A house fire is extinguished to reveal the body of a choir director. The smell of gasoline points to murder.
Thomas Warrendale was employed by First Baptist Church, where Detective RJ Franklin Jr. is a parishioner. Recovering from a car accident, RJ is on leave from the police force in St. Joseph, Indiana, when this puzzling case calls him back. His insider's knowledge makes him the obvious choice to lead the investigation.
The congregation doubled after Warrendale revamped the music to appeal to a more youthful crowd. RJ's godmother, Mama B, gives the detective an earful about the choir director's non-musical activities. Warrendale was also an accountant and a "fancy pants" seducer. His clients believe the man was stealing from them. Warrendale turns out to be an alias; his real name was Tyrone Warren, once a highly paid CPA in Cleveland. Was Warren in hiding? From his stone-faced wife? A disgruntled client? Now someone is breaking in to the dead choir director's office and the homes of his former clients. Believing the vandal to be the killer, RJ is particularly concerned about the safety of one client, the striking owner of two hair salons.
Book 1 in the RJ Franklin Mystery series. Soul food recipes included.
About the Author
V.M. Burns was born and raised in the Midwestern United States. She holds a bachelor's degree from Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and master's degrees from the University of Notre Dame (Notre Dame, IN) and Seton Hill University (Greensburg, PA). She is currently thawing out in Eastern Tennessee. V.M. Burns is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. She is the author of the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series and the Dog Club Mystery series. For more information about V.M. Burns, check out her website at vmburns.com or follow her on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/vmburnsbooks.
Read an Excerpt
You have to be nuts to run at two a.m. That's when all the crazies came out. Every town has them, even the sleepy bucolic ones like St. Joseph, Indiana. Good thing I have a gun.
My favorite route followed the St. Joseph River, winding around a park and ending in the historic district. I used to be able to run ten miles and barely break a sweat. Now I can't run half that distance without feeling like I need an oxygen tank.
Soaked in sweat and sucking air like a four-pack-a-day smoker, I finally made it to the end of the block, my designated stopping point. Resisting the urge to flop down on the ground, I bent over and massaged my knee, hoping the pain would subside. Running was no longer advisable — not after the car accident that left me with a metal plate in my leg and a scar the size of Rhode Island — but it beat lying in bed with my nightmares.
The early morning was cool and peaceful. I heard sirens but ignored them. Living near this neighborhood, I was familiar with the sound of sirens. The locals were in a no-win battle with the hospital to ban ambulance sirens between ten p.m. and five a.m. But these sirens were getting closer and louder. That's when I got the first whiff of smoke. After a few more steps, my eyes stung and I saw flames. The fire was close. That's when the pain I'd felt just a moment ago vanished and I started to run. I ran, not away from the fire, but toward it.
I was on administrative leave from the force, but I still had my shield. The doctors patched up my body, but some scars are deeper than flesh and bone. I needed time to recover mentally. Arriving only a few seconds after the fire trucks and police cars, I pulled my shield from the chain around my neck and flashed it at the first cop I saw, which got me inside the blockade.
"Anyone inside?" I asked.
The cop manning the barricade answered, "Single man by the name of ... Warrendale." He looked at his notebook and added, "Thomas Warrendale."
That startled me. Thomas Warrendale was the choir director at First Baptist Church. Looking at the house, I concluded that if Warrendale were inside, he wasn't going to make it out alive. It wasn't long before the fire crews shifted their focus from rescue to containment. It was also pretty clear that, when church started in a few hours, First Baptist Church would soon be looking for a new choir director.CHAPTER 2
As a detective with the St. Joseph Indiana Police Department (SJPD), my job was to serve and protect and to catch bad guys. As a member of First Baptist Church — albeit a fair-weather member — I always hoped to do my job without damaging the church or its reputation. "Fair-weather Christians" were what my godmother called people who only came to church when the weather was fair. That summed me up pretty well.
Today was the first Sunday in May. The weather was agreeable, but with the choir director's death headlining the St. Joseph Tribune's Sunday morning paper, nothing short of a hurricane could have kept me at home. The coroner hadn't officially declared murder, but the smell of gasoline was so strong, the fire chief went on record with "suspicious" circumstances. News like the death of the church choir director traveled quickly. I suspected the gossip would be flying fast and furious at the church, which was one reason for my presence. I might not be working the case, but the cop in me couldn't pass up a chance to do some reconnaissance.
First Baptist Church — FBC — was more crowded than I remembered. The late choir director had changed the musical format, the result being that the congregation more than doubled in size during the past nine months. Instead of the traditional spirituals and hymns I remembered as a child, the choirs sang upbeat gospel tunes. Instead of merely a piano accompanying the choir, there was almost a full band with drums, bongos, and two guitars. FBC had gone from a geriatric population of five hundred regular members to a much younger crowd of well over a thousand that included more teenagers and twenty-something single parents. The church's location, in an economically declining part of town, could only be described as the hood, so the congregation consisted of lower income and plain old poor folk. The wood-paneled walls and red carpet that had been trendy in the '70s was in desperate need of an update. From the fake flowers lining the pulpit to the tattered American and Christian flags flanking the communion table, the church definitely showed its age. The absence of the choir director's rather flamboyant style was noticeable, but the choir reverted to their old faithful songs, and the service progressed.
"Precious Lord, Take My Hand" reverberated through the vaulted ceiling and the pews. Chills ran through me as Sister Dorothea Green, in the white robes everyone except the Children's Choir wore on the first Sunday, belted out the song, giving it her all.
The titles Sister and Brother were common throughout African-American churches. We weren't talking about nuns or monks, just brothers and sisters in the faith.
"Sis" Green was a stocky, older woman with a strong, powerful voice. She might not be a classically trained singer, but she had something special. Some called it an anointing — that voice. Whatever it was, she had it.
Feeling, rather than seeing the look, I glanced over at my godmother. My mother's closest friend, Ella Bethany, had cared for me and my older sister while my mother battled cancer. After my mother died, she was more like a grandmother than my real one. That's when we started calling her Mama B. She supported my decision to become a cop when no one else in my family did. Somehow, she knew it was something I had to do. My parents were both dead now, and my sister had married, had two kids, and moved away. It was just me and Mama B now, and she was no spring chicken. Mama B was in her mid-sixties, with gray hair and soft brown eyes. She was a lot slower than she used to be, and she'd put on more weight than was good for her, but far be it from me to mention weight to a woman.
Mama B was one of those women who never dreamed of coming to church without a hat. Today she sported a purple turban with a large white feather. Not every woman could carry it off, but she wore it well.
She leaned in close and whispered, "Robert James Franklin Junior, wake up!" She delivered a sharp nudge to the ribs. If I hadn't been awake before, I was now. I rarely got the full name unless I was in trouble.
"I'm not sleeping." I stifled a yawn. It had been a long time since I'd sat through early service. On the rare occasions when I drag myself to church, it is at eleven. Attending church at eight a.m. was a penance that no kind, loving God would require of his children.
Nevertheless, here I was. In addition to performing reconnaissance, I was attending the first service in response to a message from Pastor Hamilton requesting my presence.
The choir finished singing, but many in the congregation were still feeling the effects. Some wept. Others stood with their hands raised and faces lifted to the heavens. Emotions overflowed, and the musicians played quietly while various members of the congregation regained their composure. I settled in for the main event — the sermon. As Reverend Moses Chapman approached the pulpit, I unfolded my legs and tried to find a comfortable position.
Wooden pews are torture on a good many parts of the human anatomy. Taking pity on my six-foot-three-inch frame, the ushers generally gave me a seat on the aisle, allowing for extra leg room.
Reverend Chapman approached the pulpit, and I pondered how he came to be here. A few months ago, Reverend Chapman was just plain ol' Moe Chapman, the church financial secretary. That was before he got the call. As I child, I had heard Reverend Hamilton talking about the call. In many African-American churches, the role of minister was not a career choice but a spiritual calling. I pictured a biblical scene with angels singing, blinding light, and the booming voice of God. Maybe that's what had happened to Moe. Someday I'd ask.
Moe Chapman and I were alike in many ways, starting with our age — thirty-three. We both had skin the color of coffee, although his was a dark espresso and mine was more like a latte with plenty of cream. His eyes were light gray, where mine were dark brown. Both of us were over six feet, though I had a couple of inches on him. The biggest difference between us was our girth. At well over four hundred pounds, Moe would only balance a scale with me if my clone stood alongside. Moe didn't let his weight hold him back in any way. For a big man, he had a surprising swagger, and he dressed well. Women were attracted to him, and he never seemed to lack companionship. But for some reason, Mama B didn't like him. She claimed he had too many teeth. As far as I could tell, he had the same number of teeth as every other adult. But he did smile a lot, which is more than likely what made her distrust him. His call into the ministry came at an opportune time. Three months ago, our pastor, Reverend Hilton V. Hamilton, had a heart attack and needed to take it easy. Three sermons each week were deemed too many, and Reverend Hamilton had to slow down. The church elders asked Moe to step in and ease the load.
The mood was understandably somber today. During the reading of the announcements, the church clerk got choked up over a statement expressing the congregation's loss at the death of Thomas Warrendale. Reverend Hamilton always shared a few inspirational words after the announcements and before the first offering, and he spoke quietly of the loss the church felt and said funeral arrangements would be announced soon. All in all, the church had taken a low-key approach. Nothing shocking or, pardon the pun, incendiary had been communicated, although I had been hearing rumors of Warrendale's lascivious behavior from Mama B for the past nine months. The unexpected death of the church's choir director was being handled calmly, quietly, and carefully. So, it was surprising to hear Moe Chapman declare the title of his sermon, "The Wages of Sin Are Death." From his shocked expression, Reverend Hamilton was clearly as surprised as the congregation. The shuffling, shifting, and whispering stopped, and everyone settled in for what promised to be an exciting sermon.
I looked toward the pulpit at Reverend Hamilton, a wise old man whose gray, thinning hair, worry lines, and scars showed he'd been through hard times. Despite the obvious wear and tear on his body, a kindness shone from those intent brown eyes. Only those closest to him knew how it pained him to step aside and leave his flock in someone else's hands.
Moe Chapman never actually said Thomas Warrendale's name at any point in his twenty-minute sermon. But references to Lucifer's beauty and angelic voice seemed to especially point to the handsome, golden-voiced choir director. Moe Chapman was a charismatic man who was more of a preacher than a teacher, a style that contrasted sharply with Reverend Hamilton. They also differed in their portrayal of God. Reverend Hamilton taught the congregation about the love and forgiveness of God our Father, while Moe Chapman preached on the vengeance of God. Mama B looked as though she was about to burst. This was going to be the talk of the congregation, and Mama B loved to talk. If you wanted to know what was really going on in the church, in the neighborhood, or in the town, all you had to do was spend a little time sitting on Mama B's front porch. And that was my plan after the service.
Following the sermon, Reverend Hamilton "opened the doors of the church," which is Baptist-speak for extending the invitation to accept Christ into your life. This was followed by baptism, communion, and benediction.
There was only about thirty minutes in between the completion of the early service and the start of the next one, so I hurried downstairs to have a quick word with Reverend Hamilton. When I got to the office that was carved out for him in the basement of the church, I could see through the glass door that he wasn't alone. Nevertheless, he waved for me to enter.
"RJ, it's good to see you," Reverend Hamilton said as we shook hands. "How're you feeling? How is the knee?"
"I'm fine." My tone was sharper than necessary, but it had been six months since my accident, and I was tired of fielding questions, no matter how well intended. "How are you, Moe ... uh, I mean, Reverend Chapman?" It was hard to adjust to the new title after so many years of calling him just Moe, Mama B had told me he felt it was disrespectful when people didn't use it. That was probably why she never included the title when referring to him.
"Blessed." Moe flashed his toothy grin. "I'm blessed, Brother Franklin, and highly favored of God." Ever since he'd received his call, his conversation was littered with inane phrases like this.
"RJ, I was hoping to have a word with you, but it looks like it will have to wait." Reverend Hamilton frowned. "Perhaps we can talk later."
"I look forward to it."
The basement of the church was starting to fill with people, choir members getting ready for the next service and children heading for Sunday school. I made my excuses and my exit.
Waiting for a break in the crowd, I made a dash for the door. If dodging hugs, kisses, and handshakes was an Olympic event, I could be a gold medalist. On a good day, I could be sitting at home eating a burger before the pastor finished shaking hands with all the parishioners. But today I was in no hurry. I lingered on the front porch of the church and listened to the whispered questions flying around. Several people brought their newspapers with them. Most were shocked by the death. There weren't a lot of personal details in the newspaper, so the theories whispered on the church steps included everything from arson to a methlab explosion. No facts. With the second service starting soon, the church-porch crowd thinned, and I made my way across the street to the parking lot.
Mama B lived only two blocks from the church on what can only be described as an alley. Few houses remained standing on either side of the narrow, graveled path. Most were partially burned and boarded-up shells where the homeless sometimes took refuge during the cold winter months. The buildings that hadn't been torn down were falling down of their own accord. The absence of street lights left the alley pitch-black once night fell. Normal people didn't like the looks of that alley, but Mama B wasn't normal. She didn't even think twice about walking through there day or night. To make mail delivery easier, the post office gave the alley a name, even though Mama B's house was the only one on "Columbia Court."
Within thirty minutes of the benediction, I sat on the front porch waving as various members of the congregation drove by and Mama B changed out of her Sunday best and put on something cool and comfy. Even from the front porch, the aroma of Sunday dinner worked its magic. I could almost taste the fried corn, collard greens, and hot water cornbread with fried pork chops. It was my favorite dinner, and she knew it, God love her.
Even if I hadn't been hungry enough to eat a small cow, I would still have shoveled the food down with gusto. I knew the cook well, and I'd eaten here before. After the second service got out, half the congregation would stop by to say "hey" and talk about the goings on. I was determined to get at least one plate down before the onslaught.
The first visitor to arrive at Mama B's was Laura Leigh Jackson. Laura Leigh was a forty-something Southern maid. Mama B had taken her in like an adopted daughter. Unfortunately, I always felt Laura Leigh had a more intimate relationship planned for me, so I never felt completely comfortable around her. I could hear her biological clock ticking like a time bomb. It wasn't that Laura Leigh wasn't attractive. She was close to six feet tall and slender, with long legs and a very pleasant, soft-spoken personality. She wore her hair in a short afro, and her skin was what Mama B referred to as high yellow.
"Laura Leigh, come in and have some supper," Mama B yelled from the back of the house.
I tried to sound polite and a little distant. "How're you?"
"Good," Laura Leigh said in her West Georgia accent. "I thought I saw you at early service this mornin', but I knew that couldn't be right."
"Why the surprise?"
Laura Leigh laughed. "I didn't say I was surprised, but I think you were about twelve the last time I saw you at early service."
She was probably right.
Mama B was still yelling from the kitchen, "Sis Green really tore up that song, didn't she?"
"She sure did," Laura Leigh yelled so Mama B could hear her. She made herself at home on the sofa.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Travellin' Shoes"
Copyright © 2018 V.M. Burns.
Excerpted by permission of Camel Press.
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