Outside, I leaned against my car and waited for Steve. The case was sickening. The more distance I could put between myself and the various parties involved, the better. Hell, Steve could have the damn case.
You know, there was a moment in the house, in the basement, when I felt sorry for Hank Johnson. Assuming Pastor Ted told the truth, Hank genuinely struggled over doing the right thing. And then that minister had given him crappy advice. Yes, the decisions were ultimately up to Hank. And yes, he alone had to live with the consequences of his actions. But the man had gone to a religious leader seeking advice and encouragement, only to come away with a tainted soul.
When an honest man goes into a church seeking advice and comes away with the keys to a personal hell, religion becomes an enemy. I had been raised to see the church as the keeper of hope and salvation. But churches are run by mere mortals. Lowly humans that we are, we corrupt and lie. All of us.
I wanted to think my cynicism was the product of my own sins. The brand burned into the skin over my heart marked me as the servant of an undead fiend. I was damned; there was no redemption for me. So why should I believe in better things for anyone else? But I wanted to, needed to. Slivers of hope were the food that carried me through each day.
The Johnson case sickened me. I had to get out of Pampa. Let Steve handle the case. He didn't want me around anyway. Besides, I'd discovered enough about the haunting to aid anyone seeking to banish the spirit from the house. There was no reason for me to stay.
I pulled out my smartphone and checked my e-mail, hoping to kill some time until Steve came outside. Another e-mail from Absola, in Paris. I read it and frowned. Absy was getting in over her head. Maybe I should...no. I'd be crazy to fly out to Paris. There were a million reasons I shouldn't go. Several of those reasons had fangs and an insatiable blood lust. But the further I read the more concerned I became.
Steve finally came out of the house, the holy men following close behind him. They looked around, and Steve gestured for me to join them on the porch. I shook my head and pointed at the smartphone. I didn't care if they thought I was being rude. As a matter of fact, I was being rude.
The priest and pastor left the porch and crossed to the street to a small car. They climbed in, the priest pausing once to look back at me. I ignored him. They drove away and Steve crossed the street.
“What's your problem now?” he demanded as he drew close.
“Did Pastor Ted share his story with you?”
“Yes. So what?”
“So what? So what?” I stood up tall and glared at Steve. “Hank Johnson is remembered in this town as a hero for saving co-workers from the fire at the Celanese plant. Your own family remembers him that way, because he saved your father's life. But Hank could never see himself as a hero. He knew about the safety violations that culminated in the plant explosion. He accepted money to destroy evidence and keep quiet. Part of him didn't want to take the money. He even turned to his own pastor for advice. And the advice he received and followed corrupted his soul.
“Hank Johnson bought the house across the street with blood money. He grew to despise it. He rushed through his meals, anxious to be free of those walls. His hatred himself, and that hatred corrupted every relationship he had. Desperate to free himself from the sickness in his soul, he turned again to religious counsel. And what was he told? Give the church your blood money, and you'll feel better. But he didn't. How could he? Passing on money doesn't absolve guilt. So he sat there in church, staring up at the pastor who lied and misled him, hating the man and everyone else in the room.
“The communion platter came to him. Maybe he was so busy hating, he took too big a piece of bread from the platter. Perhaps he took a large chunk on purpose, seeking in the symbolic body of his savior forgiveness and peace. The bigger the bread, the greater the forgiveness. Whatever happened with the bread, Hank Johnson took his last communion that day. He died in a church overseen by a pastor who led him astray.”
Steve looked hard at me. “A lot of people made mistakes. You can't pin it all on Pastor Ted.”
“I'm not. I'm just letting you know what I've learned. Tell it to Father Blackman, and ask him to have another try at removing the ghost. I'm done here.” I turned away from Steve and unlocked the car door.
As I opened the door, Steve reached around me and gently shut it. “You can't walk away from Nora. I watched the two of you talking in the courthouse. She believes in you, trusts you. You can't abandon her.”
“There's nothing in this case that you can't handle.”
Steve dragged his fingers through his hair. “I'm not so sure of that,” he confessed.
It was a big concession on his part, and it almost swayed me. I looked at him for a moment then shook my head. “I have a friend who needs my help. I need to go to her.”
“Fine, but promise me that you'll come back.” Steve produced his own smartphone. Consulting it, he said, “The judge set a court date for early next month, assuming the settlement negotiations fell through. Which they have. Here, I'm e-mailing you the court date.” He looked at me again. “Promise me you'll be back then,” he said anxiously.
What could I do? He was family. I told myself that was the reason I acquiesced. “Fine. I'll be back in time for court.”
Steve nodded. “Give me a ride back to my hotel?”
“Sure. It's that or make you walk.”
We climbed into the car. As we drove away, a handful of faces peeked out of various windows in Alfredo's house. I waved, and a flurry of hands waved back.
“You should come and see the Nutcracker in December,” Steve suggested. “By now you know a good portion of the cast.”
“Maybe I will,” I said absently.
He looked over at me. “Who are you thinking about? Your friend, or our client?”
“Both. When I get back to the hotel I'm going to get in touch with someone who specializes in undead cases.”
“What's the nature of the person's specialty?”
“He's a ghost.”
Steve turned away. “I need to stop asking you questions,” he muttered.
“You'd better, if you don't like the answers.”