Marion Dixon knew something wasn’t right when she saw the man in the black hassock, bending with the wind, his body a question mark against the dull blue and gold of the burnt heather. He looked about furtively, and then entered his dark sedan. She later identified him through a church directory, Father Pruitt.
Pruitt hadn’t seen Marion. She was shaded by a row of dirty black trees. The compound’s mess hall, made of white limestone, resembled a human femur. The windows were desolate, and the parking lot was a gray stretch of patches of grass peeking through cracked concrete. The cabins in the distance were wet, empty boxes.
Years ago, this now closed-down church, with its accompanying graveyard and campgrounds, was the place of worship of her grandparents and generations of early settlers who called Lakefield home. Once a year, Marion trekked from Toronto to clean the lichen from their headstones, to pay her respects, and to say a prayer for them.
Condemned signs and “no trespassing” were posted on the property.
Behind abandoned mess hall doors, a mewling cry—
Marion rushed down thirteen steps to the boiler room. The floor was curved dirt, the air, damp and wet. The boiler had been off for days. Perforated dust fell gently from the ceiling like a beaded curtain.
Marion lit her Zippo, following the snarl of syntax. She found a soft spot, a trap door. The padlock was the size of a Stetson hat.
Next to a rake, shears, a gasoline can and garden gloves, leaned a sledgehammer. She shattered the lock with the fourth blow.
Below drifted the heavy odor of blood, and decay. Bunk beds crowded limestone walls gone gray. Three see-through garment bags dripped down, stalactites of bodies on meat hooks.
The bagged, decomposing corpses had loose skin dripping off skulls like Dali’s watches; haphazard angles of hair had gone dry and brittle; bones stuck through forearms and legs. These were Lakefield’s missing girls, going back two, three years. Abby Moore would have made number four. She had been abducted last Victoria Day from a picnic at Isabel Morris Park.
Marion held tightly to a sobbing Abby. It was as if they had known each other for years.
Abby’s lips were cracked and a small cross was carved in her forehead. There were two puncture marks by her neck.
Detective John Sadler had read the followup reports. In the days after the rescue, Abby recalled diaphanous robes, being placed naked on an altar, a burning pentagram behind her. Latin words about sin were splashed about and Abby was forced to partake from a pyx full of wafers that had to have been soaked in LSD, because everything became a red haze, recollections distorted through a dreamscape of lambs’ blood, little crosses, and vampiric bites from a girl with helmeted hair and another with Cleopatra bangs. Pruitt, in the red heat of Abby’s altered consciousness, insisted on purifying her essence through an incantation of the damned, and then following the ceremony tossed her into the limestone bowels of Lakefield’s abandoned church.
Because Abby had a history of schizophrenia, dating back to puberty, the medical authorities regarded her recent abduction narrative with much suspicion. The horror of the kidnapping had triggered fanciful visions, they diagnosed, a series of psychological breaks that resembled the ones she had at twelve before her first communion. Those too involved vampires, if you recall, they pointed out. And tiny bleeding crosses. Thus, the doctors for the defense took little stock in Abby’s version of “events.”
Sadler believed in Abby. How else could you account for the damned bite marks on her neck? The cross scarred into her forehead? He’d seen the photographs. Self-inflicted wounds from a delusional mind, they said. Right. Moreover, the Arch Diocese vouched for Father Pruitt’s character, praising his long dedicated service to his parishioners, and his time spent with food drives and other community charities. When questioned about the kidnapping, Father Pruitt was having dinner with his Eminence.
But Marion’s testimony placed Father Pruitt in the vicinity at the time of Abby’s discovery. Marion identified his sedan by the color, the license plate, and the rust spots dotting the bottom of the passenger door.
She further identified Pruitt by the emerald ring on his third finger that rested with a bent wrist grip, atop the black knuckled steering wheel as he drove away.
She was the Crown’s key witness.
And that made getting her safely to the criminal trial in Kingston the responsibility of Detective John Sadler.
Sadler had been fascinated by the report’s dark language and grotesqueries, but Marion refused to discuss anything to do with rescuing Abby from the limestone tombs. All Sadler knew about the key witness was that she was a nurse, full of a calm dignity, who during the bus ride busied herself knitting a sweater for a sister with a toddler. When the bus broke down, forty miles from Kingston, near the small town of Winsome, Sadler’s head spun with what ifs.
Forty-five minutes after snowmobiles had arrived, they were taken to a church basement, a much needed relief from wind chills that had dropped to -20 and air that was crisp like crinkled paper. The Daws motel had only five available rooms, and church elders placed seniors in parishioners homes, but the rest of the travelers were housed on the cold floor of Saint Matthew’s on Polis Avenue, a brick street fronting the town’s City Hall, Lion’s Club, a meat locker, and the local police office. Thunderball was playing at the Bijou.
Marion, going by the cover of Karen Carella, noticed the three angular windows and wondered if the elders locked the church’s doors at night. Like Sadler she was worried about potential hit men or crazed cultists on a mission.
The white cinder-block walls of the dark basement glowed charcoal gray. Children’s drawings of the ascension—no doubt a recent Sunday School session—hung crookedly here and there, and the local Armory had provided the blankets and pillows. The floor, damn it, was hard, and cold. Sadler lit a cigarette, and then shook out the pack of Luckies and lit one for her.
The actions of Pruitt’s cult were irrational, irredeemable. Sadler feared winding up a body hanging from some other cellophane bag in some other goddamn basement. Abby had seen their horrifying darkness: a black mass of Latinate words and little crosses dotted with lambs’ blood. He believed in Abby’s visions and that put him on edge.
Marion, however, was relatively calm for a key witness. Maybe it was her nurse's training that allowed her to exist in the distractions of others. During the long bus ride from Peterborough, Marion observed a teenager, seventeen or so, two seats down fighting back tears brought on by motion sickness. Marion opened her black bag and offered the girl Dramamine, and then rolled-up her cardigan, and suggested the girl use it as a pillow.
“Rest your head against the window. Close your eyes. We’ll be there soon.”
The young woman was now bundled in scratchy blankets across the way, next to a much older man who should have been at the motel or in a home of one of the elders, but he had refused. “I don’t stand on no ceremony,” he said in a thick European accent. Sadler wasn’t sure that the line fit the occasion, but okay, the fella probably didn’t get all of the nuances of English idioms. Anyway, the detective had his eye on him, in case it was all an act. A transistor radio was in the fella’s right hand with a thin cord snaked up to his ear. Around his left wrist was a medical alert bracelet.
Sadler hated “what ifs” and this room was full of them.
There were five other men, besides the bus driver and himself, in the basement. The bus’s breakdown appeared legit. At least the bus driver was vetted by headquarters, and didn’t appear to be in on anything. He had never visited Lakefield.
The five others: the old guy with a transistor; three fellas who looked like business types in their Sloan Wilson grays; and a twenty-something fella with a fresh-scrubbed face and a cuff of hair that perpetually hid his blue eyes. The latter had bulky shoulders and walked with a tight fitting swagger.
He appeared more interested in Marion than the age-appropriate girl with chestnut hair and upset stomach. Upon entering the basement, he offered Marion a Mars bar and lots of boastful talk about how he had a plan for his life, knew where he was headed: pharmacy school at Dalhousie. Right now he was visiting grandparents in Kingston over Christmas.
Kingston. The location of the criminal trial. Another what if.
The fella with the transistor was now snoring. It sounded like he was trying too hard.
Every now and then, faint footsteps padded across the floor above—
Sadler had called ahead from a phone in the church office. He was told to stay in the basement, blend in. Background checks hadn’t sent up any red flags. Apparently, no one from Lakefield had been spotted arriving in or near Kingston. They were pretty sure that his and Marion’s covers were intact, a young holiday couple, Mr. and Mrs. Carella.
But pretty sure wasn’t sure enough.
And the footsteps upstairs kept moving.
“You asleep?” she asked.
The space heaters burned brightly.
“No,” she whispered. “I keep hearing them damn footsteps.”
Maybe the tension was getting to her.
“Let’s check it out,” he said, a snub nose .38 on his left hip, shielded by the fan of his blazer. They climbed stairs. The walk smelled of candlelight and coffee. When they reached the sanctuary, they saw a man in black with a turnaround collar. He was barely thirty, six or seven years younger than Pruitt, hands in pockets. “I’m sorry—was I keeping you awake?” He smiled and paced quickly. He said he did this every Saturday, working on his sermon, and this one, had to be completely re-written. He held up some yellow pages with words scribbled on them. The emphasis, he said, is on welcoming the stranger: Matthew 25:31–40. On the pew near him was a heavy bible. Next to it, a pyx with a cream-colored handle that formed into a cross.
Sadler and Marion smiled briefly. “The Beatitudes,” she said.
Yes, the priest said. “My favorite.” He picked up the bible. Loving god with all your hearts and minds and your neighbor as yourself.
Marion shot Sadler a look. That’s Luke not Matthew, she said.
“Well, yes, I’m borrowing from both sacred texts—” The priest smiled briefly, head down.
It was odd, but the father hadn’t introduced himself. Men of god usually announce
themselves and ask your name.
“Hey, everything cool—?” It was the kid from Nova Scotia. He wiped at tired eyes. “I heard you all rustling about and then I looked up and you were gone—” He shook hands with the father. “I’m from Cole Harbour—”
"I’m almost finished here," the priest said. "Sorry for the distraction—"
Tomorrow was Sunday.
Matthew. Luke. The Beatitudes. A costly mistake?
Yet another what if. A hitman in clerical robes?
“You want to try your sermon out on us—” Sadler’s hands hovered near his .38.
“I hope you’ll hear it tomorrow. Service is at 9.” The priest smiled invitingly.
Marion sat in a nearby pew and encouraged him.
Cole Harbour sat next to her, hair covering one of his eyes.
The sermon called for recognizing the brokenness in all of us and responding to the needs of others, like those on the bus that broke down outside of town. And before the priest could say anything else, the girl with chestnut hair was in the sanctuary, breathing quickly, her face pinched with worry, the old man next to her (who didn’t want to stand on ceremony), had gone to the bathroom and never came back. She went to check on him and found him collapsed on the floor, under the sink. Hurry. Hurry. “You’re a nurse, aren’t you?” She remembered seeing a blood pressure pump in Marion’s bag, the black bag with the Dramamine.
Marion paused, nodded.
“I think he’s had a heart attack—” The girl’s mouth twisted with desperation—
The boy from Nova Scotia said he’d get it and ran ahead while the rest rushed to the bathroom, crowding one another at the entryway next to the foot of the stairs. He was under the sink, his head turned away. There were black scuff marks on the floor that matched the heels of the man’s shoes. He had been dragged here, Sadler realized, bending to look more closely and finding puncture marks on the man’s neck and the ragged markings of a cross cut into his forehead, a lake of blood over his eyes and shirt.
The girl with chestnut hair lifted the handle from the pyx she was carrying. Its underside was a sharp stiletto.
Sadler twisted, catching the blade in his side. He gasped, as she came up with a quick arcing thrust to his stomach, her lips parting, her teeth, fanged. He caught the third thrust with the side of his right hand, blood scissoring off the tops of two fingers, and with his left hand flipped the snub nose around quickly and fired twice. She crumpled to the damp tile, her metallic teeth breaking off when she landed.
Before the priest could fully grip the gun hidden in his heavy bible, Marion took off half his face.
Where was she carrying the piece? A calf holster?
The priest fell, a collapsed parachute of black.
On the wall behind him was scrawled in blood: Quem paenitet peccasse paene est innocens.
The kid from Nova Scotia stood gawking, bag raised, hands over head, and then all of the red and white scrawl of blood broke into bits of glass and fine sand.
Sadler woke up in a hospital in Kingston. They airlifted him here hours ago. Marion was there with the police captain. Sadler grinned, his side and abdomen throbbing. He looked at Marion, the faint smile on her lips. “You’re not Marion Dixon—”
She’s a police woman, the Captain said.
The tops of two of Sadler’s fingers were gone. The reality of that had yet to land.
“I was a goddamn decoy?” He wished someone had told him the shot.
“You were decoys,” the Captain said. Lieutenant Reynolds had got Dixon to the courthouse this morning. They had taken a different route, by cab.
The fella with the transistor was dead. The girl punctured his jugular with some kind of titanium teeth apparatus, Marion-not-Marion explained. They lured us to the bathroom, a makeshift altar—“They were going to sacrifice us!”
Sadler tried to recall the Latin words dripping with blood.
“‘Who repents from sin is almost innocent,’” Marion-not-Marion said. “Whatever that means.” She shrugged.
Sadler nodded and reached for the woman’s hand. “I don’t even know your name—”
She smiled a lopsided grin. “Elaine Stevens.” The grin disappeared from the corners of her mouth.
“Hit men or followers of Pruitt or all of the above?” Sadler’s mouth was full of tin.
“Yes and no,” the Captain said, arms crossed. Intel says they’re out of Trenton. Their own cult. Connected but separate. “How many of these followers, different sects, are spread throughout Southern Ontario?” He sighed. “Who knows—”
Elaine squeezed Sadler’s good hand.
The captain smiled and pushed back his gray fedora. “Enough talk, Sadler. Rest.”
In a matter of minutes, the real Marion Dixon would testify. Tonight, police woman
Stevens was staying by her partner’s side
Her hand felt cool in his.
The Captain posted a guard outside the door.
She squeezed Sadler’s hand harder.
Johnny smiled feebly, drifting to red and white words on a bathroom wall, and remnants of drawings on church cinder blocks, the ascension, and his mind bending toward the
dark light, and blood of lambs on tiny crosses.
But not his body—please—don’t fall—
The grip on his hand tightened—and it felt damn good—
He felt it—the hand—
The warm light—
Felt it—and he wanted to stay—
—hand in hand—