Authors: Charlene Weir
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Boundless thanks to Susan Dunlap, who said a book could be created from a manuscript of complete confusion.
Heartfelt gratitude to Avis, Pat, Barbara, and Dana for continued encouragement in the face of depression and sheer panic, and to my children for many things, mostly for being my children.
Special thanks to Suzanne Schwartz, R.N., F.N.P., who continued to answer all my medical questions patiently and graciously.
And, of course, thanks to my editor, Ruth Cavin, my agent, Meg Ruley, and my copy editor, Ravin Gustafson.
It's just a lousy cold, Caley told herself. I can do this. I'm indispensable. I'm the organist. No organist, no rehearsal. Eyes that wouldn't open more than halfway made everything fuzzy around the edges. Like the man standing at the side of the church. When she blinked, he vanished and she couldn't see him anywhere. The day-old coffee hadn't been a good idea. It had tasted odd, and the caffeine wasn't helping. She felt a little queasy.
Caley James picked up her feet carefully as she moved across the parking lot. Not because the surface was icy. It wasn't. It was perfectly dry concrete with mounds of dirty snow bordering the edges. But her feet were numb and she seemed to be weaving. The frigid air caught her breath and squeezed pain through her sinuses.
Hampstead was experiencing the longest cold spell in the history of local weather. Brutal cold for eight days in a row and expected to remain that way. Her old car had a heater that reached tepid on its best days, which were long past. Her head felt enormously too large and sounds ballooned up as though through deep water.
The church, an imposing structure of native limestone, looked cream-colored and inviting on summer days. On cold winter days like today, with rippled clouds of gray above, it was drab and forbidding. The back door always stuck, so she yanked on it and almost fell on her face when it was opened from the inside by Evan Devereau.
“â¦ money missing from the donation baskets,” Reverend Mullet, in the hallway, was saying.
Evan nodded, distracted, his mind likely on the music.
The warmth of the robing room made her cheeks sting. She started to stamp her feet to stir up some feeling in them, but lightning bolts of pain forked through her head on the first tap.
“You don't look good,” Evan said. As choir director, upon his shoulders fell the duty of arranging the Christmas choral music. “You sure you're up to this?”
“A snap.” Since her kids were home alone, she hoped he wouldn't drag out the rehearsal.
He eyed her judiciously, hung his heavy coat over a hanger, and jammed it between all the others in the closet. Reddish hair cropped to a crew cut, easy manner, Evan Devereau was a wizard at coaxing glorious sounds from untrained voicesâand he was one of the most completely good men she'd ever known. When he took her to the emergency room that time she'd cut her leg, he waited with her. That was more than her ex-husband had done when their baby was born. An impending sneeze sent her plunging frantically through pockets for a tissue.
“You don't have a cold,” Evan said, “you have the flu. You can't play like this.”
“I'm fine.” If she didn't play, she didn't get paid. If she didn't get paid, the kids didn't get Christmas. She tossed her ski jacket over a chair, but didn't remove her scarf. It wasn't so warm in here after all.
In the church proper, a single light high in the ceiling shone down on the huge hanging cross of burnished brass. It lit up the altar far below, white altar cloth and blue parament for Advent, silver candlesticks and wine cups. Dark red carpeting ran down the center aisle to rows of pews waiting in the shadows. She could barely make out the silhouette of a solitary man sitting in the rear.
As she slid onto the organ bench, her page turner took one look at her and scooted as far away as the bench allowed. When Caley looked again, the man in the back was gone. Watch it, she told herself, you're turning into a nut cake. She rubbed her cold fingers, switched on the organ and then the light over the music rack. The choir members were shifting in their seats, clearing their throats and bringing themselves to attention. She played the prelude, pulled out a few more stops, and sailed into the oratorio. As the tenor rose to sing, she pulled out a mixture of stops.
“There were shep-herds at night in that same country, a-biding in the fieldsâ¦”
Caley soared on the magic of the music, rising to crescendo, falling back to pianissimo, moving right into andantino for the soprano.
“And sud-den-ly there ap-pear'd a mul-ti-tude of the heav'nly host unto themâ¦”
When the soprano finished, baritone Osey Pickett rose. He was just getting into stride when a tall slender woman with dark hair slipped quietly into a back pew.
She was Susan Wren, Hampstead's police chief. Come to arrest me for strangling a pipe. Caley felt giggles bubbling in her chest. I'm not choking it, Chief. It already hissed when they hired me. Honest. I asked them to fix it. We can't afford it, they said. Play around it. You don't need it that often. Ha. I need it all the time. Like now.
“â¦ with the an-gels all prais-ing God, prais-ing God and sayingâ¦”
Poised on the organ bench above the choir, in dizzying heights of shimmering air, she plunged into the music of Saint-SaÃ«ns. Her feet galloped across the pedals in racing bass. With a surging combination of reed stops, her hands scrambled to catch up.
Sound crashed from the pipes, ricocheted around the dark wood, sparked across stained-glass windows, raced up lofty curves of the barrel vaults, andÂ â¦
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Susan Wren was moving toward the slumped organist before the sound even died away. Osey, coming from the choir loft with the choir director, nudged the page turner out of the way.
“Caley?” Evan said.
“Stand back, Evan.” Susan put her fingertips at the corner of Caley's jaw. Pulse strong, rapid. Skin hot. She lifted Caley's eyelid; the pupil reacted normally.
“Osey, see if you can get Dr. Cunningham.”
He tossed straw-colored hair from his eyes and loped off in his long lanky stride.
Caley's eyelids fluttered, opened, closed, then opened again. With bewilderment she stared at the choir clustered around her, all peering down. Had she died and been laid out in a casket? When she tried to sit, her eyes lost focus. Susan pushed Caley's head between her knees until she made small protesting sounds.
Osey returned and said quietly to Susan. “Doc's on the way.”
Susan nodded. Flu had felled another. Half her officers were flat out with it. A crime wave sweeping through town would have the bad guys outnumbering the good guys. If the stricken didn't start recovering soon, there'd be no way she could resign. Deserting ship with only the dispatcher left to take the helm wouldn't cut it.
“Oh, God,” Caley said, seemed to remember where she was, and closed her eyes.
Osey grinned. “I reckon you got his attention with that music.”
“I've never heard you play like that,” Evan said.
“I think I'll go home now.” Caley struggled upright with some help from Susan, swayed a bit, and blinked her eyes. “Whoa.”
“I'll take you,” Evan said.
“Evan,” Susan said firmly, “go back to rehearsal.”
Reluctantly, director and singers, with the exception of Osey, trooped back to their seats.
“Let's get her in the robing room,” Susan said to Osey.
Five minutes later, Dr. Baylis Cunningham bustled in, looked at the patient, listened to her chest, peered into her eyes and ears, told her to say Ah, took her temperature, and pronounced flu, dehydration, and slight malnutrition. “Make an appointment to see me at the office.” Cunningham bustled out.
“I'll get her home,” Osey said.
“You go rehearse. I'll do it.”
Susan helped Caley into her ski jacket, guided her out to the pickup, bundled her in, and clicked the seat belt snugly around her.
“Give me your key and I'll see that your car gets home.”
“The gray Ford over there.” With shaky hands, Caley detached a key from the key ring.
“Where do you live?”
“On Hollis, straight out from Eagle's Pond.”
Susan took a left on Eleventh and a right on Campus Drive. The streets were dry, thank God. Hampstead was settled in a cluster of small hills, and when the streets iced over, it was a nightmare.
The sky was a solid gray with not even a paler spot to suggest the sun existed up there somewhere, and the temperature had not risen enough to melt the dingy snow left over from the last snowfall.
Christmas was everywhere. Wreaths on doors, decorated trees in front windows, reindeer capering across front lawns, sleighs and Santas on rooftops. Colored lights on outdoor trees, along eaves, and wrapped around mailbox posts. âTis the season.
“You come to rehearsals,” Caley said.
Susan nodded. Finding solace in the Lutheran church would bring forth much guilt-invoking, you-let-me-down sorrow from her Catholic grandmother, if she knew. “I like the music,” she said. In the dimness of the empty church, frantic thoughts stopped chasing one another and her mind grew still and light. It was the only place where she could get away; no one bothered her unless a dire emergency arose.
Eight days ago an offer had come from her old boss in San Francisco. “We've got us something of an unusual situation here,” he'd said. “Money is all of a sudden spearheaded to shake some life into cold cases. I need a seasoned investigator to clear a few, zipzap-you're-under-arrest quick, and rework some of the more high-profile.”
A failure of hers had ended up as a cold file. It still haunted her dreams. A baby, beaten to death, tiny body covered with cigarette burns.
“It's a two-year job. You interested?”
Arctic in Hampstead and sixty-two in San Francisco? No contest.
“Think about it,” he'd said. “Take all the time you want. Till the day after Christmas.”
She hadn't needed three weeks; she hadn't even needed three seconds. When she'd stopped tap-dancing up and down the walls and begun planning, her officers had started dropping with flu.
That meant she couldn't leave immediately, and it gave her time to think. Thinking made her realize it wasn't quite so simple, and she'd started juggling pros and cons. In Hampstead, she was in charge. Boss. A heady feeling. She'd grown used to it, discovered she liked it. She'd met people here who would be hard to leave. Her husband was buried here. Her father was in San Francisco. They'd get into the same old nose-to-nose fights they always had. And the most troublesome question. Could she simply slide back into her old life? The job was only for two years. Then what? Finally give up and go to work for her father's law firm because it was easier than fighting him? Hope her old boss could find money to hire her full-time? The call had come eight days ago. She had two weeks left to decide.