“Why?” Thelma asked what was on everyone's mind.
“We knew they were trying to find out who was standing around the scene when we got there. Arsonists love to hang around a scene and see their own work. They probably figured the fire is either a revenge fire or a profit-oriented fire. One time, this young kid I worked alongside in the fire station got charged with arson. I was blown away. Come to find out it's not uncommon for guys like us on the volunteer unit to set fires too. I guess to try to stir up some action in between calls. When someone is trying to be too helpful or trying to play hero-now that's a vanity fire.”
Vanessa felt a chill race up her spine as Brother Brown was talking. This time she wasn't infirmed. It was what he had said. It was scary to think that the person responsible for the fire could have been standing in the midst of all the people that came over with her and Willie from church, or could have been one of them. So that was why she was stuck playing the identity game with a bunch of photos.
“Well I'm glad we weren't there,” Keisha said, returning with as many pie slices as she could balance on a tray. “We don't have time to be questioned, and we certainly don't have time for some investigator to tell us when we can and cannot travel. I have a honeymoon to go on.”
“Oh no, Ms. Keisha, it's not going to take them that long. Fire is hot, but an arson case runs cold quickly,” Brother Brown said. “They'll have this thing figured out soon or not at all.”
“I'm following the story because I'd sure like to know who did it. I drive by there every day to see if something has changed,” Paul said. “First it looked like they were trying to pull out all that they could salvage. Then it looked as if investigators were trying to recreate the sanctuary. I talked to Brother Jacques at the store on the corner. Now, he's got some theories,” Paul said. “Keisha and I drove past there on the way here. It's still roped off, but from an angle you can see clear inside to the back rooms where your office used to be, Pastor.”
“Well, the first person they need to question is that ole' Charley Thompson,” Thelma charged. As sure as I'm born he had something to do with it.”
“People are innocent until proven guilty, Ms. Thelma,” Willie reminded, dabbing the corner of his mouth where the whipped topping had landed.
“Deacon Thompson was dead set against leaving that church, Ma,” Paul said. “He's probably half-crazy himself over his precious church burning down.”
“He's not that tore up 'cause he was on the same television show as Pastor this week, standing by the door like he was an usher or some type of guard while his nephew was preaching,” Thelma said, using her fork as a pointer after pulling creamy layers of pie off of it with her mouth.
This was what Willie was looking for and what Vanessa was trying to prevent. This was a chance to ignite another huge conversation about Charley Thompson and the Harvest Baptist Church. She knew talking about it was good for Willie who was only trying to make heads or tails about the situation. Vanessa was concerned, though, with the speculations of a former firefighter and her future brother-in-law playing junior detective. She was also concerned with Keisha sharing updates with future brides on the Internet and the former Mouth of the South talking about it in church and reporting to family members down south. This story had the potential to consume them all like the fire did the church.
She looked at her husband to see if he could be thinking the same thing. She saw a mixture of fascination and devastation on his face. She inched her hand over and gently let it rest on top of his, letting him know he had a hand to hold through it all.
A Game of Cat and Mouse
There was nothing like the solitude of the pawn shop to Abe. He did his best thinking there and was often caught singing, dancing, or talking to himself when the door chimes announced the arrival of a customer. Even then he could decide to what extent he wanted to interact with the customers. Sometimes he would empathize with those forced to make a desperate decision in order to get some cash. He would minister to those who were really wrestling in the spirit and would tell them that their situation was only temporary. For a few people, he even talked them out of selling their possessions outright. For those people he had a special shelf in the storeroom of items he would never sell. He'd pray for the owners to return and reclaim their property, and many of them did.
Recently, he felt his old life slipping away. Somehow he didn't feel authentic outside of those walls as if it weren't safe to be himself anywhere else but there. It had been almost a week since the
broadcast and close to three weeks since the actual fire, and he didn't feel any closer to the truth, any closer to God.
He looked around the empty pawn shop and wondered if it were a sign.
No customers on a Monday was rare.
The recklessness of the weekend and the cruel prospect of another week usually made Mondays his busiest day. It was also rare for his Uncle Charley to miss church. Abe called after church, and then again this morning with no answer either time. He wondered if his uncle was as remorseful and ashamed of his abusive behavior as Abe was for witnessing it and not doing anything about it. His aunt was adamant that she was okay. He found himself wondering what would Willie Green do, but he knew. As his pastor, he was supposed to pray for his uncle to help and bring him to deliverance. He had more praying to do himself, because at that moment, he wasn't sure he was willing to forgive his uncle yet, even if his auntie had. Abe wanted to see what his uncle had to say for himself.
The doorbell chimed. A postman distracted with headphones tossed a package on his counter and left without so much as a hello. The padded envelope was addressed from Alexis Montgomery from the TV station. The note inside explained that the contents of the envelope came as a result of their
report. Immediately, he noticed that the bold and deliberate strokes of her handwriting did not match up to the fanciful characters in the anonymous note he received in the offering basket. He carried that note around in his wallet as if it were an important clue to a hidden treasure.
He sat on his favorite stool behind the counter, opened the package, and immersed himself in the many cards and notes with a few checks for generous donations thrown in between.
“Important package?” a woman asked.
Abe wondered how she got in without him hearing the bell. He took a good look at her. She was functionally attractive, and well put together like his old oak table. Her medium length hair was curled all over. She wore a form fitted suit to display her curves with a peak-a-boo camisole to showcase her cleavage.
She cleared her throat, bringing Abe's attention back to why she was there. He stood.
“I was preoccupied, I'm sorry. Is there something I can help you with?” Abe asked, figuring from her appearance that she must be in the wrong place.
“How long do you intend to stay open?” the woman asked.
“We are open until five
“I had a hard time finding you.” The timbre of her voice sent a shiver down Abe's spine. He had to tell himself she didn't mean that literally. She sashayed down the length of the front display case, looking down occasionally before returning to her spot directly in front of him. “You're that preacher, right?”
Abe's heart began to accelerate. “Yes, yes, I am.”
“You plan on rebuilding that church of yours?” the woman asked.
He hesitated. “Uh, yeah.”
Maybe she is another reporter,
he thought. He figured if she were a reporter on local network television he would have noticed. He didn't know what it was, but she definitely had appeal.
“How can you rebuild your church if you're stuck in here all day?” She stretched her arms out on both sides of her, using the top of the glass display case as a prop to gently lean forward, giving him another eyeful. “How long do you plan on staying here, doing this?”
The bell chimed before he could answer. A man stood in the door frame, pulling a kid's wagon with two enormous speakers in it. He struggled with keeping the cumbersome pair from toppling over while pulling the wagon at the same time. Abe knew he should help, but he was a deer caught in headlights with this woman. She looked over her shoulder at the customer and back at Abe before taking her goods off display. Abe put his index finger up to indicate that he would only be a minute with this customer.
He had to get a grip, Abe told himself as he willed himself not to look her way. He remembered the last time a good looking woman flirted with him and the chain of events it set off. He never wanted to be that vulnerable again. He came from around the counter to assist the man the last steps of the way. Every time he looked up, he met her gaze. Abe inspected the speakers and offered the man his bottom line on the storage fee for them. The man promised to come back for them in two weeks. He didn't have time to haggle with this man who obviously thought he would get more. Abe could tell he was thinking about all the trouble of getting the speakers there in the first place before walking out in outrage. Once the man resigned, Abe went back to his post to complete the transaction. Again, he put his finger up, promising to get back to her just as soon as the agreements were printed and signed.
Abe escorted the man to the door, not because he was generally that courteous, but rather to inspect the woman's goods. He immediately noticed her toned legs and feet topped with steel grey stilettos. He backtracked to the second finger of her left hand. No band was present. He discreetly adjusted his belt and waistband before approaching her, in case she was doing an inspection of her own.
“How old are you?” She greeted him for a second time with a question.
“Forty-eight,” Abe replied. He felt like he was being fitted for something. He halfway expected her to take out her tape measure to assess his inseam.
“You don't look a day over forty-five,” she said, doing a commercial for her perfect porcelain veneer smile.
“You don't say.” Abe felt sixteen. He had all his own teeth that were not badly stained or damaged and not even a notion of grey hair, so he accepted the compliment.
“What's your passion, pawn shop-preacher? Is this it?” she asked, looking around.
Abe, who earlier thought he couldn't stand the outside world invading the sanctity of his shop with questions and inquiries, suddenly didn't mind. “What is yours? You seem to know a lot about me, but I don't know anything about you.”
“Oh, I dibble and dabble in a lot of things.” She turned away from him, once again pretending to be interested in looking at something in the display case. She knew his eyes would trail her. She was like a Broadway actress making full use of her stage. She stopped when she was framed just right. This time she leaned back on the showcase as if she were about to kick up her heels in a chorus line. “But my main passion is helping people succeed. That's why I sent you the note.”
It took a minute to process what she had said. He didn't know what to say. So this was the woman he'd been waiting to get in contact with. He was sleepwalking toward her and stopped when they were face to face.
“You?” Abe fumbled to get his wallet from his back pocket and produce the perfectly folded message, “wrote this?”
“I should have known someone from the Thompson clan would come to prominence,” she said. “How is your Uncle Charley?”
“Honestly, I haven't seen or talked to him in a couple of days. He wasn't at church yesterday. I'm a little worried.”
“Well, when you do, you must tell him I said hi,” the woman said with a wink.
They were silent. Abe could tell she was waiting on him to say something. Her eyes seemed to bat in concert with the ticking of the clock. His heartbeat joined in. Everything adjusted to this woman's rhythm.
“So, what makes you want to help me?” Abe asked.
“You have potential.” She was no longer leaning. In one fluid motion she had stepped toward him and was concentrating on his shirt that he had not ironed before putting on. She ran her hand down the button line of his shirt as if to smooth it, stopping at his navel. “There is nothing more alluring to me than a man with potential. I saw you on television. You have a genuine quality that people can trust. No one would ever believe you burned the church down.”
“Because I didn't,” Abe proclaimed.
The woman laughed. “I believe you. That was test number one. Your body tensed, your voice strained, but your face masked your discomfort. It's like a good make-up foundation that can protect your skin from the harsh environment, yet it can hold an array of shades. The beauty is that you have an innocence etched in your features.”
She didn't believe in personal space, Abe thought, as she patted his cheek. He fought the urge to ease his hand on hers, holding it there. When she removed her palm, he immediately missed the warmth.
“People will trust you with their souls, and that's what you want. I think you did amazingly well the other night. How has the feedback been?” she asked.
“As a matter of fact, that was what the package was all about.” He left her to retrieve the padded envelope delivered earlier from the other side of the counter. He dumped the notes from all the well wishers out on the counter for her to view.
“Hopefully, this is only the beginning.” She inspected each check that was clipped together with a squint of her eye. “When is your next appearance?”
“On television? There aren't any other interviews scheduled that I know of. That particular reporter said that was it. They are only interested in finding the arsonist in this case. Plus, the principal investigator on this case told me to refrain from interviews.”
“Oh no, you've got to stay in the limelight, Abe.” She shooed that notion away with a wave of her hand. “Your help comes in the light. You need the exposure to help you reach the next level.”
“The reporter tried to paint you as a minister not interested in helping the community. You need to fix that, pass out turkeys on the street, hold a benefit at the daycare, do something that will get yourself noticed for giving back. I'll think of something.” Her eyes lifted in her head as if she were already scheming.
“Giving back is expensive,” Abe said.
“You do have some discretionary funds, don't you?” Her eyes wandered around the ceiling of the pawn shop as if she expected money to fall from the air. “Think of it as an investment.”
“Then what?” As crazy as all of that sounded to him, he wanted to do anything this woman wanted him to do.
“We'll let the insurance policy build your church building and the media build your church membership. The bigger the church membership at the time you're ready to break ground, the bigger the church needs to be. Everyone loves an âup from ruins' story and donations will continue to pour in. Trust me.” She now had a hold of his arm across the counter while painting a picture with her right hand. Abe followed her vision in the sky as if she were a skywriter. “Don't worry, I'll be there guiding the way, holding your hand. I guess I will be renewing my membership at Harvest Baptist Church. For the record, I like my seat padded and my sermons short and to the point.”
There was a silence, not at all awkward in anticipation, but rather complete in quiet contemplation. Abe was on another mission. The choruses of âyou can do it' that started out as chants at the beginning of the conversation had become full cheers. He looked at this woman who had become the answer to his prayers and thanked God she was devoted to helping him.
“Can I take you to lunch?” Abe asked.
“I thought you'd never ask.” She grabbed her clutch, turned to the door and extended her arm for him to grab.
Abe rushed to the register to grab some discretionary cash for the best lunch a day's tally could buy. He didn't want to keep her waiting. “By the way, I didn't get your name,” he said.
“It's Blanche, Blanche Seward,” she said.