In Agatha winner Spencer-Fleming's triumphant third novel, Clare Fergusson, Anglican priest and ex-army helicopter pilot, and Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne investigate the hidden secrets, past and present, of a prominent Millers Kill, N.Y., family-and must also face the hidden secrets of their own hearts.
On April 1, 1930, Jonathan Ketchem’s wife Jane walked from her house to the police department to ask for help in finding her husband. The men, worn out from a night of chasing bootleggers, did what they could. But no one ever saw Jonathan Ketchem again…
Now decades later, someone else is missing in Miller’s Kill, NY. This time it’s the physician of the clinic that bears the Ketchem name. Suspicion falls on a volatile single mother with a grudge against the doctor, but Reverend Clare Fergusson isn’t convinced. As Clare and Russ investigate, they discover that the doctor’s disappearance is linked to a bloody trail going all the way back to the hardscrabble Prohibition era. As they draw ever closer to the truth, their attraction for each other grows increasingly more difficult to resist. And their search threatens to uncover secrets that snake from one generation to the next-and to someone who’s ready to kill.
Ash Wednesday, February 12, A Day of Penance
The Rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, town of Millers Kill, Diocese of Albany, spread her arms in an old gesture of welcome. Her chasuble, dark purple embroidered with gold, opened like penitential wings. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent,” she said, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word.” Her voice echoed off the stone walls of the church and was swallowed up in corners left dark by the antiquated lighting system and the heavy, gray day outside. “And, to make a right beginning of repentance and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”
She turned toward the low altar and knelt. There was a thick woolen rustling as the twenty or so persons who had risked a late arrival at the office to attend the seven a.m. Imposition of Ashes knelt behind her. There was a vast and somber silence as they all considered the sobering idea of their mortal nature. Or at least, Clare hoped they were all considering it. Undoubtedly, some were worried about the imminent snowstorm, while others were already thinking about what awaited them at work or contemplated the pain in their knees. There was a lot of kneeling in Lent. It was hard on the knees.
Clare rose. She took the silver bowl containing the ashes from burning last spring’s Palm Sunday branches, and turned back to the people. She cupped the bowl between her hands. “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth; Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.” They said Amen in unison.
She nodded to Willem Ellis, who had cheerfully agreed to acolyte the early morning service if it got him a note excusing him from homeroom and first period geometry at school. He hopped down the steps from the altar and drew a kneeler across the bare stone before swinging the mahogany altar rail shut. Clare waited while the penitents slid out of the pews and made their way up to the rail. As one coat-muffled form after another sank down onto the overstuffed velvet kneeler, she stepped forward. “Remember that you are dust,” she said, dipping her thumb into the ashes and firmly crossing Nathan Andernach’s forehead. “And to dust you shall return.” She made a sooty cross beneath Judy Morrison’s heavily-teased bangs. Down the row, again and again. “Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return.” The black crosses emerged beneath her thumb. “Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return.” Finally, she turned to Willem, who helpfully scraped his bangs off his face to bare his forehead. She almost smiled. No fifteen year old ever remembered he was dust.
She turned back to the altar, and bowing slightly, dipped her thumb into the ashes one last time. She crossed her own forehead, feeling the grit of it pressing into her, marking her skin. “Remember that you are dust,” she whispered.
The snowstorm everyone was expecting had arrived by the end of the service. Clare shook hands and said farewells near the inner narthex door, in a spot strategically chosen for its relative lack of drafts. As member of the congregation opened and closed the doors, she could see glimpses of the leaden sky and a shower of fat, wet flakes mixed with sleet and freezing rain.
Dr. Anne Vining-Ellis paused in front of Clare to wrap a muffler around her throat. “I’m glad I insisted on bringing Will this morning,” she said. “This is crappy weather for an inexperienced driver to be out in.”
Clare waved to a departing parka-clad back and shivered as a cold wind speared through the doorway. “Amen to that,” she said.
“I don’t suppose I can suggest you stay close to home today.”
“I’m never going to live down my winter driving reputation, am I?” Anne--universally called Dr. Anne--was the closest thing she had to a good friend among her parishioners. Clare was willing to let her fuss a little. “Don’t worry, I’m not planning on making any home visits today. I’ve got two more Impositions scheduled, at noon and five-thirty. Those will keep me plenty busy.”
The emergency room doctor glanced up at the shadowy rafters. “It’s Wednesday. You always go to the Krispy Kakes Diner on Wednesdays.”
Clare pressed her lips together in what she hoped was a smile. “Well, you see then? That’s right in the middle of town.”
“I’m not the only one who’s made mention of your habit, Clare.” Doctor Anne looked at her. “You know I’m not a gossip. I just think you ought to be aware that the fact you have lunch every week with a married man hasn’t gone unnoticed.” Clare opened her mouth. Doctor Anne cut her off. “And I know it’s all perfectly innocent. You don’t have to tell me that.”
Clare rolled her eyes. “If having lunch once a week in a public diner is going to start stories, I can’t imagine what I could do to stop them from circulating. Have the man over to my house where no one will see us together?”
Dr. Anne shook her head. “Take it as a friendly F.Y.I.” She laid a gloved hand on Clare’s arm. “There are still some people in this church who aren’t too keen on the idea of a female priest. Don’t give them any ammunition, okay?”
“I’ll try to be a credit to my gender,” Clare said.
Doctor Anne laughed. “Good enough. Hey, where’s that rotten kid of mine? Willem?”
The boy’s voice came from the far side of the church. “Mom! Reverend Clare! Take a look at this!”
Doctor Anne looked questioningly at Clare, then set off toward her son. Clare followed, pulling her chasuble over her head as she walked. Willem was standing near the half way point of the north wall of the church. As Clare and his mother approached, he pointed to the deeply embrasured window there, a stained glass depiction of stately angels leading a group of children to Jesus, enthroned in glory. It had always been an odd window to Clare’s thinking--it was obviously a recent addition, done in a modern mosaic style favored in the 1970s. And the inscription wasn’t, as one might expect of such a scene, “Suffer the little children to come until me,” or “Unless ye be as little children.” Instead, two of the angels faced the viewer, holding shields with a verse from Lamentations: “But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.”
It was not the singular artwork or the gloomy verse that had caught Willem Ellis’s attention, though. It was water. Seeping from the top of the embrasure, running down the edges of the window, puddling at the deep sill and making ugly brown tracks along the pale stone wall.
“Oh, my God,” Doctor Anne said.
St. Alban’s had been built along traditional gothic lines, with the long walls to the north and south jutting away from the lofty-ceilinged central nave. These north and south aisles were sheltered under roofs a mere ten or twelve feet high, so that when Clare looked up, she could easily see the warmly-stained pine boards, carefully lapped like ship’s planking. And although the storm darkness outside leached away much of the light that normally spilled through the stained glass windows, Clare could also see the blotches spreading along the boards’ joints, giving the interior roof the brackish, mottled look of something old and unpleasantly moldy.
Clare’s silence made Doctor Anne and Willem look up, too. As they watched, a fat droplet squeezed from one of the patches and fell with a splat onto the polished wooden pew below.
“This is not good,” Clare said.
“So what did you do?” Millers Kill’s chief of police dipped a steak fry into a paper tub of ketchup and popped it into his mouth.
Clare leaned back against the crimson vinyl seat and looked out the wide window of the Kreemy Kakes Diner. Icy rain splattered the passing cars and clung to the trees, bending their branches low to the sidewalk. Across the street, the Merchants and Farmers Bank had fluorescent orange warning cones on their granite steps, which were so slick that entering to make a deposit was an exercise in ice-climbing.
“What could I do? I put pails underneath the drips and roped off the area. And asked Lois to call the vestry members for an emergency meeting.” She turned back to her lunch companion. “They’ve been going ‘round Robin’s barn about fixing the roof ever since I arrived, and I suspect they’ve been debating it for some years before. Probably what finished off the late, much-lamented Father Hames.” She stirred a strand of melted cheese into her chili. “Now, of course, they’ll have to make decisions. Unfortunately, they’re going to be based on expediency instead of careful consideration.”
Russ Van Alstyne pointed to her onion rings. “Are you going to finish those?” She waved him to help himself. “You ought to set that janitor of yours on it. I thought he was supposed to keep things running around there.”
“The title is sexton, not janitor. And he does keep things running. I swear, St. Alban’s furnace must have been installed during the Great Depression.”
“I hear a ‘but’ coming.”
“But, he’s in his sixties, and he’s not exactly in the best of health. I already have to do some fancy footwork to keep him from lugging heavy objects and climbing up the extension ladder to replace bulbs. I can just picture him clambering around an icy, pitched roof trying to figure out what’s wrong. He might survive, but I’d probably have a heart attack.”
Russ laughed. “You young whippersnappers underestimate us geezers. I do my own roofing repairs. And my farmhouse is a good century older than your church.”
“You,” she pointed her spoon at him, “are forty-nine, not sixty-three. And I’m going to assume you aren’t repairing the roof in this kind of weather.” She looked back out the window and shuddered. “I can’t believe it’s Ash Wednesday and we’re still stuck in full-blown winter. At home, it’s in the upper forties by now.”
“You’re the one who thought it was a good idea to move from southern Virginia to the Adirondack mountains. Quit your complaining, spring is coming.”
“Two weeks in May. Some spring.”
“Isn’t this your second February here?”
“Yeah. But I hoped the one last year was a fluke.” She ate a spoonful of chili and watched Russ as he deftly prevented a glob of ketchup from landing on his uniform sleeve. They were always both in uniform during their Wednesday lunches, black clericals and brown cop gear. They always met on their lunch hours, so that they couldn’t linger. They always met at the Diner, smack dab in the middle of busy South Street, and sat, whenever possible, at one of the window booths, where God and everybody could see. As she had told Doctor Anne, everything innocent and aboveboard.
Except where it counted. In her conscience. In her thoughts. In her heart.
She realized she had been looking at Russ a little too long. She dropped her eyes and dug into her chili.
“So, what’s with the dirt on your forehead?” he asked.
“It’s not dirt. It’s penitential ashes.” She looked up to see him grinning. “Which you knew very well.”
“And folks say we heathens are unwashed.” He swiped another of her onion rings. “Should you be calling attention to yourself like that? I mean, doesn’t the bible say something about praying and fasting in secret, and not wearing the sackcloth and ashes on the street corner?”
“‘And your father who sees you in secret, shall reward you in secret.’ My goodness, I’m impressed. Have you been tuning into those TV preachers again?”
He laughed. “Not hardly. I was a faithful, if unwilling, attendee at the Cossayuharie Methodist Church until I got too big for my mom to forcibly drag me there. I guess some of what I heard stuck.” He picked up the diner’s dessert menu, which was larger than the meal menu and fully illustrated with saliva-provoking photos. “What are you giving up for Lent? Chocolate? Beer?”
“I’m not giving up anything,” she said. “The whole giving-up-something-for-Lent thing is a relic from the middle ages that doesn’t have anything to do with what the season’s actually about. What I like to do instead is volunteer my time. So many not-for-profit organizations are swamped with money and offers of help at Christmas time, but who’s there in February?”
“But you already volunteer for a ton of stuff. I know you help out at the soup kitchen, and the teen mothers’ back-to-school program. And there’s the outreach you do at the homeless shelter.”
“Those are all sponsored by St. Alban’s. Showing up for the soup kitchen and the homeless shelter is part of my job.”
He suppressed a smile. “So, it doesn’t count if you do a good deed while you’re on salary. It only counts if it’s a freebie.”
“That’s not quite how I’d put it.” She scraped the last of the chili out of her bowl. “I’d like to help out at some place where I wouldn’t normally go. Some place that’s not associated with the church.”
“How about the dog pound?”
“Oh, Lord, no. I couldn’t. I’d wind up either adopting a bunch of strays I didn’t have time to care for or breaking my heart.”
“I’d have to clear up my overdue fines first. I’ve been dodging their reminder notices. I think next they send a big guy out to ‘talk’ with me.”
“Have you thought about the Millers Kill Historical Society? They always need help cataloguing the collection. It’s a big, boring job, stuck up in the top floor going through boxes of stuff. Hard for them to keep people interested in it.”
She sat back. “That’s not a bad idea.” The thought of spending time with things, instead of people, for a change, was strangely compelling. “Where is the historical society?”
“Do you know where the free clinic is?”
“Right next door.”
She crumpled her napkin and dropped it into her empty bowl. “I’ll swing by there tomorrow and see what they say.”
“Believe me, if you walk in and commit to a forty-day stint, they’ll greet you with open arms and cries of joy.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
He smiled, pleased with himself. “I’m on the Board of Trustees.”
She laughed. “You’re just full of surprises today.”
“I don’t want to get too boring.”
There was a pause. Then Russ jerked around to wave their waitress over and Clare twisted away to searching for her wallet.
“It’s on me,” he said, plucking the slip from between the waitress’s fingers.
“You paid last week. And the week before that.”
“So what? I make more money than you do.”
“That’s not the point. We agreed to share--”
He stood up and pulled his billfold from his back pocket. “Make a donation to the historical society, then.” He laid down some money next to the ketchup bottle and waited while she struggled into her expedition-weight parka, a Christmas present from her concerned Southern parents. Then he stood aside to let her go first to the door. On the way, he was greeted by two aldermen and she said hello to one of her parishioners. It was all very open. Very aboveboard. Perfectly innocent.
Remember that you are dust. Then, she had said the words.
Now...now she really felt them.
“The third and most densely textured mystery in a series by Julia Spencer-Fleming that brings new airs and graces to the traditional small-town mystery...the rich heritage of this Adirondack Mountain region also gives depth and complexity to the crimes that the well-matched pair must solve together...yes, this is a very small town, but under Spencer-Fleming's grave and tender touch it becomes a world that you want to visit and hate to leave.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“With so many threads running through the story, this could be a pacing and plotting nightmare in the hands of a less talented author. In Out of the Deep I Cry, however, the shift between time periods and subplots is seamless.”