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From Blake Pierce, bestselling author of ONCE GONE (a #1 bestseller with over 900 five star reviews), comes book #7 in the heart-pounding Mackenzie White mystery series.In BEFORE HE SINS (A Mackenzie White Mystery—Book 7), priests are turning up dead, their bodies found crucified against church doors throughout Washington, D.C. Could this be some sort of act of revenge? Could it be a member of their order? Or a serial killer, hunting priests with a far more diabolical motive?The FBI turns to special agent Mackenzie White, as the case bears a resemblance to the religious overtones of her first case, The Scarecrow Killer. Plunged into the subculture of the priesthood, Mackenzie struggles to learn more about the rituals, about ancient scripture, to try enter the killer’s mind. But Mackenzie is already preoccupied by her hunt for her father’s own murderer, determined to find him this time. And this new killer is more sinister than most, and will push her, in his deadly cat and mouse game, to the very brink of her own sanity.A dark psychological thriller with heart-pounding suspense, BEFORE HE SINS is book #7 in a riveting new series—with a beloved new character—that will leave you turning pages late into the night. Also available by Blake Pierce is ONCE GONE (A Riley Paige mystery—Book #1), a #1 bestseller with over 900 five star reviews—and a free download!
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B E F O R E H E S I N S
(A MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY—BOOK 7)
B L A K E P I E R C E
Blake Pierce is author of the bestselling RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes eleven books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising eight books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising five books; and of the new KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising five books (and counting).
An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.
Copyright © 2017 by Blake Pierce. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright CRStudio, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE
RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES
ONCE GONE (Book #1)
ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)
ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)
ONCE LURED (Book #4)
ONCE HUNTED (Book #5)
ONCE PINED (Book #6)
ONCE FORSAKEN (Book #7)
ONCE COLD (Book #8)
ONCE STALKED (Book #9)
ONCE LOST (Book #10)
ONCE BURIED (Book #11)
MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES
BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)
BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)
BEFORE HE COVETS (Book #3)
BEFORE HE TAKES (Book #4)
BEFORE HE NEEDS (Book #5)
BEFORE HE FEELS (Book #6)
BEFORE HE SINS (Book #7)
BEFORE HE HUNTS (Book #8)
AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES
CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)
CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)
CAUSE TO HIDE (Book #3)
CAUSE TO FEAR (Book #4)
CAUSE TO SAVE (Book #5)
KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES
A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)
A TRACE OF MUDER (Book #2)
A TRACE OF VICE (Book #3)
A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4)
A TRACE OF HOPE (Book #5)
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
The sun had cracked the horizon but had not yet burned off the last chills of night—Christy’s favorite time of day. Seeing the sun come up over the city was a stark reminder for her that every night had its end, something she needed to know, as she had started to feel further and further away from God. Seeing the sun coming up over the buildings of Washington, DC, and pushing away the night reminded her of the lyrics to a worship song: Although there’s pain in the night, the sun comes in the morning…
She recited that line over and over as she walked up the street toward the church. She’d been trying to talk herself into doing this for weeks now. Her faith had been challenged, as she had given in to sin and temptation. The idea of confession had come to her right away but it was also hard. It was never easy to confess one’s sins. But she knew she had to. The longer a sin existed between her and God, the harder it would be to correct that imbalance. The sooner she could confess that sin, the better chance she had of regaining her footing and reestablishing her faith—a faith that had defined her life ever since the age of ten.
As she saw the edges of the church come into view, her heart sagged. Can I really do this? Can I really confess this?
The familiar edges and shape of Blessed Heart Catholic Church seemed to tell her that yes, she could.
Christy started to tremble. She wasn’t sure she’d call what she had been doing an affair or not. She’d only kissed the man once and had called it out for what it was then. But she had continued to see him, had continued to let herself be lifted up by his words of praise and adoration—words her own husband had stopped uttering to her years ago.
She could almost feel that sin burned away from her as the sun rose higher in the sky, casting golds and soft oranges around the edges of Blessed Heart. If she needed any further sign that she was supposed to be confessing her sins to a priest on this particular morning, that was it.
She came to the steps of Blessed Heart with a heaviness on her shoulders. But she knew that within moments, it would be gone. She could return home, her sins confessed, her heart unburdened, and her mind—
When she reached the front doors, Christy screamed.
She backed away, still screaming. She nearly fell down the concrete stairs as she stumbled back. Her hands went to her mouth, doing very little to muffle the scream.
Father Costas was hanging from the doors. He had been stripped down to his underwear and there was a long horizontal cut on his brow. His head hung down, looking toward his bare feet, which were dangling two feet above the concrete stoop. Little tendrils of blood dripped from his toes, collecting in a dingy pool on the stoop.
Crucified, Christy thought. Father Costas has been crucified.
Following her last case, Mackenzie White had done something she had never once done before as a working woman: she had asked for a vacation.
She’d requested a two-week vacation for a number of reasons and within just a single day, she knew she had made the right decision. She’d wasted no time in bolstering her reputation when she had come to the FBI. By no design of her own, she had ended up handling high-profile cases that seemed to come looking for her. Not only that, but she had excelled at them and had impressed all of the right people in Quantico and DC. After successfully wrapping up numerous cases and putting her life on the line on a monthly basis, she thought two weeks of paid vacation wasn’t too much to ask.
Her superiors had agreed—and even encouraged it. She was sure they’d get a kick out of knowing how she had been spending most of that time—in numerous gyms and workout facilities, getting her body into better shape, sharpening her instincts and skills. She had a solid base for all of the important things. She was adept at hand-to-hand combat. She was eerily good with a firearm. She was much stronger than most other women she had gone through the academy with.
But Mackenzie White was always wanting to improve upon herself.
That’s why, eight days into her two-week vacation, she was working up a sweat and a multitude of sore muscles at a private gym. She was pushing herself away from the corner of one of several boxing rings, giving her sparring partner a nod of gratitude. She was stepping into a second practice round and was fully expecting to get defeated. And that was okay.
She’d only been practicing Muay Thai for a little over a month now. She had gotten good enough at it that she was comfortable introducing another, lesser known, fighting style with it. With the help of a private instructor and a hell of a lot of determination, Mackenzie had also started training in Yaw-Yan, a Filipino style of kickboxing. Mixing the two was rather unorthodox but she and her trainer had worked on a way to utilize them both. It pushed Mackenzie physically, to the point where her shoulders and calves felt like slabs of brick.
She felt those muscles responding now as she stepped to her partner. They touched gloves and resumed their session. She immediately dodged a jab and countered with a low jab of her own.
It was, in a way, like learning a new style of dance. Mackenzie had taken part in dance classes as a girl and had never forgotten the importance of footwork and focus. They were disciplines she carried with her into her first job as a street cop, then into her job as a detective out in Nebraska. Those basic disciplines had also helped her immensely as an FBI agent, saving her life on more than one occasion.
They also came rushing back to her as she sparred. She tried out her new moves and instruction, using a series of downward kicks and elbow attacks combined with more traditional kickboxing attacks. She used the surprised expression of her sparring partner as fuel, motivating her. Sure, it was just practice, but she felt the need to excel there as well.
It also helped to clear her mind. She always associated each punch, kick, or elbow strike with something from her past. A left jab was directed at years of neglect with the Nebraska PD. A back-handed attack with her right swatted away the fear the Scarecrow Killer case had instilled in her. A pivot and jab was a blow to the heart of the endless stream of mysteries coming out of her father’s old case.
If she was being honest with herself, it was that case that had pushed her to learn these new fighting disciplines—to make sure she continued to evolve as a fighter. She had received a note from someone involved…someone in the shadows who apparently knew who she was.
She still saw that note in her mind’s eye as she sparred.
Naturally, she intended to do just the opposite. And that’s why she was currently in the ring, her gaze focused and her muscles as taut as violin strings.
When she landed a blow to her opponent’s solar plexus and then a padded-elbow strike to her sparring partner’s ribs, the session was called from the side of the ring. The judge was smiling and nodding as he softly applauded.
“Okay, Mac,” he said. “Give it a break for a while, huh? You’re at an hour and a half today.”
Mackenzie nodded, dropping her stance and again tapping gloves with her sparring partner—a twenty-five-year-old male who had the build of an MMA fighter. He gave her a quick grin over his mouthpiece and made a quick exit through the ropes.
Mackenzie thanked the judge and then headed for the locker rooms. Her muscles were sore to the point of trembling, but she enjoyed it. It meant she was pushing herself, stretching herself to new limits.
As she showered and slid into what Ellington referred to as her gym swag (an Under Armour tank top and a pair of black dry-fit leggings), she reminded herself that she had one more workout for the day. She hoped her arms were done trembling by then. Sure, Ellington would be there to help, but she had several rather heavy boxes to move around this afternoon.
While she had been technically living at Ellington’s apartment for the past few days, today would be the day she actually moved things in. It was yet another of the many reasons she had asked for a two-week vacation. The thought of trying to move over the course of a weekend had not appealed to her. Plus, she figured, this was yet another way she was growing and evolving. Trusting someone else enough to share a living space and, as cheesy as it seemed, her heart, was something she had been incapable of until a few months ago.
And as soon as she was changed into her gym swag, she found that she could barely wait to start moving things in. Sore or not, she put a little extra speed in her step on the way to the parking lot.
The upside to not being a materialistic person was that when it came time to move, there was very little to pack up. As such, a single trip in Ellington’s pickup truck and a rented U-Haul did the job. The move itself took less than two hours thanks to the elevator in Ellington’s building, and in the end, she really didn’t have to lift that many boxes.
They celebrated the move with Chinese food and a bottle of wine. Mackenzie was tired, sore, but immensely happy. She’d been expecting to feel nervous and maybe even a bit of regret over the move, but as they started unpacking boxes over their dinner, she found that she was excited for this next stage of her life.
“Here’s the deal,” Ellington said as he placed a box cutter to a stream of packing tape along the top of one of the boxes. “You need to tell me now if I’m going to find any overly embarrassing movies or CDs in these boxes.”
“I think the most embarrassing CD you’ll find is the soundtrack to that awful nineties remake of Romeo and Juliet. But what can I say? I really liked that Radiohead song.”
“Then you’re forgiven,” he said, cutting into the tape.
“How about you?” she asked. “Any embarrassing media lying around?”
“Well, I got rid of all of my CDs and DVDs. Everything’s digital. I needed to free up the space. It’s almost as if I had a sneaking suspicion that this sexy FBI lady was going to be moving in with me one of these days.”
“Good instincts,” she said. She walked over to him and took his hands in hers. “Now…this is your last chance. You can back out now before we start taking things out of the boxes.”
“Back out? Are you crazy?”
“You’ll have a girl living with you,” she said, pulling him close. “A girl that tends to like things neat. A girl that can get a little OCD.”
“Oh, I know,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Even all the ladies’ clothes? You willing to share your closet?”
“I have very few clothes,” he said, leaning in close to her. Their noses were almost touching and a heat that they had gotten used to was starting to build between them. “You can have all of the closet space you want.”
“Makeup and tampons, sharing a bed, and another person dirtying up dishes. You sure you’re ready for that?”
“Yeah. One question, though.”
“What’s that?” she said. Her hands traveled from his hands to his arms. She knew where this was going and every sore muscle in her body was ready.
“All of those ladies’ clothes,” he said. “You can’t be leaving them on the floor all the time.”
“Um, I don’t intend to,” she said.
“Oh, I know,” he said. He then reached down and lifted the tank top off of her. He wasted no time in doing the same to the sports bra underneath. “But I probably will,” he added, throwing both to the floor.
He kissed her then and although he tried leading her into the bedroom, their bodies did not have the patience. They ended up on the living room rug and although Mackenzie’s sore muscles protested the hard floor under her back, other parts of her body overruled them.
When her phone rang at 4:47 in the morning, a single thought went through Mackenzie’s sleepy mind as she reached for the bedside table.
A call at this hour…I guess my vacation is over.
“Yeah?” she asked, not bothering with formalities as she was technically on vacation.
In an odd way, she had nearly missed McGrath over these last nine days. Still, hearing his voice was like a very quick and stark return to reality.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Sorry for the early call,” he said. And before he added anything else, Mackenzie heard Ellington’s phone ring from the other side of the bed.
Something big, she thought. Something bad.
“Look, I know I signed off on your two weeks,” McGrath said. “But we’ve got a mess on our hands here and I need you on it. You and Ellington. Meet me in my office as soon as you can.”
It wasn’t a question, but a direct order. And without anything resembling a goodbye, McGrath killed the call. Mackenzie let out a sigh and looked over at Ellington, who was finishing up his own call.
“Well, looks like your vacation is over,” he said with a thin smile.
“That’s fine,” she said. “It ended on quite a bang.”
And then, like some old married couple, they kissed and slid out of bed, heading in to work.
The J. Edgar Hoover building was empty as Mackenzie and Ellington entered. They’d both been in its hallways at all hours of the night, so it was nothing out of the ordinary. Still, to be called in to work at such an hour was never a good thing. It usually meant there was something truly awful waiting for them.
When they reached McGrath’s office, they found his door open. He was sitting at a small conference table in the back of his office, looking over a variety of files. There was another agent there with him, a woman Mackenzie had seen before. Her name was Agent Yardley, a quiet, no-bullshit type of woman who had stepped in to help Agent Harrison from time to time. She gave a nod and a robotic sort of smile when they entered the room and stepped up to the conference room table. She looked back at her laptop, focused on whatever was on the screen.
When McGrath looked up at Mackenzie, she couldn’t help but notice what looked like slight relief in his eyes. It was a nice way to be introduced back into work after having her vacation cut short.
“White, Ellington,” McGrath said. “You know Agent Yardley?”
“Yes,” Mackenzie said, giving the agent a nod of acknowledgment.
“She’s just come back from a crime scene that is linked to another we had five days ago. I originally had her on the case but when I thought we might have a serial on our hands, I asked her to provide everything she had so I could hand it off to you two. We’ve got a murder…the second of its kind in five days. White, I called you specifically because I want you on it based on your history—the Scarecrow Killer specifically.”
“What’s the case?” Mackenzie asked.
Yardley turned her laptop toward them. Mackenzie went to the chair closest to it and took a seat. She looked at the image on the screen with a deadened sort of quiet that she had come to know well—the ability to study a picture of something grotesque as part of her job but with a resigned sympathy most humans would feel at such a tragic death.
She saw an older man, his hair and beard mostly gray, hanging from the door of a church. His arms were extended and his head was bowed down in a show of mock crucifixion. There were slash marks on his chest and a large gash on his forehead. He had been stripped down to his underwear, which had caught a great deal of the blood that had drained down from his brow and chest. From what she could see in the pictures, she was pretty sure his hands had literally been nailed to the door. The feet, though, were simply tied together.
“This is the second victim,” Yardley said. “Reverend Ned Tuttle, fifty-five years of age. He was discovered by an old woman who had stopped by the church early to put flowers on her husband’s grave. Forensics is on the scene as we speak. It seems the body was put there less than four hours ago. We’ve already had agents speak with the family to notify them.”
A woman who likes to take charge and get things done, Mackenzie thought. Perhaps she and I would get along well together.
“What do we have on the first victim?” Mackenzie asked.
McGrath slid her a folder. As she opened it up and looked over the contents, McGrath filled her in. “Father Costas, of the Blessed Heart Catholic Church. He was found in the same state, nailed to the doors of his church five days ago. I’m honestly quite surprised you didn’t see anything about it on the news.”
“I made a point not to watch the news on my vacation,” she said, cutting McGrath a look that was meant to be comical but, she felt, went totally unacknowledged.
“I remember hearing about it around the water cooler,” Ellington said. “The woman who discovered the body was in a state of shock for a while, right?”
“Right,” McGrath said.
“And based on what forensics came up with,” Yardley added, “Father Costas had certainly not been nailed there for any longer than two hours.”
Mackenzie looked through the files. The images inside showed Father Costas in the exact same position as Reverend Tuttle. Everything looked pretty much identical, right down to the elongated gash across the brow.
She closed the file and slid it back over to McGrath.
“Where is this church?” Mackenzie asked, pointing back to the laptop screen.
“Just outside of town. A decent-sized Presbyterian church.”
“Text me the directions,” Mackenzie said, already getting to her feet. “I’d like to go see it for myself.”
Apparently, she had missed working over the last eight days more than she had realized.
It was still dark when Mackenzie and Ellington arrived at the church. The forensics team was just finishing up their work. The body of Reverend Tuttle had been removed from the door but that was fine with Mackenzie. Based on the two images she had seen of Father Costas and Reverend Tuttle, she’d seen all she needed to see.
Two crucifixion-style murders, both on the front doors of churches. The men killed were the presumed leaders of those churches. It’s pretty clear someone has a pretty big grudge against the church. And whoever they are, it’s not specific to one particular denomination.
She and Ellington approached the front of the church as the forensics team wrapped things up. Off to the left, near the small plaque board with the church’s name on it, was a small group of people. A few of them were in prayer while they embraced. Others were openly weeping.
Members of the church, Mackenzie assumed with a resounding sadness.
They neared the church and the scene only got worse. There were smears of blood and two large holes where the nails had been driven in. She looked the area over for any further religious iconography but saw nothing. There was just blood and bits of dirt and sweat.
Such a bold move, she thought. There’s got to be some sort of symbolism to it. Why a church? Why the doors of a church? Once would be a coincidence. But two in a row, both nailed to the doors—that’s purposeful.
She found it almost offensive that someone would do such a thing in front of a church. And maybe that was the point of it. There was no way to know for sure. While Mackenzie was not a strong believer in religion or God or the effects of faith, she also fully respected the rights of people who did live by faith. Sometimes she wished she was that kind of person. Maybe that was why she found this act so deplorable; mocking the death of Christ at the very entryway to a place where people gathered to seek solace and refuge in his name was detestable.
“Even if this was the first murder,” Ellington said, “a sight like this would instantly make me think there were more coming. This is…revolting.”
“It is,” Mackenzie said. “But I can’t be quite sure why it makes me feel that way.”
“Because churches are safe places. You don’t expect to see large nail holes and wet blood on their doors. That’s some Old Testament shit right there.”
Mackenzie wasn’t anything close to a Biblical scholar but she did recall Bible stories from her childhood—something about the Angel of Death passing through a city and collecting the firstborns of every family if there was not a certain marking over their doors.
A chill crept through her. She repressed it by turning to the forensics team. With a slight wave, she got the attention of a member of their team. He came over, clearly a little distraught over what he and the rest of the team had seen. “Agent White,” he said. “This your case now?”
“Seems like it. I was wondering if you guys still had the nails that were used to put him up there.”
“Sure do,” he said. He waved over another of his team members and then looked back to the door. “And the guy who did this…he was either strong as hell or had all the time in the world to do this.”
“That’s doubtful,” Mackenzie said. She nodded back out toward the church parking lot and the street beyond. “Even if the killer did this around two or three in the morning, the chances of a vehicle not traveling down Browning Street and seeing him are slim to none.”
“Unless the killer canvassed the area beforehand and knew the dead-times for traffic after midnight,” Ellington offered.
“Any chance of video footage?” she asked.
“None. We checked. Agent Yardley even called some people—owners of the buildings closest by. But only one has security cameras and they are facing away from the church. So there’s no dice there.”
The other forensics member came over. He was carrying a medium-sized plastic bag that contained two large iron spikes and what looked like a thread of bailing wire. The spikes were coated in blood, which had also smeared itself along the clear interior of the bag.
“Are those railroad spikes?” Mackenzie asked.
“Probably,” the forensics guy said. “But if they are, they’re miniaturized ones. Maybe the kind people use to put up chicken coops or pasture fences.”
“How long before you’ll have any sort of results from these?” she asked.
The man shrugged. “Half a day, maybe? Let me know what you’re looking for specifically and I’ll try to get the results to you sooner.”
“See if you can find out what the killer used to drive the spikes in. Can you tell that sort of thing by the recent wear on the spike heads?”
“Yeah, we should be able to do that. Everything has pretty much been handled on our end. The body is still with us; it won’t get to the coroner until we say so. The doors and stoop have been dusted for prints. We’ll let you know if we find anything.”
“Thanks,” Mackenzie said.
“Sorry to have already moved the body. But the sun was coming up and we really didn’t want this in today’s papers. Or tomorrow’s for that matter.”
“No, that’s fine. I totally understand.”
With that, Mackenzie turned back to the double doors, nonverbally dismissing the forensics team. She tried to picture someone lugging a body across the small lawn and up the stairs in the dead of night. The positioning of security lights on the street would make the front of the church dark. There were no lights of any kind along the front of the church, so it would have been cast in almost absolute darkness.
Maybe it would have been more possible than I originally thought for the killer to take all the time he needed to get this done, she thought.
“That seemed like a weird request,” Ellington said. “What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know yet. But I do know that it would take a hell of a lot of strength and determination to work by yourself in order to haul someone off of the ground just to nail their hands to these doors. If a sledgehammer was used to knock the nails in, it might denote more than one killer—one to hold the victim off the ground and extend the arm, and another to drive the nails in.”
“Paints a hell of a picture, doesn’t it?” Ellington said.
Mackenzie nodded as she started snapping pictures of the scene with her cell phone. As she did, the idea of crucifixion again crept up on her. It made her think of the first case she’d ever worked where themes of crucifixion had been utilized—a case back in Nebraska that had eventually led her to rub elbows with the bureau.
The Scarecrow Killer, she thought. God, am I ever going to be able to leave that in the dust of my memory?
Behind her, the sun started to rise, casting the first rays of light on the day. As her shadow was slowly cast upon the church steps, she tried to ignore the fact that it looked almost like a cross.
Again, memories of the Scarecrow Killer fogged her mind.
Maybe this will be it, she thought hopefully. Maybe when I close this case, memories of those people crucified in the cornfields will stop haunting my memory.
But as she looked back at those bloodstained doors of Cornerstone Presbyterian, she was afraid this was nothing more than wishful thinking.
Mackenzie learned a great deal about Reverend Ned Tuttle in the next half an hour. For starters, he had left behind two sons and a sister. His wife had walked out on him eight years ago, moving to Austin, Texas, with a man she had been having an affair with for over a year before it had come to light. Both sons lived in the Georgetown area, leading Mackenzie and Ellington to their first stop of the day. It was just after 6:30 when Mackenzie parked her car along the curb outside of Brian Tuttle’s apartment. According to the agent who had broken the news, both brothers were there, waiting to do what they could to answer questions about their father’s death.
When Mackenzie stepped into Brian Tuttle’s apartment, she was a little surprised. She had expected to see two sons deep in grief, torn apart by the loss of their devout father. Instead, she saw them sitting at a small dining room table in the kitchen. They were both drinking coffee. Brian Tuttle, twenty-two years of age, was eating a bowl of cereal while Eddie Tuttle, nineteen, was absently dabbing an Eggo waffle into a pool of syrup.
“I don’t exactly know what you’re thinking we can offer you,” Brian said. “We weren’t exactly on the best terms with Dad.”
“Can I ask why?” Mackenzie asked.
“Because we stopped associating with him when he went full-tilt into the church.”
“Are you not believers?” Ellington asked.
“I don’t know,” Brian said. “I guess I’m an agnostic.”
“I’m a believer,” Eddie said. “But Dad…he took it to a whole different level. Like, when he found out Mom was cheating on him, he didn’t do anything. After about two days of dealing with it, he forgave her and the guy she was cheating on him with. He said he forgave them because it was the Christian thing to do. And he refused to even talk about a divorce.”
“Yeah,” Brian said. “And Mom saw that as Dad not giving a shit about her—not caring that she had cheated. So she left. And he didn’t do much of anything to stop her.”
“Did your Dad ever try to reach out to the two of you since your mom left?”
“Oh yeah,” Brian said. “Just about every Saturday evening, begging us to come to church.”
“And besides that,” Eddie added, “he was too busy during the week even if we did want to see him. He was always at the church or out on charity drives or sick visits at hospitals.”
“When was the last time either of you spoke to him at length?” Mackenzie asked.
The brothers looked at each other for a moment, calculating. “Not sure,” Brian said. “Maybe a month. And it wasn’t much of anything. He was asking the same questions: how was work going, if I was dating anyone yet, stuff like that.”
“So it’s safe to say you both have an estranged relationship with your father?”
“Yeah,” Eddie said.
He looked down to the table for a moment as regret started to sink in. Mackenzie had seen this sort of reaction before; if she’d been forced to bet, she was pretty sure at least one of these boys would be a sobbing mess within an hour, realizing all that had been lost in terms of the father they’d never gotten to know.
“Do you know who would have known him well?” Mackenzie asked. “Did he have any close friends?”
“Just that priest or pastor or whatever at the church,” Eddie said. “The one that runs the place.”
“Your father wasn’t the lead reverend?” Mackenzie asked.
“No. He was like an associate pastor or something,” Brian said. “There was another guy over him. Jerry Levins, I think.”
Mackenzie noticed the way the young men were getting their terminology mixed up. Pastor, reverend, priest...it was all confusing. Mackenzie didn’t even know the difference actually, assuming it had something to do with differences in beliefs between denominations.
“And your father spent a lot of time with him?”
“Oh yeah,” Brian said, a bit angry. “All of his damn time, I think. If you need to know anything about Dad, he’d be the one to ask.”
Mackenzie nodded, well aware that she would not be getting any useful information out of these two young men. Still, she wished she had more time to speak with them. There was clearly unresolved tension and loss between them. Maybe if they broke through whatever emotional walls were keeping them so tranquil, they’d have more to offer.
In the end, she turned away and gave them her thanks. She and Ellington left the apartment quietly. As they took the stairs down side by side, he took her hand.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, confused. “Why?”
“Two kids…their father just died and aren’t sure how to handle it. With all of the speculation about your dad’s old case as of late…just wondering.”
She smiled at him, reveling in the uplifting way he made her heart feel in those moments. God, he can be so sweet…
As they walked out into the morning together, she also realized that he was right: the reason she had wanted to stay and keep talking was to help the Tuttle brothers resolve the issues they’d had with their father.
Apparently, the ghost of her father’s recently reopened case was haunting her more than she realized.
Seeing Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in the light of morning was surreal. Mackenzie drove by it on the way to visit with Reverend Jerry Levins. Levins resided in a house that sat just half a block away from the church, something Mackenzie had seen a lot of during her time out in Nebraska where the heads of smaller churches tended to live in very close proximity to their houses of worship.
When they arrived at Levins’s house, there were numerous cars parked along the side of the street and in his driveway. She assumed these were likely members of Cornerstone, coming by to seek solace from or offer comfort to Reverend Levins.
When Mackenzie knocked on the front door of the modest little brick house, it was answered right away. The woman at the door had clearly been crying. She eyed Mackenzie and Ellington suspiciously until Mackenzie raised her badge.
“We’re Agents White and Ellington, with the FBI,” she said. “We’d like to speak with Reverend Levins, if he’s in.”
The woman opened the door for them and they stepped into a house that was filled with sniffling and sobbing. Somewhere else within the house, Mackenzie could hear the sound of murmured prayers.
“I’ll get him for you,” the woman said. “Please wait here.”
Mackenzie watched the woman go back through the house, turning into a small living room where a few people stood by the entryway. After some whispering noises, a tall bald man came walking toward them. Like the woman who had answered the door, he had also been weeping.
“Agents,” Levins said. “Can I help you?”
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