Chapter One of “The Last Sunday”
Hattie Williams looked at her reflection in the oval vanity mirror. Her eyes followed the road map of lines that had been paved by life in her almond skin. She could almost pinpoint the exact event that preceded each distinct wrinkle. The creases in her brow appeared shortly after her husband’s death ten years earlier. The lines at the corner of each eye came when she buried her mother. The hollows in her cheeks were the most recent indications that she had survived yet another tragedy. They arrived only two months earlier on the Sunday her beloved pastor, Hezekiah T. Cleaveland was gunned down in the pulpit of New Testament Cathedral.
Hattie ran the stiff boar bristles of a silver hair brush through gray streaked hair that cascaded over her shoulders. She never took her eyes off her face for fear that if she looked away she would miss the vision she knew was coming. Her hair seemed to grow even longer with each stroke. The few strands of black hair were awash in a sea of silky gray that shimmered from the light of the full moon that gave the room a ghostly glow. Crickets could be heard chirping in the flowerbed of pink and lavender Foxgloves just outside her window.
She knew a message was only moments away. The light headedness she always felt just before a vision came had caused her to wilt onto the stool at the vanity and left her helpless to only wait for the scene to appear in the mirror. Sheer white curtains bristled slightly from the gentle evening breeze and the scent of lilac powder from a cloth covered box on the vanity filled the room.
And then he appeared. Hattie’s face in the mirror slowly gave way to the image of Hezekiah Cleaveland. He looked just as he had only months earlier when he was full of life, love and hope. Light seemed to pour from beneath the surface of his glowing brown skin. His eyes were clear and bright, even brighter than she remembered. He looked to her lovingly as if he knew she was there. But there was a divide between them that prevented her from reaching out and touching his gentle face.
Hezekiah didn’t speak but she could hear every word in his heart as if he were in the room. She felt every emotion. There was a peace that she had never felt from him when he was alive. His face was content, but beneath the surface she could also sense fear.
“What are you afraid of Pastor?” she asked out loud. But he did not respond. Instead the feelings of fear and concern seemed to grow and overtake peace and contentment.
“You’re with the Lord now,” she said gently. “No one can hurt you anymore.”
Hezekiah’s expression grew dire as her words faded into the moonlight. Now a pain so intense that she could feel it in her stomach poured from mirror. Then she heard the words, “Don’t let her do it.”
Hezekiah’s lips didn’t move but she knew his voice. Then she heard it again, “Don’t let her do it.”
“Do what pastor?” she asked the mirror. Hattie placed the silver brush onto the vanity and leaned closer to the image. “Don’t let who do what? I can’t know what I’m not told.” She reached out and placed her open palm onto the mirror and touched Hezekiah’s cheek. The glass surface was hot against her skin. She jerked away as if she had touched an open flame. Hezekiah looked more intently at her. A tear fell from his eye as he stared pleadingly.
“Don’t let Samantha do it again,” came the words from the mirror. “Please don’t let her do it again.”
At that point Hattie understood clearly. The guilt she had felt for not preventing his death washed over her like a flood. She had known Hezekiah was in danger months before he was killed but did nothing to prevent his death. She remembered the warning vision she had received in her kitchen window weeks before he was killed.
Until that sunny day four months earlier Hattie had never seen so many warriors on the battlefield of one man’s soul. She saw deadly equestrians attacking Hezekiah as she sat helplessly in her kitchen window. A white horse, whose rider was death, galloped at full speed toward Hezekiah. Another horseman was thrashing at his breastplate. Confusion, riding a black hours, delivered crushing blows to his head and death leveled the final assault that left him lifeless in the dust under the horse’s hooves. Recalling the horrible images brought tears to Hattie’s eyes.
“I couldn’t interfere with the path you chose for yourself pastor,” she said pleadingly to his tormented image in her mirror. “A man’s life is between him and God. It’s not my place to interfere,” she appealed to his unresponsive face.
The words came again. This time more intense. “Don’t let her do it again.”
Hattie began to sob out loud. “I prayed for you, pastor.” Hattie said through her tears. “You know I did my best to intercede, but that was the path you chose.”
“Don’t let her do it again,” came even louder. Hezekiah’s face did not change. Her pleas had no effect on his expression or the feelings that poured from the mirror.
“But what could I have done to stop her? What can I do now? I’m an old woman. All I have is my faith and my prayers,” she said pleadingly. “That’s all I have to give anyone and I gave that to you from the first day I met you until the day you died.”
Her words crashed onto the flat shining surface of the mirror and rush back at her like a gust of wind causing her tears to flow in a steady stream. “I’m so sorry pastor. I should have done something. I should have told you about the danger that was ahead but… but I just didn’t know how. Please forgive me pastor. I should have warned you.”
Hattie felt tormented by Hezekiah’s unyielding glare that seemed to look straight through her. She cupped a hand over her quivering mouth and sobbed uncontrollably. But the forgiveness she sought was nowhere to be found in his pained expression or felt in his tortured spirit. He was oblivious to her pain and consumed by his own.
“Don’t let her do it again,” his voice pressed on. “Don’t let her hurt him.”
Hattie froze when she heard the words. “Who, Pastor?” she begged. “Hurt who?” Her face was wet with tears as she leaned closer to the mirror. She reached her hand again to the mirror but stopped short of touching it, remembering the fire she had felt on her last attempt to cross the divide. “Tell me who, Pastor,” she desperately implored. “Who?”
When she said the words the room grew still. She felt somehow suspended in time. The quivering curtains rested dead against the window seal. The chirping crickets could no longer be heard. Hezekiah’s face became soft and his expression still. Hattie sat frozen in front of the mirror for what seemed an eternity when she finally heard his calm voice say, “Don’t let her hurt Danny.”
As the words reverberated in her head she could feel the fear that had flowed so powerfully from the mirror dissipate into the night. Once again peace came forward as the dominate emotion she felt from Hezekiah. The light from deep within him began to glow again and his eyes were as bright as when he first appeared. She knew he was free now. He had spoken his heart and expressed his love. Now he could rest in peace.
“It’s alright pastor. I know you loved him, but more importantly he knew it too,” she said calmly as his image slowly faded from the mirror. “You can rest now.”
The shimmering glass building had finally risen from the dust. Construction of the new church and media center was complete. It took three years, forty five million dollars, and the lives of three men to build the shrine to the Cleavelands. The ten-story, 25,000 seat sanctuary sparkled like a diamond on the lush green ten-acre New Testament Cathedral compound in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Two months had passed since Hezekiah’s death. Samantha had insisted that construction continue the day after his murder and that the workers not stop until the last nail was hammered, the final Italian tile was laid, and the last glass panel had been installed.
Cement trucks churned along dirt roads while Hezekiah’s cold body lay in state in the mortuary. Scaffolding was erected precariously along the side of the steel skeleton and workers pounded, bolted and soldered at all levels of the structure. On the morning after his death Samantha had received a call from Benny Winters, the general contractor for the construction project.
“Mrs. Cleaveland, this is Benny…” he said timidly. “Benny Winters. Ma’am I don’t know what to say. This is such a tragedy. Pastor Cleaveland was such a great man. He will be deeply missed.”
“Thank you Benny,” Samantha had replied with measured dose of grief.
“Everyone on the crew asked that I convey to you their deepest condolences.”
“Please tell them thank you and to remember me in their prayers.” She said finding it tiresome to feign sorrow.
“Of course I’ve halted construction in honor of Pastor Cleaveland and will wait until I receive further instructions from the Board of Trustees before we resume.”
Samantha was standing in the window of her study at the Cleaveland estate on that Monday morning Benny had called. A burning cigarette in an ashtray on her desk released ribbons of smoke into the room. When she heard the words she her body became rigid.
“Who told you to stop construction?” she asked through clinched teeth.
“Well… no one ma’am,” Benny had replied gently. “I assumed under the circumstances the Board of Trustees would think it only appropriate.”
At that moment in the conversation Samantha lost all ability to convincingly play the role of grieving widow.
“Mr. Winters,” she said curtly, “you assumed incorrectly. First of all, stopping construction is neither yours nor the Board of Trustees decision. My husband and I raised the forty-five million dollars that is paying your salary and that of your crew. Therefore in the absence of my husband the decision becomes mine alone.”
She took a threatening step toward the window as if Benny was standing in front of her.
“Secondly,” she continued, no longer able to contain her contempt for the presumptuous blue collar worker. “I want you to get your full crew onto that construction site within the hour.”
Benny Winters couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “But Mrs. Cleaveland, its standard industry practice in situations like this to stop all work for at least two days when the primary client dies unexpectedly. It’s just common respect.”
“I need you to respect me. Hezekiah is no longer your primary client nor is the Board of Trustees. From the moment that bullet entered his head I became your primary client. Do you understand?”
Benny was speechless. The cold way in which she spoke of her husband’s death that had only happened only the day before. The contempt in her voice and the callousness of her words left him both angry and afraid.
“I said, ‘do you understand’, Mr. Winters?”
“Yes ma’am,” he finally stammered.
“Good,” she snapped. “From now on do not make any decisions without consulting me first.” As she spoke her anger slowly began to dissipate and the grieving window returned. “Now after I’ve buried my husband I would like to meet with you to go over some changes to the designs. My secretary will contact you to let you know when.”
“Changes…” Benny sputtered. “What sort of…” As the words spilled from his lips he imagined Samantha’s eyebrows peaking, and her temper, rising. He stopped short of completing the question and simply replied, “Yes ma’am.”
“Good, Mr. Winters,” she said. “I’m glad we have an understanding.”
Construction went uninterrupted from that day forward for the next two months and the world fell deeper in love with Samantha Cleaveland. Her face graced the covers of major newspapers and national magazines. The headline in the New York Times read “Brave Widow Continues the Dream of Her Husband.”
The Huffington Post’s was “Samantha Cleaveland, Religion’s Jackie O”
The front page of The London Times proclaimed, “Samantha Cleaveland, American Hero.”
Images of the beautiful woman flashed nightly on every major network. In the wake of her husband’s death she had became one of the most beloved and photographed women in the country. The gleaming cathedral became a symbol of hope and fortitude for millions of people facing home foreclosures, the deaths of loved ones and life threatening illnesses.
“If Samantha Cleaveland can survive tragedy, then so can we,” became the national mantra. Many had said through tears after hearing of Samantha’s decision to continue the construction uninterrupted, “She is such a brave woman.”
And now the sun drenched cathedral was complete. Cantilevered pews spilled from top of the cavernous stadium down to the pulpit affording all in attendance unobstructed views of Samantha Cleaveland. The slanted, and jutting cathedral walls were constructed of five-hundred-thousand rectangular panes of glass that were woven together by threads of steel, forming a patchwork quilt of California sunlight, powder puff clouds and pristine blue sky. Two fifty foot high waterfalls constructed of pure white marble imported from quarry’s in Italy flanked the pulpit and released sheets of water that flowed almost silently into pools at their base. The behemoth works of liquid art added an additional two million dollars to the final cost of construction.
Two thirty-by-forty foot JumboTron screens were mounted at angles in the front corners of the room offering even those parishioners seated on the back rows during the Sunday morning services front row views of the beautiful Samantha Cleaveland.
Glossy photographs of the cathedral appeared on the cover of that week’s issues of Newsweek, Time and Essence magazines with the headlines reading, “America’s Most Beautiful Church,” and “The Crystal House Built by Pastor Samantha Cleaveland.” The stories inside were dotted with pictures of the defiant and stunning Samantha standing in front of the cathedral.
“Did you ever consider not completing the construction of the New Testament Cathedral after the tragic death of your husband, Pastor Hezekiah Cleaveland?” was the question in Newsweek.
“Never,” came Samantha’s quoted response. “This was not only the vision of my late husband but it was mine as well. His death was a tragedy but I’m a woman of faith and I never doubted for a second that this is exactly what God wanted me to do.”
The first service to be held in the new sanctuary was scheduled for the coming Sunday morning. Parishioners from around the country and world had R.S.V.P.’d for the privilege of sitting in one of the 25,000 seats at the inaugural service. Special seats at the front of the sanctuary had been reserved for the hundreds of “VIP’s” whose press secretaries, managers, publicists and schedulers had called to announce they would be in attendance. The list of celebrities, professional athletes, local, national and international politicians and six figure donors assured that the world’s media would be focused that day on Samantha Cleaveland and the house of worship she built despite her grief and the unimaginable tragedy she had endured.
Cynthia Pryce pressed the button on the remote control causing the flat screen television in her den to flicker and bounce from one image to the next. It was 7:00 on Tuesday evening and much of the air waves were dedicated to the evening news. On every news station Cynthia was assaulted by either stories heralding the grand opening of New Testament Cathedral or the smiling face, coifed hair and contour swathed Samantha Cleaveland. She was everywhere. CNN, FOX, all the networks and all the local news stations.
Every time Samantha’s high definition smiling head filled the screen Cynthia Pryce would press the remote harder. Her fingers ached from the death grip she had on the device.
“Tonight our guest is the incomparable Pastor Samantha….” said Anderson Cooper. Cynthia flinched and quickly pressed the remote.
“Everyone wants to know just how you were able to build this magnificent church even though you just lost your husband.” queried Tavis Smiley.
“Faith in…” Cynthia pressed the remote hard again before being battered by Samantha’s response.
“New Testament Cathedral has risen like a Phoenix from the ashes in downtown Los Angeles,” The blank faced brunette anchor read from the teleprompter. “The first service at New Testament Cathedral’s new forty-five million dollar sanctuary is only five days away.
Cynthia grew weary of running from the Samantha and allowed the reporter to fill her head and home with the latest on the woman she hated.
“Only eight weeks after the horrific assassination of her husband, Pastor Hezekiah Cleaveland,” the reporter continued, “Pastor Samantha Cleaveland will preach the first sermon in her new 25,000 seat glass cathedral this coming Sunday morning.
Cynthia could feel the muscles in her shoulders and neck tighten as the woman spoke.
“In addition to the millions of viewers around the world who are expected to watch the live broadcast, the guest list for the service includes such names as Magic Johnson and his wife Cookie, Oprah Winfrey and Gail King, Tyler Perry, Kevin Costner, Janet Jackson, former president Bill Clinton, former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.
Cynthia’s left eye began to twitch as the reporter droned on about the woman who had captured the hearts and minds of millions. She twisted nervously on the leather sofa and resisted the urge to change the channel once again.
The demise of Hezekiah and Samantha Cleaveland had become an obsession for Cynthia over the last two years. She took a modicum of pride in knowing that she had leaked the story of Hezekiah’s homosexual affair to the Los Angeles Chronicle reporter, Lance Savage.
“If that filthy little reporter hadn’t gotten himself killed,” she thought as she stared blankly at the screen. “The story of the disgusting affair would have been front page news and I would be the first lady of New Testament Cathedral right now.”
It was Cynthia who had printed dozens of emails from the computer in Hezekiah’s office that he had been sent to Danny St. John. The communications chronicled the passionate and emotional details of the relationship between one of the most powerful ministers in the country and a young social worker in Downtown Los Angeles.
She squirmed even more when she recalled the cold night months earlier with Lance Savage in her Mercedes behind the large mounds of dirt piled near the then metal skeleton of New Testament Cathedral.
“I knew I couldn’t trust you. This is extortion.” She had said to the balding reporter.
“Now hold on Mrs. Pryce,” Lance had said seductively. “I wouldn’t call it extortion. It’s more like quid-pro-quo. You do something for me and… well; I make you the first lady of New Testament Cathedral.”
As the little man massaged her knee Cynthia thought, “A few minutes with this cretin is a small price to pay to get Hezekiah and Samantha out of the way, permanently.”
She then looked Lance in the eye and said, “I’ll do this on one condition.”
Cynthia squirmed more on the leather sofa in her den as the humiliation she had endured that cold night played in her head like a movie.
Lance looked at her guardedly and asked, “What’s the condition?”
“That when we’re done you’ll let me send the article to your editor.”
She remembered how horrible Lance sounded when he laughed and said. “When we’re done I’ll probably be too tired to send the story myself. It’s a deal.”
He removed his jacket and loosened his tie while Cynthia watched his every move.
Cynthia remembered how he had leaned forward and kissed her hard on the lips. She could still taste the remnants of stale cigarettes on his tongue. His breathing became intense as he kissed her neck and caressed her breasts. “Mrs. Pryce,” he panted, “you are such a beautiful woman.”
Cynthia could almost smell his cheap after shave in her den while recounting the horrible events of that night.
Lance fumbled awkwardly to unbutton Cynthia’s blouse. She felt his lips gently circling her exposed nipples. The sounds of cold wind whirling at the base of the building and the distant hum of the freeway in the distance could be heard through the cars darkly tinted windows.
Cynthia lifted Lance’s head to hers and kissed him passionately. Her panting matched his breath for breath. She skillfully undid his belt buckle and pants and firmly gripped his erect member.
“Fuck me,” she had moaned. “I want you to fuck me, Lance.”
Lance fumbled with the levers on the side of the seat and pressed buttons until he found the one to recline the driver’s seat. Their writhing bodies had descended in unison into the depths of the vehicle as the seat glided into a fully prone position.
Lance lifted Cynthia’s skirt, slid her panties around her ankles, and squirmed to lower his trousers to his ankles. He then climbed on top of her to explore her waiting mouth once again.
“Hurry,” she said in a whisper. “Fuck me and then we’ll send the story to your editor together.”
Lance moaned as he thrust his hips against hers. “I’m going to fuck you first and then we’ll both fuck the Cleavelands.”
Cynthia lifted her knees towards the roof of the car and in the process turned on the windshield wipers. Lance entered her forcefully and pounded double time to the beat of the whooshing rubber blades.
Cynthia could almost feel him pounding into her flesh as she thought of the humiliation she had endured that night. She remembered holding him tightly and raising her hips to meet each thrust. The two writhed in passion heightened by the euphoric prospect of the Cleaveland’s demise. The car bounced uncontrollably until Lance reached a fevered climax and then collapsed breathless into her arms.
Cynthia was the first to speak. “It’s time. Get your computer from the back seat.”
Lance rolled exhausted back to the passenger seat.
“Wow,” he panted. “You don’t waste any time do you.”
“That was the agreement wasn’t it? I fuck you and you fuck Hezekiah. Are you planning to back out again?”
“No, no,” he protested. “I’m a man of my word.” With his trousers still around his ankles Lance reached behind and retrieved the laptop. He turned on the computer and the glowing screen lit up the car. As he waited for the article to appear he said, “You’re quite a woman Mrs. Pryce. New Testament is in for one hell of a ride.”
The headline flashed onto the screen:
“PASTOR HEZEKIAH T. CLEVELAND
INVOLVED IN SECRET HOMOSEXUAL AFFAIR”
“There it is,” Lance said. “This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for,” Cynthia said with a smile. “Now stop wasting time. Let’s send it.”
“OK Mrs. Pryce. Just press ‘Enter’ and you’ll be one step closer to being queen of the New Testament Cathedral.”
Cynthia returned her seat to its upright position. With her clothes still disheveled she pressed the key without saying a word.
After a message appeared on the screen confirming that the article had been sent, Cynthia looked at Lance and firmly said, “Now would you please pull your pants up and get the fuck out of my car.”
The events of that night were etched in her brain. As Cynthia sat in her den, now months later staring at the oversized head of Samantha Cleaveland on her television, she had no remorse for using her body to expose the story that would have brought down the Cleaveland dynasty. Her only regret was that the contemptible reporter and Hezekiah hadn’t lived long enough to make her sacrifice worthwhile. “If that little bastard was still alive I’d fuck him again and anyone else if that’s what it would take to get rid of Samantha Cleaveland.”