Except from The St. Nicholas Murders
Sometimes little things we do, or don’t do, lead to events in our lives that can have grave consequences for others. When I answered the phone on that November Saturday, I had no idea of the twisted tale that would follow.
“St. Nicholas of Myra Church, Father Bruce speaking. How may I help you?”
A low, throaty voice whispered, “Bless me, for I have sinned.”
It sounded like a joke and my first reaction was to say, “Come to church and we’ll talk.” But I didn’t. I was a little bored and leaned back in my chair, giving the proper response. “The Lord be in your heart and upon your lips that you may humbly confess your s4ins: In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
My caller had recited the opening line for The Reconciliation of a Penitent from The Book of Common Prayer, Form One. As an Episcopal priest, I didn’t hear a lot of confessions, but some people still do make them. True, I had never done a confession by phone, but anything goes in California. And what would be next? I mean, I read that even the Vatican has approved a Confessional cell phone app. Is texting or tweeting Hail Marys on the way? However, even in such an out-of-the-way town as Buggy Springs, I do try to be up-to-date.
Silence. Had I lost my caller?
“You called for confession and reconciliation?”
“You might say that, Father.”
“So, my . . . ” The voice sounded male and was raspy, like a heavy smoker. Still, I had heard women who sounded like that after many years puffing cigarettes. “. . . child, what are the your sins?”
A short, humorless laugh. “Many. But only one I want to confess now.”
Okay, this is the granola state: the home of nuts and flakes. Evidently one of them had decided to call me. But it was a slow day. I was at the church alone, trying to write a relevant sermon for our Kirkin’ of the Tartan on Sunday afternoon. As chaplain of the local St. Andrew’s Society, I was expected to give a short homily during the service that was prosaic, pithy and profound. Not easy to do in eight minutes or less. It was late on an unseasonably warm, autumn afternoon and I was close to dozing off, so I took a break and played along with my mystery caller.
“And what is this sin?” Then I added, “But you know forgiveness demands that you try not to repeat your sins. That shows a penitent heart. If you’re planning to do it again, you’re not really sorry.”
“The sin is theft. You should take special pity on me. After all, isn’t that who your church is named after? The patron saint of thieves?”
This piqued my interest. Most people only identified St. Nicholas with Christmas as the patron saint of children. Whoever this was knew his saints, or at least how to research them. But then, the Internet made that easy.
“So, you stole something from somebody. Tell me about it, uh, sir.” I paused. “Do I know you?”
“Can’t tell?” A laugh. “Why would you think you do? Yes, I stole. But it was a crime of justice, so that shouldn’t be a crime, should it?”
“That’s not my call. I’m concerned about God’s law, not man’s. So what do you wish to confess?”
“Cut to the chase, huh? Okay, Father. Read 2 Samuel 1:25.”
I’m fairly good at Biblical passages. It’s part of the job. But this one was not immediately familiar to me. I knew enough to assume it had something to do with King Saul or David, but that was all. I wondered what this was really about. I also wondered if I knew this person. The voice wasn’t familiar, but he or she might be disguising it.
“Then you heard my sermon on that last month?” I hadn’t preached any such sermon, but I might be able to find out if this was one of my parishioners.
Again, the laugh. “Nice try, Father. You’re trying to find out if I go to church there. Maybe, but maybe not. But this is my confession, so you can’t tell the cops about me.”
This person was not stupid. I’d been too obvious. “I won’t tell anyone. But what’s to tell? You haven’t said anything yet. What is this theft you’re confessing? Did you break into someone’s home?”
“Good. We’re getting down to the facts. I didn’t take anyone’s jewelry or money. I stole something far more valuable, but you’ll have to figure it out.”
“So you stole something very valuable and aren’t telling me what. Is this just a practical joke? How do I know this is the truth?”
“Truth? ‘What is truth?’” A snicker. “Do you know who said that?”
“Pontius Pilate. But he didn’t know Truth when he stared Him in the face.”
“And neither do you. You’re not as smart as you think you are. Here’s a riddle to help: You won’t find it in your stories by your father if you take a gander, but he was royally shattered from rhyming at all.”
Then the caller hung up.
I stared at the dead phone. A nutcase. It could be someone who attended St. Nicholas’, but a reasonably intelligent person could find all that the caller said online. Even so, I decided to look up the Bible passage to see if that would shed any light.
2 Samuel 1:25 was about the death of Jonathan, son of King Saul and friend of David of slaying Goliath fame. It said, “How the mighty have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies slain on your heights.” It spoke of death in battle and, as far as I remembered, the closest thing to a battle in Buggy Springs lately was last Memorial Day between some Civil War re-enactors. All the deaths had been faked. Still, there was something about the call that bothered me, a sense that there might be more to it than a prank.
After a quick check, I found that 2 Samuel 1:1 and 1:23-27 had been readings last June, so it might be a church member. The church didn’t have caller I.D. or call-back, so I had no way of tracing who had called. But the police did. I pulled out the phone book and started to look up the number of the Buggy Springs police department. Then I stopped. I could imagine the conversation.
“Buggy Springs Police Department,” some voice would answer.
“Yes, this is Father Robert Bruce of St. Nicholas’ Church. I need to have a call traced,” I would say.
“You need a call traced? Father, have you been threatened? Has someone been kidnapped?” the voice would ask.
“No, I think someone killed someone,” I would answer.
“Why?” the voice would ask.
“He quoted a Bible verse about a killing,” I would answer.
“Who made the call?” the voice would ask.
“I can’t say. His voice was disguised,” I would answer.
“Let me get this straight, Father. You want us to trace a call because some unkown person quoted a Bible verse?” the voice would ask.
“Yes,” I would answer.
“Call us when you haven’t been sampling the Communion wine,” the voice would say.
Now, the police department’s receptionist wouldn’t be so rude as to use that last line, but I’m sure he or she would be thinking it. No, that wouldn’t work. Especially since I doubted the legitimacy of the call myself.
I sat there for a moment, thinking. The caller either was an Episcopalian or knew we used the Book of Common Prayer. He also knew Scripture, or knew how to find Biblical quotes on the Internet. That would include a lot of people, not even necessarily church-goers. But calling to do the rite of Reconciliation, commonly called Confession? Still, people do like to tell me their worst sins. And I listen. As a rector, it’s part of the job. Sometimes they want forgiveness, absolution. Sometimes it’s counseling or advice. At times it’s just bragging about conquests, sexual or financial. I’m not here to judge, but to give God’s forgiveness. If it seems a valid confession. The braggers can go to . . . . Well, God bless their little hearts. Even if I don’t.
But this had to be a crank call. If not, what could I do? Good old Samuel gave me nothing concrete to go on, even in his second book. I thought about writing the bishop to let him know about the uncontrite confession in case anything came of it, but the whole thing sounded like a crank call to me. And he already thought of me as a bit of a pain in the rear.
So I went back to my Kirkin’ homily. Since my name is Robert Bruce you would think I had been raised with stories of my famous namesake, King Robert the Bruce, and how he had led Scotland to regain its independence from the English. But I didn’t have any idea of this until I saw the movie Braveheart with some friends in 1995, when I was in middle school. Afterwards, I asked my father if that was why I had been named Robert. I found that I had been named after my mother’s grandfather. As far as our Scottish heritage, my father said he wouldn’t be caught dead in a kilt, which he called a skirt. So much for respect of our history by my family.
For about an hour I sat staring at a computer screen that only said, “On this occasion when we remember Scots who . . . .” I finally gave up and did what I do when I am frustrated with people, the job or most anything else that bugs me. I called Don Frampton, the church junior warden, and challenged him to a game of racquetball. If I couldn’t accomplish anything else that day, at least I could kick his overweight butt all over the court.
Later that morning, I was sitting in Mocha Arabesque, sipping my non-fat latte with a triple shot and paying the price for arrogance and pride: humility. Jim had whupped me good. I deserved it, but it still hurt. So did my right shoulder after I crashed into the wall as I missed a shot. Considering I was just under 30 years old, stand 6’ 2” and in good condition, I should have won. But I was no athlete and it showed. After my devastating loss, I had dropped into the funkiest place in town, Buggy Springs’ unique take on a coffeehouse, to nurse my wounds with caffeine.
Mocha, as it was known around town, was a cavernous affair filled with old, odd overstuffed and wooden chairs and mismatched tables. The walls were mostly covered with red wallpaper flocked with gold designs like from a bordello. Well, at least the bordellos in movies. I can’t say from actual experience. Avant garde movie posters as well as local artists’ creations in oil, watercolor and pencil of some unusual subjects dotted the walls, some even in frames. The menu was painted in white, yellow and orange on an old blackboard mounted in a gilt frame on the wall. Like I said, funky.
However, Mocha had the best lattes in the State of California. And that’s saying a lot. It also provided its patrons with copies of The Constitution, the San Francisco Chronicle, High Times and various alternative newspapers that had a problem discerning fact from fiction. I have a morning routine of doing Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer as well as a little prayer and quiet time, followed by my New York Times crossword puzzle in in the local rag, The Constitution. I’d missed doing the puzzle, so I did it then, followed by reading the latest Buggy Springs news. What caught my eye was an article about Jonathan Franks, a local contractor, who had been killed in a freak accident at one of his properties. There wasn’t much information except that he had been alone and his death wasn’t suspicious.
Jon was, or had been, one of my parishioners, albeit normally only on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. But I hate finding out about something happening to someone in my church that way. He had been a big man, in his fifties, with a belly that crept over his belt. His black hair had looked dyed to me and he had worn it a little long, so that it framed a rugged chiseled face and steely eyes that many women find appealing. I hadn’t known him, just greeting him and his wife on the rare occasions he attended. I made a note to make a call to his wife, Lisa.
Lisa, who attended on a semi-regular basis without Jon, was sexy, in a Playboy bunny way, with long, wavy blond hair and a curvy body with a prominent bustline that always seemed to be invading my comfort zone when I greeted her as she left church on Sundays. I may be a man of the cloth, but I am still a man, with eyes and a libido. I often found myself stepping back and finding someone else to greet.
Immediately, I was stricken with guilt for even thinking about the newly-widowed Mrs. Franks’ body. Best to keep my mind focused on what I should do as her pastor and leave the lust to someone else. I would phone her to find out if the church could be of help, whether in conducting services, bringing food or having one of our women stop by to offer a shoulder to cry on. I would definitely not be making a house call myself. I would also spend some time praying about keeping my thoughts pure. Far easier said than done, but that’s true of much of the Scriptures. A tough Book to follow.
I finished my latte and went back to my office after stopping by my house for a quick bite of lunch. Once ensconced in my inner sanctum, I sat at my keyboard and went back to my homily for the Kirkin’. Unfortunately, the warm weather, morning exercise and after-lunch doldrums hit me and I kept nodding off. It was times like this I wished I had a couch in my office so I could take a short afternoon nap. But a couch in a bachelor-priest’s office might be misconstrued as having other, more carnal uses. You can’t be too careful of appearances, especially as a small town priest, even if you are doing nothing wrong. As it is, over thirty and never married, I am sure tongues are already wagging.
“What’s his orientation?” Hetero. “Is he leaning towards Roman Catholicism, taken a vow of life-long chastity?” No. And one I did not want to ever hear, “What goes on behind a closed door on his office couch?” Nothing, except verbal counseling. I even had a glass door to make sure my actions were transparent.
After taking a break to wash my face with cold water and grabbing a glass of iced tea from the fridge, I was able to finish my homily. I’d written my sermon notes earlier in the week, so I could relax. And call Lisa Franks to offer the church’s help in her time of grief.
I found the phone number on the member database in my computer. While people who attend two times a year might not make the membership rolls in some churches, it is enough if that person also is baptized and drops a check in the plate, or is “known to the treasurer,” to be a voting member at St. Nicholas. I punched in the number on my phone. After three rings, I got an answering machine, a man’s voice.
“Sorry we missed your call. Leave a message and we’ll get back atchya.”
After the beep, I said, “Hi. This is Father Robert at St Nicholas Church. I heard the tragic news and just wanted to say that if you need anything, give the church a call. I know that it’s a terrible time for you and want you to know we are here for you. God bless.”
After leaving the church’s number, I hung up. I would have the church secretary send a condolence note with another offer of help on Monday. I shut down my computer and went home. I should have a Netflix shipment in my mailbox to watch, the next installments of Poldark, plus I had some new Earl Grey tea to test, so I wouldn’t be bored.
After the second service on Sunday, I stood in front of our white, wood-frame Gold Rush era church with its attached bell tower and greeted the congregation as they left. I loved that church building as much as I loved my little town. Its average age was steadily climbing as many of the young people left after high school, dying to get out of Buggy Springs.
William Bugge had set up a general store next to a spring of cool, clear water to supply ‘49ers with food, shovels, picks and pans for their too-often vain efforts to find gold. He got rich and built a town with a saloon, hotel and brothel to service the various needs of the miners. St. Nicholas Church was founded not long after to give the miners a place to repent the next day. The town was originally named Bugge Springs after him, but some state clerk recorded it as Buggy Springs and the name stuck. I occasionally wonder how William felt about that.
Each and every parishioner smiled and shook my hand with some conversation that varied from a word or two to several minutes. Some, amazingly enough, even complimented my sermon. I saw Elvira Murdoch at the top of the concrete stairs, grabbing the pipe railing as she started to descend. I ran up the stairs and offered my arm.
At ninety-two years old, she was a remarkable woman. At maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet and not much over five feet tall, she was not physically imposing. Having outlived three husbands, she was still driving herself to church each Sunday, weather permitting. Having seen her drive, however, I did fear for others on the road. I had not been able to persuade her to hire a driver, though she did have enough money to do so if she wished. Fortunately, she would do little damage in a collision, since I’d never seen he go faster than about twenty-five miles per hour in her twenty year-old Olds sedan. As she took my arm with her claw-like, arthritic hand, she eyed me a moment before speaking in her shaky voice.
“You’re wasting your time with an old bird like me. I’m past the dating age.”
I chuckled. “Well, if you change your mind, let me know. I’ll be there with candy and flowers.”
“Humph. I’m diabetic, you know, and flowers just wilt in a few days. No, look for a hottie more your age.” She patted my arm. “From the way you’ve been eyeing that Franks woman, you’d like to get her into bed and she’d be happy to oblige.”
“Elvira, don’t say that,” I admonished her with a slight scowl. “It’s not true. Plus, the poor woman has just lost her husband and is grieving.”
“Oh, tish. She’s been around the block more than my Olds. Besides, Jon was always running around on her and drinking at Casey’s with loose women in the middle of the day.” She held up a finger to stop me from speaking. “I know. I was his teacher and he never could keep a secret from me. Told me everything, more than I asked even. Did it right up until he fell off that ladder and died. He’s gone and a healthy young man like you needs a sex life. All that libido needs a release, even if it’s just with a friend with benefits. Go comfort her.” She grinned mischievously. “After all, that’s what a rector is supposed to do. Get close to his parishioners”
“That’s not what I do . . . . I mean, I don’t get close in that way . . . . I mean, that’s not right for a priest. Please stop talking that way about Mrs. Franks and me.” Especially since it might be overheard by others and start gossip. I was often taken aback at how this silver-blue haired lady in her pink flowered dress could say such things.
She shook her head slowly. “I can tell you a lot about their relationship, but not now. Later. You’ll just sit around until some guy gets her into bed. With a face and body like hers, it won’t be that long.”
We had reached the base of the stairs and she pulled my head down so that she could whisper in my ear. “She has great boobs, too. And don’t pretend you haven’t noticed.”
I felt the warmth as my face reddened. “Elvira, please stop this. If someone hears, they might misunderstand.”
“Tish. Now help me to my car.”
Her faded-red Olds was parked in the handicapped spot in front of the church. I walked her to the door and helped her in.
She reached up and tousled my hair as she sat in her car. “Even with your dark, wavy, sexy locks, faint heart never won fair maiden, you know. Well, she’s not any maiden, so bedded a lusty wench.” Her hand dropped to my cheek. “But get rid of the scruffy beard. It’s not sexy.”
I closed her door and shook my head as she drove erratically down the street. Some people thought of her as nothing but a crusty old gossip. They didn’t know of the many times she had pressed several folded hundred-dollar bills in my hand and told me which parishioner needed it. She always did it anonymously, not even letting me tell the church secretary or treasurer. I loved the old lady, even though I did wish she’d keep out of my personal business.
A thought hit me after I closed up the church and walked toward my little Victorian house for lunch. My mystery caller had referenced the mighty falling, slain on a great height. Buggy Springs is in the foothills, at about 4500 elevation. Jon Franks had died from a fall. This was beginning to be more than a coincidence. When my mystery person had called, it had been the day after the accident. Sure, it wasn’t a battle, but I hadn’t read anything else in the local paper that could fit.
Then I remembered the riddle, something about not hearing the story from my father if I took a gander and someone being royally shattered. It wasn’t that difficult. In Mother Goose tales, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall from a wall, which rhymes with all. He was shattered and all the king’s horses and men, the representatives of royalty, couldn’t put him back together. The riddle described Jon’s fall from the ladder.
I decided to call the chief of police on Monday and have an informal chat. He could tell me if I should call the sheriff’s department. Since Jon Franks had died outside of the city limits, it would be their case. And I needed to get to know him, anyway. Lee Garcia was pretty new to the area. He’d come here from Colton in Southern California a little less than a year ago, after retiring there. It was only because he had another income that we could afford him. I only knew him well enough to say, “Hi.” Time to remedy that.
With the matter resolved in my mind, I tried to get myself psyched up about wearing eight yards of Scottish wool in mid-seventies degree weather. I was sweating by the time I walked the half mile home. I’d take my air-conditioned red ’69 SS396 convertible Camaro back for the Kirkin’.