It is autumn on Minnesota’s Lake Superior coast, and Jonah Borden, paragon of pastorhood and all around renaissance man, is facing trouble on several fronts. The cool weather is bringing a rash of marriage-counseling appointments, and the couples just don’t seem to be getting better. His own relationship with the beautiful Leyla Bennett is in troubled waters. Worst of all, Borden may have caused a widow to lose her life savings.
Borden pushes hard to recover the widow’s money, and finds himself digging up ghosts of his father’s past. He fights to help the marriages of his counselees, and finds himself facing a storm that is far larger that he had imagined. Jonah must overcome a malicious plot, and face the fury of Superior itself, if he is to save himself and the ones he loves.
Three people were shot when the First National Bank of Grand Lake was robbed.
The first was a security guard, who appeared to be going for his gun. The bullet hit him low and on the side.
The third was one of the criminals. He left a trail of blood out to the sidewalk.
The second was a darn fool who grabbed the guard’s weapon and started a gun battle in a bank lobby full of innocent people. He was the one who shot the robber. He was a lucky fool, because no one else was shot, and the bullet that hit him went clean through his calf without any major damage.
It still hurt like blazes, though. I know, because I was the lucky fool.
Besides the bullet, the robbery began a sequence of events that shook up my life, disturbed the quiet town of Grand Lake, and didn’t end until I was half-drowned in Lake Superior.
Up until then, the day had been going just swell.
That morning, before the robbery, I was in my office, listening to The Eagles. I felt slightly uneasy, because I thought the lyrics might be dirty.
Julie, my part time secretary, walked into my office. I reflexively stopped my iPod and slipped off the headphones.
“Hey Julie,” I said. “What does ‘brutally handsome’ mean? Does it mean he is so handsome that it is brutal, or that he is handsome in a brute-like way?”
She looked at me levelly for a moment. “How you find room in your head to remember your sermons is beyond me.”
I grinned happily. That was as good as a point for me.
“Mail,” said Julie, “and don’t try to think up some stupid pun like fee-mail.”
“Furthest thing from my mind,” I said. “We all know that you are the funny one around here.” Pastor two, secretary zero. It was going to be a good day.
Julie rolled her eyes and threw a small bundle on my desk. There was a book catalog, pleas for money from all four of my alma maters, and some other junk. She hesitated, and then tossed a thick eight-by-ten envelope on top of it. My name and the church address were hand-written. The envelope had a return receipt and insurance.
“Package too,” said Julie. She sort of hung around for a minute.
“You can ask, you know,” I said. “It isn’t rude.”
“I’m a Minnesotan. Any sort of communication is always considered slightly rude.”
“It’s from my mother,” I said, looking at the return address. “I think it’s some old papers of my dad’s. We’re working through some details left over about my dad’s estate.”
“Why did she send them to the church?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she wanted to test your rudeness level.” Actually, I had my mother send them to the church so that I would remember to take them to Alex Chan, my lawyer. However, Julie never needs an excuse to remember my absent-mindedness.
Julie snorted and turned to leave.
“Don’t you want to know what I was listening to, when you came in?” I asked.
She didn’t turn around. “No. It was probably just a song you were afraid was dirty, but almost certainly was not.”
I stared at her. Score one for the secretary.
She turned, winked, and then left my office.
Our treasurer was out of town that week, and so I had to make the bank deposit later that afternoon. But, first, I went to visit the widow Ethel Ostrand. Ethel had been a member of Harbor Lutheran Church for forty years. Her house was a small white clapboard, decorated in original 1950s wallpaper and furniture. I was pretty sure she had bought it all when it was new. The shades were drawn and the living room lamps were on.
“I want you to do my funeral,” she said.
“I’m so sorry, Ethel,” I said. “I didn’t know you were sick.”
“I’m not sick, I’m old,” she snapped.
“You aren’t supposed to say ‘oh,’ you are supposed to say, ‘Ethel you don’t look that old.’”
“Well, how old are you?” I asked. I realized my mistake immediately, but it was too late to take it back.
“It isn’t polite to ask a lady’s age,” she said.
I took a breath. “So why this talk about funerals?”
“Well, when you’re old like me, what else do you have to sit around and think about?”
I let that one sit there without touching it. Even stunningly slow pastors can learn.
She grinned at me. “Actually, I’m enjoying the idea of planning my funeral. I want you to preach.”
“I can do that,” I said.
“And I’m picking out some hymns.”
“We can do that too.”
We discussed her funeral for a bit. She did actually seem to be enjoying herself. Everyone needs a hobby.
After about half an hour, we had nailed down the important parts. I got up to leave.
“Oh pastor, I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, “but could help me with something before you go? I have to get some things from the store, and I need some money.”
I reached for my wallet. “How much do you need?”
“Oh no!” she said. “I don’t need your money. I need your help to get my money.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.
“Come with me.”
She rose slowly from her chair. Leaning heavily on her walker, she led me into her bedroom. This was done in pink and gilt wallpaper with some obscure but flowery pattern. I squinted.
Ethel walked over to the bed. “Could you lift the mattress, please?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Could you lift up the mattress for me? I need to get some money.”
Curiosity struggled with propriety and won a first-round knockout. I walked over to the bed and heaved. The mattress was old – also probably 1950s vintage – and quite heavy. Under the mattress, and on top of the box-spring was money.
A lot of money.
Ethel hobbled over to the bed and began to paw through the piles of green. I started to sweat.
“OK, you can put it down now,” she said at last.
I managed not to drop it too hard.
“Ethel,” I said, “why do you have all that money under your mattress?”
“That’s where I keep it,” she said.
“What, all of your money?”
“Yes, of course.”
We processed slowly back to the living room. I sat back down heavily in the green wingback chair.
“Ethel, we need to talk about this.”
“Pastor, I’m not sure this is an appropriate conversation for us to have.”
“This is important,” I said. “What if you were robbed?”
“Who would rob an old lady like me?” she asked.
“Lots of people, if they knew you had money under your mattress,” I said. “Does anyone else know?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “And I don’t see how they could find out unless somebody told them.” She looked meaningfully at me.
“But what if you need to get more money from there and there’s no one to help you? Whoever you ask to help you will see.”
She thought for a moment. “It’s only been the past month or so that I couldn’t get at it. I just don’t seem to have the strength anymore. I’ve been pulling out the bills that are on the edge, but before you came, I’d gotten almost everything I could reach. Maybe we should go back in there, and you can hold the mattress again, while I move more money to the edges.”
“Maybe you should put it all in a bank.”
She was quiet.
“Ethel, what if there was a fire? It would all burn, and you’d be left with nothing at all.”
She was still quiet.
“How much do you have under there?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. A couple hundred thousand, I should think.”
This time I was quiet.
“You really think I should put it all in a bank?”
“I really do. This is very dangerous for you.”
“But what if the bank loses it?”
“Banks are insured. It’s called FDIC. If the bank loses your money, the insurance will pay it back to you.”
She was silent again. Finally, she sighed. “I guess if I can trust you with my funeral, I can trust you with my money.”
“Trust the bank with it,” I said.
“But you can put it in there for me?”
“You have to open an account.”
“Can’t you just have them keep it in the vault?”
“Well, you could put it in a safety deposit box, but the normal thing is to give it to them and they hold it in an account.”
“But I don’t need an account if they keep it the vault?”
“Well, no, but that’s a bit unusual, and you won’t earn interest.”
“Put it in the vault.”
“I think you should come with me and open an account.”
“Pastor, I’m an old lady. You just told me it isn’t safe to keep it here. Couldn’t you just put it in the vault for me?”
I kept at her, but after twenty minutes, I had gotten nowhere. I finally figured cash in a large safety deposit box in the bank vault was still better than under the mattress.
So that was how, when the First National Bank of Grand Lake was robbed, I lost the money given to the church that month, plus all $237,556 of Ethel Ostrand’s uninsured cash.