Monday, May 31, 2021
Monday, May 10, 2021
Larry’s a pain in the ass. Always has been, but the first time I really registered how annoying he could be was late one afternoon in 1989, while I lay sprawled on the couch doing eighth-grade homework and listening to him badger our dad.
“But you have to,” Larry whined.
“I’m a grown-up. I don’t have to do anything.”
Dad said it good-naturedly, bouncing his eyebrows at his younger son and taking a pull from his beer, but Larry had been haranguing him for ten minutes and I could see my father just wanted to drink his Bud and watch the evening news. Not surprisingly, that subtle vibe flew right over Larry’s head.
“Everybody else’s father is doing it.”
Uh-oh. Dad’s tone alerted me that he had pivoted away from indulgent suffering of my brother’s nagging, but Larry remained clueless. I’d experienced the ominous change-up often enough to know my father was poised to dismantle the kid’s specious argument and end the discussion with a period that could instantly morph into an exclamation point if little bro persisted.
At issue was some kind of bullshit career day Larry’s teacher had thought up, where fathers were invited—not, as my brother claimed, required—to come in and talk about what they did for a living.
No way could my father tell a bunch of first-graders what he got paid to do. I knew that because once, when I was just a little kid, I took a peek into the trunk of his car.
A confluence of misunderstandings on my part led to the gruesome discovery. First, I had never been specifically told I shouldn’t press the shiny button that popped the lid of the trunk. And, only the day before, my mother had warned me I would lose my allowance if I didn’t clean up “all that junk in your room.”
Junk? That was good stuff. Atari games, Stretch Armstrong, my Nerf ball and a couple video tapes about the astronaut program I hoped to join one day.
So, when I heard my father tell Mom he had some junk he needed to get rid of, my mind went to toys and comic books, not a plastic-wrapped corpse.
While he went to get his wallet and keys, I raced out to the garage and pressed the release button on the big Caddy’s rear end.
Barely tall enough to see over the rim, coming eye to dead eye with a stranger, I froze. Slowly, the trunk lid closed, my father’s hand firmly pressing down to engage the latch with a solid click.
“Mikey, go watch your cartoons.”
He said it softly, but with a chilling look that sent me scurrying to my room.
The imagination of a six-year-old boy can conjure a monster under his bed and a boogeyman in his closet, but, as he matures, he realizes the childishness of those beliefs and casts them aside. My belief that I had seen a body in the family car eventually faded from memory, as the dead guy was pink-slipped along with the monster and the boogeyman.
My father and I never spoke about the incident, so there was nothing to validate or sustain the picture of a man trussed-up inside a plastic sheet, blood within and duct tape without. That is, until the day my brother’s increasingly nasal cajoling and my father’s implacable resistance dragged that corpse up out of the bog of forgotten—or suppressed—memory. Recall vomited the dead guy’s smashed face and fixed stare into my brain, as Dad shut Larry down.
“How long is fourth period?” he asked.
“An hour? Let’s say an hour. And how many kids are in your class?”
“Gotta be twenty, twenty-five. We’ll round it down to twenty. Now, how long did you say you wanted me to speak?”
Finally sensing the thinness of the ice on which he skated, Larry mumbled, “I didn’t say, Miss Randall did. Ten minutes.”
“Okay, then, let’s figure it out. Every dad is speaking, according to you, so ten minutes times twenty fathers is two hundred minutes. Hey, I’m no math whiz, but that’s more content than a one-hour class can accommodate.”
Larry slunk away from a battle he wasn’t equipped to fight, but as Tom Brokaw’s theme music started, a new respect for my father grew in me, and it must have shown on my face.
“What’s with the shit-eating grin?”
I shrugged and backed off, same as Larry, but remained privately impressed that my old man was maybe some kind of mob enforcer, the romance and excitement of which had been jacked-up by the two Godfather movies. The following Father’s Day, just to rattle his cage, I bought him a six-roll pack of duct tape.
“What an odd thing to give your dad,” my mother said when he unwrapped what he had expected to be cheap aftershave or his umpteenth polyester tie.
I locked eyes with him as I answered her, feeling very much like a big man. “Well, you know how you say he’s always fixing things. I figured duct tape might come in handy.”
Making sure he knew I knew was a stupid thing to do, but typical of the teenager I was. If it hadn’t been for the corpse in the trunk and my suspicion that my father was a badass hitman, I would have found some other excuse to issue a passive/aggressive challenge. Isn’t that what young wolves have been doing to the alpha since the dawn of time?
Looking back, I regret indulging my biological imperative, that desire to unsettle him with the knowledge I had, but at the time it smelled like leverage I could use to my advantage in future negotiations for things like a set of wheels or more spending money.
Dad vanished when I was fifteen, so I never got the opportunity to capitalize on our shared secret. His most recent Cadillac turned up forty miles away, wrecked and burned-out, but his body was never found. My mother, in an effort to protect her boys from the truth—which she must have known all along—finally whispered the words “witness protection” by way of explanation. She swore Larry and me to silence, our own familial omertà.
All that was long ago. Mom lives in Phoenix now, happily married to a retired optometrist, a decent, if nebishy, guy who never carved-up anything bigger than a Thanksgiving turkey.
Larry’s still annoying, only now he gets paid for it because he’s a big deal tax attorney. But it was me who put him through law school, so Lawrence, as he prefers to be called these days, is careful not to act too superior about my blue-collar status.
With Mom departing to marry her internet squeeze and Larry hitting the law books, it fell on me to clear out our garage before the house went on the market back then, so I naturally acquired my father’s eclectic collection of saws, drills, hammers and industrial-sized rolls of plastic—the tools, presumably, with which he “fixed” things.
Mom and Larry know my custom cabinetry business is thriving, but only I know it doesn’t thrive well enough to send that check to Arizona every month or pay off the rest of my kid brother’s student loans.
And me? I’m doing okay. I thought my wife Tina was the love of my life until Sue-Sue was born three years ago. That little girl has me wrapped around her pinky like nobody’s business, but I guess it’s still normal for a man to favor his son. Jimmy’s a hell-on-wheels five year old, curious about the world and everything in it. He’s why I keep the trunk of my car locked at all times, even if it isn’t full of junk I need to dispose of for someone.
Not long ago I built a miniature cabinet out of white birch, even bought tiny hinges and knobs from an online dollhouse supply place, so if Jimmy asks me to speak at his first-grade career day, I’ll proudly show them what a man can do with his own hands and the right set of tools.
Monday, May 3, 2021
Monday, April 19, 2021
I was almost home, still cooling off from my run at Schiller Park, when the call came, my Tom Petty “Free Fallin’” ring tone interrupting the quiet Sunday morning. I didn’t recognize the number. I usually don’t.
“I’m looking for Mr. Andy Hayes?”
“You’ve got him.”
“My name’s Marie Showalter. I’m calling because … because my daughter is missing.” Voice fragile and small, as if she’d just finished crying—or hadn’t cried enough.
“I’m sorry to hear that. How long has she been gone?”
“At least two weeks. Two weeks since I’ve heard from her, anyway.”
“Where was she then?”
“In Columbus, as far as I know. That’s where you are, right?”
I told her that was correct and asked where she was calling from.
“Akron. It’s where we live—Katie and me. It’s just us.”
I paused on the brick-lined sidewalk in front of my house at 837 Mohawk, pressed my left foot against the locust tree that grows in the devil’s strip between the sidewalk and the street, and stretched my left calf.
“Have you reported this to the police?”
She told me she had, but she’d been informed that absent evidence of foul play, all they could do was input the information since Katie was an adult and had called and texted once or twice before radio silence set in.
“You take these kinds of cases, don’t you? You find people?”
“I do my best.”
“I don’t have a lot right now. But I’ll pay whatever you charge eventually. I promise.”
“We’ll work all that out. But one thing you should know.”
“Yes?” Voice even quieter now.
“Sometimes people who go missing do it for a reason. If I find Katie, all I can promise is to let you know she’s safe. I might not be able to bring her back to you, if that’s not what she wants.”
The line was silent for a few moments.
Maybe she did. But it turned out that was the least of our problems.
I took down the details when we talked a few minutes later, after I showered and had breakfast and was in front of my computer. Katie Showalter was twenty, headstrong, and an addict, with a history of bad decisions starting early in high school, ranging from truancy to shoplifting to a couple low-level drug possession charges. Her father long out of the picture after her parents’ acrimonious divorce when she was eleven—the beginning of all the trouble, her mother said, unable to control her emotions. After Katie graduated from high school, an abusive older boyfriend sent her to the hospital with a hairline jaw fracture and she’d grown too fond of the painkillers she brought home from the ER. Soon after she ran away to Cleveland, returning in the middle of the night three weeks later, penniless, wearing the same clothes she left in. Chastened, she agreed to addiction treatment at a three-month bootcamp in the woods in southern Ohio that interspersed martial arts with tough love. Though it nearly bankrupted her mother, the experience was a positive one. Then, not two days back, Katie relapsed. A week later, after a shouting match with her mother over her refusal to look for work, she hitched a ride with a friend to Columbus. A couple text messages and calls followed over the next few weeks. And then nothing, including Katie’s disappearance from social media. Marie wasn’t sure but she thought her daughter had been sleeping in the open, at least at times, perhaps in a city park.
My spirits fell as her mother explained all this. A young woman like that, poor and vulnerable and addicted, had few options no matter where she landed, and the ones available to her didn’t bear thinking about. I asked Marie to email a picture along with Katie’s cell phone number and told her I’d do what I could. I tried not to overpromise. I wasn’t optimistic I could find Katie Showalter, but I wasn’t pessimistic either. It’s the condition she’d be in when I located her that had me worried.
Later that morning I hopped on my bike, rode to a copy shop on High, and printed out a stack of fliers with Katie’s photograph and name and my number beneath. From there I cut down Gay Street to the federal courthouse and picked up the bike trail. I rode north as far as Third and worked my way back, stopping at two different homeless encampments squeezed between the path and the river to see if anyone there knew anything. The granola bars and water bottles I’d tucked into my backpack smoothed over suspicions, but the bottom line was no one claimed to have seen Katie. I was riding toward downtown and thinking about taking the path south of the city center when I heard music in the distance. It came to me. The last day of the annual community festival in Goodale Park up by the Arena District. A free, three-day extravaganza each summer consisting of music, beer, food stalls, vendors selling jewelry and clothing—heavy on batik fabrics and tie dye—and most famously, topless women, the actual total being regularly exaggerated. The festival’s vibe was hippie heavy, even though most attendees would get up on Monday morning, don suits and ties or dresses and pumps, and trot off to corporate jobs around the city. Either way, it attracted a lot of young people, some of them more untethered to the world than others. It couldn’t hurt to check the crowds. I steered my bike in that direction, locked it in a rack near Buttles, and entered the fray.
An hour later, having been through the park twice, having talked to dozens of people sitting in pairs, trios, big groups or sometimes solo—and seeing not a single topless woman—I was no farther along than when I entered. Trudging toward my bike, I consigned myself to the next, darker step: checking the city’s westside streets where women with a history of abuse and addiction often ended up, selling the only thing they believed they had of value. I was unlocking my bike when I heard someone shouting. I turned and saw two young women jogging toward me, one of them holding my flier.
“Mister—are you looking for this girl?” The taller of the two, barefoot, wearing shorts and a black t-shirt.
“Do you know her? Katie Showalter?”
They stopped in front of me and caught their breath. “Yeah—we’ve been wondering where she went.”
“When’s the last time you saw her?”
“During Pride.” The shorter of the two, buzzed hair and heavy-set, wearing jeans shorts and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up nearly to her shoulders.
Columbus had one of the Midwest’s biggest Gay Pride parades, with an accompanying festival here in the same park, though dwarfed by the much older community festival. That connection made me ask the obvious question, whether Katie was gay.
The shorter woman shook her head. “I just think she was tired of guys. And lonely. She liked hanging with us.”
“Did she say anything about going someplace?”
The taller woman said she hadn’t. “She stayed with us for a while, on our blanket, and then for some reason started talking to one of those preacher guys.”
“One of the creep-oids,” the other woman said. “They stand over there”—she gestured to the east side of the park—“and hold these signs of aborted fetuses and shout stuff about gay people going to hell.”
Now I knew who she meant. Though I didn’t agree with the message, I half-admired the messengers’ willingness to pitch it in a place where it was so unwelcome. Given the attendees at such festivals, Michigan fans in full maize and blue outfits were more welcome outside Ohio Stadium on game day.
“The same guy’s over there today,” the first woman said. “Maybe he knows.”
I thanked them for the tip and asked them a few more questions. They confirmed Marie’s story of her daughter’s troubles, including the moments of optimism after the martial arts bootcamp. When they saw I was headed to talk to the preacher they asked if they could tag along.
Some of the protesters that afternoon fit a certain stereotype, the men in scuffed, dark shoes, badly fitting suits and too-short ties, the women with their hair in buns and wearing long, conservative dresses a century out of style. The exception was the preacher who’d talked to Katie, a tall, well-built, athletic-looking young man who blended right into the festival crowd with shoulder-length hair and a de rigor outfit of sandals, cargo shorts, and a short-sleeve button down patterned shirt. Can We Talk? his sign said, in contrast to the fire-and-brimstone versions carried by the others. Most festival goers gave the group a wide berth, though a few posed for ironic selfies with the suit-wearing men, while a few more just flipped them the bird. Katie’s preacher was again the exception, as he was currently engaged in deep conversation with a woman sporting dreadlocks and multiple facial piercings. When I saw an opening I approached, introduced myself, showed him the flier and asked if he’d seen Katie. He studied the picture a moment too long before shaking his head.
“I talk to a lot of people.”
“Someone saw you speaking with her during Pride.”
“I don’t remember, sorry.”
“Her mother’s worried about her.”
He met my gaze and held it with a pair of gemstone-blue eyes.
“If she was at Pride, her mother should be worried.”
I gave up and crossed back to the street where Katie’s friends awaited—Merrill and Beckah, as I’d learned—and explained our interaction.
“That’s bullshit,” said Beckah, the shorter of the two, who by now I’d taken was Merrill’s girlfriend. “He was definitely talking with her. We asked her what he said—it was something about a retreat center and a second chance.”
“You think she went with him?”
“I didn’t think so at the time,” Beckah said. “She laughed it off. But then we didn’t see her again after that.”
“Could one of you do me a favor?”
“Like what?” Merrill said.
“Go talk to him. Not about Katie, though. About yourself. Make like you’re open to his message and see what he says.”
“Open to his message how?”
“Use your imagination. I’m sure you can figure out the kinds of things he might want to hear.”
Merrill made a face but Beckah was game, especially after I told her I’d give her a twenty for her troubles. I retreated into the park with Merrill where we positioned ourselves behind a tent selling hand-crafted leather bags and wallets. I bought us each a lemonade while we waited, periodically craning our necks for a glimpse of the conversation. After nearly twenty minutes Beckah appeared, frowning.
“I did what you said. Told him I was pregnant and everyone wanted me to have an abortion, but I wasn’t so sure. He said he could take me someplace safe where I could have my baby in peace.”
“Did he say where?”
She shook her head and reached for Merrill’s hand. “He said he’d pick me up if I wanted, and they’d explain everything once I was there. The weird thing is, he’s kind of persuasive. And a really good listener.”
“Beckah!” Merrill said.
“I’m just saying.”
“So maybe Katie did go with him,” Merrill said to me.
“There’s one way to find out.”
It took another twenty, but Beckah agreed to walk back and accept his offer to be picked up the following morning. I had her give him the address of an apartment around the corner on Neil Avenue for lack of any place better. He told her he’d come by around nine.
“This is really freaking me out,” Beckah said as we walked across the park afterward, the sounds of a jazz quartet spilling from the gazebo closest to the pond on the north side of the park. “I mean, what if that’s what Katie did? Went with that guy?”
“Then we’re one step closer to finding her,” I said, as we reached my bike. I shook their hands, thanked them, and said I’d be in touch. What I didn’t say was that the situation was freaking me out too. Because if Katie had gone with the preacher—and an offer was on the table to Beckah—how many other young women might have taken the same ride?
I was parked on Neil by quarter to nine the next morning. I slipped on sunglasses and a ballcap, slouched down in my seat, pulled up that morning’s Dispatch on my phone, and waited. I didn’t have long. At one minute to nine a red Ford Expedition rolled past me and pulled up to the curb. Nothing happened at first. Five minutes in the door opened and the fit-looking preacher from the park got out, stood on the sidewalk and looked in both directions. He pulled out his own phone and made a call, presumably to the made-up number Beckah had given him. A few moments later he put his phone away and walked up and down the sidewalk, even coming as far as my van, where I kept my head down as I read the recap of the Clippers’ win over Indianapolis the night before. At nine-twenty he got back in the Expedition and pulled away. I started my van and followed.
Before long we’d left city streets and hit I-70 going east. At the sign for Pataskala he exited and I signaled and stayed with him as suburban intersections slowly gave way to the country. Eventually, a couple miles down a sparsely populated two-lane road, he turned into a driveway that led to a big church at the bottom of a long incline. “Peter’s Rock: All Welcome,” said the billboard-sized entrance sign.
I continued down the road until I reached a gas station a mile farther on. I waited ten minutes, turned around, headed back to the church, and parked two spaces behind the red Expedition. The church was big and modern looking, the glass-and-steel architecture similar to numerous megachurches that had sprouted in and around Columbus in the past few decades. Brick wings on either side suggested classrooms or administrative space and maybe a gym to boot. A row of evergreens blocked my view of the rear of the property.
Inside, I found myself in a lobby that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an upscale Hilton. “GIVE HERE,” said the signs above three large kiosks, ringed with computer tablets outfitted with credit card readers. I passed a coffee shop bigger than most convenience stores and followed signs to the church office. A woman sitting at a desk smiled and asked how she could help. She didn’t appear to be much older than either Katie Showalter or Beckah. She wasn’t as good an actor as Beckah, however, as her face fell when I handed her the flier and my card. She picked up the phone and made a call, speaking in a low whisper, then told me with a frown that someone would be out shortly. She wasn’t exaggerating. Less than a minute later a woman strolled up the hallway flashing her own, far higher-wattage smile.
“I’m Pastor Sharon. Was there something I can help with?”
I handed her a flier and repeated my spiel.
“Why don’t we speak in my office?”
She indicated I should follow her down the hall. I glanced at the young woman at her desk. She met my glance briefly, then turned away and stared at her computer screen, expression stony as that of a bust consigned to a shadowy museum corner.
The minister’s office was the last room on the right. Senior Pastor Sharon Melton declared the large brass plaque on the wall beside an oak-paneled door. Inside, her showroom-sized office was filled with leather-covered furniture and shelves crammed with titles like Planting The Seed of God and Grow Your Talents With Jesus. A framed portrait of her and a handsome, well-coiffed man I assumed was her husband dominated the wall opposite her desk. Melton sat on one end of a couch and waved me toward an adjoining chair.
“Now then. You said you’re looking for this girl?”
“And is there a reason you think she’s here?” Melton was mid-forties, her attractive, professionally made-up face halfway between girl-next-door and cheerleader mom, wearing a contemporary blue dress, the hemline just below her knee, with a matching jacket; the outfit light years from the clothes that the sign-carrying women at the park were wearing the day before.
I explained about the long-haired man at the community festival, the fact people had seen him talking to Katie at Pride, and that I knew—without explanation—that he was connected to Peter’s Rock.
“Katie sounds like a troubled person,” Melton said.
“That’s a fair assessment.”
“The kind of girl we try to help.”
“We offer numerous services. We’re a crisis pregnancy center, an addiction treatment facility, and a counseling haven for people struggling with their identity.”
“Meaning we help women achieve God’s plan for them.”
“The names of our clients are strictly confidential, as I’m sure you can appreciate.”
“I may or may not. I’m mostly interested in whether Katie’s safe, if she’s here. Her mother’s worried about her.”
“I’m sorry she’s worried, whoever she is. But unfortunately, I can’t help you.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Was there anything else, Mr. Hayes?” Her smile never dimmed; it was the facial equivalent of stadium lights at halftime.
“Is it possible for me to tour your treatment centers?”
“Unfortunately not,” she said, rising from the couch. “But I truly appreciate your interest in our work.”
“Do the girls appreciate it? The ones who come here?”
“Of course they do,” she said, almost blinding me with her smile. “Because God is with them.”
“Could I talk to them? I mean, alone, without God?”
“Goodbye, Mr. Hayes,” Melton said, pointing at her office door.
Driving away, I caught a glimpse of a roof through the thick barrier of evergreens surrounding the rear of the church property. Evergreens and a tall chain-link metal fence. I slowed and saw part of a small house, a gap, and then the corner of another small building. Cottages, if I had to guess. The residences of women receiving the services offered by Peter’s Rock? Given their circumstances, was the seclusion any surprise? And what religious facility like this was obliged to open its doors to a prying private eye in the first place? Melton’s guarded ways almost made sense. Yet I couldn’t shake the expression on the face of the young woman at the desk when she’d seen Katie’s picture, along with her refusal to look at me again as I left Melton’s office and walked back through the lobby.
On the drive home I called Roy Roberts and asked if he’d ever heard of Peter’s Rock.
“Sure,” he said. “That’s Todd Melton’s church.”
“‘Todd the God.’ Run-of-the-mill televangelist with second and third helping of worldly trappings.”
“Private jet, six-bedroom McMansion, matching Escalades for him and his wife. The usual perks for servants of the Lord.”
“Present company excluded? And how do you know all this, by the way?”
Roy, a former Army chaplain, was now an Episcopal priest serving a parish in a poor neighborhood just west of downtown. He was also one of my closest friends in town, despite the fact I’m either a devout atheist or ardent agnostic depending on the day and the humidity.
“I had to sell my jet, sadly,” he said. “I know this because I read it in the paper when he was arrested.”
“A few years back he endorsed a slate of right-wing state office candidates from the pulpit and basically dared the IRS to come after him.”
“Those who forget Al Capone’s tax troubles are doomed to repeat them. I heard his wife took the reins when he went to prison, but under dramatically reduced circumstances. Why are you interested in this guy, if I may ask?”
I explained my search for Katie Showalter, including the fact that Peter’s Rock appeared to be trolling progressive city festivals for female clients who then disappeared from sight. I also noted the church didn’t seem to be suffering from any financial fallout that I could see.
“I’ve never heard of this treatment center thing. Are they licensed?”
I confessed I didn’t know.
“You’ve piqued my interest. Let me make a couple calls.”
I thanked him, put my phone down and concentrated on the drive. As a result, it wasn’t until I reached home that I saw I’d missed a call from Marie Showalter.
“I just had a text from Katie,” she said in a breathless voice when I called back.
“What did it say?”
“It said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m fine. Tell Rusty I miss him and I’ll see him soon.’”
“Our dog. Who died three years ago.”
Armed with Roy’s information, I made a series of calls to county and state offices, and despite hitting some bureaucratic roadblocks, determined after a couple hours that whatever good the church might be doing, they weren’t undertaking it with any public certification. I did, however, confirm that Peter’s Rock not only still had its own plane, it had upgraded a year ago to an eight-passenger Embraer jet with a luxury cabin. Moreover, Google maps showed the recent addition of an in-ground pool to the Meltons’ six-bedroom rectory with matching six-car garage. So, if Todd was in prison, the church had sold its old jet to pay off back taxes, and the publicity-averse congregation had dwindled, where was all this money coming from?
When Roy called back, he had confirmation of the same facts, plus an interesting detail: Sharon Melton had served for two years on a governor’s anti-pornography task force focused on helping men suffering from porn addiction. When he was finished, I told him about the text Marie received with the comment about the family’s deceased dog.
“Sounds like there’s something weird going on out there,” Roy said. “Or weirder than usual, given that we’re dealing with Todd the God.”
“I think I need to pay a return visit, but under different circumstances.”
“Like a thief in the night, as the Bible says?”
“If the Bible has ninjas, sure.”
It was a few minutes past ten that night when Roy pulled his Subaru over just past the far edge of the now-dark church property. I jumped out and told him I’d text him when I was clear.
“And if things go south?”
“Say a prayer for me.”
“I always do.”
Moments later I slipped over a portion of the fence farthest removed from security lamps illuminating the property. I scrambled for the cover of low-hanging evergreen branches and crouched for ten minutes until I felt certain no alarms had been triggered. So assured, I stood and pushed my way through the trees.
Before me, a dozen small cabins ran down a narrow gravel lane, all newish-looking and simply built, construction reminiscent of a state park on a tight budget. Light leaked from the rear windows of several of the cabins, but blinds prohibited any view inside. Same with the side windows. I crept behind them until I reached the cabin closest to the protective break of evergreens between the cabins and the church. Choosing my steps carefully, I walked around to the front. Porch lights glowed on eleven of the twelve cottages.
Straight-forward enough, but how was I supposed to figure out which one Katie was in, if she was even here?
As if in response, the porch light above the door on the cabin three doors down began to pulse on and off. A moment later, a light two doors farther down also began to pulse.
Either a sign or a trap, I thought, heading for the cabin with the pulsing light nearest to me by scurrying between the structures one at a time and pausing along the side wall of each. Coast clear, I tiptoed onto the cabin’s porch. I peered at a cedar shingle near the top of the door. Jezebel, read the name burned arts-and-crafts into the wood. Below it, a peephole glinted with light reflected from the rhythmic pulsing of the soft, white bulb above. I stepped forward and peered inside. I was not expecting what I saw next.
The young woman I’d seen earlier in the day at the church reception desk was standing in the middle of the cottage. Staring at her, I saw what I’d missed before: she was pregnant. I came to this conclusion easily since she was also nearly naked. Topless, left hand down her panties, she gyrated slowly as if moving to unheard music. An ostensibly sexy scene, yet the granite expression on her face drained the activity of any allure, at least to my eyes. I’d seen the same sullen look on half-naked women’s faces many times at the strip clubs I confess to haunting years earlier as a randy young quarterback strutting my stuff.
Troubled by the scene, I quietly retreated from the porch, crept down the gravel lane and arrived at the next cottage with a pulsing light. Lilith, the sign on the door said. I looked through the corresponding peephole.
Inside, engaged in the same gyrations but with an even worse attempt to masquerade what she was really feeling, was Katie Showalter.
I tried the handle but the door was locked. I took a breath and knocked. Nothing happened right away. I looked through the peep hole again. Katie stood frozen, staring uncertainly at the door. I knocked once more and quietly called her name. She reached out of my line of vision, retrieved a bathrobe, put it on and approached the door.
“Katie? I need you to open up.”
She didn’t say anything. I repeated the directive.
In a voice so soft I nearly missed it, she said, “You told me not to, while, you know …”
“It’s all right,” I said, not sure what she meant.
She didn’t move for another couple of moments. Finally, just as I was thinking I might have to abort my mission, she stepped forward and the door handle turned.
The cabin’s interior was sparsely furnished, with only a bed against the rear wall, a small chest of drawers, and a bathroom where I spied a large bottle of pills on the edge of the sink. Behind me, to the right of the door, stood a wooden table with a chair to one side. In the middle of the table, propped atop three Bibles, sat an open laptop. Clipped to the top was a small device I recognized as a webcam. It was live, since I could see Katie and me on the laptop screen.
“Who are you?” Katie whispered. “Are you supposed to be here?”
I explained who I was, and that I was working for her mother. I mentioned Merrill and Beckah, and how all of them were worried about her. “Are you all right? And what’s this all about?” I gestured at the laptop.
“We’re not supposed to talk about it.”
“Pastor Sharon says people won’t understand.”
“Try me. I promise just to listen.”
Hesitantly, she said, “It’s the Talents Show.”
“It’s what they call it.”
“What who calls it?”
“Pastor Sharon and the disciples.”
“They call what you were doing just now the Talents Show?”
She nodded. Her heavily made-up eyes were dull and rimmed by circles as dark as the leather-bound Bibles beneath the laptop.
“We just have to do it at night for a while.”
“It’s part of the therapy.”
She shook her head. “The men.”
“The men who like that kind of stuff, I guess. Pastor Sharon says that by watching us girls dance, they wean themselves off real porn.”
“She told you that?”
“She says we’re dancers for Jesus. That’s why it’s OK.” I processed this, and said, “The light, outside. Why was it was pulsing just now?”
“It goes on when we’re live,” Katie said. “So the disciples know not to interrupt.”
“How thoughtful of them.” I peered at the laptop screen for a better look. At the bottom, a digital counter registered the number 457. Above that, a series of scrolling comments alternated between profanity-laced protests at the interruption and demands that I take my own clothes off and do things to Katie that didn’t bear repeating. Embedded in the video stream was a small logo: Only4Fans. I had my phone out a moment later.
According to Google, Only4Fans was a pay-for-view Internet site, one whose specialty was clearly not people painting watercolors while the world watched. I thought back to what Roy and I had discovered about the new plane and the upgrades to the Meltons’ supersized rectory, along with Sharon Melton’s service on the anti-porn task force. I was guessing this website explained the church’s mysterious new revenue.
I turned to Katie. “They make you do this?”
She was sitting on the bed, nearly asleep, and started at my question. “It’s just part of the program. We do it while we get better.” As she spoke, I stepped into the bathroom and examined the bottle of pills. Suboxone—a common treatment for opioid addiction. But no name on the bottle as required for a normal prescription.
“And if you don’t perform?” I said softly.
She didn’t reply right away.
“They show our family.”
“They have our phones. And all our passwords.” Fear gripped her face and she came alive for the first time since I’d been inside. “Please—it would kill my mom. This one girl, they showed her grandmother pictures, and she …”
Katie’s eyes grew bright but she didn’t get a chance to respond. Behind us the door burst open. Sharon Melton strode in, fire in her eyes, followed by the preacher from the community festival. A moment later the preacher had me pinioned in his arms. I struggled but his grip was iron: he’d clearly wrestled a lot of Philistines.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Melton said, her look of scorn replacing the smile from earlier as handily as a switchblade clicking open.
“I could ask you the same.”
“You’re not in a position to ask anything. Get dressed and meet me in the chapel.” The last comment directed at Katie. “I’ll be there as soon as I deal with him.”
“Deal with me?” I said. “What are you going to do? Throw me into the lion’s den?”
“You’re trespassing. I’ll do whatever I see fit.”
I tested the preacher’s grip to no avail. And me with no scissors to hack off Samson’s hair. At the rear of the cabin, her back to us, Katie pulled on a bra and t-shirt. She was reaching for a pair of jeans when something occurred to me.
“Shut up,” Melton said.
“I know about Rusty. The text they let you send your mom. You knew you needed help.”
A flicker of light in her eyes.
“I said, shut up.”
“You went to a bootcamp, didn’t you?” I said, ignoring Melton.
“Get him out of here.”
I gasped as my arms were pulled back even tighter and the preacher dragged me toward the door. But I saw I had Katie’s attention, if just for a moment.
“A martial arts bootcamp, right?”
“Last chance, Mr. Hayes.”
“Your mom said you did pretty well there.”
“Move it,” Melton hissed.
“Your mom loves you, Katie, no matter what.”
“Out!” Melton shouted.
Katie dropped her jeans and shrugged off the pastor’s outreached arm as she stepped toward me. The roundhouse kick she unleashed won’t make a “Best Of” YouTube compilation anytime soon. But it still landed with enough force on my captor’s left knee that it buckled slightly, which was just enough leverage for me to pull free, deliver my own kick to the preacher’s twisting knee, followed by a second kick to his groin and then a hands-clasped blow to his head which sent him to the ground for an extended prayer time. Once I was sure he was out, I instructed Katie to finish dressing and gather her few belongings, then texted Roy that we were ready to go.
Where two or more are gathered, I replied.
“I’ll have you prosecuted,” Melton said, hands balled into fists by her side. “This was an unprovoked attack.”
“In your dreams.”
“Prove otherwise, Mr. Hayes.”
“Happy to,” I said, gesturing at the laptop. “The whole thing was live. You and Goliath here have gone viral. Just not the way I think you were hoping.”
Katie reunited with her mom the next day in my house, along with Beckah and Merrill. Across town, investigators crawled over both the church’s property and its books, paying special attention to the unlicensed distribution of pharmaceuticals.
In a private moment, Marie told me it might be a while until she could pay me. I told her not to worry and I meant it, mostly, thinking about my anemic bank account.
A few minutes after everyone left, my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I usually don’t.
“I’m trying to reach Andy Hayes?”
“You’ve got him.”
“My name’s Cathy Neumann. I heard your name on the news just now. My daughter was at that church. She’s the one ... the one who’s missing.” Voice frail and tiny, as if she’d just finished weeping—or hadn’t wept enough.
“I’m sorry to hear that. How can I help?”
“You take these kinds of cases, don’t you? You find people?”
“I do my best.”
“I don’t have much right now. But I’ll pay your fee eventually. I promise.”
“Don’t sweat it—love of money’s the root of all evil, anyway,” I said, moving toward my laptop. “Now go ahead and start from the beginning.”