Death and the Crossed Wires
A Trudy Roundtree Mystery
Linda BerryChapter 1
Methodists and Baptists have different opinions about whether a person has to be completely submerged in water for a baptism to be scriptural, or, since it’s pretty much symbolic anyway—not involving the River Jordan, John the Baptist, or Jesus in his human form—if it’s okay to get by with a sprinkling of water.
I’m not a theologian, but I will say this: I’ve never heard of a Methodist minister being electrocuted in the process, which is what had happened to Josh Easterling, part-time youth pastor at the Ogeechee Baptist Church, in front of all two hundred or so people who had come that beautiful hot June Sunday morning intending to see Crys Cleary baptized, hear a rousing but not too accusatory sermon, and then adjourn to the fellowship hall for a potluck dinner and ice cream social.
I was on the scene shortly after the electrocution, not because I’m a Baptist—I’m not—but because I’m a police officer. I’m Trudy Roundtree, the first and still the only female on the Ogeechee police force. The reason I broke the barrier is that the police chief’s mother (my aunt Lulu) and our mutual grandmother (Jessie Roundtree) had brought pressure to bear on my cousin (Henry Huckabee), who is the Chief of Police. They threatened to quit making banana pudding and cornbread for Hen. Under this pressure, he overcame his instinctive feeling that as a female relative I should be under his protection, and caved in, even though it would mean he’d be required to expose me to the seamier elements of life and send me into danger. Not that the streets of Ogeechee are especially mean most days, but you never know.
The police had been summoned to the church, along with an ambulance, by a quick-thinking deacon, Bobby Turner, who was an ex-Marine and knew an emergency when he saw one. He saw one when poor Josh Easterling started twitching, fell backwards into the water-filled baptistry, and didn’t come back up.
The sanctuary had been decorated with peace and tranquility in mind—dark pews, forest green carpeting down the aisles, enormous brass chandelier over the dais, and tall stained-glass windows along both sides depicting scenes from the life of Christ—but confusion was in control. It would be a while before peace would reclaim the space.
Showing admirable presence of mind—or possibly an equally admirable knee-jerk impulse to do something devout in the paralyzingly horrible situation—Branch Harden, the senior pastor, had moved everybody to the back of the sanctuary, away from the baptistry, for intense and heartfelt prayer for divine aid while Bobby Turner administered CPR and they all waited for earthly help.
Now, an hour or so later, Hen was at the front of the church with deacon and hero Bobby Turner, Mrs. Harden, and the EMT squad, watching over the removal of Josh Easterling and surveying the scene, forming his opinions as to what could have lead to the “accident.” The horrified witnesses had the privilege of calling it an accident. A good policeman—and Hen is a very good policeman—has to treat any unattended death (that is, unattended by a doctor—two hundred worshipful witnesses don’t qualify) as a homicide until it is proved otherwise. It does no good to decide after a scene has been sanitized that it would have been a good idea to go over it and look for evidence.
Notwithstanding the officially neutral police attitude regarding what had happened and why, only the nearsighted or most blindly optimistic had any doubt that they had witnessed the death of their young youth pastor.
Officer Jerome Sharpe and I had finished taking names and trying to decide who among the congregation might have something useful to tell us about what had happened, something more useful than: “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” “It’s the awfullest thing I ever saw,” and the ever-popular “He was so young! He had his whole life in front of him.”
Officer Jerome Sharpe has all the size and authority of a freight train. People take one look and decide there’s no point in arguing with him about whatever it is he wants them to do. He had used his deep, rumbling, freight-train voice to calm the masses and cut loose the ones who had nothing to contribute but hysteria, encouraging them to do their weeping and wailing in private, or at least in smaller groups, away from the church. We’d narrowed the crowd considerably and retreated to a quieter, less emotionally charged part of the church complex.
So, instead of being in the midst of a hysterical crowd or a happy bunch of casserole-filled connoisseurs who, bypassing commercial products, would have been rolling spoonfuls of homemade ice cream on their tongues and trying to guess whether this was the recipe that used sweetened condensed milk, or whether Agnesanne Porter had used freezer peaches instead of some of the new crop, or if Harl Edwards had gone a little too heavy on the vanilla this time, there were only five of us in the fellowship hall, a large room at the back of the main building: Jerome Sharpe, Evan Saddler, Crys Cleary, Howard Cleary, and me.
In times of stress, people are easily confused. It’s good procedure to interview witnesses while the event is fresh in their minds. Given a little time, purely innocently, they will begin making up reasonable, logical things to fill in the gaps in what they actually did see or hear, trying to impose some sense onto a senseless event. It’s even worse when they’ve had a chance to talk to other witnesses, who’ve done the same thing. They can all be swayed by what other people say into thinking they saw something they didn’t see.
So we divided them up. Jerome led Evan Saddler to one corner of the room and was overwhelming one of the folding chairs that had been set out for the ice cream social. Evan was the person in charge of the sound system for the First Baptist Church of Ogeechee, Georgia. Like Crys, he was a high school student. It would take Jerome at his relaxed, friendly best to calm Evan down enough to find out if he had any ideas about what had happened.
I sat across the room from Jerome and Evan, with Crys Cleary, the girl whose baptism had been so brutally interrupted, and Howard Cleary, her grandfather and guardian.
A pretty girl, slim, brown-haired, she looked a bit like a medieval peasant or a mystic in the white robe she was wearing for the baptism. She seemed bewildered and unfocused, understandable in the circumstances. Crys had been the person standing nearest to Josh Easterling when he picked up the microphone and underwent the shock that killed him.
Howard Cleary had broken with his well-known pagan tradition and shown up to witness this important event in Crys’s life. Howard, also known as “How Come?,” or “Howcum,” because of his habit of questioning established truths and customs—as in “How come those fat cats in Washington
can’t . . .?”writes a weekly column for The Ogeechee Beacon. The Beacon’s publisher and guiding light—my own guiding light, if you want to know—Phil Pittman, refers (but not in print) to Howard’s column as “Howcum’s Rant,” since Howard can generate five hundred words of off-the-wall opinion, at the drop of a hat, on subjects as wide-ranging as leash laws, UFOs, tattoos, and the best time to spray for soybean rust. Usually he manages to take a position nobody else would have thought of. Phil’s attitude toward Howard is amusement. Phil says Howard’s column is popular because readers like getting mad with Howard over issues that take their minds off really big problems or things they could actually do something about. Howard seems to thrive on stirring things up, and the column gives him plenty of that kind of affirmation, but today all that blustery, edgy cantankerousness was absent. He’d pulled his chair close to Crys’s, put his arm around her, and was doing a good job of keeping his mouth shut.
Crys was nearly as white as her robe, her brown eyes the size of silver dollars darting here and there as if in an effort to find answers to the questions that had only now quit tumbling out of her mouth: “What happened?” (It looks like Josh Easterling got electrocuted.) “Is Pastor Josh okay?” (No.) “If he’s not okay, why am I okay?” (Because you weren’t in the water.) “Am I okay?” (I expect you will be.)
Like Jerome’s job with Evan, my job with Crys was to settle her down and see if she had anything useful to say. It was tempting to ask leading questions, based on cartoon depictions of electric shock. Did she see sparks? Did his hair stand on end? Did his eyes bug out? I controlled the impulse.
“How are you doing?” I asked her.
“How do you think she’s doing?” Howard asked.
“I didn’t get shocked or anything,” Crys answered, but she looked like she was in shock. Even as she spoke to me in a soft, hesitant voice, her gaze wandered, her fingers plucked at her robe. “Can I go get dressed now?”
“Not yet,” I said quickly, glaring at Howard to keep him from weighing in again. I don’t usually have a lot of luck at the intimidation game, partly because I’m female and several inches short of six feet tall, and partly because people like Howard Cleary, who have lived in Ogeechee all my life, if not all their lives, remember me as a child. No, for intimidation, Jerome Sharpe, five foot eighteen or so, is much more effective. But this time Howard merely nodded at me, patted Crys’s shoulder, and subsided. I took that as evidence that he was as shaken up over what had happened as everybody else.
“I’ll make this as quick as I can,” I said, “but I need to try to find out what happened while it’s fresh in your mind. Just tell me what happened the best you can.”
She shivered, and her unfocused eyes might have been looking backward, or inward, or through the far wall as she spoke. She grabbed a handful of white robe and clenched it. “I was watching him so I’d know when to go to down into the water. I was nervous, so I was watching him. And he . . . he reached for the mike . . . it wasn’t pointed right, or something, and he reached for it and . . .”
“And what?” I prompted.
She jerked, as if surprised to see me. “I don’t know. All of a sudden he started . . . twitching. Twitching.” She shivered again and leaned against her grandfather. He . . .”
When she spoke, it was so softly I had to lean closer in order to hear. “First I thought he was maybe like kidding around, and then I realized he wouldn’t kid around about something like that, solemn and sacred, I mean. I mean right there in the baptistry and all and in front of . . .”
Howard cleared his throat and squeezed her shoulder.
Crys took a deep breath and sat up straight again before continuing. “I didn’t know what was happening. And he just sort of slipped under the water . . .”
I was getting used to her pauses, so I waited.
“And then Mr. Turner was yelling and then the lights went out.” She let her breath out in a whoosh and closed her eyes.
“Bobby Turner took charge,” Howard explained. “He was pretty quick on the uptake. Yelled for the kid to unplug the mike and somebody to pull the breakers, and he made sure nobody went in after Josh before that happened. Told me to call nine-one-one, which I did.”
“And then what?” I asked.
Again it was Howard who answered, which was fine. He was likely to be a better witness to this part than Crys would have been.
“Bobby got him out of the water and started CPR. Kept at it till the ambulance got here. Pretty obvious it wasn’t doing any good, but he kept at it.”
“What about you?” I asked Crys. “What did you do?”
“Nothing, I guess. I was like frozen or something. I stayed there on the steps down to the baptistry, waiting for somebody to tell me what to do. I kept thinking things would get back to normal, I guess.”
“The preacher’s wife brought her to me,” Howard said.
“Oh, yeah. Mrs. Harden was helping me get ready,” Crys said. “She was waiting with me, with a towel for after.” She managed a weak smile. “I was nervous. People probably get nervous, and then with Pastor Josh . . . I was scared and didn’t know what to do. Do people usually get scared? Is it part of her job to calm people down?”
I thought that was a rhetorical question, but Howard answered. “Lots of people probably want to back out at the last minute, and she’s there to keep ’em from it.” It sounded like he was recovering from shock and was getting back to his normal irascible self.
Howard’s comment had the effect of calming Crys, or at least re-directing her thoughts. “Gramp didn’t really want me to do it,” she explained, “so maybe I was extra nervous because of that. Anyway, Mrs. Harden grabbed me when Pastor Josh started . . . when he . . . . She grabbed me.”
“Kept Crys out of the water. Probably saved her life,” Howard said. “Raynell Harden had more of a job today than she bargained for.”
Crys gave him a little smile and grabbed another handful of the white fabric in her lap.
“Okay,” I said. “I guess that’s all for now. Thanks, Crys. You go on home now. This was a terrible experience. I’m sorry. Let your granddaddy pamper you a little bit.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said.
“That’s my best reason for living,” Howard said, taking hold of her arm to help her up. For once, I didn’t get the faintest whiff of sarcasm or irony in what Howard said. Howard was widowed—and childless, since the death of Crys’s father. He’d probably been speaking the plain truth.
Howard kept a firm grip on Crys as they walked out. I joined Jerome and Evan, noticing that Evan was paying more attention to Crys’s departing form than he was to Jerome or me. He was probably wishing he was leaving with her, that the last hour had never happened, that all he had to worry about was how to get the attention of a girl he liked.
“Evan and I were talking about what passes for a sound system here,” Jerome said, “and Evan was trying to help me understand how it works. You got any questions for him?”
“I’m not big on electronics,” I said.
“Give him a try,” Jerome invited.
“Well, for starters, I thought most microphones these days weren’t really electric, just little portable things, that wouldn’t—couldn’t—carry a charge. Certainly not enough of a charge to do what was done to your pastor,” I said.
“Yes, ma’am, you’re right, they are. Most of ’em are, but that’s not the kind we have, except for the clip-on one Reverend Harden uses. There’s a hardwired microphone up where the pastor stands when he’s giving the sermon, the kind you’re talking about, but you can’t move it around, so then we have this one on a cord for when people want to talk from someplace else.”
“And it’s your job to . . . what?”
“It’s not much of a job. I sort of try to adjust the volume for like the choir and the pastor. And when we need the other mike, the one with the cord, like we did today, I get it out and put it in the holder there in front of the baptistry.”
“When was the last time you used this particular mike?” I asked.
“I don’t know for sure. We don’t use it much.”
“Not havin’ a lot of baptisms?” Jerome asked leaning back and causing a protest from his chair.
“Not a lot, no.”
“Tell her about the amplifier,” Jerome prompted.
Evan had been doing pretty well so far, which I attributed to Jerome’s calming influence and the fact that they’d probably already been over most of what I’d asked. His hair was sticking out in all directions, but I knew that was the style, caused by gel, not stress or electricity. Now he squirmed and dropped his gaze to the floor. He didn’t want to talk about the amplifier.
“Oh. Yeah. Okay. When we use that mike, I’m supposed to put it where whoever wants it can reach it. It just kind of sits there in the holder until we’re ready for it, and then I plug it into the amplifier.” He looked up as if to see if we were understanding. I nodded. “You don’t want it hot all the time,” he continued, “because it picks up all kinds of noise, people coughing and papers rattling and that kind of stuff.”
“Got it,” I said. “So you’re saying the mike was dead until you plugged it in?”
Evan started picking at the skin around his right thumbnail. He looked miserable. “Dead. Yes, ma’am.” After a pause, “It’s really old? Maybe that’s what caused it? Something got old or something?”
“We’ll try to find out,” Jerome said. He caught my eye and I nodded.
“We’re through here, Evan,” Jerome said. “We’ll get back to you if we need anything else. Thanks for your help.”
“You’re welcome,” Evan said, and wasted no time getting out of there.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Says he was watching the preacher for the signal to plug in the mike, which he did, then he wasn’t looking at the preacher any more. Which I believe. If he’d been looking in that direction at all, he’d’ve been looking at the girl, or looking for her, to see when she came into sight going down the steps into the baptistry. Not exactly a space case, but he is a teenager. He says there was some kind of static in the amplifier and a burning smell, but he didn’t think about that until later. What I think is he wasn’t paying much attention to anything till the sparks started flying and the amp started sputtering.”
“Did he have anything else to say about the equipment?”
“He’s a kid. Knows everything. Says the church keeps putting off getting new equipment. Wants to spend the money on less important things like a new roof and helping foreign missionaries take the gospel to southeast Asia.”
“This is a church, after all, not a big corporation,” I said. “We might have guessed the equipment would not be state of the art.”
“Be a miracle if it was,” Jerome agreed. “Patched up and worn out, if I know anything. Rotten shame.”
We found Hen, Bobby Turner, and the Rev. Branch Harden and his wife, Raynell, standing in the parking lot watching as Josh Easterling’s body—bagged, tagged, and wrapped up for its trip to Atlanta and the requisite autopsy—was sliding into the hearse.
Hen, Jerome, and I were in our short-sleeved summer uniforms, but the heat and humidity of the June weather made me wish for something even lighter. Bobby Turner, in a golf shirt still damp from his efforts to save Easterling, was probably the most comfortable person in the group.
Harden, the “regular pastor,” had shucked out of his suit coat, revealing a white short-sleeved shirt. With his customary bow tie in place, and with his usual air of confidence replaced by stark confusion, he looked more like an old-timey general store clerk who’d found a rat in the cracker barrel than a pastor. As Jerome and I approached, he was running his hand back and forth through his sparse curly brown hair and saying, “Lord knows, this is just about the worst thing I’ve had to deal with in all my years in the ministry. Don’t know where to start.”
Mrs. Harden was holding his coat and shivering in spite of the heat and the fact that she was wearing a lightweight dress and sandals that revealed toes with pale pink nails showing through her pantyhose. Even with the hose, which I’d have skipped in the heat, she had to be cooler than he was. Women do have the best of some things. Maybe the shivering had more to do with shock than temperature. She brushed tears from her red-rimmed eyes and reached for her husband’s hand. The pastor was pale, not teary, but clearly shaken.
“Start with yourself,” Hen advised. He’s never short of advice. If he’d been around, he’d probably have felt comfortable advising the Lord God on creation. Comes of being an only son of an adoring mother, not to mention the Big Chief of Po-lice. “Preach yourself a sermon about trusting the Lord and serving your fellow man, and it’ll all come together for you,” Hen said. “In the meantime, you got a lot of work to do. And you better call off your services for this evening. We’re gonna make sure your church is locked up, and I don’t want anybody in there till I say so. Don’t want anybody else getting hurt.”
Mrs. Harden made an odd gurgling sound.
The idea of doing his job, which was surely to comfort and counsel his stricken congregation, seemed to brace the distraught minister. He shook hands with Bobby Turner. “Don’t know how to thank you for taking charge, Bobby. If you hadn’t kept your head, we’d probably still be in there trying to think of the phone number for nine-one-one.”
“That’s my training kicking in,” Turner said, shaking his head and offering a weak smile to acknowledge the pastor’s attempt to lighten things up. “Just wish it had made a difference.”
Turner left. The pastor shook hands with the rest of us and then, taking his wife’s hand, ambled off toward his home at the far side of the lot where the church stood. Mrs. Harden’s voice faded away as they walked. “I’ll get us some dinner first. Then we can figure out what to do. Probably get the phone tree going to cancel . . .”
“Mmm, mmm,” Hen said, watching them go. He handed Jerome a bag. “Get somebody to look at this microphone.”
“Yes, sir, Chief. You think we’re goin’ to have to arrest the First Baptist Church for criminally negligent microphone maintenance resulting in death?”
“Never hear the end of it if we do,” Hen said. “We’ll probably just settle for tragic accident. Miz Harden says she’ll see the poor man twitching every time she closes her eyes for the rest of her life. The reverend says Josh was a real spark plug.”
“He did not,” I protested.
Hen grinned. “No, come to think of it, what he said was that young Josh was well-beloved and had brought a lot of energy to the youth program here. He will be sorely missed.”
“That’s more like it.”
“Y’all learn anything?” Hen asked.
“All I learned is that Howard Cleary isn’t all crust. He’s a softie where Crys is concerned,” I told him. “What about you?”
“Our would-be hero of the day, Bobby Turner, says the boy, Evan, didn’t have the sense to unplug the thing, just stood there goggling.”
“One of the older women said it took everybody a while to realize what had happened,” Jerome said. “She said she saw him, the victim, waving his arms and everything, but thought it was probably one of his dramatizations about the electrifying power of Jesus or something. Sounded to me like she thought he was a little too much of a sparkplug for First Baptist Church of Ogeechee.”
“Good Lord Almighty! Bobby Turner deserves more credit than I’d been givin’ him,” Hen said. “I hope somebody buys him dinner today. You learn anything from talking to the boy?”
“Evan Saddler,” Jerome said. “Gave us a rundown on the equipment. Kid’s a mess. Took me a while to get him settled down. Nervous, wasn’t he, Trudy?”
“I can understand that,” I answered. “Probably thinks we’re going to blame him. Nervous, yes.”
“We’ll have to see about that,” Hen said. “You think it was guilty nervous?”
I looked at Jerome and shrugged.
“Guilty of something,” Jerome said. “Maybe lusting after that angel girl, Crys, right there in the church.”
“Oh, good Lord!” Hen said.