An Ascension Mystery
Ascension Sunday balloons are not the only things disappearing in the English village of Aidan Kirkwood. When the villagers celebrate the first Ascension Sunday Processional in fifty years, someone goes missing. A well off widow who was amongst the crowd has vanished into thin air. And she's not the only one who's nowhere to be found.
Berdie Elliott, the local vicar's wife, goes into sleuth mode as eccentric cat lovers, a secretive informant, Portuguese holidays, an enigmatic "tree" house, and tangled family dynamics all add to the perplexing affair.
The moon reflected a lovely gold off the sea.
“You’re just lunar light,” the woman chided the large orb. “But I’ve got the real thing.” She ran her thumb over the gold band that now decorated her left ring finger and inhaled the salty sea air. The light played itself across the water and onto the polished mahogany boat deck where she stood.
The past three nights, illumination from the Madeira coastline had been in view when they took the boat out. But tonight they went further out to sea.
She turned her gaze upward. “Which one of you is my fortuitous star?” she asked the silvery glowing dots that danced across the dark expanse of night.
Morgan, her husband of five days, was below board making things ready for another evening toast to their love.
After their refreshing paddle in the ocean, and for her it was no more than that, they would come aboard and go below to a bottle of champagne. Two flutes, each with three fresh strawberries, would host the bubbly chilling in a bucket of ice. A piece of rich chocolate would sit next to her flute, just as it had every night of their honeymoon so far.
“And then,” the woman said out loud, “and then, well.”
“And then what, Livy, my love?” Morgan’s unmistakable voice sounded nearby. “And just who are you talking to?” He came from behind, embraced her around her waist, and placed a peck upon her cheek.
She turned to face the man who had swept into her heart. “Just when I thought life had no more love in it, you came along.”
Morgan smiled. “Why don’t you go ahead and jump in, darling.”
She removed her voile beach cover-up, which revealed a white bathing suit that hugged her slender, middle-aged body. She stepped down the swim ladder on the boat’s edge and then thrust herself into the black depths. The cold water covered her completely. For one quick moment, she felt a sense of fear, an overwhelming awareness of being at the mercy of the ocean. The air in her lungs, along with a few solid kicks, brought her to the surface where she took two large gulps of air. Goose pimples popped on her exposed skin, the coolness of night assaulting her. She wiped the water from her face. “The water’s cold tonight,” her chattering lips warned her spouse, who still stood at the boat’s rail.
“Is it? Yes, I thought perhaps it would be.” His voice held little surprise.
Morgan’s face was just visible, his handsome features chiseled by moonlight. But there was something suddenly very different; emotionless, drained of any warmth. It made the freezing night ocean feel tepid.
“Liv,” he said flatly, “you are a lovely woman. Distinct, steady, yet underneath so very vulnerable, but a lovely woman.” He retracted the swim ladder. Then he turned away from her, as if it were a eulogy to a corpse.
Liv caught her breath as she paddled. “What?” She called after him. “Morgan? Stop teasing and get in.” She blinked, closed her eyes, and tipped her head to one side to drain out the water that must be distorting his words. When she reopened her eyes, he was no longer in sight. “Darling?” As the word escaped her lips, she heard the boat’s engine start. She tipped her head again, to empty the wet from her other ear, and shook it.
Water at the boat’s stern began to swirl. The sound of a motor became an actual roar, as if it were a lion announcing its ascendancy.
“Morgan?” she yelled.
The word was drowned by the noise of the fully revved engine that thrust the luxurious Island Flower forward. Like a torpedo shot from its port, the craft flew into the dark.
The wake created by the departure slammed salty wetness into her eyes and mouth. She choked and tried to move from the surge. A sense of panic charged her entire being, an electrical storm. Her mind churned like the displaced waters. Where’s he going? Why’s he doing this? Oh, what’s happening?
“I’m in the middle of a dream.” She wheezed. The icy wetness kept her cognizant that this was, indeed, happening in real time.
The boat had vanished.
The man who pledged to be faithful forever had just abandoned her in the depths of a black sea with no hope of survival.
Internal turmoil overwhelmed her like the sea in which she now struggled. The more the reality of it slapped her in the face, the less she was able to maintain herself afloat. “Help,” she screamed. Her survival instinct rose above the bitter disbelief. She fought to keep her hands and legs churning, paddling, churning. How long? Five minutes? More?
Her teeth chattered uncontrollably. The salt of her distressed tears now mingled with the briny liquid that held her captive. Her arms flailed as every muscle in her body tensed. The cold bit into her like a feeding shark.
Her stamina sapped by shock, she succumbed to the anguish of emotional destruction and waning body strength. Water laid its cold fingers along the edge of her nostrils.
She reared her head heavenward where one low star shone brighter than the others. “My fortuitous star.” Her chin sank. She couldn’t feel her legs. She weakly breathed. “He said he loved me,” barely eked through her numbed lips as the cloak of darkness embraced her. “He said he loved me.”
Berdie Elliott could hear it clearly. Despite the beehive-like activity that filled the nave of ancient St. Aidan of the Wood Parish Church, an unmistakable swoosh of the video chat’s “doorbell” emanated from the computer in the sacristy. “Hugh,” Berdie called above the din to her husband, who was vicar of this flock. “It’s Nick.” Excusing her path through balloon-toting youth, choir members, and strewn banners, she managed her way into the pastoral room.
Depositing herself in the chair at Hugh’s desk, where the laptop was opened, she smoothed an errant tress of her dyed, red-brown bob and perused the screen. “How did Hugh say this worked?” Excitement raced through her at the anticipation of seeing and speaking with their son, who was abroad serving as a naval officer. This software almost made it feel as if he was actually in England, in their midst. “I believe I click on this.”
The system went down.
“No,” Berdie yelled at the computer. She knitted her brows, pulled her tortoiseshell glasses down her nose a bit, and started clicking on whatever presented itself as something clickable. “Silly thing. You appalling, silly thing.” Berdie raised her voice. “Nick, love, can you hear me?”
“Berdie?” Hugh was next to her. “Oh, dear,” he muttered viewing the empty screen. “We’ve lost him.”
“Well, silly thing.” Disappointment and genuine frustration filled her.
“Not a problem, love.” Hugh put his hand on her shoulder. “And it’s not a silly thing. It’s a very handy thing if you know how to operate it properly.”
“Yes, well.” Berdie sighed.
“Bunch up, then.” Hugh gave Berdie’s shoulder a little nudge.
She rose from the chair.and Hugh planted himself in it.
“We’ll have him back in no time.” Hugh’s fingers began to dance on the touchpad.
Even now, Berdie felt a light flutter as she watched him work. This handsome man with his silver hair and blue eyes had asked her to marry him nearly thirty years ago, and she had never regretted saying yes. She rested her hand on his capable shoulder. “You need to go through with me how this works, Hugh.”
“I wasn’t paying proper attention the first time. All the preparations for Ascension Sunday took my concentration.”
And hadn’t they just? Had the specially ordered eco balloons arrived? Were enough ingredients purchased for the lemonade? Had the altar guild finish the banners? Was the village band well-rehearsed?
“Indeed. Well, it’s only hours away, now.” Hugh spoke as he watched the screen. “Our Ascension Sunday procession will be an uplifting time for our entire community. All the planning and work will have been worth every minute.” He made a final tap on the touchpad. “Here we are.”
Berdie hoped to see something that resembled her fair-haired Nick with his lovely blue eyes, like his father, and that admirable smile. But there was no Nick in sight.
“He must have left his computer,” Hugh offered in explanation. He took Berdie’s hand. “We’ll try again later.”
Berdie nodded. And she vowed she would pay proper attention to operational procedures. In her former career as an investigative journalist, she was quite technologically savvy. But having followed her husband into the church upon his distinguished retirement from the Royal Navy, she hadn’t the time or opportunity to sharpen her skills. It seemed as you learned to master one program or gadget, another new one came along.
“We’d best re-enter the fray.” Hugh’s tone conveyed a slight disappointment that their son’s call was missed. He ran a finger round his clerical collar and exited the room.
Berdie pondered how precious was the time when they were all under the same roof: she, Hugh, Nick, and Clare. Both children were abroad.
But now, there was another family of sorts. And they were in the adjoining room going about the business of getting all in order for the great Ascension Sunday procession and concert that would take place tomorrow immediately following the morning service.
As Berdie re-entered the nave, she spied Lillie Foxworth, her best friend, who was St. Aidan’s accomplished choirmaster.
“No, like this, Linden.” Lillie directed the somewhat gangly Mr. Linden Davies, who was bent over the sheet music on a music stand.
While the choir chatted, he rubbed his forehead as if trying to decipher secret code. “Yes, I think I see,” the man said with little confidence. Though not yet thirty years old, his light blond hairline was ebbing to high tide, giving him more and more forehead to rub.
When Saint Matthew Church in Mistcome Green called Lillie for a recommendation to fill their choirmaster position, she proposed Linden Davies, her voice student of the past eight months. He was the only one with any amount of willingness to take on the task.
While slender Lillie tapped a rhythmic finger along the sheet music, her short brunette hair in soft curls, danced with the tempo.
Mr. Davies metrically nodded—in complete counterpoint to Lillie’s pace. Quite a grand leap from student to director. Tomorrow’s fete featured a combined choir that included the little group from St. Matthew. It seemed Linden’s success was inextricably entangled with Lillie’s own. And Lillie was investing herself as if it were a royal performance.
An earsplitting screech shot across the nave.