The Caretaker

by Zakariah Johnson

 

RJ entered East Church’s main room halfway through the Saturday night open-mic. The pipe organ’s copper façade had been painted white during his two-day absence, and a glance at it told him the historic Newfordsworth landmark had been robbed once again. He remembered his lesson from before—that the non-local caretaker with the mullet and the master keys is always the first suspect—and decided not to make any calls. He walked behind the pews in which audience members sat both listening and silently rehearsing for their own sets and filled a mug from the communal coffee urn.

Not originally a local, RJ felt his work restoring East Church had earned him that title, but opinions varied. He’d been the caretaker for five years. Two years into the gig, thieves had pried off the bronze plaque commemorating the town’s sestercentennial while he was away. He’d been the one to report the theft, but when the former police chief made no headway questioning the local scrap dealers, the man began to fixate on why RJ’s surname read “de la Rue” on his employment application but “Delarue” on his New Hampshire driver’s license. RJ’s claim that the DMV had done it without asking and he hadn’t cared enough to protest pegged him in the chief’s mind as one who bore serious watching. After a selectman’s loser brother-in-law was busted trying to sell the plaque down in Massachusetts, it took another year for some to forgive RJ for being innocent. He’d learned the unspoken rule of town meetings: if you raise a problem, propose the solution. Otherwise, you’re the problem, see?

So, RJ took his time walking his coffee over to a middle pew. He sat beside a pair of UNH women waiting with their guitars for a turn to perform for the crowd of two dozen regulars. They smiled at him, and he smiled back, leaned forward and rested his long, wiry forearms on the back of the next pew. He listened to the high schoolers performing on stage, took a sip of Joe, and reflected on the theft.

Photograph by Cornelius Bull

Photograph by Cornelius Bull

East Church stood on a wooded hill above the river that bisected the town. Through the trees, it was just visible from the dozen buildings lining the remnant commercial district—now whittled down to a coffee shop, a bar and grill, a pizza joint, a consignment shop that opened intermittently, an antique store that never did, and a tire repair store that still had pumps out front but hadn’t sold gas since the first oil embargo. The rest of the old downtown buildings, especially the original mill, were converted lofts for UNH students or simply vacant. UNH students made up half the population of the town but were transient, not getting involved in local problems or solutions.

As Newfordsworth’s sole public building, East Church was the meeting space for everything from the board of selectmen to the yoga club. Though no longer functioning as a church, it still had all the trappings of one, including its 1930s pipe organ, donated by a summer resident from Boston who’d hoped to thaw the ice in town that never quite melted. Most of the organ pipes were lead coated in tin, but the forty-eight pipes of the false façade shone—or had shone before being painted—like polished copper.

In five years of hammering, sawing, weeding, plumbing, painting, and rewiring, what skills RJ hadn’t possessed, he learned, including fixing the organ. And he’d learned a few other things, too. Town legend had it the shiny façade pipes were solid copper. They weren’t, but they were each six feet long, and copper was selling for three dollars a pound at any junkyard in New England. Now, in the two days he’d been away, the façade pipes had been painted white. And instead of gradually changing size to give the false impression of musical functionality, three adjacent pipes were now of identical size.

RJ guessed about what materials might have been used as replacements: “PVC? No, probably tin. The question is, did they steal two or three? Probably three. Now, who could have done that?”

The co-eds beside him rose to take the stage. RJ took another sip and ruminated on the question:

The thief would be someone who’d known he was away. That meant the whole town, but eliminated most of the UNH students. The locks were solid and he hadn’t seen a broken window, so it was someone with keys—meaning a leader of one of the dozen-odd groups that met there. Someone with a truck, and without fear of being noticed. Someone hard up enough for cash to risk being caught defacing the town’s only treasure, but still concerned enough to leave it looking nice.

“Definitely a local,” he thought. “Someone who felt it wasn’t a theft so much as exercising a right—oh, and someone incredibly stupid!” Solid copper pipes weighing one hundred pounds apiece would be worth something but copper-plated lead wasn’t worth the gas money to haul it away.

“So who knew I was gone, thought free money was lying around for the taking, could have hung around without raising suspicion, and probably scheduled the scam to make sure I’d get blamed?” Put that way, the culprits were obvious. The only thing left to determine was what they’d done with the pipes once they realized they couldn’t sell them.

A door opened, and RJ glanced over his shoulder at the entranceway. The township’s new chief of police, a young guy named Dale Higgs, removed his hat as he walked into the church. RJ signaled Dale to join him, which he did, after getting his own coffee.

“Dale.”

“RJ. I don’t suppose you—”

“Could you wait thirty seconds? I hate this song.” The women were playing another Dylan number.

“Why not interrupt it?”

“They might start over.”

They sat through the rest of the performance, including an unexpected solo, while RJ thought through the rest of the story: “They take down the pipes, replace them with PVC or something, and paint the rest to hide the theft. Then they can’t sell it. They find out the pipes are just lead under the copper plating. So where do they stash them?”

The song ended. They walked outside before the next set began, Dale letting the taller, lankier man go ahead of him. They stopped at the cemetery gates.

“I suppose you know why I’m here,” said Dale.

“An anonymous tip?”

“No. I came by earlier to see if you were up for darts at the VFW and saw the crappy paint job.”

“The pipes aren’t copper, you know? They’re lead.”

“Lead? That’s ridiculous. Everyone in town knows those pipes are solid copper. My grandfather told me—” He stopped. “Lead, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Any idea who took them?”

“Plenty, but no proof. I know where they are, though. Come on.”

Dale followed RJ into the cemetery. They walked directly to the graveyard’s only mausoleum. RJ pulled out the keys he wore around his neck.

“Relax. This crypt’s ornamental. I keep the lawn mower in here.” He unlocked the padlock, pulled the heavy chain through the double doors, and swung them open. “Got your flashlight?”

Dale took the flashlight off his belt and shone it inside. Beside the rider lawnmower, the gas cans, and the gardening tools, lay three shiny organ pipes, still clad in their false copper jackets.

Dale let out a sigh. “I suppose you had nothing to do with this?”

“I wasn’t even here. Call my sister in Vermont. Check the toll records on my E-ZPass.”

“Relax. I know it wasn’t you. Any ideas though?”

“The board of selectmen. Three of the five anyway. I bet your aunt was a dissenter.”

“What?! Why wouldn’t she tell me?!”

“A three-to-five vote would have been binding, at least until the three who pushed it didn’t come back with the money they promised. Then remorse would have set in and, well,” RJ gestured toward the pipes. “My guess is they had a meeting without announcing it to the public. Something about raising money.”

“That’s illegal.”

“Uh-huh. So is selling off town property without an open vote, but if you live somewhere long enough, you forget the things that make it special aren’t yours to sell.” RJ swung the mausoleum doors closed and locked them.

“What do we do?” asked Dale.

“Go back inside and listen to the cuties from UNH. I’ll put the pipes back on tomorrow.”

“If she promised them, my aunt won’t say a word, no matter what she thinks. How will we know you’re right about the board doing this?”

“You’ll know when they approve my bill for paint remover without discussion and by unanimous consent.”

Dale hung his head and laughed. When they passed the door to the church, he kept walking.

“Hey, man,” RJ called. “Aren’t you coming in? The next girl’s pretty good.”

Dale turned and walked backward toward his squad car. “Gotta get my guitar.”

 

 

Zakariah Johnson is a writer and book editor living in coastal New Hampshire. His short fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey and regularly in Danse Macabre ezine, including the best-of compilation Monsters of the Rue Macabre. He has recently hard boiled a new novel, Conscience for Hire.

Cornelius Bull writes, makes collages and takes photographs in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

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