Discover more from reluctant sleuth
Chapters 7 and 8
the story continues
These are the next two chapters of my mystery The Book of Answers, which was nominated for an Award of Excellence by Crime Writers of Canada. I post 2 chapters each week. I invite your comments, and encourage you to recommend reluctant sleuth to others.
With each 2 chapter installment I post of The Book of Answers, more and more people subscribe. It’s very encouraging! I’ve also had some folks sign on as paid subscribers. I’ve decided to use their “investment” in this project to help cover the costs of formatting The Book of Answers as an e-book, and making a cover that will hopefully be eye-catching.
A red Toyota Corolla, grimy with road salt, rolled through the cemetery gate and stopped beside Gwen’s car.
Gwen waved to the driver, a fortyish looking woman with ash brown hair pulled tight in a bun, and sad eyes. “That’s Ella Sayers. It’s her mother who passed.”
I powered my seat back as Gwen lowered the window on my side. She spoke across the gap to the woman in the Toyota.
“Ms. Sayers, everything is prepared. Would you like to follow me?”
She said, “Let’s just get this done. I need to get back to work.”
Gwen pulled ahead to open a space for the red Toyota. The funeral car’s tires crunched slowly through ice and snow as Gwen led the procession. On both sides of the lane rows of headstones poked up through drifted snow.
Gwen said, “She’s having a time.”
“That’s how she was on the phone,” I said. “Didn’t want to meet to plan things or talk about her mother.”
Dirty red-brown tire tracks in the snow mark where they’d backed out the front-end loader. The cemetery crew placed plywood sheets around the hole in the frozen earth and laid green plastic carpet over the wood. It was safer footing but always made me think of miniature golf.
Gwen said, “She was all business when we met. Her mother’s pre-plan specified a protestant officiant. The original arranger’s notes were still in the file, and they’d penciled in A.B.C. You know, Anything but Catholic.”
“So much of my ministry is helping people get over hurtful history.”
Gwen patted my arm. “Part of why we love you, Tom. It’s also why I asked you to help, even though you’re supposed to be off this week.”
Gwen had been a student intern at Morrison Brothers when we first met. I walked in the back office to pick up a clergy record as an older, white, male staffer schooled her about the need to control her hair. Back then, she’d kept it in shoulder length tight twists.
“With respect, Mr. Morrison, do you see who’s up there?” Gwen pointed to the photos of the deceased on the schedule board. “They look a lot more like me than you.”
Morrison brought his hands up, like a Brooks Brothers Jesus calming the waters, and said, “At Morrison Brothers we require a certain… professional look, Ms. Bailey. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Did you read their announcements? Nuala Clark was a Bay Street lawyer, Dr. Williams an orthopedic surgeon, and Henrietta Brown was a clerk at the provincial legislature for 27 years. Is that “professional” enough for you?” She even made the air quotes with her fingers.
Later that day, as she drove us to a cemetery, I saw Gwen’s broad smile for the first time when she declared, “I do weary of the rule of old white men. No offense!”
She was the one in charge on this chilly afternoon.
To the right of the grave, loose soil and frozen clods of dark brown earth spilled out from under a green tarp. Where the dirty tracks met the cemetery lane, a discrete sign read “Morrison Brothers”.
Down the road, two men sat in an idling pickup truck. They’d wait there until Gwen gave the nod to fill in the grave.
Gwen said, “I’ll get things going. We’re using interns and new hires as pall bearers today. Good experience for them. You stay warm in the car until we need you, yeah?”
Ella Sayers stood alone on the path to her mother’s grave. Above us there was a break in the clouds.
Sunlight glinted off a polished aluminum rail of the casket lowering device. I looked up from the unexpected brightness to see a small blonde girl dancing on the mini-golf carpet. I’d just been talking with Hope. Was that why I saw or day-dreamed this little one?
The dancer seemed about five years old. She wore a fuzzy red wool poncho trimmed in white fur. She circled the dark hole into which Mrs. Sayers’s remains would descend.
Gwen rapped on the car window with her gloved knuckle. It always felt odd to have her open my door but it’s the Morrison Brothers way. The Cadillac chimed as I climbed out.
The little dancer moved to the beat rung out by the Cadillac. The curled ends of her long blonde hair bobbed with each step. The smooth leather soles of her shiny black shoes slipped a little on the frosted green carpet. She smiled broadly as she circled the grave, leaving no tracks I could see.
Gwen said, “Ms. Sayers, this is Reverend Book.”
She was about halfway between my height of six feet, and Gwen’s five feet. Close up, her eyes looked tired. Strands of ash brown hair pushed out from under a blue and white Maple Leafs toque.
“Ms. Sayers. Hello.”
Our breaths made clouds in the cold air.
“Reverend Book, thank you for doing this.”
“It’s Tom. I asked before, but is there anything I should say about your mother?”
Her jaw stiffened. “Can we just please start?”
I turned to Gwen. “Ms. Bailey?”
Gwen nodded to Pat, another senior staffer, who stood between the grave and the funeral coach with a squad of junior staffers.
Pat was as wide and solid as the stone posts at the cemetery entrance. He swung open the rear door of the funeral coach and rolled the casket out a third of the way. The pallbearers were paired by descending height. They wore matching tailored charcoal topcoats and standard issue Morrison Brothers ear warmers. They stepped in to grip the carry handles on either side of the casket.
Four of the six were women and three were persons of colour. A sign of Gwen’s influence at one of the stuffiest family firms in a very conservative industry. One pallbearer’s hair was fixed in tight braids at least as long as Gwen used to keep hers.
A slight lift of Gwen’s two gloved palms, and the six pall-bearers moved as one. I fell in beside Gwen as we slow-marched in unison.
We followed muddy tracks in the snow from the road to the grave. I snuck a peek over my shoulder and saw Ella Sayers lagging.
I turned to face her mother’s resting place. As I stepped up on the golf green carpet to the right of the grave, the little blonde dancer gamboled towards me. Her blue eyes were luminous.
The little girl seemed startled to see me. She stopped short, skidding on the slick, frosted surface. Her arms flew out in anticipation of a fall. I stepped towards her, and leaned forward, reaching out to catch her. The little one halted her forward slide and regained balance, just before those woolly white mittens would have met my hands.
On the other side of the grave, Gwen cleared her throat, and with the slightest nod to me, signaled the approach of the casket.
I turned my head and saw Pat huffing clouds behind me.
I stepped aside for the young staffers carrying the casket.
I strode to the head of the grave, moving through the spot where I’d last seen the little dancer. All that remained was my memory of the clarity of those pale blue eyes.
If Aunt Rosie the Obeah woman had it right, what was this spirit trying to tell me? If it’s not a guiding spirit, then what’s happening to me? I tried to remember what my wife would have said. Be open, accept, receive.
Pat’s crew set Mrs. Sayers’s casket on the cross bands of the lowering device. The canvas straps tightened and strained audibly under the weight, but held. The pallbearers stepped back from the grave.
I took a centering breath and reached in my coat for the script. I looked to Ella Sayers, the lone mourner at her mother’s grave. She met my gaze for the first time, as I began to speak.
“We are here to say farewell to Mrs. Wanda Mae Sayers. With faith and hope we entrust her to God’s loving care. We want that for her as much as we want that for every soul who’s ever lived, and for ourselves when it’s time. Her body will be laid to rest in this place but those we love do not perish with their body. We are part of a bigger story, and there is more to us, more to everything, than we can usually see.”
“Eric Halliday, was that your handiwork in the old boiler room?”
“Reverend Tom, are you asking if it was me who hid that poor soul’s body in the wall?”
Eric carried himself like the old-school banker he once was. His checked flannel shirt and pressed khakis fit neatly on his small frame. He kept his white hair freshly trimmed, like he was ready to go back to the branch tomorrow, even though he’s been retired longer than I’ve been working.
“No, I meant the new whiteboards, and all those drill holes on the outside wall… but are you trying to tell me something?”
“We had some trouble with the last one. The whiteboards were on Deborah’s muffin list.”
Our church administrator leaves out a tin of fresh baking topped with a post-it note for the old boys coffee and fix-it club.
Eric’s one of her favourites. He came in early to help Michael and I set up for an emergency council meeting in the Christian Education wing. The scene of crime techs had taken charge of the basement and cordoned off most of the main building.
At fifty-eight, Michael is the youngest of the old boys. He wore loose fitting jeans and a navy t-shirt with the logo of his restaurant, ‘Amazing Sandwich Powers’ stretched over his broad chest. It’s a police shield engraved with the outline of a B.L.T.
“Eric… help me with this?”
Michael’s large hands rested on the top corners of one end of an ancient steel-cased television cinch-strapped to a tall cart. It might have come from my high school’s A-V room, back in the last century.
Gamely cracking his knuckles, Eric pulled his shoulders back to stand his full height of five feet, four inches. He stretched thin arms upwards to grip the bottom corners at his end with blue-veined hands.
“Ready when you are, young feller.”
After high school Michael chose police college over a football scholarship to Ohio State. He was still formidable.
Michael and Eric’s friendship reminded me of Penn and Teller. It was their size difference, and the pure delight they took in each other.
During the week this room was used by a co-op day care. I dropped a pile of tot-sized carpet squares near the junior tables and chairs we’d just stacked against the wall.
The old boys pushed the media cart into a back corner, obscuring a Happy the Squirrel poster.
I said, “Careful guys, the cart is top-heavy. A wheel jams and the whole thing could tip.”
A mess of shiny DVD’s and clunky black VHS tapes clattered from the cart’s bottom shelf to the tiled floor. My eyes were drawn to primary-coloured sleeves for ‘The Adventures of Punky the Beaver’ and ‘Buddy the Truck’s Good Day’.
“Eric,” Michael asked, “Does anybody use this anymore? Does it even work?”
“It’s from the church library,” Eric said. “Some of these DVD’s look like old worship services. Kat Daniels used to video on Sundays as part of a course at Sheridan College.”
I said, “That had to be before I came back to Saint Mungo’s.”
Eric said, “Reverend Ed likes his face on television. He said once he was in broadcasting before going into ministry. He helped Kat do her college project here, took her under his wing.”
Michael said, “Which makes it even odder he didn’t show for Kat’s video shoot.”
“I was thinking the same,” Eric said. “Reverend Tom, I’ll sort through these old videos. See what’s worth keeping. You may want to watch a few, get some pointers…”
“Maybe, Eric. At my last church more people watched online than came on Sunday.”
“My grand-kids all watch the YouTube on their phone. Don’t use a tv. We should junk this before it topples over on someone. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
A shrill voice cut through our good humour.
“Who’s suing who, Eric Halliday?”
Attie Beacham sailed in. Four and a half feet tall, most of her wrapped in a battleship grey winter coat. White hair pulled up in a bun that seemed to tug at her forehead. Firm jaw and a glare that could melt icebergs.
Attie’s searchlight eyes scanned the room as she lined up her first shot. “Reverend Book why aren’t things ready?”
Eric fired back before I could duck.
“Virgil should have set this up. No one’s seen him today. The snowy steps and icy sidewalks still haven’t been cleared or salted.”
He sent another across Attie’s bow.
“What exactly does your great nephew do around here anyway?”
“Eric Halliday we are not here to talk about Virgil,” Attie warned.
“I’m just saying…”
“I know very well what you were just saying.”
Michael seemed to search the nursery walls for a way out of this conversation. Happy the Squirrel waved from behind the old television, high up in his Praline Tree. Next poster over, an ark-full of animal families grinned under a cartoon rainbow. Across the room, Jesus and the Super Disciples smiled back.
I shook my head but Eric ignored the cease-fire signal.
“My treasurer’s report shows revenue is trending down. We’d save money if we cut the caretaker’s position and hired a cleaning service.”
Attie steamed over to Eric. Stabbing a finger up at his face, she said, “I donate enough to cover Virgil, Reverend Book here, and a large portion of the exorbitant salary we pay that Edward Wilder. Out of touch since Friday, and I don’t hear you complaining about him…”
“Attie you are the only one who ever calls him Edward.”
Betty Torrance-Martens, chair of the Saint Mungo’s council came through the door. She was in her early sixties. Her salt and pepper hair was in a loose pony-tail that bounced with her steps. She carried a pottery plate, a pillar candle, and a black-bound notebook. The denim back-pack slung over one shoulder added to her youthful air.
Betty said, “Let’s give Ivy and the table some space.”
Ivy Torrance-Martens moved with graceful ease while wielding an eight-foot table. The thick plywood top and the metal folding legs make those tables beastly heavy.
Ivy is a decade younger than her partner. Her short black hair has just a hint of silver. She is shorter and wider than Betty and solidly muscled.
Ivy set the long edge of the table-top on the hardwood floor. With elegant precision, she snapped open the legs and locked them.
I said, “You make that look so easy.”
Corded muscle tightened in Ivy’s forearms as she flipped the table. It landed upright with a thunk.
“Throwing pots at the wheel develops the upper body. I also haul fifty-pound boxes of clay for my art classes. I’m used to it.”
“Ivy can shoulder more than twice her own weight,” Betty added. “I don’t feel guilty when she leaves me just the candle and the minute book to carry.”
“Thanks everyone,” I said, “for helping us get ready.”
Betty surveyed the nursery, nodding first at me then at Michael, Eric and Attie.
“Thank you for coming on short notice. Sorry we’re last to get here.”
Ivy added, “We came straight from an open house at the centre. It went well despite the weather.”
They wore white polos with the Town of Oakville crest over the heart. Betty taught fitness classes until they made her manager.
Ivy must have been at her potter’s wheel today. The splattered clay on her hands looked like dried blood.
“Please help yourselves to a chair from the stack in the hall,” Betty said.
I pulled in a chair for Attie, who ignored me. She had her sights on Eric.
“Virgil works hard to keep this place looking good. He does it in memory of his great uncle, my Douglas, who worked tirelessly for all those years, and never asked for a penny…”
Michael cut her off.
“Mrs. Beacham, Reverend Tom has worked all day. After filling in for Reverend Wilder yesterday, at the last minute. He’s with us again tonight when he’s supposed to be on vacation.”
The corners of my mouth pulled towards a smile. I coughed and brought my hand up to cover.
Betty said, “Maybe we should start. There’s much to discuss.”
Ivy slid her earthenware plate to the middle of the table and placed the pillar candle.
Betty struck a match, touched flame to wick, and said, “Let’s all breathe. Reverend Tom can offer a prayer and then we can get to work.”
The candle flame grew, and there was a little more light.
“We have much to pray about,” I said, “but I don’t have many words.”
“Then you’ll keep it short.” Attie let loose from her end of the table. She was on the edge of her chair, arms tight across the front of her down-filled coat. Michael had turned the heat down to limit the spread of the smell from the old boiler room.
“As Betty suggested, let’s take a breath and remember we are not alone. I’ll say a few words at the end.”
A thin wisp rose off the wick of the tall white candle. I wondered, not for the first time, why Attie Beacham always had it in for ministers while her late husband always got along with them. In Ed’s absence, I was squarely on her radar.
Betty and Ivy sat across from me, heads bowed and eyes closed. Eric was at the end of the long table, back straight, staring openly at Attie, who met his gaze from the opposite side.
Michael was on my left, a welcome buffer between me and Attie.
I reeled in my wandering mind. The council needed me as a non-anxious presence. I closed my eyes, settled my breathing and prayed out loud.
“God help us listen more than we speak and have the courage to live with hard questions. We are grateful for those digging us out from the blizzard. We pray for those who knew and loved the person whose remains were found this morning. We pray for the well-being of Reverend Ed Wilder…”
“Does that mean it wasn’t Edward in the wall?”
I smiled. Attie’d been doing well to hold back that long.
Betty said, “Maybe we can start there. Michael what can you tell us?”
“This is all preliminary, and unofficial. My contact says the remains of a man approximately 30-50 years old were hidden behind that wall for years, possibly decades.”
I’d already heard this. For the council’s benefit I asked, “How did he… the body get there?”
Michael said, “There used to be a boiler in that room. There’s an old coal bin set in the ground outside that wall.”
Eric said, “I forgot about that. We filled in the chute and paved over it when we put in the gas furnaces. That’s a long time ago.”
Attie asked. “If it isn’t Edward Wilder, where is he?”
“I talked with a detective sergeant named Lawrence Kitchen,” Betty began, “Nice young man. His mother comes to Tuesday morning Pilates.”
Michael said, “Lawrence is a solid guy. Good cop. What did he say about Reverend Wilder?”
This was also for the council.
Betty said, “The detective sergeant said they’ve obviously noted the timing of the body being found and Ed being out of touch. He feels at this point there is no reason to connect the two.”
Eric slid his chair back and ducked low. There was a clamor when he popped up with a load of video tapes, discs, and cases, and dropped them on the table.
“Sorry! Thought I’d sort these while we talk. Will the police look for Ed? Or do they have to wait 48 hours or something?”
“That’s from American cop shows,” Michael said. “In Canada there’s no waiting period.”
Betty said, “The detective asked if this was unusual for Ed. I had to admit it’s happened before.”
Attie turned to me. “My Virgil says Reverend Wilder disappears all the time and the rest of you cover for him.”
Michael said, “When a person steps out of their normal routine it sets off bells. In Ed’s case the Halton police are interested but it’s not a high priority.”
Attie slapped the table, rattling the candle on its plate.
“He was supposed to be at the video shoot. Kat was beside herself.”
I said, “That did seem out of character.”
Betty said, “I think so too. But the detective said they have to balance legitimate concern against Ed’s right to privacy.”
“We dealt with this all the time,” Michael said, “when I was on the job. It’s not illegal for an adult to take a break from their life. It happens more than you know. Without clear reason to suspect Ed’s in danger, or a danger to others, they won’t act.”
Attie said, “What about those shady types Edward’s dealing with on the development deal? I don’t care for that Kazinski.”
I’d wondered how long it be before Attie got to the Bell Tower proposal. Brad Kazinski runs several local businesses from his office in a payday loan store down the street. He’d come knocking with a scheme to build 15-storeys of high-end condos. He’d tear down most of the church but leave the Bell Tower and the sanctuary for our use. Ed had maneuvered around Attie, chatting up the other trustees. I saw merit in the idea but had managed to stay out of it.
Betty said, “It’s early days. We’re not committed to anything.”
Ivy looked up from her minute book. “It’s just so Oakville to be lured by the almighty dollar.”
“My Douglas poured so much time and sweat into this place,” Attie lamented. “He’d rise up out of the grave if he knew what Edward and that Kazinski are plotting.”
The room quieted at Attie’s mention of Doug’s grave.
Ivy dropped her pen, laced the fingers of her strong hands and clasped them tight.
It wouldn’t help Attie’s mood if I told the board I’d visited Doug’s hallowed workroom and retrieved his private journal. Not to mention seeing his ghost.
I said, “It may be an over-statement to suggest Reverend Wilder is working with Mr. Kazinski. He’s been exploring possibilities.”
“Virgil saw the drawings,” Attie said. “They want to tear down my… this beautiful church. My family paid for this whole wing including this ridiculous, childish room we’re sitting in. I’ll not stand for it!”
Ivy stiffened at the mention of tearing the church down. As she clenched her fingers flakes of red clay shed on the open page of her minute book.
Ivy looked up from her notes. Her eyes landed on Attie then shifted away.
“You all know I’ve been a big supporter of Reverend Wilder,” Ivy said. “But lately… it seems he’s been doing things more for himself.”
Eric closed a plastic case with a sharp snap. All eyes went to his end of the table. The stack of tapes in front of him seemed awkward and huge beside the slim pile of silver DVD’s.
Eric held up a garish yellow tape case. “This one’s called Happy the Squirrel Cleans Up. Speaking of cleaning up… Attie, why did Virgil see the developer’s plans before this council?”
Attie leaned forward to fix her steel grey eyes on Eric.
Betty spoke before Attie could launch her salvo.
“I think there are more pressing matters.”
“Like what?” Attie asked.
“Let’s get back to tracking down Reverend Ed,” Betty said. “Michael since you’re chair of property I was hoping you and Tom could drop in at the manse.”
I turned to Michael. We’d seen this coming.
“The church owns the manse but Ed’s the legal tenant.” Michael said. “He has the same rights as any renter. Tom going with me doesn’t make it any less a violation.”
Our first manse was a high-gabled two-storey gothic beside the church in a New Brunswick mill town. One Monday afternoon after a shopping trip to Moncton we walked in the side door and found four grey-haired men in the parlour, seated around our coffee table for a trustee’s meeting.
I dropped the groceries with a thunk on the linoleum floor and was about to tear a strip off the intruders, when Carrie gave me the eye, and sent me upstairs with Hope still asleep in her car seat. While I put the baby down for the rest of her nap, Carrie brought the old boys a tray of tea and cookies.
I said, “Betty, I’m with Michael when it comes to entering Ed’s house without permission. He’s a very private man.”
Betty pressed. “We’re worried about Ed and I hoped we could at least rule out him being sick or worse.”
At the Irving Falls manse, while the trustees munched and slurped away Carrie called someone to come and change the locks. She had the new keys in her hand before they invited me into my parlour to end their meeting with a prayer.
I relished the memory of my wife’s wide grin as she ushered them out, saying, “Come back soon!”
“So, Tom, what do you think? Will you and Michael take a look?”
Startled back to the present, I said, “Let me think about it.”
“Okay.” Betty said. “Let’s talk about the church building. Michael?”
“Scene of Crime is working down there. Which is why we’re meeting here in Brown Hall. When they release the space, we’ll need special help. Way beyond regular cleaning.”
“Sounds expensive.” Eric had pushed aside the video collection. He held up a copy of his treasurer’s report.
“Insurance will likely help,” Michael said. “We don’t have a choice. The residue must be dealt with properly.”
“So, the main building?” I began.
“They’ll probably finish in a day or two. But we won’t want to be there if we can help it.”
“Why?” Eric asked.
“They need to fully excavate the coal bin to search for trace evidence. That’ll stir up even more of the decomp odour.”
“That smell!” Eric exclaimed. “Like a butcher shop dumpster in July. Michael and I went down for a peek. He introduced me to some of the investigators. Nice fellas…”
Attie snapped, “The parking lot full of police vehicles and yellow tape across the sanctuary doors looks terrible. Can’t we have that all cleared away? It’s Holy Week. What will people think?”
Michael gave Attie his ‘Inspector Powers’ look.
“They’ll think something tragic happened and it’s being duly investigated.”
“Can’t you do something? Show your badge and ask them to be more discrete?”
“Mrs. Beacham my old badge has been stamped retired and sits in a box on my dresser. I’m not one of those ex-coppers who flashes the brass for favours. And it’s not the badge that matters. That’s more American television. Active sworn officers carry a warrant card which represents their lawful authority. I turned that in when I retired.”
Betty looked ready to push on. My throat tightened as I realized what was next. I opened the topic for discussion.
“As Attie said, it’s Holy Week. If the police can release the main building, we’ll have Good Friday and our Easter Sunday services to think about.”
Betty met my eyes. “This is a hard time of year for you, and Hope.”
Ivy’s words were quiet and careful. “We all loved Carrie.”
Eric cleared his throat. “She was like a daughter to Joanie and me. You know that.”
The throb began in both temples and pushed inward to meet behind my eyes. Not pain. More a physical expression of latent grief, a limitless natural energy in my inner world. Tapped in raw form it could fuel centuries of sorrow every day.
I pushed the tip of my ring finger into the bridge of my nose. The next two fingers rested over my eye while my thumb rubbed my temple. Carrie taught me, her small hand over mine, when she could still lift her arms.
Something tiny and hard popped, like when you’re flying and the plane takes a sudden drop. I blinked, grateful I could focus.
Carrie died on Good Friday, two years ago.
Everyone around this table except Attie had been to the hospice while Carrie was still up to seeing people.
Carrie had boarded with Eric and his wife Joan when she was training at the Oakville Hospital. They invited her to Saint Mungo’s. Before long she sang in the choir beside Betty who’d introduced her to me, the new student minister.
Betty brought me back to the question of Holy Week.
“You took this week off to be with Hope for spring break, and Reverend Ed was supposed to…”
“If Ed doesn’t turn up,” I said, “I can take those services.”
Betty released a breath. “That helps a lot, Tom. Will Hope make it back?”
Ivy glanced up. “I hope it works out. But things don’t always go as we hope.”
Betty said, “But we hope, anyway.”
“Well, my hope is the sanctuary won’t smell like death for Good Friday.” Attie declared. “If the basement needs special cleaning, I’ll pay for it myself. Make it like it never happened.”
Michael squared his pile of notes. “Someone already tried that, Mrs. Beacham. That poor man’s remains were sealed up and hidden away for a long time.”
Attie gave him a hard look. “Some things are better left buried, don’t you think?”
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