The groans were awful. Heartrending. They came from the kitchen. Loretta Kliesczewski had stumbled there, to the kitchen, within seconds of Blow’s telling her and Joan Bismark their pastor’s body had been found.
“She loved him,” Joan had said after they were alone. Too, Blow added to her remark, in his head. He admired her composure, contrasted as it was with Loretta’s breakdown. An emotional tag team. While Loretta crumbled, Joan seemed to draw on an inner strength, a stoicism that resembled the stolidity the other had presented when she met him at the door. He hoped Joan’s example could help calm Loretta soon, as his sense of urgency was tingling.
She’d stayed at her desk, virtually clinging to it as a private safe zone where she could weigh and measure implications at a pace of her choosing. She kept her eyes fastened to her computer screen, no more glances toward the window. Her posture had varied little from its collapse when Blow gave her and Loretta the news they’d been dreading. She’d nodded a couple of times in acknowledgment, as if she understood what he was saying and maybe to herself that she’d been expecting the worst. She began slowly drawing within herself, leaning forward, hunching her shoulders, making little rocking movements. No audible crying, though. Just the occasional rattling sniff. Blow had gone to her when Loretta fled the room. She’d cringed from him. Bearer of bad news, he knew. He stepped back.
“We should leave,” he said after a moment.
“Uhhhhh.” Part groan, part objection. She turned her head to face him. “Can’t,” she said. She cleared her throat. “I can’t leave.”
“You’re not safe here, Joan. No one is right now.”
“You’ll have to cancel it. We can put a sign on the door.”
“It’ll be on the news tonight. Everyone will know. We need to go. I’ll take you and Loretta home.
“I...I live alone, Mr. Stone. I--”
“Can you stay with Loretta?”
She was silent awhile. Finally shook her head sadly. “Loretta’s husband,” Her voice had shrunk. “he...he gets mean. He...drinks.”
Blow approached her again and leaned in. He touched her wrist and said softly, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to talk to Loretta.” Joan nodded. No flinch this time. He found Loretta on the floor of the tiny kitchen. She’d wedged her hefty back in a niche between a refrigerator and a sink and her knees were splayed under the voluminous dress—navy sprayed with pinpoint white polka dots—which Blow had not noticed earlier. When he entered she had been leaning forward, head down, forearms braced on thighs. She raised her head as he neared her, and choked off the terrible sobs. The granite face, mottled and glistening with tears, beseeched him with a curious mix of grief, question, and desperate hope. He knelt by her. She gave him one of her large bony hands and he spoke gently, quietly. He helped her to her feet. She took his arm and let him lead her back to the church office.
“You’ll stay with my father and me tonight,” he told Joan. “We have plenty of room. You’ll be safe there, both of you, until we find out what this is about, what’s going on here.”
It was nearly dark when they went out to the car. The outside floodlights had not yet come on but a full moon was lifting off the horizon and the brightest stars sparkled in a sky as deeply blue as a serious bruise. The air had cooled the way it does when a front is moving in. Blow left his truck at the church and drove Loretta’s Toyota. Loretta insisted that Joan sit in front with him, and she climbed into the back seat and seemed to disappear. To distract them, Blow chattered about his father and the house, reassuring them his father would be delighted to put them up and that there was plenty of room.
“We have two empty bedrooms. One is Joan’s—my sister Joan’s, that is,” he said turning to Joan Bismark with a grin. “She doesn’t live at home anymore. Works for the government and lives up in Alexandria, but we keep her room for her for when she visits. No one uses the other room. It used to be mine before I went off to college.”
“So you don’t--” Joan started and broke off. Blow assumed she was thinking maybe he didn’t sleep at the house. He clarified, “I sleep downstairs now, next to my office. It’s more convenient for me as I sometimes work late.” This won a small smile. He had about run out of small talk when they reached the Stone homestead. He didn’t stop, though, and waited until they’d driven past the house before explaining.
“We have a change of plans, ladies. I don’t want to upset you, but things are getting a tad complicated and my first priority is to keep you two safe. There’s an unmarked police car in front of the house. I think I know who it is. Joan, I spoke with Major Callahan of the Sheriff’s Office a little while ago at the place where Chris...was found. He said he wanted to interview you in case you know something that might help them find out who killed Chris. I told him I was your lawyer and that I would arrange for you to meet with him when you felt ready. I apologize for taking that liberty, but I didn’t have time to alert you.
“I need to ask you first of all if you want me to represent you in this. There won’t be any fee, but I think it’s best you have someone sit in on any interview. I’m happy to do that for you.” Joan nodded and murmured that she agreed. Blow continued, “If that’s Major Callahan back there he didn’t come to the house looking for you. He likely saw my truck at the church and wants to talk to me. If you want to have some time to get your thoughts together, Joan, I can take you and Loretta to a motel and then set up a meeting for sometime tomorrow.”
“That’s okay, Mr. Stone. I’d just as soon get it over with and talk to him now. The sooner they find out who did this the better.”
Blow turned into a side street and circled around the block and headed back home.