The heat. The damn, ever-loving summer heat. It covered like a veil, even at 11:04 p.m., according to the clock on the squad’s dash. A single drop of sweat ran from Officer Todd Fowler’s hairline behind his right ear onto the collar of his navy uniform shirt, which was bear-hugged by a twenty-pound tactical vest that did nothing but absorb all that heat.
Hell of a night for my maiden voyage, he thought, as his eyes flitted from the clock to the blue-screened laptop in front of the passenger seat to the unopened bottle of Remy Martin. Who even drinks cognac these days? he wondered as he turned onto County Trunk Highway J. That would take him into town, to the station and the temporary holding facility, where he would Mirandize his suspect.
That suspect called himself James. No last name, or was James his last name? Officer Fowler couldn’t get a straight answer out of the wiry, mulleted man with the thin moustache and goatee who quietly sat in the rear of the squad. The shadows created by the passing street lamps traipsed across his rugged, even handsome face, but the man said nothing. He was handcuffed, but at least he was calm. People get funny, which is to say peculiar, when it gets hot out.
Why this James guy decided to walk into Steck’s Liquors at the edge of town, grab the $100 bottle of cognac, and simply walk out was beyond Officer Fowler. Stupid criminal tricks. When the cashier gave chase, perhaps foolishly, James clobbered him with a right uppercut that broke the man’s nose and left a shirt full of blood. Then he just kept walking down the road into the heart of small-town darkness and didn’t resist when Officer Fowler arrested him ten minutes later. In fact, he had even been polite: “Yes, Officer. No, Officer.”
That had been a relief. Officer Fowler had completed his department’s field training program the week before and was in a squad by himself for the first time. No more shadowing. It was all him, baby. He knew the book and went by it without question. In this case: Absolutely do not engage the suspect under any circumstances, and make sure the squad’s mobile audio/video system is operational. If the suspect makes an utterance before the reading of his Miranda rights, remember what was said and pass it on to the detective, though the system should pick that up.
Still staring out the window, James said with nonchalance, “You know, Officer, I took a man’s life tonight. I thought you should know that in case you want to investigate.”
Whoa. What the hell…?
Okay, pay attention now, boy, Fowler thought, as the squad trundled down the better-lit County J. The station was about five miles away. Plenty of time for this joker to chat me up.
“I made his heart stop,” James went on, making eye contact with Officer Fowler through the rearview mirror. “I think the doctors call it ‘sudden cardiac arrest.’ Do you know how that works?”
No response; by the book, of course. Officer Fowler goosed the accelerator just a bit. Best get this nutcase to holding ASAP.
“Blood is loaded with oxygen, you see, and when the heart stops beating, it can’t get to the brain and other organs,” James said. Was that the beginning of a smile on his face? Fowler couldn’t tell in the lulls of darkness between street lamps. Sure looked like it, though.
“Death, then, happens in minutes.”
Okay, this guy may be 10-96, he thought. That’s cop code for a mental subject, someone who may not have the mental capacity to realize what he’s said or done. Departments across the country were phasing out 10 codes in place of plain English after the chaos of Hurricane Katrina, but his chief still saw value in them for his rural Ohio department that was set in its ways. That department, by the way, hadn’t had a murder in more than forty years.
Officer Fowler considered notifying Dispatch, but thought better of it, because that might indicate James was getting under his skin. Which, truth be told, he was, but like a middle-school teacher, you can’t show weakness.
“I wonder, Officer, if you’ve ever dealt with a dead body before,” James said, then squinted a bit. “No, you’re pretty young. First night on patrol by yourself, is it?”
Reflexively, Fowler turned his head, mistakenly taking his eyes off the road, because when he turned back, there he was, stumbling across County J. A tall, dark-haired, barefoot man in a torn T-shirt and blue jeans, maybe in his early forties.
Familiar. He had seen the man’s face before. But where…?
“You’re going to stop to help him, aren’t you, Officer?” he heard James ask from the back seat behind the squad’s plexiglass barrier. “Aren’t you legally, and perhaps morally, obligated to do so?”
No response. C’mon, boy. No response.
What’s procedure in this situation?
The priority is the suspect in the squad. Don’t leave the squad. Call Dispatch and them know what’s going on. Follow and maintain visual of the subject outside the vehicle. Wait for backup. If necessary, use the loudspeaker to determine the situation.
But the man stopped in the middle of the road and held his hands high over his head. He was sweaty—who wasn’t at this point of the summer?—and he had what appeared to be streaks of bloody cuts across his face and neck. One seemed to stretch like a river from his left ear to his Adam’s apple.
That’s who he is: Father Daniel from the First Episcopal Church downtown. Officer Fowler had met him a few weeks earlier at the church’s summer carnival. They had joked about the pastor’s children, ages nine, five, and three. His wife, a shapely brunette with nice legs, was really good-looking, surprising for a man of the cloth.
They lived out here somewhere, maybe across one of those farm fields. Officer Fowler remembered Father Daniel mentioning that. A parsonage. That’s what it was.
“Help, Officer, help!” Father Daniel’s scream carried across the sultry air as the squad came to a complete stop in front of him. He placed both hands on the hood, and the whiteness of his knuckles was apparent to Officer Fowler even in the shadows.
Father Daniel had obviously been through a lot tonight.
“Shouldn’t you get out and help him?” James asked. “I mean, he’s clearly in distress. Do your job. Help the man.”
Instead, Fowler flipped on the loudspeaker. “Father Daniel,” he said as the volume of his voice echoed voice filled the squad’s cabin, “are you hurt?”
The pastor squinted at the windshield, made a fist with his right hand, and brought it to his lips while pointing with the other. “Devil!” he screamed. “Antichrist!”
It took a moment for Officer Fowler to realize the priest wasn’t pointing at him; he was pointing at James, who said, “I do believe the good Father isn’t playing with a full deck, Officer. Lucifer? Please. He’s a friend, but I’m not him.”
“Shut up!” the officer growled, turning his head to the right, but making no eye contact with the suspect. Breach of protocol, and the system was recording away.
Damn. Do not engage the suspect. The suspect in the squad was the priority.
But was he? There were instances, according to his academy instructors, when it was appropriate to leave the squad. Maybe this was one of them…
“Devil! Antichrist! Deviiiiillll…!”
“Will you tell him I’m not Lucifer? I mean, my God,” James started, but this time Officer Fowler turned almost completely around and gave him a look he hoped would have scared the crap out of a gorilla. James simply chuckled and pursed his lips into a tight, malevolent smile.
Father Daniel had taken a few steps away from the front of the squad, while Officer Fowler picked up the squad’s radio microphone and fairly shouted, “Dispatch? This is 311, requesting backup at County J, a mile north of Valley Road. I’m transporting a suspect, and I have an injured subject heading north on J. I’m maintaining visual.”
Nothing. Not even the crackle of static.
He tried again: nothing.
“It seems as if your colleagues have abandoned you,” James said, and Fowler could still see the last vestiges of his corrupt grin before it disappeared.
“Help him, Officer Fowler,” James went on. “Help him. You can save his life if you hurry. Help him.”
Did the suspect just use my actual name? Fowler immediately thought of his girlfriend, Ashley, and their seven-month-old son back at their crummy apartment blocks away from the First Episcopalian Church. He and Ashley were planning to get married in the fall, civil ceremony. Both of them were atheists.
“Look!” James crowed from behind.
Father Daniel had disappeared. Nothing but darkness across the windshield and hood of the squad.
Priority is the suspect: James. Protocol.
But then his thoughts turned to Father Daniel, his hot wife, and their kids.
Ashley. Their own kid who was probably snuggled in his crib at that moment.
In the dark. In the heat.
Officer Fowler gripped the door handle, stopped, looked at James in the rearview—who was still smiling—opened the door, and leapt out. Protocol be damned.
Father Daniel was sprawled on the pavement beside the broken yellow line that faded into the darkness beyond the range of the squad’s headlights.
“Father!” he squawked, racing around the broken man’s body so he faced the squad. Just in case.
Immediately, he began a heart massage. That, too, was procedure.
Father Daniel wheezed and moved his lips ever so slightly. Officer Fowler leaned in until his ear was parallel with his mouth. “B-b-banish.” The priest moved no more, and his eyes became glassy slits.
“Sudden cardiac arrest,” came a nearby voice now clearly outside the squad.
James was leaning on his left leg, his left hand on his hip, and the other holding the bottle of Remy Martin.
“You won’t be needing this,” he said as Fowler’s gun unholstered itself and flew into the cornstalks on the other side of the road. James lifted his left hand, and there was what appeared to be an orange—no white—coal in the palm. He cocked his arm back as if ready to hurl it.
Officer Fowler fell backward onto his ass and pushed himself away from the suspect, who had now skip-stepped forward, apparently to gain momentum.
Now was the time. Banish him.
“I command you to leave!” Fowler screamed, recalling something he had read about religious wackos and their so-called ability to cast out evil spirits. Wait, that’s not enough; they always say something about Jesus.
Therefore, the name leapt from his throat. And again and again.
“Jesus? You mean my enemy,” James said, “Come on, you don’t really believe in him, do you? I’ve been watching you for years, Officer Fowler. You don’t believe in anything. Neither does Ashley. And neither will your boy. That will be your legacy after you join me in my dwelling.
“Now, Father Daniel is a true believer, which is why I came to call on him tonight. True believers are tough nuts to crack, but if you apply enough pressure… It was amazingly simple to lure him into the cornstalks from his ‘parsonage.’ I merely whispered in his ear and told him to come.”
“And yes, I lied. I am the god of this world. I am he of which the good Father spoke.” James raised his left arm again, and this time the spherical coal in his hand made for Officer Fowler’s chest.
Maybe my vest will ward it off, he thought. Doubtful. There was no time.
“Jesus!” he screamed once again.
At that, the hot coal burst into a million tiny pieces illuminated by the glare of the squad’s headlights. They bounced on the pavement between Fowler and Father Daniel, like cigarette ash, before flaming out.
Suddenly James was gone along with the bottle of Remy Martin.
The suspect. The suspect was supposed to be the priority.
A siren began to wail in the distance, getting closer. Backup.
Maybe the radio had actually worked.
But Dispatch didn’t acknowledge me. How is that possible? How is any of this possible?
There was a cough, a wheeze, really, and Officer Fowler darted toward Father Daniel, who wasn’t moving, but he was alive.
“Officer,” came a weak, thready voice, “help me.”
Fowler crawled on his hands and knees across the pavement to where the Father lie; the bloody marks were still evident on his face and neck. They looked worse up close: clear, precision cuts that might have been made by a doctor with a scalpel or even a mortician or medical examiner.
He wasn’t going to make it. That was clear.
“Let the Lord guide you.”
The department’s inquiry of the event, which received assistance from both county and state law enforcement, took a month. Officer Fowler didn’t need the book to tell him that honesty was the best policy in this situation. His mother had taught him that. He truthfully responded to every question, every cross-examination, every angry missive by men who were trained to root out untruth. But they could find none. For that, Officer Fowler received a thirty-day suspension without pay, but at least he retained his job.
In the intervening time, he attended Father Daniel’s funeral, hugged his widow and their three children, and cried like everyone else. He and Ashley made it through the toughest financial month of their lives with a little help from both sets of parents, and they started planning their marriage ceremony, which would be held the following spring at First Episcopal Church. And a surprise: they were expecting again. Her doctor said it was another boy, whom they decided to name Daniel.
Officer Fowler was relegated to a desk after he returned to work, and that bright autumn day, the receptionist informed him that Father Daniel’s wife was in the lobby. He went up front, and as usual, she was stunning in a pair of white capri pants and a sleeveless blouse. Her youngest was in tow and clearly bored. In her hand was a rectangular package with Officer Fowler’s name on it in black magic marker.
She explained that it had been left on her front porch, and since it was addressed to him, she figured she should drop it off, yada yada.
Fowler opened the box, and inside was a bottle of Remy Martin and a note that read, “I told you I took a man’s life that night.”