Death in the Woods by Maria Mankin and Maren C. Tirabassi

Death in Disguise

Maria Mankin & Maren C. Tirabassi

 

Rev & Rye Mysteries, no. 3 • Release Date: August 20, 2024

Print ISBN: 978-1-948559-86-7 • Ebook ISBN: 978-1-948559-87-4

Brain Mill Press offers Death in Disguise in ebook and trade paperback editions. Ebook buyers receive access to 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.

The Reverend Wanda and her best friend Rye are back, shocked at the layers of secrets that the latest murder uncovers and how all those secrets seem to trace back to Rye . . . 

A multifaith Mardi Gras celebration sounds like the perfect way to ease into Lent, with enough music, King cake, and socializing to distract Reverend Wanda Duff from the cold, dreary New England weather—until she and her friend Rye stumble on a body.

Someone has murdered Martina Suarez in the basement of Saint Athanasius, and it quickly becomes clear that the question isn’t so much who would want to kill the church custodian as who wouldn’t. But the more Wanda and Rye learn about Martina and the secrets she kept, the harder it gets for them to ignore the case’s connections to the past and to the shadows haunting their own lives.

Soon, Wanda finds herself struggling with love and loss on more than one front, while Rye pieces together the heartbreaking bedtime story her father’s never been willing to tell her: the truth of why her mother disappeared.

Delivered with humor, emotion, and a twist around every corner, Death in Disguise is another delightful and inclusive cozy mystery for readers to devour.

Praise for the Rev & Rye Mysteries

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, on Death at Fair Havens

 

A compelling narrative filled with wry humor, a complex investigation, and characters that resonate. With pithy writing and a fast-paced storyline, Death in the Woods is a perfect page-turner of a read that will leave you eagerly awaiting the next in the series!

—Jane Willan, author of the Sister Agatha and Father Selwyn mystery series, on Death at Fair Havens

 

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, on Death at Fair Havens

 

Mankin and Tirabassi draw upon the eerie isolation of late-autumn in “stick-season” New England to deliver a complex and chilling mystery filled with characters plucked straight from reality. Death in the Woods will have you looking forward to reading about Wanda and Rye’s next case, as well as the latest developments in their personal lives.

 
—Amy Patricia Meade, author of the Tish Tarragon mystery series, on Death in the Woods

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 in Disguise by Maria Mankin & Maren C. Tirabassi

Chapter 1

Wanda threw the pile of mail on the table, grabbing the only piece that wasn’t a bill or junk mail to read as an “endless meeting day” treat. It was a postcard from Luke Fairchild, dear friend, local funeral director, and occasional heartthrob. “Short, plump, energetic, twice-divorced clergywoman” was a certified subgenre of lonely hearts, according to the Manual on Ministry. And for everyone who never asked, marking “clergy” on an online dating site drew uniquely unexpected and undesirable contacts.

But Luke was … well, the photo postcard of him in swim trunks on a white sand beach brightened this February day. He had been at his second home in Jamaica for a few weeks, and, as usual, he’d remembered how much she loved to receive “real” mail.

The card was not filled with his usual jokes about the weather or lack of tropical corpses, though. Wanda sat down to read it and then read it again.

 

Dear Wanda,

I wanted you to be the first to hear. On January 6, my beloved and I eloped. Epiphany has always been my own version of a new year, and we decided after all our years of friendship, and the many months of long-distance love, we were ready to take the next step. My only regret is that you were not here to perform the wedding. I know you would have made us weep at the beauty of this sacrament. I look forward to introducing you to Irie when we come back from our honeymoon in late February.

Your dear friend,

Luke

 

Luke Fairchild, dear friend, funeral director … now spouse? She was reading it for a third time when the sound of cardboard hitting the floor drew her attention.

“Drop it!” she said. Wink did. He glanced up at Wanda, his muzzle light green. He’d heard that tone of voice before. Unfortunately, a nearly empty quart of Brigham’s mint chip ice cream was such an exceptional prize, Wanda’s Jack Russell picked it up again and ran for the stairs.

“Aunt Wanda, your sneak thief is heading under my bed!” Lance shouted from the top of the stairs.

“Did you catch him?” Wanda was not far behind the dog. At fifty-three and eleven months, the Stone Ridge Trinity Church pastor was in the best shape she’d been in for years, and she was hardly puffing at all after the sprint up the steps. Of course, at fifty-two and eleven months, she had not yet had her life threatened by three killers and a drug dealer. Physical fitness had never seemed so logical. It didn’t hurt that all the exercise had put full-fat ice cream firmly back into her freezer rotation.

Lance, Wanda’s seventeen-year-old nephew, had Wink firmly in hand, but the dripping quart was still firmly clamped in the dog’s jaws.

“Drop it!” Wanda demanded again, trying to wrestle the damp cardboard from her terrier’s grasp.

“Watch this.” Lance set Wink down, but before the Jack Russell could abscond with her ice cream again, Lance whipped out a Slim Jim. The beef jerky stick was infinitely more appealing. Wanda snatched the masticated carton and considered that adolescent and canine probably understood each other’s 24/7 appetites. Wink took the Slim Jim down to the kitchen to gnaw, and Lance slumped into the disreputable swivel chair in his bedroom.

Lancelot Bates had been living with his aunt for four months, ever since his mother—Wanda’s sister, Mickey—had dropped him off and headed to Italy on a romantic adventure that quickly soured. Mickey was currently living in the UK with Wanda’s second ex-husband, Brian, and Brian’s husband. After being scammed by Enzo, her much younger Italian paramour, Mickey had told Wanda that she needed “time.” Time for what, Wanda wasn’t sure, but it seemed to involve a continued break from parenting responsibilities.

At first, Wanda had been furious with her sister for dropping Lance on her with no warning, but living with him had been the best thing that had happened to her in years. Well, that and solving two murders in less than a year with her friend Prudence Rye. Coming home to a sweet, goofy teenager and his equally nerdy friends filled a hole in Wanda’s life she hadn’t realized was there. She loved the vibration of stampeding feet overhead as she worked on a sermon and the sight of her nephew and the dog curled up on the couch watching Netflix or playing video games. Even the sneakers and sweatshirts that were absolutely everywhere made her grin. If Dungeons & Dragons got too loud, she turned off her hearing aids.

Wanda had recently given up not only online dating but drinking as well. Some people apparently could meet and date through online platforms without cocktails, wine, or beer. She couldn’t. AA raised her feminist hackles, but the friends she’d made at the Monday women’s meeting were a source of amazing support. She still loved chocolate, sparkly stilettos, and troublesome terriers, but none of those got her into (much) trouble.

She thought of the postcard on the table and felt only a twinge of regret at what might have been. Luke was the friend who had pushed her to give up alcohol when everyone else had remained tactfully silent. More than she needed a partner, she needed real friends. Maybe Luke’s wife, Irie, would become a new one.

“How’s your campaign going to get a comfort dog into the sheriff’s office?” Lance picked up an article that had fluttered to the floor during her tug-of-war with the terrier.

“I’m still trying to understand the differences between therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, Hero pups, search-for-the-lost hounds, and I’m-going-to-chase-you-down-and-tackle-you dogs before I make my pitch,” she replied.

Lance followed Wanda back downstairs to her office. Wink had finished his Slim Jim and was curled up in his bed by her desk. Lance scratched behind the pup’s ears, and Wink sighed loudly. “If you volunteer Wink, you could get an all-in-one!”

Wanda picked up Wink’s favorite chew toy, a rubber pumpkin she’d acquired for a dollar the week after Thanksgiving. She gave it to the dog before sinking down into her desk chair to straighten all the piles that had been disturbed. She wasn’t the best organizer, but this was chaos. To be fair, her office at the church was the opposite of this room, but that was due to Lisa Vaughan, the Trinity UCC administrator. Lisa’s skills kept Wanda employed. If Wanda’s conference minister wandered in here, an exorcism would follow.

“Wink’s unreliable, at best,” she said with a smile. “We’re proposing a ‘comfort dog,’ who could immediately intuit the most fragile person in the situation, whether that person was family to someone detained, a victim of a recent crime, or a police officer who’d witnessed a traumatic event.”

“Let me guess—Sheriff Ryan Phennen is not in favor of this plan, since he is not in favor with you?”

Wanda and Ryan had dated on and off for several years. They were a terrible match, but every so often they seemed to find themselves back in each other’s orbit. When Wanda gave up drinking, she’d also given up on throwing herself back into a situation neither party actually wanted anymore.

Wanda knew Ryan was not upset about that, but about the fact that buying a support dog would take a chunk of the budget away from the before-school sports program he was trying to get off the ground. He’d gone to a conference and learned about Wake-Up Basketball, and ever since he had been trying to organize something similar at the middle and high schools in the district. His funding progress had been slow. The dog Wanda was proposing would be attention-catching, and therefore money-siphoning.

“You are wise beyond your years,” Wanda said. “Why don’t you direct a little of that wisdom at your homework?”

Lance groaned, but he scooped Wink up and headed back to his room, dog and pumpkin toy cradled in his arms like a baby doll.

“Hey,” Lance called down.

“Hey yourself!”

“Did you finish that book about the vet and the dog?”

“Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him? Yes. It was wonderful! It was a difficult read in light of Despite the world’s loss of Luis Carlos Montalván’s death.”

“I can’t believe you finished it in time for your meeting tonight,” Lance said. “Isn’t book club in half an hour?”

Wanda looked at her watch, then double-checked the clock on the stove. “Twenty-three minutes, in fact!” She hurried past him and bolted up the stairs to her room, Wink hot on her heels.

“Don’t forget that Leslie and Nicole are coming over for pizza!”

The three were fast friends: Wanda’s nephew, with his blue glasses and auburn man-bun, who could paint, draw, and write but had barely mastered multiplication; Bellona Pond’s fragile blond newshound daughter, who whispered deftly insightful critiques of how adults were destroying the world; and Nicole Laferriere, whose voice could lift the roof off a three-story building, if not yet an opera house. Last year, Wanda could not have imagined those girls at her house several times a week, but now she was used to seeing their shoes and backpacks by her front door when she came home.

She called out “Don’t forget to take Wink for a walk!” from the depths of her closet. Lance wouldn’t forget, and even if he did, Wink would remind him. She emerged a minute later with one boot on and a cardigan that needed to be rebuttoned. She was trying to put her hair up and brush her teeth simultaneously. None of it was working.

Lance let out that exaggerated sigh teens reserve for the inexplicable behaviors of adults and abandoned any attempt at homework to fix himself a snack-before-the-pizza-before-the-bedtime-snack. Just in case the girls were late.

 

 

Chapter 2

They would never call themselves the Thursday Mystery Club, though their book club did meet on Thursdays, and the members did spend most of their time discussing murder. Honestly, they were just not as smart (or as old) as Osman’s fictional crime-solving Brits, but when Wanda and Rye had joined in December they quickly discovered that this group, like Osman’s, was more interested in how the book of the month connected to a cold case than they were in literary clues.

Rye decided that suited her just fine, and Wanda was on a mission to make friends outside of both church and bars. This fit the bill. Harvey’s Bakery even stayed open late for the meeting. If the content didn’t keep Wanda’s attention, Rye knew their superb coffee and pastries were compelling.

In addition to Rye and Wanda, who were the group’s newest members, there was Greg Engstrom, a librarian and mystery enthusiast who organized and ran the club. Greg also happened to be engaged to Wanda’s best friend, church musician Tony Tomeo, who tagged along for the company (and good food).

Greg was the most knowledgeable person Wanda had ever met. Wanda had spent a lot of time with him since he and Tony had started dating, and he seemed to be an endless repository of little-known facts, detailed myths, and insightful research. He was, as Tony pointed out, also funny and handsome. A middle-aged man with a slight build, dark-rimmed glasses, and curly blond hair, Wanda would call him sweet rather than good-looking, but when she saw how Tony gazed at him, she kept her opinion to herself.

They were also joined by Elena Mendoza. Elena’s husband, Gerard, was the principal at Stoneridge High and Rye’s boss. In addition to his work for Wanda’s church, Tony led the school chorus, taught a little music theory, and accompanied anything that needed a piano, so Gerard was his boss, too. Rye had enjoyed getting to know Elena on her own terms and not in Gerard’s considerable shadow. She was a dazzling craftswoman. She sewed her own clothing, refurbished furniture, and knew how to quilt, knit, and crochet. Elena was also a masterful chef, and she often brought a savory dish to share. She had four daughters at home and was used to cooking for a crowd.

Camila Santos was another high school connection at the book club. She taught biology. She and Rye had become close friends soon after Rye moved back to town, and, many weekends, Rye and Camila met up with Camila’s twin sister, Ana, who taught Spanish and French, though their birth language was Portuguese. They’d go for a run or have dinner and a movie at home. Teaching at the high school meant all three preferred to keep their local outings to a minimum, lest they run into students or, worse, parents of students, during their limited time off.

Recently, Ana had been spending more time with her boyfriend, and Rye and Camila had gone on a few adventures that the quiet Ana probably wouldn’t enjoy. Beating the record for riding the bucking Bronco at a bar one state over had been a favorite for Rye, although she’d also enjoyed the dueling piano show Camila had invited her to a few weeks ago.

The final member of their little band was Officer Jaz Malone. Rye had met Jaz in a professional capacity several times in the last year, and Wanda had taken self-defense classes with her, but neither knew her outside of work. Even at book club, because the topic of conversation often strayed toward murder, Jaz kept her professional hat on.

Over two months, Rye had only learned three personal details about the woman. One, Jaz was madly in love with her husband, who owned the best tea shop in town. Two, she was a huge gymnastics fan and went to every competition within driving distance. Three, she hated chocolate. Rye could forgive her this last fact because Jaz always saved her a salted chocolate chunk cookie when Rye was running late to the meeting.

As a rule, Rye had a great time at these meetings, but she was antsy tonight. She had been casually seeing Claudia Ramirez, the drama teacher at Stoneridge, since early November. Claudia had decided to take a leave of absence after the death of her friend Jonathan Thorne and had spent December and January visiting extended family in the Philippines. Since she’d been back, Rye had only seen her once outside of work. She and Claudia had a narrow window to spend time together each week, and between Claudia’s local family, who she frequently stayed with on the weekends, and her new second job at the Lilac Cottage Playhouse, their schedules hadn’t lined up.

Tonight, though, Claudia had promised to be available when Rye was done here, and they were going to have a real date. Rye had a change of clothes in her car. Her thick auburn curls had been styled for once. She hadn’t eaten dinner, and her stomach was rumbling, even after helping herself to a madeleine and a mug of fragrant orange blossom tea.

Greg had shared with them that this week they would be listening to an episode of a local true crime podcast about the unsolved murder of a man named Lionel Burgess. It didn’t seem to connect to the soldier and his dog in Until Tuesday in any way except that both stories ended tragically.

“Burgess was thought to have been killed in a break-in,” Greg was saying as he scanned his page of notes, “although the evidence suggests the perpetrator was known to the victim. There was no sign of forced entry, and nothing of value was taken.” He glanced up at Rye, who had been zoning out. “Rye, was this before your father’s tenure as sheriff?”

She reached her hand out for his notebook. “Who did you say the victim was?” Rye studied the description of the podcast.

“Lionel Burgess,” Elena Mendoza said. The elegantly dressed brown-skinned woman was usually as flamboyantly outgoing as her husband, but tonight she had been quiet.

Rye glanced over at Elena. The woman was discreetly wiping her eyes with the cuff of her sapphire silk blouse. She was about to ask if Elena had known the victim when Camila gave her a quick hug from behind.

She had come in late, and her hands were freezing. Rye handed her the dirty chai, extra hot, that she’d ordered for her. Camila wrapped her hands around the mug. “Are we already done pretending we’re here to discuss the book?” she asked.

Wanda laughed. “Oh, yes! Greg and Tony pushed us through Until Tuesday in about fifteen minutes. It might be a record!”

“Good,” Camila said. “I didn’t read it anyway.”

Rye gave her a light punch on the arm, but Camila just smiled. “I tried, but I’m so behind on grading, I’ve given up fun for the new year.”

“We probably should get back to the questions I found online about the author’s death,” Elena replied, “and how inmates have continued training dogs to companion returning soldiers. I shared Tuesday Tucks Me In with children in the after-school program I teach on Wednesdays.” Rye watched her closely, but all signs of sorrow had been erased from Elena’s expression. She was as briskly organized as always.

Wanda handed Jaz the plate of cookies. “I’m more interested in this case Greg found. It was before my time here, but I’ve heard Ryan talk about it. I think it was one of those cases that defined the department. How Hardy handled his involvement is still lauded by those of us coming up.”

“What do you mean?” Rye started scanning the details in Greg’s notes again. A date caught her attention. “I don’t believe it.”

“What?” Wanda asked. Rye handed her the sheet without a word, but even after reading it over twice, Wanda wasn’t sure what had caused Rye’s face to go gray.

“Lionel Burgess was murdered the day my mother disappeared,” Rye said.

Camila put down her tea and leaned forward. “Do you think the cases might be connected?”

Rye knew Camila was a fan of telenovelas. Her imagination tended to run wild, but this time she might be right. “I don’t know.”

“Should we listen to the episode?” Greg asked. He looked worried. “I won’t play it if it will upset you, Rye.”

She shook her head. “No. Go ahead.” Rye closed her eyes. “Let’s hear it.”

 

“So? What did you think?” Camila asked as she, Rye, and Wanda walked to the parking lot.

Rye was still processing the story she had heard. The podcast’s host was well-prepared. Lionel Burgess had worked at the DMV, where he was well-liked according to his colleagues. His neighbors said he kept to himself. One man interviewed, though, whom the group had immediately dubbed “Mr. Bigot Braxton,” complained about what he’d considered to be a “parade of men and women coming to the house at all hours of the night.”

Police had discovered no sign of forced entry or a struggle. Burgess’s parents and siblings had told the police that, to their knowledge, nothing of value had been taken from the house except for a set of suitcases gifted to him the previous Christmas, which Lionel’s mother had engraved with LMB—Lionel Marius Burgess.

The host also noted that in the photos she had seen of the crime scene, there was a rack of suits and stacks of milk crates that appeared to be filled with sanitary products, formula, and diapers. Police had not been able to trace any connection between Burgess and the halfway houses in the county, and they’d concluded he might have been involved in a human trafficking ring brought down later that same year.

“I hate podcasts,” Wanda replied. “I feel like I’m so easily swayed by the story when I can’t examine any of the evidence myself.”

“I know,” Camila said. “At first, I felt like she was painting a picture of a regular guy who was being persecuted by his neighbor for being Black and gay. I felt for him.”

“But then she started talking about his potential connection to human trafficking,” Wanda said. “I was not prepared for the interviews that supported that possibility.”

“What do you think, Rye?” Camila asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “The evidence for his involvement is circumstantial at best.”

“Do you think …” Camila paused and shook her head. “Never mind.”

“What?” Wanda asked.

“What if your mother was taken?” Camila asked. “She might have struggled. Burgess was killed with a bookend, right? Maybe she grabbed it and hit him as she was trying to escape. If Burgess had a partner, he or she could have grabbed your mother and made her disappear.”

“She doesn’t exactly fit the profile of the other people released from human trafficking in this area,” Wanda pointed out. “It sounds like the women were brought in from countries in South America and Eastern Europe. They were undocumented and largely didn’t speak English. Your mother was a U.S. citizen, employed, and married to a man in law enforcement. Taking her would attract too much attention.”

“Unless she killed Lionel Burgess and someone panicked,” Rye replied.

“We don’t even know if there was another person,” Wanda said. “We don’t even know your mother was there!”

A woman screamed, and, as one, the three women turned toward the sound. Rye took off first, with Camila and Wanda close on her heels. She rounded the corner, skidding on the ice, and almost smacked into Elena Mendoza. Her face was pale, and her black hair had come out of its chignon. She looked shaken.

“Elena! What happened?” Rye asked.

“I was walking to my car, and someone grabbed my purse,” she said, pointing down the street.

Rye and Camila ran in the direction Elena had indicated, but by the time they reached the corner, the only people in sight were a few couples headed into Zucca for dinner. Rye thought she recognized Claudia among them, her plum wool coat distinctive, but Camila was pulling at her hand, ready to head back to Elena. Rye gave one last glance over her shoulder at the women heading inside, then returned to her friends.

Jaz had called it in by the time they came back to their meeting, and Camila crawled into the back of Jaz’s car with Elena to keep warm. Rye dug her hands in her pockets, wishing she’d brought gloves and a hat tonight.

“See anyone?” Wanda didn’t look any warmer.

Rye opened her mouth to mention Claudia, then realized Wanda was talking about the mugger. “No. They must have taken off through one of the neighborhoods.” She glanced into the backseat at Camila. “Did Elena notice anything about her attacker?”

“I think those questions fall under my jurisdiction.” A deep voice spoke from behind Rye, probably taking the words right out of Jaz’s mouth.

Rye turned to see Sheriff Ryan Phennen standing behind her. He looked like he’d come from a date rather than the station. In his early forties, he was fit, and when he was off duty he dressed to impress. Tonight, under his charcoal peacoat, he had on a royal blue cashmere sweater and dark jeans. Ryan’s younger brother, Sergeant Tyler Phennen, and his girlfriend, Camila’s sister, Ana, appeared behind Ryan a moment later. Tyler was not in uniform either. In fact, he looked like he had shed his uniform for the most comfortable clothes in his closet. Rye hid a smile to see how well-matched he and Ana were in their joggers and hoodies.

Camila climbed out of the car and gave her sister a hug. Ryan slid into the seat she’d vacated beside Elena.

“Would you give Ana a ride?” Tyler asked Camila as he pulled on his parka. “I’ll stay and take Ryan home when we’re done here.”

“I suppose so,” Camila agreed with a grin, throwing an arm around her sister’s narrow shoulders. Though the women were identical, they managed to look very different. Ana wore her dark hair in a pixie cut and favored soft fabrics in creams and blues. Camila kept her hair long and wild, and she almost always had on black or gray jeans with fitted tees or tanks. Camila also had a leather moto jacket she wore three seasons, claiming she never got too cold. Rye envied the effortless punk energy Camila gave off. She had personally been freezing since moving back from Texas and currently had on a puffy jacket, wool sweater, and silk long underwear under her jeans.

“I’m going to head out, too,” she told Wanda. “Tomorrow I’ll talk to Gerard. If Elena saw anything, I’m sure she’ll tell her husband about it tonight.”

“I need to get home and check that a certain three teenagers have left my house intact,” Wanda agreed. “Are you sure you’re okay? That was a lot tonight.”

“I will be. I need to think about it.”

Wanda gave her a hug. “Okay. Let’s talk soon?”

“Definitely,” Rye replied. She pulled out her phone and texted Claudia to solidify their very tentative plans for late supper. Claudia wrote back immediately.

Sorry! Something came up. I’ll see you at school tomorrow.

Rye spent the drive home contemplating that final period at the end of Claudia’s text. Contrary to what Wanda and Hardy believed, punctuation in texting was paramount. Claudia never wrote a single character without intention. Rye hit play on evermore and turned up Taylor Swift. At the next red light, she texted her father that she’d be home in time to watch NCIS with him after all.

 

 

Chapter 3

Wanda tossed and turned and woke up grumpy. For the first time, she wished that she had joined a book club that rotated between thriller, cozy, and police procedural, with a side of discussion about how P. D. James, Sue Grafton, and Ngaio Marsh presented their particular English-speaking countries. She could have handled a conversation about why there were not more SSRIs prescribed for fans of Scandinavian noir or why people enjoyed recipes in their reads. They shouldn’t be dredging up local cases—Wanda had enough murder in her life without exhuming graves. Book clubs were for escaping.

Grumpy was not the way to prepare for the Interfaith Council planning meeting for Mardi Gras, though. Some members of the Christian subgroup thought Mardi Gras was a perfect excuse to extend Lent backward and talk about sin, while others believed it was a time to show non-churchgoers that church folk knew how to party.

The group had pushed planning late because some members had been on sunny vacations encouraged by congregations who thought clergy should be refreshed between Advent and Lent. Wanda had never served such a church and didn’t actually like the idea of a Caribbean cruise, but to be offered a break after Christmas would be wonderful. It surely would provide some lively preaching points for the imagination-impoverished year of Bible passages they were “encouraged” to preach. It was a three-year cycle, and this year’s weekly dose of Mark and Joshua was filling Wanda with ministerial ennui. She took another sip of her coffee, willing it to overcome her attitude before she had to be open-minded. Helpful. Pleasant, even.

Wanda had ideas for the Mardi Gras service—that wasn’t the problem. The challenge was selling them to a tricky audience. She put her hands at two and ten on the steering wheel, her prayer mandala, and asked God for patience, and the universe for the tongue of Peitho, personified spirit of persuasion, herald of Aphrodite. Covering all bases.

When she arrived at Saint Athanasius, which was hosting both this meeting and the service, her spirits were lifted just turning into the parking lot. The church shared the lot with Stoneridge High School, and she could see students down on the track and soccer fields on this bright morning. This was definitely the spot to have a Mardi Gras celebration. It would tie into a parade, led by the Stoneridge Jazz band and starting at the front door of the school.

It also didn’t hurt that the best cooks in town went to Saint Athanasius Orthodox Church, including several Greek couples, a woman from Moldova, one from Romania, and one from Ethiopia. Recently, a young man from Russia doing a university exchange had joined. Apparently, his blinis were amazing.

The members of the clergy group had descended on a tray of pastries provided by those same gifted chefs. First was the Reverend Colleen Sullivan from the Unitarian Universalist church. Colleen had eight inches on Wanda’s five-foot-two, and with her clergy shirt and collar she wore black jeans and pink bejeweled Converse high-tops. She possessed an interesting assortment of the brand, and she only dressed up (or down) to black flats for the most solemn occasions.

Rolf Anderson, a slightly stooped man in his fifties, head shaven but with a bushy, strawberry blond beard and eyebrows to match, had been at the Lutheran church for a year. He had good ideas but preferred to wait for someone else to present them. He returned Wanda’s smile as she came in, and Wanda restrained herself from handing him a napkin to take care of the crumbs in his beard and on his tie.

Lana Grenier, who had just returned from maternity leave, was nursing her son while devouring a plate of food. She was at First United Methodist and had once told Wanda she would rather perform an infant baptism on horseback while sporting a sequined red tube top then ever again hold a denominational national office. Someday, Lana might be able to listen to jokes about splitting churches, but that time had not come yet. Wanda sat next to her, knowing this would put her in proximity to baby snuggles and in a position to refill Lana’s coffee cup with decaf as often as necessary.

Father Bogdan (easy to remember, he always said, since he was Bogdan Bogdanovic, like the basketball player), the genial head of Saint Athanasius, was happily playing host and attempting, futilely, to get the meeting started before folks went into a sugar coma. They had all settled down with full plates balanced on their laps when a commotion at the door signaled the late arrival of Josh Gagne, the twenty-nine-year-old pastor at Rising Star Baptist, and Bruce Upton, pastor at Jordan Baptist since before his colleague was born. They came in talking loudly with their own coffees and breakfast sandwiches from the new food truck, Dad Yolks, that was parked by Bruce’s church.

Father Bogdan invited Rolf to pray. Wanda knew it was to make sure Rolf said something, anything, during the meeting. He then invited Bruce to take notes, which everyone knew was to keep Bruce’s comments to a minimum.

After a brief welcome, Bogdan continued, “I am glad to volunteer Saint Athanasius for the Interfaith Mardi Gras Supper. This year, our Great Lent begins six days after the Ash Wednesday that kicks off most Western churches. We will not be fasting yet and can happily provide a spread of savory dishes and desserts.” He smiled warmly. “My wife, Agatha, also suggested we might close our time together by inviting everyone outside to see the parade go by.”

“That sounds like a wonderful suggestion,” Wanda replied, pleased that someone else was thinking along the same lines as she was. She didn’t know Agatha well. Agatha was younger than her husband and seemed reluctant to join in with meetings like this, even though Wanda knew she would be coordinating the food and volunteers.

Josh glanced around. He was handsome in a way that reminded Wanda of her childhood Ken doll—blonde and plastic—although the look on his face was rarely as pleasant. She’d overheard one of her parishioners describe him as “smoldering” at last year’s Easter sunrise service, but for her taste he was just too pouty to be attractive. “I hope we’ll have a prayer service and time to grieve our sins,” Josh said sternly. Wanda covered her snicker with an almost convincing cough.

To everyone’s surprise, Bruce spoke up. “Ash Wednesday is soon enough to talk about sin. And most of our churches”—at this, he aimed a pointed look at Colleen, who offered a drive-through “ashing” in the church parking lot rather than a service—“will be having such an opportunity.”

It seemed Wanda would not have to use any of her prerehearsed speeches about the difference between Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, because the normally silent Rolf raised his hand. Bogdan acknowledged him. “I don’t know as much as I should about Orthodox tradition, but I would love to hear more about Forgiveness Sunday and Clean Monday. Those practices seem like themes we could learn from and incorporate into this service.”

Several others in the group were not familiar with Forgiveness Sunday, when parishioners turned to one another to ask forgiveness instead of asking only God, and only in silence. Clean Monday encouraged congregants to start Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love. The custom of scrubbing the house during that first week of Lent reflected that idea of beginning the season with a fresh start.

Wanda spoke up. “I think this will stick with my congregation—that we let God clean away the corners of our lives, and then we do the same by straightening up things around us in our heads, our homes, and our hearts. It’s a commonsense Lent. We all know about cleaning—the work and satisfaction. We don’t beat our breasts and say, ‘I am a terrible sinner.’ We say, ‘I’ve smudged this, I’ve put dirty fingerprints all over my life. I have made a mess of things I was given. God help me.’”

Josh snorted. “Some folks need to beat their breasts.”

“Certainly they do, if that helps them make a new beginning,” Wanda said. “But people have plenty of opportunities to hear it put that way.”

Colleen stood and threw her plate away. She had been uncharacteristically quiet. She was an extrovert’s extrovert, already standing out with her fire-red hair, height, and high-tops, and she wore a button that typically stopped people cold. It was big, maybe three inches in diameter, and read, This is what a rape victim looks like.

Colleen’s local ministry was the same as most clergy—worship services, pastoral care, urging and supporting justice work, and an outreach program focused on food insecurity that fed hundreds of people a month. But nationally she was an advocate for worship spaces as real sanctuaries where people could break the silence about sexual violence. Naming church as a safe place for people to talk about date rape and incest, trust abuse and lifelong PTSD, was her crusade. If she thought Clean Monday belittled the damage that lasted a lifetime, her colleagues would pass on it.

Colleen met Wanda’s eyes as she sat back down. “I think that one of the reasons we talk together and eat together is to understand across faith lines, to learn one another’s beliefs, practices, and metaphors. I always like to learn.”

“I have another idea,” said Wanda.

“Of course you do,” murmured Lana, passing Wanda a sleepy, full-bellied baby.

Wanda’s smile almost touched her ears, but she was not distracted. “I was thinking we might ask someone in the cleaning profession to speak. What about Martina Suarez?”

Martina was the custodian at Saint Athanasius, but she had also come to work at Trinity when the church’s custodial staff, a father-and-son team, had been on leave following a family emergency. In fact, Martina cleaned most of the houses of worship in town on an occasional basis, although she also maintained a few private clients. “We talked when Martina was at Trinity in October. I know she’s a faithful Roman Catholic, and there hasn’t been much Interfaith participation from Saint Mary’s since Father Paul has been filling in as hospital chaplain. I think Martina would enjoy the opportunity to connect.”

Father Paul Kelly was a good friend of Wanda’s. Although he was out of town this week visiting his mother, he had given her the okay to offer up this suggestion. It was the one idea Wanda had not expected to meet resistance, but a chill was in the air. Lana and Josh looked away, and Bruce stared down at his notes. Wanda used her favorite technique of letting the silence stretch.

“I’ll speak to Martina about it,” Father Bogdan said after a long moment. No one else in the room met her eyes, but he smiled warmly. “I’ve heard rumors she’s a wonderful singer.”

“Those aren’t the only rumors,” Wanda heard Bruce murmur to Josh. No one objected outright.

When the meeting ended, Lana took her son back and tucked him into his car seat, shushing him back to sleep as she walked out with Wanda. Wanda wanted to ask about her hesitation and if she had any idea why almost everyone seemed against asking Martina to speak at the service—and hopefully perform, too. It was common knowledge that she had studied to be an opera singer and generously sang for the annual events of many nonprofits.

She knew Lana would be honest with her, but Wanda didn’t get a chance to ask. Josh squeezed between them and knocked Wanda’s bag out of her hand in his hurry. Lana took off to the parking lot while Josh hastily scooped her belongings off the pavement with a huff, as though this were her fault. Wanda reminded herself that she could only be impatient until Lent began, when she would have to give it up for six weeks.

“You know, you should never underestimate sin,” Josh said. “Mardi Gras is a big opportunity for it.” He wore a strong aftershave that some people might find appealing. It gave Wanda a headache.

She stepped back, slinging her bag onto her shoulder. “Well, if that’s the case, I vote that at the Mardi Gras supper we focus on practicing gluttony.”

“Not everything is a joke, you know.” His jaw, which really was the definition of chiseled, looked like it might have gotten that way from constant teeth grinding and the complete lack of a sense of humor.

Wanda usually loved working with young clergy—they had energy, passion, and great ideas. Josh just made her feel old, and like she’d better restrain herself from calling out a self-righteous troublemaker. “Josh, someday you may realize that if you can’t laugh at all, you’ll end up miserable and alone.”

He ignored her. “Martina Suarez is not an appropriate guest speaker. I’ve recommended to Bogdan that we consider Gary Sheed. He’s an upstanding member of my congregation with impeccable character, and he’s a tall building window washer. I’m sure he would speak to the cleansing of sin with more proficiency than Ms. Suarez.”

He gave a sniff, and Wanda, who had reached full sugar crash levels of irritation, pulled a crumpled tissue out of her pocket and pushed it into his hand before walking away. She could hear him sputtering in dismay as she got into her car. As she pulled out of the parking lot, she turned her hearing aids to a restful off position. It was time for a well-deserved break.

 

It was Friday, so Wanda finished her sermon in the church office and decided to leave it there in order not to waste the entire weekend messing with it. Lisa, the jewel of administrators, was finishing up as well. Pre-K pickup was in a few minutes.

“Wanda, Tony was here earlier, but he and Greg are out tasting wedding cakes. Again.” Lisa held up a clear plastic container filled with leftovers from yesterday’s tasting to share with her four-year-old daughter, Lily. “They do seem to be taking that part of wedding planning seriously.”

“Did he need me for anything?” Wanda hadn’t seen Tony except at book club this week, and it felt like ages since they’d gotten a chance to catch up with the wedding plans.

“No. He did want to thank you, though,” Lisa said with a sly grin.

“For what?”

“You didn’t volunteer him for the Mardi Gras service. He’s helping the Jazz Band that evening, but he knew you might trick him into double duty with promises of … loukoumades?”

“Fried honey donuts. I’ll save him some.”

“He’s also happy that the Ash Wednesday service is not all Taizé and has some upbeat music,” Lisa said. “I’m sure I don’t think of Ash Wednesday as upbeat.” She openly admitted that she came to church for Lily’s sake rather than her own, but she had enough opinions on services that Wanda wondered if somewhere in Lisa’s family tree there was a minister or two.

“I’m trying something new this year. I want to have the confession and assurance of grace in the beginning of the service and then challenge people to decide how they can use their freshly granted forgiveness to change the world. Ashes are a sign of our transitory lives, and it’s a waste of time to wallow in our own personal mistakes rather than making a difference.”

Lisa looked thoughtful, though Wanda guessed she might already be planning the weekly Friday night dinner that she and Lily brought to Fair Havens Assisted Living to share with Grandma Dottie.

“Where do you get those lucky-o-donuts?” Lisa asked as she buttoned up her coat.

“On Mardi Gras at Saint Athanasius. There will be kites for the kids to fly, and we’ll have the best seats to see the parade.” Wanda grinned at her admin. “And as a thank you for not asking for help with the bulletin, could I ask you a teeny, tiny favor?”

“Maybe,” Lisa replied, wisely noncommittal.

“Have you ever planned a pancake flipping race?”

“A what?”

“Firefighters versus kids.”

Lisa raised one eyebrow. “No idea what you want me to do, but you know firefighters are my weakness, so yes. I’ll do it.”

As far as Wanda was concerned, firefighters were everybody’s weakness, whether they wanted to admit it or not. She just smiled and said thank you.

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