Pulpit Love, a short story, Part 7
Paradise Pines is a small coastal town of about eighteen thousand souls. Out of the ninety-eight churches listed in the local telephone directory, the Paradise Pines Chuch of God is the most prosperous. By a long shot ! One pastor is devoted full time to the promotion of the church, and it pays. Literally ! There is one religious service every Saturday evening to which about 450 attend. On Sunday, the most popular 9.00 AM service fills the entire church to its full capacity of about 1200 seats. The final Sunday service at 10.45 rounds up another 1000 or so. On a good week, over 2500 souls would gather under its roof. Out of this, more than 2200 are currently registered parishioners, actually giving money to support their faith. The church's guideline for contributions is 8% of the household income. However, a recent study conducted by the treasurer Faher Phillip shows that the reality is closer to 6%, considering the state of the economy and all. Still, the gross product of the donations amounts to 9 millions a year. Then there is the school run by the church, and everyone knows private education doesn't come cheap. Then, there are the people who die and leave all their possessions to their favorite place of worship. And you have the social events, concerts, conferences, workshops, plays, retreats, picnic, garage sales. In all, it's between fifteen and eighteen millions a year the church stashes in its coffers. Tax free ! No wonder some pastors can afford new Jaguars ! Every service starts with twenty minutes of Christian music and songs played by a seven members rock and roll band. In the meantime, the homeless population of Paradise Pines is growing as well as the number of unemployed. Not to mention the working people now having to face the hard choice between paying the rent or feeding their children.
Stephen Capella remembered the article published in the Paradise Pines Bugle this past Sunday. Gee, he thought, I'm in the wrong business ! As a Detective first class with a twenty year seniority, his annual salary was fourty two thousands and change. Before taxes ! Not a lot of money by any standards, considering the more than usual twelve hours a day shift he put in, of which only eight hours were officially paid. He actually joked about it a lot, telling people he was only working half time : twelve hours a day !
He was driving Esther Borrowitz to her parent's house, as she had asked. When she finally broke the silence that had taken place between them since they left the Municipal Police building, she said :
- "You know, Stephen, I would still move in with you if you asked me to. I mean, we had a good time together, didn't we? And didn't we get along just fine ?
- "Honey, you cheated on me and there is no way around it. And I found out about it. So there is no nice way to put this : to me, you are yesterday's news, and all I see in you is damaged goods. I am angry at you and want to remain that way because as long as I am, I won't be tempted to slip and get back with you. Do you understand ?
- "Yes, I do. I guess I screwed up pretty badly, didn't I ?
- "Yes, you did. I'll give you that much that we had a good thing, but you ruined it all and I could never trust you with anything anymore, so let's switch to a different topic. I understand you need some information to write an article. Being the stupid cop that Iam, I gathered that much. So, I'm going to cut you a deal. You are going to go talk to Susan Hacquett at the Paradise Pines Church of God. She's the receptionist there. You may have to buy her lunch or a cup of coffee, but if you play your cards well and don't screw up this time, she is most likely to be a tresure trove of information. All I ask in return is for you to let me read your piece before it gets published so I can point out any inaccuracy, if there is any. If you cross me on this one, the department, meaning me, will issue an announcement live on Channel 6 and you can trust me to make you look like a fool. Should that happen, you will never write another line in this city. Deal ?"
- "Deal !"
Karl Hoffner remembered how the whole thing started. About a year ago, for reasons unknown to him, the Randolph twins, both of them, became very flirtatious with him, whether they were in class or during the bible study sessions. Soon enough, they started wearing shorter skirts and show a little more leg than necessary, often more than just legs when given the opportunity not to be found out. At first, Hoffner thought it was just a game of theirs, something that would quickly pass, so he chose to ignore it. But it didn't stop. And there is only so long before a man with Hoffner's background could ignore the obvious. Shortly after the two girls turned eighteen, some eight months ago now, their parents teamed up financially to get them their own car, and they became even more independant. So, they started to hang in his office after classes or on bible study evenings. One particular evening, there was a concert of Chrisitan music at the church, an event their mother didn't want to miss. The two girls showed little interest for the concert and decided not ot attend. Instead, shortly after their mother left the house, they jumped into their little Mini and headed to Hoffner's house. He was relaxing in his favorite chair, enjoying a drink to the sound of his state of the art stereo system when he heard the doorbell ring. He was certainly surprised to see the twins there, on his doorstep, but after the initial shock, human nature took over and with a big engaging smile, he said :
- "Hi girls ! What don't you just come in ?
Father Gibson quickly looked at his Rolex watch. Five o'clock sharp ! He started telling the assembly of pastors and elders that he himself hadn't learned any new information since their morning meeeting. He had failed to reach Father Hoffner on the phone, both at home and on his cellular. No luck ! By that time of the day, pretty much everybody had come to similar conclusions. Hoffner seemed to be in some way involved with the missing girls. Not a good thing ! Which also meant that he was also responsible for the missing funds, and that was a hard pill to swallow. The vanished money consisted mostly of used twenty dollars bills. The chances to ever see that money again were slim, at best. But trust had been violated, which made everyone feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, despite the strong gag order imposed by Father Gibson, there was a risk that the whole mess could be leaked to the press and that in itself would be a disaster and was on everybody's mind. This was the real tragedy! Nobody brought up any mention of maybe establishing contact with the parents of the missing girls. So, nobody did !
Despite the clear sign on the door that said "Do not disturb!!", somebody had knocked loudly on it. Both sisters woke up simultaneously. "Housekeeping!" the voice said. Hattie yelled back "Come back in an hour or so, we're not ready yet". Then she remembered that they had booked two nights for that very reason, not to be disturbed. And they had notified the front desk about it and specifically requested that there would be no housekeeping until they left. The Blue Heron Motel had been built in the late 1940s, but unlike so many other similar establishments, it had remained a motel and open all the time. It had been kept quite nice and updated too, without relinquishing any of its old Florida charm. It was located just across the street from North Beach, only separated from the water by a plublic park, just on the outskirts of Paradise Pines. The two sisters were facing each other, sitted on the edge of their respective bed, looking at each other without saying a word. Then, Marigold had some kind of a flashback and bursted out laughing :
- "Well, that was quite a night, I would say?"
- "You can say that, Hattie answered, But I'm sore all over.
- "So am I, and on top of it, I've got that terrible headache, do you have any aspirin or something ?"
- "No, I don't. Looks like we're on our own now !"
- "What should we do, call Mom ?"
- "I don't think so. Let's get ready then we'll call a cab. We'll get our car back at the church and go home. We're gonna be in a lot of trouble no matter what, you know, they may even take the car away from us, so brace yourself !"
- "I know !" Listening carefully, one could have detected some fear in the tone of Marigold's voice. Or was it regrets...
To be continued...
Copyright 2012 by Austinhealy, his heirs and assigns.
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