Chapter One - Troubled Souls

It had been raining relentlessly for the better part of the day, and the dreariness of the gray skies above was a good match for the dark mood that had settled over Frank Tripp for the past few days. It was mid-afternoon on Friday, and Frank had knocked off work several hours early to attend to personal matters. Traffic was especially heavy and slow due to the rain, and it took him longer than he had anticipated to make the trip to the Towering Palms Residential Complex where his mother lived. With a sense of relief, Frank finally turned into the parking lot of the senior citizens complex, found an open space and quickly pulled into it. As he did so, his attention was caught by a large, fancifully painted bus parked near the entrance of the complex.

The bus had been painted pale blue and featured wispy, creamy white clouds in an attempt to conjure up images of heaven. On the side of the bus, superimposed over the clouds and the blue background, were images of Pastor Bobby Braxton and his wife, "Sister" Lee-Anne Braxton. In large gold script were the words The Harvest Souls Congregation - Every Sixty Seconds, Somewhere in the World, a Soul is Saved - Thanks to You!

More like every sixty seconds a sucker is born, thought Frank with contempt. He watched as several young men and women exited the electronic doors of the complex and headed for the bus. Wondering how the conservatively and well-dressed young people entered the protected building without an electronic pass key, Frank frowned. Solicitation was not allowed inside the complex or on its grounds. Probably let inside by some naive, trusting old soul, he suspected. Perhaps he should have a conversation with the Palms' management office; it made him uneasy to think that his mother and other trusting, elderly citizens might be subjected to financial chicanery masquerading as religion. He had caught the Braxtons in action once or twice on television when surfing channels, and found their mix of prosperity gospel and pleas for 'love' offerings more than just a little distasteful. To Frank, they were two very good flim-flam artists who took advantage of the sorrows, ill-health and naiveté of those least able to defend themselves. Lee-Anne Braxton called herself a prophetess, and would often call forth "healings" over the airwaves, saying she "saw" this or that sick person - and generally there were enough sick people watching the show that someone was bound to claim that "Sister" healed them. It filled Frank with disgust. Making up his mind to speak with management about the matter, Frank put thoughts of it aside for the moment.

He had a bag of groceries sitting on the passenger's seat of his car as well as a small bunch of pink and white carnations for his mother. He knew the flowers would bring a smile to Olive Tripp's face. Frank's dad had run a small grocery store in Sweeny, Texas when Frank was a kid. When his dad would get a shipment of flowers in, he would bring a bunch home to his wife. His parents were not demonstrative people, but Frank never failed to notice how his mother would beam with pleasure at the flowery evidence of her husband's affection. On occasion, Frank liked continuing the practice; it was a small thing, and it gave his mother happiness.

About to open the car door and take his chances in the persistent downpour, Frank paused as his cell phone buzzed. Pulling it from his suit coat pocket, he muttered a soft curse under his breath when he saw the caller was his ex-wife.

"Yeah, Melissa, what's up? The girls okay?"

Annoyed by his lack of greeting and the irritation she sensed beneath his carefully neutral tone, she coolly replied with sarcasm, "Why, hello to you too, Frank. So nice to talk to you!"

Frank could feel the heat growing within him, but said nothing. He and Melissa were old pros at effortlessly aggravating one another.

Ignoring her ex-husband's silence, Melissa continued. "Since you asked so nicely, the girls are fine. Sherry is all a flutter with plans for her prom night, Melanie is making me crazy about wanting to learn to drive... and Carrie had a major temper tantrum last night and is threatening to leave home and move in with you! Sometimes, I think it wouldn't be such a bad idea!"

Thinking of ten year old Carrie, a grin worked its way across Frank's face and softened his expression. Frank loved all his girls, but he and Carrie shared a special bond. Unlike her older, more docile and anxious-to-please sisters, Carrie was a handful. She and Melissa often locked horns, and they were miles apart in temperament. The truth was, Carrie was more like him. She was stubborn, had a mouth on her, and didn't suffer fools gladly - the last category being the one Frank inwardly suspected Carrie put her mother in. He realized Carrie was strong-willed and needed to be taken in hand, but she was his baby, and while she gave Melissa a rough time, she still looked at her father as if he could slay dragons.

Unlike the older girls, Carrie had been too young to remember the good times in the Tripp household. And early in the marriage, there had been good times. But things began to change when Frank's work had begun to require of him longer hours. Bitter arguments began to surface about the lack of Frank's presence in the home, and at times Melissa accused him of wanting to work the extra hours to escape his responsibilities as a husband and a father. The accusations and the arguments began to eat away at the marriage, and after awhile, Frank did start volunteering for the extra hours rather than go home to the increasingly shrill Melissa, who had begun to rely too heavily on several glasses of wine to get through the day. The end came when Frank discovered that his wife had paid a detective agency to lure him into an affair with a woman hired expressly for that purpose. He had been terribly hurt and had felt betrayed, and Melissa's paranoia had been responsible for some uncomfortable moments when Frank became a suspect in a murder investigation as a result of her actions. More than anything, that nasty little piece of work by Melissa signaled to Frank just how little trust and love remained in their relationship.

Frank realized he couldn't continue to live with Melissa afterward, in spite of her apologies and tearful entreaties. On the positive side, his departure from the home had been the impetus for Melissa to give up alcohol, and Frank had never seen any evidence that she had gone back on that decision.

He was relieved when they parted and felt he'd done the right thing. Better to end the marriage than listen daily to the false accusations, the complaints and the tears. Still, Frank felt a lot of guilt about the way things ended, his girls being juggled from their mother's house to his apartment, and especially the impact it had upon Carrie, who had only been four at the time of their split.

"Frank, are you still there?" Melissa asked.

"Yeah, I'm here. Look, Melissa, if the girls are okay, what's up?" Idly, he allowed his eyes to drift once again to where the Braxtons' bus was parked. He watched as one of the young women, partially obscured by the big black umbrella she protectively hovered underneath, disengaged from the rest of the group who were all trying to board the bus. Instead, she decisively walked over to a car where an elderly gentleman was attempting to open the door against the wind and rain. She grasped the door handle, opened it, and helped the man out, and handed him the umbrella to hold while she extracted his cane from the car and then handed it to him. She took back the umbrella, offered him an arm to lean on, and slowly walked with him to the doors of the complex. She continued to talk intently with him as he used his pass key to open the electronic door. As he started to enter the building, she handed him a small, white plastic bag with something imprinted on it, smiled and waved goodbye to him. After he entered the building, she quickly sprinted back to where the bus was and got on. Frank watched as the doors closed behind her and the bus began to slowly leave the complex. Now what the hell was that all about? he wondered.

Dimly, Frank realized his ex-wife's voice was becoming increasingly petulant. "...Frank, this is the second time in six months that you've been late with the check."

Abruptly forcing his attention back to what Melissa was saying, he began to deal with the unpleasant reason for her call. "Melissa, you know I'm never late with the child support checks... "

Melissa interrupted. "I'm talking about the alimony check, and you know it! I need that money, Frank. I have bills to pay. When you're late with the alimony, I'm late paying my bills... and then they start calling the house. Is that what you want? Bill collectors calling, and the girls answering the phone?"

Stung, Frank replied angrily, "Of course not - and neither should you! Look, Melissa, you were married to a cop, not a Rockefeller! I make damn sure my obligations to my girls are met, and I do it on time every month, and you know it. The alimony... well, there are months when I have trouble getting it together. You know, you could lend a hand - you could get a job."

"We've been through this before, Frank," she said irritably. "I need to be there for the girls. God knows you aren't there! It's important that at least one parent be available."

Frank laughed without humor. "You have a teaching degree, and the girls are in school during the day. There is no reason you can't go back to teaching, and still be there when the girls are at home. Maybe the courts would see it that way now that the girls are older. I just can't do it all."

"Perhaps you should have thought of that when you left us, Frank," Melissa replied softly.

Suddenly Frank was overcome with a sense of futility and weariness. Closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the headrest, he was silent for a moment, listening to the rain beating against the windshield. No one could work him over like Melissa. She knew just the right buttons to push to make him feel like a bum. "Let's not do this, Melissa," he said tiredly. "I get paid next Thursday. I'll get the check to you."

After concluding the call, Frank remained seated in the car, eyes closed, for several minutes, trying to remember back to the days when every conversation with Melissa didn't deteriorate into harsh words of recrimination, followed by bitterness and guilt - but the truth was, he couldn't. It had been too long.

XXXXX

"Ma," said Frank, sitting down his coffee on Olive Tripp's kitchen table and picking up a small plastic bag, "what is this?"

Olive finished putting the pink and white carnations in the small vase, and walked over to the table, placing the flowers in the center of it. Glancing over at the bag that was the focus of Frank's attention, she sat down across from him and blew on her hot coffee before answering.

"A lovely young woman came by earlier today and left the bag with me. There is a DVD inside as well as some literature about her church. I haven't watched the DVD yet, but I may attend the Bible study they are going to be starting here. It will meet every Tuesday morning."

Sighing, Frank opened up the bag and saw a DVD with the Braxtons' faces imprinted on it. There were several pamphlets inside, as well as several pledge envelopes. "They give you anything else, Ma?"

He could see his mother was uncomfortable as she reluctantly responded. "Well, that Bible over there," she said, pointing over toward the kitchen counter, near the refrigerator, "and the Study Guide and Journal that goes with it."

Frank walked over to the counter and picked up the Bible. On the front of the cream colored, faux leather cover in gold lettering was imprinted THE HARVEST SOULS CONGREGATION LIFE APPLICATION BIBLE. In the same fake leather binding was the combination study guide and journal bearing the title THE HARVEST SOULS CONGREGATION STUDY GUIDE AND JOURNAL FOR LABORERS. In smaller lettering was a bible verse: "The harvest is plentiful but the laborers few... "

"Did they give this to you, Ma, or did you pay for it?"

Olive Tripp looked at her son with a guilty expression on her face. "Now, Frankie, I can see you're upset, but calm down. It wasn't much... it was only $25.00 and, look, for that you received both books. And they are in leather! This is an heirloom, Frankie, a Bible I can hand down to one of your girls one day."

God forbid, thought Frank, not missing the irony of his thought.

"Ma," said Frank patiently, "you already have a Bible. Why would you spend $25.00 for another? Did you tell the girl that you already had one?" Frank was wondering how much pressure the girl had put on his mother.

"I did tell Liz I already had a Bible... but this is different, this is a life application Bible in which the Church points out how each verse can help us in our daily life to reach out and bring more souls into the Church. Liz says that we are all here for a purpose, Frankie: we are to reach out to our friends and family, and to all the poor people all over the world who don't know the truth. Liz says this Bible, edited by the Harvest Souls church teaches us about our purpose, and the study guide helps us figure out how to fulfill it, and we're supposed to write down our thoughts and ideas. Liz says that it doesn't matter how old we are; we all have a role to play in bringing lost souls into the Kingdom. Liz said that someone like me can play a big role in making this happen."

Liz says, Liz says, Liz says, thought Frank sourly as he listened to his mother's litany of what Liz said. "Did you get Liz's last name, by any chance?"

"Yes, it is written on the inside of the study guide, along with her telephone number. She said I can call her anytime I want to talk... if I have a question or just want to chat about anything. Isn't that dear of her? So many people don't have time for older folks today. Lovely girl."

Frank looked at the name written inside of the study guide: LIZ McKINLEY. Frank took out his pad and wrote down her name and phone number. He might just ring the "lovely girl" up and have a little talk with her... and not about saving souls.

XXXXX

Exiting the doors of the seniors complex, Frank looked up at the slowly clearing skies. At least the rain is over, he thought. Humidity is still a bitch though.

Walking toward his car, his attention was diverted by a pretty sight. He found himself studying a young woman who had her back to him as she struggled to pull a heavy oriental rug from one of the complex's carts and push it into the trunk of her silver Hyundai. The old, dusty car had certainly seen better days, but the same could not be said for the lady. Damn, if that woman looks as good from the front as she does from behind, she's a knockout, he thought, quashing the all too male instinct to whistle his appreciation. Instead, Frank chose to silently admire the woman's tanned legs in white shorts, the nicely defined ass, and the way her pretty back and shoulders looked in the yellow tee-shirt she was wearing. He couldn't see her face, but noticed the crop of black, curly hair that barely touched her shoulders.

He watched her struggle for a few seconds, and then decided to offer his help. Walking toward her, he coughed to get her attention. "Ma'am, I couldn't help noticing that you are having trouble getting that rug into the trunk of your car. Can I help?"

The woman turned and looked up at Frank, her sea-green eyes wary and alert, and studying him intently. She had a heart shaped face, a pert, upturned nose, full lips and a slight cleft in the center of her chin. Frank thought she was just about the prettiest thing he'd seen in some time. He noticed the woman was looking him over nervously, and seemed hesitant about whether to accept his help.

"Miss, just trying to help," he said quietly. "That rug seems too much for you to handle on your own... but if you would rather I left you alone, just say the word and I won't bother you."

She seemed to come to a decision, and finally held out her hand. In friendly fashion, she smiled at him and said, "My name is Lucy Price. Thanks for the offer to assist - I sure can use some help!"

Frank returned her smile and shook her hand. "My name is Frank Tripp. So," he said, gesturing around the complex, "you got parents here?"

Lucy shook her head, smiling. "No, my parents live in Orlando. My uncle lived here. He was quite elderly and he passed away. He had no children, and cleaning out his apartment and taking care of his personal effects fell to me. I have been doing pretty well - until I got to this heavy rug. How about you? You have parents here?"

"Yeah, my mother. She's lived here about 10 years now... likes it. I tried to get her to move in with me when I was married, but she wanted her own place. Same thing with my brother in Texas. At least once a year, he tries to talk her into going back to Texas, but she likes Miami... she likes being close to her granddaughters."

"Well, Towering Palms is a rather nice apartment complex," remarked Lucy, tilting her head to the side as she looked at Frank and processed what he had just shared with her about his life. Divorced or separated, and children. "So, Mr. Tripp, I thought I detected a bit of an accent... you're from Texas?"

"I grew up in a small town in Southeast Texas - Sweeny. Moved to Miami about twenty-five years ago when I got a job offer. After my dad died, I asked my mother to move to Miami. My girls are the only grandchildren she has; she was happy to move here and be near them.

"By the way," he said, feeling a bit awkward in front of the pretty woman, "I sure would like to call you 'Lucy' - so how about you drop the 'Mr. Tripp' stuff, and call me 'Frank.'" Frank was rapidly doing mental arithmetic in his head, trying to figure out how old Lucy Price was. She had the face and figure of a young woman, but he saw evidence of some very fine lines around her eyes - and there was also a look in the depths of those green eyes that hinted at something experienced and older than first glance would seem to indicate. And in spite of the smiles and friendly conversation, Frank sensed an underlying sadness and tension that reached out to something protective within him.

"You said your family is from Orlando - so how did you wind up in Miami?" he asked.

Lucy hesitated, and then reluctantly offered, "After my marriage broke up, I decided a change was needed... and I decided to move farther south."

"Hmm... well, I can understand needing a change after a marriage falls apart. Get back to Orlando much?"

"No," she said fiercely, "I never go back. Orlando is a closed chapter in my life."

Puzzled, Frank began, "But your parents... don't you go back to see them?"

"No. Not ever." Lucy looked upset, and began to focus on trying to move the rug again.

"Here," Frank said kindly, "let me do that." Frank hauled the carpet out of the cart, and placed it in the trunk.

Lucy smiled gratefully at the tall man with the kind manner. She instinctively liked him, and Lucy was a woman who had learned the hard way to pay close attention to her instincts; past experience had taught her it was dangerous to do otherwise. "Thanks, Frank," she said softly.

He smiled back at her. Frank was trying desperately to come up with a way of asking her out. "My pleasure, Miss Lucy. Can I return that cart for you?"

"Thanks, that would be great," she replied.

Frank was about to return the cart to its bay on the side of the complex when he decided the humidity was starting to get to him. Not thinking, he slipped out of his jacket and laid it on top of the now empty cart. Suddenly, he heard a swift intake of breath from the pretty woman standing next to him. Turning to look at her, he found her mesmerized by the holstered gun that had been hidden beneath his suit jacket.

"Lucy?" he asked, puzzled at the fixed stare she was giving him.

"You... you carry a gun?" she asked weakly.

"It's not what you think, Lucy. I'm a cop. See?" he said, holding out his badge as verification of his statement.

"Oh dear God," she said softly, "you're a cop. A cop!"

Seeing how upset she was, he said, tentatively, "Lucy? Lucy, what's wrong?"

Abruptly, Lucy seemed to give herself a mental shake and regained her composure. "Nothing is wrong. Nothing at all. Thank you for your trouble, Mr. Tripp," she said formally. "I really must be going now. I appreciate the help you provided. I really have to go now. Goodbye."

Frank watched with stupefaction as Lucy's formerly friendly manner disappeared and was replaced with icy formality and an urgency to be gone from his presence. He was too perplexed to try to detain her and stared as she got into her car and quickly drove away.

Now what in hell just happened here? he wondered. A cop hater? Damn! Frank had come in contact before with women who hated cops, but he wouldn't have figured Lucy Price for one of them.

Again, Frank thought, Damn! She was sure a fine woman to look at. Just my luck... a cop hater.

Dispirited, Frank returned the cart to the complex, and then walked back to his car. Another Friday night - a weekend approaching and no one to share it with. A cop hater! he thought once more. Damn my luck!

TBC