When Death Draws Near (Gwen Marcey #3)@Carrie Stuart Parks

PROLOGUE

MIRIAM KNEW, SHE KNEW TONIGHT WOULD BE the night the Holy Spirit would anoint her. The tingling filled her chest and ran down her arms. “Shananamamascaca,” she whispered in prayer language, spinning to the pounding, driving music.

The Spirit was powerful in the church tonight. Around her, the congregation, led by Pastor Grady Maynard, danced, twirled, and praised the Lord in tongues. The bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling cast a harsh yellow light on the worshipers. The odor of candles, sweat, and musty carpet rose like incense. Arms were raised, voices lifted, eyes closed.

The burning power of the Holy Spirit rushed through Miriam’s body. An indescribable sense of joy and peace filled her to overflowing. Time was meaningless. The music faded, singing muffled, shouts muted. Her lips moved in a prayer she could barely hear. “Shaaaanaamaascaca.” Tears slid down her face, pooling on her chin.

Pastor Maynard placed his microphone on the pulpit and reached under the pew in the front of the church. Sweat soaked his green dress shirt and streamed down his face.

Several men moved closer, arms raised and waving or hands clapping.

Pulling out a wooden box with a Plexiglas lid, Maynard reached inside. Louder shouts of praise erupted around him. Tambourines and cymbals joined the cacophony of sound.

Miriam took her place in the circle surrounding Maynard.

From the box came a slow chchch speeding to a continuous cheeeeeheeeee.

The pastor drew the giant timber rattler from the serpent box. The snake twisted and coiled in his hand, its flat, gray-black head darting from side to side. He draped the serpent around his neck and reached for more from the box.

Miriam moved closer.

Pastor Maynard raised several serpents overhead before handing them to the next man. Keeping the timber rattler around his neck, he lifted his voice in jubilant tongues.

The snakes passed around the circle. Worshipers would drape the snakes on their heads or cuddle them in their arms while spinning or dancing.

Miriam moved out of the circle and slipped next to Maynard. This would be the serpent she would handle. She reached for the rattler.

Pastor Maynard slipped the snake from his neck and into her hands. She lifted it over her head and closed her eyes. The Spirit’s power over the serpent charged up her arm. She stomped her feet and whirled, the serpent held high. The Holy Spirit claimed overwhelming victory.

She lowered the serpent.

The snake whipped around and struck her wrist, sinking its fangs deep into her flesh.

Pain like a million bee stings coursed up her arm. Someone snatched the serpent from her hands as she doubled over in agony and dropped to her knees.

The drumming music stopped. A chorus of voices rose, then faded.

Miriam gasped. Blackness lapped around her mind. The world retreated into velvet nothingness.

CHAPTER ONE

“MA’AM. SHERIFF REED TOLD ME TO COME AND get you. He said he was sorry you had to wait so long. The body’s here. I mean, it was here before . . . downstairs. In the morgue.”

I craned my head backward to see the young, lean-faced deputy standing over me. He had to be six foot four or taller, very slender, with wispy brown hair. His eyes were blue with heavy lids and his mouth red, probably from chewing his lips. Sure enough, his cheeks flushed at my studying him and he started gnawing his lower lip.

Sitting outside the Pikeville Community Hospital, I’d been enjoying the late-October sunshine and waiting for someone to remember I was here. I picked up my forensic art kit and followed the officer through a set of doors to an elevator next to the nurses’ station. “I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”

“Junior Reed.” He nodded at his answer. “Sheriff Reed is my father.”

I did a double take. He didn’t look anything like Clayton Reed, the sheriff of Pike County, Kentucky, who’d picked me up from the Lexington airport yesterday. “Nice to meet you, Junior.” I stuck out my hand. “I’m Gwen Marcey.”

He hesitated for a moment, staring at my hand, then awkwardly shook it. His hand was wet.

The elevator door opened. As we entered, I surreptitiously wiped my hand on my slacks. The elevator seemed to think about moving, then quietly closed and slipped to the floor below, taking much longer than simply running down the stairs. The elevator finally opened. The smell hit me immediately.

I swallowed hard and took a firmer grip on my kit.

Several deputies had gathered in the middle of the hall, talking softly. They turned and stared at us. I couldn’t quite decipher the