A Professor Laura Kaylan and Detective Harry Gonzales Mystery
At first glance, Reverend Billy Roy Montgomery's parsonage office looked exactly as it did on the evangelist's Sunday evening program, Gospel Reflections: opulent furniture in mahogany and red leather, subdued lighting from a Tiffany lamp on the desk, shelves lined with leather-bound books. A second look around, however, revealed subtle and not so subtle differences between the genuine article and the studio stage set. Here, solid oak bookcases provided the backdrop in every direction, instead of painted plywood that ended at the edge of the camera's field of vision. The stage set never invoked the unmistakable aroma of fine leather and old wood that marked this room as the genuine article. Like most TV studios, the Gospel Reflections mock-up smelled of hot lights, electric cables, and some technician's stale cigarette smoke and half-eaten burger.
But I digress, a quirk of personality I sometimes cultivate.
Summoned to the parsonage by a half-hysterical phone call from Reverend Billy's wife, I stopped just inside the open door to the study and marshaled the forces that would return me to some semblance of professional calm. Reverend Billy's office did indeed look normal, except of course for the dead man sprawled face down on the carpet in front of the massive desk. A wet red stain, too fresh even to have dried at the edges, covered the back of his once-white jacket. The gold handle of the letter opener that had killed him gleamed in the muted light.
The tall case clock in the corner bonged discreetly three times. I glanced at my watch; Billy's clock ran fast by about five minutes. I glanced down at Billy; his time had run out.
The quiet sniffle from somewhere to my left dispelled a moment of contemplation. A disembodied voice, floating on the morbid air, asked, "Can you keep everything quiet? You know, out of the papers?"
Someone else might have laughed in reply, but few others, and certainly none of the cops who would arrive on scene within minutes, would have understood the request.
I turned to the huddled knot of people clustered in front of the closed door that led to the rest of the parsonage. Pauline Bouchard Montgomery, who sometime within the past few hours had gone from being the wife of the most powerful evangelist in Phoenix to just another widow, separated herself from the group and stumbled toward me.
"That's why I called you first, Dr. Kaylan," she added. "The publicity, if this should get out, would be . . . disastrous."
She tripped on the edge of the rug and only the quick action of a bathrobed elderly woman with the manner of a professional nurse kept the former Polly Bouchard from falling to the floor beside her late husband.
Polly accepted the nurse's assistance to a nearby chair, behind the desk and out of view of the body.
"I am the soul of discretion, Mrs. Montgomery, but as soon as the police get here --"
"No!" she shrieked, half rising from the chair until the nurse's hands on her shoulders brought her back down. "No police. We'll say it was an accident."
Her outburst, though brief, rattled me more than her earlier calm. Her husband, a prominent personality in the religious community of a major metropolitan area, lay dead on the floor with a fancy letter opener protruding from his back, and she expected anyone to believe he died due to an accident?
Yes, that's exactly what she expects, I thought.
This attractive, slender woman in her early fifties came from a background that accustomed her to getting exactly what she wanted more often than not, no matter how irrational her request might seem to anyone else.
"I don't think you understand my position, Mrs. Montgomery," I began to explain as I walked closer to the widow and her caretaker. Assuming a classic movie stance, I went down on one knee beside her and took her stone cold hands in mine. "We have a duty to call the police. Reverend Billy has been murdered, and the police have to find out who did it."
She gathered herself for another screamed protest; I squeezed her icy fingers tightly before continuing with only the slightest pause. A man could not have communicated the emotional bond this way, but I knew Polly would respond to a woman's touch.
"I want you to tell me what happened as quickly as you can, no more than ten minutes, and then I'm going to call the police," I told her, with a quick look up toward the nurse, who nodded her understanding. "Tell me everything, just as it happened, just as you remember it."