Previously: Debra Padget's murderer is still at large. The coroner, after a thirty day delay, has released the body for burial. Debra's only relative, Darcy Shaw, is meeting with Father Brian to arrange her funeral.
Alyx swatted the insect whose incessant buzzing was disturbing his nap. Seconds later it landed on the tip of his nose and advanced to a spot between his eyes. Father Brian chose that moment to look up. He laughed at the sight of his Sheltie batting his nose with his paws.
"I think it's time we see Greta for a fall tune-up, Alyx," he said. The dog came to his feet at the mention of his groomer's name.
Patting his leg, Brian summoned Alyx. Starting with the sweet spot just above the dog's belly, he lightly scratched upward. "I know why you like getting groomed," the priest continued, "you may fool Greta, but not me. It's those treats from Heavenly Paws she keeps on hand isn't it?"
Alyx tilted his head and slitted his eyes. "You're a cheap date, buddy," Brian added. Dog ears lifted and fell in shameless acknowledgement.
The familiar routine was a welcome respite from his task. On his desk was the first draft of the sermon planned for Debra Padget's funeral mass. The Medical Examiner had completed its processing of the body and had, at last, released it for burial. He debated whether to make reference to the manner of her death. To do so might prove upsetting to Debra's niece and close friends. But, for those few not aware of the circumstances, it could instill a sense of caution.
What if the killer comes to church disguised as a mourner? He might consider mention of his deed as encouragement.
Brian decided it was not a risk he was willing to take. The formal ritual would remain a celebration of Debra's resurrection through Christ. Whatever the manner of passing, murder or cancer, the Mass was considered a celebration of the soul's return home.
Head bent, Brian prayed, "Lord, give me the words to make this sermon a fitting tribute to a godly woman."
He winced at the sudden memory of the last time he saw Debra, mere hours after her murder. Her body lay on the bed, posed like a macabre mannequin, face painted like a prostitute's. Brian lifted his sleeve to his cheek and dried errant tears.
No time for this.
Like a mirrored reflection, Debra's crystalline eyes rose in his mind. He felt the feather touch of fingers caress the top of his head. Words, fleet as a hare, erasing his sadness: I am at peace, Father.
Door chimes interrupted the moment. Alyx retreated to the safety of his cushion, and a rare growl issued from his throat. Brian shook off his disorientation, signaled Alyx to settle down, and hurried to answer the door.
He could see a woman with her nose pressed against the door's window as he approached. She called out, "Father Brian, it's Darcy Shaw. I'm here for my appointment."
On his first try, the door refused to budge. "Give me a moment," he yelled, "the damp weather is making the door stick."
The door came loose on the third try. Darcy Shaw, who'd been pushing from the other side, fell across the threshold, landing on her knees at his feet.
Brian blushed scarlet. "Oh my goodness... are you hurt, Miss Shaw?"
Darcy flopped onto her butt and raised her hand for assistance. Brian pulled her upright and chose to stare at his shoes while she adjusted a blouse that left little to the imagination.
Hands on hips, Darcy reproached the priest. "As much money as the Catholic Church rakes in every week, you'd think you could put a little of it aside to fix the damned door, Father!"
"It's only a problem when it rains more than usual. I'm sorry it picked today to act up." When he saw the storm clouds gather in her eyes, he rushed to smooth things over. Pointing to his office, he said, "There's a warm fire in the grate. Why don't you make yourself comfortable on the couch? I've got one of those new-fangled coffee makers - the single serving kind. I can have a hot cup ready in minutes."
Darcy flashed an expansive smile, leaving Brian dazed by her sudden mood shift. "That sounds great. Do you have any of those flavored coffees? I really like hazelnut. And nothing but the leaded kind! Drinking decaffeinated coffee is gross."
Brian felt as if he was stuck in the center of a cyclone. Debra always told me her niece was a piece of work.
He gave her a perfunctory smile. "I'll see what's available. Meanwhile," tipping his head in the direction of the study, "have a seat, and I'll be right back."
Brian filled the coffee maker with water and stood against the counter waiting for it to get hot. Darcy appeared in the kitchen doorway, hands on her hips again.
"I can't have it," she announced.
"Your dog. I can't be shut up in a room with a long-haired animal like that. I'm very allergic to pet dander. You'll have to lock him up somewhere until we're done."
"The dog's name is Alyx," he informed her. "I'll take him upstairs right after I finish what I'm doing. It's unusual for him to bother my guests. He usually stays in his bed while I conduct business."
"Oh, he's in his bed alright. I don't want to risk contamination if he decides to get friendly."
Not bloody likely, lady.
"I understand, Miss Shaw." Brian turned his back hoping she'd realize she'd been dismissed, but he could feel her watching his movements. He picked out a hazelnut-flavored coffee packet, and waited for the rich, brown liquid to fill the mug.
He crossed to where she stood and pressed the coffee into her hands. "Ouch, that's hot," she exclaimed, but he chose to keep walking and ignore her complaint.
Alyx was standing in the hallway outside the office. Brian lifted him in his arms and ascended the staircase. He whispered in the dog's ear, "I'll bring you back down as soon as the lady leaves." Alyx licked his owner's cheek in apparent sympathy.
He returned to the study where Darcy sat facing the fire. Her arms were wrapped around her torso. She turned to face him. "Damn it's cold in here. It feels as if I'm sitting in the middle of a freezer!" She looked around the room. "This place gives me the creeps. I keep seeing a black shadow moving along that wall," she pointed to a spot behind his desk.
"I'm sure it's a trick of the light. Would you like me to lower the window shades?"
"Don't bother," she snapped. "Let's get down to business."
Brian sat across from Darcy and placed his hands on his lap. "First, let me offer my sincerest condolences on the passing of your Aunt Debra. As you may know, she was a good friend; and I will miss her very much."
"My aunt had many friends," Darcy quickly added, "but no family besides me." She pulled a long face in an effort to appear aggrieved. "Her needs became more complicated during the last few years. Mind you, I did what I could to keep her happy, but that wasn't always possible. Aunt Debra could be quite demanding at times."
"Caring for the elderly can be emotionally and physically draining. When our deeds are heart-centered, though, both parties benefit spiritually."
Crossing her legs, Darcy lifted her purse from the floor. "Sounds like you're preaching, Father. I'm not Catholic, so you're wasting your time."
A vein pulsed at Brian's temple, and he struggled against taking the young woman to task for her rudeness. For Debra's sake, he chose to stay silent.
Darcy pulled a sheet from her purse. "I've arranged for a viewing of my aunt at the McElroy Funeral Home over on Fern Street. It's going to be a week from today -- that's a Thursday -- from 6-8 P.M. Can you be there to say a few words?"
"Certainly. What about the mass? Were you planning that for the following morning?"
"Mass? There won't be a mass. She's to be cremated, and her friends can say their goodbyes at the Funeral Home."
"Your aunt was a life-long Catholic, Miss Shaw." Brian's voice was thick with reproach. "You cannot deny her the privilege of a Christian burial mass. What harm can it do, after all?"
She stood up. "The harm is that I cannot afford to pay for a meal following the mass. Add to that $5,000.00 to rent a casket for pre-service viewing, well it's just not going to happen."
Desperate to get the situation under control, Brian urged, "Please reconsider! It's not necessary to have a casket. We can set the cremains on a table in front of the altar with a photo of Debra. It's done quite a bit these days."
"What about the luncheon?"
"I'll pay for it out of my own pocket." Too late, he realized the woman had set him up.
Darcy smiled in triumph. "Do you think the church will be full?" she gushed. "Given the fact my aunt was murdered, I'm thinking it will be. Imagine, Father, this could be the most high profile funeral you've ever done."