A Stillness in Bethlehemby Jane Haddam
Bethlehem, Vermont, is a sleepy little town, distinguished from the neighboring hamlets by its Christmas pageant. The holiday spectacular dates back generations; as the village’s only tourist attraction, it brings in much of the money that keeps Bethlehem afloat. The festivities/b>
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In a small New England town, a Christmas controversy is grounds to kill
Bethlehem, Vermont, is a sleepy little town, distinguished from the neighboring hamlets by its Christmas pageant. The holiday spectacular dates back generations; as the village’s only tourist attraction, it brings in much of the money that keeps Bethlehem afloat. The festivities are held on publicly owned land, which might be a slight violation of the separation of church and state, but no one has ever complained until Tish Verek comes to town. Verek is a true-crime writer from New York, and not long after she kicks up a fuss about the pageant, she’s shot dead in an apparent hunting accident. Anyone in Bethlehem could have fired the fatal bullet, and it’s up to ex–FBI investigator Gregor Demarkian to decide which Christmas-obsessed villager is really a grinch in disguise.
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A Stillness in Bethlehem
A Gregor Demarkian Holiday Mystery
By Jane Haddam
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Orania Papazoglou
All rights reserved.
IT WAS CALLED J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets, and what Gregor Demarkian told people who asked him what he was doing with it was: Bennis Hannaford gave it to me for an early Christmas present. This, of course, was true. J. Edgar Hoover was a book, and Bennis Hannaford had indeed given it to Gregor Demarkian for an early Christmas present. She had even wrapped it up in shiny silver paper. Back on Cavanaugh Street in Philadelphia, where they both lived, Gregor thought Bennis had thought there might actually be sense in the idea. Gregor had spent twenty years of his life in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the last ten of them either establishing or heading the Department of Behavioral Sciences. He had chased serial killers from Florida to Oregon to Massachusetts and back around again. He had sat kidnapping stake-outs from Palm Beach to Palm Springs. He had known three presidents and more senators, congressmen and departmental functionaries than he cared to remember. He'd been spoken of as a possible candidate for Director of the Bureau itself, although that sort of talk had mercifully died an early death. To Bennis Hannaford, one thing and one thing only would have been important, and that was that Gregor had known J. Edgar Hoover himself.
It was now ten o'clock on the morning of Sunday, December fifteenth, and Gregor was standing in the lobby of the Green Mountain Inn in Bethlehem, Vermont, letting Bennis and Father Tibor Kasparian deal with their bags and the sour-looking woman at the polished mahogany check-in desk. It was the sort of job he usually took on himself, because he was better suited for it. For all her authority of manner—for all her damn plain arrogance—Bennis was not only a woman but a small one. She measured just about five-foot-four and weighed in at less than a hundred pounds. Sometimes, no matter how hard she tried, she got overlooked. Bennis called it "the experience of drowning in tall people." Father Tibor Kasparian had a different set of problems. He was also small—Lida Arkmanian back on Cavanaugh Street said there were two kinds of Armenian men, big and broad and small and wiry; Tibor was the latter—but his difficulties getting service at crowded counters came less from his size than his manner. Tibor was parish priest at Holy Trinity Armenian Christian Church in Philadelphia, and to many people who didn't know him, he seemed as ineffectual as a parish priest could get. He was hunched and tentative. He was quiet and self-effacing. Countermen and bureaucrats took him at face value, and they really shouldn't have. In spite of what he looked like, meaning just plain old, Tibor was actually four years younger than Gregor Demarkian. His grizzledness had been earned the hard way. First, he had preached Christianity underground in Soviet Armenia. Then he had preached it quite publicly in one gulag or another. Then he had found his way to Israel, and Paris, and finally America, and it had almost been too much. Holy Trinity was supposed to be Tibor's reward for all the suffering he had done for the Faith, and it was. Tibor liked being pastor and he liked America the way Garfield the Cat likes lasagna. He liked Cavanaugh Street, too, which was an upper-middle-class Armenian-American enclave in a city that sometimes seemed to be falling apart in every other way. The truth was, he really wasn't fitted to survive in the rough and tumble of an openly aggressive society. He had spent too much of his life making himself invisible. He had spent too much of his time thinking about the true meaning of Christian humility, which he had decided must be absolute. There were people who called Father Tibor Kasparian a saint—and Gregor agreed with them—but what he also was was a mouse, and mice stood in lines forever while the cats got served before them.
Gregor Demarkian was the other kind of Armenian, big (almost six-foot-four) and broad (carrying twenty extra pounds that drove his doctor crazy) and forceful when he wanted to be. He was a modern American man in a camel's-hair topcoat and good cashmere-lined gloves, but he carried the seed of a wild and savage manhood, a masculinity of the steppes. At least, Bennis Hannaford said he did. When she did, Gregor always wondered if she could possibly be on drugs.
Up at the check-in desk, Bennis seemed to have finally gotten someone's attention and held it less than a minute. The words were indistinguishable, but Gregor caught the rhythm and the timbre. There was nothing in the world like Bennis Hannaford's voice. It was Main Line to Farmington to Smith. It was as maddeningly, gratingly elitist as the one Katharine Hepburn had sold to her adoring and oblivious public all through Gregor's childhood. It should have driven Gregor's democratic soul totally insane—but it didn't. It was just Bennis's voice, and Gregor was so used to it, it had begun to sound comforting.
It cut off in the middle of what seemed to be a lecture, and Gregor looked up. Bennis had moved away from the sour-looking woman and gone back to Tibor, who had taken a seat next to a chicly decorated Christmas tree near the fireplace. All the Christmas trees at the Green Mountain Inn were decorated chicly. The one next to Tibor held gold balls and gold satin bows and nothing else. The one near Gregor's elbow had received the same treatment in blue. Gregor preferred the Cavanaugh Street kind of Christmas-tree decorations himself. Lots of tinsel. Lots of blinking colored lights. Lots of candy canes. Lots of kitsch. That was what children liked. To Gregor's mind, there was something inherently wrong with a Christmas tree that had been decorated to satisfy adults.
Bennis finished talking to Tibor, straightened up and came across the lobby to Gregor. Gregor stuck his finger in his book and watched her. For the trip to Vermont, Bennis had added something extra to her everyday uniform of jeans, turtleneck, flannel shirt and down vest. This was an oversized thick-weave cotton sweater in a color she insisted on calling "pumpkin." It reminded Gregor of really good pumpkin pie. It made Bennis look like a street waif with the face of a Botticelli angel.
She came to a stop at Gregor's side, shoved a hand into the great black cloud of her hair and looked down at Gregor's book. It was dog-eared into twice its original thickness and stuffed full of small scraps of paper. Through the space created by Gregor's finger, Gregor knew she could see a fresh infusion of written-in-the-margins comments. Gregor had had this book for less than a week, and it was a total mess.
"For God's sake," Bennis said. "If I'd known the trouble that was going to cause, I'd never have bought it for you."
"I'm glad you bought it for me," Gregor told her. "This sort of thing is dangerous. It's crazy. You can't let something like this—"
"It's a book, Gregor. It's not an atom bomb."
"I know it's a book. It could have been a medieval book. It's a demonology. It's very dangerous to overestimate the capacities of psychopaths, Bennis; it produces mass paranoia."
"Right," Bennis said.
"If J. Edgar Hoover had the kind of power this man wants us to believe he had, then J. Edgar Hoover would have taken over the country and declared himself king. I knew J. Edgar Hoover."
"Right," Bennis said again.
"Don't patronize me," Gregor told her. "I put up with that fool for ten years and I know what he was like. Tell me what's going on with the room. Tell me what's going on with Tibor. Tell me what I'm supposed to be doing here."
Bennis looked down at the book again, doubtful, but then she turned and looked back at Tibor in his chair. He looked settled and happy enough to Gregor, but Gregor was beginning to wonder if he knew enough about Tibor to make a judgment like that. They weren't in Vermont because Gregor wanted to be there. They weren't there because Bennis wanted to be there, either. They were there because after months of dealing with wandering Armenian refugees from the newly formed Armenian republic and points across the collapsing Soviet Union, Tibor had collapsed himself. What worried Gregor was that he hadn't guessed that anything like that might be close to happening, and that he had been the only person who hadn't guessed. He could still hear the sound of Lida Arkmanian's voice coming over the phone to him at two o'clock in the morning, telling him that she'd called the doctor in and the doctor kept saying that everything was going to be fine, but that Tibor looked dead.
"Do you think he's happy?" Gregor asked, feeling suddenly worried all over again. "Do you think he looks relaxed? This is what he wanted, right?"
"I think he looks happy as a clam," Bennis said. "And this is definitely what he wanted. Five days of a Nativity play in Bethlehem, Vermont. You know what he told me? He told me he'd read about this thing in a newspaper in Bethlehem, Israel, when he was waiting around for his visas to come through so he could come to the United States. Do you suppose that's true?"
"I don't know," Gregor said. "I've never been in Israel. Have you?"
"I've been in the Tel Aviv airport. And in Kabul once."
"I don't think that counts."
"I don't think that counts, either," Bennis said. "I suppose we ought to go upstairs," she said. "I had hell's own time with that woman at the desk. She kept saying we were here early and we couldn't go up until noon, but I finally dragged it out of her that there wasn't anyone actually in those rooms, she just didn't have the cleaning done. I promised her we'd stash our bags and wash up and then go out for breakfast. Or brunch. Or something. I don't know if he looks relaxed, Gregor. Do you think he does?"
"I asked you first."
"God, we're awful. We should have brought Lida or Donna or Hannah or somebody just to make sure we had a grown-up. What are we going to do if he collapses again?"
"He's not going to collapse again," Gregor said stoutly. "You know what Dr. Evanian told Lida. It's all that running around that did it to him, and not eating so he'd have food to feed his refugees."
"I'm still furious about the food for the refugees," Bennis said. "I mean, I'm rich, Gregor. Tibor didn't have to starve himself to feed a lot of refugees."
"I think you got that across to him in the long run, Bennis."
"I should have been able to get it across to him in the short run. Oh, never mind. I'm just as worried as you are, and I don't know what to do about it, either. He looks so pale."
"He looks so excited," Gregor said.
Bennis shot him an exasperated look, then turned thoughtful and spun around, so that she was not only looking at Tibor but facing him directly. Gregor caught her expression at the exact moment when she began to realize it was true. When Tibor had first sat down, he had been shaky and ashen, much as he had been for the past two weeks. Mostly, he had seemed infinitely sad. It was a change in demeanor that had scared Gregor Demarkian to death, because Gregor Demarkian had seen it before, in legions of old people who had given up and decided it wouldn't be such a bad idea to die. It wasn't a decision that automatically accompanied old age. The man who owned the ground-floor apartment in Gregor's four-story, four-apartment brownstone back on Cavanaugh Street was well into his eighties, and if there was one thing old George Tekemanian hadn't done, it was give up. What frightened Gregor was that he'd never known anyone to look like that and stay alive for more than a few months. What frightened him more was that he didn't understand why Tibor should look like that in the first place. Fatigue, the doctor kept telling him. The doctor was a nice Armenian boy from over in Ardmore and the son of a friend of Sheila Kashinian's. He seemed competent enough, but Gregor didn't trust him. Gregor hadn't trusted doctors since his wife Elizabeth had died of cancer in terrible pain. Gregor had always been convinced that the pain could have been avoided, since the treatments that caused it were worthless anyway. As for Tibor, Gregor just didn't know. Fatigue. Tibor certainly seemed fatigued. He seemed terminally fatigued.
All of a sudden, Tibor didn't look fatigued at all. He had a newspaper folded open on his lap. He was jumping up and down in his country print-covered blue wing chair. His face was shiny bright. If Tibor's eyes hadn't been sparkling, Gregor would have thought he'd developed a fever.
Gregor moved up closer to Bennis and said into her ear, "Let's both of us go over there and find out what's going on."
"I think we'd better," Bennis agreed.
"I wonder what the newspaper is. Do you suppose he's got hold of The Boston Globe?"
"Not if he's looking that happy."
Gregor decided not to pay attention to Bennis's aspersions on the city of Boston—Bennis used to live there, and the experience did not seem to have left a good impression—and led the advance across the room to Tibor instead. By then, Tibor had gone from shining and sparkling to chuckling. He seemed entirely unaware of their approach. Then, at the last minute, when Gregor was just about to loom up at his side, Tibor looked up at both of them and smiled the widest smile they'd had out of him in two months.
"Krekor," he said enthusiastically. "Bennis. This is wonderful. You must see what I have here."
"We want to see what you have there," Bennis said.
"Yes, yes." Tibor began to unfold his paper, got tangled in it and then forced himself to be patient. Finally he got the paper into the shape he wanted it in and held it up. "It was lying right here on the coffee table, and I picked it up with no idea at all. Isn't it wonderful?"
Bennis Hannaford might have thought it was wonderful. Gregor Demarkian definitely did not. The paper was the Bethlehem News and Mail, and the double-page inside spread Tibor had opened it to was headlined:
THE DETECTIVE IN ACTION HOW THE ARMENIAN-AMERICAN HERCULE POIROT SOLVED THE CASE OF THE ARTFUL ARBITRAGUER (Part Two of a Three-Part Series)
Gregor Demarkian had been called "the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot" before. He had been called that by the Philadelphia Inquirer, People magazine and The CBS Evening News. He had even done something recently that might provide an excuse for this article, meaning investigate a murder on the Atlantic ocean that had rich people and expensive eccentricities in it. The problem was, it hadn't been recently enough, and he hated articles like this one. He had expected to suffer through five days of bad playwriting and sentimental Christmas pageantry for the sake of his friend, Father Tibor Kasparian. He had not expected to have to suffer through the local newspaper's latest idea for increasing their circulation.
It didn't help any that Tibor had leaped to his feet and was bouncing up and down saying, "The paper only comes out once a week every Tuesday. This is last Tuesday's paper, Bennis, and if this paper had come out every day like an ordinary paper, then I would have missed it. Wouldn't that have been a shame?"
Bennis Hannaford was a woman with resources and connections, and one of the ways she used both was to ensure that she never had any inconveniences with travel or accommodations. The Bethlehem Nativity Celebration had been a harder assignment than most. It wasn't the kind of thing the kind of people Bennis knew usually had a hand in. Neurotic rich girls who had once come out on the Main Line moved to Vermont all the time, but they tended to move to the more New Age, socially aware parts of it. Camels and angels and Magi and the Christ Child in a manger were not what they were used to or wanted to be used to. Then, too, all this had come up at the last minute. Tibor had collapsed three days after Thanksgiving. The doctor's lecture on getting Tibor away from Cavanaugh Street and responsibilities and the persistent temptations to do just one more thing had come two days after that. Bennis hadn't had much time to arrange things. Gregor had wondered if she was going to be able to arrange things at all. The Bethlehem Nativity Celebration might not be his first choice for a winter vacation, but that it was the first choice of a great many people was something he knew well. He'd fully expected every hotel room in town to be booked solid.
Excerpted from A Stillness in Bethlehem by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 1992 Orania Papazoglou. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jane Haddam (b. 1951) is an American author of mysteries. Born Orania Papazoglou, she worked as a college professor and magazine editor before publishing her Edgar Award–nominated first novel, Sweet, Savage Death, in 1984. This mystery introduced Patience McKenna, a sleuthing scribe who would go on to appear in four more books, including Wicked, Loving Murder (1985) and Rich, Radiant Slaughter (1988). Not a Creature Was Stirring (1990) introduced Haddam’s best-known character, former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian. The series spans more than twenty novels, many of them holiday-themed, including Murder Superior (1993), Fountain of Death (1995), and Wanting Sheila Dead (2005). Haddam’s most recent novels are Blood in the Water (2012) and Hearts of Sand (2013).
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