A wave of death sweeps a small congregation, puzzling Homer KellyThe Baptists of Nashoba are healthy. So are the Quakers, Lutherans, and Methodists. Every religious sect in this small New England town is in ruddy good health, save for the congregation at the Old West Church, whose members are dying like flies. As a rash of heart failure claims victim after victim, what first seemed like tragic coincidence begins to look a lot like murder. And in the small hamlets of Massachusetts, there is no better authority on bloodshed than Homer Kelly. A transcendentalist scholar who dabbles in the unraveling of violent crimes, Homer is just a township away when the plague of heart failure strikes Nashoba. As he attempts to separate natural deaths from the unnatural, Homer sees that beneath the piety of Old West Church lurks at least one parishioner who missed Sunday school the day they explained that thou shalt not kill.
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Good and Dead
By Jane Langton
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1986 Jane Langton
All rights reserved.
... we are as a City set upon an hill.
Reverend Peter Bulkeley Concord, 1646
This is a story about too many funerals in a single church, and a congregation of good men and women.
Well, it would be going too far to pretend that everyone in the parish was a model of rectitude. Most were the usual confusing mixture of virtues and faults. It would be more truthful to say that the story concerns only three good men: the Reverend Joseph Bold, parishioner Homer Kelly, and that stalwart pillar of the church, Edward Bell.
No, once again the list is too long. Homer Kelly's name should be withdrawn right away, since Homer was certainly afflicted with many grievous flaws.
And to say baldly that Joseph Bold, the new minister in the Old West Church of Nashoba, Massachusetts, was a good man would be giving him too much credit. It's true that Joe had once been an example of peerless benevolence, but lately he seemed to have lost the knack.
So that leaves only the presiding officer of the Parish Committee, Ed Bell. Surely no one would question Ed's goodness. As you would describe a spiral staircase by twisting your hand in the air, so you would define human virtue by pointing at Ed. It came to him so naturally he didn't even have to think about it. What's more, it drew people to him rather than driving them away as some kinds of pious behavior are apt to do.
As for the funerals, they began slowly, then came in a rush, one after the other. They didn't seem strange at first—except for the murder, of course. A murder isn't exactly normal in a little suburban town like Nashoba. But neither was the frequency of the other deaths something you would expect in a place like that. As the funerals went on and on, people began to be upset and bewildered.
In the matter of the actual murder, Homer Kelly was useful, drawing on the experience of his old days in the office of the district attorney of Middlesex County. But he wasn't very helpful in explaining the rest. He simply couldn't understand why the angel of death was suddenly so interested in Old West Church. What about the other two parishes in the town of Nashoba? "Look at the Catholics of St. Barbara's," he complained to his wife. "All in rude good health, so far as I know. And the Lutherans are skipping right along to the Church of the Good Shepherd, right? Rollicking in marriages and baptisms? Are the Methodists sick? Or the Jews? The Baptists? The Quakers? The Christian Scientists? No, indeed, they're all in the pink. Even the atheists are thriving. It's only the Unitarians and Congregationalists of Old West Church who are keeling over. What does it mean?"
Unfortunately the new minister, Joseph Bold, seemed forlornly unable to reassure the people of his congregation. And certainly the chief of the Nashoba police, Peter Terry, was as much in the dark as anybody else.
So once again there was only the steadfast support of Ed Bell, with his comforting reminders that most of the deceased parishioners had been ill anyway, that coincidences do happen, even in dying, and that his fellow church members should set their faces forward, because life had to go on, after all.
Good old Ed. What a treasure he was to the whole parish, and of course to his friends and family. It's true that his prodigies of kindness sometimes irritated his wife, Lorraine, but how could you complain about a husband who was a community institution, whose disposition was sunny, whose judgment was sensible, whose actions were compassionate and without guile?
"It's just that he's so stubborn," said Lorraine, confiding in her friend Geneva Jones.
"Can't you argue with him?" said Geneva.
"Argue! What good would that do? He's got this inner compass, that's the trouble. It's as if he could see the needle pointing north. Of course sometimes he's wrong, dead wrong, but do you think he ever feels guilty afterward? Guilty? Never! The man was born without any sense of guilt. Isn't that amazing?"
"Incredible," agreed Geneva solemnly.
Sometimes Lorraine wondered how Ed had become the kind of man he was. It surely hadn't been his parents' doing. Oh, they had been all right, in their way, but they certainly didn't account for a phenomenon like Ed. "He was just born like that," Ed's mother had told Lorraine, tossing her hands helplessly. "I used to wish he would do something naughty, but he hardly ever did. His sister, now—good gracious, did I ever tell you about the time Doris was expelled from school?"
So it was one of those random mysterious things, perhaps even an interference by God in human affairs. Who could tell? Taking everything together, Lorraine knew she was lucky to be married to a man like Ed. Therefore she put up with his amiable charities as cheerfully as she could, although their consequences were often extremely awkward.
There was the madman who had arrived on the doorstep with all his possessions, to be invited in by Ed and installed in the guest room. He had stayed for a month, shouting without cease, departing at last for a mental hospital, leaving behind him a plague of cockroaches.
There was the dear old widow to whom Ed had lent money and given comfort, who had stood up one day in church to accuse him of robbery and rape.
And there was the good cause for which Ed had exhausted himself raising money, until the treasurer pilfered the funds and took off for parts unknown.
"Honestly, Ed," Lorraine had said, "you should have known better. I could tell right away the man couldn't be trusted." But even Lorraine had to admit there were plenty of other times when Ed had knocked himself out for somebody and yet nothing actually bad had happened, as far as she could determine.
As for the selection of the new minister, it was too soon to tell. Lorraine didn't know whether Ed had been right or wrong in persuading the rest of the selection committee to choose Joseph Bold, even when everybody on the committee knew the man's wife was in awful trouble.
"We'll see them through it," Ed had told them. "Why not? What's a church for anyway?" And this question had knocked the rest of the committee members back on their heels. They had looked at each other, dazed, and voted to accept the candidacy of Joseph Bold.
On the dawn of the Sunday morning in March when the new minister was to appear for the first time to his congregation, Lorraine still hadn't made up her mind about him, although she and Ed had helped the Bolds move into the parsonage and had brought home three loads of their laundry because the parsonage washing machine wasn't hooked up yet. Oh, they were nice people, all right, but they seemed terribly young, and they were certainly headed for grief.
It was typical of Ed that he had more to do that morning than there was time for. He had been up most of the night writing a welcome to the new minister to be read by the members of the selection committee, and now he had to deliver his typed copies all over town.
"I'll be back soon," he said. "We've got to get there early. Is Eleanor up yet?"
"I haven't heard a peep," said Lorraine, pulling bobby pins out of her curlers, unwinding her hair.
"Well, no wonder. Poor kid, she must be worn out. Did you know she was reading half the night? When I went up to bed, it was four in the morning, and I saw a light under her door, so I poked my head in and told her to go to sleep, and you know what she said?" Ed laughed. "'Oh, that awful Lydia,' she said. 'Poor Elizabeth, she has to go home because of Lydia, just when Mr. Darcy is being so incredibly nice.' So I shut the door and let her alone."
"I wish I were fourteen again," said Lorraine, tumbling the curlers into a drawer. "Imagine reading Jane Austen for the first time."
But in Eleanor's bedroom down the hall, Pride and Prejudice lay neglected under a copy of Seventeen. Eleanor was sitting on the edge of her bed, studying the cover of the magazine with intense interest, noticing the luscious pinkness of the cover girl's lipstick, the dark mascara of her eyelashes, and the headlines under her chin: SUMMER ROMANCE, CAN THE MAGIC LAST? SHOULD YOU KISS AND TELL?
Eleanor's mother was knocking on the door. "Eleanor, dear, get up."
"I am up," said Eleanor loudly. Then, tossing the magazine aside, she went to the mirror and got to work on her face, devoting herself to the task with total absorption. Choosing a lipstick called Kissing Pink, she outlined her mouth, then worked over her cheeks with Naturally Glamorous Blush-on in Enchanted Orchid and did subtle things to her eyes with Soft Plum eyeliner and Flame Glo Brown Velvet mascara.
The makeup was for the benefit of Bo Harris. Would Bo be in church this morning? Bo didn't often come to church, but today was sort of different because of the new minister. If Bo didn't turn up, then all this work was a big waste of Eleanor's time.
Eleanor Bell was fourteen, the last of the five Bell children still at home, the apple of her father's eye. It wasn't that Ed had not been a good father to Stanton and Margie and Lewis and Barbara. It was just that he had more time to be with Eleanor. After forty-two years of practicing law for an international corporation manufacturing valves, boilers, and radiators, he was at last retired, although he still went to a lot of meetings because he was on the boards of a bunch of other companies.
"Now, Ed, don't get trapped on the way," said Lorraine. "The last time you went out on an errand, you helped somebody bury a dog and you were gone for hours."
"Oh, I promise," vowed Ed. "I'll just slap these copies around to my committee members and hurry right back."CHAPTER 2
When we New Englanders undertake to set the world aright, we assume a task that is far more formidable than we imagine.
Reverend Edward G. Porter
But Ed was Ed. The man was incorrigible. On the way to the Buckys' house he stopped to help Maud Starr with her flat tire.
"Oh, hi, there," said Maud, a little disappointed to see a happily married man pulling over to lend a hand. When her car had lurched to a stop, she had recognized her predicament at once as an opportunity, a doorway to adventure. Maud had always believed in snatching at the brass ring, in taking the bull by the horns, in drinking the cup of life to the dregs. Knock, she told herself sanctimoniously, and it shall be opened unto you. Seek, and ye shall find.
This morning Maud's flapping garment was of buzzard black. Standing to one side, she babbled enthusiastically while Ed opened the trunk of her car. "Isn't it thrilling? Getting our first look at our new minister? Now, Ed, tell me, what's all this about his wife?"
"His wife?" Ed struggled with the spare tire. It was stuck. "What's all what about his wife?"
"Oh, come on, Ed. You've met her. I hear there's something queer about her." Maud's famished face peered at Ed as she crouched beside him to get the lowdown. Her predatory perfume billowed around him in a suffocating cloud.
The tire pulled free. Leaning it against the rear bumper, Ed looked around in the trunk. "No jack?" he said, remembering with chagrin that he had lent his own to another stranded motorist. "You don't have a jack in the car anywhere?"
"A jack? No, dear, I'm afraid not. Now come on, Ed, tell me about Mrs. Joseph Bold."
Ed folded his arms and looked at Maud gravely. "Claire Bold is a brilliant young woman, an authority on Celtic literature and the early Irish church. Look, if you don't have a jack we're going to have to borrow one. Stay here. I'll be right back."
"Oh, Ed." Maud fumed, then shook out her black cloak and climbed into her car to wait, adjusting feathers, claws, and wattles as Ed walked along the road, inspecting the neighborhood, looking for the likely possessor of a jack.
This stretch of Lowell Road was ornamented by a development of four new houses. Ed walked up to the first, a mini-château with a tiny tower and a mock drawbridge. The name of the owners, THE POTTS, was written in Gothic script over the front door. Beside the house a large rectangle had been plowed for a vegetable garden, even though the spring season was barely under way. Ed was acquainted with Arlene Pott, because she attended church services regularly at Old West, but his recollection of her husband was cloudy. Wally Pott seldom turned up on Sunday mornings.
Ed lifted his hand to ring the bell, then stopped with his finger in the air. Was that a dog in the shrubbery? No, it wasn't a dog, it was a woman in white slacks, escaping, getting away, wriggling through the rhododendrons. Ed pressed the doorbell. At the same instant, a racket broke out inside the house, feminine shrieks and angry masculine shouts.
It was obviously a family squabble. What should he do now? Ed backed away, intending to beat a tactful retreat, but he was too late. The door was jerked open by a surly man in a bathrobe, Wally Pott.
"What the hell do you want?"
"Oh, sorry to bother you." Beyond Wally, Ed could see Arlene trying to squeeze herself out of sight behind a fancy lacquered highboy. She was fully dressed in a suit and blouse. There was a flaring red mark on her jaw. Her eyes were brimming. Her husband had struck her, that was plain. "Might I trouble you people for the loan of a jack?" said Ed innocently. "We've got a flat tire out there on the road."
"Oh, for Christ's sake." Wally Pott glowered at Ed and slammed the door in his face.
Ed turned away, astonished as always by human frailty. What precisely was the relation between the vanishing woman in the rhododendrons and the screams of Mrs. Pott? One could only guess. It was better to let such things be.
At the ranch house next door, he was without luck once again. The curtains in the window beside the door twitched aside and a woman looked out. Then she opened the door a crack and looked at him suspiciously. It was the lady of the rhododendrons. Above the white slacks she wore a white tunic. Her shoes were white with thick rubber soles.
"I wonder if I could borrow a jack for my friend's car," said Ed. "She's got a flat tire."
The woman in white was cozily built, with a pearly complexion and a mop of platinum curls. "I'm sorry," she said sharply. "I can't let you in. I don't live here. I just take care of old Mrs. Hawk."
Strike two. The next house was also a failure, but at least its owner was polite. The man who came to the door of the Mount Vernon plantation was in his sock feet, holding a pair of shoes. "Oh, gee, I'm sorry," he said in response to Ed's request, smiling at him genially. "We just moved in. The tools are in a box in the cellar someplace. I can't even find the shoe polish." Then he transferred the shoes to his left hand and offered his right to' Ed. "Jerry Gibby here. We just moved to town. Maybe you know my supermarket, Gibby's General Grocery? In Bedford?"
Ed introduced himself and passed the time of day courteously for a minute, then hurried across the brand-new lawn to the last house in the row, the big builder's Colonial with the lamppost and the split-rail fence. Here the foundation planting had been clipped into perfect geometric shapes. The points of the cones looked sharp enough to prick Ed's finger. Even in March the grass was a faultless emerald green. Ed lifted his hand to grasp the knocker, on which the name Harris had been engraved, but he was forestalled by a hail from the garage, where a tall boy in a grubby T-shirt stood looking at him, wiping his hands on a rag.
"Hi, there," said the boy. "You want something? My mom and dad just went to church. There's this new minister, so they went real early to get a seat."
"I'm supposed to get there too," said Ed, "but right now we've got a flat tire out here. I wonder if I could borrow a jack?"
"Oh, right," said the boy. "Come on in. We've got one in here someplace."
Ed followed young Harris into the garage, pleased by the contrast between the boy and his environment. The kid was scruffy and dirty, with grease all over his face and arms, while the garage was like the house, excruciatingly neat. On the wall the garden tools hung beside their labels: GARDEN FORK, LEAF RAKE, PRUNING SHEARS. The storm windows glittered in a polished row. One of the cars was a gleaming Mercedes sedan. The other car matched the boy. It was the worst-looking automobile Ed had ever seen, a Chevy Chevelle with a buckled door.
"Mine," said the boy, looking at it proudly. "How you like her? I just brought her home. You know, with a hitch on my dad's car."
"Well, she must have been really handsome once upon a time," said Ed graciously, looking around for the jack.
Excerpted from Good and Dead by Jane Langton. Copyright © 1986 Jane Langton. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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