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Chapter 25

The St. Stephens high school gymnasium sounds like a Broadway theater before the lights go down. Four hundred students ranging from fifth-graders to the senior classmates of Kate Townsend and Chris Vogel have been crowded into the bleachers on both sides of the gleaming basketball court. Most teachers are sitting with their classes, trying in vain to keep the anticipatory energy under control. About fifty adults from the community-many of them St. Stephens parents, but some teachers and coaches from other schools-stand against the wall by the large double entrance doors. Coach Wade Anders, our athletic director, stands by the smaller door to his office, glaring at the loudest of the students to quiet them down.

A podium has been placed at the center of the tip-off circle, with chairs on both sides of it. In the chairs sit Jan Chancellor; Holden Smith; Dean Herrick, minister of the Presbyterian church Kate attended; Roger Mills, minister of the Methodist church Chris Vogel attended; and Charles Martin, the school chaplain. Theres no chair for Jenny Townsend, Kates mother, but she must be here somewhere. Likewise, the Vogel family.

Jan Chancellor stands and walks to the microphone, a folded piece of paper in her hand. On any other occasion, it would require some effort to obtain quiet, but not today. Today the room goes still as though everyone has suddenly held his breath. Death retains its power to awe.

We have gathered here, Jan says in a strong voice, to remember two of the most distinguished students ever to attend this school: Kate Townsend and Chris Vogel. Because St. Stephens is such a small institution, we are truly a family. And today we all grieve the loss of two family members.

As Jan goes on, I realize she is an even better speaker than I thought. She doesnt distance herself from the kids by being too formal; neither does she condescend to them. She paints a brief picture of each dead student that brings home their special qualities and avoids all mention of the manner in which they died. I suppose that subject will be handled by the ministers winging the podium.

As Jan introduces Reverend Mills, I find my thoughts drifting away from the proceeding. This gymnasium served as a backdrop for some of the most seminal moments of my life. Several of the royal blue banners hanging from the far wall have my name inscribed in gold upon them, along with the names of boys I knew from the age of four until today. From this tiny town, we sallied forth in a creaking old school bus and claimed state titles in basketball, baseball, football, and track. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the sound of rain thundering on the tin roof as we run line drills during P.E. and basketball practice. We even practiced football on this floor when it rained, barefoot to protect the wood, wearing shorts, shoulder pads, and helmets. On this floor I stole kisses under the eyes of watchful chaperones during school dances, devoured barbecue chicken at athletic banquets, received ribbons on academic awards days, watched school plays, and ran endless sprints as punishments for various infractions. But this is the first time I have come here for a funeral.

Its not a funeral really, but a memorial service. The real funerals will begin in less than an hour, in churches downtown. Students from the tenth grade and above will be excused from school to attend them, if they so choose. The rest will sit in class and pretend to work while they wonder what is happening at the funerals.

Reverend Mills is speaking now, trying his best to deal with one of the thorniest issues any believer must face: why an innocent young person should be cut down for no apparent reason just as his life is about to begin. By my measure, Mills isnt doing a very good job. He seems to be following the God has a plan inscrutable to us mortals line. I stopped buying this rationalization at age fourteen, and I doubt its resonating with the students sitting in the bleachers today.

Scanning the faces in the crowd, I realize Im searching for Marko Bakic. I dont see him anywhere. I suppose the incipient drug war has changed his opinion of the relative value of an American high school education.

Reverend Mills segues into the evangelical section of his eulogy. He has no more intent than Jan Chancellor of delving into the issues of sexual homicide or drug abuse. As his deep bass voice drones on, I wonder who will finally articulate the feelings of these students, and of the town proper. After the unprecedented losses of Kate, Chris, and Sonny, news of last nights deaths hit Natchez with the force of a tornado. Ive never seen the city in such a state, not even during the race riot of 1968. Then, at least, the threat was understood. But now all sense of control has been shattered. Driving through downtown this morning, it felt as though the air had been sucked from the streets. People hurried along the sidewalks with their heads down, like medieval villagers awaiting the onslaught of some unknown calamity. So many deaths in so few days almost begs the question of divine retribution, and Im sure that theory has been raised in some local households.

Millss somnolent drone makes me want to get up and phone Quentin Avery, who is setting up his offices at the Eola Hotel right now. But Reverend Mills suddenly yields the floor to his Presbyterian colleague, Reverend Dean Herrick. Herrick is about my age, and Ive met him a couple of times. Hes from Tennessee, and he seems to have more liberal ideas than any of his predecessors or peers. Hes about twenty pounds overweight, and hes starting to use the dreaded combover to combat his receding hairline. He stands at the podium in silence, surveying the assembled students with dark eyes

Boys and girls, he says finally, Im not going to take much of your time today. And Im not going to lie to you. Im not going to spout a bunch of platitudes that sound good in a preachers guide but give no comfort to a grieving soul or a troubled mind.

Reverend Herrick did not look at Reverend Mills as he said this, but he might as well have. I sense that he has the full attention of the assembly.

The premature death of someone like Kate Townsend or Chris Vogel is the toughest test a Christian ever faces. As a minister, I have no special powers of understanding. Like you, Im rendered speechless by these tragedies. My heart is broken. And in the face of deaths like this, the Bible is strangely silent. We search its pages for comfort, but we find little. Death, like birth, is a mystery. We feel that we understand birth because we know what comes after it. But do we know what comes before birth? No. We believe that souls originate from God, but more than this we do not know. So, what of death? For Christians, death is the time when we shuffle off this mortal coil and return to God. But as for details, we know none.

Reverend Herrick pauses. The air in the gym is still; not one student shifts in his seat.

As I lay in bed last night, he goes on, one question filled my mind. Why? Why was this beautiful girl taken so young? Does God have a plan that requires her death? The Bible doesnt tell us so. Whatdoes the Bible say? Jesus said, No one can come to me unless the father who sent me draws him. In other words, only through death can we return to God. Well, all right. But does that answer my question? Why, after eighteen years of rigorous and joyous preparation for life, were Kate and Chris taken from us? If they were not to be granted a full life, why were they born at all?

Some of the parents stir at these words, as if Reverend Herrick has trespassed on territory best left unexplored in the presence of children. But hes got the kids; I can feel it.

But here we may find some comfort, Herrick says. Because you and I would not be the people we are, the souls that we are, had we not known Kate and Chris. Both those young people brought joy into my heart and yours. Simply watching Chris perform on the fields and courts of this state was a revelation. Seeing Kate work with children on mission trips made me think of Audrey Hepburn working with the starving children of Africa. But Kate didnt think of herself that way. Like the rest of us, she spent much of her time worrying whether she was living up to the ideals her mother and this community had bred into her.

Herrick spreads his arms as if to take in the whole school. People, this institution would not be what it is today had Kate and Chris not walked its halls. Their lives had purpose. And their deaths have purpose, too. Because in the dark hours of the last three days, all of us have been forced to face one inescapable truth: In the midst of life, we are in death. You hear that a lot, but what does it really mean? Ill tell you. Live each day as though its your last, for one day youre sure to be right. For a Christian, that means living out the meaning of our creed. It means following the example of Jesus life.

Just when I think Herrick is going to repeat Millss error by proselytizing, he veers into still more surprising territory. What is the purpose of this memorial service? he asks. Whats the purpose of the funerals you will attend in a few minutes? The answer will probably surprise you. For though the words of these rituals are gentle, our intent is fierce. In a Christian funeral, we raise our fists at death and shake them! We remember Jesus Christ, who suffered death, battled death, and ultimately triumphed over it.

Reverend Herrick takes out a handkerchief and wipes his forehead. He seems overwhelmed by his own passion. The Bible tells us it was through sin that death entered into the world. And some people draw unwarranted conclusions from that language. Theres been a lot of talk about Kates private life, a secret life that none of us was privy to. Theres been a lot of talk about Chris Vogel, too.

The parents against the wall are shifting uncomfortably again.

Yes, Kate had secrets, Herrick says. Chris had secrets, too. Kate needed love and affirmation, and she found it in her own way. Chris needed help to face the stress of this world, and he found it where he could. But I dont condemn these children for that. How can I? Because I need love and affirmation, too. I need help facing the stress of this world, just like every one of you out there. And what tortures me today is not anything Kate or Chris did in life, but what they didnot do. They did not come to me with their fear and confusion. And the fault for that lies with me. With us. Somehow, we did not make Kate feel safe enough or loved enough to come to us with her pain and loneliness. And I know this: Kate and Chris werent the only ones among us with secrets. We all carry private burdens. We all carry guilt. Weall sin. Thats why death comes to all men and women. But premature death is not a punishment sent from God. To those of you who may be suffering in silence, I say, please do not suffer alone. And to those people who speak ill of Kate, I repeat the words of Jesus of Nazareth: Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.

Reverend Herricks words echo through the gym with unexpected power. The children appear dumbstruck by his honesty. I sense that some in the room want to stand and applaud. As Herrick walks to his seat, the only sound is his heels clicking on the floor. Jan Chancellor rises again, probably to introduce the school chaplain, but Reverend Herricks words are the last I need to hear on the subject of Kates death. Im seated at the far end of the bleachers, close enough to the door to make a discreet exit, and I do.

Walking down the familiar halls, I decide to drive straight to the Eola Hotel for a conversation with Quentin Avery. As wise as the famous lawyer is, his primary motive is to torpedo Shad Johnson, not to get Drew acquitted. But I have to finish with Quentin in time to ride out to the cemetery for Kates interment. My interest in the burial isnt personal, but professional. Murderers often attend the funerals of their victims, particularly in cases of sexual homicide. I brought my digital camera in my car to shoot pictures of those who will gather at the grave, just in case the local cops neglect to do it. In a town that averages only one or two murders a year, such an error wouldnt surprise me.

As I reach the main atrium of the high school, I pass the back door of Coach Anderss office. On impulse I walk in, meaning to have a word with the athletic director when the service is done. But like me, Anders has left the gym early. Hes sitting at his desk, staring blankly at a poster of Peyton Manning on his wall. Wade Anders is thirty, with close-cropped black hair and the body of an aging athlete past his prime. Theres a growing spare tire around his middle, but his legs and forearms still ripple with muscle. Anders is fast with a grin and smooth when dealing with the school board, but during basketball games out of town Ive seen him lose control of his temper and be ejected from the gymnasium. The students seem to like him, but then he is all they have ever known. Anders makes me long for the coach I had at St. Stephens, a gentleman athlete with a paternal manner and a steely eye, a natural leader who took Kiplings advice and treated both victory and defeat as impostors, yet still managed to bring home state titles. One raised eyebrow from him was the equivalent of a violent outburst from Wade Anders. But though my coachs name is painted over the gym door, its Anders sitting in his chair now-one more sign of the way the world has changed.

Wade? I say softly.

Anders starts from his trance, then comes quickly to his feet. Hey, Penn. What can I do for you?

I wanted to ask you about Marko.

Anders shakes his head. That boywhat can I tell you?

Have you seen him at all in the past two days?

Not hide nor hair. Hes gone. And Id just about sewed up a scholarship for him at Delta State. They need a new kicker, and one thing that boy can do is kick. Tell the truth, its about the only thing he can do on a football field.

I give Wade the laugh he expects.

I heard Marko was with you on the afternoon Kate died. Is that right?

Yessir, it is. He rode home from school with me. I worked on his kicking with him, then worked the phones for a while, talking to college coaches on his behalf. I was trying to do what I could for the damn fool. I knew he was into drugs, and I thought a college football program might get that out of his system. Even a junior college program.

And now?

Hell, Penn, if Marko doesnt come back to school soon, hes not even going to graduate. I already talked to his teachers. Hes practically a washout now.

Sit down, Wade. This isnt a formal meeting. This is just two guys shooting the shit, okay?

Sure, yeah. Anders sits, but he doesnt look comfortable. The fact that Im a member of the school board as well as a lawyer is probably enough to make him nervous. But still, something seems wrong beyond simple anxiety.

Did you give Marko a ride to the Wilsons house after you were done with your phone calls?

No, some other kids picked him up.

Did you know them?

Wade shakes his head. They were black kids. Homeboys. Looked like druggies to me.

What time was that?

A little after six. Marko said they were going to Baton Rouge to watch a movie.

Did he tell you what movie?

Adam Sandler, I think. Dont remember the title.

I watch Wade in silence for a while, trying to figure out what I might be able to learn from him. He has the athletes discomfort with stillness. Has Marko ever talked to you about what he experienced back in Europe? I ask.

He told me he saw his family killed. Happened in a place called Srebece-something like that, anyway. The place where hes from. Hes got a hell of a scar on his belly, and when I asked about that, he told me about his folks. The scar came from a bayonet. He didnt tell me any details, though.

Did you ask?

Once, yeah. Late one night on the team bus, on the way back from an away game. He didnt want to talk about it, though.

Some people think Markos dangerous, Wade. Capable of serious violence.

Anders shrugs as though this is unlikely. I dont think so. He hates the Serbs now. Thats who killed his folks. If you asked me would Marko kill a Serb, Id say dont get between them.

How did Marko feel about the Wilsons?

Wade laughs. He liked them. Hell, they let him do whatever he wanted most of the time. Why wouldnt he like them? Professor Wilsons in another world half the time, anyway. Was, I mean.

Absentminded, you mean? Head in the clouds?

That, too, I guess. But I meant drunk.

A new thought hits me. Paul Wilson didnt do drugs, did he?

Wade shrugs again. Never thought about it. But I wouldnt reject the idea out of hand. He spent his whole life teaching college. Hes bound to have smoked some reefer, at least.

Hm. What did you think of Kate Townsend?

Wade swallows hard, shakes his head, and looks at the floor. Jesus, Penn. You see a kid like that maybe once every ten years. Gifted on the field and a genius in the classroom. Ive really never had one like her myself. Tell the truth, I cant really believe shes dead.

Do you have any idea who killed her?

Shock blanks Anderss face. Hell, no. Do you?

No.

I mean, people are saying Dr. Elliott did it. But I dont really hold with that.

Why not?

Drews not the type. I mean, Im sure he was in love with her. Hell, you cant help but love a girl like that. But he wouldnt have killed her. I mean, not unless hes got a different side, you know? A jealous side. Some guys are like that. Seem like great guys on the outside, but at home theyre real control freaks. Paranoid, you know?

Yeah.

Youre his friend, right? Is Drew like that?

No.

I didnt think so. You can tell from how a guy deals with his kids. Drew never pressures his son in football practices. He comes out to watch, you know, but he never gets onto Timmy, not even when he makes a mistake. Which surprised me, since Drew played college ball and all. Look, man, what do I know? Im just a coach.

Youve made some good points, Wade. What do you think about Drew having sex with Kate?

Anders blinks as though confused. What do you mean?

Do you condemn him for it?

Wade looks at his office door, which I realize is open about a half inch. He closes it with his foot. You want the party line or the real answer?

You know what I want.

His eyes shine as he shakes his head. Penn, these girlstheyre not the girls we went to school with, okay? Theres a group of girls here who have a club called the Bald Eagles. Know why?

Do I want to know?

They all shave their pussies.

Is that a big deal?

Wade raises his eyebrows. Theyre in the eighth grade.

Jesus. Even in our frankest discussions, Mia and I have not gotten to this level of detail.

And the juniors and seniors? Man, they put it right in your face. Day in and day out. Sex is no big deal to them. Ill be honest with you, Penn, the hardest thing Ive ever done is said no to the girls whove come on to me in this office. Ive had em start changing clothes right in front of me, like they forgot I was here, then ask if I want to see more.

Wades honesty surprises me. But is he playing me as well? Do you always say no, Wade?

His jaw tightens. Yessir, I do. Know why?

Why?

My mama taught me one lesson. Dont shit where you eat. He glances at the door again. I need this job, Penn. And screwing a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old would eventually lose it for me. Because these girls cant handle what theyre playing with. They have sex, but they dont understand what it really is, you know? Hell, adults dont either, half the time. Maybe thats what happened to Drew. The truth is, well probably never know what happened to Kate.

Yes, we will, I promise. Because Im going to find out.

Wade Anders stands and offers me his hand. More power to you, brother. Anything I can do to help, you let me know.

I shake his hand and turn to leave the office.

Oh, hey, he says. I had my baseball team go over the football field and track with a fine-toothed comb, but they never found that pistol you told me you lost.

I stop and look back at him, searching for hidden meaning in his face. Did the crew I sent over get your light control box fixed?

Yep, good as new. Wade leans back in his chair and puts his feet up on his desk. Man, those bullets tore up the inside of that box. Good thing you didnt hit anybody with them.

I freeze. I never told you it was me who shot the box.

He looks blank. I guess you didnt. I just assumed

What?

That you were down here spotlighting deer or something. That you crossed over from the hunting camp. I didnt mean nothing by it.

I keep studying his face, looking for cracks in his composure. Thats pretty much what happened. Thanks for the effort, Wade.

No problem. You be careful. Lots of crazy shit happening in this town.

I will.


Chapter 24 | Turning Angel | Chapter 26