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The fifth clever cozy featuring caterer-turned-sleuth Faith Fairchild. The town of Aleford is in the midst of an ugly campaign for Selectman when a film crew arrives to make a contemporary version of The Scarlet Letter. Faith is hired to cater the meals, and when one of the more vile candidates for Selectman turns up dead while visiting the filming, Faith goes to work to find a killer. Martin's.
The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import.
Aleford, Massachusetts, was reeling—literally. Not only was an actual Hollywood movie crew in town filming a modern version of The Scarlet Letter but Walter Wetherell had abruptly resigned from the Board of Selectmen, igniting a fierce three-way contest for the vacant seat.
And, as if these were not enough, Town Meeting was in session, with all its attendant intrigue: loyalties and grudges handed down from one generation to the next; back-room political maneuvers; and immediate front-room protests. Never before had the dismally bleak month of March seemed so bright. March—when the possibility of a crisp white snowfall was greeted with about as much enthusiasm as another tax increase from Beacon Hill. March—when only the young, or perennially foolish, talked about smelling spring in the air and the imminent arrival of daffodils. March—whether accompanied by lions or lambs, a month to get through.
Over at the First Parish parsonage, the Reverend Thomas Fairchild and his wife, Faith, were adapting themselves to the newest member of their family, Amy Elisabeth. It had been Baby Girl Fairchild for about twenty-four hours following her birth the previous September as Tom and Faith battled it out, albeit with velvet gloves. Faith had counted on a dramatic pose in the hospital bed, fresh from her labor, to win the day. It didn't. She was forced to give in on Sophie, with all its sweet little French schoolgirl connotations, but rallied to demand that Tom abandon Marian, after his mother. A nice woman, to be sure, yet what would Faith's own mother, Jane, have to say? The remote and absurd possibility that Faith might be forced to have another baby to keep both grandmothers happy had presented a singularly grueling specter at the moment. For a while, it appeared agreement might be reached on Victoria, or Victoire (Faith persisted), but both parents eventually concurred that it might not be clear whose victory and over what, since it wasn't even clear to Tom and Faith themselves. Faith's escape from a crazed kidnapper in a French farmhouse during the fourth month of pregnancy? Or, Faith's suggestion, the whole less than enjoyable experience of childbirth itself? A memory any number of friends had assured her grew dim with time. And this had proved to be the case—somewhat. Ben's birth three and a half years earlier had receded to a far distant shore, then instantly crashed forward into total recall the moment her water broke.
They had finally settled on Amy, but Faith perversely decided to hold out for the French spelling, Aimée, to almost a bitter end. It was only when Tom sang "Once in Love with Amy" for the hundredth time, firmly declaring Ray Bolger wasn't immortalizing an Aimée, that Faith gave in. She pulled her last punch and salvaged the European s instead of z in Elisabeth, and the family turned to more important things like nibbling the baby's toes and wondering how fingernails could be so tiny.
Faith Sibley Fairchild had not always lived in Aleford, a fact she no longer blurted out insistently when introduced but that she nevertheless managed to subtly work into the conversation—such was the increasing wisdom that age, and life in a small village, conferred. She had grown up in Manhattan, established herself as one of the hottest caterers in town as an adult, and reluctantly left after she realized the sole way she could have her cake and eat it was to move north, marry Tom, and make sure she had a decent stove.
The institution of the ministry was not foreign to her. Both her father and grandfather were men of the cloth. It was this familiarity with parish life during her formative years that made her swear an oath with her sister, Hope, one year younger. Neither would marry men working for any "higher authority" than someone with a name on the door and a Bigelow on the floor. The girls went so far as to avoid dates with Matthews, Marks, Lukes, and Johns for a time, until this became counterproductive when Hope fell for a particularly attractive bond salesman named Luke at work. Still, she married a Quentin, an MBA, not an MDiv, and lived up to her side of the bargain. It was Faith who fell from grace when she met Tom, sans dog collar, at a wedding she was catering, not realizing he had performed the ceremony until it was too late.
Almost five years had passed. Faith had become a bit more used to Aleford and Aleford to Faith. However, she still suffered frequent longings for the sound of taxi horns blaring, the sight of blue-and-yellow Sabrett's umbrellas protecting spicy dogs and kraut, and the aroma of Bergdorf's fragrance counters. You could take the girl out of the city, but you couldn't take the city out of the girl. Her stylish New York clothes and penchant for Woody Allen movies were no longer hot topics for the early coffee and muffin crowd at the Minuteman Café. If she was talked about, and she was, the conversation now tended toward her knack for both finding corpses and subsequently solving the crimes.
But old habits die hard in places like Aleford, and stalwarts like Millicent Revere McKinley, a descendant of a distant cousin of Paul Revere and the pillar of the DAR, Aleford Historical Society, and WCTU, regarded Faith's sleuthing abilities as child's play compared with Millicent's own encyclopedic knowledge of the life and crimes of every Aleford inhabitant for the last fifty years. This knowledge was gleaned in a variety of ways, the predominant being her daily hawk-eyed observations from a perch in the front bay window of ye olde ancestral Colonial house, happily located directly across from the village green and with a clear view down Battle Road, Aleford's main street. No, Miss McKinley, thank you, was not interested in Faith's supposed abilities pertaining either to detection or cuisine. Millicent clung to her initial impression; to do otherwise would have suggested uncertainty, or worse—whimsicality—and she chose to dwell on the peccadilloes of a person from "away." Her attitude was made manifest by audible sighs, especially where two or three were gathered, followed by the words "Poor Reverend Fairchild."
When Faith reopened her catering business, Have Faith, after Christmas in the former home of Yankee Doodle Kitchens, Millicent added, "And her poor neglected little children" to the litany, smiling a gentle, mournful smile before moving on to the next audience.
"Honestly, Tom, I should be used to her after all this time, but she still gets under my skin," Faith exploded one evening after the neglected children had been read to, cuddled, and generally spoiled rotten before drifting off to sleep. "It's a Gordian knot and I'm all thumbs. If I hadn't started the business again and had stayed home all day with Amy, dear as she is, I'd be a crazy woman by now. Or let's say crazier. On the other hand, working makes me feel guilty about leaving her, even for short periods. And I know the house is suffering."
"I'd rather have you sane—or are we saying saner? Besides, you've done everything you can to be with Ben and Amy as much as possible." Tom looked around the living room from the depths of the large down-cushioned sofa, a comfy legacy bequeathed by one of his predecessors. "The house looks fine—and so, Mrs. Fairchild, do you." Faith was conveniently near and he drew her into his arms.
"I suppose you're right," she said contentedly. "Anyway, the flowers help." Faith had placed pots of bright tulips and freesia she'd forced, so as to distract the eye from whatever might be out of place or in need of cleaning. It was a trick she had learned from her Aunt Chat: "Put plenty of flowers around, keep the silver shiny, and no one will ever know how many dust bunnies are under your bed."
While letting some of the housework slide, although she was managing to keep the bunnies from reproducing at too rapid a rate, Faith did everything guilt-ridden moms everywhere do to minimize the time away from the kids. She may even have gone overboard, she'd thought on more than one occasion, longing for a moment alone. It was getting hard to remember the last time she'd had a shower more than three minutes long, and a soak in a perfumed tub seemed like a chapter from somebody else's life.
Yankee Doodle's premises had needed some remodeling, so Faith had had a carpeted play area installed at one end of the huge space, complete with Jolly Jumper, playpen, shelves for toys, and a small table and chairs. Most days, the baby came to work with her. Just as the books said, second child Amy Elisabeth was easier, settling placidly into two long naps and food at reasonable hours, except for that very early morning demand for mother's milk—now! Ben was at nursery school through lunch and spent the afternoon with Faith or, when she was pressed, in day care with Arlene Maclean, mother of Ben's beloved friend, Lizzie. Arlene also took Amy at times. Arlene didn't smoke, wasn't noticeably psychotic, and, if Lizzie was proof, knew what was what in the Raising Nice, Obedient, Yet Interesting Children department—a department Faith still felt much less familiar with than, say, Better Dresses at Bloomie's.
It had been an enormous amount of work starting the business in the new locale, far from her former suppliers and staff. She'd been discouraged almost to the point of giving up when Niki Constantine, a young Johnson and Wales graduate fresh from washing pots at Biba's, one of Boston's culinary shrines, strode confidently in to be interviewed for the job of Faith's assistant. Niki had grown up in nearby Watertown. Her parents still operated a bakery there. She nibbled all day, tasting constantly, and never seemed to put an ounce on her wiry frame. Her tight, short black curls had a few streaks of premature gray and she brought an air of serious professionalism to the job that matched Faith's own.
They soon became a team: two ambitious, hardworking women who were often convulsed in laughter, as when Niki presented Faith with a tray of spectacularly fallen individual soufflés Grand Marnier, declaiming in solemn tones, "They just couldn't keep it up." Niki also tended to answer "Food is my life" in a deceptive deadpan to most queries.
So, all was well, or at least this is what Faith optimistically told Tom, and herself, whenever she returned home at the end of a particularly long day. Amy was benefiting from having a contented mom, not to mention the purees of artichoke hearts and spoonfuls of pâté de foie de volaille avec champignons the baby gobbled down with significantly greater gusto than she brought to Gerber's fare. Ben was the same, munching chocolate madeleines and milk as his after-school snack. And there were stretches when Faith wasn't working much at all and packed the kids up for enriching trips into town or dragged them along on much-neglected parish calls. She was, after all, a minister's wife. And she knew her duties.
The first inkling that movie people were coming to Aleford had been in December, shortly before Christmas, when a tall, thin young man in an olive Joseph Abboud suit and slightly darker topcoat had showed up at Battle Green Realty and asked the startled owner, Louisa May Talcott (her mother had read Little Women over seventy times), whether she could show him some houses. December was a slow month and Louisa May had been engrossed in the latest Charlotte MacLeod mystery when the sleigh bells on the door jangled. She'd looked up, to find her own distorted reflection in the sunglasses her caller had donned against the novel glare of white snow. Politely removing his shades, he explained he wanted to rent a small Cape Cod house, authentic if possible, located on several acres, preferably with lots of trees. It was the work of a moment to drive him out to the Pingree place, a two-hundred-year-old Cape. It had the requisite light-obscuring windows, low ceilings, and small, drafty rooms. The house also abutted a large stretch of conservation land complete with forest, streams, a bog, and several picturesque tumbled-down stone walls. Delighted with the house and its setting, the stranger revealed he was Alan Morris, the assistant director on a new Maxwell Reed movie. Alan shot countless rolls of film, took copious notes, and left a check that turned the visions of sugarplums dancing in Louisa May's head into more palpable goodies under the tree: a laptop computer for husband, Arnold; Nintendo for little Toby; and the cashmere twin set from Talbots she'd long desired for herself.
The Pingrees went to Paris.
The advent of the movie people had occupied center stage throughout December and into February. Aleford dubbed itself L.A. East as it watched the progression of various individuals arrive to scout locations, arrange permits, rent a house for the director, who did not like hotels, and book blocks of rooms for everyone else at a Marriott in nearby Burlington—Aleford itself had but one hostelry, which boasted only three bedrooms. (You did get a mighty delicious breakfast thrown in.) Everything had to be in place well before the March shooting date. But all this, even the helicopter flying low over the conservation land, was firmly relegated to the wings once the news of Walter Wetherell's resignation got out.
While some residents of Aleford had been known to take an interest in national and state politics, particularly during presidential and gubernatorial years, it was local elections that gripped the hearts and minds of the majority. Balloons did not tumble down from the ceiling, nor did smiling, well-groomed red-white-and-blue-clad families grace a podium when candidacies were declared. But this did not mean there wasn't plenty of hoopla. It merely took a different form. Perhaps a small, discreet notice in the town paper, the Aleford Chronicle, or, better still, a letter to the editor, which didn't cost anything. Then as things heated up, there would be larger ads listing the names of those who endorsed the candidate. Properly studied—and there were few Alefordians who were not adept at the art—the names revealed more about the candidates than any debate or position paper. Once the ads appeared and everyone had figured out who was representing whom, bolder measures would be taken. The tops of cars sprouted signs precariously anchored by bungee cords and the space between front and storm doors filled up with fliers describing the candidates' records all the way back to things like "Winner of the Fifth Grade All-Aleford Spelling Bee."
Campaign mores were as invariable as the flag raising every morning on the green.
In the late fifties, someone had passed out ballpoints with his name emblazoned in gold ink on each and every one, but the general opinion was that he'd gone a little too far—for which he was resoundingly defeated. In a gesture of defiance, or remorse, he moved closer to Boston, where his flamboyant style presumably found a more congenial home.
The first fireworks in the current election had started in February, before any of the candidates were announced.
"Why in tarnation Walter Wetherell thinks he has to resign just because he's having some sort of pig valve put in his heart is beyond me," police chief Charley MacIsaac told Faith one particularly chilly day. He'd formed the habit of dropping in at the caterers now and then for a cup of coffee, and Faith was glad to have him. She missed their morning colloquies at the Minuteman Café. She'd been afraid she'd get woefully out of touch when she went back to work, until Charley had solved the problem. Not that he was a chatterbox, but she could usually work the conversation around to what she wanted to know. She didn't even have to try this time. Charley was more than ready to spill his guts.
"I didn't know you were such an ardent supporter of Walter's. I thought you two were at odds over widening Battle Road," Faith commented.
Excerpted from The Body in the Cast by Katherine Hall Page, Phyllis G. Humphrey. Copyright © 1993 Katherine Hall Page. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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