Shoeshine Drop

To The Church On Time

I should have installed a watch unit at Mrs. Henley's, but calling me short handed would have been an understatement. I wasn't about to pull the detail off of The Drop and if I had tried to relieve them myself, everybody in my little corner of the world would have had a hissy fit. Aside from that, it was a Friday night and the football team was at home. We always keep two uniforms visible for those, one patrolling each side, to keep the peace. Loyal fans have been known to take a lack of law enforcement as an opportunity to turn the rowdy up a couple of ticks. It's usually nothing more than a couple of fans getting mouthy, but if left unattended, mouthy can turn to a scuffle. So, yeah. My hands were tied and I didn't have the resources at the moment to place a watch on Mrs. Henley.

I spent maybe ten minutes in my house after I left hers. I felt the urgency doubled in me after my conversation with her and seeing the shape she was in. All I wanted to do was grab a cold blueberry Pop Tart and rush over to the church.

On the way, I made sure my coms were all active; I didn't want to miss anything important and now everything seemed like it would be. My phone rang and it was Megan.

"Hey, cutie. What's up?"

Her voice sounded weak. "I don't feel well, so Rita told me to go home after she gets back from an appointment. Could you take me? I hate to ask you to do that, but I can't get in touch with Gina."

"It's no trouble. You got a bug or is this one of those pregnancy things?"

She laughed softly, attempting to humor me. "Pregnancy thing probably, but who knows? If I'm not over it by tomorrow morning, I'll go to the doctor. I might need a ride there, too, if Gina has a morning shift."

"You know I'm there for you - whatever you need. Should I come on now?"

"No, give it an hour. Rita ought to be back by then."

"That'll give me time to run the errand I was headed out to, but why don't you let me bring you back to my house for the night? It can be my turn to take care of you and that way if you need to see a doctor tomorrow, I'm right there to drive you."

"You're a peach. That sounds perfect."

We hung up and I felt good; needed. It hit me again that Megan and I were behaving like we were already married, or at least planning to be, and we were still yet to make the elusive first date.

Pastor Ford's pickup was parked in the spot that boasted someone's idea of a funny sign, which read Pastor Parking ... Unless you're Jesus.

I had taken off my tie earlier and unclamped the top button. Now I remedied that with a quick Windsor knot and the neck button fixed tightly at my throat. He wouldn't have cared one way or the other. He's a come-as-you-are type of preacher, but I could still hear mama in my ear. People do what people do, but you're MY son and you will look decent in the house of the Lord.

Yes, mama.

Pastor Ford met me at the back door with joyful vigor and led me into his office. He sat behind a big oak desk and I stood with my hat in my hands, held down in front of me like a disruptive child who's been sent to the principal's office.

"Have a seat, Marty. You're not in trouble or anything. You came to see me."

He's about my age, but stockier. Well, if I'm honest, plumper would fit better, but also taller - about 6 feet to my 5' 8". He wasn't always unhealthy, but he'd put on weight recently. He had a thick crop of brownish-blonde hair that he kept combed back and greased well.

"Sorry," I said and sat down on the other side the desk.

"Sorry for what?"

Might as well get the elephant in the room out of the way, I thought. "Well, for starters, you've probably noticed I haven't been in church much lately."

"I assume you're a busy man."

"Still."

"You do remember we're Baptists here, right? Not Catholics. You don't have to make a confession to me."

"I suppose I don't," I said, a little embarrassed.

"You want something to drink?" he asked and reached behind him to open a small mini-fridge stocked full with cans of Coca-Cola. He pulled one out for himself and waited for me.

I declined. I didn't need the cola and all he had was the full on sugary kind, nothing diet. He didn't need it either, from the looks of him. Most southern preachers I've ever seen were on the portly side anyway, due to the constant covered dish dinners and invitations to eat in the homes of the congregants. But he had the added dimension of what looked to me like a soft drink jones and that will put on the pounds quick.

"No, thanks," I said. "I don't have long and I have to pick someone up soon. I just wanted to get your thoughts on something and I warn you, it's gonna sound ridiculous."

"Let me guess," he said with a sideways smile. "It's about late nights, bachelorhood, a man's 'needs' and websites you ought to stay away from."

I was shocked that he would bring something like that up at all, much less right off the bat. "No, of course not," I said a tad too sharply.

He only laughed. "I'm sorry, Marty. I'm joking, but only half way. The sad truth is that when a man asks me for an audience, nine times out of ten he's confessing about a porn addiction. I didn't really expect that to be the reason for your call, but it helps to break the ice right off the bat."

"That's breaking the ice, all right."

"Well, it's a big problem, especially in the church."

It is a big problem and it's only getting worse. I'm asked every year to do a speech about it at Waterman High and believe you me, that's one presentation I never look forward to. When you're trying to get through to a bunch of giggly, immature high school students on a subject like the dangers of porn addiction and sex trafficking, you're fighting an uphill battle. That's not why I was sitting across from Pastor Ford though, trying to wear a face that didn't betray the guilt I felt for not being around on Sunday mornings.

"I wish it was something like that, but actually, it's an unseen realm kind of a thing."

His brow pinched together when I said that. It reminded me of the similar body language I got from Jim Taylor. It was a token of how seriously men of such devout Christian character take these issues.

Pastor Ford stood quietly and closed his office door, then walked back to his desk with timidity. When he sat back down, he swiveled his chair to the side and splayed the fingers of both hands beneath his chin. The posture seemed a bit overly dramatic for me, but I think it was what he did whenever he was trying to formulate a reply. It was just that I had yet to give him a single detail, but then he spoke and it made more sense.

"I don't know what you're about to tell me, but being that you're also a figure people tend to come to when they're nervous about something, I wonder if the uptick in requests to meet with me by certain members of the congregation might be stitched together with this one. I hope not for everyone's sake, but then again, maybe it'd be better if it was. Two birds with one stone, as they say."

"What are people wanting to meet with you about?" I asked. I knew it would be linked. I knew it.

"Loved ones, mostly. Folks seem to be acting out of sorts all of a sudden and there's concern, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. What otherworldly stuff brings the sheriff to my door?"

Folks seem to be acting out of sorts all of a sudden. I thought about Mrs. Henley and Gail - the unkempt living conditions that were highly uncharacteristic of either of them. There was Dudley's insane rambling at The Drop, too. Were we dealing with a ghost, a demon, or a disease?

"It's about what's been happening at Shoeshine Drop. I assume you're familiar."

Ford had been gazing into the corner, not at me. Now he sighed and lifted his face skyward, as if sneaking a private prayer into the conversation. "One stone," he whispered.

"Pardon me?"

"One stone. It looks like we may be killing that bird."

"How's that? You think your out of sorts congregants have something to do with The Drop?"

"So far, the people who have suddenly started acting strangely have all been associated in one way or the other to the Warren suicides."

"Who? I need to know."

"I suppose you should. I had a conversation with a concerned family member of Dudley Warren's -"

"He told me he didn't have anyone left."

"Nobody he cares about, but there are plenty that care about him. He's apparently holed up in his house and won't leave it. Jeannie Sorrells is another one. She's Jody Warren's great aunt. There's the kid Jody knew - Jarreth Holcombe - and a couple of others. All tied to the suicides. I don't remember every detail, but I wrote it down in a notebook. It's on my shelf if you want to see it."

"Don't bother. I might take a look at it later. You can add Doreen Henley to that list, though. I just left her house and something's wrong with her, too. She refused to let me help her and said she wouldn't go anywhere. I was planning to check in on her again later or send someone."

"Oh no, not Doreen." Pastor Ford looked like he might be about to cry. "She's one of our members. One of the sweetest people you'd ever want to meet. I should send one of our ladies over there."

"Send more than one. I'd rather no one go alone."

"Is that necessary?"

"She wanted to get violent with me. I almost wish she had so I could have had cause to get her help whether she wanted it or not, but she stopped short of that. I don't know that she'd stop a second time."

He nodded that he understood. I hadn't begun to give Ford the details I had to offer and I thought this was the perfect segue into it. He sat back and listened quietly while I told him almost everything. I had thought I might pick and choose the bits I considered he should know, but as I sat there in the office, being open and honest in front of the man God had chosen to lead His congregation, I ended up feeling like I ought to spill my guts. The only thing I left out was the video. They say confession is good for the soul and I guess they're right.

"I don't like the sound of that," he said dryly when I had finished.

"Which part?"

"Any of it. I'd be careful about labeling anything as demonic, though. There might be a perfectly logical explanation."

That was something I hadn't been expecting him to say. Jim Taylor had found nothing at all illogical about the spiritual nature of it. This man was a pastor. He practically bathed in the rivers of faith and spirituality, yet here he was cocking a figurative brow at the prospect of bringing up the supernatural. I had to press him now because as odd as it felt, the onus was on a man of the cloth to convince me there was not a devil in the details.

"I gotta say, that's not how I expected you to feel. Doesn't it seem to you there's more at play here than can be explained by logic?"

"You read me wrong, but I guess I can see why. Maybe I should have phrased it differently. Do you mind if I put my feet up?" He pointed below the desk. I told him I didn't mind and he grunted appreciatively as he brought his legs above it and let his shoes rest one crossed over the other. "I've been on 'em all day and the doctor advised me to keep 'em elevated as often as possible. I imagine you're a man who can relate."

I was and I still am. I know the euphoria of propping your feet up at your desk after a long day of walking on them, but I usually do it behind a closed door. It's more of an intimate than professional posture and in some cultures, showing another the bottoms of your shoes is an insult. I thought Pastor Ford either felt a kinship with me as a leader or was making himself comfortable for one brimstoner of a conversation.

"What's your take, preacher?" I asked once he got settled. "Because so far everything I've experienced points in the direction of your expertise."

"And it probably should. I'm not throwing out Jim Taylor's theory. I know Jim and he's a smart man. But what I am saying is that you need to cancel out all other possibilities before you go jumping into a scenario most people aren't equipped to handle. You sure you don't want a Coke or something?"

"I'm still good, but thanks anyway."

"Alright," he said and downed the rest of his before reaching to pull another out of the fridge behind him. Then he shifted his feet on top of his desk, trading their positions from top to bottom. There was dry mud caked on his shoes and small clumps of it rained to the surface of the desk, which he either didn't notice or chose to ignore. "Marty, I actually do hear from people about this sort of thing and there's almost always a scientific explanation. Of course, I did say almost always. There are times when science doesn''t offer a satisfactory answer."

I harkened back to my conversation with Jim and the squirrels in the walls story. It seems even men of great faith rightly look for a tangible solution before calling it God or Satan, but I needed further explanation of a pastor's grip on tangible. It went against everything mama had ever taught me about the division between science and faith, but then again mama was the polar opposite of Pastor Ford. Mama - a woman who praised God or blamed the devil for everything that happened.

"I wouldn't have thought a southern baptist preacher would hold to such a progressive attitude toward science."

"Why not? Nowhere in the Word does it say we should ignore advancements in understanding. In fact, when it comes to the things we believe, we're told to always be ready to make a defense. That includes understanding when it's God letting His creation work the way He made it to, which is science, and when He steps in and makes it happen contrary to the way He originally planned it, which is where faith comes in. For instance, God made wood to be wood. A staff made of wood starts as a small tree or the branch of a larger one, then man steps in, takes it and makes it into a staff. That's all it can be if it stays tethered to the confines of the nature of wood. We'd call that man made, but it started with a miracle - the creation of that tree. There's further science we can look to that embelishes the history of the tree all the way down to the seed and beyond, but by the time you get to the very first element, you still have the miracle of creation. However, remember the staff of Moses that turned into a snake, then back to a staff? It's in the Old Testament if you want to look it up and the original language is not allegorical. It's presented as a literal thing that happened. Anyway, that is God bringing things out of science, into the present time realm of faith and miracles. God created science as the how of reality. God and science are intricately interwoven."

I'd never thought about it that way. Like I said, mama spurned scientific thought, no matter how sound it seemed to be. She often accused experts of being too big for their britches. I guess her rejection of much change and her habit of turning off completely whenever anyone offered a scientific theory to something she'd always simply taken on faith made me a bit of a segregationist myself. At least, that is, when it came to science and God. And while I had made a spiritual commitment at an early age, I was starting to understand why I had been shying away from the church for so long. I thought all or most of the people who went there on a regular basis were pretty much like mama. The idea that the message might not be as closed minded as I thought and that there were answers that had been in the Bible the whole time intrigued me. I took my note pad and pen from my shirt pocket. "What's that verse, pastor, if you don't mind? The one about being ready."

"1 Peter 3:15. But honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you."

I jotted down the book and verse number and hoped I'd get the chance to check it out later for myself. It would be the first time in a long while that I cracked the spine of my own bible, but I wanted to read everything in the chapter above and below the verse. One thing I had taken with me from church as a boy, when I couldn't construct a way to wangle out of going, was to always look at the full context before you go spouting scripture you know little about. I trusted Ford and by the way the verse from 1 Peter was delivered, I doubted it had any further meaning.

"Back to The Drop, then," I said, clapping my notebook shut and stowing it back in my pocket. "My research has been exhaustive and some of the evidence I have, which I apologize is not something I'm at liberty to discuss yet -" He raised his hand, letting me know that he understood. "Some evidence is compelling enough to convince me it's got an otherworldly flavor. I used the word demonic because I figure it's language that'll speak to you and it's a word more people than Jim Taylor have brought up."

"Mmm hmm," he hummed, thinking something preacherly to himself.

"Then there's my vision and also Megan's."

Pastor Ford pulled his feet from atop the desk and sat forward with his elbows propped there now and his fingers laced. "That part. I can't say one way or the other about this additional evidence you have, but there is no way to prove that Megan's was anything more than a dream and yours a hallucination. That's where I mean for you to be careful because if what you're saying is true and there's a demonic presence at play in our back yard, you've got to be one hundred percent sure."

"I came here hoping you'd get me a step closer to a plan, but I'm starting to think I'm further away from one."

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

"That a proverb," I asked, knowing I'd heard it a million times, but not sure where it came from. It sounded like something from the Bible.

"It's from a poem called, To A Mouse by Robert Burns. Fits though, doesn't it?"

"Almost always for me lately," I agreed. "Can you help me at all?"

"I can try, but let me do something first. I can't take my mind off Doreen. I'm worried about her. Do you mind holding on a second?"

"Whatever you need to do."

Pastor Ford got up and walked to the door, opening it a crack, and hollered into the hall. "Mrs. Peck, are you still in the office?" From somewhere down the corridor, I heard her return. Yes. "Would you come down here to see me and Sheriff Reese for a minute?"

Ford left the door ajar and sat back behind his desk while we waited for her. I could feel my mouth getting dry, so I decided to take him up on his offer and asked for a Coke. He reached behind him and grabbed one from the mini fridge and even popped the tab before handing it over to me. I was pleased that he didn't pick out another one for himself.

In short order, Mrs. Peck popped her head through the door and looked around as if the invitation weren't quite good enough and she needed to make sure she wasn't interrupting anything. Ford waved her in.

She meagerly pushed the door open and scooted into the room, beaming when she saw me, although Ford had told her I was there. That was her way. A greeting from Mrs. Peck always seemed like the first time. She was one of Waterman's unappreciated treasures. Once upon a time, she'd been a teacher, but she eventually moved away from that when a position at the church opened up. It was for the best. The kids walked all over her and relentlessly made fun of her because they knew they could. She spoke softly and rarely raised her voice. She was one of the meek that would be inheriting the earth. I'd seen the cruelty first hand when I was a Senior in high school. I felt sorry for her after watching how my friend Durm and the others treated her and took it upon myself to sit with her at lunch one day. I took a lot of flack for that from the other kids, but it was worth it. I learned a lot about her that day. She was an only child and her mother had died young. Her daddy had raised her, but he worked a lot and so she found company within the pages of books. That never left her because if you couldn't find her at the church, you'd like as not catch her at the library, tucked into a dark corner, cozied up to a volume about World War history or maybe a novel by Dickens. I learned a lot about myself that day in the lunchroom as well. I learned I'm a protector and I think right then was the moment I knew I wanted to spend my life in some sort of service to people.

Mrs. Peck sort of took a liking to me after that and turned a blind eye to some of the minor things I did, like being tardy or talking during tests.

"Do you think you could go visit Doreen Henley at her home? Sheriff Reese was just there and thinks maybe she could use a woman's touch."

"My goodness, is everything alright?"

"I don't think so, but she wouldn't let me call anyone," I said. Mrs. Peck placed a palm to her chest. "I was going to check on her again when I leave here and see if maybe she'd changed her mind, but I doubt it. Maybe a couple of ladies from the church could persuade her to let a doctor take a look."

"I'll go right away," she said and turned toward the door.

"Mrs Peck," Ford stopped her. "Find someone to go with you."

"Two," I interjected.

"Find two someone's."

Mrs. Peck disappeared into the hall and I hoped she'd be able to handle what she was about to walk into. It felt like we were sending her into the den of some creature and a spark of guilt lit in me. That voice of reason that drives my better judgement seemed muffled so that it was hard to comprehend whether any of my decisions now were the right ones, but under the circumstances, sending a crew of ladies Doreen likely thought of as friends was a logical delegation. When Mrs. Peck was gone from the office, we settled back into the important business at hand.

"What's going through your mind, pastor? It's out there now and you've got to be standing on one side of the fence or the other. Either I'm another biblically illiterate blow hard who's made more out of this than there really is, or I've struck at least a small nerve. You're hard to read."

"I'm trying to work out what I can do. My place is here at the church, or the hospital, or in homes. You're the battlefront guy. The one who's supposed to keep us safe. We're both servants of the people, but I'm afraid all I could do is advise. Otherwise, I'd be in the way."

"That's all I need you to do. I'm not recruiting an army here."

He wiped his face from top to bottom with a hand, as if the motion would give him some clarity.

"We undoubtedly have a problem in Waterman. These experiences you've had, coupled with what I've heard from the people I've met with, seem to make it obvious. But whether it's spiritual in nature, or maybe something viral - I'm still not clear about that part."

I thought I might have to show him Jarreth's video after all. It was the only tangible evidence I had. "What would it take to get you to lean my way? What happened to me —"

"Is a chilling story and I don't doubt for a second that you believe it really happened. It'd make for gold around a campfire, but you were the only one there. You were unconscious when they got to you, so how can you be one hundred percent positive it wasn't a dream brought on by something else?"

"And what about Dudley Warren?"

"Again, the only one there and he was dealing with the psychological effects of having just lost his son, then his wife, both at that very place."

"Megan —"

"Yet again, it could have been a dream. You said yourself she woke up in her own bed. Sheriff Reese, I'm all for getting to the truth, but when your arguments are so easily explained away, you have to see where I'm coming from."

I slumped in my chair. I was lost. Struggling for purchase in a mire of quicksand that was already over my head. I knew the danger for what it was, but I was powerless to warn others. They'd laugh at my explanation and only start to realize what was happening when they, themselves, had sunk too far to get free. Pastor Ford could tell where my head was.

"You might also be right about all of this, you know. The problem is that you're looking at it from the perspective of a victim, but you're the investigator and you need to remember that, no matter how personal it gets. Gather evidence enough to bring about a guilty verdict. Are you sure there's nothing you've forgotten to mention that couldn't be explained away by hallucination?"

There was. The video. But I wanted to keep that up my sleeve. It wasn't that I looked at it as my ace in the hole, but then again, wasn't it exactly that?

"Now's as good a time as any," I said under my breath and relented to share the one thing that, should it ever get out, could cause a scene of chaos in Waterman I was not equipped to control.

"What's that?"

I sighed heavily and ran a hand through my greasy hair. "There is one thing I'd hoped to keep from having to show anyone. The thing I told you I wasn't at liberty to share."

Ford cocked his head sideways and I pulled out my cell. I'd had Simmons send me a copy of Jarreth's video and I pulled it up.

"Watch this," I said. "I had a preliminary authentication done and it came back clean. No tampering. I'll send it further if I have to, but you'll see why I'm hesitant to do that just yet. I'd like to know we're alone first, though. This stays between us."

"We're alone," he promised. "What am I about to see, Marty?" He'd turned white, as if he'd thought he called my bluff and somehow I had drawn an ace I'd had hidden up my sleeve. I started to believe he bought what I was selling more than he let on.

"It's a video of Jody Warren a couple of days before he died, taken by his friend, Jarreth. They're at The Drop."

"Jarreth," he said absentmindedly, inwardly, connecting the dots.

"Why do you say it that way?"

"Mrs. Holcombe came to see me day before yesterday. She was worried about Jarreth."

"You mentioned him earlier." My senses tingled. "Worried about what?" I sat forward in my chair. It was a subconscious effort to take a defensive position, but he might be about to give me something more; maybe something I didn't like.

"I don't even know why she came to me instead of her own pastor or someone else from the church she goes to. The Holcombe family doesn't attend here anymore." He paused and stared ahead. You would have thought he forgot I was there.

"Pastor Ford?"

"Yes?" He asked blankly. My phone dangled loosely at his fingers, threatening to fall to the floor.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"Then are you stalling?"

"No. Putting two and two together, I suppose."

"And what are you coming up with?"

"Not four. He shook the moths out of his head and looked at me. A dour, haunted expression camped out on his face and I could tell that as hard as he was kicking against the goads, he was beginning to see more probability in my theory. He continued. "The more pieces that fall into place, the less sense the puzzle makes." He chugged what remained of his current Coke and crushed it in his paw, then tossed it into the corner behind him. It made a metallic clank as it struck first the wall, then bounced to the floor, missing the trash can I assumed was there.

"Now I see why you went into the ministry," I joked, hoping to lighten the mood, which had gone fast from at worst, deeply conversational, to a little surreal. "I'm surprised the Hawks didn't sign you, though." I leaned sideways to see around the desk and there was no trash bin where the can had been thrown, just a growing pile of old, crushed soda cans spreading out from the corner like an aluminum creature. Some of the cans hadn't been quite empty when he sent them there and dark tendrils of liquid pooled in sticky spills onto the carpet. The stain would be impossible to clean, but the carpet wasn't what caused my heart to jump in my chest as I looked at it. It was the whole picture and the realization of what it might mean.

"Mrs. Holcombe came in here crying," he said and I straightened in my chair, praying he hadn't noticed that I had noticed the mess. "She wanted my advice on how to deal with Jarreth. He's been going through a difficult time because of Jody, and then Gail. He didn't know Mrs. Warren very well, but he'd been over to the house enough to have developed a love for her as Jody's mother. She told me Jarreth rejected her pleas for details, but that he kept saying there was something evil out at Shoeshine Drop. At that time he was refusing to come out of the house. He was depressed and filthy. I don't know if any of that's changed or not."

I cut my eyes to the corner behind his desk. I couldn't see the mess on the floor because it was obscured when I sat upright in my chair, but I didn't need to see it to feel an expanding sense of dread working its way through every nerve. A pile of filth in the corner of the pastor's office. Out of place. Odd behavior.

"Watch the video, pastor. I'm going to sneak off to the bathroom while you do, because frankly, I don't want to have to listen to it again. When I get back, we'll talk about theories."

I didn't give him a chance to respond, but got up and walked into the hall, thankful to be out of the room. It was starting to feel claustrophobic. I stepped to the end of the hall and out the back door of the main offices of the church to get some fresh air. Leaning against the bricks outside, I wondered if the wall would be stout enough to support the weight I bore. I didn't know if he would even watch the video. It seemed a little like he was hesitating and I hoped I didn't have to make him if I went back in there and found him frozen in another one of those out-in-space trances, his finger still hovering, but unengaged above the play button. After a couple of minutes, I reentered the building and pressed through the men's room door on the right, but not before I caught a clip of sound further down. It was Jody screaming for his mommy. It hit me harder than it had before, maybe because whatever it was that held him there, suspended above The Drop, was real to me now. I had given the conductor my ticket, against my will to be sure, but I got on the train and I rode that missile right through a nightmare.

I couldn't take it this time. I felt bile rise from the bottom of my stomach and there would be no holding it back. I slammed the door forward and barely made it to the lone stall and the blessed porcelain bowl it housed before my gorge came up. Kneeling there sent my memory back to me sitting against the door of my cruiser, just before I blacked out. I was overcome with dizziness and the overwhelming feeling that I controlled nothing in this, not one tittle. Once I was done heaving, I rinsed my mouth at the sink twice and blew my nose to get out any of it that had made its way there. My can of Coke would be waiting for me on the desk and I would drink it with passion to get the taste out.

When I walked back into the office, I took a real look around for the first time. Before, there had been no reason to scope it out, but now I wasn't so sure and I was correct in that assumption. There were gum wrappers strewn about, but nothing you'd really notice unless you were looking for it. A couple more cans here and there took up space in places they shouldn't have and a half eaten sandwich that had crusted over and swarmed with flies lie forgotten on the top shelf of the bookcase. My senses took another shot, but it was more than a tingle then.

Pastor Ford was standing with his back to me as I walked in, looking morbidly out through a big picture window on the back wall to the left of the desk. It would let in all of the glory that was the eastern light of the morning. I wondered if the room had been designed that way. If I were a pastor, I'd want to be filled with that light every morning to charge my heart and make me ready for the flock. He stared out, shoulders slumped. He heard me come in; I could tell by the way he flirted with turning his face to me, but only so. He otherwise ignored me. My phone had been placed in my chair like some banished thing he couldn't stand to have even touching his desk.

"What's happening, Marty?" He finally whispered.

"I came here to ask you that."

He only shook his head like there was nothing to say. At his feet, I noticed a trash bin where he'd gathered the cans from the corner and stowed them.

"Do a little cleaning while I was gone?" It looked like maybe something had clicked inside him after watching the video. A trigger. A cue. It was a relief to see after the thoughts that buzzed like angry bees in my mind. Either Pastor Ford's messiness had nothing to do with the similar things I'd seen at Gail's and Doreen's or there was hope that whatever had come over them was something a person could be snapped out of.

"You ever ignore your gut, Marty? Not because what its telling you is ridiculous, but because to pay any heed to it means facing something you're afraid of and it's just easier to rationalize it some other way?"

"I used to, back when I was green, but at least in law enforcement, that's a prescription for disaster."

He turned around toward me and pointed at my cell phone. I had been holding it in my right hand in case he needed a second look. "You say that's been authenticated? And your guy's positive?"

I found it rather cheauvanistic to assume my tech was a guy, but I wasn't there for a debate and he didn't mean anything by it in the first place.

"My guy suggested I send it to GBI for a second opinion, but he's sure. He went over every tiny detail."

"And you trust his judgement?"

"Implicitly."

"And I trust you," he sighed and dropped into his seat. He searched absentmindedly behind him and opened the door to his mini fridge, then stopped his hand, which was poised to retrieve the third Coke since I'd been there. He considered his hand, frozen in place as if he'd tapped a mental pause button. Then he looked to his right, under the big picture window where the trash bin sat spilling over with a thousand of those cans. He thought about it for a moment and exhaled deeply when he came to his conclusion. Instead of grabbing another Coke, he allowed his hand to push the fridge door shut, then smoothed out something invisible over the top of his desk. "Sheriff, even preachers need a reality check once in a while. I've gotten lazy. Fat in the middle, thanks to those," he nodded sideways in the direction of the fridge, "and disgusting. Of course, it's foolish to blame the Cokes, isn't it? I made the choice to choke them down like they were necessary to life. It's my little vice, but it's done damage enough." He nodded toward the trash bin. "I'm sorry you had to see what a slob I've become. That's not normally the way I operate."

"You think it'll be as easy to snap to for any of the others who have caught a touch of ... whatever this is?"

Pastor Ford laughed. "I had hoped I'd veiled my thoughts, but I guess it won't help us any if we're not honest. To answer your question, I don't know. I just recognized a connection after watching your video. If this is really happening - and I'm convinced now that it is - I think demonic is the word of the day."

"Great."

"Well, I don't think we were ever gonna get away from that. It is what it is. I believe the things people call ghosts or poltergeists - haints, my gramma used to call them - have always been demons. It doesn't seem like this one's confined to The Drop, though. It appears to be able to go places, or at least ride to them."

"What do you mean?" I asked. I hadn't mentioned my own ride when I told him about my vision.

"I think maybe people who experience The Drop without paying the ultimate price still take home a parting gift. Something that changes them. Dudley's family is watching him close right now because of things he said in the last couple of days. Jarreth is acting like the world has come to an end and I think it might be catching; able to be passed from person to person like a malevolent virus. Who knows how long the chain has grown by now?"

"What about me? If your theory is correct, why aren't I depressed or throwing my trash on the ground?" I asked and wiped at a wrinkle on my shirt to show just how tidy I still liked to be.

"That's what scares me most. If I am right, maybe your experience was part of a strategy. If Tom Renault or the demon posing as him found you to be strong enough, maybe it has different plans for you."

"Different how?"

"Sheriff Reese, I think you're a carrier."

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