Toucan Keep a Secret: New Excerpt

Toucan Keep a Secret

Donna Andrews

Meg Langslow Mystery Series

August 7, 2018

Toucan Keep a Secret is the 23rd book in New York Times-bestselling author Donna Andrews’s hilarious Meg Langslow mystery series.

Toucan keep a secret, if one of them is dead.

Meg Langslow is at Trinity Episcopal Church locking up after an event and checking on the toucan her friend Rev. Robyn Smith is fostering in her office. When she investigates the sound of hammering in the columbarium (the underground crypt where cremated remains are buried), Meg finds the murdered body of an elderly parishioner. Several niches have been chiseled open; several urns knocked out; and amid the spilled ashes is a gold ring with a huge red stone.

The curmudgeonly victim had become disgruntled with the church and ranted all over town about taking back his wife’s ashes. Did someone who had it in for him follow him to the columbarium? Or was the motive grave robbery? Or did he see someone breaking in and investigate? Why was the ruby left behind?

While Chief Burke investigates the murder, Robyn recruits Meg to contact the families of the people whose ashes were disturbed. While doing so, Meg learns many secrets about Caerphilly’s history―and finds that the toucan may play a role in unmasking the killer. Clues and events indicate that a thief broke into the church to steal the toucan the night of the murder, so Meg decides to set a trap for the would-be toucan thief―who might also be the killer.

Chapter 1

“You’re still at Trinity? What in the world are you doing there???”

The ding of an incoming text had raised my spirits temporarily—I’d assumed it would be Michael, texting me to say that Josh and Jamie were safely asleep, and maybe even including a photo or two from their bedtime story session.

But this text was from Robyn. She was the reason that, instead of being at home to help my husband put the twins to bed, I was here at the church at nearly eleven o’clock—turning off lights, making sure everyone was out of the building, and checking that all the doors and windows were locked. Things the Reverend Robyn Smith, as rector of Trinity, would normally be doing.

Not her fault, though. She would much rather have been here, instead of home on enforced bed rest for the last three months of her pregnancy.

I studied my phone’s glowing screen for a few moments, pondering what to reply. Obviously “doing your job” wasn’t an option, no matter how cranky I felt.

“The vestry meeting ran late” would be the most truthful answer, but probably not a reassuring one. Robyn would know all too well the issues her parish’s elected lay officials might be discussing, and none of them were likely to contribute to the calm, peaceful state of mind her obstetrician wanted her to maintain. Especially if she suspected that she was yet again one of the prime subjects of discussion. I’d overheard enough to figure out the Muttering Misogynists, as Mother and I called two of her fellow vestry members, had once again spent much of the meeting sniping about the expense and inconvenience of having the parish priest out on maternity leave. Of course, what they really didn’t like was having a woman priest in the first place. The misogynists were a minority, both in the congregation and on the vestry. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t make life thoroughly miserable for Robyn in her present situation.

And mentioning that I’d had to unstop one of the toilets in the women’s bathroom again would probably set her off worrying about whether Trinity needed a lot of expensive plumbing work that we could ill afford.

“The twelve-step meeting ran over,” I finally texted back. It wasn’t a lie. I’d been filling in for Robyn on the evening shift several nights a week for almost a month now, and I had yet to see a twelve-step meeting end on time.

“No idea why, of course,” I added. Also true. I considered eavesdropping on the vestry one of the benefits of filling in for Robyn—in fact, almost a job responsibility. And difficult to avoid, given the amount of shouting that went on lately. But I tried very hard to give the twelve-step participants their space.

“Of course. But you’re headed home now?”

“Yes,” I texted back. “In your office now checking on the admiral.”

“Give him a slice of orange for me.”

“I will,” I replied.

“And don’t forget to talk to him.”

“Roger. Later.”

I shoved the phone into my pocket and studied the covered cage containing Admiral Nimitz, a three-year-old toco toucan that Robyn was looking after while his owner was on active duty aboard the USS Harry S. Truman.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I said to the presumably slumbering bird. I felt slightly guilty, taking the bird away without telling Robyn. Toucans were gregarious, and she’d promised the bird’s absent owner that she’d keep him at the church, where interacting with the congregation would fulfill his social needs.

“It’s for your own good,” I informed Nimitz. With Robyn away, her office didn’t get anywhere near the traffic it usually did. And going into the office for the sole purpose of amusing the toucan was yet another burden on the already overworked volunteers. Frankly, most of the volunteers either didn’t bother with Nimitz or ran out of time. So even though Nimitz was not only noisy but incredibly messy, I was taking him home, where my noisy, messy family could see to his social needs. My cousin Rose Noire, with her passion for everything vegetarian and organic, would probably relish the complicated challenge of his fruit-and-nut-based diet. The boys would love talking to him. And perhaps I could even pawn him off on my grandfather, who was not only a biologist and a bird fancier but owned a private zoo. Surely the Caerphilly Zoo’s aviary staff members were the best qualified to take proper care of Nimitz. And then—

My visions of a toucan-free summer were rudely interrupted by a loud hammering noise.

“What now?” I raced out of Robyn’s office and stood for a moment, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. The back of the church, apparently. I strode into the sanctuary and down the center aisle toward the altar. I didn’t turn on the lights—partly to keep from alerting whoever was doing the hammering that I was hunting them down, and partly because I didn’t need to. The full moon shone through the soaring two-story stained glass windows along both sides of the sanctuary, casting great mosaics of multicolored light over the pews and the altar. I could see just fine.

The noise wasn’t coming from the sanctuary. Possibly from downstairs. Or more likely from the churchyard. I reached the back wall and peered out of one of the relatively tiny non–stained glass windows.

The churchyard would have been the perfect setting for filming a scary movie. One of those over-the-top Hammer Films with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The full moon cast spooky shadows from the gravestones and the weeping willows. And at the far end of the churchyard, another small multicolored splash of light spilled over the flagstone path that led to the crypt.

“Someone’s in the crypt,” I said aloud.

And then I immediately corrected myself. The columbarium. Both Robyn and Mother were adamant about using the proper term for a room whose walls were filled with niches to hold the ashes of parishioners who’d chosen cremation.

But to me it would always be the crypt. It was a surprisingly large underground room that had been hollowed out of the side of the steep hill at the far end of the churchyard. In the middle of its gray stone front wall, a large medieval-style oak door with impressive wrought-iron hinges guarded the entrance to the crypt. As if deciding belatedly that the door made the place look too forbidding, the architect had added long, narrow stained glass panels on either side of the entrance.

Stained glass panels that were now lit from within—a dead giveaway that someone was inside.

My first impulse was to race out and accost the intruder. But I’d recently had a discussion with my dad, an avid reader of mystery books, about the Too Stupid to Live Syndrome.

“It’s one thing to be a strong, independent heroine,” he’d said. “And quite another to go racing unarmed into danger instead of sensibly calling 911. People just don’t do that in real life. I know why authors do it, of course, because if the heroine just sat by and let the police handle everything, there wouldn’t be a book. But still—they should at least make an effort to have their heroines behave intelligently.”

“And why are you picking on heroines?” I’d replied. “Aren’t there male protagonists who race into danger? And yet I bet you’d call them brave for doing exactly the same thing that gets women labeled Too Stupid to Live.”

“An excellent point!” Dad had exclaimed, and we’d gone on to have a lively discussion about sexism in literature and film.

But I remembered the Too Stupid to Live Syndrome. So instead of racing out to confront whoever was in the crypt, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911 as I set out to investigate the source of the noise.

“There seems to be an intruder here at Trinity Episcopal,” I told Debbie Ann, the dispatcher, as I strode back through the sanctuary. “Out in the columbarium.”

“The what?”

“The crypt,” I said.

“Oh right. Back of the graveyard, in the side of the hill.”

“That’s it. There’s light coming from it, and there shouldn’t be. There wasn’t half an hour ago when I started making my rounds. And we normally keep it locked, although it wouldn’t be hard for someone to get in—everyone at Trinity knows Robyn keeps a copy of the key on a hook in her office, so anyone who wants to visit a loved one who’s buried there can borrow it.”

In fact, Robyn usually kept two copies of the key on that hook. Only one there now, I noted, as I grabbed it.

“And there’s a hammering noise coming from out there,” I added. I stopped to lock up Robyn’s office before I crossed the vestibule, on my way to the parish hall wing. Downstairs in that wing, at the end of a long hallway flanked by classrooms and storage rooms, was a door that would take me out of the building as close as possible to the crypt. “At least there was—I don’t hear it anymore,” I added as I dashed down the stairs.

“I’m sending a unit,” Debbie Ann said. “In fact, you’ll probably be seeing several. Horace is only a few minutes away, and it’s been such a slow night that everyone else is excited at the idea of backing him up.”

“I look forward to seeing them.” I had reached the end of the hallway and was unlocking the door, which led outside to a stairwell that climbed up to ground level. A wave of warm, lilac-scented air greeted me, replacing my vision of a creepy, haunted Transylvanian setting with the reassuring familiarity of a Virginia spring. Still, I stopped long enough to lock the door again behind me. Then I crept swiftly but silently up the concrete stairs and peered across the graveyard toward the crypt. I was reassured to hear the sound of a siren not too far away.

“Uh-oh,” I said into my cell phone. “I think the intruder might have figured out we’re onto him. The crypt door was closed when I looked before. Now it’s wide open.”

“Proves there was someone there,” Debbie Ann said. “And if they did any damage, Horace is the one to figure out who they were.” In addition to being an officer on the town and county police force, Horace was a trained crime scene specialist.

“Probably just kids,” I said as I picked my way across the moonlit graveyard. “Pulling a prank. Or looking for a little bit of privacy.”

And maybe kids who thought with Robyn out of circulation there’d be no one here to spot them at this late hour. Even if there wasn’t any damage, I’d be in favor of having Horace track them down so we could make an example of them. And maybe it was time to rekey the crypt door and come up with better security for the new key. My heart, which had been beating a little faster than usual, was back to normal.

“Creepy place for a rendezvous,” Debbie Ann said.

“I suppose I should be glad they were stupid enough to leave the door open.”

“Teenagers.” I didn’t have to see her to know she was shaking her head.

“Don’t blame their age,” I replied. “Offhand, I don’t recall doing anything like this when I was in high school, but I’m sure if I had, I’d have had the brains to leave everything as much as possible as I’d found it.”

“I’m sure you were an exceptionally logical and sensible teenager.”

The intruder or intruders hadn’t just left the door open—they’d also left a light on. A dim light rather than the moderately bright illumination that had attracted my attention, but still. No common sense.

I’d reached the door. I stopped to the right of the doorway and waited for a few moments to see if I heard any noises inside. Nothing.

The siren was closer. I knew I ought to wait for Horace.

I’d have to reopen that discussion with Dad. Ask him if the heroines he was complaining about were really too stupid to live or maybe just too curious for caution.

I stepped into the doorway and peered inside.

The dim light was coming from a flashlight that lay abandoned on the crypt’s stone floor. The flashlight’s beam illuminated the body sprawled nearby. Both the flashlight and the ambient moonlight washed out color, but I was still pretty sure that the puddle around the body’s head was blood.

“Tell Horace to hurry up,” I said over the phone. “My prowler report just turned into a possible murder.”

Copyright © 2018 Donna Andrews.

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