A Virtuous Thief: An Original Mystery Short Story

Jan 7, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by J.R. Lindermuth

This story was originally published in the February 2007 issue of Crime and Suspense magazine.

“Just like the others, sir,” Officer Flora Vastine said, “the doors were left open.”

Daniel “Sticks” Hetrick, former chief and now special consultant to the Swatara Creek Police Department, grunted as he slid his lanky frame out from behind the steering wheel of his car. He followed Officer Vastine up the walk to the front door of St. Thomas Evangelical Methodist Church. “And, just like the others, there will be a thousand fingerprints all over the place.”

This was the fourth church burglary in as many months. In all cases, main doors had been left open for the benefit of the public, proving equally beneficial for the thief or thieves.

Officer Vastine nodded. “Corporal Minnich and I contained the scene and dusted, but it probably won’t do much good.”

Hetrick smiled. He was aware of the developing relationship between his two protégées and he approved. Harry was a good officer and Flora would learn much from him. Aside from that, the two seemed meant
to be together. “Where’s the pastor?” he asked now as they entered the dark, cool interior of the sanctuary.

“I think, Harry…uh, Corporal Minnich is downstairs with him in his office,” Flora said, noticeably blushing.

Hetrick ignored the unprofessional slip. “Do we know what was taken?”

“I think they actually took some money this time,” Flora said.

That was a surprise. Files had been disturbed, drawers opened and minor items taken in the others. But it was odd no money was found missing and there had been minimal vandalism in the other incidents. It appeared the thief, or thieves, were looking for something specific or a substantial amount of money.

“How much was taken?” he asked Rev. Filbert, who he found sitting behind his desk talking to Harry Minnich.

“I’ll see if I can help Flora,” Harry said, giving up his chair to Hetrick.

Eldon Filbert had replaced Jeffrey Bascom who was pastor when the murder occurred that brought Hetrick back to the department as a consultant. Sticks had liked Bascom. Not being a church-going man, he
hardly knew Filbert, though he saw him around town and the minister seemed to be respected in the community.

“Couple hundred, more or less.” Filbert took off his glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. He had a sun-reddened face, a little mustache and big, square hands with dirty fingernails. “Not sure exactly.”

“In a safe?”

“No.” Filbert looked embarrassed. “In my desk drawer.” He gestured toward it.

“Not very secure. How come you had so much money lying around.”

“I know. It was foolish of me—especially with all the other burglaries recently. It was the collection from Sunday. Would have banked it, but the holiday—they were closed, you know.”

Hetrick nodded. Memorial Day, observed on Monday and the banks were closed.

“Elmer’s gonna want my head,” Filbert said, referring to Elmer Finkbine, the church superintendent. “Should have known better. We do have a safe. Just didn’t think.”

“Any idea who might have known to look in your desk?”

The minister shrugged. “I didn’t tell anyone I put it there. Probably just found it by chance.”

“Uh, huh. And your church door—always keep it open?”

Filbert nodded. “For the convenience of any who might need a place of solace. But, I don’t think any of our regulars…”

“Right. Could have been anyone. All the other churches keep their doors open, too. All right, sir. If you think of anything else…”

“Of course. I’ll walk you out, chief.”

They went out through the basement, up a short flight of cement stairs and came out next to the new parsonage, a raised rancher with a two-car garage that faced the church. The garage doors were open and,
glancing in, Hetrick halted in mid-stride. “Whoa. Isn’t that a…”

The minister beamed. “A 1957 Chevy Bel Air. I’m restoring her. Isn’t she a beauty—tangerine with pearl trim, 327-V8, four barrel carb.”

“She sure is,” Hetrick said, walking up the driveway. That explained the minister’s dirty fingernails.

“Careful,” the minister said, seizing him by the arm.

Hetrick wheeled around. “There,” Filbert said, pointing at the ground. “You almost stepped in it.” A pool of grease lay at his feet.

“Thanks,” he said, going around the spill and up to the car.“Sure like to take a ride when you’re done with her. You gonna sell?”

“No way. But, I’d be glad to give you a ride when I’m finished with her.”

Several days later the department collared a suspect.

“We got him,” Chief Aaron Brubaker said with a broad smile as Hetrick came into the office.


“Church burglar. Patrol nabbed him comin’ out of the Baptist church.”

“Anything missing?”

“No. Probably scared him before he had a chance.”

The suspect was a middle-aged vagrant. He looked up at Hetrick with rheumy eyes and scratched with one blunt finger at a scab on his neck. “I ain’t done nothin’,” he said.

“Caught you coming out of the church,” Brubaker said.

“It a crime to go to church around here?”

“What were you doing in there?” Hetrick asked.

The man looked embarrassed. He hunched down in his seat and shrugged. “Nothin. I slept in there. I was hoping they’d serve breakfast like some of the churches do. But, there was nobody around when I woke
up. So, I thought I’d go see what I could scrounge up on my own.”

“How long have you been in the area?”

“Just got here yesterday. If you don’t put me in jail, I’ll move on right away.”

Hetrick took a five dollar bill from his wallet and laid it on the table in front of the man. The vagrant raised his eyes and looked up at him. “What’s that for?”

“For you, if you need it.”

The man snatched up the bill and stuffed it into his pocket. “You mean I can go?”

“Take off,” Hetrick told him.

“But, Sticks,” Aaron protested.

“He’s not the one, Aaron. Does he look like he netted a couple hundred bucks the other day?”

Brubaker, always eager to solve a case fast and maintain the department’s reputation, looked disappointed. Still he knew better than to argue with Hetrick who had much more experience and investigative skill, and he kept his opinion to himself. “So how are we gonna get the right guy?” he asked. “We haven’t turned up a
single fingerprint or other piece of forensics to help.”

Hetrick looked over at him from where he’d perched on the end of the table. “We’re going to be patient. He, or they, will make a mistake sooner or later—they always do—and then we’ll be there to nab ‘em.”

Brubaker wasn’t as confident.

It was only a day later Hetrick had a call from Jim Heckenwelder, pastor of the Lutheran church. “It was odd,” he said, “so I thought I’d better call you right away.”

“And what was that, Jim?”

“Our thief came back. Only this time, instead of taking anything, he left a gift. Remember our printer was knocked off the shelf and smashed? Well, he left exactly the amount of money it will take to buy
a new one of the same make and model.”

That was the moment a suspicion began building in Hetrick’s mind. He thought now he understood a pattern to the burglaries that hadn’t made sense before. The question remained—who was committing them.

The break came two nights later.

Fred Drumheiser sat on a pew, holding a damp cloth to his forehead and looking embarrassed as Hetrick walked into the Presbyterian church. Aaron Brubaker sat next to his officer. “What happened?” Hetrick

“I thought I saw a light as I drove by,” Drumheiser told him. “When I walked in, bastard nailed me. Hit me with a collection plate.”

“Since we don’t have enough manpower to keep watch on all of them, I told our people to be on the lookout when they were in the vicinity of any of the churches,” Brubaker added.

“I go here, Sticks,” Drumheiser said. “I help take up the collection. And he hit me with one of our own plates.”

“Did you get a look at him?”

“No. It was too dark. When he nailed me, I fell down. By the time I got my senses back, he was gone.”

“Uh-huh. Where exactly did this happen?”

“Over there—by the vestry door. I came in from the back. He must have heard me coming.”

Hetrick walked over to the site and looked around. A collection plate—presumably the one used as a weapon—lay on the floor. Using his handkerchief, he stooped to pick it up. That was when he noticed the stain. “Uh-huh. Well, have this checked for fingerprints, Aaron.” He set the plate down on the pew by Brubaker. “I doubt you’ll find any that aren’t supposed to be on it. See you later.”

“Where you goin’?”

“Making a layman’s call.”

“You used the money to buy a new printer for the Lutherans, didn’t you?” Hetrick asked as he confronted the man a little later in his study.

Filbert nodded. “I planned to replace the money with an anonymous donation.”

“I suspected something like that when nothing much of value was taken from the churches. I figured whoever was doing it only wanted to draw attention to the churches, not harm them.”

“All of us had a drop in attendance,” Filbert said with a little smile. “I got the crazy idea the break-ins might create sympathy for the churches. I thought people might be outraged and come back to
church to show support. I never meant to hurt anyone. Is your officer all right?”

“He’ll survive. More embarrassed than anything else.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt him. I panicked when he came in. I just wanted to get away.”

“And you would have if you hadn’t left a mark behind.”

“A mark?”

“Yeah. Not of virtue, though I expect your motive was better than your vice and your mark not quite up to that of Cain.”

“I don’t understand,” Pastor Filbert said.

Hetrick smiled. “Grease. You saved me from stepping in it when you showed me your Bel Air. Guess you weren’t quite as careful yourself. You left a stain on the carpet at the Presbyterian church.”

If you love mysteries, why not check out Left Coast Crime: Mystery Conference in Sacramento, March 29-April 1, 2012. Registration is only $225 & day passes can be purchased for $75 for Friday and Saturday panel sessions. Registration information can be found at the conventionwebsite, or by sending an email to rb@robinburcell.com or cindy@cindysamplebooks.com.

A retired newspaper editor, J. R. Lindermuth is the author of nine novels, including four in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series. Visit his website.


  1. Another good one, John. I especially liked the ’57 Chevy part. Ahhh, the memories.

  2. John,
    I enjoyed your story. I used to write short stories all the time (I had a tall stack of them) but I haven’t in years. I gave it up when I started my first novel partly because the markets just didn’t seem to be there anymore. Obviously, I was mistaken. Maybe, one of these days . . . .

  3. Not a bad story … there’s another short story of his on his website, called “Sleeping Dogs.”

  4. Dependable fiction, as usual. Keep at it, John. Great stuff !

  5. Great piece. The visuals of getting hit over the head with a collection plate tickled my funny bone.

  6. Clever twist. I look forward to reading more stories as good.



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