The screams kept coming. Shoot him. He’s got a gun. He’s dangerous. Cleansed by Fire.

More chapters from Cleansed by Fire

A VG Serial: Cleansed by Fire

Chapter 39

On Sunday, Georgia sat on one of the freshly varnished pews. No one else, at least so far, had decided to try them out.

If I do stick to them, I’m not going to be happy. I should have worn old jeans, not this linen skirt.

Other seats were available but she was drawn to these that had been singed, had resisted the fire, and were now freshly stained and varnished. Perhaps she just wanted to welcome them back.

Now, Father Frank and two acolytes started up the aisle and the congregation started singing Come Christians, Join to Sing. Mike slipped into the pew beside Georgia. She looked up from the hymnal and did a double take, surprised and excited that he had come. She beamed as she handed him a hymnal. Her heart beat faster, and she silently thanked God.

Tuesday afternoon, Father Frank picked Sammie up and they drove to the police station. Sammie had made an appoint­ment to see Detective Oakley and asked Father Frank if he would go with him to the meeting. The doctor had given Sammie clear­ance to go out of the house as long as he didn’t do anything stre­nuous or jar his head. Father Frank suspected Sammie wanted some psychological support.

Dark clouds turned the day gloomy, threatening rain. Everybody in Pine Tree would be happy with the rain. Officially, they were locked in a drought. The pattern of the last month had been clouds, hot temperatures, high humidity, and no rain. Today looked as if it would follow that same pattern.

Sammie was quiet, eyes downcast, obviously not looking forward to his  first day out  of the house.  Father Frank  under-stood the boy’s apprehension. He’d had information that could’ve stopped the fires. Three of them. Fear—or some displaced loyalty—had kept him quiet. But the moment of reckoning had come. No wonder Sammie was scared. But Father Frank res­pected the courage he was showing now.

The priest kept his comments to the weather, Sammie’s recovery, and the basketball league. He avoided even mentioning the repairs to Prince of Peace, not wanting to bring the picture of that damage into the young man’s mind. Sammie was already weighed down with guilt, and Father Frank anticipated Mike would pile on more.

At police headquarters, Mike offered water, coffee or so­das, and when both declined, he led them to an interrogation room. The sparse furniture consisted of an oblong grey metal table bolted to the floor and three grey metal chairs. Mike sat on one side. Sammie looked at his seat as if it were an electric chair. He hesitated, then sat down carefully. Once seated, he locked his gaze on the table top, refusing to look at the detective.

“Sammie, I’m going to record this so I won’t get anything wrong, won’t forget anything. Is that okay?”

Father Frank noted with relief that Mike’s approach was kindly.

Sammie’s eyes focused on the recorder. He did not respond.

Father Frank laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Sammie, Detective Oakley asked if you minded if he taped this session.”

With what appeared to be a physical effort, Sammie pulled his gaze from the tape recorder and looked at Father Frank.

“Oh, yeah. That’s okay.”

Mike switched on the recorder, gave his name, the date, time and place, Sammie’s and Father Frank’s names, and the pur­pose of this meeting. He rewound the tape and played back what he had said.

He smiled at Sammie. “I always like to check that it’s really working. Once, I went through a long session, only to find that the recorder hadn’t captured a thing.” He started the recorder again.

Father Frank watched without comment, his hand resting on the back of Sammie’s chair, fingers lightly touching the boy, a subtle communication of encouragement and support. Mike ap­peared to be considerate of the boy’s age, apparent distress and remorse. The priest could see Mike probing, trying to sift through the admissions and denials, the statements and answers, to find the truth—truth about what Sammie knew, when he knew it, and what part he had played in the arsons.

After thirty minutes of solid interrogation, Mike leaned back and asked Sammie if he wanted anything to drink.

“Yeah, a soda,” Sammie responded. “Please.”

Mike nodded. “I’ll get you one. Father Frank, you want to go with me?”

“No. I’ll wait here with Sammie.”

But something in Mike’s manner indicated that was not what the detective had in mind.

“On second thought, yes. I’ll go see what your machine has to offer.”

As they walked down the hall, Mike said, “Okay, how do you read him?”

Father Frank considered the question for a moment. “I think he is trying to tell the truth, as painful as it is. I believe he really didn’t know much about either Ward’s motivation or the details of how he carried them out. And I believe him when he says he was not present at any of the fires.”

“Except Prince of Peace.”

“Yes. And thank God he was there,” said Father Frank.

“If he’d told us what he knew after fire number one, we probably could have prevented fires two, three, and four. And saved a life.”

“Sammie knows that, and has to live with it. But I truly don’t think he knew Ward’s motive. I don’t think Ward ever told Sammie about Josephson or the abuse. And I don’t believe Sammie understood there was a plan to cover up Ward’s revenge.”

They stopped at the end of a short hall in front of a soft drink machine. Mike plugged in coins, punched a button and a drink popped out.

“Want one?”

“Dr Pepper, please.”

The machine yielded a second drink, and the men headed back to the interrogation room.

“What has Ward said?” asked the priest.

“Not much. He’s admitted to the fires. and the assault on you and Sammie. When we asked him about Josephson, he said “accident,” and nothing more.”

“Have you told him you know about the abuse?”

“Not yet. The district attorney wants to find the right time to spring that on him.”

Father Frank popped open his soda and took a long pull. “I imagine he knows you know.”

“Maybe. But the first time we actually bring it up will be significant. It’s like when the other shoe drops. You know it’s coming but you still jump when it hits.”

“Does he have an attorney yet?”

“Yeah,” said the detective. “Actually, he’s got a pretty good one, not some greenhorn who barely knows his way to the bathroom.”

They had reached the interrogation room when a commotion broke out in the reception area. Looking through a glass panel in the wall, they could see Officer Tom Turner and Earl pushing and shoving each other as they stumbled through the front door.

“You’ll rot in jail for the rest of your life,” Turner screamed. “Dora, he’s got a gun. Shoot him!”

The dispatcher jumped up, her mouth open, eyes wide with surprise and fear. Her hand jerked to the butt of her pistol, and then froze there.

“Dora, shoot him before he shoots you,” Tom yelled. “He’s dangerous.” He yelled louder. “Somebody. Help!”

Father Frank remained at the glass panel, unable to take his eyes off the scene, but Mike raced to the door leading to reception. Two other officers boiled out of the squad room.

Earl slammed Tom into a chair, as the two policemen burst into the room.

“He’s got a gun. Shoot him,” Tom shrieked. “He’s attack­ing us.”

He struggled to get up, but Earl shoved him back down into the chair.

The two patrolmen hesitated as Earl turned toward them.

“Shoot him,” Tom screeched again.

Earl put up both hands, palms facing his attackers. The policemen grabbed his arms, pinning them behind the scruffy looking intruder’s back. They shoved Earl face-down on the counter. Mike reached around and found the handcuffs on his belt. Roughly, he snapped the steel bracelets around Earl’s wrists.

Chapters of the serial are published on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday.

You can learn more about Cleansed by Fire and other James H. Callan novels on his Amazon Author Page.

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