"Bless me Father for I have sinned."
Father Frank DeLuca waited in the dark behind the screen of the Prince of Peace confessional. The voice sounded familiar, like he should know the person but he quickly wiped that thought from his mind. He did not want to know who it was.
When nothing more came, he said, "How long has it been since you last took the Sacrament of Reconciliation?"
"Ah, I don't remember. Kind of a long time."
"Is there something in particular that has brought you back today?"
Finally, "I knew about the fire Thursday."
Thursday. Father Frank's mind searched through the events of two days ago. "You mean the Pine Valley Baptist Church? That fire?"
"Yes, Father." Then he quickly added, "I didn't set it or nothin'."
When the boy did not continue, Father Frank said, "But...?"
"I knew it was going to happen. And I didn't tell nobody, uh, anybody. I mean, I didn't tell the police."
Father Frank furrowed his eyebrows and ran a hand through his black, curly hair. He hadn't heard if the fire had been classified as arson or an accident. "Do you mean you knew someone was going to set fire to the church before it happened?"
Father Frank's mind raced down several paths at once. As a rule, the priest tried not to recognize any penitent. Tonight, with news of the arson, his mind inadvertently associated the voice with a name - Sammie Winters. Did someone tell the boy they were going to burn a church? Did he have a vision or premonition? Sammie didn't seem the type. Had he heard someone talking about it? "How do you know this?"
The teenager remained quiet for a moment before answering, almost in a whisper. "I, uh, I heard someone say they were going to burn a church."
"Why didn't you tell the authorities?"
"I couldn't. Uh - you don't understand. I just couldn't."
The priest closed his eyes and rested his forehead in his hands, suddenly weary. Could the fire have been prevented? He took a deep breath. He was supposed to give guidance. He raised his head.
"You're right, I don't understand. But God will. Talk to Him. Tell him you're sorry for your sins, and say a Rosary for the people who lost their church."
"I absolve you from all your sins." Father Frank made a sign of the cross. "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."
The priest cleared his throat. "There is one other thing. Since you know who committed the crime, you really should tell the police. Now. If you don't, this is going to weigh on you like a lead warm-up jacket. You have information that can help the police solve a crime. You have an obligation to tell them."
The boy said nothing but Father Frank heard the door open and close. Sammie was gone.
The priest sat in the darkness, eyes wide open, as he hoped no one else came into the confessional tonight. Sammie Winters knew Pine Valley Baptist had been arson. He probably also knew the name of the arsonist. Why wouldn't he tell the police?
The priest sighed. Maybe Sammie was more involved than he indicated. Maybe he pushed someone into setting the fire. What was the extent of his participation? Sammie didn't seem like the type to be involved in serious crime. He seemed like a good kid, and attended mass every Sunday with his parents. Yet, some connection existed be-tween Sammie and the arson. Father Frank shook his head. Maybe he didn't know Sammie that well since he wasn't involved in any church activities. Nice looking kid, about fifteen. What had he gotten himself into?
Even now Father Frank could see the inferno - red and orange flames with yellow tongues flickering, roaring, stretching upward, trying to reach the tall pine trees that towered over the white frame church. He could feel the heat, pulsing on the breeze. First hot, then warm, then hot again, lest you forget it was consuming a building. He could hear the frustration of those trying to save something - firemen who were losing the battle, parishioners who were losing their church, and Reverend Fisher, wringing his hands, almost in tears. Just a month ago, he had celebrated his twentieth year as the minister of Pine Valley Baptist.
The church burned to the ground.
At least no one was killed. Allan Moore, one of the volunteer firefighters, had sustained serious burns when he tripped and fell on live coals. Maybe all of that could have been avoided if Sammie had told the police what he had known before the fire was set. Father Frank said a quick prayer that Pine Valley Baptist would rebound, rebuild, and use this misfortune to draw closer to God. And the priest prayed that Sammie would go to the police and tell what he knew.
Father Frank guessed the crowd of gawkers to be over fifty. He'd been there too, watching the firemen struggle to put out the fire and work to see it didn't spread to adjoining properties. He had felt a deep loss, watching a house of God being destroyed, not knowing what he could do.
He felt the same way now. What could he do? He shook his head in the solitude of the confessional. Nothing. The seal of confession prevented him from telling anybody, even the police, what he had heard from Sammie.
And yet, how could he do nothing? Someone had destroyed a church. Not his church but a Christian church, and that was like a cousin being attacked.
Murder a Cappella, a book James and one of his daughters, Diane Bailey, wrote together is due out in March. It's a mystery, set during the International Competition of the Sweet Adelines (women who sing barbershop harmony). It will be published by Wayside Press, an imprint of Written World Communications. Visit the book's website by clicking here.
Details for the contract on another mystery are currently being negotiated. Check back for more information on this new mystery.