Read an Excerpt
The Dead Saint
A Bishop Lynn Peterson Novel
By Marilyn Brown Oden
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Marilyn Brown Oden
All rights reserved.
At 10:17 on Wednesday morning, three minutes before a bullet whizzed through the French Quarter and severed her sheltered yesterdays from her sinister tomorrows, Bishop Lynn Peterson sat at her favorite outdoor table at Café du Monde. She was incognito behind sunglasses and dressed like a tourist in a teal knit shirt that matched her eyes, khaki walking shorts and sandals, with her black hair swooped up under a straw hat. She'd escaped her office to read over her lecture for the conference in Vienna. No phone calls. No "emergency" appointments. No interruptions. She smiled.
Lynn sipped café au lait, resisted the third beignet and listened to the calliope's happy tune drifting from a paddleboat on the river. Nearby a wannabe king of jazz improvised on soprano sax, playing the music like it should've been written. Feet tapped to the beat. She loved to sit here. Loved New Orleans. The city suited her.
She heard Bubba Broussard's laughter resound like a bass solo from half a block away. The six-five, 250-pound ProBowl linebacker for the New Orleans Saints ambled down Decatur Street, green polo shirt stretched over his biceps. Elias Darwish sauntered along beside him, the never-miss place kicker who hailed from Sarajevo and helped turn the "Aints" into the Saints. The two, built of rock-hard muscles and soft-touch hearts, often helped Lynn with benefits for kids in the Projects. Their friendship deepened while working together during the aftermath of Katrina. The Saints had also helped clean up after the BP oil spill. Elie and Bubba were heroes on and off the football field. Hurricane heroes abounded, but hoodlums stole the headlines. The renovated Superdome rose like a vivid symbol of hope: the Big Easy refused to become the Big Empty. The Saints had more at stake than winning now. They played for a city's soul. Katrina still spins in the shadows of our minds, thought Lynn, then we remember to forget.
Determined to remain incognito, she didn't go greet her friends. She felt secretive and didn't like the feeling. Another point for her lecture. She grabbed a napkin J. K. Rowling–style and scribbled quickly: Secrets make us sick. They do indeed, she thought, giving in to the third beignet.
Lynn scanned the buildings that told stories from another era. Ferns and ivy draped the fancy ironwork on their second-story galleries. Sunlight bounced off the triple steeples of St. Louis Cathedral. Banana trees guarded the gates to Jackson Park. A clown twisted bright balloons into animal shapes. Strangers from all parts of the world meandered along in a friendly fashion. No one worried. No one hurried. Only the red-wigged mime stood still, a human sculpture standing on a box, backed by the iron fence around the park.
Two little boys tap-danced on the slate sidewalk, the soles of their sneakers rigged with metal. A tourist eating a praline slowed to watch. His black leather fanny pack protruded from his paunch and pecan bits dropped on the camera that dangled around his neck. A teenager hustled him. "Betcha a dollar I can tell where you got them shoes." The tourist swerved to avoid him and stepped in front of a blue surrey. The bored mule cocked his head, tilting the red and yellow flowers in his straw hat.
A red light stopped traffic. One taxi raced through it. The second squealed to a halt. People strolled across Decatur, confetti in motion. Bubba and Elie crossed with the crowd. Bubba's laugh resounded like a bass fiddle with a melody solo. Lynn smiled, enjoying his joy.
Elie lurched. Grabbed his chest. Dropped to the street.
Bubba looked down. A growl of agony ripped from his throat. A woman screamed, and the crowd panicked.
Lynn ran toward them. Bubba knelt beside his friend. "Someone call 911!" Lynn put her hand on his shoulder and turned on her cell phone.
The Saints kicker lay still and silent. A circle of blood widened on his white T-shirt.CHAPTER 2
A machete had sliced through time, severing it into the before and the after. As still as death Elias Darwish slept, his soccer foot splayed on the gritty, oil-slick street, his face distorted, his body twisted. Numb, Lynn stood beside Bubba with her hand still on his shoulder. He kept a soft running monologue near Elie's ear. If Elie could hear, he'd know Bubba's voice. If he opened his eyes, he'd see his face.
For an instant Bubba drew a few inches away and shook his head slowly. "I don't understand." Pain filled his James Earl Jones voice. He looked at Elie's broken neck chain. It hung loose, split by the bullet. He scanned the dirty street around them, and his big hand closed over something small and shiny. He clutched it in his fist.
The French Quarter police arrived on foot in minutes. The somber crowd stared silent and subdued, the carnival now a wake. A hundred onlookers had witnessed the crime. But no one knew what had happened. An image tugged at the edges of Lynn's mind — the red-wigged mime had disappeared.
It took a long time for the ambulance to make its way through the crowded, narrow streets. Too long. The paramedics bent over Elie. They glanced at each other, then put him on a stretcher and lifted him into the ambulance. Bubba stooped to climb through the rear doors.
"Sorry, mister." A paramedic slammed one door shut. "It's against the rules."
The linebacker glared at him and jerked it back open. The force jarred the ambulance.
"Careful, Bubba," called the driver. "You can ride up front with me." She thumbed toward the paramedic. "He's a Yankee. He doesn't understand that rules in New Orleans depend right much on the situation."
Bubba jumped in beside her. The siren blared and the ambulance pulled away.
A police officer shook his head. "They don't need the siren. That Saint is dead."CHAPTER 3
The denizen of chaos sat in his DC office at a mahogany desk, its black leather inset clutter-free. He wore a custom suit and shirt, initialed Tiffany cufflinks, a conservative silk tie, and gleaming Italian shoes. Two centuries of presidential memorabilia dominated the décor, a silent testament to his patriotism. The secure green phone rang. Green for go. Stop was not in his vocabulary. He clutched it in his long, El Greco fingers. The familiar voice spoke two words. "Problem solved."
"Good work, as expected." He punched End. Elias Darwish was dead. Tragic but necessary. He frowned and moved thoughtfully to the window. The sunless sky cloaked the city in gray. It matched his mood, for he preferred to avoid fatalities. Darwish would still be alive if he had not woven his own noose by connecting too many threads. An attempt to identify the Patriot was suicide. Not murder.
The Patriot. He smiled, fond of the self-dubbed sobriquet. It fits me, he thought. No American loves this country more than I do. No one stands straighter to salute Old Glory. Or mourns more deeply when her honor is spattered. Patriot. The word evoked an image of discipline and power — essentials in his highly complex modus operandi. Justice drove him. It had since his sixteenth birthday when his father was killed. It would always drive him. Words from Deuteronomy echoed in his ears: Justice and only justice, you shall pursue. One definition said it all: the quality of being righteous. He stood proud, a man of justice, a man of righteousness, a man of power.
He watched the people below scurry about importantly. Locals used cell phones and tourists aimed cameras. His charming public persona connected him to both groups. How stunned people would be to find that his persona masked the unrelenting fire of the Patriot's native forcefulness, a fierce desire to win at all costs, and the capacity to bring harm when needed — traits that served him well as a covert arms dealer, unidentified and unidentifiable. He thrilled at the challenge of this game of masks.
A rain cloud blew slowly across the sky, further darkening the view. He thought of chaos theory, recalling how a butterfly on one continent could flap its tiny wings at the right moment and create a disturbance that influenced the winds on another continent. Perhaps a butterfly in Brazil had caused this drifting cloud. He too could manipulate small disturbances that rippled into large ones. At first he had done this for the poor or, in another meaning of the word in Hebrew, for the little people of the earth, the ones discounted and overlooked. In time God rewarded him with a means to wealth: disturbances create a market for arms, and the destruction creates a market for new infrastructure. The more money he made, the greater his generosity and thus the wider his influence. His beneficence evoked trust and frequently bought respect and privilege from the politicos on both sides of the aisle. Feeding their egos and campaign funds gained him power for his righteous pursuit of justice.
He glanced down at the noontime traffic, then shifted his gaze to the Pentagon in the distance. He still seethed when he thought about Osama bin Laden's attack on the financial and military symbols of U.S. superiority. He had destroyed more than precious lives and prestigious buildings. He'd shattered the country's fearless self-image. Manifest destiny had been struck down. The Promised Land had lost its promise, at least temporarily. The country roamed through the wilderness of fear and suspicion, and he longed to be the new Moses. He hated bin Laden, but he had learned from him. Repugnant but necessary.
He gazed down again at the cars stalled in D. C. gridlock, drivers honking to no avail. No mental gridlock for him. Let those with less at stake practice the Golden Rule. He would live by the Platinum Rule: Zero tolerance. So ... Darwish was dead. He shrugged, turned away from the window, and locked the door on remorse.CHAPTER 4
Lynn got off the streetcar that ran down the median of St. Charles Avenue. The late afternoon sun cut long shadows on sidewalk and soul. She climbed the steps of her episcopal residence, a Victorian home renovated after Katrina's assault. The house suited her: a white-railed veranda with friendly white rockers and hanging baskets of fuchsia bougainvillea, a welcoming door with a brass knocker, and large windows that filled the rooms with light. But this inviting image couldn't erase the big-screen view of Elias Darwish prone on the pavement.
The security alarm hummed as she entered. She punched in the code: Twelve-ten. December tenth. Precious Lyndie's birthday. A familiar bolt of pain stung her heart. We can guard against molesters and kidnappers but not car wrecks. Lyndie's death would always gash her soul. And Galen's too. Parents are supposed to die first.
She closed the door and leaned against it for a moment, almost paralyzed. The crystal vase on the table caught the sunlight, and the mirror doubled the dozen red roses that perfumed the entry hall. But it was the image of Elie that she saw.
Habit claimed her, and she shuffled through the letters and catalogues that lay in a heap below the mail slot. An American Express bill, a letter to Galen Peterson, Ph.D., and three for Bishop Lynn Prejean Peterson. The return address of one caught her eye: THE WHITE HOUSE. She held it like a treasured piece of Tiffany glass. President Helena Benedict was steering admirably through her bumpy first year, adroitly dodging stones cast by her opponents. Lynn had written her a note of appreciation and had asked the President's former pastor to send it to her directly. She hadn't expected a reply. She read President Benedict's letter through twice, astonished that it was not a computerized mass-produced reply but dealt directly with her comments.
Evidently she employs an excellent correspondence staff, Lynn.
She resented this annoying Inner Voice. I.V. Ivy, she'd dubbed it. The nickname gave her a sense of power and control over the voice. She liked the feeling and continued to bask in the illusion that the President herself had written the letter.
Again the image of Elie invaded her mind. Again habit prevailed. The same routine every afternoon: first the mail, then the voice messages. She stepped into the library to check the phone. She'd been careful not to convert the spacious room into a cluttered museum of relics and riches and egocentric evidence of honors. To a large extent the decorative aspects changed with the seasons. She took turns with some objects and rearranged the ones with special meaning or beauty. These changes prompted a fresh view, better than giving in to her expedient get-it-right-and-that's-done nature. The one exception was Lyndie's portrait in its prominent place on the mantle.
One message was from Fay Foster, her assistant, a talkative and loyal woman she'd grown to love:
"Bishop Peterson, Fay here. I know this call isn't needed, but I want to do my duty and remind you of the banquet tonight at Windsor Court. It's unnecessary, I know — what with the Vice President speaking and you giving the invocation and all. You've probably known for weeks not only what you're going to say in your prayer but also what you're going to wear. I bet you're at the hairdresser's right now. Have fun tonight."
In the chaos Lynn had forgotten all about the banquet. Quickly she showered and washed her hair, savoring the scent of coconut shampoo — one of life's small pleasures before the machete falls. She put on makeup, conscious of the mess she'd made of her skin by being in the sun so much. Her friends had those beautiful southern complexions of smooth ivory or dark satin. Friends. Elie was dead. The tears came.CHAPTER 5
Galen arrived as the clock chimed six. Lynn's consecration as a bishop had changed their lives. Some of the changes good. Others not so good. She was grateful that with their move had come Tulane's invitation for Galen to fill its most prestigious chair in the area of history. He often traveled with her across the pond, taking advantage of opportunities to participate in different cultures and do research in libraries all around the world. The years had grayed the temples of his sandy hair, but he retained a remarkable semblance of his USC quarterback physique. Intense brown eyes that pierced façades dominated his handsome face. Though he was fastidious about his appearance, she noted tonight that he could have been leaving for work instead of returning.
"Hi, Love." She zipped up the back of her black dress, realizing she'd eaten too much bread pudding since the last time she'd worn it.
A foot taller than she, he bent to kiss her. "What a day!" What a day! she echoed mentally.
He tossed the Times-Picayune on the bed. "Faculty meeting. Translation: forum for pompous professors to exercise their predilection for pugnacity."
A scholar, she thought fondly, who enjoys alliteration and speaks English from an unabridged vocabulary.
He turned on TV and looked at her, his eyes sad. "Did you hear about Elie?"
She nodded. The dam that held back her feelings threatened to break.
The murder scene flashed on the news. "Lynn! That's you!"
She stuck her thumb in the dike, desperate to distance herself from reality. She had managed to hold herself together through the long aftermath of panic and police and reporters. She willed herself back into control.
"Did you go to the Quarter alone?" Her profession was hard on his Gentleman- of-the-South upbringing.
"I had to. No one called to hire me for a bodyguard."
He didn't laugh. "You were present when it happened!"
"But it was OK. The mime wasn't aiming at me."
"There wasn't a butler." She fought the tears that would flood if the dam broke — and she would give the invocation with red, swollen eyes.
Vanity again, Lynn!
"Be serious. This is not a time for badinage."
"I was perfectly safe, Love."
"A sniper assassinated my friend in the proximity of my wife! I don't call that perfectly safe."
Her defenses nearly collapsed and she saw the scene again. Crawfish crawled through her stomach. She willed herself to focus on Galen.
"I see our speaker has arrived," he said as the local news switched to the Vice President's landing half an hour ago.
Excerpted from The Dead Saint by Marilyn Brown Oden. Copyright © 2011 Marilyn Brown Oden. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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