By Karl Fieldhouse
When Pastor Abigail Shaw finds a dead body in her church four Sundays before Christmas, she begins a struggle to prevent the railroading of the dead womans husband. Can she find the hidden evidence and expose the killer before her quest costs her her job, her reputation, her budding relationship with a state trooper, and even her life?
Abby hopes to prove shes an effective, professional minister to her congregation, her skeptical parents, and herself. She hasnt yet achieved a sense of belonging and competence in her twenty-seven years. Aware that certain members of her parish have reservations about her, she intends to win them over and make rural Frederick County, Maryland, her home and St. Lukes her long-term post.
Once she begins to uncover evidence that points to the innocence of the accused husband, she comes under heavy fire. Everyone seems to agree she should stick to preaching and leave investigating to the police. But Abby accepts the challenge to help disclose the killer, find those blasted clerical collar tabs, and show her worth as a person and a pastor at the same time.
The killer, however, places obstacles in her path by stacking the evidence against the husband, backing the church board presidents nasty rumors and devious schemes to dump Abby as pastor, and searching for the proof that will reveal his identity so he can destroy it
The first Sunday in Advent gets that church season off to an awful start: Nancy, the most hated woman in the church (possibly even the county), lies dead on the sacristy floor, clubbed with the processional cross and smothered with the Advent altar and pulpit hangings. The board president blames Abby for the possible loss of a Sundays contributions.
Abby nearly bumps into the state trooper sent to investigate the murder. From their first meeting, Abby and Ike Eichelberger click. Together they examine the crime scene, but the only thing Abby notices is the disarray of historical objects in the heritage cabinet.
Nancys son thinks his father killed her. Her normally docile husband has recently accused Nancy of stepping out on him. The sons wife listens in on his conversation with Abby, parading enough items from the dishwasher to the cupboards as an excuse.
When the husband returns from deer hunting in Pennsylvania, Abby breaks the news of his wifes death to him. He says the unknown man who won Nancys interest has to be the killer.
Once the police permit the cleaning of the sacristy, Abby helps a formerly close friend of the dead woman, a retired judge, and his wife, who has MS, restore it to its proper state. They object when they think the police lab team touched the items in the heritage cabinet. Abby gives the antique ciborium a whack so it matches its companion chalice and doesnt tilt to one side.
A visit with Nancys former friend reveals she hated the dead woman, whod promised to join her in opening a craft store and then reneged. Abby finds out Nancy was meeting her daughter-in-laws father regularly for lunch.At the viewing the night before the funeral, Nancys husband tells Abby that someone saw him in town the morning of the murder. Ike shows up to observe the mourners, and he and Abby get closer. The next day, Nancys husband is arrested. Abbys visit to Nancys lunch partner annoys him; he warns her to stick to her job, not other peoples business.
After a fractious debate over the churchs Christmas tree chaired by the organist, another person who disliked Nancy, a set of her personal receipts is found inside empty vase liners in the sacristy. Abby talks to the lawyer who was Nancys boss. He also advises Abby to stay clear of the investigation. But a young secretary meets Abby for lunch and tells her about CDs Nancy made that did not belong to the law firm. The same day, a set of CDs with no information on them arrive at the church. The enclosed card in Nancys writing instructs the unknown original recipient to forward them to the church if Nancy cant pick them up herself.
Rushing for her first date with Ike, Abby catches the end of a toilet paper roll in her pantsuit and greets him with a white trail behind her that stretches through her house. She manages not to hold his laughter against him, and they have a great time at the movies and then dinner. But Ike gets paged to a fireat Nancys house. An arsonist has burned the room holding her computer. Now the police take suspects other than her husband more seriously.
Ike begins to worry that the killer may be watching Abby. His affection for her grows, and he invites her to his mothers for Christmas dinner. Abby vacillates. The church secretary walks in on them embracing, laughs, and shows them a crèche into which Nancy stuffed her personal altar guild gloves. Another thing in an inappropriate place.
Abby appraises the obvious suspects, all in attendance at the Christmas party given by Nancys former friend, who has stuffed her house with unbearably tacky crafts. The friend dedicates the event to Nancy for improving the world by leaving it.
The nest morning Abby walks in on the organist, who has torn apart the church office hunting for special music for the Christmas Eve service hes lost . After he leaves, Abby recalls he minored in theatre during college. At the board meeting that evening, Abby refuses to leave when the board president wants her to so he can get the board to fire her. He accuses her of neglecting her work to play detective and of being a lesbian. She uses the churchs constitution, her official papers as pastor, and her dating relationship with Ike to derail his attempt.
During the board meeting or while Abby talks with Nancys daughter-in-law in the hallway afterward, someone trashes the church office again. The organist? The daughter-in-laws husband or father? The killer? When Abby discovers her home office has also been searched and a warning left on her computer, Ike talks her into installing bolts on her doors. Nancys lunch partner comes to her house, tells her that the board president has instigated an inquiry by the bishop that could lead to her dismissal, and accuses her of murdering Nancy.
While Abby helps decorate the church on Sunday, the board president, wearing a tie with lassos she mistakes for nooses, informs her the bishop will come to St. Lukes on Christmas Eve. Following a childrens pageant replete with minor disasters, Nancys boss shows up and demands the CDs sent to the church. Abby explains they have nothing on them and the police have them. Then the retired judge tells her he backs the board presidents effort to get rid of her because shes become tainted and therefore ineffective as a pastor.
Abby reviews all the things the compulsively neat Nancy left out of place. She remembers the ciborium and discovers a CD in its base. She tries to contact Ike but cant reach him. Afraid to bring the police on a wild goose chase, she boots up the disk and finds records that the judge sold his legal decisions. He walks in before she can call Ike again, tries to force her to type a suicide note, and justifies his actions as his way of taking care of his sick wife. He plans to push Abby and her car into an old quarry. Remembering she had the second-best forehand on her tennis team, Abby knocks him out with the heavy iron church seal used to stamp documents.
The Christmas Eve services go splendidly. The bishop exonerates Abby and suggests the board president leave the board and perhaps the church. When Ikes mother declares her a dynamite preacher, Abby looks forward to a better new year with Ike after an awful Advent.