Batten Down the Belfry

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Chapter One

The Windows of the Soul

Whitney Whitaker

On a sunny Monday morning in mid-September, my cousin Buck and I walked out of the real estate office with copies of our closing documents in hand, the most important of which was the deed to the ramshackle country church we’d just bought. The last property we’d flipped, an outdated motel we’d converted into condominiums, had netted us a pretty penny. With any luck, this new flip project would earn us a nice profit, too.

Treating my cousin to some of my sass, I tossed my long blond hair as we headed to Buck’s van. “You’re welcome.”

Buck cocked his head, which bore hair the same pine-shaving shade of blond as mine, but he didn’t break stride. “For what?”

“For me making you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams.”

He stopped and harrumphed, rubbing his fingers over his bearded chin. “Number one, my dreams of wealth are far wilder than what we’ve accomplished so far. I have yet to sip my beer from a solid gold mug or have a personal masseuse on staff. Number two, you’ve got a lot of nerve claiming all the credit. As I recall, I invested most of my savings when you didn’t have enough funds to get off the ground. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone, too.” He turned his hand palm up. “Well, maybe not to the bone, but I do have these callouses to show for my work.”

Indeed, each finger bore a thick callous, the rough skin a testimony to the hard labor he’d put into our projects. Of course, that wouldn’t stop me from ribbing him. What is family for if not to tease relentlessly? “Flipping houses was my idea, remember?”

He snorted. “Just because it was your idea initially doesn’t mean you get all the credit. Besides, our first flip was a bust. My money’s still tied up in your place.”

It was true. The first house we’d bought to flip was a quaint stone cottage in a well-established, upscale neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee. Due to unforeseen circumstances involving a body in the flower bed, we’d been unable to sell the house at a reasonable price. Thus, I’d ended up moving into the place with two roommates, my best friend, Colette, and her coworker Emmalee. Fortunately, our second flip, a traditional colonial near the airport, had netted us a decent profit. But it was our third project, the conversion of the motel, that really paid off.

As much as I’d like to think it was my cleverness and determination that earned us the windfall, I had to admit that luck played a huge part in things, too. We’d been lucky to land a property in a prime location, and to buy it for next to nothing at a tax sale. Opportunities like that were rare. Still, I had a feeling this little country church would make a profitable flip, too. Seemed nobody wanted to live in a regular house these days. Everyone wanted to live in a converted school bus, airplane, boat, or shipping container. I’d heard of horse barns, fire stations, and even grain silos being repurposed into residences. Apparently, it was passé to live in something actually intended to be lived in.

Our administrative task complete, it was time to start working on our plans for the property. We swung by my house to pick up my SUV, cat, and roommate. Though Colette had been my best friend for years, she had also recently become Buck’s girlfriend. The two had danced around each other for a while before Buck had made a grand romantic gesture by buying a food trailer for Colette, who was a professional chef. Though it might feel stifling to some to have their best friend and family intermingling, I was nothing but happy for the two of them. They both knew all of my secrets anyway. I had nothing to hide.

Colette gave me a grin and a wave as she climbed into Buck’s van, and I slid Sawdust’s carrier into my SUV. Sawdust lay down in his plastic cage but kept his head up and ears pricked, listening intently as I told him that he’d soon have a whole church to explore. He loved to see new places, so I often brought him along on my jobs to satisfy his cat’s curiosity. “It’s even got a bell tower,” I told him. “Pretty cool, huh?”

My cat cocked his head and replied with a, Mew? His question, whatever it was, would likely be answered soon enough.

We headed up Interstate 65, my SUV following behind Buck and Colette. Fifteen minutes later, we exited the freeway and turned down a country road known as Lickton Pike, which ran alongside Walkers Creek. We slowed as we approached our destination. The five-acre property was far wider than it was deep, the parcel stretched along the frontage of the road.

Nestled back in the trees on the left side of the road sat the small, redbrick ranch-style home that had served as the church’s parsonage. It might not be a large home, but it was quiet and peaceful. In fact, it was almost entirely obscured by the woods, the trees providing passersby only a glimpse of the front left corner. You’d hardly know it was there. We passed the narrow gravel road that led to the parsonage, drove another hundred yards past the rail-and-wire fencing, and pulled over to the side of the road so Buck could get out and open the gate. Once he had, we turned onto the paved road that led to the church. With so many cracks and potholes, the paved road jostled us as we went along. Sawdust stood in his carrier, his four legs splayed for better balance, a scared look on his usual sweet face. “Sorry, boy. Just a few more bumps.” Once the work on the building was done, we’d get an asphalt company out to lay a fresh, flat surface.

The church was a typical country church, wood with faded white paint and a tall steeple that included the bell tower just about the roofline. The church had fallen into disrepair after sitting on the market for nine years without a buyer. The church’s governing board had long ago decided it was no longer cost-effective to maintain the outdated building, and had built a modern church closer to the freeway with enough space to accommodate their growing flock. The trees had been cleared next to the church, providing an unobstructed view of the rolling hills that surrounded the city. Despite the pretty view, the property wasn’t attractive to most rural buyers, as the acreage wasn’t large enough for a farming or ranching operation. What’s more, the same man owned all of the property that surrounded it, meaning there was no chance of expansion. The property had long since been paid for and wasn’t costing the church anything just sitting there. It had become a long-ignored entry on their balance sheet until I came along.

The cost and hassle of razing the church turned off potential buyers, as well. But I saw potential in the existing buildings and thought the church could be reborn as a stately country home, or maybe a small winery. It could even be reconfigured to serve as a retreat center and spa. With all of the focus on self-care and wellness these days, a spa might be our best bet. The place had lots of potential and I had lots of ideas, though I had yet to settle on one.

I wasn’t sure yet about the parsonage, either. Maybe we’d rehab it, or maybe we’d tear it down. Or maybe we could separate the lot it sat on from the remaining acreage and sell it as is for someone else to tackle. For the time being, it would make a good place for us to store our tools and building materials. Construction sites tended to draw thieves looking for equipment they could pawn. Hopefully, any would-be robbers who came out to the church wouldn’t realize the house next door was part of the church property, if they even noticed it at all.

After parking my SUV, I donned my hard hat, which I’d decorated with daisy decals. Just because I’d be doing manual labor here didn’t mean I had to look like a man. I handed another hard hat to Colette. The church building needed a lot of work, but it was unlikely to fall down on our heads. Still, it was best to take precautions. Better safe than sorry.

I retrieved Sawdust’s carrier and carried him to the steps, taking care to avoid the horse droppings along the way. “Where did all this horse poop come from?”

Buck snorted. “From the backside of a horse, nitwit.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.” I glanced around. Sure enough, a half-dozen horses were grazing on the church property. I pointed them out to Buck. “Someone must have a hole in their fence that the horses got through.”

Buck grunted in annoyance. “That someone will probably come looking for them soon. I’d better go back and close the gate so they don’t get out on the road.” He turned and strode down the drive.

Colette’s dark curls slid down her back as she turned her brown face up to look at the steeple. She’d grown up in New Orleans, and brought both her Cajun recipes and accent with her when she’d moved to Tennessee for college. “Is that an old-fashioned bell tower?”

“It is,” I said. “This church is ninety-two years old. Back in the day, those bells would have been rung to let people know it was time to join in the service.”

Colette and I climbed the three wide steps that led to the covered entrance. Thank goodness for the angled roof over the doorway. It had prevented rain from getting in through the two front doors, positioned on either side of the central bell tower. The right door hung cockeyed. The left door had fallen completely off its hinges and lay in the foyer.

We stepped inside. Uh-oh. Horse droppings decorated the floor of the high-ceilinged vestibule, too, which could only mean—


Colette and I looked through the second set of doors to see a beautiful dark brown horse with a shiny coat and a black mane greeting us from the space between the pews and altar. Sawdust, who’d never seen a horse before, put his front paws on the metal grate of his carrier’s door and eyed the enormous beast as she raised her head, seemingly surprised, and not all that happy, to see us.

I groaned. “How are we going to get that horse out of the church?”

“Don’t ask me,” Colette said. “The last time I was on a horse, it was a Shetland pony and I was all of five years old.”

I carried Sawdust into the nave and set his carrier down in the center of the last pew, where he’d be safe should the horse buck or stampede. I patted my thigh and addressed the animal. “Here, horsey-horsey.”

The horse didn’t move. She just stared at me as if I were an idiot. She was probably right. I’d been treating her like a dog. Canines and equines were entirely different species. Fortunately, an idea came to me. “I’ve got an apple in my lunch box. Maybe that would work.” I hustled back out to my van and grabbed my lunch box.

Buck returned from closing the gate. “Hungry already?”

“There’s a horse inside.”

“You’re full of it.”

“I’m not,” I said. “But the church is.”

Buck followed me in, his brows rising when he saw the horse. “I’ve heard of people worshiping a golden calf, but never a bay horse.”

“Someone would bet on her, though.” I whistled the intro to the classic song “Camptown Races.”

Buck stepped back to open the remaining front door as I placed my lunch box on the same pew as Sawdust and retrieved my apple.

“Careful now,” Buck advised. “She might spook.”

I approached the mare slowly and cautiously, murmuring soothing words. “Good horsey. Got a little something for you. Good horsey.”

When I reached her, she eyed the apple I held up. Remembering that horses can accidentally bite fingers when being handfed, I placed the apple on my palm and held it out to her. She wiggled her gums as she tested it, then chomped down, taking it into her mouth and crunching noisily. When she finished, she looked at me expectantly. She hadn’t moved an inch.

Buck snorted. “Think maybe you should’ve tried to lead her outside before giving it to her?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “If you think you’re so smart, you get her out of here.”

“Okay,” he said. “I will.” He, too, approached carefully, reaching up to put a hand on her neck. “C’mon, girl. Let’s go outside.”

She didn’t move for him, either. Colette made an attempt, too, clicking her tongue and motioning with her hand as she backed toward the door. Her efforts were met with equal success. None.

“What now?” I asked.