A blizzard sweeps up the coast and shuts down the city. When it is over, funeral director Kevin Novak is found dead in the basement of his funeral home. The arrow sticking out of his chest came from his own hunting bow. A loving husband and father and an active member of a local megachurch, Novak had no known enemies. His family and friends say he had been depressed because his best friend died suddenly of a heart attack and Novak blamed himself. But what does his guilt have to do with his death? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. Three people — the minister of the megachurch, the psychiatrist who provides counseling to church members, and a medium visiting from the South – say they reached out to Kevin Novak. One of them might know why Novak was murdered. But Detective Hannah McCabe and her partner, Mike Baxter, must sort through lies and evasions as they try to find the killer. The relationship between the partners is threatened as McCabe deals with a political controversy involving her family, unanswered questions about their last high-profile case, and her own guilt because a young woman died after McCabe failed to act.
Saturday, January 18, 2020
After the storm had passed, in the chilly hour before dawn, the last of the “space zombies” found their way back to their nest in the derelict house.
From his command post, the squad leader gave the signal. “Go!”
A black van pulled up in front of the house. Albany PD vice cops wearing protective gear jumped out and stormed up the walk. They used a battering ram to smash open the wooden door.
“Police! Albany PD!”
Their high-powered torches illuminated the grotesque horror movie creatures in the 3-D posters on the walls.
One of the cops ripped down a dangling black plastic replica of the 2012 UFO. He tossed the boomerang-shaped object to the floor.
Hippie freaks, he thought. Ought to make them all go live out in the Mojave Desert and wait for the mother ship to arrive.
He kicked at the nearest mattress on the floor. “Police!” he shouted down at the long-haired occupant. “On your feet!”
Blank eyes in an eerie white-painted face stared up at him.
“Hands up! Hands up!” the cop yelled as the kid stumbled to his feet. He shoved him against the wall and patted him down.
Upstairs, in a bathroom, another cop had found a girl sprawled out, unconscious, on the dirty tile floor beside the toilet. She had vomited in the toilet bowl. Her jeans were stained with urine and feces.
Reaching down, he shook her, and then rolled her onto her side to see her face beneath the mop of dark hair. A nasty bruise on her cheekbone stood out against the streaked white paint. He moved her red scarf aside to feel for a pulse in her throat. The scarf was damp, like her tee shirt and soiled blue jeans.
“Whaddya have?” another cop asked from the doorway.
“Looks like an OD,” the cop inside the bathroom said. “Still breathing, but the wagon had better get here fast.”
“Got it,” the other cop said, touching the comm button on his helmet.
The cop in the bathroom spotted a smear of blood on the corner of the sink. That explained the bruise. She’d banged her face on the sink when she passed out.
Downstairs in the kitchen, cops surveyed the debris of dirty dishes and rotting garbage – and an impressive array of drugs and paraphernalia. One of them lowered her weapon and observed, “With a stash like this, they could have stayed zonked out until the next UFO came to visit.”
Funeral director Kevin Novak stared at the Cupid and Psyche bronze clock on his host, Olive Cooper’s mantel. He had allowed himself to become marooned on a conversational island with Paige, Olive’s great niece.
As Paige complained about the conversation and laughter filling the long room — the “rabble babble,” as she put it — Kevin found a name for what he had been feeling for the past forty-eight plus hours. Grief.
He was experiencing first-hand what he had often observed when relatives came into the funeral home after the unexpected death of a loved one. That first stage of grieving the experts described as denial, but he often thought of as amazement and disbelief. The stage of bereavement when family members spoke of their dead loved one in the present tense because they couldn’t yet believe their lives had been ripped apart.
It seemed in this state of mind, one went through the usual motions, saying what was expected. But the shell was thin. His was developing cracks. He could tell because he felt no inclination at all to warn Paige Cooper that he had glanced over her shoulder and seen her Great Aunt Olive headed their way and Paige had better shut up. So he must be moving into the next stage: anger.
“Where in the galaxy did Aunt Olive find these people?” Paige said. “Look at them.”
“Some of them are from the church’s community outreach,” Kevin said.
True, Olive’s guest list for this celebration of her life reflected her eccentricities. An odd assortment of guests: old friends, relatives, church members and business associates, and other people who tickled Olive’s fancy or touched her big heart. But they had all cleaned up and put on their best in Olive’s honor.
“It’s freezing in here,” Paige said. She pulled the belt of her hand-knit cardigan tighter and held her hands out toward the fireplace.
“Feels fine to me,” Kevin said.
“It really is annoying we have to come out for this farce when there’s a blizzard on the way. The least Aunt Olive could do is heat this mausoleum. Everyone here except her will come down with pneumonia, and we’ll still have to do this all over again when she finally does kick off.”
“When I finally do ‘kick off’, Paige,” her great aunt said, right behind her. “You may feel free not to attend my funeral. In fact, if you die first – maybe of the pneumonia you expect to catch – you’ll spare us both that annoyance. And for your information, it was your father who insisted on including you in this shindig.”
Paige flushed an unbecoming shade of scarlet. “Aunt Olive, I didn’t mean –”
“I know what you meant. Get yourself a glass of champagne, now you’re actually old enough to drink, and make the best of the situation.” Olive’s sharp gaze fastened on Kevin. “And since you already know you’re going to get to bury me when I’m dead, you can relax and enjoy the party.”
“I always enjoy your parties, Olive,” Kevin said.
“Come with me,” she said. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Aware of Paige’s suspicious glare, Kevin smiled in her direction. That would teach the little brat to say funeral directors reminded her of vultures without first checking for one of the species within hearing distance.
Vultures sometimes exacted their petty revenge.
“At your service, Olive,” he said, offering his arm to the woman, who was eighty-five years old and counting and might well live to be a hundred.
“How have you been?” she asked him.
“Fine,” Kevin said. “Never better.”
“Don’t give me that. Anyone who knows you can tell you’re still taking Bob’s death hard.”
“Having your best friend collapse with a heart attack while you’re beating him at tennis and then die on the operating table can have that effect.”
“It’s been over four months since it happened. You should be coping with it by now.”
“I am coping with it.”
“You’re still off-kilter. Not your usual self. That’s why I want you to meet Luanne Woodward.”
“Luanne? That medium or spiritualist or whatever she calls herself that you found somewhere?”
“I didn’t find her ‘somewhere’. She was the featured lecturer at a fundraiser.”
“Lecturer? Don’t you mean ‘performer’?”
“She talked about being a medium and answered questions. She’s an interesting woman. I think you could benefit from talking to her.”
“I don’t believe in that hocus-pocus, Olive.”
“I don’t believe in most of it, either. I’m almost ancient enough to remember the Fox Sisters and their flimflam. But, as I said, Luanne’s interesting. I invited her today so you could meet her.”
Kevin noticed one of Olive’s guests filling his plate high with the urgency of a man who expected the bounty in front of him to disappear. “And do what?” he said in belated response to Olive. “Sign up for her next séance?”
“That might not be a bad idea. Spiritual therapy, so to speak.”
“I get my spiritual therapy at church on Sunday from our minister. You might consider doing the same.”
“At my age, I take what I need from wherever I happen to find it. And the fact you’re going all righteous on me instead of laughing about my eccentricities, as you like to call them, proves you’re off-kilter. We need to get you put to right.”
“Olive, I don’t think a medium and a séance will do the trick.”
“You need an opportunity to confront your feelings.”
“I have confronted my feelings. I confronted them after Bob died. I sought counseling from both Reverend Wyatt and Jonathan Burdett.”
Olive stopped walking and glared at him. “Now, if you want to talk about hocus-pocus, psychiatrists are right up there. You lie on their couch spilling your guts. And they mumble an occasional Freudian pearl of wisdom while they’re thinking about how they intend to spend what they’re charging you.”
“Burdett offers the option of sitting in a comfortable armchair, and, as you well know, his services are free to church members.”
“The church pays his salary, so he’s not free. He’s full of his diplomas and his jargon, that’s what he is.”
“And what about your medium? Is she one-hundred percent jargon free?”
“Not a chance. They all have their language intended to impress, but she’s a hell of a lot more fun then Burdett. So come along and meet her.”
“I suppose it would be a waste of time to say no?”
“Yes, it would. You said you were at my service.”
“Yes, I did say that.”
Not much sleep last night or the night before. His moment of irritation with Paige had given way to weariness. No doubt he would feel the anger later. No chance he’d be able to skip over that stage. Not with the piper to pay.
“Luanne,” Olive said to the plump, blonde woman sipping from a champagne glass as she observed the people around her. “I’d like you to meet Kevin Novak, the friend of mine I was telling you about.”
“I’m so happy to meet you, Mr. Novak,” she said in a Southern drawl that suited her pleasant, round face. Her blue gaze met and held his.
If he believed in such things, Kevin would have sworn she’d looked past his tailored suit and crisp white shirt, straight into his tarnished soul.
He took a step back, and reached out to steady Olive, whose hand rested on his arm.
“Sorry, Olive” he said. “I just remembered something I need to do.”
Luanne Woodward said, “It’s all right, Kevin, honey. You don’t have to run away from me.”
But he did, Kevin thought. He had to run as fast as he could.