There were two churches left to check. The brick one wouldn’t burn. Cleansed by Fire.
July 11, 2013
A VG Serial: Cleansed by Fire
“Tom,” Mike yelled.
Father Frank ran the last few feet and slammed Turner’s hand just at the gun went off. The bullet buried itself in the parking lot.
“You’re interfering with a police officer,” Turner screamed. “Get out of my way.”
Mike jumped to his feet and put his hand on Turner’s arm. “Put that away. You don’t shoot a man because he shoved me and walked away.”
“He assaulted a police officer. He resisted arrest.” Turner shrieked.
“Holster your piece, Officer,” Mike commanded. “We’ll talk about this later.”
Officer Tom Turner, red-faced and breathing rapidly, reluctantly holstered his gun.
Earl’s car door slammed. In seconds, the engine started and Earl drove away.
Mike watched the car leave. “Tom, go keep any spectators out of the firemen’s way.” His voice softened but the authority was still strong. “We’ll catch Earl later.”
Turner headed over to where the firemen were working.
Mike watched Tom for a moment, and then turned to Father Frank. “Thanks.”
“For keeping Tom from making a big mistake. If you hadn’t hit his arm, I think he would have shot Earl in the back. And regardless of what we find out about Earl, that would have been very, very bad for Tom.”
“I’m just glad I got there in time,” said Father Frank. “Right now, we need to go find Ward.”
“Do you believe that boy? I mean, about another church fire tonight?”
Without hesitation, Father Frank nodded. “Yes, I do. And having encountered Ward tonight, I have no doubt.”
“This Ward guy started the fire here?”
“Yes. I tried to stop him but couldn’t,” said the priest.
“How long ago did he leave?”
“I’m not sure. He knocked me out with a two-by-four. I don’t think I was out very long. When I came to, the church was on fire.” Father Frank shrugged. “I’m guessing. I don’t think I was out more than a few minutes. Maybe he’s been gone ten minutes. Maybe a little longer.”
Mike rubbed both hands on his face, then through his hair. Thirty feet away, the firemen stood in the door, shooting water into the church. Mike pulled out his cell and pushed a button, even as he walked toward the church.
“This is Oakley. Connect me to Nelson. Priority one.”
In a moment, Mike was talking again. “We may have another fire tonight. Church fire. I’ll—.” He listened for only a second. “Just take my word for it. I’ll cover those on the west side. Get someone on the rest. We’re looking for a Ward—.” He looked at Father Frank.
“Campo. Nineteen, around five feet eleven, a hundred and seventy-five pounds. Probably has a diesel can.”
“Campo.” He repeated the description. “I don’t know if he’s armed but he is dangerous. Approach with caution.”
He flipped the phone closed. Already, people were beginning to gather, some who had an emotional investment in the building, and others who always came out for a disaster, like the people who went to auto races just in case there was a crash.
Mike and Father Frank reached Tom and Georgia.
“Tom, stay here with the firemen. Probably nothing you can do but crowd control. Keep the people out of the way.” Mike paused a second. His voice took on cold authority. “And keep your piece holstered.” Then he started for his car.
“I’m coming with you,” said Father Frank. “Nothing I can do here. The firemen don’t want me in the way.” He turned to Georgia. “Can you go to the hospital and check on Sammie?”
“Of course,” she said with a nod. “But don’t you need to go to the hospital yourself?”
“No. I’m fine. I’ll go later.”
Georgia nodded. “I’ll call Mike if there’s anything serious to report.”
Father Frank took off at a jog to catch Mike, each step causing pain to shoot through his shoulder.
“Where do we start? There’s probably thirty churches in Pine Tree.” Mike backed the car around, gesturing for people to move out of the way.
“Start with the Baptist Churches,” said Father Frank.
“Yes. The first three were all Baptist.”
“But tonight, it was a Catholic Church.” Mike turned into the street.
“I believe Prince of Peace was different. I think Ward was angry at me, maybe at Sammie. This is an exception.”
Mike gave the priest a quizzical look.
“Mike, I don’t know. And I don’t have a real reason why. But my guts tell me Baptist.” He waved his hand. “We have to start somewhere. It’s my best guess. Have you got a better one?”
“Okay. I don’t have a better suggestion.” Mike stopped at the intersection. “Must be a dozen Baptist churches around Pine Tree.”
“Eleven. But three have been burned. Only eight left,” said Father Frank. “Turn right.”
“Eight is enough.”
“If he stays in close. There’s probably another dozen within six or eight miles of town.”
“Thanks.” Mike sighed. “We’ll cover town first.” Another minute passed. “There’s Elm Avenue Baptist.”
“That we can see. We’d better check inside, see if he’s still dousing it with diesel.”
“I don’t see a car,” said Father Frank.
“Did you see one at Prince of Peace?”
Mike skidded the car to a stop. “I’ll check around back. You check the front door. If it’s open, do not go in. Wait for me.”
A minute later, both men jumped back in the car. “What do you think? Pecan Grove or Third Street?”
Mike started the car.
He made a left turn. “Okay. What’s your gut telling you?”
“It’s a frame building. Third Street is brick. Won’t burn as easily.”
Mike gave a short chuckle. “Thinking like a criminal, I see.”
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.