By James P. Hanley

After lightening struck nearby and knocked Reverend Russ Myerby unconscious, he woke with the gift of prophesy, he claimed, but his doomsday prediction proved wrong, and Myerby wouldn't foresee his own death by a bullet.

* * *

"The end of the world is in two months," he told his congregation of the Foundation Church of Southern Maryland. "Prepare for the rapture; rid yourselves of useless, worldly things; spread the warning." The members shouted amen — the ecclesiastic applause — and the fired-up congregation poured out on a mission. Soon, the prognostication was reported by the Overtown News, followed by state and even national press, although more with factitiousness and ridicule.

"They'll get their comeuppance when the day comes. What is the day?" Harold Fenney, the church treasurer, asked on Tuesday at the church office.

"July 24th," Myerby declared. "It came to me that night. When I was deep in meditation, an angel appeared with the date on a stretched out parchment, and he soon disappeared into the heavens."

Just then, Mark Coleman, the town plumber, came in and asked to speak to the reverend. In his early sixties, Coleman was a brawny man with hands that were wide from turning reluctant pipes and rusted plumbing. As he sat in the pastor's study, tears filled his eyes.

"I need to make up for my sinful life, of overcharging customers and using inferior products. Not much time left." He reached across the desk and handed the surprised minister a check for eighty thousands dollars.

Myerby overcame the shock and said, "Bless you, Mark. You've paid your way to heaven. This money will be used to proclaim the end times and some will be saved from eternal damnation because of your generosity." He called out to the church treasurer, "We're going to run full-page ads in every paper in the area, even the nationals. Big ad in the Washington Post." His enthusiasm was rising. "And Harold, check into the cost of a commercial on WHHF TV."

The media blitz increased the attention on Myerby's prediction and he was quoted often on how the rapture would take place. His fervent followers hung on his every word during the weekly service and many stepped forward to help spread the word.

Late one Thursday, Myerby was walking through town and saw a member of his congregation, Steve Rhodes, marching up and down with a placard warning of impending doom. The reverend approached him and said, "What you are doing is commendable. I hope your employer appreciates how you use your days off."

"I quit," Steve said proudly. "What's the sense? Don't need the money, for now anyway, and what good is building cabinets when no one will be here to use them."

"Well, bless you, Brother Steve; you'll be making cabinets in the kingdom."

The next day, an angry woman paced in front of the preacher's office until he invited her in. Leona Holton was a recent convert who seemed to have joined the fellowship to please her fiancé. A petit, stocky woman with a dominating personality and iron will, she sat across from the reverend, red-faced and anxious to talk.

"How is Matt?" Myerby asked about her betrothed.

"I wouldn't know," she answered. Her words, which came through clenched teeth, were barely audible. "He dumped me because I didn't believe your trash talk about the end of the world. Mentioned something about not being in the same yoke and some other stupid notions. He said I wasn't much of a believer but thought he had time to convert me — until your prediction. You know Claudette Ronens; well, she has ears like antenna, and she corralled him, telling him she wants to be in eternity with him. She may get there sooner than she expects."

"I'm real sorry about all that has happened to you. What can I do to help?"

"You need to talk to Matt and tell him you were wrong, that nothing's going to happen on July 24th. He'll come back to me and we can proceed with the wedding."

"I can't do that. It is true."

Leona stood up and growled, "You will be sorry, too."

* * *

On July 24th, Reverend Myerby got out of bed early, and looking out his bedroom window, saw high, dark clouds sweep across the sky and smother the waking sun. Smiling, he sat in his plush chair waiting for the rapture. At midnight, still in his pajamas from the night before, he stared at the clock, watching the luminous dial announce the beginning of July 25th. Running around the house to verify the time, he sunk into the living room couch, burying his head in his hands.

By noon, the phone rang constantly at the church and his home. The jokes spread across late night television and the newspapers. Congregants gathered at the church door for explanation, but the reverend went into hiding. He wouldn't answer the phones or emails after sending a brief email to his followers and the press that he needed time to pray about what had gone wrong. A few days later, he announced that he'd figured it out, and would explain in Sunday services.

Saturday evening, county police found the reverend's body inside the church office, a bullet hole in the center of his chest.

* * *

By late the next day, news trucks and reporters invaded the town. Mocking headlines covered front pages: Pastor was raptured — solo. The attention was beyond the county's ability to handle and state authorities were contacted to help, including the Maryland State Troopers.

Assigned to the murder was Detective Gary Rygh — an experienced, blunt officer who had just handled one of the most high-profile cases in the region, balancing good police work with controlling the hungry press. Rygh also lived in a town twelve miles east of Overton. With a reputation of burning out partners, he worked mostly alone.

Calling the coroner, he learned little about the preacher's death but was promised more information as soon as possible. "He was moved — slightly," the physician said. "There was a line of blood from the wound as if he was on his side after getting shot; then he was likely laid flat and the remaining bleeding left a dark circle. When I first saw the body, he looked peaceful." The first stop for the detective was the parsonage to meet with the minister's widow. Eleanor Myerby was a small, tidy woman dressed in a simple dress and sensible shoes. Her unadorned face showed signs of grief and sleeplessness.

"I've read about the predictions and about people who gave up everything, so I'm not going to ask if he had enemies, but was anyone upset enough to harm your husband?" Rygh asked.

Mrs. Myerby wrinkled her forehead as she thought, and suddenly, her eyes widened and the lines disappeared from her brow. "Mr. Coleman gave all his money to the reverend, and the day after the end didn't occur, he called in a fury, asking to speak to the pastor. I passed the phone along, but I could hear the man's shouting from the next room, and when I peeked in, the reverend was holding the receiver away from his ear."

"Anyone else?"

I heard that Leona Holton blamed the reverend for the cancelation of her wedding."

"I have to ask you some personal questions," Rygh began as a preamble, "did your husband have much money, or a large life insurance policy?"

"Oh, my," she said with a sigh, "Pastor left me nothing. Didn't think we needed retirement savings or life insurance. Can't take it with you, he'd say."

When Rygh went to see Leona Holton, he found her pacing and still very angry.

"That bastard! He destroyed my relationship with Matt with all that nonsense about the world ending."

Rygh asked her a series of questions, including her whereabouts on the night of the murder. Eventually, he said, "Do you own a gun?"

Leona face contorted as if she'd been slapped. "How dare you! Are you accusing me of murder?"

"I'm simply asking if you have a weapon. Are you surprised you're on the list of suspects?" Rygh pursed his lips as if to suck back the words.

"I don't have a gun," she said coldly, "and I wouldn't throw my life away for revenge." Her tone changed to a haughty pitch, "Besides, I have a new boyfriend — an atheist."

By the end of the day, Rygh had visited three other individuals who, he learned, were vocal in their anger about the false prediction. Back at the office, he sat at his desk, jotting down notes when his wife called, asking when he'd be home.

"In about an hour. I'm just finishing up paperwork."

"How's it going?"

Rygh chuckled. "The list of pissed off people is growing. His wife never uses his first name when she talks about him, calls him reverend or pastor, and a woman claims his declaration ended her marriage hopes, although she has a new boyfriend already — which I don't believe."

"Where are you getting the list of suspects from?" she asked. Dee Rygh was a former cop.

"The wife, and the preacher's secretary, who's been very helpful. We've spoken over the phone and I'm meeting her tomorrow."

"Be home soon; I'm making your favorite."

The following morning, Rygh went to the church office in a wing off the sanctuary. Sarah Robeson was a striking woman with blue eyes and cream-blond hair. Her dress was modest but not enough to shield her shapely form and long legs. As she stood to greet Rygh, she smiled and shook his hand from a distance a bit closer than he was accustomed.

"Ms. Robeson, you've been a big help..."

"Sarah, please call me Sarah," she interrupted.

"Sarah," he continued, "I need a list of all church members and anything you can tell me about them that might be applicable."

"A lot of the church members are elderly, not the physical type," she said.

"It doesn't take much strength to pull a trigger. Was there anything in his personal life that you might be aware of and maybe his wife doesn't even know, like," Rygh stammered, "an affair?"

"You don't think I would engage in..." her voice was high-pitched.

"No, not you, but perhaps someone in the congregation. There could be a jealous husband, for example."

Her tone turned to concrete, "A minister has to lead a life above all that; higher standard, you know."

"I also need to know who made large donations, especially after the prediction."

"Our treasurer keeps those records and he's out of town. I'll ask him for the information when he's back next week."

"Is there anyone else I should talk to?"

"I got a call from Steve Rhodes the day after the doomsday date, and he was crying on the phone. He'd quit his job to spread the word, and he's in deep financial problems."

"I'll follow-up. Did you believe in Myerby's prediction?"

"He was very fervent and very convincing."

"Did you donate?"

"Detective, how much do you think a secretary earns in a small church?"

When Rygh went to the Rhodes home, he was struck by the unkempt appearance of the front and side yard — grass, intermixed with tall weeds, swayed by the light wind like wheat. Toys and tools littered the front porch. As if anticipating the police, a gaunt woman in an unpressed cotton dress came quickly out the front door.

"He's not here," she said before Rygh questioned.

"Do you know where he is?"

The woman's voice quivered, "I haven't seen him since yesterday morning." Calming, she told Rygh that her husband had been very upset about quitting his job and the bills piling up. "He wouldn't do anything around the house, said what's the purpose, and went out early morning until dusk with a sign about the end of the world. Then, when nothing happened, he was deeply discouraged and angry, felt he'd been humiliated, and he's a proud man. When he went to see about getting his old job back, his boss told him the job had been filled — but it really wasn't. Steve just snapped, and was mad all the time. The only time he seemed settled was after he met with the preacher."

'When did he meet with Reverend Myerby?"

"On Saturday. He'd called the reverend but never got a return call, so he figured he'd go by the church. He knew that the minister would be there getting ready for the next day's service."

"Did your husband tell you what happened when he met with the reverend?"

"No, he wouldn't talk about it."

Rygh asked, "If his mood had settled, why did he leave without telling you?"

"It wasn't long before he was down again. But it was different. I told him he seemed sorrowful."

"Does Steve own a handgun?"

"Yes; I don't know what kind it is."

"Could you get it for me?" Rygh said.

Mrs. Rhodes nodded and went inside. After nearly fifteen minutes, she came back out and said, "It's gone."

The expression on her face told Rygh that she was starting to draw conclusions.

After a quick call, Rygh had the local and state police on the alert for Rhodes. The detective spent more time with the man's wife to get a sense of Rhodes' habits, or where he might go. She described his love of fishing and how he took unauthorized ownership of a strip of public land near the lake. Rygh drove to the fishing spot. The lake dipped at that part of the county and carried fish to the far eastern section. Trees circled the bare spot of land bordering the lake, and tall grass grew wildly. Rygh could see a man in the distance, staring out, his arms hugging his folded legs, and a gun in the dirt beside him.

Rygh called out to him to push the weapon away and lie face down. Approaching the prone man, he could see Rhodes shoulders shaking and widening drops forming under his eyes.

Detective Rygh cuffed the distraught man as a police cruiser pulled up. During interrogation, Rhodes admitted to the sin of considering murder but not the act. After several hours, the detective ended the questioning, and despite the man's weak alibi, believed Rhodes was innocent, a conclusion that began when he saw the man's 38 handgun — the murder weapon was a 45.

Rhodes was eventually released; his wife picked him up at the station and both walked slowly out as if dreading the life outside the brick building.

* * *

The next day, Rygh went to see Mark Coleman, the plumber, who was embarrassed to admit he'd given his life savings to what he described as a "fool's errand." He impressed the detective with the manner and content of his explanation, but Rygh, suspicious that the remarks were rehearsed, commented, "You seem very..." he paused for the right word.

"Controlled," Coleman said with a laugh. "That's a term my granddaughter uses, not always as a compliment. I work with my hands but I'm not a stupid man, however, I was duped, detective, an old man, frightened of death, trying to make amends, guaranteed a heavenly destination for a not-so-distant journey. I lost a lot of money but some have renounced their faith because of the deceit; who's worse off?"

Rygh returned to the office with no clearer sense of the killer's identity. If loss-of-belief were a motive to consider, the list of potential suspects could be enormous, he thought.

At dinner, he was obviously distracted, pouring gravy on the mound of corn instead of in the concave center of mashed potatoes.

"I thought I'd try it," he said in response to his wife's questioning countenance.

"Remember, we agreed that the work stays at the station house," she said in a tone of mild admonishment. She added softly, "We'll talk after the kids leave the table."

Dee Rygh poured her husband another glass of red wine. "Ok, confess, buster."

He explained all that had happened. "I'm at a loss. I still think that the motive is a common one: money, anger, jealousy, but this whole loss-of-religion angle has my head spinning."

"Go with your gut," she said, reaching over to pat his stomach.

* * *

In the morning, Rygh squeezed his wife after breakfast.

"You seem chipper this morning," she said.

"I thought about the case — didn't get much sleep — but have a better sense of direction. I know three facts: based on the killing, the murderer knew the reverend's routine; most wouldn't assume he was at the church on Saturday — meaning a local. People gave away life savings, and I still think that money is all or part of the motive. Finally, the killer owned that gun, and someone knows who."

Detective Rygh called the local bank manager and asked about large withdrawals by members of the congregation.

"There were likely a lot of very small donations that our records won't flag, including mine. He deceived a lot of people."

The detective gave him the list of church members to compare against bank records, and said he would stop by later that day for a response.

When Rygh arrived, the bank manager ushered him into a small room in the back near the huge vault. "There weren't many names from the list you gave me who had large withdrawals. I put a check mark against those who did."

Rygh scanned the names and was surprised to see one: Sarah Robeson, the church secretary.

"Can you tell me if she wrote the check to the church?"

"Detective, I know you can get a court order so I'm cooperating. But that kind of detail is stretching it."

Rygh smiled slyly, "I'll ask you a question and you just nod your head. You're not saying anything. Did she write a large check to the church?"

"I can't answer that," the manager said, pulling on his chin so that his head went slightly up and down.

* * *

Rygh was heading toward the church to talk to Ms. Robeson when he saw the county deputy sheriff assigned to that location, Ben Gray. A tall, amiable red-head, Ben waved at Rygh, who saw the opportunity to look into another aspect.

"Deputy," he asked, "can we talk for a few minutes?"

"Sure," Gray said, and pointed toward his office a few hundred feet away. Inside, the deputy removed his gun belt and hung his Stetson on a peg extending from the wall. "What can I do for you?"

"We're still testing the bullets from the murder weapon but we have at least its type. Do you know who in this town owns a handgun, a 45 in particular?"

"The laws in this state, as you know, are somewhere in the middle in regards to ownership of a hand gun, not at one end like New York, where it's nearly impossible, or on the other end, where it takes a simple registration. Most people don't own a gun, but many who do tell me, regardless, like it's a requirement."

"Who, for example?"

"The bank manager. He says that someone may try to hold him hostage for the combination to the vault. I think he watches too much television."

"How about Sarah Robeson?"

"That sweet lady; no way. Just holding it would likely frighten her."

Rygh let out a sigh of frustration.

"But some people can surprise you," the deputy continued. "The reverend had a handgun. I even think it was a 45. Said he liked to go target shooting in the woods."

"His wife never mentioned it," Rygh said.

Gray laughed. "When Reverend Myerby told me about the weapon, he said he didn't tell his wife. He knew she would object strenuously; he jokingly called it a sin of omission, so he probably kept it in the church."

When Detective Rygh arrived at the church office, Sarah Robeson, wearing a short skirt a thin blouse and heels that added to her height — a look that contradicted her usual appearance — was pacing in circles. "Oh, detective," she said, her face turning pink, "I didn't expect you."

"A sudden inspiration," Rygh responded. "Do you know where the reverend kept his gun?"

"He had a gun — here?"

Her surprise was poorly acted, Rygh thought.

"You also gave him a lot of money, didn't you?"

"So what if I did," she said defiantly.

"You told me you didn't."

"I was embarrassed, that's all."

"The biggest mistake amateur killers make is to touch the body and leave a small amount of DNA — skin, hair, or a thread from clothing. The medical examiner found such traces. I bet they'll match yours," Rygh said, bluffing.

The church secretary collapsed onto a wooden chair, leaned over, and put her head in her hands. In a few seconds, she began to sob. Just as quickly, she stopped and looked at Rygh.

"When he got struck by lightening, he believed in the vision, but privately — to me — admitted to some doubts. But when he preached on the end times, the news spread quickly and suddenly he was famous, getting quoted and interviewed. The fool never realized some of those news folks were making fun. The doubts disappeared in his mind and people accepted, including me. He can be very persuasive."

"But you did start to question?" Rygh asked.

"I could see the fuss going to his head, and he was adding more detail to his predictions. I'd shake my head when I heard people were giving away all their money, and quitting their jobs to spread the word. Lives were impacted."

"And when the end of the world didn't come?"

"He hid away for a while, mostly hunkering down in his office with the shades drawn. Suddenly, he came out of his office, smiling like a man who had just won the lottery, and said that he realized he had the date wrong — actually the year. It was next year. The world was ending on July 24th, 2012, not 2011. He gave me some story that the date had been written on a scroll and he'd looked at it so quickly, but the angel came to him while in prayer and brought the parchment closer. That's what he was going to announce, and more people would likely to be persuaded. I cared about him, maybe too much. I doubt that he felt the same way, but at least I was important to him, until he changed. He was addicted to the attention, and had to be stopped, before he ruined more lives. Another failure would have destroyed the church, created a scandal and cost me my job. There would be suspicions of complicity and I would be unemployable."

"I would have found about your donation when the treasurer returned," Rygh said.

Ms. Robeson smiled coyly," You wouldn't have. I asked our treasurer to reimburse me because I needed the money to pay for my mother's medical bills. I pleaded with him not to tell anyone. He's got a crush on me, so I knew the secret was safe."

Rygh made a call to the deputy's office and Gray was there in minutes. The deputy looked at the forlorn secretary and, almost apologetically, handcuffed her thin wrists.

A few hours later, Detective Rygh called his wife. "I'm taking you to dinner," he announced.

"Solved your case, didn't you? She said.

"Yep," Rygh pushed the accelerator and his car leaped before settling into a constant speed through town and on the road home.

James P. Hanley has had articles published in professional journals but has concentrated more on fiction in recent years. His stories have been accepted by mystery magazines such as Crimespree, Futures, Detective Mystery Stories, Savage Kick and others, as well as in mainstream/literary periodicals: MacGuffin, South Dakota Review, Concho River Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Center, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, and recently in Westerns: Western Online.

Copyright © 2011 James P. Hanley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.