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God Only Knows
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Julia Turner, an ambitious educator in her mid-thirties, leaves a high-profile job in Chicago to return to Dayton, Ohio to serve as superintendent of Christian Light, the K-12 private school system from which she graduated two decades earlier. A single mother with an ugly divorce and a complex childhood in her rearview mirror, Julia views her mission as a chance to contribute to her hometown and conquer the demons from her past. But she never expects to confront the one sin she and her childhood friends agree to bury as teens-the accident that left Eddie Walker hospitalized and incapacitated.
Meanwhile, Detective Peter Whitlock, Eddie Walker's older bother, is still determined to find the person(s) responsible for his brother's condition. As an unrelated investigation leads to another woman who is involved in the accident, the responsible parties must decide whether they will keep their dark secrets, or tell the truth and let God decide the outcome.
This book is a work of fiction. Certain real locations and public figures are included to make the story more vivid. However, all other characters and the events depicted in this book are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Xavier Knight
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
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First eBook Edition: March 2009
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Giving honor to God, my ultimate "muse," thank you for this seventh book. To my wife, Kyra, and to my daughter, Kennedi, thank you for helping Daddy keep the business side of life in perspective. Additional thanks go to Karen Thomas and the Grand Central Publishing team; Elaine Koster and the Koster Literary Agency; and every bookstore, book club, and journalist who continue to look out for my work. Thanks as always to my Robinson, Alford, and Grimes families and many friends for ongoing love and fellowship. Finally, to the readers —may this story be more than just a good read, but prayerfully a blessing.
Two Decades Later
For the first time she could remember in years, Cassandra Gillette felt like a woman fulfilled. Freshly showered, she sat before the laptop PC in her spacious dressing room, checking e-mail. She had another hour at least before her newly built luxury home would be overrun by her family; her husband, Marcus, had gone to pick up their twelve-year-old twins, Heather and Hillary, from a friend's birthday party out in Middletown. In addition, her seventeen-year-old son, Marcus Junior, was still seven hours away from his midnight curfew.
"There is so much to be thankful for," Cassie whispered to God, letting her words ring through the quiet of her master suite. This was not the average lazy Saturday afternoon; for the first time in nearly four months, Cassie had made love to her husband.
Their separation had gotten off to a fiery start, but as tempers cooled and nights passed, God had brought Cassie and Marcus back together. Marcus had quickly tired of Veronica, the twenty-something news anchor who had welcomed him into her condo, and Cassie's eyes had been opened. When her best girlfriend, Julia, confronted her, she finally realized how her actions in recent years had starved Marcus of the respect and affirmation that even the strongest man needed.
So it was that after several late-night telephone calls and a Starbucks "date" hidden from their children, Mr. and Mrs. Marcus Gillette had decided to get up off the mat and keep the promises they made before God seventeen years earlier, a few months after M.J.'s arrival. They had agreed to surprise the children with news of their reconciliation tonight, but with the house empty this afternoon, the couple had started a private celebration. The house was new enough that aside from the master bedroom, their frisky activity had "christened" the kitchen's marble-topped island, the leather couch in the finished basement, and the washing machine in the laundry room.
As she dashed off an e-mail to the staff at her real estate agency, sharing news of the latest deal she had closed —a $420,000 sale, their thirtieth property sold for the quarter —Cassie nearly shuddered with delight as she recalled Marcus's smooth touch. Although she had lost thirty pounds over the past year, she was still nearly twenty pounds heavier than she'd been on their wedding day, and she had been pregnant then. Nevertheless, Cassie's Marcus knew and loved her body, in exactly the way that frank Scriptures, like those in Song of Solomon, encouraged. Like most everything else in marriage, the Gillettes' sexual relationship had experienced ups and downs, but Cassie licked her lips unintentionally as she mentally applauded her man: When he's good, he's GOOD.
An instant message popped up on her screen: Julia, her best friend. I heard a rumor, she IM'd.
Cassie smiled as she typed back: No idea what you mean.
Julia's IM response popped up: They say a handsome, bulky brother tipped into your crib this afternoon.
Cassie smiled as she typed, Girl, I am too old to be kissin' and tellin'.
And I'm too old to be listening to such filth, Julia typed. As a Ph.D. and superintendent of schools at their shared alma mater, Christian Light Schools, Julia let her words communicate their humor; Cassie's friend was above the use of those corny emoticons. Julia sent another missive: You are coming to my Board of Advisors meeting Monday, right? I need help saving this school system, child.
Cassie stuck her tongue out playfully as she entered her response: Still not sure how I fit in with this crew. You said you're pulling together the "best and brightest" Christian Light alumni? Don't see how I count, given that the school expelled me when they realized why my belly was swollen.
Stop it, came Julia's response. Besides, you have what matters most to a struggling school system: Deep pockets!
Cassie shook her head, her laughter easing any guilt she might have felt about throwing the painful memory of her expulsion — accompanied by the school principal's labeling her a "girl of loose morals" —in her friend's face. Julia alone had led a student protest in Cassie's defense at the time, marching on the school's front lawn and even calling local media in a vain attempt to embarrass the school into reversing its decision.
Cassie was typing a lighthearted response when her front doorbell rang, the chime filling the house. Changing up, she shot her friend a quick Doorbell —call you later before taking a second to tuck her blouse into her jeans. Padding downstairs to the foyer, she chuckled to herself. She would have to help Julia save the world later.
When she peered into her front door's peephole, Cassie's heart caught for a second at the sight of a tall, blond-haired gentleman flashing a police badge.
"M.J.'s fine," said the voice in Cassie's head as the badge stirred anxiety over her teen son's safety. She wasn't sure whether it was the Lord or simply her own positive coaching. For years now Cassie had combined her faith in God with affirmative self-talk meant to power her through life's stresses and adversities. In her youth, she had crumpled one time too many in the face of indifference, prejudice, sexism, and just plain evil. By the time she and Marcus walked the aisle of Tabernacle Baptist Church, where each had first truly dedicated their respective lives to Christ, Cassie had vowed to never be caught unaware again. That same spirit of resolve propped her up as she confidently unlocked and swung back her wide oak door.
As strong as she felt, Cassie's knees still flexed involuntarily when she saw M.J. standing beside the plainclothes policeman. At six foot one, her son was every inch as tall as the policeman and stood with his arms crossed, a sneer teasing the corners of his mouth. Though relieved to see he was fine, Cassie sensed an unusually defiant spirit in her boy, so she locked her gaze onto the officer instead. If her man-child had done something worthy of punishment, she wouldn't give this stranger the pleasure of witnessing the beat-down. She unlocked her screen door and, opening it, let the officer make the first move.
"Mrs. Gillette?" The man held out his right hand and respectfully shook Cassie's as he spoke in a deep, hoarse voice. "I'm Detective Whitlock with the Dayton PD. I'm really sorry to bother you, but I was hoping we could help each other this evening, ma'am."
Cassie opened her screen door all the way, one hand raised against the fading sunlight in her eyes. "Please come in," she said, focused on editing the airy lilt out of her tone. She didn't mind letting her naturally fluttery voice out when among family and friends, but now was no time for it. "Why don't we have a seat in the living room."
"Again I apologize for showing up unannounced. A neighborhood this nice, one of those draws a lot of eyebrows probably," Whitlock said, nodding toward the sleek police car parked out front. "Marcus Junior and I had an unfortunate confrontation this afternoon. The more I talk to him, I'm convinced we can handle this without a trip downtown."
Cassie nodded respectfully. Who can argue with that? she thought as she motioned toward the expansive living room. "May I take your suit jacket?"
"Oh, no thank you," Whitlock replied. He slowed his gait and allowed M.J. to first follow Cassie into the room. The detective stood just inside the doorway, peering at Cassie's expensive sculptures and paintings as M.J. reluctantly took a seat beside his mother. Once they were settled, Whitlock strode to the middle of the living room, his hands in the pockets of his dress slacks. "Marcus, why don't you tell your mother how we crossed paths."
M.J. stared straight ahead, his line of sight veering nowhere near Cassie and shooting over the top of Whitlock's head of wavy blond hair. "I was minding my business, Mom. Officer Whitlock here —"
"Detective Whitlock, son," the policeman replied, a testy edge betraying the professional, placid smile on his tanned, leathery face. Cassie found herself admitting he was a relatively handsome man, one who even reminded her of the male cousins on the white side of her family. The policeman was probably around her own age, she figured, somewhere between thirty-five and forty.
Grimacing, M.J. continued. "The good detective here pulled me over on 75. Said he clocked me at seventy-eight in a fifty-five."
"Oh, I see," Cassie said, a wave of relief cleansing her tensed insides. She placed a hand on her son's shoulder but kept her eyes on the detective. "If that's all that's involved, my son should certainly pay whatever fine is required by the law. You're not doing him any favors giving him a simple talking-to." She nearly chastised herself for fearing the worst. This was probably just a case of her superjock son —a varsity star in Chaminade-Julienne football, basketball, and track —getting special treatment for his local celebrity, a celebrity nearly as big as the fame that had first attracted her to Marcus Senior back in the day.
Holding Cassie's smile with calm blue eyes, Whitlock reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a manila envelope. "Asked and answered. The state trooper wrote this ticket up for your son during the traffic stop." He walked over to the love seat and slowly extended the envelope to M.J. "I agree that Marcus needs to pay his speeding ticket, Mrs. Gillette. If that's all that was involved, I would have never been called to the scene."
Everything is fine. My son has done nothing illegal. Cassie fingered the gold locket around her neck but prayed she was otherwise masking the dread pulsing back into her. "Then get to the point, please, Detective."
Whitlock paced quickly to the corner of the adjacent couch. When he plopped down, he was less than a foot away from Cassie. "You see," he said, his elbows on his knees, his faintly yellowed teeth glinting as he seemed to smile despite himself, "I was called in because Marcus had a convicted criminal riding with him, the sort of character who can make even this fine young man look guilty by association."
"Please tell me," Cassie said, swiveling rapidly toward M.J., "that you weren't riding around with him again." When M.J. bunched his lips tight and shrugged, Cassie couldn't stop herself from popping him in the shoulder. "Boy! You promised me! You promised me, M.J.!"
Whitlock had removed his cell phone from his suit jacket. His eyes focused on the phone and as he punched its buttons, he asked, "By 'him,' are you referring to Dante Wayne?"
"Yes," Cassie said, her forehead so hot with rage it scared her. She wasn't sure whether to be more upset at this white stranger lounging on her couch or her increasingly disobedient son.
Whitlock stared straight into Cassie's eyes. "And you're familiar with Mr. Wayne how?"
Cassie sucked her teeth angrily. "He's my cousin's oldest son." Donald, Dante's father, ran a small taxi service and was the first relative on her father's side of the family —the black side —who had reached out to Cassie when they were both struggling teen parents trying to figure out life. Though they didn't talk often these days, Cassie still counted Donald a personal friend, and her loyalty to him through the years had led her to foster M.J. and Dante's friendship from the time they were toddlers. That was before she realized that Dante would adopt the morals of his mother's family, nearly all of whom had died in their twenties or spent significant stretches in prison.
"So M.J. was straight with me, they are cousins." Whitlock stroked his chin playfully as he observed mother and son. "Marcus insisted that was the only reason he was riding around with Dante in tow. Dante took up for him too, insisted there was no way Marcus was hip to the drugs we found in the car." He nodded toward M.J. "Why don't we discuss this one adult to another, ma'am. Marcus, based on your exemplary reputation in the community —as well as your parents' —I'm willing to assume you had no knowledge of your cousin's activities. If you'll just excuse us?"
M.J. looked between his mother and the detective, the first signs of a growing son's protective emotions on his face as he tapped Cassie's knee. "You okay with him, Mom?"
"Go down to your room," Cassie said through clenched teeth, "and shut the basement door after you." As her son rose, she punctuated her words. "Don't even think about coming up until your father and I come down for you."
I can feel your frustration, ma'am," Whitlock said when they were alone, once she had excused herself to change from her slippers into a pair of real shoes. He sat a few inches from Cassie, leaned forward with his eyes seeking hers like a sympathetic counselor's. "You look like you've had an exhausting day as it is. I've seen your realtor signs all over the city. You work awfully hard, don't you?"
"You have no idea," she replied good-naturedly, struggling to keep eye contact with Whitlock. As respectful as he was, and as eager as he seemed not to ruin her son's life, Cassie sensed something not quite right about his gentle but intense manner. His insight about her work ethic was dead-on, though. After a decade of working full-time for a part-timer's pay, Cassie was in her fourth year as one of the most successful realtors in Southwest Ohio. She had logged nearly eighty hours on the job this week, investing the continued blood, sweat, and tears it took to stay near the top of the real estate game.
Whitlock leaned forward again. "I made this dramatic drop-off," he said, "because I knew it would make my life easier. I'm counting on you and your husband to get Marcus Junior out of Dante's circle. Trust me, I have enough stress in this line of work, bringing down chuckleheads like your cousin —the last thing I need is to lose sleep over ruining a promising life, just because he keeps bad company."
"My son is a good kid," Cassie said, resisting the urge to plead. "Top grades in school, being recruited by all the major colleges. You know that if you watch a minute of local news. We've been blessed to see him make good choices, Detective, but we still haven't cured him of the need to look 'hard.' Hanging out with his cousin provides that outlet for M.J., at least in his immature mind."
"I understand," Whitlock said, patting her hand before standing. "My work is done here, Cassandra." He paused as he straightened the fit of his suit jacket. "My official work, that is. I have to ask you a small favor."
"Oh?" Cassie stood for some reason, her instincts telling her she preferred to hear what was coming from the flexible stance of her two feet.
"You mind if we step outside?"
When they were outside on her porch, Whitlock reached into his jacket pocket, winking as he retrieved a cigarette. "I hope you don't mind. Ever since they passed that smoke-free law, it's hell trying to get a quick smoke in. And, frankly, I need one for what I'm about to bring up."
Just make it quick. Cassie kept the thought to herself but crossed her arms as she said, "Go ahead, Detective." Maybe he needed help finding a good deal on a new home.
"We have some shared history, I understand," Whitlock said. "You graduated from Christian Light Schools, correct, when your maiden name was Cassandra Duncan?"
"I . . . attended Christian Light, yes." Cassie felt herself frowning and didn't hide it. "Why?"
"Were you familiar with a classmate of yours named Eddie Walker?"
Cassie's world stood still and it seemed she and Whitlock were thrown into suspended animation. As she stared back at the statue into which he had turned, her head filled with her final memory of the only Eddie Walker she had ever known —a thin, blond-haired teenager with a crew cut, splayed out in damp forest grass. Her last glimpse of him was still there, freeze-framed in a recess of her brain: the spilled teeth, the purple wound over his eye, the groaning epithets tumbling from his mouth as he gurgled blood.
Barely a week had passed in twenty-plus years without nightmares predicting such a moment, and as a result Cassie was ready. Always open with the truth. "Eddie Walker? You're talking quite a history lesson, Detective. Yes, I went to school with Eddie. He was involved in a tragic accident. My classmates and I, we prayed for his recovery every morning at the start of school."
Whitlock turned away from Cassie, his eyes on the contours of her front lawn as he blew a plume of smoke. "What did you think of him?"
"What did I think of him? I'm not sure what you mean."
"Please call me Pete," Whitlock replied, his eyes still focused on the yard. "This isn't a trick question, Cassandra. Let me tell you where I'm coming from. The week after young Eddie Walker stumbled into the path of the pickup truck that ran him over, the police launched an investigation. A very short, halfhearted investigation.
"You see, the oldest guys on the force still talk about Eddie's case as one where they knew something wasn't right. The driver who hit him swore every which way but loose that the kid just appeared out of nowhere, that he didn't have even a second to avoid him. But here's the crazy thing: According to the driver, the kid wasn't riding a bike or lightheartedly running across the street, as you might expect of a young, hearty boy. The driver insisted that Eddie stumbled into view, swerving around like a dazed deer or something."
Cassie swallowed hard but responded quickly. "We all heard things back in the day, Detective. There was a rumor going around that the authorities questioned whether all of his injuries were caused by the truck's impact."
"There was no question," Whitlock said after taking an intent pull on his cigarette. "Eddie had sustained numerous blows to his head, and it wasn't clear that they were consistent with the impact of the truck. More questionable was the discovery of significant amounts of human skin and hair —skin and hair other than his own —under his nails. This was before the days of DNA analysis, of course, so while the old boys at the department knew there was more to the story, they didn't have any real trail to work with."
"Again, I've pretty much heard all of this," Cassie said. She knew in the pit of her stomach that this was headed somewhere she'd always feared, but she refused to crumple before this man. God had long ago forgiven her for her role in Eddie Walker's fate, and while Cassie couldn't swear that she had fully accepted the redemption, she certainly wasn't going to be judged by some stranger flashing a badge.
"My brothers in blue had to shut down the investigation pretty quickly," Whitlock was saying. "The higher-ups at Christian Light, especially Pastor Pence, the well-connected minister whose church funded your entire school system, insisted that if there was foul play, Eddie's classmates couldn't have been involved. His teachers and the principal had never really liked Eddie anyway. They'd always branded him a loner and a troublemaker, so in their reasoning, no other student would have been with Eddie that evening. At the end of the day, nobody cared enough about a cranky poor white trash kid to find the truth."
"I don't appreciate your language," Cassie replied, ready for the conversation to end. "I knew enough about Eddie's family to know they were hardworking people, not 'trash.' All of us, his classmates, we felt so bad for them."
"Well, you should have," Whitlock said. "The poor mother, she nearly wound up in a mental hospital before her Christian faith pulled her from the brink. She even abandoned the civil suit she'd brought against the poor truck driver. Said the Lord had revealed the man was innocent, and that God alone would bring the real perpetrator to justice eventually." The detective paused ominously. "And so, here we are."
Cassie met Whitlock's even gaze. "How exactly can I help you, Detective?"
Whitlock folded his arms and stared forward, stubbing out a cigarette with one foot. "Well, Cassandra, the truth is, I've wanted to talk with you for a few weeks about all this. My run-in with Marcus Junior was just a convenient excuse."
Cassie nodded. "And what exactly is all this?"
"Let's skip a few steps," Whitlock replied, training his piercing eyes back toward her. "As part of a recent murder investigation, I interrogated a convict at the county prison because he was an associate of my prime suspect. You may recognize this name too: Lenny Parks."
Cassie felt a sheen of sweat bubbling up just beneath her nose, was surprised to feel her hands ball into fists. "Toya's brother."
"Yes," Whitlock said. "Your classmate Toya's older brother, the one who picked her and some friends —you included —up from Christian Light's homecoming game. The game that was played the same day my brother's life was basically snuffed out."
"B-Brother?" Cassie couldn't hide the sudden hike in her pitch. "But your last name —"
"Half brother," Whitlock said, his eyes filling with naked satisfaction. "I was the last person —the last one who loved him, at least —to see Eddie as God made him: healthy and vibrant, not the slack-jawed bump on a log stuck in a nursing home today."
Despite herself, Cassie shot a glance back toward her front door, wondered how quickly she could reach it and throw it open to yell for M.J.'s help. Biting her lower lip, fists still balled, she said, "I don't know what Lenny told you, but if you think his word can be trusted —"
"Now, let's not speak ill of the dead," Whitlock replied, taking one long-legged step forward. He was close enough to Cassie that when he leaned down, he could have kissed her. "There's not much I can do with Lenny's word, now that he went and got himself hung by his cellmate, but if nothing else, he gave me a wake-up call."
"I'm sorry," Cassie said, fighting hard to steady her tone, "but you're not making any sense."
Whitlock tilted his head but didn't break eye contact. "Oh, you think Lenny was my only source of evidence?" His stance blocked her way to the door, and he looked increasingly proud of that.
His eyes flicking in the direction of the house, Whitlock took Cassie by the shoulders as he said, "You have three precious children and a husband you're trying to win back, so trust me, you don't want to fight this." When she broke free of his grip, he steadied her again by the shoulders before saying, "Just relax, and accept that your comfortable little life is about to change."
Once she had said a closing prayer and shook hands with the newly commissioned members of the Christian Light Schools Board of Advisors, Dr. Julia Turner blew out of the conference room adjacent to her office. In seconds she had breezed past her secretary, Rosie, opened her office door, and quickly shut it behind her.
- On Sale
- Mar 23, 2009
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Grand Central Publishing