Today on the Dark Phantom is Roberta Isleib, author of the psychological mystery PREACHING TO THE CORPSE. Join her as she virtually tours the blogosphere in December on her first virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book Promotion Virtual Book Tours!
New Jersey born clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib took up writing mysteries to justify too much bad golf. Her Cassie Burdette series featuring a neurotic golfer and a sports psychologist was nominated for an Agatha and two Anthony awards. Her new mystery series debuted in March with DEADLY ADVICE, starring a psychologist/advice columnist. PREACHING TO THE CORPSE will follow in December 2007.
Roberta is the president of National Sisters in Crime, and the former president of the New England Chapter. She has had articles published in Golf for Women, Mystery Scene Magazine, National Golfer, Tee Time Magazine, and the New Haven Register. Her short story “Disturbance in the Field” (published in SEASMOKE by Level Best Books) was nominated for both Agatha and Macavity awards. You can visit Roberta’s website at www.robertaisleib.com.
The holidays have arrived in postcard-perfect Guilford, CT, but someone’s taking the joy out of the season…
Psychologist/advice columnist Dr. Rebecca Butterman gets a call in the middle of night from the minister at her church. He’s in custody after going to a fellow parishioner’s home and finding her dead. The murdered matron was the leader of a search committee charged with finding a new assistant pastor after the previous assistant left in a rush. The minister begs Rebecca to intervene.She learns that the committee was divided–has someone tried to eliminate the competition? Rebecca puts her analytical skills to work to do her own search–for a killer–all while resisting the urge to break the seventh commandment with a very married detective, and praying she’s not the next victim.
The phone jarred me out of a restless sleep.
I groped for the clock radio. 12:18. It was pitch dark and my mind swirled with dream riffs.
“Rebecca? Are you there? It’s Reverend Wesley Sandifer. Sorry to wake you.” His voice sounded tremulous and strained.
My lizard brain—home of primitive fears and fight-or-flight reactions—kicked in: “Minister plus phone call after midnight equals disaster.” Years of training as a clinical psychologist couldn’t protect me from a rush of nightmarish possibilities and dread.
My sister Janice? My niece Brittany? My dearest girlfriends, Angie or Annabelle? The image of a terrible car wreck, pulsing red flesh and twisted metal, flashed into mind. But why would any of the people I loved most be driving in the middle of the night? And how the hell would Reverend Wesley know? My heart pounded and my hands slicked up so much I almost dropped the phone.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered fiercely. “What happened?”
“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour,” he said again, his voice growing shrill. “It’s not what you’re thinking. I need your help.”
I logged a reassuring observation: Besides the comforting words, he hadn’t cloaked himself in the sorry-to-have-to-tell-you-this tone that preceded breaking bad news.
“We have a situation.” He cleared his throat and paused.
“Could you be a little more specific?” I asked, feeling the adrenalin sluicing through my veins shift to annoyance at being woken up and frightened out of my gourd.
“I’m going to put Detective Meigs on, if that’s okay.” I heard rustling and mumbling then Meigs’s voice.
“Dr. Butterman? I’m with the Reverend Wesley Sandifer at the emergency facility on Exit 59.”
I hadn’t expected to hear Detective Meigs’s deep rumble any time soon—not ever, really. Midnight observation number two: He and I were back to formal salutations.
We’d made an unexpected connection after I stumbled into one of his cases last fall. But I’m single and he isn’t. End of drama, curtain falls, as my practical friend Annabelle would say. Only it wasn’t really the end, if you counted flashbacks and dreams in which the sighing damsel (me) was rescued over and over by the muscular though well-padded redheaded cop (him). It was enough to make any card-carrying feminist cringe.
The partial fog in my mind began to lift. “Is Reverend Wesley hurt?”
“Not exactly,” said Meigs, sighing heavily. “You’re a member of the Shoreline Congregational Church?”
He was looking for religion at midnight? I was too tired to answer anything but “yes.”
“There’s been a suspicious death,” Meigs said. “We’d like to get this sorted out before the news hits the coffee shops in the morning. Can you possibly come down? The reverend insists he won’t talk to anyone but you,” he continued, his exasperation plain. Clearly he thought this utter crapola. I had to agree. I’m a psychologist, not a detective. Or a lawyer—if that’s what he needed.
My brain shifted one gear higher, trying to put the pieces together. “Good God! Was Wesley involved in the death?”
“He called it in,” said Meigs, not saying what everyone knows from TV: whoever finds the body is a damn good suspect.
“Trust me, Reverend Wesley wouldn’t kill anyone.” Another shock wave of fear rocketed through me. “Who died?”
I felt the air whoosh out of my lungs, as if I’d been socked in the gut. Maybe he had it wrong; maybe it wasn’t her at all. I was just getting to know Lacy—a big woman with a forbidding exterior, but all heart underneath. My mouth watered with budding nausea.
“When can you get here?” Meigs asked. “Should I send a patrol car?”
I didn’t want to get involved with another tragedy; I’d barely recovered from the stress of my next-door neighbor’s death in September. “What am I supposed to do once I’m there?”
Meigs was silent for a moment. “Reverend Wesley says he’ll talk to me if you’re here. Look, he hasn’t been arrested. Yet. You might make a big difference with that.”
“I’ll be down in half an hour.”
I pulled on my warmest sweats, heavy gray fleece pants and a hoodie whose princess seams could not disguise the seven pounds of winter padding I’d packed on earlier in the season. Being held at gunpoint by a lunatic back in September had had the effect of increasing my appetite and decreasing my self-control.
I glanced in the mirror, then stripped the sweats back off, exchanging the Michelin Man look for jeans and a holiday sweater, refusing to think about why I would spend more than one minute dressing for our minister and the local ER. Refusing to think about what could have happened to Lucy Bailes. Grabbing my purse and a small notebook, I headed out to the garage.
A plume of exhaust drifted under the Honda as I backed into the street. Babette Finster’s white Christmas lights glowed softly on the large holly bushes on either side of her front walk. I could feel the hairs in my nose freeze up before the heater kicked in. It was unusually cold for December and clear enough to see a picture-book display of stars. We’d had six inches of snow in the last week and not one flake had melted.
I turned the radio up, looking for company. An all night station was playing a run of sappy Christmas tunes. I suffered through “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” then Paul McCartney crooning about having a wonderful Christmas time. He was a Beatle for God’s sake, an icon of rock and roll. Couldn’t his manager—or his wife—have saved him before he sank to the lowest common denominator of holiday schlock?
McCartney’s faux cheeriness couldn’t push back the worried possibilities that waited to surge forward if I gave them any room. Reverend Wesley a murderer? It didn’t seem possible that he would hurt anyone, certainly not Lacy. They were always cordial in my presence. In fact he’d handpicked her to head the search committee currently working to find a new assistant minister. This was one of Wesley’s strong points—persuading lay people to take up the heavy yoke of church business in return for no pay and lots of second-guessing from the rest of the congregation.
I felt a little twinge of small-minded dismay. What did he want from me? Enough! I ordered. You’ll find out when you get there. My mind glided seamlessly to Detective Meigs. What was the status of his wife’s illness? STOP! STOP!
I turned off Route One, drove under I-95, and pulled into the Shoreline Emergency Clinic’s driveway. Quite a few cars were parked in the front visitors’ lot, even though most people in our little Connecticut town are fast asleep at this hour.
I picked my way across the blacktop, boots crunching on small pyramids of compacted snow—and slipped on a patch of ice. Arms flailing, I crashed onto my butt. A sharp pain radiated from my buttock and down my right thigh. I lay on the pavement, moaning, and assessed the damage: bruised hip and pride. I rolled to my knees and staggered up.
Meigs was waiting at the front door, the smile on his lips not quite reaching his worried eyes.
“You all right?”
Was he interested in the sequelae of my awkward landing or the deeper psychological ramifications of this past fall’s events? I chose to grunt out “fine.” Meigs looked more tired than when I’d seen him several months ago: cheeks a little more chiseled, circles under his eyes a darker hue. His close-cropped curls glinted gold-red with a spritz of silver under the bright lights of the front portico.
Forget it, Rebecca, I scolded myself. “What happened?” I asked curtly. “Why am I really here?”
“Your reverend seems to be flipping out,” Meigs said. He strode ahead of me through the waiting area, detouring around a woman vomiting into a trash can and an older man with his head wrapped in a bloody towel. We pushed through two sets of glass doors and walked down the hallway toward the back of the clinic. “He called 911 and reported an emergency. He says he stopped into Lacy Bailes’s condominium and found her very sick.”
“So she isn’t dead!” I exclaimed, weak with relief.
“She’s definitely dead. They worked on her for almost two hours before they gave up. We haven’t been able to get a sensible word out of Reverend Wesley since, and he insisted on speaking to you. The doc on call has been too busy to formally evaluate him.” He glanced back at me and grimaced. “We had three choices: Put him in jail, take him to the Yale emergency room, or give him a half a Valium and call you.” He shrugged. “We’re trying you first.”
I stopped still. “But if Lacy was ill, why would you even consider putting Wesley in jail?”
Meigs turned to face me, lowering his voice. “She had all the classic symptoms of a heart attack. But the doc got suspicious about poison and called me in. We can’t be certain until the autopsy results come back. That could be days—we need permission from next of kin, and nothing happens on a damn weekend. Obviously, I’m exaggerating about an arrest tonight, but it’s imperative that your reverend tell us everything he knows.”
We rounded the corner and passed through another set of double doors, these painted deep purple. Reverend Wesley was slumped in a blue plastic chair in a mini-waiting area, his white shirt rumpled and marked with rings of sweat. His eyes were closed and he held a dog-eared copy of People magazine on his lap.
As the minister popped up to hold out his hand, the magazine dropped to the floor, open to an article about celebrity cheating. “The Ultimate Betrayal!” the headline brayed.
“Thank goodness you’re here.”
I squeezed his fingers gently. “What happened? Are you all right?” With most people in this situation, I would have rushed forward to offer a hug. Reverend Wesley’s body language didn’t welcome that kind of consolation.
“Let’s find a room where we can talk more comfortably,” said Meigs. He strode down the hall, poked his head into one of the doors, then waved us down. “Can I get you some coffee? Water?”
I almost smiled. Flight attendant Meigs: who’d have guessed? Wesley and I shook our heads as we settled into more plastic chairs on either side of an examining table. Wesley’s gaze shifted to the metal stirrups and quickly back to the floor. Meigs perched on a rolling stool near the medicine cabinet. I reached diagonally across the white paper-covered table to shorten the distance between Wesley’s hand and mine.
Meigs pulled out his Palm pilot and cleared his throat. “Start from the beginning please, Reverend, and take us through what happened tonight.”
Wesley patted his lips and combed through his hair with his fingers. His nails, ordinarily as fastidious as a hand model’s, were filthy.
“I had an appointment to talk with Lacy at eight.” His eyes filled and he snuffled into the back of his hand. I rummaged through my purse, extracted a tissue, and handed it over.
“You had an appointment to talk about what?” Meigs prompted.
“The search committee, of course,” said Reverend Wesley. He closed his eyes, clenched his hands on the examining table, and lowered his forehead to his fists.
“Lacy was chairing the committee charged with locating an assistant pastor to serve under Reverend Wesley,” I said to Meigs. “Our former assistant found a new job and left rather precipitously. But nothing moves quickly in a church bureaucracy. And we have a large congregation. It’s been quite a stretch, hasn’t it, trying to meet everyone’s needs?” I patted the white paper on the table. “We do have an intern,” I added inanely.
Wesley lifted his head and stared at me, his pupils dilated. Valium or shock? I wondered.
“Will you take over as chair?”
I sucked in a deep breath, noticing the sharp tang of his body odor and a waft of disinfectant. “Wesley, listen to me. The search committee is the least of your problems.” I glanced quickly at Meigs. Leaning closer, I squeezed the minister’s wrist and whispered: “You could be arrested for murder here.”
“No!” he said, shaking me off, a glazed look in his eyes. “Of course I didn’t kill her! She was barely conscious when I got there. She was having trouble breathing. That’s why I called the clinic.”
“How did you get into the house, Reverend?” Meigs asked. “It doesn’t sound like she was in any condition to answer her door.”
Wesley’s cheeks flushed pink. “She was expecting me. When she didn’t answer my knocking, I went in. I had a feeling something was wrong.”
“So you arrived at eight, discovered her on the couch a few minutes later, and called 911 right after that?”
Wesley nodded, the movements of his head a little sloppy. “We were so close to filling the position. We have two interviews scheduled: Paul Cashman on Monday; he’s our intern who’s finishing up at Yale this spring.” He glanced at his watch and pressed his palm to his eyes. “And Ellen Dark’s on her way down from New Hampshire, if she isn’t already here. She’s spending the weekend in Madison. She wants to check out the area. The committee is going to interview her Sunday night.” He spread his delicate but grubby hands wide, a beseeching look on his face. “Both highly qualified, of course. If we put this off any longer, we’ll lose them and have to start from scratch. We simply can’t go on without another minister.”
Meigs was right—Wesley did appear to be losing his mind. “We could always hire someone temporarily—”
“No!” he yelped. “Don’t you understand? We’ve already done the work!”
I patted his arm, cooing softly until he settled down.
“I found her,” he whimpered. “When I got to her house, she was almost—dead.” His hand wandered to his chest, plucking at his wool scarf. His eyes welled with tears. “Will you do it? Join the committee, I mean?” He began to cough, a sharp bark, thick with phlegm. Meigs handed him a small box of tissues from the counter and rolled his stool back a few inches.
“When you arrived, she looked sick?”
“I already told you,” Wesley snapped. He took a ragged breath. “I’m sorry. She was so pale. And her breathing was labored and her skin was clammy.” His eyes bulged as he coughed again. “It looked like a heart attack.”
“Did you try CPR?” I asked.
He stared blankly. “Nothing I could do was going to bring her back. Nothing.” With his hands to his mouth, the last words were mumbled. “So I called 911.” His head wobbled, as if the weight was too much for his neck. “I learned CPR twenty-five years ago—never took a refresher. I was afraid to hurt her.”
“Did you see anyone on the way in or out of her apartment?” Meigs asked.
Wesley shrugged his shoulders. “No. Will you—” he looked at me and hacked helplessly—”join the committee?”
“Of course I’ll help.”
Meigs frowned and tipped his head toward the hall. I excused myself and followed him out.
“I think he’s suffering from a version of post-traumatic shock,” I said to Meigs, who was leaning against the wall. “He’s not thinking straight.”
He raised his eyebrows, one a quarter-inch higher than the other.
“He wants to appoint me to the vacant slot on the search committee. Why would he be so worried about that at a time like this?”
Meigs straightened, spreading his hands. “Spell it out.”
“Lacy Bailes chaired the group that was choosing a new assistant minister.” I bit my lip, organizing my thoughts; he’d want to know everything. “Because we had an intern coming on board, we skipped the interim minister step this time.”
He scratched his head and shrugged. “I’m Catholic,” he said. “By upbringing anyway. We don’t choose our priests; they’re sent from on high. You’ll have to explain the procedure.”
I sighed. “When a minister leaves, the church is supposed to choose an interim pastor. This guy—or woman—helps the congregation mourn the old minister and make an emotional attachment to the new leader.”
Meigs shook his head. “Greek to me.””
“Put it this way, the interim pastor is sort of like a foster parent. Churches that don’t follow the protocol run the risk of ending up with an attachment disorder.” I was beginning to sound like a pamphlet from the church’s central office.
“So let me get this straight,” Meigs said, yawning and pulling on his left ear, “you were supposed to hire someone to help you recover from your previous minister?”
“Not only this particular minister,” I said impatiently. Right now it seemed like a stupid process and impossible to explain. “It’s a specialty—clergy who go from church to church for short periods of transition. We call them interim pastors.”
“Sounds to me like it’s the interim ministers who have attachment disorders,” said Meigs.
I stared at him, then glanced at my watch. “One-thirty in the morning and you’re a comedian. I’d like to know why my pastor went to this woman’s home for a meeting on a Friday night.”
“We’d both like to know that,” Meigs said briskly. “And then an hour later she turns up dead. What can you tell me about Ms. Bailes?”
I sucked in a breath. Funny how you can see someone every Sunday, even talk with them in coffee hour, and still hardly know them at all. But I liked her. My eyes teared up. And I’d given Wesley my only Kleenex.
“She was single. She works—worked—for an insurance company in Hartford.” What if I’d known her better, taken more time? STOP! I wasn’t going down that road with Lacy: it’d brought nothing but agony with my dead neighbor. A tear started down my cheek. “I’m so tired. I can’t really think.”
Meigs frowned. “Fine, we’ll talk in the morning. Meanwhile, do you think the Reverend’s gone bonkers?”
I blotted my face with my sleeve and cracked a small smile. “You won’t find that diagnosis in the DSM –V. But probably not a bad idea to keep him for observation overnight and get an official psychiatric consult.”
“And not a terrible idea to have you sit on that committee,” said Meigs. “Just don’t start thinking you’re on the case. Or the clock.” He pressed on before I could cut him off. “You’re a damn good observer and your minister seems to trust you. And I have a feeling there are going to be gnarly confidentiality issues before we’re through. Think it over. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”
He wheeled back into the exam room. I was dismissed. “Can I say good night to the reverend?” The door clicked shut behind him.
“What do you think happened to Lacy?” I called. My voice echoed in the empty corridor.
Outside, the wind had picked up from merely sharp to biting. I minced back over the icy blacktop to my car, feeling a dull ache in my hip. I drove slowly home, passing the church on the way. Spotlights illuminated green wreaths with red bows on massive wooden doors, and candles gleamed through the wavy window glass, projecting an aura of peace and beauty.
Wouldn’t that be shot to hell by morning?
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