Py and Logan strolled up the short walk to the quiet suburban church. New Covenant Church boasted a clean modern spire and modest chapel, which constituted the bulk of the simple structure. It was a design common to the sparse contemporary architecture of post Rapture denominations. While older Christian dogmas like Catholicism and Protestantism were still common, a growing trend of simpler streamlined religions had grown around the faith-breaking events of the past two decades. Modern views on things like addiction and human sexuality had been folded into evolving belief systems, creating something more palatable for a contemporary public. This had capitalized on an influx of wayward souls after the devastating reality that Rapture left in its wake. The fact was that for many people of faith the world had ended, and Christ had not appeared. The biblical Rapture for which the virus was named had come and gone and many good people aimlessly roamed the earth. Ultimately, it was technology that brought peace to the masses and it became increasingly difficult for people to embrace dogma’s which threw in the face of established scientific ideals. The result in many cases was the formation of a rainbow of so called renaissance gospels. They had trimmed out the nastiest parts of the bible and colored themselves with a refreshing, if not pretentious, sense of modern family and community. Often referred to as ‘left behind’ churches or ‘pocket gospels’ by more traditional denominations they were often regarded as pseudo-christian and were openly reviled by people who had stayed true to the original faith.
The church appeared vacant, but the door was open, so Py and Logan passed the threshold into the small lobby. The walls of the room were decorated with famous scenes from the bible on cheap mass manufactured posters that had been carefully framed, probably to make them feel even just that little bit more sacred. On one side of the room was a table with a small stack of free bibles, the so called Christian Council addition, named for the multi-denominational group of scholars who had compiled and translated it. Next to the bibles was a rack of pamphlets explaining basic doctrines such as baptism and communion, as well as more controversial doctrines such as the debate between works and faith, and the nature of the trinity. Alongside these were a few more pragmatic pamphlets discussing the importance of hygiene and vaccinations. Finally, a brief dissertation describing the most shocking revelation of all, that Christ’s sacrifice had not only saved people from sin, but had also fulfilled the covenants of the Old Testament, eliminating the need for the volume entirely, freeing us from the tyranny of the God of Moses and Abraham and the depravity of the ancient prophets.
Beyond the lobby was the chapel where a large wooden crucifix presided over several rows of empty pews. Unlike the rest of the church the crucifix appeared quite old and was likely an antique salvaged from an older, less fortunate building.
“Everything seems pretty normal so far.” Logan said, pulling a hymn book from behind a pew and thumbing through its pages.
“Look and see if there’s a kitchen anywhere.” Py replied. “Maybe Abigail was exposed to something in there.”
“Over there.” Logan spoke, pointing out of a nearby window. “There’s a little community center or something just across the lawn. It looks like people are heading in.”
Logan maneuvered through the pews to join Py and together they made their way through a little side door and out onto the open grass, following the concrete path that wound up and around a gently sloping hill towards the outbuilding where a group of people had gathered. Adults were lazily milling about the yard while kids ran screaming up and down the freshly cut grass.
“If any of the Alleyman toxins are here,” Logan said in hushed tones as he and Py made their way up the shady pathway between the church and its annex, “we don’t need to find all of it now. We just need enough for a warrant so the DPD can do a full sweep later.”
“So what are we looking for?” Py asked, and Logan realized then that Py probably wasn’t sure what actually constitutes a warrant.
“Ideally a hard piece of evidence: an ingredient, a shipping container, if some of the other parishioners exhibit the same neurosis as Abigail, that could potentially work as well. Really just note anything out of place or suspicious. If anyone asks you’re a doctor, alright.”
“Wait, someone's coming.” Logan interrupted as a young woman in a floral Sunday dress passed them on the left.
With a loose plan in place the two eased along the sidewalk and made it to the open door of the community center.
“Hello young man.” A kind looking elderly women sitting behind a small folding table on the inside of the door spoke as Logan crossed the threshold. “Are you here for the raffle?”
“Yes, were raising money to send kids to summer youth camp.”
“That’s great.” Logan said, with an excitement that, while false, appeared remarkably genuine. “I’ll buy a few.” Logan had the brief thought of a bunch of children in a park, surrounded by three square miles of barbed wire fences and heavily armed guards, pretending they were in the woods.
“Bless you. Kids don’t have a lot of opportunities to see nature anymore.” The old woman took Logan’s phone and gave it a scan. She reached over and tore off three tickets from a roll she had next to her.
“Actually,” Logan said, placing the tickets away in his coat pocket,” I came to speak with your pastor. Are they here?”
The old woman gave a nod. “He should be around here somewhere. Try the basketball court. They have a potluck set up and Pastor Callahan never strays too far from the table.”
“Thanks.” Logan replied, moving into the building with Py awkwardly in tow.
Transitioning into the gym Logan and Py found themselves dodging through the long folding tables of the potluck. Logan could feel the eyes in the room following him. They were the same defensive stares a stranger always seemed to get when he’s wandered a little too far from home. The last time Logan had been to a church function was as a young boy when his mother had taken him to the funeral of a fellow officer. He’d felt awkward at the time, surrounded by strangers. People who were deeply and inconsolably sad. He didn’t know them, and he didn’t feel their pain. He tried his best to be respectful, but he couldn’t help feeling like something of an impostor. He vaguely remembered some eulogies and a prayer. More than anything he remembered eating almost nothing but the casserole his mother had brought to the wake, because almost everything else was bland or generally unappealing. This was a little different. At the funeral he was an outsider, but he had been invited. Here he was a true interloper. Logan felt like he was being sized up. Wolf or sheep their glares seemed to ask. The eyes that caught Logan’s own were cold and critical as he was measured up as a potential threat. Logan let those hard stares slide off him. He was used to being the sore thumb.
After traversing the maze of casseroles and crunchy-soggy-sticky-starchy salads Logan finally spotted who he thought they were looking for.
“Hello,” Logan said, addressing a jovial looking man with white collar around his neck. “Are you Pastor Callahan?”
“Yes” The man said with a large smile. “I don’t recognize you from service. How can I help?”
“Do you know a Ms. Abigail Reynolds?”
The pastor’s face was still cheerful, but the smile had ebbed slightly and he adopted a more guarded tone.
“I’m sorry, can I ask as to the nature of you’re inquiry?”
“My name’s Logan Maxwell. I’m afraid there’s been an accident at the Millennium Shelter and we’re trying to contact Abigail’s family.”
The smile completely dropped now and the pastor had a look of concern on his face. “Is Abigail alright?”
Logan adopted a somber expression. “No, I’m afraid she’s quite ill and we haven't been able to locate any next of kin. We found some kitchenware at the shelter with New Covenant Church written on it and hoped you might be able to help.”
Pastor Callahan looked thoughtful a moment before shaking his head. “I can’t give out any of Abigail's personal information without consent, but if you give me your contact information I’ll do my best to see that someone calls you.”
Logan gave a polite smile, pulling out a card and handing it to the man. “I’d appreciate it. So you think the flatware’s yours?”
The pastor gave a shrug. “If it had our name on it must be. We let people borrow things from time to time if it’s for a good cause, and we donate more besides. I’ve even let Abigail cook here when she’s preparing food for the shelter.”
“Would you mind if we had a quick look in the kitchen? It’s possible that whatever made her sick is somewhere here in the building.”
Pastor Callahan seemed to stiffen at the request, his mouth opening and closing a few times before he finally spoke. “I’m afraid that would be quite impossible.” The pastor said, taking an awkward half step between Logan and the table of food directly behind him, a slight bit of color draining from his face.
“I know it’s an imposition.” Logan pressed, his suspicion growing. It was unlikely that Callahan’s mood would shift in this way unless the man had something to hide. “But whatever’s effecting Abigail is serious. You wouldn’t want anyone else to contract it.”
“I’m sure,” the pastor deflected, “but today’s the wrong day for it. So much going on. Maybe come back tomorrow… what are you doing with that!?” The pastor exclaimed, trying in vain to conceal his anxiety.
Logan followed the pastor’s eyes and saw Py pulling a piece of meat from a crockpot and placing it on a paper plate. Py must have taken the opportunity to poke around while Logan engaged Callahan.
“That’s really only for parishioners.” The pastor had lowered his voice, but there was still a nervous almost panicked edge to the man’s attitude.
“I’m sorry,” Py replied, continuing to maneuver food onto his plate. “Everything smells so good. It’s exactly what I need.”
Logan kept his expression open and neutral, wanting to present a cool, calm front. Py’s gaze was fixated on pastor Callahan, and that last thing he’d said…
We just need enough for a warrant, did Py already have that? Hope he knows what he’s doing.
Maybe it was time to go?
“Alright,” Logan said easily, trying to stall the pastor's obvious anxiety. “I see you have your hands full here. Just promise me you’ll let Abigail’s family know they need to call the DPD.”
Logan gave a nod farewell and turned to leave, motioning Py to follow. Before he took more than a few steps he felt a hand lay across his shoulder.
“No,” Pastor Callahan said, sighing heavily, “Maybe you’d better have a look.” The hand moved from Logan's shoulder and he glanced back to see the pastor gesturing towards the back of the community center.
“The kitchen is this way, Mr. Maxwell.”
Logan glanced to Py and saw a look of surprise, and something else as well, something that Py didn’t want others to see. Was it fear? Panic? Something more subtle? It could be constipation for all Logan knew. Py’s countenance wasn’t the easiest thing for Logan to parse at the best of times and there was a tension here that Logan was missing. Logan took a long look at pastor Callahan, getting a proper measure of the man. He was a young pastor, perhaps thirty years of age, and had seen more than a few nights of fast food fare. Logan looked for any concealed weapons and saw none. He tried to imagine this man of god doing violence and found that even someone as delicate as Py would likely be able to handle the man easily if such an event occurred. Inevitably, Logan found that he couldn’t miss the opportunity.
Logan gave Callahan a curt nod. “Lead the way, Pastor.”
Callahan inclined his head, quickly leaning over the folding table to exchange a few whispered words with the young woman manning the potluck table before walking toward the kitchen with Logan closely in tow. Logan didn’t hear Py following and flashed a quick eye over his shoulder to make sure he came along.
“Did you enjoy your food?” The pastor called back to Py, seeming apologetic for his earlier outburst.
“I’m afraid I must have put it back.” Py said with a twinge of anxiety in his voice. A good actor he was not. “I didn’t want to be rude.”
“Too bad, could you tell what it was? A lot of people can’t guess the secret ingredient.”
“Pork, obviously.” Py said without hesitation.
That’s probably not it. Pork is never a secret ingredient… Why are you so jumpy?
“Are you sure?” The pastor said back with a half grin on his face.
“Of course, we used to use them as analogs in med school. I’ve dissected dozens. The white color and lean texture of the flesh, there’s only one other animal I know that has a similar appearance.”
Py’s voice sounded strained. Was this intended to be another clue?
The pastor held the door open and Logan and Py took their first steps into the kitchen. Py navigated around to the right of the large central island while Logan headed to the left. Initially everything appeared normal, but as they walked in deeper Logan started seeing blood. Every cutting board in the place was freshly painted with the blood of an animal that’s heart was still beating when it had died.
There was a shuffle of bodies from behind and Logan turned to find the doorway blocked by two, then three, then five men!
“That’s far enough!” Logan shouted, drawing his gun and taking a large step back and away from the group. “Everyone stay right where you are!”
Keeping his gun trained, Logan backed slowly into the kitchen, watching the blood with one eye and the pastor with the other. Edging back along the counter the evidence came gradually into view, tucked behind a pile of dirty mixing bowls and pots, mangled and barely recognizable on a cutting board, was a human hand.
“Okay, everyone, hands on head. Get down on your knees. The DPD will be here any minute, so don’t make things worse by doing anything stupid.”
The group didn’t budge. Not a single hand moved to comply and in that instant, the pastor charged.
The priest’s face underwent a terrifying transformation. It was still human, but somehow less than human, feral, like the growling face of some ferocious ancient primate, like it had gone back in time a million years.
Logan aimed his gun and fired a few shots at the charging animal. Concussive booms rang through the kitchen as he squeezed the trigger. The non lethal bullets had a strange effect. Parts of the pastor’s body seemed to go entirely limp from the pain of the impacts, but the other parts struggled viciously to compensate, giving a strange shambling cadence. The other men hadn’t moved, their eyes locked firmly on the muzzle of Logan’s gun.
Logan motioned for Py, who appeared disoriented from the sudden noise, and slowly they crept toward the back door, Logan firing a few more rounds in the process. As they made their way through the door they bumped into a church sister with an armload of dishes standing paralyzed just on the other side.
“Pardon me.” Py spoke, probably out of some weird reflex. “So sorry.”
The church sister seemed for a moment as if she might return a genial apology when she spied Logan’s gun and backed away with a sharp gasp. Logan continued to retreat with Py out ahead, working through the crowd, through the main dinning hall and it’s long folding tables toward the main exit.
The crowd was beginning to fray many running out of the building as panic took hold. Logan had nearly made it back through the entryway when the pastor, still shambling, appeared at the door nearest the kitchen. He did not give an order or make any obvious demand, yet at his appearance the atmosphere instantly changed. Several of the parishioners turned toward Logan and Py, strange hazy anger slipping blankly across their faces.
“Shit.” Logan mumbled as he lowered his gun and turned to run. “Time to go.”
Logan didn’t turn back, but he could hear the sounds of tables and chairs banging to the ground, dishes shattering on the floor and people screaming in terror. Logan pushed Py forward as some of the parishioners began to lung, grabbing at his shoulders and feet and failing only by virtue of his generous head start. He felt a pull on his collar as someone scratched at his neck and Logan instinctively threw an elbow into the assailant's face.
A quick sprint across the lawn and Logan and Py were in the car, locking the doors as the mob descended, hurling their bodies across the vehicle and rocking it fiercely. Soon people were banging on the windows with sticks and rocks, any impromptu weapons they could find.
Logan felt a wave of relief as the doors closed, more comfortable in the security of the Vergeron issue car than he would have been in his old DPD cruiser, he had a moment to ponder his next move. He let himself breathe and tried to make sense of the savage bearing of those banging incessantly all over the car, when out of the corner of his eye he saw members of the mob peeling away, running full tilt toward neighboring houses, pounding on doors and chasing passers by.
“Call DPD dispatch, emergency patch through to Carl James MacArthur.” Logan shouted into the air, the voice recognition of the phone forwarding his call across the emergency channel. “
“Maxwell?” Logan heard the Chief’s voice come in over the uproar taking hold around him. “What’s going on?”
“You’d better get some people down here.” Logan said, tracking the ever spreading mayhem. “It’s is starting look the afternoon of madness.”