With the first installment in my new series, The First Ladies Club, in pre-order for release in early February, it’s time for a sneak peek at the next book in the series, The Body in the Belfry. The prologue and first draft of the first two chapters are below.
Enjoy! I welcome your comments on the story so far.
The Body in the Belfry
The woman peered through the wooden slats at the rugged coastline below her as her companion knelt and picked up a rusty counterweight from a pile nearby, turned and brought it up swiftly against the side of the woman’s head.
She emitted a surprised grunt and crumpled to the dusty floor. Her assailant stared at the weight for a moment, as though surprised at what it had done, and then cast it away into the shadows.
It had been a sudden, irresistible impulse which left the woman’s body on the floor with blood oozing from her temple.
Looking about and spying a coil of rope, the attacker threw one end toward a ceiling beam, but missed. After two more unsuccessful attempts, the rope finally soared over the beam and was immediately pulled down and slip knotted tightly around the unconscious woman’s neck.
Several pulls on the free end of the rope finally had the body swaying freely, it’s toes a foot from the floor.
A wooden crate was pulled away from the wall and tipped onto its side under the twitching body, as though it had been kicked over by the woman as a final, desperate act.
Leaving the words, “FORGIVE ME,” scrawled in the dust, the killer disappeared down the stairs into the darkness.
“I can’t breathe,” Indigo Merrillanne Bishop gasped and flung off the blankets smothering her.
Stumbling up from the mattress, she shuffled around the chaos of her bedroom and down the narrow hall into the narrow bathroom, where she began pawing through packing boxes in search of over-the-counter decongestants.
This was the pits. She’d arrived in Bannoch, Oregon, only the day before, driving a rental moving truck containing all her goods and chattels from California’s Bay Area.
Her brothers, Wolf and Sage, had driven down from Seattle and Springfield, respectively, to meet her here and help unload the truck at her new home. When the last box and piece of furniture were safely off the truck, and the beds and appliances were setup, they needed to leave to get back to their work. Wolf ran the finance desk at a Seattle newspaper and Sage was a contractor in the middle of a big job.
Just as she was waving good-bye, Merrill had felt an ominous tickle in the back of her throat and emitted a not very lady-like sniff. She’d tried to tell herself she was just being sentimental about her brothers leaving, but when the chills and fever set in later that night, she knew she was the victim of a full-blown head cold or, if she were really unlucky, the flu.
In spite of congestion, aches and pains, Merrill was determined to carry on. She had unpacking to do and only one week to get settled before she assumed her duties as the new pastor of the Bannoch First Baptist Church.
Fortunately for Merrill, she had been raised by a pragmatic, no-nonsense mother who never coddled her children just because they might be ill. If two aspirins, plenty of weak tea and a coating of petroleum jelly didn’t bring about a swift recovery, she might resort to the only two OTC medicines Merrill could remember from her childhood: the delicious cherry-flavored cough syrup, absolutely loaded with codeine, was a sure cure for a cough, guaranteed to provide an afternoon of blissful sleep, as well; and for occasional tummy troubles, there was a banana-flavored, off-white liquid with extract of opium as a main ingredient. That last nostrum stopped diarrhea in its tracks with a single dose.
Looking back now, Merrill supposed she and her brothers were lucky to have survived such medicines. Today’s children were fortunate government regulations and warning labels protected them from the danger of Reyes Syndrome, associated with aspirin, or a potential life of drug abuse from non-prescription dosing with opium byproducts.
Her parents hadn’t been too worried about the drugs in those medicines. They had survived a youthful flirtation with the hippy culture early in their marriage, hence Merrill’s and her brothers’ unusual names, and had lived to become confirmed members of the establishment who considered themselves none the worse for their previous dabbling in an alternative life style.
A glance into the spotty mirror on the medicine cabinet inspired Merrill to wonder if she had escaped unscathed, after all. A middle-aged face, flushed and splotchy with fever and framed by tangled and faded shoulder-length blond hair certainly didn’t reflect blooming health. Still, she and her brothers had survived their unusual upbringing to become strong characters who faced each new challenge with courage and faith.
Victoriously clutching a bottle of FDA approved non-drowsy cold and flu medication, Merrill tottered down the steep stairs to the kitchen of her new home, the parsonage apartment built onto the back of her new church.
A window above the kitchen sink looked out toward the ocean and Merrill admired the view of sky and sea as she washed down a dose of medication with her brother’s discarded Starbucks coffee cup filled with water. She groaned when she spied her scrawled “fragile-glassware” on the sagging carton containing her everyday drinking glasses, now peeking out from the bottom of a stack of heavy boxes labeled “cookbooks” and “pots and pans.” She could only hope at least a few of her dishes remained intact.
With a rueful glance at the disorder in her kitchen, she headed back up the stairs, intent on pulling herself together and tackling the unpacking.
After a steaming shower gave the cold medicine a boost, she was partially restored, at least enough to dress in jeans and an old shirt of her late husband’s and return to the kitchen, where she hoped to find enough of her utensils to be able to fix a light breakfast before digging in.
Knee-deep in old newspapers, with newsprint smudges on her red stuffy nose, Merrill was putting the last of the spices away in the tiny pantry, when she was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Who can that be? The congregation knows I don’t officially start my pastorate here until Sunday,” she muttered as she walked across the kitchen to open the door, wiping her hands on the seat of her jeans.
“Yes?” she asked the two women standing on the step, thinking, “These better not be door-to-door proselytizers from some cult or other.”
Although taken aback by Merrill’s abrupt manner and her disheveled appearance, Elizabeth Gilbert and her friend, Judy Falls, managed to smile.
“We’ve come to welcome you to the community,” Elizabeth said.
“Have we caught you at a bad time?” Judy asked. “Moving is such a pain. Do you need any help?”
Relieved and a little embarrassed by her own unfriendly greeting, Merrill stepped back, gesturing for the women to come inside.
“It’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid. As you see, I’m still unpacking. Would you like something to drink? I think there’s still coffee in the pot.”
“No, don’t bother. We won’t stay. We just wanted to welcome you to the community and invite you to join our group,” Elizabeth said, moving an empty carton from a kitchen chair and sitting down. “Shall I flatten this for you?”
“Thanks! I’m just about up to my ears in empty boxes and there’s not much storage here. What group do you represent?” Merrill asked.
“We call ourselves the First Ladies Club,” Judy explained. “We are both a community service organization and a support group for pastors’ wives.”
“There hasn’t been a pastor here at First Baptist for quite a while, so when we heard your husband had been called, we were all excited to have you join us,” Elizabeth added.
“Oh, but I’m not the wife of the new pastor,” Merrill began.
“What! Oh, dear, I guess we’d better be going, then,” Judy interrupted. “We are a diverse and eclectic group with a wide range of theological interpretations and traditions, but I don’t think any of the ladies would be willing to add a pastor’s, uh, well, uh, ‘domestic partner’,” she finally completed.
Merrill laughed when she realized Judy thought she was ‘living in sin’ with the new pastor.
Baptists come in all shapes and sizes and range from conservative fundamentalists to liberal progressives, but there were none she was aware of who accepted a pastor with a live-in girlfriend.
“No, you misunderstood me,” she finally managed. “I’m not the pastor’s wife, you see, I’m the pastor.”
“You are the Rev. Dr. I. Merrill Bishop, like it says on the welcome sign on the message board in front of the church?” Judy asked.
“That’s me,” Merrill nodded.
“Hallelujah!” Elizabeth shouted, startling the others.
“Dr. Bishop, until you arrived, I’ve been the only female pastor in this community. My husband and I co-pastor the Methodist Church downtown. You will be joining the Ministerial Association, I hope?”
“Of course, but please call me Merrill. Why do you ask?”
“When Gil and I came to Bannoch, many years ago, I accompanied him to the Ministerial meetings. Of course, I was treated very politely; exactly as any pastor’s wife would have been, and then completely ignored, unless they needed some sort of hostess duties. I couldn’t fight it, so I stopped going. Those men couldn’t see me as an equal. I was Gil’s wife and nothing more. With you here, another ordained female, I’m ready to take another stab at breaking through the wall of preconceptions.”
“I understand,” Merrill replied. “My late husband was a minister. When I felt called to seminary, I encountered the attitude you described.”
“Well, then, since you were once a pastor’s wife, couldn’t you represent your church in our group?” Judy said, and then quickly added, “You don’t have a pastor’s husband, now, do you?”
“No,” Merrill said with a grin. “Would that be so bad?”
“I guess not, but I’m not sure how a pastor’s male spouse would fit into the First Ladies Club,” Judy explained.
“Would you consider joining us, Merrill? You are going to need a support group outside your congregation and we would love to have you.”
“I don’t know if my schedule will let me attend on a regular basis, but I would love to come whenever I can. Thank you.”
“Good. That’s settled. We’ll let you know when and where the next meeting will be. Now, what can we do to help you get unpacked?” Elizabeth asked.
Merrill was about to decline this generous offer when she was overcome by a coughing spasm. When she was able to catch her breath, she gave her new friends directions for unpacking the books in the living room and excused herself to take another shot of cold medicine.
Several hours later the three tired women were sitting around an open pizza box nibbling on a few leftover crusts.
“I cannot thank you enough for everything,” Merrill avowed. “I could never have finished this today by myself.”
“Certainly not, when you aren’t feeling well,” Judy said. “Besides, this has been fun. I always love looking at other people’s stuff.”
“Even ‘stuff’ as boring as mine?” Merrill grinned.
“Oh, it isn’t boring. Every item has a past, and a use. And when its useful life is over, it can get a future by being re-purposed. For instance, that ratty bathrobe hanging behind the bedroom door will make a throw pillow or even a stuffed animal when you get rid of it.”
“Ratty bathrobe, eh?” Merrill asked, raising one eyebrow.
“Omigosh! Did I say that?” Judy cried.
“Yes, dear, you certainly did. Merrill, you will have to forgive Judy. There doesn’t seem to be any filter between what she thinks and what she says, but her heart’s in the right place,” Elizabeth teased.
“It’s alright,” Merrill said. “I know that robe is ratty. It’s just that it is really comfy. It was a gift from my late husband. I wore it all through seminary, during those late night study sessions and while writing and researching my doctoral thesis. It’s sort of a good luck charm.”
“Was it really hard getting your doctorate? I’d love to go back to school and finish my BA degree, but I don’t seem to be able to concentrate very well since the twins were born.”
The three new friends chatted about their families for another half-hour before Elizabeth glanced at her watch and got slowly to her feet.
“Come on, Judy. We’ve got to let Merrill get to bed.”
“Gosh, yes!” Judy responded. “You look awful, Merrill. Do you need help getting up the stairs and into bed?”
“No, thanks,” Merrill chuckled. “I apparently don’t feel quite as bad as I look. I can make it. Just the thought of a nice soak in that old claw foot tub will carry me up those stairs. Thanks, again.”
After her bath, and a very brief devotional, Merrill lay in her freshly made bed waiting for the night time version of her cold medicine to kick in, and looking back over the day.
Only in her new home one full day and she already had two new friends.
She lifted up a prayer of thanks and drifted off to sleep.
A low rumble of sound penetrated Merrill’s illness-and-medication-befogged dreams and pulled her from the arms of Lethe. She groggily recalled where she was and was amazed that the bedroom walls of her new home seemed to be vibrating with the deep tones of a fog-horn. When these were followed by high pitched whines and moans, she became fully awake and sat up, throwing off the covers.
Trying to locate the source of the sounds, now melding into a sort of muffled harmony, Merrill walked into the hallway, holding her hands over her ears. As she moved further from her bedroom the noise grew less painful.
In the bathroom with the door shut she was finally able to discern the notes of a pipe organ and realized they were coming from the sanctuary on the other side of the shared wall.
She showered and dressed as quickly as possible, feeling all the time as if she were in the bowels of a monstrous calliope.
Making her way to the downstairs sitting room, she unlatched and opened the private connecting door to the church proper. This door opened into to a hallway separating the sanctuary from the choir room, janitor’s closet and at the far end, near the front of the church, the Pastor’s Study. A door on her left opened into the sanctuary near the pipe organ.
She stepped through and found a thin, blond-haired young man engrossed in playing a complicated classical sacred organ composition. With eyes closed and head swaying, his fingers flew over the keyboards and his feet danced on the pedals.
In the sanctuary the sound was no longer overwhelming to Merrill’s ears, but the beauty of the performance overpowered her in a very different way. The young man’s talent and passion were exceptional.
Merrill quietly took a seat on the front pew and settled in to enjoy the music. During a quiet passage, she suddenly erupted in a violent sneeze and the music instantly ceased.
“Who are you?” the musician challenged. “You can’t be in here, you know. This isn’t a shelter.”
Hastily blowing her nose on a crumpled tissue from her pocket, Merrill smiled crookedly; dressed as she was in sweatpants and over-sized t-shirt, the man’s misapprehension was understandable.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m just getting over a cold,” she explained.
“Well, that’s too bad, but you can’t stay here. If you are ill, you should go to the clinic.”
“I came in because I heard you playing. You have a beautiful gift.”
“Thank you, but how did you get in here, anyway? I know I locked that front door.”
“I came in through the private door. I think we should introduce ourselves,” Merrill said, standing up and reaching out her hand. “I’m Doctor Merrill Bishop, the new pastor of this church. And you are?”
“Oh, my goodness!” He jumped down from the organ and began to shake Merrill’s hand, with great enthusiasm.
“I’m Peregrine Bostwick, the church organist. Forgive me for being so rude. Welcome, Dr. Bishop. Welcome.”
“The church is blessed to have you as the organist, Peregrine.”
“Oh, well, not so much these days, I’m afraid. I only get to play an electronic keyboard during our worship services, these days.”
“Why is that?” Merrill asked.
“With the congregation so small since the last split, folks felt lost in this big old sanctuary. It’s too expensive to heat, too, so the Deacons decided we would meet in the Social Hall. We can’t move the pipe organ, of course, and our baby grand is too big to fit over there,” he said, gesturing across the stage at a large shape covered by a canvas tarp.
“What a shame for these lovely instruments to be idle,” Merrill said.
“It breaks my heart to see these grand old ladies neglected. I come over and play them whenever I can, just to keep them tuned and in good shape.”
“About that. Do you suppose you could play them later in the day? The pipes are right against my bedroom and the sound is quite overwhelming as it comes through the wall.”
“Oh, gosh! It’s been so long since we had a pastor in the parsonage apartment, I didn’t think. I’m so sorry, Dr. Bishop” Peregrine said, coming to sit beside her in the pew.
“Call me Pastor Merrill, Peregrine, please.”
“And you can call me Peri.”
“Thank you, Peri. I understood it was only six months since your last pastor left.”
“That’s right. He wasn’t living in the apartment, though. He had a place in Tillamook and just drove over on Sundays and Wednesday evenings,” Peri explained.
“Oh?” Merrill said. This was news the pulpit committee had not shared with her.
“Yeah, he was a substitute teacher in the school district there.”
Merrill was intrigued to learn what other church history might have been withheld by the search committee in their interviews.
“Say, Peri. I haven’t had breakfast, yet; would you like to join me? I’m afraid my apartment isn’t fit for guests, yet, but there must be a good coffee shop in town where we can eat and get better acquainted.”
“Sure. We can go to the Boatworks. I’ve had breakfast, but I can always eat one of their homemade muffins and their coffee is first rate. Shall we go in my car, it’s just outside?”
“Sounds great. Let me dash in and get cleaned up. I’ll meet you out front.”
Peri closed up the organ while Merrill retreated into the apartment.
When they met in the parking lot she was dressed in neat black slacks and a plaid blazer, looking a great deal less like a homeless person.
“Is this your car?” Merrill blurted, seeing Peri standing beside a shiny red vintage Jaguar like the one Inspector Morse drove in the BBC television series.
“You like it? I inherited it from my grandfather. It’s a dream to drive. Want to try it?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dare! Just riding in it will be a treat,” Merrill said as she slid onto the creamy leather passenger seat.
As Peri drove, Merrill imagined herself cruising the streets of Oxford with the great Inspector and chuckled to herself.
“What’s so funny?” Peri asked.
“Oh, I was just indulging in flights of fancy, I’m afraid; trying to imagine myself on the roads of rural England in this beauty.”
“I do that all the time! Did you ever watch that British TV show, Inspector Morse? He had a car just like this one.”
Merrill admitted this was the source of her fantasy, as well, immediately endearing herself to at least one member of her new congregation.
The Boatworks coffee shop was situated in the town’s seaside shopping mall, a converted fish processing plant. Merrill found the seafaring décor charming and was impressed with the menu.
After ordering a spinach omelet, she shook a packet of sweetener into her coffee and looked around. It was still early and the café was busy with breakfast orders. It was easy to tell which of the customers were finishing up before going off to work and who were the retirees just settling in for their morning social hour.
Merrill wondered if any of these people were current or former members of First Baptist. She’d been given enough church history to be aware that almost all the other Baptist churches in town, plus the non-denominational Bannoch Community Fellowship, were founded on splits from the First Baptist Church.
These were not what are usually referred to as church plants.
It is a good sign when a congregation grows to the point where it is able to plant new young churches in a new mission field. However, when new churches pop up in the same town, as the result of disagreements within the church family, it harms the membership of both the original and new churches, as well as the community at large. It did not reflect well on the denominations involved, either.
Merrill knew this divisive history was the reason her new congregation was so small. It was also the only reason they were desperate enough to call a female as their new pastor. It was a challenge and she hoped she was equal to it.
After years on the staff of a large Bay Area church, Merrill was eager to have a pulpit of her own. When the call came from Bannoch First Baptist, she had prayed long and hard before accepting. She thought she knew what she was taking on and felt this was God’s will. It would help her to find out as much about her new flock as possible.
“So, Peri, how long have you been a member of First Baptist?” she asked, taking a sip of her coffee.
“I grew up in this church. My grandparents grew up in it, too. They raised me after my mother left me on their doorstep,” he replied cheerfully, popping another bit of muffin into his mouth.
“What do you mean? She just left you? Not literally on the doorstep, surely.”
“I guess that was a bit of hyperbole. I tend to add color to my humdrum existence from time to time. But my mother actually did abandon me. One day she came for a visit, left me with the grands to go buy cigarettes and never came back. I was nine months old.”
“Did your grandparents try to find her?” Merrill was aghast. Her own children, two daughters, were grown with families of their own. She couldn’t imagine one of them leaving a baby like that.
“They looked. Even hired a private detective when the police couldn’t find her. She just faded away without a trace…like a wisp of smoke on the evening breeze,” Peri added, with a dramatically poetic expression and a wistful sigh. He was obviously enjoying telling his story to a new audience.
“I’m sorry to hear that. And she’s never tried to contact you or her parents in all these years?”
“Oh, the grands weren’t her parents. My father, their son, died before I was born. Gran and Gramps tried to help my mother, so they could be close to me, you see, but she was a wild creature, according to all accounts. Something of a gypsy, I imagine.”
“You said you inherited your Jag from your grandfather. Is your grandmother still living?”
“I’ll say! You’ll meet her at church on Sunday. Gran’s a real corker. I love her to death. She’s such a darling, I’m sure you’ll adore her, too.”
When she’d finished her breakfast, Merrill felt she’d played hooky long enough and asked Peregrine to take her back to the church, so she could finish unpacking and get her study set up.
Once that was done it would be time to begin work on her all-important first sermon for Sunday.
“This has been delightful, Peri,” she said, as she got out of the car in front of the church.
“Fun for me, too, Pastor Merrill. I’m looking forward to telling Gran all about our little visit. Ta! See you Sunday!”
Merrill watched him drive away, thinking this theatrical and very gifted young man was going to make her life in Bannoch very interesting.