The four of us stood around a rectangular hole dug in the basement floor. No one said anything. The silence stretched on, and on, until I wanted to scream and force the moment to end.
Father Blackman cleared his throat. “Well,” he said softly; “That is unusual. It looks like...”
“A shallow grave?” I offered.
He sighed. “Yes.”
“That's what I thought, too. But then I spotted these,” said Steve. He pointed the beam of the flashlight into a dark corner where the light of the bare bulb overhead couldn't reach.
I looked, and saw two more holes. “What's that stuff up against the wall, near the holes?” I asked.
“A shovel and a metal detector.” Steve walked over and picked up the latter object. “Here's the best part,” he said, shining the beam of the flashlight on the metal detector's handle.
I walked over and looked. There was a silver, plastic, rectangle affixed to the handle. On it were the initials C. A. J.
“Does anyone know Christian Johnson's middle name?” I asked aloud.
“I think it's Andrew, after his grandfather,” offered Pastor Ted.
So the plaintiff suing for the house was already digging around in it. “Why would he be digging around in the basement?”
Steve set the metal detector back in place. “Isn't it obvious? He was setting up special effects to make people think the house was haunted, just like you said.”
“I said that to piss off Christian. I never believed it. And why would he need a metal detector if he was planting devices? Face it, Steve; Christian was looking for something.”
“How did he get in?” asked Father Blackman.
Good question. We spread out around the basement, looking for an outside door or open window. All except Pastor Ted. He stood silent, staring at the tips of his shoes.
I slipped over next to the Presbyterian leader. “You know what Christian was looking for, don't you?” I said quietly.
“He's looking for something that doesn't exist,” Pastor Ted replied.
“How much does he think it's worth?”
Pastor Ted looked at me, wide-eyed.
“He wouldn't be digging if he didn't think there was something valuable. What is it? How much is it worth?”
The pastor swallowed hard. “I had nothing to do with it,” he said quickly.
Which meant that he did have something to do with it. Great. “I'm sure you didn't,” I said politely. “Please tell me about it.”
“Found it,” Steve called from the other side of the basement. “The latch is broken on the door of the storm cellar.”
“Good work,” I called back. “Take some photos for the case file.” I turned back to the nervous pastor. “Tell me quickly,” I ordered.
He sighed and nodded. “Hank knew too much about the fire at the Celanese plant decades ago. The owners offered to pay him off, if he kept his mouth shut and destroyed evidence. He came to me, wondering what he should do.”
“Yes. But Hank called it blood money.”
“And what did you tell him?”
The pastor's eyes filled up with tears. “I told him that if he refused, they'd fire him and make life hell for his family. I suggested it would be better to keep quiet and use the money to help his loved ones.”
“What about the court cases, the lawsuits that followed. Did he come forward then with the truth?”
Yeah, you probably advised him not too, I thought. Mix pragmatism with weak doctrine and you get a religion that worships safety at the price of truth. “What did he do with the blood money?”
“He bought this house,” Pastor Ted said quickly. Too quickly. He was still hiding something.
“That's not all he did, is it?” I prompted.
“He told me he was going to bury the rest in the basement.”
So that's what Christian Johnson was after. And if he could get his step-mother kicked out of the house permanently, he'd have free range to look for the money. “Do you have any idea where in the basement the money is buried?”
“Oh, the money isn't here.”
I shook my head. I was getting very annoyed. “Where's the rest of the money, Pastor?”
“Hank felt so guilty. So many families were impacted by what happened that day. The whole town. Hank felt like he profited off other's pain. The money buried in the basement weighed on his conscience. He suffered for years.” He paused.
I looked into his rheumatic eyes and read the truth. “You suggested he donate the money to the Presbyterian church, didn't you?”
“Yes. Yes, I did.” Pastor Ted pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. “He gave me the money, for the church. And the next Sunday I blessed the bread, we all took communion, and Hank Johnson choked to death.” He began to blubber, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. “We tried to give him the Heimlich. I rushed down the aisle to give him aid. Others ran to his side. But he pushed us all back. He was choking, turning purple, but he still found strength to push us away. He pushed me away. He'd rather die than accept help from me.”
Steve and Pastor Blackman walked up behind us. “What's going on, Maryanne?” Steve asked.
I turned away from Pastor Ted and looked to Father Blackman. “You deal with him,” I said shortly. “I'm too disgusted.” I walked up the basement stairs, through the house, and out the door.