He held the autopsy report in one hand, reading glasses in the other. It was a hard report to digest. Charlie recalled Dr. Phelps Magritty's words when he'd delivered the official report to him.
"Well, she was in pretty good health, I'll tell you. Signs of aging like would be in all of us of a certain age." He put a fresh cigar in the corner of his mouth and spoke around it. "But then there's the fact that sometime on that Sunday morning, just before she started playing the organ, she took in a whole lot of arsenic and it was probably in her coffee."
"Good Lord Almighty!" Charlie said.
Dr.Magritty didn't think the Lord Almighty had much to do with Maude's death and he told Charlie just that. "'With malice aforethought,'" he said. "I always thought that a spiffy turn of phrase.
"If you're hoping to find this has been going on awhile, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. We'll test all that natural crap she had, but I'm thinking this was a one-fell-swoop poisoning, not a regular ingestion, like somebody lacing her morning oatmeal."
The police chief just nodded.
Phelps reached the door to Charlie's office, took the unlit cigar from his mouth, and turned back. "The biggest question in my mind is, why?" He left without waiting for a response
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.57(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The Preacher's Wife Drinks A Little
By GINGER HIRT
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Ginger Hirt
All rights reserved.
Maude Fitzbaum's final performance as organist at St. Luther Community Church was, some might say, spectacular. The woman finally managed to hit every note right ~ largely because she hit every note on the organ at once. It was during the first few bars of that mighty hymn, NOW THANK WE ALL OUR GOD, the congregation ready to sing their way through at Maude's favorite tempo: very slow. She was wending her way through the organ introduction, when she paused, for no particular reason anyone could figure, and lay down on the keyboard. One foot hovered over the pedal board, while the other rested solidly on the low D pedal. It was cacophony taken to a new degree. The congregation sat absolutely still, as if the whole group was playing a children's game of Statue. There they were, some with fingers stilled over the hymnal searching for the right page number, children with crayons poised over the bulletins on which they'd color, the Perkins sisters frozen mid-whisper. Maude would undoubtedly have enjoyed the rapt attention. Alas, Maude was dead.
It was the oddest experience I could ever remember, this stillness and cold that pervaded the sanctuary. Something had ended, but no one knew what.
Finally, someone—probably Fred Crocker—mercifully reached over and turned off the organ. The bellows whooshed out air, like offering a final AMEN.
Hal, the preacher, ran to the organ, arriving about the same time as Fred and they worked together to pull Maude's body from the keyboard. They hauled her on to the floor behind the organ. The polyester robe rustled as Maude's body slid over the choir bench, the thump of her foot hitting the floor—you could hear these things, for the church was absolutely silent. I think their intention was some lifesaving endeavor, but fortunately they didn't have to figure out what and how to do it, because just then came a voice everyone was relieved to hear. "I'll help." Dr. Phelps Margitty strode down the center aisle, and knelt by Maude's body. I was pretty sure she was dead, and I think Dr. Margitty agreed. He didn't say that, however, simply pulled out his cell phone and punched a preprogrammed number, requesting immediate ambulance help. His was the voice of authority.
Hal stood from kneeling beside Maude's body and gave a benediction, suggesting we all go home and pray for Maude and each other.
"What a way to go!" someone behind me whispered.
"We don't know she's dead, you idiot. Pray like the preacher said," was the response.
I was dying—no pun—to see who it was, but didn't think turning around was appropriate under the circumstances.
The choir filed out, except for one small soprano. "Now thank we all our God," Theona Shumaker sang. She was smiling.
Maude Fitzbaum was pronounced dead at the Community Hospital about an hour after the church had cleared.
Hal, the preacher who happens to be my husband, had gone to the hospital to offer comfort, which was, of course, part of his responsibility as a preacher. He'd taken Maude's husband, a small, insignificant looking man named Herman with him. Herman looked like he didn't know what the hell was going on, and probably didn't, since rumor had it he was in the early stages of dimentia. He may not have known where he was going or why. It might have been a sublime way to live, and sometimes I wished I could join him.
There was nothing I could do to help at that point, so I took Sassafras, my 10 year old Volvo, to the drive up window at a fast food place and ordered two of everything, burgers, fries, shakes. At least I'd be able to feed Hal when he got home.
By 4 o'clock that afternoon Hal was home. Maude had been declared DOA, dead on arrival, at the hospital. Herman's response had been, "Well, isn't that somethin'." He'd provided the names of his children and Hal found their phone numbers on a paper Herman kept in his wallet.
Hal had called Maude's children and informed them of their mother's death. They'd responded with the shock that anyone was likely to feel with an untimely death. They each talked to their father, sitting next to Hal in Phelps Magritty's office. Herman confirmed that "Yup, she's gone." They'd be there as soon as they could, they told Hal.
Herman was fetched by a neighbor named Cora who took him home and promised to look after him.
And that, except for the funeral, was that—or so we thought at the time.
Herman had told Hal and Dr. Magritty that Maude had taken to believing in natural stuff and hadn't seen a doctor in years. An autopsy would be performed.
Hal was exhausted. This was the first death that had occurred since he'd become head honcho at St. Luther Community Church. He was obviously shaken by the experience.
I did what any good preacher's wife would do—well, some of them—and poured him a stiff drink. This, along with his aging McDonald's repast, was bound to buoy him up.
We talked about Maude and Herman, though we didn't have much to say since we'd not known them well. Hal sighed. "You know, she was a terrible organist, and I didn't like her; but she shouldn't have died with such indignity."
Maybe that had been the point, I thought fleetingly.
"If one more damn phone call comes in asking about Maude Fitzbaum I'm going to throw up." Frieda Olson was probably not a typical church secretary—as, I'm pleased to report, I'm not a typical preacher's wife. "How the hell am I supposed to know what happened to her?"
"I suppose it's reasonable for people to think we might know something since she died at church."
"Good. Glad to hear you feel that way. You get to answer the next call." Frieda stomped back to her own office, having darkened Hal's doorway long enough to bitch.
Just then the phone rang again. Hal knew better then to leave it to Frieda to answer, so he picked up the receiver and announced that they—whoever—had reached St. Luther Community Church.
"Reverend Moses, this is Phelps Magritty over at the hospital. I thought I'd tell you myself that we've done the autopsy on Maude. It was arsenic poisoning, be damned, that did her in."
Hal's first thought was that the good doctor did have a colorful turn of phrase.
"From the looks of things," Dr. Magritty was continuing, "it's amazing she lived long enough to start the first hymn."
"Good God!" Hal paused, absorbing this news. "It sounds like an old melodrama."
"That might actually have suited Maude just fine," Phelps assured the preacher.
Hal could hear the strike of a match, Phelps Magritty lighting something, mostly likely a cigar.
"Yup, you got a point. A melodrama. But it's the real thing, son. Now it's a matter of figuring out how, though I suspect it had something to do with the coffee she'd been drinking." Phelps puffed a bit. "Don't know if you noticed a slight garlic smell around her."
Hal admitted he had not. "If I had I'd probably assumed it was something ... odd ... she ate for breakfast."
"Well, I did, savvy diagnostician that I am. So I was on the lookout." Phelps chuckled, but it sounded kind of sad. "Sadly, my suspicions turned out to be accurate. We'll let the big boys in Des Moines—state crime lab—have a look-see at what we sent them. They'll come to the same conclusion; just use bigger words to explain it. I've told Charlie Knight that he probably won't want the body released for a while. He's the lucky guy who gets to tell the family why."
"Well, thanks for calling, Dr. Magritty." He'd done his part, passing news of Maude's demise to her children. He didn't envy the police chief having to report the particulars.
Frieda's response to the news was circumspect. "Sometimes these things have to happen a certain way."
"Now what in the heck does that mean?"
Frieda shrugged. "Nothing more than what I said. It's just the way of the universe." She looked at the man who was her boss, though between them they knew who really 'ruled the roost' at SLCC.
Hal had a new chair in his office, courtesy of his wife, the bargain hunter. This chair was a leftover she'd not known what to do with. She'd brought it to the church, found a spot in his office, and deemed it his "thinking chair". Today was as good a day as any to initiate the chair, and see if he could actually conjure inspirational thoughts just by sitting in it.
He stretched out his long legs and rested his arms on those of "the thinking chair".
His office was paneled in dark wood, probably the same batch that covered the walls of the all-purpose meeting room in the community building. He'd hung up his diploma from the Comminity Church Seminary telling anyone who read it that Harold Peter Moses was, indeed, a preacher. He had a picture of he and Molly under the apple tree at the farm where they were married. He could look at it whenever he wanted and it never failed to remind him of the value of someone in your life who completed you. That's as far as he'd gotten with personal touches. There were banks of file cabinets holding information he'd not yet delved into. He had a view out to the play yard, and could watch the swings sway in a breeze when it came along.
The phone interrupted his reverie, and this time Frieda answered it. "You better take this, Hal. It's Maude's daughter, Claire.'
The voice was melodic and rather deep. "Reverend Moses, this is Claire Carmichael. First, thank you for calling us yesterday. You were very kind to my father, and I appreciate that." She paused. "Chief Knight told us, my brother and me, the cause of our mother's death." She paused. "You don't ever expect that, I think, that a loved one's death is because of something so ... malicious. Is anyone ever ready to hear that?" Hal didn't think she expected an answer. "We'll be leaving for Iowa this evening, flying from Boston to Des Moines and then driving to St. Luther. Our daughter will be with us. We should arrive near midnight, but we'd like to meet with you in the morning if we could. My brother and his family will be there, too."
"Of course. I'll come to your parents' home if that's best."
"Thank you. This will be difficult enough for my father, so familiar turf, as they say, will help."
They set a time, 11 a.m., and said goodbyes.
Claire Fitzbaum Carmichael was right. He didn't think anyone could ever be prepared for the fact that something in their loved one's life had caused someone to seek this retribution. What was there in Maude's life?
Tomorrow he'd meet Maude Fitzbaum's children for the first time. What would he say to them beyond the platitudes he'd already delivered: "Sorry for your loss." He sighed, knowing he'd just have to wing it. Talk 'preacher speak' and hope for the best.
The thought he kept returning to was that, ornery as she might have seemed to him, he couldn't begin to imagine a reason somebody'd want to kill her.
Hal dreaded the visit he was about to make. He walked to the front door of Maude and Herman Fitzbaum's home, thinking that it was the first such visit he'd had to make since becoming a preacher. He knocked, and the door was opened by a woman he assumed to be Claire Fitzbaum Carmichael.
Claire Carmichael was a striking woman, a dramatic white streak down one side of her dark hair which was pulled into a ponytail. Only nature could do that. She was short and rather stocky, not unlike her mother. Her eyes, a bit almond shaped, were tired, her manner gracious. She introduced her husband, Robert and daughter, Roberta, then her brother Herman, Jr. and his wife, Cassie. Herman, Jr., in turn, introduced his two children, Herman III and Fern. Hal wondered why people would name their children Herm III and Fern.
After introductions, Hal sat on a straight-backed chair next to Herman. "Herman, I can't tell you how sorry I am about Maude's passing. She was a good woman."
Herman looked at the preacher. "She was a pip, wasn't she? Nobody like Maudie. I'm gonna miss her, Preacher." He seemed to withdraw into himself.
Hal had never heard Maude Fitzbaum referred to as 'Maudie', but he liked it, that maybe 'Maudie' was an affectionate nickname just between the two of them.
"We understand from Chief Knight that Mother's body will not be released soon, but we'd like to have a service—sans body," Claire smiled, and the smile made her more striking, almost lovely. "We think it will help get our father get settled if we can say our goodbyes now. Do you agree, Dad?" Herman, Sr. nodded, as did Herman Jr.
Hal told the family he saw no reason they couldn't hold the service whenever—which would obviously be soon since they'd already gathered.
They discussed Maude's service. Hal asked about things they might want included, readings, music, Bible verses. "Mother always loved the 23rd Psalm, and she really liked the the hymn IN THE GARDEN. Maybe that could be sung by everyone."
IN THE GARDEN—Lord! Hal truly hated that song. But he smiled and nodded.
"Roberta is a violinist and will play. We've asked the choir director to accompany her." Claire's lovely daughter, Roberta, smiled at Hal, not saying a word, just nodding acknowledgment of her part in the service with a gentle smile.
Hal wondered if the daughter was as lacking in musical skills as her grandmother. He said nothing, of course.
Claire did most of the talking as they talked about Maude. They'd relaxed, now that the formalities of the meeting were over. She told about Maude being a ferocious supporter when Herman, Jr., was in sports, and of her always being ready to help in their classrooms. She'd been a Scout leader for both of them. It's reminiscences like this that would define Maude when he spoke of her. Herm, Jr. did a lot of head nodding, but added little beyond that.
Hal left the Fitzbaum home, glad he'd not had to conjure 'preacher speak' in any form. He realized he'd not offered to pray with them, relieved that they hadn't asked him to.
Maude's service would be Friday at 10 a.m.
It's wonderful to have a husband who's a good kisser, and I'd snagged one of the best. Having appropriately greeted me, Hal returned to the kitchen to pour some scotch. I'd declared the Drinking Lamp lit about fifteen minutes ago.
Hal reported on his meeting with the Fitzbaum family after he returned to the living room.
"The granddaughter is going to play the violin. I assumed this meant her talent was on a par with her grandmother's. Turns out she's a violinist with the St. Louis Symphony. Go figure." He chewed some potato chips. He'd brought the bag with him from the kitchen, and offered some to me. Since the potato chips were part of tonight's hot dog dinner, I snagged a handful. "Fred Crocker's going to accompany her, and Frieda said he came in the office after they rehearsed with sweat pouring off his forehead."
"That's because he weighs 300 pounds."
"That doesn't help, though it might not be quite 300. I guess it's because this woman is good and gave him a musical workout, and a real buzz."
Jacob Percy Olinger had been the custodian at St. Luther Community Church for a good long time. He'd kind of eased into his style, found his favorite parts of the job and went with the flow. He was not a particularly effective custodian, in that his 'favorite parts' included few that were inside. He loved the outside work, the gardening, painting the trim, even snow shoveling. Jake did keep the sanctuary in good shape, knowing it was the prime reflection of how good he was at his job. Lord help him: he didn't want to have to justify his working style the next time the board was deciding on pay raises.
There were also rooms of the church that Jake may never have gone in with the idea of cleaning. This included the choir room, his excuse being that he got confused with the robes and the choir folders and didn't want to disturb something he didn't understand.
So the day that Jake Obinger announced to Frieda that he'd found something she might want to see, and he'd found it in the choir room, she thought she might faint.
"You actually went in there—and cleaned?" she asked in surprise.
"I didn't say that. I just said I found something in there." He held out his hand and showed her a tiny tin box.
"What is it?" She took it from Jake to study. It looked old, that's the first thing she decided. She found a scratching or etching of some kind on the bottom. Maybe it was in French. It sort of looked like it might be a word, not English, but a word.
"Near as I can tell, it's what it looks like: a little box. That's why I brought it in here, so you can figure out what to do with it."
The tiny box fit in the palm of Frieda's hand. She found she could cover it easily by closing her fingers around it. "What do you suppose it was used for?" She carefully lifted the tiny lid and saw a fine powder of some kind. Somehow it made her queasy, like looking into someone's secret stash of cure-alls or whatever. "I suppose the best thing is to give it to Fred and let him show it to the choir. Maybe some choir member lost it out of a pocket of a purse." She shrugged.
"Fine by me," Jake said and sauntered back to wherever he'd been hiding trying to get out of real work.
Hal saw the box on Frieda's desk when he came back from visiting people, mostly elderly, in their homes. "What's this?" he asked, picking the box up to examine.
Excerpted from The Preacher's Wife Drinks A Little by GINGER HIRT. Copyright © 2013 by Ginger Hirt. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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.