Sample A Quaker Mystery: “Murder Among Friends”

Sample A Quaker Mystery: “Murder Among Friends”

What’s a holiday break good for if not bingeing? Not on booze or pills, but the foods of the season, and then either some classic video — or even better, some good escapist fiction. 

Which brings me to A Quaker Mystery: Murder Among Friends

It’s summer, 1991, shortly after the first Gulf War. A Quaker conference is gathering at a Friends-founded college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, to see if the various branches can learn to get along. Quaker Bill Leddra has just arrived with Eddie Smith, who’s Clerk of the Lavender Friends Fellowship.

On the way, they listened to a fiercely homophobic radio sermon by the Rev. Ben Goode, an empire-building rightwing preacher based nearby. Goode’s thundering about “taking back America from the perverts” set them both on edge. And then . . .?

Murder-Cover-w-CEF-Selfie-SMThis 1992 Quaker mystery novel is back in print here: 

 Also at Amazon and on Kindle.   

Here’s a sample:

CHAPTER TWO

Dear brother,

I hope before long to see dear old Winchester safe and sound. I believe if our immortal Jackson were here, it would have been delivered from these vile invaders long before this….The town is just full of Yankee women, who act as if they owned everything in it.

–Letter from “Kate,”  June 12, 1863

Valley State College is just north of Winchester, about half a mile west of Interstate 81. The campus is compact and cozy, with nondescript red brick buildings ranged around a lush green oval lined with tall old oaks and maples.

“Welcome All‑Friends Conference,” read the hand‑painted sign at the north entrance, with a black arrow pointing toward Mott Hall for Registration.

“It was started by Quakers from Opequon Creek Meeting, in 1867,” I was telling Eddie as we turned in. “To train young women who were going South to teach former slaves. Lots of them went. After Reconstruction the meeting turned it into a normal school, for schoolteachers. It closed in the Depression, then the state picked it up.”  

I pointed across the oval, toward a tree‑covered rise. “The Meetinghouse is over there, behind the trees. It goes back to before the American Revolution. Here’s Mott Hall.”

“That’s Lucretia Mott, I hope?” Eddie asked.

“Yep. This may be one of the few public buildings in the valley not named after a treasonous defender of chattel slavery or a segregationist governor. Not that I’m prejudiced about the Old Dominion. I’ll open the trunk.”

With the obligatory nametags soon pinned on our shirts, we were quickly assigned to a room on the dormitory’s third floor, and lugged our bags up the stairs.

From the doorway the room looked like an optical illusion, with two of everything: desks, beds, dressers and closets, arranged in sequence and exactly opposite each other.

I dropped my suitcase, flopped down on one of the beds and scanned the conference schedule, printed on a pink sheet in small type, while Eddie unpacked his bag. “There’s a steering committee meeting going on now, in the auditorium,” I noted. “I should get down to it, since I’m technically a member. You could come, too; it’s an open session. Hey, what’s that?”

I had glanced up and seen Eddie pulling out what looked like a sawed‑off baseball bat from his bag. He grinned and tossed it at me.

“It’s an authentic family heirloom and homophobia deflector,” he said. “Got it at a yard sale outside Pittsburgh, cost me a buck. Look on the other side.”

I caught it and turned it over, noting that the foot‑long stump of a bat had been carefully sanded and varnished, except in one spot about halfway up, where there was a dark scribble. I peered at it. “Who‑‑?”

“Roberto Clemente. And it’s real, not stamped. One of the last ones he signed before he was killed.”

I whistled. “A sacred relic, sure enough. But a homophobia deflector?  Thee wouldn’t be using this as a worldly weapon now, would thee, Friend?  Thee knows what the Good Book says, ‘Live by the bat, die by the bat.’  Or words to that effect.”

“What gives thee such an idea, Friend?” he bantered. “Though I admit I did show it to a couple of punks who tried to corner me in an alley over by Dupont Circle a couple years back. Worked like a charm, too, and I never touched them.”

“Doubtless thee didn’t have to,” I said, lobbing it back at him. “But I hope it taught thee not to hang out in alleys.”   

He mugged. “What’s life without a few adventures in alleys?”  He caught the bat and dropped it back into his bag. “Anyway, it’s mainly for good luck.”  He stuck the bag into the closet by his bed. “Where did you say that meeting was?”

“In the auditorium.”

“Is that where the exhibits are?” he asked. “I want to check my LFF display.”

I looked at the pink sheet again. “Exhibits…Yep, ‘Auditorium foyer.’  Good location.”

“Let’s go,” he urged.

“Right. I’ll unpack later.”

The auditorium was across the oval from Mott, in Woolman Hall. Like Mott, it was square and worn red brick, plain enough for its sainted namesake, a pre-revolutionary New Jersey Quaker tailor and mystic activist who refused to wear clothes colored with dyes prepared by slave labor.

The wide foyer was lined with long trestle tables, crowded with exhibits. But amid the clutter of unfolded displays for Quaker schools, colleges, retirement homes, conference centers and service groups, there was no sign of one for the Lavender Friends Fellowship.

“Where is it?”  Eddie asked anxiously when we had walked past all of them.  “We worked so hard on it, shipped it out here in plenty of time, and paid our fee months in advance. What could have happened?”

“Did they send you a receipt?”

He pulled out his wallet. “Got it right here.”  He unfolded the paper. “Says we’re exhibit Number Three. Check the numbers.”

I walked down the row of tables, looking for numbers marked on strips of masking tape.

The strip marked Number Three turned up on a table right near the main entrance; a great spot. But on the table was a display for the American Friend magazine and publishing house, a very orthodox outfit from Indiana. Its big feature was a blowup of the jacket for their latest book, provocatively titled Quakerism and Biblical Truth: What Price Unity?  

I turned to call to Eddie, who had moved down to the far end of the foyer, but then heard him muffling a curse.

“Here it is!” he declared. “What the hell?”

I walked over. He was tugging at the tape on a tall, thin shipping carton. “It’s been put back in the box,” he said angrily. “Somebody took it down.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Number Three’s over there. The American Friend.”

“What?” he shouted. “That’s my table. I’m not gonna put up with this kind of crap.”  

Before I could say anything, he had rushed over and grabbed the corners of the hinged frame holding up the enlarged cover of Quakerism and Biblical Truth, and clumped them together. Pushing the stacks of brochures aside, he quickly lifted the shipping box up on the table, tore off the tape and  pulled the cover flap open.

  “Look,” I interjected, “maybe it’s just some kind of a mixup.”

He snorted, and unhooked the display board.  The exhibit was considerably larger than that of the American Friend; the backdrop had four hinged sections, and as he unfolded it they took up the entire table, crowding the school and conference center displays on either side.

“GAY AND LESBIAN FAMILIES‑‑LOVING AND FRIENDLY FAMILIES” the heading boldly proclaimed.

Below it, on each segment of board, was a large photo of a same‑sex couple, two of them men, and two women. Everyone was smiling blissfully, I noted; ah, the innocence of young love. And each of female couples had a grinning child beside them as well.

“My, how things have changed,” I teased, gazing at the photos. “Were the ‘70s really that long ago?  Then the gays and lesbians were the insurgents, the radicals at Quaker gatherings. More and better sex, more often, with more people–wasn’t that the message, or at least the subtext?  

I pointed at one of the grinning male couples. “Now look at them,” I recalled. “I was at their wedding, up in Pennsylvania. Hell, it was more traditional than any straight Quaker wedding at my own Meeting in fifteen years, except for that one minor point of both spouses being male.”

I stepped back and surveyed the whole display. “The truth is, Eddie, your Lavender Friends Fellowship is rapidly becoming a conservative force among Friends. Marriage, families, kids‑‑that’s all you talk about anymore.”

“That and AIDS,” Eddie muttered, adjusting one corner of the display. “Plus the right-wing homophobes. Except not so much about them, not lately. Life is too short to spend all our time together fanning our paranoia. We even‑‑”

A rumble of voices came from within the auditorium. “They must be taking a break,” I said.

The doors burst open and out streamed a gaggle of men and women, most talking to each other, unaware of us at first.

Some of the faces were familiar to me; the rest fell immediately into two types: There were the pastors in their suits, which ranged from wool blend to polyester, roughly gauging their proximity to the evangelical end of the theological spectrum, and, of course, all men.

The liberals were just as distinctive; they looked like me: short sleeves or environmental tee shirts, numerous beards, and including several women, most likely librarians. Typical specimens of the two main species of Quakerianus Americanae.

For the most part, a group of Friends is a welcome sight to me. I felt myself starting to smile, and glanced reflexively at Eddie, expecting a similar reaction.

But his expression stopped me. It was frozen and hard and he was staring past me.

Looking back at the group, now dispersing toward the restrooms and the water fountains, right away I saw what he saw. Or rather, who.

Walking next to Lemuel Penn, chatting amiably and inaudibly, a yellow ribbon bright against the navy blue of his lapel, was a much taller, commanding figure:  The Reverend Ben Goode. 

– – – – –

Murder-Cover-FRONT-2015What’s ahead? Why, Murder Among Friends. First published in 1991, it’s back in print, and packed with excitement, and provocative echoes of a culture war which in many ways, despite much change, doesn’t seem all that much different 25 years later.

Available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.

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