July 16
6:30 a.m.

I think Pastor Don and Darlene’s arrival is beginning to make me more aware of the darker side of the church. As a PK, I sort of knew that people could be nice one day, weird the next, but this sort of bizarre is a new experience. All I wanted to do was just work long enough to make some money to get back home, even if Frankie wasn’t there.

Right now I’m thinking, especially if he’s not there. I’m so done with Frankie.

At least, for now.

Okay, forever. And beyond that.

Hmmm…if I saved up enough money, I could move Paris.

But back to reality, like it or not, I’m the church secretary or whatever I’m supposed to be. I’m in a predicament. If I stand up for Mark, I’m going to tick off Death and Destruction. If I don’t…

Either way, I feel like I’m going to be without a job soon.

So I did the next best thing.

I called my parents and sobbed on the telephone. They told me how proud they were of me. So I cried all the more. Then they gave me the best piece of advice ever. “Do what you believe is right, and remember God goes before you in every battle of your life. If you learn this lesson early, you will get through every challenge and problem you face.”

They are amazing.

—————

8:40 a.m.

Gwen made sure I got to work on time.

“Break a leg,” she grins and shoves me out the door.

“Hey! You nearly really did break it!”

My sister and I have this great relationship. I feel so sorry for sisters who fight and are jealous of each other. Such a waste of time.

My sister’s love, the drive to work, and my parents’ words have gone a long way in restoring some of my shattered confidence. I can face anybody.

But my office is empty.

Again.

What are they up to?

“Where’s everyone?” Pete asks as he walks into my office.

“Don’t have a clue, but I never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

I’ve never known that that phrase meant. Pete laughs so I guess he got the point.

_____

3:25 p.m.

“I need some cash to purchase some light bulbs for Don’s new lamp.”

“How much do you need?” I ask, searching for the carefully hidden envelope with the petty cash. I guard it with my life, as Charlie always wants me to account for every penny. I even kept a list of the money spent, and then save all the receipts in a file in my desk.

“About ten dollars should do it. Unless he wants something fancier.”

“I don’t think Charlie will go for that,” I laugh, picturing Charlie’s face when he hears that the exchange pastor is already spending the church’s money. Charlie already thought that Don was a waste of money. He felt that Tav should be the one to be looking after the church in Mark’s absence.

At this point, I couldn’t agree more.

Okay, now my palms are getting sweaty. I can’t find the stupid envelope.

Thank God! There it is. I open it, and something doesn’t seem right. I knew I had at least one hundred and fifty-two dollars in the envelope, but the hundred-dollar bill is missing. I knew there was a hundred because I was going to change it.

Pete’s watching my face, “Everything okay?”

“I’m not sure.” I don’t want to march out and blame anyone. I can’t just say I believe Don and Darlene have been helping themselves to petty cash…I mean I would love to…if it were true. I’m thinking. No one else had access to my desk.

“Let me just make sure.” I check my receipt book.

Pete is waiting impatiently for me to finish.

“Pete, I had a hundred-dollar bill in here and it’s missing.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. I was irritated with Charlie for giving me the hundred-dollar bill because I’d have to go to the bank and break it into smaller bills.”

I get this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. So many things seemed to be going wrong with the arrival of Don and Darlene.

“I’m not accusing anyone…”

“I told you. Lots of strange goings-on I tell you,” Pete said dourly. “I don’t like those two. I told you I’m finding my key to the vending machine gone and sodas missing. No one’s paying for them either. Strange goings-on. I told you so…”

“Yes, Pete, this is horrible.” I couldn’t handle another “I told you so.”

“Natalie, you’re going to have to talk to Allan.”

______

July 17
9:45 a.m.

It’s Friday morning, and there’s still no sign of Don and Darlene. Pete is bugging me about Allan. I’m still debating.

What if I’m wrong? And then Allan follows my cue and it appears he’s just gunning for Don?

“Hi Natalie. Hi Pete.”

“Faye! Good to see you. How’s it going?”

Faye loves giving hugs and she always talks to you like you’re a preschooler. I always add a mental and imaginary “boys and girls” to the end of everything she said.

“Good morning [boys and girls]!” She smiles brightly. “I’m doing just dandy [boys and girls]!” she begins, and then stops. “Uh..um..Can I talk to you?”

“Sure.”

“Just call Allan.” Pete’s not giving up.

“Natalie, if you’re busy…”

“No, I have…” I’m hoping Pete will leave. But he’s still muttering.

Faye’s watching our exchange intently. “Is there a problem?”

Pete grunts and mutters about “going ons.” Faye is trustworthy. We’d become good office frieds. She’s always running into the office to make some copies. The machine at the school never works that well.

“Well, we seem to be missing some cash around here…”

“And sodas,” Pete cut me off. “Strange goings-on.” He couldn’t let go of the strange goings-on.

“You too?”

“What do you mean ‘you, too’?”

“I was going to ask your advice. Our secretary can’t find over two thousand dollars of tuition money that came in this week. She’s still calculating the missing amount. We’ve searched all over the school for it.”

“When did she discover the loss?”

“It’s a bit hard to say. She’s going through her calendar. You know how we always keep the money in the same place—in the small safe in her desk? Well, when she went to add more money in this morning, she couldn’t find any of the cash. The checks were there, but no cash.”

A thought popped into my mind. Didn’t Darlene say she was going over to the preschool?

“Have you met the exchange pastor and his wife?”

“Yes,” Faye’s face is emotionless. This tells me more than any words she could have used…and Faye uses a lot of them. So if she’s not saying much of anything, then she’s obviously got something on her mind.

“You met them?”

“They came over and introduced themselves… Well, Darlene first, and then Pastor Don came over. Darlene has volunteered to help at the school.”

“Are you sure Pastor Don came over too?”

“Yes. Said he loved children, had a special way with them, and Darlene and he would be happy to fill in for the summer.”

“What was your response?” My thoughts are all running together as well as in different tangents. My mind always does this. I’m trying not to over analyze anything.

Be rational.

Be calm.

Fact one: Darlene had gone out of her way to let me know that Don would never be near the school.

Fact two: Don had gone over to the school.

Fact three: Petty cash is missing.

Fact four: Nursery school money is missing.

Fact five: Have to add Pete’s missing sodas. He’d be very unhappy not to have that added to my fact finding collection.

This is not looking good.

The whole situation just seems so implausible.

“I might have sounded rude when I turned down their offer, but it’s hard on the children to have someone come in for just a short time. They grow attached to the person, you know how it goes…”

I think I do.

“Well, I’ll be off for a few hours. I need to get those bulbs before they return. Don’t forget to call Allan.” Pete’s shuffling out the door, muttering again, “Strange goings-on, I tell ya.”

“Anyway, if you have any ideas, let me know.”

“Thanks for letting us know, Faye.”

_____

3:45 p.m.

“Hey Natalie.” Faye’s back in my office.

“Faye! Did you find out anything else?”

“One of our parents just called. She saw Pastor Don at the preschool after everyone had left. Do you know how he could have got in?”

“There’s an extra key in the pastor’s office. In fact, all extra keys to our safes and desks are in the Mark’s office. Personnel thought it would be more secure that way. Why? What are you thinking?”

I”m beginning to get that sick stomach feeling again.

Before Faye can respond, Don and Darlene walk in. Don seems startled to see Faye in my office.

“Faye, what brings you here?” Don looks a little shifty to my detective eyes.

NO! Don’t say anything.

Caught on the spot, Faye tells him the truth.

“I just came to tell Natalie that there’s about two thousand plus dollars of tuition money that is missing from the school’s safe.”

“What?” Don’s shouting. “We must get to the bottom of this! Have you ever had this problem before?” Now he’s pounding my desk with his fist.

“Not in the twenty-five years that I’ve worked with the preschool.”

“Bad. Very bad. Got to get to the bottom of this immediately.”

“Should I call Paul? He works with the police department.” I know Paul would be able to find out what’s been happening.

“No, no,” Don’s shaking his head. “Let’s make sure we get our facts right before we accuse anyone. Faye doesn’t even know how much money is missing. Have to keep this in-house. Don’t want to be pointing a finger at the wrong person.” He’s looking at Faye, and then at me.

Is he trying to say we took the money?

“In fact, Faye, are you sure your secretary didn’t, in fact, put the money someplace else, in fact?” Darlene of course. “She seemed to be multitasking, in fact, when we were there the other day. Maybe she just forgot and put it some place else, in fact.”

Ah ha. The ole shift the blame trick.

“She couldn’t have.” Now Faye’s defending her secretary. “She’s been with us for years and knows the routine.”

“I just remembered,” Don began, as he’s stroking his chin in downward thoughtful movements, “I was walking by the preschool last evening and I passed someone who looked like a gypsy or tramp. Homeless. But as I said, we shouldn’t point fingers until we know. Let’s all pray about it.”

After the prayer, Don and Darlene left and Faye came over and whispered, “Please call Allan and tell him what’s happening.”

“Will do.” I pick up the telephone to call Allan.

And he’s away for a few days. Maybe something will show up before then.

______

July 18
10:15 a.m.

“The summer from hell.”

It’s Saturday, and I shouldn’t be working. But thanks to Don having had “a word from the Lord,” he’s changed his sermon, and I have to redo the entire bulletin.

“Charlie’s going to love hearing how we had to toss out the old bulletins and print new ones.”

“Hello Happiness! Talking to yourself again?” Brad saunters in, cell in one hand, scanning through his updates, the other dragging his backpack in.

“Brad, how do you know what I’m doing if you can’t take your eyes off of your screen?”

“Wait. I’m almost done. Twitter.”

“What?”

“Check @youthpastorano.”

“Who’s youthpastorano?”

Brad’s guffawing right now. “Read it.”

Not enough pain and suffering? Take our pastor. Will pay you. #suffering #pain #hell

“Brad! Do you think anyone will guess who youthpastorano is?”

“Nah. You should start your own Twitter account.”

“I already have one. I’m really bad at it.”

“I mean an anonymous one. There are so many of them out there. It can be fun.”

“Serious? I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“You can say whatever you want. You’re Anon.”

“No wonder you get on so well with the youth. You’re at their level.”

“Low, Natalie. Low. That hurt.”

“Silly, I meant that you speak their language.”

“How’s it going for you in hell?”

“You did hear me!”

“I pick up on a lot that’s going on. It’s the advantage of being considered the tech nerd.”

I like Brad. He’s so normal.

“By the way, Pete says people have been using his key to take soda’s out of the vending machine. Do you think any of the youth could have been dared to do something?”

“Dared? Gentle way of putting it.” Brad grins. “Nah. But I know who could have.”

“Who?”

“Same guess as yours.”

Behind all that nerdiness, Brad is smart.

“Brad, you don’t really think…”

Brad’s singing “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.”

“A Cher fan, eh?”

“My mother.”

And he’s gone.

I’m singing the stupid song now.