Category Archives: Short Stories

The Thief

“Move along!” the soldier shouted angrily. He prodded the man in the small of his back with the shaft of his spear. “Next time you stop, you’ll feel the sharp end!”

Asa picked up the pace a bit. One of the other men was slightly ahead of him, but the third man had fallen even farther behind. Asa felt for him a little, but he figured he would only need to keep pace with this third man, which would not be difficult. Asa had been treated roughly, and he had to admit rightly so, for he was a thief, at best! But this one had been brutalized. He could barely stand by now, much less walk, and even less, carry the crossbeam for his cross.

As he looked back, Asa saw the Roman soldier grab the sleeve of a man in the crowd along the street where they marched. The road they travelled led to a hill outside of Jerusalem where criminals were put to death. The three of them had been condemned to die on crosses, but Asa wasn’t sure this third man would last long enough to die the horrible death of a Roman crucifixion.

The three men had been carrying their own crossbeams upon their shoulders with their arms outstretched and tied to the beams. One of the soldiers quickly untied the arms of the man on his knees and lifted the crossbeam off his shoulders. Then he hefted it up onto the shoulder of this man who had been dragged from the sidelines. “What is your name?” asked the soldier who had grabbed him.

“Simon,” he replied. “Of Cyrene.”

As the soldier released his grip of the beam, leaving the full weight on Simon, he yelled above the crowd, “Carry his cross!” Asa turned back to continue his death-walk and thought that perhaps now this other man just might make it. He might last long enough to be crucified after all!

When they got to the place of the skull, as it was called due to its eerie, deathly shape, there were indeed three men still alive. The crossbeam was taken from Simon and the third man was once again tied to it. They were laid one by one on the upright poles of their crosses with their arms spread out and tied to the crossbeams. The crossbeams were constructed to fit onto the tops of the poles to form a cross. There was a small stud of wood nailed onto the front side of the uprights on which the victims could rest their feet and, for a while, push up for relief from hanging there, still tied to the beams.

Asa had witnessed a crucifixion or two in his day, so he knew what to expect. It didn’t make it any easier though. Having been laid out on the uprights, first his partner in crime, then Asa, and finally the other man had their wrists nailed to the crossbeams! Then their feet were nailed to the upright poles. He always knew that had to be painful – he was never even close to imagining correctly. He almost passed out and later wished he had. The men on their crosses were now raised and the poles were dropped off into the holes and wedges were driven into the holes to secure the posts in place. By evening, one way or another, the three would be dead. The Romans would make sure of it!

Asa Bar-Jonam had come to terms with it. He had conned people out of their life savings, robbed others at the point of a knife, beaten some who resisted, and even worse. He had not killed anyone that he knew of, but he had left victims behind who might well have died later if help didn’t come quickly. Asa naturally never stuck around to find out. Perhaps he had murdered and didn’t even realize it! He had finally come to the end of a life of everything dark and gloomy, even evil.

Asa knew what he had done, but how had he come to this? Asa, son of Jonam and Rachel. Born in Jericho. ‘Was that it?’ Asa wondered. Jericho had been cursed since the days of Joshua. Maybe Asa had inherited the curse!

His father was a poor man. He worked for a local merchant – behind the scenes – counting, marking, and displaying merchandise and then putting it all away each night. He was never involved directly with the customers, so he didn’t make much more than a servant’s wage. He and Rachel had six children – four girls and two boys.

Asa was the first-born. He had to do most of the chores and help with his siblings since Jonam was always working just to make ends meet. Asa tried, but by the time he was fourteen he felt that he got no credit for his hard work and all the blame for everything that had gone wrong in the family. He wanted out.

By the time he was sixteen, he had found easier ways to make money than his father had ever found. None of them were legal or decent! He learned to cut loose the money pouches draped from the waist bands of customers in the marketplace without them ever sensing it. He found ways to trick others into betting on a “sure thing” only to be cheated out of their hard-earned money by Asa.

He learned he could teach others how to steal and take a share of their earnings for instruction and leadership. By the time he was eighteen, he had left home and was living on the streets of Jerusalem or Capernaum or Bethany or Nazareth. He traveled from town to town stealing, recruiting fellow thieves from among the poor youth of each town, and much more.

When Asa left home, he would not return for several years. He had been caught a few times in the early days, but he learned to cry and lie his way out of it. Becoming a perfectly good actor, he later learned to trick others out of their money. He would make a nice little fortune and move on. He cared for no one but himself. He had no friends, just people he used for business or entertainment.

One day after a failed attempt to rob a merchant as he closed up his shop, Asa had to flee from Jerusalem. He headed out of the city toward the north, but soon turned east and circled back around to the south, eventually making his way to Bethlehem, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. It was just after dark when Asa slipped into town.

A quick survey showed the town to be overflowing with visitors. Asa remembered the census he had heard people talking about. Orders had come from Rome that all subjects of the Roman Empire were to be registered, so they could be counted and taxed. To keep it orderly and official, each was to return to the village or town or city of their ancestry for the census.

He figured all this confusion and traffic would make it easy to make some quick money and get away. But it would be easier to steal some food and he was hungry. Several traveling families had camped around town and fires dotted the town and its outlying areas just begging Asa to take some food. So, he did!

He watched in the shadows of a campsite until the family had moved away from the fire and provisions. Part of the family went into the tent and the others wandered over to a nearby tent to visit with the “neighbors.” Asa quickly and quietly slipped into camp and helped himself to all he wanted – bread, cheese, a bowl of stew, and a full wineskin. He grabbed a cloak hanging nearby and wrapped up all but the bowl of stew, which he carried separately, and slipped off into the darkness, completely unnoticed.

Asa moved quickly to the center of town yet away from the crowds. Finding a quiet, dark side street, he ducked into the shadows behind a small house, where it appeared the inhabitants had already gone to bed. He unfurled his cloth “bag” and enjoyed the repast he had procured from the camp. After filling his stomach, he left the bowl and took the cloak and wineskin and headed out into the street again.

Asa moved quickly across town, looking for a good place to hide and sleep for the night. He soon spotted the perfect place! It was a stable – the one belonging to the local inn. Surely, he thought, by this time the travelers would all be settled into the inn and only the animals would notice the latest arrival to their stable. He quietly snuck inside and found a makeshift ladder that led to a small loft over the back half of the stable.

Asa climbed up into the loft and piled up some straw to hide behind. Out of sight from the entrance, he spread out the straw to lie on and used his new cloak as a blanket. The hours of traveling roundabout from Jerusalem had taken their toll and now with his belly full, Asa quickly dropped off to sleep.

In a short while Asa was roused by the noise of someone in the stable below! Living on the run, he had learned to be fully awake and alert in only a second or two. He quickly sat up, rolled noiselessly to his knees, and peered out and down over his straw-wall. It was a couple, likely in town for the census, seeking shelter in the stable. Asa watched and listened.

The man spoke first, “I’m sorry that this is the best accommodation we could get. Maybe in a day or two we can find something better.”

The lady, obviously much younger than he, laid one hand on her stomach and replied, “By then, we will need room for three!”

A baby! And apparently due at any moment! Asa felt a tinge of pity for the young lady, having to give birth in such a place, but it didn’t last long. He seldom felt much of anything for anyone but himself. He watched as the man, Joseph he had learned as the couple talked, fixed a straw bed for his wife and hung a blanket between them and the doorway to block the chilling wind.

They spread out their belongings and made a nice little camp for the night. The horses and donkeys of the travelers from the inn didn’t seem to be bothered at all, so Asa figured he would just go back to sleep himself. Little did he know just how soon the baby would arrive!

He had barely drifted back to sleep when the woman’s quick cry of pain startled him back to reality! He lay in silence, only to hear more moans and groans. Joseph asked her, “Mary – is it time?”

Between labor pains, Mary replied that she was pretty sure that it was, and Joseph sprang into action. As Asa watched from his perch above, Joseph got up and showed that he must have had a plan all along. From a bag, he pulled out some clean, wide strips of cloth, some thread, a knife, and some rags. Apparently after Asa fell asleep, Joseph had drawn a couple buckets of water and had them ready. He must have cleaned out a place on the ground nearby and built a small fire, too, and a stone pitcher of water had been heated up.

They were as prepared as they could be under the circumstances and Asa watched quietly as Joseph helped his young wife give birth. From his angle, Asa could only surmise what Joseph was doing. He had seen a midwife do as much for his mother years ago when his siblings were born. The baby squalled right after his birth and Joseph cut the cord, used the thread to tie it off, and with warm water, gently wiped off his son. It took them both to wrap the babe in swaddling cloths and they smiled and spoke softly to each other as the baby cooed strange sounds.

Asa noticed they called the baby “Jesus” and did not seem surprised at all that they had had a boy. He knew that they were happy, and he figured he should have been happy for them, but his thoughts were more along the lines of ‘too bad, what a shame.’ Asa’s main thoughts were of another poor son of Israel destined to a life of poverty, misery, and despair. He silently laid back down and hoped the baby didn’t cry too much and he could still get some sleep.

About an hour later, perhaps around midnight, Asa was once again startled awake. “Here they are!” called out a voice he did not recognize. He heard the shuffling sounds of feet as a few men entered the stable. Once again behind his straw fortress, he saw three or four men entering the stable as one tried to hush the others and speak to the couple.
“Excuse us for intruding,” he said to Joseph and Mary, “but we were told to come.”

Joseph’s curiosity was immediately aroused. “Who told you we were here? Why have you come?”

Another of the men – shepherds, Asa surmised by their appearance – answered. “You may not believe this, but an angel from heaven appeared to us out in the field and told us the Messiah had been born!”

A third shepherd added, “Then a whole host of angels showed up praising Yahweh and we knew it had to be true!”

The first one spoke up again and told the whole story, as they all gathered quietly around the feeding trough that Joseph had fixed up as a bed for Jesus. The shepherds knelt and bowed their heads. Mary spoke, assuring the men that they did believe them. She told them that they had both been visited by angels to prepare them for this miraculous birth.

“So, you’ve known all along?” asked the youngest of the shepherds. “I mean that your baby boy would be our Messiah?”

“Yes,” said Joseph. “He is Yahweh’s son, not mine. But I will love him and raise him as my own.”

Asa simply could not believe what he was witnessing. He had heard the prophecies as a child. He had longed for the coming of the Messiah like every other Jewish child for centuries. But he had begun to doubt it would happen – certainly not in his lifetime. He didn’t know what to make of what he was hearing, but it surely would not happen like this.

After a brief visit, the shepherds rose to leave and said their goodbyes. They left quietly, but once outside the stable, they got louder as they hustled away. From what Asa could hear, they were excitedly making plans to tell everyone about this night. He figured he had better watch and wait for a good time to slip away.

It didn’t take too long for the baby and his new parents to fall asleep. When Asa was sure of it, he quietly folded his blanket, gathered up his few belongings, and as quietly as possible, climbed down from his lofty bedchamber. He was good at sneaking in and out of places unnoticed and that skill served him well that night. He snuck a peek at the sleeping baby boy, shook his head, and quietly left the stable. Asa was wide awake, so he just kept walking. He walked all night, circumventing Jerusalem, and headed northeast. He had no plans as yet beyond distancing himself from Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He would eventually stop for some sleep and then continue on the next day.

*********

For the next thirty years, Asa Bar-Jonam continued his life of crime, running and hiding. He stole plenty, but never really seemed to have much money. Drinking and gambling accounted for most of it. He spent years traveling all over Israel, mostly Judea, taking advantage of people, robbing whomever he chose, and wasting it all on riotous living. He spent several years in prison – several short-term stays and once for three years. Asa never once considered changing his ways after a stay in prison. He no sooner got out, than he was right back into crime. It was all he had known since before he left home at eighteen.

He had just been released from another six months in prison near Jerusalem, when he began to hear talk about the Messiah again. He had heard almost nothing about him since that strange night in Bethlehem thirty years ago. Once a couple of years after that night, he heard something about the Messiah’s birth being the reason for Herod’s massacre of a bunch of babies in the Bethlehem area, but with the Herods, anything was possible! Even the current Herod had killed family members to protect his throne!

He vaguely remembered a small stir in Jerusalem about ten years or so after that. There was something about a twelve-year-old boy amazing the teachers in Jerusalem about the time of the Passover celebration. It seems he had gotten lost and separated from his family who later found him conversing freely over religious matters in the temple courtyard. Odd, but hardly messianic, Asa had thought at the time.

Otherwise, Judea, and all of Israel for that matter, had been pretty silent these past thirty or more years. Asa assumed that “special-birth” story hadn’t turned out to be anything after all. He couldn’t really explain what he heard and saw that night, but he couldn’t imagine it mattered much either.

But now, after all these years, talk had started up again. Roman rule had been in effect for many years now, but it seemed to be getting worse. The people were tired of the oppression. Asa thought the Messiah talk was mostly just wishful thinking, but the rumors were circulating. A man named Jesus from Nazareth was traveling around preaching about God’s kingdom. Some were saying he was performing miracles. Asa remembered that night long ago in Bethlehem – they had said that baby was the Messiah and they called him Jesus! No, it couldn’t be, Asa concluded.

He went about business as usual, dismissing the accounts. Life was what you made it. Get what you can, any way you can. You’ve got to take care of yourself because no one else will take care of you. You can’t count on some Messiah to come fix everything. It just couldn’t be.

But the stories continued. Asa heard more and more about this Jesus. Teaching, drawing followers, healing the sick, opposing the Pharisees. With every passing month and season, the accounts grew, and the message intensified, until finally they crossed paths.

One day, a couple of years after the Messiah had been proclaimed, though still doubted by many, Asa found himself at the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus and his disciples. Asa liked crowds. Plenty of potential victims ripe for the plucking. Crowds provided anonymity. The festive atmosphere caused people to let down their guards. It was easy to rob someone and then get lost in the crowd. Getaways were easy, too.

Early one morning, Asa was meandering through the crowded street when a commotion arose. People shouted everyone’s attention to a side street that led to the temple complex. “Jesus!” they yelled. Asa stopped moving and watched as a man and his band of followers approached. Jesus walked into the temple complex, which quickly filled with people. He began to teach them about God’s kingdom.

Asa’s first thoughts were that this was a great opportunity. People were so intent on seeing and hearing this Jesus that Asa would have no trouble relieving several of their purses – pouches of gold and silver – just hanging there from their waistbands, waiting for him! The crowded conditions would cover the feelings – no one would notice when he cut away their pouch.

But before he could get started there was another commotion. The teacher was interrupted! The crowd parted as a small band of Pharisees and devoted followers paraded into the complex with a woman in tow. They led her forcefully to Jesus. The crowd grew deadly silent. Asa stood back to watch.

He listened as the spokesman for the Pharisees told Jesus and the crowd that the woman had been caught in the very act of adultery! The crowd made a collective gasp, but Asa focused on the reaction of Jesus. He did not flinch. His face did not betray his feelings one way or another. Asa noticed this Jesus to be about the right age to actually be the same Jesus he had watched be born so long ago.

The spokesman held up a hand to silence the crowd and addressed Jesus again. “The law says she should be put to death by stoning! But what do you say?” he asked. Asa had gotten pretty good at reading people and he felt that these rulers weren’t really interested in the woman or the law. They were out to trap Jesus.

If all he had heard these past couple of years was true, tensions had built between Jesus and his followers and the scribes and Pharisees. He had heard stories of trick questions and false accusations aimed at discrediting this new “rabbi.”

Asa listened for the answer to the Pharisee’s question. Instead, Jesus stooped down and started writing words in the dirt with his finger! Asa moved around and got a little closer. He wanted to see what Jesus was writing. Asa read “adulterer”, “liar”, and “love thy neighbor.”

Asa mulled over those words while the other Pharisees tried to continue the questioning. They were pressing Jesus for an answer. Asa thought it out. If Jesus agreed to the stoning, they would likely point out his lack of mercy and forgiveness. He would be to blame for the death of this “unfortunate” woman. If he demanded her release, he would be guilty of denying the law of God! Surely, he could not be from God and disobey the commandments!

Jesus stood and spoke up. “The one without sin among you should be the first one to throw a stone at her.” Asa had to stifle a laugh but could not hide his delight at that response. No one would dare stone this woman now and it would not be Jesus’s decision to stone her or release her!

But then Jesus stooped down again and wrote some more words. “Condemning”, “hateful”, “tax fraud” and more. In the silence, one by one, the Pharisees and scribes turned and walked away. Some who had held stones dropped them and slipped away quietly.

Asa was impressed. He wasn’t convinced the Messiah had come, but he was impressed with this man Jesus, who was still writing. The Pharisees were all gone. Jesus wrote one more word – “thief” and looked up, right at Asa. Asa felt the accusation. How could he know?!

Then Jesus turned to the woman. Motioning toward the vacant complex that had been her courtroom, he asked where her accusers were. Hadn’t anyone condemned her? She replied, “No one, Lord.”

Asa heard the word ‘Lord.’ Did she simply acknowledge him as her better or did she truly call him Lord? Who was this man? Then Jesus spoke to her again. “Neither do I condemn you – but go and sin no more.”

She bowed her head to Jesus, then lifted it back up as she walked away. Asa sensed that she felt forgiven and free. Jesus turned again and found Asa in his gaze. He nodded at Asa as if to say the same thing to him. Asa felt him say, “Go and sin no more,” but Asa was not convinced. Jesus moved on one way and Asa another. He had been moved, but not changed. Asa did not steal anything that day, but when he woke up the following morning, it was to business as usual.

Asa continued his wayward lifestyle. The special feast days provided plenty of prospects. He spent two days gathering his small fortune in the daytime and gambling and drinking most of it away in the evening. He seldom spent more than three days in one place. Eventually, word would get out about a rash of thefts and the Jewish leaders would appeal to the Romans. Asa had felt the wrath of the Roman soldiers more than once and had no desire to experience that again, so he moved on before they got involved.

One town was as good or bad as another to Asa. Feast days provided easier prey and more of them, but every town and village had markets and merchants. If you were smart enough, you could always find someone who could easily be relieved of their burden – money pouches, jewelry, or other goods.

********

Asa continued his business for nearly another year before his real trouble began. Pickings had gotten slim. People seemed to be getting more desperate due to high taxes. There was less wealth out there and most people kept better watch over what they had. Asa and others like him had to resort to more violent approaches to get their bounty. The Romans were getting more involved in keeping the peace. Beatings and jail time were becoming more prevalent.

Asa crossed paths with Jesus once more. He had pretty much done all he dared do in the town of Jericho and was about to head for Jerusalem, when he heard the announcement – Jesus was passing through town! “Why not?” Asa thought and decided to stay a little longer to see if there was anything new to this Messiah story. Besides, Jesus was always good for drawing a crowd, and crowds were easy pickings for a man with Asa’s talents.

He had learned before about a man named Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector. Wealthy and despised by most everyone. No one would even care if he was robbed – or worse! Tax collectors were Jews who made a living collaborating with the Romans in taxing their fellow Jews. They could keep whatever they could collect above what was due. Most were thieves themselves, just in a different way! Asa figured Zacchaeus would show up to see Jesus and he could rob him there.

The crowd walking along with Jesus grew with every step. Everyone wanted to see him, hear him teach, and perhaps witness a miracle. Asa didn’t care. This would be a good distraction to help him take some of Zacchaeus’ tax profits. Asa scanned the crowd – no sign of his quarry. He followed along with the crowd, hanging back enough to avoid contact with Jesus and still be able to see when Zacchaeus joined the festivity. Surely, he would come. And as for avoiding Jesus, well, Asa hadn’t forgotten that day in Jerusalem, when Jesus had written ‘thief’ in the dirt and stared knowingly at Asa.

Finally, there he was! Zacchaeus had come to see Jesus. Asa had made it a point to locate Zacchaeus before, so he would recognize him anywhere. And would know how and where he carried his money. Asa had three plans. His first was simply to cut loose Zacchaeus’ money bag while in the crowd and take off with whatever he could. The second, if the first didn’t work, was to lie in wait along the way back to his house and ambush Zacchaeus. If he didn’t go straight home after seeing Jesus, Asa would beat it back to Zacchaeus’ house and steal whatever he could while the man was gone.

Asa started to make his way up to Zacchaeus even as Zacchaeus tried to make his way through the crowd to Jesus. Zacchaeus was a short man. He couldn’t see over the crowd. He tried to worm his way through the crowd, but he was a despised man, and no one let him through.

His struggle and determination to see Jesus made it impossible for Asa to get a hold of Zacchaeus’ money bag. He got close, but the tax collector had to quickly form a new plan of action himself. He broke out from the crowd and sprinted ahead in the direction Jesus was leading the crowd.

Asa followed as closely as he dared. He couldn’t possibly have guessed what Zacchaeus would do next. He ran on ahead, cutting through town to arrive at a certain place along Jesus’ route. There was a Sycamore tree that spread out lowly over the road leaving Jericho. Jesus would soon pass by there.

Asa watched from behind shelter as Zacchaeus climbed up that tree. Once up in the tree, he scooted out on a limb that overhung the road. He would be able to see Jesus clearly. For once in his life, Zacchaeus would be able to see above the crowd! Asa decided he would have to wait for plan number two. He would wait and catch Zacchaeus afterwards on his way home.

Asa watched from a distance and Zacchaeus watched from his perch.  Jesus and the crowd made their way down the road and presently Jesus was right under the sycamore tree. He abruptly stopped and looked up. Zacchaeus got what he wanted – to see Jesus.
Jesus told Zacchaeus to come down. He added that he wanted to stay with Zacchaeus at his home. The self-righteous members of the crowd objected. Jesus consorting with a sinner like Zacchaeus! It wasn’t right.

Zacchaeus said that his meeting with Jesus had changed him! He would give half his goods to the poor! And if he had wronged anyone, he would repay him, but with four times as much! Asa couldn’t believe his ears. What had just happened? What kind of man was this Jesus?! Just one meeting and this Zacchaeus was a completely different person! Could this be real?

In any case, it had sure fouled up Asa’s plans. He couldn’t ambush the man on his way home now. Jesus, and likely a crowd, would be with Zacchaeus. And he couldn’t get there first in order to rob an empty house. Three good plans – all ruined! Asa headed away from Jericho toward Jerusalem. Passover was coming. Jerusalem would be swarming with people. Plenty of money.

********

After just three days in Jerusalem, Asa’s life was hanging in the balance. After he had arrived, he quickly looked over the city and formed a plan. The city was filling up in anticipation of the feast. The Passover was the biggest religious and social event of the year. Jews from all over Israel journeyed to the capital city for the annual sacrifice and observance of the Passover.

Asa knew all about the Passover. As a boy he had learned all about Moses and his ancestors who had been freed from slavery in Egypt when the Death Angel from Yahweh passed over the land. All the Israelites had been spared because they trusted their God and obeyed him by making a sacrifice and sprinkling its blood on their doorposts. They prepared a special meal and stayed inside that night as an Angel of Death passed across the land.

All who remained in a house “covered by the blood” would be spared. Anyone not doing so would experience a great loss – all the first-born sons would die! Naturally, the Egyptians did not obey, and every household suffered. The ruling Pharaoh agreed that all the Israelites should leave Egypt.

The Jews were supposed to offer this same sacrifice and eat a similar meal every year after that in remembrance of this Exodus. Asa’s family had observed Passovers as he grew up. He had not observed any since.

His only interests in Passover were the crowds and their money. As he scouted out the city on his first day in Jerusalem, he formulated a plan and even recruited a partner. Asa took charge and laid out the plan. His new partner would accost one of the travelers and start a fight. He was strong and experienced. He could take a beating if he needed to and give plenty back. His role was to create a distraction while Asa relieved the company of as much money or small goods as possible. Eventually, the partner would simply run away as if he was afraid and had given up. They would meet up later and split the rewards.

For two days, the pair plied their criminal trade around the city. They were careful to move around so as not to be recognized nor spotted afterwards. It all seemed so easy. But on the third day, they got caught!

The fight that was supposed to be a distraction got too serious. A knife was pulled. Asa’s partner had never resorted to that before, but this time he had to in order to defend himself. Someone ran for the authorities. Roman soldiers quickly responded. Asa tried to slip away with the goods while his partner was taken into custody. A crowd had followed the soldiers to the fight and one of them recognized Asa from the day before when his friends had been robbed.

The soldiers grabbed Asa, too, and took both men away. The magistrate took little time to sentence them both to a beating and jail time, while an investigation was started. He had heard similar stories and not just this week. Some witnesses were quickly found, and it was determined that these two thieves had both been involved in crimes and violence for years throughout Judea. Both had been in prison before and obviously had not learned any lessons.

The magistrate ruled that these two were far worse than just ordinary thieves. They had menaced all Judea for years. They were not only a threat to the personal wellbeing and property of the Jewish citizens, but such widespread criminal behavior was causing the Romans to threaten harsher treatment for all, in order to get things under control. The result was a sentence of death!

Asa’s partner cursed and tried to escape but was knocked down and almost unconscious. Asa did not react at all. He knew all along that this day would come sooner or later. Now it had. He went along quietly to his cell. The actual date for the crucifixion had not yet been set.

*******

Two days later was the first day of the week and Asa was aroused by a great commotion outside his cell. He couldn’t see, but he could hear it. Something was getting the populace excited. It sounded like somebody special was coming to town. He couldn’t hear enough to find out who.

The guards came in with something they called food. Asa couldn’t recognize it, but he tried to eat it anyway. It was awful, but it helped take the empty feeling away from the pit of his stomach. He asked the guards about the commotion outside. One of them said it was some sort of unofficial procession. A man called Jesus had ridden into the city on a donkey and his followers had walked along side of him, shouting his praises! The other guard added that a crowd quickly sprang up and things started to get out of hand. The people were shouting about him being some kind of king and the Pharisees demanded that he stop them.

“Did he?” Asa asked.

“Not really,” the first guard said. “I heard someone say he told the Pharisees that if the people stopped shouting, the rocks and trees would cry out!” The guards laughed but Asa half expected a response like that. He asked the guards if they would tell him if they heard any more about this man this week. One said he would.

The next day the guard told Asa a story about Jesus making a whip and chasing people out of the temple! He accused them of abusing the people for profit. He said the temple was supposed to be “his father’s house of prayer.’ Asa wondered about Jesus saying, “his father’s house.” He recalled the words of Joseph that night in Bethlehem when Asa had watched him deliver the baby boy. Joseph had told the shepherds that the baby was God’s son, not his, but that he would love him and raise him. Asa tried to recall his lessons from childhood about the Messiah. He didn’t remember much, but he did remember the teacher saying that the Messiah would be Yahweh’s son.

Simply put, Asa was having a hard time believing. He had invested so much time and energy in not believing! He asked the guard to please keep him informed should there be further news about this Jesus.

*******

There was no news for the next few days. Asa pressed the guard for any news, anything at all. He had become almost obsessed with finding out more about Jesus. The guard said he had not heard of any more encounters, but he had heard a rumor or two. Asa asked for more. The guard explained rumors of plots to kill this Jesus. Not among the Romans, but among the Jews, especially the Pharisees.

As Asa probed for more information, the guard said he had heard whispers about an inside job – a traitor among the followers. He added that nothing would likely be done right away, at least not during the feast. Asa pondered it all. He racked his brain for memories about his knowledge of the Messiah. He didn’t question the concept of a Messiah and had always thought, well, maybe someday he would come.

His struggle was in believing it had happened right in front of him! Would the Messiah really be born in a stable in Bethlehem? With shepherds, and maybe a thief, being the only witnesses?! Would scribes and Pharisees, teachers of the law and the prophets, reject him? Much less, plot to kill him?! It didn’t make sense. But the evidence…

He needed to know more. The next day he learned it. The guard seemed almost excited to bring Asa the latest news. Jesus had been arrested late in the night. Asa stood rapt by the soldier’s story. Soaking it in. The guard told him about Jesus being betrayed by one called Judas, one of his own followers, for money. The Jews’ temple guards had led a mob to the Garden of Gethsemane and had taken Jesus into custody.

Asa interrupted, asking about a fight, or any resistance. He knew he would have fought! The guard said he heard that one man started to fight, even cut off a servant’s ear, but Jesus made him stop.

“Stop?!” asked Asa in disbelief.

“Yes,” the guard said, then added, “and the talk is that this Jesus actually healed the man’s ear!

“He healed others – why not, I guess,” said Asa. “Go on, what happened?”

The guard told Asa that Jesus surrendered peacefully and was taken off to stand trial. The way he had heard it this morning, they moved him around from one official to the next and back again. He was currently standing in front of Pontius Pilate himself!

“What charges?!” asked Asa. “What are they trying to convict him of?”

“I heard blasphemy,” replied the guard. “They say he is claiming to be a god!”

“The Son of God,” said Asa, almost under his breath.

“That’s all I know for now,” the guard said. “I would think one way or another, this man’s fate will soon be decided. Pilate won’t want to deal with this very long and the Pharisees seem determined.”

Asa pleaded with the guard to get an update. He had to know. He didn’t say it aloud, but he had to know if Jesus could really be the Messiah. The guard said he would try to find out more and started to walk away. Another soldier met him and after a brief discussion, the guard returned to Asa’s cell.

“It may not matter now,” the guard said. “I’m afraid I have bad news for you and your partner.”

Asa simply asked, “When?”

“This afternoon.”

Asa bowed his head. The guard said they would come get them shortly before midday and escort them to a hill outside of the city. There, they would crucify them both. Asa looked up and actually thanked the guard for his information.

*******

A few hours later, the guards came and took Asa and the other thief from their cells. Just outside the prison, they were handed off to the soldiers who would escort them to the Place of the Skull. They would be hung upon crosses to die an ignominious death.

A large crowd had already assembled, and more people were coming. Soldiers lifted large wooden crossbeams onto Asa’s and his partner’s shoulders, forcing them to carry their own means of death to the hill. He wondered what all the commotion was about. Surely this large crowd and the shouting he heard coming from another gathering crowd could not be about two thieves being crucified. It happened quite often these days.

Some of the oncoming crowd were yelling, “Crucify him!” Asa turned and watched as the crowd around him parted. More soldiers arrived, pushing and prodding another prisoner. He, too, was carrying a crossbeam on bloody shoulders. The man could barely stumble along. The cruel soldiers shouted at him and hit him with the shafts of their spears. The man looked as if he had been beaten and whipped half to death. Asa wondered what he could possibly have been guilty of to have received such treatment. The man raised his head at last as a surge of strength propelled him to continue his death-march.

His face was bruised and swollen and bloody. Sweat and blood had soaked his hair. Someone had fashioned a sort of crown of thorns and pressed it on his head. His eyes fixed on Asa. Asa had to strain to recognize that face, but oh, those eyes! It was Jesus!

“What has he done?” Asa asked his guard.

“Who cares?” replied the soldier.

Another said, “The Jewish leaders demanded he be crucified. Said he is claiming to be their God, stirring up people against Caesar!”

Asa could hardly believe what he was seeing and hearing. This man was innocent. He did not deserve this. Asa wasn’t quite sure the Messiah would be treated this way, so, maybe Jesus isn’t him. But he did not deserve this!

The soldiers prodded the men onward. The crowd jeered and mocked. Asa was a strong man and had only been beaten a little, yet the crossbeam made the long march difficult. Jesus stumbled and fell. The crowd shouted angrily at him. The soldiers jerked him to his feet and prodded him to continue. Asa had been mean and rotten almost his entire life. He had fought and even beaten some innocent victims in order to rob them and get away. But even he had never seen such brutality.

Asa stopped. Jesus had fallen again. He had carried his own cross about as far as any man in his condition could possibly do. The soldiers compelled a man from the crowd to carry Jesus’ burden the rest of the way.

*******

As the three men hung in open shame upon their crosses that afternoon, Asa remembered his life. What a waste! Selfish, angry, even brutal. Caring for no one but himself, he had cheated and robbed others of what they had earned and saved. He wasted it all and had nothing to show for more than fifty years of living. He had been given several chances to make a fresh start, but he would never get another. He was sorry now, but it was too late.

His partner, on the other hand, seemed only angry. Jesus, hanging between the two thieves, still seemed focused and guided by a purpose. He was beaten and wounded beyond all reason, far worse than either thief, yet there was something more there. Asa was trying to process it.

He struggled for breath and even life itself but watched and listened. The crowd taunted and mocked Jesus. Asa marveled at Jesus’ response to the horrible treatment. Betrayed, deserted, arrested, falsely accused, wrongly convicted, beaten, whipped, mocked, and nailed to a cross! His response? “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Asa’s heart broke with final recognition. Somehow, he was suddenly sure. His questions – all answered. This is the Messiah. This Jesus was the baby boy he had seen born in Bethlehem thirty-three years ago. This Jesus was indeed God’s Son, not Joseph’s, and had come to save his people. He was the prophesied Messiah, sent from God to open the eyes of the blind, set the captives free, and heal the broken-hearted! And he had just asked God the Father to forgive them all. Forgive their mockery, their brutality, their rejection, their indifference. Forgive their pride and selfish ambition. Forgive their ignorance. But could he forgive Asa?!

Asa feared he had come to his senses too late. The other thief joined in with the mockery of the crowd. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself – and us!”

Asa looked past Jesus to his former partner and rebuked him. “Don’t you even fear God? You’re dying on a cross, too! We deserve what we’re getting – but this man? He has done nothing wrong.”

Asa then turned his attention to Jesus. Their eyes locked onto each other as they had that day in the temple complex when Jesus had picked Asa out of the crowd and looked into his very soul. “Jesus,” Asa said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Asa knew it sounded strange. His thief partner likely thought he was crazy. They were all about to die! What kingdom? How would this Jesus or any dying man hope for a kingdom? If there was any hope at all for life after death, how dare a man like Asa hope for forgiveness and restoration? Yet somehow, Asa believed in him. And believing in the Messiah meant hope and forgiveness! So, he had asked, and he hoped.

Looking into Asa’s eyes, Jesus must have seen the sincerity, the faith, the repentance. Asa called him by name – Jesus – Savior. Asa said when you come into your Kingdom. Not if, but when! That was faith. That was recognition of who Jesus is! Remember me – that was hope for mercy and grace. Jesus responded to Asa’s request. “I assure you,” he said, “today you will be with me in paradise.”

With that declaration of forgiveness and acceptance and promise of hope for eternal bliss, darkness came upon the earth. Asa didn’t care. In fact, it gave him peace of mind. It gave confirmation that this was God’s Son. It gave a covering for their shame and punishment. It even told him that his sins had just been blacked out. Death would come soon now, but only for the bodies.

Asa held on to his three-fold promise from Jesus – today – with Jesus – in paradise!

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Decent Exposure – Part Three

Part Three

SURPRISE WITNESS

Chapter 7

“The Prosecutor’s Case”

The prosecutor began his case against Dan McClain with his opening statement. “The State will prove,” he said as he faced the jury, “beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Dan McClain is guilty of murdering Suzanne Kirk.  We will show that the defendant was distraught over the publicity of an alleged affair between himself and Miss Kirk. You will see that this publicity caused the defendant great distress in his church ministry and his home life, and all but stopped the Decency Movement business which he started and presided over.”

He paused in his delivery to walk around his table and move over closer to the jury. Then he continued. “You will hear testimony from eye-witnesses that the defendant was discovered and arrested in the decedent’s room shortly after the murder. We will give proof that the murder weapon belonged to the defendant and had only his fingerprints on it. You will have no doubt as to his guilt and must do the right thing in rendering a verdict of guilty.”

He then called as his first witness, the reporter who had started the whole scandal with the pictures and article linking Dan McClain with Suzanne Kirk.  “Tell us about that day,” insisted the District Attorney.

“Well, I got an anonymous phone call early that morning. The man on the phone said if I wanted to get some juicy info about the head of the Decency Movement, I should get a camera over to his church by noon. So I did,” the reporter testified.

“And what did you witness at the church?” asked the attorney.

“I got there a few minutes before noon and parked across the street from the front door. A few minutes later a car drove up and parked just down the street behind me a ways. In just a couple of minutes a lady came out of the church that I later found out was the secretary and left in her car. I just kept watching and right after her car got out of sight, the first car pulled on up closer to the church and this really good looking lady got out. She stopped to look around and I snapped a picture. I took another as she entered the church, then sat back to see what would happen next.”

The D.A. looked at the jury as if to make sure they had followed the story so far before proceeding. Then he turned back to the reporter and asked, “Did anything else happen?”

“Yeah,” the reporter said. “About twenty minutes later, the door opened and I got my camera ready. The defendant stepped outside and held the door open for the lady. She took hold of his hand and I took a picture. I couldn’t hear what she said, but she leaned up and kissed him on the cheek and I got a shot of that, too.”

“What happened next?” asked the D.A.

“She waved good-bye, got in her car, and drove off. I went back to the paper to get my pictures developed and start on the story,” the witness answered.

The jury already knew all this from the newspaper and interviews from a few months before. No surprises there. The prosecutor pressed on. “Tell us what you learned about the woman from your investigations for your story.”

“Well, my original article simply showed the pictures and raised the questions. I started doing a little digging around and eventually learned that the woman was Suzanne Kirk. I finally got to talk to her and she told me that she and the defendant had been having an affair for about three months and that she met him that day in his study for… well… you know… sex.” He was hesitant to say it like that, but it was what she had told him.

“So, according to the decedent’s own testimony to you, she and Dan McClain had been having a love affair for the three months prior to your article?” the District Attorney asked to reinforce the point. He wanted to clearly establish the connection between Dan and Suzanne and begin to work on a motive for the murder.

“That’s right,” confirmed the reporter.

“Your witness,” the D.A. said as he turned to Dan’s lawyer, Paul Douglass.

As the D.A. took his seat, Mr. Douglass walked slowly over to the witness stand. He knew that everything the reporter had testified to had already been established as a matter of public record due to the scandal of the affair. What he needed to do was cast some doubt on the whole thing.

“You said this all started with an anonymous call and your subsequent article and pictures,” began Mr. Douglass. “So you raised questions and cast innuendo with nothing to go on but the fact that the two of them met that day?”

“Well, she did take hold of his hand and kiss him on the cheek,” added the reporter defensively.

“And later, when Ms. Kirk revealed to you that she was having an affair with my client, did she offer any proof?” asked Mr. Douglass, now facing the jury.

“No,” replied the reporter.

“No?” asked Mr. Douglass. “So, did you in the course of you investigation come up with any evidence to corroborate her story?”

“No,” answered the reporter softly.

“So you wrote articles and published pictures about an alleged affair without any proof that such an affair ever happened – is that right?”

“I guess so,” the reporter admitted. “But I only reported her testimony. It was up to the people to decide if she was telling the truth.”

“But as far as you know, it was simply a matter of her word against the defendant’s,” said Mr. Douglass.

“That’s right,” affirmed the reporter.

That was all Dan’s lawyer could do with the reporter’s testimony. He had shown it was a clear case of unsubstantiated allegations, but he knew that even lies can be motive for murder. He didn’t know for sure whether he had begun to place seeds of doubt in the jury’s minds, but he had done all he could so far.

The next witness for the prosecution was the man who had stood in the hallway outside Suzanne Kirk’s room the afternoon of the murder and confronted Dan. After swearing to tell the truth, he stated his name and took a seat in the witness stand.

“Mr. Farley, did you know the decedent, Suzanne Kirk?” the District Attorney asked the witness.

“I knew who she was and we spoke a few times when we met in the hall where we both lived – that’s about all,” Farley answered.

“And you were there in that hall on the day of the murder, weren’t you?”

“Yes, after it happened.”

“Tell us what happened to cause you to enter that hallway when you did and what happened then,” instructed the D.A.

“Well, I was sitting alone in my room, kinda dozin’ off in the chair when I heard a bunch of yellin’. I sat up and listened for a moment and heard a man and a woman yellin’ at each other. They sounded pretty mad. I got up and headed for the door, ‘cause I was gonna holler for ‘em to keep it down, when I heard the woman scream.” The witness paused for a moment and shifted his position in the chair.

The prosecutor took advantage of the pause to move over toward the jury to direct Farley’s testimony in their direction and urged him to go on.

“It got real quiet after that and I stepped on out into the hallway. I could see the door to Miss Kirk’s room was open a little, so I walked on over there to see what was goin’ on. I looked through the open door and saw this man standing over a woman’s body layin’ on the floor.”

“Can you identify that man?” interrupted the prosecutor.

“Sure,” Farley said. “I seen him plenty of times around the neighborhood the past year or so and his picture’s been in the paper lots of times too. It was the defendant, Dan McClain.”

There was little response to his testimony so far from the crowd or the jury. There was nothing for the defense to object to either. The case had been followed closely by the news and, so far, there was nothing said in the trial that everyone didn’t already know.

“What happened next?” the prosecutor asked.

“I heard sirens right outside, so I yelled at him not to try nothin’ ‘cause the cops were comin’. They came runnin’ in about that time and had their guns out. I pointed into the room and told them he was in there and they took over from there. One of them took my statement later and told me to stick around ‘cause they would need to talk to me more later on.”

“Your witness,” the attorney said, nodding to Mr. Douglass.

Once again, Dan’s lawyer knew that there was no question that Dan had been arrested in Suzanne’s room, standing near her dead body. The only thing he could hope to do was show that the witness hadn’t seen everything and therefore, there was room for doubt as to Dan’s guilt.

This time he walked quickly to the witness stand, hoping to appear confident. He looked at the witness, then turning to the jury, said, “Did you actually see Dan McClain kill Suzanne Kirk?”

“No,” came the quick reply.

“Did you hear his statement to the police when they arrived with their guns drawn?”

“Yeah, I heard him holler that he didn’t do it. That she was already dead when he got there,” Farley replied. “But I heard him arguing with her.”

“So you recognized the voice of the man arguing with a woman, from inside your room, while you were half asleep, as the voice of Dan McClain?” Mr. Douglass pressed him hard to fluster him and show the absurdity of that claim.

Realizing how impossible that sounded, Farley backed off a little. “Well, no, not really,” he said, obviously a little shaken.

“So you heard a man and a woman argue, but you can’t swear it was the defendant? Is that true?”

“Yes, that’s true,” Farley said. He began to fidget in his seat and Mr. Douglass stepped out of the way to make sure the jury could see him clearly. He felt that he might get some distance out of this testimony even though there was no denying the man saw Dan in the room shortly after the murder.

“And you didn’t actually see the defendant with Miss Kirk while she was alive, did you?”

“No.”

“Nor did you actually see him kill Miss Kirk, did you?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“And the whole incident roused you from sleep, so that by the time you decided to go see what the commotion was all about and got from your easy chair to the door of Miss Kirk’s room – still a little groggy from sleep – just maybe the real killer had hurried out and Dan McClain had slipped in.”

The prosecutor shouted an objection, half rising to his feet. The judge sustained the objection since Mr. Douglass was calling for a conclusion to be drawn by the witness. The defense attorney quickly conceded, saying, “Withdraw the question,” even though he actually hadn’t asked one. He had made his point to the jury. Mr. Farley really had little to offer accept seeing Dan in the room shortly after the murder and the police would testify to that anyway.

In fact, the arresting officer was the next witness. He testified to arriving at the scene due to an anonymous call to the station. Another officer was with him and a third came at almost the same time in a second squad car. They entered the building by the back stairs and heard Farley yelling in the hallway, pointing them to the room in which the defendant stood near the woman’s body. The rest corresponded to Farley’s testimony.
The prosecutor quickly turned the policeman over to the defense for cross-examination. He felt that it was clearly established that Dan McClain was the only one at the scene of the murder. He already had shown motive by the testimony of the reporter and these last two witnesses placed Dan at the scene.

Mr. Douglass knew that there was complete truth in the officer’s testimony. Somehow he had to show that it only proved Dan was there, not that he had done it.  “You said the defendant was still in the room when you arrived. Did he make any attempt to escape?” asked Mr. Douglass.

“No, sir,” replied the officer.

“Did he say anything?” asked the lawyer.

“Yessir,” the officer replied. “He said he didn’t do it – that she was dead when he got there.”

“Did you examine the body?”

“Of course,” replied the officer. “I had to see if she was alive or dead, so I checked for a pulse. She was dead.”

“Did you examine the defendant?”

“Yes, but not thoroughly. That’s up to the crime lab. I just checked for weapons and took a quick look for cuts, bruises, or fresh blood. You know, signs of a struggle and such.”

“What did you find?” probed Dan’s lawyer.

“Nothing,” the officer said flatly.

“Nothing?” asked Mr. Douglass. “Explain that please.”

“Well, there were no weapons of any kind on his person and no signs of a struggle.”

“Any blood on him or his clothing?” asked the lawyer, digging deeper still.

“None that I could see,” replied the officer.

“How many stabbings would you say you’ve investigated?”

“Maybe a couple of dozen,” the officer replied.

“Could you make an educated guess as to how many times out of those twenty-four the assailant did not have any traces of blood on him anywhere?” Mr. Douglass asked.

“I can’t think of any at all when the assailant was apprehended shortly after the incident, but there may have been one or two.”

“And the defendant definitely did not have any blood on him immediately after the incident, correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“No further questions,” said Mr. Douglass, releasing the officer from further questioning.

He hoped that the point of no blood anywhere on Dan would overshadow the fact that he had been arrested beside the woman’s body. Hopefully, the jury would wonder how he could have stabbed her and not gotten any blood on himself. It was the best he could do with the policeman’s report.

The final witness for the day was the police detective in charge of the investigation. He testified that they had subpoenaed phone records for the phone in Suzanne’s room. The records showed repeated calls from her room to Dan McClain’s church study over the last few weeks, as well as one call to his home phone at four o’clock the afternoon of the murder.

They found receipts in a desk in the room for motel room rentals corresponding to the dates that Suzanne had previously claimed to have spent with Dan. Newspaper interviews were introduced that showed the corresponding dates. There was even one receipt for a room next to a room Dan had rented at the state capital while attending a pastor’s conference. When asked about his investigation of those dates and claims, the detective said that he questioned Dan, his wife, the church secretary, several neighbors, and church leaders, but could find no one who could offer any evidence to prove Dan had not been with Suzanne on those dates.

He also testified that the murder weapon was a letter opener with the initials D.M. engraved on it. Mr. Douglass wanted no part of cross-examining that piece of testimony. He knew it really was Dan’s letter opener.

“Why are there phone records for those local calls?” the prosecutor asked the detective.

“Apparently, the owner of the building set up a computer system through which all the phone lines went so he could keep track of all incoming and outgoing calls. He said he had been stiffed too many times by renters for long distance and overdue phone bills, so he found a way to monitor calls and charge the renters per usage. The computer keeps accurate records of all calls, local and otherwise,” explained the detective.

“Thank you – your witness,” the D.A. concluded. All he wanted was to show a direct connection between Dan McClain and Suzanne Kirk, even on the very day of the murder.

“No questions,” Mr. Douglass said, dismissing the detective. There wasn’t anything he could think of he could do about the phone records. They were true and really not all that damaging.

The prosecutor’s case was presented over the course of three days. There wasn’t much to it, but the evidence they had was very convincing. Besides the reporter, the man in the hallway, and the policemen, the D.A. called on the coroner who did the autopsy and a police forensics expert. He had already shown motive and opportunity, placing Dan at the scene. Next he offered physical evidence.

After having the county coroner sworn in to testify, the prosecutor asked him to state his name and occupation. Then he continued, “And you were the one who examined the body both at the scene and at the autopsy?”

“That’s right,” responded the coroner.

“What did you determine as the cause of death?”

“The victim died from one stab wound to the heart. Death likely occurred almost instantaneously,” the coroner testified.

“Did you determine a murder weapon?” continued the D.A.

“Yes – a letter opener was still in the decedent’s chest when I examined her at the scene.”
“Were there any signs of a struggle?” asked the prosecutor, hoping to damage Mr. Douglass’ point of no blood splatters on Dan. No struggle would mean less chance of blood or other marks on the assailant. It might also lead the jury to consider that Miss Kirk likely knew her assailant.

“None at all,” replied the coroner, “not on the victim’s body or around the room.”

“Could you determine the time of death?”

“Well, we can’t be exact because it obviously had happened just shortly before the examination. I was called to the scene about five o’clock that afternoon. The woman was already dead and my preliminary examination placed the time of death sometime within the previous hour. The body temperature was consistent with that and so was the degree to which the blood had coagulated and dried. She had to have been stabbed between four and five that afternoon and, of course, the police had found her already dead at 4:30.”

“Did your subsequent autopsy offer any evidence otherwise? the prosecutor asked.

“No, it confirmed all my preliminary findings,” stated the coroner.

“Who identified the decedent as Suzanne Kirk?” asked the prosecutor, bringing his questions to a close.

“Well, that was a collaboration of sorts. We had no family to help us, but the witness from the hallway, Mr. Farley, said it was her and everyone had seen her in the papers and on TV, so myself, the three arresting officers, and Detective Johnson who was in charge of the crime scene all identified her as Suzanne Kirk. Added to that was her purse with identification there in the room rented in her name.”

“So you have concluded that Suzanne Kirk died between four and four-thirty p.m. on the day in question from a single stab wound to the heart made by a letter opener. Is that your expert testimony?” the prosecutor asked, summing up the coroner’s testimony.

“Yessir, that’s correct,” confirmed the coroner.

“Your witness, Mr. Douglass,” said the prosecutor with a nod toward Dan’s lawyer and a trace of a smirk on his face suggesting he felt he had Dan right where he wanted him. He returned to his seat and waited to see if the defense lawyer could do anything with the coroner’s expert testimony.

Mr. Douglass knew there wasn’t much, if anything, he could refute. About all he could do was try to cause some doubt because of the time frame of the murder. He walked slowly toward the witness stand, thinking it through.

The county coroner had testified that the death occurred between 4:00 and 4:30 that afternoon. If he could get the jury to feel that the actual time was closer to 4 o’clock, which was true, he could show that Dan was not there in time to have done it.

“Based on your examination at the scene, would you conclude that the body had lain there for slightly more than thirty minutes or closer to a full hour?” Dan’s lawyer asked.

“It’s hard to narrow it down that closely. If I had gotten there when the police did – at 4:30 – I might have been able to tell if it had happened only minutes before or some time earlier. But as it was, between 4 and 4:30 is as good as I can do.”

“But is it entirely possible that the murder could have been committed as early as four o’clock that afternoon, maybe even a few minutes before that?” pressed Mr. Douglass.

“Oh, yes,” agreed the coroner. “That would still be consistent with my findings.”

“And according to the State’s case, my client was at home at four o’clock on the phone with someone calling from that room.”  Mr. Douglass turned toward the jury to drive home his point. He continued, “Then he had to drive across town, park his car, go up the back stairs and down the hall to Miss Kirk’s room. At the very least, that took fifteen minutes. According to other testimony, an argument ensued that led to the killing and police arrived to find an already dead body by 4:30. You said the murder could have occurred at four o’clock or a little before, but the defendant couldn’t possibly have done it then and if he had done it, it would mean the woman had only been dead a minute or two when the police arrived. Sounds unlikely to me – sounds like somebody is wrong!”

“Objection!” the D.A. called out. “That’s a conclusion not a question!”

“Sustained,” Judge Parker agreed.

“No further questions,” finished Mr. Douglass. He took one last look at the jury before returning to Dan’s side. He could see that they were thinking through the time frame he had lined out for them. It was possible that Dan could have done it just like the testimonies had laid it out. But he had shown that to be questionable. He didn’t know, however, if it would be questionable enough.

The coroner returned to a seat in the audience and everyone waited to hear from the next witness for the prosecution. The District Attorney called for the police forensics expert. He gave testimony that the defendant’s fingerprints were on the murder weapon, a stainless steel letter opener with the initials D.M. engraved on it. No one else’s prints were on the opener. If Dan ever had to testify, he would be forced to admit that the letter opener was indeed his. There was no way to prove it had been stolen. In fact, Dan had never even mentioned to anyone that it had disappeared. He had figured he had misplaced it and would eventually find it somewhere in his study. No one would believe him now.

That was all the D.A. needed from him, so he turned the witness over to the defense. Mr. Douglass tried to divert attention from the letter opener to the rest of the room, but that didn’t help. There had been a few unidentifiable prints here and there, but none on the phone except Suzanne’s and none on the murder weapon but Dan’s. Mr. Douglass dismissed the expert witness knowing that his testimony had really hurt his client.

It was the defense’s assertion that a man had placed that call from Suzanne’s room to Dan’s home to lure him there for the frame. With no physical evidence to back them up, they could hardly expect the jury to believe them.

The prosecutor used the reporter’s testimony for motive. He contended that Dan killed Suzanne for one of two reasons. Either it was a crime of passion committed because the love affair had gone sour, or it was a crime committed out of anger and revenge for Suzanne having ruined his life.

It really didn’t matter whether the affair was real or not, though the evidence suggested it might be. Either way, Dan had a motive, because his life definitely had been torn up by that woman. With his fingerprints on the murder weapon that he owned and his having been arrested at the scene shortly after the murder and no eye witnesses to anything else, Dan looked terribly guilty.

The State rested its case and the judge called for a recess until Monday morning, at which time the defense could present its case. Dan kissed Kathleen good-bye, shook hands with his lawyer, and headed back to the county jail in hand-cuffs. Mr. Douglass walked Kathleen to her car.

“It doesn’t look too promising, does it?” she asked him.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. “I think we established that the time frame makes it very difficult for Dan to have done it.”

“But not impossible,” she added reluctantly.

“And the fact that Dan didn’t have any blood on him helps some too,” Mr. Douglass said, trying to sound as encouraging as he could.

“Tell me the truth,” Kathleen insisted as she unlocked her car door and got in. “What do you really think?”

“Honestly?” he asked, to which she nodded. “I think you had better pray hard if you really believe it helps. We may have made a few dents in the prosecution’s case, but no holes. And we only have character witnesses and Dan’s testimony to offer in defense.”

“I know,” she said tearfully. “I know.”

Mr. Douglass said he would keep looking for evidence and visit Dan over the weekend. He closed her door for her and stood there awhile as she drove off. Shaking his head as if to admit defeat, he walked to his car and headed home.

Dan’s only real defense would be his unsupported testimony that he was completely innocent of both the affair and the murder. He doubted that the jury would believe Dan and, based on the evidence, would likely have to convict him even if they did believe him.

Chapter Eight

“Protective Custody”

The last time Kathleen had visited him, Dan had sensed that she wasn’t telling him everything about how things were going on the home front. The next time he pressed for an answer. He was afraid she was trying to handle too much on her own and he couldn’t help if he didn’t know the trouble.

“It’s just hard without you,” Kathleen finally answered. Tears were welling up in her eyes. She fought them back, sighed, and tried to go on as if it that was all there was to it.

Dan knew better. Twenty eight years of living together told him there was more to it than that. He pressed for more. “I know it must be hard on your own, but I also know you can handle it,” he said, trying to encourage her. “But there’s something else bothering you. I sensed it on your last visit and I feel it even stronger today – now what’s wrong?”

Kathleen looked down a moment and closed her eyes for a quick prayer. Then she raised her head to look her husband in the eye and tears began to stream down her cheeks. “I didn’t want to burden you with it,” she began. “You’ve got enough on your mind already.”

Dan smiled his reassuring smile and without any hesitation replied, “Don’t worry about me – I’m just fine. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“It’s just that I’m having such a hard time dealing with people. In the beginning it was bad, but at least we were together. Then, when you went to jail, things actually slowed down some, for a couple of months. The press left me alone for awhile and people in town did too. Most of them gave me some pitiful looking smiles to show they felt sorry for me, but I got used to that.”

She paused to wipe her eyes and nose, then continued. “But the trial started it all up again. Only now it’s worse. Maybe it’s just because you’re not there with me – I don’t know – but it’s so hard to take. I can’t leave the house without the press taking pictures and trying to get an interview. People in town seem to feel like they have to say something to me about the trial and I’m tired of talking about it. Everybody has some advice for me and they all feel free to share it. Ladies tell me, ‘Stand by your man, Honey,’ or ‘Just leave him, Sweetie. He doesn’t deserve you!’ ”

“I guess they think they’re helping,” interrupted Dan.

“The men are worse,” Kathleen continued. “You wouldn’t believe how many men have offered to ‘console me’ or ‘take my mind off my troubles.’ You’d think I was the town floozy or at least Center City’s most eligible female.”

Just the thought made them both laugh. “What?” asked Kathleen, still laughing. “You don’t think I’ve still got it?” She struck a Mae West style pose and added, “I can get all the men I want, Big Boy, and don’t you forget it!”

“I won’t,” replied Dan and they both enjoyed the good laugh. It felt really good to laugh together. Neither could remember the last time they had done that. It didn’t solve any problems, but it eased the pain, if only for a moment.

Getting back to the point, Kathleen said, “I can’t stand it in the house alone, but I can’t take the public either. I don’t know what to do.”

She was serious again, but no longer crying. Dan didn’t have any answers. She had already refused to go visit family and none of them could get free just then to come stay with her. No way was she leaving Dan during the trial. She had already said, “We’ll get away together when this is over.” Dan suggested she share with the people at church and see if they had any ideas. He hoped they would offer to run errands for her or go with her to run interference for her and discourage the press or others from bothering her. He didn’t say anything, though, because he didn’t want to get her hopes up in case no one helped.

Kathleen said she would talk to them about it and that it helped a little just to talk to Dan. Somehow it all didn’t seem so bad when she put it into words. She knew down deep, though, that it would be bad again, the next time she faced it alone.

Alone. Loneliness was something she never thought she would really feel. Driving home from the visit, Kathleen thought about that. Growing up, she had always had her family around. Then she met Dan McClain and her life became so full that she had often wished for some time alone.

The last twenty eight years had been packed with people and activities. Raising three kids, going to church services and programs and meetings so often it seemed like they lived at the church, and lately, helping with the Decency Movement. They seldom had time alone as a couple and when she was by herself, it was a break, not loneliness.

Added to all that, Kathleen had always believed that God’s children were never alone. His Holy Spirit was always there on the inside of every true believer to comfort and guide. She had needed plenty of both lately and usually could sense Him there doing His work in and around her. But despite years of living a strong faith and counseling scores of others, Kathleen had to admit there were still times when she felt so all alone.

She knew God was with her. She knew Dan’s thoughts were with her. She knew Christian friends were praying for her. She knew all that, but she still felt alone sometimes.
She had learned a few things though. She felt that she would never again take for granted some of the little pleasures in life. She used to be able to go for a walk without fear of being hassled by others. Maybe she would again someday, but not lately.

She used to complain about too much to do and too many people around. Now she couldn’t seem to occupy enough time and wished someone would come by to visit, as long as it wasn’t about the trial!

By the time Kathleen reached her home, she had decided that life was hard at times for everyone and this was her time. God would see her through it and later she would be able to help someone else because of her experience. She could only hope and pray that Dan would be there at her side to help too.

The State was not seeking the death penalty, but a conviction could mean life in prison for Dan. Both he and Kathleen simply refused to think about that. Every time the thought occurred to either of them, they would pray or sing or do something to change the subject and get their minds on something else.

Even though the trial was going badly, they had to believe that God would do something to turn it all around. They refused to believe that He would let the Devil win this battle. Somehow, God would step in and deliver them from this ordeal.

That Saturday the lawyer went by the jail to confer with his client. “Dan,” he said, “I’m not going to lie to you. It looks bad. We haven’t been able to find anyone who saw or heard anything to contradict the state’s case.”

“And nothing to support my claim of a frame” added Dan.

“Nothing,” the lawyer confirmed. “I can’t think of a thing except to plea bargain for a lesser charge.”

“No way!” Dan replied forcefully. “I didn’t do anything and I refuse to say I did just to get a lighter sentence.”

“I just don’t see any other way. Without a miracle, you don’t stand a chance of being acquitted,” Mr. Douglass insisted.

“Then we’ll just have to keep praying for that miracle,” Dan said matter-of-factly. “If God wants me to spend the rest of my life in prison, I’ll do it. If He doesn’t, then He’ll just have to come up with the miracle.”

“I don’t fully understand your faith, but I do admire it,” said Mr. Douglass with a smile. “If God gets you out of this one, we’ll have that talk you’ve been wanting.”

Dan knew when he hired him that Mr. Douglass wasn’t a Christian, but he came highly recommended and was a respected moral man of the community. Since the day he took Dan’s case, he had acted very professionally and showed great skill in the way he handled both the law and the courtroom.

Dan was completely satisfied with Mr. Douglass. It wasn’t his fault that the frame had been done so well that neither he nor Dan, nor the detective they had hired had yet been able to find any evidence to even suggest that Dan had not killed Suzanne Kirk.

Dan had questioned his lawyer briefly about his faith, but Mr. Douglass had politely dismissed the subject and insisted they concentrate on Dan’s case. Dan tried to convince him that where he would spend eternity was more important than where Dan might spend the rest of his life, even if that were to be in prison. The lawyer appreciated the concern, but ended the conversation with a promise to talk about it some other time. Dan respected his wishes and let it go for the time being.

A couple of times during the course of their trial preparations, Dan tried to reopen the discussion of faith, but each time Mr. Douglass said, “Not now – we’ve still got our work cut out for us taking care of getting you off.”

Dan had reluctantly set aside the idea of leading his lawyer to faith in Christ, but never gave up praying for him. Throughout the case, Mr. Douglass had watched and listened to his client and was constantly impressed by Dan’s faith in and devotion to God, despite his impossible situation. He even said so to Dan more than once.

Dan hoped the man was serious when he said they would talk about faith in God if God provided the miracle needed to get Dan acquitted of this murder charge. This gave Dan an even greater reason to pray for that miracle. Not only would it prove Dan was innocent and get him released from jail, but it could also lead to Mr. Douglass believing for himself. Maybe that was what this trial was really all about – reaching Dan’s lawyer for Christ. As far as Dan was concerned, bringing even one person to salvation would make the whole ordeal worthwhile.

With no chance of a plea bargain and no new evidence to discuss, Mr. Douglass closed his briefcase and said good-bye to Dan. “I’ll see you in court Monday morning,” he called as he waved back from the other side of the steel bars.

As he sat alone in his cell, Bro. Dan cried out to God for help. He clung desperately to scriptures that assured him that truth would set him free, that God delivers the righteous, and that God would supply his needs. Right now he needed a miracle!

The trial would end soon. He could get life in prison because he dared to take a stand against crime and corruption. He dared to care about people like Julie Saunders and her parents. He dared to help addicts change. He worked hard to clean up all the evil that had hurt so many of his fellow citizens. He had even cared enough to spend time on the phone with a woman named Suzanne, whom he didn’t know, who said she needed help.

He was in this mess because he cared. It was God’s business he was doing, not his own. He got into trouble doing God’s work. If God wanted him to spend the rest of his life in prison, then so be it. He would try to serve God there. If God wanted him set free, then God would have to be the one to do it. There was nothing he nor his lawyer could do. He remembered that often when speaking about faith he had said that’s when God worked – when there was nothing man can do. God did it that way so people would trust in Him, not their own devices.

He remembered a Bible study that he had taught to the other prisoners about trusting in God. The 37th Psalm teaches us to trust God by delighting in the Lord, committing our way to the Lord, and resting in Him. Someone had once put it this way – you’ll never trust God until you have to and God will see to it that you have to! Dan was at the point where he had to trust.

Chapter Nine

“The Pastor Cleared”

Monday, in court, they were to begin Dan’s defense. The prosecutor had summed up the case against Dan McClain. Motive. Opportunity. Ownership of the murder weapon, complete with his fingerprints. Arrested at the scene, standing over the victim’s body. Phone records showing a definite connection between the defendant and the decedent. No alibi. No proof for his assertion that he had been framed.

Dan’s only line of defense would have to be his own testimony and his character. His character, however, had been called into question recently. His testimony would have absolutely no corroboration. Dan’s lawyer truly believed in his innocence. He also truly believed that even if the jury believed his testimony, they would have to convict his client for murder.

Judge Parker asked Mr. Douglass to begin the defense. He rose to call his client to the stand, but was interrupted by the sudden entrance of someone into the courtroom. The crowd gasped almost in unison as they turned to watch a young lady burst through the double doors of the court. It was Suzanne Kirk! It couldn’t possibly be – but it was! For several weeks her face had been plastered all over the newspapers and television. Everyone in Center City knew that face. There was no mistake. Suzanne Kirk had just walked into the courtroom and back into Dan McClain’s life!

The judge banged his gavel and demanded order as the young woman spoke up saying, “Your Honor? I’d like to testify.”

She stood there in the aisle, frozen by the stares of a hundred pairs of eyes. She had known she would cause quite a stir by coming to the trial, but she felt she had to come. She had dressed much more modestly for court than she had for any of her previous interviews, but her outfit still flattered her trim figure and showed her attractive legs without being obvious. Her neatly styled, short black hair set off her striking good looks.
Kathleen had never seen her in person, only in pictures or on local television and had to admit she was beautiful. ‘No wonder they chose her to frame Dan,’ she thought. ‘Any guy could fall for someone who looks like that!’

If anyone had ever asked Dan if he thought she was pretty, he would have had to say yes. There was no denying her looks or her figure. As she took a few steps further into the courtroom, Dan realized that though he had noticed her beauty before, he really hadn’t seen just how pretty she was. It made her story all the more tragic.

He knew from their conversations, true or not, that she was bright and witty. Add her looks to the equation and she had so much going for her that the kind of life she had lived so far was even more of a tragedy.

The room silenced and the judge replied, “We would like for you to testify. In fact, I’m sure someone would demand that you do,” he said, trying to ease the tension a little. “Please come forward and be sworn in.” Judge Parker looked at both lawyers as the attractive young woman walked toward the witness stand. “Any objections?” he asked.

“Not yet,” both men replied in unison.

Suzanne seemed remarkably poised for a woman obviously embroiled in a very grave, though confusing business. All eyes watched her every move as she walked to the witness stand. She didn’t try to make any more of a scene than her very presence there had made and she didn’t flaunt her looks like some cheap floozy. She simply walked gracefully to the witness stand – chin up and eyes straight forward, not too proudly, but very resolutely.

After swearing to tell the truth, the young lady sat down and was asked to state her name. “Suzanne Kirk,” she replied. The courtroom remained deathly silent waiting to hear what was going on.

Mr. Douglass approached the stand, deliberated for a moment, then began. “You say you are Suzanne Kirk, yet my client is on trial for murdering Suzanne Kirk. Do you have any proof that you are indeed Suzanne Kirk?”

“Well, I left all my personal effects in my room that day and I assume that either the police or the court has them now. I could get hold of my birth certificate eventually, I guess, but the police could easily check my fingerprints. I’ve been arrested before and I’m sure they have them on file.” She was quiet and nervous, but very definite in her testimony.

Mr. Douglass looked at the judge and asked, “May we approach the bench, Your Honor?”
Judge Parker nodded affirmatively and motioned with his hand for the prosecutor to join the defense attorney at the bench.

Mr. Douglass spoke first. “Your Honor, it would be no small matter to verify if the witness is indeed Suzanne Kirk. If she is, then obviously we have grounds for a mistrial since my client could not possibly have murdered Suzanne Kirk.” Anticipating an interruption from the prosecutor, he held up his hand to silence the objection before it was offered and continued. “However, I’m sure the prosecutor would simply ascertain the true identity of the decedent and arrest my client for that murder.”

“We certainly will,” affirmed the prosecutor.

“So,” continued Mr. Douglass, “in the interest of justice and exonerating my client from any murder, I’d like to reserve my right to ask for a mistrial until later and hear this woman’s testimony.”

“Do you realize the risk you are taking?” asked the judge. “This is likely the woman who has already accused your client of having an affair with her. She could easily seal his fate with her testimony.”

“I know,” replied Dan’s lawyer. “But I believe she has come forward to help. And frankly, with the evidence as it is, I don’t think we have too much to lose.”

The judge looked at the prosecutor who responded saying, “I have no objections at this time.”

Judge Parker said, “Very well then – continue.” He sat back in his chair as the prosecutor returned to his seat and Mr. Douglass walked slowly back to Suzanne Kirk on the witness stand.

“Miss Kirk, my client is on trial for the murder of a woman that the prosecution has said was Suzanne Kirk. If you are Suzanne Kirk, can you tell us who the woman was that was found dead in your room?”

The witness began to tremble and tears started down her cheeks. “She was … she was my … “ She interrupted her own testimony with sobs.

“Take your time,” the lawyer said gently.

The courtroom crowd waited in silence for a moment while the witness composed herself with a deep sigh. She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and continued her testimony. “She was my twin sister, Sharon.” The courtroom started to buzz, but the judge quickly banged it back to silence.

The prosecutor realized that everyone had been so sure the decedent was Suzanne Kirk, that no real proof was needed. Everyone in town knew what she looked like and recognized her on sight. The murder took place in Suzanne’s room. Her purse with all her identification was in that room with her. No one had any reason to look any further than simply having the police identify the body by sight.

For that matter, even the relatively new procedure of identifying someone through their DNA would have produced the same conclusion with an identical twin. Only the fingerprints would have mattered and no one felt the need to do that then.
Obviously, they had messed up, but it didn’t matter much. The same evidence could convict Dan McClain of killing Sharon Kirk in a case of mistaken identity, with Suzanne Kirk the intended victim.

“Someone killed your sister in your room. Did you?” the lawyer asked suddenly.

Shocked by the abrupt question, the witness blurted out, “Certainly not!”

“Did you witness the murder?” Mr. Douglass asked, taking the risk Judge Parker had warned against. She could easily lie and implicate Dan.

“No,” she replied. “We had an argument and I left. That was the last time I saw my sister alive.”

“What was the argument about?”

“Dan McClain. Sharon had heard about the scandal on the news and came to talk to me about it,” Miss Kirk replied.

“And what did she have to say about it?” pressed the lawyer.

“She knew I wasn’t – well, the most moral person in the world – and that I worked for people connected with the very businesses the Decency Movement campaigned against. I guess she believed Bro. Dan instead of me and asked me to tell her the truth about our relationship.”

“What did you tell her?” Mr. Douglass asked.

“The truth,” Suzanne replied. “That I never had any relationship with Dan McClain and the whole story was a setup.”

That statement started quite a commotion in the courtroom. It took the judge a couple of tries to restore order. Bro. Dan heaved a deep sigh of relief and leaned back in his chair for the first time since Suzanne had entered the room.

“Go on,” urged Dan’s lawyer.

“Well, I was paid to pretend to have an affair with the defendant in order to discredit him. I called his study several times to talk about my lousy life and church and stuff in order to set up the phone records and start the connection between us. I rented motel rooms several times, making sure first that he had no alibis for those times.”

“Did you ever meet with Dan McClain at any motels?”

“Never.”

“Did he ever meet with you at your room over the pool hall or at his home?”

“No. We only met face to face one time before today. That was the day I went to his church study. You know, the day the pictures were taken.”

“Tell us about that day,” the lawyer said. By now he was sure Suzanne was not going to hurt his client’s chances.

“It was all planned,” she said. “Someone – I don’t know who – called the reporter to get him to the church before noon. I was parked around the corner from the church. When he got there, I drove around to where he would see me park and wait for the secretary to leave. She always left right at noon. When she left, I drove up to the front of the church, got out, looked around, and went inside. I made sure he had time to get some pictures.”

“Then what happened?” the lawyer asked.

“Bro. Dan and I just talked. That’s all we had ever done. That was the first time we had ever talked face to face, though. Then he walked me out and – well, you saw the pictures. I took his hand and kissed his cheek. We counted on the reporter taking pictures and blowing everything out of proportion. The press always does.”

“And the interviews that followed?”

“All lies,” Suzanne stated. “I was paid to lie and discredit Bro. Dan with a sex scandal in order to stop the Decency Movement.”

“And it worked, didn’t it?”

“Yes.” Then she looked at Dan and spoke directly to him. “Most of what we talked about on the phone was true. My life has always been lousy and I really didn’t care if yours or anyone else’s got ruined too. But now I’m truly sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused.”

The lawyer continued his questioning. “Now back to the day of the murder,” he said. “Phone records show a call was made from your room to Dan McClain’s home less than an hour before the police arrested Dan in your room. Did you make that call?”

“No,” Suzanne replied. “I never called him anywhere but at his study and I never even talked to him after that day we met.”

“So someone else called Dan McClain from your room after you left. Either your sister called him or someone else entered that room long before the defendant arrived,” Mr. Douglass surmised. “It would appear that someone else was at the scene of the crime other than the defendant, wouldn’t it?”

“Objection!” interrupted the prosecutor. “Calls for a conclusion.”

“Sustained,” Judge Parker ruled.

“Let’s see if we have your testimony straight, Miss Kirk. You were hired to set up the defendant and discredit him by appearing to have had an affair with him, but he was completely innocent of that. Later, someone, not you, lured him to your room where he was arrested for murdering you, but the victim was your twin sister instead. Is that right?”

“That’s right,” she affirmed.

“One more question, Miss Kirk. Can you think of any reason why the defendant would kill your sister other than mistaking her for you?”

“None whatsoever.”

“So, if she had called Dan McClain that day, he would have already known it was her not you. And if she wasn’t the one who called him, somebody else was in that room between the time you left and the time Dan McClain arrived. No further questions – your witness,” he said to the prosecutor as he moved confidently back to Dan’s side.

“Miss Kirk,” began the prosecutor. “You claim now that for several weeks you lied to Dan McClain, lied to the press, and lied to this entire city about your relationship with the defendant. Why should we believe you now?”

“Because now I’m under oath. Now my sister is dead. Someone was trying to kill me and got her instead. I’m sorry and I’m scared,” she answered.

“You say that you did not make that phone call to the McClain home from your room on the day of the murder. Can you prove that or tell us who did?” asked the prosecutor, sure that she could not.

“Yes,” she stated emphatically. That answer set off another stir in the courtroom, but the judge didn’t have to stop it. Everyone was so eager to hear what she had to say that they quickly quieted down.

“You can?” asked the puzzled prosecutor.

“I can tell you who did make the call,” she stated.

“Then why didn’t you say so earlier?” asked the prosecutor.

“No one asked me,” she replied, to which the courtroom crowd had to laugh a little.

“Well, we’re asking now,” prodded the lawyer.

“He did,” she stated, as she looked and pointed directly to Mr. Farley, the witness from the hallway. “The man who saw Bro. Dan in the room standing over my sister.”

“That’s a lie!” Farley shouted as he sat up on the edge of his seat.

“Quiet!” Judge Parker ordered, banging his gavel to silence the room again. “Bailiff, watch that man while Miss Kirk continues.”

“How do you know this, if you left your sister after the argument?” the prosecutor asked.
“When I got to my car, I realized I had stormed off without my purse and keys, so I went back to my room to get them. As I climbed the stairs I heard a scream that stopped suddenly. As I came near my door, I heard a thump like something falling to the floor. I froze for a moment in the hallway. Then I edged up to the door. It was partly open so I peeked inside. I could see my sister’s body lying on the floor behind the couch. She wasn’t moving. I could hear a man talking, on the phone I guessed, so I listened. He told someone he had proof that I was framing him to discredit him and that he had better get to my address in the next twenty minutes or forget it. I figured he had to be talking to Dan McClain. I stuck my head inside the room to get a better look and saw the man hang up the phone. As he turned around I recognized the man from across the hall. That man,” she said as she pointed to him again.

Farley shook his head, but said nothing as the bailiff stood nearby, preventing any attempt to flee. The prosecutor continued. “Then what happened?”

“He didn’t see me, so I just took off. I was scared to death. I ran as quietly as I could down the stairs and out the door. I don’t know why , but it occurred to me that Sharon had not brought her purse in with her. I ran to her car and sure enough, she had left the keys in the ignition and her purse on the floor. She’s from a small town and never worried about such things. I got in her car and drove away.”

“Why did you wait so long to come forward?” the prosecutor asked.

“I was afraid for my life and ashamed of what I had done. My sister was dead instead of me. It just took a long time for me to get the courage to do the right thing.”

The prosecutor gave up on Suzanne Kirk and asked the judge if he could recall the witness she had accused. Dan’s lawyer objected. He didn’t want to give the man the chance to refute her testimony and force the jury to have to decide whom to believe. The judge sustained his objection. The prosecutor had concluded his case against Dan McClain and it was the defense’s turn now.

Paul Douglass felt sure that enough had been said at least to cast the shadow of a doubt that Dan McClain had murdered anyone. He definitely had not killed Suzanne Kirk and now there was plenty of doubt that he had killed Sharon Kirk by mistake. The lawyer asked the judge for a mistrial on the grounds that his client had been accused of murdering Suzanne Kirk who apparently wasn’t even dead!
He and Bro. Dan were confident that Suzanne’s testimony would prompt another investigation with the man from the hallway as much of a suspect as Dan. The judge granted the mistrial and ordered the bailiff to detain the newly accused man for further questioning by the police. Dan McClain was free to go home. It would be up to the police and the district attorney’s office to figure out who would be charged for Sharon Kirk’s murder.

EPILOGUE:

“Sweet Wind-Up”

Six months had passed since Pastor Dan McClain, alias “Decent Dan” had been released from jail when the judge declared a mistrial. In the meantime, justice had been served. The police investigation, with Suzanne Kirk’s help, turned up another witness who was convinced to cooperate and testify to first hand knowledge of the conspiracy to kill Suzanne.

He testified to hearing the eventual killer plotting to murder Suzanne and frame Dan McClain. The other conspirators were Julie Saunders’ ex-boyfriend and his boss at the video store, owner Sam Lawrence.

It was the manager who stole the letter opener from Dan’s study and passed it on to Farley, who lived across the hall from Suzanne. He received only two years in a minimum security prison in exchange for his testimony against Lawrence and the murderer.

Sam Lawrence had been indicted for drug trafficking, pornography, pandering, and conspiracy to commit first degree murder. He would likely spend the rest of his life in prison. Farley had already been tried, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole.

Suzanne Kirk had done a terrible thing to Dan McClain and his wife. She had caused great harm to Center City Baptist Church. She had set the Decency Movement back a long way in its efforts to stamp out crime and corruption. She lied and got paid for it, but the only crime she had actually committed was the civil crime of slandering Dan McClain and he refused to press charges.

She had eventually done the right thing. She came forward and testified against the real criminals. She confessed her sins and exonerated Bro. Dan. She would have to live with the fact that her twin sister had been murdered because of Suzanne’s involvement in sin. She would have to change her identity and enter the witness protection program. Sin always has consequences.

Dan and Kathleen were being treated by his church to a week-long cruise. They felt the couple could use some time alone and away from Center City. The church was recovering steadily. The Decency Movement was active again and continuing to affect the lives of those who had fallen into the traps of alcohol, drugs, prostitution, and pornography. The arrests had taken a large bite out of the local crime organization, though they hadn’t destroyed it completely. The video store was under new management.

The Saunders family was well on their way to recovery. They felt like a family again. Julie had a new job and continued to receive counseling even though she had been clean since her accident. Jack and Kelly had become very involved in trying to steer other young men and women away from lives of sin.

Bro. Dan continued to preach and head up the Decency Movement, but he learned to protect himself better with more help from others and less done on his own. He refused to let up. He said people’s lives and souls were too important. God had proven faithful in very tough times; Bro. Dan asked, “How could I possibly do less?”

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Filed under Short Stories

Decent Exposure – Part Two

PART TWO: SATAN’S WEB

Chapter Four

“The Scandal”

The phone rang in Pastor Dan’s study, but he hesitated for a moment to answer. It rang so often in those days that sometimes he just really didn’t want to answer it. Between church business, church problems, people volunteering to get involved in the Decency Movement, and people needing help, it seemed the phone never stopped ringing. He had considered having his study phone switched to a private number, but decided against it. After all, who would he give it out to?

If he gave it to those who needed to talk about problems, soon everyone would have it anyway. If he reserved it for church members only, it would soon spread anyway. If only his family had the number, it wouldn’t really be worth the money. So it remained public knowledge and the public used it often. He tried to keep the Movement business routed to the office downtown, but too many people wanted to talk to him personally.

He gave in on the fifth ring. He figured somebody really needed him. He was hoping to hear someone from his church ready to volunteer for either ministry at church or involvement in the Movement. If not that, he would settle for one of his flock needing some spiritual guidance. It was none of those.

He didn’t recognize the voice of the woman asking for help. She asked if he had time to listen to her troubles and he replied, “Sure. What’s troubling you?”
She would only identify herself as Suzanne and said she had seen and heard so much of him lately that she just knew he was the one to help her. Bro. Dan caringly asked how and she began her story.

She said she had been sexually abused as a young girl and grew up distrusting men. She had successfully fought off lesbian feelings over the years and basically battled her fears and frustrations with alcohol. Though she had tried drugs a couple of times, Suzanne said that she had been able to avoid that trap.

She had never married – just bounced from one relationship to another. She was sure she had never known true love of any kind. Not from her family while growing up, nor from any of the men she had known. She felt so unloved and alone in the world. What she longed for was some sense of purpose in life, somewhere to belong.

Bro. Dan asked her what she thought about God and if religion had ever been a part of her life. She said she believed in a Creator, but that’s about it. If God was more than that, if He really loved people and got involved in their lives, then why, she asked, was there so much pain in the world. “Never mind the world,” she added. “Why is my life so messed up? If God loves me, why doesn’t He prove it once in awhile with some good in my miserable life?”

Dan tried to explain about people being free to choose and having a sinful nature which leads to wrong choices. He told her that sin was the cause behind the pain and suffering in the world, not God. “We bring on the problems by making wrong choices,” Dan said.

“Well, that part is definitely true!” Suzanne replied. “I’ve made too many wrong choices in my life already. And I’ve sure paid for them!”  She paused, then added, “One bad choice was to stop going to church when I was young.” She had gone to church a time or two as a child, but not at all in the last twenty years. She was twenty-eight now.

Bro. Dan began to tell her that his God was more than just a Creator. He was a loving heavenly Father who wanted an ongoing relationship with people. She said that sounded good, but was a little hard to swallow. She asked what time their services were and said maybe she would come sometime. She thanked Bro. Dan for his time and even though he offered to continue talking since he really hadn’t helped at all yet, Suzanne hung up. Dan figured he would probably never hear from her again.

He was wrong. Two days later Suzanne called back. In fact, every two or three days for the next three months she called Bro. Dan’s study. Each time she revealed a little more of her troubles and let Dan share a little more about Jesus and how He could help her. She never gave up any information that would let Dan know who she was or where she lived. She simply remained Suzanne, the young lady who needed help. She refused to come to the church and she didn’t want to talk to Dan’s wife or any of the counselors set up by the Decency Movement. “Maybe later,” she always said.

Dan felt bad that he couldn’t quite get through to her. She had lots of questions and he thought he had answered most of them to her satisfaction, but she always stayed just out of reach. Once or twice Dan thought Suzanne was about to surrender her life to Christ, but then she would abruptly change the subject and soon end the conversation altogether.

Each time Dan wondered if that would be the last time he would hear from her, but she always called back. He couldn’t quite reach her, but he hadn’t driven her away either. As time went on, he began to wonder if there was any point in continuing the calls. There are some people you just can’t help. Some, especially those with problems, just want to keep talking. They seldom even try to affect any changes in their life, usually won’t take advice, and stay in the some old problems. However, they keep coming back to talk. Maybe it’s some kind of therapy for them, maybe they need a friend and the listener makes them feel as if they have one. It seldom helps though, especially when the real problem is a spiritual one.

Just when Bro. Dan had decided that was Suzanne’s case and was prepared to tell her, if she called again, that there was no use to call anymore until she was ready to do something serious with God, she showed up at the church.

Right after the church secretary left for lunch, when Bro. Dan was alone at the church, Suzanne drove up. She got out of her car, deliberately looked around as if to see if anyone was watching, and then hurried inside. She found Dan’s study and introduced herself. Dan recognized her voice and offered her a seat.

During the course of their many phone conversations, Dan had tried to imagine what the mysterious caller might look like. It was sort of a hobby of his – a game he played or a mental exercise. He got so many calls from people he had never met that he liked to form a mental picture of the person to whom he was talking.

Much of the time he never met the caller and would never know if he had imagined a likeness anything close to the real person on the other end of the line. Often, he would eventually meet a caller and he would search his memory to recall the mental image for that voice and see if he had come close. He thought he was pretty good at it, but in actuality he was way off base at least as often as he was close. In Suzanne’s case he was way off.

Dan had pictured a tall, slender blond with long stringy hair. He imagined her to be pretty, though a little hard looking, probably the result of the hard life she described. In his mind, she was always dressed in a slightly seductive outfit which he imagined was to play up to the men from among whom she hoped eventually to find Mr. Right. He sensed that she desperately wanted a loving, fulfilling relationship with a man, but had just never learned how to go about getting one.

When Suzanne walked into Dan’s office and introduced herself, he knew he had sure missed the call on this one. She was a medium height brunette, not too thin, and not overweight. In fact, Dan couldn’t help noticing she had a really nice figure. She wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but she was very pretty and, if her story of abuse and hard life was true, one would never know it by looking at her.

She was dressed in an expensive looking blue dress that showed off her figure. It was short enough to reveal her shapely legs and showed just enough cleavage to attract attention. She didn’t flaunt herself, though. She didn’t have to – she was that good looking.

After exchanging a few pleasantries, Dan asked if she had finally decided to give Jesus and the church a serious look. She said, “Not completely, but I’m getting closer. I just thought I would come by and meet you face to face. I thought if I came by the church on an off day, it might be easier to come some other time when the crowd is here.”

She asked about counseling for alcohol and smoking addictions, intimating she might be ready to give them both up. Dan wrote some names and phone numbers for her and said he could gladly recommend any of those on the list.

They talked about church for the next twenty minutes. Bro. Dan shared with her some of the many benefits of being part of God’s family, the church. He hoped that she would see that the love, acceptance, and purpose she often spoke of wanting could be found right there in his church. Unconditional love from a good heavenly Father – inner peace and power to overcome addictions – a supportive family – a sense of belonging and purpose as she discovered ways to serve God by ministering to others.

Dan asked her to trust Jesus, to seek His forgiveness and give her life to Him. She hesitated with her head bowed slightly and he thought she was going to pray. Instead, she raised her head to look Dan in the eye and said, “Not yet. I really like what you’re saying, Pastor, but I just don’t think I’m ready for any big commitment. This is all so new to me. I’ve got to think it over some more,” she added.

“Don’t put it off too long,” Dan warned. “You know none of us has any guarantees in this life.”

“Are you trying to scare me into making a decision?”

“No, but I feel I must remind you of the dangers of putting off such an important decision,” Dan replied. “There is no way to guarantee you’ll have the chance to decide some time later. Besides the constant threat of dying, who is to say you’ll feel better about it later?”

“I appreciate your concern, but I think I need more time to make up my mind,” she insisted.

“And there is something else you may not know,” Dan continued. “God is loving and patient, but He can be pushed to His limit and unless He draws us to Himself, we will never seek Him. Be careful not to put Him off too long.”

“You’re right – I never looked at it that way before. Still, I’m not quite sure it’s all the way you say. I don’t mean to doubt you and I’m sure you believe everything you’ve told me. But it is a matter of faith and I’m not quite ready to trust, yet.” She paused, then added, “But I am much closer than when I first called you.”

Then she got up to leave. Dan felt good that she felt closer to making a decision than before. He walked her to the door and assured her that God loved her. He also encouraged her to think about what he had said. He stepped outside, holding the door open for her. She took hold of his free hand with both of hers and smiling, said, “Thanks for your time. You’re so sweet.”

Before he even had time to respond, Suzanne leaned forward quickly and gave Dan a kiss on the cheek. He was startled, but it was innocent and over in a second. She waved good-bye and hurried off. Dan went home for lunch.

He told Kathleen what had happened. She knew who Dan was talking about, as he had shared about the ongoing phone calls, though not any detailed conversations. Privacy was very important to him. Kathleen laughed at his concern and assured him that it meant nothing and would never be a problem.

Boy, was she wrong! Two days later pictures came out in the local newspaper. One showed an attractive young brunette apparently looking to see if anyone was watching as she got out of her car in front of Dan’s church. Another showed her holding Bro. Dan’s hand at the door. A third photo showed the kiss on the cheek. The caption read: “Who’s That Kissing Decent Dan?”

The article quoted an unnamed source alleging that Dan McClain, leader of the local Decency Movement, wasn’t so decent after all. The photographer said he had received an anonymous phone call suggesting that he should be at Center City Baptist Church at noon to see who Bro. Dan had been spending lots of time with.

He reported that he went and watched the young woman wait in her car just up the street until the secretary left, then drive up to the church and get out of the car. He said she looked around before going inside and about twenty or twenty-five minutes later came back out along with Pastor McClain. He took pictures as they parted and, of course, captured on film the held hand and kiss on the cheek. According to the article, Bro. Dan could not be reached for comment, but the truth was nobody had tried to reach him. The whole city was shocked! What really happened?

That afternoon the McClains were flooded with phone calls and visitors. Church members, reporters, and volunteers working for the Decency Movement all wanted to hear Bro. Dan’s explanation. Rumors were flying wildly all over town. Dan knew he had been set up by the mob to discredit him and set back the Movement. He and Kathleen prayed for wisdom and strength.

The chairman of deacons from his church called to set up a meeting with the deacons and both Dan and Kathleen at 4 o’clock. They needed to hear the truth and figure out how the church should handle the situation. Bro. Dan agreed, assuring him that it was not what it appeared to be. They stopped taking calls and visits until after their meeting with the deacons. They would need advice on how to respond to these ludicrous allegations.

At the meeting, Bro. Dan explained to the deacons what had happened and they unanimously believed him and agreed it was a setup. They suggested a statement to the church that could be repeated at a press conference, very calmly, but firmly denying any wrong doing. They agreed not to speculate publicly as to who might be behind the allegations. They figured the press would take care of that.

The chairman would also talk to the congregation and assure them that they intended to support their pastor. He would share their opinion that everything should continue at the church just as if nothing had happened. They wanted the city to know they didn’t believe the allegations and planned to support Bro. Dan all the way. In the weeks to come, they found all of that much easier to say than to do.

The media played both sides of the street. They continued to dig for more evidence of wrong-doing by Bro. Dan, yet they speculated freely as to other explanations, such as a frame-up to discredit the minister. Subsequent reports began to add to Bro. Dan’s problems. Suzanne Kirk finally came forward and corroborated the first report. She stated to the press that she and Dan had been having a love affair for a couple of months and that they had met the day the pictures were taken for sexual relations in his study.

The whole community reeled with her confession. People are often quick to believe gossip and some seem especially eager to believe when moral and spiritual leaders are accused. Kathleen stood by her husband and most of his church members remained loyal, but over the next few days it got increasingly hard. Naturally, the rumor mill churned out juicy tidbits and innuendo by the score. That was bad enough, but the real damage came from more revelations from Suzanne.

The press stayed right on her story, playing it up really big. She detailed several clandestine meetings with Bro. Dan at the church, her apartment, and motels out of town. She offered no proof, but then, Dan couldn’t prove she was lying either. She, or someone, had been watching Bro. Dan’s activities very closely and carefully chose dates and times for which he had no way to account and prove they had not been together.

Prayer meetings were held around the clock, not only at Dan’s church, but at other churches around town. Suzanne Kirk had not offered any real evidence. It was basically her word against Dan’s, but the damage was done. The Decency Movement had suffered a major defeat and Center City Baptist Church was in a tailspin downward. Pastor Dan’s credibility, and therefore his ministry, was in serious jeopardy.

 

Chapter Five

“The Suffering”

Kathleen faithfully stood by her husband . She never doubted him, not even for a second. However, her faith in Dan didn’t ease the suffering. Her faith in God got her through it all, but she still hurt. It was hard to ignore the stares and whispers of others as she shopped at the local stores, but she refused to leave town just to shop.

She wasn’t sure which was worse, the catcalls from men or the whispers of the women. She shopped as little as possible, but they did need groceries and household goods. Life, though completely fouled up, still went on and that meant having to go out in public.

The McClains tried to go on just as they had before, but it got increasingly hard. Dining out, they felt like a freak show. People would stare and even point as they lowered their voices to whispers. There could be no doubt about the topic of conversation. A couple of times it was so distracting and distressing that they just had to get up and leave.

Kathleen felt that every conversation she couldn’t actually hear was about them and every laugh she heard was made at her expense. They had become instant celebrities, but the notoriety was nearly all negative. They both longed for peace and quiet.

They had to change to an unlisted phone number, giving it out only to family and church members. Until then it had rung constantly. Obscene phone calls by men offering Kathleen ways to get even with her philandering husband or by women propositioning Dan. It was hard to believe people could be so cruel.

Neither could go anywhere without facing a reporter and “No comment” became their most used phrase. For a couple of weeks, their pictures were constantly in the paper and the media did all they could to play up the “No comments” as admissions of guilt. Incredibly, newspapers and tabloids offered money for Dan’s confessions and his side of the story. They didn’t believe he had no story to tell. The McClains felt as if everyone believed Suzanne Kirk’s story.

Once they sat down and actually made a list of all the people they felt really still believed in Dan. Of course their family did. They knew him better than anyone and never entertained the thought of his guilt for even a second. The problem was, they lived too far away to lend very much moral support.

Dan’s church was stunned. No one had ever had to face such a dilemma before. Some people began to get away from the scandal, either by switching to another church or by dropping out of church completely. Attendance suffered and a drop in financial support came with it. It began to dwindle a little at a time, but later there was a large surge of deserters. However, it soon leveled off at about half of what it used to be. The McClains figured that most of those who had stayed surely must believe Dan rather than Suzanne Kirk. A few of those who left still believed in him too, but couldn’t take the heat and embarrassment from the community of attending the church with the tainted pastor. That hurt Dan and Kathleen as much as disbelief, so those people didn’t make the list of supporters.

Those who believed in Bro. Dan didn’t want him to resign, but there were some who thought maybe it would be best for the church. Dan and Kathleen wondered if they were right. They wondered, but decided to stay on and wait and see.

Late one Saturday night, Dan got a phone call that saddened him, yet encouraged him at the same time. It saddened him because of one young lady in trouble and encouraged him through the faith of another. It was Julie Saunders on the phone.

“Bro. Dan,” she said with a little trembling in her voice. “I’ve got a real problem.”
Dan’s heart sank immediately. He felt like he had been kicked in the stomach and he didn’t even know the problem yet. His body practically went numb and he barely squeaked out the words, “What’s wrong, Julie?”

Julie sensed his fear and quickly eased his mind about her. “It’s not me,” she said. “It’s my friend, Sarah. Remember? The one we rescued from the porno shop.”

Dan felt a tremendous relief and even let out a sigh. He still hurt for Sarah, but he naturally was much closer to Julie and was so relieved she was all right. “Of course I remember Sarah. What’s wrong?” His voice was much stronger this time.

“She called me from a bar downtown. She is really bombed and threatening to kill herself,” Julie explained.

“Where are you?” Dan asked while reaching for a pen and paper. He wrote down the name and address of the bar and promised to get there as quickly as he could. “Don’t leave her alone for any reason,” he added before hanging up.

He told Kathleen what was up and they quickly dressed and hurried to the car. It was after midnight, but neither had been asleep. Nights were long in those troubling times and sleep was often hard to come by.

It didn’t take long to find the girls. Julie had gotten Sarah to go outside where she could get some cool, fresh air and try to walk a little. They stayed near the entrance to the bar where it was well lit for safety and so Dan could find them easily.

Dan and Kathleen pulled the car up to the curb and got out to help. They spoke softly to Sarah as they helped her into the back seat. Dan drove as the other three rode in the back. Sarah sobbed into Kathleen’s shoulder most of the way to the McClains’ home. Julie held Sarah’s hand and patted it while she kept repeating to her that everything would be okay. They knew they would have to get her sober just to find out what went wrong, much less begin to try to help her.

It was a long night, but shortly before sun-up on Sunday morning, they finally learned that Sarah had become so discouraged and distraught over Dan’s situation that she just couldn’t handle it. She didn’t know what to believe any more. Bro. Dan had been so good to her and such an inspiration, yet Suzanne Kirk was so believable. Sarah had been used by enough men to tend to believe they were all just sex fiends.

She had believed in Bro. Dan, though, and now she wasn’t sure. She got so confused, then so drunk, that she just didn’t care any more. Yet she called Julie. “God must have seen to that,” Julie said. “He’s not ready to give up on you and neither are we.”

Julie’s faith in God and Bro. Dan won the day. Sarah decided if Julie could believe in Dan, so could she. She fell asleep on Dan and Kathleen’s couch. Julie stayed with her while the pastor and his wife got ready for church. Thanks to Julie, they salvaged Sarah, but how many others would they lose because of this mess? How many people who used to believe or wanted to believe would be duped by Satan’s lie?

A few local pastors and a smattering of their parishioners continued to believe in Dan, but they didn’t offer much support and gradually distanced themselves from the scandal. The fact that they really believed Dan had never had the affair didn’t help much. The McClains needed friends and public support, not those who were “with them in spirit.”

The Decency Movement had to stop most of its activities until they could regroup and figure out what to do. The press was having a field day mocking their decency under an indecent leader. There was still a handful of workers who believed in Dan and remained loyal. Many who had been helped by the Movement stuck by him too. There were a few who believed Dan had been set up and feared they might be next, so they jumped ship. Those who tended to doubt him also began to doubt their mission, so they dropped out too.

Bro. Dan didn’t know if the people left because they doubted him, were afraid, or just wanted to get away from the whole thing. This scandal had first taken away their momentum, then brought them to a screeching halt, and threatened to wipe out the Movement altogether.

Some of these people had been with Dan from the beginning and had really been gung ho about the Movement. Dan felt they should have stuck with it even if he had been guilty. The cause was worth the fight. People were being changed. So what if they lost a leader or two, the battle must go on.

Part of Dan wanted to run away and hide. Just give up and walk away, like some of the others were doing. Let the people sort out the truth and their own problems. However, a bigger part of him said to stay put, keep the faith, and wait for deliverance. In the meantime, he should keep doing what he knew was right. His ministry was pretty much at a standstill, but he could continue to study and pray and even try to make plans for the future. Until asked to resign, he planned to pastor and preach to any who would come. There were fewer at each service.

Dan decided to put it all down on paper – what had happened, how he felt, how he and Kathleen coped with it all, and an ongoing diary of events as they unfolded. He felt it would be good therapy as well as a good way to keep himself occupied. “Who knows?” he reasoned, “maybe I’ll write a book when it’s all over.”

He wrote down the feelings he and Kathleen shared as they talked and prayed together. They had plenty of time for reflection about their ministry and trying to make some sense of this scandal. Their faith would get them through, so they tried to make some plans for the future.

It was awfully hard to get excited though. So little ministry was being done. The Decency Movement could no longer be called a movement. To be more correct it would have to be called the Decency Standstill. The only part still functioning was a soup kitchen for the homeless. Dan made it known that help was still available and people could still receive counseling, but no one called any more. There were no more rallies, no picket lines, no street evangelism, and soon, no more funds to keep the phone lines and publications going.

Ministry at the church wasn’t much better. Not only was attendance down, but so was morale. The Sunday crowd, if you could call it a crowd, was faithful, but defeated. The sanctuary that once rang out with celebration and praise was much quieter during those days. Oh, they still sang, but Bro. Dan felt like every service was a funeral! The praise band had disbanded and only the organist remained. Kathleen wished she had kept up the piano lessons as a young girl so she could help now that they really needed it.

Bro. Dan tried to preach positive messages, but he felt like the crowd never really listened anymore, just simply tried to be gracious. No one ever went to the altar. There were seldom any visitors and none ever came back a second time. No one stopped by or called for counseling. Dan felt like he was wasting his time, but then, he had plenty of time to waste.

Occasionally, there was some clean-up work to do. Vandals periodically stopped by either the church or the parsonage to redecorate the church property to coordinate it with its new “indecent character.” One morning, Dan awoke to a front lawn full of trash and a sign that read, “Home of Decent Dan,” only the word Decent had been crossed out and replaced with Deviant. Another time a big red letter ‘A’ had been painted on Dan’s front door. Once the church sign had been painted to rename the church, “Sinner City Baptist Church.”

Dan and Kathleen had mixed emotions about spending time away from Center City. Sometimes they felt they just had to get out of town and have some quality time alone, but they were afraid it might look like they were ashamed to be seen in their hometown. That would make Dan look guilty. Yet, to go out in Center City was to invite trouble. They hated being punished when they had done nothing wrong. At those times, Dan would usually turn to his Bible and read the Genesis account of Joseph, son of Jacob.

Dan was encouraged by the protection, deliverance, and ultimate promotion of Joseph by God for remaining constant in times of trouble. Sold by his brothers into slavery in a foreign land, falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, and forgotten by those whom he had helped – yet Joseph stayed faithful to God and continued to do good. Dan prayed for the grace to do as well.

In his free time, and there seemed to be quite a bit of that during those days, Dan would sit and try to think of a way to prove he had been set up. He could think of nothing. He concluded that either Suzanne Kirk would have to admit the truth or whoever was behind the frame up would have to expose her. Since that would incriminate them, that didn’t seem likely. Someone, somewhere must know the truth and have a way to prove it.

Chapter Six

“The Set-up”

Someone did! At least that’s what the caller said. It was late one Saturday afternoon. Dan was home alone when the phone rang. The man on the other end said he could prove Suzanne Kirk was lying and maybe even prove who put her up to it, but Dan would have to meet him right away. He had a room over the pool hall on the corner of West Jackson and Fifth Street. Dan should go through the rear entrance, go up the stairs, and knock on the second door on the left. If he didn’t get there in the next twenty minutes, he could forget it.

Dan agreed to go, hung up the phone, and called his deacon chairman. No answer. He tried another church leader, but the line was busy. Kathleen wasn’t due home for at least another half an hour. There was no time to spare, he had to go alone.

He drove straight to the address, and found a parking space along Fifth Street. Until he had heard Julie Saunders’ story and gotten involved investigating the seamier side of Center City, Dan had seldom visited this section of town. Now it was familiar territory. The buildings were in much need of repair and painting. Graffiti adorned the sides of several businesses, though the worst words had been painted over or changed. It was still offensively obvious what had been written. A vacant lot directly across from the pool hall was cluttered with trash and broken bottles. A couple of empty buildings down the street had broken windows, while many windows in the occupied buildings had bars.

A year ago, this entire section of town would have been like a foreign country to Dan, but since he began the Decency Movement, he had been there many times. He had interviewed prostitutes on that very corner and once helped a drunk out of the pool hall and into a better life. He and others had established a food kitchen just down the street and a counseling center not two blocks away. At night, this part of town would be filled with victims of all ages – victims of drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, pornography, and crime. An army of Satan’s soldiers would patrol the streets and peddle destruction to an all too willing crowd.

However, it wasn’t quite dark yet and the streets were still quiet. Dan hurried to the back door of the building that housed the pool hall downstairs and, apparently, rooms to rent upstairs. There was no one around as he climbed the back stairs to the rooms. He went to the second door on the left and knocked. The door wasn’t quite latched and his knock caused it to swing open a little. He called into the room, “Hello! Anybody home?”

There was no answer so he pushed the door open a little wider and stepped just inside. He had gotten there in time, so the man should be there. Dan repeated his call as he walked into the dimly lit room. There was still no answer as he quickly scanned the room.

Whoever lived here certainly didn’t have much to call home. Even in the dim light, Dan could see that the walls needed painted. The room was fairly neat and though Dan had expected an odor, he was pleasantly surprised to find nothing more than a faint hint of perfume. He expected to meet a man, but the room showed signs of a woman’s touch.

There were flowers on an old table near the kitchenette. A small refrigerator, sink, and stove occupied the far corner to the right, separated from the living area by a metal table with a Formica top. A couple of matching chairs rounded out the dining room set.

Between Dan and the kitchen was an over-stuffed chair with doilies on the arms and back, a coffee table with magazines and photo albums, and a pullout couch with a flower design right out of the seventies. The only other door probably led to the bathroom. Next to it was a small, slightly cluttered desk with an old black desk phone on it.

Dan decided the man must have changed his mind about meeting with him. He thought that maybe he could come back some other time and get the man to help then. As he turned to leave, something caught his attention.

Lying on the floor, behind the couch, a lady’s foot was sticking out slightly into view. Dan stepped over to where he could see behind the couch. It was Suzanne Kirk, lying in a pool of blood! Dan heard sirens approaching and realized he had been set up even worse than before. This time it was for murder!

He turned quickly to leave the room, but a man from across the hall shouted at him from the hall through the open doorway. “Hey, you! What’s going on in there? Don’t try nothin’ with me, the cops are comin’ !”

Policemen ran up the stairs with guns in hand as the man pointed into the room and shouted, “In there – he’s in there! I think he killed her!”
One policeman kept a gun on the man and backed him away from the door as two others rushed into the room shouting at Dan. “Police! Don’t move! Hands up!”
Dan was scared to death. He raised his hands shouting, “I didn’t do it! She was dead when I got here!”

One of the officers told Dan to turn around and put his hands on his head. Dan quickly complied. The policeman kept his gun pointed at Dan while he nudged him with his free hand toward the wall. The other policeman knelt down to the body and checked for a pulse and other signs of life.  “She’s dead,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I didn’t do it,” Dan said. “I just got here myself.”

“That’s what they all say,” responded the officer with Dan as he quickly frisked him, searching for weapons. Finding none, he pulled Dan’s hands down behind his back and put handcuffs on him.

“You’re Dan McClain, aren’t you?” asked the first officer as he rose from checking the woman’s body.

“Yes, I am,” replied Dan. “Someone called me on the phone and told me to come here and he would give me proof that Suzanne Kirk had lied about us.”

“Maybe you had better not say anymore just yet,” warned the officer. Then to his partner said, “Read him his rights.”

The officer who had cuffed Dan read him his rights and the other policeman looked Dan over a little more thoroughly. “No blood on him – no signs of a struggle either,” he said.
“That’s because I didn’t kill her,” Dan repeated. “I told you – she was dead when I got here.”

“We’ll sort that all out later. For now, you’re under arrest for suspicion of murder.”
By that time, the third officer in the hallway had taken a statement from the witness and called into the station to report the situation. He informed the other two that an investigation team was on the way. Then he positioned himself outside at the foot of the stairs to keep away curious onlookers. One of the other officers kept an eye on Dan while the third one made a quick search of the room, being careful not to disturb anything.

Dan tried to remain calm while waiting quietly for more investigators. When they arrived, the county coroner examined the body and pronounced her dead. Crime lab experts began to search the room for evidence and dust for fingerprints while the detective in charge questioned Dan.

The detective then told the officers they could go – one back on patrol, the other two to the station to book Dan McClain on a charge of murder. The “lab boys” continued going over the crime scene.

They led Bro. Dan in handcuffs down the stairs and took him away in a squad car. The streets that had been empty just a little while ago had swelled to capacity with curious spectators. Everyone in the neighborhood was there to watch. Several recognized Dan and shouted out his name. By the time they got to the police station, the press was there waiting. The next morning the papers were filled with pictures of “Decent Dan” being arrested for murder.

Over the next few days the press had a heyday with the investigation. Dan had never needed a lawyer before, but Kathleen had gotten in touch with one and he met first with the police, then with Dan. He told Dan what evidence the police had so far.

It was a very good frame. No witnesses saw anyone enter the room before the man in the hall saw Dan already inside. He claimed he heard a lady scream and that’s what brought him into the hall. He looked through the open doorway and saw Dan standing over the body of a young woman. The police arrived shortly thereafter, responding to an anonymous tip. Supposedly, someone heard a man and a woman quarreling. She sounded scared, so they called the police. No one came forward as the caller.

The room had been rented to Suzanne Kirk for the past six months. She had a scrapbook in the room with newspaper clippings about Dan and the Decency Movement. Worst of all – she was killed with a letter opener that had Dan’s initials on it. Dan told his lawyer that one had been missing from his desk for a couple of days. He knew now that it must have been stolen, but of course, he couldn’t prove it.

It wouldn’t take long to go to trial. The prosecution felt they had an airtight case. The Decency Movement died out from embarrassment and lack of leadership. Dan’s church had dropped to a very small crowd and had little to say about the case. Kathleen remained loyal and adamantly affirmed her husband’s innocence, despite the evidence.

 

To be continued….

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Filed under Short Stories

Decent Exposure

Prologue:

Some World!

 

          As I write this story it’s 2015 – 25 years since my life was turned completely upside down. My life was nearly ruined. My marriage, though always solid, was certainly put to the test. My livelihood was stalled out for a while and nearly completely destroyed. My faith, though strained, was proven through trial and ordeal. I aged quickly in a short time, but as I look back, I can thank God for the experiences and am very thankful that I can look back from a “winner’s perspective”. At the time, I knew it would make a good story someday. Now is the time.  – Dan McClain

 

It was 1990 – not really all that long ago, yet it seems like a lifetime ago. The world was so different then than now. Very few had cell phones, in fact no one that I knew personally – though I did know one or two who had a phone in a bag in their car. That’s right – in a bag – look it up sometime! The internet was out there, though barely, and not in common use yet; neither were personal computers. All this means, of course, no smart phones, no laptops, no tablets, no texting, no email. We spoke either locally or long distance (and got charged extra for that!) over telephones in our homes. Written communications were through the regular mail. Seems like the dark ages, huh? But that was our world, not so very long ago.

DNA testing was new and not very widespread in usage yet, though that would not have helped me, as you’ll see later. Phone records were harder to come by, local ones practically non-existent. Digital cameras weren’t around yet, so photo-shopping wasn’t easy to do. Most pictures really didn’t lie. You saw what the photographer saw – after it was developed. People still tended to believe what was reported on the news.

It was in this world, that “my world” came crashing down….

 

Part One – Spiritual Warfare

Chapter 1

“Dan McClain”

 

Wham! The heavy steel door slammed shut locking the prisoner inside the dimly lit cell. He had been in cells like this before, but always on behalf of some other prisoner, never as a prisoner himself. The cell looked the same, but somehow felt so very different.

It was a cold concrete box. The only furniture was a steel bunk with a sagging mattress, a wall hung sink, and a toilet. The mattress was covered with a dingy thread-bare sheet and a gray wool blanket, topped by a flimsy pillow. The sink and toilet surely used to be white, but were mostly rust-colored now. The floor was cold, bare concrete. The dim light came from a naked light bulb hanging overhead. The only good thing about the previous visits was that he could leave anytime he wanted. That wasn’t the case this time.

Usually, he would sit on the bunk next to a prisoner and try to help in some way. Sometimes he was a shoulder to cry on, sometimes he was just a listening ear. Often, he was called on for advice and nearly always, he was asked to pray. That’s what ministers do. This time, the minister was the prisoner and he was praying for himself.

Rev. Daniel McClain was on trial for murder and it didn’t look good. Naturally, he was innocent, but the evidence against him was overwhelming and public opinion was running strong in favor of “guilty.” Even some of his church members found it difficult to believe in him. As he sat on the bunk in his cell, Brother Dan, as most people called him, had never before felt so alone.

Nighttime was the worst. He was alone in his new home, so conversation was out. He spent the early evening hours trying to occupy his mind with praying and reading scripture, but instead, he often found himself going over the events of the past few months again and again. Each time that he replayed the scenes that had led to his arrest and trial, he tried to find some clue to the truth, some piece of information that might help uncover the real killer and prove his innocence. So far he had come up with nothing.

Ten o’clock was “lights out”, so there was no more reading. Praying and meditation worked sometimes, but it was hard to keep it up night after night. He would pray for his wife, Kathleen, at home alone. They had started their family early, so now that all three children had married and begun their own families, Dan and Kathleen had faced the empty nest syndrome while still in their forties. They had thought it would be great for it to be just the two of them again while they were still young. Now, with Dan in jail and the real possibility that it could be for the rest of his life, they weren’t so sure it had been the right choice.

He prayed for his church. They had lost so much in the last few months. Just when everything was going so well, Satan had taken a shot at their pastor and hit his mark. Guilt or innocence really didn’t matter at the moment. If Bro. Dan were to be freed soon, the church might be able to recover. As it was, they were barely staying alive. Many had left for other churches; some had stopped going to church altogether, their faith having been shaken. The few that had remained had to spend all their resources just to maintain. Outreach was nearly impossible anyway. No one wanted to join a church on its way down, a church without a leader.

He prayed for all those on the outside that had been helped in recent days to start a new life. Many had found Jesus. Many others, a new lease on life. Dan prayed that would lead to faith in Christ someday. He knew many by name, many others by face. Teenagers, housewives, business men, retirees – sin was an equal opportunity employer paying its wages regardless of age, race, color, sex, or creed. The church had begun to reach them by the score when Satan stopped them cold with the arrest of their leader.

Dan prayed for his fellow prisoners. He had visited some of them before. Now he was one of them. A couple of murderers and rapists were there awaiting transfer, but most of the inmates were in for drug charges, theft, or other petty crimes. The felons and hard-core criminals were usually sent on to the state penitentiary. In the four months Dan had been in jail, he had become well-liked and respected by nearly all of the prisoners and had helped many of them to find peace with God and to try to make some sense of their lives. They had Bible studies nearly every day now and he spent many hours counseling and praying with them. Funny, but the inmates were all sure of Dan’s innocence.

Finally, Dan prayed for himself. Of course he prayed for deliverance, but more for whatever he would need to see this through. He needed courage and strength to face each new day away from his wife and home. He needed grace to forgive and love those who had done this to him or had treated him and Kathleen with scorn. He needed patience to wait for God’s timing when he himself wanted so badly for each day to be the day when he would be proven innocent. He needed wisdom to understand this whole mess so he could learn from it, if not solve the dilemma himself, and of course, to continue to lift up others even while he was down.

He remembered many times at home when he had fallen asleep while praying. He often felt guilty the next morning for having nodded off while talking to God and wished he could pray late at night without getting sleepy. Now that he could, he prayed for sleep to come. It always did, eventually, but usually not quite as quickly as he wanted. Those nights were unbearably long.

The days weren’t so bad. He enjoyed the basketball games with the younger inmates. Some said he wasn’t too bad for “an old man.” He held his own at chess with some of the old-timers, too. A couple of pseudo-intellectuals would occasionally lure him into some great philosophical debate which Dan would skillfully steer into a religious discussion regardless of the original topic.

Several inmates were serious about a relationship with God and Dan was thrilled to lead a Bible study group almost every day. They had a full blown worship service each Sunday complete with singing, testimonies, and a sermon from Bro. Dan. He became the spiritual mentor of several prisoners and listened patiently and tenderly to their problems, advising when asked.

But it hadn’t always been that way. Dan had to prove himself. He had to earn their respect and trust. He did it by being himself and genuine. He won them over by not retaliating to their remarks and behavior when he first arrived at the jail.

They got the newspapers in the county jail, too, and by the time Dan arrived there, they knew all about him. He entered the lock-up to the sounds of cheers and jeers of all kinds, mocking him, even threatening him. He looked straight ahead as he marched past the cells adjoining his new home, trying his best to ignore the insults and accusations hurled in his direction. He remembered the saying he had heard as a young boy about “sticks and stones” and words never hurting. He thought to himself, “I’ll never tell that lie again.” He hurt with every stony word thrown at him.

The next few days brought more of the same, but not all at once like his “untriumphal entry.” The slurs and insults were spread throughout the day, but they still hurt. He was all alone in a crowd. Other than to insult or taunt him, no one spoke to Dan. At mealtime he tried, but they all either ignored him or responded with more jokes and taunts until he gave up trying normal conversations. Though tempted, he never retaliated and every day he tried again.

That must have done it. Or maybe curiosity won out over the desire to taunt. In any case, after a couple of weeks, the jeers and ribbing subsided. Not all at once, but by the end of the second week, it was nearly all over. It was like some sort of initiation ritual or maybe even a test to see how he would respond.

Dan must have passed the test. “Finally,” he thought, “I can have some normal conversations.” He had plenty of visits from Kathleen, his lawyer, and a few church members, but they were brief and limited to certain scheduled visitation hours. He had longed for regular conversations at other times. At last he could talk and would be talked to, not jeered at.

In the beginning, however, conversations were limited to his case. Dan didn’t like thinking about it, much less talking about it, but it was all anyone else was interested in.

“What made you do it?’ some asked.

“What was it like to kill someone?” others wanted to know.

Others wanted details about the affair. “What was she like? Was she the only one? How did he expect a preacher to get away with something like that?”

Dan soon figured out that no one believed he was innocent. No matter how often he answered their questions with denials, they came back with more of the same. He sensed that none of them condemned him, but they all were sure he was guilty. “We’re all innocent!” they said. “Nobody in here ever did anything!” they added with a laugh.

Gradually, Dan was able to start conversations of his own choosing on subjects other than Dan McClain. Occasionally, he was interrupted as he sat quietly and read his Bible. A few inmates wanted to know if what it had to say helped. He thrilled at the chance to share his faith and what scriptures helped him handle this ordeal. In time, they really began to listen.

He soon found that they would open up about themselves and he learned to be a very good listener. They had already been condemned for their sins and they were paying some of the consequences. Now they needed love and forgiveness and Dan tried to give it to them. He also tried to point them to more of the same on a higher level – from God.

As he accepted them, they began to accept him. He was invited to join in the recreation. He was fair at Ping-Pong, winning as often as he lost. He was more successful at chess, but his favorite pastime was basketball. They played pretty rough, but he held his own and soon became a regular.

With each passing day, he gained more respect, both from the inmates and the guards. He became a model prisoner and a good friend. After the first month, he had adjusted pretty well to life on the inside. The food wasn’t much, but he found enough to eat to maintain his health.

Dan had lost several pounds in the beginning of his ordeal when his appetite practically disappeared. He always felt he needed to trim down his 225 pound, 6 foot-2 inch frame anyway, so by the time things leveled off in jail, he actually felt good about himself. He was down to 200 pounds and exercising every day, besides the basketball games.

His hair seemed to have gotten gray over night and he wasn’t sleeping like he should, so he showed the signs of wear and tear this ordeal had caused. Overall, though, Dan thought he had fared pretty well.

By the end of the second month, a few inmates were gathering daily for Bible study with “Bro. Dan the Preacher Man.” Others occasionally stood close by to ‘listen in’ awhile before moving on. A few cornered him at other times for a listening ear or advice. He soon became their unofficial chaplain. He liked that ministry, but wondered if they still thought he had actually killed another human being.

One day he got up the courage to ask his study group. At the end of a particularly good study, Dan paused, then asked, “Do you guys think I’m guilty? I mean, what do you really believe?”

He expected mixed reactions, and certainly an awkward pause while they deliberated for their answers. Instead, the responses came immediately. Regardless of the words chosen, the consensus was unanimous for innocence! Not one of this study group even hesitated a second to state belief in Dan, yet none of them had actually even heard his side of the story. They only knew what they had read in the papers. No one had given him a chance to explain in the early days and once they had gotten to know him, the subject never came up again.

“What about the others?” Dan asked. “Does anyone ever discuss it anymore? Do you guys know how they feel?”

One of the men asked, “What does it matter? Do you really care how a bunch of cons think?”

“Yes, I do.” Dan replied. “It matters to me what people think of me. I probably will never be able to help anyone who really thinks I’m a killer and won’t face up to it.”

Another spoke up, saying, “I can’t speak for them all, but everybody I know says you didn’t do it.”

“That’s right,” added a third inmate, while the rest nodded or voiced agreement. “And I’d say between us, we pretty much know how everyone feels. We all figured you were guilty when you came – that’s the way it is here. But now – well, now we know you and I say there’s no way you killed anybody!”

“Thanks,” Dan said. “It means alot for you guys to believe in me.”

Dan was encouraged to know that there were some people who believed in his innocence. He tried to convince himself that maybe if he were to testify in court, the jury would see, just as these inmates had, that he was telling the truth. He spoke to his lawyer about it, but the lawyer didn’t agree. He tried to let Dan down easy, but had to tell him that it just wouldn’t work that way. The jury would have to decide based on the evidence, not Dan’s appeal, and they both knew that the evidence pointed to “guilty.”

The only real encouragement was the frequent visits from Kathleen. She couldn’t come every day, but came as often as she could. They didn’t get much time or privacy, but Dan and Kathleen lived for those visits. Her faith in him and constant air of hope kept him going. It helped him to know that his partner of twenty eight years was still in his corner. She also brought encouraging words from others and that helped some, too. The bad thing about Kathleen’s visits was that each time, she would have to leave Dan there and he had to face again the fact that he wasn’t free to go with her. Would he ever be free to return to his wife? He was more concerned about her than himself.

He was able to find plenty of things and people to occupy his time, at least during the day. Kathleen, on the other hand, had to face most of her problems alone. The kids had been very supportive, but didn’t live close by and couldn’t actually be around very often. They called frequently and visited when they could, but on a day to day basis, Kathleen was alone.

The church members that had remained faithful to the church remained loyal to her and Dan, but their lives were just as hectic as before and support was sporadic at best.

Dan could tell that she wasn’t eating well and at each visit, her eyes betrayed her sleepless nights. Kathleen was small before all this and Dan feared for her health if something didn’t change soon. Naturally, she said she was feeling fine and eating and sleeping as well as could be expected, but Dan felt she was wasting away. At each visit, he encouraged her to relax, eat sensibly, and get some sleep. They both knew that was easier said than done. She tried to keep busy, but it was actually harder for her than Dan.

Sometimes, Dan was so occupied with ministry, study, and recreation that he almost forgot where he was and why he was there. When it came time to eat or clean up, though, he remembered. When it was time to return to his cell, he couldn’t possibly forget.

He was a prisoner at the county jail, on trial for murder. He had been locked away from his wife and forced to live as a convict. However, the past week had been different. Each day he could dress in civilian clothes and was transported to the courthouse for his trial. The trial wasn’t going well.

Bro. Dan knew, but couldn’t prove that the whole thing had been an elaborate setup to silence his public stand against the pornography in his city and the other pursuits of the criminal element behind it. He could remember all too vividly how it began.


 

The pastor’s study at Center City Baptist Church, where Dan McClain was pastor was an absolute contrast to the cell that he occupied at the county jail. The study Bro. Dan liked so well was warm and personal. The antique oak desk he had found at an auction and refinished himself was the heart of the room.

Behind it was the comfortable desk chair given to Bro. Dan by one of his Sunday School classes two Christmases ago. In that chair he had sat and listened and counseled more troubled church members and townsfolk than he cared to remember. It had been his seat of learning as he spent countless hours poring over the hundreds of books he had accumulated in his twenty-plus years of ministry.

The books filled the oak shelves that lined the walls behind the stately desk. Bro. Dan loved the look of wood. Under the shelves were cabinets filled with more books, periodicals, and memorabilia from several mission trips he had taken through the years.

Connecting one end of the desk to the shelves behind was a computer desk filled with the computer, printer, scanner, disks, and manuals. Bro. Dan called that the brains of his ministry. He enjoyed the wonders of modern technology and used the computer for study and sermon preparation as well as personal and church records. It was also the command post for the Decency Movement, the organized effort against crime and corruption in Center City that Dan had spearheaded during the past year.

In front of Dan’s desk there were two easy chairs, slightly to the right of center and angled just a little. The opposite angle was taken by a small, wood-framed, cushioned love seat. They all formed a kind of semi-circle facing the desk, making it easy for anyone in any seat to see the others. It was warm and cozy and more like a den at home than a study in a church building.

The whole room could be well lit by ceiling lights or a floor lamp near the desk could light up just the desk area for private, personal study time. Naturally, the phone connected Bro. Dan to the secretary’s office just across the hall as well as to the outside world. Sometimes he felt his study was a cocoon of warmth and safety from the cold, harsh world. But many times, the world intruded upon his retreat.

Chapter Two

“Desperate Matters”

“Center City Baptist Church,” he answered into the phone. “Pastor Dan McClain speaking.”

The voice on the other end shook as the man humbly asked for help. “I don’t know what to do, Bro. Dan. It’s like a nightmare. It’s tearing our family apart and we need help. Could you come by sometime soon?”

They talked for a few minutes, then the pastor headed for the Saunders’ home across town. Jack and Kelly were regular attendees along with their teenage daughter, Julie. Bro. Dan had noticed some changes over the last several months and had offered to help with whatever it was, but Jack always said everything was okay. At first Dan had attributed the apparent problems to the “raising a teenager” syndrome so many families have to work through. Dan had noticed they had slipped some in their attendance on Sundays, especially Julie. She had also begun to dress more “worldly”, as Jack liked to describe it and had become rebellious and very independent since graduating from high school last year.

Kathleen had tried to talk to Julie a couple of times, but was politely dismissed. She had little success with Kelly as well. Dan and Kathleen both began to sense that there were deeper problems than anyone was letting on, but with no cooperation from the troubled family, there was little they could do.

As he drove to the Saunders’ home, Pastor Dan prayed for wisdom and grace. Jack had said that Julie had gotten involved in some terrible things and that he and Kelly were at their wits’ ends as to what to do. Dan feared drinking and drugs and prayed that Julie wasn’t pregnant. He had already seen far too many teenage girls ruin their lives. Boys, too for that matter.

He had been in the ministry for over twenty years and thought that he was pretty well equipped to handle most any problem, but what he learned that afternoon at the Saunders’ home knocked him for a loop.

The neighborhood and house in which the Saunders family lived hid the problems of their home life. Jack had worked hard for years and had become very successful in business. They had finally been able to realize their dream and build their own home in an exclusive neighborhood at the edge of Center City.

All the houses were large and beautiful with neatly trimmed lawns. The streets were well lit after dark and a neighborhood cooperative employed a security firm to patrol at night. Everyone felt quite safe and secure, protected from the big, bad world. They probably knew differently in their heart of hearts, but had convinced themselves that money and an exclusive environment would insure that their homes and families would be insulated from the problems the rest of the city might have to endure. Apparently the Saunders had been forced back into reality.

Inside the beautiful home, with its exquisite furnishings, Bro. Dan sat in silence as Jack and Kelly took turns sharing their burden. Julie wasn’t home, as usual. Their story broke their pastor’s heart as he spent the next two hours listening and crying as the Saunders shared the horror story that had become their lives. Julie, their beautiful eighteen year old daughter had not only fallen prey to alcohol and drug abuse, but apparently had been drawn into the world of prostitution and pornography as well! Her parents had gradually learned more and more over the last few weeks and she had finally confessed the whole story to them before going out that afternoon.

The summer after high school graduation, Julie had taken a job at a local video rental store. She soon began to date the older night manager who later introduced her to alcohol and eventually drugs. Once their relationship truly had a strong hold on her, he showed Julie the business “behind” the video business. It seems that the owners used the video store as a front for their pornography business. Partly for the money and partly for the thrill of it, Julie tried her hand at some nude modeling, then soft-porn movies.

Her new lifestyle made her more tolerant of such things and what once would have offended, even repulsed her, now seemed harmless and even a little exciting. At first she had just watched others, but soon she became a willing participant. “After all,” her boyfriend said, “nobody’s getting hurt here and we’re all adults.” She liked the sound of that. She was old enough to do as she pleased. It was fun and exciting, and it paid well too.

Julie made plenty of money in her new career and she was glad to have it. She had developed a rather expensive drug habit over the last few months. She was also out on the town nearly every night. The clubs and the drinking took money, too, and she had acquired a pretty expensive taste in clothing. She felt like a glamorous movie star and it was an expensive role to play. The money she earned in pornography took care of her new lifestyle, but her new employers wanted more.

Sin always works that way. The temptations make it all look so good, otherwise there would be little temptation. But in the end, we get stung. Proverbs says there is a way that seems right to a man, but the end of it is destruction.

Her employers soon demanded more from Julie. They threatened to expose her to her parents and public ridicule, possibly arrest, if she didn’t participate in their prostitution ring. She reluctantly complied out of fear and soon found herself in so deeply that there seemed to be no way out.

The pressure and fear caused her to drink more heavily and use more drugs. The increased addictions required more money. The only ways to get that kind of money quickly were crime or more pornography and prostitution. She sank lower into the sex for sale business and even lower into despair.

She was rarely ever home anymore and when she was, there was just another fight with her parents. They had learned quickly about the drinking and drugs, but they never even suspected the rest. She said her video store job and her boyfriend supplied the money.

In the beginning, she fought with them because that was the life she wanted. No one was going to tell her how to live her life anymore. Later, she wanted out, but felt trapped. She then fought with her parents because she had become a different person. The drugs, the alcohol, and the sexual abuse had changed her. Julie had become everything she used to hate, certainly no one who could get along with nice, decent Christian people like her parents. They lived in the same house, but in two different worlds, worlds that collided every time Julie was home.

Finally, she broke down and told them the whole truth. They were stunned – more with shock and fear than anger. They stood dumb-founded and heart-broken as Julie ran out of the house that day. Jack and Kelly held each other and cried. They recovered from the shock and disbelief and spent quite some time in prayer. They discussed what to do, but nothing seemed like the right answer. Finally, they called their pastor. Maybe he would know.

When they had finished their story, Bro. Dan encouraged Jack and Kelly to talk to Julie about getting help and going to the police. Understandably, they were scared. They feared for Julie’s life. They feared for what exposure would do to her, even if she wasn’t hurt by the local crime mob. They were afraid for her health if she didn’t get help. But they knew their pastor was right. Julie needed help. They prayed together and said they would talk to Julie about it as soon as she came home.

Bro. Dan couldn’t get to sleep that night. He tossed and turned for over an hour before finally giving up and getting up. He couldn’t stop thinking about Jack and Kelly and how much they must be hurting. He couldn’t shake the picture from his mind of Kelly sobbing uncontrollably at times with her head buried in her hands. He fought images of the lifestyle into which Julie had become trapped. He imagined the worst and he wasn’t far wrong. He spent the next couple of hours in prayer for all three of the Saunders.

His prayer was interrupted. The silence of the night was pierced by the ring of his phone with a call for help. It was the police, asking Dan to go to the hospital to help Jack and Kelly. Julie had tried to kill herself! She had pumped herself full of booze and pills and sped her car off the road into some trees, apparently on purpose.

Dan woke Kathleen and they both quickly dressed and raced to the hospital to be by the side of devastated parents. As Julie’s life hung in the balance, the four adults poured out their hearts to God in the hospital chapel.

Julie’s parents kept a constant vigil over her for the next four days, not knowing if she would live or die. Bro. Dan spent as much time with them as he could, praying, counseling, comforting. He helped them to trust completely in God for the right outcome and to let go and let Him take care of their daughter.

He also helped them to know that they had done a good job raising Julie – this was not their fault. Sometimes God’s children mess up. We are all sinners, even after we give our lives to Jesus. So we sometimes make bad choices. However, God promises that He will forgive us and cleanse us if we will confess our sins to Him. Bro. Dan eased the hurt in their hearts when he assured them that God could give Julie another chance with a clean slate.

Julie did pull through, but it would take a long time for her to recover from the accident and the substance abuse. She refused to talk about her now ex-boyfriend and his associates. The police figured it was partly out of fear of prosecution, but mostly out of fear for herself or her family.

Over the next few weeks, Bro. Dan learned more about the extent of the criminal activities of his city. He talked with the police who seemed to know plenty, but could prove little. They told Dan that they believed much of the drug traffic, pornography, and prostitution in and around Center City was controlled by one man and his mob. That man, they believed but had never been able to prove, was Sam Lawrence. He was constantly under investigation, but they could never get enough proof.

They could catch the “little guys” and occasionally put some of them away, but no one ever implicated Lawrence. Money or fear always provided silence. He walked around free and rich while the Julies of Center City ruined their lives.

Dan was determined to find out more. He went to where the teens were; they would know. Some of Julie’s old friends opened up to Dan about the parties, the drugs, and the pornography. Most of those with drug and alcohol habits got hooked while still in high school. Some earlier than that. Some actually had gotten started at home! Most began because it was “the thing to do.” Their friends did and they wanted acceptance. It was considered cool. Peer pressure is a hard force to fight and far too many give in.

Many supported their habits through crime or prostitution. Bro. Dan learned that there was a large number of high school girls involved in either prostitution or pornography or both. According to her friends, Julie was not a rare case – it happened all the time.

He pieced together a picture of a terrible world that apparently existed right along side his decent world. Oh, he had always known and often preached against the evils of alcohol and drugs. He also knew pornography was rampant in society, but somehow it all had seemed to keep its distance. Dan now knew it was not distant at all, but right there in his own backyard.

It was infecting every neighborhood, school, and church. Children who attend Sunday School on Sunday were drinking beer on Friday nights. Teenagers in the youth choir smoked pot after church. Some of the girls from nice neighborhoods – cheerleaders, “A” students, athletes – sold their bodies to lustful older men in order to buy expensive drugs and designer clothes.

The police seemed powerless to stop it. Too many parents looked the other way or refused to believe their children would do such things. The worst things always happened to someone else somewhere else. Drug traffic, prostitution, pornography and all the robberies, beatings, addictions, diseases, and yes, even deaths that accompany them. One might think these things are the province of big cities only, but reality says differently. Bro. Dan’s eyes had been suddenly opened and he did not like what he saw.

He had found scores of young people on their way down in ruin due to alcohol and drugs. He learned of dozens of young ladies like Julie, duped and trapped into a life of prostitution. He saw young men and women drinking and drugging their lives away before they really had a chance to live. He found parents grieving over lost children. Some were dead already, others were lost to addictions and crime.

He found teenagers already caught in Satan’s trap. Young adults were aging before their time, already reaping the wages of several years of sin. The older victims had lost jobs, homes, and families to pay the cost of a lifetime of addictions. Sometimes, Dan thought it was those who had already been arrested and jailed who were the lucky ones. Maybe they had been taken off the streets before it was too late. Later, when he was forced to join them, he changed his mind.

Center City was a small city of only 35,000 people. One’s first look might notice the smartly manicured lawns, modern architecture, thriving business district, and neatly trimmed neighborhoods. With a closer look, one might discover the more seedy side of town, yet oddly enough, most of the residents never seemed to notice. The Saunders and the McClains had been forced to notice. The question remained – “now that we’ve noticed, what do we do?”

 

Chapter Three

“The Decency Movement”

 

Bro. Dan’s mind reeled with all the images he had seen and the stories he had heard in the last few weeks. He had been shocked by Julie Saunders’ addictions and subsequent suicide attempt into facing a world he had previously ignored. He spent a couple of hours each week with Jack, Kelly, and Julie. They needed lots of help putting their lives back together. Julie was getting professional help to keep her body clean from alcohol and drugs, but she needed her soul to be clean again, too. She had sunk lower than she had ever imagined possible. It would take time, but her pastor was sure he could help her know that God had forgiven her and that she should and could forgive herself.

Jack and Kelly assured her that they had always loved her and would see her through the healing. They were thrilled to be getting their daughter back! With God’s help, they felt they would never lose her again.

They knew that some of the problem had been that they had not really been as committed to Jesus as they should have been. They had been too busy with their own lives to get very involved in spiritual matters. Trying to “gain the whole world,” they had almost lost their daughter. They had learned the hard way that it was much better to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” and trust Him to add the physical things they needed. This time, things would be different.

Besides trying to help Julie’s family work through healing and recovery, Dan had set out to learn all he could about the local crime gang and all the different ways they were infecting Center City with sin and degradation. He had received quite an education and after much prayer, he decided to wage a war against crime and sin in his city. He had always preached against sin, but it was time to do more than talk. Too many lives were being ruined to settle for sermons alone. There was a spiritual war being fought over the souls and lives of those around Center City and Bro. Dan felt that Christians were losing the war. They weren’t losing because they were out-manned or overpowered, but because, for the most part, they had refused to get into the fight!

He had read time and again that Satan was a lion in the streets seeking prey to devour. Dan had seen that the lion was feasting in Center City. He had preached often that Christians were fighting against powers and forces of darkness, not flesh and blood, and must put on spiritual armor to win spiritual wars. He now realized that armor and weapons did little good unless those wearing them actually got into the battle!

He remembered that Jesus had said the gates of hell would not prevail against His church. Dan realized that the church had retreated into its fort to pray for strength to hold out against the devil’s attacks until Jesus returns. Yet Jesus’ description was of a church attacking hell’s stronghold! Dan began to picture the army of God marching into Center City’s hell and rescuing those Satan had wounded and captured, defeating those he had recruited to be his soldiers, hopefully saving them as well.

He began the fight with a series of messages on Sunday mornings that reaffirmed the scriptural stance against sexual impurity, harmful substances, and violence. He spoke with conviction and compassion as he denounced the sinful practices of his community. He shared the things he had experienced recently, without any names of course. He made sure his congregation realized that he was talking about their city, their schools, and their children, not some big city somewhere else. Satan had a hold on Center City and if God’s people didn’t stand up and fight, they would soon lose their own children and grandchildren. No one was immune!

Bro. Dan made sure that they all understood that Christians belong to God. Their bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. As God’s children they are to be responsible stewards of His bodies and minds. “Do not be mastered by anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ!” he preached. “If you have been, confess it now. Let God forgive you, cleanse you, and restore you,” he pleaded.

He wanted everyone to be clear on two things: what sin is and what to do about it. “Sin,” he preached, “is anything that displeases God. It is attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions that are contrary to His will. The sins are deeds that come from the rebellious nature that all are born with.” Then he named the sins. He wanted no doubt about where God and his church stood on the issues such as alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, prostitution, pornography, abuse, violence, and crime.

“People are not sinners because they commit sins,” Bro. Dan preached. “They commit sins because they are sinners. It is our fallen nature. We have to let Christ give us His nature in order to overcome. And those of us who already have must reach out to those who are still under the control of the sinful nature, trapped in a life of sin.”

With the mention of each particular sin, Bro. Dan was able to illustrate by pointing specifically to an area of their town. He would describe a teenage hooker he had met outside a local high school. Or he would tell of the drunken brawl some of the boys on the ball team admitted to, resulting in suspensions and injuries. In one message, he shared about an elderly grandmother he met who had been robbed of her social security check by her own teenage grandson so he could buy drugs. She went without groceries until the church stepped in to provide.

Recognizing the sins was the easy part. The hard part was what to do about it. Bro. Dan assured his people that God was a God of second chances. He would forgive, cleanse, and help them start over if they genuinely turned from their sins. Dan stressed repentance, reminding them that God honors a “broken and contrite” heart.

The story of Israel’s King David was a tremendous help. It illustrated perfectly that God’s people can indeed fall into terrible sin if they’re not careful. However, when David confessed, God forgave. Yes, he suffered some grave consequences, but God did cleanse his soul and David became useful to his Lord again. Many of his psalms, written after his fall, still help millions today. God is indeed a God of second chances, as Julie Saunders would testify, though He says, “Go and sin no more.”

God’s Word shined its light into everyone’s life during those next few weeks, exposing the sins that had been hiding in the dark parts of people’s hearts. God’s Spirit began to move in Bro. Dan’s congregation. Teenagers confessed sins and addictions and vowed to help each other clean up their own lives first, then start on their school campuses. Young men confessed pornographic habits and addictions and began a support group to help clean up their minds and their town. Young women pledged to stay sexually pure for their future husbands.

With each sermon came the challenge not only to refrain personally, but to denounce the actions publicly and to get involved helping others. It wasn’t enough to get cleaned up; others needed help , too, and most of them didn’t even realize it yet. God needed witnesses and warriors, not just worshipers. David had asked God to create in him a pure heart and renew a right spirit, and to restore the joy of salvation. Then David would teach transgressors the right ways and turn them back to the Lord. It wasn’t enough to get things right between God and himself. He then needed to help others do the same.

The church newsletter soon contained articles and testimonies about the harmful effects of alcohol, drugs, sex, and pornography. Some came from well-known personalities, but some from people right there in Center City Baptist Church. God’s Spirit began to convict and strengthen. People came forward to help. Men and women of all ages, from various walks of life, began to commit to a life of involvement. At first there was just a trickle of people wanting to help, but soon a river of helpers flowed to the altar then later into the streets hoping to “clean up” their city.

Dan was overwhelmed by the response. He knew it would take organization and training. No army can fight properly and effectively without it; God’s army was no different. Bro. Dan and some of his members decided to organize in order to take the movement out of the church and into the city.

They made a plan of action and worked it. They met with other pastors asking them to inform their parishioners and encourage participation in the fight for decency. They started petitions around town calling for the city council to take action against the sale of pornography and the showing of X-rated movies. Laws allowed liquor sales, but they established patrols which monitored for illegal sales to minors, informing the owners that they were watching and would prosecute any infractions.

They met with the police and were helped to organize neighborhood patrols to watch for and report drug activity. They met with school officials to set up rallies to help with alcohol and drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. They couldn’t preach the gospel on public campuses, but they could help people and set up future contact off campus where they would be free to witness as well as help with the problems. The movement grew with each passing week.

Other churches in town did climb on the band wagon and soon hundreds of people in Center City had begun to take an active role in trying to rid their town of its vices. Decency rallies were organized with Dan McClain usually in the forefront, if not the main speaker. Picket lines marched in front of adult bookstores causing a decline in business. Support groups and free counseling were established to help anyone who wanted help in overcoming addictions.

The Movement was sponsored entirely through donations. A few churches, like Center City Baptist, added it to their regular budget. Some businesses helped with donations knowing it would benefit the whole community to be “cleaned up.” This was not just a church movement, it was a community task.

A few wealthy citizens who had seen the Movement help someone in their families donated large amounts of money to the cause. It took lots of capital to rent office space for the counseling centers and keep the phone lines open. Advertising on local radio, television, and billboards was costly, too. Most of the medical and counseling services were donated, but supplies had to be subsidized by the Movement.

The rallies were held in the larger churches in the beginning, but soon outgrew them and the school auditorium or stadium had to be rented. Most of the guest speakers and musicians for the rallies donated their time as well, but the Movement took care of travel and lodging expenses. As the Movement grew, the expenses made it big business, even though it was a non-profit one.

Bro. Dan had put together the organization and naturally had been made president of the group of officers that was formed to run it. They chose a task force to put the Movement into action. The officers took care of the organizing and set the overall goals and plans for accomplishing those goals. They divided the responsibilities for actually working the plans among the members of the task force. The task force in turn mobilized the army of volunteers and made sure the plans worked and ran smoothly. Everything was to be done “decently and in order”, just like the Bible says.

The leadership and responsibilities were spread among several leading churches so no one could accuse anyone of any improprieties and accountability would be built into the system. The task force made sure that everything done was according to law and carried out in the best of behavior. Permits were obtained when the occasion warranted and all public actions were done with model behavior. Private property and personal freedoms were honored at all times. Bro. Dan insisted that everyone connected with the Movement had to be above reproach when acting in any way connected to their cause.

Every move was covered by local media and according to the reports, the Movement was beginning to make a difference. Crime was down slightly, dozens of addicts were healing, liquor and pornography sales were slipping, and drug sales were likely down as well. There was even some hope of new legislation being introduced that would force the closing of adult bookstores and put some limits on the sale of alcohol.

Bro. Dan was encouraged and excited, but also somewhat puzzled. So far there had been virtually no response from the other side. No threats, no violence, not even any public statements. The Decency Movement, as it had been labeled, was moving along unchecked.

For several months, the Christian forces marched, lobbied, rallied, counseled, preached, educated, and published in the fight against smut and crime. Their message was abundantly clear. They wanted the city cleaned up and they offered help to any victim of the trash they were trying to take out of Center City. It was a tremendous amount of work, but every changed life made it all worth while. Finally, the right side was winning the war!

Bro. Dan was careful to give God the credit and praise for the victories, but he was clearly the human instrument God was using to lead His army. He was featured at every rally, asked to be guest speaker at many church and community gatherings, and interviewed on local television and radio stations. Some were beginning to encourage political aspirations for Bro. Dan, but he had no interest in that. His main focus continued to be pastoring his church, though cleaning up the city was clearly a major emphasis as well. Between the two activities, he had become a very busy man, but the miracles he witnessed in people kept him going.

Nearly every week, someone would stop by the church or call Bro. Dan at his study to share how God had touched them through the Decency Movement. One day it was a teenage boy who had been helped to stop drinking. Another time it was a college coed who had been helped out of a life of prostitution. A young couple shared how they had both been into drugs and it was ruining their marriage. Now they were receiving treatment and counseling to remain drug free, as well as how to manage their finances, nearly ruined by the cost of the drugs. By the time they left Dan’s study, they had prayed to receive Christ.

Bro. Dan would pass on testimonies like these in a sermon or in the newsletters (the Movement had its own newsletter now). Some, he even asked to come share for themselves at the next rally. Every church connected with the Movement gained in attendance as people got right with God and began to let Him straighten out their lives.

Dan McClain was very pleased with his church and his community. In less than a year they had rallied together to fight crime and corruption in their hometown and obviously, they were making a difference.

 

To be continued….

 

 

 

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Most Wanted!

Mountain Brook, Wyoming, population 7,604. A quiet little burg in the shadow of the Teton Mts. A nice place to live if you want peace and quiet. If you want tourists and activities, there are plenty of other places in Wyoming to settle, or even just visit. Cheyenne, Cody, or the national parks. Lots of great natural beauty to enjoy all around, but for peace and quiet, a town the size of Mountain Brook is just right. And if you desire anonymity, it’s perfect. At least it was until yesterday!

Yesterday, just four days after the start of the new school year, a boiler exploded in the Mountain Brook Elementary School! The old furnace had been repaired time and again and for the last time this past summer. It was slated for replacement next year! Instead, it reached its limit this year and blew sky high, taking a good portion of the elementary school with it!

In a town like Mountain Brook, at a time like this, not only do the police, firefighters, and EMTs respond, but nearly the whole town does! Businesses shut down as fast as they can. Most of the owners and managers, even a good portion of the employees serve as volunteer firefighters, first responders, National Guardsmen or you name it.

Of course, the local police spear-headed the emergency situation. The State Police was notified, and they sent a few troopers that way. Parents of the elementary students quickly flooded the area. The local police quickly set up a perimeter and a liaison tent to handle the worried parents. Students and faculty were evacuated to this one central, safe location and efforts were made to account for everyone before matching parents with their children. Most were too far from the blast to be harmed in any way – they were merely frightened.

However, two groups were close to the blast. One of those was one of the fourth-grade classes doing artwork just across the hall to the west and one room to the north of the boiler room. The explosion had taken out the empty room next to the class and part of the adjoining wall. That wall and some of the suspended ceiling burst in and down upon the students with no warning! It was taking emergency workers a little time to get all those students and the teacher and his aid out safely. Preliminary reports said no fatalities and no serious injuries, though plenty of minor ones, but there was one more group to locate.

A group directly affected by the blast was another story altogether. Twelve students from the third-grade class of Freda Jackson had gone to the basement with the teacher’s aide, Kathy Maxwell. They were on a fact-finding assignment. A few years ago, no one would have been in the small room located just behind the room that held the boiler. It had been just a storage room, but a couple of years ago it had been retrofitted to make a special library annex for research specifically related to Wyoming’s rich history – especially relating to exploration, westward expansion, and Native American heritages.
The small room would only handle ten or twelve students at a time, so classes took turns and scheduled small group research and studies at different days and times. Unfortunately for these students and Ms. Maxwell, yesterday was their turn.

The explosion ripped through that part of the building and blew upward. Some of the main floor collapsed into the basement and blocked access to the research room. A pile of rubble of concrete, steel, and wood prevented the class from escaping. The wood was ablaze, and smoke was likely filtering into the room!

The concussion of the blast had knocked a few of the students to the floor as well as some of the shelf units. A few were hurt and all were terrified. It happened so quickly that there was no chance of escape. It took a little while at the evacuation staging area to realize part of the third-grade class was missing.

Authorities did soon learn the plight of that class though and began to organize rescue efforts there. There were other patches of fire to put out, but the research room became top priority. The fire had to be squelched first before rubble could be removed. Ambulances and EMTs stood at the ready close by.

The location of the blazing pile of rubble was problematic. On the main floor directly above the trapped students was the library. It had held but looked precarious. The next room had been reduced to rubble and collapsed to the downstairs blocking the research room. So, the library was not a safe place from which to fight the fire. The next room did not exist anymore. And debris and smaller fires blocked entry from where the fourth graders had been evacuated. They were able to get out the other way, but it would take some time to clear a path inward, just to be in position to fight the fire that threatened the research room.

Meanwhile, if anything happened to further weaken the library, it might collapse into the research room below it! With a “no-cellphone” policy in place for the students, there was no communication in or out of the research room. The school intercom still worked in other areas of the building but no longer here. Ms. Maxwell did her best to help the wounded and calm them all.

In about an hour, all other students, teachers, and administrative staff had been accounted for and students were united with their parents. No one wanted to go home, but the police and school officials encouraged them to do so or go to their churches to pray for those trapped in the research room. They had been identified by now and their families waited anxiously at the evacuation post.

Several of the other injured had been transported to the small hospital in Mountain Brook. Fortunately, so far, no one was hurt badly enough to take anywhere else. Of course, local and regional news reporters were on the scene, so all of Wyoming watched and waited. Much of the nation got continued updates. Every effort was being made to affect the rescue of the teacher’s aide and her twelve third graders, but it was slow going. If smoke was getting into that room, and no one could know for sure, it could be life threatening. And of course, that was assuming the class had survived the blast in the first place! Time was not an ally here.

While firefighters continued to rain on the blazes and rescue workers cleared debris as quickly and safely as possible, the authorities conferred and plotted possible strategies to get those trapped people out of there. But one man did something else. The school janitor, Calvin Sampson, just couldn’t stand idly by anymore. He knew this building like no one else. He had cleaned it from top to bottom for twenty years. He knew every inch of floor space, every nook and cranny. He knew its strengths and its weaknesses. Others wondered about the integrity of that library above; Calvin knew it wouldn’t last. He knew the supporting walls of the research room were barely enough to hold the library up. With the explosion and possible damage, plus the fires, he knew it had to have weakened.

It was time to get those kids out of there! He went to his custodian workroom and quickly went to work. Not cleaning, but making something – homemade bombs! He got some chemicals, some pipes, tape, and a few other things he would need and soon he had two pipe bombs and was headed back to the boiler room area. Obviously, he had done this before.

Calvin slipped through the barricades and cordoned-off areas to make his way downstairs to what used to be the boiler room. The debris and fires were on the opposite side. Knowing the layout of the erstwhile boiler room, he was able to crawl through the rubble toward the research room. He had to manhandle some debris occasionally, but he was able to reach the backside of the rubble pile that had blocked entry to or escape from the research room. It was still burning pretty good and as yet, the firefighters were not able to work there.

Calvin carefully scanned the rubble pile and did some mental calculations. He planned to set off his two bombs in such a way as to blast the rubble away from the wall of the research room. The explosions would have to be directional. The blasts had to push the rubble away, not just anywhere. He had designed his bombs to do just that, if he could place them where and how he needed.

That would be the tricky part. He needed the two blasts to be about ten or twelve feet apart in a line close to the research room and parallel with its west wall. Of course, the position had to be just right to blow the rubble away and not hurt the wall. He knew it would work if he could position the bombs correctly and control when they went off.
Calvin knew that if he could just crawl over there and set the bombs, he could light the fuses, crawl away, and watch the fireworks do their job. But he couldn’t do that. With a little work he could rig the first bomb, but he couldn’t get far enough into the pile to set the second one. Without it, the first one would be a waste of time. It would take two consecutive explosions to do the job.

What he needed was to burrow a tunnel into the debris just a couple of feet out from the research room wall. That two feet of debris would help protect the room from the blasts and could easily be cleaned once the big rubble pile had been blasted away. He also knew that even if he cleared a spot for his first bomb, he could never tunnel further along to plant the second bomb. He couldn’t tunnel into a loose rubble pile – it would just collapse, even if he could pry debris away.

He could only think of one way. It was risky, even if he could make it work. He hoped if he could clear a spot for the first explosion and have bomb number two ready, and if he was fast enough, the first explosion would temporarily clear a path where he could get the second bomb to where he needed it to be.

He would only have a second or two before debris from the first explosion would resettle on top of him, if the second blast didn’t carry it away. Even then, he wasn’t sure he would survive. If he failed, the kids were no worse off. If he succeeded, they could be reached soon after. He didn’t know if they were alive, but he felt like it was worth the risk.

He worked as fast as he could to clear and brace a small cavity in the rubble to house the first pipe bomb. It looked good. He was pretty sure the blast would make a good start at clearing the rubble pile. It might even help with the fire. The question was, could he protect himself from the blast so he could stay close enough and steady enough to quickly set off the second bomb in the newly created space. He was about to find out!

Calvin cut the fuse on the second bomb short and got his lighter out. He placed the first bomb just how he knew it had to be set. He lit the fuse and laid down behind the concrete blocks he had set to protect himself. He held bomb Number Two with his lighter ready.

Boom!! The word hardly fits what took place. Calvin lit the second fuse and looked up. It was dusty and smoky, but he saw floor space just ahead. Debris was coming back down. He tossed the bomb up ahead to the space created by the first explosion and dropped down below the blocks again.

Boom!! The second blast sent more rubble into the air combining with the debris that was settling down from the first blast. Calvin dared not raise up yet. He was being showered with some debris – but not much. He needed to stay well enough to start clearing the rubble next to the wall and the door.

Meanwhile, firefighters had heard the blasts and quickly reacted. Calvin had definitely gotten their attention! They maneuvered to see the source of the explosions. They could tell the blasts had come from near the research room, but no one was in a position to see yet. What they could see was that the fire near the research room had nearly been smothered out!

A drone was dispatched to hover over the area and with its video, they could see a man clearing rubble away from the research room wall – near the door. A quick conference with school officials identified Calvin, the custodian, and produced a theory that he must have gotten through from the boiler room area. Workers were sent in that same way.

As Calvin pulled and pushed away debris, workers found his path through the boiler room and joined him in the debris-clearing. They made quick work of the small pile that was left by the wall after the explosions. Within minutes they found and cleared the door. Forcing open the door they were delighted to see Ms. Maxwell seated on the floor in the middle of the room surrounded by the students. Students were all seated except two who were a little hurt and lying on the floor with their heads on her lap. Seeing their rescuers, the children all shouted with joy and leapt to their feet!

The rescue workers instructed them on how they would exit the room and crawl through the boiler room to get out. They would go directly to the area set up for checking their condition and their parents would be brought in. As the processional made its way to the staging area, Calvin fell back to the rear of the line and eventually slipped off on his own. Thirty minutes later, everyone had been cared for and had returned to home and family. The only thing left was dealing with continued debris-cleaning and firefighting – and of course, the news.

Everyone was looking for the hero of the day, identified as school custodian, Calvin Sampson. He was nowhere to be found. They got his address, but he wasn’t home. Police looked for him. Reporters looked for him. No one could find him.

In the days following, research found out very little about Calvin. He had been in town for twenty years, but no one really knew him. He kept to himself. Didn’t attend church or socialize. Seemed to have no friends. He did his job well, but that’s all anyone could say about him.

He was the hero of the day, yet no one really knew him, and he was nowhere to be found! The drone footage was shown on television and eventually picked up across the nation. Later some of it was posted on social media and even showed a zoomed in picture of Calvin as he cleared away rubble. But no one had seen him since the incident.

**********

That picture of Calvin went viral since he was missing now. Four days after the rescue, a man saw it on the news in a bar in eastern Ohio. He went home and googled it. He downloaded the photo into his phone and called to set up a visit the next day at the state penitentiary in northeastern Ohio.

Gary Branch waited on his side of the glass partition for inmate 436 to join him. Thomas “Tommy Boy” Boyer was serving life in prison for crimes he committed thirty years ago in the ‘70s. Gary had served twenty-five for his part and was paroled five years ago. Minnie “Mousy” Malone had served fifteen of her twenty-five and was released ten years before Branch. The fourth member of the gang had gotten away and was never heard from again. He topped the FBI’s Most Wanted list for several years, but in recent times was seldom even talked about.

The ‘70s was a volatile time for protesting. It was the decade of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the New World Liberation Front, and the Weather Underground. Bombings had become so commonplace that most of the country had become numb to the news. One of the lesser known groups was Four for Freedom, headed by Tommy Boy. They had set off a dozen or more bombs around the Midwest, culminating with the one for which the three had been arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced. Tommy Boy got life for setting the bomb that killed three people. The others hadn’t actually built or planted that bomb, so their sentences were lighter. They all believed, and rightly so, that the fourth member of the group had turned them in.

Branch asked Tommy Boy how he was doing. Tommy said, “Good as I can do in here. What brings you here?”

Branch asked if he had heard about the school explosion in Wyoming. Boyer said, “A little. A boiler blew, right?”

Gary replied, “Yeah, but the rescue of some of the kids is still kind of unsolved. Seems it took blasts from two pipe bombs to clear the rubble.”

“Well, they always did the trick for us,” Tommy Boy said, almost fondly remembering their protest years. “So?”

Gary pulled up the picture of Calvin Sampson on his phone and held it to the glass window between the two men. “This is the janitor they think set off the bombs and started the rescue. Anybody we know?”

Tommy Boy leaned up and looked closely. “You think it’s our boy?”

“Don’t you?” Gary asked. “I know it’s been thirty years. Picture some long brown hair, and a few less pounds and wrinkles… look at those eyes and that little scar by his left ear.”

Tommy Boy looked again. “It sure could be.”

Gary responded, “It’s him. I know it is!”

Tommy Boy sat back in his chair. “Stanford Carter,” he said.

“’Stan the Man,’ himself,” added Gary. “Alive and well in Mountain Brook, Wyoming.”

Tommy Boy asked about the latest reports and Gary told him how Calvin Sampson, the hero of the day, had vanished after the rescue. No one knew much about him.  “In the wind again!” Tommy said.

“I’m not so sure,” countered Gary. “They started looking for him right away. Town is kind of isolated. His car is still at the school. No busses or trains out of there. Nearest airport is Cheyenne, two hours away.”

“So, you think he’s still hiding out somewhere close?” asked Tommy.

“I do,” answered Gary.

“He would need help to do that,” added Tommy Boy. “Maybe a grateful parent. Get Mousy. Get up there. Find him. I want him to pay!”

They talked some more and formed a plan. Gary and Mousy would fly to Cheyenne, rent a car, and go to Mountain Brook. They would pose as writers for an online magazine looking for human interest stories – positive, good stuff. “Talk to families, school heroes, see who knows anything about that local hero. See if anyone seems evasive but keep it all upbeat,” instructed Tommy Boy. He had a friend who could visit daily; he gave Gary her contact information so Gary could keep him posted through her.

Four days after the rescue, Jim Devlin and Sarah Jamieson registered at the Mountain View Motel at the edge of Mountain Brook. They spread the word quickly that they were writers looking for human interest stories for their e-zine. There was no way anyone could possibly know they were Gary Branch and Mousy Malone of the Four for Freedom.
Mousy had gotten herself back in shape during the past five years. She looked pretty good for a fifty-four-year-old ex-convict. Drugs and alcohol in her twenties, fifteen years of prison life, and ten more trying to re-adjust to living on the outside, had all taken their toll on the lady.

She married and divorced twice and struggled to keep a job. She finally became afraid she would die if she didn’t change. She hadn’t done drugs since her arrest but drank excessively and chain smoked ever since her release. It took five long years of exercise, a changed diet, and developing new habits, but she finally had it together.

She was now four years smoke-free, had reduced her drinking to an occasional beer, and had dropped thirty pounds and exercised her way to a pretty good figure for a woman her age. A little hair color and makeup, and as Gary said when he saw her for the first time in eight years, “Wow!”

Her new look proved useful, too. Her winning smile put people at ease – especially the men. And her new figure helped there, as well, getting them plenty of answers, except about Calvin. They learned that school had been temporarily set up at the National Guard Armory just outside of town, with a couple of portable class units added. Work was underway to clear the rubble away from the actual school building and re-build the damaged area as soon as possible. A few of the injured students hadn’t gone back to school yet, but everything else was back to normal, except for no custodian!

They met with school administration, quickly made friends, and had set up interviews with teachers. They met a few parents and actually got some decent interviews. A flirty smile even got Sarah, AKA Mousy Malone, a few minutes inside Calvin Sampson’s apartment. There was no doubt in her mind after that that he was indeed Stanford Carter.

But where was he? If he was still around, how could they find him. No one else had. Jim Devlin, AKA Gary Branch, called Tommy Boy’s contact and set up a visit. Tommy Boy had a plan to draw out Carter. It would require a trip back to Cheyenne for the pair and some risky business. The “Two” for Freedom would set off a couple of bombs ala Stan the Man Carter and let the FBI find him! They would frame Calvin Sampson by setting off bombs with his MO, which would also match the MO of ‘The Four’ from the ‘70s. The FBI would pull out all the stops to get him!

Two days later and it was all set. Gary and Mousy had purchased what they needed to make three bombs on the trip to Cheyenne and back. Gary had been taught by Stanford himself thirty years ago how to make and use pipe bombs. He wasn’t quite as good as Stan, but Gary could make it look like Stanford Carter, AKA Calvin Sampson, was working again.

It needed to be about more than just the kind of bombs. They needed to factor in directional explosions. It needed to be related to the school and the progress of the ongoing investigation. That was how Stan the Man had operated back in the day. It had to look like he was the one doing it this time, too.

So, the plan was to set off the first bomb at the new school building – the Armory. No one would be around at night. One of the portable classrooms would do nicely. It could be blown away from the Armory. The second bomb would be two days later. They would blow the pile of rubble that had been excavated from the old school basement, right back into the hole from where it had come!

Bombs made, the couple went into action the next night. The rental car had been parked toward the back of the motel parking lot. No security cameras at this cheap motel! At ten o’clock, Gary left his room to call on Mousy. If anyone did notice, well, you know what they would think! In a few minutes, Mousy helped him climb out the bathroom window to the rear of the motel. He slipped through the shadows to the car and slowly eased out of the parking lot into the back alley.

He turned on the lights as he pulled out into the empty street and drove out to the Armory. He drove on past to the next crossroad and turned left. He parked along the side of the road and taking the bag with the bomb in it, he walked through the field that separated the car from the back of the Armory. It took about twenty minutes to cover the distance through the field in the moonlight. He would pick up the pace on the return.

There were no security guards. This would be easy-peasy! He crawled under one of the portable classrooms and attached the bomb to the bottom of the trailer-turned-classroom on the Armory side. The bomb was designed to blast away from the Armory, blowing the classroom out toward the parking lot. Gary set the timer for thirty-five minutes. He slipped out from under the building and trotted through the parking lot and out into the field. He kept the pace up through the field but stumbled and fell once. He quickly recovered and continued the trot. He reached the car – still unseen by all the world – and drove off in the direction he had parked. He drove two miles, turned left, went back into town and back to the alley behind the motel at the other end. He turned out the car lights and slowly crawled the car into the parking lot, parking just where he had left a little while ago.

Mousy met him at the bathroom window and helped him inside. She was nervous and excited. They checked the time. Four minutes to go. They got a glass of ice water from the table and toasted each other. In the distance was a loud explosion!

In the morning, the town was alive with talk of the explosion. “Jim and Sarah” ate breakfast at a downtown café and joined in the discussion and speculation about the explosion. It was easy to point out the connection between this school explosion and the explosions from the rescue. It hadn’t been determined yet that it was a pipe bomb, so the couple was careful not to mention that. Later in the day, that news got out and they could fuel the Calvin Sampson connection, too. Who was he? Where was he? Jim and Sarah continued their good, human interest interviews allowing the others to continue the speculations.

Two days later, Gary moved on to bomb number two. Once again “Jim” slipped into “Sarah’s” room about ten o’clock that night. He crawled out of the window again, and Mousy handed him the duffel with the bomb in it. This time he wouldn’t need the car. His destination was the abandoned elementary school, which had been turned into a construction site. It was just a few blocks from the motel.

Gary snuck into the school yard and quickly made his way to the area that had been destroyed by the boiler explosion. Everything had been cleaned up down below and hoisted up to the ground and piled just outside the open building. It was to be hauled away in a day or two. Gary cleared a spot at the base of the pile and into it a little. He maneuvered a little of the rubble to help direct the explosion into the pile to propel it back toward the hole. He set the timer for thirty minutes and slipped away into the darkness. About twenty minutes later he was back in Mousy’s room.

Once again, they learned the details at breakfast in the morning. There was no need for them to steer the conversation toward Calvin Sampson. He was definitely a person of interest.  The talk was that the FBI was joining of the search.

**********

Following the explosion of the boiler room, the rescued children, along with Ms. Maxwell, were escorted by the rescue workers out of the school building. As they preceded, Calvin Sampson gradually fell back to the end of the line. As they crossed the schoolyard to meet up with parents and emergency personnel, Calvin slipped away in the opposite direction. One of the fathers noticed and watched Calvin’s path as his daughter came into the tent.

Little Beth Norman hugged her parents, as did all the others, and began to tell her story. Seeing that she was alright, her dad told her to stay right there with her mom and he’d be right back. He hurried off to catch up with Calvin, who had walked away trying not to draw attention to himself. He had left his car in the school parking lot and was walking away from the whole scene.  “Calvin!” shouted John. “Wait up!”

Calvin stopped and turned around. Seeing only one man approaching, he waited. John held out his hand to shake Calvin’s and said, “Thank you! You saved my little girl – thank you!”

Calvin replied, “Glad I could help.”

John asked him where he was going. He pointed out that everyone wanted to thank him. Calvin explained that he didn’t want the attention. He’d rather just go home. Being a private, quiet man himself, John said he understood. He pulled a business card out of his wallet – not his own – and wrote his cell number on the back. Handing it to Calvin, he said, “If you ever need anything – you call me. We all owe you big time – I owe you so much. You call me – day or night – anytime!”

Calvin took the card and thanked him and moved on. John returned to his family and said nothing about his encounter with Calvin. They and the others returned to their homes, happy to be together as families. Calvin walked the few blocks to his apartment and packed a duffel bag with some clothes, a shaving kit, his phone charger, and a couple of personal items. He slipped unnoticed out the back and, keeping to the alleys and back streets, walked out of town.

Two days later he called John Norman. He told him he really needed that favor and asked John to meet him at the Boy Scout Camp east of town. John knew the place well from his scouting days as a boy. John went a roundabout way to the scout camp and hooked up with Calvin.

He asked about his welfare and how he could help. Calvin said he was fine, but out of food. He had slept there at the camp the past two nights. He explained to John that he had a past he did not want anyone to learn about. He also couldn’t have the police find out. He assured John he had not killed or even hurt anyone, but it was something he simply had to keep quiet. He just needed a better place to stay for a couple of days until everything settled down and then he would move on.

John said to lay low and he would be back in just a little while with some provisions, until he could figure something better out. Calvin trusted him and John was trustworthy. He returned in about a half an hour with food, a sleeping bag, and a pillow. He told Calvin he would be back in two days with a plan.

Two days later, John returned and took Calvin back home with him. He had cleared out a room they had over the garage and fixed it up a bit for Calvin. It wasn’t the Ritz, but it was better than the camp. A small fridge held some water and food. There was a pitcher and bowl and towels, plus extra gallon jugs of water. John had even set up his Kindle tablet so Calvin could watch the news or other shows. He told Calvin his wife knew about and was good with the arrangement. Little Beth did not know. Calvin could stay as long as he needed to.

A few days later, things changed. An explosion rocked the Armory, destroying one of the portable classrooms! Calvin had heard the explosion that night and was concerned. He had an uneasy feeling he couldn’t tell John about.

The next day, he searched the internet on John’s Kindle and wi-fi, but not much was out there yet. When John came home from work, he slipped out to Calvin’s room to talk to him. He told Calvin that it had been a directional pipe bomb that took out the classroom. He asked if that sounded familiar.

Calvin said what he figured John already knew anyway, “That’s what I used to rescue the kids.”

John responded with, “You wanna tell me what’s going on? I know you didn’t do this, but others are talking.”

Calvin told him that he had a suspicion as to who was behind it. Then he told John his whole story! John sat in silence and absorbed it all. He told Calvin that he should consider going to the police, but Calvin said that no one would believe him. John said he did. They left it at that for the time being.

Two nights later, the rubble at the school was blown back into the hole! John came calling the next day to Calvin’s room. As they talked it out, Calvin pieced it all together. John had seen this couple in town and even been interviewed by them. Calvin said it had to be Gary and Mousy – Tommy Boy was still in prison. They were out to frame him as revenge for turning them in.

John told Calvin that he heard the FBI was coming to town. He could stay if he wanted, but maybe he should turn himself in. Calvin said he would need some time to figure it out. He just did not think he stood a chance with the police.

Two days later, Calvin watched for John to come home for lunch. When he pulled in the drive, Calvin stepped out of his room and called out to him, “Let’s talk!”

Up in his room, Calvin told John that he wanted to talk to the FBI, but he hoped he could make a deal first. He asked John to talk to them for him – John said he would. Calvin hoped for amnesty from his activity in the ‘70s, exoneration from these recent bombings that he had nothing to do with, and placement in Witness Protection. In return, he felt that not only did he know who was behind these bombings, but that he could help catch them. He would need it in writing, and it needed to be before tonight.

“Why so quickly?” John asked.

“I think they are going to strike again tonight,” replied Calvin. “It’s been two days. I’m still on the loose and not necessarily the only suspect. One more bomb with my MO and I’m cooked!”

John agreed to be Calvin’s liaison and went to the police station. The FBI had arranged for a small portable building to be set up behind the station as a command center. The work had been done and four agents had settled in. Two ran the equipment and support operations, while agents Brad Valance and team leader, Phillip Stockton ran the actual investigation.

John parked his pickup behind the police station and approached the FBI command center. Everybody in town knew about the center. One local officer, Greg Bass had been assigned to keep people from bothering the FBI unnecessarily. John knew him – they played softball together.

“Hey, John! What’s up?’ Greg asked.

“I need to talk to the agent in charge, Greg,” John replied.

“Really?! What have you done now?” joked Greg.

“I know something about Calvin Sampson that they need to know,” John answered.

“No foolin’? Wait right here.” Greg stepped inside the command center and quickly returned with both of the agents. “Agent Stockton – John Norman,” Greg said.

John shook the agent’s hand as he nodded in the other agent’s direction and said, “Agent Valance.” He shook John’s hand, too.

Agent Stockton asked, “How can we help you?”

John said, “I may be able to help you. You’re looking for Calvin Sampson. I may be able to shed some light on that.”

“How so?” asked Valance.

John said, “Well, first I can tell you that he had nothing to do with these latest two explosions but might know who did.”

“Go on,” encouraged Stockton.

John continued, “Calvin saved our kids. He has lived and worked here for twenty years, but I just recently learned who he really is.”

Agent Valance asked, “Who is he?’

John replied, “I think you suspect he is Stanford Carter.” He could tell from their lack of reaction that he was right.

“How do you know all this?” asked Agent Stockton.

John explained that he would tell them later, but they needed to hear what Calvin thinks is going on. They told him they were listening. John told them Calvin says he knows who is planting the bombs, why, and how they can be caught.

Stockton asked, “And in return for his help?”

John said he wanted amnesty for his ‘70s crimes and to be put into Witness Protection.

“Witness Protection!?” exclaimed Valance. “Why?”

John explained that the bombers are setting Calvin up. They want him – if not dead, then in prison. He hasn’t done any crimes since the ‘70s and he helped bring down the ones who had killed. He has been clean ever since.

“Then why hasn’t he come forward instead of sending you?” asked Stockton.

“It looks like he’s guilty of this. He wants a guarantee that if he comes in, you’ll let him help you catch the real bombers and not just arrest him instead,” John replied.

Agent Stockton looked at Officer Bass. “You trust this guy?”

Bass said,” With my life!”

Stockton shifted his look toward John and asked, “And you trust Stanford Carter – the guy you know as Calvin Sampson?”

John said, “I do. He risked everything to save those kids – my daughter. And I know he didn’t do those two explosions that brought you here.”

Stockton said he would have to make a call and see what could be done. If John would give him his number, he’d call him. John added, “It needs to be done this afternoon.”

“This afternoon!” exclaimed Valance.

John continued, “Calvin says there may be another explosion tonight.”

Stockton asked John how Carter could know that – was he in touch with the bombers? John answered, “No. It has to do with continuing the pattern for the frame-up. Copying his MO, pushing you guys to find him and take him down.”

Stockton asked him, “But he’s just guessing, right?”

John answered, “I guess so, but he seems very confident.” He handed the agent his phone number as Stockton said he would see what he could do.

They shook hands and John left to tell Calvin. They spent the afternoon talking and finally Agent Stockton called. He said he got the amnesty and U.S. Marshals were already working on a WitSec plan. They’d be in Mountain Brook by tomorrow afternoon. He needed Carter to come through now. John said he would pass the word and get back to him.

At five o’clock, John pulled his pickup into the parking lot near the FBI command center. Greg Bass was still on duty and opened the door of the command center to call in that John Norman was here. Agents Stockton and Valence came out to meet John who was walking their way.

“What’s the word?” Stockton asked. “Is he good with it – is he going to help us?”

“Have you got papers to sign – something guaranteeing your part?”

“We have,” offered Valance, holding up a manila folder with the agreement inside.

Stockton spoke next. “If he’s convinced there’s going to be a bomb tonight, we need to have a face-to-face.”

“I’ll take you to him,” John said and motioned for the agents to follow him. As they approached the truck, Stockton asked where they were going.  John pointed to the truck and simply said, “Here.”

Calvin Sampson, AKA Stanford Carter, AKA Stan the Man, stepped out of the truck and came around to meet the agents. They all introduced themselves. The agents had lots of questions about the bombers. Carter explained that he believed that Tommy Boy Boyer had orchestrated this frame-up to have the FBI track him down – either so his people could kill him or so he would go to prison.

His people were Gary Branch and Mousy Malone. Stanford believed that’s who had set the two bombs. Made them and set them just as he himself would have if he had done it. John interrupted, “The online magazine writers who’ve been interviewing all of us.”

Stanford continued, “I’d say so. I haven’t seen them, but it’s likely. Whoever did it, it worked. The FBI is here and hot on my trail.”

Stockton whispered something to Valance, who returned to the command center, then asked Carter about tonight and how to catch them. “Set a trap,” suggested Carter.

“How?” asked Stockton.

Stanford Carter laid it out. He believed they would try to blow up the command center! One more explosion with his MO, not just the bomb type, but in his style. Attack the authorities. Show contempt for their efforts. Show them how vulnerable they are. That’s what he would have done thirty years ago. That would pretty much seal his fate as far as the FBI is concerned.

Stockton admitted it all made sense. Carter said it had been two days and that was the pattern. He suggested everyone go home by 6 o’clock as usual – or at least give that impression. Let them work their plan. Mousy would be waiting just outside of town. Branch would come in – probably around ten and set the bomb under the building. His plan would be to rejoin Mousy and head out for Cheyenne. When the bomb went off, they’d be long gone – not even suspects. The police could have a couple of patrol cars drive around the edge of town – likely near the road to Cheyenne – and pick up Mousy in their rental car.

Agent Valance returned with some information. “The couple checked out of the motel this morning. They told the manager they had an early flight out of Cheyenne tomorrow, so they’d get a room there tonight. Here’s the make and model of their rental.”

Stockton took the information from Valance and added, “It sounds like you’re right on target with this. But we can’t let him actually set the bomb. We’ll have to take him when he first shows.”

Stanford said, “Let him set it. Arrest him. Take him into the police station, and then disarm the bomb. It’ll be a stronger case with the bomb actually set.”

Stockton remarked that they couldn’t possibly get a bomb disposal team there in time. Stanford said, “I’ll do it.”

Stockton looked at Valance and said, “Make it happen.” He shook Stanford’s hand and walked with him into the police station. John moved his truck away from the police station and walked back. The other two agents clocked out and went to the motel, where they had been staying. Stockton and Carter signed the papers outlining the deal. Then they outlined when and where they would all be tonight. Just after dark, everyone locked up the buildings, left the area, and gave the appearance of vacant buildings, as they took their places to wait for Gary Branch.

**********

That morning the fake e-zine writers checked out of the motel. They thanked the manager for all he had done during their stay. They told him they had gathered about all the info they could for their magazine. They “hesitated” to add that it was now looking as if Calvin Sampson might not be the good story after all, so they had better just head back home. They let him know they had a flight out of Cheyenne early the next day so after just a couple more interviews this morning, they would head out after lunch.

They did indeed interview a couple more people just to confirm that things were going as planned. It seemed so. People had been hesitant to believe it of Calvin, but it seemed like he was indeed the one setting off the bombs. Now that the FBI was in town, hopefully he’d be caught. After lunch, they drove around the countryside outside of town and enjoyed the scenery.

Later, they actually bought some picnic food and drove out to an isolated spot in the country they had seen earlier and had a leisurely supper – al fresco! Just about dark, they returned to the car and began to put the plan into motion. Mousy drove to the edge of town where Gary got out and retrieved the duffel bag from the trunk. A kiss for good luck and he started off for the FBI command center as planned. “I’ll see you in about thirty minutes. Ten to walk in, ten to set the bomb, and ten to walk back.”

Mousy grinned real big and watched with a certain amount of admiration as her partner headed off to town. She waited patiently for his return, but in about thirty minutes, two squad cars suddenly rolled in upon her and officers ordered her to get out of the car with her hands up! She was taken to the Mountain Brook Police Station to join her partner.

Gary Branch had scoped out the parking lot behind the command center and quickly and quietly hustled up to the building. He crawled underneath the trailer that was now the FBI’s temporary headquarters and attached the bomb to the side nearest the police station. The direction of the explosion would send the ruins into the parking lot. Gary set the timer for three hours which should put Mousy and him in Cheyenne as the bombs exploded.

When he crawled out from underneath the trailer, Agent Stockton said, “Gary Branch, you’re under arrest!” Branch could not believe what was happening! Agent Valance helped him to his feet and cuffed his hands behind his back. He advised Branch of his rights as he escorted him into the police station, where Mousy Malone joined him about ten minutes later.

Stanford Carter, AKA Calvin Sampson, stepped out of the shadows. Stockton thanked him and asked what he needed. Carter replied, “A flashlight, wire cutters, pliers, and a screwdriver – maybe a standard as well as a Phillips.” His one and only friend, John Norman said he had all those in his toolbox in his truck. He would be right back.

A couple of minutes later, John had retrieved his truck and then got out the toolbox. Stanford got what he needed, crawled under the trailer, and returned in about three minutes with a pipe bomb – disarmed! Stockton pulled a couple of evidence bags out of his suit pocket and Carter placed the parts inside them.

Agent Stockton shook his hand and then John’s and thanked them both again. He said they would transfer Branch and Malone to their Cheyenne Bureau in the morning. Stanford should come by tomorrow afternoon and meet with the marshals.

 

The next day, the FBI, except for Agent Stockton, took off with the two prisoners. Stockton stayed to hand off Stanford Carter to the U.S. Marshals. Stanford said goodbye to John Norman, explaining they could never have any contact after this and thanked him for all his help. John said he still owed Stanford plenty for what he had done, then started to walk away. He turned and added, “You’ve got my number.” Then he left.

The marshals took Stanford Carter to Cheyenne that evening and spent the next day outlining his future. A new name and Social Security number; a new city; a new job – not as a custodian; maybe change his looks a little if he could – add some facial hair, drop a little weight; no contact with anyone from his past. They would help him become legally and safely what he had tried on his own, without success. They would help him go from being the Most Wanted to being what he “wanted most” – to be invisible!

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Filed under Short Stories

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

     He was the meanest man in town – probably the whole county! He was rich and owned half of the businesses in the small northwestern town of Suttonville, Idaho. Of course, it was named after him, Samuel G. Sutton. The “G” stood for Grady; it was his grandmother’s maiden name. Most folks said it stood for “Greedy.” Some said “Grouchy.”

“Old Sam” was what the few who tried to consider themselves his friends called him. He said he had no friends – he just tolerated a few a little more than others. He had become Old Sam when his son was born – Sam, Jr. Junior had been killed almost seven years ago in a freak accident at the family silver mine, just after his twenty-first birthday. His mother went into a deep depression from which she never recovered and eventually had to live in a convalescent home under heavy medication. She died a couple of years ago and Old Sam really started to get old for real.

He lived alone in a large house at the north end of town. It sat on a tract of land that stretched practically halfway around the town and backed up toward the hills almost farther than the eye can see on a clear day. He had founded the town when he was a young man and had discovered silver in the hills nearby and after staking claim to that piece of ground, he gradually extended his property to its current vastness. The mine had played out a long time ago, but not until after it had yielded enough money to keep Sam Sutton wealthy for more than one lifetime.

He found Jean Borden from St. Louis in a mail-order-bride magazine and met and married her in Denver before bringing her to the town he was building in Idaho. When news got out about Sam’s silver strike, prospectors poured into the area to try their luck, too. A few found a little, but not much. Others came to make a living off the silver-seekers. Over time, with no more silver to be mined, even the merchants and saloon owners needed financial help. Sam opened up his own bank and soon nearly everyone in town owed him money.

He owned the only grocery store in town and one of the two cafes. On the other, he held the mortgage! There was the Sutton Inn for those needing a room for the night or for more permanent lodging. Most of the other businesses either paid his bank on their mortgage or paid Sam rent for the buildings he owned.

He had given a doctor his own place in town to entice him to set up a practice in Suttonville and later regretted it but couldn’t do anything about it. The local blacksmith owned his own place, too, which branched into a train depot later on. Only two trains a week stopped in Suttonville, though.

Sam had built a church at the opposite end of town from his place because Jean had wanted one. After Sam, Jr. died, Sam, Sr. quit going and quit supporting it financially. The parson had to move on and now a circuit-riding preacher came through on the Friday train and left on the Tuesday train, every other week. A few townsfolk kept the building clean and in good repair. The meager offering paid for the parson’s tickets and a room at the Sutton Inn during his stay. Parishioners took turns feeding him.

Now that he was “Old Sam”, he had everything and nothing. A big house with servants, land and livestock, fancy clothes, one of those new-fangled horseless carriages, more money than he could spend, and even his own town! But… no wife, no son, no friends, and no need for work – so no real purpose in life. When he showed himself in town, everyone spoke to him – but out of duty at best, fear at the worst. Most of what he had to say to others was about money they owed, foreclosures, and the like. He felt two things. He could buy anything he wanted, and he didn’t need anybody!

**********

Jessica Hawkes worked at the inn. She cleaned the rooms and did the laundry. Sometimes she took in other people’s laundry, too. She was twenty-six years old with a six-year-old daughter. She had never married, and no one knew who little Annie Hawkes’ father was.

Jessica’s parents had come to Suttonville in search of silver. Her mother died – some say she worked herself to death – when Jessica was only twelve. She had to cook and clean and sew for her and her baby brother and their pa. The boy died of scarlet fever when he was only two. Her pa couldn’t take any more and killed himself when Jessica was sixteen.

She had no family and nowhere else to go, so she took a job at one of the saloons just to make ends meet. She was pretty and had a nice figure and she drew quite a bit of unwanted attention from the men. The owner took a fancy to her and protected her but didn’t pay her much. Some think he had his own designs on her, but his marriage got in the way! She kept the place clean and did a little singing for tips. Her boss kept the men away from her.

No one in town ever saw her with anyone, so when she became ‘with child’ they were all shocked. She never told anyone who the father was. When it became a little too obvious that she was expecting, the saloon keeper let her go from her job. She kept her room at a boarding house and paid for that and food and eventually the baby by cleaning and sewing. A little later on, she got a job at the inn.

Annie was a pretty little girl. Jessica was a blue-eyed blonde, but Annie’s hair was black, and her big eyes were brown. Her smile lit up a room and now that she had started school, it was obvious she was as smart as a whip. Jessica had known it all along, but then she was prejudiced. Annie’s schooling proved it to be so.

Maybe part of the reason Annie leaned so much and so well was that she was very inquisitive. If she wasn’t asking questions, it was because she was exploring on her own. She helped around the inn with little chores. There’s no telling how many times Jessica found her exploring someone’s room! Annie often got so focused on her exploring that she wandered away from her mama and sooner or later was “bothering” someone in town.

Most of the townsfolk liked Annie, but just didn’t seem to know exactly how to treat her. All the other kids had mas and pas – Annie didn’t. For some reason that mattered. They would return her to the inn and make a comment or two to Jessica about keeping her “in her place.” Jessica wasn’t sure if that simply meant by her side or in society. She always figured it kind of meant both.

On one of her excursions, Annie noticed the shiny, strange wagon that Mr. Sutton rode around in, just sitting empty in front of the bank. She just had to check it out. She couldn’t understand how it moved. All the other wagons had horses pulling them! And this one was so different. The wheels were softer than those on the other wagons. The seats looked softer, too, so she climbed up inside the carriage to find out.

Sure enough – the seat was soft and comfy. There were knobs and buttons and levers to explore, too! And that one big lever with a knob on the end – what was that for? It had a shiny metal thing on it with a big black ball at the end of it. Annie wondered what that could be. She felt the ball and it was soft and squeezable. So naturally, she squeezed it.

She jumped at the sound it made! The she laughed and squeezed it again. Then she heard a gruff voice say, “Here now! What are you doing there?!” It was Mr. Sutton. He came out of the bank after the first honk of the horn and strode quickly up to his automobile. That’s what those wagons were called.

Annie looked up at the big man. She had seen him a few times before, but never up close. She had heard others say he was mean, but he didn’t look so mean to her. She spoke up, “Just looking at your wagon.”

He told her it was not a toy and she didn’t belong there. She had heard that many times before! And she didn’t think he said it any meaner thanh everyone else did. Old Sam reached down and picked Annie up. He hauled her up out of his automobile and set her down in the street. The blanket that Sam used for warmth as he drove caught on her foot and fell to the ground. He told her to get on home, picked up the blanket, and tossed it onto the back floorboard.

Annie walked slowly away as Old Sam returned to this office in the bank to finish up the brief task he had started earlier. Annie turned to look back. Seeing Mr. Sutton enter the bank, she returned to the “wagon.” She wanted to explore some more only this time she wouldn’t squeeze the horn!

She knew she shouldn’t be there, but this wagon was just too interesting. She got behind the steering lever and pretended to drive. The she heard voices! She looked toward the bank and the door was starting to open. He was coming back! What could she do?!

Old Sam was talking to someone in the bank as he backed through the door. He hadn’t seen Annie yet. She was panicking and looking frantically for someplace to hide. She saw the blanket in the back floorboard and got an idea. She climbed over the seat and quickly crawled onto the floor, pulling the blanket over her.

Old Sam walked to the street side of the automobile and climbed in. Reaching under the seat, Sam pushed the button that sparked the gasoline engine with a small explosion that started it running. He released the handbrake and pushed the accelerator pedal. The automobile motored down the street, guided proficiently by its proud owner. He was completely unaware of the stowaway!

Annie wasn’t quite sure what was happening. She was afraid to call out, so she just waited under the blanket. It took a little while, but the automobile finally came to a stop. She dared not move yet. She felt the “wagon” rock a little as Old Sam got out. She waited and listened. She didn’t hear anything, but she waited a little longer before peeking out.
Then slowly, carefully, Annie lifted the blanket edge to peek. She couldn’t tell where they were, but there were no stores or houses around. She couldn’t know it, but Sam had driven out to the old mine. She could see him walking around the hillside. His back was to the automobile, so she took off the blanket and climbed out to the ground. Keeping the “wagon” between herself and Mr. Sutton, she ran to some bushes and hid.

Mr. Sutton walked around. Annie watched from her hiding place. He would walk a little, stop, rub his head, and massage his neck. Then he’d walk some more and do it all again. Then he did something different. Annie didn’t understand it, but it reminded her of church.

Mr. Sutton looked up at the sky and raised his hands. Then he dropped to his knees and covered his face with his hands. Annie figured he was praying. In a couple of minutes, he wiped his eyes with his hands and got up. He returned to his automobile, started it up again, and drove away. He had no idea that anyone else was around, much less a little six-year old girl.

After he was out of sight, Annie walked out of her hiding place and moved to where Old Sam had left the area. She looked out and down the hill. She couldn’t see anything but trees and bushes and more hills and land. The dirt road that Mr. Sutton had driven down must lead back to town, but she couldn’t see it from there. Behind her was the boarded-up entrance to the abandoned mine and that she could see!

She quickly lost interest in the road home and walked to the mine entrance to peek inside. She blocked the sunlight by cupping her hands to her face. Her big eyes adjusted to the darkness, but she couldn’t see much. She would just have to get in there in order to see what it was like.

Annie pulled at one of the boards. It gave a little. She moved her hands a little farther out toward the end of the board. Gripping hard, she pulled with all the power the six-year old could muster. A groan, a creak, and at last a loud crack! The board gave way and Annie tumbled backwards to the ground. She got up, dusted herself off, and crawled through the newly formed entrance to Sutton’s Silver Streak Mine!

**********

Jessica Hawkes was busy cleaning the inn. Looking out an upstairs window, she had seen Annie saunter across the street toward Sutton’s Mercantile. Lem Daniels always tolerated Annie for awhile as long as he didn’t have too many customers. He usually gave her a piece of stick candy after Jessica had said it was okay. Eventually, he would shoo Annie toward the inn. Jessica had smiled and gone about her business.

She gathered the sheets, pillowcases, and towels from three rooms, remade the beds and replaced the towels with fresh ones she had laundered earlier. She dusted and swept the rooms. The inn had an indoor pump in the kitchen from which she refilled the pitchers in each room. By then it dawned on her that Lem had tolerated Annie longer than usual. She had not heard her return to the inn. Stepping out onto the front porch, Jessica scanned the street in both directions looking for Annie before crossing the street to the store. Since she didn’t see her daughter anywhere, she hustled over to relieve Lem of his burden.

Lem was surprised to see Jessica without Annie and said so. When she asked about her coming into the store earlier, Lem told her he hadn’t seen Annie all day! Jessica explained why she had thought Annie had stopped by and they both went outside to search for her. Lem went one way and Jessica went the other. They scoured both sides of the street in both directions and in a matter of minutes several others had joined the search.

Annie had not been in any of the places of business! The saloon keeper assured Jessica that Annie had not been in his establishment – ever! But one of his customers exiting the saloon only just then realized they were all looking for a little girl. He said he had seen one sitting in Old Sam’s automobile as he had entered the saloon earlier that day. He went on to describe the girl but added that Sam had caught her and took her out of the vehicle.

Jessica started running toward Sam Sutton’s house at the edge of town after asking the others to please keep looking. Maybe Mr. Sutton would know something about where Annie had gone. Lem closed up his store and ran after Annie. He was faster than her and caught up with her as she knocked on the Sutton door.

A maid answered the door and asked what they wanted. Jessica started to explain but was so rattled and winded from the run that she wasn’t making much sense, so Lem took over. He explained that Jessica’s little girl was missing and that the last time anyone had seen her, Sam Sutton was helping her out of his automobile in front of the bank. They were hoping he might have noticed where she went next.

The maid showed them to the parlor and went to get Mr. Sutton from his study. He came quickly once the maid had explained the situation. Sam knew Jessica from years ago and of course he had seen her many times since around town and at the inn. At one time, Sam, Jr. had shown interest in Jessica, but Old Sam had squelched that. She just wasn’t right for the son of the richest man in the territory. But he had always treated her with civility anyway.

He greeted Lem and expressed sorrow about Jessica’s plight. He asked how he might be of service to them. Jessica had regained her composure and explained that someone had seen Annie in his automobile and wondered if he happened to see which way she went after she got out. Sam said he had told her to go back to the inn and that she headed that way, though rather slowly. He had returned to the bank for just a few minutes.

Jessica explained that Annie had not returned the inn after all and asked if he had seen her or anyone else for that matter when he came back out of the bank. He said that he hadn’t. He simply got in his automobile and headed home. Jessica thanked him and as she headed for the door she began to sob and stumbled a little. Lem caught her by the arm and steadied her. “We’ll find her, Jessica. Don’t worry,” he assured her.

Jessica replied, “She is just so inquisitive. She explores things and places and just won’t stop until she’s satisfied with learning all she can. She could have gone to explore anywhere!”

Old Sam chimed in, “That’s why she was in my automobile – exploring it. I became aware of that when she honked the horn. I told her not to play with it. She didn’t seem scared at all.”

Jessica thought for a moment. “Any chance she returned to the automobile after you went back into the bank?”

Old Sam said, “Well, I guess so, but I came back out in just a few minutes and drove off. As I said, I didn’t see her around. Why?”

Jessica replied, “Well, she can be a little sneaky. I was just thinking perhaps she had gotten back in your automobile and was hiding there when you drove off.”

Old Sam said he didn’t see how that could be possible. “The vehicle is pretty open, and you can see both seats easily. She certainly wasn’t in either seat.”

Lem joined in the conversation. “Is there any place at all a little girl could be in the carriage and not be seen? Could she hide under the seat or something?”

“No way,” answered Sam. “There was nothing in that vehicle but me and my old driving blanket.”

“Driving blanket?” asked Jessica.

“Yes,” said Sam. “I get a little chilly when driving sometimes, so I keep a blanket in there to throw over my lap.”

Lem asked, “And you did that today?”

“Why, no, now that you mention it,” added Sam. “I remember now that it fell to the ground when I got the little girl out of the automobile. I picked it up and tossed it onto the floor in the back. When I got in later, I didn’t bother getting it.”

Jessica’s eyes brightened. “Could Annie have been hiding under the blanket?”

“Why would she do that?” asked Sam.

“Maybe she had gotten back in to explore some more and when you came out, she hid under the blanket because she knew she wasn’t supposed to be there!”

Old Sam thought it through. “You know,” he said, “I was talking to my bank manager at the door for a moment before I got in my vehicle. My back would have been turned to her if she was there. She would have had time to crawl under the blanket. Would she do that?”

Jessica replied with a knowing smile, “Oh, yes. She certainly would.”

Lem chimed in, “Then she would have ridden here to the house with you. But wouldn’t she just walk back into town after she got out of the carriage?”

Jessica started to respond to that, but Sam interrupted. “Oh no!” he exclaimed.

Jessica asked, “What?!”

Sam explained his concern. “I just remembered – I didn’t come straight home. I drove out to my old mine and walked around out there for a while!”

Lem asked, “You don’t think she slipped out of the carriage out there do you?”

Sam replied, “It is certainly possible. There was plenty of opportunity to do just that and to hide until I left.”

Jessica almost cried out, “The mine!”

Sam said, “Oh, don’t worry – it’s been boarded up for years. But she could be lost out there if she wandered off.”

Jessica was scared but holding it together. She was sure they were on the right track. “Lem,” she asked, “would you go back to town and see if you can get some help? I’m heading for the mine.”

Old Sam spoke up. “It’s too far. I’ll drive you.”

They quickly parted ways and set to the tasks at hand. Lem ran back to town and gathered a search party. Two wagon loads of people and a few more on horseback soon headed for the Sutton Silver Streak Mine. Old Sam got his hat, informed the maid, and took Jessica to the barn that housed his automobile.

When they got to the vehicle, Sam remarked that the blanket looked a little different than before, as if it had been repositioned. “It was Annie – I know it,” responded Jessica.

As they drove to the mine, Old Sam tried to reassure Jessica that they would find Annie and she would be alright. “Probably be just sitting there crying, waiting for help to come along,” he added.

“You don’t know Annie,” Jessica said. “She’s fearless. Terribly inquisitive. Always has to learn something, explore new places, try new things. She could be anywhere – but she won’t be just sitting there crying. It’s the mine that scares me.”

Sam tried again to calm her spirit. “It’s been boarded up and there’s no other way in. I saw it earlier and it’s still boarded up.” He paused for a moment, then added, “No, she couldn’t have gone into the mine. We’ll find her outside somewhere.”

“We have to, Mr. Sutton. She’s all I have in the world!”

“It’s none of my business, but what about the girl’s father?” asked Old Sam.

“He’s dead,” Jessica said and added nothing more.

“I’m sorry,” Old Sam said and drove on in silence. In a few minutes, they arrived at the mine’s entrance. “Oh my!” exclaimed Sam.

Jessica could see that a board had been torn loose and was lying on the ground. “She’s in there!”

**********

When Annie crawled in between the boards and entered the mine she was excited. She had never been in a mine before. It was dark, but she wasn’t afraid. The angle of the sun illuminated the entrance a little and her big brown eyes soon adjusted to the poorly lit tunnel.

As she slowly walked farther into the tunnel it got darker. She tripped over something and falling forward she banged her head a little before falling down. She peered in the darkness and felt around. She could see that she had tripped over some railroad tracks like those at the train station in town. Old Sam had removed the last several feet of track from the entrance just to discourage sightseers. Annie hit her head on an old ore tram still standing empty on the tracks.

She was a brave girl. She didn’t cry. She just rubbed her head and struggled back up on her feet. Most children her age would have gone back to the exit and headed for the comfort of their ma or pa, but not Annie. She was there to explore this mine. She only wished she could see better.

She went around the tram and followed the tracks deeper into the tunnel. In a little while she could see that there were two other tunnels going off from the main one in both directions. She chose the right tunnel, but it turned out to be the wrong tunnel!

In about fifty feet, she ran into a broken-down wooden barricade. She had no idea what it was for and she couldn’t see very well anyway, so she felt her way around it and continued slowly on. In about ten steps, she fell right into a hole! The barricade was a warning that the floor of the shaft had collapsed! Annie fell right into a dark hole about twelve feet down!

It was probably a blessing that she actually was knocked unconscious for a while. With no way to climb out and no one around to help her, she likely would have been frightened. As it was, she just laid there peacefully and sill for a while.

**********

Jessica jumped out of the automobile and ran to the mine entrance. She called into the tunnel for Annie and listened for a response. She did not get an answer. Annie’s little entryway was too small for an adult, so Jessica began to tug at another board. Old Sam caught up to her and gently pulled her aside. “Let me,” he said.  Sam jerked the board loose and tossed it to one side. Then he pulled at another and soon had it loose, too. He kicked at a lower board and knocked it free and cleared the entrance for anyone to go through. Jessica started to enter, but Sam stopped her.

“Wait, Jessica! You can’t see in there. I know my way around. It’s been a long time, but I can still remember. I’ll look. You stay here at the entrance and call out to her.”

Jessica followed Old Sam into the mine anyway until they got to the ore tram. Sam told her to stay there and keep calling Annie’s name. “Help will be here soon, and they’ll need to find you right here. There is more than one way she could go down here, and you might send someone back for lanterns and rope.”

“Rope?” asked Jessica. “Why rope?”

“There are pits in here, Jessica, where the tunnel floor has collapsed. I’m afraid she could have fallen into one,” replied Sam. He figured she might as well face the possibilities.

Jessica gasped. “Oh, please find her. Why couldn’t she be more like other kids? Most kids would have turned back when they saw how dark it is.”

Trying to comfort her, Sam replied, “Not all though. My Sam wouldn’t have. He got lost more than once in here. Broke his collar bone swinging from the barn loft. Nearly broke his leg trying to ride a horse that hadn’t been broken to ride yet.”

Jessica said, “He was headstrong, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, he was,” replied Sam. “He was a good boy though. And he was becoming a good man.”

“I know,” said Jessica. “He was.”

“Well, if your daughter is anything like my son was, she’ll be alright. You’ll see.”

“Mr. Sutton,” Jessica said softly. “Annie is like Sam. More than you know.”

“Well, of course, I don’t know her,” replied Old Sam.

“Ann is her middle name,” Jessica added. “Her real name is Samantha Ann. She’s named after her father.”

“What are you saying?” asked Sam.

“I’m saying she is named after your son – Annie’s father.”

“It can’t be,” said Sam in disbelief. “Sam might have gone against my wishes to be with you, but in the end he would have done right by you.”

“He didn’t know about the baby. He wanted us to get married, but I said no – not as long as his family was against it. We argued, but I wouldn’t give in. Then he was killed, and it didn’t matter anymore,” explained Jessica.

“My granddaughter,” sighed Old Sam. “I have a granddaughter!”

“Yes, you do,” Jessica said. “And right now, she’s lost in your old mine.”

“Jessica! Sam! You in there?!” called a couple of voices at the entrance. Two riders on horseback had beat the wagons to the mine and saw the entrance torn apart.

“Yes!” they both shouted back. “We think Annie’s in here somewhere!” added Jessica.

“One of you go back to town. Get Lem on the way and go get some lanterns!” yelled Sam. “And hurry!”

One of the riders took off and led the other horse for Lem. The wagons were approaching the mine. Lem got on the rider-less horse and the two headed off to town. The wagons arrived and unloaded. The first responder explained the situation as they had found it.
A few men got some rope and entered the tunnel, quickly catching up to Jessica and Sam. The others decided that since they weren’t sure Annie was in the mine, they should split up and scour the hillside just in case she had wandered away. All of their own tracks had obliterated any sign of Annie’s little feet near the mine, but a couple of the men were pretty good trackers and said if she was out there, they’d soon know it.

Sam explained the layout of the tunnels to the men. Until they got lanterns, he suggested they tie themselves together with the ropes and move forward slowly in a line. They should feel the ground with a foot before stepping forward, once they split off from the main tunnel up ahead. Jessica was to keep calling out so Annie could hear a familiar voice and not become frightened. If anyone heard anything, they would call back to Jessica. When they got farther into the tunnel, Sam quietly said if they found anything bad had happened to the girl – they should not call out but tell him first. He would explain to Jessica.

They proceeded on into the mine and split into three small teams when the two shafts split off from the main one. It was slow going and they couldn’t see much. They could hear Jessica calling, so Annie should have been able to as well, but so far there was no response.

On the outside, Lem and the other man were still riding back to the mine with lanterns and more rope. The others were searching the hillside and calling for Annie, but of course, to no avail for the poor little girl was lying unconscious at the bottom of a pit in the mine.

On the inside of the mine, the three teams proceeded very slowly, inching their ways forward. Sam’s team had gone to the right and soon stumbled upon the barricade. Sam remembered that the floor had collapsed just here shortly before they abandoned the mine.

The men carefully, meticulously moved the barricade to one side of the tunnel. “We’d better crawl from here,” Sam cautioned as he knelt down. More than one of the men marveled that Old Sam Sutton, the richest, meanest, grouchiest man in the territory was on his knees, crawling in the dirt, in the dark, looking for a little lost girl he barely knew! No one but Jessica and Sam knew he was looking for his granddaughter. Sam had suddenly found a new reason for living and a renewed spirit that drove him to find this little lost girl – Sam’s little girl.

He felt the edge of the pit and stopped. He told the others and they gradually inched forward and spread out along the edge of the hole. They discovered that there were only inches along the tunnel walls on either side of the pit. Sam recalled that it had not been quite that big before, so it had likely continued to cave in over the past few years. They had to be careful, but obviously, either Annie had fallen into the pit or she was somewhere else, because she could not have gone around the hole.

Sam called out to her, but there was no answer. He tried again. Still nothing. One of the men said, “She must not be down there. That’s good.”

Another responded, “Maybe. What if she fell in there and, well, she can’t call out?”

Sam said, “She could have gotten knocked out down there.”

One of the others, not knowing Sam’s new feelings toward the girl, offered, “She might not be alive, fellas.”

Sam quickly barked back, “She has to be! If only they’d get here with those lanterns.” He called out into the hole again, but still there was no response.

Jessica was still calling from her place in the tunnel. The other teams were still searching but finding nothing. The team from the main shaft had reached the end and was starting back. They could move faster because of the tracks. There was another shaft leading off from the tracks in a line parallel to the one Sam’s team was in. They turned off and headed into that shaft. They would have to inch down this path.

Finally, Lem and the first responder arrived with the lanterns. They rushed into the mine as the searchers were beginning to return from a quick search of the hills around the mine. The trackers said there was no sign that anyone had been anywhere around. Annie had to be in the mine somewhere.

Lem and Will Yates lit the lanterns and quickly found Jessica. She explained where the searchers were – up ahead and then split into three directions. No sound or signs from Annie yet. They left her a lantern and moved on. With light, Lem and Will were able to move much more quickly than the others and were at the junction of the shafts in just a minute. They called out and heard back from two of the teams. The third was now in the parallel shaft and farther away. Will took two lanterns toward them, heading down the main tunnel along the tracks.

Lem heard the other team off to his left and called out to his right that he’d be back in a minute. Sam responded, “No! Get us a light first! There’s a hole in the tunnel floor here. If she’s not in this hole, she’s not in this tunnel at all!”

Lem set two lanterns down in the junction and took one to Sam’s team. He found them in no time and Sam grabbed the lantern. He held it out over the pit as they all stretched to see in. It took a second or two to focus and they all called out, “There! She’s down there!”

Lem called back through the mine to Jessica before Sam could stop him. “She’s here!”

Sam said, “Wait!”, but it was too late. Jessica had heard Lem. The others had, too. And all were heading for the junction to get to the shaft where Sam’s team had found her.

Lem asked, “What’s the matter?”

Sam said, “I wanted to know what shape the girl is in before Jessica knew.”

One of the other men added, “In case it’s bad news.”

Lem apologized explaining he hadn’t thought about that. Jessica was scrambling their way, calling out for Annie. Sam rose to meet her, handing the lantern to one of the others. Jessica cried out, “Where is she?! Where’s my baby?!”

Sam caught her by the arms, stopping her, and said, “She fell into a pit. We don’t know yet how she is. She hasn’t spoken.”

Jessica covered her mouth with one hand. She was crying and trembling. “Is she….” – she couldn’t say it.

Sam quickly moved her thoughts away from that. “She may have hit her head and got knocked out. It’s maybe ten or twelve feet down. We’ll know more in a minute.”

Lem stepped over by Jessica and Sam handed her off to him. He took charge and gave the plan. “The rest of you lower me down by rope into the pit. I’ll see how she is and if it’s safe to raise her up.”

Phil Lawton interrupted. “Let me go – I’m quite a bit lighter and your strength will come  in handier up here.”

Another said, “He’s right. And let’s send down an extra rope in case we can’t pull them both up with one rope.”

Sam relented, admitting that was probably best. Then he added, “You be careful.”

They tied a rope around Phil, and he draped a second rope around his shoulder. The other teams had joined them in the tunnel by then and there was plenty of light. One of the other men had returned to the mine entrance with the news and to get a blanket and a canteen. By the time he returned to the pit, Phil was at the bottom with Annie.

They dropped a lantern to him, and he lit up the bottom of the pit. She was out cold, but Phil could see she was alive. He called out that news to the others. He gently checked her over and said it did not look like anything was broken and there was no sign of bleeding. It all sounded good and was bringing some relief to Jessica, but Annie was still out and looked so helpless lying there at the bottom of the pit.

They dropped a canteen down to Phil. He took off his neckerchief and wet it. He gently dabbed the cool, wet cloth on Annie’s face and wiped away some of the dirt. She moaned a little. He wet the cloth some more and gently squeezed it at her lips. The cool water wet her dry lips and she stirred a little and moaned again. He called up to the others, “I think she’s coming around!”

Jessica’s heart skipped a beat. She had hardly breathed herself, but she did now. Annie’s eyes were still closed. Phil raised her head a little and cradled her in his arms while he patted her forehead with the cloth and spoke to her. “Annie, can you wake up? Your mama’s here, Annie.” Phil spoke tenderly and quietly so he wouldn’t frighten the little girl. “My name’s Phil, Annie. Can you open your eyes for me?”

She blinked a little. Phil left the cloth on her forehead and picked up the lantern. He held the light up over her and she blinked again, then opened her eyes to a squint. She moaned again, then spoke, “Who are you? What happened?” She didn’t seem afraid at all, just inquisitive!

Jessica heard Annie’s voice and called down to her. “Annie! Are you alright?!”

Annie yelled back up toward her mama’s voice. “I think so. What happened?”

“You must have fallen into a deep hole while exploring the mine!” Jessica answered. “Do you remember how you got here?”

Annie thought a moment then answered, “Yes. I hid in Mr. Sutton’s funny wagon under a blanket and when he stopped at the mine, I got out.”

Jessica continued for her, “and then you came into the mine.”

“Yes, Mama. I’m sorry. It was dark and I didn’t see the hole.”

“Phil will help you get ready for the others to pull you up. Can you stand up?” Jessica asked.

“I think so. I’m okay,” Annie responded. She started to get up and Phil took her hand to help and to steady her. She was indeed alright.

Phil asked her, “Do you think you could ride on me piggy-back and hold on tight?”

“Yes, I think so,” Annie said.

Phil got up on his haunches and Annie crawled onto his back. She wrapped her arms around his neck and Phil stood up. He tossed up the canteen and then the lantern and said, “We’re ready!” Then to Annie he said, “Hang on, Annie!”

As the men up above pulled the rope taut, Phil grabbed a hold of the rope and lifted first one foot, then the other and pressed against the wall of the pit. They pulled up and he walked up the wall, holding on to the rope. Annie held on to Phil.

They made it easily to the top of the pit and Jessica reached out to take Annie in her arms. “Samantha Ann, you scared me to death!” she scolded as she squeezed her little girl tightly.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” Annie replied. “Am I in trouble?”

“Why do you ask?” asked Jessica.

“Because you called me Samantha Ann,” replied Annie.

The men all laughed, and that made Jessica laugh, and Annie followed suit. Soon the whole mine resounded with laughter. The echoes carried back to the entrance. “Listen,” someone shouted. “They’re laughing!”

Soon the entire rescue party was laughing! The group in the tunnel began to make its way back to the entrance. Old Sam stepped up to Jessica. “Can I carry her?” he asked.

Jessica turned her head to face Annie and asked, “Would that be okay, Annie?”

“He’s not mad at me?” Annie asked.

Old Sam heard her and took hold of Jessica’s arm to stop her. He looked at Annie and said, “No, I’m not mad. Can I carry you from here and give your mama a rest?”

Annie reached out to Old Sam and he took her in his arms and held her tight. She hugged the man that was her grandpa, even though she didn’t know it yet. The happy group quickly made it to the tunnel’s entrance and emerged to a cheering crowd. Sam wouldn’t let her go. He looked at Jessica and whispered, “Can we tell her?”

Jessica responded, “I don’t know. What’s going to happen if we do?”

Sam set Annie down to her feet. He said, “I need to talk to your mama a minute. Can you go sit in my funny wagon awhile?”

Annie replied, “You mean it?! It’s okay?”

Sam laughed a little and said, “It sure is.”

Annie ran to the automobile and climbed in.  Yelling back to Old Sam, Annie asked, “Can I honk the horn!?”

Sam laughed out loud. “Yes – but only a couple of times!” he said.  Annie responded with two honks! Sam and Jessica and everyone else for that matter laughed at Annie’s fun.

Then Sam Sutton turned to Jessica Hawkes and got serious. “Jessica, can you ever forgive a grumpy old self-centered man? I haven’t the right to ask, but I’m truly sorry.”

Jessica responded, “It’s okay, Mr. Sutton. I understand. But what about Annie? What good would it do to tell her who you are?”

Sam took Jessica’s hand. “I’ve been wrong and lonely for too long. I want you and Annie to come live with me. Be my daughter and my granddaughter.”

Jessica couldn’t believe her ears! “You mean that?” she asked. “Do you have any idea what kind of changes that will make?”

Sam responded, “Probably not, but I don’t care. Yes, I’m serious. Annie has already come into my life and changed me. I want to get to know her. She’s part of me. I want to help you raise her. Let me help you.”

Jessica reached out to Sam and he took her in his arms and held her. The rescue crowd couldn’t help but notice and were completely puzzled. Old Sam had come out of that mine holding little Annie. He let her sit in his prize automobile and even laughed when she honked the horn! And now he was hugging Jessica! What, they wondered, was going on?!

Jessica called Annie back from the automobile. “Annie,” she said when the child had joined them, “I have something very special to tell you.”  She proceeded to tell Annie about her father. Annie knew a few things – the kind of man he was, and that he died before she was born but had loved her mama very much. She didn’t know who he was. Jessica told her and introduced her to her Grandpa Sam. She explained that he never knew until today.

Annie looked at Old Sam. “Are you really my grandpa?” she asked.

“I really am, Annie. I really am.”

Annie hugged Grandpa Sam with all her might! Tears trickled down his face as he held her tightly. The curious crowd of rescuers had respectfully kept their distance, so they were as much in the dark about the situation as Annie had been in that silver mine!

Old Sam interrupted his hugging of Annie and stood up to address the crowd. “Folks! I want to say something to you! I want to thank you all for what you did today. You didn’t know it, but you rescued my granddaughter!”

At first you could have heard a pin drop. Then came a little murmur and questioning looks as each tried to confirm with the others that they had heard Sam correctly. “That’s right,” added Sam. “though I didn’t know it, Jessica and my son, Sam had hoped to be married. Annie is their child. Sam was killed before he found that out. I’m glad I lived long enough to learn the truth. And I want you all to know that from now on things are going to be different in Suttonville.”

And things did change – for the town and for the Sutton family. Rents and mortgages were lowered – wages were raised. Everyone’s standard of living went up! Soon a full-time parson for the church was called whose wife became the full-time schoolteacher. Some of the Sutton property was subdivided to encourage more people to come and farm or raise livestock. The town grew and prospered.

As for Old Sam’s place – it rang with laughter and love. It went from being just a house to being a real home.  Annie kept Grandpa Sam from being the grouchiest, meanest man around! Jessica, Annie, and Sam all had a family now. Eventually, Jessica found love again and the Sutton family grew. Annie continued her inquisitive ways, but that was how she learned. And Sam proved he wasn’t too old to learn new tricks either! That day that Annie led the town into that old abandoned mine, she led them to be a whole new town!

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Filed under Short Stories

Back to Sodom

I began this story as a prospective novel more than twenty years ago!  I got bogged down early on and laid it aside for a long time!  I would occasionally revisit it and jot down a few notes or even add to the ‘book’ a little, but felt overwhelmed most of the time when I thought of finishing it.  A short while ago when I decided to write some short stories, I decided to finish “…Sodom” as a short story.  Kind of makes sense anyway, since the main story is supposed to be a quickly written journal.  Hope you enjoy it!

**********

I finally had it right here in my hands. After years of research and interviews and following countless leads to dead ends, I had found it at last. In my hands was the legendary Ceremonial Knife of Abraham! The metal blade had tarnished and rusted some and, of course it was dirty, but the gems embedded in the otherwise smooth bone handle gleamed in the light from my lantern.

As I knelt inside the cave a few miles to the west of the Dead Sea, I remembered the journey that now had become worth it all. For years I had searched ruins and excavations throughout the Middle East. God had been good to this archaeologist from nowhere. I had a good job teaching my life’s passion, Bible Archaeology, at a small college in rural Iowa and the school had backed many expeditions to the Middle East for me and my students. We had conducted several successful digs and had brought back a fairly large number of relics over the years to build quite a nice little museum of ancient artifacts at our college. For several of these years, I had heard about a legend of the Ceremonial Knife of Abraham, and finally began, about five years ago, to take the legend seriously enough to research it.

Interviews had led to journals which led to investigations and more research and so on. Most of the information was sketchy at best and generally led to dead ends. The legend was that Abraham, Father of the Jews, had a special knife that he used only for religious purposes. It was just an ordinary knife to begin with – about 12 inches long, with a smooth curved handle carved from bone, and a razor sharp metal blade. However, according to the legend, Abraham had dedicated the knife to the Lord when Jehovah Himself commissioned him to circumcise all the males in his camp and establish a covenant people for Jehovah. From that moment on, only Abraham would use that knife and then only for religious purposes – circumcisions and sacrifices.

The legend said that Abraham made the knife more special by embedding several precious stones of various kinds into the bone handle and kept the knife in perfect condition – cleaned and sharpened before and after each use. It was said to be the very knife that he planned to use when called upon by Jehovah to sacrifice his child of promise, Isaac. The knife that the angel of God stopped in Abraham’s hand from plunging into Isaac’s heart. The knife Abraham then used to kill the ram that God provided as a substitute for Isaac.

According to the legend, another knife then began to be used in its place and the ceremonial knife was set aside as a reminder of God’s grace and provision, never to be used again as a knife, but rather as an instrument in worship. So much so, apparently, that years later, the keepers of the knife started a cult centered around the knife. They accorded themselves a special place among Abraham’s descendants and followers. They believed that descendants of those circumcised by Abraham with that particular knife were more spiritual than others. They should have places of higher rank and authority in the community and were worthy of more honor and even larger inheritances than those descending from men circumcised with lesser, more ordinary knives.

The Knife Cult naturally remained small for years and eventually died out with the loss of the knife, but the legend continued to be told among certain family groups even though the knife had been lost for centuries. Several years of searching had finally led me to a small cave in the foothills near the Valley of Siddim, just west of the Dead Sea, somewhere near the ruins of what were likely the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and I had found it at last! Me – Dr. Ezekiel Smith, Ph.D., professor of archaeology from ‘no-name university in nowhere Iowa’, who – thanks to the famous Indiana Jones movies, had been nicknamed ‘Iowa Smith’ – held in my dirty, scraped up hands, the 4,000 year old Knife of Abraham!  The jewels alone made the knife worth a million dollars, but its historical significance and legendary status would more than triple that value. This was virtually the Holy Grail of the Old Testament and I had it!

My mind drifted off to the ancient land of Canaan and the days of Israel’s Father Abraham. I imagined his encounter with Jehovah which instructed him to take his knife and circumcise the males in his camp as a covenant sign of faithfulness to the Lord. Abraham took out his knife and held it up before the Lord and said, “I will, Lord. With this knife I will seal the covenant between you and me and all the males who follow after me. From this day on, this is Your knife, Lord.”

My vision faded out, then back into a second scene. Abraham, older now, and his son Isaac were on the mountain of sacrifice. Isaac lay bound on an altar of stones and wood as Abraham stood above him, knife in hand, tears streaming down his face. He raised the knife in the air and it glistened in the early evening sun. I could see that the bone handle now had several precious gems embedded into it. As he cried out, “Your will be done!” he started to bring down the knife, but his arm froze in mid-air. A voice called out to him from nowhere to “Stop!” A rustling in the bushes nearby led Abraham to a ram to sacrifice instead of his son.

I was suddenly shocked back to reality as gunshots rang out inside the cave! Bullets ricocheted off the rock walls around me. I dove for cover behind a pile of rocks as more shots were fired. Quickly I opened my leather belt pack and carefully placed the knife inside the foam-lined pack, careful to make sure I closed the pack securely. Still under the cover of the rock pile, I drew my pistol and peeked out between the rocks. I saw shadows on the cave walls back toward the entrance, but couldn’t see the men themselves.

I fired at the shadows. I hoped that return fire might scare them off or at least discourage them from coming closer. If I was lucky, maybe a ricochet would find a human target and they would retreat to care for their wounded comrade. I was alone in my search, so help was out of the question.  Undaunted by my shots, they returned fire. I knew I had only a couple of rounds left. Somehow, I had to find a way out of this, perhaps another cave exit, but what could I do to hold them back in the meantime?

Then I noticed a rock ledge above the passageway between us, closer to the intruders than to me. I fired two rounds at the rocks and prayed it would knock them loose. It did. The ledge began to crumble and rocks began to fall. I saw the shadows on the cave wall shrink back toward the entrance and I got up from my hiding place to run farther into the cave. The ledge had completely given away, sealing off the entrance. However, the loss of support weakened the cave roof itself and the entire passageway began to cave in. I started to run, then stopped abruptly, turned back to grab my hat that had fallen off when I dove for cover from the gunfire, and then raced back into the cave just as the ceiling above me gave way.

I ran deeper into the cave as rocks tumbled and crashed to the floor behind me. If I stopped even for a second, I would be crushed to death or buried alive. I kept running for my life, searching frantically ahead for signs of a way out.

Finally, I saw it – a ray of light ahead. I sped toward it, straining forward to reach the ever-widening spot of light before it was too late. I knew what the Apostle Paul had meant when he wrote of “pressing toward the mark for the prize” that awaited him, as I furiously tried to stay ahead of the falling rocks and reach the safety of the light. Diving through the hole in the hillside that had provided the daylight, I landed outside the cave with a loud crash of rocks behind me and a blast of dust following me through the hole in the wall signaling the final collapse of the cave.

Safe at last, I slowly rose to my knees and dusted myself off. I opened my belt pack to take another look at my discovery to make sure it was okay. I carefully removed the knife and held it once again in my hands.

Well, that’s the way it ought to happen. In reality, I hadn’t been shot at, nor had I narrowly escaped a cave-in. In fact, I wasn’t even in a cave at all, but rather a large excavation pit. I was near what many believe to be the ancient ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, but there was never a legend of the Ceremonial Knife of Abraham, much less the gem-studded knife itself. As I looked at the real object in my dirty hands once more, I saw a stone knife, dulled with age, with a broken ‘blade’. It was a nice find, but certainly not the stuff of which legends are made. Still, it was an ancient artifact and I carefully laid it aside to make notations of the discovery.

Just then one of my students shouted out, “Dr. Zeke! Over here!”  I stood up and looked toward the direction of the shout. It had come from over by the cave just west of our dig. We had found the cave entrance our second day in camp, on one of our nature walks. We often take a walk around the area in the early evenings during our digs to relax and ‘see the sights.’ The cave showed no signs of having had any traffic in years, much less of having been worked. It appeared that a recent rockslide had uncovered the previously hidden entrance. Possibly, an earlier slide from above had covered it up for years, maybe even centuries, and the entrance had only recently been revealed.

I had sent a couple of students to explore the cave while the rest of us began the painstaking task of digging, plotting, and sifting of dirt to find relics and notate their discoveries. We might work for days to recover even a few small relics of the past, hoping to find artifacts that might help us understand early Canaanite or Hebrew people and cultures.

Sean, a big country-boy from the Midwest, waved to me from the entrance of the cave. His partner, Alex, apparently was still inside. As I headed toward them, Sean continued, “We’ve found something! Come on!”

The others stopped their digging to join us. It was customary in our digs for all to converge, though carefully, on a discovery so that we all might be a part of the experience. As we gathered at the entrance to the cave, Sean informed us that the small entrance would open up to a fairly large room which they had begun to explore and dig in a little. We could enter only one at a time, but would have plenty of room once inside for all of us. He led the way in.

There were six more of us to follow Sean into the cave, but we crawled in quickly in anticipation of the discovery. Once inside, we all gathered around Sean and Alex, who were kneeling over a small, shallow hole near the west wall of the cave. Freshly dug dirt was piled to one side and their battery powered lantern lit up the entire cavern.

“Down here, Dr. Zeke,” Alex said, with excitement obvious in his voice as he pointed into the hole. “Some old clay pottery and a pouch of some sort. I can’t be sure, but it looks like something has been kept inside the pot – it’s broken and I see something in there.”

I knelt down beside Alex as the other students inched in closer with a couple of them holding up lanterns for even more light. “Let’s have a look.”

Taking Alex’s brush from him, I gently swept away some dirt and with my knife, carefully dug loose more dirt all around the edges of the clay pot. Alex worked tediously at digging the pouch loose and brushing it clean. It was smaller than the pot, so he finished before I did and carefully lifted it up for all to see. “It looks like an ancient wineskin or something. See the narrowed end for drinking?” Alex said.

Sean pointed to one end of Alex’s pouch and added, “And this looks like what’s left of the strap.”

One of the other guys called out, “Any wine left in it?”

One of the girls jabbed him in the arm, to which he replied, “Well, they say wine gets better with age. Any wine in this ought to be great by now.”

Another student asked me how old I guessed it to be. “Hard to say just yet, but eventually, the pottery will tell us.”

Soon, I had successfully freed the ancient jug from its earthen prison and had removed the two broken shards and handed them to one of the girls. Suzette carefully laid them aside, placing them out of the way and putting them together like puzzle pieces. Alex had handed over the wineskin to Sean and joined me on his knees at the clay pot. Together we carefully lifted it up and out of the hole and set it down on solid ground in the center of a circle of curious onlookers.

“It’s a little pre-mature, but based on where we are and according to lots of others I’ve seen like it, I’d say this is early Canaanite pottery – between three and four thousand years old,” I informed the others, as I examined the pot more closely. “I’ll be able to tell more once we get it back to camp, but it looks like that to me.”

Holding a lantern up closer to the broken part of the pot, Alex confirmed that he could see something inside. “There’s definitely something inside and I think it is some kind of writing pages. A manuscript I bet – maybe some Bible!” he conjectured wildly.

“Slow down,” I warned. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ll get these back to camp and clean them up and take a better look inside them. Some of you can continue to dig in here to see what else might be in this ol’ cave.”

Alex quickly chimed in, “I’d like to stay with the pottery and follow through on my discovery, if that’s alright. Maybe someone else can find some treasure in the cave, too.”

I told him that would be fine and assigned the two girls, Suzette and Callie, to work the cave with Sean and “Biggon”. That’s what I called Jake, because, well, he’s a biggon’ – 6’6” and 250 lbs of solid muscle. Naturally, he often served as pack mule on these expeditions.

“Alex and I will take the pot and the wineskin back to camp. Kyle, you and Kirk take over my place in the dig outside for now.” Kirk wasn’t his real name, but rather short for James Tiberius Kirkland – you know, like Captain Kirk of Star Trek. I guess his parents were Trekkies. I told the boys about the stone knife I had found outside and instructed them to retrieve it and continue searching in that area for more artifacts.

It was slow going, crawling through the cave entrance with the pot. I had to set it out in front of me as far as I could reach, then crawl up to it, set it out again, and so on. The others went out first and Alex carried the wineskin after putting the pottery shards in his back pack. By the time I had cleared the cave entrance and stood upright again, with the pot in my arms, Alex was already at the camp and the others were all working their new assignments.

The camp site was only about fifty yards away in a shady little indentation into the bottom of the hillside just south of the cave entrance. We had four small tents for sleeping in pairs, a larger tent for supplies and food preparation, a tent specially designed and equipped as a bathroom, and a large tent with equipment for the detailed work on our discoveries. Of course, we also had two trucks and a jeep for transportation and additional supplies.

The hillside rose slightly behind us and curved around us as well, giving us some shelter from wind and the afternoon sun. The east side of the site faced the open plain and if you kept going east you would come to the southern end of the Dead Sea. Our dig and the cave were slightly to the north of the camp, within easy walking distance. We were just west of some previous digs, in virgin territory, archaeologically speaking.

It’s likely that digs had not extended this far west of the Dead Sea before, as the most likely sites for villages were closer to the Sea and either to the north or south. Caravan routes would probably have been closer to the villages. Other than occasional campsites of herdsmen traveling along with their flocks through the plains territory, there weren’t likely to be any actual ruins this far west. Our group, however, wasn’t concerned with trying to excavate entire villages, nor did we have the financial backing for huge undertakings. We thrived on smaller, lesser digs and uncharted areas like this were perfect for us.

We would probably never uncover large cities nor discover whole ancient civilizations, but we could find plenty of relics. We knew how to content ourselves with smaller, less consequential discoveries and therefore, seldom be disappointed, though always hopeful. We could dream of finding the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail – or even the legendary Ceremonial Knife of Abraham – yet exalt in the occasional ancient wineskin or clay jar.

So, with great anticipation, but bridled energy, Alex and I worked to clean up and examine our newly found pieces of antiquity. He had the wineskin cleaned up and catalogued in no time. We wouldn’t try to open it up, but would wait to have it x-rayed back in the States. It didn’t appear to have anything in it anyway. Whoever had left it in the cave long ago had probably drank it dry before discarding it in the cave or dying there beside it. Maybe one of the others would dig up some bones.

The clay pot, on the other hand, definitely had something inside. It did look like some manuscript pages and I could barely keep from breaking the pot open to find the hidden treasure. The jar had a lid on it that somehow over the years had become sealed to the wide neck of the pot itself. I had to remind myself that due to its age, the pottery was a treasure as well and I should try to keep it as intact as I could.

So, first I cleaned and photographed the clay pot. Then I notated its discovery – journaling the details of when, where, and how we found it. Then I began to look for a way to get it open, hopefully without breaking it.

A little carving around the neck, in the joint between the pot and its lid, showed me that the neck had probably shrunk a little, sealing the lid tightly. Perhaps the clay had not hardened enough before use. Or maybe the damp air inside the cave had caused some shrinkage and tightening until the pottery finally hardened over the years. In any case, it would take a little work to break the seal, but I felt it could be done without damaging the pot. At the very worst, I could probably cut the pot where the neck and lid came together and then at least the artifact would appear to be intact, making a good display in our school museum.

A little more carving and prying worked the lid loose and Alex stood by, holding his breath as I opened the jar and laid the lid aside on the table. The Bible describes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the graces He brings to our physical presence as a “treasure in earthly vessels.” I was anxious to see what treasure we had found in this jar of clay.

Rather than moving the jar again, I stood on a short ladder in order to be able to see down inside. I wanted to be very careful when removing whatever was in there. You don’t just reach down into a 4,000 year old pot and grab the contents.
“It is definitely a manuscript of some kind,” I informed Alex. “Looks like it has been fairly well preserved, too.”

“The tight seal of the lid probably helped,” Alex offered.

“If the jar hadn’t been broken, the pages might well have stayed in perfect condition,” I added. “There are quite a few pages in here. I’ll pull out some and hand them to you. Place them on the trays as I lift them out, keeping them in order.”

We had special trays for such things as might roll off of a flat surface or blow away in the wind. The trays had a three inch rim all the way around them, much like a bread delivery tray, only solid. We could eventually spread out the pages, yet keep them safe from falling or blowing off the table. Even though ancient papyrus is much thicker and heavier than modern paper, strong winds could still blow them off a flat surface.

Every step of the archaeological process is painstaking, so it took several minutes to remove all of the manuscript and place the pages into four separate trays. Later, we could spread a few pages out inside each tray for further examination, though we would save most of that for after our return home. Generally, we would do some cleaning and a little cursory examination on site, then package up the artifacts for a long, safe ride back to Iowa. This was a rare find for us, though, and I wanted to learn a little more about what we had discovered before continuing our dig.

Soft brush in hand, I showed Alex how gently we must brush away the dirt from the pages. They were mostly in excellent shape, but a little decayed and soiled on the edge that was closest to the broken section of the pot. Some soil and moisture, naturally, had worked their way into the jar through the break, but damage was still fairly minimal. Being in a cave had helped – even temperature year round; protection from wind, rain, and snow; no traffic over the ground on top of the jar. We had no clue yet what we had, but it was definitely ancient and in very good condition. I was thrilled – Alex was ecstatic!

As we cleaned away some dust and dirt, I could see that the writing was not done professionally. I had studied enough ancient manuscripts to know that scribes were meticulously neat – straight lines, even strokes of the stylus, few errors allowed. Too many errors and the scribe would discard the page and start over. Ordinary people with common writing skills and agendas would simply scratch out the errors and go on. There was quite a bit of that and the lines of writing were somewhat erratic and uneven. What we likely had here was someone‘s personal journal or something like that.

The alphabet characters appeared to be akin to ancient Sumerian and Hebrew letters, though I immediately saw some that I didn’t recognize. I had studied several of the ancient Middle Eastern languages and their variations, but it’s not something I stayed fresh with and I knew I would need lots of help and time in translation once we got back home. For now, it was enough to verify that we had found a manuscript of ancient Canaanite or Hebrew origin, probably over 3,000 years old and in nearly pristine condition. Alex would make it into the history books – at least our own college history anyway. He walked around on cloud nine for the rest of the expedition.

**********

The past two years had brought many changes to my work at the college. All of the students who had been on the trip where we discovered the manuscript were gone now except Alex. He stayed at the college to work on his master’s degree toward a doctorate in ancient cultural studies, specializing in languages and writing forms. His work enabled him to help me translate the journal he had discovered.

Sean, who had been with Alex when he found the wine skin and the clay pot with the journal inside, had graduated with an agricultural degree and was helping his dad turn the family farm here in Iowa into big business.

Speaking of “big”, Jake hurt his knee in football, keeping him out of the pros, but was very happy as an assistant coach at a nearby high school and doing quite well. He loved the game and was an excellent role model for teenage boys. I imagine he will be head coach soon and eventually move up the scale as high as he wants.

Kyle is working on a Masters in business at a state university here in Iowa and Kirk – James T. Kirkland, that is – is a navy pilot, hoping to soon be flying off one of our country’s aircraft carriers. Thanks to the ROTC program at our college James is already a captain and yes, they call him “Captain Kirk!”

Callie earned her teaching degree and teaches junior high English and speech on a large Christian campus not too far from here. She and Suzette stay in touch through the internet as Suzette is usually overseas on assignment. She is a journalist for a major travel magazine and says she has seen lots of places she would love for us to dig up!

We’ve all stayed in touch and they have been very patient as Alex and I have taken our time to translate the manuscript, whose discovery tied us together with a very special bond. I kept the contents of the journal secret from them all, and everyone else for that matter, except for Alex of course, who helped me do the research and translating. Now, a grad student knew the contents as well from typing it up for us, but she was sworn to secrecy on threat of losing her position with the school. Alex had said “and maybe her life, too!”

Alex came through the door as if on cue as the final page eased out of the printer. “Is it finished? Is that it?” he asked, setting his books down to hurry over to my side.

“This is it,” I confirmed. “The first copy of Ka-mal’s Journal.” As soon as we had learned the author’s name and confirmed my suspicions that it was indeed a personal journal, we gave it that nickname.

I hit “Print” again to get Alex his own copy and gathered up the first copy to get it ready for reading. We separated it into several smaller sections for hole-punching, then reassembled the sections to insert into one of several binders we had already purchased for the manuscripts. We had bought a dozen, just alike, with a leather cover and the title already etched into the front cover, along with a sketch of a cave and a broken clay pot just outside the entrance.

We had to rein in our enthusiasm and almost overwhelming desire to sit and read the finished project right away. We printed enough copies to complete the twelve journals and set them aside. Later, I would hand write a note on the inside cover to each of the students who had shared in the discovery and present to them their copies at a private party we were planning for the occasion. Not until all the journals were ready did Alex and I each get our copy and sit down to read the story again.

Naturally, we already knew the story – we translated it into English. But it was different now. It was one complete saga, rather than seemingly disconnected words and phrases. I imagine it was like an actor watching his own movie for the first time. He knew the lines and the plot and had even acted out the scenes, but they say it’s really different to sit “outside” the film and watch it all come together. This time we were able to read it straight through and just enjoy the story. It really was almost as if we were seeing it for the first time.

I finished reading first, but only by a couple of minutes. I sat in silence, watching Alex as he finished. His eyes seemed to glow as they traversed the pages and though his lips moved slightly and silently with the reading, he couldn’t hide the trace of a smile – a proud smile.  “Awesome!” he said as he closed the journal. “Amazing!”

“And it’s real,” I said. “Not some guy’s novel written for fun or fortune, but the real-life story of a young man who lived and loved over 3,000 years ago.”

“I know,” said Alex. “That’s what makes it so awesome. I mean, the Bible is awesome, but somehow Ka-mal’s Journal just brings it even more to life.”

I knew exactly how he felt. That was a big part of the satisfaction I get on each new archaeological dig. Every discovery just helps to bring the scriptures closer to home. I’ve believed they were true since I was just a boy growing up in Illinois. Yet, though true and very relevant, they were still ancient writings. And even though Ka-mal’s story was ancient, too, we had made it brand new with our discovery and translation. The world would soon know the story and we heard it first!

The following weekend was a great time. Everyone from the original team was there, along with a couple of spouses and a few of our college bigwigs, including the college president. I made them take the time over refreshments to catch up a little with each other’s lives and reminisce some. A slide show of the photos from the dig was rolling by on the big screen TV to help with that, until finally I got their attention and brought the chit chat to an end. Alex slipped out to retrieve a small cart that held all the journals and wheeled it on cue as I told the group that we not only had a copy of the journal with us, but had a copy for each of the team to keep.

Alex glanced inside each journal in turn and called out the new owner’s name, handing to each of the students their own piece of history. I gave the President his copy and told the others they could share the remaining four if they wished to read it tonight or later check a copy out of the school’s library. They read it that night.  they asked me to read it for them this first time.

Eager to know the story, they scattered around the room to find a seat and I pointed out to them, as I do now to you, dear reader, that Alex and I stayed as faithful to the original writing as possible. I admit I felt obliged to color the narrative a little with more adjectives than the author had used, but the story itself is as much of his words as I think possible. Naturally, in translating ancient languages, some words can only be surmised from the context and the author hadn’t intended on writing a flowing novel, but I believe what you are about to read is truly what happened as it happened and just as the author intended it to read.

Here is a story of one man’s journey to manhood and its tragic ending. Here is a love story, a story of faith and commitment, a war story, and a warning to all who would wander astray. Here is a personal account of one who lived and loved and died in the days of Abraham of Old Testament fame. Here is a journal with a story we called “Back to Sodom.”

**********

My name is Kahlaharmal Ben-Zophan, youngest son of Zophan and Lamah of Sodom. I’ve been badly hurt and I fear I will die soon, but I am not afraid, for my father Abraham has taught me well. He taught me not to trust in this life, but to look to the future. His God has become my God and ours is a God of hope and promise. I know my God will save me – I will live again!

My story must be told. The house and town of my father and his father before him lies in ruins and ashes. I fear that everyone there is dead. Sodom has been reduced to ashes and all my boyhood dreams went up in smoke as the Lord rained fire down from heaven to judge the wickedness of my people. But I must start at the beginning. I can only pray that God will give me the strength to finish writing the story.

My parents were Zophan and Lamah of Sodom. They were both born and raised in Sodom, as were their parents before them. They married and settled in Sodom and my father took over my grandfather’s market. They were sellers of cloth and linens – materials for blankets, window veils, tents, and clothing of all kinds. My parents were not wealthy, but neither were they poor. A good, honest trade provided for a nice house and plenty of food and possessions.

My mother helped my father at the marketplace when she could, but soon the responsibilities of raising children demanded all of her time. In all, six children were born to Zophan and Lamah – four sons and 2 daughters – over the next eighteen years. I was the last child to be born into the family. My mother named me Kahlaharmal; my family soon shortened it to Ka-mal.

It was not easy to be the youngest child of six, but mostly, life was good. My mother taught me to read and write at an early age, though our town and temple had few scrolls to read. My father taught me numbers and business and I began to help at the market when I was ten years old. He also taught me the ways of Baal, our god. I had no reason not to believe, as all my brothers and sisters had before me.

Sodom was a large city on a direct trade route. We had many travelers pass through our gates and I soon learned the ways of the world – different dialects, customs, traditions, and beliefs. I learned there were other gods besides our Baal. Or maybe they were the same god, but with different names. Mostly, I saw that everyone was religious, but it had little to do with any other part of life.

In Sodom, we all did as we pleased. Our god required worship and sacrifice at the temple. Our parents demanded respect and obedience at home. But when one reached adulthood, he could make his own choices – please himself.

Life was simple and good while I remained a boy. My life revolved around our home and my father’s marketplace. But as I grew to manhood, things changed. Age brought more freedom – freedom to enlarge my boundaries to include all of Sodom. My eyes were opened to the pleasures and entertainments of the city. Back then it seemed exciting and an expected part of growing up. Now I see it for what it really was – selfishness, rebellion against God, sin, and evil.

In Sodom, one could indulge freely and openly in almost anything one could imagine. Ours was a free community. Civilized. Open to all kinds of new experiences. Wine was more accessible than water. Men spent as much time drunk as sober. Games of chance robbed many families of money needed for food and clothing. Many of my father’s merchant friends worked all day for wages, only to lose them in one or two games before going home to supper.

There was always a party someplace where one could find wine and dancing. Plenty of young women found it easier to make money with their bodies rather than through honest, decent labor. If you couldn’t find a party, there were places of business just for such entertainments. Even our temples employed prostitutes and offered much wine and riotous parties. I must admit, to my shame, that I participated. Somehow, it felt wrong, but it was all I knew. My father and my brothers were the ones who took me there first. Until I met Abram, years later, I did not know there was any other way.

Still, there were limits to which I would go. I drew the line at certain activities that many friends and some of my brothers would do. In Sodom, sex was the ultimate pleasure and for many, it did not matter how one had it. Men with women who were not their wives. Older men with young girls. Some fathers with their own daughters. And as I soon learned, men with men and women with women. This I did not understand. This I would not do. But others did and it was common practice in Sodom.

Such was my childhood and early manhood. Then I met Jazmara, the beautiful daughter of the man who owned the inn near my father’s marketplace. I was unloading some bales of cloth from a cart in the street in front of our shop. Trade caravans passed through Sodom often and brought goods from other places for us to sell in our markets. Many of these travelling merchants stayed over in Sodom to revel in our many entertainments.

That day, as I unloaded the new linens my father had purchased, I heard a commotion in the alley just around the corner. I went to see what was happening. As I entered the alley, I heard a muffled scream. I saw a man, one of the traders from the caravan, fighting with a young woman. He held her tightly by one arm as she struggled to get free. With his other hand he had covered her mouth to muffle her screams. She kicked and swung her free arm, trying to hit him, but she was no match for his strength. Her fight only seemed to amuse him.

I hollered at him to stop and he turned to look my way. He told me to go away. Then he said to the woman, “Come now. You’ll enjoy it. Don’t fight it.” I yelled again and by this time I was there beside them. I grabbed his arm and told him to let her go.

He did. Not out of fear of me, but rather in order to deal with me. Cursing, he told me to mind my own business and go away. He pushed the young woman down and told her to stay there until he got rid of me.

I am not sure if it was courage or fear or anger or all of them, but I did not give him the chance to decide what he would do to me. I hit him with all of my might and he fell down. He started to get back up and I bent down and hit him again. This time he did not get up. I did not stay to see if he was badly hurt or maybe even dead. I took the young woman by the hand and we fled. We did not stop running until we were clear across town. When we stopped, we were alone, near the west wall of Sodom, and we rested under the trees there.

We embraced as she thanked me and praised Baal for sending me to her rescue. I told my name to the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She told me hers – Jazmara. I have loved her from that moment until now. We talked for a long time and by the time we began to walk home, we knew all there was to know about each other. I walked with her to her father’s inn and said good-bye. I am sure I smiled all the way home.

From then on, my days and nights were spent working or with Jazmara. The entertainments of Sodom were no longer an attraction. I found all the pleasure I wanted in the company of my beloved Jazmara. I knew there would never be another woman for me. I hoped to one day take her for my wife. We talked about it often and she wanted that, too.

About a year later, she introduced me to a new acquaintance of her father’s – a man named Lot. She did not know too much about him, except that he was not from there originally and had no family in town. She said he had not made too many friends yet and seemed eager to do so. At the time, I had no way of knowing just how greatly Lot would affect our future.

For a long time, I thought life was grand and that the only thing that could make it better was when I would take Jazmara for my wife. My father said he had plans to expand our business and that we might just be the ones to help him with that.

Our city had a ‘sister’ city close by called Gomorrah. Most of the trade caravans came to Sodom, but not all. Some went to Gomorrah for business and entertainment, though there was not much difference between the two cities. Father felt that he could open up a small inn and purchasing center at the edge of Gomorrah and Jazmara and I could manage it! We could provide lodging and meals for travellers and buy their cloth goods to send to our market in Sodom. Jazmara’s experience working at her family’s inn and my training in our family business would make us a perfect fit for the new venture.

It seemed too good to be true! Jazmara and I talked about it often and I sometimes found it difficult to think about my daily chores. I daydreamed about our future home and family. I planned out how I would handle the business and bring in much money with the double business of the inn and cloth purchasing. I would be able to give Jazmara anything she wanted, though she said a life with me was enough.

At least, that’s the way it was for a long time. But something began to change in her over time. I cannot say what started it, but several things played a part in gradually turning Jazmara’s heart away from our dream. We planned to be married the next year. During that time my father would find the best location for our new business and purchase the land necessary. We would build our inn or repair an old house to be an inn or whatever it might take. We would get a stable ready for keeping the animals of our guests, as well as our own which we would need to transport our cloth purchases to Sodom. When all was ready, I would move in and begin working the cloth traders immediately. Shortly after would be the wedding and we would open the inn for business, too.

Father purchased the land and we began work. Perhaps that is when Jazmara’s drift began, too. I had to spend most evenings and any other free time getting the new place ready. There was a large house on the property just at the edge of Gomorrah on the side closest to Sodom and very near the trade route. The previous owner had let it run down considerably before he was laid to rest with his fathers. He had no heirs interested in the property, so they sold it to us.

Since the house needed much repair, my father was able to get it for a good price, but that also meant it would need much work. I now know that spending so much time on our future house and so little time with Jazmara was not good for us.

She came to Gomorrah often at first, to see our progress and imagine and plan with me how it would be someday. There were several rooms for lodgers and yet still room for a family someday. The large room just inside the entry could become a dining hall and a small room just inside the front door to the right could be used to do business with the traders. There was a small stable out back that we would add on to for the animals and plenty of water in the well. We would need a fence and lots of furniture and equipment, but it would work.

As time went on, Jazmara’s visits became fewer and farther between. When she did come, I noticed that her excitement had begun to fade. When I could, I would stop by her family’s inn in Sodom after my work day, before going to Gomorrah to work on the new place. I couldn’t stay long and she was usually busy preparing meals for their guests. Our time together was precious, but too short and frustration began to take its toll on what time we did have. Good times became rare.

Once, I remember looking so forward to a time when we had set aside two days in the future to be together. I could see a slight break coming in the work load at Sodom and the next expected caravan had been delayed by bad weather. I could stop the building work for one day and it would appear that we might both have an evening or two free.

I could not wait for that day! The time at my father’s market flew by and I hurried to Jazmara’s inn to get her. I planned to take her to Gomorrah for a meal and a tour of our future home and business. It had been quite some time since her last visit and I had done much to get our place ready. I was so proud and anxious for her response, but even more anxious to spend time with my beloved – neither of us having to work.

When I got to the inn, I rushed inside, expecting to find her finished with work and dressed to go away with me. She was finished with work and dressed to go out, but not with me. There was a woman there with her about our age, but I had never met her before. Jazmara introduced me to her and said that they had made other plans. She asked if I remembered meeting a man named Lot – I remembered. It seems Jazmara’s new friend was hoping to marry Lot. Lot and Jazmara’s friend associated with a different class of people than Jazmara and I and they were already used to a much different lifestyle – one that soon became a problem for us.

Lot’s wealth meant that he did not have to work for a living anymore, as he had herdsmen and servants for that. He had the money to indulge in fancy clothes and fine dining and entertainment. He had invited Jazmara to join them and I soon learned that her new friends and their lifestyle accounted for much of why she had not been to Gomorrah as often as before.

Jazmara explained to me that she would not be able to go with me for the evening. Her friend thought that maybe the party they were to attend might lead to an engagement to Lot and she really needed Jazmara for emotional support. I objected and tried to entice her by describing the evening I had in mind, but she would not be persuaded. I do not think Jazmara even noticed the disappointment in my eyes or my voice that surely must have been there, for I have never been good at hiding my true feelings.

I watched them hurry off to their party, laughing and talking, excited about the evening to come. I slowly made my way back to Gomorrah and tried to work some more on our house. My heart was not in it. My mind was at that party, imagining the temptations that Jazmara must have faced. I am certain that all the wealthiest, most handsome young men of Sodom would be there – asking my Jazmara to dance and to have wine with them, telling her how beautiful she is. They would not have to lie about that, but their intentions would be less than honorable, I was sure.

I had offered her a good future, but still a future of hard work, long hours, and only modest income, at least at first. They would offer no future, but many days and nights filled with music, wine, dancing, and – I shuddered to think of what else. Would our love for each other be enough for Jazmara to hold out and come back to me? I hoped so – I prayed to Baal for it. Yet, I knew that she had already slipped farther away from me than I had ever thought possible.

The days grew longer, the evenings less bearable. I saw her less and less as she partied more and more. My work on our house became more of a chore than a joy. I had very little hope of a change of heart in Jazmara, but I had to hope. It was all I had!

After a few months, I finished our house and new place of business and was just about ready to move in. Jazmara’s new friend had indeed gotten engaged at that party and Jazmara’s evenings had become filled with helping her friend plan the big event. They talked of clothing and feasts and who would attend. They dreamed aloud about how life would be once she was married. Meanwhle, there were more and more parties and more and more men vying for Jazmara’s attention. She swore she was staying faithful to me and a couple of friends of mine who had attended a few of the parties told me as much, but I could not help but wonder.

Time was my enemy. It was my fault for not paying enough attention to her. Jazmara was young and full of life. She needed to be able to live and enjoy her youth. It was too much to ask her to spend all her evenings at home while I worked on our future home.

I was busy and though I missed her terribly, I kept my mind occupied with the work. It was not the same with her. It was natural for her to fill her mind and time with other people, other activities. In the beginning, the parties were a real escape for her. But, alas, they soon became more than just an escape.

That lifestyle became her desire. Jazmara became the focus of many young men in Sodom. She never wanted for entertainment, elegant food and drink, and the attention of men. She began to revel in the attention. We drifted further and further apart until one day, she came to our home to tell me it was over.

Our home – such a distant memory now. Getting it ready had filled my every spare moment. I got the house ready, but it never became a home. She explained that day and said she was sorry, but we wanted two different things in life now and it could never work for us to be together.

I wanted to beg her to change her mind, but I knew it would do no good. She was no longer the Jazmara I had grown to love so much. I still loved that Jazmara and I hoped that maybe she would return some day. But I knew it would not be soon. As she walked away to return home, I cried for my loss. All my dreams and plans for our future were broken. I consoled myself with a slight hope that she would tire of her new lifestyle before it was too late. I would wait for her, no matter how long it took.

I started the business alone, hiring workers to do what I had planned for Jazmara to do. I had not seen Jazmara for a long time, but I heard stories – stories that broke my heart. I buried myself in my work to keep my mind off of Jazmara and when I was really busy, it worked. But at night, when all the travellers were asleep and the day’s work was over, I would often lie awake for hours and “dream” of what might have been. Between working so much and thinking about Jazmara in the meantime, I guess I was too busy to notice what was going on around us. Apparently, there was political unrest in the kingdom and others around us. Unrest that would boil over and change our lives forever!

**********

There was always a little unrest in the kingdoms of the plains where I dwelt. Each city had its own king, but we were not truly free. It was often whoever had the strongest army, perhaps the best walls around their own city, that actually ruled the area. Added to that, there was a constant state of intrigue and changing alliances. For much of my life, Chedolaomer, king of Elam, ruled the entire region, though he needed alliances to sustain that rule. And he had had them.

There was an alliance of four kings. Besides Chedolaomer, there was Tidal of Goiim, Amraphel of Shinar, and Arioch king of Eliasar. The rest of us had been subject to them for twelve years. It is all I knew. I didn’t like it, but I was used to it. A good portion of every piece of gold I earned went to line the coffers of Chedolaomer – for no good reason! But that is how it had been.

But in the thirteenth year of this servitude, things changed. Elam gathered a great army from its own country as well as from its three allies and waged war throughout the land. They moved from city to city all across the region, winning one battle after another, destroying cities, enslaving survivors, and worse. I had heard the almost daily reports, but I must admit I paid little attention – it didn’t concern me.

Ah, but it did! Our kings, Bera of Sodom and Birsha of Gomorrah aligned with Shinab of Admah, Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Zoar. These five set out to confront the other four kings and their army in the Valley of Siddim. Scouting reports had said that the army of the alliance of the four kings was heading for Sodom. The sentiment was that Chedolaomer had to be stopped!

One day as I was headed to the market in Gomorrah for supplies for my inn, I was seized by three armed soldiers. They were not my enemies; they were soldiers in the army of Birsha, King of Gomorrah. I protested, but they told me to be silent. Instead, I told them I was not the enemy, but an innkeeper and merchant, right here in Gomorrah! They laughed and said that I was not anymore! I was a soldier in the king’s army! They told me that it was the duty of every fit, young man to help fight for freedom. I argued that I didn’t know how. They countered by saying I’d be trained.

And I was. For three weeks – every day – all day long – I was trained in hand-to-hand combat with a small sword, a dagger, and a shield. I was taught to shoot the bow and I learned some fighting skills and tricks. I despised every minute of it. The only time in my life I had ever fought anyone was the time I had rescued Jazmara a couple of years before. It seemed like a lifetime ago now.

Then came that dreaded morning. Soldiers came to take me with them. I was to gather my weapons and head for the front line of the coming battle! I felt so unprepared, but I had no choice but to go. By afternoon, I’d likely see battle! Our training camp had been on the opposite side of the cities as the Valley of Siddim where the battle would be fought. We marched most of the morning until we reached the battleground. By mid-afternoon I found myself standing along side a few hundred countrymen, ready to fight.

No amount of training could have prepared me for what happened that day. We fought with all our might, but we were no match for the army of the Four Kings. I was spared somehow. I fought and yes, I killed. I am not proud of it. I had no choice.

We had held our own for a while – our front line fought valiantly. But soon, the enemy began to break through. Our men were falling. Once the line had been breached it went quickly. Our men were being overrun and the defense of our homes and families was up to men like me. Merchants, herdsmen, farmers – not warriors.

The man next to me was attacked first. He raised his shield to fend off a blow from an enemy sword, but to no avail. A second quick swipe and the shield was knocked out of his hand. As the soldier poised for the death blow a new sense came over me. I don’t know if it was courage, anger, fear, or duty. Likely it was a little of all those emotions, but I stepped toward the enemy and struck him down with my sword. My comrade regained his sword and shield and ran the enemy soldier through the heart.

Another of the enemy ran in upon us and I turned just in time to fend off a blow with my shield and thrust my dagger into his side. He went down and I moved on. I remember two or three more such fights before I was knocked down. Two soldiers disarmed me and jerked me to my feet. They quickly tied my hands with a leather strap and pushed me to walk ahead of them.

My comrade lay dead a short distance away. It was chaos all around. Our lines of defense were gone. Our men lay scattered on the ground or like me, were being hauled away as prisoners. I could see that the army of the enemy was ravaging our cities, taking prisoners and looting the homes and businesses.

Soldiers and townsfolk alike were fleeing for their lives. The Valley was dotted with tar pits – hot molten morasses here and there. We had used the molten rock for heat and construction. In the madness of the war they became death traps for many. Screams – the smell of burning flesh – it was awful.

As I was pushed along with a few other captives, we met up with other squads of soldiers escorting prisoners from town. I recognized Lot among them. I could not help but think about his wealth and lifestyle. What good were they now?!

Then it came to me. I had learned more about his background. He was a nephew to a great man named Abram. Abram was not like Lot nor the men of Sodom and Gomorrah. Belief in his god kept him from the wicked lifestyle of my countrymen. He had been blessed by his god for that. Abram was wealthy. Not only did he own much land and livestock, but he commanded a few hundred tribesmen and servants – an army of his own! If anyone could help, it would be Abram and surely, he would intervene for his nephew Lot. If I could escape, I could find Abram and enlist his aid!

A plan began to form in my mind. Just ahead we would have to narrow down our little caravan of captives to tread cautiously between two tar pits. Just to the west of those were the hills and plenty of brush I could use for cover – if I could get there. I stumbled on purpose to delay. Others moved ahead of us as I struggled to get to my feet.

Finally, now at the rear of the caravan, it was our turn to navigate the pits. There was a soldier beside me and one just behind to guard our rear against attack. I rammed into the soldier at my side, knocking him into one of the tar pits! The rear guard had not seen that it was an intentional act of aggression on my part and his first instinct was to try to rescue his comrade.

I rushed forward to head-butt him in his side. He buckled but kept his balance. I dropped to the ground on my back and raised my legs. I kicked with all my might and propelled him into the pit with his dead comrade! His sword lay at my feet. I rolled over to it and managed to cut my hands free. Picking up the sword I ran for the hills.

There was so much chaos and confusion and noise that no one even noticed. I made it to the bushes and small trees, and then as quickly as I dared, I made my way up the hillside to freedom. I travelled as far as my strength would take me that night, finally collapsing among some rocks to hide my sleeping space.

At dawn, I awoke to regain reality and get my bearings. I had dreamed of Jazmara and our home and family – something the dawn reminded me did not exist. I quickly remembered the battle, my escape, and my mission. I moved on toward Abram’s country.

I found water along the way, but no food. It refreshed me. My mission sustained me. If Lot had been taken, perhaps Jazmara had been, too. Even if not, there were many others who had been and perhaps even some of my family. I had to find Abram.

Just before dusk on that second day, I stumbled into Abram’s camp near the Oaks of Mamre. He ordered his servants to fetch me some water and food. He fixed me a place to recline as the provisions were quickly brought to me. After a little water, I was able to tell him about the battle and Lot’s capture.

Abram stood and quickly gave the orders. He wasted no time. The commands went out – some gathered food and water – three hundred eighteen trained men armed themselves for battle. I begged to go with them, but Abram would not allow it. My weakened, weary condition would only slow them down. They would rescue Lot and any others and return them and their goods to Sodom!

Before they left camp to pursue Lot’s captors, I asked Abram how he could be so sure of victory. He replied that Jehovah would give him success. I had heard of Abram’s god and his faith in that god, but I knew little about it. Abram seemed so sure as he rode off that he would return as the victor. I would seek to know more about this Jehovah.

I ate and rested. The servants saw to my needs but mostly left me to myself to rest. I wondered if Abram’s god could indeed give him victory, saving his nephew Lot and many others. Perhaps Jazmara had also been taken – I did not know. It was a few days before Abram and his men returned.

This is what they told me: they pursued the army of the Alliance of Four Kings until they caught up to them far north of us: they waited until dark to get close. That night Abram deployed his well-trained army of servants around the enemy’s camp and attacked by surprise from all sides. Victory was assured, but many of Chedolaomer’s soldiers fled to the north. Abram pursued them until Chedolaomer and the kings who had aligned with him were all soundly defeated. Lot and all the others were rescued – men and women and all their goods! They were returned to Sodom and Gomorrah and the King of Sodom went out to greet Abram.

I had been sent for by Abram and was able to join them at the return and celebration. I have never seen such strength of character, yet humility as I witnessed in Abram! Such a contrast with his nephew Lot and for that matter most any of the men I had known growing up in Sodom.

I saw Abram meet with the mysterious King of Salem, Melchizadek, of which I had heard much good. Abram took wine and bread with Melchizadek and gave to him a full tenth of everything he had! The King of Salem blessed Abram.

The King of Sodom accepted his people back and offered to Abram all the possessions he had recovered. I was awed by the fact that Abram refused the goods! He said he had pledged an oath to his God that he would not take anything from Sodom. He wanted only his God, Jehovah, to get the glory from whatever Abram became or owned. I noticed that in his praise of Jehovah, Abram attributed all creation to Him. I decided then and there that if Abram allowed me to, I would return with him to his camp and become as one of his own.

**********

I did indeed return with Abram to his camp at the Oaks of Mamre. He became like a father to me. I learned much from him and he taught me about his heritage. I tried to model my behavior after him, taking his morality as mine, trying to develop his integrity and character. I learned about Jehovah and committed myself to worshipping him alone as the one true God.

When I had been with Abram for about a year, he called all his people together. He told us that Jehovah had reaffirmed his covenant with him. Jehovah would bless him and through him, bless others. He would bless Abram and Sarai with a son, even in their old age. He would make great nations from their descendants. He expected worship, obedience, and sacrifice from Abram and his people. Abram expected it from all who would dwell with him.

I learned that if I was to become one of Jehovah’s and Abram’s people, I would have to be circumcised. I consented, along with all the other men. It was a sign of commitment and sincerity of belief and obedience. After that I was one of them.

Jehovah changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Time moved on and I got older, as we all do. I often thought of my family in Sodom and Gomorrah, but I never returned to visit nor did they attempt to contact me. I had a new family now – a new way of life – and a stronger aversion to the wickedness of my homeland. I wondered about Jazmara often. I still loved her – at least the Jazmara I had first known.

Occasionally, a traveler came through camp who had information about Sodom and Gomorrah. A couple of times someone came who had met my family or Jazmara.

Not once did I ever hear anything that pleased me or brought fond memories. Always, it was a bad report. I wondered how such people as I had grown up with and even loved, could continue to immerse themselves in such idolatry and wickedness. I wondered what the result of such living would be. One day I found out.

I had been with Abraham for nearly twenty years. I had not married because I simply could not forget my love for Jazmara. I spent most of my time serving Abraham’s family and others in his household. I was more than content though I was never quite happy without Jazmara.

One afternoon, three men came into our camp. When Abraham saw them, he rose and ran to meet them. I had never seen them in all the time I had served Abraham, but he seemed to know them, especially the one who did most of the talking. Abraham called him my Lord and ask them to stay for rest and a meal. As they rested in the shade, Abraham put others to work preparing the meal.

I remained nearby, always listening and learning and serving Abraham and his guests. The one he had called Lord, told Abraham they would have a son. Sarah overheard and laughed because she was too old for such a thing to happen. He said it would happen in about a year!

Then the men got up and walked around a little. They stopped where they could look out in the direction of my homeland. I eased up closer, careful not to intrude. I got close enough to hear. The Lord told Abraham what he was about to do. The words sent chills down my spine and brought tears to my eyes.

He told Abraham that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah was too much to bear any longer. The other two left toward Sodom and the Lord and Abraham continued their conversation. When Abraham realized the Lord was going to bring judgment upon my homeland, I realized that this Lord was in fact Jehovah! Abraham tried to bargain for my people. He asked the Lord to spare the cities for the sake of the righteous there. If even only fifty righteous lived there, would He spare them all? I thought to myself – I doubt there are fifty righteous.

The Lord said He would, and Abraham pressed for more. “What about forty-five?” he asked. The Lord yielded, so Abraham went even further. Would He spare them for the sake of forty? Yes. Thirty? Yes. I couldn’t believe it, but Abraham asked for twenty and finally just ten! Would the Lord spare all for the sake of ten righteous souls in all of Solomon and Gomorrah?

Abraham must have thought that surely there would be ten. His nephew Lot was there. We had reports that Lot had some daughters. They would be of age now. Perhaps Abraham thought that Lot would have passed along his faith in Jehovah to his family and maybe they had influenced others to the faith.

I knew better. I had lived among them. I had witnessed firsthand the wickedness of their beliefs and ways. No, even the nephew of the great Abraham would not have led to faith as many as ten people in all the city.

I could not bear to think of what was going to happen. I had no idea how the Lord would bring judgment, but it was obviously His intent for it to be total destruction. I raced to my tent. I got a bag and put in some clothes, a few other things, and some bread. I got a wineskin full of wine and without telling anyone, I left camp. I had to get to Sodom before it was too late. The men who had left in that direction had traveled the main route to my city. I took shortcuts. If I hurried, I could get there first. My family – Jazmara – they were facing death and did not know it!

It was shortly before dusk when I got to Sodom. I had gotten there first! I went straight to my family. Our reunion was brief and not too warm-hearted. We hardly recognized one another. We held little but blood in common anymore. I told them of my new faith in the God of Abraham. I told him how Jehovah had blessed Abraham. I reminded them how He had shown that in the rescue of Sodom and Lot twenty years ago. Then I told them of the destruction coming!

They laughed! They said too much religion had driven me mad! Their gods had sent no such warnings. If Abraham’s God wanted to do harm, He would have their gods to contend with. They would protect their people. I pleaded, but they paid no attention. I left to go warn Jazmara.

I found my once beloved at the inn of her parents. Our reunion was a little sweeter than that with my parents, but the result was the same. Neither she nor her family would listen. They laughed – not her – but her family. Out of respect for what we once had, she did not laugh. Nor did she believe.

I pleaded with her to leave with me before it was too late. She refused and told me I must go. She enjoyed the life she was living. Her beauty had not faded too much, despite the lifestyle she was leading. She tried to tell me of the freedom she enjoyed and pleasure she derived from the lifestyle she had chosen. She saw no reason to give it up.

I told her that her only salvation was to come with me now – leave the city. She should come with me and learn the ways of Jehovah. It was late, but she must have still cared a little for me, for we went outside alone and talked some more. She listened as I told her about my life with Abraham and his people. I told her about his heritage and journey of faith. I told her about Jehovah and the covenant He had made with Abraham. I shared with her about my commitment.

She said that was fine for me, but not for her. She would stay with her upbringing. She had her gods, her religion, her lifestyle, and it was all just fine. She started to describe the times she had enjoyed over the years and how I could have such times, too, if I would return. I told her to stop! I could not bear to hear what had become of her.

It would soon be dawn. I asked her once more to leave with me. I told her I loved her and asked her to come be my wife. We could start over. She smiled. I melted. She said, “No.” It was time to go. We had both made our choices. We were not of the same heart anymore.

With tears in my eyes, I watched her walk away. Jazmara went back inside and I turned to head out of Sodom before destruction came. As the sunlight of the dawn broke upon the new day, I began to feel uneasy. Something was happening – I could feel it! I didn’t see or hear anything yet, but I could sense it. Perhaps my family could, too!

I returned to the house of my father. They were beginning the work of the day as I approached. I asked if they had thought more about what we had talked about the night before. They said they had talked about it. It provided them with some good entertainment! They laughed at me again.

I left them with her merriment and went inside to try my mother again. She hugged me. She said she was glad I had returned. I had hopes, but she soon dashed them. She was hoping I had come to my senses! She asked me to forget all my foolishness and come back home for good.

Home? The camp at the Oaks of Mamre was my home. Abraham was my father. His people were my people, his God was my God. Sodom and Gomorrah held nothing for me. It held nothing for my family either – or Jazmara. It was doomed and they would not believe. I said goodbye for the last time.

With my bag of my belongings in my hand and my wineskin draped around my shoulder, I left my family for the last time and walked away. As I approached the edge of the city, the sky exploded with fire!

All around me hot balls of fire and smoke were falling from the sky! Smoke began to darken the sky! The molten hailstones were crashing into buildings, lighting fires all over the city. People were rushing for cover into houses and businesses. People were running out of burning houses hoping to find safety somewhere else. Fireballs were crushing people! The smell of smoke and sulfur and burning flesh began to fill the city.

I looked toward Gomorrah, the place of my former business and the home I had planned for Jazmara. Flames and smoke rose from that direction, too! Everywhere one could go, as far as the eye could see across the plains – smoke and fire and hailstones of molten rock!

Animals, people, every living thing was falling under the destruction. Jehovah was raining down fire from heaven. Evil would suffer today. Jehovah would have His vengeance on wickedness. I ran out of the city, headed for home!

I was struck by a fiery hailstone and knocked to the ground! Another hit my back and set my clothes on fire! I rolled around to put out the fire. Blood streamed from my forehead. I struggled to my feet and continued out of the city. I dodged as many fireballs as I could, but I was hit again and again!

Smoke filled my eyes and my lungs. My eyes burned; my throat burned. My body was beaten, sore, and bloody. I struggled on and finally made it to the hills just west of the plain that separated them from the cities. Somehow, in my confusion and distress, I stumbled upon the entrance to a small cave.

Once inside, I was safe from the fire that reigned from the sky. I could no longer hear the screams of my former countrymen. I prayed for their souls, even knowing somehow that it would do no good. They had made their choice. They were lost forever!

So, I changed my prayers. I knew I was dying. I should never have gone back to Sodom. I had heard Abraham plead for the lives of my people, but the Lord had shown us that not even ten righteous people dwelt in those two cities. I took comfort in knowing that I would die because I tried to save them.

My prayer was that I would live long enough to write my story. I had packed some writing supplies in my bag. I had brought a clay pot from Jazmara’s as a keepsake. I would store my story in that if I lived long enough to write it. Perhaps someday, someone would find it and know that the only right path is to choose to follow Jehovah.

So, I wrote. I cried. I prayed. And I wrote some more. And this last thing I will do is to place this in Jazmara’s pot and seal the lid…

**********

The reception room at the college was silent. Everyone had sat quietly as Iowa Smith, Dr. Ezekiel Smith, had read the Journal to them. Most had read along silently with him in their leather journals, but all listened, totally rapt with his narration. He had poured his heart and soul into the translation. He admitted that he sometimes felt as if he had become Ka-mal, felt his emotions, his pain. He felt that had helped him to fill out the narrative of Ka-mal’s primitive writing, yet stay faithful to its pathos.

Dr. Zeke looked around at his audience. The men stared forward or at their journals. The ladies wiped tears or simply looked at each other for a moment. All were in awe of the story – amazed at what they had discovered.

Finally, the silence was broken by the college president. All he could say was, “Amazing!”

Others echoed or added, “Wow!” What a story!” and the like.

The president raised his glass of punch and toasted Dr. Zeke, who immediately raised his glass and added, “To the team!”

Suddenly everyone wanted to talk! They had comments about their favorite parts or concerning the ‘cast of characters.’  They had questions about how it all might have felt. Callie, from the expedition, asked about the part in the Bible with Lot and the angels?

Suzette quickly added, “And Lot’s wife? Why wouldn’t Ka-mal have added all that?”

Alex took the lead there. “Dr. Zeke and I discussed that as we translated the diary. Remember how much time Ka-mal spent with his family and Jasmara? He was all night trying to convince them. The biblical account about the men of the city going after the angels at Lot’s house was happening at the same time.”

Biggon’ chimed in, “Yeah that’s right. Ka-mal wouldn’t have witnessed any of that.”

Suzette added, as if to answer her own question, “And he was just leaving the city when it all started. Lot’s family had left just ahead of that. Ka-mal wouldn’t have seen what happened to Lot’s wife either.”

Captain Kirk put in his two-cents worth saying, “And likely didn’t even escape in the same direction.”

Dr. Zeke gave a reminder to put the final touch on their conclusions, “Remember – this isn’t a history text, but just one man’s personal diary. He could only write about his own experiences and feelings.”

Alex raised his glass for one more toast. “To Ka-mal!” he said. They all took a sip of punch to toast their hero. Some began to chat about the journal or reminisce about the expedition, but a few sat down and turned to their journals to read it again and one more time, go “Back to Sodom!”

 

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Filed under Short Stories

A Nickel’s Worth of Trouble

He was only ten years old when he heard the news. Custer was dead! The whole 7th Cavalry had been wiped out by the Sioux at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He remembered being overwhelmed by confusion and grief. George Armstrong Custer had been his hero. How could he have been defeated?! But over the next few years he had come to grips with it and Custer had risen back up toward the top of his hero list.

And one of the things he had learned from that hero was to ride to the sound of the guns! So, he did. Nick Morgan had been casually riding to town from his family’s ranch when he heard the gunfire. Several shots in the distance echoed off the hills. It sounded like they came from Molly’s ranch! Without hesitation, he turned his horse and galloped in that direction. The shots stopped, but he rode on toward the home of his nearest neighbors, the Franklins.

Fear gripped his heart as he sped closer. He wasn’t afraid for himself – just of what he might find when he got there. In fact, most people thought of young Nickel Boone Morgan as fearless. He was only seventeen, but he could ride like the wind and rope, shoot, and fight like any man around – better than most. A keen eye and a calm squeeze on the trigger made him an excellent shot with his rifle. Untold hours of practice with a rope made him proficient with a lasso whether on foot or on Comanche. He had named his horse after the horse thought to be the sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. When it had foaled in the family stable, his pa, who had once seen the surviving horse while on a trip to St. Louis, said he looked like Comanche. The name stuck.

Nick learned to be a cowboy that could ride and rope and shoot and yes, even fight. His six-foot muscular frame had led to more fights than his ma cared to count. He was generally well-mannered and polite, but he could get a little rowdy at times and would always fight to defend the helpless or stand up for a conviction. He got a six-gun and holster for his fourteenth birthday and months of constant practice had earned him a fast draw with an accurate shot. By his 16th birthday he had won several local shooting and quick draw contests! Big, ruggedly handsome, looking older than his seventeen years – Nickel Boone Morgan was already a force to be reckoned with.

Everyone called him Nick except for his ma when he was in trouble and she called him Nickel Boone. Boone was her family name, descended from another of Nick’s heroes, Daniel Boone. The name Nickel came from the headlines on the day he was born. The U.S. government had just minted the first 5-cent coins two weeks earlier. On June 1st, 1866, when the young boy was born to James and Sarah Morgan, the newspaper had just arrived and the headline on the paper on the kitchen table read, “Welcome the Nickel.” It seemed to James like the only natural thing to name his first born.

Nick was kind of sweet on Molly Franklin who was a year younger than him. He would have ridden to the sound of the guns anyway, but his main concern was “is Molly alright?!” As he galloped toward her ranch, he began to scan the area in every direction. There were no signs of anyone near the ranch. Could the shots have come from somewhere else? He kept riding and looking and then he saw an Indian pony tied up at the far side of the corral. The two Franklin horses that were usually in the corral were not.

Nick reigned in his horse and dismounted with his rifle drawn from its scabbard almost before Comanche had come to a complete stop. He dropped to one knee making a smaller target while scanning the entire panorama. He saw no one. Not the Franklins – not any Indians. He saw that the front door of the small but cozy ranch house was wide open and then he noticed the haystack near the barn was on fire! Funny he hadn’t noticed that before.

It was eerily silent. He thought through the possibilities. Why just one Indian pony? If only one Indian had come, where was he? If Mr. Franklin had killed him, where was the body and where were the Franklins? Why was the front door wide open? He decided to fire off a signal shot. If there were Indians around, they had likely seen him already anyway. If all was okay, Mr. Franklin would signal back. Unless he thought it was more Indians!

Nick drew his six-gun. Mr. Franklin would know the difference between the sound of a rifle and that of a pistol. Indians don’t carry six-guns. He fired two shots into the air and waited and watched. He didn’t know he was being watched, but he felt like something was wrong. He got no response from the house or anywhere else for that matter.
He was not experienced in this kind of fighting, so he didn’t know if he could trust the feeling he was getting. He had to get to the house to see what had happened, but he also had to be careful. Should he walk in slowly or charge in fast on Comanche?

Nick decided on the charge. He had practiced long and hard at shooting from a gallop and was pretty good at it. Actually, he was very good at shooting cans off a fence rail at a full gallop – but then, cans don’t shoot back!

He returned his rifle to its scabbard and mounted his horse. He rode to his right first in order to give himself a few moments to get Comanche up to full gallop before he rushed into the yard. As he got close, he saw movement to his left. A young brave popped up behind the well that was to the left of center of the house. He was aiming his rifle in Nick’s direction. A shot rang out!

Comanche was galloping fast and the shot missed. The brave cocked his gun for another shot. Nick swung down over the opposite side of Comanche, hanging onto the saddle horn with his left hand. He stretched himself down and under his horse’s neck and fired his six-gun at the brave. Two quick shots and the brave went down! Comanche’s speed took them past the house. Nick righted himself in the saddle as he circled the house and reigned Comanche to a stop near the front door.

He had only two bullets left in the gun, but there was no time to reload. He hit the ground running and burst right into the house yelling for the Franklins. “Molly! Mr. Franklin! It’s me – Nick!”

The front room was empty. Nick kept his gun out as he looked around and called again for Molly. He ran to her bedroom door and opened it. No one was there. He called again, “It’s Nick!” but no answer came. He returned to the front room and strode across to the other bedroom. As he approached the partially open door of the Franklins’ bedroom, he heard a slight moan from inside the room. As he pushed the door fully open, Nick heard another groan.

Mrs. Franklin lay dead on the brass bed. On the floor on the opposite side of the bed was Isaac “Frank” Franklin, barely alive. Molly’s pa had been shot more than once and from the look of it, hadn’t long to live. It was as if he had used all the strength he could muster to stay alive long enough to tell someone what had happened.

Six, maybe eight Kiowa warriors – apparently a raiding party – had struck suddenly, without warning. They set fire to the haystack near the barn as two of them went for the horses. Mr. Franklin had been in the barn when he heard them ride in. When he saw who it was, he ran out the side door of the barn for the house. A couple of shots missed him. Molly came running from her bedroom and the two met in the middle of the house. He sent Molly to his bedroom with her ma as he grabbed his rifle from its perch above the fireplace mantel and joined them. He took one shot in the back from a buck who had just busted through the front door.

Frank made it on into the room and closed the door, but a second Indian fired through the bedroom window, hitting him in the left arm. As Isabelle, Molly’s ma raised up from the floor beside the bed to help her husband, the first brave burst through the bedroom door and fired another shot. It struck Isabelle, knocking her backward onto the large feather bed that quickly became her death bed.

Molly covered her face as her screams turned to gasps and then sobs. A third brave had entered by this time and shouted something at the other two. The first one grabbed Molly by the arm and jerked her roughly to her feet. She screamed again as he forced her out of the room. There were more shots fired by the others out behind the barn. – Frank stopped his story and pointed in that direction. “Jacob” was the last word he spoke.

Nick laid the man’s head gently on the floor and checked on Mrs. Franklin to confirm that she was dead. Then he hurried outside to the barn and went around back. Jacob was there. Molly’s brother had apparently been working a few cattle about a quarter mile from the barn by the trees that bordered the Franklin property behind the barn and house. Nick figured Jacob had come running in to help his family when he heard the shots. He had been working so he didn’t have a gun – he never got the chance to help.

Molly was gone. The horses were gone. Nick was a pretty good tracker for such a young man. The tracks led westward from the corral toward the hills. He ran back to Comanche and headed after the raiding party – after Molly. He knew he needed to go home. Needed to get help. Needed provisions. But he also needed to follow these tracks while they were still fresh. The wind was picking up and it had been so dry lately. He feared the tracks might blow away in the wind and the dust. He would return later, if he could, to get help.

**********

Four men with a wagon set out from a small town in Oklahoma Territory near the Texas border and headed southwest toward Mexico. Two men rode on horseback and two were in the wagon, taking turns driving the two-horse team. It was a small covered wagon in which they kept their provisions, extra weapons and ammunition, sleeping gear, and such. They were a scraggly looking bunch. Mean looking. None too clean, either. Always spitting tobacco juice and smelling of whiskey. They had plenty of extra whiskey in the wagon, too. Some for drinking, some for trading with Indians.

The two men in the wagon looked to be about forty and the two on horseback were much younger. One was about Nickel Morgan’s age, maybe a little younger, and the other maybe thirty. The youngest was a brother to one of the older men. They weren’t wanted by the law, but they should have been! They had done just about everything; they just hadn’t been caught at it any of it yet.

The men had heard rumors about Kiowa raiding parties, but they weren’t afraid. They had run into them before. As long as they didn’t run into a whole tribe, they figured they could handle it. If they did meet up with a large group, well, they could likely trade whiskey and guns for their freedom and maybe even a squaw or two!

Mostly, they planned to stay away from towns and steal whatever they needed – or just wanted – from farms and ranches between their current location and Mexico. If they came across any young, strong women, they would take them along for some “pleasure” and to sell as slaves later.

**********

Nick followed the tracks out of the Franklin ranch toward the west. In a short distance the dirt gave way to some scrub grass, but within less than a quarter mile or so the grass was taller. The wind was still strong, and the grass waved in the breeze. It was going to get harder to track the Indians as time went on. He didn’t dare turn back now or he’d lose them for sure. They headed for the hill country that led to the Texas border and then they veered southwest. From there, they might go anywhere.

They might also run into more Indians. Molly could be traded away for anything – or stolen again by a rival tribe. Nick would have to push on. They shouldn’t be too far ahead of him. He had only missed them by a few minutes, and he had only been at the Franklin ranch for maybe thirty minutes more. They couldn’t travel very fast since they were leading the Franklin horses and a captive. But then, Nick couldn’t travel very fast either as he had to keep checking for tracks. He dared not forge ahead too quickly. If they changed directions, he might miss it and lose them forever. Lose Molly forever! He tried not to think of what might happen to her.

She was hot and tired and thirsty. She had been riding bareback on one of the Franklin horses the Indians had stolen. She had ridden that horse many times, but never without a saddle and never in a dress! Her hands were tied with a leather strap and she had to hang onto the horse’s mane to stay on its back. One of the braves led her horse by a rope tied around its neck. One of the others led the second Franklin horse. There were six Indians left and they were beginning to wonder why the other brave had not caught up to them yet.

They spoke only in their own language, though they did not say much. Sometimes they would look or point at Molly as they talked and laughed. It frightened her when they laughed. Her imagination ran wild with thoughts about what they might be saying. She wished they had killed her like they had her family. That caused her to think about them and sorrow overwhelmed her.

She thought about Nick. She would likely never see him again. She had heard about girls who had been taken captive by Indians before and they seldom were rescued. A few had but things were never quite the same afterwards. She vowed to try to run away as soon as she had a chance. She hoped they would kill her if she didn’t get away.

Nick kept riding though it was getting dark. He was sure that they would keep heading southwest. From hunting trips with his pa, he knew there was water about an hour from where he was in the direction they were headed. That had to be where they would stop for the night. Perhaps they already had, and he would soon see their campfire. He shuddered to think about Molly with several Indian men in the camp!

**********

The Indians had made camp in a clearing near the stream where Nick and his pa had spent more than one night while hunting. He was about thirty minutes away. They had no idea that anyone would be that close unless it was their friend catching up. They assumed the Franklins would not be discovered for quite some time. If they had been, Lone Wolf’s job was to lead the searchers off in a different direction! They were thinking that might be why he hadn’t caught up to them yet.

They were so sure of themselves that they didn’t even post a guard. That was to be their undoing! Nick wasn’t far away, and he kept coming, though slowly now that it was dark. However, there were four other white men closer than Nick! A wagon had stopped just northeast of a campfire that one of them had spotted glowing in the distance. After a brief discussion, the thirty-year-old, Nathan Tanner, rode off to scout out the campfire.
The Dawson brothers, Sam and his kid brother Dan, stayed with the fourth man – the oldest and their leader, Mort Keeler. They gave the horses and themselves a rest and drank a little whiskey while they waited for Nathan to return. They figured they just might gain a ready-made supper and a few extra supplies from whoever belonged to the campfire!

It didn’t take Nathan long to return. He had stopped his horse short of the campsite and crept close enough to see who had made the fire. It gave more than enough light for him to see six Kiowa braves and one frightened captive white girl. Even in the flickering light of the campfire, as scared as she was, she was a mighty tempting sight for Nathan Tanner. He was tempted to rush the camp with his guns a-blazing! But he realized it made more sense to go get his partners. Besides, he would have to share her with the others anyway!

He crept back to his horse and quietly rode back to the wagon. He found the others sharing a bottle and joined them as he laid out the situation. He claimed rights to the girl, offering to forego any share in the horses or guns. The others objected or laughed and reminded him it had always been “share and share alike.” Mort gave the plan and they slowly, quietly rolled on in a little closer to the Indian camp.

The men stopped about a quarter mile away and tied off the horses with some grain handy to keep them content. They stayed together as they stealthily approached the camp – they had done this before. On Mort’s signal, the other three gradually spread out until they had all but surrounded the camp. The only side without a man was boarded by the stream. When Mort was sure that they were all in place and ready, he took aim at the brave closest to the girl and fired.

Immediately, the others fired, too. The braves had been easy targets in the light of the campfire and in only three seconds, four of the six dropped dead! Molly screamed and fell over sideways to get low on the ground. The remaining two braves jumped up and ran. One went for his rifle and the other headed for the stream to escape.

Mort dropped his second target as he reached the stream’s edge and the brave fell into the water. Nathan got the last brave as he picked up his rifle. It was all over in less than a minute. Molly laid there trembling, but hoping she was being rescued. Her hope quickly faded back into fear as the four men walked into the camp. They were rough looking. They laughed and each bragged on his kill shot. Tanner reached the girl first and helped her sit up.

Sam Dawson got his first good look at Molly and looked her over pretty well. He turned toward his young brother and said, “She looks about your age, Dan. Might be a good time for you to become a man!” They all laughed as Sam quickly added, “After I break her in fer ya!” More laughter came as Molly realized that she was still a captive.

The men split up the chores under Mort’s direction. Dan and Nathan went back for the wagon and horses. Sam and Mort gathered up the rifles and meager provisions. When the younger two returned they topped off the water barrel with buckets of water from the stream. Sam and Mort tied the six Indian ponies and the two Franklin horses to the back of the wagon. They ate a quick bite from the rabbit the Indians had roasting on the fire and prepared to move on.

Nathan asked, “Why not stay the night?”  Though he directed the question to Mort, his eyes moved to Molly.

Mort noticed and answered, “This pretty little gal doesn’t look like she’s been with these bucks very long. And if I’m right, there could be some folks out there lookin’ for her right now.”

Sam chimed in, “We had best git busy and git gone. Plenty of time later fer campin’.”

Dan said he’d fix a place in the wagon for the girl. Mort winked at Sam noting Dan’s interest in looking out for the new addition to their traveling band. It was only a matter of minutes before all was set. Dan asked Molly her name as he led her to the wagon and helped her up into it. Mort heard her and introduced the men to her as he and Sam climbed to the wagon seat and Nathan doused the fire out. Dan mounted his horse and the caravan eased out of camp. Nathan stayed behind as the wagon headed to the southwest again.

After the others had gone, Nathan cut a branch from one of the trees and dragged it around to wipe out the wagon tracks. Then he mounted his horse and rode off to the north. About a quarter of a mile out, he stopped and dismounted. He walked his horse around for a little bit and then mounted again and slowly walked off to the west. In a little while he picked up the pace as he turned south and rode to catch up to the wagon. He hoped to confuse anyone who might come along soon looking for Molly.

What he didn’t know was that he had been watched as he dragged out the tracks and rode out of camp! The fire was out, but the moonlight was bright enough for the keen eyes of a wounded brave to watch his enemy’s actions. The brave had pulled himself to the bank of the stream after Mort’s second shot hit him in the back. He had lain there as if he were dead as Nathan filled the water buckets just a few feet away. Later, he had slowly dragged himself closer to the camp to watch the men clean out the camp, load the wagon, and tie off the horses. He watched Nathan Tanner try to hide the tracks and lay a false trail out of the campsite. Then he crawled closer to the smoldering fire.

Several minutes later, Nickel Morgan slowed Comanche to a walk as he approached the area that he knew held the stream where he had camped before. He remembered there was a clearing nearby, but it took him a few minutes to get his bearings in the dark. As he walked slowly and quietly toward the clearing, he wondered why there was no campfire and no noise. He had been so sure that the Indians would stop here.

He smelled the smoke that still lingered from the fire that had been doused just a short time ago. He tied Comanche to a tree, patted him gently, and crept off toward the source of the smoke smell. As he crept up behind a big rock, he could see the remains of the camp massacre in the moonlight. Nick scanned the area quickly, six-gun in hand, and counted the bodies of four braves that he could see from his position behind the rock.
He saw no horses and no Molly. He had no idea yet how to account for what he saw. He would have to examine the camp for more clues, so he walked slowly into the camp with all of his senses on full alert for any sign of trouble. As he walked, he kept scanning – looking and listening. He spotted two more bodies, but no Molly. He silently thanked God. But where was she?

He saw that the fire had been doused. He knelt to examine the ground around him and discovered the tracks of the wagon as it had rolled into camp and prints of shod horses. The Indian ponies were not shod. White men had been here. They killed Molly’s captors and took her and the horses away! He was sure of it.

He stood up but remained stooped over as he walked around looking for the tracks of the wagon that led out of the camp. They had been obliterated by the branch. It was an old trick his pa had taught him – told him his great, great uncle Dan’l Boone had done it that way long ago. Nick would have to make an ever-widening circle of the camp in hopes of eventually cutting across the tracks of the wagon. Then he heard a moan from over by the fire!

He drew his gun – fast – and turned in the direction of the moan. The brave on the ground was stirring, trying to turn over. Nick holstered his gun and went to him. Kneeling down, he turned the Indian over on his back. Nick could see the brave was near death. “Where’s the girl?” Nick asked. He gestured to show long hair and repeated, “Where girl?”

The brave understood. He pointed in the direction the wagon had left camp and said in broken English, “White men. Wagon.”

To confirm, Nick pointed in the same direction and asked, “White men took girl that way in wagon?” The brave nodded yes.

Nick asked how many – holding up first one finger, then two, then three. The brave held up three fingers. Then he pointed in the direction in which Nathan Tanner had ridden and held up one finger. Nick thought it through and asked, “One man went that way?” The brave nodded and died. Nick rose to check the tracks.

He could see that one shod horse had indeed ridden off to the north. “Why?” he wondered. “Why would one leave the other three and go a different way?” Then he got it! It was to complete the masking of the wagon’s trail. A fourth man had scratched out the wagon tracks and then set out on a false trail. He likely would eventually head the other way and catch up with the wagon. Nick ran back to get his horse and returned with him to the campsite. He filled his canteen from the stream and let Comanche get a drink, too. Then he rode off in the direction the dying brave had indicated the wagon had gone. It didn’t take long to confirm that he had “told” the truth.

**********

Nathan Tanner had cut across country and caught up with the wagon. They didn’t know it, but they were only about twenty minutes ahead of Nickel Boone Morgan. He couldn’t travel fast at night, but he could go faster than a wagon pulling six Indian ponies and the two Franklin horses! The four outlaws and their captive had no idea that anyone was on their trail at all, much less that close. That gave the outlaws a false sense of peace and offered no hope to young Molly, who dreaded the time when the men would stop to make camp!

Nick could not push Comanche’s pace, but he couldn’t back off either. He knew he was close, but he had to stop occasionally to find signs that he was still headed right. A wagon and ten horses left plenty of signs. In daylight, Nick could have galloped after them. At night, he had to travel more deliberately.

It only took about ten minutes for Nick to get close enough to hear them a little way out in front. He forced himself to slow Comanche to a walk. He couldn’t risk detection. He needed a plan. He had to trust that while they were moving, Molly was safe. He decided to keep this distance and trail them until they made camp. Meanwhile, he would try to formulate some kind of plan.

As Nick and Comanche walked along behind the outlaws, Nick tried to imagine what they might be thinking. No doubt they were anxious to make camp. They were probably arguing over who would take Molly first! Nick shuddered at the thought. He wondered what it would take to make them feel safe enough to stop and make camp for the night. More time? More distance between them and the Indian camp? What?

Then it dawned on him. If it was him, he would have one of the men stop and wait a while. Find some vantage point to wait unseen and watch to see if they were being followed. He reined Comanche to a standstill. How could he continue to trail them, yet avoid being seen – or worse, being ambushed?! He wasn’t familiar enough with this part of the country. His earlier hunting trips had only been as far as the clearing by the stream. He didn’t know what lay ahead nor what kind of terrain was in either direction flanking his path.

His first thought had been to veer off to the northwest a ways and try to actually get ahead of the wagon when he circled around. He could have done that if it was daylight. He could easily outpace the wagon with its trail of horses. But daylight was still hours away and with no sign of anyone trailing them, they might stop for the night while he was circling around. He could get ahead of them and they would be camping at their leisure – with Molly!

He decided on a compromise. The prairie seemed wide enough to allow a parallel trail. He could move off to the west just a little and keep an even pace riding parallel to the wagon, rather than behind them. He could risk being closer since he would never overtake them and hope they only waited and watched along the trail directly behind them. Being closer, he would hear if they stopped for camp.

It seemed like the only way he could keep up with them yet avoid being ambushed. He turned Comanche to the west and headed out – first at a walk, then at a trot to be able to come up even with the wagon, though at a safe distance at its right flank. He slowed to a walk again as he gradually closed the gap between them. He got close enough to hear them.

His plan must have worked for in about thirty minutes, the wagon stopped. Nick stopped, too. He dared not get any closer yet. He wanted to make sure of their plans. In a few minutes it was clear that they were planning to set up camp. He would need to form his own plan quickly and then strike even more quickly. There were four of them and from what he had seen at the Indian camp they must be crack shots and crafty enemies. This time, though, the element of surprise would be in his favor, not theirs.

He tied Comanche to a tree and got his rifle and rope. He didn’t have much ammunition so he would have to be accurate when he shot with either gun. He had reloaded his six-gun before leaving the Franklin ranch. He crept slowly toward the new campsite – watching, listening. They had stopped among a small grove of trees, with a few clumps of bushes and single trees scattered around them. This gave Nick cover to move in close and get the lay of the camp.

The full moon kept him from getting too close but allowed him to see what they were doing. No one even gathered wood for a fire, so apparently, they had opted for a cold camp to avoid discovery. Two of the men set up a picket line and tied off the horses. The other two unhitched the wagon team and one took them to the line while the other got Molly out of the wagon. With the horses secured at the picket line, one of the men got up into the wagon and began handing out blankets, feed sacks, and a few boxes. Nick’s heart had leapt a little at his first sight of Molly!

He could see that her hands were tied, but she seemed okay. The young man that helped her out of the wagon led her to one of the trees and helped her sit down. He then returned to the wagon for some blankets which he gave to Molly. Dan Dawson then got her some food. Nick couldn’t tell from a distance what it was, but he guessed some hard tack and biscuits. He watched her try to eat a little.

The others spread out their blankets in a circle. Two used saddles to make leather “pillows” and they all got some food. Nathan Tanner took Molly a cup of water. All the men were talking and laughing, but Nick couldn’t make out any words. He could see that the men were washing down their food with whiskey. It wouldn’t take long for one or more of them to drink up enough courage to brace the others for dibs on Molly!

Nick told himself to be ready, but he still didn’t have a plan. He was sure he could shoot and kill in a fight, but could he simply shoot a man, even a bad man, from a sniping position? Just shoot a man down?! He might have to. He couldn’t face four men at once. He also couldn’t risk one taking Molly for a shield. He still didn’t have a plan.

As his mind raced to try to form one, things began to change in the camp. The tone of some of the voices changed. Nick guessed they were beginning to argue over Molly. He hoped they’d shoot each other over her but couldn’t count on that. He would just have to be ready to do that himself! The argument stopped abruptly. He wondered what they were up to.

Nick saw one of the men take Molly by the arm and draw her to her feet, pushing her toward the center of the camp. Nick raised his rifle, just in case. Another man went to the wagon and returned with a box in one hand and something else in the other. Nick couldn’t tell what else he had. He set the box on the ground, upside down and put the other object on top of it.

They all formed a circle around the box and Nick could finally see that they were starting to play cards. He lowered his rifle and at first, he thought maybe they decided to play cards and leave Molly alone since they couldn’t agree on who could have her. But as they played on and drank more, the laughter and gestures toward Molly suggested to Nick that they were playing to see who would get her – first!

Nick noticed that the one who had first gotten Molly out of the wagon was not drinking. That was Dan, though Nick didn’t know that. He decided that when the shooting started, that man’s sobriety might mean he should be the first target. The ones drinking might be slowed by the alcohol and less likely to shoot straight.

Nick could take him out with the first rifle shot from ambush and get another before they knew what had happened. He would rush the other two hoping that in their drunkenness, neither would grab Molly nor be able to hit a moving target. He could hopefully take them both out with his six-gun. His fear was Molly getting in the way.

He was almost ready when one of the drinkers suddenly stood up and shouted, apparently in victory. He had won the prize – Molly! He reached down and grabbed her up to her feet and that changed everything. She would be right in the way and he would have her there to use as a shield if Nick fired. The man took Molly by the arm and started for the wagon.

“Not here!” one of the others shouted. “Take her out there somewhere!” He waved his arm in a wide circle indicating outside the camp. The man with Molly, Nathan Tanner, stopped and looked around, spying a clump of bushes in the moonlight. Heading Molly toward the bushes, Tanner had no way of knowing that Nickel Boone Morgan was behind the clump! Nick had Plan B in the works now.

Hiding among the bushes, he could wait and take Molly’s captor without a shot. He could then snipe shoot the sober one and maybe one more before they knew what hit them. With Molly safe behind the bushes, Nick could take the others either way.

He wished he could let Molly know somehow that she would be alright, but he couldn’t. She was struggling against her captor, but he nearly dragged her along. She was crying, pleading, but it was useless. Nick had to block it from his mind and stay focused, hidden behind his bush with his rifle in both hands. As they came around to behind the bushes, Tanner pushed Molly to the ground and dropped to his knees beside her. He tauntingly said, “This is gonna be fun!” It wasn’t!

Nick stepped out of hiding and brought his rifle butt down hard on the back of Tanner’s head. He didn’t know it, but he had just killed him. Tanner’s body slumped over Molly and she screamed a little. The men in the camp grinned at each other, except for Dan. Through her tears, Molly saw Nick standing over them and realized Tanner was not a threat anymore! She struggled to get out from under him and Nick knelt down to help her. She sat up and leaned into Nick, whispering his name, asking him, “How…?”

Nick interrupted her and told her to hush. He released his hug and took out his knife to cut her hands free. Whispering, he said, “I’ll tell you all about it later. Right now, I have to finish this.” He rose to his feet, still sheltered by the bushes. He told Molly that after two shots he would leave her the rifle and rush the camp. Nodding toward Tanner he added, “If he comes to, shoot him.”

The other three outlaws were into another poker game. Nick spotted the young sober one sitting facing Nick with Mort to his right and his brother Sam to his left. Nick was glad that Dan was facing him. He would be the first to go and Nick didn’t want to shoot him in the back. He took aim at Dan’s chest with plans to go for Mort next and calmly squeezed the trigger.

At just that exact moment Mort raised his whiskey bottle for another swig. Nick’s bullet shattered the bottle on its way to the target and blew into Dan’s heart, knocking him backwards. Mort yelled out a drunken curse and fell backward, too. Sam jumped to his feet and immediately looked in Nick’s direction. Nick’s second shot dropped Sam at this brother’s feet.

Mort was scrambling for cover under the wagon as Nick handed the rifle to Molly, drew his pistol and ran for a tree to his left. He deliberately fired a shot toward the wagon so Mort could see where Nick was going. He wanted to draw attention away from the clump of bushes, lest Mort fire into them and hit Molly. Mort had drawn his gun and squeezed off two quick shots toward Nick as he ran to the tree. There had been little chance of hitting Nick – it was nighttime, Nick was running, and Mort was drunk and in shock.
Mort called out, “Who are you? What do you want?”

Nick answered, “A friend of the girl!” Then he dropped to the ground and crawled to another clump of trees to his left.

Mort responded, “Take her and go!”

Nick replied, “I’ve already got her! Throw out your gun and come out with your hands up!”

Mort fired a shot into the bushes but was way off. Nick had moved to test how well Mort could see his movements. No more talking to the enemy. It was kill or be killed. Nick fired at shadows under the wagon – then ran to the next tree as he fired again on the run. Mort’s next bullet hit the ground behind Nick. That was four if he hadn’t reloaded and Nick was pretty sure he hadn’t, so he fired back hoping to engage Mort in a gun battle to keep him firing. Mort obliged with one more, leaving only one bullet in his six-gun.

The next tree over from Nick held the picket line of restless horses. They were tugging at their ropes, but still tied. Nick ran for that tree and shot at Mort again, hoping to force him into using his last bullet. It didn’t work. Even drunk and confused, Mort knew his business. Nick realized that if the man was aware enough to know he was about out of bullets; he might also be reloading even now. Nick needed to end this quickly.

Nick slipped out among the horses, knife in hand. He cut the ropes of each of the Indian ponies, holding on to the lead ropes in his left hand as he went. He guided them toward the wagon, figuring Mort was busy reloading. Releasing the ropes, Nick stepped back behind the horses. He smacked a couple of them and yelled, smacking a third on the rump and waving his arms madly. The horses stampeded toward Mort’s end of the wagon. Mort was in no danger, but he couldn’t see Nick running toward the “former poker table”. Nick dove to the ground behind the body of his first target, firing on the fly. Mort pumped two shots into Dan’s dead body and Nick raised up to shoot Mort in the only part of his body he could see in the dark under the wagon – right between the eyes!
Nick laid there for a second or two to collect his breath. He knew the three men around hi were dead. He wasn’t sure about the one he had left with Molly. He hadn’t heard any shots from there. He called out, “Molly?! “

She yelled back, “I’m here! This one’s dead!”

Nick stood up and said, “So are these three! C’mon out!”

Molly stepped out from behind the bushes, now holding the rifle by its barrel, dragging the butt on the ground. When she saw that Nick was standing tall and holstering his gun, she dropped the rifle and ran to him. He held her tightly while she sobbed into his chest. He told her it was over, and she’d be okay now, but then let her cry it out.

They walked to where Nick had tied off Comanche and brought him back to the camp. The Indian ponies were gone now, and Nick was fine with that. He would take the two Franklin horses and the two from the outlaws back home, along with the wagon team. He told Molly they would sleep awhile and head for home early in the morning.

Molly helped him tie up Comanche along with the others at the picket line. Walking back to the wagon, she told him she didn’t think she could sleep with the dead bodies around. They might even attract animals! Nick said he would take care of it and got a shovel from the wagon.

As Molly cleared a place to sleep inside the wagon, under cover, Nick dug one large hole among the trees. He pulled all four of the outlaws to the grave and laid them in there. He got two blankets from where the men had spread them out for sleeping and covered them in their grave. Then he filled the grave back up with dirt. There just weren’t enough rocks around to cover the graves in stone.

Molly came out from straightening up the wagon and asked about a marker. Nick replied they didn’t deserve one, but Molly said, “It’s about who we are, not them.” So, Nick broke up the box that had been their poker table and tied together a cross after he scratched “4 OUTLAWS” on the crosspiece. He hammered the cross into the ground with the shovel at the head of the grave.

The couple climbed into the wagon to try get some rest. With Nick there for comfort and safety, Molly went right to sleep. Nick had had quite an eventful and draining day himself, so he soon followed her into slumber land.

**********

Birds chirping at the break of dawn woke Nick up and when he stirred around, Molly awoke. It took a minute or two for her to realize it all had not just been a bad dream! She really did lose her family and get taken captive by Indians! And there was Nick – he really had saved her!

“Good morning,” she said to greet her hero.

“Good morning to you, too,” Nick replied. “You want to start home quickly or take time to build a fire and eat something?”

“Let’s just go. I know there’s no one waiting for me at home, but I want out of this place anyway!”

Nick said he’d get the horses and wagon ready as soon as he could and he put on his boots, climbed down out of the wagon, and did just that. Fifteen minutes later, he turned the team toward home and the young couple began the slow trip back. Nick and Molly were on the wagon seat. Comanche and the four saddle horses were tied on behind the wagon. Quite a different picture than when the wagon had pulled into the camp the night before.

With saddles, bed rolls, guns, and a variety of other provisions neatly packed inside, they had no choice but to retrace the wagon’s trail back to the clearing by the stream where the outlaws had left the bodies of the raiding party. Nick tried preparing Molly for what they might see there and what they might do about it.

They approached the clearing a little before noon, but they were not at all prepared for what awaited them. As they got closer, they could see a group of men and horses! Nick told Molly to get in the back and hide. He took his six-gun out of its holster and laid his rifle beside him on the seat. He watched the men spread out a little across the face of the clearing and he braced himself for another fight.

It never came. When the wagon got close enough for the men to clearly see the driver, one shouted out, “It’s Nick!”

Nick turned to Molly and said, “It’s Pa, Molly! C’mon up! It’s Pa and some men from town!”

Nick!” shouted James Morgan. Then as Molly climbed into view to sit beside Nick, James added, “and Molly! He’s got Molly!”

The men ran out to meet the wagon and escort them in. Nick climbed down one side to hug his pa as one of the other men helped Molly down as well. It was a bittersweet reunion. Nick with his pa with the young couple safe and sound, but no family to greet Molly. Both of the “kids” took a little time to wash up and they all shared their stories over lunch.

When Nick hadn’t come home from town when expected, James went looking for him. He learned that no one had seen him in town at all, so he rode by the Franklins before beginning to worry. After seeing what had happened there, James went back to town for the sheriff and more help, they had a decent but quick funeral for Molly’s family this morning and the rescue party set out to track the Indians. James was pretty sure Nick had gone after them, too.

They found the Indians and the wagon tracks at the clearing, buried the bodies, and were just about to begin a search for signs to tell them which way to go, when the wagon appeared on the horizon. The rest, of course, Nick knew.

Nick and Molly had much to tell but had already agreed that it would be up to Nick to tell the part about the gun battle. After all, Molly had not actually seen any of it after Nick had clobbered Nathan Tanner behind the bushes. She did tell that part of the rescue.
Nick merely said that after that there was a shootout. He had killed two with his rifle and then shot it out with pistols killing the last one. He buried them in a small grove of trees, spent the night in the wagon, and headed home early this morning.
“Home,” Nick said. He took Molly’s hand and repeated himself. “We’re headed home.”

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Filed under Short Stories

As the Crow Flies

The following short story was an entry of mine last year to a contest.  A publishing company sponsored it.  They gave the first and last paragraphs and I had to write exactly 48 paragraphs in between, connecting them.  No actual dialogue to be included.  Any subject.  I joined the contest late so I only had a week to write it, edit it, and send it in.  I didn’t win anything, but I think it’s a pretty good story.  See what you think:

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

But this was it! He was close – He just knew it. His spirit had come back to him. He was on track again. His instincts were back. He had felt things for the first time since “the failure” – his gut was working again! He just had to be in time – this time. For the first time in three years, he felt alive. He had hope. He felt like he could make a difference again.

Alex McCall used to be a good detective. He had once been a good cop, then struck out on his own and had become an even better private investigator. He had been very successful – once upon a time – but that all changed with one case. He had found stolen goods. He had solved insurance fraud. He had found long-lost heirs to a fortune! He had tracked down more than one criminal for the police. He had found a couple of missing teens and once thwarted a ransom attempt by a couple of thugs who had taken a little boy from his rich grandfather. But three years ago, he was too late.

Oh, he found the woman, just not in time. He was less than thirty minutes late to save her from a gunshot to the head by her kidnapper! It was not his fault, but you couldn’t convince him of that. The police had interfered and slowed down his pursuit. But that didn’t matter. No matter how many people said it was not his fault, he could not shake the idea that it was. He felt he should have done something differently. If he had avoided the police. If he hadn’t called it in. If …if…if… He had replayed it in his mind almost daily for nearly three years now. But it didn’t help. Laura Cantwell was dead, and he missed saving her by less than a half an hour.

Ever since then he was a mere shadow of his former self. He didn’t drink, but sometimes almost wished he did. Maybe that would have helped him forget. But he had watched his father drink away his family, his future, and eventually his life and Alex had vowed that would never happen to him! Sometimes he wondered what the difference was. He wasn’t drunk, but he seemed to be in a stupor. He was wasting his life, no good to anyone, yet sober. What difference did it make? But he still refused to drink.

He had survived the loss of his wife to a freak automobile accident when he was still a rookie cop. He was on night patrol and she had to go to the store late at night in the rain by herself. A truck slid off the road in front of her and she lost control of her car trying to avoid it. She was killed instantly. He was thankful she hadn’t suffered. He was thankful that they hadn’t had any children yet and he would not have to raise them alone. He handled that well, yet somehow, he couldn’t get past “the failure.”

He had never remarried. He threw himself into his work. Maybe that’s what made him so good. He had little in his life to distract him. He could stay focused. There was no one to worry about at home. Danger made no difference without a wife waiting for him to come home at night. He could stay at the job for hours on end and know that there was no one lonely at home. None of that mattered now. He couldn’t focus on anything for very long. Everything seemed somehow to remind him of “the failure.”

There was a brief relationship about a year and a half earlier, but he quickly messed that up, too. Just a real nice lady he had met on a stake out. He spent some time, three nights in a row, at an all-night diner, watching the fleabag hotel across the street. The owner of the diner was also the waitress. She was attractive and funny and since it was late at night, she had time to spend with him. They hit it off right from the start. For two short months he almost forgot about Laura. Then one night they were watching an old gangster movie and a young lady was kidnapped. The police didn’t get there in time to save her either! He reverted into his stupor and fouled up his new relationship. He didn’t treat her badly – he just didn’t treat her at all. She walked away. He never saw her again. He read in the paper one day that she had gotten married and that was that. All he had after that was work and very little of that.

He kept his license current and continued to take cases, just nothing big. He only took on enough to make enough money to pay the rent and buy a few groceries – and he didn’t eat much anymore. Occasionally, he would take on an accident probe or perhaps solve a hit-and-run. Mostly he worked divorce cases. He hated divorce cases and before “the failure” he wouldn’t even take them on. Spying on philandering husbands or a lonely, cheating wife, driven to an affair out of desperation for love from her husband. Following, watching from the shadows, taking pictures, chronicling dates, times, and places to verify the affairs. Helping one spouse get the goods on the other to get out of a bad marriage without paying for it. But it didn’t require much from him to do and it paid the bills.

Not enough for a new car or even a good used one, but enough to keep the old El Dorado running. Once it had been new and drew attention and envy. Then it became a classic. Then a classic in need of a makeover. Now, it wasn’t much more than a beater that needed constant repairs and occasionally more than he could afford. Mostly, he just didn’t care anymore. Not since he failed to save Laura. He had solved the case, but he lost her!

He had rehearsed the story over and over in his mind so many times. He dreamt about it – when he could sleep. He wrote about it. For a few weeks he had seen a therapist and even actually talked about it. Not to anyone else, ever, but to the therapist. It didn’t help. He tried praying about it, but apparently, he didn’t know how to get through. Or maybe God wanted him to work through it on his own. He didn’t know, but it didn’t work. Nothing did. But things had worked. Once upon a time, he was good. That’s why they called him.

Usually, if it was a criminal case, Alex was contacted by the civilian party after the police had their shot at it. Sometimes, though, even the police would call him. He had been that good. Being a former cop had probably helped, too. In any case, literally, when you needed help, you could count on Alex McCall. He knew how to get things done. He solved puzzles. He had instincts that were usually right on target. His “gut” told him what was what. He got feelings down deep and had learned to trust them. And it had all worked, right up to and including the Laura Cantwell case.

He had discovered that Laura had met a man online and started up an internet romance. Eventually, they set up a meet at a nice restaurant on a Friday night at 7:00. She never showed up. David Johns figured she had gotten cold feet and changed her mind. He tried to contact her again for a few days to no avail and then read about her disappearance in the paper! He called the police, even knowing that he would probably wind up the prime suspect. He had been, but the police quickly cleared him.

Her parents had called in Alex to help after the police hit a dead end. In a short time, Alex knew and convinced the parents that this David guy had nothing to do with it. He had learned that Laura had been stalked online and David had been hacked that night to change the meeting place. Laura went to meet him somewhere else and had been abducted.

A week later, Alex had tracked the hack back to an internet café, spotted the hacker on a security video and retrieved the message to locate the new meeting place. There, he dug up security footage from a camera across the street that had captured the abduction on film. A contact at the DMV gave him an address for the vehicle that turned out to be an empty house. The police took over and eventually came up with a more recent address, but it didn’t pan out either.

Alex finally left the police behind to go it alone again and soon had traced the car’s movements through several traffic cams and security footage from businesses along the abductor’s route. It led him to an abandoned apartment complex on the city’s south side. He called for police back up and was told to wait. He did but he shouldn’t have. While the police searched the complex with Alex waiting in a squad car, the kidnapper shot Laura and tried to get away. He was killed in a gun battle with the police, but by the time Alex figured out which apartment he had used, Laura was dead.

Until today, he had not been able to get past that. He went to Laura’s funeral, but it didn’t help. Probably because he never knew her. He really couldn’t grieve. He visited her parents a few times over the first few months. They were kind and he knew they did not blame him in the least. In the end, he knew he was much more of a downer for them than they were a pick-me-up for him. So, he stopped going by. He always figured he had finally done them a favor when he did that.

He had not taken another case like Laura’s until this one, but Sondra Keller’s parents had practically begged him. The police were at a loss. Her parents were desperate. They had researched Alex and knew his history. They were convinced he could help. They knew Laura’s death was not his fault. He could do this, and they needed him. He said he would try, but his heart was not in it. Even when he began to make progress he still had to force himself onward.

But gradually, he was coming back. His old instincts were sparking back to life. His mind was clearing from the fog he had been in since “the failure” – as he called it. His gut was feeling something besides hunger again and it had brought him to this tee in the road. He had reluctantly agreed to search for Sondra. He looked into what had happened, what the police knew, what they couldn’t figure out. Sondra was 42 years old and single. She had never married, didn’t even date much. She had immersed herself into her career and had done well in real estate. She was close to her parents and visited them often, especially for dinner and a little TV on nights she wasn’t with a client.

A quick check of her laptop by the police techs showed that someone had hacked her computer and had been cyber-stalking her for a few weeks. Whoever this geek was, he had learned her habits and her schedule. The Geek knew when she was home alone and when she went out – often even where she was going. It didn’t take much for him to figure out a place and time to grab her.

There had been no ransom demand, so the police were baffled. After a little research, Alex discovered that a half dozen 40-50-year-old women in a few neighboring towns had gone missing in the past few months. There had been no ransom demands, no dead bodies so far, and no trace of any of them – few clues, nothing solved. Alex suspected a connection and followed up on it. There was very little inter-departmental cooperation and no one else had tried to connect the dots. All the cases were too new to have attracted much attention yet. Except for Alex, that is.

He found out that each one of the women had been cyber-stalked and soon learned that all could be traced to the same internet café in his town. A security video from the café led to identifying a suspect and a search warrant produced enough evidence to arrest the cyber-Geek. He confessed to his part of a sordid sex-ring, but he did not know the identities of hardly any of the others involved. It took little more than a couple of days for Alex and the police to learn the whole affair and catch most of them.

Some rich, spoiled fraternity boys at a local college had tired of partying with girls their own age. One tried his hand at seducing the mother of one of his friends and found it to be both challenging and satisfying. He then challenged his frat brothers to try to do the same, but they soon found it difficult to find good prospective “partners.” It did not take long for them to escalate to kidnapping and rape! They hired the Geek who knew about a big, strong, easily-influenced criminal type who could help with the kidnapping. The Geek and the Big Ox had contracted to track and take those six women for money from the frat boys. Later, they sold the women to a drug cartel for sex-trafficking. The Geek had made the connections on the dark web – all very discreet and hush hush. All contacts were made online. He purposely didn’t know where to find the Ox, so he really could not help them find where he had taken Sondra. The boys gave a decent though vague description of the big guy from one brief meeting.

Alex took the description and left the station. He had picked up on something no one else seemed to notice. He almost told his lieutenant friend, but then he remembered “the failure.” He had blamed himself for three years for letting the police take over his investigation about Laura. He wasn’t about to let that happen again! So, he kept it to himself and returned home for some quick research.

The Geek had made one little off-hand remark that set off a little twinge in Alex’s stomach. When questioned about the Big Ox, he said he had never seen him, didn’t have his phone number, and did not really know anything about him at all. A few seconds later, though, he said something about him being such a low-life, what with always drinking whiskey and riding mechanical bulls. Alex had a hunch that he might find a man fitting Ox’s description at a bar with one of those mechanical bulls.

A quick online search gave up only two such places in town. There were a few more in the county, but Alex felt sure it would be one of the local ones. A few years before there would have been more to check out, but the fad had faded some and now Google only revealed two. One on each end of town. Naturally. Occasionally, the leg work went smoothly and contacts were close together, but this one was just the opposite.

The first one turned out to be one of Alex’s versions of Murphy’s Law (he called it McCall’s Law): when time is of the essence, you can count on some leads to be a big waste of time! The bartender listened to Alex’s description of the man and said it fit lots of guys, but only a few of their regular bull riders. He asked about likely behavior patterns but as Alex finished his description of those, the man was already shaking his head. He told Alex that he couldn’t think of any of the riders that would fit the bill. Alex thanked him and moved on. With the drive and the questioning, he had wasted a good half hour. He quickly crossed town to the other bar.

By the time he arrived it was mid-afternoon and not much was happening. There were only a few people in the bar. That made for a good talk with the lady bartender but showed quickly that Ox was not there now. The young lady behind the bar was very helpful and sympathetic to Alex’s need to know. After he described Ox to her, she said she just might know who he was looking for. In fact, he had just left there less than an hour ago! She only knew him as Joe. He always drank quite a bit, usually whiskey, and rode the bull several times. He hit on every female in the place every time, but never seemed to score even a kiss, much less a date. There was just something kind of scary about him. He left alone today, as always.

Alex got her to go over some security footage with him that overlooked the bar’s parking lot. She pointed him out to Alex as the video showed Joe exit the bar and climb into an old jeep and drive away – north out of the parking lot, away from town. The jeep would not be hard to spot because Joe had backed into a pole while leaving and broke a tail light. Alex grabbed the gal and planted a big kiss right on her lips and thanked her! As he hurried out of the bar, she struggled a moment to regain her composure and called out for him to come back real soon! Apparently, it wasn’t only his investigating skills that were returning.

Alex fired up the Dorado and headed north. He had no idea where he was going, but his gut was working again. This was the guy and he was headed back to where he was holding Sondra. If Joe somehow got wind that everyone else had been arrested, he would surely kill her. Alex would have to be in time to save her. He just could not fail again. The bar was at the edge of town. He figured that Joe would have her stashed out of town somewhere and that’s why he headed away from town instead of toward it. Alex followed his instincts and as he approached the junction at the city limit, he got the feeling he should pull into the big one-stop gas station on the corner. Maybe Joe had stopped for gas.

Alex questioned the young attendant behind the counter and sure enough, Joe was just there a little while ago! The attendant had noticed the jeep pull in. Joe didn’t get gas but stopped in for whiskey and cigarettes. He already smelled of alcohol. He took the time to try to flirt with the other attendant, but she rebuffed him. He cussed a little at her, paid for his stuff, and left. The attendant had watched him leave to make sure that he did and noticed that instead of continuing north on the highway, Joe had left the lot heading west from the junction. He offered to help Alex if he needed advice about the area, since he had hunted all over that section of the country and knew it well. Alex put the attendant’s number in his phone but didn’t notice that his battery was very low. Alex would have lost Joe had he not listened to his gut and stopped at the station! He was only minutes behind the Ox now, but the jeep could still be long gone.

There were no side roads for the next couple of miles, but suddenly, just ahead there was a turnoff to the right. Alex slowed down and looked down the side road. His gut reacted so he pulled onto the road and took a good look around. There! Fresh skid marks on the road. Someone – he figured drunk Joe – had recently skidded around the corner, leaving the marks as he regained control. Alex’s gut told him Joe had turned here. He listened to his gut and proceeded down the road.

In about a half a mile, the road came to a tee. Alex stopped and looked both ways. It was still daylight, though overcast, and Alex could see quite a way in either direction – uphill to the right and downhill to the left. No sign of anything either way. Sadly, his gut was silent this time. He had no clue which way to go, nor what might lie in either direction. He didn’t feel like he had the time to waste on another trip that would lead to nowhere. He decided to call the station attendant for advice. No bars on his phone! McCall’s law again – another time waster.

He got out of the Dorado and walked around trying to pick up some tower power. Nothing. He started back up the hill toward the main road. One bar, two, then three bars as he topped the hill! He called the station and explained his dilemma. The young man knew exactly where Alex was. He told him that up the hill to the right of the tee was an old abandoned lumber mill that some folks still went to just to cut some wood on their own. Alex figured that would explain the saw he heard when he first got out of the car. He also thought that wasn’t likely the place to hide a woman.

The young man said that down the hill from the tee, the road went on for several miles before winding back around to town. When Alex asked him if there were any side roads or any old houses or cabins around, the attendant remembered one. Once while hunting in that area, he had sought shelter from the rain in a cabin not too far from the tee. He told Alex that there was a gravel road on the right about two miles downhill from the tee. That road would go for three or four miles, winding around until it played out at a cabin back in the woods. He said the cabin was probably only two miles from the tee as the crow flies, but it would take quite awhile to drive there in a car. It was five or six miles and most of it was on a rough gravel lane. Alex somehow knew that was the place. That is where Joe went – where Alex would find Sondra. But would he be in time?

Alex thanked the man and headed back down to the Dorado. His phone went dead. When he got to the car, it was dead, too! Nothing. Not even a moan or a groan. The only sound was the clicking of the ignition as the engine stayed silent. He started to get out of the car to hurry back up the hill and call for help. Then he remembered his phone had just died. He was on his own and it was a long walk to the cabin. Even if his gut was right about Sondra being there with Joe, Alex knew he might not make the five or six miles in time to save her. What else could he do? Nothing. He would have to try, so he got out of the car to start walking.

It was just then that he heard crows cawing and looked up overhead. Two crows flew directly over him heading out over the field in the direction of the cabin. He remembered the attendant saying the cabin was probably just two miles as the crow flies! He had to do it. He could cross the two miles of field faster than follow the road – it just had to be the right way. He climbed over the fence, set his sights on a big tree way out in front of him in the direction of the cabin – he hoped – and started walking as fast he dared go through the rough field. Once he got to the tree he could find another marker further on to help him stay on the straight crow path.

For an out-of-shape man of 55 who hadn’t done much exercising in, well, forever, Alex kept up a pretty good pace. He was driven by his need to get there fast. He could not risk losing any time – not this time. He could not let Sondra be another Laura! He pressed on, until finally, he made it to the other side of the field. He crossed that fence, too and quickly stepped onto some gravel. It was partially grown over with grass, but it was a gravel lane. The cabin had to be to the right if the lane dead-ended at the cabin like the station attendant had remembered. He headed that way, powered by a second wind. Or was it his third wind? No matter.

In just a couple hundred yards, the lane stopped at a clearing in the trees and there sat the jeep in front of an old cabin, broken tail light and all! He was right. He knew he had been, but he felt validated somehow. Now, if only he was not too late. He couldn’t let himself even think otherwise. He had to stay focused! If he was in time, Sondra would need him.

This time he would be there for her. This time he was on his own. No back up, but no police who might have to go by the rules and delay him. He would not sit this one out in the car. He remembered – he didn’t even have a car to sit in! Even drunk, Joe was big and might be a handful. But then, Alex had no intention of fighting with him. He double checked his gun to make sure it was loaded and ready. He knew it was, but he always checked anyway. He left the lane to creep toward the cabin in the grass.

He snuck up to a window on the side of the cabin, keeping low until he reached it. Then he slowly raised up until he could peek inside. He was in time! Sondra was alive! She was sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the front room. Her hands were tied together behind the chair back and her ankles were tied to the chair legs. Joe stood in front of her, yelling at her. He staggered a bit – obviously drunk. Alex was about to storm the front door when Joe pulled a gun out of his belt and started waving it around. Alex stopped. If he rushed in, Joe might shoot Sondra! He had to hope that Joe was not done taunting her. He needed time to plan a distraction and get Joe away from where he could easily shoot her. He quietly crept around back.

Joe took a big swig from his whiskey bottle and then held it out to Sondra, yelling at her to take a drink. She couldn’t have taken a drink if she had wanted to – her hands were tied behind her back. Joe put the gun back in his belt and grabbed her hair, pulling her head back and down, forcing her chin upward. He held her head in place as he poured whiskey into her mouth and all over her as she sputtered and gagged. He hollered at her to swallow it! Alex could hear the yelling and figured as long as Joe was yelling, he wasn’t shooting. Sondra just cried and sputtered some more. Joe took a knife from the table nearby and reached around to cut her hands free. Alex found what he needed out on the back porch.

Joe handed the bottle to Sondra and told her to drink it. She refused, but he pulled the gun again. She tried to drink it but could barely manage a sip at a time. Alex found a metal bucket, a rope, and a wooden barrel on the back porch. He tied the rope to the bucket handle and set the bucket on top of the barrel. Then he slowly backtracked, unwinding the rope as he walked toward the window where he had been. That was as far as the rope would reach. It would have to do. Joe was yelling louder and pointing the gun at Sondra. Alex took out his gun and pulled on the rope. The bucket crashed loudly to the porch.

Joe was surprised by the banging out back. Even drunk, he ran to the back door to see what had caused it. Alex went quickly and quietly to the front door and carefully opened it. As he stepped inside, he motioned to Sondra to be quiet. Joe jerked open the back door and stepped outside. It would not take him long to discover it was a set-up. Alex had to work fast! He got the knife from the table and handed it to Sondra. She would have to cut her legs free herself. If things went wrong, she could at least run for her life. Joe saw the rope tied to the bucket and turned back into the house. Alex heard him yell out a cuss word. He knew Joe was coming. Joe bolted through the back door with his gun in his hand to face whoever had done this.

Alex had never planned to wait on Joe to get back into the front room. Instead he side-stepped over to where he would be facing Joe as he came through the back room. Seeing Alex, Joe raised his gun to fire. Alex dropped him with three quick shots to the chest! Joe fell to the floor, dropping his gun. Alex rushed to his side and kicked the gun away. He stooped down to check on Joe. He wasn’t moving, but he was still alive. There was no way he could move to get the gun again, so Alex left it for the police to find and returned to the front room to Sondra.

She was free now and standing. She fell into Alex’s arms and sobbed into his chest as he assured her that it was all over. He told her no one could hurt her now. She asked if Joe was dead and Alex told her not yet, but he probably wouldn’t last long. She needed to see for herself, so with Sondra still clinging tightly to him, they shuffled together to the doorway so she could. Changing her focus away from Joe, Alex asked if Joe had a cell phone. He knew that Sondra’s had been smashed and left behind when Joe took her. She said he did and that it was on the end table by the couch, but she wasn’t sure there was any tower power there. She had not heard him make or get any calls.

Alex got the phone and thankfully, there were bars on it! He called the police. Sondra would not let go of him as he talked. She learned his name as he identified himself to the police and told them what had happened and how to find them. They would get men out there as soon as possible and send an ambulance, too. Alex checked on Joe once more. He was still alive, but barely. Alex didn’t much care. There wasn’t anything he could do for him anyway, even if he had wanted to help. He and Sondra stepped out onto the front porch and into some fresh air to wait for the police. It must have been late in the afternoon. All Alex knew for sure was that he had gotten there in time – this time. Sondra didn’t want to talk about it yet, so they chatted to get to know one another. She had a million questions for her hero!

When the police arrived, Alex surrendered his weapon to one of them and the questioning began. A couple of them went inside to confirm what Alex had described on the phone. One returned with Joe’s gun. Another began to cordon off the cabin with yellow tape, while another radioed back to the station. The ambulance arrived shortly after the first patrol car had. One of the EMTs came to check Sondra over while the other went inside the cabin to check on Joe. He returned quickly to get the gurney and ask his partner for help with Joe. Amazingly, Sondra was okay, so they left her with Alex and took the gurney inside.

In a little while, the police dropped off Alex and Sondra at the El Dorado. The ambulance had taken Joe away but didn’t need the siren. There was a pretty good crowd of law enforcement officers around the Dorado. Local police, county deputies, and a few state troopers. Some had jumped and charged the Dorado’s battery. Alex had charged his cell phone in a squad car while answering questions about the rescue. It was time to go. Alex told the police that he would bring Sondra by the station.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

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Filed under Short Stories

Trick or Treat? (A short-story mystery)

(I wrote this with lots of dialogue because I wanted to do it as a play.)

I honestly don’t know if the story I’m about to tell you is true or not.  I believe wholeheartedly, well, most of the time, that it is.  However, since I made no official report of it at the time and have not once since either spoken to or heard of any of the participants, I must admit to occasional doubts myself.  But it is just too realistic to have been a dream.  The details are way too, well, detailed.  The people involved were too vivid not to be real.  The story needs to be told and, real or not, the truths gleaned from its telling are far too valuable to keep to myself and are certainly worth your consideration.  So, here is my story.

**********

It happened, either for real or in my head, on Halloween night.  As I said, I believe it really happened, so we’ll proceed from that viewpoint.  Halloween was on a Friday that year.  Not that it matters to the story, but it mattered to me at the time.  It meant that I was only on call, not on duty and that not having to work the next day, I didn’t have to worry about being out late that night.  I’m Chief Inspector of the Robbery – Homicide Division of a sprawling Midwest city.

Now, I’m not a wild reveler, but I do enjoy a variety of entertainments, and it being Halloween, had decided to attend a very interesting party at a friend’s.  It was there that I received the call from headquarters.

I felt my cell phone vibrate in my pocket and took it out to see who was calling.  It was indeed a call from the front desk, so I quickly exited the party to the back patio to take the call.  I knew Sergeant James McGinness was at the desk so I answered, “Yeah, Mac.  What’s up?”

Mac was a big Irishman who had seen more than his share of crimes over the years, but due to his age and some chronic ailments had gladly been reassigned to a desk job to finish out his time until retirement.  “I knew you’d want this one,” he said and began to give me the sketchy details as he had been given them.

As Chief Inspector I only had to take certain calls when not on duty.  There were three kinds of crimes I would be called about.  Certainly, the crimes that were considered to be heinous, grisly, or sordid were mine.  Secondly, I would be called to those that, at least on the surface of things, would appear to be virtually unsolvable.  And then, as per my personal instructions to those who worked under me, I wished to be called to any crime whose details were so bizarre that I “just wouldn’t want to miss it!”

Mac said this case was one of those for sure.  Whether it turned out to be either of the other kind remained to be seen.  After giving me the basic details over the phone, Mac added, “I wish I was going on this one with you.”

I promised him all the details after I had learned them myself, excused myself to the host, and left the party.  Mac had given me an address and I knew just where it was.  I had never been there before, but had driven past it many times.

The address was 1200 Oakridge Drive.  The drive was through an exclusive neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, named for a low rising wooded ridge that served to separate the neighborhood physically and visually from the city itself.  The ridge was of course filled with large oak trees and the drive ran parallel to it, with several estates along either side.  The larger estates were across the drive from the ridge rather than backing up to it.  None of the larger ones were less than ten acres and 1200 Oakridge Drive was one of the largest.

It belonged to multi-millionaire Philip Paul Gadston who made his first million in computer software and then expanded into a wide variety of business ventures extending his fortune considerably.  I had met the man once on the occasion of one of his many philanthropic endeavors.  Though extremely wealthy, extremely busy, and seldom in town, Gadston was quite generous and much of that was local.

He was known, however, for the odd ways he chose to determine to whom and how much he would donate.  The time I met him was when he donated money to build an inner city park in one of the less fortunate neighborhoods of our city.  He promised to give a thousand dollars for every free throw that the worst basketball shooter in the neighborhood among its twelve year olds could make in the span of ten minutes.  The whole neighborhood and half the city turned out to the old run-down park to watch.

A contest had been held earlier to determine the worst shooter and I was there as a representative of the city and one of those who would publicly thank Gadston for his donation.  The kid was a scrawny little bookworm-looking boy who didn’t seem to know his way around the park, much less a basketball court.  At the halfway point he had made twenty free throws and Gadston hollered out, “I’ll double it if you make fifty!”

The crowd roared and a few of the neighborhood ‘toughs’ ran out to help rebound for the boy and to cheer him on.  It was an amazing thing to watch how the community seemed to come together all of a sudden and I suspect that is why Gadston had done it that way.  Well, he had to donate one hundred thousand dollars that day!  And I happen to know that later he gave even more.

Another time he offered to pay for the college tuition of the boy with the lowest Grade Point Average of his graduating high school class, provided the boy could graduate from college with at least a 2.75 GPA.  The boy had to sign a promissory note that if he didn’t finish college or have at least that GPA when he did graduate, he would have his wages garnished at whatever job he did get until the debt incurred at that point was paid off.  One young man took him up on the offer and the story goes that Gadston not only had to pay the four years of college tuition for the boy, but followed through to pay for the young man’s Master’s Degree.  Today, he is the Chief Accountant in one of Gadston’s more lucrative enterprises!

This time, Gadston for some reason had chosen a Halloween party as the venue for one of his philanthropic whims.  He wouldn’t even be there himself, as he was off gallivanting through Europe somewhere.

As I drove up the Bradford pear tree lined driveway to the house for the first time, I tried in the darkness of that Halloween night to take in all the details I could see.  The drive was decently lit by the evenly spaced lampposts along either side, but most of the park-like lawn was too dark to see.  As I approached the front of the house, the driveway widened and circled a flower garden with a lighted fountain in its center.  A four-car detached garage sat off to the right as I came to the house and behind and to the right of that was a small, but neat cottage that I learned later housed the couple who served as caretakers of the estate, butler and cook.  A chauffeur lived in a modest apartment above the garage, which they all called the carriage house.  Since Gadston was away, the driver wouldn’t be needed and wasn’t even there that night.

I counted seven cars in the driveway, besides a squad car, and the whole house, both inside and out, was well lit.  One of the officers met me as I got out of my car.  He gave me a curious look and stifled a laugh before asking what I knew already.  I told him and he said they had only just arrived a minute before me and didn’t know any more than I did.  I told him to make a list of the cars by make and model and license number and confirm ownerships. I imagine you’re wondering why the curious look and stifled laugh from a fellow officer, especially an underling, but you’ll have to wait for it!

My investigation revealed the events and conversations that led to our being called there to Gadston’s estate that night, but I’ll tell them to you as they happened, rather than as answers to my questions.

Gadston had thrown a masquerade party to which he had invited only a few guests.  He himself wouldn’t be there, but it would be hosted and served by his butler and cook.  The party started at 8:00 p.m. and the circumstances that led to our being called at 10:00 had also led to everyone being out of the main parlor at the same time for the same reason, as you shall see.

At about 10:05, two of the guests re-entered the parlor discussing the events.  Remember, it was a costume party.  The cowboy spoke first, as he headed for the punch bowl to get another glass of punch, “I really don’t know what all the fuss is about,” he said.  “Would you care for a glass?”

The young lady, probably about twenty years old, dressed in a cheerleader outfit replied that she would and then, in response to his first statement, said, “One of us is missing, that’s what all the fuss is about!”

The cowboy handed the cheerleader her glass of punch and took a sip of his own.  “Not necessarily,” he replied.  “Just because we don’t know where he is, doesn’t mean he is actually missing.  We haven’t heard from the others yet and he could be found most anywhere in the house – or on the grounds.”  He took another sip of punch and on a more personal note, said, “I like your outfit by the way,”

“Thank you,” she responded with a slightly flirtatious smile.  “I’m Joan College tonight.  Not only am I a cheerleader, but I represent ‘all things collegiate!’ She shook her head backwards and upwards, flipping her blond hair, and laughed a little.  “And you?” she asked.

“I’m just a good ol’ cowboy,” he said.  “Why, I’m the rootin’est, tootin’est, sharp shootin’est man the West has ever seen!” he added, with all the western sounding voice he could muster. “Why I can outride, outrope, outshoot and outlove anybody you’ve ever known!” he added with a wink.  “And you can call me Rowdy.”  All that talking must have made him thirsty, so he took another drink, then added in his natural tone of voice, “But I still say there’s nothing to get all excited about with our so-called missing guest.”

Joan took a drink of punch and said, “I hope you’re right.”

Just then Superman hopped into the room, planted his feet firmly in place and putting his hands on his hips stared straight at the cowboy and cheerleader and reported, “No sign of him anywhere in the house.  We looked everywhere – and of course you know, I can even see through walls!”

Joan College turned to Rowdy and said, “See?!  I told you he’s missing.”

Rowdy tried not to laugh at Superman’s’ behavior and report and asked, “Can you also see through costumes?”

Joan punched him in the arm, knowing full well what he was getting at.  “Where are the others?” she asked, turning her face back toward the young man dressed as Superman.  She couldn’t help but notice that he fit the part: tall, quite muscular, dark hair, blue eyes, and pearly white teeth that showed through a very nice smile.  He noticed her notice him and that made him smile.

“They’ll be along in a second or two,” he said.  Then he assumed his Superman persona and added, “Naturally, I’m faster than they are!”

Joan played along.  “Oh, that’s right.  Faster than a speeding bullet!” she quipped.

Rowdy quickly drew his Colt 45 from its holster and said, “Not one of my bullets!”

They all laughed as two more guests and the cook entered the room.  The cook was around sixty years old with short grey hair.  She was short, too and rather plump.  She wore a nice white uniform dress with an apron still tied around her waist – it, too, was white, but had blue trim and some hand embroidered flowers of various colors and sizes on it.  Her shoes matched her outfit; she had no hat.  She waddled into the room ahead of the other two guests as if they were following her, but by now they were comfortable with their surroundings and just happened to still be walking behind her.

Mrs. Olga Hoffman, that was the cook’s name, nervously wiped her hands with her apron and silently shook her head to signal to the others that they hadn’t found the missing guest.  Of course, Superman had already reported and he had been with that group.

Mrs. Hoffman had guided him and the other two as they searched the entire house.  The other two guests entered the parlor behind her.  It was a queen dressed in the fanciest of royal gowns and Little Bo Peep, shepherd’s crook and all!

Bo Peep spoke first, “We didn’t find him, nor see anything out of the ordinary.”

“Don’t worry,” mocked Rowdy.  “He’ll come home, wagging his tail behind him.”

That remark brought another punch in the arm from Joan, showing her disapproval and veiled amusement.  The queen spoke up with an authoritative tone saying, “Not funny, Rowdy!”  They had apparently already been introduced to each other.

Superman chimed in, “Who do you think you are?  The Queen of Sheba?”

To which she raised a dainty jewel-studded scepter and said quite majestically, “As a matter of fact, I am!”  Her gown was a beautiful lavender color, full and floor-length, with sleeves that were puffy on the top, yet tapered to button snugly at her wrists.  A sparkling tiara adorned her long silky black hair.

Bo Peep stepped back and curtseyed and said, “Thank you, ma-Lady.”

Joan College took another sip of her punch and asked the others what they all thought.  No one had any real idea about the mysterious disappearance of one of the guests, though each in turn offered various harmless suggestions, such as “Maybe he wandered off out on the grounds somewhere,” or “He probably just tired of the party and went home without telling anyone.”

Someone suggested he might have gone out to his car for a break and fallen asleep, but Rowdy reported that he and Joan had checked all the cars, just to be sure, and there was no sign of him.  Joan added that before Mr. Hoffman and Wolf had headed out to check the grounds, he had opened the carriage house for them to search and he wasn’t there either.  The fact that he had to unlock the door suggested that they wouldn’t find anyone, but they looked just the same.

The Wolf that Joan had referred to came bounding through the front door about that time with Mr. Hoffman, the butler close behind him.  The thirtyish young man in the wolf costume was carrying his wolf mask under one arm and his long bushy tail was draped over the other one.  The mask was that of a cartoon-looking wolf with big sharp teeth and a long pink tongue hanging out its mouth and huge bugged out eyes.  He was clearly the Big Bad Wolf!  “Nothing!” was all he said as he went straight for the punch bowl, letting his tail drop to drag along behind him, now that he had cleared the front door.

His path to the punch bowl took him between the Queen and Bo Peep, forcing them to make room for him to pass.  “Excuse me ladies,” he said as he eyed each one in turn on his way through.  He then looked over at Joan and growled a little as he walked past her.  Setting his wolf head on the table, he began to get himself a glass of punch and asked, “Anyone else want one?”

The Queen, in character, said, “You may serve me, Mr. Wolf,” and she stepped over closer to the table.

“You can call me Big Bad,” he replied as he dipped her a glass of punch.  “Or just plain Bad, if you like,” he added with a wink as he handed her the glass.  He downed his punch and got a refill.

“How about you, Fritzy?” he asked, looking past the others toward the butler.  “We must’ve walked a couple of miles out there.”

Fritz replied, “No thank you, sir,” and walked over to stand next to his wife.

Wolf was working on his second glass of punch when Bo Peep asked, “So did you find him – or anything?”

Wolf lowered his glass to report, “Not a thing.  And we covered a lot of ground out there.  Fritzy got us flashlights and we hollered all around – but nothing.”

Fritz spoke up.  “There is lots of ground out there and plenty of places one could hide if one wanted not to be found, but we saw no sign of anyone anywhere,” he reported, sounding rather stiff and formal.

The Queen sipped her punch daintily, and then asked, “Now what?”

Rowdy said, “I suggest we forget about him and go on with the party.  It’s clear he just left.”

Superman said, “But you checked the cars.  How many were out there?”

Joan spoke up first saying, “Seven.  And there are six of us here.”

Superman looked at Fritz and Olga and asked, “What about your vehicles?”

Fritz replied that their personal auto was parked by their quarters and Mr. Gadston’s collection was all accounted for in the carriage house.  He said the chauffeur had his own car, but had left yesterday in it and wasn’t due back for two more days.  The seventh car was strange to him.

Rowdy pulled a slip of paper out of his shirt pocket and held it out.  “You all told us which car was yours before we went out to check them and they’re all there, plus one,” he said with an air of finality on the matter.

But Joan added her two cents worth anyway.  “So the other car must belong to our missing guest.”

“What was he supposed to be anyway?” asked Wolf.

“I don’t know,” said the Queen.  “With that white outfit, I thought maybe he was a doctor or something.”

Superman said he thought maybe the guy was supposed to be one of those orderlies that come take people away to the nut house.

Bo Peep added, “His costume was so bright it almost scared me when I first saw him.  I figured maybe he was supposed to be a ghost.   But his manner put me at ease right away.”

Joan agreed with Bo Peep and added that he was a real gentleman.  “Not at all like the guys at school,” she said.

Wolf took that personally and spoke up for himself.  “I don’t know about that.  He sat right there with me and let me go on and on about – well, girls.”

Sensing that the honors of her and the other two female guests may have been besmirched, Joan asked “What girls?”

Bo Peep joined in asking, “Yeah, Wolfie, what girls?”

The Big Bad Wolf hesitated, then replied, “Well, if you must know, you girls.”

“And did he chime in with you?” asked the Queen.

“Not exactly,” said Wolf, “but he did agree that you all looked good tonight.”

“Is that all?” asked Joan.

“Well, he kept trying to talk about relationships and all and said exactly how we ought to treat women – with respect and kindness and such.”

“Oh?” said Joan trying to get more from the Wolf.

“Yeah, and he said there was nothing like being in a loving, caring, intimate relationship with the right one,” said Wolf and to show he was through talking he sat down and worked on a sandwich.

The Queen looked at the other two girls and said simply, “A gentleman.”  They all agreed.

Superman spoke up.  “I don’t know about that, but I had a good little talk with him myself.  He was friendly enough, but a little strange.”

“What was strange about him – I mean besides that shiny white costume?” asked Bo Peep.

“Well, he asked me a lot about myself – you know, what I do for a living, how I spend my spare time, what my interests are…”

The Queen interrupted Superman with a mocking tone and said, “Boy that is strange.  Imagine anyone polite enough to ask about the other person instead of only talking about himself.”

“No, that’s not it,” objected Superman.  “We just didn’t see eye to eye at all.”

“So what did you tell him?” asked Joan.

“Oh, I told him how I’m starting to get all the things I’ve always wanted – a nice car, a big TV, nice stuff, you know.  And I can afford to go to all the nice places.  After all, I work hard and I work smart and I’m going places.”

Joan didn’t think the gentleman would have agreed so she asked, “And did he agree with all that?”

Superman hesitated a little, then replied, “No, not really.  He said none of those things were bad, but I just shouldn’t put such emphasis on them.  There were more important things in life, he said.  Aah, he just didn’t get it.”  Then he stepped back a little toward the punch table, as if to yield the floor to anyone else.

The Queen took the cue and spoke up.  “I don’t know what to think of him either.”  She waved her scepter in the direction of the double doors that led to the patio.  They were closed now that the late hour had ushered in the cool October breeze.  “We chatted over by the patio doors for awhile.  At first we talked about the costumes, the colors, and the way each of you reacted to each other – the looks and the gestures, not just the words.  He seemed to understand a lady’s point of view – most men don’t.”

Rowdy interrupted her asking, “So that makes him a great guy?”

“Well, no actually.  He was right with me on the costumes and colors, but he was careful not to say anything judgmental about anyone.  That makes him a great guy!”

“I agree with the Queen and Joan,” said Bo Peep.  “Definitely a gentleman.  Like I said, I was almost scared by the brightness of that costume at first.  I thought maybe he was supposed to be a ghost – but he didn’t have anything over his face – and ghosts don’t smile, do they?”

Rowdy gave his cavalier answer to that, saying “I guess it depends on what they’re thinking about!”

“Yeah,” said Wolf.  “You can be mean and still smile.”

“You should know,” chided Joan.  “Go on, Bo.  Did you think he was mean like a ghost?”

“Not at all. We talked about kids – I have two you know – and how I have to juggle work and day care and raising the kids by myself and still try to have some alone time.  He seemed to understand how hard it is for me without a husband.  I felt like he really cared.”

Rowdy almost interrupted her, but she finished just as the cowboy offered his opinion.  “I really couldn’t say what the ol’ boy was, but I do agree he was a nice guy.  He asked me what I liked to do and how I spent my time.  He asked me what bars I go to and what kinda music I listen to – stuff like that.”

Fritz Hoffman finally stepped forward and spoke up.  “Well, I never even saw the guest myself – ghost or doctor or whatever he was.  And it appears that you all are divided on whether he was a gentleman or not and you give compelling reasons for your opinions.  The fact remains, though, that the guest in the bright white suit has vanished.  I took the liberty of informing the police a few minutes ago and they should be arriving shortly.”

No one had seen when Fritz left his post by his wife’s side and slipped into the other room to make the call. He had only been gone a couple of minutes and was right back beside Olga before anyone even noticed. They were all very busy discussing the brief encounters they had with the missing guest before he went missing.

“The police?!” said several of the party-goers in unison.

“What in the world for?” asked Superman. “There’s been no crime here. We hardly need to involve them.”

But Rowdy countered with, “Hey! It might be fun. Without the ol’ boy goin’ missing, this little soiree woulda been kind of a drag anyhow!”

“I’ve never cared too much for the cops,” said Big Bad, “but I guess it can’t hurt. We sure haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I just hope they can figure out what happened,” added Bo Peep.

Olga Hoffman had listened intently to the whole discussion and up to now had not said a word. She finally did, though, at this point, but it didn’t have anything to do with the puzzle before them. “I had better put on some more coffee. It could be a long night.” Then she wiped her hands again on her apron, turned around, and marched out of the room.

Rowdy called after her. “And how about some more of those sandwiches. I think Big here has “wolfed” ‘em all down!” Without hesitating or even turning to look back, Olga raised one hand in the air to signal she had heard and disappeared down the hall, presumably to the kitchen.

The Queen resumed the conversation about the missing guest. “If it wasn’t for that seventh car out there,” she mused.

Joan chimed right in. “I know. Otherwise I’d say he just left, although he didn’t strike me as the kind to just leave without saying good-bye. Did he say good-bye to any of you?” she asked, looking around the room at each of her fellow partiers. Each indicated that he hadn’t said a word. No one knew the guest in the white costume was leaving. That raised suspicions, too.

Superman took the lead now. “So, let’s see what we actually know here. We all saw and spoke to a seventh guest who was in some kind of bright white costume. We don’t know what or who he was supposed to be, much less anything about the actual man. And now he’s gone.”

Bo Peep added that no one had seen him leave and there was an unclaimed car still in the driveway. Big Bad Wolf reminded them that they all had helped search the house and grounds and had come up empty and Joan added that neither the butler nor the cook had actually seen the guest, which to her seemed rather odd. After all, they had all been greeted at the door when they arrived and even had to show Fritz their invitations.

“That’s right!” said Superman, retaking the lead in the investigation of evidence. “What about it, Fritz? You said you didn’t see the bright guy, yet you met the rest of us at the door.”

“Both statements are correct, Superman,” Fritz replied. “I did greet all of you here in this room at the front door and inspected your invitations. After all, there is a lot of money at stake here. But as I said, I never saw the guest to whom you all have alluded.”

“So you’re saying that shiny little dude sneaked in here uninvited?” said Big Bad, rising to his feet – or paws. “Why that big fraud! All that uppity talk about goodness and such.”

“I’m not saying that exactly,” said Fritz, referring to the comment about sneaking in uninvited.

“So what are you saying, exactly?” Joan asked.

“I’m saying only what I’ve already said – that I never once saw the guest of whom you all have spoken.” Fritz waved his arm around the room as he said it as if to point out that they were all of one mind and he was of another mind entirely.

At that, Rowdy stepped out and a little forward to face Fritz. “Are you saying we’re all lying? That for some reason we’ve all made up this whole thing?”

“I don’t believe I said anything of the kind. All I’ve actually said is all I actually know – and that is that I never saw this guest that you all said you did and therefore I certainly cannot say how or why he came to be here or leave.” Fritz was very clear, very calm, and very right. He wasn’t going to fly off the handle and jump to any conclusions nor accuse anyone of anything. He knew his job and his responsibilities and he did them well.

“Well, we all know what we saw and what we heard and that ol’ boy was here!” replied Rowdy, a little calmer, but still defensive.

“True,” added Superman. “But, as sure as we all are about that, we don’t know much else.”

Joan replied, “That’s true, too. But we do all agree that the man was here, invited or not, and we all saw and spoke to him.”

The Queen spoke again. “Yes, that much we can agree on and it doesn’t appear that we can add much to that, except that he’s gone now and we don’t know how or why.”

Bo Peep had long since crossed the room and sat down. She was obviously a little more shaken up than the others. “Maybe the police will be able to track this person down after they get here and check things out,” she said at last.

“Yeah,” added Big Bad. “They can get the name of the owner of that other car out there and find out if he is at home now.”

“That’s right,” said Superman rather confidently. “Let them sort it out. Let the ghost explain why he didn’t take his own car when he left.”

But Rowdy quickly pointed out that that was “if” the man left the estate. “Maybe,” he continued, “somebody knew he was a ringer, not a real guest, and got rid of him!”

Joan nearly squealed as she stood up, for she too had taken a seat earlier. “What are you talking about? You think somebody here did something to him?” She was pretty excited – maybe it was the cheerleader in her.

“Now it’s getting interesting,” Big Bad said, almost with glee. “C’mon! Which one of ya did it?” he added playfully. He didn’t really believe it; he just wanted to rile the girls a bit – have a little fun.

Rowdy hadn’t really been serious either, but taking his cue from Wolfie, he kept up the game. “That’s right. You might as well confess now and save us all a lotta trouble.”

Bo Peep was really starting to get scared now. “You can’t possibly think any of us would do anything like that, can you?”

The Queen went over to stand by Bo Peep and tried to calm her. “They’re not serious, Bo. They’re just having a little fun with us.” She paused a moment, then decided to turn the tables on them and added, “Besides, it was quite clear that any one of the men disliked the man more than we ladies. If anyone did anything, it was one of them.”

Joan, more relaxed now, saw what the Queen was doing and joined right in. “That’s right! None of them would think anything at all of eliminating their competition for the money – or for us women!”

“As if they could have any of us women,” added the Queen.

“Alright,” said Superman, trying to bring civility back to the group. “Nobody really thinks any of us did anything wrong here. Let’s not get upset.”

“Yeah,” said Rowdy. “We were just havin’ a little fun. It is a party ya know!’
Everyone seemed to calm down a little after that and relax again, even get more punch or food. Olga came in almost as if on cue with a tray of sandwiches. Placing them just so on the table, she turned and left, saying, “Coffee will be done in a minute.”

Rowdy headed for the sandwiches telling everyone to get theirs before Wolfie got to them again. Wolfie jumped up and headed that way and Rowdy hollered, “See?!”
A little laughter helped ease the tensions, too, and it looked like the party was somehow going to just go on as if nothing had happened at all.

They didn’t know it yet, but the police had arrived outside. Since there was no emergency, the squad car had approached without a siren and two uniformed policemen had gotten out. They paused to look over the estate and the line-up of cars in the driveway that had prevented them from getting too close to the front door with their squad car. They saw head lights coming up the drive and waited to see who was coming.

It was me and that brings us back to where I started with the story. You’ll remember, dear reader, that I had said that none of us knew the whole story yet and armed with only what Mac and the police dispatcher had told us, we began the investigation. The officers began to carry out my instructions and I rang the bell at the front door.

Fritz Hoffman answered and didn’t even blink an eye or crack a smile when he saw me. I told him who I was and he identified himself and explained that apparently, and he stressed that word, someone had vanished unexpectedly and unexplainably from Mr. Gadston’s Halloween party, so he had made the call. I asked him what he meant when he said apparently one had vanished and he replied that he thought it best that I should find that out for myself as I questioned the others. I said, “Alright. Let’s do that,” and he showed me the way to the parlor where the other guests had remained together.

I noticed the air of frivolity and unconcern in the room. Of course, I learned quickly that it had only just become that way after quite a bit of panic, confusion, and genuine concern.  The room was abuzz with chit chat and the clinking of dishes and cups as Fritz and I entered the parlor from the front entry. No one even noticed. Fritz interrupted the festive atmosphere speaking loudly enough to be heard above the chattering. He called out, “Excuse me, but the police have arrived!”

All the guests immediately stopped talking, eating, and drinking to turn in silence toward the doorway to see Fritz and me standing there. I’m not sure what they expected, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t what they saw. You’ve waited for it – here it comes!

“You’ve got to be kidding!” cried Superman.

“Is this some kind of cruel joke?” asked the Queen.

Joan added, “Was all this planned? It’s all just been a Halloween prank, hasn’t it?”

To which I stepped forward to make my response. There I was, straight from my own costume party where I had received Mac’s call, dressed like none other than the great detective Sherlock Holmes! That’s right. The entertainment I had spoken of at the outset of my story was a costume party where each guest was to come as a famous fictional character. Before the night was over we were all to take turns identifying ourselves and explaining why we had chosen that particular character.

“I assure you this is no joke,” I said. “I, too, was at a Halloween party when I got the call to come here. I didn’t want to waste time changing clothes and I figured I wouldn’t look too out of place anyway.” Most acknowledged that fact with a nod, an “amen to that” or a “touché” and I continued.  “I also assure you that the two officers out front are equally genuine and so are our weapons, should the need arise, though I trust it won’t.”

I introduced myself and began to gather the facts of the case, much of which I’ve already shared with you, dear reader. I’ll tell you now more than I told them, though. My name is N.B. Watson and as I said before, I’m the Chief Inspector of the Robbery-Homicide Division. My name is the result of my father’s warped sense of humor coupled with his lifelong fascination of all things Sherlock Holmesian. I inherited his fondness for mysteries and that’s at least part of what led me into my profession. I, like my father before me, have read all the stories and seen every Sherlock movie and television show I know of, regardless of who portrayed Mr. Holmes. My favorites, as Dad’s, were the old black and white movies starring Basil Rathbone as the famous detective.

My name came from those shows. The last name being Watson is obvious, I think, even to those relatively unacquainted with the stories. It may take a more avid fan to understand what the N.B. stands for and I won’t tell you. Dad intended all along to have me go by my middle name and I did all the way through junior high. Teachers understood and cooperated and to this day, only my closest friends or fellow Holmesians know what my first name is. You know enough now to figure it out.

Anyway, when I hit high school, not really liking my middle name much either, I decided to go by my initials and soon everyone called me N.B. Most of the time, it comes out as Enby and that’s okay by me. The party guests and Fritz, and for that matter the two officers, just called me Inspector.

It didn’t take too long for me to find out all I have shared with you so far and it was about that time that one of the officers came in to report. I stopped my questioning of the guests long enough to turn my attention fully to him. “We checked all the cars and called in the license numbers like you said, Inspector. Here’s the list and nothing looks out of the ordinary about any of the cars or owners. No sign of any monkey business here and no wants or warrants on any of the owners.”

I took the list and thanked him. “I’ll compare this list with the guests and you two begin to look around the estate for anything out of the ordinary. These folks have already done that, but it’s a large estate and they could easily have missed something,” I said.

“Right,” responded the young policeman. “What kind of costume was the missing guest wearing and are we looking for a man or a woman?”

“Apparently, a man wearing a bright shiny, almost glowing, white costume. Maybe a ghost,” I replied.

“Check,” he said without any sign of emotion as he turned and headed back to the front door. On Halloween, not much fazes a policeman.

I called out the names of the owners of the cars along with the corresponding makes and models as if in a roll call and each guest called out a “here” or “that’s me” or some such answer. One by one, all six guests and cars were accounted for and then I called out the seventh. “A blue Ford Explorer, owner William J. Dixon,” I called out.

The party guests looked around and I could see that no one recognized the name, until suddenly, Fritz spoke up. “Goodness, that’s Bill, the chauffeur!” He paused a moment to think it through, then continued. “Oh dear. I’m afraid this won’t help at all. Bill left yesterday in his own car – of that I’m sure – and I’m equally certain that he hasn’t returned. Before he left he said that he had made a grand purchase with his bonus check and it should be delivered while he was away. It never occurred to me that it was that vehicle.”

“You obviously didn’t see it delivered, then?” I asked, just to confirm.

“No, sir, I didn’t. We’ve been very busy all day getting ready for the party,” he explained.
“So maybe this guy drove himself to the party, stayed awhile, and simply drove away without letting anyone know he was going,” I said.

“Not likely,” said Fritz. “You see part of my duties as groundskeeper and party host is to check on the cars and driveway after all the guests have arrived and the party is underway.”

“Go on,” I said, always taking notes.

“After all the invited guests had arrived and I had shown them into the parlor, I helped my wife for awhile in the kitchen. Sometime later, I’d say around 9:00, I made my outdoor rounds. Part of my job is to check the parking situation making sure that all the vehicles were parked decently – you know, see to it that there were no fender benders, no one parked on the lawn, and making sure there’s enough room for emergency vehicles, etc.”

Rowdy interjected at this point, saying, “By that time the ol’ boy had to have already been here awhile.”

“Precisely,” continued Fritz. “If all of you indeed had all of these separate private conversations with this person, then he must have been here when I made my rounds and there were definitely only the seven vehicles there now, parked exactly as they are now.”

I saw his point. “So, if he had driven himself to the party, his vehicle would have been there when you made the rounds.”

“Correct,” replied Fritz, “but it wasn’t.”

Superman spoke up, saying, “That changes things a bit doesn’t it?”

“How?” asked Bo Peep, looking to me for the answer.

I let Superman handle it, though I knew where he was going with his train of thought. “It means that the man did not drive himself to the party, so he couldn’t have left by himself either,” he explained.

“That’s right!” said the Big Bad Wolf, leaping out to the forefront. “So he had an accomplice!”

“An accomplice to what?” I asked.

He thought for a second or two, and then said, “I don’t know. Whatever he had in mind when he came here uninvited, I guess.”

Joan picked up from there and offered her explanation. “Maybe he came hoping the prize money would be cash. Maybe he planned to take it and run.”

“And that’s why he made sure we didn’t know anything about him,” added Bo Peep, as if they were really on to something.

“That’s a point I need cleared up,” I said. “Just what is this prize money all about? What kind of party is this anyway?”

A couple of the guests started to answer, but Fritz overrode them in force and volume. “I think I can best explain that,” he said. “Mr. Gadston got the idea awhile back to give away some money, $50,000.00 to be exact, and he fell upon this idea for a Halloween party. He advertised in the newspaper for potential guests to send an application explaining why they should be one of those invited. He chose these six people to invite. My wife and I were to be the unknown judges of not only the best costume, but the most believable character. By that I mean the one who did the best at actually seeming to be whom they portrayed.”

“So it is all up to you who gets the money?” asked the Queen.

As Fritz answered, “Yes,” The Wolf shouted out in fun, “I take it all back, Fritzy. Every bad thing I said about you. You’re the greatest!”

Fritz simply replied, “Too late, Mr. Wolf.”

Rowdy chimed in, “I told him you were a good ol’ boy, Fritz – I told him.”

“Enough schmoozing,” I said, stopping the others before they all took their shots at Fritz, too. “Back to the matter at hand. Can anyone at all give any evidence at all to suggest that the man in white was up to anything criminal or even strange or suspicious?”

I waited, but nothing was offered, so I continued. “Even if this person had taking the prize money or anything else in mind, he apparently didn’t try anything out of line and then disappeared. So here’s what we do know, or at least think we know: sometime tonight, not only after 8:00, but after the six invited guests had arrived, an unknown person in a shiny white costume, somehow arrived at the estate, let himself in – without Fritz seeing him…”

“Or my wife, either,” interrupted Fritz.

“Okay,” I said, “entered without the butler or the cook seeing him, and spent at least an hour, I’d say, chatting at one time or another to every one of the guests. This person, without ever being seen by the Hoffmans, then either alone or with help, left the party and apparently the estate, without being seen by anyone.”

Superman spoke for the rest to confirm my summation. “That’s pretty much it, Inspector.”

“Well, up to this point, we don’t have any evidence of a crime, but it sure is a puzzle,” I said.

At which point Rowdy tried to lighten things up a bit and said, “Yeah, but I bet ol’ Sherlock Holmes can figure it out,” he said with a grin.

Joan, a true college student and avid reader, joined in. “Yes, Mr. Holmes. Is it ‘elementary’ or not?” I hadn’t noticed just how attractive she was until she posed that question with a big, beautiful smile. Her eyes sparkled with mischief and I knew she knew at least a little bit of Holmesian lingo.

“Not quite yet, my dear lady,” I said in character, “but I’m quite sure that before this night is over I’ll come to the right conclusion of the matter.” I winked at her and she politely winked back, as if to tell me she thought I was an okay guy for an old cop.  I told Fritz Hoffman that he could go help his wife in the kitchen if he wanted and that I would get their statements later. I knew that neither one had seen nor spoken to the uninvited guest, so they wouldn’t have much to add. I also knew they had been in the employ of Mr. Gadston for several years and were likely above reproach. I always try to keep an open mind until all the facts are in, but I had no reason to believe they were involved in any wrong-doing at all.

I then told the party guests to just relax, but stay in the room. They were free to continue eating and drinking, but I would like to interview them one at a time and for now, it was alright for them all to hear everything. I said ‘interview’ because that is much more cordial sounding and less suspicious sounding than ‘question.’ I find it facilitates cooperation.

“I’ll just go down this list of car owners, just as it was given to me, quite random, as you know,” I said in order to alleviate any sense of favoritism or suspicion. “So,” I continued, while looking at the top of the list, “let’s start with the Big Bad Wolf.” I figured I had just as well stick with the names of the characters for now. After all, that’s what they looked like and that is all they knew each other by. I had their real names and addresses now and I could always get to the real person beneath the costume later. Right now I was only interested in the events of this one night of their lives.

I looked up from the list in my hand and saw that the Wolf had refilled his punch glass, put another sandwich on his plate, and taken a seat by the fireplace. His wolf head mask was by his side on the floor. I walked over toward him and said for him to stay seated and keep eating.

I sat in the chair facing him and complimented him on his costume. “So, Mr. Wolf,” I continued, “you spoke to the guest alone at some point?”

“Yes, I did,” he replied. “In fact, we sat here for awhile.” He pointed with his sandwich to the two of us, indicating that he and the man had sat in the same two chairs just a couple of hours earlier.

“Was it a friendly conversation?” I asked.

“Well, it started out that way,” he said. “Then I decided we weren’t gonna get along too well. Didn’t agree on much. Two different lifestyles, I guess.”

“How do you mean?” I probed for more. If there was any foul play, I would need a motive.

“I guess you could say I chose this Big Bad Wolf costume ‘cause that’s kinda how I see myself. Now, I don’t break the law or anything, but I do like to have a good time, and I do like the ladies.”

“And he didn’t?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that once we got into our conversation a little deeper – well, it’s like he started trying to get me to change. He said my drinking would just get me in trouble, that all my carousin’ around would take a toll on me, and that a steady relationship with one good woman was much more rewarding than a string of one-night stands.”

“Really?” I asked, as if that sounded strange to me, when I really agreed with it all.

“Yeah. Can you imagine?! Weekends with no parties? And me with just one woman? C’mon!”

“Imagine,” I said as I took notes and didn’t even look up. “And church?” I asked. “I suppose he mentioned church, too?”

“Oh yeah!” said Wolf, thinking he had found a sympathizer in me. “He said I should give it a try. Forget the way I’ve been livin’ and try things God’s way for a change. Phhtt! Right – give up my lifestyle for his!”

“Then what happened?”

“Well, as I remember, I just shook my head, stood up, and walked away. I came here for a party, not a sermon. Never really saw him after that.”

“Okay. Thank you, Mr. Wolf. Just stick around. I may need more later.” With that dismissal, he got up and left, so I decided this might be a good place to conduct all the interviews. I remained seated and called out for Rowdy, the cowboy.

Rowdy stepped over with a glass of punch in one hand and one of his costume pistols in the other. He made an attempt at some fancy gun twirling and as he holstered the prop, said with a big grin, “Don’t worry, they’re not loaded.”

“Mine is,” I said to show I wasn’t impressed.

Taking the hint, he said, “Oh,” and sat down across from me. “I don’t know what else I can add, but I’m all yours.”

“Thank you, uh, Rowdy is it?”

“Yeah, I guess for tonight it is. Although it’s hard to get rowdy at a party with cops there, you know what I mean?”

I could tell he wasn’t taking any of this too seriously. And maybe he was right. Maybe nothing serious had happened. But we weren’t sure of that yet. “I know what you mean,” I said. “Now, Mr. Wolf there got a little put out with our missing guest for getting a little too personal and, shall we say, intrusive. Did you have any problem in your conversation with him?”

“Well, to be honest, I did. Nothin’ serious, mind you, but, yeah, he kinda rubbed me the wrong way after awhile, too.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Well, I started once to walk away, but he stayed with me and kept talking. He started to try to monopolize my attention. It’s like I was supposed to focus just on him”, Rowdy explained.

“I can see where that would bother you.”

“And that’s just the beginning of it,” he continued. “He kept after me to start doin’ spiritual things – you know – church and stuff. Readin’ the Bible, prayin’, things like that.”

“What’s wrong with things like that?” I asked.

“Nothin’, if that’s what you want to do,” Rowdy said, “but I don’t wanna do those things. At least not for now. I’m happy just the way I am!”

“So what happened then?”

“I finally just said, ‘Go away and leave me alone.’ I didn’t mean to be rude, but…”

“I see,” I interrupted. “And did you speak to him any more after that?”

“I don’t recall even seein’ him after that.”

“Interesting,” I said, adding to my notes. “That’ll be all for now.”

Rowdy said he hoped it would help and got up and ‘moseyed’ away. He seemed to be just a good ol’ boy – not much of a threat – not much of an asset, either.

I called for the Queen of Sheba, who was next on the list and she set her plate down on the table near where she had been standing and gracefully walked over to my interview area. I rose to greet her as she approached and she looked so majestic that I almost bowed! She looked and played the part well.

“Please be seated,” I said and then I complimented her on her costume and commented that she seemed to fit the part rather well. She thanked me and said that even though it was just a costume and the jewelry was all fake, she was not unaccustomed to wealth and good breeding.

“Yet you came to a party to try to win some prize money,” I said, as if it were actually a question and I guess it really was.

“Oh, one can never have too much money,” she explained. “And the prize was to be $50,000.00. It’s a pity no one will get it now, but I’m quite sure none of the others would have truly appreciated it anyway. They probably would have squandered it away soon enough.”

I sensed that she was trying to act as if she were acting the part of Sheba, yet really did feel that way. Sarcastically, I responded, saying, “Like wasting it on college tuition or any of the hundreds of things kids want these days.” I, of course, was referring to the other two young ladies who likely had legitimate needs for such a windfall. It didn’t seem to faze her much.

“Well, to the business at hand,” I said. “Did anything happen in your dealings with the man in white to, shall we say, put you off toward him?”

“Well, yes,” she admitted freely. “He did turn me off after a short while.”

“Go on please.”

“Well, it didn’t take him long to start talking about my money, and the things I’ve bought with it. You’d have thought it was his wealth!”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Well, he was trying, I know, to get me to think that there is more to life than money and possessions – like I don’t know that!” She sounded indignant, but I think she was trying to convince herself, not me.

“Go on,” I said.

“He started talking about me giving money away – to churches and missions, or even just to help people,” she explained.

“You mean like Mr. Gadston, maybe?” I asked, tongue in cheek.

“Exactly!” she replied. “There are plenty of others who want to do that sort of thing. But I came here to win more, not give some away!”

“I see. So then what happened?”

“Nothing, really. I politely excused myself at some point and just walked away. I never saw the man in white again.”

“That seems to be the pattern so far. That’ll be all for now. Thank you.” We both stood and she nodded as if to dismiss me, then walked away as gracefully as she had come. She was quite the lady, though apparently a snobbish one. Who did she think she was anyway? Oh, that’s right, she was.

“Little Bo Peep, please,” I called out for my next interview. I was beginning not only to sense a pattern in these conversations, but my intuition was helping me to get an inkling of what had really happened there that evening. However, it was too fantastic to believe, so I would need more information.

Bo Peep came over and did a little curtsy. Maybe it was the costume and character – maybe she was every bit the lady that the Queen was. I motioned towards the chair and said for her to please be seated.  “Shall we get right to it?” I asked and without waiting for her answer, I continued. “All the others had some difficulty with this guest. Nothing serious, it would appear, but certainly some uneasy conversation. How about you?”

“I guess it was the same with me. Uneasy, as you put it. He started talking about all these changes he thought I ought to make. He said I should be attending church with my kids and reading them Bible stories every night. He said I could make new and better friends at a good church, especially if I got really involved.”

“That doesn’t sound like bad advice to me,” I offered, still taking notes.

“Maybe not,” she said, “but I don’t do changes very well. My life may not be much by some standards, but the kids and I do okay. I’m comfortable and that’s the way I like it.”

“And he was trying to change your life –maybe for the better.” I was trying to get her to think it through again, because I happened to agree with the man! Not only did those kids need the gospel and church in their lives, but Bo Peep did too.

“Well, maybe he meant well, but like I said, I don’t like change. I told him to go try to change one of the others and he left,” she said.

“Did you see him much after that?”

She thought for a second or two, and then said, “Now that you ask, not at all.”

“I think you’d be wise to reconsider what he said, but that’s all I need for now.” I politely stood as she rose to leave. I noticed that as she walked away, she paused for a second, then tilted her head to one side briefly, as people often do when they’re thinking, then walked away. I hoped that meant she was thinking about what I said about reconsidering what the man had said.

I called for Superman and he was there in a flash! Sorry, but I had to say it. We sat down and I flipped to a new page in my notepad.  “I appreciate how you’ve been a little more professional in this whole thing. You seem to take things a little more seriously than Rowdy and the Wolf,” I said.

“Anything I can do to help,” he said.

“Then tell me if there was any more to your conversation with the man in white – anything negative about it – anything at all?”

“Well, we never really saw eye to eye from the beginning, but he was polite and listened to what I had to say. I think he understood me, too, even if he didn’t agree. Like I said, he very quickly said he felt my priorities were out of whack, but that was okay – everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, even if it is wrong.”

I had often said that same thing in jest, but he seemed to be serious. He didn’t crack a smile, or wink, or add anything further. I believe he really felt that the man had been wrong and he was right – Superman indeed!

“Did he offer anything to explain his position?” I asked.

“Sure,” replied Superman. “He kept trying to get me to see I needed more and deeper relationships in my life. Maybe even with him! He insisted that somehow, eventually, my life was not going to satisfy me and I would need something more that my career and success couldn’t provide.”

“And…?” I said, asking for more.

“And I told him that I didn’t need him or anyone else for that matter. Things were just fine as they are and they’re headed just the way I’ve always hoped they would.”

“Let me guess,” I stated. “And he just walked away.”

“That he did,” confirmed the man of steel. “And we never spoke again. I hadn’t even noticed until someone brought it up later that he had gone.”

“I suspected as much. That’s all for now, thank you.” I dismissed Superman and called for my last interview, Joan College. She bounced over to my area with a big smile. She was having a good time and I expected she would be. I had risen to meet her and her enthusiasm was catching. I felt younger myself somehow. I told her to have a seat and we both sat down. I took my usual policeman interview pose, I guess, and she sat forward in the chair, sitting on her hands and watching my every move, as if she couldn’t wait to testify.

“Well, Miss Joan College, you seem to be enjoying yourself this evening,” I said.

“Oh, I am,” she agreed. “I mean, I hope there’s nothing wrong with the man in the white suit, but I am having a good time now.”

“Now?” I asked, feeling there was something to the way she had said that.

“Well, I mean, like earlier I was kind of upset about him missing and all, but once you got here, I kind of settled down.”

“Good,” I said. “I’m glad to be of some comfort. A lot of people your age don’t seem to want us around.”

“Oh, not me,” she said. “I enjoy older people.”

“I meant policemen.” I knew she had said it innocently and didn’t mean anything by it. She kind of shrugged her shoulders and smiled as if to say “oops.”  “Anyway,” I continued, “I’ve asked all the others, so I’ll ask you, too, if there was ever any bad vibes between you and the man in the white costume. Did he ever say anything that bothered you?”

“Actually, he did,” she replied. “He kept trying to tell me that I needed to spend more time with spiritual matters, you know, reading the Bible, getting involved with some people my age in church, do mission work, things like that.”

“And you see that as a bother?”

“Well, no, but I just don’t have time for all that, Inspector. And I told him so, too. I mean, like I told him, I’m a cheerleader for the men’s games, I play on the volleyball team myself, I sing in the ladies’ ensemble, and I’m on the student council and the school newspaper. There are practices and games and I have to keep my grades up to keep my scholarship.”

“I’ll bet you barely have time to date more than three or four guys at a time,” I said with a smile.

“That’s right!” she said as she tilted her head up and back a little and flipped her hair. “I don’t. But anyway, the shiny white guy said that my priorities needed an adjustment and I was too busy with things that really wouldn’t matter in the end.”

“So you said…”

“So I said, they all matter to me, and that’s what counts. And then I think I went to get more punch and when I looked back, he was gone.”

“Did you ever see him again after that?”

“No, I didn’t. I don’t know what could have happened to him.”

“Thank you, Joan College. I think that about does it for now.”  We both stood and she asked me if I was any closer to solving this puzzle. I told her that I had an idea, but needed to confirm a couple of things with the Hoffmans and clear up a few small details with my officers out front. “If all goes as I think it will, I believe we’ll be able to clear this mystery up very soon,” I concluded.

“Everyone! If I could have your attention please,” I called. “I’m going to confirm that neither of the Hoffmans have much to add, as I believe is the case, and then I have a point or two to clear up with the officer outside. I’ll be back in shortly and see if we can’t have a solution. Please stay here in the parlor until I return.”

I strolled out of the parlor and lingered in the hall for a moment just out of sight, but not out of earshot. Sometimes, just after the police have stepped away, people say things to each other that they didn’t say to the police. Sometimes I hear some pretty revealing comments after I leave. On occasion I’ve heard some pretty good clues and once I recall nearly hearing a confession!

This time it was idle chit chat, so I moved on to the kitchen where I found the Hoffmans busy with desserts and clean-up. Olga Hoffman was muttering to herself as she marched from stove to refrigerator to counter top, to sink and back again. Her husband, Fritz was emptying the dishwasher, refilling the cabinets with clean dishes and refilling the dishwasher with more dirty ones. He had removed his jacket and donned an apron and he whistled while he worked.

That struck me at first as being overly cheerful for a man I had perceived to be all business and rather stuffy. I watched from the doorway for a few moments and as they worked I noticed something. A time or two, her mutterings became louder as if she was directing the comments to Fritz, without actually doing so verbally or even by stopping her march of chores. However, without missing a beat himself, Fritz not only ignored her, but I noticed that when she got louder, so did his whistling!

He wasn’t being cheerful; he was drowning out his wife’s muttering! They had worked together a long time and he knew how to handle her. On the other hand, I suspect she knew what he was doing, but it didn’t matter. She needed to mutter, he didn’t need to hear it. It worked well for both.

I made my presence known and said to keep working and that I just needed to double check a few things. I confirmed that neither of them saw or spoke to anyone dressed in a shiny white costume nor saw any other vehicles until the police arrived, nor did either one of them actually believe such a person was ever really there!

“So how do you explain all the conversations the other guests had with the man?” I asked.

Olga shrugged her shoulders as if to say “I can’t and who cares?” Fritz spoke up. “I can’t explain them, nor do I need to. I searched with them because they needed the confirmation. I called you because they wouldn’t stop this missing nonsense any other way.” He paused as he put a stack of dinner plates in a cabinet, then continued, “And unless you’ve turned up any evidence to the contrary, I still say there wasn’t any man in a white costume here tonight – and there wasn’t any ghost here either.”

“Well, I believe someone was here tonight talking to the guests, but you’re right about it not being a ghost,” I said matter-of-factly. “I have a couple of things to confirm with my officers out front, but unless I’m wrong, you needn’t worry about any crime.”

I turned to go out the back door, but turned back to the couple to add, “If you’ll both meet with the rest of us in the parlor in about ten minutes, please.” I left them looking at each other rather puzzled and went out the back door to stroll contemplatively around to the front where the two officers were waiting patiently after looking over the estate.
I needed the time to re-process the testimony and evidence, or should I say lack of evidence. What I was thinking was almost beyond belief. Was I right, I asked myself? It was the only logical explanation. It answered all the puzzlements. It explained virtually everything. I paused at the corner of the house and looked up.

The sky was black and splattered with stars. The autumn moon was huge and bright yellow – with maybe just a hint of orange. It was a cool night with a gentle breeze that rustled the leaves of the many trees on that side of the house. I thought of the scripture that said the heavens declare the handiwork of God and I marveled at His creative genius and power.

Then I thought, “Why couldn’t it be as I was thinking about this mystery?” After all, His ways are not our ways, they are far above us. I sensed His answer to my unspoken prayer and I knew, as strange as it seemed, that I was right on!

Just because duty demands it and I would need to cover all the bases, I strode up to the officers to put the finishing touches on the case. They reported that they had seen absolutely nothing – no sign of anyone else and certainly no sign of any foul play. One of them said that just to be on the safe side, they had called headquarters and had them check for any taxis in the area tonight and there hadn’t been. That was all I needed to hear. I told them no one was missing after all and dismissed them.

I chuckled to myself as I sauntered back up to the front door and let myself in. I was quickly preparing my final summation in my mind, knowing that no one would likely believe me. I believed it and I knew I was right and furthermore, the true facts supported it. It was just so fantastic.

When I reached the parlor, I saw all the guests and the Hoffmans were present. I stood for a moment in silence, pretending to look over my notes. Then I explained to the strangest looking group I’d ever seen at an investigation, the strangest conclusion I’d ever drawn, in the strangest case I’d ever encountered.

“Let me begin by easing your minds by telling you that there has been no crime committed tonight. The man in white that you all talked to is not dead nor is he missing. He is right where he should be.”

I could see the relief on their faces and more than one either sighed or voiced their relief with “good” or “I’m so glad” or the like. I could tell the Hoffmans still didn’t believe the man existed. Olga looked a little confused; Fritz stood silently and smugly showing I hadn’t convinced him yet.

I raised my hand to call for attention. “I’ll explain. Just give me a minute.” They each moved around a little if necessary to have me in full view. I had everyone’s undivided attention.

“Let me first explain about the man in the white costume and who he was. Then I can easily explain what happened to him – how and why he disappeared. First of all, let’s consider that none of you could actually figure out what the costume was supposed to be – orderly, doctor, ghost. You all agreed that it was bright white and shiny, even glowing. You would be closer to the truth to say it wasn’t really a costume.”

Rowdy interrupted me saying, “You’re not suggesting he was an alien?”

As I shook my head, Bo Peep interjected, “An angel!”

“No, but you’re getting close,” I told her.

“Then what?” asked Superman. “Who or what are you saying visited with us tonight?”

“And what happened to him?” asked the Queen.

“I think that will become apparent when I tell you who he was,” I said to the Queen. “Before I tell you, let me say to just think about it before you react and you’ll see that it fits all the facts. Remember that only the guests saw and talked to this man. Neither of the Hoffmans did. He came to talk to the six of you, and no one else.”

“How did he get here?” asked Fritz.

“You’ll know that when I tell you who he is.” I paused for effect, then blurted out, “Your guest was…. … the Holy Spirit!”

Dead silence reigned for a moment, then confusion and disbelief set in. I had expected as much. Joan spoke up first. “You mean The Holy Spirit – like of God?”

“That’s exactly who I mean. I believe you were all visited by and visited with the Holy Spirit of God tonight. I believe He met with you as if He were in a costume, too, in order for you to feel at ease conversing with Him.”

Wolf spoke next. “Sort of snuck up on us, I guess. Caught us by surprise!” He didn’t believe me yet. He was just trying to mentally process what I was saying.

“Well, kinda like that. But I believe He just did what He needed to do in order to get you to open up and be real with Him and to be able for once to hear from Him.”

Superman admitted that if it were true, it would explain a lot of things. “But I still don’t believe it,” he said. “It’s, it’s …”

“Fantastic, I know,” I said to finish his statement for him. “But think, now. It fits the facts.”

Joan was the college girl, the thinker, and she was processing quickly. “Every one of us said he talked to us about us and spiritual things.”

“Come to think of it, you’re right,” said Wolf. “And he never said anything about himself – it was all about me.”

“That’s true,” agreed the Queen. “Not one of us ever mentioned anything about him revealing anything about himself. He talked only to each of us about ourselves.”

“Once again, it fits the facts,” I said. “And that would explain why Fritz and Olga didn’t see Him. For some reason, tonight, He had only come to talk with you guests. He opened your eyes and ears to Him. Whenever they entered the room, there was no need for them to see or hear Him. He wasn’t here for them.”

“Well, why not!?” asked Olga, breaking her long silence. “What’s wrong with us?” She was almost indignant, maybe a little hurt.

“Nothing,” I said, “nothing at all. It was just not the right time for you. He came after these six.” I pointed at the guests as I spoke, trying to reassure the Hoffmans.

“I’m not saying I believe you just yet, Inspector,” said Fritz, “but it would definitely explain nearly everything.”

“I told you – it fits the facts.”

“Let me see if I got this straight,” said Rowdy. “The Holy Spirit of God Himself came to this party tonight to talk to each of us guests, one at a time. Since it was a costume party, He showed up like He was wearing a shiny white costume.”

“That’s what I believe,” I said to Rowdy, then looked around at the others to see if I could tell whether I was convincing anyone. It looked to me as if they were all trying to believe it was true, but naturally were struggling. If I hadn’t already been a believer that had seen God do many great and wondrous things, I might not have believed this myself. I had never seen anything like this before. Come to think of it, I didn’t actually see this.

I remembered the scripture passage where Jesus said you wouldn’t see the spirit, but like the wind, you could see where He’s been. Though He had apparently manifested Himself to the others, I could only see where He had been and how He tried to move these young party goers. “See how it fits the facts? It also explains why there weren’t any other cars and why there is no trace of Him leaving just as quickly as He came,” I explained further.

“Okay,” said Big Bad, finally. “Suppose this is for real. Let’s assume God really did come down here and talk to us. Then why did He leave like that? Why did He just go away?”

“Isn’t that what you told Him to do? All of you?” I asked. “Was there anyone of you that wanted Him to stay? You didn’t even want Him at the party, let alone in your lives!”

There was another dead silence. I hoped it meant conviction. I hoped He was back in the room even without the form. I knew that only He could get through to them, even if He used my words. I prayed He would not give up.

I guessed it was up to me to break the silence. “Mr. Wolf, you said He wanted to change your lifestyle, but you weren’t interested. I believe your testimony sums it up. You said ‘I came here to party, not hear a sermon.’” I referred to my notes to get it all straight.

“And you, Rowdy – just a good ol’ boy. He wanted you to go deeper and put some meaning in your life. You said you’re happy just the way you are – are you really?” I paused to let that sink in, and then continued, “You told Him to go away and leave you alone – He did.”

I continued with each guest. I reminded the Queen of Sheba that she had lots of money and possessions, but He tried to get her to see that she had little else and that she was missing out on what really matters. She chose money over Him. Little Bo Peep chose to stay in her comfort zone. Her fear of change cost her and her children a chance at a relationship with God.

No one moved, no one spoke but me. I continued down my list. “Superman,” I said. “You think you’ve got it all going your way. You told Him point blank that you didn’t need anyone, not even Him. You didn’t even notice when God walked away.”

Then I turned at last to Joan. I couldn’t help but get a little tenderer. She was young and beautiful and so full of life. If only she had given God a chance. She had so much to offer. “And you, Joan College. You’re so busy. You made time for everything and everyone else, but God. Some day all the rest will fade away – all that ‘matters to you’ is what you said. You’ll find that He matters, too, but you turned around and He was gone.”

I gave them a moment to ponder their earlier responses. Maybe now, if they believed the miracle, they would realize they had met with God and that would make a difference.
Then I spoke one last time. “You all came here tonight hoping to take home a big prize. Now that prize is gone, but worse than that – the greatest prize one could ever hope for was offered to each of you, personally, by the God of the universe. It was truly a Trick or Treat night, but you chose to take the Trick and the Treat just went away.”

I left them standing there to think it over and without further ado, I went out to my car and drove back to the station. On the way, I spent the time praying. I thanked God that He loves us so much that He will do anything to try to reach us. I thanked Him for trying to reach those young men and women at the party. I asked Him not to give up. I thanked Him for letting me be a part of it.

When I walked into the station, I looked at Mac behind the desk and just shook my head. He looked me over – me in my Sherlock Holmes costume – but he didn’t say a word. He just raised his eyebrows. I went straight to my office, sat at my desk and took out an official report form. Mac would need one for the files. I sat there for a minute staring at the form, wondering what I should write.

Besides the details of the date, time, and place of the call, I decided on this: A costume Halloween party was in progress. The guests thought one of the guests went missing. I investigated. Turns out the missing guest just left. Nothing more to report. Signed N.B. Watson, Chief Inspector.

I took the form to Mac, but he didn’t read it right away. Instead, he asked me for the details. I told him the whole story, every last detail, and then asked, “So? You believe it?”

He looked right into my eyes, I guess to see if I meant what I had said or if it was some kind of Halloween joke. I never flinched. He knew of my faith and respected me for it, but he wasn’t a believer himself. He said, “I don’t know. I see you do – but I don’t know. I’ll say this, though, it’s sure one for the books, alright.”

Then he read my report, laid it aside and looked back at me and said, “Or maybe not.” I went home.

Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Miracle or Midnight Madness? Truth or just a dream? You believe what you want – people generally do. I believe it was a miracle. God has always had to come to men and meet them where they are. There’s no other way, because we can’t rise to His level. He has always had to come down to ours – to get those who will receive Him and lift us up out of our level, taking us ever higher until one day, I hope it’s soon, we’ll meet Him in the air and leave this old world behind forever!

So I think, for reasons of His own that we often can’t understand, He chose to reveal Himself to those Halloween party goers to try to get them to take off their masks and get real with God just long enough to make some right choices for a change. Trick or Treat? They didn’t make the right choice that night; they chose the Trick. But who knows, maybe later they’ll take the Treat!

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