The priest wondered about the boy. He was carrying a lot of anger. Cleansed by Fire.
May 5, 2013
A VG Serial: Cleansed by Fire
The Pine Tree Police Department was housed in a one-story red brick building huddled next to the town hall. On Monday morning virtually nothing was happening. Father Frank found Mike with his feet propped on the desk. The detective scrambled up to clear a stack of papers from a chair for the priest to sit in.
Documents, pieces of evidence in plastic bags, manuals, and three sacks from the local Dairy Queen covered every horizontal surface. A large white board filled most of the wall behind Mike’s desk. On it were columns identified by what Father Frank assumed to be case numbers. Various pieces of information had been scrawled under the headings, some in black, some in red and blue, and a couple of items were circled in green. Several pieces of paper were held to the board by magnets.
Father Frank found it impossible to make sense of any of it, nor to decipher much of the police shorthand written on the board.
“Why are you asking about Ward Campo?” Mike asked.
Father Frank didn’t have a good answer. A sudden uneasiness in his gut? A look in the boy’s eyes? Those wouldn’t mean anything to the detective. Father Frank couldn’t say Ward was talking with Sammie, who told me in confession he knew about the fires.
“I met him Saturday. He seemed to be carrying a lot of anger. I just wondered if you could tell me anything about him.”
“Is he a member of Prince of Peace?”
“No.” The priest twisted in the chair, trying to find a more comfortable position. It did no good. He realized it was the questioning that made him uncomfortable, not the chair.
“So, he’s not your problem.”
“I’m interested in all the youth of Pine Tree. And incidentally, he is friends with some of my guys, so I’m doubly interested.”
Mike leaned back in his chair and studied the priest before answering. “I can say that we have never arrested Ward Campo, nor had any occasion to. Had no complaints against him.”
“But you are aware of him, apparently.”
“Yes. But then, we’re aware of you.”
Father Frank nodded. “Point taken. And you aren’t going to tell me anymore about him.”
Mike just smiled.
“How about B.D. Rake?” Father Frank asked.
“Another friend of one of your parishioners?”
The detective picked up a wooden pencil and held it, one index finger on the point, the other on the eraser.
“Some of them know him.”
“Well, we’ve had more encounters with him. He’s on the edge of the drug scene. Abuses alcohol. Some other petty stuff. Never been in jail.”
He moved his left index finger up and down, wiggling the pencil.
Father Frank sat silent, idly looking at the board with all the cases on it, wondering if he should mention the man from The Corral.
He debated with himself and started to let it go. Mike had enough to worry about. But just then, his eyes picked out something on the board he could actually decipher: “Cal. Rd. Bap.” And below it, the word “diesel.”
“I was out at The Corral the other day —”
“Whoa. I can’t see that as one of your places of recreation.” He slapped the pencil back on the desk. “Did I forget to tell you to leave police business to the police?”
“You did. Now, as I was saying before I was interrupted, a man made a cross out of napkins. He waited until he had my attention, then struck a match and burned the paper cross.”
“You’re sure he did this for your benefit?”
Father Frank nodded. “Oh yes. Quite clearly. And after it burned, he laughed a rather nasty laugh, all the while staring at me, watching to see my reaction.”
Father Frank studied Mike to see his reaction. In true police fashion, he showed nothing.
“No doubt in my mind, it was meant for me. I felt it was a message.”
Mike looked down at his desk and compressed his lips. He refocused on the priest.
“First, I’d suggest staying away from The Corral. It’s not a nice place. Second, leave police business to the police.”
“Ah, you didn’t forget this time.”
“And third, what did the guy look like?”
Father Frank smiled. “He was a big man, about six feet tall and probably needed a five foot belt. I’m not a good judge of age, but my guess is forty to forty-five. He had a droopy mustache and thinning hair. Brown. Dirty. Oh, and he had tattoos on both forearms. Some sort of designs. I didn’t notice any words.”
Father Frank stretched his lips into a long straight line and raised his eyebrows.
“That’s the best I can do. I’d be happy to go out there with you and point out the guy, if he’s there.”
“No.” Mike said it with finality. “There is nothing illegal about burning a paper napkin, as long as it doesn’t start a larger fire. But I’ll see if we have anything on a man that fits your description.”
“What about Earl? You find anything about him?”
“Not much. Actually, nothing. The car is properly registered to someone else. We called the guy. He said Earl was using his car, with his permission. Wanted to know if Earl had been speeding or anything. When I asked him what Earl’s last name was, he said Earl was all he knew.
“I challenged him on that. I mean, he’s loaned his car to someone and doesn’t know his last name? I don’t think so. He said, ‘Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Smith. Earl Smith.’”
The detective shook his head and frowned. “Clearly, something’s not right. But until he breaks the law, runs a red light, has a tail light burn out, anything, there’s not much else we can do.” Mike raised his shoulders and let them drop. “In the U.S. of A. we can’t stop a person and ask for identification without a good reason.”
“No last name. Sounds pretty questionable to me.”
Mike leaned forward and put his elbows on the desk. “Whatever you’re thinking about, forget it. The police investigate problems, solve crimes, put the bad guys in jail. You’re supposed to be saving souls. Stay out of our territory and we’ll stay out of yours.”
“Oh, I welcome you into mine. I can use all the help I can get. Why don’t you come around on Sunday morning and see how we do it?” Father Frank opened his eye wide, cocked his head to the side, smiled, and waited for a response.
Father Frank decided he wasn’t going to get any more information out of Mike on this front. Maybe he should try a different one.
“How was your date Saturday night?”
A big smile replaced the frown that had taken up residence on Mike’s face.
“Now that was okay. She’s a very classy lady. Everybody turned to look at her when we entered the restaurant.”
“So, I’m thinking it won’t be many days until you do it again.” Father Frank grinned, knowing that Mike had asked Georgia out for Wednesday night.
“Well, a guy’s gotta’ eat. And I can’t think of anyone more pleasant to eat with than the Georgia peach.”
“The Georgia peach.” The priest laughed out loud.
“Hard to argue with that. I know, I know. I’m sure she’s gotten that many times over the years.”
Father Frank stuck his index finger up. “Maybe not. Remember, she wasn’t a Peitz until she married Leo, after she was out of college, well past the teasing years.”
Mike turned serious. “We had a very nice evening. We talked for a long time. I can’t remember ever talking to a woman for that long at one time. Well, I never did. But it was easy with Georgia. I hated to quit.”
“So, you liked it. How about Georgia?”
A deep worry line etched across his brow. “I think so. But maybe I’m just wishing. She seemed…well, she smiled a lot.”
“Georgia always smiles.”
Father Frank felt a little mean giving Mike a hard time. But it was fun seeing the tough detective show a softer side.
“Yeah.” Mike looked down a second, then raised his head with a smile on his face. “But she’s going to have dinner with me again Wednesday. That says something, doesn’t it?”
Father Frank got up and headed out the door. Over his shoulder, he said, “A gal’s got to eat.”
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.