Chapter 2: Seven Years Later
The man sitting alone in a darkened room of the Alastor Hotel in Austin, Texas was the Reverend Brother Trent LaMain, founder of the Church of the Most Almighty Judge. Apocalyptic sermons and books had lifted this man, once a rural preacher with a congregation of a couple of dozen from the hills of Tennessee, to the heights of fame in the American Evangelical movement. He had occupied this position for 25 years.
As a child he usually went barefoot in the Summer to save his shoes for Sundays and school; now he sat wearing $500 Italian loafers and a Versachi suit in one of the most expensive hotels in the South. Once he preached in one room churches, even in converted chicken houses with dirt floors; now he spoke to theaters of thousands and his words went out by satellite to millions around the world.
He stared at the small bronze urn standing on the desk across from his resting spot on the couch. It shone dimly in the soft darkness. Tears welled up in his eyes and ran freely down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry, son.”
All the best schools, Yale and Princeton, Chicago, degrees in philosophy, philology, anthropology, and Biblical archeology – Trent LaMain had been able to fund his son’s education and work. John LaMain had been a gifted researcher, a member of the Borland digs in the Holy Lands looking for artifacts of the Crusades, and that was where he disappeared.
By some accounts, John LaMain had stolen one of the artifacts – no one was exactly clear as to what it was: Professor Borland would only say it was an “important discovery,” a text that might have revolutionized Medieval Studies and our understandings of the clash – and mixture – of cultures of which the Crusades had been a part. Borland, however, had not even had time to examine the book, found wrapped in papyrus, sealed with an intact wax seal in a pottery jug; the hour after John LaMain had helped unearth the jug and open it, he disappeared with its contents.
Some thought that he had stolen the text with an eye towards selling it on the lucrative underground antiquities market, but Professor Borland had confided in the elder LaMain that he feared John had been kidnapped by terrorists thought to be active in the area at the time. A similar abduction had occurred the week before in a nearby community, all so the terrorists could obtain money for their operations.
No ransom demands ever came. It was thought that the kidnappers had realized the worth of the text and sold it, killing John and disposing of his body. But no body had ever been found. Trent LaMain funded several searches, bribed officials. He even hired mercenaries and former CIA operatives known for their abilities to “extract” information – in the end, there was none to extract.
Then, seven years ago, the phone rang. It was the FBI – or, at least, that’s who LaMain thought it was at first. They had John’s charred remains that had been recovered from a burned house in rural South Georgia under “mysterious circumstances.”
Two investigators were sent out, Special Agents Michelle Andersen and Paulo Utillma – that’s what the i.d. cards said. They gently but insistently asked Trent LaMain uncomfortable and unexpected questions concerning John’s sexual habits and preferences; questions concerning his morality, his decency. Was he prone to violence against women? Did he hate them? Did he own violent pornography?
And, strangely, was he drawn to the occult as a teen? As an adult?
Trent was incredulous – so incredulous he wound up losing his temper in the final interview he allowed; he screamed in rage at the nonplussed investigators. They had simply looked at him impassively and excused themselves.
Another strange thing: When LaMain’s son had gone missing, the matter was in all the papers, on the news; he had been contacted by the FBI and they had assisted him in every possible way, even recommending, under the table, the names of “freelance” investigators in the Middle East. But after John’s body was found, the authorities never mentioned a word of it in the media. It was as if he’d ceased to exist – and they wanted it kept that way.
As if to confirm Trent’s suspicions, when the small urn with the ashes finally arrived several months later, the courier who brought it asked LaMain to remain silent while the “investigation” was ongoing. The “suggestion” was made in such a tone Trent was left shaken, frightened.
Calls to his allies in Washington, for the first time in his life as a celebrity Evangelical minister, led to people who were “too busy” to help, no matter what Trent threatened.
Calls to the FBI were unhelpful. There was no way to contact Agents Andersen and Utillma or their supervisors – it was as if they’d ceased to exist. In fact, no shred of information ever escaped the files of the Bureau concerning the case.
I’m so sorry, John.
But there were ways around the Bureau’s recalcitrance and secrecy. There was even a means to vengeance if you were willing to step deeply enough into the shadows, and Trent knew it. One day, reluctantly, LaMain had dialed a number.
A week later, one of the mercenaries who had worked for LaMain in the Middle East came to him. The man was once an operative for the CIA and had ties to every known – and unknown – intelligence gathering organ in the world. Briefly, Trent explained what had happened and before he even reached the end of the story, the man raised a hand to silence him.
“It wasn’t the Bureau.”
“What wasn’t --?”
“The agents, the investigation. We call them “Nothing.” They don’t exist. They’re not on any budget, not with anyone. Blacker than black.”
“I don’t follow.”
The man looked out the window of the office as if suddenly concerned someone might be watching.
“Back when we were looking for your son in the Middle East – there was some hint of their possible involvement. The “Nothing” is an organization that investigates matters. . . well, matters outside anyone else’s abilities to . . .. Well, let’s say, they can cope with things no one else is equipped to face.”
Trent was thoroughly confused. In all their dealings, this man had never been as cryptic as he was at that moment.
“I still don’t get –“
The man looked at him hard.
“And I couldn’t make you understand, preacher. Even for you, a religious man – there’s things you don’t know about. And don’t want to know about. If you want my advice – and that is why you pay me – if the “Nothing” is involved here, I’d let it drop.”
The man looked out the window again, his eyes narrowing. “I’d let it go. Remember your son for what he was, a good kid who had a good life. Don’t ask for anything else.”
Trent stood and glared at him.
“No. No – that isn’t good enough! It isn’t good enough, by a long shot. I think somebody did something to my boy, something terrible. I’ve got to know, and when I know who did it . . ..”
“What then? I can tell you now, this is out of both of our leagues.”
“Then whose league ain’t it out of?” For a moment, the boy raised in the Tennessee hills, the one who was raised to believe blood was thicker than water, and that feuds were a way of life peeked out from the polished exterior of the adult.
The man slowly walked across the room, then back, thinking, seemingly trying to restrain himself. Then, without a word, he went to the desk and reluctantly scribbled a name and a location on a scrap of paper.
Only then did the man speak, using a grave tone: “It’s your funeral, preacher. Think it over real hard before you do this.” Then he walked out of LaMain’s office, shaking his head.
LaMain had thought it over, spent months and months thinking it over. He’d allowed himself nearly six of the past seven years to wonder, was it his place in God’s plan to seek vengeance, to pry into his son’s fate when all doors seemed shut tight? Was God Himself trying to tell him not to look behind those doors?
John had been killed, he was sure of it. But what had become of him for all those years before he resurfaced? Why had he come back to America without even trying to contact his father?
Each was all the other ever had. John’s mother had died in childbirth and Trent never remarried. He’d spent his life trying to raise his son in a Godly, fatherly fashion, but also to indulge him, to give him those things he never had a chance to have. Trent may have been a fire and brimstone preacher to his congregations, but to his son, he had always been understanding, gentle, forgiving.
Something must have been terribly wrong for his son not to have contacted him. And Trent LaMain could no longer live not knowing what had happened, who was involved. Who should pay . . ..
His private jet brought him from the worldwide headquarters of his ministry in Memphis to Austin in a matter of hours after he made up his mind. He came with the urn containing his son’s ashes in a shoulder bag and with a large, locked suitcase that a few phone calls and bribes had allowed to pass through security untouched. He’d checked into the Alastor while his Austin church worked to provide a driver and vehicle for the journey. They were told Brother LaMain was visiting poor Hispanic children at a small border town as part of the church’s mission work, but that their preacher wanted everything anonymous, off the record. Out of the media. No one was to know he was here.
“Sometimes, the Lord’s work must never be known. Sometimes, Peter does not need to know what Paul is doing,” said LaMain.
The phone in the hotel suite rang. LaMain let it ring three times while he took a deep breath. Then, “Yes?”
“Brother LaMain? I am Fernando Suarez, your driver.”
“Do you know Browderton?”
“Si, very well, sir. I have a girlfriend there.” The man laughed gently.
“Do you know why I want to go there?”
“No sir. It isn’t any of my business. They pay me to drive, not ask questions.”
“Good. We understand each other, Fernando. Where are you?”
“Parked on Matthison, next to the hotel. It’s a green Hummer, black tinted windows.”
“I’ll be right down.”
Trent LaMain put on his sunglasses, picked up the urn and slipped it into a small shoulder bag. Then he gripped the heavy suitcase and left the room.
The Hummer was easy to find. He climbed in and locked the door. A tough looking Mexican, face scarred from a knife fight, nose crooked from brawls, smiled at him from beneath a black Stetson.
“Have you been paid, Fernando?”
“Si, and well.”
“I’ll double it if we’re successful.”
“We’ll be successful, sir.” Fernando Suarez pulled back his black suit jacket to reveal the wooden grip of a Dan Wesson .357. “Just tell me where in Browderton you wish to go and sit back. I been going down there at least once a week for years – from Austin, it’s four hours or so.”
“I’m supposed to go to a place called Eight Snakes.”
Fernando looked at him quizzically over his sunglasses.”
“’Eight Snakes’ as in ‘Eight Snakes Trail’?”
LaMain looked at him seriously.
“Yes, Mr. Suarez. It does say Eight Snakes Trail on my directions. Why?”
Fernando cranked the Hummer and pulled out into traffic. He smiled broadly.
“Because, well, all of this secrecy for that? Well, God is mysterious and you are supposed to know God’s will, reverend.”
Trent LaMain leaned back in his seat, trying to get comfortable.
“What do you mean, Fernando? Do you know who lives there?”
The driver glanced at the preacher with a confused look.
“Si, everyone in Browderton knows the village idiot.”
Richard Van Ingram
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