The wind drove sharp little pellets of rain against her face. It was growing cold; unseasonably so for September. Darkness encroached over the fresh grave where an hour ago a coffin had been lowered into the earth, containing the scant physical remains of one she had loved.
Bronze and purple chrysanthemums stood vigil over other graves, drooping before the lash of wind-driven rain. They looked as sodden and defeated as Valerie Mears felt. She was twenty-five years old, but grief added years to her heart.
Third funeral this year, she thought, trying to force this fact to penetrate her numbed understanding. Surely three was too many. Something had to be wrong.
The first two deaths had horrified her, but not devastated her as this had. There were suddenly so many variables, unanswered questions, and gray areas; this made it difficult to understand how to grieve, and her broken heart groaned all the more under the weight of uncertainty.
Alejandro Nieves had been among her best friends all her life; part of her now lay in the earth with him, shrouded forever in darkness.
The direct cause of his death was hideously clear: he lost a high-stakes game of Chicken on the tracks of the elevated train near Myrtle and Knickerbocker Avenues. The autopsy report said he’d been flying high on coke--a new habit--when he took his turn in front of the train and failed to make it off the tracks.
The train’s weight crushed bone to powder and burst organs, liquefying soft tissues and draining fluids, friction’s heat evaporating much of it on contact. There was hardly enough left of his body to fill an orange crate; the coffin was purely for show.
Valerie shivered inside her black wool coat. She knew this was a crisis point: if change was to come, she must take her part in bringing it now. The memory of Alejandro’s mother and sister standing over his grave with haunted, desperate eyes motivated her, but she was afraid.
Can I really do this? she wondered, blinking to clear her eyes of the rain. If only I were courageous, or had someone brave to support me.
“Had enough yet?” demanded a gruff yet kind voice, almost in answer to her thoughts.
“Moshe!” Valerie gave the big bear of a man beside her a shaky smile. “You startled me.” She looked down again at the grave. It distressed her that she had not yet been able to cry for Alejandro.
“C’mon, kid, you’ll catch pneumonia out here. Abby’s making soup.”
“She’s always feeding people.” Valerie laughed weakly, not resisting as he took her arm and propelled her toward his car.
“Sure, especially half-starved idiots like you.” He had a point, Valerie supposed; she could not remember when or what she had eaten last.
Moshe Levine drove his bedraggled passenger home with characteristic panache, displaying reckless disregard for every possibility of violent vehicular death. The fact that Valerie sat calmly, never wincing at the nearest misses, said more than words could about her state of mind.
“You didn’t answer me, Val. Had enough yet?” Moshe’s words were blunt, but his tone gentle.
“Ah, so you didn’t mean enough of the wind and rain,” she said, giving him a wry smile.
“This is life and death, like I told you before. You can get out of that hellhole, and odds are good you can bring a lot of others with you; it could save everyone the heartache of more funerals.”
Valerie heaved a sigh. “I know,” she admitted in a tiny voice, “but I’m so afraid.” She burst into tears, surprising herself as much as Moshe.
“Aw, don’t cry yet, c’mon, we’re almost home!” he protested. He reached over and gave her shoulder several awkward pats intended for comfort. This made Valerie laugh through her tears--she had not lost her sense of humor, and the man beside her never failed to appeal to it.
Abigail Levine was as different from her husband as it is possible for one person to be from another. She had a calming effect on her surroundings; just seeing her began to soothe Valerie’s aching heart. Warmed and fed, Valerie was able to relax.
“Who would believe a big ox like you could be an answer to unspoken wishes,” Valerie said to Moshe. “No offense, Abby,” she added.
“None taken, dear,” Abby replied with a smile.
Moshe bristled. “Nice! Insult me and apologize to my wife. There’s women for you.”
Valerie ignored this, her teasing smile erased by painful earnestness. “I wished--or prayed--right before you showed up. For strength, or someone with strength to support me.”
“You got it, kid,” Moshe said. “We’ve just been waiting for you to be ready. We’ll do whatever we can to help.”
They began to plan. Moshe and Abigail had a place already waiting for Valerie at a women’s shelter they ran in a small town upstate.
Abigail squeezed her shoulders. “The house is called ‘Marpei’, a Hebrew word that means ‘place of healing’. You’ll be assistant to Alice, the coordinator,” she explained. Valerie’s job as an office manager had honed her natural organizational skills; she was confident she would make a competent assistant. She accepted the post with gratitude.
Once she had made a clean break, involving traumatic confrontations of many varieties, Valerie transitioned into her new life. Soon after her first anniversary at Marpei, Alice retired and left Valerie to take over as coordinator.
When Valerie had been in charge at Marpei for almost nine months, her new nightmare began without warning. It came one Monday with breathtaking suddenness, encompassing in the folds of its morbid garments all the old horror she had thought she escaped.
At 5:59 that Monday morning, Javier Medina woke and shut off his alarm a minute before it went off. He wasted neither time nor energy, rising in a fluid movement and straightening the blankets.
He ran the few blocks to the edge of Forest Park where he began his regular four-mile run. He did this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings; Tuesdays and Thursdays he cut his route in half, those evenings being reserved for jiu-jitsu from six to nine at the Police Athletic League, where he coached as well as worked out. Physical exercise was a ritual he cherished, believing it kept him sane and stable, though it could not be said to keep him happy.
What did give him a sharp ache of something near joy was the park at this time of day: the low, silvery mist clinging to the ground, cloaking the ferns in rich robes and making graceful ghosts of the playground equipment, though it would soon be scorched away by the heat of the sun and city life. The early-morning silence slowly retreated before the onslaught of awakening creatures, the incremental increase in the hum and rumble of traffic, the growing bustle of commuters leaving for work. The tone of light changed as day arrived, tentative at first, then bold. The smell of earth was fresh, and perhaps in dreaming might forget it was now overrun, part of a small green patch in the midst of one of Earth’s hugest cities.
He was stepping into the shower when his phone buzzed stridently.
“Medina,” he answered.
“Body at 720 Woodbine Street, Bushwick. Sign out front says ‘Holiness Sanctuary’.”
“Thirty minutes,” Javier replied.
“What’ve we got?” Detective First-Grade Javier Medina asked his partner of two years, Detective First-Grade Derek Radcliffe, whom nearly everyone called ‘Cliff’.
“A mess, in the form of the mortal remains of a Reverend Robert James,” Cliff replied as they donned latex gloves.
The smell greeted them first, as it often did. This body was fresh, so it was not the smell of rot, but of something subtler yet equally unpleasant. Blood with a tang of metal, like the coppery smell and taste of fear.
Bennett, the uniformed officer who had been first responder at the scene, stood at the double doors facing the detectives up five stone steps to their right. Another door stood open on the left, from which a murmur of voices emanated. The sound, subdued as it was, disturbed the silence typical of murder scenes.
Bennett nodded, handing Cliff the clipboard with the log of everyone who entered. Two crime scene photographers were already here. They probably belonged to the voices in the other room.
Bennett ushered them to the scene of the crime, which until now had served the current tenants as a sanctuary.
Chairs stood in rows like sentries, divided by two aisles into three groups. A podium held center stage, two spotlights suspended from the drop-ceiling trained on it; the presence of high-powered lights directly above the body was convenient. There was significance to this centrality in the mind of the murderer, Javier thought. Those lights were now dark, but that would soon change.
Reverend Robert James sprawled against the podium at which he had stood to deliver his sermons. His limbs splayed awkwardly; rigor mortis appeared fully established, and had stiffened his fingers into claws. He resembled one of the many-jointed action figures his nephews played with, Javier thought, after they grew tired of it and tossed it onto the floor. The left leg was twisted beneath the body’s weight in a way that any living man would find tortuous.
Cliff, having emblazoned the scene on his mind while Javier made a thorough sketch, asked the photographers to wait a few more minutes while they searched for evidence.
“M.E. on the way?” one photographer asked. Cliff nodded.
The spotlights were switched on, illuminating the scene with a crescendo of light that Javier always felt, deep down, to be somehow indecent.
The alcove behind the podium had been shrouded in the dim, filtered light, but now sprang into view, sending the detectives a gruesome message:
“WOE TO THE SHEPHERDS” screamed foot-high letters of rusty brown on the wall.
Javier wiped a corner of the ‘W’ off, then sniffed his gloved finger. “Blood,” he confirmed, though they could not write this on their initial report; every medical point must be confirmed by the pathologist before being considered fact. “Frank, make sure you get some shots of this,” he called to one of the photographers.
They began their search, starting with the victim, lying mutilated in a congealing pool of bodily fluids. From there they would work their way outward.
There was a lot of blood splashed around the altar, much of it dry, some still tacky.
Dr. Rosalie Cesare arrived when the detectives had finished searching the area immediately surrounding the body. She was a trim, attractive woman in her early forties, curly brown hair cropped short. Her impeccable professional reputation as a twelve-year veteran of the Office of Medical Examiner made it difficult for Cliff and Javier to imagine what kind of person she was at home; they did know she brought to her grisly work incongruous elegance, mingled with a dry, gentle sense of humor.
She wasted no time getting to business. When she called the detectives over about fifteen minutes later, she announced, “Time of death between ten last night and four this morning. Probable cause, severance of the jugular with a long, serrated blade. Surprisingly clean job; possibly professional. I’ll have more for you, as always, after the post-mortem. Hopefully by the end of the day.”
“He’s got multiple slash and stab wounds,” Javier observed.
“Mortal blow was the one to the neck,” Dr. Cesare replied. “The gut wounds are relatively shallow, probably for effect. They have a different character than the slice to the neck; nothing clean or professional about them. I’d say whoever made those cuts just wanted to make more of a splash, if you’ll excuse the inevitable word-play.” She waved her assistant over. “Get a few samples from the letters on that wall,” she instructed. She contemplated the message for a long moment.
“The Weeping Prophet,” she said after a long pause. This was inexplicable to the detectives.
“Who?” Javier asked.
“Old Testament Jeremiah, Detective Medina. He’s called the Weeping Prophet. I believe this is a quote from his book.”
The detectives thanked her. She gave the order for the body to be bagged and removed from the scene.
“Janitor found the body; he’s waiting in the next room,” Cliff said.
The janitor was sitting in a room with two uniformed officers, yet he looked as alone as a pine tree in a desert. This was not due to discourtesy, but was often the natural effect on a witness who discovered a violent death.
Ricky Alvarez was a fifty-eight-year old long-time member of the church, quite shaken by the grisly discovery that had ambushed him this morning. His swarthy face was an unhealthy gray-green and his left eye twitched, though his voice was steady.
“How long has the church employed you, Mr. Alvarez?” Cliff asked, his tone impersonal yet soothing.
“Employed?” Mr. Alvarez appeared insulted. “The church don’t pay me. I volunteer. Twenty-one, twenty-two years now.”
“You’ve been here a long time. As long as Mr. James?”
"Reverend James come here ’bout nineteen years ago,” Mr. Alvarez corrected.
“Woe to the shepherds,” Cliff quoted, watching the elder man’s expression. Alvarez’s gray eyebrows contracted in a puzzled frown.
“What do you mean?” The question was hostile.
“I hoped you could tell me, Mr. Alvarez,” Cliff said with a confiding air. “Those words mean something to you? Anything at all?”
Ricky Alvarez shook his head. “Maybe something in the Bible?”
“Describe, please, what happened when you arrived this morning, Mr. Alvarez,” Cliff said.
“I came in like always--”
“Seven, my usual time.”
“The doors were locked?”
“Yeah, like always, like I said! I cleaned the bathrooms first.”
“Anything unusual in or about them?”
Alvarez seemed to hesitate before shaking his bald head with its monk’s tonsure of gray hair.
“You sure, Mr. Alvarez?”
“Nothing I can think of. Everything seems crazy or suspicious now when I look back; tough to remember what I really thought.”
“That’s understandable. Take your time.”
“Got the vacuum cleaner out and did the lobby twice. It gets real dirty with all the boots and shoes through here all the time.”
The detectives exchanged a glance. The contents of the vacuum bag would be examined, but any evidence was probably already destroyed.
Alvarez continued: “I opened the doors to the sanctuary, saw the Reverend by the pulpit. Thought he was praying at first, so I didn’t turn the light on; but when I got closer I saw the blood. Then I ran and called nine-eleven.”
“You didn’t check to see if he was still alive?”
“No. I knew he was gone to be with the Lord.”
“How did you know he was dead?”
“Nobody looks like that if their spirit’s inside their body.” It was a valid point, Javier thought. It was rare for death to be mistaken - it brought with it a peculiar atmosphere; an unfamiliarity that was perhaps more frightening than the death itself.
“Anything else strike you about the scene, Mr. Alvarez? Even if it seems like nothing, it may help.”
“Look. All I know is he’s all I saw in there. He was God’s true shepherd, and now he’s gone.” Ricky Alvarez’s eyes filled with tears, his jowls shaking in an attempt to retain dignity and composure.
Cliff sat forward, dark eyes intense yet dispassionate. But when he spoke, it was only to say, “Thank you for your time, Mr. Alvarez. Here’s my card--if you recall anything that might help us, anything you saw or heard, call me. You got a number we can reach you at?”
“I’m in the church directory,” Alvarez replied, waving at a table near the door on his way out.
“The wife next?” Javier asked. Cliff nodded. Each detective grabbed a directory on his way out.