Saturday, December 11, 2010

First Chapter Saturday -- Requiem Murder

Once again, there is a winner. For the Secrets of the Jewels Val is the winner. I'll email her soon. The next book up is the Brotherhood of Mages, the second book in the series and a finalist in the Dream Realm awards, Jindera and Lajin, twins likked by the silent ways of the inner path are split by the black-robed men of the Brotherhood of Mages. Their future is in chaos. Mara, a clanless desert dweller faces a fate as the abused plaything of the future leader of the clan. She flees into the desert to an unknown future. In the distance the Jewels of Earda call to two of the three.

The chapter today is Requiem Murder, the second Katherine Miller mystery. Hope you enjoy.

Requiem Murder
By Janet Lane Walters
DiskUs Publishing








Chapter 1
Introit

On Groundhog day when Robespierre, my Maine Coon cat, jumped from his place on the window seat, one thought popped into my head. Company. Who? After following him to the kitchen, I watched him push his bulky, brown and black body through the hinged opening at the bottom of the door. Moments later I peered down the dimly lit stairwell. Robespierre had sprawled in the center of the third step and blocked my visitor’s progress.

“Good grief, Katherine, I hope he’s not planning to bite me again.” Edward Potter, pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, glared at the cat. His voice had risen to a high pitch. “Whatever do you feed him? He’s ever so much bigger than Bitsy.”

The temptation to say my pet fed on pastors was strong. I refrained and fought to control a grin that threatened to blossom. Teasing Edward usually results in a lecture delivered in an indignant voice.

With an air of disdain, Robiesperre stretched. His back rippled in a way I envy. Then he slithered around Edward.

When Edward reached the top of the steps, he turned and peered at the cat. “He’s becoming more brazen.”

“Only toward selected guests. He ignores most people.” I turned my head and Edward brushed my cheek with his lips.

Edward is a dapper little man with an ear for gossip and a penchant for turning even the slightest event into a fiesta or a disaster. He’s astute about church politics. The coffers at St. Stephen’s are filled through his ability to cosset and cajole the elderly population of the church, mainly wealthy women. I partially fit the category, being over sixty-five, and while not rich, I’m at least comfortable.

When he entered the sunlit kitchen, the expression on his face announced a problem. He walked into the living room. Unlike most of my guests, he considered chats at the kitchen table for commoners. In the living room, he perched on the edge of a Queen Anne chair, purchased years ago before antiques became the rage. In the past twenty years, stores selling every manner of old things have spread plague-like in the business district of the Hudson River village where I live.

“You’re tense. How about a cup of mint tea?”

“Not all the tranquilizers in the world will calm me. It’s a disaster, a complete and utter tragedy.” His hands fluttered. The words rolled out like a sermon promising hell and damnation. “How will we maintain the quality of the services? Easter will be a disaster.”

My forehead wrinkled. What in the world had stirred him into this state? The last time had been when one of the altar boys had spilled the communion wine. Had there been a fire at the church? A flood? A plague? The strident fire whistles had been silent for days. What had occurred? Knowing a full and dramatic scene would develop, I wanted mint tea.

“I’ll heat the water. Then you can tell me about this tragedy.” Mint tea is my all-purpose remedy, calming nerves and stimulating the mind, bringing alertness or sleep.

I retreated to the kitchen, filled the kettle and stuffed a silver ball with an assortment of dried mint leaves. While the water boiled, I assembled the pottery mugs, sugar and spoons on a wooden tray.

“Why will Easter be a problem?” I set the tray on a Duncan Phyfe table.

“We may have to cancel the season.” He patted his thinning light brown hair.

I swallowed a laugh. “How can we cancel one of the main reasons for St. Stephen’s existence?”

“Are you making fun of me?” His voice rose in pitch. “I’m absolutely serious.” He accepted a mug. “Mary’s husband has been transferred. It’s a disaster.”

I mentally sorted through all the Marys in the congregation and tried to decide which one’s leaving would cause Edward to fall apart. Who had triggered the word of the day? On another level, the need to giggle soared. Perched on the edge of the chair and holding a tea cup with both hands, Edward looked like a child.

“There are about twenty Marys at St. Stephen’s. Which one do you mean?”

“Mary Hensen, our organist. What will our services be like without the organ and the choir? Katherine, you have to help us until we find a replacement.”

Twenty years ago I resigned my position as organist at St. Stephen’s. My husband’s sudden death had left me with a son to raise and enough money to cover three years of expenses. Once I finished my nursing course, my Sunday schedule had passed out of my control.

“Don’t you think I’m a bit old for the job?”

Edward sighed. “I knew you’d say that. I have a list of people who are willing to play, but none of them want to direct the choir. Could you at least try?”

“What have you done about finding Mary’s replacement?”

“I’ve called the Organists’ Guild. They’ll list us in their newsletter. I’ve sent notices to several colleges within commuting distance, but I really don’t want a student. Our music program is something to be proud of and I dread losing our reputation.”

Pride, I thought. “Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from this.”

“Perhaps, perhaps, but we must have music.” He put the mug on the tray. “I’d like you to head the search committee. People respect your musical judgment.”

“And the other members?” I’ve reached an age where I don’t have to like everyone and avoiding those who annoy me has become a game. “A search committee is like a family. I won’t spend time with people I dislike.”

“Beth Logan. Judith and Martin Simpson. Ralph Greene. I believe that’s a good balance.”

Beth is a neighbor who is becoming a friend. For several years, we had worked together at the hospital. Last winter when I broke my leg, we had renewed our acquaintance. She volunteered to be my chauffeur on Sundays for church. I liked the young widow and found her six-year-old son charming.

The Simpsons are also neighbors. There’s something strange about their relationship but their fifteen-year-old daughter, Marcie, had been my piano student until she’d grown beyond my ability to teach. With a sigh, I thought of Judith’s frenetic energy and wondered how much I could tolerate.

The fourth member, Ralph Greene, was a man with a superb baritone voice. Though he took music seriously, he wouldn’t cause any problems unless the committee decided on someone musically incompetent.

“Well?” Edward asked.

“You have a committee head.”

“Splendid. We shall rise from the ashes.”


*****

On Thursday evening Beth arrived to drive me to choir practice. Though I drive during the day, at night the lights of the oncoming cars blur and moth-like, I head toward them.

“Ready?” Beth asked. “You’ve got guts.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Taking on the committee and the choir. Last Thursday, when Mary made her announcement, seven people expressed seven ideas of what the next Minister of Music should do.”

“Good thing I’m temporary.” I closed the door and followed her to a small green car.

Tonight a pair of cloisonnĂ© combs held her blonde hair from her face. Her jeans fit perfectly. Women in jeans that reveal more than they hide remind me of last summer and my tenant’s murder. Rachel had nearly destroyed my friends and my family. My discovery of her body in the garden had triggered my protective instincts and had forced me to find the killer.

Beth’s blue ski jacket made her pastel coloring glow. I seldom wear blue. Earth tones compliment the autumn shades the beautician adds to my hair.

When we reached the church, Beth held the door for me. Judith Simpson popped out of the reception room. “Tell her about the meeting, Beth. I’ll head upstairs and catch a deep breath.”

In the choir room, I ran my fingers over the keys of the Steinway and listened to mellow tones as perfect as the day I donated the piano to the church. A music folder lay on the bench with my name pasted on the cover. None of the pieces seemed particularly complex. Mary had also listed the hymns for the rest of the year.

At eight the choir members drifted to seats set in a semi-circle in front of the piano. By eight fifteen they were ready to begin. We ran through Sunday’s offerings and several of the anthems for the weeks to follow.

Mary had chosen a group of Bach motets for the Passion Sunday Evensong, but since I’d no knowledge of the substitute organist’s ability, the music remained on the table at the back of the choir room. There was no reason to push a person beyond their ability.

When we left to go to the church, Ralph Greene pulled me aside. He scowled. “You didn’t start the Bach. We’ll never be ready if we don’t start the pieces soon.” His deep voice filled the stairwell and the sound bounced off the stone walls of the hall between the church and the addition that had been added long after the church had been built.

“I’m not prepared to attempt the Bach unless the organist is competent. In the morning, I’ll speak to Edward about hiring a group for Evensong.”

“That won’t do. The choir always does Passion Sunday. Our honor depends on keeping traditions.”

The demand in his voice amazed me. “There have been exceptions in the past.”

“It’s not right.”

“Then the committee has to act posthaste. Do you really think we can find a new organist in less than two months? Did Beth tell you about the meeting?”

“What’s the sense of meeting when there’s no one to discuss. Who needs to make a list of qualifications? We need an organist who can maintain the high standards of St. Stephen’s program. I attend the meeting. It’s tax time and I don’t have room in my schedule.” He opened the door into the sanctuary.

“Then you’ll accept what we decide?” I ducked past him and slid into one of the pews while he headed down the side aisle to the choir loft.

The rest of the choir moved into place and the organist turned to wait for my signal. She played the opening notes for each part and the group hummed on cue. The blended voices filled the sanctuary and reverberated from the stone walls. The choir sounded strong; the organist tentative. She had no trouble with the hymns but fumbled through the anthems. Each wrong note she played caused me to grip the back of the pew. Could Edward be persuaded to hire another temporary accompanist?

After rehearsal we adjourned to the reception room for coffee and heart-shaped cookies in honor of St. Valentine, my temporary position, and the choir’s monthly refreshment night.

I moved from group to group to chat with old friends and new acquaintances. The choir had divided into several cliques who acted like rivals for my attention. The new choir director would need better than average skills in meshing the dissenting factions.

The largest and loudest of the groups clustered around Judith Simpson. She sat on one of the brocade-covered chairs near the front windows and looked like a queen on her throne. The majority of the group was male. No real surprise. At one time or another, every male in the congregation, married or not, had flirted with Judith. Each had held her attention until she decided to blow them off with cruel remarks.

Her brown eyes slant, giving her an almost Oriental look. Straight dark hair cut to shoulder length adds to the image. As she spoke, her hands moved in exaggerated gestures. A constant flow of kinetic energy crackled as she stroked the new tenor’s arm. He smiled.

Martin ended the moment of seduction by handing her a cup of coffee. Bearded, balding and overweight, he appeared to be a weak man, but beneath the surface lay a nurturing kind of strength. Did he mother his daughter as well as he did his wife?

Judith looked up at him. From across the room, I saw resentment on her face and in her body language. Her shoulders stiffened. Her mouth pulled into a tight line. Martin whispered in her ear. She nodded.

“Beth, Beth, darling,” Judith called. “Are you coming to the Pub with us?” Her shouted invitation rose over the hum of conversation.

“I’m taking Mrs. Miller home,” Beth said.

Judith waved at me. “Come with us and get away from this stuffy crowd. I need a drink before I perish. The well’s been dry too long.” Brittle laughter followed her words.

“Another time.”

“Beth?” Judith asked.

“It’s late. Marcie has school tomorrow. Your daughter’s so conscientious she won’t nap while she’s watching Robby. I’ll send her home.”

Judith rose. “Spoilsport. Don’t worry about Marcie. She’d welcome an excuse to cut school. No music classes on Friday. If it weren’t for them, she’d be a drop-out.” She put a hand on Beth’s shoulders. “Take Mrs. Miller home and join us.”

Beth stiffened. “Maybe.”

“I’ll have a drink waiting for you. Maybe you’ll find a man.” She rubbed against Martin. “Three years since your husband’s death. I don’t know how you’ve survived. Men are so...so...”

Beth’s face flamed. She reached for her jacket. I put on my coat. Judith, Martin and several other people strolled from the room.

Beth shook her head. “I don’t know why I let her get to me.”

“She likes to watch people squirm. Don’t let her hurt you.”

“It’s not fair.” Beth grabbed her music folder. “She has a string of men. Maybe I hope some of her allure will rub off.”

“Have you ever watched a cat play with a mouse? That’s what she does. You don’t need her friendship.”

Beth sighed. “I’ve watched her drive people out of the choir with sneers and gossip. I couldn’t handle that.”

“You’re stronger than you think.”

“Not if I lose my sitter by making her angry. Marcie’s at my house as much as she’s at home. Judith’s wrong. Marcie’s making A’s and B’s in all her classes.”

Does even her own daughter bear the brunt of her viscious tongue? I pushed open the heavy oak door. I began to regret my decision to head the search committee. Who would be Judith’s next victim?

“Judith, are you coming?” Martin’s shout startled me.

“I’m feeding the cat. I want to catch him and bring him home.”

Beth and I paused at the head of the walk. Judith had crouched beside the privet hedge that surrounded the garden between the church and the parish house that once served as the manse. A gray cat hid in the bushes.

“You’re allergic,” Martin said. “Come on. Everyone’s waiting.”

Judith dangled something above the cat’s head. As he stretched, she raised her hand. “The party won’t start until I arrive.” The cat snatched the food and vanished. Judith rose.

“Your good deed.” Sarcasm tinged my voice.

“I’ve named him Shadow and I’m determined to catch him. Maybe a bit of catnip will do the trick.” She smiled. “Beth, I will see you at the Pub.” A note of command filled her voice.

During the ride home, I thought about Judith and the cat. If Beth and I hadn’t appeared, would she have teased the animal into a frenzy?
Beth, Marcie, Martin, the cat. Who next? How was Marcie handling her mother’s behavior?

“Do me a favor.”

“Sure,” Beth said.

“Tell Marcie to stop by. I haven’t heard her play since Christmas.”

“I’ll tell her when I get home.”

“Thanks.” If Judith’s attitude had tainted her daughter, Martin should be told.

*****

By the end of February, the committee had eliminated all but three of the twelve applicants for the full-time position as music director. Though many churches are trimming their music programs, St. Stephen’s can afford to expand. A trust fund insures the presence of a full-time director even if the minister can’t be paid.

After our schedules for visits had been set, I stopped in the parish office to see Edward. The secretary, another Mary, showed me in. Edward jumped to his feet and held a chair for me. His large book-lined office had a small conversation area near the French doors that overlooked the garden. Last night’s snow covered the lawn and the flower beds with a blinding blanket of white.

“You’ve found an organist,” he said.

“We’ve selected three candidates and have set our first trip for next Sunday.”

He rubbed the balding spot on the top of his head. “Can’t the process be hurried? I can’t believe we’ll have an Easter season without a...an outstanding organist. It’s never happened before.”

“The substitute and I will bumble along. We won’t have a new organist before fall.”

“But the Passion Sunday Evensong --”

“I’ve found an excellent quartet, but I have to let them know this week.”

His pout reminded me of one from a child who has dropped his candy in the mud. “If you must. This is such a disaster.”

“Hardly.” I rose. “Should I submit bills for our expenses or will you give us money from petty cash? We’ll need money for gas and meals.”

“Submit the bills. The Vestry prefers that. This group isn’t as trusting as others in the past have been.”

I left the office and headed home. Sunlight glared off the banks of snow lining the walks. Bits of old ice formed ragged patches on the concrete.

“Watch your step, Mrs. M.” Pete Duggan, my neighbor and a local police officer, fell into step beside me. His down jacket nearly matched his dark red hair. “Last time you had an accident, you got involved in a murder.”

“Then I’m glad you’re here. Once was enough.”

His hazel eyes twinkled. “What happened to the knife?”

“What knife? I don’t remember.”

“Right.” The knife he referred to, the one used to kill my tenant, lay on the bottom of the Hudson River.

We reached the corner. “I’m crossing here. I have to see Beth Logan about church business.”

“Beth Logan?”

I laughed. “Don’t tell me there’s an available woman in town you don’t know. She’s a widow. She and her six year old son live in the old
Perkin’s house. Sings in the choir and is a nurse at the hospital.”

“Haven’t had the honor.” He grinned. “Church business -- missing robes -- vanished communion wine?”

“Nothing criminal.” I studied him and wondered when he’d settle down.

“So what are you up to?” he asked.

“Acting as temporary choir director and heading the search committee for a new organist.”

“Good for you. Should keep you out of mischief.”

“I’m crushed.”

He laughed. “I don’t believe you. Let me walk you to her house. Maybe you’ll introduce me.”

“Beth is not to be trifled with.”

His eyebrows lifted. “You wound me. When I’m involved with a woman, I’m serious.”

“For a limited engagement.”

“Someday I’ll surprise you.” He held my arm and steered me across the street.

A child’s laughter rang clear. “Bigger. Let’s make it bigger.”

“Then how will we get the head on the body?” Beth asked.

“Maybe I can help,” Pete said.

Beth whirled. Her eyes narrowed. Then she saw me and her expression relaxed.

Robby eyed Pete. The boy’s blond hair stuck out around the edges of his blue knit hat.

“Beth, this is Pete Duggan, a friend of mine. He decided to help an old lady across the street and found me instead. You’re home early.”

“It’s a comp day. I have to work this weekend.”

“Then I’m glad we don’t begin our visits until next week. Just left Edward. He wants us to finish the search yesterday.”

While Beth and I talked, Pete lifted the snowman’s head and placed it on the body. “Why don’t you wait in the house?” she asked. “The snowman is my project. Your friend seems to have taken over.”

“He has a habit of doing that. Let me help, too.”

When the snowman had button eyes, a radish nose and a bright green scarf instead of Beth’s favorite blue one that her son had tried to liberate, she invited us in for hot chocolate and cookies. The sight of a box of store-bought cookies made me wince.

“Pete, here’s my key. There’s a tin of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies on top of the refrigerator.”

He caught the key ring. He looked at Robby. “Want to come with me? I think they want time for women talk.” He winked.

“Egotist. It’s church talk.”

“Can I go, Mommy?” Robby asked.

“Let him. He’ll keep Pete honest.”

Pete laughed. “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust your favorite cop?”

“Are you really a policeman?” Robby asked.

“A policeman?” Beth echoed.

“I’m surprised you never met him when you worked in the ER. I’m sure he’s been there a time or two. He’s all right. Used to be my paperboy.”

Beth tucked a scarf in the neck of Robby’s jacket. The door closed behind them. She stood at the door and watched until the pair reached the top of the driveway. She turned. Sadness glistened in her eyes and I knew she’d thought about her dead husband. “Let’s finish before they return.”

“Do you have the next three weekends after this one off?” She nodded. “Good. There are five of us. I think we should take two cars. The first church is a two hour drive and more than a half hour of Judith’s company and I’ll start twitching. Then there’s Ralph. I’ve finally contracted intolerance.”

She laughed. A mischievous twinkle cleared the last trace of sadness from her eyes. “I’ve got intolerance, too. We’ll take my car. It’s small.”

*****

When Beth arrived early the morning of our first trip, she was alone. “Where’s Robby?”

“Pete’s taking him to Sunday School and then to some indoor recreation place. He’s quite taken with my son.”

“And the mother?”

She wrinkled her nose. “He’s indifferent. Maybe I’m too serious for him.”

We walked to her car. A pale sun shone in a clouded sky. The air held a bitter chill.

Our trip took us nearly a hundred miles north of the Hudson River town where we lived. Roger Brandon was the first applicant.

After our arrival in the small upstate town, we parked across the street from a large red brick church. Martin, Judith and Ralph entered the church ahead of us. Morning sunlight streamed through a series of narrow stained glass panels. Beth followed me down the aisle to a seat in one of the center pews. The rest of our group settled in the last row.

Once the prelude began, I closed my eyes. Gooseflesh rose on my arms. Why was such a superb musician buried in this out-of-the-way place? In that instant I knew we had to have him and I revised the salary Edward had mentioned
upward.

When the last note of the postlude ended, I remained in my seat so filled with music I was unable to move. Finally, I followed Beth to the vestibule where the other committee members waited.

“What did you --”

I shook my head to cut off Ralph’s question. No sense airing our business for everyone to hear. We remained in the vestibule after the minister left his position at the door.

Judith’s quick intake of breath signaled the approach of a tall, broad-shouldered man. Light shone through the stained glass windows to illuminate his handsome face and to burnish his red-gold hair. There was a mystical quality in his expression. He smiled at Judith and then Beth. He took my hand. “You must be the committee from St. Stephen’s. I’m Roger Brandon.”

I introduced myself and the others.

Outside, I pulled my coat closer. The temperature hadn’t risen from the early morning chill. “Is there somewhere we can go to talk? We have some questions and I’m sure you do, too.”

“There’s a restaurant five miles out of town. Why don’t you follow me there?” His voice was as rich and vibrant as the music he charmed from the organ.

“That would be terrific.”

When we were in the car, Beth sighed. “Is he as good as I think?”

“He’s brilliant...stunning...words can’t describe. I want him at St. Stephen’s.”

“So will Judith. Did you see the way she stared?”

“Let’s not worry about Judith’s collection. First we have to see if he’s interested. Then I have to convince Edward and the Vestry to offer more money.”

The elegant restaurant had a small provate room. As we talked, the distance from Roger’s playing allowed me more objectivity.

Why was he so eager to leave his present church where he’d been organist for less than a year? Of course, St. Stephen’s offers a challenge and exposure. Still, the longest he’d remained in one church had been two years. At thirty-two, he’d been musical director for seven churches. Though his gypsy ways troubled me, I remembered his tremendous talent and I coveted him for our music program.
Perhaps his many moves could be blamed on his youth. This thought erased my qualms.

Judith sat beside him. Her attempts to claim him failed. He gave equal attention to every committee member.

“When can you come?” Ralph asked.

“August,” Roger said. “It wouldn’t be fair to break my contract here.”

Ralph frowned. “We need an organist for Passion Sunday and Easter.”

I glared. “You know that’s impossible.” I turned to Roger. “Could you come to St. Stephen’s as a guest organist, say in two weeks?”

“I’ll see if one of my students is available to take over here.”

I gave him my phone number. Before the waitress brought the check, Ralph pushed his chair back. “I have to get back. This is my busy season. I have two clients coming this evening.” He strode to the door.

Judith made a face. Martin covered her hand with his. “Let’s go. Do you want to hear Ralph complain for the entire ride home?”

Beth, Roger and I lingered over coffee and dessert. After the bill was paid, he walked us to Beth’s car. “It’s been a pleasure,” he said.

“For me as well,” Beth said.

“I could listen to you forever.” As far as I was concerned, Roger had the job at St. Stephen’s.

"Four Stars! I thoroughly enjoyed this most compelling mystery. Katherine is a winsome and lovable older lady who only wants the best for her friends. I thought she was a most wonderful character. I look forward to reading more of Janet Lane Walter's mysteries." Tracy's Book Reviews

"This book is one of the finest little mysteries I've read in a while. Janet Lane Walters has developed a delightful premise to showcase the evils of darn near all the sins in one form or another. She offers is a look into the not so normal lives of a simply brilliant cast of characters. No stone is unturned. Requiem Murder is a pleasant change from the harsher side of the mystery Ms. Walters is quite a talented writer with a natural skill for story telling. I see bright things ahead for this writer and look forward to her lengthy career as a gem of a writer!" Rhapsody Magazine

"4 Stars! This is a cozy mystery that will leave you eagerly awaiting Mrs. Miller's next foray into crimesolving. Trying to anticipate the outcome is only part of the fascination of a Mrs. Miller mystery. The author peoples her books with characters you'd swear you've met, which involves you so intimately with the story that you hate to see it end." Scribes World Reviews

"The author kept me on my toes. . .! Like the first mystery, fans of the television show "Murder She Wrote: will ADORE this book. I can only hope that there will be another mystery for Katherine. Very good reading here." Huntress Book Reviews

"With quirky characters like the Svengali-like Roger, alcoholic prima donna Judith Simpson, Judith's talented but unsure daughter Marcie, and Roger's potential girlfriend Beth, the reader can't help but scroll through this well-crafted e-book. Especially well written is the main character, Katherine. With a passion for mint tea and a temperamental but affectionate cat named Robespierre, who couldn't help but like her? Let's hope Katherine Miller will have many more mysteries to solve in the near future." Affaire de Coeur Magazine

1 comment:

Shoshanna Evers said...

very intriguing opening!