The light danced along her cold black skin illuminating cuts and cigarette burns—some fresh, others thick keloids. Her body was a husk now and looked more like a wax figure than once living matter.
The Reverend stood over her. He was tall and thin with a light brown complexion. He wore a crisp, white collar around his neck that stood out against his otherwise black attire. In the doorway was Sheriff Eleazar Beard—a hog of a man—greasy and pale.
“You’ve seen her. Now it’s best you go back from where you came. We’ll take care of this—no need for you to get involved.”
The Reverend touched the body, running his fingers across the fresh track marks down her arm.
“You shouldn’t be touching her.”
“She was my mother.”
“You shown up and that’s real good. She would have appreciated that. But I can’t have you bringing all kinds of hell to this town—I can’t have you going after nobody.”
The Reverend moved away from the body and bowed his head.
“You going to pray now?” asked Sheriff Beard. “You expect me to pray with you?” He laughed. “I don’t know what you call yourself doing or where the hell you got that get-up, but I know as well as you that you ain’t no real preacher—you far from it.”
“Have a little respect,” the Reverend said.
“Respect?” Beard snickered, “Boy, you just as nutty as a fruitcake. If you think for one minute I’m going to treat you like you a man of God, you’ve got another think coming.”
“He works in mysterious ways,” the Reverend said. “It’s not anyone’s place to question.”
“What a crock of shit,” Beard said.
The Reverend began to whisper a prayer—Beard continued to air his disdain. The Reverend ended his prayer and turned to face the fat Sheriff, who seemed to cower under his stare.
“Now don’t make me ask,” the Reverend said.
“It wouldn’t make a difference no way. I ain’t got no answers for you.”
“Who was with her last?”
“People say they saw her at The Shack. But that ain’t no surprise—she practically lived there.”
The Reverend placed his hand on Beard’s shoulder. “Don’t follow me,” he said.
“I can’t have you killing folks,” Beard said.
The Reverend pressed two fingers to Beard’s mouth—the nail beds filthy with dirt and dried blood. “It’s our secret,” he said. “Come morning I’ll be gone and you’ll have your town back.”
Beard snapped away and wiped where the Reverend’s fingers had been. “And the bodies?” he asked, brushing his arm sleeve over his mouth.
“I promise you won’t miss who I take.”
“Goddamnit. You can’t just come here doing this,” Beard said. “We’ve got laws—and for the most part people follow them.”
“They summoned me back when they choked her to death and I’ll leave when it’s done—just stay off my heels.”
The Reverend left the dusty room and passed through the lobby into the warm evening. His mother’s body had been kept in the cold room at the Coroner’s office but would later be properly processed. She was as he remembered—broken.
The town was quiet. He looked back at the small station, as the Sheriff and his two deputies watched him from the window. The Reverend walked down the dirt road with nothing more than a wooden briefcase. He moved with a natural authority—if not given by God, some other force potent enough to have the Sheriff and his men shaken. Each step was soft but deliberate—his body was erect, his shoulders darted outward. He was made up of sharp edges and points. From a distance, one could believe he was divine. But on closer inspection, they’d be met with his foul odor and unshaven skin—chaos in a collar.
The Shack was a trailer near the railroad tracks. It was home to a meth dealer named Gipple Lyle and had become a haven for addicts and runaways. Some camped in tents and hollowed out cars—draping sheets and curtains over rusted metal or sleeping in truck beds. Stray dogs wandered about looking for scraps and stayed within earshot in case Gipple decided to fire his shotgun at buzzards flying above. As the birds fell, the dogs would gather them for feasting and carry them off. Whatever was left would be consumed by the inhabitants after roasting the birds over a fire pit.
The Reverend remembered the Shack as a dreadful place where his mother got high and wasted, dwindling almost to nothing. He’d watch she and Gipple argue over who took the last hit of shit, often culminating in his mother being beaten. There wasn’t much to occupy his time aside from what he called his experiments. He enjoyed dissecting the dead birds that littered the property courtesy of Gipple’s shotgun. Sometimes he’d find a dead dog or cat, and decide to open the animal up to see what was inside. He recounted the joy he felt when he had cut open a pregnant cat to find a litter of kittens. He gathered them up in a shoebox and carried them with him for a week, believing if he prayed hard enough that God would restore them to living. The odor was strong and the humidity only brought the rot on faster. When Gipple got word of what he had done, he burned the dead kittens and beat him bloody. His mother watched, never once speaking out in protest.
So tragic, he thought—so easy it would be to blame what he became on his upbringing, but he knew better. Sometimes when God’s putting people together, he shuffles the pieces wrong—he puts one piece where another should have gone. The Reverend’s mother, when she was in her right mind, would always say God didn’t make mistakes. However, she could never account for why her son did the things he did. Of course that was all in the past, the Reverend had been made anew; he was born again, baptized in an eternal fire.
When he arrived at the Shack there were a few junkies outside, watching aimlessly as he approached. A thin man dressed in tatters hurried inside the trailer and after a moment, came out with a burly man wearing an apron, gloves and work boots. The burly man began to make his way toward the Reverend who didn’t break his stride. When the Reverend got close enough for the burly man to hear him, he said: “Where’s Gipple?”
Before the man could answer, he struck him with the briefcase. The man tried to gather himself up, but each time he was struck down with the briefcase.
“Who are you?” the burly man asked.
“Gipple. Where is he?”
“I don’t know. I just cook for him.”
“On what? We ain’t got no phone out here.”
“When did you see him last?”
“I don’t know.”
“Think,” the Reverend said holding the briefcase above the man, ready to strike.
“Okay. Okay. Maybe two days ago. He came by for his shit and carried it on to Butler County.”
“He still in Butler?”
“Hell if I know.”
“Was he with a woman named Seacord?”
“Brandy? You talking about Ace? They always together.”
“Were always together. She’s dead.”
“Bitch bit the dust?”
“He kill her?”
“Knowing that crazy bitch, she probably did herself in. What did you want with Ace, anyhow?”
“Her name was Brandy.”
The burly man glared against the sun at the Reverend’s face. He brought his hand to his brow like a salute, and kept the sun back so he could get a better look at his attacker.
“It can’t be,” he said, “Tully—is that you, man?”
The Reverend took a deep breath as if he was breathing in twice the amount of oxygen needed for his blood to pump. Then, he raised the briefcase high above his head and struck the burly man repeatedly until his face knuckled like kneaded biscuit dough.
The junkies circled the Reverend, lamenting over the dead man. He was their savior—he kept them fed. The Reverend understood the relationship as cyclical. Like his mother, the junkies craved, hustled for money, bought the drugs, and then got stoned, and it would carry on for years.
He dragged the body to the door of the trailer and then went inside. It resembled his high school chemistry class. There were beakers, bowls and burners. Chemicals were stored in metal caldrons and vats. He was overwhelmed by the toxic fumes but before leaving, he pulled a sheet of newspaper from a window that served as covering, and worked it into a ball. He set the paper next to the burner’s flame and left. He could hear crackling inside the trailer as the fire spread. As he walked, the junkies rushed toward the trailer the way moths are drawn to candles. Even though it was sure to be the end of them, they couldn’t help but embrace the light.
“What you do that for?” the thin man cried, “you don’t know what you’ve done!”
The thin man had escaped into the woods after the Reverend had set upon the burly man. The fire had called him back but he kept his distance from the Reverend, who stood as the trailer burned behind him, holding his red stained briefcase. He ran after the thin man, who didn’t get far before the Reverend took him by the neck.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Please, don’t hurt me,” the thin man said.
“How long have you been out here?”
“The Shack is my home—been here most my life.”
“You know Gipple Lyle?”
“Yes. Just like everybody else out here.”
“You know where he lives?”
“You going to kill me if I say ‘no’?”
“Take me to him.”
“I think he stays east of here—a lake house.”
The Reverend pushed Hyland along the dirt road. Hyland looked back at the junkies wailing over the dead cook and the meth kitchen.
“I ain’t never seen no Reverend like you before,” Hyland said, “Your name is Tully, ain’t it?”
“You don’t know me.”
“I heard the cook call you that. It’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Keep your mouth shut and walk.”
It was dark when they arrived at the lake house. The Reverend didn’t have a watch, but he estimated they had walked for an hour. The route Hyland took him was remote. They had walked across a covered bridge that hadn’t been crossed by many cars in decades—it was an abandoned road, likely used for Gipple to transport his drugs across county.
“So what did Gipple do to you, man?” Hyland asked.
“How close are we?”
“We about half a mile, I guess.”
“He didn’t do anything to me except what was in his nature.”
“But you’re a holy man, ain’t you? I mean, aren’t you supposed to forgive trespassers and all that?”
“I’m a work in progress.”
“You going to kill Gipple once I take you to him?”
“But that’s a sin.”
“But you’re going to do it anyway?”
In the distance the Reverend could see a small house behind a lake. Moonlight reflected against the water. As they moved closer, Hyland came to a stop.
“I don’t go any farther.”
“If you’re going to kill me, then you’re going to have to do it right now.”
“I said walk.”
“Gipple will kill us both—just the fact I know where his hideout is means I’m good as dead.”
“I don’t want to kill you.”
“Look, how about I stay here and wait for you? You’re going to need to know you’re way out of here aren’t you? I can just hang here and skip stones until you’re done with your business in there,” he said, picking up a rock and skimming it across the lake.
The Reverend hesitated.
“I’ll keep skipping until you’re back—you’ve got my word.”
“Your word doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s all I’ve got.”
“Be here when I get back,” the Reverend said.
The Reverend approached the lake house with caution. He could hear the murmur of a television. The windows were covered in foil. He saw no point of entry, aside from the front door. The house looked as if it were asking to be torn down—even by moonlight, the Reverend could see the damaged wood.
He turned the handle but it was locked.
He knocked; then, moved to the rear of the house.
He heard the chambering of a shotgun—that distinct sound echoed in the night.
The door opened slowly and the barrel appeared, cradled by Gipple. The Reverend hadn’t considered how old the man would be. In his mind, he still saw him as a vital bastard who could lay him out with one punch. But the man before him was nothing more than a sketch of what he once had been. His hair had turned gray and his skin sagged. Though he had decent muscle tone, he was skinny and shifted his weight off his left hip, making him step uneasy.
“Who’s there?” Gipple said. “Come on out or I’ll start shooting.”
The Reverend watched the man squirm—he appreciated the fear on Gipple’s face. He had never seen the man afraid before and it brought him more joy than he could have imagined. He stepped out from around the house and seized the barrel of the shotgun. He wrestled it from the old man and then kicked him into the house.
“Fucker,” Gipple said.
The Reverend let the old man get up. He unloaded the shotgun and placed the shells into his suit pocket.
“A preacher?” Gipple asked, “What the hell you want with me?”
“I’m not a preacher,” the Reverend said, “They’d never let me be a preacher.”
“Then who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?”
“I went to the Shack today. I met your cook. I saw the junkies and burned it all down.”
“You did what?”
“I burned it.”
“I’m gonna kill you.”
The Reverend reached outside the door and picked up his briefcase. He sat it on a table, amongst beer cans and empty cigarette cartons. The house was small with leaks and exposed wiring that hung from the ceiling. In the corner was a large safe.
“You going to tell me why you’re here?” Gipple asked.
“You don’t recognize me?”
“I suppose you wouldn’t. It’s been a long time.”
“Who sent you?”
“I’m here on account of Brandy Seacord.”
“Ace? She’s dead.”
“Yes. You killed her.”
“You’ve got it wrong. She doubled her hit and it was no coming back,” Gipple said. “You want money to do her funeral or something? You some charity preacher?”
“I’m no preacher.”
“Then who the hell are you?” Gipple demanded.
The Reverend removed his collar and unbuttoned his shirt. On his chest was a cluster of cigarette burns. Gipple moved closer to get a better look. He looked into the Reverend’s eyes and was taken aback.
“Give me a fucking break,” Gipple said, “Tully? I always knew you’d be back.”
“Why did you kill her?”
“Your mother was a junkie. She killed herself and did it real slow over twenty years.”
“She was choked to death.”
“Who told you that?”
“I saw the body.”
“You didn’t see no damn choke marks then because she overdosed—plain and simple. Someone is playing you boy.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“They’ve got you all twisted up.”
The Reverend began rubbing his head with his palm.
“Who told you she was dead?” Gipple asked.
“I got word.”
“Yeah? From who?”
“I don’t know—a voice on the other end.”
“How did they get your number?”
“I don’t know.”
“I do,” Gipple said, “Someone’s been keeping tabs on you. There’s only one person in this town who can do that.”
“Shut up! You’re trying to confuse me.”
The Reverend removed a hammer and long carpenter’s nail from his briefcase.
“What you think you going to do with that?” Gipple asked.
The Reverend approached the old man slowly, gripping the hammer tightly in his right hand, and clinching the nail in the left.
“I’d never kill her—she was all I had.”
“Shut up. Just shut up and it’ll be over.”
The Reverend placed the tip of the nail against the old man’s temple and then swiftly drove it into his head, repeatedly striking it until the metal vanished into skull.
When the Reverend walked out of the house, Sheriff Beard and his two deputies were waiting with guns drawn.
“You’ve been a busy man,” Beard said.
“It’s over now,” the Reverend said.
“Good. I want you out of my town.”
“He didn’t do it.”
“What?” Beard asked.
“He didn’t kill my mother—she overdosed.”
“But you killed him.”
“Yes, because he deserved it. Not because he killed her.”
“You used me to get rid of him. Why?”
“I don’t know what that old man told you but…”
“Motor oil and baby powder. That’s what you put on her neck for choke marks? I thought I smelled it.”
“Not baby powder—baking soda.”
“Why couldn’t you have done it yourself?” the Reverend asked. “You could have arrested him.”
Sheriff Beard smiled crookedly as the two deputies entered the house and made a B‑line toward the safe. They entered a combination on the keypad and then opened it. Inside were stacks of money.
“It was complicated. When Ace turned up dead, I saw it as an opportunity,” he said as he placed his weapon into the holster.
“To get Gipple’s money?”
“That’s right—don’t think for a minute you can pass judgment here. I know you killed somebody for that collar. You were always a sick puppy but a damn priest?”
“You won’t find me again.”
“Won’t be any need too—you only had one mother.”
“Spare me the sermon, Sheriff.”
The Reverend walked into the darkness with briefcase in hand.