Former medical examiner Kiernan O’Shaughnessy investigates a scandalous suicide in a Catholic church
Quick-witted, precise, and comfortable with corpses, Kiernan O’Shaughnessy was perfectly suited to life as a medical examiner. In her four years with the coroner’s office, she never had one unhappy shift until the day they let her go. Enraged and adrift, she made her way to La Jolla, California, to set up a high-class private investigation service for medically suspicious deaths. She works only the cases she wants, and charges a steep enough fee that she can afford a cherry red Triumph and a former NFL player as a houseman. Her latest client is one of the biggest moneymakers on the planet: the Roman Catholic Church. A troubled young priest is found hanged in Mission San Leo in Phoenix, Arizona. Hoping to avoid scandal, the bishop bypasses the police, and hires Kiernan to determine whether the death was an accident or a suicide. They ask her to be quiet, but the secrets she uncovers will make her want to sing louder than any church choir.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Susan Dunlap including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
Pious Deception is the 1st book in the Kiernan O'Shaughnessy Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Susan Dunlap (b. 1943) is a prolific author of mystery novels. Born in the suburbs of New York, Dunlap majored in English at Bucknell College and earned a masters in teaching from the University of North Carolina. She was a social worker before an Agatha Christie novel inspired her to try her hand writing mysteries. Five attempts and five years later, she published Karma (1981), which began a ten book series about brash Berkeley cop Jill Smith. Since then, Dunlap has published more than twenty novels and numerous short stories. Her other ongoing characters include the meter-reading detective Vejay Haskell, medical examiner Kiernan O’Shaugnessy, and Zen student turned detective Darcy Loft. In addition to writing, Dunlap has taught yoga, worked as a paralegal, and helped found the women’s mystery organization Sisters In Crime. She lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
By Susan Dunlap
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Susan Dunlap
All rights reserved.
Like a tomato on a grill. That's how the sun looked. And that's how Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Dowd felt.
Seven o'clock at night. A hundred and two degrees. Dammit, where were the clouds? Even the gritty swirls of a dust storm would be better than this—the sun scraping his skin raw, the hot air seething up through the cracked ground, pasting his pants to his ass. Tamarisk plumes, the honey mesquite leaves, the row of palms: might as well be sticks for all the shade they gave. He eyed the cool dark of Mission San Leo fifty yards ahead. Once he would have loped that distance. But thirty years of the priesthood, thirty years of too much good food, too many Christmas bottles, had put an end to that.
He hated Phoenix, the latter-day Wild West. He hated the heat, the sand, the dusty air that kept his throat dry morning to night. But mostly he hated the lack of tradition. Mission San Leo. Look at it: white stucco, plain dark wood, simple mission church of the padres! Ha! The present church was built in 1968! Instant Catholic history! At least in '68 it had stood alone among yucca and century plants and saguaro cacti. Then there had been a chance to imagine the mission as it might have been a hundred years before. Not now. The Phoenician suburbs had sprung up to mock it. Azure Acres Homes—three-bedroom, one-bath, cinder-block shoeboxes—all around it. On the corner a pseudo-Elizabethan shopping mall. Damned bell at the self-service pump rang louder than the one at the church.
They had told him he'd get used to the heat. Ha! Thirty years and it still pressed on his shoulders, on his paun—, his girth, as if every degree weighed a pound. Pushing a lock of damp chestnut hair off his ruddy forehead, he slogged on. A familiar acrid smell floated by. Was that incense coming from the church? Was young Vanderhooven conducting a mass in there at this hour on a Wednesday night? He had set the mass schedule for all his parishes. Vanderhooven had no business changing it here. Damn uppity kid!
From the beginning he'd known Vanderhooven would be trouble. He'd been suspicious when Bishop Medlin told him his brother's godson wanted to come out from New York. And when Archbishop Groom called from back there—"Got a coup for you, Dowd! Young man with great recommendations from the seminary. Spent a year at Columbia in graduate school—finance. Father's in finance—Vanderhooven and Kline, you know. Good Catholic family"—he knew he'd been thrown a spitter. If Vanderhooven was such a catch, why hadn't they kept him in New York? If Vanderhooven had such a good, rich Catholic family, why hadn't he pulled strings to stay in New York? What had been the matter with him? Or, worse yet, who would he be reporting to? How much would he tell them?
Archbishop Groom had ended his call with the clincher: Vanderhooven had the makings of a suitable secretary—when Dowd became archbishop here was unspoken, but the implication was clear. Equally clear was the penalty for objecting. Future archbishops were team players. Dowd had accepted Vanderhooven, but he hadn't been fooled.
The breeze picked up, but it did nothing to cool Dowd. He mounted the five wooden steps to the church, paused before the heavy wooden doors, and reached gratefully for the brass handle, noting the scourge of tarnish—another thing to bring to Vanderhooven's attention. If Vanderhooven had spent his time organizing altar guilds and sextons and wardens, as Dowd had told him, the first thing a communicant saw when he came to the mission wouldn't be tarnish.
Dowd pulled the handle. The heavy door moved slowly, as if giving the frivolous time to compose themselves before stepping into sanctified space. He moved through the doorway, into the blessed shade. Sighing deeply, he felt the cool air slap his face and chill the rings of sweat under his arms, the wide strip down his back, and the narrow strip under the tightness of his waistband. After the glare outside, the narthex was dark. He could barely make out the redwood doors that led to the nave. Ought to be a light in here. Some old lady would trip and break her neck and sue the hell out of the archdiocese. Vanderhooven, the financial wunderkind, ought to know that. Too dark.
And too quiet. There was no murmur of an illicit mass being offered—no voices, no creak of pews, no thud as the kneeling benches hit the floor. There was only the acrid smell of incense.
Hesitantly, he pulled open one of the doors and from habit turned immediately to his left, dipped his finger into the holy-water font, and crossed himself, before looking forward to see what Vanderhooven was up to.
There was no mass; there were no parishioners. The pews were empty. Bishop Dowd looked past the low wooden railing up to the altar at the far end of the sanctuary. The gradine was in place behind, the baldacchino cloth hanging above. Nothing out of order. The sepulcher was covered, no sign of the thurible. Where was that incense coming from?
Following the smell of incense, Dowd looked at the side altar to the left. He saw him! Vanderhooven!
Dowd grabbed the corner of the pew in front and braced himself. Then he ran forward.
Five minutes later he stood in the priest's study, sweat running down his cheeks. "Hanging," Dowd mumbled into the phone, "goddamned fool hung himself. I knew Vanderhooven was trouble. Should never have accepted him, no matter what Groom and Medlin said. Trouble from the minute he came here. Christ! Why couldn't they have sent him to Tucson, or Albuquerque?"
"Did you cut him down?"
"Cut? No." Dowd swayed back against the wall. "Dead by hanging. Suicide! A priest in one of my parishes! In this, of all parishes!"
"Are you sure he's dead? You're not a doctor."
"You don't need to be a doctor, Doctor, to see that. His eyes are bulging like a frog's. His tongue, it's black."
"You'd better call the sheriff."
"No! His body, Elias, we can't let anyone to see it, not like it is."CHAPTER 2
"I don't take small cases. I have a decadent life-style to maintain." Kiernan O'Shaughnessy laughed. Living in a duplex on the beach in La Jolla, with an ex-jock as her cook, houseman, and dog-walker, that was pretty darned decadent for a novice in the world of wallowing. At one time she would have been appalled at such self-indulgence, but now, well, she had to admit the transition had been surprisingly easy.
She shifted the phone and ran a hand through her short black curly hair. English racing cap, her hairdresser had called the cut, suitable for a tough little lady. Kiernan had decided to assume that the "tough" referred to her work as a private investigator rather than to the effect of her thick eyebrows and the nose that was just a bit too long for her face. "Little?" It bugged her. But at barely five one there was no way of getting around that. She propped her feet on the deck railing, her deck railing, and found herself grinning as she watched the Pacific waves break on the rocky beach.
On the stones below, Ezra, her gangly Labrador/Irish wolfhound, jerked back as the spray hit his snout. He slipped, scrambled for footing, and snarled at the ocean. To her right, where the rocks gave way to beach, a huge former offensive lineman unzipped his wetsuit and waved.
The voice on the phone said, "Kiernan, this case is not small. We're talking the Roman Catholic Church here."
"I don't take cases that don't interest me."
"Don't worry. This one will interest you. If word of it got out it would intrigue half of Arizona. The archbishop is dying. His heir apparent, Bishop Dowd, is an ambitious man. He doesn't want a scandal in the archdiocese. He'll make it his business to come up with the scratch even for your fee."
Kiernan pressed a fingertip on her stomach and watched the white spot redden. Time to get out of the sun. That was the problem with the decadent life: you had to be so disciplined about it. With a shrug she leaned back in the chair. Discipline could wait. "Okay, Sam, why does the Roman Catholic Church of Phoenix, Arizona, need a medical detective?"
"A priest died."
"They should call an undertaker."
"Under suspicious circumstances."
"Okay then, the cops."
"It looks like suicide."
"Whoops. Not a cause of death they'd like made public, eh?"
"Exactly. And that's not the half of it."
Ignoring the fact that she was on the phone, she motioned for him to continue. She had known Sam Chase for years. It was he who had referred her to a local detective, for whom she had worked long enough to fulfill the state licensing requirement. Since then she'd been her own boss, and Chase had referred cases. During those years she had employed that ciao wave often, in person and on the phone, and knew he would fill in the silence.
"The priest, Kiernan, was strung up from the altar."
"And they want me to find out why? For that they need a forensic psychiatrist, not a detective."
"Their concern is whether they can bury the priest in hallowed ground."
Kiernan leaned back precariously in the wrought-iron deck chair. It was a game with her to see how far she could go without falling. "Sam, is there any chance the hanging could have been an accident?"
"That's a thought I had. I'm not sure they have, though. Kiernan, this one is very confidential. The priest's hands were bound. You get the picture?"
Kiernan nodded. "I can see their predicament. Not exactly a holy way to go. Not the type of thing that makes the parish mothers glad they forced their sons to be altar boys."
"That, Kiernan, is why they're willing to pay you twenty-five thousand dollars—for you to find out what happened. Do it fast and on the QT. They're desperate to avoid publicity. What they need is an open-and-shut case by the funeral Monday."
Behind her the front door burst open. On one leg of the chair, she spun around. The big brown-and-tan mongrel splatted eagerly across the deck and thrust his wet muzzle into her bare stomach. She jerked back and gave his head a halfhearted shove, knowing Ezra would only press his wiry muzzle more firmly against her stomach and grunt until she scratched behind his ears. She cupped her free hand over one ear and rubbed.
Groaning with pleasure, Ezra let his feet slide out to the side and sank to the floor.
From the doorway came guffaws. A six-four, 240-pound ex-lineman nearly filled the doorway. His wiry sun-bleached hair and deep tan testified to his unfailing morning beach runs. At twenty-eight, two years after he'd been carried off the field with three ruptured discs, he was back in shape physically. He was one of the few men in San Diego who could make the huge dog appear manageable. Walking between the two of them Kiernan looked, as Sam Chase had said, ridiculous. That amused her. It was why she had chosen Ezra—the biggest, undeniably ugliest puppy in the litter. Brad Tchernak was another story. He might try coaching football, as he threatened almost nightly. Or broadcasting. But the sudden fall from stardom to rehab patient and the discovery that no amount of toughness or determination would ever get him back in an NFL uniform had been devastating. He needed "space" while he reassembled his life, he'd told her when he showed up in answer to her ad. And, he'd assured her, he was a great cook, he'd be a great houseman, and a lot more diverting to have around than anyone else who might apply for the job. She'd hired him. Seeing the phone in her hand, he made chopping motions and pointed toward his half of the duplex.
"So you'll take the case?" Chase asked.
"I didn't say that. I'd hate to be the one to get the Catholic Church out of a jam. On the other hand I may discover things that are worse than the ones they're worrying about."
"That's their problem."
Kiernan kneaded Ezra's neck. "Okay. Give me the specifics on the deceased—the priest."
"Austin Vanderhooven, priest at Mission San Leo, outside of Phoenix."
"Friction with superiors or other priests?"
"You'll have to assess that yourself. Dowd sounded overwrought. But he pulled himself together enough to avoid that issue."
Kiernan leaned back again, balancing on the chair legs. The air was just beginning to have the briny smell of low tide. "So what Dowd's telling us is there was friction and he figures Vanderhooven was in the wrong."
"You're not jumping to conclusions, are you?"
"I don't jump, Sam, at least not to conclusions." Smiling, she glanced through the French doors at the statuette on the bookcase. The statuette was missing an arm. The inscription read: "State Gymnastics Competition, 2nd prize." She had kept the statuette with her, furious at the "2nd" each time she came across it, yet unable to throw the thing out. It had become her symbol. In medical school in San Francisco there had been plenty of frustrations: hospital rules, the unwritten etiquette of the medical hierarchy, and the reality of pain and death that even modern medicine couldn't cure. After each clash she had yanked out the statuette and flung it across the room. Then, abashed, she would glue its arm back on. During her residency there had been only two or three occasions when she had she come home angry enough to vent her frustration on the little chrome gymnast, and in her four years as a forensic pathologist with the coroner's office she hadn't flung the statuette at all. Not until she was fired. Then she hurled it into the fireplace; the arm was beyond repair.
"Sam, if Vanderhooven had been a prize priest, Dowd would have been happy to tell you. If he had been a defender of a just cause, a cause that Dowd subscribed to, Dowd would have told you that. So, it's reasonable to assume neither is true. Maybe Vanderhooven was involved in something Dowd didn't like. Now, what about the body? How long has Vanderhooven been dead?"
"Dowd found him last night."
"None. There was no autopsy."
"No autopsy? What are they doing about the authorities? And where do they have the body?"
"Dowd called the doctor, who called the mortician. The body's in his fridge." Chase exhaled slowly. "Kiernan, if you take this case, I want to know as little as possible."
"Really, Sam, on a case you said would intrigue half of Arizona?"
"I nurture professional disinterest. Philip Vanderhooven, the priest's father, is an important financier here and in Phoenix. I've done business with him. I'd like to again. I don't want to know the shade of his family linen."
"What's his relation to this case? Is it Bishop Dowd who'll be my client, or Vanderhooven too?"
"It's muddy. Dowd's paying. But Vanderhooven must have made the referral. Philip Vanderhooven is not the hands-off type. When he hires men he sets strict limits and reacts strongly if they exceed them. He's not a man used to hearing no. But then, neither is Bishop Dowd. What's your decision?"
She gazed at the statuette, recalling the events that had led her to seek escape in gymnastics, practicing back flip after back flip through a haze of fear and anger that never lightened. The events that had led her to forensics.
As if reading her mind, Chase said, "I know the Catholic Church isn't your favorite institution. But the job will only take a few days; it's got to be done by Monday, before the funeral. And Austin Vanderhooven wasn't your ordinary priest."
"You may find that in some ways you're not unlike him."
She laughed. "Now what exactly does that mean? Did he have fresh bluefish and tomatoes flown in from the East Coast, or a houseman polishing his Triumph?"
"The similarity runs a little deeper than that. I'll leave it to you to assess. There'll be a background packet waiting for you at the airport, if you can tear yourself away from your houseman. He is just a servant, isn't he?"
"I'll leave that for you to assess, Sam." She laughed and gave Ezra one last scratch, pushed his head off her stomach, and stood up. "You know I can't commit myself till I talk to Dowd and see the body."
Chase sighed. "You're booked on American Eagle flight five-oh-four-nine. It leaves at five forty-seven."
Excerpted from Pious Deception by Susan Dunlap. Copyright © 1989 Susan Dunlap. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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