Except for his forest green suit, Lester remained indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd. He sat hunched in the first pew with his elbows propped on his knees, holding his face in his hands, and gazing down at the stained hard-wood floor.
Jan sat next to him, closest to the narrow aisle between the pews and the plastered wall, fanning herself with her memorial bulletin. The preacher’s eulogy was late starting, and she stared up at the empty pulpit as if she could will the service into action. The sooner it started, the sooner it would be over, and they could all escape this furnace that they called a chapel.
Laverne sat on the other side of Lester, closer to the center aisle. With her arms crossed over her chest, she reminded him of a coiled snake. She looked around at foreign faces with an expression of utter contempt, while muttering her judgements.
“Look at all these people. They don’t even know Lucy.”
“This is a good turnout,” Jan answered across Lester’s hunched back. “They came to show respect to Lucy and to the family.”
Laverne blew a puff of air threw her lips. “That’s not why they came,” she said.
The women’s attention was drawn to the front of the center aisle as the last among the viewing line made their way to the casket, including Cassandra, who let out a great mournful howl.
“My baby. Oh my poor baby,” she wailed. “I’m not gonna let you go.”
Even Lester turned his head to watch as Cassandra crawled into the coffin. She was bent at the waist, her top half enveloped in satin, her arms wrapped around her dead daughter’s torso, while her legs kicked the air. Wilson and another man stood on either side of her, grasping her elbows and trying to pull her out again.
“No, I won’t go. I won’t go,” Cassandra cried. “I have to stay with my baby girl.”
Jan ran over and helped coax her out of the box. She wrapped her arm around her shoulders and soothed her with quiet words. Rather than leading the hysterical woman to her pew, she led her back down the aisle and out of the building.
Lester observed the commotion without expression. He had already paid his official respects to Lucy. He had looked down at the little girl’s face, swollen with death and whatever chemicals Ernie’s people had used to preserve her for viewing. He had reached into the casket to caress the turquoise scarf Jan had given her last Christmas, now used to camouflage her damaged neck. He had felt a flood of anger at the thought of the car coming down on her and he had gripped the sides of the casket so hard that the blood left his fingertips.
Beyond the open coffin lid, he had seen the object of his rage. The Reverend was sitting at the end of the second pew, dabbing his forehead with a cotton handkerchief. The man hadn’t bothered to show respect for yet another disposable member of his family. He hadn’t bothered to view his handiwork. But he’d had the nerve to show up at the funeral in yet another flagrant disregard for basic human decency. He’d come to flaunt his freedom from the tendrils of the American justice system and to thumb his nose at the community that saw fit to judge him.
Lester’s eyes locked onto him as he made his way back to his seat—a seat almost directly in front of the Reverend. He watched him dab the side of his face with the handkerchief and some part of Lester hoped it was more than just the temperature that made him sweat. He hoped it was panic akin to that of a rat trapped by a pack of hounds, but sadly there was nothing in the Reverend’s eyes that indicated fear. He was just hot. And bored. And he knew that there was nothing and no one in the chapel who could, or would, touch him.
As Lester sat down, he could feel the evil presence against his back. It was the reason he leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and stared at the floor. He had to keep himself together, for Lucy’s sake.
The minister, Reverend Tisdale, rose in the pulpit to deliver the eulogy. “Good morning,” he began.
The congregation murmured a response.
“Today is a sad day,” Reverend Tisdale said. “Nothing can be as sad as the death of a child, but we must remember to allow some joy into our hearts because today the Lord calls another angel up to Heaven.”
A sprinkling of “Amens” emerged from the congregation, but the words sank into Lester’s belly like a dagger. Joy was not an emotion he could feel, only the pain of loss.
“It wasn’t the Lord that sent Lucy to Heaven,” Laverne hissed.
Only Lester and her mother Hannah, sitting on the other side of Laverne, heard the remark. “Quiet girl,” Hannah said.
“How can I stay quiet when he’s sitting in this room? Sitting in the pew right behind us?” She looked at Lester. “At the end of the pew, with a cushion of space between him and anyone else.”
“You’re interrupting the sermon,” Hannah whispered.
Lester tilted his head to the right, tried to see the Reverend with his peripheral vision. He could see the man had his arm stretched across the back of the pew, just as relaxed as he could be. He tried to shift his focus back to the preacher in the pulpit, but all he could think about was the man sitting behind him, the man who called himself a preacher, but who adhered to principles other than those espoused by Christianity, to selfishness and personal enrichment.
“I know we aren’t in regular services,” Reverend Tisdale continued, “but today I’d like to share a lesson from Genesis. We are all familiar with the story of Cain and Abel…”
A mild restlessness seemed to pass through the congregation as individuals looked around at neighbors and shifted in the pews.
“We know that both Cain and Abel had delivered offerings unto the Lord. We know that Cain had offered a share of his crops and Abel offered meat from his flock, and we know that Cain became very jealous when the Lord preferred Abel’s offering. The Lord saw this and said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? If you only do what is right, will you not be accepted? Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Reverend Tisdale paused to allow the last sentence to sink in, before he repeated it. “Sin desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Lester had known Reverend Tisdale for many years. He had started as a youth pastor at his church when Lester was a young boy, back before he started running around with friends and broke free from the routine of regular church attendance.
Tisdale, Lester recognized, was the type of pastor to use the Bible to try to influence his congregation in a very real way. He sought not to teach general lessons or trumpet abstract ideals, but instead to apply a sermon to a specific person or problem within the community. Lester felt as if the man was speaking directly to him.
If Tisdale was the angel on his shoulder, what did that make Laverne? Lester glanced over and saw her mumbling her argument under her breath. He could see the muscle movement beneath her lower lip as she leveled her eyes at the man in the pulpit. If Tisdale hoped to influence her, then she was having none of it.
“But we know how Cain responded. He was a petty and jealous man, who wanted to Lord’s attentions all to himself, so he invited Abel to the fields and murdered him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel?’ and Cain replied, ‘I do not know, Lord. Am I my brother’s keeper?’”
Reverend Tisdale gazed down to the second pew, where another Reverend was sitting. Lester turned his face to the side and peeked back at the next pew. He knew he couldn’t look at the man directly, but he had to see the reaction on Baxter’s face when he was called out in the sermon. But Baxter only sat there, his arms draped across the back of the pew, looking up at the preacher—a real preacher—and wearing the same smug look on his face.
“The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. The ground will no longer yield your crops and you will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’
“Now Cain could not bear this punishment. He was scared. He begged the Lord to let him stay. He thought people would seek revenge and come and kill him. But the Lord said to him, ‘You are safe. Anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over,’ and he put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.”
Tisdale reached out into the air, directing his hand at Reverend Baxter. He made an x in the air with the pad of his thumb, delivering unto the Reverend the mark of Cain.
“So that’s the way it has to be,” Tisdale continued. “That’s the way it always has to be. Any man who kills his brother will be made to suffer, but it is not man’s judgement to give but God’s. God will deliver his judgement.”
“That’s not good enough,” Laverne said.
As Tisdale moved on to the benediction, Lester turned to Laverne. “What have you got to say?”
“How many more of us will die while we wait for the Lord’s judgement? Maybe the Lord will act through one of us.”
“I suppose that’s possible,” Lester said. People were standing now, moving out of the pews. Lester shook his head. “What is seven times vengeance?”
“What?” Laverne asked.
“Nothing,” Lester said, “Let’s go.”
They stood then, and Laverne turned to Baxter, still lounging in his pew, waiting for the crowd to thin, so he could stroll out of the chapel and into freedom. The look of contentment on his face was more than Laverne could bare. Tension entered her face and neck and she pointed down at him and cried out, “You killed my sister and you’re gonna pay for it.”
Baxter didn’t even look at her. There was a slight shaking of his head, and he smiled.
He never saw anything else, maybe a flash of movement, the blur of Lester’s green jacket, the glint of gun metal, and then nothing. He never heard another sound. The first bullet passed through his brain before sound could reach his ears, and he was already dead when the next two rounds entered his body.
Go to Chapter 26
Go to Chapter 26
About This Novel; Chapter 1Chapter 2; Chapter 3Chapter 4; Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7; Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11; Chapter 12; Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16; Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20 Chapter 21; Blood Cries at the Half-Way PointChapter 22; Chapter 23Chapter 24; Chapter 25