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Authors: Sherryle Kiser Jackson

Soon After (9 page)

BOOK: Soon After
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“How does a pastor not have his own key?”
“I do, but I usually don't need them, so on this particular Sunday I left mine at home.”
He did not. There was something sad about admitting that he wasn't given any keys. He was sure the fact of whether or not his Uncle Charley cut him a key or not didn't affect the case either way, but he felt bad about lying. He didn't know who he was becoming, or maybe he'd never really had to face who he really was.
Abe wondered how long this interview was going to last. He watched the chief's massive hands flip the pages of his notebook, and then tap out a rhythm on the glass display case. The rhythm was methodical. Abe was sure his thinking was equally so.
“Can I trust you with some information? We think the back of the church is where the fire originated.” He stared at Abe. Waited for that tidbit to sink in. “Anyone can see that the back is where the most damage is. There was only a thin drywall division between the back offices and the sanctuary. Very incendiary.”
Abe felt more comfortable now that some of the details were finally being leaked. He said, “I think there was only an office and a utility closet back there.”
“Were there any inoperative alarm systems or sprinklers?” Chief Rich asked.
“Not to my knowledge.”
“What were the conditions of the doors and windows back there?” Abe shrugged, prompting the captain to simplify his question from fill-in-the-blanks to yes-or-no. “Were the windows and doors broken?”
“No,” Abe conceded.
“How often do you use the back?”
“I don't, really,” Abe replied.
“You don't use your own office,” he said as more of a statement than a question. He did some writing.
“The previous pastor used that office in the back.”
“You're kidding me, right? He isn't enshrined back there is he? It's just an office, geez. What, this guy, uh,” Chief Rich paused while he looked for the name, “Willie Green, is he your bitter enemy or what?”
“No, not at all, he's my predecessor. I like to think of him as a mentor.”
“' Cept you never told him, right? I have a feeling this wasn't a pass the torch kind of deal. In fact, you probably don't even know the guy. Whose idea was it for you to take over for him?”
“I know of him. There are many pastors I haven't had the pleasure of meeting, but I have . . . uh, studied their ministry,” Abe replied, ignoring the chief's question.
Abe wondered why they were standing as the chief tapped out another rhythm. Abe was beginning to see a pattern. Each time he referenced his pad he aimed from a different direction. He wondered if he could stand much more. He thought about Pastor Green and the poise of many other pastors he had studied. He remembered to stay in character.
“It's been more than a week and you haven't called in an insurance company claim,” Chief Rich said as if he were thinking aloud. “Strange.”
“Come again?”
“I said that's strange, Reverend. People typically call the insurance company immediately. An interview with the claims agent is usually the first stop on the road to recovery.” Chief Rich said, “It's almost as if you don't want to rebuild. I guess that saves me a trip to the agency. Oh wait, no, I still have to talk to the agent who wrote the policy. Who's the policy with anyway?”
Abe faltered with a response. He had looked briefly at the contents of the metal box that he had taken from his Uncle Charley's house. Sure enough, his aunt had unknowingly handed him what he had come to the house for to begin with. The name of the insurer would not come to mind. He was too busy still trying to figure out how his aunt and uncle had possession of something that obviously should have been left for the fire officials to find.
“Just as I suspected,” Chief Rich proclaimed. “Do you like your job, Reverend?”
Abe was unsure as to what job he was referring to, but he knew enough to nod in the affirmative.
“I love my job, but sometimes it's agonizing when these arsonists are on the loose. I lost quite a few friends when I was a firefighter in New York-219 engine in Brooklyn. Was there for eleven years. So many friends went down or were injured that I had to relocate to clear my head. I decided to be a fire marshal down here. I lived in hell. The fires in my own personal hell seem to burn so bright it outshined a heaven. Call me cynical, but I'm not certain if heaven exists.”
Abe kept quiet, figuring the captain needed to vent. He could only imagine his loss. There were many days that he felt he was in hell himself, or worse, in purgatory.
“Insert sermon here,” Chief Rich said, pointing both fingers back at himself. “Wow, not too many pastors could resist that lead in. Don't quit your day job, and please don't volunteer for any suicide prevention hotlines.”
Now, he's was patronizing him, Abe thought. If that was a test, he had just failed like he did at saving his aunt from his uncle. He was still haunted by the need to do something more. He felt as if he, himself, should be arrested. He wondered if anything he had said today or failed to say labeled him as a real suspect in the chief's mind. He knew he would definitely feel the heat if the captain ever found out he neglected to tell him about the metal locked box. He just didn't know what to do.
As if reading his mind the Captain asked, “Do you know where any of the church papers are?”
“Yes,” Abe was proud to say, “at home.”
“I need a copy of the insurance packet. I'll come by tomorrow to pick it up.” He took one last look at his notepad, and tapped out a ditty. “I better get the key as well for physical evidence.
Abe stared blankly as if to say, you caught me.
“Let me guess, Deacon Thompson has it?” He shook his head. “Don't worry, I'll get it. You, on the other hand, are not to talk to anyone about the details pertaining to this case—no reporters of any kind, got me? Oh, and by the way, don't take any unexpected trips.”
 
 
At eleven o'clock, Saturday morning, Willie interrupted his study time to entertain questions from a Maryland State Fire Marshal. The chief looked as if he had been up all night and his earthy smell made Willie believe he had just left the fire scene. Willie introduced the chief to Vanessa, but got the impression he only wanted to speak to him. They settled downstairs in their home office. After a brief discussion with the two of them the chief sent Vanessa upstairs to write down members in the enlarged photos of the fire scene on Easter Sunday, while requesting a fresh brewed batch of coffee. Willie hoped that if and when she returned with the chief's cup, that it didn't accidently end up in his lap.
“We haven't quite figured out who discovered the fire and thought that you could help us out,” Chief Rich said, looking uncomfortable on such a low couch. His girth hung over the edge as if at any minute he would fall off the end. Finally, he sat catty-corner against the arm of the couch and continued, “Who alerted you of the fire?”
Willie threw his head back in thought.
“A man or a woman?” the captain asked, prompting him.
“A man, no wait, a woman,” Willie said. “I believe a man asked to speak to me, and then he passed it off to a woman. It was definitely a couple.”
“Did you recognize the voices?”
Willie shook his head as he thought. He was more interested in what was said than who was saying it at the time. He knew almost two weeks later that he couldn't remember.
“I have to do many interviews, Reverend; everyone seen in that photograph is a potential witness. That is a lot of digging in rubble, and in this case, digging in church records, like the church telephone records.”
“Telephone records? Wait a minute; are you serious?” Willie asked. He suddenly felt as if his rights were being violated.
“A call was made to your church. I am telling you as a courtesy, but it is already a done deal. A subpoena will handle all of that.” Chief Rich shifted in his seat. “Do you get regular calls from members here?”
“No,” escaped his lips immediately. It was more accurate to say that he received a lot less calls from members now that he and Vanessa had a talk with their congregation. They also instituted a ministry tree to divert some of their calls to other ministry leaders in the church. Willie watched him scribble something in his notepad. This time Willie shifted. He played it off as if he were using the back rest of the leather couch to scratch his back.
“Let's talk now about the insurance. I just got the policy from your successor, Abe Townsend, this morning, so I haven't had much time to look at it thoroughly. But are you aware your name is still on many of the church documents including this policy?”
“I knew, but then again, I forgot.” Willie said, shaking his head out of dumb luck, rather than contradiction. “I mean, I was advised to get that resolved when we went for arbitration, but I am afraid it never happened.”
“Yeah, because my next question was going to be how the church handles a separation of this kind? Because you didn't just walk away from this deal alone. Then you and your wife had a merger of sorts. I've never heard of anything like it. Were you advised to get an addendum to your pre-nup just in case this church doesn't work out for you either?”
Willie didn't dignify that with an answer. He gave him that man-to-man eye contact that let him know he had gone too far and stepped into his dangerous territory.
“I'm saying, Reverend, the first split apparently wasn't smooth if you had to have arbitration. Tell me about it,” Chief Rich said while writing.
“It basically was to settle whether or not I was going to surrender the keys and account balances over to the ones who wished to remain there.”
“Obviously, you did.”
“Yes,” Willie said.
“Why were you holding on to it if it was your intention to go to another church?”
“I figured I knew that community best. I had dreams of having a full service pantry and community center as an extension of the ministry I share with my wife.”
“You wanted to have your cake and eat it too.”
“This was not going to be the selfish venture you are making it out to be.”
“Okay, but you were skeptical that those that remained under the leadership of their new pastor could make the same impact.”
“Not if they were putting up a front and playing church,” Willie said, once again shaking his head. “Forgive me, I don't want to be judgmental. I can't speak on their motives.”
Something in the captain's expression showed he understood. “Is it fair to say your perceptions could have caused this little oversight in the policy?”
“I've just been busy. Busy, doing the Lord's work down the road,” Willie answered.
“And the Lord's work stopped you from making sure the work was completed on the previous claim. I don't know if you were aware, but it was apparent to us that the church was outdated and in disrepair. It took us longer than usual to discern whether it was an accident caused by a faulty electrical system or arson. Except for key evidence, this could have been ruled either way.”
Willie couldn't say a thing. He felt as if he were getting a lecture from a parent about keeping his room cleaned. He was a preacher, not a repairman. Willie thought about the circumstances the chief presented, and it didn't look favorable on his part.
“Wait, am I a suspect?” Willie said, thinking about Vanessa's recent pursuit of legal representation.
Chief Rich placed a fist on the ground to launch himself off the couch. Willie stood as well. “On that note, let me know if anyone in your congregation, especially those street soldiers that marched up to the old church with you, gets the urge to shed some light on this case in the confession booth.”
Willie was anxious for him to go. He didn't feel the need to tell him they weren't Catholic. His mind was in a swarm. He led Chief Rich up the stairs into an empty kitchen. He collected his photos with a sheet of notebook paper where Vanessa had written each person's name that she knew.
There was no coffee brewing. Chief explained the sensitivity of the investigation and warned Willie against talking to the press.
At the door Willie tried again. “Am I a suspect?”
“Everyone is either a suspect, co-conspirator, or witness. Have a good day, Reverend,” Chief Rich said before leaving.
Chapter 8
A Consuming Fire
Vanessa was on fire. For her and Willie's return to the pulpit after their vacation, she evoked the Holy Spirit and preached everyone happy as if to say, “Whose house?” She led the appreciative crowd in giving God a standing ovation and doled out her famous scriptural prescriptions as souvenirs of the day.
She took a short break in her chair behind the preacher's desk before rising again with Willie to conclude the service with pastoral observations and blessings. She felt strange. Her face began to flush again with a tremendous heat that engulfed her. This time it didn't stem from the euphoria that filled her soul as she preached as if she'd be called up to meet the Master at any minute. The heat didn't emanate from a well of emotions she pulled from when she made a point in the pulpit or shared a timely testimony about her life and struggles. She was sick.
Willie was talking about the upcoming church anniversary and she wanted to add that their focus should be aligned with the theme,
Back to Basics, Back to Jesus
. She couldn't share that there should be more prayer and praise instead of gossip and concern over the recent media coverage and investigation of the Harvest Baptist Church fire. Vanessa felt it was important for them to reassure their congregation that the Lord was in control of that situation, but Vanessa couldn't speak. Her gears were thrust in reverse, and she could feel the bile rising in her throat. She used her sermon outline that was still on the podium to fan herself and forced a smile to cover the turmoil within. She prayed that the Lord would be merciful and not let her taint her robe, her husband, or the sacred desk with the remnants of her breakfast. She silently heaved and prayed. When Willie yielded the microphone for her to speak, she shook her head as if she had nothing to say.
When church was dismissed, she immediately retreated to her office bathroom. Still in her robe, she turned on the sink and the exhaust fan and assumed the position above the bowl. The anticipation was worse than the waves of nausea itself. When she sacrificed all she had to give to the bowl below her, she didn't immediately feel better like in the past. She felt drained. She splashed her face with water and waited until the color had returned to her face.
A knock on the door startled her.
“There you are,” Willie said. “I thought you had left me to go help your sister prepare. We had an invite out from the Wheelers, but I guess we've got to go to this dinner at your sisters, huh? I wonder if she will mind me inviting Way-man Brown over since he's new to this area. Hurry up out of there.”
“You don't have to wait on me,” Vanessa replied.
Just go
. “We drove separate cars, remember?”
She could feel him hesitate. “I see that chili from last night has come back to haunt you. I told you it wasn't any good. Use the deodorizer. Don't blow it up too bad. I pray that He who has begun a good work in you shall perform it before dinner.” He could barely get out the entire statement before erupting in laughter.
His biblical humor was incorrigible, she thought. When he left she came out of the bathroom. She thanked God that Sunday dinner wasn't at their house this time as she hung up her robe and slipped on her suit jacket. Before her sister became engaged, and even before unification, the three of them would just crash after church and dine on what she called, “congregation carry-out.” It was her big idea to have a more formal sit-down dinner with family and close friends after church at least twice a month. Their family was expanding to include Paul and his mother, Thelma Grant, long time members of the old Harvest Baptist Church. Willie took it also as an opportunity to invite members of the congregation he was still getting to know. The last Sunday dinner that was at their home was on Easter, and it was half ruined because the newly engaged Paul and Keisha decided to go out to celebrate while the rest of Vanessa's guests were with them at the site of the Harvest Baptist Church fire until well after seven
P.M.
Vanessa arrived at her sister's apartment anticipating a good meal she hoped she'd be able to enjoy. The aromas that greeted her at the doorway told her she wouldn't be disappointed. Her appetite had returned with a vengeance. As long as they weren't eating chili, she was more than prepared to chow down. She figured she should offer her assistance with the final preparations and service of the meal, but with both Keisha and Ms. Thelma onsite, Vanessa's help was not needed. Paul would never have to worry about going hungry with those two around. Besides, she had just preached for an hour and a half, so she deserved a break. She claimed a seat on the couch.
Vanessa always felt Keisha inherited the best gifts from their family. While Vanessa was playing pastor growing up, and eventually promoted to pastor of the church, Keisha was learning to sustain and preserve the home. She could see her grandmother and her mother in her baby sister.
All the guests were called around the oval shaped oak table that had been in their family since both of them were small. The table could be expanded by pulling on opposite ends and inserting the inlet. Vanessa felt a tinge of jealousy that she, being the oldest, did not acquire the dining room set from her mother, but knew it was better served there with her sister. Thick sliced meatloaf was layered in a serving dish with gravy, and bowls of vegetable medley and Keisha's famous lumpy mashed potatoes, were set in the middle of the table.
“Everything is lovely, Keisha, really lovely,” Willie complimented.
“Thanks, bro, “Keisha said, assisting with the service of the gravy drenched meatloaf. Everyone passed their plates in assembly line fashion in that direction after getting their share of side dishes.
Vanessa was leery of the meatloaf once her plate was passed back to her. The aroma assaulted her nostrils and her mouth began to water in an unsavory way. She had thoughts of her own chili that she insisted upon finishing the night before and could taste the remnants of it on her palate. Instantly, she had lost her appetite. She excused herself to the bathroom.
There, she stared at herself really long and hard in the mirror.
What was coming over her?
She splashed her face for the second time that day and searched Keisha's cabinet for mouthwash. She found a travel size bottle and used half of it to give her mouth a fresh perspective.
All she wanted to do was go home and crawl into her bed, alone. She couldn't think of a way to excuse herself without offending her sister and alerting everyone else's concern. She hoped and prayed she could make it through the evening without another episode.
Vanessa returned to her seat next to Willie, which was on the opposite side of the table from Paul and her sister. Ms. Thelma had the place of honor at the head of the table across from Willie's guest, Mr. Brown. Everyone was so quiet from eating that they weren't suspicious of her absence. She decided to take it easy, only taking miniscule bites of her meatloaf.
“So, I know the question that is on everyone's mind—when is the big day? I admit, I had a major meltdown earlier this week. Thank you to everyone who talked me off the ledge. I think we are going with the fall,” Keisha announced.
“That still doesn't tell us a month or a day,” Ms. Thelma commented. ”We've got to give the folks down south some notice. Your soon-to-be-cousin, Ollie, and I were hoping you all would just do it this August at the Grant family reunion.”
Keisha's eyes bulged out of her head as if a surge of lightning went through her body. Vanessa noticed Paul reach over and grab her sister's hand as if to temper her. Vanessa jumped in to voice what she knew her sister was thinking, “Oh no, Ms. Grant, baby sis has waited too long to share her day with any other occasion.”
“Exactly,” Keisha managed to say after taking a swig of her sweetened tea. “Plus, Mama Tee, I want to send out our engagement announcements with our picture on it, so if you don't mind, please don't tell everyone about it.”
“Save your money on those fancy announcements. Since I left Carolina, Cousin Ollie has taken over my job as Mouth of the South. The whole family knows the two of you are engaged by now.”
This time Keisha let out a heavy sigh of disappointment. Once again, Vanessa noticed Paul's massive hand pat her sister's hand gently to the tune of, calm down, dear, before cupping it entirely. They held on that way, both using their free hand to feed themselves. That simple gesture was so endearing to Vanessa, as she remembered a time not too long ago when subtle displays of affection in her own relationship were often better than compliments and gifts.
“Now, it makes perfect sense to dust down the Arbor in back of Great-Granddaddy's church where we have the prayer breakfast and get you hitched on the last day of the reunion. I mean the entire family will already be together. Brother and Sister Pastor can just drive down along with any other little friends you want to invite.” Ms. Thelma's head swiveled toward her son, “Right, Paul?”
The spotlight was turned on Paul as all eyes rested on him, those most pointedly coming from his mother and fiancée. He cleared his throat first. “Hey, I'll let you ladies figure it out. Just give me the time and place and I'll show up.”
“Smart man,” Mr. Brown hailed, and Willie agreed.
They both waved off the men as hopeless. Vanessa felt they created an interesting dynamic, her sister, fiancé, and future mother-in-law. She wondered if Ms. Thelma's apparent possession over her only son and Keisha's possession over this wedding would ever click.
Vanessa forgot she was supposed to be eating lightly and had almost completed her entire chunk of meatloaf. She pondered if her stomach could handle seconds, but decided against it.
“I thought the hot topic of today was going to be my Channel 7 interview. It seemed to be at church today. Your pastor makes the news and no one here has anything to say,” Willie said, changing the subject.
“I'm glad,” Vanessa said. “I started to address it from the pulpit so that rumors about the fire don't start to fly like they did during unification.”
“Why didn't you?” he asked.
Vanessa cleared her throat. She didn't want to get into the real reason. “It was your interview. I figured you were trying to play it low key.”
“I admit, we were talking about it at church,” Thelma Grant added, using a yeast roll to soak up the leftover gravy on her plate. “We wanted to know why that Reverend Townsend got more time than you.”
“Some people forgot to remind me to watch, so I missed it,” Keisha said. “I was busy setting up our wedding profile on the Internet so I can talk to other brides-to-be.”
Vanessa ignored her sister's comment. As far as she was concerned, now that her sister had a fiancé, she was no longer responsible for reminding her of things.
“Well, I felt the reporter grilled him enough even in the short amount of time,” Vanessa said. She and Willie had this conversation the night it aired. Willie didn't see the interview as a scathing accusation like she did. To her, Alexis was eager to assign guilt.
“She had to ask those questions though, Sister Pastor. If you think about it, she has to ask the questions her viewers are thinking,” Paul said.
“Or, she was swaying what viewers were thinking by asking pointed questions,” Vanessa was quick to respond.
“Who wants dessert?” Keisha asked, standing. She counted hands as if taking a tally of orders for the ice cream truck. Most of them saw the lemon meringue pie on display in the kitchen when they came in and couldn't wait for the opportunity to sample it. Keisha left the room to begin cutting slices.
“Well, we know you didn't set that fire, Brother Pastor. Shoot, you were in the pulpit. You've got an entire congregation to vouch for that.” Thelma Grant stacked the dishes around her in an attempt to clear the way for dessert.
“Well, the fire detective they sent yesterday is not so sure. He was the one that grilled me. Let me just warn you, it's a matter of time before he gets to all of you. He had me afraid I was going to jail. He asked me to stay in town and not plan any long out-of-state trips just in case they had any further questions to ask me.”
“Arson is serious,” Way-man Brown spoke up. “I used to work for the local volunteer department in Southeast when I retired from the Corps and moved to this area.”
“Wow, really?” Paul perked up. Everyone looked at Mr. Brown with amazement as if he had just transformed into an action figure.
“I can't wrap my mind around the malicious intent of an arsonist. I wanted to believe it was an accident done by a passerby. But to have fire investigators interrogate me as if they suspect me is unreal,” Willie said.
“They either suspect you or someone around you,” Mr. Brown added. The comment hung out there like a sheet on a mild day. Everyone was stilted as if they wanted to, but didn't dare look at their neighbors around the table. “Those investigators have very little to go on sometimes. Fire often times destroys its own evidence and we, as firefighters, destroy the rest. They will question everyone. The guys at the firehouse would immediately know which fires were ruled arson when the detectives would come to the firehouse to question us.”
BOOK: Soon After
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