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Twenty-three years later, New Orleans
Head still foggy from a nightmarish sleep, Ian Car-penter pushed up on one elbow. He tried to shake himself awake enough to think straight. Someone had discovered a dead girl on the grounds of Isaiah House.
Heart jump-started by the horror of such a thing, he squinted one eye at the red digital alarm clock. Six-fifteen. After combing the streets of the French Quarter most of the night, he'd been in bed less than three hours. Whatever happened had gone down in that brief time.
Sometimes the futility of what he did was over-whelming.
Through a throat filled with gravel, he said, "I'll be right down."
In five minutes flat, he had showered and dressed in his usual jeans and T-shirt. He shoved on the new pair of Nike Shox he'd purchased yesterday, finding little joy in them now, and tiptoed down the squeaky wooden stairs of the old three-story mission house. Soon enough, the ten in-house residents would begin the day and he would be expected in the chapel with a word or to play the saxophone.
Ian both loved and hated his calling. He loved the people. He loved ministering and counseling. And he especially loved when someone's life was turned around by the power of God's love. But he hated times like these when the dark side won.
In the predawn September morning, he opened the back door out into the courtyard, a beautiful, lush green sanctuary where he often prayed and sought answers to the myriad problems of Isaiah House, the mission he'd started three years ago on faith and a few hundred dollars.
God had called him to this place of beauty and de-bauchery before Hurricane Katrina. Since the disaster, his work had more than tripled. Originally a small haven for runaways, Isaiah House now did whatever it could for any and everyone. True to the scripture that served as its cornerstone, the mission was a hand extended to whoever needed it. Sometimes that hand was stretched pretty thin.
This morning his courtyard sanctuary was hushed, the willows weeping condensation onto the cobblestone walkway as if mourning what lay just outside the mis-sion walls. Beyond the dripping-wet elephant ears and lemon-scented magnolias, yellow police tape vibrated in the twilight stillness.
The stark contrast wasn't lost on Ian. He'd worked the streets and slums of various cities all over the coun-try since junior high school when Mom and Dad signed him up for summer missions' work. Now, at twenty-eight, he'd come to understand all too well that beauty and tragedy coexisted everywhere. Sometimes he felt overwhelmed by his need to make a difference and the utter numbers of despairing mankind.
Ian leaned for a second against the rough bark of a moss-draped oak and squeezed his sleep-gritty eyes
He hadn't even heard the sirens. No surprise. They went on all night in this part of New Orleans. Sirens and reveling. And the desperate meanderings of runaways and drug addicts.
"Grace for today, Father," he said simply. "To do Your work."
And as always peace descended. He pushed off the giant oak, opened the lacy black iron gate and walked toward the buzzing hive of police activity inside the yel-low tape.
"You the reverend?" an ebony-faced policeman, dressed in city blues, asked.
"Yes, I'm Ian Carpenter." He had never been com-fortable with the formalities of his profession. He was a street missionary, plain and simple. As his mama liked to say, "There but for the grace of God go you or I." He was no better or more holy than anyone else. Reverend might fit some, but not him.
"Looks like an overdose." Even in the early morning, with the sun only peeking above the horizon, sweat beaded the officer's forehead. Death was hard work for anyone. "You think she was comin' to your place?"
"You mind having a look, see if you know her?" tunately, in his line of work, this wouldn't be a first. If she was a local, chances were pretty good that he'd at least seen her before. The street people were his love and his life. He made it a point to know them.
"Okay." Though he dreaded what was to come, he fell in step with the officer and walked the few yards
With a respect Ian appreciated, the cop gently pulled the plastic away from a young woman's deathly white face. Ian's heart fell to his knees. A weight as heavy as the humidity over Lake Pontchartrain pressed against his lungs.
Maddy. Lost forever. So close to the help here in the mission that he and God longed to offer. Yet, she hadn't made it.
Another failure for Ian.
He rubbed the back of his neck and blew out a weary sigh. He'd had the dream again last night. The nightmare where he was trapped in a dark place, filthy and cold and scared. For once, he hadn't minded the phone yanking him from his bed. Not until he'd discovered the reason.
"Her name is Maddy," he said quietly. "She stayed here for a couple of weeks."
And for a while Ian had hoped she would heal. But no matter how much he'd prayed and counseled, one day she'd walked out, back to the addiction that had finally stolen her life. She'd once been beautiful, a curse on the streets, but a way to pay for the drugs. So young. And her big green eyes were always filled with confusion.
The officer jotted the information onto a tiny spiral notebook, then squinted up at him. "You know her last name?"
"No." Most of the time, street people didn't share identifying information and he accepted them as they came. "But she was a sweet kid. Gentle. Kind of inno-cent, if that makes sense. Innocent and lost."
"Any kin you know of? Family she might have mentioned?"
Ian shook his head, feeling worse by the minute. He'd tried to minister to Maddy's soul, but he didn't know much about her former life. Every time he'd asked, she'd walked away. "I'll ask around."
Some of Isaiah House's other residents might have known her better than he had.
A blue Channel Eleven News van careened to a stop along the edge of the street and a petite woman jumped out.
Ian groaned inwardly.
Just what he didn't need this morning. Gretchen Barker, the Channel Eleven barracuda. An investigative reporter with a reputation as a watchdog for the public, Gretchen's particular interest of late was religious groups. For the last year and a half she'd had her nose and camera in every New Orleans charity, making sure they toed the line.
Ian had no problem with that. He strongly believed that churches and charitable organizations should be held accountable for every donated penny. But he did have trouble with the woman's attitude. Though he ran a squeaky-clean organization, Isaiah House had come under her scrutiny and her criticism a couple of times lately for the most mundane things.
She seemed especially interested in Ian's finances, which was ludicrous to say the least. Every month Ian waited, partly in fear and partly in anticipation to see how God would keep Isaiah House afloat. As for his personal accounts, he wasn't exactly stockpiling luxury cars and vacation houses. He lived in the mission and drove an old passenger van that needed an overhaul. His only indulgence was on his feet.
"We don't need any reporters out here yet." The of-ficer eyed the van with similar distaste. "This poor girl may be dead but she deserves some respect."
Ian had to agree. "I'll go talk to them."
By now, Barracuda Barker was standing at the yel-police officer repositioned the plastic before carefully covering the victim's face.
Before anyone could stop her, the reporter grabbed the tape and slid beneath.
"Whoa, lady." Ian hurried toward her. The police had yet to finish their investigation and the forensic crew had only just arrived. "You can't come past that tape."
Face set, Gretchen Barker pushed by him. Ian caught her arm. "Did you hear me?"
The reporter's head swiveled toward him. Beneath hair the color of gold, her face was pale. She yanked from his grip and started to run toward the still form on the ground. Ian caught her from behind, wrapping both arms around her waist. She kicked out, caught his left shin with the sharp heel of her sandal. Ian yelped, but held on. He'd never seen a reporter act so bizarre. She couldn't want the story that badly.
He looked toward the photojournalist on the opposite side of the tape. The cameraman stood stock-still, star-ing at the scene, clearly shocked at the behavior of his colleague.
In that brief instant while Ian looked at the camera-man, the barracuda slammed an elbow into his lax gut. "Let me go. I need to see."
Air whooshed out of him. He loosened his grip, but not before she whirled around and slammed the heel of her hand beneath his chin, knocking his teeth pain-fully together. Ian's head popped backward. For a little woman, she packed a wallop.
What was her problem anyway? Was she so bent on getting her story that she had no respect for the dead? The idea curled Ian's hair.
He caught her arm before she could slam him again. This time he stared fully into her face. What he saw gave him pause. Something was seriously wrong here.
Fear, not determination, dilated her pupils.
Ian relented a little. The death of someone so young was a hard thing to deal witheven for him.
Had she never reported a death scene before?
If that was her trouble, she deserved his understand-ing. Even though he choked a little to think of the bar-racuda and compassion in the same sentence, Ian tried one more time.
"Gretchen," he said. "You know better than to break the police barrier. What's wrong? How can I help? Haven't you ever reported a death scene before?"Her mouth worked but nothing came out. And then, with an anguished cry that Ian would remember as long and said, "That's my sister!"
Ian looked from the huge green eyes of the reporter They had the same eyes.
He had been breathless before, but now he couldn't breathe at all. This strong, self-confident woman was a sister to fragile, helpless Maddy?