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Chapters 13 and 14
Church politics and more revelations about the missing senior pastor
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“You can’t back out now.” Kat declared. “With respect, Ms. Torrance-Martens…”
Kat rocked forward on her chair, a cream and gold wingback paired with the one beside her, where her great-aunt, Attie Beacham was enthroned. Kat’s bare feet pressed into the pile of a Persian rug woven in rich blues. She clutched a matching throw pillow in her lap.
“Kat please, it’s Betty.”
Kat pulled an errant thread from the pillow.
“Okay Betty… But you were always Miss Torrance. That was before you married Ivy. I thought… I hoped she’d be here tonight. She would understand how much this matters to me.”
A formal portrait over the fireplace revealed the source of Attie’s intimidating features. The faces of Cyril and Mabel Brown scowled down on all of us with equal disdain. I recognized Attie’s parents from similar grim images engraved above their names on the plaque outside Saint Mungo’s education wing. They were the reason it was Brown Hall.
I felt confident Cyril and Mabel would have deemed it unseemly for a young woman to entertain in anything so casual as yoga pants and an oversized sweatshirt.
A clumsy neon chalk drawing of a feline face, and the words ‘Odious Kat Productions’ were printed on her black top. Kat’s blonde hair fell over her shoulders to frame the logo.
“I know this is important to you,” Betty said. “But this is a hard time for Saint Mungo’s.”
“With respect… Betty. We have a contract. The production company paid the church extremely well for two location days. You need to let us do our work.”
I sat opposite Kat. When she leaned forward, the artfully torn collar of her sweatshirt, exposed more than I cared to view, or be seen observing. Each time she bowed I turned my gaze to photos on the shelves flanking the fireplace.
The closest cluster was dedicated to the Daniels family. The largest was a studio portrait of Attie’s sister Lila with her husband Ralph and a swaddled infant that had to be Dido. Ralph’s tie was cinched tight and he was red in the face. Lila looked as stern as every woman in her clan, but I might be influenced by what I’d read in Doug’s journal.
There was an elegant click as Betty placed her china cup in its gold trimmed saucer. She set them on a small mahogany pedestal table. The sound and movement drew my attention back from the photos.
Betty met Kat’s gaze, and said in a soft tone, “I understand this is important to you.” She then looked to Attie. “Thank you so much for tea.”
Attie gave a regal nod, and a small wave. Betty’s signal to move things along.
From where I sat, the carved legs of Attie’s chair seemed a fraction taller than the others. Attie wore a matching teal jacket and skirt that could have come from the Margaret Thatcher collection. She’d even donned pearls.
Betty leaned towards Kat.
“At this point we can’t promise access to the main building. The police investigation continues, and the deep cleaning afterwards will take time.”
I felt under-dressed even though I’d stopped at home for my back-up funeral suit. I ran a hand over my head, smoothing down the hairs they’d snipped short at the hospital. I was sure they pointed straight up. My fingers went to the spot they’d shaved for the staples.
“My crew is scheduled.” Kat’s voice rose in pitch. “Equipment is rented. I’ve even booked Annika and her search dog.”
Kat folded her throw pillow and pressed the halves together.
Attie cracked a frown.
Kat caught her look and unfolded the pillow on her lap.
“We won’t need inside, except for bathroom access, and power. If that’s a problem, I’ll have a generator, and a porta-potty brought in.”
Attie flinched when Kat said potty. Not very East Oakville.
In her high school graduation photo, in a place of honour to the right of the fireplace, Kat appeared privileged, poised and perfectly coiffed. Virgil looked sad and sullen in his photo, facing the lens with dim, hooded eyes.
Had the police tracked him down?
“Kat,” Betty asked, “could you postpone your shoot until after Easter? Just a few days…”
Kat had expected Ivy to be here, and she had a point. I was used to seeing Betty and Ivy as a matched pair, usually sporting jeans and uniform polo shirts from the rec centre. They even wore them Sundays, under their choir gowns.
For tonight’s command performance Betty’d upgraded to black dress slacks, a white silk blouse and a collarless leather-trimmed tweed jacket. With her salt and pepper hair in a bun for the occasion, she might pass for one of Attie’s neighbours, or perhaps her accountant.
I wondered if Ivy’s absence was a strategy to appease Attie. Ivy being the first out lesbian at Saint Mungo’s hadn’t sat well with Attie.
Kat glanced at her phone. “It’s almost eight o’clock. It’s too late to cancel things.”
Betty looked to me.
“Reverend Tom, don’t you think it would be better to put things on hold?”
I drained the tepid dregs from my teacup, remembering Gwen’s claim that I can’t say no to a woman. She’s told me before it’s a mother thing. She’s one to talk.
“To be honest,” I said, “I’m not sure how it would make a difference.”
My next mistake was allowing my gaze to follow the guttural sound that came from Attie, breaking the silence she’d kept since leading me into her parlour. Her steel grey eyes met mine, and I saw that I’d lost any goodwill I might’ve gained.
“This… minister may not be sure, but I am!”
Attie snatched the pillow from Kat’s lap.
Kat laced the fingers of her now-empty hands in her lap, leaned back, and met her great aunt’s eyes with her own steely look.
Attie tucked the pillow behind her and asked Kat, “How do you think it will look?”
Kat shifted in her chair.
“How will what look?”
“You know very well what I mean,” Attie replied. “The body in Saint Mungo’s basement was the big story on last night’s news, complete with garish footage of police cars flashing their ridiculous lights in front of our church.”
“That’s what happens when a body is found,” Kat said. “People want the story.”
Attie looked my way. “Then today sirens wail and smoke billows and the media swarms in front of the manse.”
Did she actually blame me for something that could have killed Michael and I?
“It’s time to let things settle. Another spectacle at the church would not be proper.”
“That’s what you’re worried about? Propriety? Not about the poor man buried in the wall?”
“I worry about appearances. No one else seems to.” She glared at me, again.
Gwen was right. I should have stayed home. We’d be eating pad thai right now. With our feet up, watching Netflix. I would have gone for the extra spicy.
I looked again at the collected family photos. Had these people ever been happy?
A simple pewter frame held a shot of Dido Daniels as a teen mother. Her cut-off shorts and cropped Nirvana t-shirt must have scandalized Attie and Lila. She stood behind Virgil and Kat, who were suspended in a pair of toddler swings.
The twins wore matching red and blue striped outfits, and their faces shone with joyous smiles. Dido leaned in with a hand on each child’s back as if she was pushing them away.
“Aunt Attie,” Kat said, “you know what this project means to me. I put myself out there.”
There was a light touch on my hand. I turned to see Betty mouth, “We should go.”
I nodded my full agreement.
Attie missed this exchange or ignored it.
“Really Kat, the last thing we need is more people slowing down as they drive by, to gawk and wonder what new scandal has befallen our poor church.”
“I studied film production for four years and have spent most of my workdays fetching coffee. This time I’m the assistant director!”
Betty rose from her chair, and said, “Attie, I want to thank you for your hospitality.”
I stole a look at the photo next to the swing set shot. Mounted in an elegant carved cherry wood frame, the subject was a young girl caught in mid-spin, in a dance recital. Her blonde hair was pulled tight in a bejeweled ballerina’s bun. Was it Dido? The innocent joy in her clear blue eyes reminded me of the little one I’d seen dance around a grave.
Kat said. “This began with the stories about Uncle Doug. Don’t you wonder if they’re true?”
Attie’s face went white, then red. “You know I have no use for that ghost talk.”
I turned to Kat. “As Betty said, it may be time to call it a night.”
“That, Reverend Book,” Attie declared, “is the most… no, the only helpful thing you’ve said. Good night, everyone.”
Attie steamed out of the parlour before I could negotiate out of my chair. My knees protested, and I suppressed a groan as I stood.
Kat said, ‘We won’t see her again tonight. She’s headed up to her royal chambers.”
Betty ended an uncomfortable silence. “Ivy just texted. She’s out front.”
We followed Kat out to the foyer.
I helped Betty with her coat, then stepped back as she deftly slipped out of her flats, and into her boots.
Betty tucked her shoes into her handbag, and came out with a small manila envelope, which she passed to me.
“It’s from the pile of videos Eric sorted. He said you should watch it.”
“I doubt it’ll be tonight.”
I tucked the envelope in a pocket of my overcoat, which still smelled smoky from the fire at the manse.
“That’s understandable. You must be exhausted. Thanks for coming.”
There was a rush of frigid air as Kat opened the front door.
“Oh!” Kat said, “Ivy. Come in. I didn’t know you were waiting there.”
Ivy knocked her boot against the edge of the landing, releasing a tread-marked clot of snow.
“No, I’d just track this in. Don’t want to make a mess in Attie’s fine house.”
Ivy looked snug enough in her bright red Canada Goose parka, but to be polite, I asked, “Are you okay out there?”
“I’m good, Reverend Tom.”
Ivy’s breath hung in the wintry air. Only the bangs of her black hair showed under a dark shearling hunter’s cap. She had the ear flaps pulled down, against the cold. In this light it was hard to make out her face.
“Well, I’m cold now,” Kat said. She backed away from the doorway and grabbed a long grey cardigan from a hook behind her.
“Ivy, I so wish you’d been here,” Kat said, pulling the sweater tight around herself.
Ivy turned to me, and said, “Be good to her. She’s been through so much.”
Betty stepped out into the chill night.
“Take my arm as we walk,” Ivy said. There’s black ice, and I don’t want you falling. Attie needs a railing here. Doesn’t have to be fancy, like the rest of this place.”
“Kat, it was good to see you,” Betty said. “Please thank your great-aunt for her hospitality.”
Ivy led Betty towards her Toyota Tundra pickup, which idled on the circular drive.
“Good night, Kat. Thank you, Tom.”
Their movement activated a security light. In the yellow glare, I saw one of the chrome bars on the truck’s front grille was cracked. There was an oval shadow where the Toyota emblem belonged.
Ivy was particular about her possessions. I once referred to her truck as purple. With surprising ferocity, she’d said, “I’m an artist. Colours are my language. It’s not purple, it’s black currant.”
Kat pushed the heavy door closed, and turned to face me. She shivered, and sobbed, and stood just a little too close. “Reverend Tom, I need you to tell me the truth. Did Virgil do something to Ed?”
“Kat, why would Virgil harm Rev. Wilder?”
Wielding a chef-worthy serrated blade, Kat carved generous slices from a crusty french loaf. The sweet yeasty scent conversed with my grumbling stomach, which called out for more than the raisin muffin I’d grabbed at the hospital Tim Horton’s.
Kat set a platter of spiral cut maple ham on the white marble top of the kitchen island, alongside a block of aged cheddar and a tub of butter. “Choose your mustard from the fridge door.”
Did they have Grey Poupon? My kitchen had store brand yellow mustard, and whatever takeout packets landed in the junk drawer.
Kat still wore the long grey cardigan she’d wrapped tight around her against the cold. While leading me to the kitchen with the promise of a sandwich, she’d wiped at her tears on her sleeve. The mascara smears under her eyes made her look both fierce, and vulnerable.
“Tell me about Virgil,” I asked. “Why are you worried?”
“He acts like my big protector.” Kat poured milk in a copper pot and set it on the stove. She lit the gas beneath it.
“He’s your brother.” I remembered the photo of the twins on the toddler swings. They’d lost their mother not long after. “You’ve been through a lot.”
“Can you do the sandwiches?” She peeled gold foil from a bar of Cadbury Royal Dark. “This was my mother’s favourite.”
She diced the slab of chocolate, lifted the cutting board, and plowed thin shards into a small glass bowl with the knife edge.
I built and plated the sandwiches. “Anything else to do?”
“Add chocolate.” Kat handed me the glass bowl. I shook in dark flakes, which melted as she whisked the steaming milk. “If I stop stirring the milk will scald.”
“I should make it this way for Hope.” I said. “It smells incredible.”
Kat poured in table cream.
“My mom would make this when she was sad, or scared. Grandma Lila always had good chocolate. That was before…”
“Is that why Virgil… why he looks out for you?”
Kat killed the flame and lifted the pot. “When my mom… when she died, that was when Grandma Lila moved out. Auntie Attie and Uncle Doug came here to take care of us. Virgil was never the same.”
“I never met your mom. It couldn’t have been easy for any of you.”
I thought of Doug’s take on Lila’s deal with Attie. Adopt the twins, get a big house.
Kat poured cocoa into large mugs. Rich aroma rose with the steam.
“Virgil worries he’ll lose me.” She pointed to a white ceramic crock on the kitchen island, that held cooking implements. “Hand me that grater?”
I gave her the tool. “You’ve both lost a lot.”
“I don’t remember Grandpa Ralph. Aunt Attie says he drank himself to death.” She pulled a cinnamon stick from a glass canister. “You want some on top?”
I nodded. “And your grandmother?”
“We see Lila at Christmas, and usually in July. She has to come back from Sarasota every six months for her health insurance.”
Kat rubbed the cinnamon stick across the grater.
“I’m sorry it’s been this way. You and Virgil did nothing to deserve it.”
“Mom was lovely, but like Aunt Attie says, she was flakier than a snowstorm. Ow!” Kat caught a knuckle on the grater. “Shit!”
I said, “Let’s get cold water on that.”
Kat held her hand under the stream from the chrome kitchen tap.
“Don’t worry, there’s no blood in your hot chocolate.”
I smiled. “I bet it stings.”
“Would you grab a band-aid from under the sink?”
“Of course.” I backed up against the kitchen island and knelt to search for the box.
“Looks like you had some first aid of your own. The back of your head.”
I rose and opened the kit on the island counter.
“Looks worse than it is.”
Kat laid her hand flat on the counter top.
“Was that from today at the manse?”
I ignored her query.
“Let’s get some antibiotic cream on there.”
Carrie was the nurse, but I’d been allowed to assist as she patched up Hope’s scrapes over the years.
“Two of these small ones will do. The abrasions are below the knuckle, so they won’t stop you bending your fingers.”
“Reverend Tom, what happened at the manse? Did my brother do something to Ed?”
I gestured to the stools at the end of the kitchen island.
“Let’s sit. I’m hungry.”
The conversation might go better without eye contact. Some of my best talks with Hope have been on long car rides when she can stare out her window.
“I want to know what happened at the manse.”
“There was a fire and an explosion. It’s a mess.”
“You were there, with Michael Powers from the church council. The one with the restaurant, who used to be a cop. I saw you in his car when I drove by.”
“Kat, why were you there?”
“I was looking for Ed… for Reverend Wilder.”
“You want to say more about that?”
I bit through the crust and took in a mouthful. The maple ham was sweet, the butter salty. My stomach was happy.
“I’ve been worried since Monday. He said he’d be there for my shoot. I think Virgil…”
“You keep saying you think Virgil did something. Do you know where he is?”
Kat blew across the surface of her cocoa, then sipped.
“He doesn’t live here anymore.”
“There are people who want to talk to him.”
“He’s in trouble. I knew it.”
“Kat, why do you think Virgil would be in trouble?”
She pushed her plate away. “He saw us. Ed and me.”
I set my sandwich down, with reluctance, and turned to face Kat.
“Maybe you should tell me what’s going on.”
“Ed and I are… seeing each other.” Kat pulled the long sweater tight around her.
“We were in the lady’s parlour. We thought we were alone in the building.”
I took a breath and nodded.
“When was this?”
“Ed and I were on that old horsehair sofa, and we were… Virgil just walked in on us. Ed locked the door, but…”
“Virgil has all the keys.”
I tried not to picture the scene.
“He yelled ‘you’re just like Mom.’ I asked what he meant but he just came at us. Ed stood and tried to pull on his slacks. He said, ‘Virgil, we can talk about this’.”
I shifted on my stool and worked to keep a neutral face.
Kat continued. “Virgil pulled out his phone and snapped photos…”
I raised my eyes toward the kitchen ceiling. “Does your aunt…”
“She can’t hear anything.” Kat shook her head. “She’ll be up in her sitting room, with her big tv up loud and the door shut.”
“No, I mean, does she know about you and...”
“No way. She would kill him.” Kat flashed a sly smile. “She hates ministers. No offense, but she says you’re a necessary evil.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Ed grabbed at Virgil’s phone, but his feet were tangled in his pants. Virgil backed away and kept on clicking. He said, ‘I can’t believe you Eddie.’ By this time I’d put myself back together and just wanted out.”
I nodded. “I wouldn’t want to be there either.”
“Virgil said, ‘I’m going to tell her. She warned me about you. I’m sending her a picture.”
“Send a picture?” I asked, “To who?”
“Ed stepped towards Virgil, tried to grab the phone. He tripped and fell forward. I tried to catch him, break his fall, but I wasn’t fast enough. Virgil just stood there and watched as Ed went down. I couldn’t believe it.”
I took a warming swallow from my mug, against the creeping chill I felt. “What happened then?”
Kat closed her eyes. “It was awful. Ed caught his forehead on the edge of that ugly old coffee table, and he was knocked out. I said, ‘Help me get him up,’ but Virgil just turned and walked away. He slammed the parlour door.”
“Um.” I felt sick, and heavy with exhaustion. Ed is twice her age and is supposed to be her minister. Kat’s not much older than my Hope.
“I rolled Ed on his side, made sure he was breathing. I fixed his pants, kind of tucked everything in. I didn’t want anyone else to see him that way. Can you understand that?”
“You were trying to help.”
“I could feel a phone in his pocket. It must have been on vibrate. It was getting a bunch of texts. I was going to use it to call 911, but then Ed woke up.”
“Was he okay?”
Kat’s eyes went wide with the memory. I saw the vulnerability of that little girl in the toddler swing.
“He threw up on that old Persian rug, which was awful. But that seemed to be what he needed. I thought he’d be okay. The gash on his forehead had stopped bleeding.”
“What happened after that?”
“Ed told me he’d see me in the morning. He said I shouldn’t worry; he’d fix it with Virgil. He looked at his phone, and swore out loud, which wasn’t like him, and told me he had to go see someone.”
“Did he say who?”
“Ed doesn’t tell me about his work. He’s very… private.”
“What did you do then?”
“I had calls to make about the morning shoot, so I went home. I haven’t heard from Ed since.”
“What about Virgil?”
“My brother hasn’t talked to me. He ignores my texts. He was supposed to open the church for me and the crew. But I think he’s been following me.”
I left most of my sandwich, and a brown smear of mustard on the plate. My appetite had fled. What I’d eaten was a lump in my gut.
“Kat, are you worried he’ll do something to you?”
“He’d never hurt me, but he’s being even weirder than usual. You know he’s always been a little…”
“I’ve known both of you since you were kids, but never really connected with Virgil. I’m sorry about that.”
I brought my plate to the sink and reached for the tap. Kat waved me away.
“I’ll clean up.”
“Thanks for the food.”
“You looked like you could use it. Thanks for talking, and for listening. Especially after I was such a bitch at the shoot.”
“Does Virgil have anyone to talk to?”
“Aunt Attie unless she’s in a mood, like now. Or Ivy. She looks out for us.”
I moved towards the front hallway, and my winter coat.
“I need to get home. It’s been a day.”
“I get that. Thanks again, Reverend Tom.”
“What you disclosed about you and Reverend Wilder…” I pulled on my coat. “Aside from how awful it must have been when Virgil walked in…” I dug in my pocket for my keys, while I searched for words. “there are ethical boundaries in the church, and…”
“You think he’s taking advantage of me.”
“Yes. But it’s more complicated than that.”
“My whole life has been complicated Reverend Tom. But I’m tired and like you said, it’s been a day.”
“Can we talk again?”
“Can it wait until we find Ed? I’m worried about him.”
Kat stood in the doorway as I stepped out into the cold. Her big sweater hung below her knees. I saw a fierce woman and a lonely child, at the same time.
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