Read True Believers Online

Authors: Jane Haddam

True Believers

TO KARIN SLAUGHTER,
in honor of the fact that she managed to make me crazy every single day for three straight years
Anybody who has ever written a book knows that nobody can write a book—no one person, that is. If you try to do something like this alone, you end up looking like an idiot.
This time, I've received the help of many people who prefer not to be acknowledged publicly. They got me clippings on priest pedophilia cases from one end of the U.S. to the other, and local newspaper reports on anti-gay activism from Florida to Kansas. I thank them all.
A special thanks is due to all the people at St. Martin's Press, including my editor, Keith Kahla, and Teresa Theophano, the best editorial assistant in the history of the planet. Keith has been a welcome and knowledgeable ear—and voice—in my continuing struggles with this series. Teresa has suffered valiantly through my neuroses (I've got lots) and cheerfully dealt with the fact that the word “technoklutz” was invented for me.
Finally, I need to thank my sons, Matthew and Gregory DeAndrea. They keep me the opposite of sane … but who wants to be sane, anyway?
THE OUTWARD AND VISIBLE SIGN …
1
It was still full dark when Marty Kelly left home, so dark that there were halos around all the streetlights, as if the lights had metamorphosed into miniature blue moons. For a while, it seemed odd to him that he should be standing out here in the night like this. He'd done enough of this kind of thing in his life, in spite of the fact that he was only twenty-six, but all the other times he'd been anything but stone-cold sober.
“Alcoholics,” Bernadette had told him, the first time he'd brought her to this place. “Alcoholics and druggies. This place is full of them.”
At the moment, this place was full of nothing. Marty could see with perfect clarity down the long alley between the trailers, and there wasn't so much as a light on in one of the living-room windows. Even Marty's own mother seemed to be asleep. Marty shifted from one leg to the other, put his hands in his pockets, tried to think. If Bernadette found out that Geena's trailer was dark, she'd want him to go down and check. It was Friday night. Geena worked on Friday nights, if she was able—and for some reason she still got work, almost as much of it as she'd gotten when Marty was small and her face had looked less like a piece of onionskin that had been crumpled into a ball and thrown into a wastepaper basket. In those days, the men had come in the afternoons as well as at night, and when they did Geena would shove Marty into the back bedroom and fix the door so he couldn't get out. If the man was fast, it didn't matter. If he wasn't, Marty would find himself sitting on the bedroom floor for hours, hungry, bored, ready to explode. When he had to relieve himself, he would
get an empty beer bottle out from under the bed and go in that, praying like crazy that he didn't have to relieve himself in the other way. When the fights started, he would wedge himself into the small closet and shut the door, hoping like hell that nobody would find out he was there. Every once in a while, the fights got bad enough to make somebody notice. Something would crash through the living-room window. Something would spill out into the alley where other people could see. Then the police would come, and he would have to hide even more carefully. He would have to practically stop breathing. If the police found him, they would call the childprotection people, and that was the very worst thing of all.
“She might be sick,” Bernadette would say, if she were standing out here next to him. “One of those men who visit her might have done something to her. You can't just leave her alone. You have to go see.”
Marty turned back to look at the truck. Bernadette was sitting upright in the passenger seat, her seat belt already on, her eyes closed. Her sense of duty was one of the things he loved most about her, mostly because he'd never met anybody else who had it. Bernadette believed that wives cleaned house and got dinner for their husbands. Their trailer was always spotless, and if she had to work late and couldn't be there when he got back from the station, she left a covered dish in the refrigerator with instructions for him to heat it in the microwave. Bernadette believed that good people went to church on Sunday and that they did more for their church than sit at Mass looking holy. She volunteered for two different missions, and helped out at the Episcopalian church across the street when they had need of it. She hadn't even seemed to mind that most of the people at the church across the street were gay. Bernadette was holy, but she wasn't one of those people who had her nose stuck in the air.
Marty had learned to nurse a single beer all Saturday night so that he'd be in shape when the alarm went off at six on Sunday morning. Sometimes, he stopped cold in the middle of installing a carburetor or changing the oil on some car that hadn't had it changed in the last six years and felt a kind of shock. He was still living where he had always lived, but he might as well have been living on a different planet. He didn't know anybody else whose trailer looked like his or who had
a savings account, either. It was incredible what happened when you kept your drinking to a six-pack a week and didn't do drugs at all. In the beginning, he had only gone along because he was in love, and because he couldn't believe that Bernadette loved him back. In the end, he had had to admit that she was right about everything.

Used
to have a savings account,” he said now. He was looking at his mother's dark living-room window again. It was the first of February and very cold. In any other year, there would have been snow. He turned back to look at Bernadette. She hadn't moved.
“Listen,” Bernadette had told him, when they were first going out. “It's not luck. It's not that you have to get lucky. It's that you have to have a plan. If you have a plan, you can do anything. Don't you see?”
One of the things Bernadette had done was to make him stop playing the lottery. She had made him take the money he would have spent on lottery tickets and put it in a jar behind the kitchen sink. At the end of a month, she had dumped it all out on the kitchen table and shown him how much there was—and there was nearly three hundred dollars, enough for the utilities two months running, enough for a payment on the truck. Marty thought he would remember it all the rest of his life, the way she had been that night, her red hair caught back in a barrette, her great blue eyes looking bluer than usual in her pale, freckled face. She had been so beautiful, she had made him hurt.
“You have to have a plan,” she had told him again. “You have to think things through.”
He'd never been too good at that: thinking things through. He wasn't good at it now. He had a sudden vision of the first time she had fallen down in front of him, bucking and shaking, her eyes rolling back in her head—but the vision went black in no time at all. He knew what he had done, the first time she had gotten sick and every time thereafter, but he couldn't remember himself doing it.
He forced himself to look at Geena's window, yet again. He forced himself to walk down the alley to Geena's front door. The inner door was open, in spite of the cold, but at least the storm windows were in the outer door. He'd put them in himself, in November, because Bernadette had reminded
him to. The windows were all clean, too, because Bernadette had cleaned them, the way she went down to Geena's when Geena was sleeping off a drunk to do the dishes or vacuum the floors or get the laundry to the Laundromat so that Geena wouldn't smell.
“She's your mother,” Bernadette had said, running her fingers along the edge of a sewing needle she had been trying to thread for the last half hour. “You have to honor your mother, even if she hasn't been a very good one.”
Sometimes, Marty wondered what it was God thought he was doing. He was supposed to have some very important plan—and there had been times when Marty had claimed to understand it—but the truth was that everything seemed to be a mess. Nothing made sense. Nothing ever went right for more than a minute at a time.
Marty went into Geena's trailer and turned on the light. He could hear Geena snoring in the back. He could see the small plastic statue of the Virgin Bernadette had put up on the wall next to the front door, as if that alone would be enough to make Geena want to change. Bernadette had statues of the Virgin everywhere, and rosaries, too. She had a Miraculous Medal with a blue glass background that she wore around her neck, always, no matter what. Even in these last few months, when they had not been going to St. Anselm's at all, Bernadette had not stopped wearing that medal.
Sometimes, when Geena fell asleep drunk, she fell asleep naked. Marty didn't know how old she was, but he thought she might be going through the menopause. She got hot at night, and even hotter when she was plastered, and then she took off her clothes and left them on the floor. He held his own breath and listened to hers. It was even and untroubled. It didn't sound as if she were sucking in her own vomit. If she were lying naked, he should cover her—but he didn't want to see her that way. It made him sick to his stomach, and angry in a way he couldn't explain.
He listened for a moment more, and then went back outside, closing the inner door behind him, because that would at least let Geena's trailer warm up. The moon over his head was full and clear. The air around him was very sharp. His hands were cold enough to feel stiff. He walked back to the truck and got in behind the wheel, moving carefully so that
he did not startle Bernadette. He found himself wishing that her eyes were open, so that he could look into them, so deeply that he could see the bottom of her soul.
Instead, he got the truck started and the heater turned on, then headed out down the dirt track toward the town road. It was going to be a long drive into Philadelphia, and there would be traffic even at four o'clock in the morning. If they got there too late, Mass would be starting, and they wouldn't be able to do what they needed to do. He should have listened to Bernadette in everything, without exception, even in those times when he had been so frightened he hadn't been able to listen at all.
He had just turned onto the two-lane blacktop when Bernadette shifted in her seat and seemed to shudder. He leaned over and put his right hand over hers, to comfort her in sleep.
It was only when he felt the marble coldness of her skin that he remembered, for the first time in an hour, that Bernadette was dead.
2
On any other day of his life, the Reverend Daniel Burdock would have been asleep at four o'clock in the morning. He would at least have been to sleep sometime before then. Even in college, when everybody else he knew was spending two days a week trying to figure out if they could stay up forty-eight hours straight, he had been able to leave the party and sack out at a halfway-reasonable hour. Now he had been awake and restless for almost a full day, and it didn't look like it was going to come to an end anytime soon. He had a terrible premonition that he was going to show up at the funeral this afternoon and keel right over—of exhaustion, or a heart attack, or simple frustration. Something was going to happen. He couldn't go on like this. He couldn't go on thinking like this. This was the way people like Timothy McVeigh thought, before they went out and did something stupid.
The truth of it, of course, was that he was in no danger of keeling over at the funeral, or anyplace else. He had never been so awake in his life. He had been drinking coffee for ten hours straight, and even if he hadn't been, he would have been
wired to the gills. Now he was pacing back and forth along the long choir gallery that overlooked the body of the church, his vision cut off at intervals by the thick granite columns that framed the gallery's archways. It was a beautiful church, St. Stephen's Episcopal. If he had been able to imagine the church he wanted when he first entered the Yale Divinity School, this would have been it. Catholic without being Catholic, Gothic even though it was in the middle of Philadelphia, bells and smells, chants and rituals, stained glass and tapestries—it hadn't been this beautiful when he'd first come here, twenty years ago. He could still remember himself sitting in the high-ceilinged office of the then-bishop of Philadelphia, and being told, without qualification, that it was a lost cause.
“The future of the Episcopalian Church is in the suburbs,” the bishop had said, his fat little head bobbing back and forth on a neck so thin it made him look like a Tootsie Pop. “That's what we've got to accept. That Catholics have a lock on the city of Philadelphia.”
The Catholics were across the street, at St. Anselm's. Daniel couldn't see them from here, but he could from his office upstairs. Sometimes, when Father Healy was in the middle of doing something totally outrageous, Daniel would watch them for hours, trying to figure out whether they were dangerous or just annoying. He always came to the conclusion that they were just annoying. Every once in a while, one of the papers or one of the television stations came out to interview both the priests in the “next-door-neighbor churches,” as if merely being next to each other ought to make them as loving and squabbling as brothers. Then, too, the papers liked the contrast. Dan was tall and spare. Robert Healy was small and wiry. It was always Dan's figure that was easiest to see in the photographs that inevitably appeared in the
Inquirer
and the
Star
, although the quotes always seemed to come from Robert Healy. No reporter on earth ever wanted to talk to him long enough to get any real news. No reporter on earth ever wanted to get too clear on what was going on in St. Stephen's, either, but Daniel was used to that. It was the unspoken agreement among everybody who had anything to do with this church. St. Stephen's would be left alone to be what it had become, as long as St. Stephen's left them all alone as well—as long as St. Stephen's did not force the issue.
Daniel stopped in the very last archway and looked down on the pews and the altar. Scott Boardman's casket was laid out in front of the Communion rail, draped with flowers. The first three rows of pews were dotted with the figures of men who had come to sit vigil. Under ordinary circumstances, of course, there would have been a wake instead of a vigil, and it would have been held in a funeral home. In Scott's case, they had all wanted to have the body here, and to stay with it, a little while longer than they would have been allowed to in a secular place. The one woman down there was Scott's mother. Scott's father had not come, and would not come, to see his son in death. Daniel rubbed his face and closed his eyes and wished suddenly that he had an answer to it all, to people, to what they were, to what they wanted and what they wanted to do without. He wished he had an answer to himself.
The door to the gallery stairway swung open, creaking. Daniel made a mental note to have the hinge oiled—and then felt stupid for having done it, as if a creaking hinge could rival in importance the fact that someone was dead. He wondered suddenly what it would be like to be someone like Chickie George, someone who could not hide who and what he was.
The gallery door creaked shut. Daniel put his head up and turned. Aaron Wardrop was standing at the back of the gallery, looking down on him for once, because of the graduated tiers of steps.
“Well?” he said.
“Well, what?” Daniel asked him.
They were whispering. They had to whisper. The church was a gigantic man-made cavern. Everything echoed off the granite of the arches and the columns.
Aaron came down the steps to sit beside him.
“You can't have had any sleep. Any at all. You're going to give yourself a heart attack. You're fifty-six.”
“I was thinking about Chickie George,” Daniel said.
“Chickie's behaving like a saint.” Aaron leaned over the archway rail. Chickie was kneeling in the second pew from the front on the right of the center aisle, his hands folded on the back of the pew in front of him, his eyes closed, his body still. “We're all incredibly proud of Chickie at the moment. He's been here since midnight.”
“Don't you ever wonder what it would be like, to be like
Chickie? We all get frustrated with him, I know. He's such a flaming stereotype in some ways—”
“Well,” Aaron said, “flaming would be the word.”
“Yes, exactly. But maybe that's better than what we are. You and me. Maybe it's more honest. Or maybe it just—precludes prevarication.”
“I don't think it's a choice, Daniel. I don't think people decide to be flaming queens, not to put too fine a point on it. Any more than they decide to be gay.”
“I don't think they decide, either.” Daniel had put his coffee cup down on the floor next to his feet. Now he reached into the pocket of his trousers and brought out his open roll of soft mints. He offered them to Aaron and was refused. He took one himself. Somehow, at seven o'clock, he was supposed to go downstairs and lead a Matins sung prayer. At the moment, he didn't think he could remember the words.
Aaron sat down on the edge of the archway lip with his back against the rail. “So,” he said. “What's all this about? Scott? It's odd about Scott, isn't it? You'd think it would be easier. He didn't die from AIDS. He didn't get beaten to a pulp in some back alley somewhere just because a couple of good old boys got liquored up and let loose.”
“He fried his system on cocaine and died of a convulsion at the age of thirty-two.”
“People do that, Daniel. People do it who aren't gay men.”
“Scott did it because he could never accept who and what he was. And I'm at least partially responsible for that. St. Stephen's is at least partially responsible for that.”
Aaron turned around to look over the rail. Scott's mother looked like she might have been asleep, she was that still. “He was molested at the age of eight by his own priest,” he said. “You know that. We handle the settlements the archdiocese made, and not just for Scott. All the men who were victims over there are screwed up now. And on top of that, Scott's father was a son of a bitch. Is a son of a bitch. You know all this as well as I do.”
“In two weeks,” Daniel said, “it's Valentine's Day Sunday. And they'll be back. Roy Phipps and our friends from down the road.”
“And?”
“And I'll go stand out there while they're having their demonstration.
Wouldn't it be a good idea if I didn't go alone?”
“We'd go if we thought we could. It's not safe.”
“Is it safe for me?”
“You've got the collar to protect you.” Aaron stood up. “Look, I don't understand what you're so upset about here. It's not like we're all in the closet. It's not like St. Stephen's is in the closet. Everybody knows—”
“Everybody knows, but they never say it out loud.”
“Maybe that's the best we can do at the moment. Look, what's going to happen to us if you decide to make an issue of this and get kicked out of the clergy? Even Spong couldn't make them budge on this, and he's got a lot more clout than you do. What happens if St. Stephen's gets shut down? Or if they put a conservative in here, or some asshole who thinks his mission in life is to convert gay men to heterosexuality? This is an incredible place, Daniel. This is the first place I've ever found where I can hear God. I don't want to lose it.”
Daniel got up. The adrenaline was back. Over the course of this night, he had sometimes felt as if he had ingested methamphetamine in a time-release capsule. Every hour or so, it surged back at him. He looked down at the altar, at the plain gold cross that hung above it. Some of the men in the pews were in pairs, pressed up close to each other or holding hands. Others were solitary, like Chickie George, mostly because they were always solitary. They were the ones who knew where all the back-street bars were, and which of the leather shops would run a private account.
“Do you believe in it?” Daniel asked Aaron. “What it is we say we believe every Sunday. The virgin birth. The Resurrection. Do you believe in it?”
“I don't know what you're getting at.”
“I'm getting at the fact that I do believe in it. I'm not John Shelby Spong. I don't think it was all a myth. I don't think it was all a metaphor. I think it really happened. The Annunciation. The miracle of the loaves and the fishes. The walking on water. But most of all, the Resurrection. And that's the point.”
“I think I'd feel a hell of a lot better if you'd start making sense,” Aaron said.
“I
am
making sense.” Daniel leaned over the rail and looked one more time at Chickie George, and then at Scott's
mother, a pale woman in a worn brown coat who looked exhausted beyond belief. He wondered what she made of it, what she made of them. He wondered if she realized that all the men in this church were gay, and not only the ones like Chickie.
“I'm going to go take a shower,” Daniel said. “I feel like I'm covered in crud. Are we going to have picketers at this funeral?”
“I don't think so. It wasn't AIDS.”
“And he wasn't famous. Thank heaven for small favors. I'll talk to you later.”
“Right,” Aaron said.
When Daniel went out the gallery door, it squeaked one more time, so he didn't bother to shut it behind him. The stairwell was steep and winding. Everything had been done that it was possible to do to make this church look as if it had been built by the same people who had built the Houses of Parliament. Back in the nineteenth century, when Philadelphia had been a rich city and the Episcopal Church had been the richest denomination in it, that had probably seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do.
Daniel got to the bottom of the stairs and headed across the foyer to the side hall that led to the rectory at the back. The doors to the church had been propped open, but he didn't even bother to look inside. He felt light-headed beyond belief, and annoyed with himself for more reasons than he was able to enumerate, or even define. Maybe it was just the lack of sleep. Maybe it was just that he had always thought that Scott would make it through, when he was good and ready—and instead, all he had been ready to do was die. He knew all the good arguments against making decisions on the basis of emotion, but at the moment none of them seemed to apply. Hell, he thought. Sometimes, if you didn't make a decision on the basis of emotion, you didn't make a decision at all.
The back hall ended at an arched doorway. The doorway led into another hall. Daniel hurried through and came out in the rectory mudroom. There was a wooden bench against one of the walls. Under it, there were boots and shoes, the kinds of things Daniel wore when he was not wearing his collar. On another of the walls there was a rack with hooks. The hooks held snow parkas and barn jackets and a long yellow rubber
slicker he'd bought once to keep out the rain, but never worn. Looking in this room, you could imagine yourself in the house of any upper-middle-class WASP in America: the sort of person who bought his suits from Brooks Brothers and his outdoor things from L. L Bean; the sort of person who had been to a decent prep school before going on to Princeton; the sort of person who had tickets to the symphony every season. It was a very good description, Daniel thought, of the sort of person who belonged to the Episcopal Church.
He went through the mudroom into the kitchen and looked around. It didn't look like anyplace he had ever been before. It didn't even look like his coffeepot, sitting there at the edge of the stove.
He thought his head was about to explode into a million and one different pieces, and when it had finished doing that it was going to reconstruct itself—as something other than a head.

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