Death in the Woods
Maria Mankin & Maren C. Tirabassi
Rev & Rye Mysteries, no. 2 • Release Date: July 11, 2023
Print ISBN: 978-1-948559-82-9 • Ebook ISBN: 978-1-948559-81-2
Brain Mill Press offers Death in the Woods 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.
Misty fall weather should make for an idyllic walk in the New England woods and a needed respite from Reverend Wanda Duff’s duties. She’ll just take a stroll with her dog, breathe in the cool air, and remember that she loves her job and doesn’t really long for a life of solitude, even when the quiet red-and-gold patch of forest tempts her with it.
But she should’ve known she couldn’t really catch a break.
She only saw his hand—cold, palm up. In the twilight, everything else was indistinct. And even as Wanda said a prayer for the dead man and called for help, she couldn’t shake the feeling of another presence, one that would compel her to follow a path out of these woods to find a killer.
But ever since Wanda and her friend Rye solved a murder together, no one has wanted the reverend to take on anything more dangerous than choir practice. She has no choice, really, but to carry the news of her discovery directly to no-nonsense Assistant Principal Rye, who understands because her own life was upended by last summer’s investigation. Rye’s own life is upended, period.
Unfortunately, solving the murder of drama teacher Jonathan Thorne isn’t an undertaking Wanda and Rye can accomplish without involving their ever-widening circle of family and friends, which means that in addition to investigating, they have to resolve a few personal problems of their own. The truth is, nothing happens in a quaint New England town without everyone noticing. Without everyone speculating. Without everyone talking.
Without everyone knowing a killer is among them.
Wry humor, twisty sleuthing, and what Jane Willan (author of the Sister Agatha and Father Selwyn Mysteries) calls “punchy writing” and “fall-in-love-with-me characters” in “the enjoyable setting of a newsy small town” come together to make Death in the Woods a perfect one-sitting read.
Praise for the Rev & Rye Mysteries
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
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
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
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
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 the Woods by Maria Mankin & Maren C. Tirabassi
It was only Wednesday, and Wanda already felt over-clergied for the week. All morning she’d fielded calls about adjustments to the upcoming budget to accommodate a rotating homeless shelter that wanted to use their church one month a year. Her little flock was firmly in favor of opening the facilities for fifteen unhoused people, but they wanted to do it on a shoestring budget that wasn’t realistic unless every member planned to contribute meals, toiletries, and a lot of time.
Tony, her music director, and Lisa, the church administrator, who’d been pushing Wanda for months to write more website content, both disagreed with everything she wrote about the project for the unhoused, Halloween, All Saints, Thanksgiving, and probably New Year’s if she had gone that far, though she had not. The usually cheerful staff was moody as a middle school youth group.
Wanda and Lisa’s relationship had been strained since the spring, when an investigation into a drug ring at Fair Havens Assisted Living and Rehab had put Lisa’s three-year-old within arm’s reach of a desperate gunman. Wanda didn’t blame Lisa for having a hard time bouncing back, but it made the office chillier.
Tony, one of Wanda’s dearest friends, was rarely snippy—at least not with her—and not about something so trivial. She knew he had a new boyfriend, and although she thought it was going well, maybe something had happened between them and she’d been too busy to notice and inquire. It wouldn’t be the first time. As adept as Wanda was at sorting out problems for her parishioners, she could be clueless with friends. She expected them to stay the same and give her sanity markers in her constantly changing profession.
By three thirty, she decided to take her Jack Russell, Wink, on an extended walk for a mental reset before the evening council meeting. They’d circle the high school grounds, head up the trail behind the parking lot, into the woods, on to the cross-country course, and finally home. She’d give Wink his dinner, then head back to the church with yogurt and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to inhale before what would inevitably be a long night.
As Wanda pulled up her hood to shield herself from the light November mist, she could hear the cheers of a paltry crowd. Whoever heard of Wednesday afternoon football? Wanda knew that kids seemed younger every year, but these players looked painfully small.
A yellow school bus stood against the curb with the door accordioned open. Wink saw every open door as an invitation. “Wait!” She pulled back, but it was a retractable leash.
“Come on in, little fellow.” The driver gave the dog a broad grin. ‘Come’ was one of Wink’s favorite commands, and he was up the stairs in a second, dragging Wanda to the door with his nineteen pounds of determination.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, trying to catch her balance.
The man chuckled. “Can he have a treat?”
“Certainly, although he would happily scour the bus for dropped snacks.”
A practically German Shepherd–sized milk bone appeared, and Wink laid down right where he was and started chewing with delight, holding the biscuit between his two front paws.
“I’m sorry for barging in,” Wanda said, and reached out her hand. “Wanda Duff.”
“I’m Ben.” He looked in his early fifties, less paunchy than most commercial drivers of her acquaintance, and bald by choice.
“Is this the Middlefield Junior Varsity team playing?”
“Oh, I thought they were . . .”
“Small? Yep, but tough. And before you start quoting statistics about concussions at me, I’ll tell you I’d rather see these boys playing in a defined freshman league than desperately pushing themselves into JV.”
She couldn’t help but smile at his passion. He must hear questions like hers often. “I love football,” Wanda said, “but it’s true that we know more about its lifelong impact on the brain than ever before.”
He nodded gravely. “Makes me glad more kids are getting into track. Fewer injuries, and it’s not as expensive for families, you know? But sports—that’s what makes a kid grow up right, knowing how to be a team, how to win and lose.”
Wanda smiled. “Do you like driving a school bus?”
“I love it. I drive Uber and airport limos before and after my shifts, but this is where my heart is. I’m probably more of a ‘dad’ here than I was with my own boys, but that’s divorce for you.”
Wanda, two-time loser, knew something about that. “Do you have a lot of trouble with bullying?
“Not on my bus.”
Wink was licking his paws with a self-satisfied tongue, and she could see him judging whether more treats were possible. “Thanks for Wink’s treat. Now we need to walk it off.”
“Have a nice day, Reverend Duff.”
She and Wink already had turned toward the tennis courts. Reverend? Was there nowhere she could hide?
Behind the school, there was a ropes course and a few climbing walls. As she headed in that direction, she could hear what sounded like a zoo, or possibly a commercial wild animal park. She craned her neck. It was the marching band. The brass was out and tuning up. The percussion was being carried across the parking lot. Wanda counted four bass drums, at least a dozen snares, several quad sets, three kettle drums, and multiple cymbals. If she took this route again, Wink might need noise-cancelling headphones.
The clarinets were drifting in—perhaps it was the instrument of choice of the perennially late. The drums had started with a cascade of intricate rhythms, though, and a steady unison crescendo of beats poured forth like a heartbeat. She could feel it coming up through the pavement. Thump, thump, thump, thump. Then it was cut off. The sudden silence was almost alarming.
Wanda shook herself and checked her hearing aids. Maybe she would turn them all the way down for the rest of the walk. She could use a break from listening to what everyone needed from her. She stroked the covers gently, recalling her splurge—autumnal colors with delicate gold vine tracing, and an amber enamel maple detail that coordinated with her gold curled-leaf earrings. When she was at her desk, they even matched her gorgeous crimson readers.
As silence descended, she let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.
It was a liminal space, this trail through a strip of forest between the school and the back of a nursing home. As Wanda and Wink tramped over the fallen leaves, the darkness settled in rather suddenly. Autumn was a lonely time, but she came here to feel alone. Close enough to the road for most people to hear a truck cough, a car engine turn over, and the distant honking pilgrimage of geese, though for her they were whispers. Closer were the thin, sighing sounds she could imagine with her eyes—a chipmunk’s hasty flight from its wild, small fears, the crunching of the carpet of detritus beneath her own boots, and, far above, a few yellow leaves stirred by the wind, thick, brittle, castanet, ready to let go.
After the time change, the fingers of darkness would gather evening in early. She and Wink walked slowly, savoring these early October days with slanted light and chill breezes. He stopped to sniff every few steps, occasionally wrenching her arm out of the socket to scare a rabbit. Although they often came here, she was struck today by a sudden feeling that they were not alone. Probably a deer watched her, wondering which way to run, or a coyote—a danger to house cats, but not to them. Wink caught her unease and whined at her.
She scratched behind his ears. “It’s okay, Wink. Pretty soon, though, we’ll have to give this path up until April.”
Wanda shook herself like Wink coming in from rain and tried to regain the buoyancy she’d soaked up from the football players, friendly bus driver, upbeats of the practicing band, even the sudden heart-stop on the drums. No one was lurking—no one was watching.
And then she saw the hand.
It was white against a brown pack of leaves, palm open, fingers curled. Wink pulled toward it. Early Halloween prop, dropped from a backpack. Wanda took shallow breaths, glanced around, and stepped closer. Dark mound, clothes, dark . . . hair.
“Hello?” Her hand clenched around Wink’s lead, keeping him close.
She knew a young man who lived rough out here, but this wasn’t Dave. Wanda could tell that, even from the distance of a few feet.
No answer. Wanda crept forward and crouched down. At the office, she had Narcan and knew how to use it, but not on an afternoon walk. No. She touched the hand.
It was cold.
Too late for Narcan if this was an overdose. Wanda’s eyes filled with tears.
And then she felt it very strongly—the presence that she had felt before. Someone watching. Her hair stood up on the back of her neck.
She stood up and backed off, fumbling for her cell phone while scattering doggie bags and tissues from her pocket.
“Nine-one-one. How may I assist you?”
Wanda’s hands were clumsy as she turned her hearing aids up so they could connect to her cell. “I’ve found a body.”
“What’s your name?”
“This is Wanda Duff. I’m walking my dog behind the high school, and I found a body. It’s so cold.” Wanda forced herself to inhale slowly through her nose. She could feel panic welling up.
The dispatcher’s voice was crisp. Wanda clung to the woman’s calm authority. “I’m sending units to you now. Stay on the line please.”
Wanda’s throat constricted as she spun in a circle. “I think somebody’s out here with me.”
Wink started to growl.
“Can you give me a more exact location?”
She could hear sirens. “Trail from the parking lot behind the school. Maybe a quarter mile in.”
“The police will be there shortly. Do not hang up.”
Wanda forced herself to kneel, to stroke Wink’s warm body. It steadied her. “Wait. I have an alarm.” She fumbled in her deep pockets, and more dog-walking paraphernalia dropped out. She finally found the little SLFORCE Personal Alarm antirape device and switched it on.
It was a deafening sound. She was sure the band director could hear her and was irritated. The dispatcher probably had permanent auditory damage. Poor Wink. But the police detail would find her more quickly. She wondered if Ben could even hear it from where he sat with his newspaper.
Wanda suddenly realized though that she felt alone for the first time since she’d headed up the trail. She said a soft prayer of release, and a blessing for this person lying on the ground, for whatever life this open hand left behind.