The couple sitting in my office looked to be in their late thirties, much too young to meet my criterion of senior citizenry, but before I could tell them, the man said “I'm Luther Martin, Mr. Tuff, and this is my wife, Katherina. I'm the minister of the Launcelot Andrewes Church.”
He was not wearing his clerical collar and I appreciated that fact because, when I was teaching, clergymen who came to see me, usually to complain about their children's marks, inevitably wore ecclesiastical symbols, perhaps as an attempt at intimidation.
“We have a problem at the church and I'd rather not involve the police, so I hope you can help.”
“What is the problem?”
“Someone is stealing part of the collection money each week.”
“This on top of our son's repeated illnesses,” added Mrs. Martin.
“I'm sorry,” I said. Mentally I waived my seniors rule. I was tempted to remind them that “Those whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth” and to observe that He must love the Martins very much, but I didn't. “Exactly how is the money handled?”
“Each week, two, three, or four ushers, depending on the size of the congregation, take up the collection and put the plates of money on a table at the back of the church. Clyde Bonney then counts it and puts it into a bag with a note of the total and after the service, I take it home and the next day I deposit it in the bank. Each time there is a small amount missing.”
“Maybe Mr. Bonney isn't very good at counting money,” I suggested.
“No, he's very accurate, but ... well he loves horses.”
I thought Mrs. Martin was hinting at equine perversion, then I realized what she meant. I love dogs.
“Rumour has it that he likes to bet on races and he's not very good at picking winners,” she said.
“We don't like to think that our congregation is helping to pay his gambling debts. That's why we hesitate to involve the police. Besides, the money is out of his hands before any of it disappears.”
“It seems to be stolen while it is in your house – and only part of it. Strange.”
That meant that the only suspects were the Martins, in other words, there were no suspects. It was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. I liked the Martins and the challenge, so I took the case.
Sunday morning I attended their church, sitting in the back row as I habitually did in the theatres and at meetings and had done as a student, but this time I was there so that I could observe as many people as possible. No one looked especially nefarious.
The service had the inevitable glitches. A board at the front listed the opening hymn as 123, Reverend Martin announced it as 231, and the organist played another tune. Was this divine dyslexia? When the cacophony ended, Reverend Martin smiled and said “I'm sure the Lord appreciates being praised in three ways simultaneously.” As the choir began the anthem, the man holding the music for three singers dropped the sheets, so that part of the number was sung minus the bass section.
When the collection plate was passed along my row, I realized that I had no money handy, so to avoid embarrassment, I put my fist into the receptacle and, as I opened my fist, shook the plate to create a sound like money being deposited.
The sermon was appropriately, on the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”