The Students of Peaceful Hearts
It was the third dead body Tonya Perez had found this week.
The first two, unlike this poor soul, had been men. Now it was a young woman, eyes swollen and puffy, a noose around her neck. When Tonya snuck a look at the woman's ID it said her name was Marla Ortega even though she had checked in as Michelle Funk. With a last name like Funk, it wasn't a surprise that it was a made-up name.
Tonya made up her mind, after inspecting the dead woman's body, that she best cut the young girl down from where she hung in the closet and tell Mr. Tillman. Mr. Tillman always knew what to do, in situations like this.
His face considerably paled when Tonya announced the third dead body she had found that week. He started muttering things like, "bad publicity" and "it'll scare customers away" even though Tonya's mother had always said there was no such thing as bad publicity.
"Sir," Tonya told Mr. Tillman. "I can get rid of Marla Ortega if you'd like."
Mr. Tillman looked appalled. "Tonya! We can't just get rid of the body! We must call the police! Three people dieing in the same place isn't a coincidence—It is probably the work of a serial killer!"
Confused, Tonya frowned. "But sir, the police said Terel Hall and Nick Fox committed suicide!"
Mr. Tillman was already on the phone, three short beeps hailing to a ring. He held up a finger, hushing Tonya.
Perplexed and slightly annoyed, the maid left the room to go and continue her cleaning rounds. As she dusted the Carlson's room, Tonya concluded that Mr. Tillman was right; Ortega, Hall and Fox's deaths were murders. But not just murders, Tonya told herself with a shudder, they were murders by a deadly and vengeful cult.
After all, Mr. Tillman was always right. Sometimes he just got a little confused on the details.
Tonya wasn't too far off on her theory. Five days before, Terel Hall had checked into the Sunnyriver Inn, wearing a suit and hat, claiming he was a traveling businessman. That night, he had died (supposedly by taking two bottles of Asprin), and Tonya had found him on her morning rounds of cleaning.
The next victim, Nick Fox, had made it longer then Terel. When Tonya came to bring him his dinner, she had found him in his bathtub, the hairdryer (plugged-in) sunken beside him.
And now Marla. Hung herself from the highest hook in the closet, her feet only inches above the ground.
And, if the police in Sunnyriver, Idaho had bothered to check, they would have noticed that Marla, Nick and Terel were all avid churchgoers to Peaceful Hearts…
FIVE DAYS EARLIER:
Marla stretched, opening her mouth and blinking sleep from her eyes. It was Saturday morning and she was scheduled to meet Nick, Terel and Boston at Peaceful Hearts at nine. It was six already.
Marla fought back the blankets, climbing out of bed. She wasn't clothed—Peaceful Hearts taught that cloth just befuddled your dreams—but her apartment was warm so she didn't feel the chilly air of winter outside.
Sugarplum, Marla's cat, meowed loudly by the door as Marla fought her craving for coffee. After five months with Boston's teachings, she had learned to control her willpower. Though she still sometimes had the cravings, Marla had managed to cut cigarettes, chocolate and coffee from her days.
"Oh, shut up!" Marla snapped as Sugarplum yowled louder. "If we get kicked out, I'll blame you!"
After breakfast and a brisk walk outside, Marla climbed in her old Volkswagen, starting the engine and driving to downtown Sunnyriver. Snow was laid about in piles and the chilly air of Northern Idaho was clear and clean. Marla inhaled as she stepped from her car, into the gravel parking lot of Peaceful Hearts. Her breath made a puff of vapor.
"Good morning, Miss Ortega!" Boston nodded as Marla stepped into the church. The darkness enveloped her, the only light from the red stained glass windows.
"Morning, Boston," Marla said back. She took her usual seat between the other disciples, Nick and Terel.
Only half a dozen others came in. Marla didn't mind—she liked having Boston all to herself.
"Today I will talk about the power of love," Boston started after Nick had shut the doors of the church. His voice, loud, powerful and commanding, filled Marla's head until all she could think about was his lecture. Boston's eyes often met hers, glassy blue.
After his lecture, Boston told his disciples that he wanted to see them. The half dozen other left and Nick, Terel and Marla were alone again.
Boston took Marla in his arms once the last churchgoer left. Nick and Terel didn't seem to mind as they exchanged kisses.
Boston was nearly twenty years older then Marla. She knew that her parents would never approve and Boston refused to see Marla outside church so their only time together was the hour of his lectures and whatever time he called afterward.
"Today is a good day," Boston said after he let Marla go. "Today is the day that Terel and I will go to the Sunnyriver Inn and contact the spirits on the other side. Nick, do you know why we can contact spirits this week?"
In his boring, monotonous voice, Nick replied, "Because Fighters' Comet is in view."
"Right! Terel and I are going to try to contact my father, the pervious owner of this church. And we shall succeed! Now, my disciples, go out into the world and tell others of our peaceful way. We shall report on our findings tomorrow morning."
The next morning came. Marla could hardly sleep in anxiety as she wondered if Boston and Terel had contacted the late Boston Harp senor.
Only Nick, Marla and Boston were in the church. Terel was nowhere to be seen.
"Where's Terel?" Marla asked Boston in a whisper when he kissed her.
"Terel was taken," Boston replied with apathy. Nick and Marla looked at each other in alarm.
"Taken?" Nick asked. "I didn't know that was possible."
Boston shook his head. "Nor did I, Nick. Now my father is not the only one who rides the Fighters' Comet. Terel does too. But we will succeed! You will come with me to the Sunnyriver Inn tonight as well."
Nick looked uncomfortable. "Won't the inn workers think it's weird that we're checking in together?"
Boston nodded thoughtfully. "Check in alone, as Terel did. I'll meet you later."
Marla bowed her head, grieving for Terel. She sent a prayer asking for his spirit to always travel in the tail of the comets.
Of course she heard the rumors. Headlines declared Terel's death as a suicide. Something about bottles of Asprin. But Marla knew that those whispers were lies. Terel's soul had been taken.
When Marla returned to Peaceful Hearts the next day, she was surprised to find the church empty. Not even Boston was inside. Curious, she walked around the church grounds, calling his name.
"Marla?" Boston emerged from the shadows of an oak tree. His face was creased with worry and sorrow, unlike after Terel's death.
"N-Not Nick too?" She said. Every now and then the comets would get greedy and take a soul, but never as long as Marla had been going to Peaceful Hearts had she heard of two!
Boston nodded. "Yes. It is unfortunate. Marla, you are the only one of my disciples powerful enough to help me with this. We need to try. We have too. Tonight, meet me at Sunnyriver."
Marla hesitated. She decided not to point out that she was the last of his disciples left.
"Well?" Boston kissed Marla's forehead, erasing her fears. "Will you join me, my dear? Tonight, alone? Before the comet disappears?"
"Not tonight." Marla told him as softly as she could. "Three days from now. Let the spirits calm down."
Boston nodded. "Very well. I'll see you then."
As Marla watched him go, she wondered if she had made a mistake.
Marla had never stayed the night in an inn before. The Sunnyriver was a drive-up motel where the rooms were cheep and the stay, comfortable. Marla decided, after checking in under a false name that she made up off of the top of her head, that she should stay in motels more often.
First of all, they were always clean. Marla liked that, even though she missed Sugarplum.
Boston knocked on the door around nine. The sky was dark and star-stained, the comet bright as it glowed in the night.
"Marla," Boston had a smile on his face, open and kind. "Get in the chair. We must do this properly."
Marla was surprised, and uncomfortable, but she complied. Boston slid in the chair beside her, close.
"Give me your hands, Marla."
"Now try to make contact with the spirits…"
She closed her eyes, trying to concentrate. After a moment she shook her head in frustration. "I can't, Boston!"
"You can! Don't fail me like those other fools did!" Boston was turning red with anger, holding Marla's hands freakishly tight.
"Ow! Boston you're hurting me—"
"Concentrate!" He snarled.
She closed her eyes once again, picturing the comet in her mind. For a second, she wondered if it would even work. Maybe Boston was crazy. Maybe the followers of the Peaceful Hearts were just another one of Idaho's collection of cults…
No! That was doubt! If she was to contact the spirits, Marla needed to have full trust!
"Why isn't this working?" Boston asked, his voice more angry and rough then it had been when someone had spray painted SATANISTS across the front of the church.
"I—I don't know—"
Boston swore, standing up and kicking over his chair. "Why doesn't my father want to talk with me? Why are my powers failing?" After a moment, he disappeared into the bathroom. Marla heard the running of water and he reemerged with a glass of water.
"Drink this. It'll make you fall asleep."
Marla almost asked why she needed to be asleep, but didn't. She knew that Nick or Terel would have done so without question. She was just as good as them…
She drank. Boston's angry face was the last thing she saw.
When Marla crumpled to the ground at his feet, Boston dragged her to the closet and tied the rope he had brought with him around her neck. If investigators decided to do an autopsy they would just find that she had taken three sleep medication pills, then hung herself. After all, Marla was still breathing. Boston was going to hang her.
It took a few moments for the rope to do its work. After he was sure she was dead, Boston slipped from the room, silently closing the door behind him as he had done when he had killed Nick and Terel.
Looking up at the ordinary comet, Boston decided he would take a greyhound to Portland, Oregon. Maybe he'd even open a new church there. He had enjoyed Peaceful Hearts—maybe his best cult yet—and decided that yes, that was what he was going to do.
Boston stepped into his car. The air around him was cold and chilly. Just how he liked it.
For a moment, Boston considered how much he would miss Marla's kisses. Then, shaking his head, he turned the keys in the ignition.
He was out of the state before Tonya came on her morning rounds.
Any questions? Just ask.