Today, he’s just trying to stay alive.
Parker Saint is living the dream. A cushy job at a thriving megachurch has him on the verge of becoming a bestselling author and broadcast celebrity—until life takes an abrupt turn that lands him on the wrong side of the law. To avoid a public scandal, he agrees to consult with the police on a series of brutal murders linked by strange religious symbols scrawled on each victim.
Parker tries to play the expert, but he is clearly in over his head. Drawn ever deeper into a web of intrigue involving a demanding detective, a trio of secretive Vatican operatives, and a centuries-old conspiracy to conceal a mysterious relic, he realizes for the first time that the battle between good and evil is all too real—and that the killer is coming back . . . this time for him.
“A thought-provoking exploration into the power of faith and the reality of evil. Filled with memorable characters and tight writing, Playing Saint is an impressive debut from an author to watch.” —Steven James, bestselling author of Placebo and The Queen
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Zachary Bartels
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Zachary Bartels
All rights reserved.
DETECTIVE PAUL KETCHAM DID NOT NEED TO FLASH HIS GOLD badge at the patrol officer covering the door—they knew each other on sight—but he did anyway. He liked the way it felt. He also enjoyed ducking under yellow crime-scene tape, but there was none here to duck.
"Let's get some tape up," he barked at the officer. "Press'll be here any minute. We don't need them contaminating the scene."
The house on Lane Avenue had lain vacant for nearly a year. Squatters found the body three hours earlier and, hoping to collect a reward, made the call to the Grand Rapids police. There was none to collect, so now they waited for the local news affiliates, thinking they might get some TV time in lieu of monetary remuneration.
Ketcham entered the spacious living room, noticing the hardwood floors and early twentieth-century leaded windows. It was clear that the house had once been beautiful, despite the years of neglect and the shirtless corpse lying in a pool of blood.
"Hey, Paul," called Corrinne Kirkpatrick, descending the curved staircase. "I've been here twenty minutes already. I can't remember the last time I beat you to a scene. Did you have to do your paper route?"
Like Ketcham, she was a senior detective with the Major Case Team. They weren't partners—there was no such official pairing in their unit—but they had been building a mutual respect and interdependence for the better part of a decade. Corrinne was the only person on the force who dared to call him Paul. To everyone else he was Detective Ketcham, save his superiors, who simply called him Ketcham.
In her midforties, she was almost ten years his senior, which somehow wound up as a source of ribbing in both directions. He also dished out frequent digs about her boyish haircut and severe pantsuits—both of which she took as compliments.
"This is already looking too familiar," he said, approaching the corpse.
The young man looked to be in his late teens, his dark hair shoulder-length, his skin pallid, and his throat cut from ear to ear. On his forehead the number 666 had been applied in a dark red-brown. His chest bore a large five-pointed star in the same substance.
"Pretty uninventive," Corrinne observed with some disappointment. "I still give creativity points for painting on the guy with his own blood. But the star and the 666 are a little Nineties, am I right? It's just like that corny movie; what was it called?"
"Hmm? I don't know. I don't watch movies." Ketcham ran a hand through his thick hair and squatted down for a better look. "It's definitely our guy, though. Same technique, same detail—looks like a pretty fine paintbrush. That didn't make the press, so we can rule out some copycat inspired by the headline."
"Nothing related to playing cards either. I guess they'll have to come up with a new name for the perp. The Blackjack Killer doesn't fit anymore."
"Yeah. Maybe the Pentagon Killer."
Corrinne shook her head. "A pentagon isn't a star. It's a five-sided shape, like the building in Washington, DC."
"Yeah, maybe. Anyway, this changes the profile altogether. I don't think I'm jumping to conclusions when I see some definite religious overtones here. That's new."
"Hmm." Ketcham scribbled some notes in a pocket-sized spiral notebook. "And if we're not dealing with playing-card imagery, the whole thing about expecting four victims is out the window too."
"That was pretty thin anyway. I think Channel 8 came up with it. My real takeaway here is that our whole 'new gang' theory is probably off base. Gangs rarely employ Satanic rituals and symbolism, am I right?"
"I wouldn't think so." He rubbed his chin. "This whole thing is off. Two victims in two days. Ritualized killings. Looks like the work of a serial killer, but I'd expect another girl in that case."
"Why is that?" Corrinne folded her arms.
"Oh, save the feminism. We're talking about a murderer here. Guy's slicing people up; I doubt he cares whether his choice of victim is politically correct."
"And why exactly does the killer have to be a man?"
"If you're trying to advance the cause, I think you're doing it wrong." He turned his attention back to the body. "What have we got on the victim?"
She perused her own notepad. "His name is Benjamin Ludema. He was a senior at Central High. No arrest record. We're waiting to hear back from a school representative. I'd like to interview all of his teachers tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, that's good. Let me know if you need help."
"Now that you mention it, I was hoping you two might have some classes together. Are you friends with any upperclassmen?"
"Funny stuff." He pointed to the design on the boy's chest. "Did the lab ever confirm that the blood from yesterday's image was the victim's?"
"Type matched, but we're still waiting on DNA confirmation. I wouldn't stand on one leg until it comes in. I'll make sure they do the same tests on young Ben here, with a few unique samples."
"What's your guess at time of death?"
"Definitely within the last four hours. I'd be real surprised if it were any earlier."
"Sheesh. Killing for the devil on Sunday morning." Ketcham shook his head. "What's the world come to?"
"I know what you mean. In my day all the Satanic murders happened during the workweek. Between this and all the churches getting tagged, this town's really throwing in with Beelzebub."
He gave her a chuckle. "Those two vagrants out there waiting to give a statement?"
"No, they've been handled. Pretty much worthless."
Ketcham was beginning to sweat. It was early October and still too warm for the lined trench coat he wore. "Techs should be here soon," he said, checking his watch. "You mind babysitting while I start the paperwork?"
"Of course the woman has to do the babysitting."
"You're a regular Gloria Steinem, you know that?"
* * *
Parker Saint had just seen a tear trickle down a cheek in the crowd, cutting slowly through a thick layer of foundation. This was important. A wet cheek was one of the last checkpoints on The List. He still carried an index card bearing The List in his jacket pocket, despite having long since committed it to memory. It was something of a good-luck charm.
For six years Parker had been preaching against an ultratight television schedule, and he prided himself on impeccable timing. A large digital clock, glowing red at the back of the auditorium, displayed the number of minutes remaining in the broadcast, and Parker knew where in The List he needed to be in relation to the number on the clock.
His sermons were twenty-eight minutes in length every week, not varying by thirty seconds. He always began with a joke, usually something a little on the folksy, heartwarming side. After that he would establish the vocabulary of the message: not theological jargon, but something catchy and appealing like "Unleashing Your Full Potential" or "Tapping into Your God-breathed Dreams." Today it was "Moments of Majesty." Next, he would bring up some scriptural texts, weaving together several Moments of Majesty in the lives of biblical characters, all the while solidifying a principle around them.
When the clock read 0:14, he began identifying at least two practical action points. In his early years he had announced, "Now for the action points," but these days he brought them in more seamlessly. Finally, with six minutes left in the broadcast, the music would come in, all-but-inaudible at first, slowly swelling as Parker told a touching story—sometimes a personal experience, but more often something he'd read in a book or online.
This was the most delicate part of the process, and it made him grateful for the live audience before him. Parker would slowly turn up the emotional intensity until he saw a single tear on the face of a parishioner, then back off. In this case, the tear rolled down as he elaborated an account of an elderly married couple with dementia, living in a nursing home, reenacting their first date. It appeared just as the clock changed to 0:03. The credits would roll at 0:02.
The final checkpoint on The List was what he called "tying the bow," which meant summarizing twenty-eight minutes in a single statement. Parker was a master of tying the bow.
"My friends, God wants you to embrace your Moments of Majesty," he intoned, his words oozing with manufactured sincerity. "You may not recognize God's breath on your life today. The majesty of your destiny may be eluding your sight, but mark my words: your greatest Moments of Majesty are in front of you. Thank you for joining us today. And remember, God is awesome ..."
"And so am I!" came the enthusiastic reply from the congregation, some 4500 voices strong. Parker beamed. The brilliant simplicity of his catchphrase never failed to delight him. He strode confidently from the stage, leaving the band to execute a bright praise song under the television credits.
Backstage he was met by his assistant, Paige, who gushed, "Seriously, Parker, that was one of your best messages yet!"
"You say that every week."
"It's true every week." She quickly took the wireless mic from him and smoothed his hair with several saliva-dampened fingers. "Houselights in less than a minute. You better go." She hugged him briefly. "Great job this morning. Seriously."
In the atrium after the service Parker stood behind a long table and greeted his admirers, as he always did. On either side of him volunteers sold DVDs of previous messages, but the real line was of people wanting to talk with Parker for just a moment. Many asked for an autograph on the morning's bulletin. With everything on large projection screens, there was really no need for bulletins except that Parker loved signing them. In a couple of months, though, he planned to phase them out altogether, as he would have something much more substantial to autograph.
"I can't wait for your book, Pastor Saint," a flustered, matronly woman said. "I'm planning to buy lots of copies and giving them away—give them away, I mean. For Christmas and such."
"I appreciate it. Thank you so much." He smiled, consciously flashing some tooth. He'd successfully quit smoking six months earlier at his mentor's insistence and was seeing improvement in the whiteness every day.
The line had begun to dwindle when Paige approached silently. "Parker, you've got an appointment in your office in five. The man from Christianity in View. He's in the greenroom now."
"I forgot about that. Thanks. Get me some water, would you, Paige? I'm parched." He lifted a hand to what remained of the line. "Sorry, folks, I've got to go! Remember, God is awesome and so are you!"
* * *
Brett LaForest was a short, balding man with a penchant for facts and no sense of humor.
"As I told your assistant on the phone, Reverend Saint, Christianity in View is doing a cover story on fifteen up-and-coming figures in the church—authors, leaders, and preachers such as yourself who have a growing sphere of influence."
"I understand," Parker said, trying to sound both unsurprised and unimpressed with himself.
"Great. Let's start with the obvious then. You're thirty-seven years old, a third-generation preacher with a local congregation. A pretty common kind of pastor until a few years ago. Tell me how it is that you now find your audience on the verge of going national."
"Well, Brett, I'd like to think that's God's doing—that he's rewarding me for spreading the amazing news of his love. But I also know that God uses frail human beings like us to carry out his plans—and of course I can't answer your question without bringing up the name Joshua Holton. I'm sure you know what I mean."
"You're referring to your semiregular slot on Holton's program, Live Your Dreams Now. How did that come about?"
"Joshua Holton has been something of a mentor to me in recent years. We met at one of his conferences in Fort Worth, and he took an interest in me."
"I believe he's called you his 'great discovery.' What do you suppose he means by that?"
"I don't want to sound like I'm getting a big head over this, Brett, but I do believe God has brought Joshua and me together so that my message can reach his audience."
"But is your message any different from his?"
"I like to think it's nuanced a bit differently, yes. Of course Joshua Holton's been a great influence on me, and he and I have spent some significant time visioning together, so there will naturally be some overlap, but that's not a bad thing."
Brett flipped a page on the pad in front of him. "Most of our readers will be aware that Reverend Holton not only has a very highly rated television show, but his books, Focus on Being You and (God Wants You to) Live Well Now, have spent a combined forty-three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list."
It annoyed Parker that the reporter pronounced the parentheses in the book's title.
"And now your book is scheduled for release in the next season. Will you have an endorsement from Joshua Holton?"
Parker's eyes flashed slightly. "I'm not all that involved in the nuts and bolts of the publishing business, Brett, but trust me when I tell you this book will do its own publicity work when word starts to spread about all the changed lives and reborn destinies."
"Do you mind if we talk about your background a little?"
"Not at all."
"Your father and grandfather were both ministers at Hope Presbyterian Church here in Grand Rapids."
"Were you on staff there as well?"
"Yes, for a while. I've joked that I had to leave Hope to keep it from becoming a dynasty. Dad was associate pastor with my grandfather for ten years. He took a few years away at another church, then came back and pastored for almost twenty years. During the last five I was on staff with Dad as an associate."
"While you completed your studies?"
"And then you started your own church, Abundance Now Ministries."
"That's not exactly accurate. My church grew out of Hope organically."
Brett looked at him blankly for a moment before saying, "I'm never sure what people mean when they say something happened 'organically.'"
"Well, my grandfather always had a radio ministry, even from his earliest days. In the eighties my father expanded that into a television ministry. It was called Hope This Week, and it started out as just his sermon from Sunday morning and a little closing thought.
"Near the end of his life, we began putting more and more emphasis on that aspect of the ministry. It actually caused a little bit of tension in the church. When Dad died it seemed natural for us to officially split the church proper from the television outreach. So Abundance Now sort of grew out of Hope Presbyterian."
"And you rebranded the television program as Speak It into Reality."
"An Outreach of Abundance Now Ministries."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"That's the full name of the show. Speak It into Reality: An Outreach of Abundance Now Ministries, with Pastor Parker Saint."
"That's a mouthful compared with Hope This Week."
"And you've gone in quite a different direction theologically."
"I don't know if I'd say 'quite different,' but yes, we have our own vision."
"How is the old church doing, by the way?"
Parker looked at his watch and everywhere but at the reporter seated across from him. "I'm sorry, is this interview about Hope Presbyterian or is it about me and my current ministry? Because I'd like to talk about some of the amazing things God is doing here and now."
Brett smiled politely. "Okay, let's talk about you. Your doctrine has come under fire by a number of conservative Christian leaders and self-described 'discernment ministries.' There are even a few blogs dedicated to 'exposing' your theology, or lack thereof. What is your reaction to that?"
"Well, Brett, I don't really sweat that. I preach what God wants me to preach. I'm sorry if some folks want to nitpick and divide, I really am. But I'm not going to worry about a few squeaky wheels when so many lives are being changed."
"So would you call your doctrine orthodox?"
"Yes. I certainly would."
"One Christian broadcaster recently called you a Modalist because of the way you spoke of the Trinity in your series on family dynamics."
Excerpted from Playing Saint by Zachary Bartels. Copyright © 2014 Zachary Bartels. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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