An Alfa rises…
You can’t win this fight. You have no idea who you’re up against.
Jesse’s words from the previous day ricocheted between Calanthe’s skull. The conversation had started off fluffy and pleasant, but here was Oklahoma’s writer in the Redwater First Baptist administrative building, an intruder in the night searching for something not his. Well, kind of not his.
Lightning detonated beyond the glass doors at the end of the hallway, and the flashes on the poster frames strobed down the corridor. Calanthe squished against the textured wall while thunder thrummed vibrato through the structure, and that, he’d decided, would be his excuse for shivering. Congregants of this specific cult should be asleep or preparing for the next day’s services, but either way, they were home - though more likely, the leaders of the hierarchy were tithing down at The Redwater Swell, the strip club out by the lake.
In front of Tripp Goode’s office, Calanthe poised the key, clicked his flashlight on, and assaulted the knob as he missed the keyhole. He stopped. The hinge creaked; the door retreated into the cave.
What you need is in there, in his office. An old pamphlet. The cover is green ink with an embossed Medusa.
Calanthe turned back to the hallway and turned the flashlight off while he flattened against the wall. He stepped slowly, carefully, just in case someone was in the building. Chances were, Goode’s office door hadn’t been shut the day before, but until Calanthe knew for sure…
At the end of the hallway now, peering out into the dark parking lot, he sighed. Nobody was here, just he alone.
A pair of halogen lamps penetrated the veil of rain, exposing the drops as strings of a curtain. The writer was in the shadows, but he advanced as quickly as an atrophied turtle crawling backwards underwater. His eyes turned quick and sharp (Strain pain! he thought), and he winced. His head caught up to his vision, and while the vehicle reversed, the light reflected from the side of the building, lighting up the emblem, a red cross and green snake. The bright red of brake lights dominated the wall opposite of Calanthe, and then the SUV was gone. It wasn’t a car he could recall, not from commercials nor movies. Had he been familiar with the brand, he’d have noticed it sitting outside the restaurant as Jesse handed him the building keys.
He stalled before retreating along the wall to the main office. The percussion of the precipitation bounced around the interior, a rhythmic pinball of plummeting rain and occasional thunder through the hall. Nearing the office, his shirt snagging on the uneven paint, his hands and arms were barraged by the needle-pricks produced by either high adrenaline or anticipation. The portal of Tripp’s lair now in front of him, he shook his hands before pulling his flashlight from his pocket. Heaving his chest, he slammed into the darkness, into a new fear, and now the door was closed, locked, and the writer-turned-sleuth exhaled.
Calanthe turned into the room and clicked the flashlight on, sprinted around the Freudian behemoth of a desk, but as he searched the blotter, there was no pamphlet. He pulled the drawers open, shoving his hands inside, frantic and desperate.
It’s not here, he thought. Jesus, where is it? Maybe I missed it…
Calanthe searched again, panic now just another fuel. With the flashlight pointed at the desk, his mind zapped as if struck by lightning, his plan, his thoughts, his confidence; they all shorted out, gone. He didn’t expect the envelope to be here, but the pamphlet was said to never have left this office. He shone the light on the walls, on the couch, the floor…
On the well-trod carpet was a little tin box, but…no, it wasn’t right somehow. The pieces of alloy were splintered; smashed and broken. Calanthe bent to one knee and touched the metal.
Wood. Painted to look like…a tin lockbox.
Papers and photos, trinkets of repression and humanity, fanned across the floor. Calanthe picked up the photos. In one was a man in probably his mid-twenties, shirtless with his arm wrapped around another man in a purple speedo, and when Calanthe squinted, the image coalesced of a young yet undeniable Tripp Goode. Was this taken in the seventies? The next picture was the same, only the unidentified man was kissing the smiling pastor on the cheek. It was surely the only evidence of the man smiling from within. He flipped through the rest, and the receipts next in line commandeered his focus. They were bank statements, records of money transferred from the Goode account into another account. Mrs. Goode had been just as busy as her husband. Was she stealing this much money? Jesus Christ! That’s a lot! he thought. But, then why would Tripp be hiding this? Tax purposes, maybe? Signs of scandal?
Near the middle of the batch was the green cover of the pamphlet. No longer attached to the booklet, it took a writer to recognize this ink was poisonous. The delicate cover looked just as Jesse had described, but it was adorned with an evolutionary chart of quotation marks. Wait, not quotes, they were a language, maybe Hebrew. Whoa…this wasn’t just a booklet about snakes; no, it was an artifact, an instruction manual as old as…what, the pyramids? He shoved the cover into his back pocket.
Further into the stack were letters, incriminating but not what Calanthe was hunting. Someone had been here. Of the two items for which he’d broken into this church, he’d found neither.
Thunder boomed through the walls, and Calanthe dropped the pile of papers and jerked into a defensive stance, stiff and alert. Okay, even though there was so much the writer could snatch as the foundation to Goode’s downfall, what he searched for wasn’t here, and it was time to go. He was already pushing his luck, and his tongue was sticking to the roof of his mouth just in time for a fountain Cherry Dr. Pepper.
He was outside the office now, his legs as pistons on the floor as he exited from the rear of the building, checking behind him. There was nobody, but still…
Sarah took in the view of the storm from behind the safety of the large window in her bedroom, the brush sliding through the film of conditioner binding her slick hair while electric arcs exploded and the field beyond burst into uncomfortable and somehow shadowy light. Within the unstable flickers, the trees waved their branches into the wind like an excited kid on a roller coaster, the pond just beyond them hidden by rain. Rivulets snaked along the saturated ground. It wouldn’t be long before officials opened the dam between Port DeSoto and Fort Minerva to send this water south, maybe even as soon as tomorrow.
The pastor’s wife dropped the brush onto the table beside her bed and picked up her phone. Just an unread message from Nadine. She moved her finger as if to read it, but she stopped. Nadine had been laying the pressure on to leave Goode, to start the life together Sarah’d always pictured. The last of the money was transferred at the beginning of the week, and her account was sufficient so the forlorn lovers could be together, away from Oklahoma and somewhere with a warm, pink sunset and overpriced drinks with cheap, plastic garnishes. Now that Tripp knew about the money…
Could she do it? Could she escape Tripp and their horrible daughter, that creepy father-daughter clique they had? Even tonight, at dinner, the two of them left Sarah on the outside. Sarah had always been on their outside. She was still on the outside, and did she really expect that to change? Hadn’t she read somewhere that was a sign of psychosis, to insist on delusion instead of evidence? Maybe the bond between the two couldn’t be untethered, even with the secret of Elizabeth Regine’s real father just behind Sarah’s lips.
But what if Nadine was a delusion, also? There was no guarantee life would work out, that they would be married and bathed in bliss. At this point, there was no other plan and no backing down now. He’d already tracked the account she’d opened under a fake name, thrusting the statements into the skin of her face. The fortitude of the folded paper bore and tore into her skin, blood leaking from her nose. The characterization she’d began four days before their wedding and two days after he’d crushed her shoulder and put her unborn son in a minuscule coffin held strong tonight, a brilliant performance of apologies and broken sentences. She looked across the room at herself in the mirror.
She picked up the hairbrush and pitched it into the glass, the sharp crack piercing her skull like thunder and lightning together, an abrasive energy scraping through the room as a wave. Her reflection was gone, just piles of smashed and useless glass, and, speaking of useless, was Sarah Goode not the definition even with the strength she carried from day to day to month to life? Sure she had money, but now Tripp was wise to her antics, and he could very well control her future. There was so much power in her grip just hours ago, but nothing was definite.
She roared, standing as she brayed into the room and into herself, her fingernails entrenching into her sweaty palms, and she stomped to the closet where she found a t-shirt and jeans. Her robe on the floor, she pulled the clothes across her sensitive flesh. Since menopause, it was not uncommon to spigot sweat, for her skin to feel as if she had sponged the wetness with crumpled foil. She bullied her feet into shoes and stormed from the closet, through her room, the soles of her slip-ons crunching on the mirror’s corpse of shards - or maybe now it was her life - until she was downstairs in the living room. The larger-than-necessary window beckoned the flashing light from the weather, pulling it into the cavern and backlighting the pastor’s wife, and now she looked like a crazy person as she clawed the wall where she and Tripp stashed their car keys. They weren’t there.
That son-of-a-bitch! she thought. He took my keys. He went to the Swell with my Alfa Romeo keys. Damn it!
She turned to the window as a plan begging for manifestation seeded itself. She shivered, the idea of something so sinful, so disgusting not only coming to her, but a fully developed plan. Right in her lap.
Could she? Could Sarah…murder…Tripp Goode?
Electricity popped again from the sky, and the sapling just to the side of the window waved its branches with breezy zeal, an excited muppet communicating to the other trees with mimicry. Were there more leaves on the plant than she’d realized? It happened fast this time of year, grass and ivies and trees stretching out, encompassing more space than the previous year. Sarah tilted her head and bit her bottom lip while she tip-toed closer to the window, just needed to see what her mind wouldn’t glue together. There was no way the sapling could be seen through and yet solid, and…there was something else…
She pressed her nose against the glass. Thunder blasted in the distance as a pair of red dots appeared an inch away from her face on the outside. The ellipses swayed, a different tempo than the wind, and Sarah squinted.
The face holding the eyes hit the glass, two strikes as smooth and quick as lightning.
Sarah stepped back. Maybe because of the eyes or the fangs, or maybe because of the way her brain fit these pieces together, she screamed.