Saints Preserve Us

Saints Preserve Us

Leigh Ellwood

Ash Lake Mysteries

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Winner of the Florida Writer’s Association Royal Palm Award for Best Mystery.

Where’s Lorena Alger? This is what everyone in Ash Lake, Florida is asking about their most famous resident…a young girl about to be canonized as a saint, a young girl who hasn’t moved from her grave in over 150 years. Now she is gone, and her grave is now occupied by the fresher corpse of the cemetery caretaker.

Great grandniece Ronnie Lord is determined to aid the town sheriff in Lorena’s safe return. She finds it isn’t an easy task when obstacles like a nosy reporter and stubborn relatives get in the way. Meanwhile, as an object of ransom tucked away in a single-wide trailer belonging to two petty thieves, Lorena is in for the adventure of her…well, death.

Book One of the Ash Lake Mysteries.

 
PUBLISHED BY: DLP Books
ISBN: 978-0-615-21352-1
PUBLICATION DATE: 2009
WORD COUNT: 65000
SEXUAL CONTENT RATING: 1
EBOOK READER RATING:
CATEGORIES: Mystery/Suspense
KEYWORDS: mystery, cozy, inspirational, amateur sleuth
 

EBOOKS BY DLP Books

EBOOKS BY Leigh Ellwood

 
EXCERPT
COPYRIGHT Leigh Ellwood/2009

Ronnie paused close to the office door, her initial feelings of fright and foolishness at having been taken by surprise wavering. All of the dos and don’ts of personal safety her late husband Jim had drilled into her head quickly dissolved, yet for a moment she still wondered if the key she had crammed into the door’s lock only seconds earlier would be needed as a spontaneous weapon.

She tugged at the key and kept her gaze fixed on the young man with the third eye, whose worried face awaited a verbal response to his query. To his credit, Ronnie thought, he did not look like a rapist/mugger. “This building was locked when I arrived,” she said finally. “Even the Ash Lake campus of FCCJ prides itself on security. How did you get inside?” She wanted to sound authoritative; unfortunately, the best Ronnie could do for seven forty-five in the morning after four hours of sleep was a crackling whisper.

“I, I—, uh, well,” Chet stammered, and Ronnie arched her brow suspiciously. After two difficult catches, the key jerked out of the lock with a loud zipping noise that set Ronnie’s teeth on edge. She let the shoulder strap to her portfolio case slide down to her waist as the bag sank to the ground, and she pinched her arm closer to her side to prevent the folders from fluttering down next to it. A few strands of long, brown hair became tangled in the strap and Ronnie winced at the sudden pain.

“Well, I see you’ve mastered the proper verbal skills a reporter needs to succeed,” Ronnie remarked with a grunt as she juggled her belongings. A polite rapist/mugger would have at least offered to help, she thought. “You must be an alumnus of our journalism program, if indeed you are who you say.” She aimed the jagged edge of the key at Chet’s brown doe eyes, sliding folders be damned. “Just so you know, I can open other things besides a lock with this sucker.”

 

Chet held a hand up to his face, backed into the wall behind him and blinked rapidly. “Professor, please,” he begged, his deep voice raised an octave. “I’m very sorry to have startled you. I really am a reporter... here, see?” He reached into his back jeans pocket for his wallet and, after fumbling with several flaps, waved a laminated press pass with a shaking hand. The glare on the pass cast a tiny reflection under the hallway lights that danced on Ronnie’s office door. “I’m strictly legit,” he added hurriedly. “You can call Oscar Blaine at the Journal if you want. Like I said, I’m writing an article about Lorena Alger’s canonization and I really would like to talk to you about your great-aunt...”

“Two greats.” Ronnie returned to her lock with a sigh. What fear was left bubbling inside her was completely gone. She doubted any run-of-the-mill mugger and/or rapist would go through the trouble of concocting such a story, she decided. He would have just attacked.

He also likely would have been howling in pain seconds afterward from the heel print in his crotch, Ronnie thought with a smile. It disappointed her somewhat that Chet Hoskins was not a mugger/rapist after all. A counter attack would have offered a welcome release of all the adrenaline now welling up inside her.

“Beg pardon?” Chet asked.

Ronnie opened her office door and reached inside for the switch. Within seconds her microscopic hole of an office was illuminated with the hazy ultraviolet light of one long bulb while the other flickered and hummed like a dying bee. Ronnie grimaced and made a mental note to call the power plant.

“Like working in a damn disco,” she mumbled as she turned back to Chet, who was testing his pen on a blank page of his reporter’s notebook. “Lorena was my great-great aunt,” she told him. “To be more precise, she was my grandfather’s aunt. That still doesn’t explain how you managed to get inside the building without a key, though.”

 

Chet glanced nervously back down the hallway toward the English Department office’s small reception area. The corner of a tidied desk festooned with silver photo frames was visible. “Oh, I ran into your secretary in the parking lot and she let me inside,” he said as he nodded in that direction. “She had to use the ladies’ room and said I could wait for you. I guess you didn’t see me when you came in.”

Ronnie too stole a brief glance at the desk of Gloria Hathaway, the English Department’s executive secretary, and sighed again. “Ah, yes, Gloria,” she muttered as she reminded herself to bless out the silver-haired widow for setting her up like this; Gloria knew Ronnie hated surprise visitors.

She decided to wait, however, until after taking advantage of Gloria’s ability to tame the office’s dreaded beast of a copier machine, thereby allowing Ronnie enough copies of her Southern Literature exam for her afternoon class. Either that, Ronnie thought wickedly, or she could exact her revenge by having the secretary type up another test.

“Okay,” she muttered. “Well, however you got in here, you’re talking to the wrong person. I may be a descendent of Lorena’s, but I don’t have anything to do directly with her cause. You’d do better to talk to the bishop or Father Joel Mitchell. He’s the pastor of Blessed Lorena Catholic Church. Just take a right on the main road out of the parking lot and look for the building with the big crucifix, you can’t miss it.” With that, Ronnie bolted into her office, an amazing feat considering the glut of stacked cardboard boxes and wooden crates blocking the path to her desk. Once inside she immediately knocked over a stack of pocket folders that were perched precariously on a stray chair. She cursed through gritted teeth and bent to retrieve the work when her head nearly collided with Chet’s as he bent to help.

“You have a lot of books here,” Chet laughed nervously. He gestured to one such crate filled with paperbacks.

“Comes with the territory.”

 

“Yeah. Well, uh, I’ve already spoken with Father Mitchell, and he has helped me considerably with my research,” Chet said. “He was more than willing to provide the logistics of Lorena’s canonization and the progress of her cause, but I had hoped to write a more family-oriented piece. Something personal, more human interest.”

“I see,” Ronnie seethed, biting back an expletive. What she had not dropped on the way to her desk was spilled onto an already cluttered blotter. Folders and thin paperback books slid diagonally across the desktop and nearly tipped over an empty mug and a canister of coffee creamer as Ronnie landed unceremoniously into her high-backed swivel chair. Chet, meanwhile, had retreated to the open door frame after helping to straighten the wayward stacks of term papers. He looked to Ronnie like one of her students cowering before an important pre-finals week conference, expecting news of failure.

Sighing loudly, she waved him inside. “Hand me my purse, too, would you?” She pointed to a patch of open carpet where her pocket book had fallen. Her first class was in forty minutes, and she had hoped to use her downtime planning the day’s schedule. The spring semester was drawing to a close, and anticipation of the coming break always gave rise to hectic activity around the school. Professors often had to cram two months of learning into the remaining three weeks by assigning test after test. Ronnie was no different, and she imagined her students were praying fervently that they were prepared for the day’s battery of exams.

Ronnie preferred to use every free minute of work time reviewing the course material, and this morning she had actually looked forward to reacquainting herself with the works of Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty for the Southern Literature final. Fat chance this morning.

 

She accepted her purse with a half smile and tossed it in a bottom drawer. “What sort of family angle are you looking for?” she asked. Might as well be helpful, she decided. Publicity of Lorena’s cause never hurt, as Father Joel and her grandmother often testified. She knew she would never hear the end of it were either of them to learn that she had refused such an opportunity. Publicity meant donations for the cause, which the committee always welcomed. One thing Ronnie did know about the canonization process was that such things were not cheap. Promotional materials had to be made, as did periodic flights to Rome to meet with the Vatican.

Ronnie invited Chet to move the recovered folders to the floor and to take the now vacant chair. “I really appreciate your cooperation, Professor, thank you,” he said, grunting under the weight of a semester’s worth of student papers. “I know you have a busy day today, so I promise not to take up much of your time.”

“Do you have a deadline? Is that why you’re here so early?”

Chet nodded. “I’ve drafted a skeleton of the story, and I have notes from my interview with Father Joel from yesterday afternoon. When I’m finished here, I can get this in the evening edition if it’s written and proofed by ten.”

Ronnie smiled tiredly, a gesture that appeared to relax the young reporter. Outside her slightly open door she heard someone bustle through the main office entrance. Gloria, no doubt, was back from the ladies’ room. Further shuffling through drawers and cabinets, a loud click, and a long hiss followed, and Ronnie knew that the entire departmental office would soon smell of fresh brewed coffee. Ronnie offered Chet a cup once it was ready. He shook his head.

“Actually, I’m pretty wired as it is.”

She nodded and moved her canister of powdered creamer to the center of her desk. “Well, let’s get this started,” she said, fishing in the top drawer for a spoon, “but before I ask you what you want to know about my family, am I correct in thinking you already have the gist of Lorena’s cause and what everything means?”

 

“Yes, I do.” Chet cleared his throat and flipped a few scrawled pages in his notebook. “I know about how there are traditionally three steps involved in a person’s canonization, or rather three authenticated miracles. However, since Lorena is considered a martyr of the faith, only two miracles need be recognized. I also have here that Lorena was beatified ten years ago, hence allowing the Catholic faithful to call her Blessed Lorena.”

Ronnie smiled. “Kind of like standing in the on-deck circle, waiting for God to call you up to bat.”

“Yes, I-I suppose,” Chet laughed nervously and consulted his notebook again. “I have all the necessary information on the healing miracle which was approved by the Church, and was required before the beatification. So, that means one more miracle deemed authentic is needed to help the canonization procedure along.” More small pages flipped over the notebook’s spiral wire until Chet paused at a page filled with ink. “Now, the Vatican is looking into the unexplained healing of a ten-year-old cancer patient which the parents attribute to Lorena’s intercession. Once it’s approved, her canonization seems likely, wouldn’t you agree?”

“We shall see.” Ronnie’s voice was wistful. “Since Father Joel’s predecessor had the diocese open the cause about fifty years ago, the committee has received hundreds of reports on so-called healings. Turns out the majority of them were not of supernatural origin, and some people even had the gall to fake illnesses.”

“Really? Why would anybody do that?”

Ronnie shrugged. “Who knows? My guess is that some people thought they could profit from doing it.” In truth, Ronnie knew, the fraudulent claims only brought frustration to the committee, for it took time away from investigating the few true miracles associated with Lorena. “If you ask me,” she added, “the true miracle would come in being able to discern the sincere from the liars.”

 

“I see.” Chet scribbled Ronnie’s words and flipped to a fresh page. “Okay, if you don’t mind, I’d like to confirm some more information received from Father Mitchell, if that’s okay, and then jump right into a few questions about your opinions on a possible canonization.”

Ronnie sat perfectly still. As she had very little opinion of a long-dead relative who might or might not be worthy of the highest degree of Divine distinction, this would likely be a very short interview. Having Lorena declared a saint was neither her idea nor considered by anyone in her immediate family. Once the cause was opened by the late pastor of Ash Lake’s only Catholic Church, however, nobody bothered to halt or discourage the movement. Perhaps her ancestors figured sainthood was reserved for the cloistered or the European, Ronnie thought. The United States had so few saints to its credit, especially native-born saints.

Ronnie could not even remember the last time she set foot in Ash Lake Cemetery to visit the slain ancestor whose brief life story and progressing cause made for a good percentage of the area gossip and lore. Why a newspaper reporter chose to interview her rather than her grandmother or her more enthusiastic sister was a mystery. The thought of offering Gina’s phone number to Chet passed quietly. She loved her sister too much to send a reporter after her.

“Now,” Chet began, “your great-aunt...excuse me, great-great aunt Lorena Alger was born in December of 1854 and martyred in 1865, just after the Civ—”

“You must be Catholic,” she interrupted.

Chet looked up from his notes and smiled sheepishly. “I am, though not as devout as my mother would like me to be.” A nervous chuckle escaped his mouth. “How did you know?”

“Well, for one thing, you had the canonization lingo down pat earlier.” Ronnie leaned back in her chair; the springs underneath cried out for a few shots of WD-40. “Plus, I’ve noticed lately that when people talk about Lorena, only the Catholics use the term ‘martyred’.”

“What does everybody else say?”

 

“Murdered, killed,” she said with a shrug. “I guess people who don’t appreciate or understand sainthood don’t like to use that word. Like the title of ‘martyr’ should only be bestowed upon Protestants and people who drown trying to free dolphins from a tuna net or something like that.”

“Or maybe there are people who think your great-great aunt was only a victim of a random act of violence and shouldn’t be counted among the cult of saints,” Chet offered. “Do you believe Lorena should be a candidate for sainthood, Professor?”

“It’s Ronnie, and I’m not really sure. You’re familiar with the story of Saint Maria Goretti?”

Chet acknowledged that he knew the story of the young Italian girl who died resisting a rape over a century earlier, and of her consequent canonization. “I intend to use that information as a parallel in Lorena’s story.”

“Then you’re aware Lorena died in very much the same fashion as Maria Goretti,” Ronnie said. “Both girls rebuffed sexual advances, knowing right from wrong, and paid the consequences. The only difference here was that Lorena was American and died immediately of a gunshot wound after resisting her attacker, rather than being stabbed and lingering for days.

“From my own research, I know there was quite a bit of opposition to Maria’s canonization,” Ronnie added. “Initially people questioned whether or not dying to preserve one’s virginity meant the same as dying for Jesus and the Faith. We’ve had our share of naysayers.”

“So you don’t believe Lorena died as a martyr, then?”

Ronnie rubbed her chin. “I believe Lorena knew pre-marital sex was not right in God’s eyes, and I believe her death was very noble. I don’t think I would have been that brave or that unwilling to give in had I been the one propositioned. As for whether or not she should be made a saint for her sacrifice, I guess I never gave it much—”

 

A noise diverted Ronnie’s attention to the door. Gloria entered the office armed with a steaming coffeepot. Silently the secretary filled Ronnie’s mug and departed just as quickly, but not before Ronnie asked her to hold any incoming calls until after the interview. Tossing a quick wink in Chet’s direction, Gloria nodded and disappeared.

As the office door softly closed, Ronnie leaned forward on her desk and reached for the creamer. “This is for the record?” When Chet nodded, she continued, “One reason I really can’t decide on Lorena’s worthiness is because for one thing, all of the people involved in her alleged martyrdom are long deceased. The man who killed her, we’re told, went to the gallows swearing that Lorena had complied. Of course, nobody seemed to give his testimony any weight.

“The story of my great-great aunt has been passed on from her brother to his children and so forth,” Ronnie added as she spooned two rounded heaps of white powder into her mug. “Right now the only source of information regarding these events is a woman born over fifty years after the fact. Her own stories came second-hand, too. I’ll admit the story is heroic, yes, but who knows how much of Lorena’s life and death has been embellished?”

Chet, his head down, flipped more tiny pages in his notebook. “You’re talking about Julia Meyers Alger, who would be your...”

“Grandmother,” Ronnie finished his sentence, pausing momentarily at the thought of her dear Nana. Julia Alger alone accounted for ninety percent of the historical and biographical data Lorena’s committee gathered for their proposal to the Vatican. “Have you spoken to my grandmother?”

“I tried to call last night, but didn’t get an answer.”

 

“Well, you would do better to contact her, since she’s on the committee. My grandmother was the second wife of my grandfather, Stephen Alger, Sr.,” Ronnie added as Chet scribbled, “and much of what she knows was learned from her late husband, his sisters, and her two step-daughters. Even though his family was significantly older than my grandmother because there was quite an age difference between my grandparents, none of them were around when Lorena was alive. I imagine as Lorena’s story was passed over from her brother to his children, the more heroic and positive details of her life were discussed.

“Then again,” Ronnie added, “like Maria Goretti, Lorena wasn’t yet thirteen when she was... martyred... if you will, so perhaps she may not have lived long enough to have a bad side.”

Chet paused to rub his writing hand. “Do you believe this cause may be motivated by reasons other than cementing a family legacy? I mean, it would make sense to me, considering that nobody in your family other than your grandmother is actively involved in this.”

“I think there are several factors involved, the most obvious being publicity.” Ronnie twiddled an unsharpened pencil between her fingers. “One can count the number of American saints on one hand, and having ‘St. Lorena’ resting in peace in a church named for her in Ash Lake, Florida is guaranteed to bring tourism here. Take away some of the tourists from Disney, I suppose. I don’t know. If anything, Ash Lake would be known for something besides being a pit stop on the way to somewhere else.”

Chet laughed as he continued to scribble and flip pages. “Is anyone in your family involved in the construction of the new church as well?”

 

Ronnie shook her head. “No, but that’s the only thing I agree with one hundred percent. Blessed Lorena’s is the only Catholic Church in Ash Lake now that the St. Francis parish has dissolved, and with the increase in membership and people coming over from Yulee and even Fernandina Beach we need more room. Plus, the committee has planned for Lorena’s body to be moved underneath the altar once construction is finished. Perhaps after that happens the family plot won’t be overrun with people.”

“Do you think there may be many more pilgrimages here in hopes of intercessory miracles if Lorena is canonized?”

“I can’t really say, though I wouldn’t be surprised, “Ronnie said. “I wouldn’t make a pilgrimage myself, unless maybe there was some historical interest. If people really do believe my great-great aunt is capable of bending the good Lord’s ear for them, though, more power to them.”

“Must be nice to have someone in Heaven putting in a good word for you,” Chet muttered.

“‘And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints’,” Ronnie quoted the Book of Revelation with a smile, pleased with her ability to quote Scripture at opportune moments.

“Now about that girl in Kingsland, Georgia, the one who was healed,” Ronnie added. “That report is very focal in sealing Lorena’s sainthood, so Nana says. If the cause is successful, I could see more people like that coming into Ash Lake and spending money. Come for the saint, stay for the quaint bed and breakfasts and easy access to the beach. I can even see many non-Catholic business owners using this as an opportunity to make money.”

Chet stopped to study what he had written. “It almost seems crass, taking advantage of a young girl’s violent death like that.”

“Such is life.” Ronnie shrugged. “Look at all the memorabilia that came out after Princess Diana was killed.”

“Touché,” Chet smiled.

“Exactly,” said Ronnie. “So I think you can see why I try to distance myself. If somebody wants to distribute prayer cards bearing Lorena’s portrait, then fine, but I don’t necessarily want to see a hoagie named for her. And I’ll tell you one thing more—”

Ronnie was not allowed the chance to finish her train of thought, for Gloria’s bold entrance interrupted her. The words dissolved in Ronnie’s mouth.

Gloria nervously wrung her hands. “Ron, sweetie, you have a call.”

Ronnie sighed loudly. “Gloria, we’re almost finished here. Could you just take a message—”

“I think you should take this one, now.” Gloria’s paled face announced a sense of urgency.

Ronnie sighed again. What in her life could be so important to warrant a phone call so early in the morning, she wondered. Suddenly, a pang of fear gripped her heart. Had something happened to Nana?

Her face slowly drained white as well. “Is this a family emergency?” she asked.

Gloria nodded. “You could say that.”


 

 
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