Death at Fair Havens
Maria Mankin & Maren C. Tirabassi
Rev & Rye Mysteries, no. 1 • Release Date: April 26, 2022
Print ISBN: 978-1-948559-65-2 • Ebook ISBN: 978-1-948559-68-3
Brain Mill Press offers Death at Fair Havens in ebook and trade paperback editions. Ebook buyers receive access to MOBI (Kindle), EPUB, and PDF files, offered without DRM restrictions. Print book buyers receive a physical copy of the book and access to the ebook files in all formats.
Here’s small town life portrayed with humor and affection, peopled with quirky characters you’ll care about.
—James Patrick Kelly, winner of the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards
This engaging mystery, with its diverse cast of characters and sympathetic tone, reflects the authors’ deep personal knowledge of the daily life of a pastor (minus murder, of course!). Readers will find themselves looking forward with delight to the further adventures of Wanda and Rye.
—Nancy Light Hardy, Pastor and former Associate Conference Minister, United Church of Christ
A frolicking novel bursting with friendship, community, and more than a bit of intrigue. This book checks every box—clever and punchy writing, the enjoyable setting of a newsy small town, and fall-in-love-with-me characters.
—Jane Willan, author of the Sister Agatha and Father Selwyn Mystery Series
Wanda Duff is an unconventional New England clergywoman, addicted to chicken wings, high-octane ice cream, and saying yes to anyone in need of a prayer, even the folks her town might think don’t deserve one.
When parishioner Niels Pond dies unexpectedly at the Fair Havens assisted living facility, Wanda’s duty to minister to his family is beset by her suspicions about the circumstances of his abrupt passing. Wanda finds an unexpected co-detective in high school vice principal Prudence Rye, who fled town on graduation night a decade ago and returned only recently.
Rye puts her job on the line to investigate the mourning Ponds with the surprisingly edgy Wanda. As they expose difficult family truths and uncover a dangerous conspiracy operating out of Fair Havens, Rye and Wanda discover curiosity has an unanticipated cost.
Comfortably gossipy, with a fresh take on the characters and ethos cozy mystery fans will love, Maria Mankin and Maren C. Tirabassi’s Death at Fair Havens launches a series that celebrates intergenerational women’s friendship and the power of inclusion, curiosity, and love.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Maren C. Tirabassi’s forty years’ experience in mainline ministry shape Wanda Duff’s professional life (but not her personality). Tirabassi is a former Poet Laureate of the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and has published poetry and short stories in fifteen anthologies, as well as twenty nonfiction titles. Maria Mankin, Maren’s daughter, has written five nonfiction books and a thriller, Circ (Pigeon Park Press). Rye’s dilemmas are influenced by Mankin’s ten years in education as a teacher and administrator. She holds a degree in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College.
AN EXCERPT from Death at Fair Havens by Maria Mankin & Maren C. Tirabassi
“How many creepy single men can there possibly be in a twenty-five-mile radius?”
Wanda addressed the spiked heel of the cute but cruel shoe whose partner she had kicked to the other side of the room. Partner. There was something she wasn’t going to find anytime soon. As her thick hair grayed and the wrinkles, of which she was quite fond, deepened, much of the charm seemed to be stripped from the men who queued up to take her to dinner.
Age aside, her magnetism for unbalanced singles in her area had increased exponentially with the addition of one word to her dating profile—clergy. Wanda guessed it was a major deterrent to many men who might reach out, to whom the words “Open and Affirming” meant little. Her church, with its oversized justice-seeking heart and passion for combating climate change—even if it might be one compostable roll of toilet paper at a time—was her first love. She couldn’t romantically connect with someone who didn’t get that the path she walked took her on Jericho walks to protest deportation and into prisons to give voice to the angry and forgotten.
“Divorced twice,” of course, made her more approachable but also, it seemed, less lovable. Several particularly unpleasant dates had the audacity to compare her to a used car—most likely sound under the hood, but suspect due to past experiences.
Not this one though. John had been earnest, aged, and eager to share about being “born again.” He’d shown up with photos of twenty grandchildren (or possibly twenty photos of one) and a long list of complaints about the neighbors he was supposed to love. Wanda wasn’t sure which of them had left more disappointed, though she suspected him, what with her foot lodged so well up his righteous . . . well . . .
Time for comfort food.
She looked longingly at a leftover container half full of diablo wings and soggy French fries, but at nearly eleven p.m. frozen yogurt would be less likely to invite heartburn as company. Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked or Cherry Garcia? Cherry Garcia, she decided. The container felt fuller.
Wanda took the pint to the bedside table to soften up. She shed her cute skirt and the black sweater that wore well for both bad dates and the office for soft flannel pajamas. Christian Century or the new N. K. Jemisin? The magazine followed her shoes into the corner, and only then did the Jack Russell raise a sleepy eyelid.
“Some watchdog you are, Wink.”
Wink didn’t lift his snout from his paws. He could smell the difference between his fifty-three-year-old Beta and a stealthy, fear-sweating burglar. He was waiting till she finished throwing things-that-were-not-balls and was ready to climb into bed and warm it up. Only then would he deign to join her.
Wanda’s cell rang. That was bad news this time of night. Sick, dying, traffic accident, house fire, kid missing. “Hello?”
Nice voice. “Yes?”
“Luke? Luke Fairchild.”
“I compensate for crap hearing with careful hearing. Makes folks forget my designer hearing aids. And you’ve got that gorgeous tenor. Unforgettable.” Wanda would love Luke Fairchild to call her late at night and ask her to come over. All six feet of dark Italian good looks in a package that announced, “I work out,” and that smile . . .
“Well, thank you. Sadly, this isn’t a social call. I have a pickup at the Fair Havens memory loss unit, and I think the family could use some support. The Ponds are on your church rolls?”
Luke was the director of Fairchild Funeral Home, the most entrenched funeral service in the area. His great-grandfather, Francesco Fraticelli, had purchased the home, then reinvented himself as Francis Fairchild and expected his descendants to follow suit in accommodating themselves to fit New England styles and sensibilities of grief.
Luke was respectable by day (and by night when he was on call), but Wanda had stumbled onto his alter ego. Before she had decided online dating screened creeps better than bartenders, she’d tried the music scene for late-night company, driving far enough to avoid encountering parishioners. One night, she’d discovered Luca Fraticelli and his fabulous band. They kept each other’s secrets.
“Niels Pond? I was there Sunday doing my rotation for afternoon devotions, and I remember seeing him jogging around the keyhole drive, picking flowers and tossing them in the little fountain. He was actually jogging!”
“It seems to have caught people here by surprise, too,” Luke said. “His roommate, Joe, seems very upset. A nurse—I don’t know him, so he must be new—was quite forcefully sedating the man so he didn’t upset the family. I thought . . .” His voice drifted off, but Wanda could feel the criticism he was stifling for professional reasons. “I’ll wait on getting Niels ready in case you want to say some words with the family over the body.”
“You’re a sweetie. I’m out the door.” And he was a sweetie. Most funeral directors wouldn’t donate half an hour of their interrupted sleep so a minister could stagger over and pray. Wanda valued the extra bit of care that would never appear on the bill. Heck—she valued the phone call. Even that was rare these days.
Had to love that versatile black sweater. She dragged it back over her head to go now with a gray skirt and flats. She took some care twisting her hair into a bun at the nape of her neck. No pencil stuck through it tonight.
People called her a “laughing pastor,” but these nights were what mattered. In the valley of the shadow of death . . .
When she got to Fair Havens, Wanda realized that Luke’s kindness and her own sleep sacrifice had been well-meant but unnecessary. They nodded at each other with the decorum that was so much a part of their jobs. Under the harsh overhead light, the normally cheerful yellow room looked gray and disheveled. Niels’s roommate, Joe, indeed had been sedated and the curtain drawn around his bed. Niels was gone, too, his body there but vacant, and more still than Wanda had ever seen it. Luke was touching his shoulder. Wanda knew it was Luke’s practice to make physical contact when no one else was.
The Pond family was waiting for her, clearly out of politeness and not necessity. They wanted to go home. Niels’s wife, Bellona, was stiff in Wanda’s hug, and it wasn’t just New England reserve. Maybe she was angry. People got angry at Alzheimer’s—the way it took their loved ones long before it really took them. That anger usually transferred to God. Bellona’s sons, Wil and Ro, had grown since their high school youth group days, though it couldn’t have been more than three years. The boys, both athletic young men, one tall and fair and the other dark and more muscular, were quiet.
Zoe Laferriere, also a parishioner, was filling out paperwork for Luke. She had brought cocoa for Ro, Wil, and their sister, Leslie. She had teddy bears on her uniform top tonight, and she sat close to Leslie with obvious familiarity, her pen scratching out information. Wanda remembered that Zoe’s daughter, Nicole, and Leslie Pond were friends. Bellona and Niels’s youngest, a high school junior now, was the only member of the family in tears. Zoe pulled the girl into a comfortable hug.
“Pastor, you come to say some sweet words for this dear family?” Zoe asked in a maternal voice with the soft edges of Creole from her native Haiti. Wanda thought the accent thickened at will, but she acknowledged being suspicious of Zoe because she was in full-scale conflict with Wanda’s musical director, who was also the high school choral coach, over Nicole’s considerable talent. Singing was not the kind of practical career that Zoe expected of her children.
Wanda also felt, unreasonably, that Zoe was trying to tell her how to do her job. She took a deep breath and let it go. It was late, and she was bad-date cranky. Zoe was doing her own job—compassionate professional caregiving that didn’t evaporate at the moment of death. Then, because Wanda was staring at Zoe, she noticed the other woman’s foot move and shut the bottom drawer of the dresser. In fact, all the drawers were open at least a couple inches. Why? Wanda wondered. Who would be searching?
She looked across at Joe’s dresser. Drawers closed tightly by CNAs whose jobs were finished, with no second chances, if anyone fell because of a tripping obstacle. Several of those people were waiting for green cards and wanted to stay under the radar in the current political climate. In fact, might Zoe be in that situation? No, Wanda was sure her documents were in order. Zoe and her husband had put all six of their children through the local schools. Nicole was the last.
Why would Zoe be shutting, or opening and shutting, Niels’s dresser? Wanda suddenly realized that the nurse was watching her, and it wasn’t a warm and cuddly gaze. Wanda snapped back into her professional role.
And, of course, Wanda did have words to say, standing at the head of Luke Fairchild’s gurney. She murmured the sweet old shepherd psalm. She laid her hand in blessing on Niels’s cool forehead. Still in his fifties. The dementia had stolen both the wisdom of the scientist and the dignity of the man. Now he looked old, but no longer angry, agitated, or aggressive.
Maybe Bellona was grateful. Wanda wouldn’t blame her.
Wanda had a sudden fugitive epiphany, realizing that the sacrifice of book, bed, and frozen delight had worked in Wink’s favor. She remembered too late the pint of frozen yogurt sitting on her bedside table. By now it was in the belly of the beast. She was tired. She fiercely roped in her attention.
The family filed out, promising vaguely in Luke’s direction to stop by to plan the service. Before she could evaluate the wisdom of it, Wanda stepped forward and put her arms around Leslie. Ever the prickly teen, this one, but Wanda could feel her trembling.
And then Leslie let go the tension and allowed Wanda to hold her as a sob escaped. Wanda put a gentle hand on her spiky blond hair and whispered a prayer. Bellona stepped forward to take responsibility for her youngest, and Leslie stiffened up again.
Then they were gone. Waste of time? No. Wanda wished Luke would find other ways to waste her time, but he was busy with the removal. She looked around for staff who might need a moment of comfort and came face-to-face with LNA N. C. Harris. As she’d come in, Wanda had heard him telling Zoe that he’d checked on Niels an hour ago. He was a recent transfer, and not a man Wanda cared to spend too much time getting to know. Between her career and her personal life, she’d had plenty of opportunities to witness deep-seated nastiness, and his mere presence set internal alarms off. She gave Zoe a hug and got one in return from the older woman that, in spite of herself, soaked the stress out of Wanda’s shoulders.
But the muscles knotted again as she got into her car. On Sunday, after she finished the hymn-sing and greeted the little congregation she ministered to at Fair Havens after her regular service, Wanda had come out into the spring sunshine. She was parked in this very spot near the door. Niels Pond had been out front with Zoe. It struck her as odd at the time, because she couldn’t recall seeing a patient outside of the fenced garden without a family member present before.
Wanda was curious about whether such behavior would raise an insurance issue, but that thought was chased from her mind when a car careened up the drive, picking up speed as it jumped the curb, missing the pair by inches. Niels went over like bowling pins but popped up again with the anger that was his dementia’s worst symptom. Wanda jumped out of the car to help, but Zoe waved her back and hustled Niels inside too quickly to see the driver shoot them both the finger and roar away.
As she sat in the dark now, Wanda recalled the forest green beater but not its driver. She’d been late to another appointment, so she hadn’t gone in to check on them or to ask about the walkabout policy. She realized, in retrospect, the driver must have been impaired, and she should have at least called the police. As Wanda put the car in reverse and headed home, she remembered how her second husband, Brian, often teased about her twenty-twenty hindsight. She wondered if he was right and that her gut’s insistence that Niels Pond was far more likely to have been killed in a freak accident than to have died in bed of natural causes was worth a second look.