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 from tenor to soprano. “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 my guest.
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.
My pastor 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 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
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 of town 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.” The blend I chose is my all-purpose remedy, calming nerves and stimulating the mind, bringing alertness or sleep.
After a retreat to the kitchen, I 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 Hobbs, 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 would 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 Hanson. 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 Hansons 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 cloisonné combs held her blonde hair from her face. Her jeans fit perfectly. Women in jeans that reveal more than they hide remind me of the past 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 Hanson 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 can’t 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 Hanson. 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 added 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.
“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 vicious 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
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