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Authors: Traci Tyne Hilton

Health, Wealth, and Murder

BOOK: Health, Wealth, and Murder
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This is a work of fiction. An
y similarity to real life people or happenings is coincidental and a little silly.

 

Health, Wealth, and Murder

Traci Hilton

Copyright 2014 by Traci Tyne Hilton

Cover Art by Andrew Rothery

All rights reserved

Chapter One

 

“Josiah Malachi? Really?” Jane pulled her hair into a ponytail. The early spring day had been dry and hot
for Portland—almost eighty. It was great for everyone’s mood, but she felt sticky and dirty after her long bus ride home. She sat at the breakfast bar in her little apartment, the afternoon sun streaming through the partially closed blinds, and stared at her cousin in disbelief.

“Yes, really.” Gemma leaned on the cracked, but clean, counter and checked her phone. “You can still come, if you want.”

“But he’s a quack.” Jane checked her phone, too. Three texts from Jake Crawford, her boyfriend of the last four months, and one call from a client.

“He’s not a doctor.” Gemma tapped the corner of her phone in tune to the music coming from the other room. “Josiah Malachi is a well-respected and influential preacher. He even went on the Hallelujah tour with
the Big Worship Band. This guy is hot right now. I’d bet most of the preachers in the world wish they were him.”

“A church quack, then. You know what I mean.” Jane stuck her phone in the pocket of her backpack. She needed to go for a run, and then call Jake back. Or maybe call Jake back and never, ever run.

It was a hard decision.

“Enlighten me.” Gemma rested her chin in her hand. She batted her long black eyelashes in pseudo-naïveté. 

“Health, wealth, prosperity. You too can be rich if you send me all your money. That kind of thing.”

“The abundant life movement, you mean?” Gemma smiled. Condescension dripped from her words.

“Sure. Why not? The abundant life movement, where your hard work gives the preacher an abundant life.” Jane glanced at the microwave clock. If she went for a run on this hot afternoon, she’d be proud of herself. If she didn’t, she would have time to take a bubble bath before she went to Jake’s.

“And so you don’t tithe?”

“Gemma, you’re just being difficult. Don’t go spend your hard-earned money to see a health, wealth, and prosperity teacher.” Jane didn’t mention the half a month’s rent Gemma still owed her. She cast a glance at the wall of kitchen cupboards, which she knew were empty.

“It’s free.” Gemma grinned.

“Don’t spend your time, then.”

“So stay home and watch soap operas with you?”

Jane wrinkled her nose. “
Downton Abbey
is not a soap opera.”

Gemma lifted an eyebrow.

“It’s not a bad one, anyway.” Jane laughed. She felt light and happy at the thought of sitting around with Jake, snuggling on the couch, watching TiVo’s episodes of
Downton Abbey
. A perfectly harmless, homelike evening. So normal it almost hurt.

Gemma snorted.

“It’s better than bad theology.”

“What’s wrong with a God who wants to bless us all?”

“What about Paul? Being content no matter what your circumstances. The God I know isn’t one who promises to make us all rich and healthy.” Jane hopped off the stool. She couldn’t run today and argue with her cousin. That much was for sure. But the argument didn’t get her down. Gemma had always liked to push the boundaries of normal church life, and if Health, Wealth, and Prosperity was this week’s new thing, at least Jane could be confident it too would pass.

“Would it be so wrong if he did?” Gemma unfolded the glossy Josiah Malachi leaflet.

“But he doesn’t promise it.” Jane scrunched her mouth in disgust.

“Yes, he does. And I’m tired of pretending he doesn’t. And I’m tired of being broke.”

Jane just shook her head.

“I’ll see you tonight.” Gemma stuffed the leaflet into her purse.

“Do me one favor while you’re gone…every time he mentions a way you can donate to him, text me.”

“Please.” Gemma rolled her eyes.

“Okay, every time he says that your faith will make you rich, text me.”

“Why not?” Gemma shrugged. “That’s what I’m hoping he’ll say, after all.”

 

Jane and Jake played a game while they streamed the
Downton
rerun. Every time Gemma texted, they took a shot of espresso. Already Jane had horrific heartburn.

“What do you have against rich people, Jane?” Jake hopped off the arm of the aging velvet couch, wandered down the hall, and went halfway up the mahogany staircase. “They keep you employed and kiss you and stuff.” His voice echoed through the house.

“I don’t have anything against rich people.” Jane was tempted to turn off her phone. One more shot and she’d have a migraine that would last a week. Even the usually comforting aroma of the rich coffee was making her stomach roil.

Jake took the stairs two at a time and disappeared into the kitchen. He came back in time to hear Jane’s text alert.

“Don’t do it.” Jake put his hand over her small white ceramic cup. “Don’t refill that.”

“But…” Jane’s hand shook as she reached for her espresso mug.

“Don’t check the phone. Don’t see if it was her.” He pushed a plump blueberry bagel into Jane’s hand. “Eat that or you’re going to be sick.”

Jane took a big bite of the sweet bagel.

“If you have another shot, I won’t be responsible for my actions.” Jake perched on the edge of the slate coffee table on his bare feet, like an acrobat poised to do an aerial flip.

Jane forced herself to swallow. “I don’t know that you are responsible now. How much coffee did you have?”

“She’s texted six times, plus I had some before you came over.” Jake moved to the couch. He wrapped his arm around Jane. “But back to rich people. What’s your real problem with this Malachi character?”

“You don’t like this kind of thing either, do you? The televangelist, private-plane kind of thing?”

“That’s not an answer to my question.” He slid his arm down around her waist and tickled her. “Answer or I will torture you.” His grin stretched from ear to ear.

“I am never playing an espresso shots game with you, ever again.” She twisted away from his prodding fingers.

Jake pinned her, his knee pressing gently against her spine. “Is this better?” He moved his hands to her shoulders and rubbed them. “You are all knots. Did you work or something?”

“Yup. I had school all morning and then a house.”

“If we got married…”

“I’d only have to clean up after you.” She stretched her neck. “Right there. Yes! That’s the spot.” Jake’s strong fingers worked at a knot right next to her shoulder blade. “When I’m living the life of luxury, I’m going to make regular appointments to see the masseuse.”

“So, let me get this straight, please.” Jake pressed hard against the knot.

A shiver of pain and relief shot up Jane’s spine. “Oh, you’re good!”

“Let me get this straight, I said. You are fine with marrying for money but not okay with praying for it?”

“That’s the coffee talking, so I am going to forgive your nasty-minded comment.” She rested her forehead against the silky arm of the couch.

“So you would still be into me even if I was broke?”

The phone chimed again.

“He must be closing up the show. That’s a lot of comments about money in a row.”

“Don’t read it. And I need to know: would you love me if I was broke?”

“Of course. I’d probably love you better if you were broke. Being broke develops character.”

“Good to know.”

“Any reason you ask?”

“No reason.” Jake kissed the back of her neck and then scooted away.

“Then can you unpause the show?” Jane reluctantly sat up.

Jake shut the laptop. “No, I don’t think I will.” He draped his arm over her shoulder and nudged her closer to him.

She turned around to kiss him, but her phone rang.

Jake answered it. “Love Shack, master of the house speaking.” He held it to Jane’s ear.

“Jane—he’s dead—I—what do I do? I think it was murder!” Gemma’s voice came through in ragged, broken sobs.

“What? Who?” Jane leaned forward. Her already over
caffeinated and racing heart sped up.

“Josiah Malachi just died, right on stage. He just, he just…he’s dead.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Jane directed her cousin to come to Jake’s right away. By the time she got to the big stone mansion in Laurelhurst, her face was colorless and her hands were shaking.

She sat on the edge of the sofa, both knees bobbing up and down. She pressed the palms of her hands together, but that didn’t seem to help.

“Josiah Malachi was murdered in front of a crowd of how many?” Jane was still riding her caffeine high, her own hands shaking as she spoke. She turned her computer on to video their conversation, since she was in no condition to write clearly.

“Thirty-two hundred. Or, at least that’s how many people he said were in attendance. He said it several times, but I can’t swear to it. And I don’t know how many people he had there with him. But I did meet this one lady, Francine, who wants to meet you.” Gemma took a deep breath and then launched in again. “She seemed really frazzled, though, and I didn’t get her number. I gave her your card, so she should be able to get in touch with you really easily. She was holding onto Mrs. Malachi—Christiana—while we were talking, so I could tell she couldn’t really say what was on her mind, not with Christiana crying the way she was.”

“Slow. Way. Down.” Jake put his hand on top of Gemma’s head. “And nix coffee.”

“I haven’t had any coffee.” Gemma looked confused.

“I was talking to myself. I can never have coffee, ever again, as long as I live.” He pressed his hand against his own forehead.

“Go on, Gemma.” Jane adjusted her computer so Gemma was in the center of the screen. “Where were you sitting in relation to Malachi when he died?”

“I was in the middle of the front row, left side of the church.”

“So you had a clear line of vision?” Jane wrapped her fingers with the edge of her T-shirt in an attempt to make them be still.

“I was close, but there was a lot of sound equipment in front of me. Have you been to Alpha Omega Faith Center? In Milwaukie? Not too close to the river, but not too far from Jennings Lodge either? It was there, or near there. You know the one? Big church with the golden pillars in front and the flags from the nations flying in the parking lot? The new church?”

“Slow. Down.” Jake exaggerated the words.

Gemma paused. She pressed her lips together, but when she started up again it was just as fast. “The sanctuary at Alpha Omega seats five thousand, and the stage, if you want to call it that, is huge. I was in the middle of the front row on the far left, so I couldn’t see him very well. Plus, there were these big speaker towers right in front of me. I had to keep my head turned, and kind of sat sideways in my pew, the whole time to even see Josiah Malachi’s profile.” Gemma demonstrated how she had had to sit, sidewise on the edge of her chair, head turned forty-five degrees.

“So close, but not very clear.” Jane stretched her neck in sympathy. “What happened? How did he die?”

“He was kind of rambling; I’ll admit it, there were times when I got bored, and this was one of them. He was just going on and on, a bunch of fruity language about blessings and praise and stuff. Not bad, but very general, and then, he kind of started shaking a little, like he might be slain in the Spirit, or was about to have a stroke or a heart attack.”

“Which he probably did have.” Jake thumped the heel of his foot against the metal leg of the coffee table, which he was again sitting on.

“I don’t think so, ’cause he started stammering and foaming at the mouth, which I don’t think people do when they have a heart attack, and then his hands went up in the air, and he fell over.”

“Foaming at the mouth?” Jane frowned. What made a person foam? Rabies did. Could you die from a delayed rabies reaction? Could you have a delayed rabies reaction at all? She rejected it. Poison could make you foam at the mouth, too. “What did he do right before he foamed at the mouth?”

“I told you, he was being all verbose about praising God.”

“Was that all? Or did he do something else? Take a drink or eat something?”

“Hold on.” Gemma looked up and to the left, clearly trying to remember something. She rubbed her lips together. Then her face lit up. “He did; he wiped his forehead with a white handkerchief. Then he coughed a little, with the handkerchief over his mouth—kind of clearing his throat. Then he took a sip of water.”

“What happened immediately after sipping the water?” Jane was on the edge of her seat. Josiah had been poisoned, and whoever set up his water had done it. The crime had almost just solved itself.

“Uh…lessee, he sipped the water, and that’s when he started foaming, a thin trickle kind of down the side of his face, but real foamy, and he tried to talk, but it came out funny. Then he put his hand to his heart, not really clutching his chest, just kind of fluttering his hand over his heart. Then he stiffened up, and fell over backwards.”

“What was the very next thing that happened?” Jane asked.

“The crowd went wild. Lots of
amens
and
hallelujahs
. I think everyone thought he had been slain in the Spirit.”

Jake got up from the table and paced back and forth across the hardwood floors, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked like he was deep in thought. “Oh, he had been slain, all right.” Jake stopped walking and narrowed his eyes. “Foaming at the mouth, huh? Sounds like poison to me.”

“I have to agree.” Jane chewed on her unpainted thumbnail. “When did the audience realize he had died?”

Gemma bit her lip. “See, he kind of lifted himself up on his elbow for a second, and he was still wearing a mic, so his weird, gurgling breathing was really gross and loud, but he lifted himself up and said, ‘On the golden throne,’ and then he fell back down. And everyone was really sure he had had a vision then, and like a hundred people just rushed the stage. It was a madhouse.”

“Gemma…” Jake locked eyes with her. “Did you rush the stage?”

Gemma nodded and looked at her hands.

“Perfect!” Jane bounced in her seat. “So you rushed the stage with them. Good girl. Tell me you saw everything, smelled something weird on his breath, found a cryptic note in his pocket. Tell me you got some good details.”

Gemma took a deep breath. “I ran on stage with everyone else. It was really exciting—when the Holy Spirit moves, you want to be a part of it; I mean, you just do. But when I got on stage, it was all pushing and shoving and chaos and yelling. It was scary. I didn’t get close enough to touch him, but these guys that had been on stage with him, sitting in chairs behind him, they, like, kind of pushed us all away, and when they did, I saw the knife in his back.”

“A what kind of knife?” Jane couldn’t picture it.

“I don’t know, but it had a wooden handle like a kitchen knife. It seemed small, like a fish knife thingy, instead of a butcher knife, you know?”

“So something you could hide easily?” Jane scrunched her nose. “But it would still have to be something you could count on to kill.”

“When did his handlers realize he had been stabbed?” Jake stopped in front of the massive fireplace, a floor lamp illuminating him from behind. Jane half wished the computer’s camera was on him, for the moment.

“It all happened really fast. They kind of pushed us off the stage, and then we were back to our seats, but it was still really loud. I tried texting you guys about it maybe four times in a row, but you weren’t answering at all, so I think from now on you two need a chaperone, but that’s not the point.” Gemma’s breathless recitation was hard to follow, but it was being filmed, which was something.

“Take it slowly, Gemma.” Jake spoke gently this time, a look of worry crossing his face. “No point in you having a heart attack, too.”

Gemma gulped a breath. “All of a sudden the police were there, because I think there had been security or something, and then they lined us up at the doors and checked our IDs before they let us out. I met Francine in line, and I told her about Jane. I don’t know how I ended up with Francine and Christiana except that I had been part of the group that ended up on stage, so maybe they thought the knife could have been mine.”

“So was he poisoned, or was he stabbed?” Jane’s heart sank. Her easy-to-solve murder was ruined.

“Maybe both, I don’t know.” Gemma shrugged.

“So you say this Francine is going to call me?” Jane asked.

“Yes, and the good news is the whole event was being filmed, and I think it was being simulcast on their website, so there is digital video of all of it.”

“I wonder if the footage is already online.” Jake made a move toward the computer.

Jane turned off her camera. “Do you know the website?”

Gemma shook her head. “Just google it.”

Jane was already typing, but the Malachi Ministries website was down.

“We’ll have to check it out first thing in the morning.” Jane checked the time. It was already a quarter till two. Her head buzzed from the caffeine, but she yawned. “We’d better head out.”

Gemma yawned too, and flopped back on the couch.

“I’m going to sound like a chauvinist or something, I know. But there was a murder, and it’s late. I’d rather you both stay here for the night.” Jake rested his hand on Jane’s shoulder. “Plus, it’s a big house, so you might not have realized this, but Phoebe’s been here the whole time. It will be perfectly respectable.”

Jane shrugged. “It’s fine by me. Gemma, do you mind sleeping over?”

Gemma yawned again and closed her eyes. “Can we girls all sleep in the same room? I’m kind of freaked out.”

“Good idea.” Jake picked up his phone and typed something.

A few moments later Jane’s phone rang.

She answered it, more than a little confused. “Hello?”

“Come on up.” Phoebe yawned. “I’m in the yellow bedroom because mine’s a pit. But I’m going back to sleep, so don’t wake me.”

Jane took Gemma’s arm. “See you in the morning.” She kissed Jake’s cheek and left.

It crossed her mind that if her parents still lived in Portland, they probably wouldn’t approve of her staying over at her boyfriend’s house—again. But maybe, because of the murder, they’d understand…

BOOK: Health, Wealth, and Murder
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