It's a cold, snowy December in the upstate New York town of Millers Kill, and newly ordained Clare Fergusson is on thin ice as the first female priest of its small Episcopal church. The ancient regime running the parish covertly demands that she prove herself as a leader. However, her blunt manner, honed by years as an army pilot, is meeting with a chilly reception from some members of her congregation and Chief of Police Russ Van Alystyne, in particular, doesn't know what to make of her, or how to address "a lady priest" for that matter.
The last thing she needs is trouble, but that is exactly what she finds. When a newborn baby is abandoned on the church stairs and a young mother is brutally murdered, Clare has to pick her way through the secrets and silence that shadow that town like the ever-present Adirondack mountains. As the days dwindle down and the attraction between the avowed priest and the married police chief grows, Clare will need all her faith, tenacity, and courage to stand fast against a killer's icy heart.
In the Bleak Midwinter is one of the most outstanding Malice Domestic winners the contest has seen. The compelling atmosphere-the kind of very cold and snowy winter that is typical of upstate New York-will make you reach for another sweater. The characters are fully and believably drawn and you will feel like they are your old friends and find yourself rooting for them every step of the way.
About the Author
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING is The New York Times bestselling author of One Was A Soldier, and an Agatha, Anthony, Dilys, Barry, Macavity, and Gumshoe Award winner. She studied acting and history at Ithaca College and received her J.D. at the University of Maine School of Law. Her books have been shortlisted for the Edgar, Nero Wolfe, and Romantic Times RC awards. Julia lives in a 190-year-old farmhouse in southern Maine.
Read an Excerpt
In the Bleak Midwinter
By Julia Spencer-Fleming
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Julia Spencer-Fleming
All rights reserved.
It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby. The cold pinched at Russ Van Alstyne's nose and made him jam his hands deep into his coat pockets, grateful that the Washington County Hospital had a police parking spot just a few yards from the ER doors. A flare of red startled him, and he watched as an ambulance backed out of its bay silently, lights flashing. The driver leaned out of his window, craning to see his way between cement rails.
"Kurt! Hey! Anything for me?"
The driver waved at Russ. "Hey, Chief. Nope. Heart attack stabilized and heading for Glens Falls. You heard about the baby?"
"That's why I'm here."
Kurt continued to back out, almost to the end of the parking lot. "Jesum, hard to imagine sumpin' like that here in Millers Kill —" The rest of his commentary was lost as he heeled the ambulance into the road. Russ waved, then pushed open the antiquated double doors to the emergency department.
His glasses fogged up within seconds in the moist heat of the foyer. He pulled off the wire frames and rubbed them with the end of his scarf, mentally cursing the myopia that had finally led him, at forty-eight, to cave in and wear the damn things full time. His stomach ached and his knee was bothering him and for a moment he wished he had taken that security consulting job in Phoenix like his wife had wanted.
"Hey! Chief!" A blurry form in brown approached him. Russ tucked his glasses over his ears and Mark Durkee, one of his three night-shift officers, snapped into focus. As usual, the younger man was spit-and-polished within an inch of his life, making Russ acutely aware of his own non-standard-issue appearance: wrinkled wool pants shoved into salt-stained hunting boots, his oversized tartan muffler clashing with his regulation brown parka. Hell, Mark was probably too young to get a cold neck, even with the back of his head shaved almost bald.
"Hey, Mark," Russ said. "Talk to me."
The officer waved his chief down the drab green hallway toward the emergency room. The place smelled of disinfectant and bodies, with a whiff of cow manure left over by the last farmer who had come in straight from the barn. "Man, it's like something out of an old Bing Crosby movie, Chief. The priest at Saint Alban's found the little guy bundled up at the door of the church. The doctor's checking him out now."
"How's the baby look?"
"Fine, as far as they can tell. He was wrapped up real well, and the doc says he probably wasn't out in the cold more'n a half hour or so." Russ's sore stomach eased up. He'd seen a lot over the years, but nothing shook him as much as an abused child. He'd had one baby-stuffed-in-a-garbage-bag case when he'd been an MP in Germany, and he didn't care to ever see one again.
Mark and Russ nodded to the admissions nurse standing guard between the ER waiting room and the blue-curtained alcove where patients got their first look-see. "Evening, Alta," Russ said. "How's business?" The waiting room, decorated with swags of tired tinsel and a matching silver tree, was empty except for a teenager sprawled over one of the low sofas.
"Slow," the nurse said, buzzing them into the emergency treatment area. "Typical Monday night." The old linoleum floors carried the rattle of gurney wheels and the squeak of rubber-soled shoes.
"Over there," Mark said, pointing. Framed by limp white curtains dangling from ceiling tracks, an athletic-looking woman in gray sweats was leaning on a plastic incubator, writing in a pocket-sized notebook.
"Who the hell's that?" Russ asked. "I swear, if they let a reporter in here before we've cleared the facts I'll —" he strode toward the incubator. "Hey, you," he said.
His challenge brought the woman's chin up, and she snapped her head around, zeroing in on the two policemen. She was plain, no makeup and nondescript dark blond hair scraped back in a ponytail. She had that overbred look he associated with rich women from the north side of town: high cheekbones and a long thin nose that was perfect for looking down at folks. Mark grabbed his arm, grinning. "No, no. That's the priest, Chief." He laughed out loud at the expression on Russ's face. The priest? Christ on a bicycle. She gave Russ a look that said, "Wanna make something of it?" He felt himself coloring. Her eyes were the only exceptional thing about her, true hazel, like granite seen under green water.
"Officer Durkee," she said, her gaze sliding off Russ as if she had already weighed and found him wanting. "Any word yet from the Department of Human Services?" There was the barest trace of a Southern accent in her no-nonsense voice.
"No, ma'am," Mark said, rocking back and forth on his heels. "But I'd expect that. They got a lot of ground to cover around here, and not many people to cover it with." He was still grinning like a greased hyena.
Russ decided the best defense was a good offense. "I'm Russell Van Alstyne, Millers Kill chief of police." He held out his hand. She shook firm, like a guy.
"Clare Fergusson," she said. "I'm the new priest at Saint Alban's. That's the Episcopal Church. At the corner of Elm and Church." There was a faint testiness in her voice. Russ relaxed a fraction. A woman priest. If that didn't beat all.
"I know which it is. There are only four churches in town." He saw the fog creeping along the edges of his glasses again and snatched them off, fishing for a tissue in his pocket. "Can you tell me what happened, um ..." What was he supposed to call her? "Mother?"
"I go by Reverend, Chief. Ms. is fine, too."
"Oh. Sorry. I never met a woman priest before."
"We're just like the men priests, except we're willing to pull over and ask directions."
A laugh escaped him. Okay. He wasn't going to feel like an unwashed heathen around her.
"I was leaving the church through the kitchen door in the back, which is sunken below street level. There are stairs rising to a little parking area, tucked between the parish hall and the rectory, not big, just room enough for a couple cars. I was going for a run." She looked down and waggled one sneaker-shod foot. Her sweatshirt read ARMY. "The box was on the steps. I thought maybe someone had left off a donation at first, because all I could see were the blankets. When I picked it up, though, I could feel something shifting inside." She looked through the plastic into the incubator, shaking her head. "The poor thing was so still when I unwrapped him I thought he was already dead." She looked up at Russ. "Imagine how troubled and desperate someone would have to be to leave a baby out in the cold like that."
Russ grunted. "Anything else that might give us an idea of who left him there?"
"No. Just the baby, and the blankets, and the note inside."
Russ frowned at Mark. "You didn't tell me about any note," he said.
The officer shrugged, pulling a glassine envelope out of his jacket pocket. "Reverend Fergusson didn't mention it until after I had called you," he explained. He handed Russ the plastic-encased paper.
"That's my fault, yeah," said the priest, not sounding at all apologetic. Russ held the clear envelope at arm's length to get a better view. "I didn't call DSS until I was over here, and I wanted to make sure they knew what the baby's parents intended." She looked over his arm at the note. "I'm sorry, but I handled it without thinking about any fingerprints or anything."
It was an eight-by-eleven sheet of paper ripped from a spiral-bound notebook, the kind that you could get anywhere. The handwriting, in blue ink, was blocky, extremely childlike. Russ guessed that the note's author had held the pen in her left hand to disguise her printing. "This is our baby, Cody," it read. "Please give him to Mr. and Mrs. Burns here at St. Alban's. We both agree they should have him, so there won't be any trouble later on with the adoption. Tell our baby we love him."
Russ lowered the note and met the priest's green-brown eyes. "Kids," he said.
"That would be my guess," she said.
"Who are the Burnses?"
"Geoffrey and Karen Burns."
"The lawyers," Russ said, surprised.
"They're parishioners of St. Alban's. I understand they've been seeking adoption for over two years now. They've been on the Prayers of the People list for the past two weeks, and as I recall, our secretary told me that's a regular thing for them."
"This is something published? Or what?"
"Prayed out loud, every Sunday during the service."
He looked closely at her. "Sounds like at least one of the baby's parents might go to your church."
She looked uncomfortable. "Yeah. Although I'm sure that everyone who knows the Burnses also knows they're looking for a baby."
"Why leave it at St. Alban's then? Why not on the Burnses' doorstep?"
Reverend Fergusson swept her hands open wide.
Russ handed the note back to Mark. "What time did you find the baby?" he asked the priest.
"About ... nine-thirty, quarter to ten," she said. "There was a welcoming reception from the vestry tonight that finished up around nine. I changed in my office, checked messages, and then headed out. I already gave Officer Durkee the names of the people who were there."
Russ squinted, trying for a mental picture of the area where Elm branched off the curve of Church Street. One of Tick Soley's parking lots was across the street from the church, one light on the corner but nothing further up where the houses started. "What did you say was behind the little parking area?"
"The rectory, where I live. There's a tall hedge, and then my side yard. My driveway is on the other side of the house."
Russ sighed. "The kids — the parents — could have parked in any one of those spots and snuck over to the stairs with the baby. I somehow doubt we're gonna get an eyewitness with a license number and a description of the driver."
The priest tapped the glassine envelope. "Chief Van Alstyne, exactly how hard do you have to look for the parents of this baby?" For the first time Russ let himself take a long look into the portable incubator. The sleeping baby didn't look any different from every other newborn he had ever seen, all fat burnished cheeks and almond-shaped eyes. He wondered how hard up or screwed up or roughed up a girl would have to be to pull a perfect little thing like that out of her body and then leave him in a cardboard box. In the dark. On a night when the windchill hovered at zero degrees.
He looked back at the priest. She was leaning toward him slightly, focusing on him as if he were the only person in the whole hospital. "I don't need to tell you that leaving a baby like that is called endangering a child," he said. She nodded. "And of course, if we can't find the parents, it's going to take longer for DSS to actually get the baby out of foster care and into an adoptive home. But the thing is to find out how voluntary this really was, giving up the baby."
Her mouth opened and then snapped shut. He continued. "When a woman really wants to give up her kid for adoption, she usually gets in touch with an agency, or a lawyer, or somebody, well before the baby is born. These throwaway situations —"
"She didn't throw Cody away. Whoever she is."
"No, she didn't. Which makes me think it's not one of those times when the mother is a druggie or a drunk or a psycho. But it does make me wonder if her boyfriend or her father forced her into it. And if she's not already regretting what she did, but is too scared of us or of him to come forward and reclaim her son."
"I never thought of that," Reverend Fergusson said, biting her lower lip. "Oh dear. Maybe I shouldn't have —"
The emergency room doors opened with a hydraulic pouf. Russ recognized the small, bearded man in the expensive topcoat and the striking brunette woman at his side, but he'd know who they were even if he had never seen them in the Washington County Courthouse before, just from the look on Reverend Fergusson's face.
"We got here as soon as we could," Geoffrey Burns said. His voice was tight. His glance flicked around the treatment area, lighting on the incubator. His wife saw it at the same time.
"Oh ..." she said, pressing one perfectly manicured hand to her mouth. "Oh. Is that him?"
The priest nodded. She stepped aside, allowing the Burnses a clear view of the sleeping baby. "Oh, Geoff, just look at him ..." Karen Burns hesitated, as if showing too much eagerness might cause the incubator to vanish.
Her husband stared at the baby for a long moment. "Where's the doctor who's been treating him?" he said. He looked at Russ. "Chief Van Alstyne. I take it the Department of Social Services hasn't seen fit to send anyone over yet."
"Mr. Burns." Russ nodded. "I expect we'll see somebody soon. They're a little overwhelmed over there, you know."
"Oh, don't I just," Geoff Burns said.
"I take it Reverend Fergusson called you about the note that was found with the baby?" Russ glanced pointedly toward the priest, who lifted her chin in response. "You folks know that it's way too early to start thinking of this boy as your own. No matter what the parents wrote."
Karen Burns turned toward him. "Of course, Chief. But we are licensed foster parents without any children in our home right now, and we intend to press DSS to place Cody with us." Mrs. Burns had a voice so perfectly modulated she could have been selling him something on the radio. Russ glanced at Burns, thin and short, and wondered at the attraction. His own wife was one hell of a good- looking woman, but Karen Burns would put her in the shade.
"Under the standard of the best interests of the child, it's preferable that a pre- adoptive child be fostered with the would-be adoptive parents, if there are no natural relatives able to care for the child. Young v. The Department of Social Services."
Russ blinked at the lawyer's aggressively set brows. "I'm not contesting you in court, Mr. Burns," he said. "But we don't know that there aren't any natural relatives. We don't know if the mother gave him up of her own free will or not." He shifted his weight forward, deliberately using his six-foot-three-inches as a visual reminder of his authority here. "Isn't it a little odd for a professional couple like you to be foster parents?"
Karen Burns laid her hand on her husband's arm, cutting off whatever he was about to say. "I work from home as well as from my office, part time. On those times we've had a child in our care, I just cut way back."
"I assure you we're properly licensed and have passed all the state requirements," Burns said, his face tight. "We are fully prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to care for a child. Unlike the biological parents of this boy."
Karen Burns twisted a single gold bangle around her wrist. "Of course you have to look for the parents, Chief Van Alstyne. And I'm sure that anyone who took such care to make sure their baby would be found immediately, and left a note asking us to be his adoptive parents, would only confirm that request."
Her husband spoke almost at the same time. "We intend to file for TPR immediately, on grounds of abandonment and endangerment." There was a pause. The Burnses looked at each other, then at Russ. They both spoke at once.
"I hope you do find her. She undoubtedly needs help and counseling."
"I hope you don't find her, to be frank. It'll be better for the baby all around."
Reverend Fergusson broke the awkward silence. "What's TPR mean?"
"Termination of parental rights," Russ answered. "Usually happens after the court takes a DSS caseworker's recommendation that there's no way the child ought to go back to the parent. Takes months, sometimes years, if DSS is trying to reunite the family." He rubbed his forehead with the palm of his hand. "During which time the kid is in foster care."
"Unless, as in this case, the child is an abandoned infant and the parents can't be found," Geoff Burns said, tapping his finger into his palm in time to his words.
"Uh huh," Russ agreed. "Unless they can't be found."
Excerpted from In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Copyright © 2002 Julia Spencer-Fleming. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Reading Group Guide
Heavy Snow...Icy Desires...Cold-Blooded Murder
Clare Fergusson, St. Alban's new priest, fits like a square peg in the conservative Episcopal parish at Miller's Kill, New York. She is not just a "lady," she's a tough ex Army chopper pilot, and nobody's fool. Then a newborn infant left at the church door brings her together with the town's police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who's also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. Their search for the baby's mother quickly leads them into the secrets that shadow Miller's Kill like the ever-present Adirondacks. What they discover is a world of trouble, an attraction to each other-and murder...