip on his pocket, and went to the door.
The footsteps were leaden and determined, and when the door opened he found himself confronted by a heavyset woman with graying steel-wool hair and a granite face. Her eyes were anthracite chips and they stared through Blow with a fearless, primitive knowledge, which, had she been male, he knew, would have frozen him where he stood—knife or revolver or battle-ax or bazooka notwithstanding. The irrational notion of gender making such a difference flicked through his mind as he felt an easing of the tension in his gut. Yet he remained wary.
Time stopped as they stared at each other. Blow’s eyes migrated down from hers past flared nostrils to the bristly shadow atop her upper lip. He saw the lips quiver and begin to part. He caught a glimpse of unkempt teeth and heard a delicate, high-pitched girlish sound emit from behind them. Time commenced.
He introduced himself and asked if Joan Bismark was there. The woman ignored his question.
“You’re Judge Stone’s son,” she said, the girlish voice rising on “Stone” and dropping on “son”. Her lips formed the start of a shy smile as Blow nodded yes. There was something off-key about her manner under the circumstances. Too detached. Too trusting. She didn’t recognize him, and Blow had the notion anyone could have approached her as he was and claimed to be him. The Rottweiler’s body would have deterred few hearing its timid kitten voice. But she hadn’t introduced herself. And where was Joan Bismark, and why ignore his query? Wariness persisted. He asked again.
“Oh, Joan? Ah, she’s--” The woman interrupted herself with a quick glance in the direction of the secretary’s office. “Joan is, ah, kinda tied up right now. Ah, is she, ah, expecting you?” Her voice climbed in pitch throughout this struggle apparently to keep from giving something away. This was her only tell, as her chunky face remained expressionless and its coloring didn’t change. But for the vocal giveaway she might have been a killer poker player. He heard a slapping sound approaching and the woman turned in that direction and then stepped back. At the same time he heard his name.
Then she was in the doorway. She looked terrible. Puffed and red around the eyes, tear-streaked cheeks. The banjo tension was back in her voice but with a weary strain that wasn’t there before. “We decided to have a service tomorrow anyway,” she said, leading him back to her office. She was wearing flip-flops and a housecoat embellished with a lavish floral design, and the perfume he’d noticed earlier taunted him anew in her wake. Joan Bismark had introduced the woman who met him at the door as Loretta something (he didn’t catch the multisyllabic last name) and she followed behind him, her steadily clopping shoes suggesting a Clydesdale pulling a fringed surrey in a parade.
They paraded through the nave and vestibule into the meeting room where Loretta peeled off and clopped into the kitchen, calling out in her girlish voice as she did, “I’ll put the food away, Joan.”
When they reached her office, the secretary repeated that the church would hold its Sunday service “anyway.”
“That’s good,” said Blow mechanically. He held his tongue from betraying the ambivalence he felt, thinking he might learn a little more before deciding on sharing his misgivings. His alarm at the door had not abated, nor had the prospect of danger for Joan Bismark. “Who will preside?”
She stopped just inside the office and turned around. “I suppose they’ll want me to say a few words. If I can pull myself together.” She gave up a nervous snicker. “Then we’ll just say some prayers and talk about him, you know. I guess like a wake, although he’s not Irish. We’ll have the food. Loretta’s going to bake a new batch of corn bread so it’ll be fresh. You can take some of the first batch home with you if you like.”
“I’d love to, Joan, thanks. But please, no more ‘Mr. Stone’, okay? Please call me Joe.”
She nodded and tried to smile and turned again and went to her desk and stood by her chair as if trying to decide whether to sit. Blow stood by the couch. He felt an overpowering awkwardness. She pretended to be scanning her desktop for something. He knew she felt awkward, too. She glanced up at him as if to speak but said nothing.
“Has a Major Callahan contacted you yet, Joan?”
“Callahan. He’s the chief investigator. I’m assuming you notified the Sheriff’s Office about--”
“No, I guess I was too upset and then I got busy and everything. I forgot to call. Except you and then the members, and they have a contact tree. Each one calls three other members, like that.”
“Oh. Ah, I’d have to check to be sure, but I think we have, ah, seventy-eight now. Yes, I’m pretty sure we’re at seventy-eight.”
“I see. So what time will the service start tomorrow?”
“Oh, I’ll have the door open at nine. We’ll start at ten. We always start at ten. I’ll be praying all night, you know, that maybe Chris, I mean Rev. Curtis will come walking in at the regular time, you know, and everything can be back the way it should be. It could happen, couldn’t it?”
Blow knew then his suspicion had been false, thinking she somehow had gotten word Curtis’s body was found. Her manner and actions had struck him as in keeping with such knowledge. That she had cried herself out. That her strength had taken over. That she was bearing up, performing as her pastor and lover would want. To carry on. It became clear to him now she’d spoken no fantasy. He had gathered she was too practical for that. The hope was real. It could explain Loretta’s odd manner. He’d thought maybe it was shock. But she didn’t know. Neither of them knew.
“Joan,” he said softly. I need to discuss something with you, and I think Loretta should be here, too.”
[links to all prior chapters can be found on the right margin above the profile images.]