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THE GOOD CITIZEN

The Pillar of Fire Church was situated on eighty bucolic acres of former farmland in Zarephath, New Jersey. Evangelist Alma Bridwell White had established a community there along the Millstone River, far from what she saw as the corrupting influence of the world. Her followers had all they needed—communal living, a college, and a church. Outsiders were discouraged.

Sam drove up a long dirt driveway bordered by neat, fat rows of firs, which gave way to a cluster of white two-story buildings on a pretty, parklike campus. Men and women in modest clothing walked about, greeting one another with pleasant smiles.

“They don’t look much like killers,” Evie remarked.

“They never do,” Sam muttered.

They were met at the administration building by a Mr. Adkins, a beefy, balding man with a square jaw and a very firm handshake. “The Pillar of Fire Church welcomes you.” Jericho and Evie introduced themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Jones, and Sam was Mr. Smith, Jericho’s cousin who had graciously offered to drive them in his car.

“What a fine family,” Mr. Adkins said. “Just our sort of people.”

He led them briefly around the grounds and took them through the church with its enormous pipe organ. Back in the administration building, they passed through a dining hall, where several ladies in identical blue skirts and white blouses sat at a long table assembling pamphlets. They smiled and waved as if it were a church supper and Evie, Sam, and Jericho were their invited guests, and Evie couldn’t help imagining those same welcoming faces illuminated by the flames of a burning cross in the night. A bead of sweat trickled down her back under her dress.

Mr. Adkins ushered them into a small, spare office. A simple cross-stitched panel hung on the wall: ETERNAL VIGILANCE IS THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. Evie perched on the very edge of an offered chair. Jericho sat beside her. Sam stood behind them, his hands in his pockets, his eyes searching.

“What may the Pillar of Fire Church do for you today, Mr. and Mrs. Jones?”

“Mr. Jones and I are so very impressed with your godly way of life. We’re thinking of moving away from Manhattan, what with those terrible murders going on.” Evie shuddered for effect. “We just don’t feel safe, do we, Mr. Jones?”

“I… uh…”

Evie patted his hand. “We don’t. Don’t you think it’s simply awful, Mr. Adkins?”

“Indeed I do. But I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s this foreign element coming in, you know—it’s polluting our white race and way of life. The Jewish anarchists. The Bolsheviks. The Italians and Irish Catholics. The Negroes, with their music and dancing. They don’t hold to our same moral code. They don’t share our American values. We believe in one hundred percent Americanism.”

“Which tribe?” Sam said under his breath.

Evie faked a coughing fit. She made it sound as if she were losing a lung. “Mr. Adkins, could I have a glass of water, please?” Evie coughed again for effect.

“Certainly. I’ll, uh, I’ll have to go to the kitchen for it. I won’t be but a minute. Please make yourselves at home.”



As soon as he was gone, Evie leaped up. “That’s just what I intend to do. You fellas search this room. I’m snooping around.”

Jericho shook his head. “That isn’t a good idea, Evie. What if he comes back?”

“Tell him I went to the lavatory,” Evie said with a roll of her eyes. “Men are pos-i-tute-ly paralyzed by the mention of females in lavatories.”

Evie sneaked down the hall, opening doors, searching for anything that might be a clue. A new batch of Good Citizen pamphlets sat in a stack on a table by the staircase. The cover image showed the same hooded man hanging a Catholic upside down in the way that Tommy Duffy’s body had been posed. Evie pocketed the pamphlet to show to Will later.

“Psst!” Sam hissed at Evie from the doorway of an office.

“Sam! What are you doing?” Evie whispered.

“Same thing you are. Snooping around.”

Evie ran to the end of the hall. Seeing no one, she hurried inside the office and shut the door. “You were supposed to stay with Jericho!”

“You should know by now, doll, that I never do what I’m supposed to do.”

“Never mind that. Did you find anything?”

“Not yet. I’ll look here. You look over there.”

Evie searched the drawers of an end table and glanced at a bookcase but found nothing of value. She moved on to the closet. Inside, white robes and hoods hung from hooks like the hollowed skins of ghosts. Evie shut the door quickly and ran to Sam, who was opening drawers in a large oak rolltop desk.

“Check the bottom drawers,” he said. Sam pulled open the right-side drawer, which was a mishmash of papers and letters. He lifted a notice about a meeting of the American Eugenics Society. Beneath it lay a photograph of a grand castle shrouded in fog. Something about the castle was familiar to Sam, though he couldn’t say why. He shoved the photograph into his pocket just as the door opened with a click.

A tall, rangy man stood uncertainly in the doorway. He wore a dark hat, farmer’s coveralls, and a denim work shirt. From his neck hung a flat, round pendant on a strip of leather.

“Looking for Missus White,” the man said in a clipped tone. “You seen her?”

Carefully, Evie slid the drawer closed. “Whom shall I say is calling?” she asked.

“Brother Jacob Call.” The man took two tentative steps into the room. Evie’s gaze was drawn to the pendant: a five-pointed star encircled by a snake eating its tail. Her heart raced. Behind her back, she signaled to Sam. He squeezed her fingers in response.

“My, that’s an interesting pendant you’re wearing. Is it very old?”

The man placed a palm over it. “It’s the Lord’s mark. A protection to his people in the time of the Beast.”

A cold tickle crept from Evie’s neck down her arm. The pendant, the mention of the Beast—it was very possible she and Sam were in a room with the Pentacle Killer.

“Wh-what did you say your name was again?” Evie asked.

The man looked suddenly suspicious. He turned away briskly, nearly upending a big-boned woman in a sober black dress who gaped at Sam and Evie from behind wire-rimmed glasses.

“What on earth are you doing in here?” the woman demanded. Her voice was pulpit-worthy.

“Who wants to know, sister?” Sam challenged.

The woman’s eyes narrowed. “I am Mrs. Alma Bridwell White. Head of the Pillar of Fire Church. And you are in my office, uninvited.”

She summoned two large, unhappy men to escort Evie and Sam rather roughly back to Mr. Adkins’s office, where Jericho still sat. His eyes widened and Evie shot him a warning glance to keep quiet.

“Mr. Adkins, can you explain what these two interlopers were doing in my office, uninvited and unsupervised?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. White. They came to ask about membership. I went to get Mrs. Jones a glass of water, and when I got back, Mr. Jones told me both she and Mr. Smith there had gone to the lavatory.”

“Spies! That’s what they are. What, pray tell, were you two doing in my office?” Mrs. White pressed. “I demand an answer!”

A few men had pushed into the room. All of them looked ready for a fight. Evie swallowed hard. If they couldn’t think of something, they were done for.

“I didn’t want to do this, but the lies have gone on long enough,” Sam said suddenly. Evie could tell by the way his hand shook the change in his pocket that he was nervous.

“They… they have?” Evie searched his face for some clue about what game they were playing now.

“Yes, they have. I can’t hide anymore, Honey Pie.” Sam put his arm around Evie’s shoulder, pulling her close. He kissed her on the cheek while Jericho looked on, astonished. “I’m sorry that this is the way you had to find out, cousin. We went into that office to be alone. I’m gone for her, and she’s got it bad for me. Don’tcha, doll face? We’re going to Reno for the annulment, and then we’re getting hitched. Why, I wouldn’t blame you if you socked me right here and now for what I’ve done.”

Murmurs of astonishment and judgment rippled through the assembled Pillar of Fire crowd. Hidden by the largeness of Jericho, Sam made a small fist motion, hoping that Jericho would take the hint.

Finally, Jericho’s eyes widened in understanding. “Well, that’s my wife, and you can’t have her,” he announced awkwardly. He pulled back and socked Sam, catching him across the jaw and bottom lip. Sam tottered and sank to his knees, his mouth bloody.

“Son of a—” Sam croaked.

“Oh, Sam!” Evie dropped beside Sam. She put her handkerchief to his mouth. “I never wanted this to happen.”

Mrs. White was steely-eyed. “I think you’d best leave. We are an honorable organization and want no part of your sordid city affairs.”

 

“An ‘honorable organization,’ ” Sam scoffed from behind the wheel as they made their way down the long drive. A welt was already rising on his cheek, and there was dried blood on his shirt. Evie dabbed at his wound and he winced. “Ow.”

“Sorry for that,” Jericho said from the backseat, but he looked pretty pleased with himself.

“That punch got us out of there. Good work, Freddie. Though next time, go easy on me, not-so-gentle giant.”

At the bottom of the drive, a group of men stood across the road, blocking their escape. Evie gripped the door handle as the men surrounded the car. Sam’s hands remained fixed on the wheel, and for the second time, Evie wished she were driving.

A broad-chested man in a straw hat leaned both arms on Evie’s open window. “You people from the city, we know what you get up to over there, and we don’t want any part of it. You understand?”

Evie nodded gravely. Her heart pounded in her chest. She kept her eyes on the road ahead.

“Don’t come back here no more. We don’t need your kind.”

One of the men angled his face close to Jericho’s. He smiled at him in a convivial way, as if they were two old friends on a fishing trip, one giving advice to the other. “If it were me, son, I’d take that one out to the woods and show him what happens to fellas what try to take what’s rightfully yours.” He took a book of matches from his pocket and struck one, watching it flare into an orange diamond, then flicked it into the front seat at Sam. Evie gave a small shriek as it landed on his pants, but he patted it out quickly. He looked terrified, though. The usual Sam swagger was nowhere to be seen. The men stepped back. The fellow in front took his hand off the hood, and Sam jerked the car forward, spraying small pebbles from the back tires as he drove. They came around the next bend so quickly that they didn’t see the man until they were nearly upon him.

“Sam, watch out!” Evie yelled.

Sam hit the brakes and the car shuddered to a stop and quit. In front of them, Brother Jacob Call had both hands up, as if waiting to be hit. He pointed a long finger at them.

“What was started long ago will now be finished when the fire burns in the sky,” he said. “Repent, for the Beast is come.”

Then he turned away, walking up the hill in long, quick strides.

 

It was afternoon by the time Evie, Jericho, and Sam returned to the museum and told Will of their narrow escape from the Pillar of Fire Church and their curious encounter with Brother Jacob Call.

“Do you think he could be our killer?” Jericho asked.

“I’ll certainly report it to Detective Malloy right away,” Will answered. “You did very well. This may be the break we’ve needed.”

“He said something else very curious.” Evie rested her stocking feet on a stack of books on the floor. “He said something about ‘what was started long ago would now be finished.’ What was started long ago? When?”

The phone rang and Will answered it. “William Fitzgerald. I see. Whom may I say is calling, please? Just a moment.” Will held out the receiver. “It’s for you, Evie. A Mr. Daily Newsenhauser?”

Evie took the phone and said, “I don’t need an Electrolux, and I’m already a Colgate customer, so unless you’re giving away a mink, I’m afraid—”

“Heya, Sheba. How’s the Creepy Crawly?” T. S. Woodhouse said.

Evie turned her back on Will and the boys. “Spiffing. Mr. Lincoln’s ghost just asked me to tea. I do love a polite ghost. Clever moniker.”

“Daily Newsenhauser? I thought so.”

Evie placed a hand over the receiver. “An order I placed with a salesman at B. Altman. I won’t be a minute.”

“I don’t like your appropriating the museum’s telephone for personal calls, Evangeline,” Will said, but he didn’t look up from his stack of clippings.

“I take it you can’t speak freely?” Woodhouse said.

“You’re on the trolley.”

“Maybe we could meet.”

“Not likely.”

“Come on, Sheba. Play along with your old pal T.S. Got anything for me?”

“That depends. What do you have for me?”

“A story about the museum in tomorrow’s papers. A mention of one Miss Evie O’Neill. The very comely Miss O’Neill.”

Evie smiled. “Hold on a minute. Jericho,” she called. “I need to order unmentionables. Be a dear and hang this one up for me, and I’ll take it in Will’s office.” Evie scurried past Sam, who waggled his eyebrows in response to the word unmentionables. Evie gave him an irritated eye-roll and raced to the phone in Will’s office. “I’ve got it, Jericho dear.” She waited for the telltale click, then spoke in a hushed voice. “They think the killer might be involved with the Klan. A copy of The Good Citizen was found with Tommy Duffy’s body.”

“No kidding? Wouldn’t put it past those pond scum.”

“I know. Why, they’re even worse than reporters.”

“I like you, Sheba.”

“And I like what you can do for me, Mr. Woodhouse.”

“What else?”

“Nothing doing. I’ll expect that article first.”

“Evie, please do say good-bye,” Will instructed from the doorway.

Evie spoke cheerfully and loudly into the receiver. “Get yourself a mustard plaster and stay in bed, Mabesie darling, and you’ll be as good as new! I have to dash now. Ta!” Evie put the phone back in its cradle and turned to Will with a heavy sigh. “Poor lamb would simply be lost without me.”

Will looked puzzled. “I thought you were speaking to a salesman at B. Altman.”

“There were two calls!” Evie lied, smiling brightly. “Oh, Unc, honestly! Didn’t you hear it ring the second time? The sound in these old mansions isn’t what it could be, I suppose. Well, no matter. I heard it. What did you want, Unc?”

Will threaded his arms through the sleeves of his trench coat and put on his hat. “I’ve just received word from my colleague Dr. Poblocki at Columbia. That page you discovered has proved helpful. He’s found something significant after all. Well?”

Evie grabbed her coat.


Date: 2015-02-03; view: 738


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