First chapters: The Buried: Sarah Armstrong Mysteries 4
Concealed in the shadows, the man and woman waited impatiently outside the quaint white clapboard church. From inside, the strains of a muffled hymn filtered out, a familiar verse that recalled a simpler era. "Yes, we'll gather at the river. The beautiful, the beautiful river. Gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God..."
"Some of 'em need singing lessons, bad," the man mumbled. Tall and angular, his jaw thrust forward, his dark, deep-set eyes cold. Threadbare overalls drooped at the knees, and black grease streaked the front of his torn white cotton T-shirt. The diminishing end of an unfiltered cigarette dangled from his mouth, the ashes on the end glowing each time he sucked in a breath.
"What they need is a new song. My great-granny used to sing that one," the woman responded. Bobbing her head and throwing her arms about, mimicking a conductor leading an invisible choir, she hummed a muted and off-key rendition of the spiritual's chorus. Ten years older than the man, the woman was in her late thirties. Her scruffy brown hair pulled into a loose ponytail, pockets of skin bagged under washed-out blue eyes ringed in fine wrinkles, more than one would expect at her age.
The man rewarded her with a rueful grin, then grew worried and waved at her to stop. "Shush now. We better hunker down." With that, he dropped his cigarette on the dirt and mashed the stub with his foot. "Dry out here. Wouldn't want to start a fire," he said, followed by a short series of muffled puffs, a stifled laugh.
Inside the church the singing ended, and the congregation milled about as they reclaimed their belongings, including nearly empty bowls and platters from the dinner they'd shared, potato salad, three bean salad, a glazed ham, a bright red gelatin mold with strawberries and whipped cream, and a dish littered with crumbs from a golden baked pecan pie.
As the others prepared to leave, tall and balding, Pastor J.T. Wilson, stood off in a corner with Edith Mae Whittle. Round in a flowered cotton dress, her dull gray hair anchored in a stern bun, Edith Mae's eyes washed with tears as she confided her troubles. "I understand your concerns," Pastor Wilson whispered too quietly for the others to overhear. "But you can't change other people. Beau is what Beau is, and he's not going to change. Not until he accepts the Lord, focuses on earning a throne in the hereafter."
"I know, Pastor Wilson, but..." the woman protested. She stopped when Wilson gently placed his hand on her shoulder.
"Let's do what we can, Edith Mae. Let's ask the Lord for help for your boy."
The old woman wearily nodded, and they dropped their heads, closed their eyes, as Pastor Wilson murmured a prayer. The others took notice and moved away to give them privacy, heading toward the door. They'd nearly all done it themselves over the years, singled out the pastor after or before services, shared their woes and relied on him for support.
In a clearing surrounded by towering pines, Lord's Acre Baptist sat on a squat hill, and the women in their sensible shoes filed out the front door and gingerly picked their way down the loose gravel parking lot as they departed Wednesday evening services. Their husbands followed, and the families chatted like old friends. In small groups, they shared their week's triumphs and worries, a recent layoff, a newly diagnosed heart ailment, an elderly parent's failing health.
"Oh, I know that's hard! If you need any help..." one woman could be heard saying.
"I think we're okay, but thank you," another responded. "Always so good to have folks to rely on."
In the shadows, still watching the scene from behind a thick-trunked oak, the intruders lurked. "You'd think they'd wanna get home, turn on the TV or somethin'," the man whispered. "They must'a had enough holy rollin' by now."
The woman gave him a lopsided smirk. "Some people never run out of stuff to prattle on about."
As they talked, one of the churchgoers in the lot turned toward them. John Anderson appeared to have heard something, bunching his forehead into a tight knot of worry.
In response, the two hidden in the woods drew farther back into the nascent darkness. Just after sunset on a stifling hot August evening, their surroundings hummed with the buzzing of insects, the gentle rustling of leaves in the breeze. The oxygen-heavy air carried a heavy scent of pine. In their hiding place, the couple stayed quiet.
Finished praying with the pastor, Edith Mae ambled outside.
"Looks like she's the last one out of the church," the woman behind the tree murmured, and the man beside her responded by placing his right index finger across his lips to shush her.
Unaware of anyone watching, in the parking lot Edith Mae clambered into a green pickup, its paint riddled with rust. The engine turned hard, belched smoke like a broken furnace, but then finally caught. Slowly she eased forward, driving toward the road.
"Something wrong?" another of the churchmen asked Anderson, who remained standing motionless in the lot gazing out into the woods.
"I thought I heard something," he muttered, pointing at the trees. "Voices, like someone talking out there." With that, he shuffled cautiously toward the edge of the clearing, approaching where the dense vegetation crowded together, massive pine and oak trunks rising out of thick brush. The second man followed, and they listened for a moment, perhaps two. Waiting, but for what?
Others in the congregation departed the lot, first one car full, then another, a languid parade crushing over the gravel, pinging at the undercarriages of their SUVs and pickup trucks. Finally only four remained standing outside the church, the two men at the edge of the clearing staring into the murky woods and their wives, who leaned together a short distance away glancing off and on at their husbands.
Behind the trees, the concealed man and woman grew anxious, sweating in the searing heat undiminished by the absence of the sun. Occasionally the man cautiously craned his neck to peer around the oak, leering at Anderson and his friend, eager for them to leave.
Never good at quiet, the woman beside him started to whisper, but the man shook his head. In the near silence, they heard Ebba Anderson call out to her husband.
"John, we should get home. We've both got work tomorrow, you know."
"What do you think they're doing?" the other woman asked Ebba, gesturing at their husbands.
"Lord knows," Ebba said with a sigh. "Men. Never can understand them." With that, both women chuckled as if members in a secret club.
Hesitating but a moment, Anderson snickered and let out a huff. Looking sheepishly over at his friend, he said, "You know, I don't see anything, hear anything. It could have been my imagination."
"Maybe a raccoon or possum?"
"Maybe, I guess. Or maybe nothing at all."
The men rejoined their wives, the couples bid each other goodbye and then split apart to their trucks. Moments later they drove toward the deserted country road bordered by uninterrupted forest. On the edge of the church driveway, John Anderson hesitated and glanced back in his rearview mirror, wondering again what, if anything, he heard. Seeing nothing unusual, he pulled out onto the worn asphalt road.
In the woods, the hidden couple tarried, the man signaling the woman to lay low. "They might be fooling us and circling back," he said. "We got time."
Minutes passed, two or three, at the most five, and his anxiety grew. "Okay. Let's have at it," he announced.
Angling through the brush and trees, she swatted a mosquito that pricked her arm. "You got everything?"
"Yeah," he said. "I got my stuff. You got your can?"
Once in the parking lot, the sound of their shoes scrapping over the gravel echoed softly through the surrounding woods, along with the rhythmic sloshing of the liquid inside the battered red cans. They stood together, and the man put his arm around the woman. Smiling down at her. "It's time."
She knew he didn't like to dawdle. "Get to work and get it done," he repeatedly told her. "Stand back far enough to run if someone comes, but close enough to watch the show."
If ranchers, farmers, or passersby saw the flames or smelled the acrid smoke, the man and woman would have to high-tail it through the woods to escape. But the church was remote. If they were lucky, no one would notice the fires until morning.
"You know, there's a light on in there," the woman said, motioning up at the church. "You don't think there's someone inside, do you?"
The man thought about that. "Nah. No cars. The lot's empty."
That satisfied her.
"Let's get to it," he said.
With that, they unscrewed the caps from the cans' long snouts, and then hurriedly circled in opposite directions around the building, pouring it on the wood above the cement block foundation, the gas splashing out, spilling, vapors escaping into the still air, the liquid soaking into the siding and the parched earth. No rain for months, a drought left the land dry, and it drew the liquid in. Their five-gallon cans emptied, they met again in front of the church.
A satisfied grin, the man grabbed one of the two bottles he'd brought with him, both with liquid inside and rag stoppers. He flicked on a lighter, igniting the wick. For a moment, he turned the bottle, watching the scrap of cloth burn. Then he threw it. Shattering glass. A whoosh, as if the air was sucked into a vacuum. Fire crawled up the church's front door. Immediately, he lit the second bottle and threw it hard against a window near the church door. The window crashed, the bottle barreling inside.
Microseconds later flames erupted inside the church.
Fingers of flame reached out within the church, while outside the firestorm spread until it circled the building, climbing the frame, turning the wood a crusty black, sending up billows of dense smoke.
"For the heathens who'll take over the world!" the man shouted above the crackling, wood snapping as it burned.
"For Momma!" the woman cried out, and then cackled with joy.
It was then that they saw a figure framed in the window and heard the screams. "Help! Please, help!"
"Someone's in there!" the woman shouted, frantic. "What d'we do?"
The man, grabbed her hand, pulled her back, as the blaze built ever higher, the aged church's brittle wood feeding the flames until it swelled into an inferno.
More screams came from inside the church as the man tried to push through the flames to make his way to the door. "Lord, help me!"
"We gotta save him!" the woman shouted, but the man shook his head.
She sized up the fire, the burning church, the intense heat radiating toward them, and she saw no openings, no way to pull the man out, no possible route for his escape. The woman grabbed the man's arm. "We gotta go. Now! Or someone will see us!"
The man didn't fight her, but before he turned to leave, he looked back at the church and saw Pastor Wilson through the broken window, fire flaring on his back, his arms, licking at his legs. "Dear Lord!" he screamed, before he tottered and wove, overcome by the pain.
One last agonized shriek and the pastor collapsed and fell.
The woman still pulled at the man, but he ordered her to wait.
"We gotta get out of here!" she urged above the roar of the flames, the popping of the burning wood, the fire greedily claiming ever more of the building's tinder. She grabbed the man's arm. "Damn it to hell! We gotta go!"
Shrugging her off, he remained statue still, feet planted on the unforgiving East Texas clay. "No! No one's coming. And he's gone. He won't be telling anyone anything."
Frightened, the woman saw the look in the man's eyes, the familiar joy the flames brought him, and something else. An intense excitement.
She stopped urging him to leave. Instead, she stood beside him, just as mesmerized by the violence of the flames, watching the fire travel ever higher, toward the narrow steeple. She wondered about the dead man inside the church. Who was he? Why didn't he leave with the others?
No sirens interrupted the night. No one screamed, "Fire!"
Time passed, the fire burned, the church collapsing blackened board by blackened board, and the man chuckled softly. When he looked over, the woman beside him watched the fire, enraptured.
"You've got the nose wrong. Make it a touch longer, and the nostrils should flare, but just slightly."
I tried not to smudge the rest of the face, and then blew off shreds of pink rubber the eraser left behind. On the newly cleaned surface, I employed the pencil's edge lightly. In short strokes, I feathered in an additional eighth of an inch, extending the line farther down toward the lips. I refashioned the upturn, widening it a touch.
"Like this?" I asked.
The man across from me studied my work. I assumed he'd find fault, rethink how the face should look. I'd come to realize that he was a perfectionist, insisting I record every nuance correctly. I didn't mind. This drawing needed to be as accurate as possible. And I'm used to folks asking for changes, especially when recalling an event from years earlier. In this case, it had been a decade since the man looked into this young woman's eyes, saw her profile as she waited at a bus stop outside of an office building on the outskirts of downtown Houston.
Rain pummeling down, she vainly tried to keep dry under an umbrella that tossed above her in a robust wind. He pulled over and stopped near her in his black SUV, lowering the passenger side window. "Do you want a ride? I'm heading south."
The young woman didn't respond, appearing not to hear him. Then she realized he was talking to her, and she turned toward him, pulling the umbrella lower, holding it tighter, and peering inside the car. She had a lovely smile. When he mentioned he'd be driving south on I-45, getting off at Clear Lake, it turned to a frown.
"How did you know I'm going there?"
"I take this bus sometimes, and I saw you on it," he explained. "I've noticed that we get off at the same stop. I drove today, and in this rain, I thought you might like a ride."
The young woman paused as if considering, but then rebuffed the proposal. "Thanks, but I'll wait for the bus."
He shrugged. "Okay by me. Just thought I'd save you from getting wet. Good luck! In this monsoon, your bus could be really late today."
He had no need to exaggerate. Interstate Forty-five perpetually ran bumper-to-bumper, but in the storm with the resulting accidents, the freeway could come to a standstill.
"I don't think I should. I'm sorry. Not that I don't trust you..."
He waved her apology off. "You're not hurting my feelings. I know ladies have to be careful." Yet he did look wounded that she thought him untrustworthy, or was he disappointed? "After all, you don't know me. It's good that you're careful."
Turning away from her, he raised his car window and put on his directional preparing to turn into traffic, when she had a change of heart. Perhaps she had somewhere she needed to be. Perhaps she noticed the kind smile on the man's face, his calm manner. Perhaps she thought, he seems okay, not at all frightening.
She tapped on the car window. "Well, it would be a relief to get home on time for a change."
In the chair across from me, Liam Kneehoff's face relaxed, pleased to remember that day and the young woman at the bus stop.
"So, you think this looks like her?" I held up the sketch so he could take a good look. "Do we have her face right now?"
His lips parted until he showed a sliver of perfect white enamel. "Yes. That will do. Sarah, you really are quite good at this."
"You have an exceptional recall of faces," I flattered, as pleasantly as if he were anyone else I'd dealt with over the years. I'd done this many times, pulled out a sketch pad to document a face based on the memory of someone who observed a crime.
Yet Liam Kneehoff wasn't a witness, at least not in the traditional sense. The girl whose face I'd drawn?
"Do you remember this young woman's name?"
"No. Like I've explained, I never asked their names."
We'd played this game many times, Kneehoff and I, a perverse one where he offered up pieces of the puzzles but left important facts out. Habitually, he gave me enough information to get the faces right. When I pushed, he reluctantly added fragments of details, tiny impressions, but rarely more.
Each time, he gave me just enough so that I would tell those in charge that he cooperated. A trim, elegant man of fifty-one with greying dark blond hair and a nearly patrician profile, Kneehoff had made a bargain with those in power, the ones monitoring my progress. He had to collaborate with me on the faces. He had a lot riding on it.
I held up the drawing yet again. "Come on, Liam. You know her name. I know you do," I angled. "She had her purse with her, with her driver's license inside. You probably saw her picture in the newspapers and on TV."
Kneehoff's face blank, he said...