excerpt – Murder by Sacrament

Murder by Sacrament: Another Toom Taggart MysteryPrologue

Someone was in the room. She called out softly, her voice heavy with sleep, but no one answered. Unaware of time, she could not judge how far she had advanced along the continuum between day and night. It could not have been late because she was still full from the evening meal that had arrived about six o’clock. She remembered the pretty red-haired nurse who had brought it.

In recent days, Lilt had experienced difficulty even remembering who her friends were. She found herself waking up disoriented. That evening, she could now remember, she had eaten most of her light supper. There was a rose on the napkin, and the nurse had feigned displeasure when she didn’t finish her meal. What had she eaten? A small glass of fruit juice and what else? She had leaned back against the pillows to read in Conice Carmack’s The Rabbi and the Ruben, the kind of book her husband had always criticized as silly but that she liked.

Fully awake now, she listened intently and heard the sound again, like fabric rubbing together. Should she reach for the light switch? The nurse had pinned it to her bed but it still wasn’t easy to find in the dark. Since the stroke, most things were too difficult for her to bother about. She would just try to see if she could distinguish any immediate sounds in the room, apart from the muted noises from the hallway. Usually the center became quiet, but she heard visitors talking this evening as they moved about.

It had been a month since she had agreed to enter the rest home. “It’s just an old-folks home with a fancy name,” she had observed, and of course everyone knew it was true. She was usually unflappable; recently she had experienced weakness in her mind and body. She was eighty-three. She missed her husband. He had been gone for a decade, so it wasn’t companionship she missed. She had become used to living alone even though their marriage had lasted about fifty years. Since then she had come to appreciate her independence.

But after the stroke, she gave in to her son and took a private room in the respected Haven of Care facility in Independence, Missouri. Her son had recently moved back to Blue Springs, which was nearby. She could see him in her mind: his characteristic pallor from never going out in the sunlight, his gaunt physique with no hips to speak of. People thought he looked bookish. They would have been happy if his weakness had been books, but that was not the case. Stephen’s hair looked professorial, though. He had begun thinning when he was about twenty. Two decades later he began arranging the tufts of hair in disharmonious locations around the top of his head. In contrast to his skeletal form, it was hard not to notice his short pudgy fingers, his ring finger bulging on either side of his wedding band.

Stephen wondered about his parents’ love for him, Lillian knew. He assumed his mother loved him out of maternal instinct only, not out of true friendship. He began questioning whether his aging wife saw him in the same light and respected him more than she loved him. He had accumulated a few possessions and a degree of comfort through his money-making enterprises that had nevertheless not lasted long. He didn’t worry because he assumed that when his parents died, he would inherit enough to quit working and build a racing boat. That was his dream. He had moved to Blue Springs because his job “wasn’t challenging,” he had said. He wanted to race boats. He wanted to build a bigger and faster boat than anyone in the area had ever seen.

Lillian’s neighbor, Agnes, thought the arrival of her friend’s son had precipitated Lillian’s stroke. With Lilt in a rest home, Stephen and his wife had decided to move into his parents’ house. She was okay about that, but tears formed in her eyes as she thought about her and her husband working together to make their house an ideal abode. She missed her husband so much! She never regretted marrying young. Her husband’s string of patents generated enough in royalty payments that the two were able to live comfortably and travel whenever they wanted to. Mostly they spent their time and money on Stephen, but even with that they had accumulated a nice nest egg.

She worried Stephen would resent them when he discovered that they were leaving most of the estate with the university. “I don’t think we should leave everything to him,” Frederick had confessed to her one day. “I’m afraid,” he said over supper, “that he’ll just throw it away on a boat.”

“He’ll need something,” she replied, surprising herself by the power of her concern.

“Oh certainly, yes, I think we should leave him enough so he can provide for his family. It would be wrong if we didn’t. But to be honest, I’d like to see him do something besides building a speed boat.”

Lilt was equally aware that Stephen had never been able to save money. “It’s not just Stephen,” she said. “It’s Bernice too. I swear, that woman can spend money faster than anyone I know!”

“What about leaving some of it to the church?” Frederick had suggested.

“And pay for leaders to take missionary junkets to Tibet?”

“To Tibet?”

“Well, you know what I mean.”

“It’s all for world peace, isn’t it?”

“I know, but wouldn’t you rather make a specific gift for something?”

“Like what?”

“Let’s say maybe scholarships for young women,” she said tentatively, testing the water.

“Scholarships it is,” he agreed. That was one of the advantages of spending half a century together. He knew where the discussion would head if he didn’t concede. “I think that’s a wonderful idea,” he confirmed.

In the next months, he arranged with lawyers to put Princeway University into the will, and despite moments of parental guilt and concern about how their son would respond, they decided not to tell Stephen of their plan. Better for him to learn about it after their deaths.

Lilt heard the noise again. She was certain it was something in the room. When she started to call out, she felt the slightest pressure from air moving against her face and sensed an approaching object. Something soft covered her head: her mouth and eyes, and a hand pressed down hard enough that she couldn’t breathe. She tried to yell but no sound came out. She sucked in as hard as her small exhausted lungs would allow her to do, but no air, nothing. She grew faint. For a moment, she thought of Frederick, then of nothing, and went limp.

The thin figure beside her lifted the pillow. He held his hand beneath Lillian Otis’s nose to guarantee there was no breath, lowered the pillow over her face another time to be sure, then lifted it once more. He bent over the bed to smooth the covers. He fluffed the pillow. When he opened the door to leave, he was able to effortlessly slip into the noisy hall.

Chapter 1:
The Fund-raiser

The parking lot was filling with cars that were at least two luxury levels above the more modest automobiles that were usually parked at the RLDS headquarters. The Reorganization did not believe in projecting an image of easy living or wastefulness, and the employees’ means of transportation generally reflected that thinking. In contrast, the extended wealth apparent in the cars this evening was flagrant. As each couple arrived in a trophy car, a page met them, a valet slipped into the car and drove it to the parking area, and the page directed the guests to the main entrance. Once there, they were greeted by the affable Randolph W. Olympia, president and prophet of the church. Other dignitaries surrounded the president.

Toom Taggart took it all in as he headed for the smaller unguarded employee entrance. At the door, he backed up to the identification monitor so the entry card in his wallet would trigger the release. He was in his early fifties and carried a little more weight and less hair than he had a decade before. He was not particularly handsome, but when he thought about it he assumed he probably looked pleasant enough. Unlike when he was in college, he had come to carry himself with an air of confidence. The bolt slid open and he moved to go inside when Simon Kellogg suddenly rushed up to piggyback his way in, his arms full of small presentation boxes and brightly colored printed materials. Simon was manager of the church’s Planned Giving Mission. “I know we’re not supposed to do this,” the official said pleasantly, his breath coming in short gasps, “but perhaps they’ll forgive me this evening. I’m awfully late.”

“Evening, Simon,” Toom said, nodding to the heavily loaded man. Temple Security considered piggybacking a serious crime: it allowed people to enter without recording their arrival, and the security director took such things seriously. No one else seemed to care. “Big evening,” Toom added. It was a comment rather than a question.

“Yes,” Simon replied, still rasping. “It is going to be a great evening.”

“Lots of people expected?”

“Lots. All the bequest folks. They’re the crème-de-la-crème, you know.”

“Sounds like an oxymoron,” Toom said.

“What?” Simon asked, his mind somewhere else, perhaps on responsibilities yet unfulfilled.

“These are the disciples with the big bucks, you say?” Taggart tried again.

“Oh yes, they’re made of money! They’re the big ones—the ones who make a difference in the church. This is an evening to show our appreciation.”

Was he making a speech? “Well, everyone likes to be appreciated.”

“And they should be. Someone suggested we include smaller givers to keep things humble, but that doesn’t work, you know. It’s important we do something extraordinary so the committed donors know we don’t take them for granted. If you want to get the big money, you have to play the game. It’s a fund-raiser tonight too, you know.”

Taggart’s mood was darkening. His friend’s fascination with big money didn’t help his growing sense of gloom. On another occasion, Toom might have told Simon how much he resented being there. He was told to attend as a test of loyalty, not that they really cared. He wanted to tell someone he was upset but knew he was mostly annoyed with himself for not having said no.

Anyone could tell you he needed as many loyalty points as he could collect. That realization, that he needed to burnish his image and appear to be a team player, bothered him because it made him feel like a politician. He was also upset by the degree to which the organization involved itself in that kind of image grooming.

“It’s required,” Taggart had explained to George Schmidt, a friend who had suggested ribs at Arthur Bryant’s and a Kansas City Blades game. George was Toom’s only real personal friend.

“You’re going to pass on ribs and a game?”

“My employer expects me to show up.”

“What are you supposed to do there?”

“Be a wallflower.”

“Sounds fun.”

Toom wasn’t a Blades fan, but it would have been a nice evening. He’d prefer seeing the Chiefs. Ice hockey looked like heaven next to a fund-raiser, though. Toom was the equivalent of a dean in the church hierarchy. If the headquarters school were a state university, that would have been his title. He was called director out of symmetry with other church department heads, indicating that they shared the same status as middle managers. There was not a school president either because the church could only tolerate one president—the prophet leader—and didn’t even make the directors privy to all the budget information for their areas. The responsibilities for each area were split between the administrative and financial, and where the latter was shared on a need-to-know basis, the power was centered in a small group that comprised those in the presidential office. The president himself restricted his activities to communication with God and passing on God’s will to his assistants. As a management group, the First Presidency was unlimited in power. The second most powerful and occasionally conflicting quorum was that of the Presiding Bishopric, led by Bishop Lowell Pico.

The missions were run by the twelve apostles, the so-called “fishers of men” who represented Christ in all the world but answered to the First Presidency. Some of them held ceremonial posts, while others, known as “functional apostles,” had real responsibilities, with offices at the world headquarters. This meant that others were nonfunctional, which was true in a literal sense even though the term was not used. The guiding force behind all the public decision-making was the Mission Integration, Service, Function, and Interpretation Team, or MISFIT, a strange acronym that had long since lost its sense of irony to the ears of the bureaucrats.

As director of the educational wing, Taggart operated under one of the functional apostles; in reality he dealt with all of the apostles on occasion, mostly when someone was upset about some sort of teaching or curriculum issue. That was the case a good part of the time. “Isn’t it self-defeating to teach religious students to think critically?” the ever-rational George Schmidt had asked Toom one evening. Toom had given that some thought. It was true enough, but not as simple as it might appear, because the church, wanting to preserve academic accreditation and give the appearance of academic freedom, combined its programs with Princeway University across town. At the same time, the overall goal was to maintain faith.

At the far end of the building on the second floor, Toom could see the lights on where MISFIT met. The conference room held seventeen high-backed chairs around an oval table. Members of the committee sat in appointed seats like pigs in the Animal Farm story. They told everyone they were equal, but they acknowledged that one of them was more equal than the others. This evening three men were in the room, all dressed for the banquet about to take place on the lower level. The tallest was Ian Lament, whose gray hair made his long face look distinguished. He was a man who had come up the hard way by accepting responsibilities with deep commitment and narrow focus, the senior counselor to Bishop Pico—not that he was specifically designated as the senior, which would involve calling the other man a junior counselor, and that was to be avoided. They were more appropriately said to be associates in the bishopric, including the bishop himself. Lament was responsible for the church’s buildings and land.

The second associate was Louis Cannon, a much larger man who provided muscle, presumably metaphorically, when they needed to persuade people to accept a new directive. He was a man who loved order and hated ambiguity. You could see it in his choice of clothes, everything color-coordinated down to his jockey shorts, Toom imagined, yet his fashion choices were still odd. He wore a black polyester suit with brown shoes or a blue shirt and orange tie. He had a ruddy face and thick neck of a football lineman, and his hairline came low in front. Combined with his thickly bowed arms, he sometimes had the appearance of a primal being. His assignments were temporary rather than long-term. In another context, he would have been a fixer or cleaner.

The third person in the room was Kansas City businessman and long time friend of the Reorganized Church, Lawrence Richards, who was the reason for the meeting. The three men hastily gathered while their friends and colleagues waited below.

“I don’t like it,” Richards said. “It’s not right, and besides, we’re making a lot of people mad.”

“We need that land in order to clear it because we can’t have the temple surrounded by a ghetto!” Lament said.

“I understand that, and it may well be true, but there must be some other way,” Richards persisted. He had been hearing some tough talk from people in the old houses surrounding the new edifice, who deeply resented the church trying to buy them out and tear down their homes. “What are we going to do?”

Lament was silent, sensing that it was one of those times when nothing else could be said and thinking that this was why he retained Louis Cannon, who stood patiently in his slightly wrinkled suit, starched white shirt, and white-on-white embroidered tie. Louis’s thick neck seemed to push down on the stiff ring of his collar. “I’ll take care of it,” he said.

“What do mean you’ll take care of it?” Richards insisted. He didn’t like Louis’s tone, nor the man’s reputation for improvising. Not at all a situation for a goon, they needed to finesse the standoff with the neighbors and not further inflame them. “What do you intend to do?”

“Don’t worry,” Louis said softly. “I don’t know yet, but I’ll think it over.”

“They don’t want to lose their homes.”

“I know,” Louis said, “but they’d be better off somewhere else.” Louis aired what he assumed to be a simple truth. “We would be doing them a favor.”

Bishop Lament started to speak, then thought better of it.

Richards paused a moment, picked up his expensive gray coat from the back of the tallest identical chair, and put it on. “I don’t like it,” he repeated. As he turned to leave, he glanced back at the two other men. “If something isn’t done, and done fairly soon—something that won’t make it worse—I won’t keep bankrolling it,” he snapped. So there it was. Richards was known for not beating around the bush.

After the sounds of Richards’s footsteps down the hall suggested he was safely out of hearing, the bishop, no longer quiet or controlled, turned on Louis. “We can’t have that!”

“I know.”

“Something has to be done.”

“I’ll get them out.”

“Louis, this will require a gentle touch.”

“Sir, I will take care of it.”

Down the hall someone was working in their office even as the music from the banquet began. It was Marie Burke, who was deep in thought over a question about discrimination that had been posed to her. She was a logical thinker who could sort out the complexities of a legal question if she had time to think about it. If she believed any real discrimination had taken place, she would say so. In this case the church seemed to be the victim.

What should her role be? Should she make every effort to try to identify possible discrimination and be sure it was eliminated or should she expose people who had probably made false accusations, thereby proving to the world that the church leaders were not bigoted? There was a point at which everyone’s best interests might intersect in some sort of settlement, but if she went down that route, it would imply that the church had mistreated someone. At the heart of it, it was more about religious tolerance than discrimination. The infraction was on the part of someone who was prejudiced against the RLDS Church, was her view of it.

The church had a poor record of tolerating people of other beliefs or even racial diversity or of being transparent about its past dealings with neighbors, at least in the historical past. Certainly the church should receive credit for doing better in those areas and reaching out to people of other faiths, recognizing the authority of other baptisms and marriages, for hiring non-members for some jobs. The leaders no longer called competing churches the “great and abominable church of the devil.” The case would inevitably dredge up old prejudices, though. It would turn out to be nasty, no matter what approach she recommended. As far as she could see, it was more or less senseless.

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