A Blade in the Dark…Chapter Eleven…unedited…

Late in the afternoon, as the shadows of twilight fell upon the earth, a new model of truck pulled into the parking lot. A tall man, with a lumberjack beard and massive scoops for hands stepped out and walked up the steps to do the door. 

Lilly stepped from the shadows and cleared her throat. The man looked at her, and she showed her badge to him. 

“Pastor J.E. Caster? I’m Detective Lilly Thompson.”

“Oh my,” the man said, as he cleared his own throat. “How can I help you, detective?”

“Are you Pastor J.E. Caster?”

“No. I’m Assistant Pastor Timothy Laskin.”

“Okay, Assistant Pastor Laskin, perhaps you could help us.”

“Us,” the man stammered, “I see only you.”

Lilly motioned for me to step out from the shadows. I walked up and stood next to her. 

“I’m Detective Thermopolis Konan, Detective Thompson’s partner. Could we go in? You were going inside, correct?”

“Yes, of course. Let me unlock the door.”

Assistant Pastor Larkin unlocked the door and we followed him inside. The low light filtered through the stained glass. Wooden pews with foamed cushions waited for chaste individuals to fill them. Each family had an assigned pew. Choir books jutted from the slots attached to the backs of the pew in front of it. 

“Wow,” Lilly muttered, “these guys spared no expense.”

Instead of crucifixes, models of planetary bodies hung form the ceiling. The pulpit formed like a plateau, with only one side going upward. In the center was an image of one man with a halo about his head leading other’s every upward toward some lofty goal.

We followed Laskin into the ‘meditation chamber’, we would call it the office, and he motioned for us to sit in two comfortable looking chairs in front of his desk. Books concerning space travel, astrophysics, suspected terrain of planetary bodies, and other scientific magazines cluttered up the place. 

“Now, how may I assist you?”

“We traveled all the way here from Fredericksburg to speak with the pastor,” Lilly said in a kind voice. “We’re investigating the murder of Ana Marie Hendricks. Your, um, spiritual counselor knew her, we wondered if he could give us some background information about her.”

“Oh, of course. The Hendricks family attends our services.” Assistant Pastor Larkin opened a drawer and pulled a file from it. He opened it up and gave Lilly a smile and said, “what would you like to know?”

“Are they founding members or new converts?”

“The Hendricks family hasn’t reached their ascension yet.”

“What does that mean? ‘Chosen?’ Is that a status or…”

“Each member, or family, must endure trials and tribulation. It’s to purge them of selfish desires, sin if you will, and to bring them closer to our heavenly being.”

“Oh,” Lilly said. “So, how do you know when you are purged?”

“The heavenly being tells either Pastor Caster or myself, and we relay the unhindered communication to the family. Then, we rejoice with them for overcoming the trappings of their mortality.”

“Ana Marie was going through this as well?”

“Well, Ana Marie is a child. She is dependent upon her parents for sustenance and so forth, but yes, she needed cleansing as well.”

“What does this sin-cleansing ritual consist of,” Lilly asked. “Is it a secret or can you share that with us?”

“It’s a guarded secret, but I can release some details to ease your mind, Detective Thompson. First, we fast for ten days to kill the vileness within. Then, you must show your willingness to let go of your trappings. You do this by ‘gifting’ possessions to our sanctum. Third, you meditate on your sin and ask forgiveness of the heavenly being, and at long last, your cleansing is complete.”

I scribbled notes in my pad while Lilly spoke to Laskin. Lilly turned to me and raised her eyebrows, as if to say ‘what now’, and I gave Laskin a nod. He gave me a tight smile back.

“When was the last time you or Pastor Caster saw Ana Marie?”

“It was about a week before she went missing. They came to worship and give thanks for the purging fire.”

“I see. How did they respond to the ‘cleansing?’ Did they have trouble letting go of their trappings?”

“To be honest, I don’t have much to do with the ceremony or the cleansing ritual. I do know that Pastor Caster made several trips to see them, to encourage them of course, to give themselves wholly to the process.”

“Okay,” I said, as I scribbled in my notepad. “Do you know what they had trouble releasing?”

Laskin smiled and shook his head no. “Detective, I do not have to answer that question. I’ve answered your questions. Now, I must protect my flock. Before you try to intimidate me, let me inform you that I am the primary attorney for our congregation. Here’s my card.”

Lilly took the card from the minister and looked it over. Lilly looked at me and nodded.

“It’s legitimate.”

“Of course it is.”

“Thank you for your time, assistant pastor.”

Laskin smiled and stood and led us out onto the porch. He extended his hand to Lilly, and then me, and wished us good luck in apprehending Ana Marie’s killer. Without another word, he walked back into the building and locked us out.

As we walked to our vehicle, Lilly punched me on the shoulder and said, “how about that? We’ve got a cult right here in the middle of nowhere, and our victim’s family are participating in a ‘cleansing ritual.’ We need to go see the Hendricks family again.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I can understand why they would not disclose this information to us. What can they say?”

“I don’t know, Konan. Maybe, hi! We’re in a space cult and worship Marvin the Martian? We’re giving away everything we ever worked for, in hopes so we can speak to the heavenly being?”

” Insanity,” I muttered, as I crawled behind the wheel. 

My head ached, and I had no clue where to go from here. Ana Marie deserved better than what her short life had given her. As we drove out, the people of Lindersmithe turned to watch us leave. None waved or nodded, they stood together as one and watched the strangers depart. As if we were some virus that had invaded their bodies and infected everything we touched. 

We were not welcome here, but I had a cold feeling in my gut that said we would find the truth of Ana Marie’s death somewhere in this town. I looked forward to returning and having a one-on-one conversation with Pastor Caster. I didn’t even know the man, and I could not wait to slap the cuffs on him.

Lilly sat in the passenger seat and stared out the window. Her green eyes took in the landscape, but her mouth was frowning. Lilly’s in deep thought, I realized. This case just got personal.

What’s on your mind, Lilly?”

“Nothing much. Just reminiscing.”

“Lilly, I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not…”

“Konan, this ‘minister’ is just like Figueroa, except instead of preaching ‘save the planet,’ he’s preaching ‘give me all your money and possessions, and I’ll sell you a seat in heaven.”

“I know.”

“Someone killed Ana Marie, and raped her. What sin did Ana Marie commit that required cleansing?”

We rode in silence the rest of the way home. I had no answers for Lilly, and I had my own questions burning in my mind. It was the only question that mattered: What did Ana Marie need cleansing of?

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