"Just as I am, without one plea."
Willie Nelson's voice filled the car, and Claire Montoya gawked at the radio as if it had suddenly started speaking in tongues. The man in the farm truck ahead of her slammed on his brakes for one of the three traffic lights in Hamilton Falls, Washington, and Claire whipped her attention back to the road before she ran into him.
"Just As I Am"? What on earth was Willie Nelson, a worldly entertainer, doing singing one of the hymns of the Elect of God? Had he run across one of their privately printed hymnbooks?
Or was it a sign of something bigger? Lately KGHM's programming had changed from farm reports that nobody listened to, to gospel music, call-in shows, bluegrass, and Christian pop. An even bigger change was that everybody in the Elect-well, the young people, anyway-listened to KGHM, even though listening to the radio was technically a sin. It filled the mind with worldly noise, which caused the still, small voice of God to be drowned out.
Or so said the Shepherds, the itinerate preachers who gave up all natural expectations such as home and family to minister to the souls of men, and who were the final authority on all things natural and spiritual.
But how could "Just As I Am" fill the mind with noise when they had sung it just last week in Gathering? At least Willie Nelson was easier on the ears than Alma Woods, who on a good day sounded like a raven with its tail caught in a gate. During that very hymn last week, a woman had risen to her feet, indicating her willingness to serve God with the Elect, their community of true believers scattered throughout the state. Claire wasn't sure how valid the woman's profession of faith was, though. At the moment, they had no Shepherds to oversee the flock, and a person couldn't enter the fold and find salvation without one.
She turned into the parking lot of their plain, unadorned mission hall and parked her car, feeling very visible and solitary as she crossed the lot alone, went into the hall alone, and chose a seat halfway up on the right side, where the young people tended to sit together. There weren't as many as there used to be, though. A year ago she and Julia McNeill, her best friend, would have come in together after having spent the day together or with the gang. But Julia had left and married Outside their fellowship. Unlike someone who had been Silenced, people could still speak to and about her, but they tended not to. What would be point? Her soul was lost for all eternity. And besides, she and her husband lived in Seattle.
Claire could have sat with Dinah Traynell, if she still lived in Hamilton Falls. But Dinah's mother, Elsie, had sold the home place where people had been going to Gathering for a hundred years or more and had bought a cozy ranch house in Spokane. At the same time, Dinah had left town and gone to California.
It hadn't taken long for the reason the whole Traynell family had moved away to leak out. That reason-Phinehas, former senior Shepherd of the flock-was currently spewing fire and brimstone in the county lockup at Pitchford while he waited for his trial, which was scheduled to begin tomorrow. Much to everyone's shock and dismay, their leader had been accused of raping two generations of Traynell women. It had taken all these months for Claire herself to come to the slow acceptance that their leadership had been seriously flawed.
She sighed and stared sightlessly at the open Bible in her lap while she waited for the service to begin. Dinah would be back to testify, but it wasn't likely she'd get much of a welcome. She'd gone Outside, too, and was engaged to be married to her former hired man. They were going to Cornwall for their honeymoon.
Claire had never been farther from home than Seattle. Cornwall seemed like a magical place, full of Celtic ruins and brilliant light and flowers-at least, according to Matthew Nicholas, Dinah's intended, who had spent fifteen minutes on the phone the other night long-distance from California rhapsodizing about all the childhood haunts he was going to show his bride.
By the time Dinah got there, she was going to need a good dose of light and flowers. Claire didn't see how her friend was going to get through the next few weeks. Or how she herself was going to manage it. She hadn't been deposed yet, but there was no guarantee she wouldn't be called upon as a character witness. Or so said Investigator Raymond Harper of the Organized Crime Task Force, who was camped out in Hamilton Falls and Pitchford for the duration of the trial. She'd met him on her last visit to Ross and Julia's when he'd dropped in at dinnertime. He was Ross's partner, and frankly, he made her uncomfortable. Maybe it was his size or maybe it was simply the knowledge of just how ugly human behavior could get that lurked in his eyes. Whatever it was, the less she saw of him, the better.
Owen Blanchard left his seat and made his way to the microphone at the front of the hall. He was Elder of the church that met in his home-or had met there. After the Traynells' departure, Sunday Gathering had been moved here to the hall because not everyone could fit in his rec room. Gathering could only be held in the homes of one of the favored families, which was problematic now since there was only one, and Owen couldn't be expected to shoulder the burden indefinitely. He had two children and the principalship of the local high school to think about.
Face it, Claire thought, the Elect are in total disarray. Julia started it, Dinah finished it, and now we have to pick up the pieces. She hoped Owen had come up with some kind of solution. These stop-gap Gatherings couldn't go on forever. She also hoped she could grab a private moment with him after the service. She needed an answer, and the waiting was killing her.
Owen announced a hymn, and after they had sung it in tolerable four-part harmony, he led them in prayer. Claire expected testimony time would happen next, when all the men took turns speaking on a verse or confessing struggles or saying what their wives told them to say. But Owen stayed at the microphone until everyone stopped wiggling in their seats and whispering.
"You all know what's going to happen tomorrow," he said. The overhead lighting glinted on his hair, which had been a vibrant reddish gold until recently, but was now a sandy gray. "Phinehas's-I mean, Mr. Leslie's-jury has been chosen, and his trial is going to begin. It's up to you folks whether you go or not. Some of us have been deposed to testify." He sighed, and then went on. "Folks, we have to come to some kind of decision, here."
Mark McNeill, Julia's father, whom Claire had hardly ever seen speak outside of his duties as former Elder, stood up. "I heard from Spokane this morning. Melchizedek is still at the Grotons' place. He had a nervous breakdown and is completely unfit to lead the flock. The family is on suicide watch."
Melchizedek, the younger Shepherd over the congregation in Hamilton Falls, had practically worshipped the ground Phinehas had walked on. At the news that Phinehas had been sexually abusing the females in the Traynell family for thirty years, he had cracked and gone to his sister's place in Spokane. The other Shepherds, scattered throughout the state of Washington, were in as bad a condition as the people in Hamilton Falls when they'd heard the news about their leader. Some believed the accusations; some did not. Some tried to carry on in their faith; some had gone Outside and had not been heard from since.
"Why is God punishing us?" Derrick Wilkinson, the man sitting on Claire's right, wanted to know. "Have our sins been that bad?"
God isn't punishing us, Claire thought. He's punishing Phinehas, thank you very much. And just because you don't get to marry into a favored family and become an Elder, let's not take this personally. It was a well-known fact among the local Elect females that Derrick had pursued first Julia McNeill Malcolm and then Dinah Traynell because they were daughters of the two favored families. Without one of them as his wife, he would never realize his career aspirations to be Deacon and, later, Elder of his own house church. The position was hereditary-and now there was no one left to inherit.
Poor Derrick. Maybe he'd have to move to a new town and find another favored-family girl to date-unless the Shepherds had told him what they'd told her.
"There is a solution," Owen said. "I'm putting it to you all tonight in hopes that we can take heart and move on in strength, particularly in view of the days ahead."
"What's that?" Derrick asked, speaking for all of them.
"I'd like to introduce a guest speaker." Owen waited for the murmuring to die down. Claire glanced at Rebecca Quinn, her landlady, on her left. Other than the Shepherds, who were anointed of God to speak, and the Elder, whose job it was to administer the flock in the Shepherds' periodic absences, guest speakers were unheard of. Who else could bring the Word of God to his people but the anointed ones?
"Maybe the Shepherd from Richmond has come to help us," Rebecca whispered.
"He's gone," Claire whispered back. "My folks got the word this morning. Left without a trace. They think he joined the army."
Claire would have said more, but a man got up from the front row and bounded up to the microphone as if he owned the very earth they were inhabiting.
Wow. Claire blinked and forgot the rest of what she had been about to say. The man was tall and had the kind of presence that natural leaders possessed. His shoulders were broad and strong, in contrast to a trim waist and athletic grace. Chestnut hair glinted under the lights, and when he turned to face them, she saw that his eyes were brown and long-lashed. He smiled, and a long dimple cut into his cheek.
Claire heard a rustle as all the single women in the crowd sat up and took notice, including a few of the widows.
"Now, that's a fine-looking man," Rebecca murmured.
"If he's a new Shepherd, it won't matter," Claire said. The Shepherds were homeless and celibate, the better to go wherever the gospel led them. Free of natural ties, their lives were consecrated to God's will. Most of the Elect's rules about women's dress, Claire often thought privately, were designed to make it easier for the Shepherds to make this sacrifice. If a man couldn't see a woman's skin, if her hair was pinned up modestly, the Shepherds were less likely to be reminded of what they had lost from a physical standpoint.
Theoretically. This, of course, had not proven to be the case with Phinehas and his thirty-year persecution of the Traynell women.
"I'd like to present Mr. Luke Fisher," Owen said, "evangelist from our very own KGHM radio, right here in Hamilton Falls."
People turned in their seats to stare at one another and gaped at Owen as if they couldn't believe their ears. A worldly evangelist? To speak to them? Someone who wasn't even an Elect?
"Is he completely mad?" Rebecca asked aloud, forgetting to whisper.
No one heard her. Everyone was busy talking, speculating, wondering the same thing.
"Please, folks, listen to me." Owen's voice rose above the noise, and out of habit, the congregation quieted enough that he could be heard. "We've all been praying without ceasing that God would save us in our hour of need. And I believe the reason He hasn't is because we've strayed away from Him. We've put our trust in our leadership-in man, in human frailty-and the result has been a disaster. We've looked inwardly to ourselves instead of looking outwardly at what God is doing in the world."
People murmured, and Claire nibbled her lower lip, wondering where on earth this was going.
"It's been revealed to me that perhaps God speaks to people outside of the Elect, that maybe we might have something to learn from Mr. Fisher, who has led congregations two and three times this size and who, I'm convinced, has his heart right with God." Owen looked around at them all. "I'm not saying he's a Shepherd. I've only invited him to be a guest speaker. Our fundamental beliefs remain the same-but I think it would do the people of God good to embrace the Holy Spirit in others, as well as in themselves."
Mark McNeill, Owen's father-in-law and a retired Elder, stood and cleared his throat. "Owen, I don't think that's right. You know the Holy Spirit is only given to God's people. His grace is only poured out on us through the gospel spoken by the Shepherds. Only they have the authority."
Owen nodded respectfully. "But at the moment we don't have a Shepherd. Mr. Fisher is just a guest speaker, Dad."
"You or I could speak in the Shepherds' place."
Owen began to look uncomfortable at having a disagreement with his father-in-law in public. "I've had a revelation," he repeated, "and I believe it was from God."
It was hard to argue with that. Since the downfall of Phinehas, Claire had wondered if the Elect put their leaders on a pedestal, to the point where perhaps they blocked the light that came from God. Some, such as the McNeills, catered to their every whim, bringing out the best china, the best food, making even a bowl of cereal or a cup of coffee an event. Others, including her parents, treated the Shepherds like visiting relatives whenever they came to stay. Hospitality to the Shepherds was part of their sacrifice, but the danger lay in making a show of their service in order to impress the leaders.
"Folks," Owen pleaded, "let's listen to Mr. Fisher's message and then do what Paul exhorted us to do-try the spirit and see if it's of God."
He yielded the microphone to Luke Fisher and returned to his seat. Every eye in the hall was riveted to the front. Claire drew in a breath as Luke Fisher began to speak. That melodious voice-which had sounded in her car, announcing songs, exhorting people to come to God, talking with people who called in-filled their humble meeting place with his particular brand of music. "Those of you who listen to the radio," he said, "may have heard a number of your hymns being played and wondered how it could be that worldly artists could sing the music and words that mean so much to you."
He paused, and all the young people in Claire's row looked at each other, eyebrows raised. Obviously they'd thought the very thing she had. Maybe some of them had even been listening to the radio on the way to Mission and had heard "Just As I Am."
"Well, here's the thing." He paused, then said, "I grew up in the Elect."
An audible gasp swept through the room.
"I did, and when I went Out, I lived a life of sin and suffering, brought on by my own headstrong will. But God had a plan for me, and do you know what that was?"
Claire found herself shaking her head, as though he had spoken directly to her. She wished he would. She wished those eyes would seek her out in the midst of this crowd and see that there was a mature, reasonably attractive woman who was currently single and very much available, right there in the seventh row.
"God's plan was for me to preach the gospel, but not as a Shepherd. No, His plan for my life reaches farther than that. It's been revealed to me that radio isn't a sin, my friends. It's a way of reaching the hearts of the sick, the shut-in, those who aren't as fortunate as we are in this hall tonight. It's a way of bringing cheer to your soul as you drive to the supermarket, of focusing your mind on Christ while you work in the office. It's a way to reach the soul on the other side of the cube divider who doesn't know which way to turn in a life that looks like a maze."
The crowd was utterly silent.
"God gives us all our talents, my friends. And what have we been doing with them? Have we been burying them in the backyard of our own little group? Or have we been lending them out to others?"
"Backyard," Claire heard someone say. Six months ago, no one would have agreed with such a thing unless Phinehas himself had decreed a change in doctrine. Just a few months ago, the Elect had been sure of themselves and sure of what they believed. Things were different now. They were all shaken and a little uncertain about what exactly was right.
"Nonsense," snapped Elizabeth McNeill, Julia's mother, and then blushed scarlet at having actually spoken aloud in a Gathering, where it was forbidden for women to raise their voices except in song.
Luke Fisher smiled, and Claire lost her ability to breathe.
If only someone would smile at me like that.
After Gathering was over, Claire hung at the fringes of the little group that had gathered around Luke and Owen. It was hard not to watch the newcomer, what with that smile and that charismatic presence.
"Don't go making eyes at that worldly preacher." Alma Woods shook Claire's hand in her abrupt way. "Enough of you young women have lost your salvation by chasing ungodly men."
Claire choked down a defensive retort. Not by any stretch of the imagination could Ross Malcolm or Matthew Nicholas be called ungodly. And she'd never chased anyone in her life. "I'm not making eyes at him," she said with dignity. "I'm waiting to speak with Owen."
Alma ran a critical eye down her dress and coat. "Been ordering from catalogs again, have we?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. There are some pretty things in-"
"Vanity, all is vanity." Alma looked her in the eye. "You should be a better example to your mother. I saw her in Pitchford, you know, traipsing around in a pair of pants, worldly as you please when she thought no one was looking."
Shame flogged hot color into Claire's cheeks. "My mother's choices are her own," she said. "Excuse me, Alma. I need to speak to Owen."
Please let him help, she begged the Lord. I have to get out of this town.
Owen broke away from the little group at last and she stopped him with a hand on his arm as he glanced around for his kids. "Owen, could I speak to you a minute?"
His smile was open and warm, and she took heart. "Sure. What's up?"
"I-I wondered if you'd heard anything from any of the Shepherds about whether I could move or not."
His smile faded. "Claire, we've been over this. Your place is in Hamilton Falls. Besides, you did move. To Rebecca's."
That didn't count as a move. More like an aborted flight that crash-landed. She'd received notice that she'd gotten the position she'd interviewed for at one of the bank's branches in Seattle. She'd given her notice, packed her things, and was practically on the highway when Phinehas had stepped in to ask her what she thought she was doing.
"There are plenty of young people in Seattle, Claire," he'd said with that gentle smile of a man who controlled people's lives with absolute authority. "And not so many here in Hamilton Falls. I need you to be an example to the younger girls."
The younger girls hardly looked at her-why should they? Nobody needed her, really, with the exception of her manager at the bank, who'd been delighted she was staying and had offered her the new accounts position. She hadn't wanted it. She'd have been a mail clerk in the Seattle branch if that's what it took to out of Hamilton Falls.
But no. Even that had been denied her. So, when Dinah had declined it, she'd rented Rebecca's suite and put the best face on the situation that she could.
"You know what Phinehas said," Owen reminded her now, with a little of Phinehas's own gentleness.
"But with him on trial tomorrow, maybe we should look at my situation again."
"Claire, the Elders have a lot to think and pray about right now. Please be considerate."
Her desire to move away and have a real life was inconsiderate? Tears burned the back of her throat as Owen stepped around her to shake someone else's hand.
She should be used to it by now-the bitter flavor of unwillingness.
Investigator Raymond Harper of Washington State's Organized Crime Task Force ran his fingers through his hair and gripped his skull as he read through his notes early Monday morning. The district attorney's assistant detoured around the desk temporarily on loan to him and dropped a pile of papers on the corner of it.
"Your depositions came back from Transcription," she told him. "George thought you might want a look."
Great. One more thing to do, one more thing keeping him in beautiful downtown Pitchford instead of back in Seattle doing what he'd signed up to do.
Sexual abuse wasn't his bailiwick-organized crime was. But two things had prodded him into taking the case: the fact that this religious group was statewide, which put it in the OCTF's purview, and Tamara Traynell's big brown eyes and the depths of pain he had seen in them as she'd told her story. He'd left Ross and Julia Malcolm's dinner table that night if not a changed man, then certainly an angry one. He had at last understood why his partner and best friend had made busting bent religious groups his particular mission. Trust wasn't Ray's biggest fault, but it was in plenty of people-people who gave their faith and their money to a group and got nothing but abuse and a bunch of happy brainwashing in return.
Which is why it puzzled him to see Ross and Julia and their daughter Kailey tripping off to church as if Ross's daily disillusionment about human nature never happened. The guy must have superhuman powers of denial. Or a bigger capacity to love and forgive than Ray himself possessed.
With a sigh, he closed his notebook and laid it on top of his file on Emile Johan Rausch, who thought he was going to get away with running cocaine over the line into Canada in the guise of horseback-riding trips, and the frustrating case of Brandon Boanerges, the invisible fraudster with the beautiful voice who had been driving him nuts for a year. He opened the deposition file for the rape case.
This Philip Leslie guy-aka Phinehas, aka the senior minister of the group Julia, Dinah, and Tamara had belonged to-was a real prince. As his arresting officer, Ray had been delighted to be subpoenaed to testify against him. As far as he was concerned, the prosecution's case was open and shut, but he still had to show up on the stand and say his bit about the arrest.
He had no doubt young Tamara would hold herself together while Leslie gave her the hairy eyeball from the defendant's chair. Her sister Dinah, who was also on the prosecution's witness list, had lost her fear of the man, too. He glanced through the young woman's deposition. Her answers had been clear, concise, and full of damning detail, just the way Ray liked them. In Prosecution 101, this girl would get an "A."
TRAYNELL: Phinehas is an itinerate minister, so he stays in the homes of the Elect. He would come to my room at night and have sex with me against my will, telling me that I was a vessel filled with love and my purpose was to give love to him so he could have the strength to go on preaching the gospel.
HARPER: For how long did this go on?
TRAYNELL: Ten years. It started when I was fourteen.
Ray's stomach turned over. Justice was supposed to be blind, but the people in her service didn't have to be so impartial. It was a stroke of luck they'd pulled Judge Eleanor Keaton-a woman, the D.A. had told him, who was particularly hard on sex offenders.
The D.A.'s assistant stopped by the desk a second time and tapped her watch. "It's time, Investigator."
He was one of the first witnesses on the schedule, so he hustled down the corridor that connected the county offices with the courthouse. It sported all of two courtrooms, one for municipal cases and one for superior court, housed in a modest brick building facing a green space that formed an old-fashioned town square.
By nine-thirty he was sworn in and on the stand, with Judge Keaton on his right and a sea of people dressed in black in front of him. Tamara had told him the Elect dressed in black to symbolize the charred remains of the burned offering of their human nature. Weird. He wondered how many still supported their former leader, and how many were here to see him condemned, if that turned out to be the verdict.
The accused, Philip Leslie, his spine straight and his face calm, sat at the defense table next to John Ortega, the public defender. Phinehas was dressed in a beautifully cut black wool suit. Ray suspected that none of the flock knew he would be strip-searched each time he changed into and out of it. For a man as fastidious as he'd learned Phinehas was, each time he had to submit to the search would be a fine kind of torture.
Ray smiled inwardly.
The D.A. ran Ray through his testimony with concise competence. Name, rank, and serial number. How long he'd been with the OCTF. The circumstances of the arrest. The contents of his depositions and the lab reports that had proven both Dinah Traynell and her younger sister's child, Tamsen, were both the daughters of Phinehas. The D.A. sat alone at the plaintiff's table; he'd remain alone until Tamara and Dinah were brought out of the private room in which they sat until it was their turn to testify. Personally, Ray was just as happy he didn't have to watch the teenaged Tammy's face from the stand. He didn't want to give the impression he was emotionally involved. Because everyone else in the courtroom certainly seemed to be. Nobody talked, but the intensity of their gazes and their focus on every word of testimony was eerie. It was like their survival depended on the verdict.
For all he knew, maybe it did.
The defense had a few questions on cross-examination about the chain of evidence, but Ray had made sure that everything having to do with the lab and the DNA results was airtight. Then it was time to put Tamara on the stand.
Ray could have made his way into the gallery to watch, but he decided not to. He had all the gory details in the deposition if he wanted them, and watching her say the words was not going to help his peace of mind or the case.
Tamara's mother, Elsie, sat directly behind the railing dividing the audience from the active members of the court, and as he slipped out the door, Ray saw Tamara reach over it and clutch her mother's hand for a moment before she took the stand to be sworn in.
Good luck, princess.
A fast walk took him back to the D.A.'s office and the desk where his paperwork sat. He folded himself into the chair and reached for the phone.
"Harmon," his sergeant barked when the call rang through.
"Are you finished dazzling that hack D.A. out there in the sticks?" Harmon and the D.A., George Daniels, had been partners back in the Dark Ages, before Daniels had dropped out of the force to go to law school.
Ray grinned. "He sends his love, too."
"So, when can I expect to see you back here doing some real work?"
"I finished giving my testimony just now. I can head back tomorrow."
"What's wrong with this afternoon? You think my budget has endless nights of hotel rooms built into it for you?"
It was a good thing Ray knew Harmon's bark was worse than his bite. "I have a couple of things left to do. And I want to check out a lead on this Boanerges thing. One of the lonely hearts he ripped off gave me a tip he might be over this way."
"Sounds pretty vague."
"It is vague. The whole case is vague, and you know how I hate that. But if he's crossing county lines, that puts him in my case load, so I'll do what I can."
"I'll expect you back tomorrow."
"Sooner or later."
Fortunately Harmon hadn't pressed him on his "things-to-do" list. There was only one thing on it of a personal nature. Julia, his partner Ross's wife, had asked him to take one of their framed wedding pictures to her former landlady, Rebecca Quinn. He'd met her at their tiny wedding, but he hadn't seen her in the courtroom. Not surprising. The lady apparently ran her own business, and driving ninety miles to hear the trial proceedings wouldn't make her a living.
He'd do pretty much anything to make Julia smile, and if that meant playing delivery boy, then that's what he would do.
Then he'd blow this popsicle stand and get back to work.