Grave Undertakings (Father Dowling Series #19)by Ralph McInerny
Father Roger Dowling's latest investigation revolves around the small town of Fox River, Illinois. A local mobster, Vincent O'Toole, has just died and is buried in the local cemetery. While questions still surround the cause of the gangster's death, someone has been attempting to dig up his grave. And when the town's police finally disinter the coffin, they find it empty.
Who and why would anyone wish to steal the mobster's corpse? And how does this relate to the mysterious death itself? Father Dowling begins to realize that the answers involve a manuscript by an Italian poet, and a love triangle between two very different young men and the woman they both covet.
Full of ingenious twists and turns, and the warm, humorous wisdom that fans of McInerny's Father Dowling mysteries have come to love, GRAVE UNDERTAKINGS is a delightfully clever puzzle.
Read an Excerpt
Heidegger had been sexton at Riverside Cemetery for twenty-three years after serving an apprenticeship of ten years on the grounds crew. He had taken the job because at the time there wasn't anything better. He had never intended to stay, but one day led to another, season blended into season, and he found that he liked outdoor work, even if it was in a cemetery. The fact is, it was hard work only when graves had to be dug or the leaves raked in the fall. Leaves were the bane of cemetery work.
If he could just sit there in his office and watch the trees turn into half a dozen glorious colors it would have been different. In the next office, Annie Ambrose snuffled and hummed, supposedly working on the computer but usually playing solitaire. The sight of leaves drifting down among the markers could stir the soul of any man. But they had to be picked up and carted off to the wilderness area at the west end of the cemetery. Long ago they had burned them and autumnal smoke rose in great sweet-smelling billows toward the sky, making the thin product from the crematorium chimney seem like nothing. At any other season of the year, the smoke from the chimney still got to Heidegger. Burying bodies was best, that was his deep belief. Burning them seemed disdainful, no matter all the good arguments in favor of it. Besides, it stirred up images of hell.
His office, thanks to the addition to the original building, gave him an untrammeled view of his domain. The sexton's office was located a hundred yards beyond the gatehouse. A law student now lived in the gatehouse apartment that was meantfor the sexton, but his wife, Dorothy, had refused to move into it. Heidegger was separated from the business office where Annie Ambrose kept the books. Annie talked to herself much of the time, but since she was deaf she might be unaware of it. When people came to ask about plots and burial, he placed their chairs so they could see how serene it was at Riverside. Their beloved would be able to rest in peace under those trees and the gently undulating terrain. Fall was a boom season for burial lots, as if the dying of the year turned people's thoughts to their final resting place. Heidegger used an attractive brochure to supplement the view from the north window.
"They sell themselves," he assured Dorothy.
"I don't want to hear about it."
It was the cross he had to bear. His wife was ashamed of the work he did, put off by it, would never let him talk to her about the satisfactions of being the sexton at Riverside Cemetery. For all that, she was a good woman. He had not told her that two lots awaited them in the area just to the west of the new mausoleum.
Mausoleums were not as bad as cremation, but Heidegger did not in his heart of hearts approve of them either. It was like filing away the remains, as if you might want to come back for them some day. Not that there weren't reburials from time to time....
Outside, the whine of the leaf blowers grew louder and soon the two men operating them came into view. They would not know what an improvement this was over raking. Memories of weeks spent raking between and around the gravestones could call up the constant back pain he had suffered in those days. Heidegger stepped to the window and waved his arms for five minutes before he got the crew's attention. He pointed significantly to his watch. Leaf-blowing was almost addictive. Imagine having to remind men that lunchtime had come.
Lolly and Maxwell, covered with dust from the leaves, ate lunch sitting in the open door of the maintenance shed, looking out at the scene of their labors. Heidegger sat on the tractor to which the suction machine was already attached. That represented phase two. First, blow the leaves into piles close to the roads. Second, suck them up and take them out to the wild area where they would be left to rot. Half would be taken away by truck farmers looking for mulch, bagging it up out there and hauling the leaves away.
"Hallowe'en," Heidegger said.
Lolly nodded and Maxwell said, "Geez."
"Can I count on you both?"
Their shrugs were meant as assent. Hallowe'en called for special precautions, to guard against vandalism.
"Out back is where they're likely to come in."
Out back was the wilderness, but beyond was a housing development filled with teenagers. The cemetery would be irresistible after they had tired of tricks or treats.
He thought of asking Withers, the law student who for the past week had been living in the gatehouse apartment, to keep vigil with them, but decided against it. Withers was preoccupied; he spent all his time studying and never left the apartment.
On Hallowe'en, accordingly, Lolly and Maxwell took up stations out back, where kids were most likely to sneak in. Heidegger took up his vigil in his office. He was dead tired. Dorothy was angry because she was home alone and would have to answer the door all by herself, bribing kids with candy. Throughout the day they had been busy sucking up piles of leaves and trucking them out to the wilderness. Lolly was lying on one of those stacks now, doing sentinel duty.
"Stay awake," Heidegger told him.
But it was Heidegger who fell asleep, tipped back in his chair in his office. He was wakened by the sound of his own snoring and for a wild moment did not know where he was. That was when he looked out and noticed the lights.
He rubbed his eyes to make sure, but there was no doubt of it. Someone was out there doing God knows what. Loily and Maxwell must have fallen asleep too.
Heidegger slammed the door when he left the office and advanced through the night, shouting toward the lights that flickered through the trees. He knew the cemetery like the back of his hand, but even so he had to be careful not to run into a memorial stone or trip over a marker.
"Hey!" he shouted, waving his flashlight. "Hey, you!"
The lights went out. Heidegger stopped. Had he scared them off?. He waited with his flashlight off and had the sense that someone else was waiting a hundred yards away. But the lights did not go on again. Then there was the sound of a motor starting, a powerful motor. To his right came the sound of Lolly and Maxwell approaching, drawn by his shouting. The sound of the motor grew fainter and then, as the vehicle neared the cemetery entrance, headlights went on.
Heidegger moved on then, followed by his men. They came to a halt when they reached the place where the intruders had been. They found a desecrated grave. The large Celtic cross had been tipped over. Signs of digging suggested a macabre purpose.
"Who's buried there?"
Heidegger turned his light on the toppled stone.
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