All Mortal Flesh

Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne’s first encounter with Clare Fergusson was in an emergency room on a freezing December night. A newborn had been left on the steps of the town’s Episcopal church, where Clare just happened to be its new priest. That night in the hospital was the beginning of an attraction so fierce, so forbidden, that both Russ and Clare risked compromising all of their ethics and beliefs…

In the small community of Millers Kill, gossip spreads like wildfire. So when Russ’s wife kicks him out of the house, he figures it’s nobody’s business but his own—until a neighbor stops by and finds Mrs. Van Alstyne’s butchered corpse on the kitchen floor. To the townspeople and church folk, the murder is proof that the whispered rumors about the police chief and the priest were true. But nothing is as it seems in Millers Kill, where betrayal twists old friendships—and evil waits inside quaint white clapboard farmhouses…


Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne have been doing a lot of soul-searching-literally. At the beginning of ALL MORTAL FLESH, Julia Spencer-Fleming's fifth novel set in the small upstate town of Millers Kill, New York, Clare and Russ, after confessing their romantic feelings toward each other, have spent a week praying, crying and wrestling with their personal demons as they try to decide how to approach their decidedly forbidden love relationship.

The young, military-trained, female Episcopal priest and the married veteran chief of police might be an odd couple, but their love for each other is sincere and utterly believable. In the end, the two make the heartwrenching decision to part, never to see each other except in chance encounters at the grocery store and post office, to be almost-strangers instead of close friends and almost-lovers.

All this becomes a lot more complicated, though, when Russ's wife Linda is found murdered in the couple's family home. The long-married pair have been separated for more than a week, and both Russ and Clare certainly have means, motive and opportunity to kill the woman. Russ, nearly paralyzed by grief, feels compelled to pursue Linda's killer even as he copes with his own feelings of disloyalty, doubt and guilt. Russ also discovers that his late wife, who was so outraged to hear of Russ's feelings for Clare, might have been hiding her own secrets all along. Clare, too, tries to exercise her amateur sleuthing skills to achieve justice and to exonerate the man she can't help but love. In the course of the investigation, small-town rumors fly fast and furious, suspicions are cast, loyalties are tested, and the truth about Russ and Clare's relationship finally might have to come out in the open.

Russ must take his own investigation underground when the state police, tipped off by one of Russ's own men, begin to suspect that the department is covering up for their chief. In the meantime, Clare is also under suspicion, as a frighteningly capable new deacon shows up to put her oar into Clare's parish (and personal) affairs. Just when Russ and Clare, who have grown so important to one another, need each other most, they are unable to depend on the other at all. Just as in previous books in the series, the character development, as much as the mystery plot, will be what keeps readers engaged, turning pages and demanding to know what happens next.

With ALL MORTAL FLESH, Julia Spencer-Fleming takes her superb series to new and darker places. Mistaken identity, new characters and a painfully ironic plot twist drive the novel in unexpected ways, and the end of the book will take both Russ and Clare in unforeseen directions that hint at future complexities to come. With its fascinating, probing character studies and unusual ethical sensitivities, Spencer-Fleming's mystery series takes the genre to a whole new level --- and it looks like the best, most challenging chapter is still to come.

--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl

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Meg Tracey wasn’t the sort of woman who had to keep tabs on her friends. She enjoyed her own privacy too much to intrude on others, and she frequently quoted the phrase, “An it harm no one, do what you will,” which she had picked up in a book on Wicca she bought at the Crandall Library’s annual sale for a buck.

She liked to think of herself as a neo-pagan, and threw an annual Winter Solstice party with lots of torches and greenery and drinking of grog, but she wasn’t interested enough to dig much deeper into the philosophical underpinnings. It was enough for her that it annoyed the hell out of her intensely Catholic family (she had been born Mary Margaret Cathwright) and that it distinguished her from the vast majority of her neighbors in Millers Kill, a town she frequently described as “three stop signs East of Nowhere.”

It was a mutual loathing of the poky little berg their husbands had brought them to that first threw Meg and Linda Van Alstyne together. On the surface, they had nothing in common. Meg was the full-time mother of three while Linda, childless, was busy starting up her own business. Meg’s husband was a former peace activist who taught at Skidmore College; Linda’s husband “retired” to run the Millers Kill Police Department after a twenty-five year career in the Army. Linda was a meticulous homemaker whose two-hundred-year-old farmhouse was a showplace for her decorating skills; Meg’s house, like her, was careless and eclectic, filled with child-battered furniture and dog hair. Linda guarded her space, inviting few people into her sanctuary; Meg’s family room was always filled with sprawls of teenage boys, her kitchen overrun with giggles of girls.

But at an estate auction in Glens Falls, Meg (scouting out the Adirondack cedar chairs) overheard Linda (examining the hand-forged iron trivets) cracking a joke about Millers Kill (the punch line had something to do with dairy farmers and cow insemination.) She introduced herself. Their discussion led to lunch, which led to an invitation to Meg’s for a blender of strawberry daiquiris, which led to an impromptu dinner invitation since Linda’s husband was working late. As Linda’s husband frequently worked late, dinners together became a more-or-less regular thing until Linda’s custom curtain business began to take off in a serious way. Still, Linda touched base with Meg by phone if not in person almost every day. Especially since her husband dropped the bomb on her. Which was why, a full forty-eight hours after their last conversation, Meg was worried.

“I haven’t heard from her since Saturday afternoon,” she said into the cordless phone tucked beneath her chin.

“Maybe she’s at the Algonquin Hotel. Didn’t you say she’s spending a lot of time there on the renovation?”

“Not all weekend.”

“Honey, the woman does have a life. Give her a break.” In the background, she could hear the sound of rattling file cabinet drawers and footsteps. Instructors in Anthropology didn’t get large, sound-proofed offices. “Maybe she went out Saturday night, picked up some young stud, and has been holding him hostage ever since.”

“I wish. That’s what I’d be doing. And don’t you forget it.”

He snorted. “I believe you.”

“So if you think you can get away with any private counseling with one of those nubile young hotties you have floating around campus...”

“Please. I value my equipment too much to risk losing it.” She could hear Deidre slamming through the front door. “Mo-om! I’m home!”

Meg lowered her voice. “Get home early tonight and I’ll show you how much I value your equipment.”

Jack laughed. “I’m going to start paying all your friends’ husbands to misbehave. I’m going to find Russ Van Alstyne and plant a big wet sloppy one on him.”

“What? What?”

“Ever since he told Linda he was having an affair, you’ve been a total tiger kitten. Rrowr.”

Meg giggled. “Just reminding you how good you’ve got it.”

“Mo-om! I need a ride to piano!”

“I gotta go,” Meg said. “Deidre’s bellowing. Hold that thought.”

“Faster, pussycat! Faster, faster!”

She could hear Jack laughing as she hung up. He was right, she thought, gathering up her coat and car keys. She had been keeping very close tabs on him since the morning Linda, ping-ponging between fear and rage, had told Meg about her husband’s infidelity. It wasn’t that Meg thought she had anything to worry about. On the other hand, Linda hadn’t thought she had anything to worry about, either.

Despite the steadily falling snow, Meg drove to the piano teacher’s with only half a mind on the road. Deidre, plugged into her personal CD player in the back seat, didn’t say a word until a quick, “See ya later, Mom,” punctuated by a slamming door.

Okay. Now she had an hour to kill. Meg tried Linda one more time on her cell phone. The number rang, and rang, until a recorded male voice clicked on.

You’ve reached the home of Russ and Linda Van Alstyne. Leave a message.” Meg hung up. Without consciously deciding, she switched on her headlights and turned left out of the piano teacher’s driveway, headed toward the Van Alstynes’.

Linda lived on an old country road half-way between Millers Kill and Cossayuharie, dotted with houses that had been farms in the nineteenth century, widely-spaced, with quarter-mile long driveways. Good business for Meg’s son Quinn, who had kitted out his 200,000-mile pick-up with a plow to earn extra money, but way too remote for Meg’s taste.

The Van Alstynes’ house was set back, high on a treeless rise that gave them sweeping views in the summer but which looked desolate and wind scoured in the winter. The long, long drive hadn’t been plowed anytime recently. Meg drove up as far as her Volvo would take her, riding in the ruts left by the last vehicle to brave the hill, but around the half-way point she slowed, skidded, and slipped back several feet. Admitting defeat, she yanked on the parking brake and got out to walk the rest of the way.

Despite the gathering twilight, there weren’t any lights on that Meg could see. On the other hand, she would have to circle around to the west side of the house in order to spot the windows in Linda’s upstairs workshop. She banged on the mudroom door. No answer. Maybe Linda was out? Meg crossed the end of the drive and peered through the barn windows. No, there was her station wagon.

It was turning back toward the house that she noticed the odd blot in the snow near the doorway. She recrossed the drive to look at it. The falling snow was beginning to cover it, but she could see it was pink, and slushy, as if someone had plunged a spoonful of spaghetti sauce into the snow and stirred vigorously. At the sight of it, something cooled in the back of her brain, and she suddenly noticed the rhythm of her heartbeat making its way to the very edge of her skin.

She couldn’t think what it might be. But she really, really didn’t want to consider it.

She almost went back to her car. She would have to leave soon, to pick Deidre up on time. She examined the door, the granite step beneath it, the spotless bronze handle. Nothing out of place. Nothing odd. She took hold of the handle and turned it.

The mudroom was dark and cramped. “Linda?” she called. There was a thump, and a rumble, like a subterranean beast waking up hungry, and Meg jumped in her skin until she realized it was just the furnace kicking in. “Oh, for God’s sake,” she said, impatient with her imagination. She wiped her boots off on the bristly mat and opened the door to the kitchen.

She saw what was on the floor there.

For a moment, none of it made sense; then the reality of what she was seeing slammed into her and her lungs and throat filled with a scream that would have torn her voice clean out of her--

--and she heard a creak. Beyond the kitchen.

Ohmygod he’s still here he’s still here whoever did this is still here

Meg tumbled backwards out of the mudroom door and ran, slipping, rolling, slopping through the snow, catching herself on her car’s hood, flinging herself behind the wheel. She twisted the key so hard in the ignition she ground out the engine, then threw the stick into reverse and gunned down the drive, one arm twisted across the seat back, the other barely keeping the wagon from sliding into the snow banks lining the narrow way. She backed straight into the road without looking in either direction and slammed on the brakes, blocking both lanes of traffic.

She stared up the driveway. There was nothing stirring. No hand or face appeared at the open mudroom door. Then, with a suddenness that made her flinch, an orange-striped cat darted through the open door and bounded over the snow toward the barn.

Meg’s head fell forward onto her steering wheel. The cat. She had forgotten the cat. Linda visited the shelter the same day she had given her husband his walking papers. She had told Meg his allergies kept her from owning a cat for years, but they weren’t going to hold her back one minute longer.

Her whole arm trembling, Meg reached for the phone on the passenger’s seat. It was almost too heavy for her to lift. She dialed 9-1-1.

“9-1-1 Emergency Services. Please state your name and the nature of your emergency.”

“I’m...” Meg took a breath. “I’m Meg Gilchrist. There’s been a--someone’s been killed.”

“Where are you, ma’am? Are you safe?”

Was that something in the window? Meg leaned forward to get a better look.

“Ma’am? Are you okay?”

“Yes. Yeah. I think so. I think I’m safe. I’m not in the house. I mean, I was, but now I’m in my car. Across the road. Please, you’ve got to send someone.”

The dispatcher’s voice was both calm and authoritarian, like that of an experienced teacher. “I’m already alerting the police and ambulance service, ma’am. Tell me where you are.”

“398 Peekskill Road.”

There was a crackle over the phone. Then the dispatcher’s voice, this time alarmed. “Did you say 398 Peekskill Road?”

“Yes! For God’s sake, hurry.”

“Stay right where you are, ma’am. The first car will be there within five minutes. Don’t go back into the house.” The dispatcher sounded shaky, like someone reciting a well-worn prayer during a moment of crisis.

“I won’t. I--”

The dispatcher hung up. Meg stared at the phone. Weren’t they supposed to keep her on the line until someone got there? Inside her warming car, she shivered. She wrapped her arms around herself and settled in to wait for someone to deliver her from this nightmare.

“[A] dizzying roller coaster of a ride, with one wholly unexpected plot twist after another following in rapid succession. And just when things seem sorted out at last, the author has one last surprise in store for the reader, one that raises all sorts of questions about where the series is headed.”
—Denver Post


Mass Market Paperback:
384 pages
Minotaur Books; first edition (March 14, 2003)

Beth Fish Reads

“Julia Spencer-Fleming takes her series into new territory with All Mortal Flesh. Although the premise seems familiar, Spencer-Fleming's handling of it is anything but. At the heart of this complex novel is, of course, the murder. But the solving of this case is colored by small-town gossip, and Clare and Russ's friends and colleagues are not deaf to the rumors.”

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