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One horrible murder. Two people destined for love or tragedy. Emotions explode in Millers Kill, where nothing is as it seems . . . and betrayal twists old friendships and evil waits inside quaint farmhouses.
Russ Van Alstyne figures his wife kicking him out of their house is nobody's business but his own. Until a neighbor pays a friendly visit to Linda Van Alstyne and finds the woman's body, gruesomely butchered, on the kitchen floor. To the state police, it's an open-and-shut case of a disaffected husband silencing his wife and putting a stop to the murder investigation he controls. To the townspeople, it's proof that the whispered gossip about the police chief and the priest was true. To the powers-that-be in the church hierarchy, it's a chance to control their wayward cleric once and for all. Russ and Clare must struggle against the reach of the law, the authority of the church, and their own guilty hearts.
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All Mortal FleshA Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery
By Spencer-Fleming, Julia
St. Martin's MinotaurCopyright © 2006 Spencer-Fleming, Julia
All right reserved.
Monday, January 14
Midway this way of life we're bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
Clare smelled the smoke first. She came to a standstill, breathing in the chill and windless air. Pine tar and wet wool and the frozen freshwater smell of snow. And smoke. She had crammed as many logs as she could into the cabin's woodstove before she left that morning, but they would have burnt down into glowing cinders by now, their smoke long vanished into the air.
So. Someone had stoked the woodstove. She wasn't alone. She clutched her poles and almost--almost--turned back into the woods. She had food and matches and a blanket and a knife in her day pack. She could escape.
A cold touch on her bare hand startled her. A single fat snowflake melted onto her skin. As she watched, another fell. Then another. She sighed. There was no escape. She trudged forward, breaking through the last of the hemlock and white pine, clambering over a hard-packed wall of snow thrown up in the wake of the private road's plowing.
Gathering her poles in one hand, she sprung her bindings, stepped free of her snowshoes, andscooped them up with her free hand. Her legs felt shaky and insubstantial as she tottered toward the cabin.
Thank God, thank God, she didn't recognize the SUV parked next to her car. It was a clean, late-model Scout, anonymous in this area where everyone spent the winter in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. She supposed it could belong to a relative of the cabin's owner. Mr. Fitzgerald had offered the place when she told the congregation she was looking for a post-Christmas retreat, but he was into his early eighties and perhaps had forgotten promising the space to a grandkid.
She mounted the steps to the uncovered front deck and hung her snowshoes and poles on two of a row of pegs jutting from the log wall. Please, Lord, let it not be someone from my congregation. Anyone making the hour-and-a-half drive from Millers Kill would have to be hurting bad. I don't have it in me to minister right now. She opened the door.
The man rooting beneath the kitchen counter stood up and up and up before turning toward her. "Ms. Fergusson. Finally. I confess, I was beginning to feel a bit concerned."
Clare blinked. "Father Aberforth?" She looked around, as if there might be someone else who could explain why Albany's diocesan deacon-at-large was standing in the kitchen on a Monday afternoon holding a battered teakettle. The open floor plan didn't leave much scope for hiding, however, unless the presiding bishop was lurking in the bathroom. "What are you doing here?"
Father Aberforth plunked the kettle into the sink and twisted the tap on. "Making tea." He gestured behind her. "You might want to shut the door before you let all the heat out."
She kicked the door closed without turning around. "I've been on retreat." Her voice sounded shaky, as if she were excusing her absence from her parish. Willard Aberforth was known as the bishop of Albany's hit man, a scarecrow in black who dealt discreetly and firmly with problem priests. And she, they both knew, was a problem priest. Or at least a priest with a problem.
"I hadn't forgotten that," he said dryly, shutting off the water and swinging the kettle onto the stove. "I spoke to Father Lawrence before driving up here. To see how everything went. He said you had called him and told him you were coming back early?"
"You had Wednesday to Wednesday, you know."
"I know. I just . . . I did what I came up here to do. Now I think getting back to work will be good for me."
Aberforth raised his eyebrows, unfurling an expanse of sagging skin. "Do you have concerns about Father Lawrence's abilities? I'm the one who approved him as your supply priest for the week, you know."
"Ah. No. No worries. He seemed quite"--geriatric--"nice. When I briefed him. Experienced. Very experienced."
"He was a good friend of your predecessor."
The late, lamented Father Hames, who had become St. Alban's priest around the time Betty Grable was a pin-up girl.
"I believed he and your parishioners would feel quite comfortable together."
She had thought, after the events of the past night, that her reserves of grief and dread were plumbed out, but she felt a fresh upwelling of fear at his words. "Are you . . . is the bishop suspending me?"
Father Aberforth looked at her. He had once been a younger and heavier man, and his face fell in deceptively drooping folds, but his black eyes showed that inside he was still all hard lines and angles. "Does that thought distress you?"
"Yes!" She was surprised how much. Over the past four months, she had been praying for some sign that she was in the right place, that God intended her to be a parish priest rather than a social worker or a chaplain or a helicopter pilot--her old, easy calling. God had remained resolutely silent on the matter. Maybe now He was talking to her, in the sick clench of her gut.
Father Aberforth nodded. "I thought it might. The answer is no, the bishop is not suspending you from your duties."
The last of her energy left her body with her breath. Clare let her day pack thud to the floor and collapsed into a nearby sofa without bothering to remove her parka. She heard the click-click-clicking of the burner as Aberforth turned on the gas and a whoosh as his match lit the ring into flame. "I know you're a coffee fiend, but there must be tea here somewhere," he said.
"In the pantry. In one of the Tupperware boxes." She listened to Aberforth rummage around, the clink and clunk of mugs and spoons and the sugar tin, and she could hear her grandmother Fergusson chiding her to get up and act the hostess, but for once she couldn't bring herself to care about Doing the Right Thing. She sat there dully, rubbing her hands over the smooth twill of the sofa cushions.
The kettle whistled shrilly and cut off. "Do you take your tea the same way you do your coffee? Ridiculously sweet?"
"Gosh," she said. "You remember." She waited without expectation as he crossed the floor and set a mug on the table in front of her. He folded himself into one of the leather Eames-style chairs opposite the sofa. It wasn't meant for Aberforth's storklike six and a half feet, and he struggled to get comfortable for a moment before snatching a kilim pillow off the companion chair and stuffing it beneath his knees.
"Idiotic furniture," he said. "Where did you find this place?"
"Belongs to one of my parishioners," she said. "He doesn't use it very much since his wife died a few years ago."
Father Aberforth grunted. "Drink your tea. You look half dead."
She reached for the hot mug with as little effort as possible and managed a few sips. "What are you doing here, Father? I didn't think we were due for another chat until after I had sorted myself out up here."
"My visit has two purposes."
Clare smiled to herself. Who but Willard Aberforth talked like that?
"First, to tell you that the bishop has assigned you a new deacon."
She cradled the warm mug between her hands. "I don't need an assistant."
"This will be a full-time position, salary paid for by the diocese."
Clare looked closely at the old man. "St. Alban's isn't large enough or prosperous enough to warrant a full-time deacon."
The penny dropped. "I'm getting a babysitter."
"Consider her more of a guide. To keep you on the straight and narrow."
"Emphasis on the straight." It had been her celebration of a gay union the year before that originally brought her to the bishop's--and Aberforth's--attention. She had broken her vows of obedience and flouted the bishop's policy toward homosexuals, both faults she had admitted but failed to repent of. She had been waiting for the bishop's reaction since last November, but the flaming car crash that was her personal life had kept her distracted. Now she tweaked to something else Aberforth had said. "Her?"
"The Reverend Elizabeth de Groot. She was raised up from St. James in Schuylerville. Since you'll be back tomorrow, I'll let her know she can report for duty as of Tuesday."
"Is she transitional?" That is, on the road to priesthood, which would give Clare some chance that the woman would be shuffled off to another parish within a year.
"Oh no. She's a career deacon. She was ordained over a decade ago after helping build St. Stephen's into the church it is today as a volunteer and a vestry member and a warden."
Clare translated that to mean old enough to be your mother and has already seen it all twice. "What's she like?"
"An elegant lady. Dignified. She has a lovely sense of tradition."
Clare translated that to mean so high church she makes the archbishop of Canterbury look like a guitar-strumming folksinger. She sighed. It wasn't as if there were anything she could do. As a response to her transgressions, it was fairly mild. "So that's the one thing," she said. "What's the other?"
Father Aberforth fussed a bit with his tea. "I came to check on you. To see if you needed to talk. Having found myself in the position of your confessor."
Clare smiled faintly. "You can't take confession." Despite his honorary title of "Father," the deacon was not eligible to act as God's intermediary when people spilled their most painful secrets. Still, he probably believed more wholeheartedly in the rite than did Clare, who forgave sins on a weekly basis.
"It wouldn't do you any good if you weren't prepared to repent and mend your ways," he said. She could feel her cheeks coloring. "Yes, I thought this retreat had more to do with your situation than with some post-Christmas and Epiphany exhaustion. Have you figured out what you're going to do with this married man of yours?" He craned his neck, trying to peer over the edge of the upstairs loft. "He's not staying here with you, is he?"
She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "No. No, he isn't."
He pierced her with his black eyes. "I'm not here to judge you, girl. You think you're the first sheep to wander out of the fold because greener pastures beckon?" He reached for his tea. "At least you show some originality. Most priests who dabble in adultery go for the music director or one of the warden's wives. The town's chief of police--that's novel. Not too bright, but novel."
"Don't hold back. Please, tell me what you think."
"Straight talking is exactly what you need at this point, Ms. Fergusson."
He was right, and she knew it. The deacon made for a strange confidante--he didn't approve of women priests, he was formal to the point of eccentricity, and, most damning of all, he reported directly to her boss. But there was something about his dry, unsentimental demeanor that had made it easy, over the past two months, to tell him everything. About how lonely she had been, a stranger in a strange place, looking out onto a sea of faces waiting expectantly for her to either fail miserably or to walk on water. About making friends with the only person in town who looked at her and saw plain old Clare Fergusson instead of a bundle of assumptions in a dog collar. About walking farther and farther away from the narrow, well-lit path with Russ Van Alstyne, talking and laughing and ignoring the signs screaming danger: off trail and entering unpatrolled land and go no farther this means you and then being surprised--surprised!--when she looked around and found she was utterly lost.
Something of the wilderness must have shown in her face, because Aberforth leaned forward awkwardly against his Eames-spindled knees and said, "I haven't said anything to the bishop yet, but you're going to need to come to a decision soon, Ms. Fergusson. Not for him or for me or for the people in your parish. For the sake of your own soul."
She nodded mechanically. "I know, Father. And I've . . ." Her voice faded off. How could she describe the past few weeks? Days? These last terrible hours? "I've taken steps."
She picked up her mug of tea, watching with a clinical interest as her hand shook. "Unless something extraordinary happens, I do not expect to see Russ Van Alstyne again."
Copyright © 2006 by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Excerpted from All Mortal Flesh by Spencer-Fleming, Julia Copyright © 2006 by Spencer-Fleming, Julia. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
All Mortal Flesh
Reading Group Guide
1. Imagine ALL MORTAL FLESH as the basis for a screenplay. Choose a scene and discuss how you, as the director, would want to film it.
2. Her relationship with Russ aside, is Clare as skilled at resolving her own inner conflicts as she is at dealing with those of others? Are there any relationships in particular that you think she mismanages? Why?
3. Conventional wisdom in present day society often suggests, in one form or another, that "there is more sorrow in not following your heart," often paraphrased as "if it feels good, do it..." What do you think?
4. Do you think the life that Clare lives is appealing?
5. Why do you think the author entitled her book ALL MORTAL FLESH?
6. Do you have a favorite character - or one you love to hate - in the story [other than Clare and Russ]?
7. Did the book leave you wanting to learn more about any character? Who?
8. What do Aaron and Quinn have to say about the pitfalls of parenting in today's society? From the parental perspective, what steps might have succeeded in avoiding their fates?
9. What do Aaron and Quinn have to say about the pros and cons of being raised in a small town? Is our society's increased focus on huge schools and the internet resulting in a similar phenomenon of isolation and boredom in suburbs as well as cities? Think Columbine. Think the Dartmouth murders.
10. Does it take a village to properly raise a child? And if so, what happened here?
11. What do you think of Russ, combat and law enforcement veteran (and grown man), seeking shelter, literally, with his mother in time of need? Does this ring true from a mother's perspective? From a mature man's perspective? What does this say about his emotional maturity level? Would you choose a similar path in time of emotional need?
12. What are the defining events in Clare and Russ's lives, or have they not occurred yet?
13. What do you think of the role of Deacon Elizabeth? Of her personally? Does she ring true as a character? A human being?
14. The primary murderous act in ALL MORTAL FLESH is, ultimately, a purely random act of violence, the effects of which alter so many lives irrevocably. What does this say about the randomness of violence in American society? Is it a comment on a society that differs markedly, in its level of murder rates, from most other societies in this world? If so, how?
15. Was the ending largely fated to happen, or could Linda, Russ, or Clare have taken steps that might have prevented their respective catastrophes? If so, what? When?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
“All Mortal Flesh,” the fifth in the Clare Ferguson/Russ Van Alstyne series, finds Clare, the parish priest in the small Adirondack, upstate NY town of Millers Kill, and Russ, the local police chief and married man she loves, having just wrenchingly ended their relationship. The following day, an even more devastating event occurs: Russ is told that his wife, from whom he had recently separated when he told her of his love for Clare, has been brutally murdered. Loving Clare, yet still loving his wife, matters are only compounded when both Clare and Russ are considered prime suspects, not only by the police but by the local gossip-loving town residents. With her usual adroit skill, Ms. Spencer-Fleming has written another wonderful tale of these very human protagonists in this book, available for the very first time in a trade paperback edition. The sense of place is vivid, and the wintry weather graphically evoked. There is a slam-bang ending with a final unexpected and stunning turn as this suspense-filled tale concludes. An excellent and fast-paced read, and one that is highly recommended.
Be careful what you wish for. This applies to the readers, not the protagonists, of this book. Tragedy visits Millers Kill, with the resulting twists and turns we've come to expect from this fine author. But this time, there's a final twist followed by a final tragedy that hits home-- and Clare and Russ are overwhelmed. More I can't say without spoiling the story. Just read it!
In Millers Kill, New York Episcopalian Priest Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne feel guilt over falling in love with one another as he is married to Lindy, who lovingly has been at his side every step of the way for his twenty-five years army career. Neither Clare nor Russ wants to hurt the kind caring Lindy, but they failed to hide their needs and finally he dropped the bomb on her. Linda (Lindy was that naive army spouse) is divorcing Russ and moving on symbolized by her buying her first cat.-------------------- However, her friend Meg Tracey, having not heard from Linda in a few days, visits the Van Alstyne farmstead only to find Linda murdered. State Police take over the investigation to insure there is no conflict of interest in the homicide investigation of a local officer¿s wife. The case seems obvious: a disaffected uncaring husband eliminated his unwanted wife to be with his paramour. Adding to that theory is the Archdiocese has assigned a permanent deacon to ¿assist¿ meaning watch over Reverend Fergusson. Clare and Russ share culpability, but not that of the murder as the Episcopalian Church comes down on her for her transgression and the law on both of them while the townsfolk condemn the duo as much for betraying Linda and their positions as for believing they killed her.----------------- The latest Fergusson-Van Alstyne investigative tale takes a personal spin with the death of Lindy as Clare and Russ feel anguish over what happened to her. The story line is filled with twists and turns that will shock readers yet seems plausible as Julia Spencer-Fleming is at her best with this terrific thriller. This is must reading for series fans while newcomers will find this tale a delightful standalone yet enhanced by reading previous novels (see OUT OF THE DEEP I CRY) to gain a tastier flavor of the triangle.--------------- Harriet Klausner
I have been following the entere series by Julia Spenser-Fleming. Ilove how she brings in the current issues of the day and keeps you guessing at the outcome. Seeing faith at work in her life is also presented in a very real, down-to-earth manner.
Julia Spencer-Fleming has become one of my favorite authors. I look forward to any new books that she writes. You will love her fallible characters, perhaps because we have been there or known someone else who has travelled the same roads. This author manages to combine the mystery that everyone loves in a small town setting with believable and unusual characters. Not run of the mill.
I have read all five of these in the last three weeks. They are like potato chips...you can't read just one. This one was excellent, with all of the twists and turns...she's with Russ, she's not, the wife is here, then she's not, who killed who. The ending was especially good...did not see that coming. Have to stop writing because I need to get on to #6!
Winter in Miller's Kill brings a horrifying murder that will keep you on the edge of your chair. Plan to stay up late. All Mortal Flesh is Spencer-Fleming's best yet, and the others were hard to beat. It puts her at the top with Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke, among the best writers in America, yet the voice is all her own. Her writing is rich and satisfying but never bogs down with too much detail. Claire and Russ are all too mortal, and this story challenges everything they believe in. They confront human issues and current problems in a believable way. The twists will keep you guessing till the end. Very highly recommended. Read it--you'll be glad you did. I hope she's writing fast because I can't wait for the next book.
Here's a mystery series for those who want something a little on the lighter side without being too frothy... but also not too dour or dense.Our protaganist is Clare Fergusson, a relatively young Episcopal priest in a small New England town. In a former life Clare was in the military, where she was a helicopter pilot and learned all manner of survival, defensive and offensive techniques. She settles in to her new home and the old church she oversees, and discovers one of the only kindred souls in town is the police chief, Russ Van Alstyne. Van Alstyne is also former military, and the two find they are good match when it comes to working together to solve crimes. In fact, the two are SUCH a good match there's no denying a mutual attraction. But Van Alstyne is married. The first several volumns in this series bring us along as this relationship deepens. The situation takes on crisis propotions in the latest edition, "All Motral Flesh." These books are relatively quick reads where the mysteries are used as a foil for the building tension between Clare and Russ. Both are very likable characters, and Clare in particular is what I would call a "woman of substance." The writing is quite good and violence and gore are kept to a minimum. If you're shopping around for a new series, you might want to give this one a try!Here's a list of the books in this series, in order:"In the Bleak Midwinter" (2002)"A Fountain Filled with Blood" (2003)"Out of the Deep I Cry" (2004)"To Darkness and to Death" (2005)"All Mortal Flesh" (2006)
oh my, i must say i enjoyed every book of julia spencer-fleming's. but this one was the best. it brings together everything you learn about the characters in all the books and brings it to such turmoil in this book. i even wrote to ms spencer-fleming and told her how much i enjoyed them. she wrote back telling me the next one would be out late this fall.can't wait!!
So amazing and tragic - by far, the best in this series, which I already really liked. I can't wait to see what she does next with these characters.
The police chief is separated from his wife who is found defaced in her kitchen. His men ask for help from the state police because they believe his lover, and Episcopalian Reverend with army training could have been the murderer. I really enjoyed this book and found the relationship of the two main characters more interesting than the crime story.
Another thriller from Ms Fleming, I could hardly put it down!
Excellent read. Have enjoyed the whole series but this one was full of surprises.
Wonderfully written and I love the characters. Sure hopes she keeps going!