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Michael Lister

Blood of the Lamb

CHAPTER 1

On the day Nicole Caldwell died, I awoke as if from a night of bad dreams with a nagging sense of dread, which only intensified as I arrived at Potter Correctional Institution and was told to report to the warden’s office.

When I opened the door to the admin building, I saw long black cables snaking down the hallway and a bright swath of light, both of which spilled out of Edward Stone’s office. I was greeted by Betty Costin, Stone’s secretary, and a young, menacing-looking black man with an expensive suit and perfect teeth, both of whom held a finger to their lips signaling me to be quiet.

I had never met him, but I recognized the young man as DeAndré Stone, the warden’s nephew. His thuggish posture, expression, and demeanor let everyone know he was hardcore-that no matter where he was or how he dressed, he was never far from the street. Though his designer suit was cut to conceal it, I was sure I detected a holster beneath his arm.

When I took a closer look, he shifted his weight and turned slightly, but it was too late. I was certain now. DeAndré Stone had a firearm on state prison property-a felony punishable by fines and jail time.

Beyond Betty’s office, and inside the inner sanctum of Edward Stone’s, a local TV news crew was busy recording an interview with Stone and three people who looked only vaguely familiar. As I listened, I learned that the man was Bobby Earl Caldwell, a televangelist from New Orleans, his wife, Bunny, and their adopted daughter Nicole.

Bobby Earl and Bunny Caldwell looked like televangelists- flashy clothes, big, perfectly coifed hair, and liberally applied makeup, though that was the only thing liberal about them. They were also white. Nicole, like Stone, was black. Though not as overly made-up as her adoptive parents, it was obvious Nicole had been dressed to be seen, the bow on her ponytail coordinating with her preppy dress and the matching socks folded just above her patent leather shoes.

I recalled flipping past Bobby Earl on more than one occasion in the solitude of sleepless nights. His message was one of guilt and shame, preached from a pulpit of fear and anger, which was why I was alarmed to hear the reporter announce that he would be conducting a crusade in my chapel later that night.

Bobby Earl’s anti-intellectual religiosity and sentimental spirituality were shallow and filled with clichés. They were the first things most of the inmates gravitated toward and the last things they really needed.

I shook my head as I thought these things. I was doing to Bobby Earl what bothered me most about what he did-passing judgement. Maybe we were far more alike than I wanted to believe.

The reporter had to be mistaken. All religious programs performed at the prison had to be approved and scheduled by me. I had neither approved nor scheduled Bobby Earl Caldwell. And I would never even consider letting a child inside the institution-for any reason. Yet, according to him, Nicole was coming in with them.

“Do you sing, Nicole?” Nancy Springfield, the reporter asked.

Nicole was seated on Bunny’s lap, but Bunny barely touched her, and certainly not in any way that could be called nurturing. In fact, the whole family’s interaction looked staged and stilted, more like amateur actors rehearsing a scene than people who loved each other.

Before Nicole could answer, Bobby Earl said, “Yes, she does. She’s got the voice of an angel. In fact, she and her mother will sing in our service tonight. We’ve found that the men really appreciate the fact that we have an African-American daughter. They appreciate the life we saved her from and can see we’re about breaking down racial walls and setting the captives free.”

“Mr. Stone,” Springfield said, “tell me what a program like this does for your institution.”

“Well, first, it gives the offenders something positive to do,” he said, leaning forward slightly, the vest of his three-piece suit gathering as he did, his deep voice and careful enunciation giving authority and weight to his words. “Inmate idleness is a serious concern. But it does far more than fill time. Bobby Earl also gives hope. The men will hear a powerful message of redemption and forgiveness and will see living proof of the real thing-a man of God who practices what he preaches.”

Nancy thanked them and told her viewers one more time when Bobby Earl’s telecast aired in our area, then rushed out of the room, her crew trailing after her, equipment in tow.

“Chaplain Jordan,” Stone said, his furrowed brow and squinting eyes parental and chastising. “Where have you been? I wanted you to take part in the interview.”

“Traffic,” I said, though there wasn’t much to speak of in our little part of Florida’s forgotten coast.

His brow furrowed even more deeply, his mouth twisting in disbelief, but he decided not to press it. Instead, he introduced me to Bobby Earl, Bunny, and Nicole, who had obviously captured his heart-proof at long last he had one.

“I want to thank you for allowing this humble preacher and his family into your chapel tonight,” Bobby Earl said.

I tried not to laugh at his use of the word humble while referring to himself in the third person. He reminded me of a pro athlete who does the same thing-taking all the credit while saying it was a team effort. It seemed my first impression of the man had been accurate.

“Actually,” I said. “I didn’t know anything about it. In fact, I’d already scheduled a program for tonight-over a month ago.”

I now had the full gaze of Bunny Caldwell as well, her blue eyes taking me in between the fluttering of her thickly-coated lashes. She moved into my space, which is probably all she usually had to do to get her way. “It would mean so much to the men,” she said, “if they could hear Bobby Earl preach.”

“Cancel it,” Stone said simply to me, then looked at Bunny. “Excuse me for interrupting, Mrs. Caldwell,” then looking back at me, “but it’s not every day we can welcome the Reverend Bobby Earl Caldwell into our institution. Do you know how many places are on a waiting list to get him to preach?”

“Speaking of which,” I said, “how can I get him in? It takes a minimum of two weeks to complete the FCIC/NCIC checks, obtain authorization, put the clearance paperwork in the control room, and brief security. Not to mention notifying the inmate population of the program. I didn’t know anything about this and haven’t done-”

Edward Stone lifted his hand, signaling me to be quiet. “I’ve taken care of everything,” he said. “All of this will take place under my authorization. You don’t even have to be here during the program.”

Nicole Caldwell, the five-year-old little brandy-eyed beauty, had wandered away from our small group and was staring at the crayon drawing hanging on the wall behind Stone’s desk. Her head tilted side to side as she closely examined the drawing of an African-American family. No one in the room seemed even vaguely aware of her, least of all her parents. When her examination of the picture was complete, she nodded her head as in approval.

Watching Nicole made me again long to have children of my own. Early in our marriage, I had wanted children, but Susan hadn’t. Then when she finally decided she did, more as an attempt to save our marriage than anything else, I was still grieving the death of Martin Fisher (an unsolved that haunts more than any other) and could not imagine bringing a child into a world where such things happened. It wasn’t long before I reconsidered and we began trying to get pregnant. Thankfully, we weren’t successful, because within a year we were filing for divorce.

“May I speak with you alone for a moment?” I asked.

Stone shook his head. “Don’t have time. We have a meeting with the secretary, the regional director, and the governor in just a few minutes. Then a luncheon at central office.”

I shook my head.

“What is it, Chaplain?” Stone asked angrily.

“During the interview it was mentioned that Nicole was coming into the institution as a part of the program

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