Joe Loftus scratched his balding scalp and frowned. “Okay, Mr. Gregory, maybe you should just describe the suspicious activity.”
The scrawny man squirmed impatiently. “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do Detective Loftus.”
Joe sighed. As a member of the Cult Crime Task Force, he’d heard his share of stories. A few of them turned out to be legitimate leads but too many were of the ‘Illuminati are tapping my phone lines’ variety. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t been called in on a Saturday morning to deal with the latter.
“So, you were cabin-sitting for a friend out by Clover Creek…”
“That’s when I saw them, Sir.”
“The cult members?”
“Yes!” The aged man beamed at Joe from across the desk.
“And exactly what gave you the impression you had encountered a cult, Mr. Gregory?” Joe was determined to maintain his professionalism.
“Well,” The thin man leaned forward intently. “They were gathered in the forest like Druids.”
“About how many would you say?”
“More than fifty. Maybe a hundred.” He nodded emphatically.
Joe scrawled notes on a pad next to the pitifully incomplete case file Briggs and Carter had left for him. He was going to have to do something really special to repay them for this one.
“Mostly boys,” the old man continued, “But a few adult men too.” He raised a spindly hand to the side of his mouth and whispered, “No women!”
Joe cocked an eyebrow. “Really? Go on, Sir.”
“It was near dusk but I could see them quite clearly from my vantage point.”
“And what were they doing?”
“They set up a stage and gathered around it. Then, a large dark man took the platform. He must have been their leader because they all got quite when spoke.” Mr. Gregory’s eyes were wide and wild inside their sunken sockets.
“Continue,” Joe was patience personified.
“Well, before I knew it, the dark man was leading them in a chant. I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying because their heads were bowed and they were all mumbling over each other. It was definitely of some religious nature though.”
“Uh-huh.” Joe paused. “What happened after the…religious chanting?”
“It only got worse!” The man’s thin limbs were tight and trembling. “A group of long-haired hooligans in ripped jeans took the stage with musical instruments and began playing rock music! Singing about our Lord like that Jagger fellow sings about women. Shameful, I tell you!
Joe thought he heard a muffled snort coming from the next room.
“Did you see anyone get harmed in any way Mr. Gregory?”
“Well, not physically. But many in the crowd raised their hands and swayed like they were intoxicated. And at one point, a few of them staggered forward and fell to their knees at the leader’s feet. Just witnessing it was enough to make my skin crawl!”
“Alright, I think I’ve heard enough.”
“Not nearly, Sir!” the old man said. “The next day, as I was driving back to the interstate, the dark man himself drove past me. I trailed him to this very town, Detective!” He grinned proudly. “I distinctly remember his license plate read Mark 7:15.”
Now Joe was sure he heard a stifled chuckle come from Carter’s darkened office.
“Thanks for coming in Mr. Gregory.” Joe rose to show him to the door.
“But, aren’t you going to see who this Mark person is and look into what he’s doing in the woods with those boys?”
“Why ever not?” the man demanded.
“Because, Mr. Gregory, Mark 7:15 is a Bible verse and the man you followed is Pastor Byron Marshall of the Grace Evangelical Church, a Christian church here in town.”
“What you witnessed was a worship service at Clover Creek Christian Retreat.”
“What kind of Christian would have young men kneel at his feet?”
Joe’s patience wavered as he pulled the old man toward the exit by one bony arm. “It’s called an ‘altar call’, Sir. Those boys were accepting Jesus Christ.” He opened the door and strategically placed Mr. Gregory outside. “And, for the record, my son was one of the long-haired hooligans in the band. I was swaying in the audience that night. You have a good day, Mr. Gregory.” The closing door cut off the old man’s next protest.
Joe walked to the nearest phone and paged Carter’s office on intercom. Laughter blared from the crackling speaker.
“I’m blessed,” he said through a reluctant grin, “Truly blessed.”
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