Zion Hill is paradise in the Hudson River Valley. A religious utopia founded a century ago, it remains a peaceful oasis where residents worship, marry, live, and die in the name of their church. But when walking along the river, exploring the township’s quaint old cemetery, a local finds something that will shatter Zion Hill’s pious calm. On one of the headstones sits a human skull, staring with empty sockets at the rolling, muddy river. Murder has come to paradise.
Hollywood legend Charlotte Graham is in Zion Hill on a reluctant search for a nip and tuck when the skull is discovered. The victim was an aspiring actress and another patient of Charlotte’s cosmetic surgeon, and she was not the only one to die. In this religious paradise, vanity may be the deadliest sin of all.
Booklist has called Charlotte Graham “Miss Marple in furs and jewels.” Fans of Agatha Christie’s legendary female sleuth will find that Charlotte is just as clever, and will agree that Murder Among the Angels may be her most elegant adventure yet.
Murder Among the Angels is the 7th book in the Charlotte Graham Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Murder Among the Angels
A Charlotte Graham Mystery
By Stefanie Matteson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Stefanie Matteson
All rights reserved.
As was her daily custom, Doris Snyder saw her husband Paul off on the silver and blue Metro North express to Grand Central at seven-forty, and then, as was also her custom, she took her Border collie, Homer, for a walk along the four rows of railroad track that guided the trains carrying Westchester County's commuters down the Hudson River Valley to their daily labors in the city. Twenty-five miles to the south, the city was readily visible on a clear morning such as this one, when the morning sun glinted off the tips of the distant skyscrapers.
She loved this walk along the railroad, which was one of the few places in the area where one got an unimpeded view of the river. She loved the walk because she loved the river. Living near it was like living next to a majestic cathedral or a great museum: its very presence served to put her own problems into perspective. It was also a comfort, in the way a cathedral could be, the strength of its deep-flowing waters seeming to anchor the soul as well as the landscape. She was especially fond of this stretch of the river's geography, which seemed to her to embody all of its best qualities. At the northern end of the lake-like expanse of the Tappan Zee, it was wide enough at this point to give a sense of peace and repose, but not so wide (the Tappan Zee being three miles across at its widest) that one lost the sense of it being a great river.
After more than thirty years of living on the Hudson, she was intimately familiar with its many moods: the end-of-the-world mood of the dog days of August, the languid mood of Indian summer, the energetic mood of a crisp midwinter day. But the mood of the river on this late April morning was intriguingly out of the ordinary. It had been a hard winter, and spring, which usually arrived at Manhattan about mid -March, and then crept slowly up the Hudson to arrive at the Tappan Zee two weeks later, was taking its time. And so the two seasons of winter and spring, which were usually so distinct in their moods, had blended into an eerie amalgam. The sun shone with the gusto of a fine spring day, but it cast haunting shadows of naked branches on the ground, which swayed as the result of a cold, blustery wind that should have departed several weeks before.
Homer, who tugged lustily at his leash, seemed to share her opinion of the day. After lifting his leg near the old summer house that marked the spot where they usually turned around, he looked up at her imploringly with his velvety brown eyes and uttered a polite entreaty to continue, which took the form of a barely audible whine.
"All right, baby," she said, looking down at the dog, whose black and white face returned her gaze so appealingly. And thus they continued on toward Zion Hill Cemetery, which was their destination when they had the time for a longer walk than usual.
Zion Hill Cemetery was what she called it. She didn't know if it had an official name; she had never heard one. In fact, she had never heard anyone ever mention the cemetery, and she considered it her own private discovery. Although she went there often with Homer, she had never encountered anyone else, though there was occasionally evidence that someone had visited during the night: a cast-off beer can or a soft drink cup. These she picked up and put in a plastic bag that she took along for the purpose. She felt an obligation to keep the cemetery tidy because of her only child, Paula, who had died eight years before at the age of thirty-one. It was in this little cemetery that she felt Paula's presence the most strongly, more strongly than in church, more strongly. even than in the cemetery in which Paula was actually buried.
The hamlet of Zion Hill had been founded just after the turn of the century by Edward Archibald, a Scottish immigrant who had worked his way up from ticket taker to railroad tycoon. Archibald was a follower of the eighteenth-century Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg, to whom the Lord had revealed his teachings in a series of visions. Swedenborg recorded these visions in thirty volumes of theological works that became the foundation of a worldwide church called the Church of the New Jerusalem, or the New Church. Archibald had moved from Manhattan to the shores of the Hudson in 1909 with several hundred Swedenborgians to form a Utopian community devoted to the beliefs of the New Church. The community they created was outstanding for its graciousness, which was the product of Archibald's infallible taste and deep pockets. The houses were designed by the finest architects — most notably the firm of McKim, Mead, and White — and the grounds laid out by the prestigious landscape architecture firm of Olmsted Brothers.
But to Mrs. Snyder's mind, the most incredible thing about this Utopian religious community was the fact that it still survived, liberally supported by funds from Archibald trusts, and peopled with the descendants of Archibald's offspring, and those of the other original settlers. On the rare occasions when a house did come up for sale, the owner was usually able to sell to another Swedenborgian, there being a waiting list of Swedenborgians from all over the world who wanted to live there. As a result, ninety-five percent of the population of three thousand were still followers of Swedenborg, the exceptions being the inhabitants of the elegant houses on River Road, which was the only stretch of prime residential real estate in Westchester that fronted directly on the river. These properties had been reluctantly ceded by the community to the New York doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers who could afford them, their price tags being out of the reach of even the richest of the Archibald heirs.
As a lifelong resident of Ossining, the neighboring community to the north, Mrs. Snyder had in the past looked on the residents of Zion Hill with the same benign distrust as the other inhabitants of the area: not exactly as having five fingers and a dead body stowed away in the attic, but not as part of the respectable mainstream either. But her visits to the cemetery had piqued her interest in the church, and she had become quite knowledgeable about its beliefs. She even attended Sunday services occasionally, and had fallen in love with the wonderful neo-Gothic church, with its exquisite design and fine workmanship, which reflected Archibald's opinion that God's dwelling should represent man's highest artistic achievements.
A cardinal belief of the New Church was that of a material heaven: a paradise where one went after death, not to idle one's time away playing the harp in vague adoration of some authoritarian God, but to carry on with the work one had performed on earth. One did this not in the company of strangers who had also managed by virtue of their good works to ascend to the same levels, but in the company of close friends and relatives, and in particular with one's soul mate. It was Swedenborg's belief that everyone had a soul mate, whom they would meet, if not on earth, then in heaven. The two halves of a single soul would merge in heaven into one angel, and live forevermore in eternal bliss. This belief in the afterlife had the effect of producing among its adherents an enviable state of peace of mind. This peace of mind would have been sufficient on its own to attract Mrs. Snyder to the New Church, but the church also offered the comforting prospect that she would not only be reunited with Paul in the next world, but with her beloved daughter as well.
It was with thoughts of being reunited with Paula that, being led by Homer, she headed up the embankment on a narrow path of her own making through the tangled thicket of wild roses, raspberry canes, and bittersweet vines. At this time of year, the path was still muddy from the recently melted snow, though delicate green shoots were beginning to sprout from the excelsior-like mat of dead grass on the ground, and leaf sprouts were pushing their way out of the barren raspberry canes.
The belief of Swedenborg's followers in the afterlife was reflected in the minimal nature of this little graveyard on a wooded hillside overlooking the river. There were no roads to facilitate access to the graves; there weren't even any paths. Nor were there gravestones — not in the usual sense anyway. There were only markers: some of these took the form of headstones, but they were untended, tilted over in many cases, and usually lacking inscriptions. Others were merely rocks or boulders lying in the grass. Sometimes these had been rudely inscribed with the name of the departed, but more often they, like the headstones, were unmarked. Most basically, the graves were marked only by metal markers of the type used in public gardens to identify plants. In many cases, the names, which had originally been written in black felt tip pen, had been worn off by the weather, if there had been any names on them to begin with. The Swedenborgians clearly saw no point in going to any lengths to mark the spot where the body lay when it was only a material raiment for the spirit.
The most peculiar thing about the Zion Hill cemetery, however, was the arrangement of the graves. These weren't lined up in orderly rows, but were scattered haphazardly around: some off by themselves, others in pairs, still others in a circle, like a family that has carried the porch chairs out to the lawn for a spot of iced tea on a summer afternoon. Actually, it wasn't a lawn so much that the cemetery reminded Mrs. Snyder of as a beach. The arrangement of the graves put her in mind of that of the towels of beach-goers who have left to take a carefree dip, and who will be back momentarily. But instead of their clothes, the dead had shed their bodies. One almost had the feeling that one could wave to them out there on the Hudson, and that they'd shout back: "C'mon in, the water's fine." It was this that gave the cemetery its peculiarly joyful atmosphere, so different from the heavy, somber air of most cemeteries. Usually, in fact, Mrs. Snyder did — wave, that is.
As she gained the summit of the embankment, she sniffed the damp spring air, brimming with the promise of renewal, and turned to wave to Paula. Raising one hand and moving it slowly back and forth, she imagined Paula waving back from the "other side," as Swedenborgians called the afterworld, her dark head bobbing on the sparkling waters, and the silhouette of Hook Mountain, gold-capped in the morning sunshine, looming on the Nyack shore.
Impatient with this familiar ritual, Homer pulled again at his chain, and Mrs. Snyder leaned over to unleash him. It was their usual procedure: she didn't need to worry about a train coming along up here, and she trusted Homer not to venture from their route. A woman of habit, Mrs. Snyder always took the same loop through the cemetery, and always made the same stops, which included a greeting to one of the family circles of boulders, and a rest on a rock whose distinguishing feature was a surface whose contours fit those of her own amply padded behind. Depending on the time of year, this routine might vary. In recent weeks, she had been watching the progress of the blossoms in a colony of dogtooth violets growing in the leaf mold lining a depression where a body was buried. Though the buds had swollen, there were still no yellow flowers on the stems: only the erect pairs of brown-speckled leaves that guarded the emerging bud like sentries in camouflage garb. They should have been in bloom by now, but the wildflowers were just as dilatory as everything else.
Basically, however, the routine stayed the same. Which was why Mrs. Snyder was surprised when Homer dared to venture from their usual path. But dare to venture, he did. As they were heading back toward the path down the embankment, Homer suddenly bounded off toward the north, ears waving. Vexed at this uncharacteristic breach of decorum, Mrs. Snyder followed him through the woods toward a cluster of three headstones at the northern edge of the cemetery. They stood at the very edge of the embankment, two large ones and a smaller one. Though they were unmarked, Mrs. Snyder had always taken them to be another family group. Reaching the headstones, Homer proceeded to circle them as if he were a working dog of the Scottish lowlands, and they an errant clique of sheep. Then he paused, his forelegs braced against the ground, and started to bark: a sharp, disturbed bark that was distinctly out of character for a dog so mild in manner that he couldn't even bring himself to bark at the neighbor's cat when it deliberately set out to provoke him.
"What is it, baby?" Mrs. Snyder shouted with concern as she hastened her step, knowing that Homer must be very upset indeed to have broken with his own strict code of etiquette.
His response was to run back to her, circle her legs three times, and then dash back through the woods in the direction of the headstones.
Arriving at the cluster of headstones a few moments later, Mrs. Snyder saw immediately what he had been barking at, though she could hardly believe her eyes. Sitting on top of the most level of the headstones, which was the one in the middle, the patterns created by the sunlight filtering through the leafless branches playing over its gleaming white dome, was a human skull.
It stared out of dark, vacant eye sockets at the choppy surface of the river, as if it too were searching for someone it knew — someone who had decided to take a casual dip, and who was expected back any minute.CHAPTER 2
As Charlotte Graham drove across town toward the West Side Highway, she found herself pondering one of the weightier questions of her fifty -year career as an actress on the stage and on the screen. It was a question that she'd pondered many times before, both on her own initiative and on that of others. But on the previous occasions, the weight of the argument had always come down squarely on the negative side of the equation, and she'd managed to dispense with the whole issue rather quickly. But with the passage of time, the balance had shifted toward the center, with the result that the question had been dogging her now for several weeks: interfering with her sleep, her daily walks, and even — God forbid — the pleasure she took in a good meal. The question was this: to lift, or not to lift.
The issue had first come to the fore when her career entered the ten -year slump she called her black period: from the ages of roughly forty -five to fifty-five when her work had been limited to cameo television appearances and the occasional Broadway show. "Why don't you get a lift?" her well-meaning friends had advised her, thinking that a younger look might give her career a boost. But Charlotte had resisted, sensing that it wasn't because of her appearance that she wasn't getting work, but because she fell into that awkward category — for female actresses, anyway — in which she was too old to play young parts and too young to play old parts. Which everyone knew wasn't the case for men. Even the most wizened of Hollywood geezers could get away with the romantic leads until he was well into his fifties. Her looks weren't the issue at that point anyway: she had been blessed with good skin, and could easily have played much younger women had Hollywood been willing. The real issue, as she later learned, was politics, but that was another story.
By the time she had aged enough to really warrant a facelift, her career was back on track. It had taken ten years and a number of false comebacks — a critic had once quipped that her career had been recycled more times than a soda pop bottle — but Hollywood had at last rediscovered her, and she'd spent a busy and productive fifteen years playing women whose ages approximated her own. But she was now seventy-two. She didn't look it. In fact, people said she looked at least fifteen years younger. But she wasn't ready to be put out to pasture yet, and she knew the offers would dwindle if she started looking old. The issue wasn't one of vanity: she didn't really care how she looked. She had inherited a streak of the kind of Yankee righteousness that viewed a face-lift as a frivolity, if not a downright self-indulgence. To such a way of thinking, a face-lift was on par with eating crackers in bed, an act that had always been cited by Charlotte's stern Yankee father as a sign of moral turpitude, and one in which she still indulged with the gleeful perversity of the rebellious child. Apart from that, however, she actually took pride in the contours of her aging face, in the same way that the owner of a fine antique takes pride in its worn patina, as a record of its long and distinguished history. The issue was work. Work was her lifeblood; without it, she would wither and die. Her career was booming now as a result of the publication of her long-awaited autobiography, which had come out five months before to widespread acclaim. But what would happen when the hoopla died down? She remembered well the despair of her black years; it was an experience she didn't care to repeat. Nor did she want to spend the rest of her life being the guest of honor at various awards dinners. If it took a face-lift to prolong her productive years — to function as her ante for a few more years as a player, as her agent would have put it — then so be it (practicality and resourcefulness being two other Yankee characteristics with which she had been amply endowed).
Excerpted from Murder Among the Angels by Stefanie Matteson. Copyright © 1996 Stefanie Matteson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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