Carol shifted weight to the leg not yet totally asleep. The time lapse since Sunday morning service was more than she anticipated hiding in this cramped storage closet. She heard the office door beyond open then close.
“Finally,” she mouthed. She had to crouch and twist her aching neck to see through the louvered slats. Two figures were partially visible. She recognized Pastor Michaels but the second person… Aha! Of course it was Frank Brandt, newest member of the congregation. He arrived in town just weeks before the newly appointed Pastor Michaels appeared.
Carol had tried, futility, to convince her husband and her sister that trouble was brewing. Her ‘wrongness radar’, as Carol sometimes referred to her gift of discernment, never, well, seldom failed.
“I’ll bet ten dollars Widow Pearson doubles her usual contribution after the sermon you just gave.”
“Frank, you know men of the cloth never participate in such worldly pleasures as gambling.” Both men laughed.
Carol bumped against a box.
“Well, what have we here?”
Her heart stopped. She closed her eyes and braced for the inevitable.
“You were correct, my friend, doubled to the penny.”
She opened one eye and witnessed the pastor lift a bill from a bulging collection plate and hand it to Frank.
Carol watched in disbelief as the pair leisurely emptied the cash and checks into a briefcase. She had sensed something was amiss with the new pastor, but could never have guessed the extent of it.
“There’s a cardboard box in the closet. Set it on the counter here?”
“Yes sir, boss.” Frank saluted.
Carol ceased breathing. This was it. When the door opened outward there would be no place to hide. Quickly and quietly she switched places with the box, placing it directly in the doorway. Then she melted into the darkness silently praying for a miracle.
Hands appeared, hesitated, and then grabbed the box.
Her soul screamed. They were sure to hear her jack-hammering heartbeat.
The door closed.
“Thank you, Jesus. I owe you- big time.” She sighed.
“What’s in here?”
“It’s a coffee maker. Take it out, but do not plug it in.”
“We’ve got coffee pots. What is so special about this one?”
“I found it at a flea market. This model happens to have been recalled last year for causing fires.”
“So we’re going forward with the church burning?”
“Correct, my friend, along with the accounting files and any proof of our shenanigans.”
“How can you be sure this thing will catch fire?”
“I rewired it. I’ll set the timer for one hour then you and I will hot foot it to the diner for an airtight alibi. Before anyone can get in here all evidence will be ashes.”
Carol was really freaking out now. It would be impossible to contact the police until the scoundrels left. She would have to remember to unplug the coffee maker on her way out.
“Grab that stack of newspaper and pile it loosely around the coffee maker. Good, the timer is set, let’s go.”
Then a noise came from outside and she realized someone was hammering on the closet doorknob.
“Oh, by the way, I know you’re in there Mrs. Stephens. Sorry it has to be this way but you understand… loose ends must be dealt with.”
The office door clicked shut and she grabbed the doorknob- it refused to budge. This could not be. Pastor, no, Mr. Michaels had ruined the lock mechanism. She switched on the light and searched for anything to use to pry the door open.
Suddenly the light began flickering in rhythm with a popping sound from the office. She smelled smoke. The fool must have inadvertently set the timer for one minute. She could see the flicker of flames. The newspaper ignited quickly.
Carol coughed. Noxious fumes sliced at her nose and throat. She banged on the door, her frantic cries for help unheard- she thought.
“Stand back, Mrs. Stephens.” A gloved hand smashed through the louvers then ripped the door from its hinges and a fireman carried her outside.
“Thanks, you saved my life.”
“Just my job, ma’am.”
She took pen and paper from a pocket. “What’s your na…?”
He was gone and there was no sign of an emergency vehicle. There was no way the fire department could have been alerted so quickly and she knew in her heart his face would not be familiar among their team.
Carol hastily headed to the nearest phone.
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