Excerpts from The Mysteries of Reverend Dean
Murder at the Fall Festival
(Nominated for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009)
Detective Michaels was interested in facts, and he tolerated little sentimentality in the process.
“Reverend. This is certainly a . . . surprise,” Michaels said, implying that it wasn’t necessarily a good one. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to talk about the case—” the old man started, but the detective cut him off.
“Reverend, look,” he said, placing his forearms on the desk as he leaned forward. “Some people in this department think you can walk on water. But I’ll be honest. I’m not one of them. I’m a trained professional. You’re not. You’re a pastor, for Pete’s sake. Despite what you see on TV, police work is specialized and complicated. I’m sure you’re a very good minister, but in a criminal investigation, you’re out of your depth. You have to leave this to the professionals.”
Although he felt strongly on the subject, Michaels realized he may have hurt the old man’s feelings. He tried to placate the reverend by giving him an example of what he meant.
“Take these photos, for example. You wouldn’t know how to analyze information like this.”
The reverend looked at several 8 x 10 color photographs spread across the detective’s gray metal desk. They appeared to be the interior of a large bedroom.
“Well, Detective, since I don’t know what you’re trying to do, I’d have to agree. Perhaps if you told me exactly what you’re looking for. . .?” the cleric replied, with a twinkle in his eye.
Michaels immediately realized that he’d made a mistake. He shouldn’t have mentioned the pictures to begin with. But now that he’d brought them up, he had to explain them. In an effort to get rid of the old man, he gave a quick summary of the photos.
“They’re pictures of a crime scene,” he said curtly. “The victim had state-of-the-art locks on his bedroom door and a cell phone by his bed. Yet he opened his bedroom door in the middle of the night and walked straight into the arms of a burglar. So here’s the question. Why would someone that security-conscious open his door — presumably because he heard a noise — rather than wait in his bedroom and call us?”
Reverend Dean was intrigued. To Michaels’ annoyance, he stepped around the detective’s desk to get a closer look at the photos. The pictures gave a three-hundred-sixty degree view of the room, including the floor, bed and most of the ceiling.
“This door leads to the bathroom?” the reverend asked, pointing to one of the photos.
“Yes. It’s the master bath. So we know he didn’t open the door to go to the bathroom, or to get a drink of water.”
“Mmmmm. It is difficult—” the reverend began.
“See what I mean? This proves—”
“But I do have a suggestion for you.”
The detective rolled his eyes. Surely his day could get no worse than this.
“Note the floor,” the reverend began. “Do you see the bedspread? It’s been thrown off the bed with no thought or order.”
“Now look at the blanket. It’s been tossed off, as well. Also in a disorganized fashion. But it overlaps just half the area of the bedspread. Thus, it was probably thrown off separately from the spread.”
“Now look at the sheet. It’s not on the floor, but merely laid across half the bed; far more organized than the first two items.”
“The important thing,” the old man continued, “is that each item was removed separately, one at a time.”
“Reverend, what’s your point?”
Reverend Dean shrugged, then offered an explanation.
“It’s just a guess, Detective — and a hasty one at that — but I think your victim was hot. First he threw off his bedspread, then he threw off his blanket, finally he pulled off his sheet.”
The reverend pointed to the photographs.
“He might have had an expensive alarm system, but look at the walls of his room. There’s no thermostat. All a burglar needed to do was enter his house, turn the thermostat to ninety, and wait until the owner opened his door to adjust the heat. Initially, when the burglar turned up the temperature, the victim didn’t wake up. He merely tossed off his bedspread, and later his blanket, while half-asleep. Eventually, however, the heat fully roused him — which accounts for the more orderly condition of the sheet — and he rose to check the thermostat. That’s why he opened the door. By the way,” he asked sympathetically, “is this poor man dead, or comatose?”
Michaels was stunned by the old man’s explanation — which no one had considered — as well as his question.
“Uh . . . why do you think he’s either?”
The reverend shrugged as though the explanation were obvious. Which it was.
“If he could speak you’d be talking with him instead of studying these photographs. Thus he’s either dead, or so disabled that he can’t communicate with you.”
The detective lowered his eyes and sighed. “He’s dead. We believe he was hit over the head as soon as he opened the door.”
Upon saying that Tom Michaels rose, walked past the reverend and closed his office door.
“Sit down, Reverend. Perhaps I misjudged you. Let’s talk.”
Murder at the Lord’s Table
Inside the brick Tudor home, an unusual conversation was taking place.
“Thaddeus, have you ever seen an . . . an angel?”
The owner of the house, the retired Reverend Thaddeus Dean, neither laughed at, nor dismissed, the question. He’d known Pastor Steve Ragsdale too long to take such a question lightly.
“Well, Steve, not that I know of,” the reverend admitted, “but the Bible indicates that angels can assume the form of men, so I’ll probably never know this side of heaven.”
“I . . . I may have, Thaddeus,” the pastor said nervously. “In fact, my entire congregation may have. Two Sundays ago, in open church.”
Reverend Dean leaned forward in fascination. “Please, go on.”
It was winter, and the fireplace hadn’t yet warmed the den. But Steve Ragsdale was perspiring. This event, whatever it was, had clearly upset him.
“It happened during the Sunday service, just as I was preparing to read a passage from the New Testament. As I rose and approached the lectern, a man sitting in the front row stood and pointed a finger directly at me.”
The pastor took a handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbed his brow.
“Did you know this man?” Reverend Dean asked gently.
“No, I’d never seen him before. Nor had anyone else. I call him a man, but you have to appreciate how he looked, Thaddeus. He was dressed completely in white. A perfectly pressed, white, three-piece suit, a white starched shirt, a white silk tie, even a white leather belt and shoes. But that wasn’t all. He was big. At least six foot six, broad shouldered, tapered waist and . . . and dazzling blond, almost white, hair. I’ve never seen anyone like him.”
Reverend Dean was impressed. He’d never seen anyone like that, either.
“What happened when you approached the lectern?”
“As I said, the man slowly rose, planted his feet, and pointed a finger directly at me. Obviously I delayed my Bible reading, wondering what he was going to do.”
“Thaddeus, he looked me square in the eye and quoted a verse from scripture! In a deep, bass voice, he said,
“A man should examine himself before he eats the bread and drinks the wine. For anyone who eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks judgment on himself. For this reason many of you are weak and sick — and some of you have died.”
Reverend Dean was intrigued. In all his years as pastor, he’d never encountered anything like this.
“What happened next?”
“He turned, strode majestically down the aisle and walked out of the building. Everyone was too dumbstruck to follow him.”
The bewildered pastor mopped his brow and continued.
“I tried to make light of the situation, and quipped that ‘I didn’t know we had another preacher in the congregation,’ but it was unnerving.”
Reverend Dean stroked his chin in thought. “That man’s — or angel’s — declaration,” he said softly, “it’s Corinthians, is it not? Pretty faithful rendition, if memory serves.”
“It’s 1 Corinthians 11:28-30. It’s a unique paraphrase, but it definitely conveys the spirit of the verses.”
“I grant you his appearance was imposing, Steve, but surely it’s unlikely that he was an angel.”
“That’s what I thought. Until last Sunday.”
Reverend Dean cocked an eyebrow. This was becoming more intriguing by the minute.
“Last Sunday, John Snead — our music pastor — rose to give the New Testament reading. We conduct all pastoral duties in alphabetical order, and it was his turn. But this time — instead of an angel — sitting in the front row was another man dressed very differently. He wore a beige robe, brown leather sandals, and had long, dark hair. Thaddeus,” the pastor gulped, “he looked just like Jesus!”
Reverend Dean knew there was no description of Jesus in the Bible. Aside from the fact that he was circumcised, and presumably shared a physiognomy common among Jews, nothing was definitively known. Of course, that didn’t stop artists from portraying Christ in every manner possible. Thus, modern man had an “image” of Jesus, even though it was based on nothing except an artist’s imagination.
Reverend Dean didn’t insult his friend by stating this. Steve Ragsdale knew the Bible as well as anyone. Still, old images were hard to break. And in any event, the image of a robed, sandaled visitor in a front pew would unsettle any pastor.
“What happened next?”
“As John approached the lectern the man rose — just like before — and raised his hand. But this time he didn’t point to the person at the podium. Instead he pointed at me again! He said:
“A man should examine himself before he eats the bread and drinks the wine. For anyone who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment on himself. For this reason many of you are weak and sick — and one of you will die.”
Reverend Dean immediately noticed the new ending. “This no longer sounds like a prank,” he said quietly.
“Thaddeus, you haven’t heard the end of it.”
The jittery pastor swabbed his brow with a now damp handkerchief, took a gulp of lukewarm coffee and continued.
“Just as before the man turned and left. But this time, instead of leaving by the main exit, he walked into the pastors’ study! This was too much to bear so our youth pastor, Rick Taylik, ran into the room after him.”
The pastor threw down his handkerchief and scanned the room, as if searching for words to describe what happened next.
“Thaddeus, when he entered the pastors’ study, the room was empty! There was no one there!”
Reverend Dean paused in surprise, then asked the only logical question.
“Doors?” he inquired.
“Yes, one to the outside,” the pastor admitted, “but it’s a double deadbolt — you must use a key even if you open it from the inside. But even if he had a key he didn’t have time to use it! Rick was there less than five seconds after the man entered the study. And there was no place for him to hide! Thaddeus, I’m at my wit’s end, and we celebrate communion next Sunday!”
“Calm yourself, my friend, calm yourself,” Reverend Dean said reassuringly. “What do your assistant pastors make of this?”
“Rick and John are perplexed, of course, but not overly concerned. That doesn’t surprise me. They’re levelheaded, solid pastors; good at what they do. Of course, we have our theological differences, but you’re well aware of that.”
Indeed the reverend was. Steve Ragsdale was a rarity: an evangelical pastor in a liberal denomination. The reverend knew his friend didn’t look for theological fights, but he didn’t back down from them, either. More than once, this had created tensions. Not just with the junior pastors, but with the denominational hierarchy, as well.
“In any event, Thaddeus, you’re the expert in matters like this. No, no, don’t shake your head. Over the years you’ve had a knack for solving strange problems, and the fact that this happened in church makes it even more up your alley. So here’s my question: will you attend our morning service next Sunday? It would mean the world to me.”
“My friend, you couldn’t keep me away.”