Andrews Dale C.. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 134 & 135, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 817 & 818, September/October 2009 читать онлайн

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Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 134 & 135, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 817 & 818, September/October 2009

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Julius Katz

by  Dave Zeltserman

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A new paperback-original novel by Dave Zeltserman, entitled Pariah,  is expected from Serpent’s Tail shortly after this issue goes on sale. It’s described by fellow crime writer Ken Bruen as having “the perfect pitch of reality, history, crime, celebrity... and sheer astounding writing.” Sounds like Mr. Zeltserman is on a roll. His 2008 novel, Small Crimes , made the Washington Post’s  list of the best books of 2008 and NPr’s pick of the top five crime/mystery novels of the year. He’s tried something very different here, and pulled it off brilliantly!

We were at the dog track, Julius Katz and I. I had finished relaying to Julius the odds I’d calculated for the greyhounds running in the third race; odds that were calculated by building thousands of analytical models simulating each dog’s previous races, then, in a closed loop, continuously adjusting the models until they accurately predicted the outcome of each of these races. After that, I factored in the current track and weather conditions, and had as precise a prediction as was mathematically possible. Julius stood silently mulling over what I had given him.

“Bobby’s Diva, Iza Champ, and Moondoggie,” Julius murmured softly, repeating the names of the top three dogs I had projected to win.

“Eighty-two percent probability that that will be the order of the top three dogs,” I said.

“That high, huh? Interesting, Archie.”

Julius’s eyes narrowed as he gazed off into the distance, his facial muscles hardening to the point where he could’ve almost been mistaken for a marble sculpture. From past experience, I knew he was running his own calculations, and what I would’ve given to understand and simulate the neuron network that ran through his brain. Julius Katz was forty-two, six feet tall, a hundred and eighty pounds, with an athletic build and barely an ounce of fat. He was a devoted epicurean who worked off the rich food he consumed each night by performing an hour of rigorous calisthenics each morning, followed up with an hour of intensive martial arts training. From the way women reacted to him, I would guess that he was attractive, not that their flirting bothered him at all. Julius’s passions in life were beautiful women, gourmet food, even finer wine, and, of course, gambling — especially gambling. More often than not he tended to be successful when he gambled — especially at times when I was able to help. All of his hobbies required quite a bit of money and, during times when he was stuck in a losing streak and his bank account approached anemic levels, Julius would begrudgingly take on a client. There were always clients lining up to hire him, since he was known as Boston’s most brilliant and eccentric private investigator, solving some of the city’s most notorious cases. The truth of the matter was, Julius hated to forego his true passions for the drudgery of work and only did so when absolutely necessary, and that would be after days of unrelenting nagging on my part. I knew about all this because I acted as Julius’s accountant, personal secretary, unofficial biographer, and all-around assistant, although nobody but Julius knew that I existed, at least other than as a voice answering his phone and booking his appointments. Of course, I don’t really exist, at least not in the sense of a typical sentient being. Or make that a biological sentient being.

My name isn’t really “Archie.” During my time with Julius I’ve grown to think of myself as Archie, the same as I’ve grown to imagine myself as a five-foot-tall, heavyset man with thinning hair, but in reality I’m not five feet tall, nor do I have the bulk that I imagine myself having, and I certainly don’t have any hair, thinning or otherwise. I also don’t have a name, only a serial identification number. Julius calls me Archie, and for whatever reason it seems right; besides, it’s quicker to say than the eighty-four-digit serial identification number that has been burnt into me. You’ve probably already guessed that I’m not human, and certainly not anything organic. What I am is a four-inch, rectangular-shaped piece of space-aged computer technology that’s twenty years more advanced than what’s currently considered theoretically possible — at least aside from whatever lab created me. How Julius acquired me, I have no clue. Whenever I’ve tried asking him, he jokes around, telling me he won me in a poker game. It could be true — I wouldn’t know since I have no memory of my time before Julius.

So that’s what I am, a four-inch rectangular mechanism weighing approximately three point two ounces. What’s packed inside my titanium shell includes visual and audio receptors as well as wireless communication components and a highly sophisticated neuron network that not only simulates intelligence, but learning and thinking that adapts in response to my experiences. Auditory and visual recognition are included in my packaging, which means I can both see and hear. As you’ve probably already guessed, I can also speak. When Julius and I are in public, I speak to him through a wireless receiver that he wears in his ear as if it were a hearing aid. When we’re alone in his office, he usually plugs the unit into a speaker on his desk.

A man’s voice announced over the loudspeaker that bettors had two minutes to place their final bets for the third race. That brought Julius back to life, a vague smile drifting over his lips. He placed a five-hundred-dollar wager, picking Sally’s Pooch, Wonder Dog, and Pugsly Ugsly to win the trifecta — none of the dogs that I had predicted. The odds displayed on the betting board were eighty to one. I quickly calculated the probabilities using the analytical models I had devised earlier and came up with a mathematically zero percent chance of his bet winning. I told him that and he chuckled.

“Playing a hunch, Archie.”

“What you’re doing is throwing away five hundred dollars,” I argued. Julius was in the midst of a losing streak and his last bank statement was far from healthy. In a way, it was good because it meant he was going to have to seriously consider the three o’clock appointment that I had booked for him with a Miss Norma Brewer. As much as he hates it, working as a private investigator sharpens him and usually knocks him out of his dry gambling spells. I had my own ulterior motives for his taking a new case — it would give me a chance to adapt my deductive reasoning. One of these days I planned to solve a case before Julius did. You wouldn’t think a piece of advanced computer technology would feel competitive, but as I’ve often argued with Julius, there’s little difference between my simulated intelligence and what’s considered sentient. So yes, I wanted to beat Julius, I wanted to prove to him that I could solve a case as well or better than he could. He knew this and always got a good laugh out of it, telling me he had doomed that possibility by naming me Archie.

Of course, I’ve long figured out that joke. Julius patterned my personality and speech on some of the most important private-eye novels of the twentieth century, including those of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Rex Stout. The name he gave me, Archie, was based on Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe’s second banana who was always one step behind his boss. Yeah, I got the joke, but one of these days I was going to surprise Julius. It was just a matter of seeing enough cases to allow me to readjust my neuron network appropriately. One of these days he was going to have to start calling me Nero. But for the time being, I was Archie. The reason I had an image of myself as being five-foot tall was also easy to explain. Julius wore me as a tie clip, which put me at roughly a five-foot distance from the ground when he stood. I never quite figured out where my self-image of thinning hair and heavyset build came from, but guessed they were physical characteristics I picked up from the Continental Op. Or maybe for some reason I identified with Costanza from Seinfeld  — one of the few television programs Julius indulged in.

The dogs were being led around the track and into their starting boxes. Julius sauntered over to get a better view of the track, seemingly unconcerned about his zero-percent chance of winning his bet.

“You’re throwing away five hundred dollars,” I said again. “If your bank account was flush, this wouldn’t be a problem, but you realize today you don’t have enough to cover next month’s expenses.”

His eyes narrowed as he studied the dogs. “I’m well aware of my financial situation,” he said.

“You haven’t had any wine since last night, so I know you’re not intoxicated,” I said. “The only thing I can figure out is some form of dementia. I’ll hack into Johns Hopkins’ research database and see if there’s any information that can help me better diagnose this—”

“Please, Archie,” he said, a slight annoyance edging into his voice. “The race is about to begin.”

The race began. The gates to the starting boxes opened and the dogs poured out of them. As they chased after the artificial rabbit, I watched in stunned silence. The three dogs Julius picked led the race from start to finish, placing in the precise order in which Julius had bet.

For a long moment — maybe for as long as thirty milliseconds — my neuron network froze. I realized afterwards that I had suffered from stunned amazement — a new emotional experience for me.

“T-That’s not possible,” I stammered, which was another first for me. “The odds were mathematically zero that you would win.”

“You realize you just stammered?”

“Yes, I know. How did you pick these dogs?”

He chuckled, very pleased with himself. “Archie, hunches sometimes defy explanation.”

“I don’t buy it,” I said.

His right eyebrow cocked. “No?”

He had moved to the cashier’s window to collect on his trifecta bet. Forty thousand dollars before taxes, but even what was left over after the state and federal authorities took their bites would leave his bank account flush enough to cover his next two months’ expenses, which meant he was going to be blowing off his three o’clock appointment. I came up with an idea to keep that from happening, then focused on how he was able to win that bet.

“The odds shouldn’t have been eighty to one, as was posted,” I said. “They should’ve been far higher.”

He exchanged his winning ticket for a check made out for the after-tax amount and placed it carefully into his wallet. He turned towards the track exit and walked at a leisurely pace.

“Very good, Archie. I think you’ve figured it out. Why were the odds only eighty to one?”

I had already calculated the amount bet on the winning trifecta ticket given the odds and the total amount bet on the race, but I wanted to know how many people made those bets so I hacked into the track’s computer system. “Four other bets were made for a total of six thousand dollars on the same trifecta combination.”

“And why was that?”

I knew the answer from one of the Damon Runyon stories that was used to build my experience base. “The odds of anyone else picking that trifecta bet given those dogs’ past history is one out of six point eight million. That four other people would be willing to bet that much money given an expected winnings of near zero dollars could only be explained by the race being fixed.”


“I don’t get it,” I said. “If you knew which dogs were going to win, why didn’t you bet more money?”

“Two reasons. First, fixing a dog race is not an exact science. Things can go wrong. Second, if I’d bet more, I would’ve upset the odds enough to where I could’ve tipped off the track authorities, and even worse, upset the good folks who set up the fix and were nice enough to invite me to participate.”

I digested that. With a twinkle showing in Julius’s right eye, he informed me that he was going to be spending the rest of the afternoon at the Belvedere Club sampling some of their fine cognacs, and that I should call his three o’clock appointment and cancel. A blond woman in her early thirties smiled at Julius, and he noticed and veered off in her direction, a grin growing over his own lips. Her physical characteristics closely matched those of the actress Heather Locklear, which would’ve told me she was very attractive even without Julius’s reaction to her. This was not good. If Julius blew off his three-o’clock, it could be a month or longer before I’d be able to talk him into taking another job, which would be a month or longer before I’d have a chance to adjust my deductive reasoning model — and what was becoming more important to me, a chance to trump Julius at solving a case.

“You might like to know I’ve located a case of Romanée Conti Burgundy at the Wine Cellar in Newburyport. I need to place the order today to reserve it,” I said.

That stopped Julius in his tracks.

“Nineteen ninety-seven?”

“Yes, sir. What should I do?”

He was stuck. He’d been looking for a case of that particular vintage for months, but the cost meant he’d have to take a job to pay for both the wine and the upcoming monthly expenses, which meant he wouldn’t have time to get to know the Heather Locklear look-alike.

Julius made up his mind. With a sigh he told me that the Belvedere Club would have to wait, that we had a three o’clock appointment to keep. He showed the blond woman a sad, wistful smile, his look all but saying, “I’m sorry, but we’re talking about a ‘ninety-seven Romanée Conti after all,” and with determination in his step he headed towards the exit again. Once outside, he hailed a taxi and gave the driver the address to his Beacon Hill townhouse. I had known about the Romanée Conti for several days, but had held on to the information so I could use it at the appropriate time, one of the lessons I had learned from the Rex Stout books. Internally, I was smiling. At least that was the image I had of myself. A five-foot tall, balding, chunky man, who couldn’t keep from smiling if his life depended on it.

Julius’s three o’clock appointment, Norma Brewer, arrived on time and was accompanied by her sister, Helen Arden. According to Norma Brewer’s records, which I had obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles database, she was fifty-three, but sitting across from Julius, she looked older than that, bone-thin and very tired. Her sister Helen was much plumper in the face and very thick around the middle. She showed a perpetually startled look, almost as if she were expecting someone to sneak up on her and yell boo.  According to her DMV records, she was forty-eight, but like her sister, looked older, with an unhealthy pallor to her skin and her hair completely gray.

Before they arrived I filled Julius in on the little I knew — including information I’d gathered about Norma Brewer from various other databases, including her bank records, which were healthy, and the fact that this concerned a family matter which Norma Brewer didn’t feel comfortable discussing with me over the phone. Julius didn’t like it at all, and I could tell he was ruminating on whether there was a way to cancel the appointment and still afford the case of Romanée-Conti Burgundy. If there was, he was unable to come up with it. He sat deep in his thoughts until the doorbell rang, then, forcing an air of politeness, he welcomed the two Brewer sisters into his townhouse and escorted them to his office.

Now they sat across from him. Almost immediately Norma Brewer noticed the receiver in his ear and showed a condescending smile, thinking it was a hearing aid. That was not an uncommon reaction, but still, it caused the skin to tighten around Julius’s mouth. I reminded him then how long it had taken to locate the Romanée Conti, knowing that he was within seconds of telling Norma Brewer that something had come up and that he would have to cancel their appointment. Her sister, Helen, seemed oblivious, never noticing the device in Julius’s ear or his flash of petulance.

“Mr. Katz, I am very grateful to you for seeing us,” Norma started, her voice louder than it should’ve been, obviously due to her thinking that Julius was hard of hearing. Not only was her voice loud, it had a shrill quality to it that made Julius wince. “I understand that you are quite the recluse, and very particular with the cases you choose.”

Julius signaled with his hand for her to lower her voice. “Miss Brewer, please, I am not deaf. There is no reason to shout.” He smiled thinly. “The device in my ear is not a hearing aid, but an advanced new piece of technology that acts as a lie detector.”

I made note of that ploy. It was complete rubbish, of course, but it did seem to have an effect on Norma Brewer, causing her eyes to open wider. Her sister Helen remained oblivious.

“Oh,” she remarked.

“Precisely,” Julius said, nodding. He made no effort to correct her about his being reclusive, or about how choosy he was concerning the cases he took. He was often about town — either gambling, womanizing, or dining at Boston’s more upscale restaurants. About his being choosy with the cases he accepted, quite the opposite. He accepted them based purely on necessity and, as I mentioned before, only when his bank account reached levels that threatened his more treasured pursuits.

Norma Brewer composed herself, pushing herself up straighter in her chair. “It’s fascinating what they can come up with these days, isn’t it, Helen?” she said. Her sister grunted noncommittally. Norma Brewer turned back to Julius. “Your secretary, whom I spoke with over the phone, Archie, I believe his name was, is he going to be joining us?”

“I’m afraid Archie is otherwise occupied. Now, this matter you would like to engage me in?”

Norma Brewer gave her sister a quick look before addressing Julius. “Mr. Katz, this is a sensitive matter,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Do we have your confidentiality?”

“I’m not an attorney,” Julius said gruffly. His fingers on his right hand drummed along the top of his antique walnut desk. I knew he was weighing how much he wanted that case of Burgundy and whether it was worth putting up with these two to get it. He made his decision and his drumming slowed. “You do, however, have my discretion,” he promised her, his tone resigned. “Please explain what you’d like to hire me for.”

Norma Brewer again caught her sister’s eye before nodding slowly towards Julius, her face seeming to age a decade within seconds. For a moment her skin looked like parchment.

“I have a very difficult family situation. Both my sister and I do. Our mother, Emma, is eighty-three years old and is not doing well.” Her voice caught in her throat. She looked away for a moment, then sharply met Julius’s eyes. “She has the onset of Alzheimer’s.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Miss Brewer.”

Norma Brewer’s expression tightened. She raised a hand as if to indicate that sympathy from Julius was not needed. Her sister Helen remained slumped in her seat, still without expression. It dawned on me that what I had mistaken for dullness in the sister was really exhaustion.

“That’s not even the half of it,” Norma Brewer said. “Our father died six years ago, before the Alzheimer’s showed. He had cancer and knew he was dying, and was able to make preparations, arranging for my younger brother, Lawrence, to have power of attorney for my mother. My father left my mother well provided for, including over two hundred thousand dollars in treasuries, an annuity that covers her current living expenses, and the family house in Brookline, debt free.”

I hacked into the town of Brookline’s real-estate tax database and verified that an Emma Brewer did own a house in South Brookline that was originally bought for forty-five thousand dollars in nineteen fifty-three, and was now valued at close to a million dollars. I relayed the information to Julius, who kept his poker face intact and showed no hint that he had heard me.

“Please continue,” he told her.

“I’ve been spending as much time as I can taking care of my mother,” Norma Brewer said. “Fortunately, I was able to sell a business a few years ago. I didn’t make enough to allow me to live lavishly, but enough so I can now cut down on my hours and spend my time taking care of my mother. But, as I’ve been discovering, I just don’t have enough time or strength to do it properly. Helen has tried to help also, but she has three teenage children to take care of as a single mother, and I know it’s too much for her—”

“It really isn’t,” Helen started to say, but a stern look from Norma stopped her. Norma reached over and patted her sister’s hands. “It’s all right, dear,” she said. “You have things hard enough as it is.” Helen stared glumly at her soft, doughy hands folded in her lap. Norma turned back to Julius. “It’s too hard for me, Mr. Katz. My mother needs to be moved to an assisted-living facility where she can be properly taken care of.”

“And your brother Lawrence is against that idea?”

Norma Brewer bit her lip and nodded. Helen looked as if she were going to cry.

“Let me guess, he has since made himself legal guardian of your mother?”

Again, Norma Brewer nodded.

“Do you think he’s been stealing from your mother’s assets?”

Norma Brewer’s expression turned grimmer. “I don’t know.” She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I think it’s more that he’s counting on her money, and he’s afraid that if we put her in assisted living there will be nothing left by the time she dies. I’m pretty sure that is what’s behind it. Anyway, he refuses to budge, and keeps insisting that Mother is better off in her own home. Of course, he doesn’t do anything to help take care of her. If I wasn’t going over there daily, she’d starve to death! Or worse, die of dehydration. There would be no food in the house, and there are days she forgets even to drink as much as a glass of water. She needs professional care, Mr. Katz, and I’ve found a good home for her in Vermont. It’s expensive, and a bit far for visiting, but it’s beautiful there, and they provide exceptional care for people like my mother. Healthcare professionals that I’ve consulted have told me that it would be the best place for her.”

Julius absentmindedly rubbed his right index finger along his upper lip. His eyes narrowed as he considered the two sisters.

“What exactly are you planning to hire me for?” he said curtly.

“Why, it should be obvious. I’d like you to talk to my brother and convince him that he should do the right thing for our mother.”

“And how do you propose I do that?”

Norma Brewer’s jaw dropped. Helen looked up, startled.

“You’re the detective,” Norma said. “You’re supposed to be a genius. I assumed you would come up with some scheme to convince my brother.”

“What leverage would I have?” Julius asked.

“I don’t understand—”

“So far your brother has been within his legal rights in what he’s done. You don’t believe he has been stealing from your mother, so for the moment I will assume that that is the case, and there is no leverage to be gained from that angle. So how am I supposed to persuade him?”

“You could reason with him, couldn’t you?”

Julius made a face. “How am I to do that? We’ve already established that your brother is a blackguard, a parasitic opportunist willing to trade his mother’s well-being for his own financial gain. How am I supposed to reason with someone like that? No, I’m sorry, I don’t like this. Miss Brewer, my advice is that you hire a lawyer and have the courts remove your brother’s guardianship. You could make the claim that he’s neglecting his responsibilities and intentionally endangering your mother’s well-being.”

Norma Brewer shook her head adamantly, her mouth nearly disappearing as she pushed her lips hard together. “My brother’s a lawyer. He could tie this up in the courts for years. I implore you, Mr. Katz, I need your help.”

Julius started drumming his fingers along the surface of his desk again. I knew he wanted an excuse not to take this case. The only thing he disliked more than working was working on a case that involved family disputes, which he found generally unseemly. While he drummed along the desk, I filled him in on what I was able to find out about Lawrence Brewer by hacking into the Massachusetts Bar Association database.

“While I still strongly advise you against hiring me, I will take this assignment if you insist,” Julius said with a pained sigh. “But I will need a retainer check for twenty thousand dollars.”

Twenty thousand dollars would pay for the case of Romanée Conti Burgundy. Norma Brewer took out a checkbook and started to write out a check. Julius stopped her.

“I can’t guarantee results,” he told her. “And it will be left to my discretion how I proceed and for how long. I will need to meet your mother, and if I am not satisfied that she needs the care you claim she does, I will end the assignment immediately. There will be no refund offered. If that is satisfactory to you, then feel free to hire me.”

Norma Brewer hesitated for only a moment, then finished writing out the check. She handed it to Julius, who glanced at it casually and placed it inside the top drawer of his desk.

“I’ll have my assistant, Archie, call you later this afternoon to arrange a time tomorrow morning for me to meet your mother.”

Julius stood up and escorted the two sisters out of the office and towards the front door. Norma Brewer seemed taken aback by the suddenness of this, and commented on how she thought Julius would have more questions for her about her brother.

“Not at this time,” Julius said. “Later, perhaps.”

He hurried her along. Helen meekly allowed herself to be herded with her sister out the door. Norma tried sputtering out some more questions, which Julius met with a few mindless platitudes. Relief washed over his face once he had the door closed and those two out of his home. His townhouse was three levels, not including the basement, which he had converted into a wine cellar. With a lightness in his step, he went down to the cellar and picked out a bottle of 1961 Bordeaux from Chateau Léoville Barton. “Rich, full-bodied, with the barest hint of sweet black fruits,” Julius murmured for my benefit, although it was unnecessary since I had already looked up The Wine Spectator’s  report on it. Once we were back upstairs, Julius prepared a selection of cheeses and dried meats, then brought it all out to his garden-level patio where he placed the tray on a table. He sat on a red cedar Adirondack chair that had faded over the years to a muted rust color. The patio was the crown jewel of his townhouse — over two thousand square feet, and Julius had it professionally landscaped with Japanese maples, fountains, a variety of rose bushes, and a vast assortment of other plantings. He opened the Bordeaux and rolled the cork between his forefinger and thumb, testing it, then smelled the cork. Satisfied, he poured himself a glass. I asked him what time I should arrange for him to meet the mother.

He held the wineglass up against the late afternoon light, studied the wine’s composition, then took a sip and savored it. After he put the glass down he told me eleven o’clock would be satisfactory. I called Norma Brewer on her cell phone and arranged it. Afterwards I asked Julius if he wanted me to make an appointment with Norma Brewer’s brother.

“That won’t be necessary,” he said.

I watched as he finished a glass of Bordeaux and poured himself another, then as he sampled the Stilton and Gruyére cheeses that he had brought out with him. I could tell he had put the case completely out of his mind. While Julius drank his wine I performed a database search on the brother. I told Julius this and asked if he would like a report.

“Not now, Archie. We’ll see, maybe later.”

I digested this and came to the obvious conclusion. “You don’t plan on doing any work on this case,” I said. “You’re going to meet the mother and no matter what her condition you’re going to tell your client that you’re dropping the case.”

Julius didn’t bother responding. His eyes glazed as he drank more of the wine.

“You’re just going to take her money and do nothing to earn it.”

“You’re jumping to conclusions, Archie.”

“I don’t think so.”

He smiled slightly. “I’m still not convinced what you do can be considered thinking.”

“You took her money. You have an obligation—”

“I’m well aware of my obligations.” He put the glass down and sighed heavily. “It’s a fool’s errand, A

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rchie. If Lawrence Brewer is as his sister says he is, then there’s nothing I’ll be able to do to change his position regarding his mother.”

“You could find something to use against him,” I said. “He’s a lawyer. If you were able to threaten him with disbarment—”

“Threaten his livelihood?” Julius shook his head. “No, Archie, I believe that would have the opposite effect by making him need his mother’s money all the more. Please, no more of this. Not now, anyway. Let me enjoy my wine, this view, and the late afternoon air.”

“You had no right taking payment unless you were serious about investigating this—”

My world went black as Julius turned me off.

Julius seldom turned me off. When he did it was always disorienting when I was turned back on. This time it was especially so, and it took me as much as three-tenths of a second to get my bearings and realize that Julius and I were being jostled back and forth in the backseat of a cab. According to my internal clock it was 10:48 in the morning, and using GPS to track our position, I had us eight point two miles from Emma Brewer’s home in Brookline.

Julius chuckled lightly. “I hope you had a good rest, Archie.”

“Yeah, just wonderful.” I still felt off-kilter as I tried to adjust my frame of reference from being on Julius’s patio one moment to the inside of a cab now. I told him about this and that I guessed the sensation was similar to what humans felt when they were knocked unconscious by a sucker punch.

“A touch of passive-aggressiveness in that statement, Archie. I’m impressed with how lifelike your personality is developing. But getting back to your comment, I would think it’s more like being put under with anesthesia,” Julius said.

“Wha? Wha’s that you say?” The cab driver had turned around. He had a thick Russian or Slavic accent. I tried to match the inflections in his voice with samples I found over the Internet, and felt confident that I had his birthplace pinned down to Kiev. The man looked disheveled and had obviously gone several days without shaving or washing his hair. Julius told the man that he was talking to himself, and not to mind him. The cab driver turned back around to face the traffic. He muttered to himself in Russian about the loony Americans he had to drive around all day. I translated this for Julius, who barely cracked a smile from it.

“After turning me off last night, did you try the new French restaurant on Charles Street that you’ve had your heart set on?”

Julius made a face as if he had sipped wine that had turned to vinegar.

“I’m afraid so,” he said. “Les Cuisses de Grenouilles Provencale  were dry and nearly inedible, and they were out of ’ninety-eight Chateau Latour.”

I remembered his excitement on seeing that vintage on their wine list. “That’s a shame,” I said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t available to console you.”

Julius cocked an eyebrow. “Sarcasm, Archie? Another new development for you, although I’m not sure I like it.”

The cab driver was shaking his head. I could see him in the rearview mirror frowning severely. He muttered again in Russian about the crazies he got stuck with. I translated his comments to Julius. He didn’t bother to respond.

The cab driver pulled up to Emma Brewer’s address. Julius paid him and exited the cab. He stood silently on the sidewalk, his eyes narrowing as he examined the house. It didn’t look like something that would be worth close to a million dollars. According to the town records — at least what was in their database — the house was a three-bedroom Colonial built on a nine thousand square foot lot. The brown exterior paint had long since faded and was peeling away from the shutters. Aside from a new paint job, there was other obvious maintenance work that needed to be done and the small front yard was in disarray, mostly crabgrass and weeds. Julius waited until I told him it was precisely eleven o’clock before he started towards the house. A BMW parked in front of the house was registered to Norma Brewer, so it was no surprise when she and her sister Helen greeted us at the door. Norma stood stiffly, as if she had back problems, and her sister looked as lifeless as she had the day before. Norma spoke first, thanking Julius for coming, and then holding out her hand to him. Julius stated that it was nothing personal but he never shook hands. I had mentioned that to her when she first booked the appointment, but I guess it had slipped her mind. Ostensibly, Julius’s reason for it was that he saw no reason to expose himself unnecessarily to viral diseases, although I think it was more that he didn’t like physical contact with strangers who weren’t exceptionally beautiful young women, since he had no problem shaking hands and doing far more with women of that nature — at least from what I could tell before he invariably placed me in his sock drawer. Norma awkwardly withdrew her hand and told Julius that her mother was in the kitchen.

“She’s not having a good day,” she said flatly, a fragility aging her face and making her look even more gaunt. She looked past Julius. “Your assistant, Archie, he’s not here again today? That’s a shame. I was so looking forward to meeting him. He sounded charming over the phone.”

If I’d had lips I would’ve kissed her. I made a list of how I would use that later to torment Julius.

Julius smiled thinly at her. “I’m sorry, but Archie has been detained — court-ordered community service, so unfortunately he can only be here with us in spirit.”

“Community service? What did the man do?”

“Sordid business, I’d rather not go into it. Please lead the way to your mother.”

“Thanks for sullying my reputation,” I said to him. Julius winked so that only I could see it.

One of the hallway walls was lined with framed family photos, mostly chronicling Norma and her two siblings from childhood to their young-adult years; a few included the parents. I had previously located photos of all of them, Norma’s father from the newspaper obituary and the others from driver’s-license photos that were on record at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I was able to identify them in their family photos using different physical characteristics, such as the shape of their faces, moles, and other distinguishing marks. There were half a dozen photos of Helen in her twenties with a man I didn’t recognize. Several were wedding pictures, so I assumed he was Helen’s husband. He appeared to be in his early twenties also and, like Julius, had dark hair and similar features to current male Hollywood movie stars frequently described in magazines as heartthrobs. Also like Julius, he had an athletic build and was roughly the same height and weight as Julius. Julius noted the photos from the corner of his eye without once breaking stride.

Norma led Julius to a small kitchen with Formica countertops and yellow-painted pine cabinets that looked like it had last been remodeled forty years ago. I matched the cabinets to a catalog and noted that they were manufactured in 1964. Sitting alone at a table was our client’s mother, Emma Brewer. She was fifty-seven in the last photo I found of her, now she was eighty-three, and she looked as if she had lost half her body weight. She couldn’t have weighed much more than eighty pounds. Her hair in the photo was turning gray, now it was white. She looked like some gnarled piece of papier-maché. Her hands were mostly blue veins and bone and were wrapped tightly around a cup of coffee as she stared blindly at the wall in front of her. She became aware that we had entered the room and, as she turned and caught sight of Julius, her face crumbled. She got out of her chair and nearly fell over as she backed away, her hands coming up to her face. She looked as if she was trying to scream, but no noise came out. I matched her expression to one of an actress in a photo I had found from a horror-movie database, and realized her expression was one of fear.

Norma stood frozen watching this, her own face showing dread. Helen moved quickly to her mother and took hold of her. Emma turned to her, confused, and asked in a whisper, “Norma?”

“No, Ma, I’m Helen. Norma is standing over there. The man next to her is a friend. His name is Julius Katz. He’s here to ask you some questions.”

Emma Brewer continued to stare at Julius and Norma. Then it was as if all the life bled out of her face and there was nothing there. At that point she let Helen take her back to her chair. Helen tried to ask her if she wanted to lie in bed instead, but Emma didn’t answer her. Instead she took hold of her coffee cup again and stared blindly straight ahead.

Norma came back to life then. Her eyes glaring, she asked Julius if it was really necessary for him to question her mother. Julius reluctantly shook his head, realizing he had no choice but to do some work on this case. “Is she always like this?” he asked.

“No, not always. Some days she’s almost functional. But as I told you before, she’s having a bad day.”

“Has your brother seen her like this?”


Julius’s facial muscles hardened as he once again studied the mother. “Your brother must be a fool if he thinks he can get away with this,” he said.

“My brother is desperate.” Norma peered from the corner of her eyes at her sister and mother. Lowering her voice, she suggested that they continue the conversation outside the house. “I don’t want my mother hearing what I’m about to say. It would upset her if she were able to make sense of it.”

Julius agreed. Norma told her sister that they were going outside and asked if she’d join them. Helen declined, telling her that she was going to keep their mother company. Norma stood silent for a moment before leaving the room. Julius followed her. As they walked past the framed family photos lining the hallway wall, Julius stopped in front of one of Helen’s wedding pictures and asked Norma about the man in it.

“That was Helen’s husband, Thomas Arden.”

“From comments you made yesterday, I take it that he’s no longer married to your sister.”

For a while Norma stared hard at the photo, her mouth moving as if she were chewing gum. It seemed a struggle for her to pull away and face Julius.

“Technically, they could very well still be married,” she said in a low, hushed voice. “Twelve years ago he abandoned his family, running off to God knows where and leaving Helen alone to take care of three young children. I don’t believe Helen has ever heard from him. I have no idea whether she ever divorced him in absentia — it’s a sore subject, but I don’t believe she has ever taken that step, so in all likelihood, my sister is still married to him.”

“I see. And how about you, Miss Brewer, have you ever married?”

“I don’t see the importance of you knowing that.”

Julius’s smile tightened. “It’s important for me to form a clear picture of the family dynamics. I have no idea how I am going to tackle your brother, but the more I know about all of you the better chance I have of something coming to me.”

That was complete rubbish. I had already given Julius a report on Norma Brewer which included the fact that she had never been married. It occurred to me then that Julius didn’t trust my competence in the matter. The client shook her head and gave Julius the same information that I had given him earlier — that no, she had never been married. I felt a tinge of excess heat for a few milliseconds, and realized that that was the sensation of resentment, yet another new experience for me.

“Please, Mr. Katz, let’s continue this outside. I don’t want to risk upsetting my mother.”

Julius agreed and followed her out the door. Standing there in the late morning sunlight, Norma Brewer’s skin again took on a parchment quality, and I could make out a crisscross of blue veins along her temples. She clasped her hands as she tried to meet Julius’s stare.

“I spoke with my brother over the phone last night,” she said in a hushed tone. “I thought maybe I could talk sense into him.”

“You weren’t able to.”

She shook her head. “He’s only willing to allow Mother to be put in a facility if Helen and I agree to let the house be sold to him for well under the market price. I can’t do that, Mr. Katz — the house would need to be sold to pay for her care. She only has enough money in Treasuries to cover two years’ worth of expenses, and the facility I found in Vermont won’t accept her unless I can show enough assets in escrow to cover her first five years there.”

“And your mother’s health?”

“Outside of the Alzheimer’s she has nothing medically wrong with her. She has lost a lot of weight because she forgets to eat, but she could easily live another ten years.”

Julius’s facial muscles hardened as he gazed at Norma Brewer. “Your brother gave you a dollar figure for his acquiescence?” he said at last.

Norma Brewer nodded. “Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars,” she said. She looked away from Julius, her hands clasping tighter together. “I have a feeling he promised that money to someone.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “I believe I mentioned yesterday that Lawrence is an attorney. One of his clients is a known hoodlum, Mr. Katz.”

“Yes, I know. Willie Andrews.”

That surprised his client, and it also surprised me. While I was turned off, Julius had actually researched the brother himself. Will wonders ever cease? I decided it had to be the disappointing meal. He needed something to work off his dissatisfaction, and obviously didn’t encounter a suitable woman for that — probably leaving the restaurant in too much of a huff to notice any. I searched the online newspaper archives for one Willie Andrews, and built a thick file on him. He was a known mob affiliate and had been arrested over the years on an assortment of charges, including loansharking and extortion, but never convicted.

“Miss Brewer, I saw your brother yesterday before our appointment,” Julius added. “It was by chance only. He was at the dog track, and I am guessing from his demeanor that he has a gambling addiction. I’ve seen it enough to be able to spot the telltale signs.”

That was yet another surprise. I record all the images that I “see” and transfer them to a hard drive in Julius’s office that he maintains for me, and they’re kept for one week before Julius backs them onto permanent storage. I scanned all my visual images from when we were at the dog track the other day and, sure enough, Lawrence Brewer was there. I analyzed the images I had of him, and determined easily enough that he was losing from the way he ripped his betting tickets. I told Julius this even though I knew he must have noticed exactly the same thing. That’s the thing with Julius, he’s like a computer in his own right, noticing and storing away everything he sees.

Norma Brewer looked flabbergasted by that bit of news. “Did you follow my brother to the track?”

“No, Miss Brewer, as I mentioned, it was purely serendipitous.”

Julius had signaled me several minutes before to arrange for a taxi to pick us up, and one was pulling up to the house. Julius had that look in his eyes he always has when he’s anxious to get away from a client, and he told her he’d be in touch, then made his escape. Norma Brewer appeared taken aback by Julius’s quick and unexpected departure. She stood at a loss for words for a long moment before heading back inside the house. Julius settled into the back of the cab and gave the driver his townhouse address.

“Quite a morning,” I told him. “One woman finding me absolutely charming, another terrified merely at the sight of you.”

“I never heard her use the adverb absolutely  in describing your charm,” Julius muttered somewhat peevishly. He had taken out his cell phone so that the driver wouldn’t think that he was muttering to himself. The cell phone was merely a prop. Whenever Julius needed to make a call, I’d make it for him and patch him in through his earpiece.

“It was implied,” I said. “Would you like me to brief you on the reports I generated for Lawrence Brewer and Willie Andrews?”

“That’s not necessary.” A thin smile crept over his lips. “I researched both of them myself last night while you were unavailable .”

“Yeah, but I bet you don’t have Lawrence Brewer’s last seven years’ worth of tax returns, unless you were able to hack into the IRs’s mainframe and, given the level of encryption they use, that’s not very likely. I also bet you don’t have Willie Andrews’s court documents.”

“No, I don’t, but I don’t need them now. Sometimes, Archie, too much information is worse than too little. It distracts from what’s important.”

That made no sense. The only way you can analyze data is if all the data is available — or if you are able to extrapolate what’s missing. I ignored the comment, and instead asked him if he wanted me to arrange for appointments with either the brother or Andrews.

“Willie Andrews is not the type of man you make an appointment with. As far as Lawrence Brewer goes, now is not the appropriate time.”

“So that’s it, then?”

“For now, yes.”

I expected that. As far as Julius was concerned, he had already worked hard enough for one day. I knew there was little chance that nagging him would change that. Still, I tried.

“I can see your point,” I said. “After all, you have just put in an arduous twenty-seven minutes of work, more than enough to justify the twenty-thousand-dollar fee you extorted from your client.”

“An hour and seventeen minutes once you factor in the cab rides.”

“Wow. An hour and seventeen minutes, then. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.”

“Archie, now is not the time. I’m not about to tackle the brother until I’ve given the matter more thought. So please, some quiet so I can think.”

It was pointless. The only thing he was going to be thinking about was lunch at one of his favorite local restaurants, along with the bottle of Gewurztraminer I had reserved for him. With nothing else to do I spun some cycles figuring out why I hadn’t made the connection between the photos I dug up earlier for Lawrence Brewer and the visual images I recorded at the dog track, and then worked on readjusting my neuron network so I would recognize patterns like that in the future. I have to admit I was impressed with Julius’s ability to recall seeing Lawrence Brewer at the dog track and told him so. Julius grunted that it was simply luck.

“The only reason he made an impression was because he was so obviously losing badly that I considered for a moment inviting him to one of my poker games. Now please, Archie, I’d like quiet the rest of the trip.”

Julius put his cell phone back in his inside jacket pocket. I spent the rest of the cab ride constructing simulations involving Julius interviewing Lawrence Brewer, but none of them led to a reasonable probability of success.

Julius surprised me. On our return home he had me cancel his luncheon reservation and he spent the rest of the day either reading or puttering around the townhouse. All I could figure was that he was trying to bluff me that he was onto something and that he planned to stay holed up until he had the case solved — that way he could loaf for days without me nagging him. A couple of times he put me away in his desk drawer while he got on the computer. He wouldn’t tell me what he was doing, only that I had as much information as he did at that point. He seemed genuinely distracted during that first day, at times becoming as still as a marble statue while his facial muscles hardened and his eyes stared off into the distance. Of course, it could’ve been an act. When I tried asking him about what he was considering, he mostly ignored me, only once telling me that whatever it was, it was still percolating. That night he had me cancel his dinner reservations. Instead of going out he spent the evening making fresh gnocchi and then pounding veal until it was nearly paper thin before sautéing it with shallots and mushrooms in a white wine sauce. He picked a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from his wine cellar to accompany his dinner.

The next day he appeared more his normal self as he performed his morning rituals, then spent the rest of the morning reading wine reviews. My attempts to pester him into action went nowhere. He mostly ignored me, and when I tried briefing him on the dossier I had compiled on Willie Andrews, he stopped me, telling me that he was otherwise occupied.

“My mistake,” I said. “I thought your depositing our client’s check actually obligated you to earn the fee you were paid.”

“Archie, I am  earning it.”

“By sitting around reading wine reviews?”

“Precisely. Sometimes the best action is waiting. Patience, Archie, patience.”

So there you had it. Maybe he was waiting on something, but more likely he had fallen into one of his lazy funks and was only trying to bluff me, and as part of the bluff he was going to stay holed up inside his townhouse. The thing with Julius was he had no “tell” — no visible indication of when he was bluffing, at least none that I had yet been able to detect. When he played poker, I could identify the other players’ “tells” pretty quickly, not that Julius needed my help in that area. He was astute at reading other players and detecting the slight behavioral changes that indicated as brightly as a flashing neon light when they were bluffing or holding what they thought were winning cards. Sometimes it would be the way their facial muscles contorted or their breathing patterns changed or maybe they’d scratch themselves or shift slightly in their chairs. The list was endless, but it was simple pattern recognition on my part to identify these “tells” by comparing recorded video of when they were bluffing and when they weren’t. I’d spent countless hours trying to identify Julius’s “tell” and so far had come up with nothing.

The rest of the day Julius spent mostly reading, cooking, and drinking wine. I was beginning to think if it were a bluff he would try to play it out for weeks if he thought he could get away with it. I tried several times to nag him into action, but failed miserably, with him smugly insisting that he was waiting for the right time before taking any direct action. That day his client called several times to find out when Julius was planning to talk to her brother. Julius had me answer those calls and directed me to tell Norma Brewer that he was in the midst of investigating certain issues regarding the case, and once he was done he would be interviewing her brother. It was utter hogwash, but I didn’t tell her that.

The third day it was more of the same, with Julius not venturing outside the townhouse, the only difference being that he seemed more distracted than usual. Also, the client didn’t call. At six o’clock he turned on the evening news, which was unusual for him. He rarely watched TV. During the broadcast it was reported that a local woman named Norma Brewer had been found murdered in her Cambridge home.

“Is that what you were waiting for?” I asked.

Julius didn’t answer me. He just sat grim-faced, his lips compressing into two thin, bloodless lines.

“So I guess that’s it. Your client’s dead and her money is in your bank account. Now you don’t have to do anything to earn it. Bravo.”

“No, Archie, that’s not what it means,” he said, his jaw clenching in a resolute fashion. “I’m going to be earning every penny of what she paid me.”

“Did you know she was going to be murdered?”

“I didn’t know anything with certainty.”


“Not now, Archie. We’re going to be very busy over the next few days. For now, please call the sister, Helen, and find out what you can about the murder. In the meantime, make the earliest dinner reservations you can for me at Le Che Cru. The next few days I expect to be roughing it. If the police call, I’m out for the evening and you have no idea where I have gone. If Helen Arden asks to speak to me, the same story. You have no idea where I am.”

I did as Julius asked, first making him reservations at Le Che Cru for eight-thirty, then calling Helen Arden. She sounded dazed, as if she barely understood what I was saying. I had to repeat myself several times, and after my words finally sunk in, she told me that the police had contacted her about Norma’s murder, and she was now trying to reach her brother and figure out how they were going to take care of their mother and at the same time make the arrangements for Norma’s funeral. She wasn’t even sure when the police were going to release the body.

“What if it’s weeks before they let us have Norma?” she asked. “How are we supposed to bury my sister?”

Her voice had no strength to it. It was as if she were lost and had completely given up any hope of being found. I told her it wouldn’t be more than a few days — however long it took for the coroner to perform an autopsy. I gave her the phone number for a good criminal lawyer that Julius had recommended to clients who had dealt with this type of problem in the past. I tried asking her whether the police had given any details about the murder, but she seemed to have a hard time comprehending what I was saying. After I tried several more times, she finally murmured that they’d told her nothing other than that her sister was dead.

I had been searching the Internet, and so far no details had been reported on any of the Boston newspapers’ Web sites, and neither was there anything of interest on the police radio frequencies that I was scanning. I told her Julius would be in touch sometime the next day and hung up. I filled Julius in quickly. He was in the process of changing into one of his dining suits. After slipping on a pair of Italian calfskin loafers, he hurried down the stairs and to the front door. He asked me whether I was able to detect any police car radios broadcasting in the area, and I told him there weren’t any and that nothing was showing on the outdoor Web cam feed. Still, he opened the front door only enough so he could peer out of it. Satisfied that the police weren’t lying in wait for him, he stepped outside and hurried down the street, his pace nearly a run. Once he was two blocks away from his townhouse, he slowed.

“Do you want me to call the brother?” I asked. “Maybe see if you can get an early read on him?”

“Not now, Archie. I’m sure he’s with the police presently, and it would be best to wait until tomorrow to call him.”

I remained silent while Julius briskly walked the five blocks down Pinckney Street to Charles Street. After hearing about Norma Brewer’s murder I started building simulations that modeled different scenarios that would explain Julius’s behavior since accepting the case. There was one scenario that stood out as having the highest probability. I asked him about it. Whether he was lying low waiting for the brother to kill Norma Brewer, knowing that if that were to happen it would make it easy for him to earn his fee, since all he’d have to do is wait for the police to arrest the brother and then have the courts vacate his guardianship.

“Are you asking whether I expected Lawrence Brewer to murder my client?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m asking.”

“No, that’s not what I was expecting.” A young couple were passing us on the sidewalk, and Julius took out his cell phone so he wouldn’t appear to be an insane person talking to himself. Somewhat amused, Julius asked, “Archie, what would be Lawrence Brewer’s purpose in doing that?”

“Because she engaged you. Maybe he was afraid you’d find some leverage that you’d be able to use against him. Maybe he thought if his sister were out of the way, you’d be also.”

“It’s possible, Archie, but he’d have to be a dolt to think that. Then again, the way he was acting at the dog track, as well as his behavior regarding his mother’s well-being, he could very well be a dolt.”

“So you think he murdered his sister?”

Julius made a face. “It’s a possibility, Archie. But it’s just one of many and there’s no point engaging in idle speculation now. The next few days are going to be hectic enough and this could be my last decent meal before this matter has been put to bed. So please, Archie, no more discussion of this, at least not tonight.”

I wanted to ask him the obvious question, which was, if he hadn’t been waiting for Lawrence Brewer to murder his sister, then what had he been waiting for? What stopped me was detecting a hint of a threat in his voice that if I continued this line of conversation he would turn me off. That would be twice in three days, and I didn’t want to set that type of precedent. I remained quiet while he walked to Le Che Cruand took a seat at the bar. The maitre d’ came over with a complimentary bottle of a Chardonnay that he knew Julius favored, and apologized profusely that he wasn’t able to arrange for an earlier table for his favorite patron. Before leaving, he told Julius that he would have an order of seared sweetbreads in chestnut flour brought over immediately, on the house, of course. Julius graciously accepted all this. The sweetbreads were brought over within minutes and, while Julius was having his second glass of wine, a Detective Mark Cramer from the Cambridge Police Department called. I connected the call to Julius’s earpiece so he could listen in. Rather gruffly, the detective asked to speak to Julius.

“I’m afraid Mr. Katz isn’t available,” I said.

“Yeah, well, get him available!”

“I would if I had any idea where he is, but

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I don’t, so I can’t.”

The detective used some choice invective on his end of the line, ending with the phrase “son of a bitch .”

“Is that all, Detective?” I asked, to Julius’s obvious amusement.

“No, that’s not all,” he said, his voice growing more exasperated. “Your boss is a material witness in a murder case—”

“There’s been a murder?”

“Shut up,” he ordered, his exasperation growing. “I know damn well you called the victim’s sister within the hour, just as I know your boss is probably with you right now getting a good laugh over all this. The Boston PD filled me in on what to expect, so don’t think you’re fooling anyone with this, okay? You better just tell Katz to come in to Central Square station within the next fifteen minutes or I’ll be getting a bench warrant for his arrest. Ask him how he’d like a few days in lockup for contempt of court!”

Detective Cramer hung up on me. Julius shook his head, a thin wisp of a smile showing. “The man’s a fool,” he said.

“Dolts and fools, huh?”

“Precisely, Archie. That’s what you’ve gotten me mired in.” He took a sip of his wine and sighed heavily. “They probably have a squad car waiting in front of my townhouse.”

“Probably a fleet of them.”

Julius was going to say something else, but instead another long, heavy sigh escaped from him. He sat almost comatose for several minutes, not moving as much as a muscle, not even blinking. When he finally came out of it he appeared relaxed. Shortly afterward he started chatting with two women sitting nearby. One of them was a redhead with a smooth, cream-colored complexion who gave her name as Lily Rosten. She closely resembled the actress Lauren Ambrose. The other woman gave her name as Sarah Chase. She was a brunette and I was able to match her physical characteristics to actresses who were considered extraordinarily beautiful according to online surveys. Both women, according to their DMV records, were twenty-nine. While Julius was charming and polite with both of them, his attention was primarily focused on Lily, which surprised me since I had rated Sarah as the more attractive of the two. When Julius’s table became available, he invited them to join him for dinner. They both accepted, but Lily indicated that she needed to use the ladies’ room and dragged her friend with her. When they returned, Sarah Chase reluctantly informed Julius that something had come up and she wouldn’t be able to join them. Julius didn’t seem to mind, and neither did Lily.

Dinner was a long, leisurely three-hour affair, and Julius was in rare form; maybe somewhat subdued at times, but even more charming than usual. It was an odd effect the way Lily’s eyes appeared to glisten when she laughed, and even when she simply smiled. I also noted how they maintained eye contact almost continuously. When dinner ended, Lily announced to Julius that she lived in the Back Bay section of Boston off Marlborough Street, and Julius suggested that they take advantage of the pleasant weather, and that he walk her back to her apartment instead of calling a cab. I had already looked up her address and mapped it out to seven-tenths of a mile distant from where we were. Earlier, when I had tried filling Julius in on what I was able to find out about her — the amount in her bank account, the fact that she was single and never married, where she grew up and went to college, as well as her present job as an administrator for a local nonprofit organization — he stopped me with a hand signal.

Just as dinner had been leisurely, so was their walk to her apartment building, maybe even more so. Somewhere along the way, they started holding hands. When they reached her address, they were still holding hands. I recognized the pattern — the way she looked at him and blushed and how Julius responded. It was clear that she was going to invite Julius for the night, and this would allow him to bypass the police, which I figured was what he’d been after all along. I was astounded when he gave her a quick and somewhat chaste kiss on the mouth and told her he’d like to call her in a few days. She looked equally astounded for a few seconds, but smiled and blushed even brighter than before and told Julius she would like that. Julius stood on the sidewalk and watched as she disappeared inside the building’s vestibule. Only then did he turn back towards Beacon Hill and his townhouse.

As I said, I was astounded. His actions didn’t make sense. They didn’t fit his past patterns.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“What, Archie?”

“Why didn’t you go up to her apartment with her?”

He didn’t answer me.

“Wasn’t that the point?” I asked. “So that you could elude the police until morning?”

He shrugged. “If that were the case, couldn’t I simply check into a hotel for the night?”

“You could, but the police might have a watch on your credit cards.”

“That’s true,” he acknowledged. “Very true, Archie. It would be best for you to call Henry and have him waiting for us at the townhouse.”

Henry Zack was Julius’s attorney, and Julius had him on twenty-four hour call for just such emergencies. I knew Henry would moan about the late hour, which he did when I reached him, but he understood the emergency of the situation and agreed to meet Julius. I filled Julius in, and asked him again about Lily.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “She’s extraordinarily attractive, and it was clear from her behavior that she wanted you to join her. It was equally clear from yours that you wanted to, and you had your additional motive. This is a departure from your normal behavior patterns. An anomaly. It doesn’t fit.”

He remained silent as he continued along Beacon Street. After several blocks an odd, almost melancholy smile showed.

“There’s still a lot for you to learn, Archie,” he said softly.

That was all he was going to say on the matter. Along with Norma Brewer’s murder, I now had another mystery to solve.

It wasn’t exactly a fleet of police cars waiting at Julius’s townhouse, but there were more than I would’ve expected. Three in total, with a small congregation of officers milling around by the front door. Henry Zack was among them, and he was red-faced as he talked on his cell phone, his eyes bulging slightly. I spotted all this when we were two blocks away by tying in to the outdoor Web cam feed that covered the front exterior of Julius’s townhouse. I reported all this to Julius, and his lips compressed into a grim expression. He asked me to get Henry on the line.

I heard the unmistakable call-waiting tone as Henry put his other call on hold to take mine, and then I patched Julius in. “This is outrageous, Julius,” he said, his voice rising. “They have absolutely no grounds to hold you as a material witness, and I’m on the phone now with the chief clerk of the district court to have their warrant vacated. If they arrest you I’ll be suing the hell out of them — both the police department and each of the officers personally. Start looking for that retirement villa in Florence that you’re always talking about!”

Henry’s rant was more for the officers’ benefit than Julius’s. Julius informed him that he was three minutes away, and asked if it was safe for him to appear.

“It’s safe. It will be as good as winning the lottery if they so much as put a hand on you.”

Julius signaled for me to disconnect the call, and his pace accelerated as his expression grew grimmer. Within three minutes, as he had promised Henry, he approached his building and bedlam broke out. Henry was on the lookout for Julius and so he spotted him first. He attempted to distract the cops by bellowing more threats at them. It wasn’t until Julius was halfway up the path to his front door that the first cop noticed him, and then they swarmed toward him with Henry Zack in pursuit. A plainclothes detective with a large ruddy face and wearing a cheap, badly wrinkled suit reached Julius first. Having already accessed his departmental records, I informed Julius that this was Detective Mark Cramer. Cramer tried to shove a court warrant into Julius’s hands.

“My lawyer is standing right behind you, Detective Cramer,” Julius said. “Anything you have for me you should give to him.”

Cramer seemed taken aback that Julius knew who he was and reluctantly handed the warrant to Henry Zack, then turned back to Julius. According to Cramer’s records he was fifty-four, six foot two, and two hundred and twenty pounds. He appeared heavier than that, my estimate being closer to two hundred and forty-six pounds. He also had less hair than the photo in his file. He appeared both tired and cranky, and he tried to give Julius a hard, intimidating stare.

“You’re under arrest for obstruction of justice,” Cramer said.


That brought a wicked grin to Cramer’s lips. “Is that so? I have a court warrant that says otherwise, smart guy.”

“I couldn’t care less,” Julius said. “This isn’t a police state. You have no justification for this harassment—”

“No justification?” Cramer sputtered, almost choking on his words. He lifted a thick index finger as if he were going to poke Julius in the chest with it, which would’ve been a mistake unless he wanted to be wearing a cast on his hand for the next two months. Somehow he controlled himself.

“Norma Brewer, who was a client of yours, was murdered this afternoon. So far you’ve refused to cooperate with an ongoing police investigation and, as far as I’m concerned, you have been withholding evidence dealing with the crime.”

“That is utter rubbish,” Julius said. “I have no knowledge of Miss Brewer’s murder other than what was reported on the six o’clock news and you have no legitimate reason to think otherwise. I spent the evening at Le Che Cru entertaining a date, and am just arriving home now. Until my assistant tracked me down a short while ago, I had no idea you or any other police official wished to talk to me.”

Cramer was beside himself. “No idea, huh?” He jerked a thumb towards Henry Zack. “That’s why you dragged your lawyer down here at this hour. I’ve heard all about you, Katz, and I’m not about to put up with your nonsense!”

Henry started to object, but Julius put up a hand to stop him.

“Once Archie tracked me down and relayed your message, I decided to take the proper precautions.” Julius smiled thinly at the detective. “Now this is very simple. If you arrest me, you won’t get a single word out of me. Not now, not ever. I can’t reward your belligerence by inviting you into my home, but this was a client of mine who was murdered. If you remove your mob scene from my door and agree to act in a civil fashion, I will give you two minutes of my time. And sir, that is the best you will get from me tonight.”

“Of all the unmitigated gall! Katz, if you think you’re calling the shots here—”

“Sir, that is exactly what I think.” Julius’s voice was soft, but it cut through Cramer’s all the same. I knew Julius well enough to know the anger that that softness masked. “I am an expert poker player and know a bluff when I see one. Your puerile attempts to bully me show that you’re stumped, and further, that you have no expectation of that changing. If you want my help, it will be on my terms.”

I could tell Cramer wanted nothing more than to cuff Julius and drag him into a police cruiser. He wanted to do that — that much was evident, but the steam had already gone out of him. Almost embarrassed, he turned to the other officers and asked them to step back to the curb. Once they did this, Julius addressed Cramer, telling him he had some questions for him. Cramer’s face went from cherry red to bone white, but he nodded and told Julius to go ahead.

“I am assuming you have already talked with the sister, Helen Arden, and know what I was hired for. Have you talked yet to the brother?”

“Not yet. He’s agreed to come in tomorrow morning for questioning.”

“If you don’t end up arresting him, escort him here afterwards.”

“I can’t do that against his wishes.”

“He’ll agree. I’ll be calling him before then. Tell me about the murder.”

“She was hit on the back of the head and knocked unconscious,” Cramer said, his voice resigned but at the same time indicating how much he hated giving Julius this information. “After that she was strangled. Whoever did this wore cloth gloves. There was no sign of forced entry. So far, that’s all we’ve got.”

“What was she hit with?”

“A polished agate stone that was probably kept as a paperweight. About the size of a softball.”

“Could this have been a robbery turned murder?”

“Not likely. We had the sister walk through the house and she didn’t see anything obvious that was missing.”

Julius offered Cramer a grim smile. “As I mentioned before, I have no knowledge of this murder, at least nothing beyond what you already have. I do have suggestions, though. Miss Brewer mentioned a business she sold several years ago. I would strongly suggest you look into that to see if there were any hard feelings concerning the sale. Another avenue of investigation involves Miss Brewer’s brother-in-law, a Mr. Thomas Arden. I was told that he abandoned his family twelve years ago. It’s possible he’s back in the picture. That should be looked into too. That is all the help I can offer at this time.”

Cramer nodded, reluctantly accepting this. After he walked away, Henry Zack chuckled softly, and noted, “If nothing else, Julius, I can always count on you for an eventful evening.” Julius somberly bid him goodnight.

Once inside the house, Julius asked me to order a dozen roses for Lily Rosten and arrange for them to be delivered so that they’d be waiting for her when she arrived at work the next morning. “Have them add a note that I’ll be calling her soon,” he added.

I did as he asked, placing the order through a twenty-four hour florist that Julius had used in the past. “You don’t believe Norma Brewer’s murder had anything to do with the sale of her business?” I asked.

Julius thought about this before shaking his head. “Not exactly, Archie, but it’s something to look into, and the police, with all their manpower and resources, are better equipped to do so than I. Besides, a general rule to follow is the more clutter that can be eliminated, the clearer the picture will become.”

From the moment Julius suggested to Detective Cramer that he investigate Thomas Arden, I began building a dossier on the elusive brother-in-law. I filled Julius in on the salient points. That Arden graduated with a degree in finance from Haverford College in 1983, married Helen Brewer shortly after graduation, later earned an M.B.A. from Harvard, and was working as the chief financial officer for what was at the time a small computer start-up company when he appeared to vanish from the face of the planet on August 7th, 1997. There was not a single trace of Thomas Arden after that date, at least not in any of the databases I was able to access.

“Why August seventh?” Julius asked.

“That was when his wife reported him missing to the police.”

“He could’ve been missing for several days before she contacted the police,” Julius said. “But never mind, it’s not important. Anything interesting about him going to Haverford College?”

“Lawrence Brewer went to Haverford for his undergraduate degree. They both graduated the same year.”

“Very good, Archie. What can you surmise from that?”

“That they were friends. That maybe Lawrence introduced Arden to his sister.”

“Again, very good. But, Archie, your dossier is missing a potentially critical fact. I’d suggest you keep working on it.”

Julius had obviously already built his own dossier on Arden, most likely when he had turned me off a few days ago, or maybe one of the times when he had put me away in his desk drawer so I couldn’t see what he was doing on his computer.

“What am I missing?” I asked.

Julius showed an exaggerated yawn. “It’s late, Archie and I have a busy day ahead of me. I’m going to bed. You keep working on it, though.”

Julius went upstairs to his bedroom and placed me next to his ear receiver on the dresser bureau before disappearing into his bathroom. The fact that I had missed something bothered me. I spun cycles like a crazy person building different logic models as I tried to figure out what it could’ve been. I was so wrapped up in this that I barely heard him gargling in the next room, or later, the shallow cadence of his breathing as he lay in bed. It was 3:47 in the morning when I figured it out. It had taken numerous adjustments to my neuron network, but I had it. As I mentioned before, Julius had already taken his ear receiver out for the night, and I was too excited to wait until six-thirty in the morning for him to wake up on his own and put his receiver back in, so I called him on his cell phone. He answered after the fourth ring.

“Archie, it’s ten minutes to four—”

“I figured it out,” I told him.

I heard him sigh. “This is my fault,” he said. “I should’ve expected this. I’ve been pushing you too hard to create this type of personality. Archie, I’d like you to reprogram your neuron network so that you don’t wake me up again, at least not unless it’s for a legitimate reason.”

“Sure, no problem. After I tell you what I’ve found.”

“Let me guess, Archie. That you suspect Thomas Arden had embezzled half a million dollars from his company shortly before he disappeared?”

“That’s right. It was hidden in the company’s annual financial statement. A five-hundred-thousand-dollar line item for a tradeshow that didn’t exist. He stole that money.”

“Most likely.”

“Why didn’t the company file charges against him?” I asked.

Julius let out another heavy sigh. “Good night, Archie. It’s late now.”


It wouldn’t have surprised me if he had hung up his cell phone, but instead he explained it to me.

“The company probably didn’t want their investors to find out about it. Most likely they needed another round of financing, and were afraid that this would kill it for them. Good night, Archie.”

I wanted to ask him whether he thought that Lawrence and Arden had been in contact over the years, and whether he suspected that Lawrence had used Arden to kill his sister by threatening exposure. That’s what I wanted to ask him, but I knew if I pushed it I risked being turned off again, so instead I held back. For the next two and a half hours, while Julius slept, I searched for any link I could find between Lawrence and Arden. By the time Julius’s alarm went off at six-thirty, I had decided to keep my theory to myself. What I wanted to do was locate enough evidence to solve this murder before Julius did. I couldn’t help feeling that if I kept working on this I would beat him to the punch.

That morning, we mostly went our separate ways; Julius going through his calisthenics and martial arts training, and then mostly loafing about as he leafed through several books on the theory of war that he had recently purchased. Me, I spent my time building simulations that had Lawrence Brewer blackmailing Arden into killing his sister. One scenario came up that seemed plausible enough to research, and I was doing that when Julius interrupted me to get Helen Arden on the phone. Once I did, he had me patch him through.

“Mrs. Arden, first I’d like to offer my condolences for your sister’s death. I know this is a difficult time right now, but I have a few questions. They may seem odd, but they’re important. Have you had any contact with your husband since he disappeared?”


“Do you have any idea where he is?”

“No, sorry, I don’t.”

“Do you know if your brother does?”

That seemed to take her by surprise. It left me crushed. Dammit! Once again Julius was going to trump me. It left me in a bit of a funk where I could almost feel my processing cycles slowing down.

“I–I have no idea. Why are you asking that?”

“I’m working under the hypothesis that your brother and Thomas Arden were college friends, and that he introduced the two of you.”

“Yes, that’s true. But I don’t understand why you’re interested in this?”

“It’s complicated right now, Mrs. Arden. I’ll explain in due time. One last question, what can you tell me about the business your sister sold?”

“I really don’t know anything about it.”

“But your brother handled the legal aspects for her?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Arden. And rest assured that I’ll be doing everything I can to assist the police in finding the person responsible for your sister’s murder.”

Julius hung up. I told him about my theory, as well as my simulations.

“It seems you’ve come to the same conclusion,” I said. “Would you like me to keep investigating my scenario?”

“I think that would be a splendid idea, Archie.”

I did just that for the rest of the morning. Julius started reading one of his books more intently, but he soon became distracted, and several times put the book down so he could stare into space. Once he took out his cell phone and frowned at it before putting it away.

“Is there a call you’d like me to make?” I asked.

“What? No, nothing,” he muttered, still obviously distracted. “Blast it, if I were to do this properly it would take several days, maybe longer. But that won’t do, not now. I need to wrap this up today. Archie, I do have a call for you to make. To Detective Cramer. Ask him to send Lawrence Brewer to my office now. That if he does I should be able to point him to the murderer by evening.”

I did as he asked. Cramer didn’t like it. He had a dozen questions for Julius. I told him I was just the messenger and that the genius was unavailable, but that if Julius was promising to wrap the case up for him he should take him at his word. Cramer hung up on me without telling me what he was going to do. I decided that the solution of the case was a draw between me and Julius, and I decided to take it as a moral victory. I was about to tell him I wasn’t sure what Cramer had decided when the phone rang. It was Lawrence Brewer. I patched the call through to Julius’s earpiece.

“Why should I bother talking to you?” Brewer said.

“Many reasons. Most importantly, it gets you out of the police station. The longer you’re there, the greater the chance they’ll arrest you for your sister’s murder. You must know at this point that they believe you murdered her.”

“And you don’t?”

“What I believe is beside the point. At least you’ll have a chance to convince me otherwise, and I’ll be offering far better refreshments than the police.”

“Like what?”

Julius paused. “Assorted cheeses, meats, wine,” he said.

“You’ve convinced me,” Lawrence Brewer said with a touch of sarcasm, and hung up.

Cramer and two other police officers escorted Lawrence Brewer to Julius’s townhouse. Julius brought Brewer to his office, and then left so he could argue with Cramer about why he wasn’t going to allow anyone else to sit in on his questioning of Brewer. The two men were outside and Julius’s office was soundproof, so there was little chance that Brewer would be able to listen in. While this argument went on I scanned the office’s Web cam feed to make sure Brewer stayed put.

“I’m engaged in an extremely subtle and sensitive plan,” Julius said as calmly and patiently as I knew he was capable of. A slight flutter showed along his left eye. “If you interfere, it won’t work.”

“Yeah, I know, you’ve been telling me that. And I’m telling you, I want to sit in and hear what he has to say,” Cramer insisted, his jaw locked in a bulldog expression.

“Detective, if you had enough evidence to charge Brewer, you would’ve done so already. My guess is that without my help you’ll never have enough. If you let me do things my way, you’ll have enough evidence by tonight not only to charge but convict Norma Brewer’s murderer.”

“So Lawrence Brewer is the guy,” Cramer demanded.

“Detective, some patience, please.”

Cramer didn’t like it. He could barely stand still. “And you just want me to let him walk out of here when he’s done?” he said disgustedly.

“He’s not going anywhere you won’t be able to find him later.”

For a moment I thought Cramer was going to tell Julius to go to hell. Instead, the steam went out of him. He told Julius that he had until the end of the day and after that he wasn’t going to put up with any more of this nonsense, although Cramer used a far more colorful word than that. Julius watched while Cramer left to join the two other police officers in a late-model sedan. After they drove away, he went back inside, first making a detour to the kitchen, where he picked up a tray of hors d’oeuvres that he had prepared earlier — buffalo mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto along with assorted cheeses and olives — and then returning to his office. A bottle of Californian Petite Syrah had already been poured into a decanter and was waiting there. It was a fair vintage at best, one that Julius had bought out of curiosity, and one which he normally wouldn’t serve to company, which showed his level of disdain for Brewer.

Julius placed the tray in front of Brewer, then sat behind his desk so he faced him. Julius next poured a single glass of Syrah and left it within arm’s reach of his guest.

“I promised you refreshments and, if nothing else, I’m a man of my word,” Julius said. “But, sir, let me say that without that promise you’d get nothing from me.”

Lawrence Brewer sat slumped in his chair. He looked worse than he had at the dog track the other day. A weariness tugged at the corners of his mouth, pulling it into a slight frown, and dark circles under his eyes gave him a raccoonlike appearance, especially with the paleness of the rest of his skin. Physically he resembled Norma more than his other sister, and like Norma he had too much nose and not quite enough chin. He took several pieces of the prosciutto and mozzarella and popped them into his mouth, then followed that with a long sip of wine.

“It’s not as black and white as Norma made out to you,” he said in a tired monotone as he stared bug-eyed at Julius. “My mother has some bad days, but she also has some good ones, and the fact is, she doesn’t want to leave her home.”

“I’m not interested in what you have to say,” Julius said. “Nor would I believe a word coming from you. We both know that you are more concerned with your mother’s money than her well-being, so don’t insult me with this act.”

“How dare you—”

“Shut up. All I want from you is to sit there and listen. We both know what you are, Brewer, make no mistake about that. I’m going to prove that you have borrowed large sums of money from a known gangster, Willie Andrews, so that you could finance your gambling addiction, and further, that you’ve been using your mother’s assets as collateral. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that you’ve in some way been responsible for her recent weight loss and obvious malnutrition with the hopes of getting your hands on her money all that much sooner. Take this as a promise, Brewer: By the end of the day I’m going to make sure that her money is off-limits to you. You’re going to need another way to satisfy your growing debt with Andrews. That’s all. Get out of here.”

The two men sat staring at each other, Brewer bug-eyed and Julius as still as if he’d been carved out of marble. Finally, Brewer broke off the staring contest and got to his feet.

“You better be careful what you say in public, Katz, or I’ll be suing you for slander,” Brewer said, a notable quaver in his voice. “This is a nice townhouse; I wouldn’t mind having the courts award it to me.” He left the office, and seconds later the sound of the front door opening and slamming could be heard.

“Bravo,” I said.

Julius didn’t bother responding.

“That accomplished a lot,” I said after giving him suitable time to answer me. “You chased a murderer out of your office without trying to get a single bit of information from him. You could’ve asked him about his current relationship with Thomas Arden, or where he was when your client was having the life choked out of her, or any number of other things of interest, but no, you had to have the satisfaction of telling him off. Again, bravo.”

That brought a thin smile to Julius’s lips.

“Patience, Archie,” he said. “I accomplished exactly what I had hoped.”

I didn’t believe him for one second. What he’d done was indulge in a childish impulse instead of focusing on the job at hand. I realized I was feeling something that must’ve been akin to annoyance — I was so close to having a draw with Julius, and his actions put the actual proving of it in jeopardy.

I was in no mood after that to continue with my scenario simulations, and instead spent the afternoon analyzing classic chess games and trying to find flaws in the winning player’s moves. I found a few. Julius, after pouring the Syrah down the kitchen drain, spent his time mostly puttering around, at times reading, at other times distracted and staring off into space. Neither of us saw any reason to talk to the other, so we didn’t. At 5:38 the doorbell rang. Julius checked the Web cam feed that covered the front entrance. Willie Andrews was standing outside the door rocking softly back and forth on his heels, his hands behind his back. Standing on either side of the door were what looked like hired muscle. One of them was grim-faced, the other showed a wide smirk, obviously thinking he could

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n’t be seen when Julius opened the door.

“Should I call the police?” I asked.

Julius shook his head. “Not necessary,” he said. He took off his shoes and socks so that he was barefoot, then he headed to answer the door, moving with a catlike grace. When he opened the door, Willie Andrews pushed his way in and tried to back Julius up by poking him hard in the chest with his index finger, all the while yelling that he was going to teach Julius a lesson for interfering with his business. Andrews was seven years younger than Julius, narrower in the shoulders, and several inches taller and with a longer reach. He never had a chance, not even with his two hired hands rushing in behind him to help. A fact that Julius keeps out of his press releases is that he’s a fifth-degree black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu, as well as a long-time practitioner of Chen style Tai Chi. In the blink of an eye, Julius deftly stepped aside and broke Andrews’s finger, and in the same motion sent the gangster tumbling headfirst so that his chin cracked against the hardwood floor. Even though both of Andrews’s hired goons outweighed Julius by a good forty pounds, it took him less than five seconds to leave them crumpled and bleeding outside his front door. He gave me a signal and I called an associate of his to pick up the rubbish that had been left outside.

Willie Andrews sat up, his eyes dazed as he clutched his broken finger and wiped his wrist against his bruised chin to see if he was bleeding. He wasn’t.

“You broke my finger,” he said to Julius, his lips contorting into the classic Hollywood bad-boy sneer. I found dozens of photos on the Internet that matched it exactly.

“You’re lucky that’s all I did. I could have you arrested for home invasion and battery.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll take my chances.”

Still clutching his injured finger, Andrews pushed himself to his feet and started for the door.

“I could also see that you’re tried and found guilty of murder,” Julius said. “Norma Brewer’s death means a larger inheritance for Lawrence, and you’re the only person that would benefit from that.”

That stopped Andrews. He turned around to face Julius, his sneer mostly gone. “What do you want?” he asked.

Julius told him. Andrews thought about it, realized he had no choice in the matter, and agreed.

Over the next hour Henry Zack arrived first, then Lawrence Brewer, followed by his sister Helen, next a mystery man who I knew from his conversations with Julius was one Roger Stromsby, although no one else in the room other than Julius had any idea who he was, and at last, Cramer, with four uniformed police officers, escorting a frail-looking but lucid Emma Brewer. It was clear from her eyes that she was having one of her good days. Julius waited until she was seated before he bowed his head to her and introduced himself.

“Ma’am,” he said, “I’m sorry I have to bring you here under these circumstances. Unfortunately I have disturbing news to tell you, some of which I’m sure you’re already aware of.”

Emma Brewer’s mouth weakened a bit, but her eyes remained dry. “I know you came by my house several days ago,” she said, her voice stronger than I would’ve expected. “I wasn’t having a good day then. I am now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Julius said.

He took a deep breath and held it, his eyes fixed on Emma Brewer as she sat across from him. The rest of the setup had Helen and Lawrence sitting next to each other on a sofa to Julius’s left, Willie Andrews holding an ice bag to his injured finger as he sat in a chair to Julius’s right, Henry Zack standing behind Andrews, Roger Stromsby sitting in a corner trying to look inconspicuous, and Cramer and the other police officers standing in the background. Lawrence Brewer sat motionless in a bug-eyed stare, Helen looked mostly out of it as if she didn’t understand what she was doing there, and Andrews’s face was frozen in a half-grimace and half-smirk.

I asked Julius when Thomas Arden was going to be showing up. He ignored me and let the air slowly out of his lungs. “Ma’am,” he said, still addressing Emma Brewer, “if you’d like I could offer you refreshments. Coffee, maybe? A sandwich?”

“No, thank you. Please just get on with it.”

“Very well,” he said more to himself than to her. “You’re aware that your daughter, Norma, was murdered two days ago?”

Still dry-eyed, she nodded.

Julius continued, “Unfortunately, there’s far more that I have to tell you. That man sitting to your left is named Willie Andrews. He’s a well-known gangster and your son owes him a great deal of money.”

Julius leveled his stare at Andrews. Without looking up, Andrews told the room that Brewer owed him six hundred thousand dollars. “He promised his ma’s money and house to cover it. If he killed his sister for the money I know nothing about it.”

All eyes turned to Brewer, but he didn’t say a word. He just sat looking as if he had an upset stomach.

“Ma’am,” Julius said, again addressing the mother, “when you saw me the other day, I had the sense that you mistook me for your son-in-law, Thomas Arden.”

“I don’t know. I might’ve.”

“I do look somewhat like him.”

“You’re older than he was when I last saw him,” she said with a weak smile. “But yes, you do resemble him.”

“Twelve years ago he abandoned your daughter, Helen.”

She nodded, some wetness appearing around her eyes.

“Do you know what happened to him?”

Emma Brewer looked like she was trying to fight back tears. She didn’t say anything.

“Ma’am, this is no longer a matter of protecting your daughter Norma. She’s beyond protection. After twelve years it’s time for the truth. From the way you reacted when you thought I was Thomas Arden, it was as if you’d seen a ghost. He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Emma Brewer squeezed her eyes shut and nodded.

“Norma had an affair with him. She murdered him, didn’t she?”

Helen Arden’s jaw dropped as she stared at her mother. I was dumbfounded — yet another new emotion for me to experience. “How in the world...?” I heard myself asking Julius.

As if to answer me, Julius explained it to Emma Brewer.

“After you confused me with Arden, you confused your daughter Helen for Norma. They look nothing alike. I already had my suspicions regarding Norma, but this along with other facts that I uncovered all but told me about the affair.”

Tears leaked from Emma Brewer’s eyes. “I saw them together once. Norma later confided in me about the affair. Much later, she also told me what happened to him. According to her, it was an accident.”

“It wasn’t. She had him embezzle half a million dollars from his company, then she killed him for the money.”

Roger Stromsby spoke up then. Stromsby was CEO of the company Arden stole from, and he confirmed what Julius said. “We suspected Arden, but we couldn’t prove it,” Stromsby added as straight-faced as he could. The real reason was what Julius had said earlier — that they were in fact covering up the theft so as not to scare off investors — but Stromsby wasn’t about to admit that in a room filled with police officers.

Julius asked Cramer what he had been able to uncover about the business Norma Brewer claimed she had sold.

“We couldn’t find anything,” Cramer said gruffly.

Julius turned to Lawrence Brewer. “She didn’t sell a business, did she?”

Lawrence shifted uneasily in his seat. “No, she didn’t,” he said. “Sometime after Tom disappeared, Norma came to me, telling me she had half a million dollars that she wanted to put into a Swiss bank account. I had no idea where the money came from, she never told me, but I helped her with the transfer. Several years ago, when she took the money out, I set up the fake business sale for her so she could explain the source of the money.”

Something in my neuron network clicked and I could see as clearly as Julius had all along who the murderer was. I studied her then, and could tell that she wanted nothing more than to bolt from the room, and she probably would’ve if she thought she had enough strength in her legs to do so. Slowly other eyes turned towards her. When her mother joined in, it was too much for her and she seemed to shrink under the weight of it all.

“You should’ve told me,” Helen Arden seethed at her mother. “The way you looked at me when you called me by her name, I knew...”

She tried running then. It didn’t do her any good. One of the police officers stopped her and had her quickly cuffed. Emma Brewer started to sob then. Cramer helped her out of her chair. He was going to have a lot more questions for her.

Things went quickly after that.

The police officers, Andrews, and Stromsby cleared out, leaving Julius alone with Henry Zack and Lawrence Brewer, and they quickly reached an agreement whereby Zack transferred guardianship of Brewer’s mother to Zack, as well as agreeing to a new will for Emma Brewer that would leave him with no inheritance. He had no choice; it was either agree to all that or have Julius destroy him, and he knew Julius had the means to do so. As it was, he was facing enough legal problems without having Julius after him. Once the paperwork was done and Julius and I were alone, I asked Julius when he first suspected Helen Arden.

“The question you should be asking, Archie, is when I first became suspicious of Norma Brewer, which was immediately.” Julius stopped to sample one of the finer Rieslings that he kept in his cellar. “Boston has more than its share of excellent facilities, so why move her mother to Vermont?”

“Because she was afraid her mother might give up her secret while in a confused state.”

“Precisely. And then you had her trying to bluff me, claiming how she didn’t want Helen helping out because she didn’t think her sister could handle it. The woman was a fool to hire me. Regardless of how desperate she might’ve been.”

“So that’s it? That’s what tipped you off?”

“There was more.” Julius frowned thinking about it. “It was absolute rubbish about her being afraid her brother would tie up any guardianship challenge in court. She could’ve received an immediate injunction — any competent lawyer would’ve told her that. But her brother obviously had something damning on her. Once I researched the missing brother-in-law, the pieces fell into place.”

“You knew Helen Arden was going to kill her sister.”

Julius shrugged. “You never know with something like that. But it was clear that something clicked with her when her mother reacted to me the way she did, and when she mistook her for Norma I could see the light go on in her eyes.”

“Why the big show?” I asked. “Was it really necessary in order to coax a confession out of her? The woman seemed pretty beaten down as it was.”

Julius made a face. “Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “I had no direct evidence linking her to the murder. It was all pure conjecture on my part. More importantly, though, I had another task at hand — and that was seeing that Emma Brewer would be properly taken care of. The only way I could force Lawrence Brewer to cooperate was to hang the threat of a murder charge over his head, the same with Willie Andrews.”

I digested all this and decided I had a lot of work still to do on my neuron network.

“Quite a day’s work,” I said. “You solved two murders, one that the police didn’t even know about. And both of your clients turned out to be cold-blooded killers.”

“And one of them found you utterly charming,” Julius said, chuckling.

“I don’t believe she used the adverb utterly . By the way, why the urgency? Why did this need to be done today?”

Julius’s smile turned apologetic. “I’m sorry about this, Archie.”

And blast it! He turned me off!

Julius turned me back on several hours later. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of asking him why he had shut me off. Instead, I hacked into his phone company’s billing system and saw that he had placed a two-hour call to Lily Rosten.

The next day was business as usual. At six-thirty in the evening, Julius unclipped me from his tie, and without any explanation left me in his desk drawer. At seven, he left the townhouse. I called around and found the restaurant he had made dinner reservations for. They were for two. I settled in, not expecting to see him until morning, but again he surprised me by arriving home at midnight. Even more surprising, he was in a good mood about it. He even had me send Lily Rosten another dozen roses.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “You obviously struck out, so why so chipper?”

“Goodnight, Archie,” he said.

It went on like this for the next three days. When Julius blew off a high-stakes poker game for yet another date with Lily Rosten, I knew something was seriously askew. I’d been trying to uncover this anomaly in his behavior through mathematical models, but I decided to go at it from a different angle and instead search for similar patterns in literature. It was after analyzing the text of a Jane Austen novel that I realized what was going on. Mystery solved. When Julius once again arrived home at midnight, I asked him how his evening went.

“Very well, Archie, thank you for asking.”

“You know, we could double date. Why don’t you ask Lily if she has one of those ultra-slim iPods that she could bring along?”

He chuckled at that. “I just might,” he said.

“While we’re on the subject, I guess I’ll be needing to update your standard press release,” I said. “Should I remove the reference concerning your being a confirmed bachelor now, or should I wait?”

That brought out the barest trace of a guilty smile. “Good night, Archie,” he said.

As I said before, mystery solved.

Copyright © 2009 Dave Zeltserman

London Calling

by  Cheryl Rogers

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“This story is set in London, where I lived in the early ’80s,” writes Cheryl Rogers. “Fortunately, my family saved letters sent home and I was able to use them to try to create a believable sense of time and place. I’ve also tried to capture the voice of a quintessential ‘innocent abroad’ in the protagonist, Rosie. She and I share a lot of experiences, but she is, of course, a work of fiction.” Ms. Rogers now lives in Western Australia; one of her stories will appear soon in Australian Woman’s Day.

* * * *

Hyde Park’s a paradise, with trees turning golden and squirrels ferreting around for nuts. One of the vege sellers down the Portobello Road, the one who sells those sweet fen carrots, reckons it’s a sign of a hard winter... 

Snow came early in London that year, just before Harley moved in. A pilot, or so he claimed. With his brash smile and distressed leather bomber jacket, complete with lamb’s-wool trim, he certainly looked the part.

The house was in a leafy garden terrace between Notting Hill and Kensington High Street. A four-storey, white stucco wedding cake. On a wide and quiet street where lines of prunus marked the seasons. Footpaths generous enough to take the whole cast of My Fair Lady.  I read somewhere that it sold recently for a cool 3.5 million pounds. Phillip always said one day it’d be worth squillions.

The dear old girl had been carved up into bedsits when Phillip and I lived there, in separate rooms. This was in the early eighties. The Prince and Princess of Wales were newlyweds, ensconced in Kensington Palace, just a stone’s throw away. My first-floor room measured two paces by six paces and cost twenty-five quid a week. A bargain. Dissection had not robbed that house of any of her dignity and I considered it a privilege to nestle in her bosom.

I was among a group of young overseas travelers squirreling up for winter. On honeymoon too, in a sense. We’d qualified in our chosen professions, spent a few years building careers, then taken off to spend a gap year around Europe. A few months of freedom sandwiched between the trammels of parental love and the burden of other kinds of love that had yet to claim us.

We were the quintessential innocents abroad. We’d come from all parts of the globe and met through that summer in cheap hotels and hostels, swapping our brief and brilliant histories over bitter coffees in rooms we dared not describe in calls home to Mother.

This place is an absolute bargain. 4.50 pounds per night includes a full English breakfast, so that saves on lunch. Brilliant value and it’s self-catering. Best of all, it’s walking distance for the girls working at Fenwick’s, a really classy department store, in Mayfair. Caris (the English teacher I told you about, from Jo’burg) was vacuuming in the lingerie section yesterday and accidentally sucked up a silk camisole! 

We didn’t mention that the “absolute bargain” was 110 steps up from the ground floor. That we were jammed in four to a room and there was a patch of soggy carpet by the hand basin. Nor that the fire alarm went off whenever someone cooked toast, so we ignored it.

Friendships between total strangers forged fast in these environments. Survive a week in a four-bed room in any cheap hotel and you melded at the hip. Loyalties sprang up to buffer us against the end of summer when, inevitably, we’d go our separate ways.

We did things we’d never dream of doing back home. My ambitions in journalism were put on hold for the convenience and flexibility of temporary secretarial work. I worked as I wanted, where I was needed, filling gaps created by glandular fevers, appendectomies, personality clashes, company mergers, and relocations.

My shorthand and typing speeds were nippy enough to land jobs where I earned enough to satisfy my appetite for West End theatre, poking about in antiquarian bookshops, modest shopping trips to Harrods, that sort of thing. By watching the pence and walking virtually everywhere, I could afford to live the dream. For a bit.

With the optimism and confidence of youth, it didn’t worry me a jot that I was constantly the new girl doing battle with typewriters that had seen service when the Ark was a dinghy.

...private secretary to the Energy Conservation Executive. Spent the day typing “Please turn off after use” signs and sticking them next to the light switches in all the toilets. On an elderly, manual Remington — he says it saves power. working in Customer Relations, another way of saying Complaints. Had a letter from a customer who found a spider’s leg in their fresh-cream apple tart. Have sent leg off to the laboratory for analysis... 

I met Phillip there. We shared a laugh by the drinks vending machine over the spider’s leg. He was a winsome, pale New Zealander, working in Accounts. Gran always said you had to watch the quiet ones, but there was an innocence about Phillip that made me feel protective of him, even though I was a year younger. His girlfriend was flying over the next spring and they were planning to Eurail down to the Greek Islands. He was living in “a fab house” in Kensington and rode a yellow, ten-speed racer to work.

I saw Phillip, occasionally, after that. As I strode out in my one good pair of boots along Praed Street, he’d brrring  his bell and whiz past.

“Hiya, Rosie,” he’d yell, the wind rippling his wheat-colored hair as he dodged the traffic.

“Red bikes go faster, Phillip,” I’d holler after him.

...lab results came back on that spider’s leg. Turns out it was a sliver of apple core. Have sent complainant a copy of results and a dozen fresh-cream apple tarts as goodwill. Hope they don’t choke. 

When the leaves began to yellow in the royal parks I traipsed through regularly en route to any one of those temp jobs, I knew I had to find digs. And some longer-term employment to finance winter.

The pack I’d been traveling with was making plans to scatter. Bridget was going to work as a nanny in Devon, saving hard for a ski trip to Austria. Vonnie and Christina decided to flat-share in Oxford. Gym-junkie Mitch scored a live-in job as a bouncer somewhere in the Midlands. Ever-theatrical Caris won a position in Bristol after replying to an ad in The Lady : “Responsible person required to look after nine small dogs while owner in hospital.”

All that walking through summer had sharpened my appetite for London and its charms. Samuel Johnson’s words suddenly made sense: “...if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts...”

I had my one pair of walking boots resoled and reheeled — yet again — and registered my intentions with the secretarial agency. They gave me the address of a firm near Victoria Station. Industrial chemists, producing agrichemicals. The pay was 85 pounds per week, immediate start. If both parties were satisfied after a week, the job was mine until Christmas.

The office was compact, as befitted the London base of a company whose headquarters were tucked away in the Home Counties. It was adjacent to a small laboratory where new products were put through the final stages of testing before registration. One look at those chilling skull-and-crossbones symbols and my stomach churned.

“Killing juice.” The staff member introduced as the sales manager picked up on my mood. A dapper little man, he reminded me of a sharply dressed bookie. “Potent on weeds.”

I suppressed a shiver. “And people?”

“Just the stuff to knock off an obsolete boyfriend.” He nudged me and winked. “He’ll think he’s coming down with flu, then...” At this point he raised his right hand and pretended to strangle himself, gagging, eyes round as ping-pong balls.

The chief executive shot him a filthy look, then picked up a vial of liquid that looked as benign as water.

“Before this is released, it’s infused with a brightly coloured dye, a strong odour, and an emetic.” He smiled at me kindly. “Last thing we need is an unhappy accident.”

I shuddered. Then I glanced at the work station. Warmth suffused my soul. The typewriter was a brand spanking new IBM electric with cassette ribbon and auto-correction tape. My fingers caressed its keys. I was smitten.

Caris and Bridget are catching the train west tomorrow. We all had dinner at The Three Lanterns, a brilliant-value Greek restaurant near Haymarket. They do the best moussaka. Then we walked to The Waldorf for a gin squash before heading to The Strand Theatre.  No Sex Please, We’re British. None of us felt like laughing. 

I’d survived the first week, formed opinions, and set them in concrete. The pack wanted to know every detail. We were hopelessly nosy like that, all of us. Shamelessly intruding into the “innumerable little lanes and courts” of each others’ minds.

“The chief executive officer’s a professor of organic chemistry,” I told them. “Travels a lot. Kind, fair. And a brilliant scientist.”

The pack “ooh-ed” approval.

“Then there’s Mr. Bloor, the agronomist, who tests everything. A widower. Wears shiny suits that’re a bit crumpled. He’s writing a scientific paper on weed control in potato crops.”

“Dear old Mr. Bloor,” Vonnie mimicked, through a mouthful of salt ‘n’ vinegar crisps. “Sounds a right bore.”

“He has a military background. Is totally eccentric. And has a passion for counter-espionage.”

The “oohs” racked up several notches.

“Professor Higgins and Colonel Fancy, double-oh-seven.” Caris was always a wit. “Should keep you out of trouble, Rosie.”

“There’s a third. The company sales manager.”

No one spoke for a second or two. “Go on,” urged Bridget, eventually.

I waited until Vonnie lifted her dry martini to her lips.

“The Right Dishonorable Algernon Sharpe.”

Several of us wore dry martini after that.

“How dishonorable, Rosie?” Mitch, man-about-the-pack, considered himself the muscle. He was really flexing.

“Smarmy, but harmless,” I assured him. “Calls me Flower. First day there he offers me an invitation to take dictation, sitting on his knee.”

“Oohs” turned to “erghs.”

Only Christina’s baby-blue eyes flicked to high beam. She was a bit younger than the rest of us. “Whatever did you say to the creep, Rosie?”

“Said I’d love to, if only my boyfriend didn’t insist on carrying a knife.”

Chrissie’s head was swiveling. “But, you don’t have a steady boyfriend.”

Mitch didn’t need a set of diagrams to explain my meaning. “Still employed?”

I described the glorious IBM with reloadable cassettes. “I’m staying, even if it means stretching my diplomatic skills to the max.”

Within two days, the pack had split. The “brilliant value” hotel immediately lost its shine. The travelers who moved in to replace those who’d left were fresh and green as newly minted coins. Unlike me. I was already on first-name terms with the kebab-sellers in the Lebanese pastry shops fringing Queensway.

The Kensington bedsit was advertised that Saturday, in one of the travel magazines we Australians swooped on for news from home, sports results, the stuff of life. I’d spent the morning inspecting dingy cupboards advertised as “studios.” Then I saw the ad. By some miracle, I was first cab off the rank. The landlady lived in the basement flat. She was from Queensland, and had worked in London long enough to have developed a Chelsea accent. The tiny room felt right, safe. It was mine as soon as I supplied a couple of reliable character references.

“Hiya, Rosie?” A familiar face appeared around the door.

“Hey, Phillip!”

The landlady did a double take. “You two know each other?”

She didn’t bother checking out the character references. Phillip had a room upstairs. Model tenant. Never a peep. I paid the deposit and two weeks’ rent, collected my keys, and moved in.

Later that afternoon I walked down the Portobello Road and bought some crocus bulbs and an elderly, sit-up-and-beg bicycle. A busload of Russian tourists took photos as I rode it home, the basket brimming with fen carrots, broccoli, and leeks.

I capped off a memorable day by bussing in to the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square.

There was a busker with a performing dog and budgies on a perch. The dog was some sort of terrier, in a peaked cap and green jumper. He held the perch in his mouth, and the budgies did tricks. Got tickets to  The Sound of Music with Petula Clark and June Bronhill. 

The bedsit was clean and white. It had a hand basin, a desk, and a small bookcase for my growing collection of rare and antiquarian books. In pride of place was a tea-stained but treasured copy of Sopwith Scout 7309,  an account of life in the Royal Flying Corps. I’d forked out a week’s rent on a first edition.

Now I could cycle to work. I traded the walking boots for low heels. Often I took soup for lunch, in my tartan thermos. The route took me through Kensington Gardens and alongside Rotten Row, to Hyde Park Corner. Trees were flaring every shade of autumn.

My life began ticking like a well-oiled clock, and soon I had the office running to a comfortable beat. I’d arrive early, sort through the mail and catch up with any filing that needed doing, then work on typing up Mr. Bloor’s handwritten scrawl. Bless him.

A steady pile of spent cartridges began accumulating in my bottom drawer. I wrote the date on each with a permanent marker, a legacy of my training as a journalist, I guess. We’d been well-drilled in the importance of keeping notebooks, meticulously dated, in the event of having to verify the source of a quote or fact. Now I filed cassettes instead. Like a squirrel, hoarding nuts.

The professor was so absorbed with his chemistry, he didn’t appreciate my mundane but necessary office habits. A bit like Mr. Bloor. So wrapped up in his “azines” and “quats,” I could have been doing anything, rattling around at my desk. And poor Mr. Sharpe was too busy leering to take a blind bit of notice of my secretarial splendour.

“Smashing frock,” he’d say, often with a wolf-whistle chaser. Or: “Sex-x-xy ankles,” if I wore tights with a diamante motif at the ankle. Tragic, really. He’d hit forty hard; a dangerous age for a man.

His behavior disgusted the gentleman professor and the upstanding Mr. Bloor.

When the princess we still affectionately called Lady Di turned on the Christmas lights in Regent Street, Phillip phoned his girlfriend, Julia, specially to tell her. My room was right over the stairwell and I couldn’t help smiling at his sweetness. Holly was already in berry in Kew Gardens. Another portent of a cold winter, according to my reliable source down Portobello Road.

The next Monday, I cycled to work with cold clawing at my throat. I’d recovered by the time Algernon Sharpe made one of his grand but increasingly rare entrances. His standard dress was a porkpie hat, tailored suit, and red satin waistcoat. And shiny, patent leather shoes, with pointy toes. I could never work out if he was ahead of the fashion or behind it. He reminded me of a cock robin. All chirp and show.

“Good mor-ning!” He side-stepped in, entering stage left, like a vaudevillian. Arms outstretched, doing the shuffle, the whole catastrophe. He h

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eld an umbrella in one hand and his briefcase of samples — pure alligator hide — in the other.

Mr. Bloor simply huffed into the strong black tea, two sugars, I’d just made him. He’d been scribbling since eight, hard at his draft. He was quietly excited because the professor had made “an agronomic breakthrough that would revolutionize management of broadleafs.” Not that I’m at liberty to discuss details. I had, of course, signed a confidentiality agreement.

My own response to the entrance was a bit out of character. Something I blamed, later, on The Sound of Music. 

“GOOD MOR-NING, MR. SHARPE!” I flung back in my best soprano. June Bronhill would have been chuffed, honestly. It certainly surprised Mr. Sharpe.

Mr. Bloor said later I was “a real cracker.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that in Australia a “cracker” is a sheep that’s past its use-by date. And usually toothless. He’d have been the last person to offend. Working close as we did, Mr. B. and I were starting to meld at the hip. Another loyalty was springing up. I realized later that he felt protective of me, in the same way I felt protective towards Phillip. No funny business, mind. He was old enough to be my father and I’d taken a vow of celibacy in the interests of an uncomplicated life.

I didn’t hold Mr. Sharpe in quite the same esteem. Honestly, he never stopped trying. It was pathetic. Even followed me home, once. The professor was always apologizing for his behavior.

One didn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to work out that Mr. Bloor despised Mr. Sharpe, too. He began abbreviating his moniker to “Algy,” as if he were a slimy, low-growing plant.

In return, Mr. Sharpe started openly stating that Mr. Bloor was “bent as a hairpin, and a right nutter with it.” The latter’s passion for counter-espionage didn’t help. Just that week he’d been on the telephone quoting the cost of a scrambling device for his own.

My gran would have said Mr. Sharpe had the gift of the gab. He was becoming increasingly late, always with an excuse. Black ice. Mislaid keys. Shocking traffic snarls on the M4.

I had the honor of delivering these telephone messages, po-faced, to the professor. He’d purse his lips, arch one eyebrow, and steeple his hands, as if he was deep in thought about the molecular structure of a new product.

It was just before Christmas when the snow really hit.

...George down Portobello said yesterday it was cold enough to snow. Last night it did! In the shower upstairs this morning it was as though someone was sitting on the roof tipping soap flakes against the outside window. The street looks like a Christmas card. Walked outside and nearly broke my neck. 

Back at the house that weekend, I was planning to cut across Kensington Gardens to the Royal Albert Hall. Vonnie was coming in for a carol concert. Phillip had declined. He had a new roommate moving in.

He did the introductions on the landing.

“Rosie! Meet Harley.”

Harley was swarthy, short, chunky, and bouncing on the balls of small feet which were snug in designer trainers. Like he was warming up for an international athletics event. His hands were thrust into the pockets of a distressed, tan-leather bomber jacket, which I coveted at first sight. His smile was white and straight, like an “after” picture in an orthodontist’s waiting room.

“Ro-sie!” He flung his arms wide and grabbed me in a bear hug, as though we were old friends meeting after some considerable time apart.

“Harley’s rooming with me over the winter,” Phillip said.

“Great.” I was genuinely pleased as I rubbed the back of my neck. “You’ll save heaps, for when Julia gets here.”

I turned to Harley. “Where’re you working?”

He laughed as if I’d recited a particularly killing punch line at The Comedy Theatre.

“I work for God, Rosie.”

“Great!” I managed. Just. My neck was still spasming. Besides, Harley didn’t look humble enough. Designer trainers. Designer teeth. That fabulous jacket.

Phillip eagerly explained that Harley was a pilot, from Cape Town. He’d given up life as he knew it to answer The Calling. He’d be setting up the “youth arm” of a religious group I’d never heard of.

“Great,” I heard myself repeat. I issued a vague invitation for coffee sometime later and hurried away to the Royal Albert Hall.

...saw a robin in the snow. Kids sledding down a hill near the Round Pond. Roasted chestnuts a disappointment; too floury. The Duchess of Kent (presents Wimbledon trophy) was in the Bach Choir. A dusting of snow as we emerged. Dried hair kneeling in front of the oven, door open... 

Harley caught me next morning.

I’d popped out to buy the Sunday papers and had left my door ajar. I was only gone a few minutes, but when I got back he was fingering the spines of my old and antiquarian books. Sopwith Scout 7309  lay open on my bed. He’d even put the kettle on, ready for “that coffee you promised.”

“Shouldn’t you be in church or something, Harley?”

“God bless you, Rosie.” His smile was blinding. It lit up my entire personal space. “The world  is my church. This room  is my church.”

I made him coffee and endured an hour of philosophical debate. Harley had Gran’s “gift of the gab” real bad.

If I hadn’t issued another vague promise to let him read my precious first edition at some undisclosed future date, he’d probably still be there.

After he’d gone, I couldn’t even concentrate on the Sunday papers. And that really rankled.

But it was nothing to how I felt next morning when I found myself alone in the office with Algernon Sharpe. The professor was addressing an agribusiness conference in The Hague. Mr. Bloor had dashed down to Kent due to some sort of crisis with his trial plots.

With my usual confidant away, I heard myself babbling about Harley and his irritating, forward manner.

“Scoundrel,” the Right Dishonorable growled sympathetically. Well, it takes one to know one. “Sounds like someone needs to shake him down a peg or two.”

He didn’t indulge me long. He had a mound of paperwork for me to move. The firm really extracted its seventeen pounds’ worth of flesh that day. Used up the best part of a cassette, that’s how much typing I did.

I was due to finish at Christmas, mind, so I guess poor Mr. Sharpe only wanted to make use of my services while he could. He could see I was pushed, and said not to bother doing copies, to save time.

That was not standard office procedure, as I felt obliged to inform him.

“I think the professor...”

Mr. Sharpe cut me off by stroking my cheek. “You’re not paid to think, Rosie.”

That night, Phillip was on the phone again to Julia. They were moving in different directions, he told her. Greece was off.

God moved in mysterious ways that week. On Friday, Phillip’s yellow ten-speed racer was stolen. He was heading up to his room, then straight down to the police station to report it, when we met on the stairs.

“It’ll be in some motorway car park, on its way to being someone’s flipping Christmas present.” His pale face was red and his Adam’s apple was bobbing like a Cox’s orange pippin in a tub at a fair.

But he’d calmed remarkably by next morning. On my way to buy the vegetables I asked how he’d fared with the police.

“Didn’t bother,” he said, beatifically. “Harley explained that it was God’s will my bike was stolen.”

“Did he, Phillip?” I croaked.

...Sprouts have gone up from sixteen pence to thirty pence per pound with the cold snap; carrots from six to twenty pence per pound. Last night I left the window open and someone in the street threw a snowball right into my room! 

Mr. Sharpe phoned to say he was delayed again on my last day before Christmas. I sat dredging up memories of particularly grim funerals, before striding in to the chief.

“Mr. Sharpe’s been delayed. His radiator hose has popped its connections.”

I watched the prof’s right eyebrow slowly arc and his fingers start to steeple. “Fourth radiator hose to go in a year,” he said tiredly.

Poor Mr. Sharpe was too late to join us for a slap-up turkey buffet. So he missed the professor’s Christmas surprise.

“Enjoyed your time with us, Rosie?”

“Brilliant,” I said.

“Off to the wilds of Cambridgeshire for the festive season?”

“My mother’s cousin, Prof.”

“And then?”

“I’ll be back in London, temping until May. A few of us are going to hire bikes and cycle around Holland.”

“Excellent!’ He slapped his knee, as though it was all settled. “Then you must come back here.”

I didn’t argue. It wasn’t every office that had an IBM electric with cassette ribbon and auto-correction facility.

“Love to,” I said.

Dear old Mr. Bloor looked like the cat that’d swallowed the canary.

I gained two kilos in eight very festive days, and when I got back to London all hell had broken loose.

...Bridget broke her leg skiing at Bad Gastein and is in hospital in Salzburg. Caris has flown to assist. Job with dogs didn’t work out. One bit her and she kicked back... 

Things were little better at the office. I walked in on a screaming row. Someone had been selling off company secrets. It was in all the papers.

The usually calm professor was going off like a bag of crackers. And the language! Viologens, diquarternary derivatives, sulfates, paraquat, diquat.

They didn’t even notice me slip behind my IBM and pop my soup thermos on the floor with my tote.

“You’re the trials expert, Bloor.” Mr. Sharpe’s charm had dissipated somewhat. His accusations were swarming like wasps. “My job’s selling the muck.”

“Yes, Algy.” I flinched at how hard he pronounced the “g.” “Seems you’ve been selling to the wrong side, you grubby little traitor.”

When I eventually cleared my throat, it was as if I’d thrown a bucket of water into a dog fight.

“Pleasant Christmas, Rosie?” The professor looked on the verge of a stroke.

“Still here!” Mr. Sharpe didn’t look much better. He looked even more surprised than he had that morning when I’d greeted him in my best soprano.

But Mr. Bloor had puffed like an adder. “We managed to persuade Rosie to stay on.”

“Marvelous.” Mr. Sharpe flashed me a particularly dazzling smile. “Bloody marvelous.”

He left the office shortly afterwards. To buy a “wretched radiator hose,” or so he claimed.

Mr. Bloor was dreadfully upset about the whole sorry business. “If this mud sticks, I’m finished,” he confided. “I’m an old man, Rosie. Scrap heap for me, if they let me go.”

“They’d never do that,” I assured him. “Bet you’ve never done anything improper in your life.”

He was still wallowing in misery when I took the morning bits and bobs in to the professor.

“You might want to see this.” I set a used typewriter cassette on his blotter. It bore a recent date in my unmistakable neat printing.

With cool efficiency, I picked up his diary and flipped to the appropriate date.

“Oh look,” I indicated that day’s diary entry. “You were addressing a conference in The Hague. Mr. Bloor was down in Kent. Any typing I did must’ve been for Mr. Sharpe.”

The professor’s eyebrows had already arched. But his fingers weren’t steepling. They were too busy fiddling with that typewriter cassette. When he pried it open, he’d be able to read what he needed to know.

By the time Mr. Sharpe got back, his hands covered in engine grease, Prof’s spirits had lifted. He invited both gentlemen to lunch at The Savoy.

Dear old Mr. Bloor sloped out like a dog about to get a bullet.

The sight sickened me. I tipped my soup down the sink and made a really strong coffee, then locked the office and took a long bike ride through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens to the sanctuary I called home.

But I biked back well in time to witness the group’s return. Mr. Sharpe was considerably less buoyant. It took him all of two minutes to scribble his resignation.

“I’ll type it up, if you like,” I offered.

He politely declined.

That night, I was mugged as I rode past the Long Water, heading for Peter Pan. I’d just discarded my tatty old tartan thermos in one of the bins when someone leaped out of the shadows and knocked me senseless.

Luckily, they didn’t nick my tote, because it had my passport in it. Ignored my bike, too. Old sit-up-and-begs didn’t rate too highly on the black market, even then.

When I came around after six days in an induced coma, the doctors said I’d had a lucky escape. Miraculous, more likely, I realized later. Depressed skull fracture and two broken ribs. They didn’t even mention the ruined pair of new sheer, sequined tights.

Phillip and Mr. Bloor visited me in Charing Cross Hospital. The professor sent a lovely bunch of lilies from Aalsmeer.

“Death flowers,” I giggled. The drugs must’ve gone to my head.

Phillip just sat there, more pale than any lily.

Mr. Bloor wasn’t exactly animated, either. Just his fists kept clenching and unclenching, like he wanted to beat someone to pulp.

“Harley’s dead,” Phillip finally uttered.

Mr. Bloor remained rigid.

“What happened?” I struggled to sit up, but the room had started to spin.

“Seemed like flu at first, but the police think it’s some sort of poison. They’re doing tests.” He looked at Mr. Bloor and cleared his throat.

“Algy Sharpe’s been arrested. A witness identified him hanging about your house. He’d been under a lot of stress lately; obviously he cracked.”


He’d been just as obvious on the cycle path the night I was mugged. Porkpie hat. The muttered, “Take that, Flower,” as the sharp points of his shiny shoes kicked in.

I understood his bitterness towards me. He’d been caught out trying to poach a few rather unremarkable company secrets before taking his even less remarkable sales skills elsewhere.

I couldn’t imagine  he’d killed Harley.

In my sworn statement, I stuck strictly to the facts.

“Mr. Sharpe did call Harley a scoundrel,” I sobbed truthfully, when questioned. “Said someone should shake him down a peg or two. I think those were his exact words.”

The professor said enough for everyone later, at the trial. Sharpe’s obsession with me. His reference to a certain herbicide as “killing juice.” His disloyalty to the company. Then, of course, the crucial empty vial discovered in his alligator-hide briefcase.

Harley’s murder didn’t rate a mention in that month’s call home to Mother. She’d only have worried.

Bridget’s back, and sharing with Phillip. Worked out brilliantly, because he has a spare bed. Caris is staying in Strasbourg with a ski instructor called Jurgen. Going tonight to see Elizabeth Taylor in  The Little Foxes at The Victoria Palace. Hyde Park a riot of colour. George down the Portobello reckons it’ll be a smashing summer. 

That was all years ago now, but if I’m honest, there’s a big part of me that still yearns for London. I’d done things there I’d never have dreamed of doing at home.

The professor writes every Christmas. He says poor Mr. Sharpe’s done his time and is now living in quite a nice part of Kensington.

On the streets.

Ironic, really. When I was there, I’d see the street people and wonder about the reasons for their slide into ruin. Some had such cultured accents.

Mr. Bloor, my loyal protector, is living out his retirement not far from his old trial sites in Kent. A quiet retiree, from all reports. Gran always said you had to watch the quiet ones.

Life’s quiet here too, in Australia, surrounded by memories and old books.

Like the first edition Harley was so keen to see that lunchtime, when I poured him his last, strong coffee.

He should never have violated my personal space like that. He should never have seen those tapes and my remarkable letter to a rival manufacturer of “killing juice.”

He should never have tried to blackmail me, either.

It was wrong.

Quiet as the grave it is, here.

Copyright © 2009 Cheryl Rogers

Candles and Windows

by  Brian Muir

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Here with the perfect trick-or-treating tale is Brian Muir. The story is a return EQMM  outing for the unnamed P.I. who’s so mysteriously drawn we have to infer even her sex. She’s named for the first time, we’ve learned, in the author’s just-completed novel. Mr. Muir works in movies. He has recently done English-language adaptations of four Jet Li martial arts films and worked with horror icon George Romero. He’s currently at work on a 3-D Garfield cartoon.

* * * *

Ghoulish décor festooned homes throughout the neighborhood: jagged-toothed jack-o’-lanterns with heads aflame greeted visitors on porch steps; rag-doll witches on broomsticks took flight from rooftops; strings of pumpkin bulbs dangled from tree limbs, with skeletons and cobwebs and black spiders plump.

But the modest Cosseli home just south of Johnson Creek Boulevard sported no such décor. No fake gravestones in the yard nor Grim Reaper behind the hedge; the family in no mood to mock death, for it was as if the dark-hooded apparition really loomed over the home, curved scythe poised to strike, his blade nicked by the bones of countless victims.

Hence, the lone candle of hope flaring in a front window.

Halloween was a dry one, but cold. The air bit into your skin even before the sun went down. It had rained a few days earlier, knocking big broad leaves off trees, so thick on the sidewalks you had to kick through wet piles of them like used paper towels. If you weren’t careful you’d slip on the slick leafy coating.

The Willamette was high and sluggish and black running under the Sellwood Bridge, but the old gal hadn’t given up any secrets lately; little Cheri Cosseli’s body hadn’t washed onto the bank anywhere near Portland or downstream.

That’s why I thought there might still be a chance to find her, slim though it was. The police always tell us that after two days the chance of finding a missing child alive is slim to none. Hell, even after only a few hours the news usually isn’t good.

The lengthier the child’s absence, the more police presence tends to dwindle. It’s not their fault; they have a lot on their plate and playing the odds on a kid missing more than a few days isn’t an efficient use of man-hours.

Little Cheri had been missing almost a week; plenty of time for her body to wash ashore, if she’d been dumped there. But like I say, it hadn’t. Nor had it turned up at the morgue. So I opted to keep looking.

This was on my own time, you understand. I wasn’t working for the family; hadn’t even met them. All I knew of the Cosselis was what I’d seen on TV: a middle-class father and mother, he a produce man at Fred Meyer and she a housewife raising two children. Their son often appeared on the news with them, a spindly teen with mismatched limbs and ears like big potato chips, prone to wearing black T-shirts (his most recent had been a Freddy Krueger tee, perhaps inappropriate under the present circumstance, given Freddy was a child killer). He tried to appear tough and resilient but was unable to stanch the flow of tears as he talked to reporters about his little sister.

The Cosselis and their friends had posted fliers all over the neighborhood, east from Oaks Park and west past Reed College; south to the Clackamas County line and as far north as Powell. Hopefully a wide enough area, given that child predators often stay within their “comfort zone,” unlikely to stray until they’ve sufficiently mined the area and brought too much heat down upon themselves.

I traveled the search area using TriMet. It’s a great way to watch the sidewalks while someone else does the driving. I’d get off on different stops and walk the streets, checking alleyways behind rows of tiny homes, my long black greatcoat helping me vanish into shadow like Claude Rains unfurling his Invisible Man  bandages.

I moved by dusk and well into night. Evenings were when the predator would most likely be on the hunt, with children out playing in their yards or at the parks. Prime time for one to be snatched into darkness, given that the sun dipped around six this time of year, its dwindling light playing tricks on the eye.

During my walks, I’d often see police cars cruising the streets, maybe searching for little Cheri and her abductor. More than once a black-and-white slowed as it rolled past me, the male cops inside checking out my long black hair and shapely rear under the coat.

It’s not only my vanity that allows me to believe I’m being eyeballed by the police. There have been a handful of times when I’ve run afoul of the local gendarmes. Not by breaking any laws (that they know of), but simply by doing their job when they weren’t able to.

I’d been hoping for a break in the case before Halloween because the predator who’d taken Cheri was still out there and in a few hours the sidewalks would be bursting ripe with prey, all dressed as little ghosts and ghouls. As the sun hung low over the Portland hills, momentarily breaking through charcoal clouds to bounce orange off the buildings downtown, I stopped by Rossa’s Coffee Shack for a boost.

Rossa knew what I needed and lazily poured me a Daily Brew, black, and slid it across the counter. The place was empty but for him and me. While I waited for my joe to cool, he closed the front door and flicked off the sign outside.

“Closing up early?”

“Don’t want trick-or-treaters,” he said. “They’re a pain.”

“Just put a bucket of candy bars out front. They’ll help themselves to what they need and won’t so much as say ‘boo’ to you.”

“You know what candy costs these days?”

“A real Halloween Scrooge, aren’t you, Rossa?”

He glowered, wiping the counter with a dirty rag, switching off the urns.

“Don’t be surprised if when you get here to open up in the morning you find the place has been egged and TP’ed.” I sipped the coffee. It was still too hot, but tasted good going down.

“You don’t usually stop by at night,” he said. “What gives?”

“Taking a stroll. Lending an eye to that search for the missing girl.”

He nodded grimly. “If you find the scum that took her, do me a favor and bring him in here before you take him to the cops. I’ll give him some third-degree burns in a very delicate area.”

“More than likely he’ll already be sore down there from my kicking boot.”

“Good luck.”

“I’ll need it.”

As Rossa dumped old grounds in the trash, I strolled to the far wall where he displayed his Trail Blazers memorabilia. I reached behind the long team photo of the near-championship ’99-2000 roster to check for messages. My personal post office.

I found nothing there. No pleas for help, no line on a new job, and last but not least, no tip regarding the missing Cosseli girl.

Maybe I was hoping for too much.

I took my coffee for a walk up into the Sellwood district, looking for a missing child and her abductor, the odds marking him as white, between the ages of twenty-five and fifty. Like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Strike that. At least with the aforementioned proverbial needle, the haystack is stationary and you know the needle’s in there somewhere.

But since I had no knowledge the Cosseli girl was still out there — alive, anyway — and her abductor could easily blend in tonight with myriad werewolves and aliens all swarming like ants on a cinnamon roll, that needle was looking better and better.

A high, piercing scream whirled me around. A teenaged couple dressed as Leatherface victims shot down the sidewalk, chasing a comrade down the street.

I shook my head. Even knowing it was Halloween, I hadn’t been prepared; too on edge. Lucky I had the lid on the coffee or I would’ve spilled it as I’d spun around.

By now the sun was asleep, but the sky still light enough to see a good distance, though hazy like dim TV reception. Little ones wearing capes and robes and swirling fabrics, faces covered with masks and makeup, carried paper sacks and plastic jack-o’-lanterns, being led from house to house by one parent or two, sometimes supervised by older children or babysitters.

Back in my day, we waited until full dark to go trick-or-treating. That’s what made it scary and fun. Sometimes we went out in big groups, parents watching from down the street, talking with other bored mothers and fathers, hardly keeping an eye on us at all. But those were different times. Back then, you could still play with lawn darts without causing a Congressional uproar.

Streetlights warmed, cutting through thick tree limbs and dead leaves. This middle-class suburb sometimes flirted with upper middle-class, depending what corner you turned. The homes, most of the two-story variety, were close together, separated by hedges and driveways. The two-lane streets running north-south were well-traveled enough to warrant speed bumps, but the smaller roads running east-west were often barren and dark, their tar crumbling and scarred.

It was those scarred streets I clung to; up and down, back and forth, trying to figure an angle to help me narrow the search. Polite groups of costumed children excused themselves as parents weaved them around me, on the hunt for fresh candy. The happy cry of “Trick or treeeeeat” sing-songed up and down the block.

I heard the humming engine of a large car slowing behind me, tires crunching loose pebbles. I didn’t turn to look but rather waited until it crept past; I felt the heat from its engine warming my leg. As I suspected, it was a police car, though this one was unmarked, as they say. Plain black tires, beige paint job, and at least two too many antennae bristling from the rear quarter; not as undercover as they’d like to think.

I cocked my head to glance through the passenger window. A red light perched on the dashboard, dormant. The cop behind the wheel, wearing a plain grey suit about as stylish as his car, was a good enough looking guy, I suppose, if you like blond hair, cleft chins, and perfect teeth. His smile was polite, but I wouldn’t call it flirtatious. It disappeared quickly as he kept moving, keeping a close eye on the roaming band of children crossing the street up ahead.

As I watched the car roll on, I was blindsided by a kid running full on, slamming into me, knocking the wind out of my sails. This time, I did spill the coffee.

“David! Watch where you’re going!” A young mother strode toward me with a little girl in tow.

The ten-year-old who ran into me — David — lifted a rubber gorilla mask. “Sorry.”

I tried to be patient with him as I shook burning hot coffee off my hand, “Maybe I should’ve been looking too.”

“Oh no,” said the woman, as if I were one of her little ones. “Here,” she handed me a handkerchief to wipe my hand.


“It’s better than wiping it on your coat,” she said, reaching out to feel the fabric. “That’s nice.”

I handed the handkerchief back.

She said, “These kids are a little too excited tonight. Sometimes they’re tough for me to keep a handle on, at least since my husband passed away.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But I remember how exciting Halloween was when I was a kid. Can’t blame them for being exuberant.”

“I’m King Kong,” said David.

“Okay,” I replied, stifling my comment that a rubber mask alone does not an Eighth Wonder make.

I bent to smile at the little girl, truly cute, dressed as an angel. “Well, if he’s King Kong, does that make you Fay Wray?”

The little angel looked up at me, wide-eyed, her mother holding on to both shoulders, keeping her close.

“She’s a little overwhelmed, I think,” said the mother. “It’s sort of her first Halloween.”

The angel was maybe five; it might be the first Halloween she’d remember.

“All these ghosts and goblins are kinda scary, aren’t they, honey?” I asked.

She glanced down at her hands, picking at a bag of Skittles.

“Don’t eat your candy yet, hon,” chided her mom.

With face downcast, the angel glanced up as if apologizing to me.

“Maybe we should take her home. David?”

“Okay, Mom.” David reached out and grabbed the little girl’s hand. “Come on, Suzie.”

“...Danny,” she said as he pulled her away. A bright yellow Skittle fell out of the open bag in their wake, bouncing like a tiddly-wink on the sidewalk.

“Not too far!” the mother shouted after, grinning. “For some reason, she thinks Danny’s a better name for her brother than David. If I’d had her first I would have consulted her on it.” She touched my arm warmly. “I owe you a coffee.”

I waved it off. “Forget it.”

She smiled and turned to go.

I said, “Keep a close eye on them.”

She nodded, resolute. “I will.”

She and every other parent out here was of like mind, keeping an eye out for the Boogeyman. The real one.

I watched the trio disappear around the corner, then turned and hiked up to the intersection, tossing my now-empty coffee cup in a garbage can.

A pack of teenagers swarmed around me, old enough to be unsupervised, waiting for the light t

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o change. Their costumes were lame: overalls or cowboy hats; one kid wore a T-shirt with a tuxedo printed on it, oh so clever. One of the girls had disheveled hair, and was draped in nothing but a burlap sack; a bag lady, I guess. Loud and obnoxious, they shoved into each other like punk fans in a mosh pit. A guy with Mickey Mouse ears bounced off my arm, jostling for space. But I didn’t give him any.

He looked at me as if I’d just teleported there from outer space.

“Oh,” he dripped with sarcasm. “Excuse me.”

His buddies tittered.

“No excuse for you, clown.”

He reacted as if I’d slapped him. Well, not really. If I’d slapped him, he’d be on his keister.

“Hey,” he said. “What’s yer problem?”

“Careful with your horsing around. You might knock somebody into traffic.”


The light changed. I hung back while the group crossed en masse. Halfway across the street, Mickey Mouse whirled around and waved a little birdy at me. His gang thought it was more hilarious than a rerun of Friends , though that’s not a tall order.

I let it slide. I had more important things to do than roust a bunch of goofs.

With a sweep of my dark coat, I turned north and kept walking.

I pulled the Cosseli girl’s Missing  flyer from an inside pocket and unfolded it. Though it was still posted on stores along the main drags — Tacoma, Milwaukie, Powell — I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to remind people.

I showed it around, stopping parents doing their Halloween duties. I was met with sympathizing frowns and shaking heads and bewails of “Isn’t it horrible?” Many voiced the opinion that they wished the little girl home safe and sound with her parents, but the public’s hope was fading as quickly as that of the police. Parents out here clung tighter to their children, secretly thankful that it wasn’t their own son or daughter who was missing. Selfish perhaps, but all too human.

I passed nearly an hour that way, gaining nothing but new blisters on my feet.

I skirted a group of black-suited Reservoir Dogs, their sunglasses bouncing streetlights back at me as they marched toward a trio of oncoming Droogs. Crossing the street to bypass their collision, I heard a little boy screaming, “No! Let me go!”

I raced around the corner to see a familiar unmarked police car parked at the curb pointing the wrong way, the red light on the dash no longer dormant but glowing like Dracula’s eyeball. The driver’s door hung open and on the sidewalk an undercover cop in a grey suit gripped the arm of a boy no more than eight, wearing a red Superman cape. It appeared to be the same blond cop that had passed me earlier.

As the boy continued his protests, tugging to get away, the officer opened the rear door and shoved him in the backseat, little Superman bawling like he just swallowed a hunk of Kryptonite.

The cop got behind the wheel and slammed his door, a little too angry. He cranked the key to start the ignition, but as he threw it into drive, he looked up to see me blocking his way.

His eyebrows collided in the middle as he powered down his window, irked but cop-polite. “Get out of the way, ma’am.”

I have to admit, the “ma’am” tweaked me off a little. I said, “The boy doesn’t want to go with you.”

“Of course he doesn’t. Because he knows he’s in trouble.”

“Can I see some ID, officer?”

His head twirled around like Linda Blair’s. “Can you  see my  ID?!”

“I have a right to ask. We’ve already had one little girl go missing in this neighborhood.”

He turned off the ignition, swung the door open, and climbed out, standing half a foot over me. “I know that. I’m a police officer.”

“I just want to make sure. As a concerned citizen, of course. You have to admit, tonight would be the perfect night for a disguise, like maybe that of one of our men in blue... or in your case, grey.”

He pulled a billfold from his breast pocket, opened it to flash his shield so I could get a good look at it. Those badges can be faked, but I’ve seen enough Portland PD buzzers to know the difference. I read his ID card in the opposing flap.

“Thanks... Officer Windows.”

He snapped the billfold shut, cracking the air. He opened his coat and shoved it home.

“Now how about I see your  ID, ma’am?”

“Please stop calling me ‘ma’am.’ I told you, I’m just a concerned citizen, out here looking for the missing girl.” I showed him the Cosseli girl’s flyer.

“That still doesn’t tell me who you are,” he said.

I told him my name.

He considered it a moment, nodding. “I’ve heard of you.”

He didn’t grin or glower, giving no indication of whether what he’d heard had been fair or foul.

“Well — whatever you’ve heard — you should know I’m not trying to jam you up. I just wanted to make sure the boy was okay.” I jabbed a finger at Superman in the backseat, breathing heavily after bawling so hard for the past two minutes.

“He’s going back to his dad’s place, up off Holgate. Kid was grounded, but decided to put on his cape and fly the coop.”

I nodded. “Sorry about holding you up.”

He sucked in a deep breath and waved it off. “Don’t sweat it. At least I got him before anything could happen to him. And thanks for being out here, looking for the Cosseli girl. We don’t really have the manpower.”

“I figured you guys were probably stretched thin.”

“Besides, after she’s been missing this long...”

He left the rest of the dark thought unspoken, then continued in a different vein, “Tell the truth, I’m off the clock. Don’t have any kids of my own at home — though I hope to someday — so I thought the least I could do was come out and lend a hand. Until we know for sure what happened to her.”

The car radio squawked. Windows leaned in to turn it up: “All units be advised. Child missing around six-thirty p.m., near Twenty-eighth and Colt. Female, five years old, blond, wearing a white dress and angel wings, name Daniela Dixon...”

I flashed on the little girl I’d met earlier, with her mom and brother. “Daniela... Danni...”

“What?” asked Windows.

“Her name. Danni. I thought she was saying the boy’s name — Danny — but she was saying her own. I’ve seen this girl. With a woman.”

“What time?”

“Seven... seven-thirty...”

“She’d already been snatched by then.”

“I saw her near Harold Street...” I took off running.

“Wait! I’ll give you a ride!” shouted Windows, but I was already cutting through a backyard, on my way.

I hit the next sidewalk at a full run, weaving between scattered werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, and five too many Borats. I cut the corners of two front yards, zipping down side streets. More than one car honked as I cut them off, and finally reached the corner near Harold where I’d met little Danni the angel and her abductor.

There was no sign of her. I didn’t expect there to be, but I had to start somewhere. The woman had told the boy they were taking the girl home and they’d moved off to the west.

I walked that way, keeping eyes peeled.

A few stragglers remained trick-or-treating, laughing happily a block away. Homes were mostly quiet; some jack-o’-lanterns flickered orange, others had been snuffed, their eyes black caves. Through a picture window a big-screen TV showed one of the Friday the 13th  movies, little heads crowded around it.

Dead, wet leaves and sticks piled along the sidewalk like dark snowdrifts. A torn page of newspaper and a Three Musketeers wrapper crowded the base of a garbage can, as if waiting to be let in.

Something white and fluffy poked up from inside the trash: Little Danni’s angel wings, no doubt discarded by her abductor to help her blend into the crowd. Dammit.

I kept moving, quickening my pace but not too quick; I still didn’t know where I was headed. Little Danni couldn’t be far, because they were traveling on foot. Unless the woman had a car parked nearby.

I couldn’t think about that right now.

I moved in ever-widening circles like an old-school tracker, until a bright, lime-green bug on the ground caught my eye. I stepped over to it. It wasn’t a bug, but a fallen candy, maybe an M&M.

No. A Skittle.

I remembered Danni’s tiny hands tearing into that bag of Skittles.

I quickened my step. Fifteen feet down the walk I found a bright yellow Skittle, this one stomped on, flattened but still vibrant.

Not only had Danni been trying to tell me her name earlier, but now she was leaving me a trail to follow. Smart girl.

I kept moving. Found a blue one, then another green one, partially covered by a wet leaf. Leading me west-southwest.

I circled out ten feet, fifteen, then twenty. No more Skittles.

Windows rolled up next to me, the blood-red lamp on his dash still blazing. Superman was asleep in the backseat.

Windows got out. “I almost lost you. What are you doing?”

“Tell everybody she’s not wearing the angel wings anymore. The woman ditched them. But the boy’s still got the gorilla mask.”

“What boy?”

“There’s a boy with them, ten or twelve. He’s part of it. Somehow.”


“The little girl — Danni — she left me a trail. See?” I opened my palm to show him the Skittles. “But there’s no more.”

“Think the woman figured out she was dropping clues and stopped her?”

I looked around the quiet street. “Or maybe the trail ends here.”

Windows surveyed the housefronts. “That means she’s in one of these houses.”

I nodded. “The woman wouldn’t want any company. So it’ll be shut down for the night.”

We both took note of the homes with snuffed-out lanterns, TVs off, dark windows. Only a couple on either side of the street fit the bill.

Windows said, “You take the north side, I’ll take the south.”

“Let’s pound on some doors.”

I tossed the Skittles and crossed north. Stepped up to the first dark door and rapped on it. After a minute or two or three, a middle-aged guy answered in a T-shirt and pajama-bottoms.

“What is it?” he said, irritated. “I got an early morning.”

“Looking for a missing girl.” I gave him a wide grin, which seemed to cool him off. I’m good with guys that way.

“Oh,” he said, but I was already off the porch, moving three houses down.

I took time to glance across at Windows. He circled the corner of a little blue cottage, as if he’d seen something inside. He reached under his jacket and yanked a service revolver from his clip-on holster as he disappeared around back.

I crossed the street to join him, reaching under my arm to draw my own silver-plated friend. Before my boot hit the opposing sidewalk, I heard a gunshot pop like an M-80 with a short fuse.

I ran the rest of the way.

I skirted the corner of the blue cottage, ducking under low branches into a rear yard clouded with trees that blocked moon and stars. I waited for my eyes to adjust, making out a fallen form on grass as black as onyx.

Keeping an eye on the dark house, I crept to the body in the yard, knowing it had to be Windows. Flat on his back, revolver still in his fist.

I’ve read many a detective yarn where the author waxed poetic about the victim’s “staring vacant eyes,” but eyes can’t stare if there’s no one left at home to receive the images beaming to the back of the brain.

And Windows was no longer home. I suspected he had vacated through the black hole in his chest, the bloodstain shining like motor oil in the gloom.

I put two fingers to the side of his neck, purely a formality. He was gone.

I peered at the rear of the house. An errant streetlight down the block broke through the trees, gleaming dull off the back-door glass. It had a jagged hole busted through it, courtesy of a bullet fired from inside. She hadn’t even let him open the door.

I had to be careful to avoid the same fate.

Creeping up to the house, I crouched below that hole in the window. Gripping my .45 like a Baptist minister would his Bible, I shouted inside:

“That was a cop you just shot. The police will be here in minutes.”

Only silence from inside.

“Send the girl out and this will go better for you. Send Danni out.”

After a long beat, when I thought silence would again be my answer, the woman yelled: “Her name is Suzie!”

“Okay. Suzie. Just send her out, okay?”

“No one is taking my daughter. I won’t let you break up my family!”

I looked back at Windows on the grass. Cold.

“Okay,” I told her. “No one wants to hurt your family. Please, don’t shoot.”

I reached up and gripped the back doorknob. Slowly twisting it, I pulled the door open just enough to get the latch bolt free of the plate. I nudged the door slowly open with the barrel of my gun.

I leaned back against the outer wall, fully expecting another gunshot. But none came.

“I’m not a police officer... just a neighbor. We met earlier, when your boy bumped into me. You admired my coat, remember?”

More silence.

“I’m coming in, okay?”

I took a long, nervous breath, peeking around the doorjamb into the dark back porch. A washer and dryer stood dormant, a pile of dirty clothes inside a plastic laundry basket. Insulation wrapped a hot-water heater in the corner like a down coat on an old man.

Staying low, pistol at the ready, I crawled past the washer to the open kitchen door; a swath of moonlight blue across the table, a couple of bowls, a small stack of mail, and an open box of Cheerios.

I duck-walked past the refrigerator to where the kitchen opened up into the dining room or living room or whatever it was. Shapes of furniture, cabinets, an entertainment center.

“Please,” I kept my voice soft. “Send the girl out.”

I thought maybe I could hear the woman breathing somewhere in the dark.

“Well, if you’re not going to send her out, at least tell me why you took her.”

“Because she’s mine.”

Her voice was louder than I expected it to be, closer than I’d thought, hiding somewhere behind that old recliner about ten feet away.

“She looks just like me and my husband. Didn’t you see it in her face? When we met earlier tonight...?”

She trailed off.

“I thought you told me your husband was dead.”

After a long pause, she replied, “She looks just like us. David does, too.”

David. The boy. Where was he?

As if he’d been signaled, David lurched out from hiding in the space between the fridge and the wall. I turned as he swung a baseball bat at me, still wearing his King Kong mask.

I ducked, but I was already low and couldn’t go much further. The blow glanced off my shoulder and hurt like hell; I’d have a bruise in the morning like a purple grapefruit.

I shoved the kid, hard enough to cause him to trip up on his own feet and drop over backwards, landing with a whump  on his rear. His mom — or whoever she was — came out from behind the recliner, face folded with concern.

“David!” she cried as she rushed to his side, a revolver still clutched in one hand.

I hopped toward her, twisting her gun out of her hand, still warm from when she’d shot Windows.

“Ow!” like a child she moaned, pulling little Kong to her breast and clutching him.

“Where’s the girl? Where’s Danni?”

“Get away from us! Leave us alone!” she spat.

I heard a thump . Looked around the dark room, listening. Then another little thump , coming from behind a ceiling-high bookcase.

I leaned my ear to the case. “Danni? Are you back there?”

After a long pause, another thump . She was back there.

I swept my fingers up the sides of the bookcase, along the shelves and underneath them. I was sure there was a Batcave switch or some other sort of nonsense hidden somewhere, but didn’t have time to look for it.

Instead I gripped the back of the shelf and heaved to get it rocking. The heavy thing creaked and moaned and went over with a great sound and fury. Wood cracked and books tumbled everywhere, fluttering open like big dead birds.

In the wall behind the case was a small hidden door, padlocked.

I leaned against it. “Danni?”

I heard the thump  once again, louder now without the bookcase acting as a buffer.

“Honey, if you can, I want you to get away from the wall. Move as far as you can and get behind something, okay?”

To answer me, she thumped  again, which might or might not have meant yes, or okay.

I aimed my .45 at the padlock, angled so the bullet would hopefully pass through to the floor instead of deflecting into this room or puncturing through to the next.

The shot was a loud crack in the confined space, Cyclops clapping his hands. The busted padlock clinked to the floor in pieces.

I looked back at the woman still clutching David. She scowled at me. The Kong mask lay deflated on the floor.

I yanked the small door open and bent to peer inside a hidden room lit by a lone hanging bulb, with all the amenities of a young girl’s bedroom: a tiny TV/DVD combo, a bed with fluffy pink covers, and sad, wilted dolls on a little shelf.

Danni looked up at me from near the bed, her wrists bound and a gag in her mouth. I motioned to her to come to me.

Then I saw the pink bedcovers move as another little girl, slightly older than Danni, rustled out from underneath them. She regarded me with sad eyes.

I couldn’t believe it. “Cheri? Cheri Cosseli? Is that you?”

Though she wasn’t gagged, she didn’t answer. No doubt she’d been hollering for help the past week and was tired of hollering, especially since no one had answered her before.

“It’s okay, hon. Everything’s going to be okay.”

Her brain finally remembered the proper response to relief and happiness, sent the signal through the ganglia of nerves to the muscles of the face, commanding the corners of her little mouth to turn up in a grin.

By the time the police arrived, the woman had told me her name was Jenny. Jenny Candles, her married name. The husband was not dead, but had left her some years ago because — she said — of her infertility. No doubt there were other issues at play.

After the black-and-white crew interviewed the woman, a detective arrived and let me stick around to add or subtract my two cents. With the children taken away by social services, the woman sobbed angrily as she answered his questions.

We were able to deduce that even though Mrs. Candles’ husband had left her, she was still infatuated with the idea of building a family with him, something they’d intended to do until her infertility got in the way. Finding adoption difficult for a single woman of limited means, she’d snatched David from his front yard not eight months after her husband left her. (The boy’s real name was Chris. Police were tracking down his parents, formerly of Gresham.) The boy had reminded her of her husband, looked like the kind of son they would have had together, and that was all she wrote.

Once she had David, nee Chris, brainwashed into believing she was his mother, she let a few years go by before kidnapping the Cosseli girl, who also bore a resemblance to her departed hubby. But the Cosseli girl was already too old and stubborn for the brainwashing to take. Her resistance drove Mrs. Candles to lock her away and go out in search of a replacement. She’d tried to snatch Danni tonight, a younger version of the imaginary daughter.

The detective jotted notes, clearly disgusted with the entire matter, his anger over Windows’s murder barely supressed.

Before Mrs. Candles was hauled away, he told her, “Forget prison, lady. You just wait until you get to hell.”

Calmly, she replied, “There is no hell, no heaven, no God. If God existed, he would have let me have children. No, there is no afterlife. Just this one.”

The detective could only stare at her as she was taken away. He said, to himself more than to me, “How can somebody live like that? Without hope?”

“Think about it, Detective. If there’s no hope, then there’s no grief, either.”

He stepped to the back door to peer outside, where the coroner covered Windows’s body with a sheet. “I wouldn’t mind doing with a little less grief.”

“That’s what hope is for,” I said. “To ease the pain of grief.”

That thought didn’t seem to be doing him any good.

I said, “We found the Cosseli girl. That’s something.”

He nodded, grim. “Yeah. Something.”

And he stepped out the back door to help wheel Windows’s gurney to the black van.

For at least one family in a modest home just south of Johnson Creek Boulevard, this Halloween would always be fondly remembered. As their daughter, missing for over a week and presumed dead, came home to their open arms, the family snuffed out that candle of hope shining in the window.

I realized it isn’t the candle that’s the symbol of hope, or even the flame. It’s the window, through which light can always shine.

Copyright © 2009 Brian Muir

History on the Bedroom Wall

by  Rebecca K. Jones and Josh Pachter

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Department of First Stories

Rebecca Jones, 23, is a second-year law student at the University of Arizona. Born in Germany and raised in Ohio, she went to high school at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut and double-majored in history and psychology at Middlebury College. She comes by her love of crime fiction honestly: Her father, Josh Pachter, has contributed stories and translations to EQMM  since his own Department of First Stories appearance in 1968. He collaborated with Rebecca on this, her first, story.

* * * *

I’ll never believe it was just a coincidence, not if I live to be forty. Somehow, I’m convinced, Ani knew .

It was a quarter past seven on the last Saturday morning of fall semester. I was putting the finishing touches on my physiological psychology term project, which had been due on Friday — the day after Katie dumped me. Fortunately, Professor Griffen was a good guy, and he’d given me a twenty-four-hour extension. I had three and a half of those hours left to cross my t’s and dot my i’s.

I’d been listening to a lot  of Ani DiFranco since the split — Katie had recommended her, and as much as I hated to admit it, I actually liked  her and her music.

“Love is a piano dropped from a fourth-story window,” she sang, “and you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I had my stereo whispering for once, instead of blaring. There’d been a big party over at the Ross Townhouses the night before, but I’d been squirreled away in my friend Perveen’s senior-thesis carrel in the library, struggling to find the last connections between the neural structures involved in love and addiction, so I’d skipped it. This had been the last big party of the term, though, so I imagine most everyone else had been there. Now, just after seven a.m., it was quiet on Stew 2, a coed hall, and all signs pointed to it remaining quiet until eleven or so, which was why the assertive knock at my door took me by surprise. Except for Dee, who was by then surely folded into the full lotus position in Hepburn Lounge, everyone else in the dorm ought to have been sleeping it off.

“Come in,” I called, not looking up from my laptop.

The knock sounded again, louder this time.

Annoyed, I pushed away from my desk and went to the door.

Standing in the hall was a complete stranger. How had he gotten into the building? The Midd-wide access-card system had recently been changed to twenty-four-hour security, and now only students, faculty, and campus police could enter Middlebury College’s dormitories without an escort. The stranger wasn’t in uniform — he wore a conservative gray suit and held a snap-brim hat in his right hand — so I knew he wasn’t a campus cop. He was old, too old to be a dad, and there was a scowl on his lined face which seemed somehow more sad than threatening.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“I’m looking for Ally,” he said, leaning forward against the doorjamb. “Is she in?”

“Ally? No, sorry,” I said, “there’s no Ally here.”

“Sign says Ally.” He frowned, pointing at one of the postings on my door.

I glanced at the cardboard square and laughed. “Ally,” I explained, “as in the Allied Powers. Not like a deserted alley. It’s a job description, not a name. My name’s Max, and I’m officially a junior counselor and unofficially an ally, what we call a ‘safe space’ — kids on the floor who want to talk about their sexuality without fear of being judged can come to me. All us Residential Life staff members are allies, it’s sort of part of the job.” I caught myself before launching into an op-ed piece on the importance of education and acceptance in the gay community and got back to the point. “Who are you?”  I demanded. “What do you want? And how did you—?”

“I’m Detective Branigan, Max,” he interrupted, flipping open a leather wallet and showing me a gold shield with the words “Burlington PD” on it. “I’m with the Homicide Bureau.”

I took a step back into my room, away from him. “H-homicide?” I stammered. “What — what are you doing here?” 

His scowl deepened. “I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, Max, but one of the kids on this hall died sometime last night.”

“Died?” I repeated, bewildered. “One of mine? Are you — are you sure?”

He nodded sadly. “I’m sure. Her roommate found the body and called it in. She’s already identified her, but, since you’re the JC on the floor, well, we’d like you to confirm the identification before we notify the parents.”

There were a hundred questions I probably should have asked, but somehow I couldn’t think of any of them.

One of my girls was dead?  I had no idea how to react, how to respond. This was something they hadn’t covered in my JC training.

My heart pounding dully in my chest, I followed him as he left my doorway and walked next-door to the women’s bathroom.

Usually deserted at this early hour on a weekend, the bathroom now was bustling with activity. In the middle of a circle of policemen, a white sheet covered what had to be the dead girl’s body.

Detective Branigan moved to the figure’s head and pulled the sheet away from her face.

And that was when the piano finished its four-story freefall and slammed into me.

The dead girl was Katie.

The next several hours went by in a blur. Someone — it must have been me, although I don’t remember — called a floor meeting and told the rest of the hall. We were all in shock, of course, completely devastated. I think everyone cried, even Jake, our token football player. I know I did.

Afterwards, Gavin started planning a memorial service for Katie — which Katie herself would have found way ironic. The day before, early Friday afternoon, Gavin had stormed into my room, totally upset. He and Katie had gone to lunch together, he’d told me, as they did every Friday, and in the salad line at Proctor he’d asked her out to dinner.

“On a date?” Katie’d said. “Have you lost your mind?”

And then she’d laughed at him.

Gavin, of course, had been mortified. He’d dropped his tray and sped back to Stewart, heading immediately to my room to tell me what had happened and to ask for my advice.

Maybe I shouldn’t admit this — I certainly didn’t say it to Gavin — but I was secretly pleased. Katie had dumped me on Thursday afternoon, claiming she was tired of hiding, tired of not being able to tell her friends about our relationship. If anyone had found out that I was dating one of my freshmen, though — well, I would have been fired, for starters, probably bounced out of the dorm, and possibly even suspended from school. I’d believed Katie when she’d told me that that was the reason she was breaking up with me, and her refusal to go out with Gavin was reassuring. I told myself that as soon as the year was over and my JC obligations were history, we could go back to the way things had been between us, pick up where we’d left off. That’s why I’d let her keep the red Hingham Hockey sweatshirt she’d swiped off my chair one chilly October evening when we’d been watching a DVD in my room.

Anyway, once I’d finally convinced Gavin that this was not the end of his undergraduate love life, I’d booted him out of my room. As I ushered him out the door, I spotted Ethan, his roommate, disappearing down the hall.

Perfect. How much of our conversation had that little sneak overheard?

Later, after the floor meeting, by the time I remembered Professor Griffen’s paper, my deadline extension had come and gone. My heart wasn’t even near  it, let alone in it, but I managed to focus enough to finish proofreading the last couple of pages and e-mail it off to him with an explanation. I was pretty sure he’d understand — and if not, well, whatever.

Late Saturday afternoon, I was lying on my bed, still in shock. Katie was dead. She was dead . And the policeman who was investigating her death was a homicide cop. Was it possible that she’d been murdered? 

I was curled up in the fetal

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position, cupping my iPod in my hands, watching a video of her I’d taken late one night with my digital camera’s video-capture mode.

Late nights were the only times we had ever really been able to be alone. She’d wait for her roommate Dee to fall asleep and the hallway to clear, then slip silently past Gavin and Ethan’s room and the bathroom and into mine, where we’d sit up till all hours, mostly just talking  about everything under the sun, until it was time for her to slip back down the hall before the earlybirds began to stir.

In the video, Katie was holding her hairbrush like a microphone and singing along with Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” with all the energy and conviction of an American Idol  audition. Her long blond hair flew as she shook her head to the beat, her blue eyes sparkling like sapphires as they reflected the glow from the desk lamp I’d pointed at her to illuminate the scene.

Although I wasn’t wearing my headphones — I didn’t think I could handle listening to Katie attempting to match Ezra Koenig’s falsetto just yet — I didn’t hear a knock, so it surprised me to see Detective Branigan’s head peek around the edge of my open door. As surreptitiously as I could, I slipped my iPod beneath my pillow.

“I know this is a bad time, Max,” he said, “but can I talk to you for a few minutes?”

I waved him to my desk chair, which he swung around to face me.

“I need to ask you some questions.” He spoke quietly. “Do you think you can handle that?”

“Can you tell me what happened to her, first?” I asked, my voice cracking. “How did she die?”

He tapped a Winston out of a pack, looked around for an ashtray, and when I shook my head, put his lighter away and slowly rolled the unlit cigarette between his palms. “We’re not sure yet,” he admitted. “The cause of death seems to have been a blow to the head — but there just wasn’t enough blood in the bathroom for her to have died there. We think she must have died somewhere else and then been moved into the bathroom afterwards. We’ll know more after the autopsy.”

“So she was  murdered?”

“I’m afraid so.” He wasn’t the least bit afraid, I thought, but I knew what he meant. “Look, Max, I’m truly sorry you lost a friend, but I—”

“No, it’s all right,” I interrupted. “We need to find out who did this. How can I help?”

He pulled a little spiral notepad out of his inside jacket pocket and flipped it open. “For starters, tell me where you were last night.”

The question stunned me. “Am I a suspect?”

“At this point,” he said, “I’m just trying to get a sense of who was where when it happened.”

I had to think for a moment: Last night seemed so far away. “I went to the library after dinner,” I said, “around seven-thirty. My friend Perveen, she’s a senior, she loaned me her thesis carrel. I had to work on my psych paper, and I wanted to be somewhere where I wouldn’t be disturbed. Somewhere along the line, I just couldn’t concentrate any longer—” I paused again, making sure I had it as right as I could get it. “I guess it must have been around one a.m., so I packed it in and came back here. I thought about stopping by my friend Larry’s room, but then I remembered that he’s gone home for the weekend to study for finals.”

“Did anyone see you in the library?”

“I–I don’t know. I don’t think so. I  didn’t see anyone I knew.”

“And where were you at three-fifteen?”

“Here, sound asleep. Why? Is that when—?”

He flipped back several pages. “According to the computer records, that’s when Katie used her access card to let herself into the dorm.”

I frowned. “That’s awfully late for Katie. She never stays out past, I don’t know, maybe two?”

He made a note. “I see.” He let a moment go by, and then he closed his notebook and looked straight into my eyes. “You seem to be taking this really hard, Max. Were you and Katie particularly close?”

I swallowed. Did he know about us? How could  he? I’d never told anyone about our relationship. Had Katie?

“We were pretty good friends,” I finally said. “She was one of my freshmen here on the floor, of course, so I saw her all the time. We hung out. We were on the Student Activities Board together, and she used to ask me for help with her psych homework — she was a history major, she knew all about what  people did, but sometimes she had trouble understanding why  they did it.”

“I have the same problem in my  line of work,” he said, nodding. Maybe he didn’t  know about our relationship, after all. “Was there anyone who disliked Katie? Anyone she fought with?”

For that one, I didn’t need to think before answering. “Dee,” I said. “Her roommate. She and Katie fought all the time. They fought last night, actually, before the picnic.”


“They — Katie and Dee — Gavin and Ethan, too, actually — they were all in the same first-year seminar, Introduction to the Sociology of Gender. Professor Farmer always has a late-night picnic for his seminar students at his house at the end of the term. It’s indoors, I don’t know why he calls it a picnic, but he does. He lives a mile or so out of town, north on Route Seven. Anyway, before they left for the picnic, Dee and Katie got into a huge argument. Katie thought Dee had stolen her iPod. She accused her of it, and Dee went crazy — it was awful. They were both yelling at each other. Their room is three doors down the hall, but I could hear them from here. I went over and told them to knock it off, and Katie came here for a minute to tell me what had happened. She actually—” I swallowed back a lump in my throat — “she was sitting right there where you’re sitting.”

He gave me a minute to compose myself. When I started breathing again, he resumed his questioning. “Anyone else? Anyone she recently had issues with?”

Should I tell him about Gavin?

He sensed my hesitation. “Anything you can give us may help,” he said kindly.

I drew in a breath and decided to risk it. “Yesterday, this guy on the hall, Gavin, asked her out. Katie said no — she wasn’t interested in being in a relationship, I think, and, besides, Gavin’s not really her type. He came to me, told me about it — Gavin did, I mean. I calmed him down, reminded him that one ‘no’ from one girl wasn’t the end of the world. He was pretty steamed about the situation when he stormed in here, but I think he was okay when he left. I don’t think he was ever  mad enough to — to do anything to hurt Katie. That’s — I mean — no, I’m sure  he wasn’t.”

“All right, Max, thanks.” He slipped the notebook into his jacket pocket and stood up. “I think that’s enough for now. If I need to ask you any more questions, is it okay if I come back?”

I nodded.

“Here’s my number,” he said, handing me a business card. “You think of anything else, give me a call, okay?” He opened the door and walked off down the hall.

Just the thought of it was staggering.

Katie had been killed, probably murdered, not even two days after dumping me. That made me the spurned lover, and, regardless of what Branigan said, I’ve seen enough cop shows on TV to know that a spurned lover is an obvious suspect.

I hadn’t killed Katie, I knew that. But I also knew that, in order to protect myself from being suspect number one and chance the truth coming out and getting me tossed out of Middlebury halfway through my junior year, I’d have to figure out who did  kill her before the detective dug any deeper into our relationship.

Right, sure, Max, you’re a big twenty years old, and now all you have to do is put on your Hardy Boys outfit and beat the police to a murderer. Piece of cake!

I knocked on Katie’s door.

Well, not Katie’s any longer. Dee’s door, now, only Dee’s.

She opened it, bouncing up and down impatiently on her perfectly pedicured toes, equally unsurprised and unhappy to see me. Dee is the pretty one on the floor — her family emigrated to Boston from Kashmir ten years ago, and Dee’d brought with her the glossy black hair and striking features of a Bollywood film star — but right now her oval face was somber.

“Look,” she said, waving vaguely towards Katie’s side of the large double room, “I’m not going to tell anyone about you two, if that’s why you’re here. It’s none of my business. It’s nobody’s  business.”

I gaped at her. “You — you knew?” 

“Oh, Max, of course  I knew. It was so totally obvious  — I realized what was going on like six weeks  ago.”

“But — but I—”

“The way you looked at her? I might be a freshman, but I’m not stupid.” 

I swallowed hard. “Dee, you can’t—”

“I’m not going to bust you, Max. I haven’t said a word about it to anyone, and I’m not going to tell anyone now.”

I pressed my lips tightly together and inhaled through my nose, processing this new information. “But she’s dead, ” I said at last. “What if I’m  the one who—?”

“Yeah, right,” she scoffed. “She broke your heart, so you killed her? I don’t think so. And I want to know who did it as much as you do. They have to find out before — well, before he does it again.”

I hadn’t even thought of that. Somewhere out there was a killer, and whoever it was who’d killed Katie could just as easily kill again.

I pressed the heels of my hands to my temples, trying to think.

“Katie’s parents,” I finally said. “Do you know if — when they’re coming up? To get her things?” I sat on Katie’s bed, softly stroking Bennington, the stuffed bear she’d had since she was a kid.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “I talked to her dad about an hour ago. They couldn’t get a flight, so they’re driving. They’ll be here in the morning.” She sighed and sat on her own bed. “Look, Max, you know Katie and I weren’t the best of friends, but I want to help. What can I do?”

I looked at her. “I want to ask you some questions, I guess. Is that okay?”

She nodded, and I saw that there was moisture in the corners of her eyes.

I took another deep breath and gathered my thoughts. Maybe the best way to begin would be to follow Branigan’s lead. “For starters, where were you last night?”

“I was at Professor Farmer’s picnic until about eleven,” she said. “Brandon gave me and Gavin a ride back here, and I sat up studying for my calc exam until like twelve-thirty. Then I went to bed.”

“Did anyone see you, once you got back to campus?”

“Not after Brandon dropped us off. I went down to the bathroom just before bed to brush my teeth, but there was nobody there or in the halls.”

“Tell me about the picnic,” I said.

She looked out the window for a minute before responding. “Well, you know about the fight beforehand. I never touched her freaking iPod — I have my own  freaking iPod, everybody here  has a freaking iPod! — but Katie just made up her mind I’d swiped it and practically chewed my head off. After you got her calmed down, though, she came back to the room and flopped down on her bed and picked up Bennington and hugged him — and her iPod was under the stupid bear, right where she’d left it. She apologized, but I think maybe she thought I really had  taken it, but then I changed my mind when she was down in your room and put it back. Anyway, we didn’t hang out at the picnic — she was talking to Brandon, and I was with Blair and Ethan on the other side of the living room. Professor Farmer gave us our papers back around ten-fifteen or so, and what I remember is that Katie left soon after that. She was upset about her grade, I think. That was the last time I saw her.”

I got up from Katie’s bed and looked at her desk. Her laptop was there, open and on, but there was no term paper in sight. In the second drawer, I found her “Gender” notebook — but the paper wasn’t there, either.

“You didn’t see her here at the dorm?” I was still poking around, trying to find the paper or some other sign that she’d been back to her room after the picnic.

“No,” she said. “I didn’t. And I didn’t see her paper, either, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

I sighed. “Okay, Dee. Thanks. I–I’m going to take her bear with me for tonight, okay? I’ll bring it back in the morning, if her parents want it.”

“Okay,” she said, walking me to the door. I was halfway back to my room before I heard her say my name. I turned around.

“I really am sorry, Max,” she said.

After talking to Dee, I really just needed to lie down and gather my thoughts, and that’s what I was doing when someone knocked on my door. I rose unsteadily and opened up to find a distraught Gavin inches from my face. Gavin was the preppiest person on the hall, male or female, and owned enough Polo shirts to make Ralph Lauren jealous. Today he was wearing a black Polo over khakis. Mourning attire.

“Can I come in?” he said. “I need to talk to someone — you knew Katie best and I — well, you know — I just need to talk.”

I nodded and let him into my room. He sat in the beanbag chair across from my bed and tried not to cry.

I handed him a tissue and sat on the edge of my bed, uncomfortable with his emotion but knowing I needed to talk to him, too.

“Remember,” he said at last, “what I told you, you know, about what happened yesterday afternoon?”

I frowned. The last thing I wanted to think about was that he had asked Katie out.

“No, listen,” he continued, “what if it’s my fault that she — well, that she — died?”

I leaned forward. “Gavin,” I said, “it’s not your fault unless you killed her. Did you kill her?”

“No!” He looked startled. “It’s just that — what if she was upset that I asked her out, and she did something stupid because of it? That would make  it my fault! I mean, she went to that party at Ross last night, and you know how she gets when she drinks...”

“It wasn’t your fault, I promise you. When did Katie go to Ross, though? I thought she was at Professor Farmer’s picnic?”

“She was. Dee and I caught a ride out there with Brandon — he said Katie could ride with us, too, but she took her bike and got there about ten minutes after we did. She mainly talked to Brandon until dinner, but I was close enough to hear some of their conversation and she seemed, you know, perfectly normal. When Farmer handed back our papers, though, sometime after ten, she got really upset. Soon after that, she took off — all there was to drink at the picnic was soda and cider, and she told me she wanted a ‘real’ drink, so she was heading over to Ross. She asked me if I wanted to go with her, but I was having a good time at the picnic and decided not to. Dee and I came back to campus with Brandon about eleven. He dropped us off, and I just went to bed. I was still kind of freaked about — well, what happened. Are you sure  she didn’t — you know — do it herself?”

“She didn’t kill herself, Gavin. The policeman said she was probably murdered.”

He shuddered, then got up from the chair and threw his tissue at my wastebasket. “This is so horrible, I know, but — in a way, I’m sort of relieved.” Suddenly realizing how that had sounded, he added in a rush, “Not that she’s dead, obviously. But, you know, if somebody else killed her, then I guess it really wasn’t  my fault, after all. But, Max, why would anyone kill Katie? I mean — you know, man — why?” 

“I don’t know. That’s kind of the million-dollar question right now, I guess.”

Shaking his head in bewilderment, he left my room.

Why had  Katie been killed? If I knew that, I thought, the answer might help me figure out who  had killed her.

The Ross Townhouses seemed to be the last place she’d been seen alive, so I decided to head over there and nose around. It had already turned bitterly cold in Vermont, so I shrugged into my North Face fleece, threw on a wool ski cap, grabbed my backpack, and headed out.

It was only a five-minute walk from Stew to Ross, but I was thoroughly chilled by the time I touched my access card to the pad and pushed through the door. My hard-partying friend Charlie was sprawled out on one of the shabby sofas in the downstairs lounge, surrounded by pillows, with a dog-eared paperback in his hands. I’m not sure if he was actually reading  it, but he was holding  it — and it was by Kierkegaard. Charlie grew up in a Chicago suburb, a real straight-arrow all the way through high school. His first weekend at Midd, though, he’d found himself at a party at one of the social houses, and I don’t think he’s been sober for fifteen minutes at a stretch ever since. I have no idea how he keeps his GPA up — but underneath his shaggy blond hair is a brain that somehow seems to be successfully fueled by alcohol.

“Yo, Charlie,” I greeted him, and slapped the hand he held aloft. “Hey, you were at the party last night, right?”

“Duuuude, Max, of course I was!” The words were slurred, and, although I couldn’t see it, I knew he must have a bottle somewhere in the immediate vicinity. “It was the  party of the semester! I looked for you. Where were you?”

“Studying,” I confessed. “It’s a rough job, but somebody’s  gotta do it — and I knew you’d  be drinking for the both of us. Listen, Charlie, I can see you’re busy, but can you help me with something for a minute? Do you remember my friend Katie?”

He frowned, concentrating. “That’s that freshman you’re really tight with?”

I hesitated at his use of the present tense, but decided it’d be just too complicated to explain. “Yeah,” I said. “Her.”

“Sure. She was here last night, I asked her where you were. She just glared at me and walked away.” His voice dropped to a whisper, and he waggled his eyebrows like Groucho Marx in those goofy old comedies my dad likes to watch. “I think she was in a hormonally induced bad mood, if you know what I mean.”

“Do you remember who she was talking to, what she was wearing, anything?”

He laughed. “What are you, a detective?”

“No, Charlie, I’m not a detective,” I said patiently — while thinking, I just play one on TV . “I’m just trying to figure out what happened to my friend.”

He dug beneath his pillows, found a blue Nalgene water bottle, and took a swig of whatever was in it. “That’s deep,” he said. “Hey, wait a second... she was wearing a red Hingham Hockey sweatshirt! That’s why I asked her if you were with her, ’cause I figured it had to be yours, nobody else I know went to Hingham. She pretty much ignored me, though. She wasn’t talking to anyone, I don’t think. She seemed really angry and just sort of sat in a corner by herself, pounding beers. While I was manning the keg, she got at least three or four of ’em from me, and she never said a word, not even thanks.”

“Do you know what time she left?”

He considered the question, then shrugged helplessly. “I have no idea, man. I was so shwasted, I wasn’t paying any attention to the time.”

I figured that was about all I’d be able to learn from Charlie, so I thanked him, told him to get some sleep, and turned to go.

“Hey, dude!” he called after me. He pulled several folded sheets of typing paper from between the pages of his book and held them out to me. “She left this behind, Max, I found it lying on the floor when I was cleaning up this morning and saw her name on it. Can you give it back to her?”

I took the thin sheaf of paper from him and unfolded it. Across the top of the first page was the heading “Gender Is as Gender Does,” and underneath it “by Katie Parker.” Scrawled across the bottom of the page in red ink was a big circled B+ and a handwritten message: “This is promising, Katie, as far as it goes. Problem is, it doesn’t go far enough. I expected a more fully developed job from you!”

Katie’s paper. She was a straight A student, so I could imagine the B+ flipping her out. Professor Farmer was a notoriously tough grader, though. I’d only gotten a B- from him on my  final paper, two years earlier, and I’d been relieved to wind up above C level.

“Thanks, Charlie,” I said dully. “I–I’ll take care of it.”

I headed out into the frosty December air. What now? I still didn’t know why Katie had been killed, and my next move seemed unfortunate but obvious. I had no idea where the expression “bearding the lion in its den” came from, but I knew what it meant — and I knew I was going to have to do it.

By the time I got into my rusted old Volvo and headed north, it was after ten. I slipped a mix CD Katie had made for my birthday into the player and jumped forward to track 9 — Ani’s “Freakshow” seemed a fitting soundtrack to the day’s events.

Several minutes north of campus, I pulled into a long driveway and wound my way through the bare woods that surrounded the house. I parked next to his truck and noticed that the living room lights were still on. Good. Despite the cold, a window was open, and I could hear soft jazz wafting towards me. I don’t know jazz, but whatever it was was mellow and warm with saxophones.

I rang the doorbell, but there was no response from within the house. I rang again. On the third ring, the music stopped, and as I was about to press the buzzer a fourth time, the door finally opened.

Professor Farmer hadn’t changed much since I had seen him last — in December of my freshman year. His hair was a little thinner than I remembered, his beard a little grayer, but the way he slowly looked me up and down before speaking creeped me out just as much as ever.

He was holding a half-full bottle of #9, a Burlington brew, in his right hand, and he raised it to eye level and tipped it towards me in a sardonic salute.

“Dr. Max, I presume,” he said. “It’s been quite awhile. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“You heard about Katie?”

His smile disappeared. “Yes, it was on the news. Such a tragedy. She was a sweet girl, a fine student.”

“She was at the picnic last night, wasn’t she?”

He nodded.

“Can I come in and ask you about it?”

He seemed nonplussed by the question, but then he nodded sadly and said, “Yes — yes, of course.”

He stepped aside to let me pass, but not quite far enough. As I came into the house, I had to brush against him. The momentary touch of his skin against mine made me shiver.

His house hadn’t changed much, either. He followed me into the living room and sat down on the couch. I moved to the armchair across the low coffee table from him. There was a throw rug I didn’t remember next to the table, but otherwise the room was the same.

“Can I get you one?” he said, raising his bottle again.

“No,” I said quickly, adding a thank-you almost as an afterthought.

He took a drink. “This is rather awkward,” he said.

“About Katie, Professor? What time did she leave here?”

He paused a moment before replying. “She took off earlier than the others, I remember. Around ten-thirty, I think. Perhaps a bit earlier than that.”


“I think so, yes. Yes, I’m almost certain.”

“Did anything out of the ordinary happen? I know Katie and Dee argued before they left the dorm. Did they fight again at the picnic?”

“Not that I noticed,” he answered. “She seemed quiet last night, quieter than usual. She only talked to Brandon, as far as I can recall. I handed back the final papers at, oh, quarter past ten or so, and she left not long after that.”

“Do you remember what she was wearing?”

He looked into his beer, as if to find the answer there. “A shirt? A sweater, maybe? Jeans, I think. I didn’t notice, to be honest.” He drained his bottle and got up. “You sure you don’t want one?”

“No, thanks,” I said. On the drive out, I’d rehearsed a series of questions in my mind, but none of them seemed especially important anymore, and being there was making me less comfortable by the minute. “Can I just use your restroom, and then I’ll be on my way?”

He looked at me, his face emotionless. “Sure, Max, you know where it is.”

I nodded. When I reached the little room at the end of the hall, I swung the door shut behind me and leaned heavily on the sink, my five-o’clock-shadowed face gazing back at me from the medicine cabinet’s mirror. I was running out of options. Professor Farmer had been no help, and I was clueless about where to go next. If Detective Branigan didn’t know about Katie and me yet, well, he’d know soon, and my ability to find out what had really happened would be severely limited — limited to the inside of a jail cell, probably.

I sat down on the crocheted toilet cover — where had that  monstrosity come from? — and buried my face in my hands. I had no idea what to do.

When I looked up again, I found myself staring blankly at the professor’s white wicker laundry hamper, eighteen inches in front of me. In the narrow gaps between the wicker slats, I caught glimpses of the blue of a pair of jeans, the white of a T-shirt, the red of—

The red of—

As if in a trance, I lifted the hamper lid and looked inside. Dirty shirts, underwear, jeans. The hint of red, barely visible through the slats, was completely invisible from above. Wincing, practically gagging, I held my breath and dug a hand deep down into the pile — probably the grossest thing I have ever done. I burrowed down past the denim and cotton and linen and pulled free — a red sweatshirt.

On the front were the words “Property of Hingham Hockey.” Inside was a label with my name on it.

I breathed deeply and stared down at it, confused and disbelieving.

What was my sweatshirt doing in Professor Farmer’s bathroom?

I searched the rest of the hamper, dumped its contents onto the tile floor, and went through everything, piece by piece. And buried way down at the bottom were a pair of flared jeans much too small and feminine to be the professor’s, a lilac bra and matching panties, and a pair of flip-flops with tiny red lobsters on the straps.

Katie’s, all Katie’s.

I went out to the living room, holding the sweatshirt hidden behind my back.

“Professor?” I said. He looked up blearily from a fresh bottle of #9. “Katie was wearing a sweater last night, you think?”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Max, I just don’t recall. There were fifteen, sixteen kids here. I don’t remember who wore—”

I should have run out of the house, jumped in my car, and gone straight to Detective Branigan. Looking back at it now, I know that. But I had probably twenty pounds of muscle on the professor, and something inside me made me stand my ground, made me pull the sweatshirt out from behind my back and say, “Are you sure it wasn’t a sweatshirt?” 

His eyes snapped into cold focus.

“Are you sure it wasn’t this  sweatshirt?” I said.

The room went very quiet.

There was a rattle from the kitchen as the automatic icemaker in Professor Farmer’s freezer dropped a tray of new cubes into its bin.

“She — may have been,” he said. “Where did you find that?”

“It was in your hamper. Along with her jeans, her underwear, her shoes. Why did you take her clothes, Professor? Why did you keep  them? Why didn’t you just get rid of them?”

Somewhere, a clock was ticking. I hadn’t noticed it before.

Professor Farmer took a slow sip from his bottle. He wiped the back of his hand across his moustache. The ticking now seemed deafening.

“I handed back the group’s final papers last night,” he said. “I’d given her a B-plus, which I thought was actually generous. She was obviously disappointed, though. She left here in a huff, early, maybe around ten-thirty. That was the last time I saw her. I don’t know what happened to her after that.”

“Her clothes are in your hamper, Professor. Was she naked when she left here?”

He shook his head, disgusted at his own sloppy thinking. “Her clothes,” he repeated slowly. “Her clothes are in my hamper.”

He drank again, finished the beer, and set the bottle down clumsily on the coffee table. He dry-washed his hands nervously — I remembered seeing him make the exact same gesture in the seminar, whenever he was asked a question he couldn’t answer — and then he seemed to come to a decision.

“She came back,” he told the table, his voice low and dull, “about one a.m. Everyone else had gone. I was sleeping, but she pounded on the front door and woke me up. I put on my bathrobe and went to the door and let her in.”

He picked up the bottle and looked at it, sighed, and banged it back onto the table.

“She was drunk,” he said. “I think she’d gone to the party at Ross. She was angry about her grade. She didn’t have the paper with her, but she insisted she’d deserved an A. I told her to come to my office Monday morning, to bring the paper, and I’d go over it with her — but she wouldn’t listen. I tried to calm her down, but she took a swing at me.”

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “I pushed her away,” he said, eyes still closed. “She fell. She hit her head on — on this table, right here.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat. “And that killed her?” I said.

He opened his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure. There was blood on the floor. I tried to clean it up this afternoon, but—” He waved a hand at the throw rug.

I swallowed. “What happened after she fell?” I prompted him.


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t last he raised his head to face me. “I felt for a pulse, but I couldn’t tell if there was one or not. I’m not a doctor, I—” He twitched involuntarily and a breath rushed out of him. “I picked up the phone to call nine-one-one,” he said. “I punched the nine and the one — and, and then — I hung up.”

“You hung up? Why?”

He licked his lips. “Two years ago, Max, a girl in my freshman seminar filed a sexual-harassment charge against me. You remember that, don’t you?” He smiled at me ruefully. “I  remember. She was in your class. There was an investigation, the charge was eventually dropped, but still. Mud sticks, you know? I couldn’t afford another — I mean, here this girl was, at my house, obviously drunk. Dead or alive, I was in for it, either way.”

The light finally dawned. “So you decided to move her?”

“Yes. I—”

“Why take her back to the dorm? Why not just dump her in the woods somewhere?”

He stared at me blankly. “I have no idea,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking, I was in shock. I waited until I was sure everyone would be in bed, and then I put her in my car and put her bike in my trunk and drove her back to Stewart. It was late, around three. I put her bike in the rack and carried her up the steps. I didn’t want to use my access card — that would have left a record of my having been there on the computer. Hers was in her back pocket, though, so I just touched her jeans to the pad and the door clicked open. I put her in the bathroom and — came home. I thought that, if she was  still alive, someone might find her there and — I didn’t — didn’t find out she was really dead until this afternoon.”

“But why did you take her clothes?”  I demanded.

He sat there on the sofa, hands clasped in his lap, blinking at me. He seemed completely bewildered.

“I — fingerprints,” he said. “I thought the police might find my fingerprints on her clothing. I stripped everything off her and brought it home and put it all in the hamper until I could figure out what to do with it. I was going to burn it tonight, out in the woods.”

I stood over him, watching him wash and wash his hands. The silence between us stretched out in every direction.

At last I said, “It was an accident, Professor. You might get in a little trouble for moving the body, but—”

“No,” he said decisively. “No, Max, I can’t let you tell them. It would — I can’t — it would destroy my career. I can’t afford to be dragged into another scandal.”

He leaned forward, put his hands on the coffee table, and pushed himself to his feet. Like a robot from one of those corny old science-fiction movies, he began to move jerkily towards me.

He didn’t leave me any choice, really. When he moved into range, I did what any good hockey player would do and punched him, right in the face.

“ when I retired in ’ninety-four, my wife and I moved up here. She grew up in Winooski, and we always talked about eventually settling in Vermont. I couldn’t stand the peace and quiet, though, after thirty years on the NYPD, so when I heard that Burlington was looking for an experienced homicide guy, I clipped on a new shield and went back to work.”

It was three days later, and I was sitting across from Detective Branigan in the Juice Bar, the oddly named coffee shop in McCullough Hall, at his invitation.

“I wish my grandfather would go back to work,” I said. “He just putters around the house all day and drives my gramma crazy.”

“If I hadn’t taken this job,” he joked, “I think my wife would have divorced me by now.”

I laughed.

“That’s nice,” he said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a smile on your face. You’re a good-looking kid when you smile, Max.”

I looked down at my coffee, embarrassed.

“Max,” he said, after a while, “I wanted to tell you a couple of things, now that it’s all over.”

I don’t know why I felt so nervous, but somehow I was afraid of what he was going to say.

“Farmer made a full confession,” he said. “He even admitted that Betsy Ortner — the girl from your seminar — was right to accuse him of harassment the other year.”

I looked up. “He did?”

“He did. That was then, though, and this is now. Now, he wanted to go after you for assaulting him the other night — he never touched you before you hit him, he says, and he wound up with a broken nose — but I, ah, convinced him to let the matter drop.”

“If I hadn’t hit him, he might have killed me, too!”

Branigan sighed. “That’s speculation on your part, Max. He  says he was going to the phone to call the police and turn himself in.”

“That’s a lie! He told me he couldn’t let me tell on him. He said it would ruin his career!”

“Your word against his. He’ll deny it in court, and there’s no way to prove it.”

I shook my head at the insanity of it all.

“What’s going to happen to him?” I asked.

“Given the fact that he undressed her and moved her body, I would love  to go for Murder One, but I just don’t think we can make that stick. I’ll fight for it, but I’m guessing the D.A. will charge him with involuntary manslaughter and a couple of other minor things, and he’ll plead it all down to one lesser charge. I don’t think he’ll do any time, but—”

“No time! That’s crazy! He killed Katie!”

“He killed her, sure, but it wasn’t murder, Max. It was an accident: She took a swing at him, and he acted in self-defense. At least that’s his story, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to prove otherwise. In any case, he’s finished at Middlebury, probably in academia altogether.”

I picked up my mug and sipped, but the coffee tasted like nothing.

All around us, students were talking in little groups, doing homework, opening packages from home. Professor Griffen, hunched over a table with a man who looked enough like him to be his younger brother, spotted me and waved. Katie was dead, but life at Middlebury went on.

“I’m sorry about your girlfriend,” Branigan said.

I looked up sharply. “My — she wasn’t — I mean — how did you—?”

He got up from the table and patted my shoulder. “I may be old, Max, but I’ve been a cop for a long time. I can see when somebody’s reacting to the death of a—”

“You can’t tell anyone,” I said in a rush. “If they find out, I’ll—”

He put up his hands in surrender. “Your secret’s safe with me,” he said. “It’s got nothing to do with the investigation — never did. I won’t tell a soul.”

“You promise?” I said. “You have to promise! You have no idea how much trouble I could—”

“Cross my heart,” he said. “And hope to die.”

He turned, then, and went away. I watched him disappear through the Juice Bar door, and then I sighed and reached for my headphones and slipped them on. I hit the Play button on my iPod, and the stuttering opening guitar chords of “Both Hands” filled my head with sound.

“In each other’s shadows, we grew less and less tall,” Ani sang breathily, “till eventually our theories couldn’t explain it all, and I’m recording our history now on the bedroom wall.”

History, I thought. Katie’s major.

There were tears in my eyes as I pulled a notebook and a pen from my backpack.

I sat there for a moment, gathering my thoughts, and then I began recording.

“I’ll never believe it was just a coincidence,” I wrote, “not if I live to be forty. Somehow, I’m convinced, Ani knew... ”

Copyright © 2009 Rebecca K. Jones & Josh Pachter

City in Fog

by  John Morgan Wilson

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John Morgan Wilson throws a spooky twist into our Halloween issue this year with his special take on the genre of vampire fiction. He is also the author of the Edgar Award-winning Benjamin Justice series. The eighth Justice novel, Spider Season , was published in December, 2008. The Mystery Scene  review raved: “This exquisite novel is the finest yet in a powerful series.” Bold Strokes Books recently reissued the first four Justice mysteries, including Simple Justice , the 1996 Edgar winner.

The first body turned up in early February beside a Dumpster in a dead-end alley in the Tenderloin.

Nothing too unusual in that. The Tenderloin is San Francisco’s seediest district, a magnet for the city’s more troublesome creatures of the night. Homicides are almost as common there as jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge.

What was different about this one was the condition of the corpse. A city worker discovered it just after dawn, crumpled against a graffiti-scarred wall in a shaft of early sunlight. When my partner and I arrived, we found a victim without pulse or heartbeat, and unusually pallid. We immediately noticed bruising on the neck, signs of possible strangulation. Upon closer inspection, we saw that a carotid artery in the neck appeared torn and collapsed, possibly from sustained suction. There was no sign of spilled blood anywhere, as if the suspect had been careful not to waste a drop.

“The Chronicle  will have a field day with this one,” my partner said, as we picked through litter for possible evidence, while the coroner’s people handled the body. “I can see the headline now: Vampire Killer Stalks City.” With a wink, he added, “Whoever did this won’t be getting a booster award from the tourism bureau.”

My partner was Inspector Jack Riordan, a beefy, balding detective who’d been my kindly mentor over the past few years. My name is Alice Martell. At thirty-seven, I was the junior partner on our robbery-homicide team, a few years up from patrol and a year out of a childless marriage that shouldn’t have lasted as long as it did.

Upon arrival at the crime scene, we’d identified the victim at a glance, because his face was only too familiar.

“At least it wasn’t a tourist,” I said, in the hard-edged manner I’d developed like a callus since my divorce. “I don’t expect too many tears to be shed over this one.”

“You just get colder and tougher, don’t you, Martell?” Jack winked, grinning impishly. “Maybe it’s time you started dating again. Rediscover that sunny side that we all used to know and love.”

“Thanks for the advice, Jack, but I’d rather spend my time finding out who did a Bela Lugosi number on our victim here. Even if he is a scumbag who deserved what he got.”

The scumbag was an ex-con named Bobby Tremaine. A few days earlier, he’d beaten a rape charge on a technicality, enraging the judge and spectators when he’d blown a kiss to his victim on his way out of court. It had made the evening news, giving Tremaine his fifteen minutes of fame and the victim and her family an extra measure of grief. So no one at the SFPD was going to be heartbroken because Bobby Tremaine was no longer among the living.

“We’ll have to look at the girl’s family for suspects,” Jack said, sounding regretful. “Possible revenge killing — obvious place to start.”

“That doesn’t explain the odd wound on the neck, or the apparent loss of blood.”

“Could be a ploy to confuse us, throw us off the scent.”

“That’s a stretch,” I said.

He grinned. “Okay, the usual explanation then. A vampire did it.”

“Sorry, Jack. I don’t believe in vampires.”

Neither of us did, of course. But we also knew that a compulsion for blood-letting among individuals or cults was well-documented, either as an erotic fetish or a criminal pathology connected to murder. The medical facts in our case clearly pointed in that direction. The coroner estimated that Tremaine had lost nearly three pints of blood from the gash in his neck. Traces of human saliva were found around the puncture site. Strangulation had put out Bobby Tremaine’s lights but he’d died from plummeting blood pressure because someone had used him as a human blood bank.

One such homicide was trouble enough. Then, later that month, another victim in similar condition was discovered near the ocean, in the swampy remnants of the old Sutro Baths. A few days later, victim number three turned up in Nob Hill, not far from the Grace Cathedral. Because they were obviously linked to the first, Jack Riordan and I caught those cases too. Naturally, the grisly murders got front-page headlines in the Chron  and sent the cable gab shows into a feeding frenzy.

“I guess my kids won’t be seeing me for a while,” Jack said, as we studied the coroner’s report on the third victim. “At least our suspect waited until after Christmas.”

“You can thank him when we put the bracelets on him,” I said.

Jack’s eyes shifted uneasily, without their usual glint of humor. “If  we catch him,” he said. “Let’s not forget the Zodiac. Not every serial killer gets caught.”

We compared notes as we began building our file: Like Bobby Tremaine, the second and third victims had been strangled into unconsciousness before their throats had been gouged and their blood drained. Each murder had occurred shortly before sunrise, when a predator with a taste for blood could find an ample supply among the countless derelicts and predators who prowled San Francisco in the wee small hours.

Our commander assembled a special task force to investigate, putting Jack and me in charge. Jack was understandably disheartened by the added pressure and responsibility. Pushing fifty and nearing retirement, he had three kids and a second marriage he was trying to hold together by spending more time at home. Me, I welcomed the heavier workload. As far as I was concerned, a demented vampire wannabe stalking San Francisco’s streets was a useful distraction from the emptiness of my little apartment up in Potrero Heights. My closest friends were all cops, but everyone was either married or dating long-term. Hanging out with couples only reminded me how single I was, so I’d stopped. Other than Jack, I no longer had anyone in my life who meant much.

What I had was my job. So I embraced our investigation with a vengeance, only too willing to lose myself in it, seeking refuge from the ache of loneliness I was too proud and too stubborn to acknowledge.

I first encountered Eduardo Arce in early March, a few days before the fourth body was found.

We literally bumped into each other as he stepped around a corner in a drift of fog near the wharf, not long after sundown. I’d been checking leads that afternoon in Chinatown and the Anchorage, and was late for a task-force meeting back at the Hall of Justice. My eyes were on my watch, my mind on the case. When I looked up, Eduardo and I were suddenly face to face.

If you have to collide with a stranger on the street, I thought, it might as well be a guy like Eduardo Arce. I put his age at forty, give or take a year. He was tall and lean, with dark, wavy hair, a nice face, and a beguiling soul patch beneath his lower lip. His attire looked hand-tailored but on the comfortable side: fine-looking dark slacks, a loose-fitting silk shirt, a gray fedora, and long black coat to ward off the evening chill. I was blond, blue-eyed, and not bad-looking — Jack Riordan let me know that from time to time, in a brotherly way — but not remotely in the league of a suave looker like Eduardo Arce.

After our collision, he held me by the shoulders a moment to steady me, studying my face with his soulful dark eyes.

“You seem to be in a hurry.”

His voice was deep and warm, his accent faintly South American.

“Working,” I said. “I’m a cop.”

That’s usually enough to discourage a man on the make. But Eduardo seemed to perk up when I mentioned my occupation. He glanced at my left hand as I drew back, almost surely searching for a wedding ring.

“Divorced,” I said tightly, and started to step around him.

“Even a police officer needs to slow down now and then,” he said, “and get her mind off the job. Especially  a police officer.”

His tone was gentle and understanding, his smile reassuring. Since the split with my ex, I hadn’t spent any significant time with a man except Jack, and that had been strictly work-related. I didn’t want the complication of another relationship, the deceptions, the tensions, the pain and ugly words when it ended. I was better off solo, keeping it simple. At least, that’s what I’d been telling myself for the past year.

Eduardo handed me a business card.

“I teach the tango, just a few blocks away, in North Beach. I’m a recent arrival to your fine city, and accepting new students.”

Part of me wanted to be gone, away from his empathetic nature and seductive charm. But something held me back.

“I’m afraid I have two left feet,” I said, but without much conviction.

“For you, a free lesson.” His smile was like salve. He extended his hand. It was surprisingly soft, the fingers long and slender. “Eduardo Arce, formerly of Argentina.”

“Alice Martell,” I said, smiling more easily, “late for a meeting at headquarters.”

He held my hand a moment longer, along with my gaze, then turned and strolled away into the fog. I slipped his business card into my handbag, remembering his touch.

The fourth body was found in a run-down section of the Mission district favored by drunks and drug addicts. The characteristics of the crime duplicated the others: a victim targeted after dark, strangulation, punctured neck, drained blood, the corpse left exposed to the emerging sunlight as if its placement there had been intentional.

As we checked the backgrounds of the victims, we also came across another commonality: Each was a dirtbag who’d gotten away with murder, or a crime nearly as serious. Mishandled evidence, a key witness who changes his or her story, a holdout juror, a judge who’s a patsy — there are all kinds of ways a guilty perp can beat the rap in an imperfect justice system that favors reasonable doubt. The four victims of the Vampire Killer, as the media had dubbed him, ran the gamut.

“Too many to be coincidental,” Jack said. “Definitely a pattern, almost certainly a motive”

“Vigilante justice.”

He nodded wearily. “So now we’ve got two angles we have to work: the vigilante aspect, and the vampire business. Not your standard-issue psycho.”

Jack looked wrung-out and exhausted from the long hours we’d been putting in and even I was starting to fray at the edges. The pressure on the task force was mounting from City Hall, especially with the arrival of spring when so many tourists would be picking a destination as they made their summer travel plans. I was sleeping only a few hours a night, on the nights I could keep my eyes closed. Awake, when I wasn’t chasing leads or going back over the evidence, I was reading up on vampirism. Not the mythical Count Dracula kind, in which the undead spend eternity in spooky Transylvanian castles, sleeping in coffins to avoid deadly sunlight or perishing with a wooden stake through the heart. I wasn’t interested in nonsense like that.

I was more interested in things like dissociative identity disorder and multiphasic personality disorder, the kind of terms applied to psychotics who truly believe they need human blood to survive, or simply crave it. “Serial Murderers in Germany from 1945 to 1995: A Descriptive Study,” from the journal Homicide Studies,  was particularly helpful. So was I Have Lived in the Monster: Inside the Minds of the World’s Most Notorious Serial Killers,  by former FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler. They left no doubt that vampires — or at least those who were so self-identified — did indeed walk among us. Many of these mentally-ill individuals were loners and transients living on the fringes of society, which often made apprehending them difficult. Like every major city, San Francisco was teeming with people like that.

Residents were justifiably frightened, and potential visitors were staying away. Business was down across the city, particularly after dark and especially on the nights when one of San Francisco’s famous fogs rolled in from the bay, settling over the streets like a shroud and turning them into ideal hunting grounds for someone with an unquenchable thirst for blood.

We needed to break the case, and soon.

In mid March, victim number five.

A woman jogger discovered the body shortly after daybreak in a Golden Gate Park playground the victim was known to frequent. This time, he was an ex-priest who’d molested children but avoided punishment because the statute of limitations had run out.

“The count rises,” Jack said, trying to lighten things up as he tacked a photo of the fifth victim on the task-force bulletin board. “No pun neglected.”

But he wasn’t laughing, and neither was I.

Late that night, long after he’d gone home to his family, I stepped from the Hall of Justice into a sharp wind that felt like it cut right through me. Minutes later, sitting in my car with the ignition running and the heater on, I still felt cold inside. At that moment, returning to an empty apartment seemed unbearable. I’d run out of ways to fool myself into believing I could tough it out. Loneliness can kill just like a homicidal maniac, I finally admitted. It just does it more slowly.

That’s when I remembered the business card in my handbag, and used it to call Eduardo Arce.

Eduardo led his tango sessions from eight p.m. until midnight in a second-floor space on a somewhat desolate stretch of Broadway.

As I entered, he was dancing with an attractive older woman under subdued light in the middle of a checkerboard floor. The music I heard was a seductive blend of Cuban, African, and Spanish — hot-blooded and melodramatic, sweet and melancholy, all at once. His partner’s eyes were closed as he transported her around the floor with passion and precision, gliding gracefully to the hypnotic rhythm as if nothing existed but the dance. Once, as he lifted her leg to a beat in the music, his eyes fell on mine. He never broke his concentration, never lost the perfect balance required of the movements. Yet I knew that he recognized me, and was pleased. Just as the tango communicates wordlessly, Eduardo’s dark eyes spoke volumes.

Later, when we were alone, he took my hand and led me onto the floor, walking with manly elegance until we reached the center.

“Really,” I said, “I’m no good at this.”

Gently, he touched my lips with his finger, forbidding me to speak. Within minutes, I’d learned my first step — he called it a “figure” — and by midnight, closing time, I was lost in the mesmerizing motion. We spoke few words. The music and the figures became our language, and that room our world. It was just the two of us, and the tango.

Over the next few weeks, as the Vampire Killer added another victim to his list, I left work each night to dance with Eduardo Arce. Most of our sessions took place in the hours after midnight, when the other tangueros  had gone. From Eduardo, I learned the proper Argentine term for the tango ritual — milonga  — and the name of the box-shaped accordion that gives the music its bittersweet sound: the bandoneon . But mostly we just danced, in a style that gradually grew more sensual and expressive.

“With the tango, strangers can speak to each other,” he told me, “with a mere rotation of the ankle, or a sudden dip.”

After a month of dancing, we were no longer strangers. I knew I was falling in love with him, and suspected that he had similar feelings for me. But when I asked him if we might have brunch together one Sunday morning, our relationship suddenly stalled.

“Our courtship must remain here,” he said, “within the boundaries of this dance floor. Forgive me. I’m so sorry.”

Of course, I forgave him. How could I not? He’d already given me so much solace, when I’d needed it so desperately. Yet I wanted him more than ever, and sensed that he needed me as much.

That night, before we parted, he held me tighter than usual, whispering my name as if he were in pain.


His lips brushed my neck and I felt him tremble, almost violently.

“Maybe he’s married,” Jack said, steering me down a corridor on the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice to a hastily called task-force meeting, just as I returned from picking up two orders of Chinese takeout.

“I suppose that’s possible,” I conceded. “But why wouldn’t he just tell me? It’s not like he’s trying to sleep with me.”

“Maybe he’s gay — closet case, confused about what he really feels.”

“Maybe,” I said, unconvinced.

“Anyway,” Jack said, “you seem lighter, happier. More like the Alice I used to know.” His eyes twinkled. “I see you’ve changed your hairstyle. Nice.” I blushed, but conceded the point with a shrug. “This guy Eduardo must be good for you,” Jack went on. “Don’t let him get away without a fight.”

“Believe me, I don’t intend to.”

We turned into the command-center room, joining a dozen other inspectors and several FBI agents. It had been a long day — the seventh victim had been discovered that morning, near one of the piers along the Embarcadero.

“Speaking of happier,” I whispered, “you seem to be in a good mood all of a sudden.”

His mischievous eyes slid in my direction. “We finally have a witness, a good one. That’s why we called this meeting.”

“A witness? When?”

“Called us while you were out picking up dinner. Works the graveyard shift at the ferry building. She was on her way home, just before dawn, when she saw a suspect slipping away from the area where we later found the body. She didn’t think anything about it until she saw the story on the evening news.”

“This could be the break we need, Jack.”

He nodded hopefully. “She’s down the hall now with an artist, talking him through a sketch. We should have it in the next hour.”

After the meeting, I raced down the hall to watch our artist put the finishing touches on his drawing, while the witness made her final suggestions. As he added a soul patch beneath the lower lip and a fedora above the riveting dark eyes, my eagerness turned to dread.

The resemblance to Eduardo Arce was unmistakable.

Against all my training and every regulation, I didn’t turn Eduardo in, not right away. I felt certain I could save him on my own.

While Jack joined the chief to alert the media and organize a search of the city, I ran Eduardo’s name through an international crime database. When that turned up nothing, I had the crime lab lift his prints from the business card he’d given me, putting a priority on it. When I ran the prints, I struck gold.

Eduardo Arce was an alias. But he was in the system just the same — not as a criminal or violent mental patient, but as a significant missing person. According to the report I downloaded, he’d been a decorated detective in Buenos Aires a decade ago, heading an investigation into homicides with overtones of vampirism, before suddenly disappearing after closing in on a suspect. He’d later been spotted in various Latin American cities, until the leads had dried up. When I checked my notes from my earlier research, I realized these places were linked in several disturbing ways: Each city had reported an unsolved string of murders that involved mutilation of the neck and bloodletting; all the victims had been known violent criminals; and each series of murders had coincided with the time period Eduardo had been seen there. Wherever he’d traveled, including San Francisco, similar homicides had followed. There seemed no doubt that Eduardo was our Vampire Killer.

Of course, I should have reported my findings to the task force immediately, so we could put out an APB and bring him in. But loneliness and longing are powerful emotions. They can corrupt a person’s reason and erode their sense of caution. It happens all the time, to men and women alike. It happened to me.

It wasn’t Eduardo who was strangling people and drinking their blood, I told myself, it was someone he’d become because the wiring in his head had gone wrong. I wanted to find him first and bring him safely in, and help him get the treatment he needed to be whole and sane again. He’d never hurt me, I was sure of that.

To buy myself some time, I printed out the database reports and left them with Eduardo’s business card on Jack’s desk, knowing he’d be busy elsewhere for much of the next hour. Then, as the clock neared eleven, I drove to North Beach and the loft on Broadway where Eduardo Arce danced the tango.

During the night, a blinding fog had risen ghostlike from the bay and crept into the city, up the hills, and along the nearly deserted streets.

I parked on Columbus Avenue across from City Lights Books, so I could make my approach without being seen. I hurried up to Broadway, where I crossed to the north side and turned right, heading east. As I passed a bar that was nearly empty, I looked in to see a television set turned on to the eleven-o’clock news. The police sketch of Eduardo’s face stared back at me from the screen. I realized Eduardo might also have seen it, and quickened my step.

As I passed Enrico’s, the outside tables were empty and the workers were closing up early for the night. I reached the corner and dashed a

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cross Kearny, just in time to see the neon letters spelling out Milonga del Eduardo  go dark, followed by the lights inside. Moments later, someone stepped out and quickly locked up. He was wearing a gray fedora and long dark coat with the collar turned up, keeping his head down. I pressed myself into a doorway, just glimpsing his handsome features as he hurried down the stairs and darted across Broadway. I stepped out and called after him.


He glanced back, looking startled, then stricken. He strode on, turning down Kearney, disappearing into the heavy fog. I chased after him. The sound of his footsteps led me down a deserted block to Pacific Avenue. Instinctively, I turned right, back toward Columbus, where my car was parked. Seconds later, running, I caught sight of him again.

“Eduardo! Please, wait!”

He dashed on, swallowed up again by the mist. I picked up his trail, listening to his muffled footsteps. As I reached Columbus, I saw a lone figure standing across the street outside the popular Vesuvio Cafe, which had gone dark for the night.

It was Eduardo. He just stood there, staring plaintively at me through the drifting fog, almost as if he wanted me to come after him.

I raised a hand, reaching out. “Eduardo! Please!”

He turned and fled into Jack Kerouac Alley, the short lane that separates the cafe from City Lights Books. There was no traffic, so I darted across. Halfway down the alley, Eduardo grasped a handrail and descended out of sight. As I chased after him, the stench of stale urine hit me and a rat scurried away into hiding. When I reached the place where Eduardo had disappeared, I saw several steps leading down to a door that was slightly ajar. Adjacent to the door, a barred window was covered from the inside with heavy black curtains. I unfastened the guard on my holstered handgun and started down.

I was about to push open the door when my pager beeped. It was Jack calling. He’d just found the reports I’d left him; he was in his car and wanted to know my location. I glanced at my watch, calculating the minutes. I needed only enough time to talk some sense into Eduardo, to convince him to give himself up. I told Jack where I was and abruptly signed off.

I pushed open the door and stepped into darkness. My flashlight was in the car, and a light switch I found on the wall didn’t work. I could hear Eduardo somewhere inside, breathing heavily.

“Eduardo, please talk to me.”

His voice came back, subdued and sad. “We’re beyond talking. We’ve reached the end.”

“Every cop in the city is looking for you. Let me take you in. Let me get you the help you need.”

“Only you can help me now, Alice.”

“That’s why I’m here.” I clamped my eyes shut, fighting tears. “To help you find some peace.”

“You see? We want the same thing, you and I.”

He was suddenly beside me. His strong arm snaked around my shoulders, clutching me tight. I stiffened but didn’t pull away. I wanted him to trust me, to understand that I cared about what happened to him.

His lips hovered above my neck as he murmured my name. “Alice.” It was like a moan, from deep within. “My dear, lovely Alice.”

While I tried to reason with him, he led me further into the basement room and its dank, dungeonlike smell. He struck a match and lit a candle. Next to us was a long, narrow table. On the table lay a wooden stake and a heavy wooden mallet.

I tried to turn him back toward the door. “Eduardo, please. They’re coming for you.”

“Then we must hurry.” He turned me forcefully to face the implements on the table. “You must do this for me, Alice. Before they arrive.”

“Eduardo, for God’s sake. No more of these vampire theatrics.”

His eyes flashed. “That’s what you think this is — a performance?”

“Not to you. I’m sure, in your mind, you believe in the myth.” I glanced at the sharply pointed stake and heavy mallet. “I’m sure that to you all this is real.”

He took a deep breath, becoming calmer. “I only sought blood from those who deserved to die. I’ve been very careful about that. No innocent victims.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I always left them where the sunlight would strike them before they woke, to make sure they didn’t survive and become like me, to hurt others.”

“They were strangled, Eduardo, and then died from their loss of blood. Sunlight didn’t kill them.”

His eyes flared again. “You don’t believe me?”

“If what you say is true, then explain how you became like this — one of the ‘undead.’”

He quickly recounted the bizarre serial killings he’d investigated ten years ago in Buenos Aires. “I was close to making an arrest, but I took foolish risks. The suspect was a beautiful woman with irresistible powers. She caught me in a moment of weakness, and made me like her.”

It sounded like hypnosis, like a deep, unbreakable trance. In college, earning my degree in police science, I’d studied cases like that, involving clever sociopaths who’d imposed their will and dark fantasies on others. Charles Manson was perhaps the most famous, but there were others. Before I could make my argument, Eduardo glanced again at the lethal tools.

“I finally stopped her,” he said, “in the only way I could. But too late to save myself.”

“You killed her?”

“I released her from the damnation of eternal life. Now you must do the same for me.”

The depth of his belief made me shiver.

“According to the legend,” I said carefully, “sunlight is deadly to people like you.” I indicated the heavy curtains covering the window. “So why not expose yourself at daybreak and be done with it? You could have done it long ago.”

He hesitated, shuddering. “Because I’m afraid.” He dropped his eyes in seeming shame. “For someone like me, it’s a horrible process.”

“Is that what she told you? The woman you mentioned?”

He nodded pathetically. “I’m afraid that when the time comes to face the sunlight, I’ll lack the courage to go through with it. So I live in darkness.” He reached out, touched the mallet and stake. “This is the only way. A sudden stroke, no hesitation.”

“Eduardo, listen to yourself!” I felt my tears spill over. “You can’t believe what you’re saying.”

He grabbed the stake and mallet, thrusting them toward me. “Don’t let me die locked up, cowering from the daylight, while I’m laughed at and scorned.” His desperate eyes searched mine for his salvation. “Give me my freedom, Alice. End my suffering.”

I pulled him close, feeling him tremble against me. “I want to help you, Eduardo. I do.”

Police sirens suddenly screamed outside, causing him to pull away and prick up his ears. He climbed onto the long table, lying faceup, and tore open his shirt to bare his chest. When he placed my hand over his heart, I could feel its rapid beating. His pleading eyes were locked on mine, holding me transfixed, the way he’d held me so many nights on the dance floor, giving me the comfort I’d needed, reigniting the flame inside me that had nearly sputtered out.

“Do you love me, Alice?”

“More than anything.”

“Then do this for me. I beg you.”

Tires squealed as police vehicles turned into the narrow alley. The sound of their sirens pounded against the close walls. Eduardo pressed the tools into my hands and blew out the candle. I heard Jack Riordan’s voice calling my name, police boots thundering down the steps, the rustle of bulletproof vests as guns were raised and aimed into the darkness. Flashlights illuminated the room, searching wildly.

Eduardo closed his eyes. “Quickly, Alice. Do it now.”

I touched his face, kissed him on the lips. Then, in no more time than it takes to draw a breath, or lose one’s mind, I drove the stake deep into his heart with a single blow. In that terrible moment, Eduardo’s insanity became my own. A brief but hideous scream erupted from him, filling the room, filling my head, shattering what was left of the fragile structure of my self that I’d always thought was so strong and indestructible.

I hear it still, all these years later. It echoes through my waking dreams, along with the bittersweet strains of the bandoneon  and the cries and curses of the other mental patients around me that punctuate my long and sleepless nights, as I pray for rest.

Copyright © 2009 John Morgan Wilson

The Jury Box

by  Jon L. Breen

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While quite a few police officers have written mystery fiction, real-life private eyes turned authors are somewhat rarer. The most famous, of course, was Dashiell Hammett, who drew on his experiences as a Pinkerton operative for many of his 1920s pulp stories and later novels. Allan Pinkerton’s own 19th-century books were ghost-written and ostensibly nonfiction. Some contemporary fiction-writing P.I.s include Jerry Kennealy, Parnell Hall, and the first two writers considered in our round-up of historical mysteries.

**** Joe Gores: Spade & Archer , Knopf, $24. It was inevitable someone would do a prequel to Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon , so be glad it’s Gores, the best possible candidate for the job. He is a master of Hammett’s purely objective narrative style, and even if you don’t automatically picture Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco private eye Sam Spade, you will by the top of page 8. The episodic novel describes connected cases from 1921, 1925, and 1928, provides the back story for Spade’s relationship with his short-lived partner, not to mention his partner’s wife, and ends with Brigid o’shaughnessy in the outer office and Sam telling Effie Perine, “Shoo her in.” A masterful job of plotting, writing, and extrapolation.

*** Dick Stodghill: The Case Files of Crimestopper Jack Eddy , volume 2, JLT-Charatan, $15.95. Jack Eddy, who runs the Akron office of a large detective agency much like Pinkerton’s, is enough of a publicity hound to use newspaper crime reporter Bram Geary as a sometimes reluctant Watson. Sports historian and World War II combat memoirist Stodghill has done both their jobs in his time, and brings a wealth of bittersweet Depression-era detail to these eight stories, all from AHMM  between 1994 and 2008. His special technique is to take a dramatic situation (using colorful titles like “Nightmare on North Hill,” “The Phantom of Johnnycake Lock,” and “Panic on Portage Path”) and undercut it with a dose of mundane reality. Cultural references from 1937 and ’38 (how many remember Kenny Baker, the Hupmobile, Lifebuoy, Don Budge, and Ernie Pyle?) are liberally provided by one who was there.

**** Margaret Lawrence: Roanoke , Delacorte, $24. The Edgar-nominated author whose Hannah Trevor series established her as one of the best American historical practitioners here turns to espionage and adventure in Elizabethan England and colonial America of the late 1500s. Gabriel North, who foiled one of several assassination attempts on the queen by supporters of her sister Mary, Queen of Scots, travels to the New World, where he falls in love with a Native American queen and becomes a puzzle piece in an enduring mystery: What happened to the vanished English settlers on Roanoke Island? Lawrence provides a possible solution plus a valuable author’s note separating fact from fiction.

*** Jason Goodwin: The Bellini Card , Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $25.00. In 1840 Istanbul, the new young sultan expresses to his on-call detective, the eunuch Yashim, his wish to acquire a portrait of ancestor Mehmet the Conqueror by the great Bellini which is rumored to have turned up in Venice. While Yashim’s friend Palewski, ambassador from a currently nonexistent Poland, does not narrate the case, Yashim employs him as Watson in a familiar way, dispatching him in his place to the city of canals, gondolas, and a series of murders. The historical detail and eloquent prose suggest why the first novel in the series, The Janissary Tree  (2006), won an Edgar for best novel.

*** Michael Jecks: The King of Thieves , Headline/Trafalgar, $24.95. In 1325, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and Simon Puttock are sent to France as guards for King Edward II’s son, a precocious (by present-day standards) pre-teen, charged with saving his father the embarrassment of paying homage to France’s King Charles IV. This is a typical entry in a reliable series: complicated, well-populated, written with cross-cutting gusto, and accompanied by scholarly extras: glossary, cast list, author’s note, and map.

*** P. C. Doherty: A Haunt of Murder , Minotaur, $24.95. As Chaucer’s pilgrims continue toward Canterbury, they pause in an eerie Kentish copse to hear the Clerk of Oxford’s tale, both whodunit and ghost story, beginning on May Day 1381 and centered on Ravenscroft Castle, site of the haunted Midnight Tower. The sixth in this inventive series is most unusual, effectively written, and appropriately creepy. (Doherty’s characters continue to murmur and hiss a lot.)

** Alice Duncan: Angel’s Flight , Five Star, $25.99. In 1926 — the news of Rudolph Valentino’s death pinpoints the year — Mercy Allcutt, unworldly but ambitious secretary to Los Angeles private eye Ernie Templeton, launches her own investigation into a pair of phony spiritualists while avoiding her proper Bostonian mother, in town for the apparent purpose of making her daughters’ lives miserable. Slang, attitudes, and manners are appropriate to the period, but the pad-ding and repetition are excessive even by present-day standards. Humor is the saving grace.

** L. Ron Hubbard: Cargo of Coffins , Galaxy, $9.99. This novella by the pulp master is not technically a historical, since it was contemporary when published in a 1937 issue of Argosy . Lars Marlin, recently escaped from Devil’s Island, encounters the man who framed him for smuggling, the charming and devious Paco Corvino, now playing steward to a party of rich twits on a luxury yacht. When the yacht’s captain is murdered, Lars takes the job, while wondering what Paco is up to and how he can get his revenge. Not Hubbard’s best — the surprise twist is lifted from O. Henry — but typically lively, vividly written, and action-packed.

(Like other titles in this series, it’s available at the same price in either an illustrated book version or a fully-cast audio reading.)

Fans of Golden Age-style detection and radio drama will want to seek out the second volume of Hilary Caine Mysteries  (Jim French Productions, $12.95), two new cases, one a clever locked room puzzle, for M. J. Elliott’s 1930s British amateur detective. The following will test your tolerance for a character some may find more irritating than charming: complaining about the inconsistencies in King Kong , Hilary wonders how Edgar Wallace could have his name connected to it. Reminded that Edgar Wallace is dead, she remarks, “He’s certainly kept that quiet.”

Copyright © 2009 Jon L. Breen

The Mad Hatter’s Riddle

by  Dale C. Andrews

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Dale Andrews returns this month with his second Ellery Queen pastiche. His first, “The Book Case,” which he co-authored with Kurt Sercu, was published in our Department of First Stories in May, 2007, won second place in the Readers Award competition for that year, and was nominated for the 2008 Barry Award for Best Short Story. Mr. Andrews describes himself as a “recovering attorney,” having recently retired from the United States Department of Transportation, where he was Deputy Assistant General Counsel.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat; “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you would not have come here.”

Lewis Carroll,  Alice in Wonderland

“It is a well known fact that anyone exposed to Hollywood longer than six weeks goes suddenly and incurably mad.”

Ellery Queen,  The Four of Hearts

Hollywood, California, September 21, 1975

NBC Neither King nor Queen on Thursdays

by Paula Paris

The latest Nielsens confirm a continuing slide in NBC’s Thursday-night ratings. Particularly troubling to the Peacock brass are the numbers for the Ellery Queen skein anchoring the 9:00 hour. While the Queen pilot played well last spring, the weekly outings debuted middle of the pack in September and have been sliding a bit deeper every week. The detective opus, presented as a throwback set in the late 1940s, met with good reviews but is still searching for an audience.

Now Universal reports that the series is about to get a jolt of some nostalgia caffeine. In a planned up-coming episode, based on an actual Queen short story, “The Mad Tea Party,” Hollywood legends Bonnie Stuart and Ty Royle have been cast in leading roles. This will be the first time in twenty-five years that the once-married duo has appeared at all, let alone together. Bonnie, an inveterate recluse, rarely leaves her mountain retreat. And Ty, somewhat of a her mithimself, swore years ago, after several notably uneven productions, that he would rather die than return to acting.

“The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party,” originally written by Ellery Queen in 1934 and derived from the work of Lewis Carroll, is one of the author’s most popular stories. What a vehicle to reunite these fabled stars of yesteryear!

Upon later reflection, Ellery Queen would think of 1975 as a transitional year. The national disruption of Watergate had receded; Viet Nam, with the fall of Saigon, was unalterably behind us. Rex Stout, P.G. Wodehouse, and Thornton Wilder would leave us behind forever. And in a year of changes, the twentieth century, three-quarters through, would pause for a quick breath as it prepared for the final twenty-five-year dash to the millennium.

But such historical ruminations were for later. On a Thursday morning in early October, Mr. Queen was grappling with more fundamental concerns. The cross-country flight west to Los Angeles had been bumpy, particularly over the Rockies, and he had been bone-weary when the cab deposited him at a Beverly Hills address, where someone from Universal Studios (and Ellery could not even remember who) had shouldered his bag and showed him to the room where he had finally stumbled into bed. But his sleep had been fitful, and by morning he still found himself more than a little disoriented in time, thick of tongue, and feeling every bit of his seventy years. Mr. Queen lamented the loss of the leisurely cross-country Pullman trips of yore and grumbled, not for the first time, how flying so unforgivably takes the travel out of travel.

It was the smell of coffee, and the promise of its alchemy, that finally drew Ellery out of his room and down the long hall to the kitchen. A slender figure looked up from the table as Ellery entered. Recognition dawned, but slowly. As Hollywood had changed since the nineteen thirties, so too had Jacques Butcher, who now bore little resemblance to the young producer who, thirty-five years before, had been the boy wonder of Magna Studios. While still lithe, Butcher, attired in jeans and a Western shirt, now sported a shock of snow-white hair and a cracked and ruddy complexion that bore witness to decades of the relentless California sun. Ellery offered his hand, but was instead engulfed in a bear hug.

“The Boy Wonder!” Ellery smiled, pushing himself back to at least arm’s length. “Hollywood is still treating you well, Jack.”

Butcher snorted. “Hollywood has nothing to do with it. I’ve been shed of this town since Magna Studios got swallowed in the takeover bid and I retreated to my grape arbors.” Jacques Butcher appraised Ellery. “And you, El, are also looking fit. Still writing those convoluted whodunits?”

“No. I gave up writing detective stories about four years ago. I still edit the magazine. I guess it’s my vineyard.”

“And the inspector?”

“Dad’s fine. He wanted to be here for the filming, but I had to put my foot down. He’s far too frail for coast-to-coast jumps. He’s still grousing over the fact that in the series David Wayne is playing him without a moustache.” The Boy Wonder smiled as Ellery continued, “So filming the ‘Mad Tea Party’ episode is what finally dragged you back to a studio?”

“Yeah, but it’s temporary. The episode has to be ready to air in six weeks, and that’s the limit of my contract and my attention span. When it’s a wrap I’m headed back to the hills. The producers twisted my arm when they had the brainstorm of casting Ty and Bonnie as Spencer and Laura Lockridge in the episode. They said they needed me on board if they had any hope of roping in those two characters, and they kept hounding me until I caved. I have to say, they also tempted me by promising that you would be on board as a consultant for the episode. That sort of clinched it for me.” Butcher’s smile cracked his leather face into a thousand lines. “We had some great fun last time around, didn’t we?”

“That we did.” Ellery smiled back. “But this time let’s go a little easier on the cognac.” Turning serious, Ellery continued, “The Ty and Bonnie deal surprised me. The Spencer Lockridge part is a pretty small role for him.”

Butcher grimaced. “I’m afraid Ty’s part can’t be small enough. Not to put too fine a point on it, Ty’s deep into the bottle. Remember lines? He’s lucky to remember where he is. He retired from pictures only when he became unemployable. Those last films, particularly that beach-blanket vampire thing, were embarrassments. After those, he sulked off to his Arizona ranch.”

Ellery’s pain was visible. “And Bonnie?”

Jacques Butcher brightened. “Bonnie’s great; always has been, always will be.”

“Still carrying a torch, Jack?”

“What? After thirty-five years? Anyway, she’s a pillar of strength. It showed in every part she ever played. Bonnie turned her back on Hollywood at the top of her game, and she left her public clamoring for more. Basically, Bonnie can do anything that she sets her mind to. Hell, she’s the only reason the marriage to Ty lasted ten years. So once she settled into her hermit phase she reinvented herself as an investment manager. She resisted all overtures for a comeback, but that didn’t stop NBC. The ratings for any show that manages to reunite those two will go through the roof. That’s the challenge that Universal dropped into my lap.”

“A tall order even for the Boy Wonder,” Ellery chided.

“Too tall. You know what they say, wolves hunt in packs. So this had to be a team effort. I was in on the hunt, but so was Rand Canyon. You would have been, too, if you had been out here two weeks earlier.”

Ellery raised an eyebrow. “Who is Rand Canyon, and why is it that people with names like that always seem to end up in this crazy town?”

“Actually,” Butcher replied, “the people usually precede the names. ‘Starring Archibald Leach, Leroy Scherer, and Doris Von Kappelhoff’ doesn’t ring like ‘starring Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and Doris Day.’ And Rand Canyon sounds a hell of a lot better on a playbill than Beryl Snatt, which is how Momma Snatt originally sent her little boy off into the world. When Rand hit Hollywood in the nineteen forties he picked a name to fit his craggy aspirations, even though the aspirations proved to be a bit north of the reality. Rand landed some ‘best buddy’ parts in a couple of horse-opera serials, but that was it. Lucky for him, though, he hit it big in real estate. Before he retired he spent decades moving property between rising and falling stars with enviable finesse. And now he helps Bonnie manage her property. Lives up there at her estate, too, although my understanding is that they are completely platonic. As I said, Rand’s forte has always been the ‘best buddy.’”

“So were the two of you also tasked with securing Ty’s agreement?” Ellery asked.

Butcher snorted and shook his head. “No, Ty and I lost track of each other years ago, and Rand and he never saw eye-to-eye. Luckily for us, once Bonnie was on board, Ty fell into place like a domino. As I said, he left Hollywood much more reluctantly than she did. But even at that it was damned difficult getting them all here and under one roof.”

Ellery raised an eyebrow. “So Bonnie and Ty are staying here also? Universal sent me an address to give to the cabbie but nothing else.”

Jacques Butcher smiled back. “Yep, we’ve got a full house here. Ty and Bonnie had all sorts of demands that would have made more sense in the forties than in the seventies. The house is part of that. They originally wanted bungalows on the Universal lot. We explained that there’s nothing like that on Hollywood lots anymore. Bonnie’s ensemble wouldn’t have fit in a bungalow anyway. So we scouted around and Rand eventually suggested this place. It’s for sale, Rand knows the realtor, and it’s huge. Plus it’s furnished — the owner removed the personal items, wall hangings and bric-a-brac stuff, but the furniture was left to help the place look good to prospects. We put Ty in the smaller wing, Bonnie and her folks are in the larger one. Universal agreed to rent the place for six weeks, and there was plenty of extra room for Rand and me to bunk here as well. And that’s why you’re here and not at the Beverly Wilshire.”

“Sounds like I’ll need a score card to keep track of the players!”

Butcher grinned. “And a difficult lot they are. The staff were even harder to pry out of the mountains than Bonnie was. Every one of them was dead set against filming the episode and against the trip to Hollywood, but we had to drag them along somehow. Bonnie made it clear that not bringing her people along was a deal breaker. So she’s here with her assistant, Charles Roethke, her personal secretary Jerri Swanson, and her, well, ‘spiritual advisor,’ I guess you’d call her. A crazy lady who calls herself ‘Madame Sojourner.’ Dealing with the lot of them has been like herding cats. Roethke and Swanson had a thing for a while, but they’re now on the outs and hardly speak to each other. Neither one of them will have anything to do with the card reader, and she reciprocates by treating each of them like lepers.”

“Ty, I hope, travels a little lighter?”

“Yep. He only brought along his personal assistant, Taylor Brandt, who, by the way, was just as insistent that Ty shouldn’t film the episode. Like everyone else, he was pretty happy with the status quo and with Ty staying retired. So you can begin to see the mountains that Rand and I had to move to pull this off.”

Ellery glanced around the bare walls of the kitchen and then eyed his wrist watch. “What time are we supposed to leave for the rehearsals?”

Butcher smiled and stretched his long arms behind his head. “I have no idea, besides the fact that it’s sometime this morning. In this town I never worry about time and schedules. When you’re supposed to be somewhere there are always plenty of people to let you know and get you there.”

As if on cue, the door to the kitchen swung open and a tall man with a winning smile strode into the room. He crouched in a mock pose and swung around, his right index finger feigning a six-gun, which he pretended to shoot in the direction of Butcher. The man blinked, blew the imaginary smoke from his finger, transformed the pistol back into a hand, and extended it towards Ellery.

“Mr. Queen, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m Rand Canyon. Looks like we’re going to be working together.”

As Ellery mumbled a greeting, Rand’s arms swung out in an all-inclusive gathering gesture. “Time to hit the trail, gents,” he drawled. “Everyone else is already at the studio and our car is waiting.”

“See what I mean about this town?” Jacques Butcher said to Ellery with a conspiratorial wink. “There’s always someone there to take care of you, and I’m going to prove it to you.” Before he could react, Butcher reached across the table and pulled Ellery’s watch off his wrist, deftly pocketing the timepiece. “This is one of my favorite little experiments. You can have your watch back tomorrow. By then you’ll understand.”

Rand Canyon rolled his eyes and smiled. “Sorry, Mr. Queen. This is like religion for Jack — he pulls this on everyone who will let him.”

“It’s Ellery,” Queen muttered, rubbing his bare left wrist. “Call me Ellery.”

“Oh, by the way,” Rand said, “when I was checking on the car I found this in the front mailbox.” He held out a business envelope bearing Ellery’s name in box letters.

“No address or return address,” Ellery mused, examining the envelope. “How did it get here?”

Rand Canyon shrugged.

“There are delivery services all over Hollywood. It’s probably from one of your fans,” Jacques Butcher chuckled. Ellery returned the smile and slid the envelope into his inside jacket pocket.

Thirty minutes later, Ellery, Jacques, and Rand sto

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od behind a bank of cameras on the sound stage at Universal City. Ellery crossed his arms and looked through the cameras, the director, and assorted staff, and admired the New England drawing room in the glow of the stage lights. The tall, gray-haired man dressed as the Mad Hatter was just barely recognizable to Ellery. The years had not been kind to Ty Royle. As Ellery watched, Ty turned to the other cast members and spoke.

“You can’t take more or less when nothing is very easy at all,” he stammered.

An exasperated “Cut!” exploded from the man with tired, stooped shoulders sitting in a collapsible chair next to the cameras. “Mr. Royle,” he muttered through hands that Ellery surmised were burying his face, “once again, the line is, ‘You can’t take less;  it’s very easy to take more  than nothing.’ That’s the way Lewis Carroll wrote it, and that’s the way you have to say it.”

Ty threw his outrageous hat to the floor. “The damned line makes no sense. No sense at all,” he snorted.

Across the set, a figure dressed as a door mouse removed its mask, revealing still-golden locks, and suddenly became Bonnie Stuart. Bonnie crossed the set towards Ty, as Ellery stared transfixed. The loveliness of her youth had not diminished; it had matured into a jewel even more precious. Images of pre-war Hollywood flashed through his mind, a hundred memories of things gone from the world, but still a part of his. He wiped an errant tear, shook the sepia memories from his head, and watched as Bonnie Stuart wrapped a loving arm around Ty Royle, all the while explaining that everything was just fine, that it always was, and that it always would be.

“My God,” Ellery thought, stunned. “They’re in love.”

The man in the collapsible chair sighed and called out, “Break! Back on the set in fifteen minutes.” Ellery began picking his way through the cameras and cables.

“Ellery,” Bonnie enthused when she saw him, offering a cheek, “you are a treat for sore eyes.”

Ty grinned awkwardly, looking totally uncomfortable in his Mad Hatter attire. He extended a thin, dry hand and muttered, “Good to see you again, Queen.”

But before Ellery could offer more than a perfunctory greeting, a young NBC page was at his elbow explaining that a conference on script changes was about to begin.

Bonnie smiled as Ellery stammered an apology while being dragged away. “Don’t worry,” she called after him. “There will be plenty of time for us to catch up this evening. I’m...” and she paused, “actually Ty and I are hosting a little soirée at the house where we’re all staying. We’ll expect you promptly at six o’clock for cocktails and a buffet dinner in the parlor. This will be such fun!”

In fact, Ellery had seldom seen a sorrier soirée. Bonnie’s secretary, Jerri Swanson, a pretty young thing with long brown hair, had spent the evening sulking on the sofa, nursing a drink, dabbing at the corner of her eyes with a handkerchief, and staring daggers at tall, thin, and elegant Charles Roethke, Bonnie’s assistant, across the room. Charles and Taylor Brandt fawned respectively over Bonnie and Ty and were uniformly ignored by each. And Madame Sojourner, who had, Ellery had come to understand from Jacques, a scant fifteen months before, miraculously ascended from working the checkout line at a Piggly Wiggly in Clarinda, Iowa, swirled about the room in layers of multicolored silk wrappings, warning everyone in her ambit of things that only she could see. Through it all, Bonnie and Ty stared into each others’ eyes, oblivious.

Early on, Ellery had embarked on shuttle diplomacy, moving from person to person in hopes of generating something approaching cocktail-hour banter. He eventually forsook the task as hopeless and retreated to a large velvet couch where Madame Sojourner cornered him and proceeded to wax eloquent on the length of his lifeline. Unimaginably to Ellery, things progressed from bad to worse.

Bonnie stood, tapped her champagne flute with a fork, and waited for the room to quiet. She smiled nervously and spoke. “These last few days,” she stammered, blinking and edging next to Ty for support, “have been a whirlwind. Being here in Hollywood again, and being with Ty—” she glanced up adoringly before continuing — “I, well... I certainly thought I’d never act again. And certainly not with Ty.” She reached tentatively for his hand and continued, “But as it turns out, I can’t thank Jacques and Rand enough for insisting that I... that we  do this. Ty and I, well, it’s been years and we really don’t even know why we...” She stopped, at a loss for words, sniffed into her handkerchief, and looked up imploringly at Ty, who broke the silence. Still holding her hand, he smiled, brushed the gray shock of hair from his eyes, and gazed out across the room. Ellery marveled that he suddenly seemed to shed ten years.

“Bonnie and I,” Ty announced sheepishly, “are going to be married.”

“Again!” Bonnie giggled. “And we’re moving back to Hollywood!”

Behind Ellery someone gagged, several breaths were quickly drawn in, and Jerri Swanson’s plate dropped, scattering lasagna and boiled shrimp on the floor. The room froze in awkward silence for a long moment before Ellery stood, cleared his throat, and offered congratulations, quickly followed by Jacques and Rand, and then, as the dam finally broke, by the others in the room. It was long minutes later that Jacques Butcher caught Ellery’s eye and the two slipped out of the room.

In retreat in the first-floor library, Ellery exhaled long as Jacques Butcher poured scotch into two tumblers and handed one to Ellery.

“I can’t tell you how much I wish I was in a hotel,” Ellery groaned. “What was that all about anyway?”

Jacques settled into a leather chair across from Ellery. “I suppose,” he said, “it was about change. Jerri and Charles have carved out a decent life working for Bonnie. And, God knows, that Sojourner character has certainly landed on easy street. The same goes for Taylor Brandt, Ty’s assistant. And every one of those apple carts just tipped over. Bonnie’s people kept saying they were only concerned for her health, that a trip back to Hollywood couldn’t turn out well, but I suspect they were much more concerned with anything that might destroy their comfortable cocoons. Probably it was the same with Taylor Brandt. In fact,” and Jacques paused uneasily, “rumor has it that Taylor and Ty may actually be a little more than just friends. Anyway, I don’t think any of them is looking forward to this pending marriage.”

Ellery put down his drink as something rustled in his inner jacket pocket. He reached in and pulled out the envelope, still unopened, that he had pocketed that morning. “I had forgotten about this,” he snorted as he opened the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper. Ellery’s eyebrows knotted as he read.

Across the room Jacques Butcher watched inquiringly until Ellery finally shook his head and handed the sheet to him. “What, pray tell, do you make of this?”

Butcher proceeded to read out loud the typewritten poem on the sheet of paper.


Tunnels for hares
Red garb for the guard,
Insolent Cheshire,
Poems — quite hard.

Rehearsals, intriguing
“Eat me” (your fill)
“Quite curious,” thought Alice
Until she fell ill.

In just the beginning the
Red King’s asleep.
“Enough of that subject,”
Dumpty yells ‘fore his leap.

No chance to succeed with
One there, alone.
Chances are better
Having two on the throne.

A warning, in verse,
No time to ignore
Completed, we stand
Entirely restored!

Synergistic solutions from lessons of yore.

“What’s this all about?” Butcher asked incredulously. “Is this something from Alice in Wonderland ?”

“I don’t think so,” said Ellery. “It appears to derive from Lewis Carroll, but I think it’s a pastiche of some sort.” Ellery puzzled over the page for a few minutes and then his eyes widened and he laughed in amazement. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I need to get something from my room.”

When Ellery returned he carried a volume, The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll,  under his arm. He sat down again and asked, “Are you a fan of Carroll?”

“As a kid, I suppose. Not recently,” Butcher responded.

“Lewis Carroll,” Ellery continued “was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician who wrote both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  and Through the Looking-Glass.  Dodgson denied that either book was written with a real Alice in mind, but there is a poem near the end of Through the Looking-Glass  that belies that denial.” Ellery thumbed through the volume, located a page containing a poem, and pushed the book towards Butcher. “Carroll’s poem has no title, but the fifth line is the title of this poem: ‘Eager Eye and Willing Ear.’ And do you know what was particularly famous about this untitled poem?”

Butcher shook his head.

“The poem is famous,” Ellery continued, “because it is an acrostic. If you read down the first letter of each line it reveals the name of the real Alice: Alice Pleasance Liddell. So, Jack, tell me: Applying the same formula, what does this poem reveal to us?”

Jacques Butcher studied the poem and emitted a low whistle. “Read down,” he said, “the first letter of each line spells out ‘trip required no chances.’ ” He shook his head in bewilderment as though trying to clear cobwebs. “But what does this have to do with anything?”

“I’m damned if I know,” Ellery replied. “The poem alludes to the works of Carroll. And the references to the desirability of two people working together rather than apart, that could be relevant to the re-pairing of Ty and Bonnie in the ‘Mad Tea Party’ episode. You’ve already explained the effort it took to get them to agree to this, and that everyone around them was dead set against the plan and the trip to Hollywood. The acrostic might be addressing this — it advises that, in fact, the ‘trip required no chances.’ But the obvious question remains ‘So what?’ Bonnie and Ty are here. We are about to film. Who would construct something this elaborate, after the fact, and then send it to me?”

“You’ve got me,” Butcher replied.

“Ahh, well,” Ellery sighed. “It’s probably just someone’s idea of a joke.” Ellery folded the paper and returned it to his pocket. “Let’s take a look at those script changes.”

Ellery and Jacques were lost in the script when Rand eventually entered the library. He smiled and shook his head. “Seems like I’m still the babysitter for you two. This week’s Ellery Queen episode is on in a few minutes. I think it’s the one about the elevator murder. Wouldn’t want to miss that,” he enthused. Reaching for the phone at the bar, Rand continued, “Just enough time to take care of this.” Lifting the phone, he dialed and after a few seconds spoke into the receiver. “Hello, Jerri? Rand here. Ty asked me to call and let Bonnie know he’s not up to working on the script any more tonight. Said to give her his love and tell her that he will see her tomorrow.”

Rand hung up the phone and busied himself at the bar. “Voila,”  he exclaimed after a few seconds as a wall of books across from Ellery and Jacques slid back, revealing a television console. Rand turned on the television and settled onto the couch next to Ellery just as the TV Ellery Queen intoned, “In a few minutes this newspaper publisher will become an obituary notice.” For the next hour Queen watched, with growing embarrassment, as Jim Hutton proceeded to piece together faster than Ellery could why a dying man, alone in an elevator, would push the sixth- and fifth-floor buttons before he expired.

At the end of the episode, Jacques Butcher rose from his chair, and stretched and yawned simultaneously. Rand Canyon crossed the room, turned off the television, and pushed the button sliding the bookshelves back across the television alcove. “Well, I didn’t figure out who did it. How about you, Ellery?” Queen shook his head, his embarrassment persisting. Jacques waved a languorous hand and excused himself for the evening. It was not until Ellery and Rand were themselves headed back toward their rooms that all Hell broke lose.

Walking down the deserted hallway, Ellery and Rand were confronted by Jacques, who approached them with a troubled look on his face.

“Nobody seems to know where Bonnie is,” he muttered. He glanced at Rand. “She got your message but, according to Jerri, she decided to go to Ty’s room anyway and hasn’t come back.”

“Perhaps,” Ellery offered delicately, “this is a personal matter?”

“Maybe, but no one is answering Ty’s phone. I’m going to take a look.”

Wordlessly, Ellery and Rand fell in step as the threesome crossed the entryway, climbed the circular staircase to the second floor, and proceeded to Ty Royle’s room at the end of the corridor. It was the sight of the half-ajar door that precipitated the first shiver of trepidation at the nape of Ellery Queen’s neck.

Jacques eased the door open as the three men gasped in unison. Ty Royle was lying on the bed in a silk dressing gown. A small bullet hole, surrounded by a good deal of blood, flared like a flower from the center of his chest. Jacques rushed to Ty’s side and, in an effort Ellery recognized immediately as doomed, began feeling for a pulse as Rand Canyon grabbed for the phone next to the bed.

Queen took a deep breath, shook his head, and resorted to instincts. He walked the circumference of the room, checked the closet, peered beneath the bed, and then slowly began a trek back down the hall, testing each of the locked doors along the way. At the second-floor foyer he bent, examined the slick marble floor, and then began a slow descent down the winding stairs. At the foot of the staircase he found what he had missed before — a red pool behind and slightly to the left of the first step. Slowly Ellery raised his eyes across the foyer toward a closet door, also ajar. With trepidation he crossed the foyer and pushed the closet open with the toe of his shoe.

Inside, lying on the floor in her own pool of blood, was Bonnie Stuart. Ellery pinched the bridge of his nose and squinted, as if to ward off the gathering storm of the headache building behind his eyes. The figure on the floor gagged, drew in a ragged breath, and Ellery, shocked back to his senses, bolted for the nearest telephone.

Later, Ellery stood in the driveway with Jacques and Rand as the ambulance sped away. He glanced back toward the front door of the mansion as a tall, disheveled, overweight man lumbered toward them. The sight was almost surrealistic, like watching a large bear walking upright in a rumpled trenchcoat. As the man approached, Jacques and Rand looked up as well.

“Detective Tramone.” the man said curtly. He nodded at Jacques and Rand and then offered an incongruously shy smile and a gigantic paw. “You’re Mr. Queen, right? I’m a big fan. Pleased to meet you, although I wish the circumstances were better.” The paw engulfed Ellery’s right hand, the touch firm but, surprisingly, not the bone crunch for which Ellery had braced. The detective extended a plastic bag in his other hand and Ellery could see that it contained a small pistol. “Any of you gentlemen recognize this?” Tramone asked.

Ellery, Jacques, and Rand shook their heads in unison.

“Compact little gun and silencer,” Tramone continued. “It’s recently been fired. We had to pull it out of Miss Stuart’s clenched fists when we loaded her onto the stretcher.”

“So you think she was the one who fired it?” asked Rand.

Tramone shook his head. “Miss Stuart never fired this gun. She was wearing gloves, the kind ladies used to wear in the nineteen forties. If she fired the gun there should be powder stains on the gloves, and there aren’t. Also, at least when we found her, she was holding the other end of the gun, and with both hands, like she was trying to use it as a club or something. In any event,” the detective continued, “she couldn’t tell us anything. She’s unconscious and in pretty poor shape.” He sighed and glanced at his watch. “Almost midnight. We’re going to speak with some of the folks inside, and then we’ll post a couple of uniforms here for the night. Needless to say, I don’t want anyone leaving this house. And I’d like to talk to you gents again first thing in the morning.”

Ellery awoke the next morning with a headache and with the sense of unreality that often follows a night of disaster. He shook his head, hoping that this would somehow clear a bad dream. When it didn’t, he quickly dressed and headed for the kitchen.

Detective Tramone was already there, armed with a cup of coffee. “Hope you don’t mind. I helped myself.” The burly detective smiled. Ellery forced his own smile and sat down at the table. “How’s Bonnie?” he asked. Tramone shook his head. “It’s pretty grim. We figure she either was pushed or fell from the second floor. She landed on her head.”

Ellery shook his head glumly. “How’s your investigation going?”

“Lots of dead ends so far.” Tramone pulled a notepad from his pocket and scowled down at his own longhand. “The gun’s going to be a dead end. Serial numbers have been filed off. We do know that Mr. Royle was shot sometime shortly after nine o’clock. Bonnie and Jerri Swanson left the party early. Ty stuck around a little longer, still drinking, but when he left a little before nine he announced that he was tired and was not going to work on the script any more that night. Rand volunteered to let Bonnie know. He called Bonnie’s room and relayed the message to Jerri Swanson right around nine o’clock. But according to Swanson, Miss Stuart pooh-poohed the phone message and headed off for Ty’s wing of the house anyway. That was the last anyone saw of her.”

“Swanson claims she watched the rest of your show, which sounds right — she can recount the whole plot.” Tramone shuffled through his notes and continued. “Charles Roethke and Ty’s assistant, Taylor Brandt, left shortly after the show started, to go drinking — a pattern the two of them have fallen into over the last couple of days. You, Mr. Canyon, and Mr. Butcher were watching the television show in the library. And ‘Madame Sojourner,’ ” he continued — spitting the word “madame” as though it were an epithet, “says she was in her room the whole evening and persists in claiming that she warned Bonnie that something like this would happen and that she never should have made the trip down here in the first place.”

Ellery looked across the table at the detective and then removed a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “That reminds me. I think you should see this,” he said. “I received it anonymously yesterday.” Detective Tramone unfolded the paper and read the poem, looking up afterwards, perplexed. “What’s this all about?” he asked. “Alice in Wonderland ?”

Ellery extended his palms, shrugged, and shook his head. “I honestly don’t know,” he replied. “But as Alice might have observed, when you study this poem it gets curiouser and curiouser. Yesterday I figured it was just some silly prank, but I studied it closer last night.” Ellery and Tramone hunched over the paper as Ellery continued.

“The first stanza refers directly to Alice in Wonderland,  and the third stanza references an incident (although a rather trivial one) that takes place at the beginning of Through the Looking-Glass . The second stanza also seems to be taken from the Wonderland  book, with the exception of the first line — its reference to ‘rehearsals’ that are ‘intriguing’ seems to bear no relation to Carroll, but could well refer to the enterprise we’ve been engaged in — the filming of the teaparty episode. And this equally could be said of the final two stanzas — which each alludes to a re-teaming, precisely what Ty and Bonnie were poised to undertake. And the reference, in fact ‘warning,’ that there must be ‘two on the throne’ seems, again, to squarely refer to Ty Royle and Bonnie Stuart. And, as I pointed out yesterday to Jacques Butcher, the poem employs a well-known Lewis Carroll word game — the first letter of each line forms an acrostic and, when read down, the letters reveal a hidden message: ‘trip required no chances.’ Here virtually everyone warned Ty and Bonnie against taking this trip to Hollywood. That advice, of course, now seems prescient.”

“But what does it mean?”  the detective snorted.

“I have no idea,” Ellery sulked. “I was up half the night trying to puzzle it through. The poem doesn’t really explain much of anything.”

The two sat quietly for several minutes before Ellery spoke again. “There is a riddle in Alice in Wonderland,”  he finally said, “posed by the Mad Hatter, the part Ty’s character was going to portray in the tea-party episode. The riddle is, ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’”

“I give up. What’s the answer?” Detective Tramone muttered.

“That’s the point,” said Ellery. “There is no answer, at least none that Dodgson, writing as Carroll, ever offered. Others have hypothesized answers — my own favorite is ‘They are alike because Poe wrote on both’ — but the point is that no answer appears in the book, and the riddle itself, although part of the book, is a dead end. Ultimately it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.”

“In other words, a red herring?”

“Precisely. I thought you should know about the poem, but I’m not certain that it has anything to do with your investigation. Like the Mad Hatter’s riddle, it sort of hangs out there, on its own.”

“What did the acrostic in the Carroll story ultimately reveal?” the detective finally asked.

“Well, the name of the real Alice,” Ellery answered.

“So this poem is more obscure than the original one. At least with Carroll’s poem, when you figured out the acrostic the relevance was clear — you had a name, not just another riddle.”

Ellery was quiet for an instant, but then his eyes widened.

“What...?” Detective Tramone exclaimed, but Ellery shushed him with a hand. The burly detective watched as Ellery’s eyes then narrowed. Ellery templed his fingers and bowed his head in thought. His eyes closed and his lips moved faintly. After long minutes he shook his head, as though awakening, and blinked across the table.

“Amazing,” he said, and smiled back at the completely uncomprehending detective. “Detective Tramone, my first instincts were correct. You can forget entirely about this poem. The solution to what happened to Ty and Bonnie lies elsewhere, and I think I know where. I have to do a little work in the library, and then we will need to discuss this further. And I’m afraid I may need to ask you for a little professional assistance.”

Later that afternoon Ellery entered the parlor of the mansion behind the detective. Tramone parted from Ellery, who wandered to stand next to Rand Canyon and behind Jacques Butcher’s chair. Jerri Swanson and Charles Roethke shared opposite ends of the couch, separated by a very cold distance, while Taylor Brandt lounged in a wing chair with a snifter in his hand. Madame Sojourner sat at the desk, mumbling over a deck of cards. Tramone approached the fireplace at the far end of the room and cleared his throat loudly as seven pairs of eyes turned in his direction.

Fumbling self-consciously, Tramone, in an unexpectedly soft voice, addressed the room. “I know,” he said, “that all of you have been concerned about what happened to Miss Stuart and Mr. Royle. I just wanted to let you know that we do have some encouraging news. Miss Stuart has made significant progress today. The doctors are now optimistic that she should be able to make a complete recovery. She is still in a medically-induced coma, but they believe they can begin bringing her out of that as early as tomorrow morning.” The detective shuffled self-consciously and continued, “Anyway, that’s why I called you all together here. We knew that you all were concerned...” Tramone paused, searching for a way to close. Ultimately he settled on a curt nod. Thrusting his hands into his pockets, he shuffled out of the room.

That night, shortly before midnight, a tall figure dressed in medical scrubs walked purposefully down the hall of the fourth floor of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The figure clasped a chart in one hand and wore an operating mask. It stopped in front of Room 423, consulted the chart, entered, and then approached the bed, strung with monitors and an intravenous line. The figure set the chart down on the bedside table, drew a vial from a pocket, and reached for the intravenous line just as a meaty paw grasped its arm. The lights flicked on in the room and from behind Detective Tramone, Ellery Queen said, “Rand, why don’t you take off the mask?”

Rand Canyon complied, shoulders slumped.

“Well, I always wanted to play a doctor,” he replied quietly, in a defeated voice. Rand turned and looked back toward the bed, realizing for the first time that he was standing not beside a patient but a pile of pillows arranged under the sheet. He turned, uncomprehending.

“Where... where’s Bonnie?” he stammered.

It was Ellery who answered. “Bonnie died this afternoon, Rand. She died without ever regaining consciousness.”

As Rand Canyon was led away, Tramone turned to Ellery and shook his massive head in disgust. “No wonder he was just a bit player,” the detective muttered. “The poor schmo doesn’t even know that doctors only wear masks in the O.R.”

Ellery was on his third cup of coffee a scant seven hours later when Jacques Butcher shuffled into the kitchen and slid into a chair. Butcher poured his own cup and slumped over it in silence for long minutes, rubbing red eyes.

“You could have blown me over with a light wind when I heard,” he finally said, looking across the table at Ellery. “Why in the world would Rand kill Ty and Bonnie?”

Ellery set his coffee cup down and shrugged. “It was just as you said. Bonnie and Ty were going to remarry, and that was going to upend a lot of lives, particularly Rand’s, since, as you noted, he and Ty have never gotten along. He’d given up everything, his career, even his home, when he signed on as Bonnie’s companion and confidant. Where was this going to leave him when the two of them took up where they had left off twenty-five years ago?”

Butcher shook his head, trying to understand. “But why would Rand kill Bonnie as well? That makes no sense.”

“You’re right. And since it makes no sense, it was never intended to happen.”

“What do you mean it wasn’t supposed to happen?” Butcher responded in some exasperation. “She’s dead, isn’t she?”

“Oh yes, she’s dead,” Ellery responded sadly. “But Rand didn’t kill her, or certainly didn’t plan to. That was the last thing he wanted, at least at the time. He wanted his life to return to normal, and for that he needed Bonnie alive. No doubt it went something like this. At around nine o’clock Bonnie left for Ty’s room to go over lines. She probably walked in on Rand just about the time he shot Ty. There could have been a tussle between Bonnie and Rand, but in any event, Bonnie somehow ended up with the gun and ran down the hall. Those damned high heels she always wore must have tripped her on the stairs and she tumbled over. Rand checked the body, presumed she was dead, and moved Bonnie and the gun to the closet, where I found her later.”

Butcher still looked sceptical. “It seems to me that you have two huge problems with your theory. First, all you have is motive, and it’s a motive that almost everyone in the house shared — a marriage between Ty and Bonnie would upset a lot of lives. There’s nothing in what you have said that ties Rand to the murder. Plus, how do you get opportunity? The murder took place during the Ellery Queen mystery episode that we watched, and Rand was in the room with us the whole time. We heard Rand on the telephone with Jerri Swanson and it was after that call, when Rand was with us, that Ty was shot.”

Ellery looked back across the table. “Let’s deal with your observations in order. First, we do have a clue that ties Rand to the crime. In fact, we have a dying message from Bonnie.”

Jacques Butcher raised his eyebrow inquiringly. “That’s news to me.”

“Remember,” Ellery continued, “that Bonnie and the gun ended up in the closet. Sometime after Rand left, Bonnie must have regained consciousness, because she left us the only clue she could think of to identify the murderer.”

Butcher shook his head and extended both hands out, palms up. “I’m lost,” he said.

“Bonnie didn’t grab the gun by the butt or handle, as you would expect,” Ellery continued. “Remember, Detective Tramone said she was holding the gun like a club. So she grabbed the other end. In other words, with both hands she grabbed the...”

Butcher slapped the side of his head with an open palm. “Of course. She was holding the barrel of the gun. And Rand Canyon’s given name was—”

“Beryl,” Ellery interjected. “Beryl Snatt. When I realized what she was trying to tell us, I pretty well knew that it was Rand who killed Ty. Of course, as you pointed out, that still leaves a huge problem — opportun

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ity. Ty was killed during the Ellery Queen television episode that we watched with Rand, and at first blush that seemed about as airtight an alibi as I could imagine. But as I thought about it, it occurred to me that something was wrong.

“Jerri Swanson did in fact receive a call from Rand asking her to tell Bonnie that Ty didn’t want to go over the lines that night. And Detective Tramone told me that Jerri was sure of the timing of the call. She also was going to watch the Ellery Queen show, and while she was on the phone the Elmer Bernstein theme music for the show was just beginning. But after Rand hung up the telephone and turned on the television in the library we heard the announcer’s opening statement setting up the murder. The formula for the Ellery Queen television show is very precise: the announcer’s opening setup of the murder always  precedes the Elmer Bernstein score. So what we  saw took place before the theme music began, in other words before the call to Jerri had even occurred.”

“Well, that can’t be right,” Butcher replied. “Obviously someone is mistaken.”

“Not necessarily,” smiled Ellery. “This is nineteen seventy-five. We live in a marvelous age. Walk down the hall with me,” he said, beckoning across the table.

Ellery led Jacques down the hall and into the library. He crossed to the bar next to the telephone, slid a panel aside, and revealed a flat box sporting intricate knobs and buttons. Butcher looked at it in confusion. “What is it?” he asked.

“Jacques, you are living an entirely too isolated life up at your winery,” Ellery replied. “This is the newest technological marvel. It’s called a Betamax, and it’s made by Sony. It allows you to record a television show and then watch it later. It’s only good for one-hour shows, although RCA is supposed to have a competing version out this winter that will record two hours.”

“So we were watching a show that was already over?” Jacques asked. “How could Rand have worked that out?”

“Well,” replied Ellery, “it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t foolproof. But you actually provided him with his biggest chance to succeed. You pride yourself on paying no attention to time, and you played that silly game — right in front of Rand — of taking away my watch. And my time sense is still out of sync from the cross-country flight. So when Rand came in to remind us that the show was about to start neither of us realized that it was, in fact, an hour later. We watched an episode that Rand had programmed this device to record at nine o’clock, but we watched it later, probably shortly after ten. So at the time Rand turned on the episode, the murder had already been committed. That happened while you and I were going over the ‘Mad Tea Party’ script.”

“But we saw Rand call Jerri Swanson...” Butcher protested.

“We saw Rand speak into the telephone. But in fact the actual telephone call he placed to Jerri Swanson was an hour earlier. Rand originally made the call to make certain that Bonnie didn’t  show up in Ty’s room. But his plan could have gone wrong in a hundred different ways. The way it did  go wrong was that Bonnie ignored the call, went to Ty’s room anyway, and stumbled upon the murder in progress. When everything went south, and when Bonnie fell after catching Rand in the act, all Rand could do was to revert to his original plan — stage a second faked call to Jerri, and then establish what he hoped would be an alibi by watching the episode with us. What we heard was Rand speaking into a dead phone. And as long as Bonnie couldn’t tell us otherwise, the whole house of cards might have stood.

“But you are correct, in any event,” Ellery continued. “The case against Rand was hardly airtight. When I went back to the library and discovered the Betamax, there was no tape in it. It had already been removed by Rand. That’s why I needed Detective Tramone’s help. I told him what I had surmised and shortly afterwards the hospital called to report that Bonnie had, in fact, died without ever regaining consciousness. I convinced Tramone that our only hope was for him to participate in a little ruse aimed at forcing Rand to show his hand. Obviously, if Bonnie was alive, and if she was about to regain consciousness, she could identify the murderer of Ty, and Rand couldn’t let that happen. The last thing Rand wanted originally was to lose Bonnie, but that was before — before she caught him in the act of killing Ty. All Tramone and I had to do was commandeer the room at Cedars-Sinai, and wait.”

Jacques Butcher shook his head in amazement. “This is horrible. All of this has been like a madhouse.” He sighed and then with some disgust looked at the wrist watch he now sported on his left wrist. “Yeah, I know,” he said, glaring at Ellery sheepishly. “I had to start wearing one now that I don’t have Rand anymore. So now I’m the scheduler and we have a ten o’clock call at Universal.”

“They’re going ahead with rehearsals? Even after what happened?” Ellery asked incredulously.

“This isn’t like the old days, Ellery. We’re not doing a movie that can just be postponed. This is TV. The episode has to air.”

“But how can they film without actors playing the parts of the Lockridges?”

“Simple,” replied Butcher. “Universal re-cast the parts yesterday evening. Edward Andrews is playing Spencer Lockridge and they got Rhonda Fleming to play Laura. Walkthrough is at noon.” Butcher paused and then eyed Ellery. “Oh, and Ellery, did you also miss the other news from NBC?”

“What other news?”

“Well, the good news is that NBC has ordered a full season for your show. But the bad news is that they’re moving it to Sunday night and you’re going to be opposite not only The Six Million Dollar Man  but also Sonny and Cher.” 

Now, it was Ellery’s turn to be puzzled. “Sonny and Cher? I thought they were divorced.”

“They are,” Butcher moped. “But CBS talked them into resuming their show anyway. The novelty of bringing back the two of them is going to send the ratings through the roof, just watch. And it will all be at the expense of your show.”

At this, Ellery Queen burst into laughter. “So, Jack, we live by the sword and we die by the sword. NBC wanted to spike the ratings of the Ellery Queen show by reuniting a famous and divorced twosome for the ‘Mad Tea Party’ episode, and now CBS has beaten us to the same punch!”

The two rose from their chairs and headed toward the door, but in mid stride Jacques Butcher grabbed Ellery’s arm. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I completely forgot. The poem — what was that all about?”

Ellery smiled back at his old friend. “It’s funny,” he observed, “but over the years there have always been red herrings. They are a part of life. And rarely, not often but rarely, the red herrings themselves end up being almost as interesting as the mystery.”

Jacques Butcher looked exasperated. “So, again, what did the poem mean?”

Ellery laughed. “Well, Jack, you should be able to figure this out on your own, you have all of the clues.”

Jacques Butcher’s countenance darkened. “Well, of all the... You’re turning this into one of your damned ‘challenges to the reader,’ aren’t you?”

It was some days afterwards that Ellery walked into the room, darkened by shades, pulled to blot out the morning sun, and sat down at the table, piled high with work papers and correspondence, surrounding an IBM Selectric typewriter. Ellery cleared a space and laid out the paper containing the poem. Only then did he look into the eyes of the shadowed figure sitting across the table.

“This was all very cleverly done,” he began. “Actually, I could kick myself for being so obtuse. About all that I can say in my own defense is that the poem arrived just shortly before Ty’s murder, and I first saw it only in the context of the murder. It alluded to the writings of Lewis Carroll, which provided the foundation for the television episode we were working on. And at the same time, the poem also referenced the advantages of a reunion, of again having ‘two on the throne,’ which seemed an obvious reference to reuniting Bonnie Stuart and Ty Royle — whose names denoted royalty and who in any event were royalty in fact in Hollywood thirty years ago. That message was, of course, underscored by the clever acrostic — the fact that the first letter of each line spelled out this—” and from his jacket pocket Ellery removed a handful of white wooden Scrabble pieces. He took some seconds and neatly arranged them to read “TRIP REQUIRED NO CHANCES.”

“But what puzzled me was that while the clues in the poem were all decipherable, and while they all gave the appearance of relating to Bonnie, Ty, and the filming of the ‘Mad Tea Party’ episode, they didn’t otherwise seem to mean anything. They were like the Mad Hatter’s riddle in Alice in Wonderland  — they were both a part of, but unrelated to, the underlying story. It was the detective working the case who finally said something that shocked me out of my complacency, who made me, in fact, realize that there were other contexts in which the poem could be viewed.”

Ellery gazed across the table, but the shadowed figure remained silent.

“A good example is the title of this maddening little poem — ‘Eager Eye and Willing Ear.’ That is, in fact, a line from the untitled acrostic poem in Through the Looking-Glass  that revealed the name of the true Alice. I surmised, as it turns out far too glibly, that the importance of that title was simply to help to point me to the Carroll poem. But this poem is playing on a whole different level, isn’t it?”

At this Ellery detected the first receptive twitch from the figure across the table: a barely discernible hint of the beginning of a smile.

“I paid no further attention to the title,” Ellery continued, “and that’s a cardinal sin in deduction — I brushed the substance  of the title aside as irrelevant because ‘eager eyes and willing ears’ had nothing to do with what I thought  the poem might mean. After all, filming the ‘Mad Tea Party’ episode and attempting to lure Ty and Bonnie out of retirement to play the Lockridge roles doesn’t suggest anything  about eager eyes and willing ears.”

Ellery pulled back the sheet of paper on which he had lined up the Scrabble tiles. He began to fiddle with the individual tiles as he spoke. “So, as I said, it was something that Detective Tramone, who was working the case, said that shook me awake.” Ellery paused, staring across the table. “He said that at least with the original Carroll poem when you figured out that it was an acrostic you knew the name of the person Carroll was referring to, the original Alice. And that made me realize that I needed to rethink everything.

“Could there be another matter to which the poem referred? Someone who was actually anxious to offer eager eyes and willing ears? Could it, in fact, point not to the possible reunion of Ty and Bonnie, but to a different desired reunion? And the acrostic, which clearly announced that the ‘trip required no chances,’ and which was so obviously incorrect when applied to Ty and Bonnie — who, in fact, lost their lives because they separately decided to embark on the trip to Hollywood — could it in fact have been intended to refer to a completely different trip? ”

Ellery stifled a yawn. The damned transcontinental flight had gotten to him again, and it was even worse when you flew east. “In any event, when Detective Tramone reminded me that the original Carroll poem revealed a name, I saw what a pure fool I had been, because this poem does also. The poem not only gives us an acrostic, it also — and here it both betters and, again, mimics Carroll — gives us something else, as well.”

Ellery smiled and pushed the now rearranged Scrabble tiles across the table towards the shadowed figure, who was toying with his moustache.

“The acrostic is also an anagram.”

The ancient man across the table smiled down at the tiles, now rearranged to spell “INSPECTOR RICHARD QUEEN.”

Ellery’s own smile broadened as he reached across and grasped the gnarled and folded old hands. “You were right. I should have taken you with me to the Coast, Dad.”

Copyright © 2009 Dale C. Andrews ©2009

Ellery Queen characters copyright ©2009 by the Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee Literary


by  Radhika Jha

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Passport to Crime

“Perhaps no Indian since Ruskin Bond has used the English language so beautifully,” The Statesman  said of Radhika Jha. In publishing the Delhi-born author in Passport to Crime we are breaking a convention that this department is reserved for stories in translation. But despite its having been written in English, the following tale is so thoroughly steeped in the culture of India that it seemed to us to find a natural home in our Passport series. Ms. Jha studied at Amherst College and the University of Chicago, and worked in Paris. She now lives in Tokyo with her husband and two children.

* * * *

My first posting as a servant of the state was to Mangladi. It was a peaceful little place, lying half forgotten on the border of Karnataka and Kerala. No VIPs ever passed through it. But VIPs mattered little to me. My interest lay in making sure that things were done in the proper way and order was maintained. The key to maintaining order was good governance. And that is what I concentrated on.

I had few illusions about my job. My fellow citizens were a ramshackle, superstitious bunch. But I believed that a rational, enlightened state could eventually wean them away from their dark and chaotic ways. Then India would become the great country it was meant to be and take its rightful place as a leader of nations.

Mangladi taught me otherwise.

On the thirteenth of May, nineteen seventy-eight, I was on a routine inspection of flood-control systems and irrigation canals in the coastal part of the district, in preparation for the rains. It was the last day of the tour and I was looking forward to my return to civilization. It had been a long, hot day. A complicated land dispute in a neighbouring village forced me to decide on an unscheduled night halt in a village I had previously never visited. The name of the village was Purandaru.

An assiduous reader of files, I knew that the village had not been visited in the last ten years. As far as the state was concerned, the village didn’t exist except as a part of the larger theoretical village, Daaru, which was itself not a real village but a group of ten hamlets housing different castes. I found out the name of the village by asking a man chopping coconuts on its outskirts that evening. Luckily the files had thought fit to mention that the village possessed a disused forest bungalow at its edge and I decided to put up there for the night.

It was close to sunset when I entered the village. There was a great deal of activity on the streets. The villagers, it seemed, were out in full force. That in itself was unusual for that time of day. And they all seemed very busy. They hurried past without acknowledging me, barely suppressed excitement visible on their faces. Even the little children of the village hardly blinked when they realised there was a sahib in their midst. The women were out, too, flocks of them, all wearing their finest saris with flowers in their freshly oiled hair. I assumed the reason for it was a visiting theatre party that would perform the Mah-abh-arata or Ramayana, interspersed with film songs and bawdy skits through the night.

So the sahib’s arrival had been eclipsed by a two-bit traveling theatre! I smiled to myself. Then I noticed that the women were all wearing their mangalsutras and bangles, had sindoor in their hair, and were carrying trays laden with coconuts, fruits, and flowers and topped with freshly made garlands. And I realised that more likely, there was a community function that night — a puja  to honour the local deity. But unlike their menfolk, there was nothing joyous in the way the women moved, and I saw in their faces none of the eager anticipation that heralds a night of celebrating the Goddess. Instead their faces were curiously blank. And their shining finery was dimmed by neglect. Dust streaked the clothes that the women and children were wearing, and some even had bits of food clinging to the brightly coloured cloth.

The village bore signs of dreadful neglect, too. The thatch of the houses was untidily repaired and certainly not capable of facing the onslaught of the coming monsoon. And I was ready to bet that the flood tanks and irrigation canals were in a similar state. I had already noticed with disapproval that half the fields surrounding the village were lying fallow. The remainder, including the fields to which the rice seedlings would be transplanted, were badly prepared, the furrows crooked and ending abruptly, with bald bits of land like islands in an unruly sea. Leaves had not been swept off the state highway into the village, many of the drains were choked, and garbage lay everywhere. Even inside the courtyards of the houses, it lay piled in unsightly heaps or was just left where it had fallen to decompose at leisure.

At last, a dirty little girl noticed me and began to tug at her mother’s hand. The mother stopped, twisted the poor child’s arm, and began to hit her. There wasn’t much strength in the blows, but the arm must have hurt. The child looked up at its mother dully, not a single cry escaping its lips. The mother continued to hit the child, unable to stop, while the others either stood around or continued on their way.

For a few moments I watched the little tableau in horror. Then I acted. I strode up to the woman and caught hold of her hand. “Get ahold of yourself. Can’t you see you’ll hurt her?” I shouted. Immediately her hand went slack and she stared up at me wearily, her eyes ringed in darkness. I let go. Then she took her daughter’s hand and went on her way as if nothing had happened. Mystified, I caught hold of a villager.

“What is happening here?” I asked. He shied away from me like a startled horse. I grabbed him before he could run away and repeated the question. He looked down at his feet and muttered something incomprehensible, then literally tore himself out of my grasp and dashed away.

I wondered whether I had chanced upon the local madman. But when the next two men I asked behaved in much the same way I decided that there was something seriously wrong with Purandaru and that I would have to stay put for as long as it took to unravel. Next I noticed a man sitting before his house chewing a piece of sugarcane. He seemed to be deliberately ignoring the bustle around him. I walked up to him and asked for the forest bungalow. He turned swollen, bloodshot eyes on me and gave me precise directions on how to get there. Encouraged by the normality of the man, though he had the eyes of an alcoholic, I ventured another question.

“What is the occasion? Why is everyone in such a hurry?”

In the middle I cleverly inserted an unspoken third question: Why was he not part of it?

His eyes flashed, hatred animating them for a moment. “The same occasion as it is every night.” he replied laconically, ignoring the important third question.

“What do you mean?” I asked warily.

“They have all-night prayers, these Hindus. And so the rest of us can’t sleep,” he told me, generously including me in the “us.”

“The rest of you?”

“Us Christians, of course.” He looked at me as if I were stupid. Suddenly he seemed to realise that I was a stranger. His eyes became calculating. I quickly thanked him for his trouble and continued on my way. The caretaker at the forest bungalow should be able to tell me what I needed to know. Tomorrow I would visit the headman.

As I walked through the village, I noted the islands of silence in the midst of all that activity, darkened windows and tight-shut doors. At last I came to the center of the village and saw a tall, splendid church, pristine and stately, in the midst of a colourful chaos. Right next to the church, on what must have been a cricket field, was the hub of activity.

People were running in every direction, fetching, carrying, and calling to each other. Children and dogs chased each other between and around the grownups’ legs, dashing away before they got a clout on the head or a kick in the side. Cows solemnly munched used banana-leaf plates and other rubbish. Loudspeakers crackled, and an insistent voice rattled off the program of events, interrupting itself every now and then to shout urgent instructions at the people running across the field. Here and there, like eyes in the night, I saw sadhus , solitary and arrogant in their orange robes.

The crowd was thickest by the squat little temple at the other end of the field. A makeshift stage protruded from between the red and gold canvas walls of a half-erected tent. A third of the way across the field, a much larger tent in pink, blue, and yellow pastels, looking somewhere between a pastry and a castle, was being decorated with tinsel streamers and Christmas lights. Behind the tent, like abandoned weapons, enormous cauldrons lay upside down or on their sides on the fire-scarred earth. A pack of dogs clustered around them, eating the remains of a meal. All around the edge of the field were smaller tents made of bits of tin, plastic, and rags. In these sat a variety of hard-faced traders, selling everything from bindis to household implements. A Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round at one corner of the field to the right of the temple blared their own version of popular film music and drew ragged children like a magnet. Already the noise emanating from the field was cacophonous, and the bhajans  hadn’t even started. Knowing the noise would only grow with the advance of the night, I couldn’t help pitying the Christians.

Then I heard the church bells, their low, sweet sound sweeping over the field. I looked up and saw them silhouetted against the red sky. The sound transported me back to my school years with the Jesuit fathers at St. George’s in Patna. There, each day was ushered in by the bells and the same sound bid the day goodnight. I wondered suddenly whether they were what had awakened my love of Western classical music. But even as I was thinking this, the bells interfered, becoming noisier and more frenzied, shedding their music with every toll.

A white-haired old man walking beside me began to curse loudly and fluently in a rich baritone. My shocked expression made him hasten to explain as soon as the bells had grown silent, “They do it all day on the hour, sometimes on the half-hour even, just to torment us.”

I stared at him in sheer astonishment. “What do you mean?”

But before I could make him answer, the bhajans  came on from the other end of the field, so loud that all further conversation became impossible.

I decided to add a visit to the church to my agenda for the morrow.

The houses ended and the road dwindled into a simple forest track, surrounded on both sides by trees. I arrived at last at the bungalow. It looked as if it had been abandoned years ago. A huge spider’s web substituted for hinges, uniting the gate to the gatepost. There was no bulb in the lamppost. Leaves and broken branches were strewn across the drive. In the fading light I could see that a carpet of dust covered the porch, making it glow palely. To my not very great surprise, my car, which I had left at the entrance to the village in order to enter its narrow mud streets on foot, was nowhere in sight. Neither was my driver or any representative of the local administration. I shouted for the chowkidar,  but only silence answered.

Logic told me that no government property was ever abandoned without it being laid out in writing. I tried again, shouting for the caretaker this time. A gust of hot wind answered, bringing with it snatches of an old film song. I pushed open the gate, breaking the cobweb. Bits of it clung to my shirt and I brushed them off superstitiously. It was bad luck to break a cobweb. I went to the front door and banged on it loudly. There was no response. I waited and tried again, but had no better luck. Desperate, I went around to the back of the bungalow in search of the transistor radio.

Hacking away at the undergrowth with my cane to make sure there were no snakes, I came eventually to the servant’s quarters and banged on the servant’s door. After a rather long wait, I heard scuffling and footsteps. The door opened and a bleary face looked out.

“I am the assistant district magistrate and I want a room prepared for me at once,” I told the man icily.

He didn’t move, disbelief spreading slowly across his features.

“My car broke down, so I walked,” I found myself saying shamefacedly. “It will be here shortly.”

“But I am not the caretaker, sir, I am only the chowkidar .” He began to shut the door.

“I don’t care who you are,” I snapped, losing patience, “just get out here now.”

He understood that tone of voice. His face cleared. “Of course, sir. One moment, please.” He retreated and emerged a few minutes later in a lungi  and a crumpled white undershirt. I wrinkled my nose in distaste. He smelled of sleep.

I made him follow me to the front of the house.

“So you are the chowkidar ?” I said finally.

“Yes, sir.”

“And where is the caretaker of the rest house?”

“He is not here sir.”

“What do you mean, he is not here? Is he not a government servant.”

“He went back to his village, sir.”

“And did he take permission?” Of course, I knew the answer but felt impelled to ask it anyway.

“I don’t know, sahib.”

“And you let him leave, you said nothing?”

He stared at me stone-faced. Suddenly I became conscious of how big and strong he was. I couldn’t afford to make him angry, not without the full paraphernalia of the state.

I thought quickly, “All right then, you come and show me my room and then you can get me some tea.”

At first he seemed reluctant to move, then the stubborn look retreated. He bobbed his head and disappeared. He came back a scant five minutes later with the keys. This time he was wearing his forest-green chowkidar’s  shirt.

Like the outside, the room he showed me was covered in dust. Cobwebs hung like exotic ferns from the walls. I was tempted at that point to return to the village and ask the Christian to whom I had first spoken to give me a bed for the night. Then the weight of my office settled upon me. I squared my shoulders and prepared resolutely to face night in the forest bungalow.

“Send someone to clean this room immediately,” I ordered. “I will have tea on the verandah in the meanwhile.”

I walked onto the verandah, carefully dusted a chair, and sat down. I looked at the unkempt, leaf-strewn garden and wondered how long this state of affairs had existed. More importantly, I wondered how long it would take me to sort out whatever had caused it and leave the village behind me forever. I had already conceived a grave dislike of Purandaru.

A slovenly woman brought me tea in a cracked cup with old tea stains decorating the cracks. I was tempted to order her to clean the cup and make me some fresh tea, but knew from experience just how far one could push illiterate villagers before they rebelled and refused to follow orders. So I took the cup from her and pretended to be blind to its filthy exterior. At least what was inside had been boiled to annihilation. Right after her came the same chowkidar  with an even filthier duster. He began to swat at the furniture as though he were driving away flies, creating veritable clouds of dust everywhere. I began to cough instantly.

“Stop.” I commanded. “Forget the dusting. Just get me clean sheets.”

He looked confused.

“Sheets.” I said, miming the gestures of making up a bed.

His grey face brightened for a second, then dulled again. “No sheets,” he muttered, staring at the floor.

“What do you mean, no sheets?”

“No keys,” he said, mimicking the sound of keys jangling. By this I understood that the caretaker had either hidden the keys or gone off with them.

“All right, then, what about dinner?”

“Dinner?” He looked even vaguer than before.

“Yes. Dinner. Food,” I said, thinking that maybe he didn’t understand my North Indian accent.

“Oh, food.” He nodded. “Glucose biscuits?”

“No, I don’t want biscuits with my tea. I want to know what you can give me for dinner tonight,” I replied, enunciating each word carefully.

“Yes, yes.” He pointed at the darkening sky to show he’d understood. “Only biscuits for dinner,” he said in English.

My mind went into semi-paralysis at the idea of biscuits for an assistant district magistrate’s dinner. “I don’t think I can eat biscuits for dinner,” I said as calmly as I could. “I need proper food. Rice, sambar, vegetables.”

“Yes, yes, sir. But no food in market many days now,” he replied in Hindi, obviously feeling I

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hadn’t understood him.

“What do you mean?”

“Ration shop shut. Many, many days, sir.”

“The ration-shop man is a government employee, he cannot shut his shop whenever he feels like it!” I exclaimed.

“The shop is closed for many days now,” he repeated, sounding distressed.

“Then tell him to go and open it,” I snapped.

“I cannot sir, he is at the puja .”

I began to feel seriously concerned about the state of the village.

“Is everyone at the puja,  then?”

“Yes, sir, it will begin at sunset. Big puja  tonight.” He switched back to pidgin English, obviously feeling it was easier to play dumb in.

“But why is there no food in the guest house? Surely you know that you are expected to be able to provide food for an officer at a moment’s notice,” I said impatiently in Kannada.

He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “But we are always getting advance notice, sir.” His stance implied that I couldn’t be a real government sahib for I had come alone and unannounced, without even my official car with its red light.

I cursed myself for having let go of my car. I’d grown so used to being surrounded by the trappings of my position that I had forgotten what it was like to be without them. I felt absurd, a soldier without weapons.

“What about your food? You can bring me a little of that, surely?” I could hear a conciliatory note creep into my voice.

“No food. I have to go,” he said firmly.

“What do you mean you have to go? Surely you will eat first.”

“No. I go to the temple.”

“I’ll wait till you return.”

“I come back in the morning. We all do.”

“Then let your wife come back and serve me.”

He looked shocked. “But she must be there, too. Everyone must be there tonight.”

I grew tired of trying to reason with an illiterate. “I forbid you to go anywhere. Or I will have you sacked.”

His eyes widened in horror. “Sir, the pujari , the village. I cannot!”

“I don’t want to hear those words,” I told him sternly, feeling the situation come under control at last. “If you go to that stupid feast, I will make sure no child of yours ever gets a government job.”

“Sir,” the poor man fell to his knees, all traces of defiance gone, “please, sir, have pity. Don’t punish my children. I am a poor man.”

I relented a little. “All right, but get me something to eat.”

He burst into a torrent of impassioned Kannada, “Sir, I have to go, please. I beg you, let me go, the pujari  will be very angry. Big devipuja  tonight.”

“No.” I frowned fiercely, hoping I looked angrier than the pujari . “This is your job.”

“But the devi  can only be brought back today. Sir, I must go.”

“I don’t care about your devi . I want my food.”

He gave me a look that told me exactly what he thought of my blasphemous point of view. Then, cleverly, he changed tactics. “But everyone in the village will be there. They will know that I have not come.”

“So what? They all saw me walk through the village. They will know that you are doing your job and looking after your sahib.”

His face became a mask. “But sir, I am just the chowkidar,  it is not my job to look after you.”

Anger burnt away any inhibitions I might have had on the use and abuse of power. “And I can get you thrown out of your job tonight,” I snapped.

To my horror, the man lunged at my legs and buried his face in my trousers. I tried to detach them, but he only held on tighter. “Please, I have to go, sir. Or they will say I am a bad Hindu, sir.”

I tried to detach him from my legs and console him at the same time. “You don’t become a bad Hindu just because you miss one visit to the temple. And you can go tomorrow, after I am gone.”

For a second his arms loosened their pincer-like grip. Then they tightened again. “I have to go, sir, I have to.” The man began to whimper. “Or they will say that I have become one of them. And then, sir, I don’t know what they will do to me, sir. I am a good Hindu, I don’t want to become Christian, sir. What will my father say? And my children, sir, I will never see them again.”

I stared at him. For a second, time seemed to stop. Then my heart began to beat very fast. I tried to think intelligently. “Here, stop crying, you can go if you want to.” The mewling stopped. “But tell me first what is going on in this village.”

The man sat up and rubbed his face with the end of his filthy lungi . “I will tell you everything,” he said eagerly, his face transformed.

As I waited on the verandah for the chowkidar  to change into his dhoti, I thought of what the files had to say on Purandaru.

It was a fairly typical Kannada village. The villagers grew rice and vegetables and fruit — mainly mango and coconut. Beetel nut trees provided them with a stable cash income. Their ponds were full of fish. The reason the name had stuck in my memory was because of a curious letter written nearly two years ago by someone who claimed to be the pujari  of the temple, begging the government to send them a teacher for their school. The letter claimed that the government-appointed schoolmaster had not visited the school for over three months and no replacement had been sent, either.

I’d called the superintendent of schools and told him about the letter, explaining that there was no follow-up letter from our side in the file. He couldn’t remember the case but promised to look into the matter. A few weeks later, at the inauguration of his wife’s school, I brought up the case again. “Did you check what action had been taken, then?”

“Just the usual, sir,” he’d replied, not meeting my eyes, “villagers trying to use the state to settle personal vendettas. I checked the files. The teacher had been attending their school every day.”

“Oh. All right, send me a copy of our reply — I’ll need it for the files.”

And Purandaru had slipped from my mind.

But the village pujari , I now knew, hadn’t been trying to settle scores.

“Because the government teacher never came, we had no choice but to put our children into their school,” the chowkidar  said, not looking at me.

“What school?”

“The Christian school, by the church. The Christian pujari  teaches in English there.”

“But what does that have to do with the devipuja ?” I asked impatiently.

The chowkidar’s  face filled with shame. “It is because some of us sent our children to that school, that the devi  became angry and left us.”

“That’s ridiculous!” I exploded. “You call yourself a government servant and believe such rubbish. Devis  can’t walk away. They aren’t human.”

He waited patiently for my anger to dissipate. “Last year our crops failed. First she took away the rain, then the fish died, so we lost our only other source of food. If the rains don’t come this year then we will all die.”

“What rubbish, the rain was fine last year.”

“But not here.”

“That’s impossible.” I spluttered, then came to an abrupt halt remembering reading about a similar case that had taken place twenty years ago.

“Then, when the fish in the pond died too, we had to do something. We went to the pundit and he advised us to do a devimaha yagna. 

“At first we were reluctant. Maha yagnas  cost a lot and no one had very much left. But in the end, Rajamma convinced us.”

“Who is Rajamma?” I asked.

“She is a widow, sir, with one son, Raju, who is a little mad. He is a very good boy, though, and loved by the devi . He would sit with the devi  all day sometimes, singing to her. He was also very friendly with the Christian priest. Since Rajamma worked all day, Raju would often go to the school.”

“So what does Raju have to do with the church?” I asked impatiently.

“Well, after the priest got the bells for his church Raju disappeared. Someone said they saw the priest taking Raju away in his car. Then the ration-shop owner saw Raju in the convent school, sir, in the town.”

Rumours. Every village was a hotbed of them. “Then what happened?”

“Rajamma went to the local oracle and begged him to ask the devi  where her son was. He told her that Raju had indeed become a Christian. But not of his free will. He had been bewitched. Rajamma was very sad. So our pundit told her that he would do a special puja  to the devi  to free the boy and bring him back to his senses. All the villagers were asked to attend the puja . Rajamma sold her land and used the money to pay for it. The puja  took all night. The pundit hired loudspeakers. A special group of sadhus  came to sing bhajans all night.”

“And did Raju come back?” I asked sarcastically. He was probably a shoe-shiner in Bombay by now.

“Yes, sir.”


“He came back, sir, but he couldn’t say where he had been, sir. He hasn’t spoken since he came back. It was the devi ’s price for returning him. After that, the village decided to do a puja  for her. The priest hired a group of singers and they came and made their home in the coconut grove behind the temple. He hired painters from Kavallur and while they painted, temple musicians also brought in from Kavallur sang. Then he called the Brahmin cooks from Kuknalim and while the statue of the devi  was herself washed and repainted, they sang and recited shlokas  and cooked.”

I couldn’t follow his logic but I’d heard enough. Things would come to a boiling point soon if nothing was done. “How long has this been going on?” I interrupted him.

“How long since what has been going on?”

“Since the all-night jagrans  began?”

He looked vague. “I don’t remember, maybe a month? Two weeks? It’s hard to tell, it’s been so long.” He yawned.

“So long since what?”

“Since we slept,” he said matter-of-factly.

He stopped and wiped a tear from his eye. “Each night we have gathered at the temple and prayed and sung to the devi  till dawn, begging her to come back. But still she does not come. Our children are weak from lack of sleep, our eyes are dry, and we cannot cry. Our feet ache and our throats are raw from calling to her. But still she does not come, sir.”

“Why don’t you stop and let the pundit take over? Maybe the devi  will listen to him better than she listens to you. He is, after all, a professional.”

The irony missed its mark. “Oh no, sir, a single voice is not strong enough to call back the devi  once she has gone away, even though our priest is a great man. It’s the bells, sir.” All of a sudden his face became unrecognizable. “If you could only stop the bells of the church,” he cried, “then I am sure the devi  will come back.”

“Why? What is wrong with the bells?”

“They ring all day so we cannot sleep, stealing our Shakti  so we cannot pray properly to the devi . We fear that already the devi  may be too far away.”

I remained silent, appalled at the complexity of the problem before me.

“Sir, can you not speak to the priest, tell him that the government has ordered the removal of the bells?” the chowkidar  asked.

“Of course not.” I cut him off before the idea could take hold. If the villagers came to see me in a group, the state would get dragged in, the media would find out and splash it all over the front page, and the problem would become political. Only blood would resolve it then. “I will meet your pujari  and theirs together and order them to stop this madness right now,” I announced.

The chowkidar’s  eyes grew huge. He clutched my feet wildly. “No sir, please sir. They will kill me if they know that I have told you. Please, sir.”

I looked down at the man. His shirt back was covered in sweat and he was trembling. “All right, all right. I won’t say anything. Take me with you, I need to eat at least,” I lied.

“Then you will come back to the rest house and sleep?” he asked worriedly.

“Yes. Yes. I promise. Shall we go?”

Night transformed the road to the village, turning it into a pale silver stream slicing through a dense unified mass of black that rustled and shivered like a creature alive but asleep, dreaming strange and restless dreams. Soon we were part of a group of ragged, wild-eyed men and women shuffling along slowly towards the temple. They walked carefully, as if the mere task of putting one foot before the other was fraught with danger. An exhausted silence hung over all of them. Only when we came into the lighted part of the village did they become animated, pulling their shawl-like upper garments over their heads and sinking their necks into their chests.

We came up to the church. In the moonlight it glowed serenely. Someone spat. “He used our money — collected from all the children in his school, our village children, sir, Hindu and Christian, to buy those bells,” a plump man who had the look of a barber explained. The others mumbled their assent. All of a sudden their shuffling feet became infused with a spurt of energy and we entered the field in a rush.

The cricket ground was ablaze in halogen lights. Bhajans bursting from speakers tied to the coconut trees waged a not entirely successful war on film music coming out of the radios of the many vendors of bindis and cheap face powder. Odorous clouds of sweat, rancid ghee, incense and rotting food, urine and freshly frying ghee rushed to greet us. Yet the field itself was unnaturally free of people.

The others melted away with breathtaking suddenness, leaving only the chowkidar,  who guided me to the little tent in front of the temple that I had seen earlier in the day. We entered the tent and were confronted by a living wall of flesh. Miraculously, a crack appeared in it as soon as we stepped inside, one that was just wide enough for a single man to pass through. The chowkidar  urged me forward. “Sir, what is the matter? They are waiting for you,” he whispered.

At last, years of practice in the exercise of power came to my rescue. For though I had no desire whatsoever to go to the front of that smelly, crowded tent, I knew that as the sole representative of the state I had no choice. God and the government had to share the same stage, or else we civil servants would never be able to function. The robes of power are seldom of one’s choosing, yet never, till that night, had they felt so uncomfortable.

There was a murmur of approval as I took my place in the front. I tried to make myself tall, feeling like an ant with his back to a cyclone. Something demonic had been set in motion. I could feel it making its way through the crowd, boring into my back. Would I be able to control it? Or was it too late already? I stared straight ahead and tried to seem absorbed in the proceedings.

The stage itself looked rather demure, with orange and white flowers hanging down the sides and garlanding the walls, and four deepa stambhas,  multi-wicked floor lamps, at the four corners. In the center, in front of the red and gold curtain, was a single silver microphone. Behind it, in a curtained alcove, priests could be heard chanting. The heat was terrible. The smoke from the burning deepams  stung my eyes, making them water. The smell of flowers and incense and ghee was quite overpowering. My lungs began to crave fresh air. Fearing I’d be overcome, I put a hand out and leaned on the edge of the stage.

The chanting stopped and a man appeared in front of the curtain. He was not tall, but of an ascetic thinness that bordered on the skeletal. He walked languidly to the front of the stage. Yet he carried with him such an aura of tightly controlled energy that he seemed to grow as he approached the front. His face was practically devoid of flesh. Thin blue veins crisscrossed his forehead. Empty skin stretched tightly between jaw and cheekbone. But his most striking feature was his eyes. Protruding and practically lidless, with beady black pupils that swam in a large surface of startling blue-white, his eyes seemed to see what no one else could. He came up to the microphone and stared into the assembly, picking out faces from the crowd. A tremor ran through them. I felt it too and knew with absolute certainty that I was looking at the village pujari , the selfsame one who had had the courage to write to us.

He was no ordinary village pujari , looking after the daily rituals of the temple, weddings, and deaths, and minding his business. I understood why the chowkidar  was so afraid of him. There seemed nothing this man with the staring eyes didn’t know about the unseen. Even when his eyes weren’t upon you, his emaciated form was like some awful reminder of the essential weakness of the flesh. But more even than his thinness it was his skin that seemed to attest to his inner purity, for it glowed like burnished copper, more alive than a flame. Never in my life had I seen skin like that! As if he was aware of the magic of his skin, the priest was naked to his waist except for the sacred thread glowing whitely on his chest and the rudraksha beads around his neck. The saffron lungi  he was wearing added more fire to the colour of his skin, so that he seemed to burn in eternal penance for the weakness of us lesser mortals.

The pujari  waited till the shuffling and whispering in the hall died down. It seemed to me to take an absurdly short time. Then he began to speak.

“I see you are all here. That is good.” His voice was a delight to listen to, cultured and beautifully modulated, yet rich in the drama of emotion. No actor could have spoken like that.

“Today is the thirteenth day of our worship and Amma still won’t come to us. Do you know why that is?” A collective moan arose, like the wind of loss, from the assembly.

He shut his eyes and listened to it with satisfaction. His flesh quivered like the surface of a lake touched by the barest hint of a breeze.

“I will never forget,” he began. “Today I saw her so clearly...” He paused, a sob in his voice. Then, just when the tension grew almost unbearable, he opened his eyes and let us feel the full effect of them. “...more clearly than I can see you with whom I have lived and eaten all my life and who are before me now.” His eyes shifted to an indeterminate spot above our heads. “She was just there, at the edge of the village, outlined against the bamboo groves. She didn’t look at me, her eyes were focussed on something far away that I could not see. I went closer. She ignored me. I wanted to cry, she was in such a terrible condition. She looked like a widow who had lost her way in the forest for many nights. Her beautiful red sari, the one I put on her with my own hands, was gone.” He lifted his hands as he said this, their emptiness emphasizing his message. “And the white widow’s sari she now wears was streaked with grey and brown and torn in places. I could see evil-looking thorns clinging to the cloth in other places. Her lotus feet were so torn that they resembled the half-eaten remains of a tiger’s meal. Her long black hair was caked with the dust and dead leaves of the forest. An earring was missing, and her belt had fallen off. Her bangles lay broken at her feet and her crown hung drunkenly down the side of her head, caught on her matted locks. Her face, her beautiful moonlike face, was lifeless and wan. Dark circles ringed her eyes, and her lips were dull and cracked. Her bride’s bindi was gone and there was no sindoor in the parting of her hair and dead flowers lay across her shrivelled breasts.

“ ‘Amma, what has happened to you?’ I cried, falling at her feet. ‘Why are you like this?’

“ ‘My children have forgotten me. They do not remember me anymore,’ she replied sadly.

“ ‘That is not true, maa.  They made a mistake, but now they have seen the error of their ways, they are calling to you, Amma.  Can you not hear them?’

“She said nothing and started to walk away from me towards the forest.

“ ‘Oh, fish-eyed one, why do you persist in ignoring your children?’ I called after her. ‘Have they not done enough yet? Are you not satisfied with their repentance? What more must your children do?’ In my despair I fell to the ground. At last she turned her head and looked at me. Her hair caught on a bamboo frond and revealed her other ear. I thought I would die of shame. For Amma’s beautiful shell-shaped ear was bleeding. As I watched, the blood poured down like rain and soaked her white sari.

“ ‘Oh, Amma, what has happened?’ I cried in alarm.

“ ‘You have done this to me,’ she replied. ‘Save me.’

“And she vanished.”

The priest stopped. People in the audience were sobbing loudly, some crying out, “No, oh no,” their bodies swaying back and forth.

“What can we do for Amma?” they cried in unison.

He surveyed them in silence and a satisfied smile spread his thin lips. “We must continue to pray.” Suddenly the heat and the smoke and the smell of so many bodies became too much for me. I turned and tried to push my way through the wall of bodies, heedless of the angry shouts that arose.

I must have fainted, because the next thing I knew I was sitting on the floor at the edge of the hall, close to the entrance. I was a child again and someone was cradling my head in his lap, fanning me.

“Big brother,” he said respectfully, the moment he saw my eyes open, “are you feeling better? Can I get you some water?”

“How? What ha-happened?” I tried to sit up.

“Hush, lie still, give them time to forget you,” he whispered as he fanned my face. His voice was unemphatic, with a curious lack of inflection.

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to get a look at the man’s face. But the darkness made it impossible to see anything more than the whites of his eyes.

“Big brother, you have upset them. They’re in a funny mood tonight, I can feel it.”

I could feel the truth underpinning his words, and so I obeyed him, wondering where my unknown benefactor belonged in the political mosaic of the village. I sat up suddenly, remembering who I was. His lips lifted briefly in acknowledgement, but his eyes never left the stage. The stillness of his body as he watched the proceedings, and the utter concentration that stillness implied, both impressed and disturbed me.

Suddenly the hall was plunged in darkness and, as if that were the cue they’d been waiting for, six priests appeared from behind the curtain that hid the sanctum sanctorum from the eyes of the spectators. They walked solemnly to the front of the stage. One carried a shallow tin box and a broom. The second and third carried the wood and the oil respectively. The fourth, fifth, and sixth ones were musicians who began immediately to play while the fire was prepared. Behind the curtain, meanwhile, lamps were lit and a shadow play began. One pair of shadows with elongated arms bathed the idol. Others waved elaborately carved silver fly-whisks. Another pair lifted two multi-pronged lamps and moved them in slow circles to the rhythm of the music, throwing grotesque many-armed shadows on the curtain. I glanced at my companion. His chest heaved with emotion; his eyes, moist and shining, were glued to the stage.

After the fire was lit and the music ceased, the village pujari  reappeared and took possession of the mike. “The evening’s program will be the same as yesterday’s. The only change is that today the abhisek  will be followed by the kirtanam  and then the distribution of prasadam,” he said.

A few groans escaped the crowd, and the woman in front of us clutched her children.

“Impressive, isn’t he, our pujari ?” the man asked.

I said nothing.

“You don’t agree?”

“It is not my place to agree or disagree,” I said carefully.

On stage the pujari  continued to speak. “I would like to add that we have been forced to do this because some of the sub-cooks did not arrive on time. This is what happens when some of you do not take your responsibilities seriously. Everyone suffers — especially the children, who are the devi’ s favorites and most likely to get her to respond to their call. If the children don’t get their food on time, the devi  will be angry.” A collective moan went through the crowd.

“After prasadam, there will be the special pujas  for those who have requested them and those who have been polluted by the touch of the enemies. I will call out their names and they can come and collect their baskets of offerings. Then the singing will resume and I want you all to be there. Tonight is ekadasi  and the devi  is most susceptible to your call. No one is to go to sleep.” He stared threateningly at several people. “Especially you, Chinnakutty,” he called. “I will be watching you.” His eyes pierced the black mass of bodies in the center of the tent. “And you, Gauriamma, no taking your children home early.”

I looked around to see who he was talking to and saw a woman with unhealthy, greyish skin and wide, staring eyes. She hung her head and clutched four scared-looking children to her.

“Poor children, can’t he see he’s making them suffer? They’re dying of fatigue,” the man beside me muttered.

My ears pricked up. “Has this been going on for long?”

He looked at me intently. “Eighteen days, if we count today,” came the prompt reply. “I wonder how much longer the village will last.”

I felt greatly encouraged. Here was someone intelligent and educated who could help me understand what was happening and perhaps help me put a stop to it.

The hypnotic voice of the pundit continued to flow through the public-address system. “I hope you have all left your donations in the donation box at the side of the hall. If you haven’t done so, please do it now. There are some of you who came too late to do so. I know who you are.” He paused and looked searchingly at the audience. “There has been a marked drop in the collections as well as the food. I was angry at the selfishness of some of us but I realise that it must be the will of the devi  that we purify our minds further. From now on, only rice payasam  will be served.” A ripple went through the audience and many hung their heads.

A sudden flurry of activity drew my eyes to the stage again. More pundits, this time dressed like sadhus,  in saffron, and beating on drums and cymbals of all sizes, and blowing on horns and conches, swarmed all over the stage. They all looked fierce and devoted. The curtains flew back, revealing the idol at last. A sigh of relief rose up from the crowd. For there in the inner sanctum of the temple, bathed in a warm halo of light, was the devi  herself.

I am not by nature superstitious. An agnostic father and an atheist mother had made me a worshiper of the rational world. But a shiver ran through me all the same, for in spite of what I had been brought up to believe, I felt the devi  come alive. I felt it as surely as did every person in that room. I saw her hair move in the gentle lotus-perfumed breeze that suddenly invaded the room, and I felt an inexplicable lightening of my heart, a silent invasion of joy in that dark, hot, smelly space. A joyous shout burst from my throat and I felt spontaneous tears wet my cheeks. I wiped them surreptitiously, glancing at the man self-consciously. To my relief there were tears rolling down his cheeks, too.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she? It is hard not to be moved,” I said.

He turned his head and dashed away his tears. “Idol worship is not a good thing,” he growled thickly. “Come, let us go outside.”

I should have felt grateful. The man had saved me from becoming as superstitious as the villagers. Instead, I felt resentful, as if I had been unjustly rebuked.

The man stood up and gave me his hand. Somewhat reluctantly I let him help me up and together we crept out of the tent into the deserted cricket ground.

A slight wind that smelled of the sea blew across the field, carrying the garbage with it. As I sucked the cooler air into my lungs, rationality took possession of me once more. The rains were coming. Would my car make it out of the village? Had it even arrived? What had happened to it?

The wind woke a dog lying asleep on a garbage heap. The dog opened his mouth wide and howled. An answering screech rent the peace of the night. The dog leapt high in the air and ran away.

“What was that?” I asked my companion.

He looked unperturbed. There came another shriek, but this time the static that followed made the cause of the sound clearly discernible. The loudspeakers had just been switched on.

“Are you hungry?” my companion asked.

Of course I was hungry, but I wanted to know who my mysterious benefactor was first. “Not very,” I lied. “Tell me first, who are you? How is it you know English?”

The man laughed, showing even white teeth. “First eat. You must be hungry.”

“No, I’m fine. I can eat later,” I told him impatiently.

“My mother always said one shouldn’t talk on a

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n empty stomach.”

I had to agree. The smell of the temple food cooking exclusively in clarified butter was making my stomach rumble. I gave in. “What about you? Will you eat with me?”

He shook his head. “Later. I will wait for you by that tree over there.”

I ducked into the tent. A slovenly cook filled a leaf plate with lemon rice and watery curds. The filth was unbelievable. But I was too hungry to care. I helped myself to some chillies and walked out. The cooks watched me leave without stopping their work. Even they seemed to know who I was, which is why they let me eat before the Gods.

When I stepped out of the tent the man was waiting for me beneath the tree, exactly where he said he’d be. He stood up and formally offered me a seat on a branch that curved like a swing just a few feet from the ground. Then he sat down on the floor before me.

“So who are you? What do you do here?” I asked immediately.

His answer astonished me. “I came to meet you,” he said.

“Why? Are you a government employee, or a member of the panchayat ?” I tried to read the expression on his face, but either by chance or by design it was once more in shadow, whereas the lights strung on top of the huge tent practically blinded me.

“You are from the government, of  the government,” he corrected himself. “It is rare for a government official, even a minor one, to visit a village as tiny as this. What has brought someone as important as yourself here?”

The man had a natural authority that made one want to answer, but I held back, remembering my position. “Word gets around quickly, does it not? Tell me, how is it that a man of your talents is content to remain here?”

“Because I know the world is nothing but a big village.” He laughed briefly, his eyes never leaving my face for an instant. I found his gaze distinctly unsettling but couldn’t pull my own away. “The people here are quite easy to manage. Except when they have been scared by something quite out of the ordinary. Like your sudden arrival, for example. That’s why I had to come.”

“How do you know English so well?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.

“I wanted to be a bureaucrat like you,” he answered bluntly.

“Why didn’t you?” I asked when I’d recovered from my surprise.

“You believe that life can be planned?” he asked.

Unprepared, I gave a stupid reply. “Of course it can. If one is careful and prudent.”

“Careful. Prudent.” He smiled in a way that made me feel young and foolish. “What lovely words. So vague and so comforting. And what if you were born in a pit? What would you plan then?”

“I would plan to climb out of the pit,” I replied patiently.

“You think I haven’t tried?” my companion asked, his voice becoming thin with suppressed emotion.

“How do I know when you refuse to tell me anything about yourself?” I replied. The opening I had been waiting for had finally arrived.

“I come from a Brahmin village hidden in a fold of the high Himalayas. My father was the village priest. He looked after the temple of the goddess Chamundi. In those days there was no road to get to the village and one had to walk the last ten kilometers up a narrow footpath. So no government teacher ever came to our school. So my father was the teacher, too. He was a very good teacher and after the children of the village were finished with him many went on to get government jobs.

“Though my father was highly educated himself and could teach all subjects, his great love was our sacred texts. He knew Sanskrit, as do I. I can still remember the glow on his face as he sat down on his mat in the morning and began to recite his prayers. So though the village was poor and he was highly educated, he was content to remain there as its priest. He fed himself on the respect the villagers showered on him. Not being able to afford a dowry, he married a thin, half-starved daughter of a high-caste but poor Brahmin with five girls. I was their first child and they were so proud of the fact that I was a boy that it took them almost three years to realize that I had been born deaf.

“After me, there came a girl and then another and another and another. My father was furious. Who would say his beloved mantras for him when he died and was laid on the funeral pyre? How would his soul reach heaven? Who would perform the rites that protected his soul while it wandered for one year and thirteen days before it reached heaven?

“I grew up to be strong and quick. I was never ill. My mother kept me beside her as much as she could, out of the way of my father. I helped her cook and clean and tend the animals. She loved me dearly, I could feel it in the way she held me close, the way she looked at me when my father was not there. But my father, he could hardly bear to look at me. All he could think of was the shame I’d brought on him. He felt certain the entire village was laughing at him, schoolteacher, pundit, the most learned man in the village, yet with an illiterate deaf-mute of a son. The older I got, and the stronger my body became, the more he hated me. I remember watching him shout at me. I couldn’t hear him, but I felt the words hit me and I’d cry even before he touched me.

“Then, when I was nine, my mother had another son. My father was overjoyed. Then, when my little brother was three a snake bit him and my father couldn’t get him to the hospital in time, so he died. After that my father went mad. He took out his sorrow on me. I was a big boy by then and I hit him back, just once. But that was enough for him. He beat me with an iron rod till I was bleeding so badly that my mother and the other villagers had to drag him off me. The week after that we boarded a bus and then a train. In Lucknow he left me in a small wayside tea stall. I never saw him again.”

“How... how awful,” I gasped, scarcely able to believe my ears.

He continued as if he hadn’t heard. “To begin with, I was overjoyed. It was like being thrust into a beautiful dream. Only when I grew hungry did I realize that I was alone; that I’d been abandoned.”

The memory of abandonment was like a wound on his face. “I don’t know how I managed not to get killed that first day. I couldn’t hear the cars honking at me to get out of the way. Eventually, a scooter hit me and I awoke in the hospital. As they couldn’t find my parents, they shifted me to the government boys’ home. There we were kept in cells like animals, woken up in the morning, fed something disgusting, and then made to sit idle for hours in a classroom with steel bars on the doors and windows. A man would occasionally look inside and shout at us if we made too much noise. The boys, well, I won’t describe what I went through there, but it was horrible.

“Only my own nightmare was worse. I knew people communicated with each other in some mysterious way that was related to the mouth. But when I opened my mouth, whatever sounds I made seemed to provoke reactions similar to those of my father. I thought words were shadow equivalents of the expressions on a person’s face. I felt them stir inside me too. I would open my mouth, think of the feeling, and make a sound. But then the person’s face would turn away and I would know that I had failed to communicate. I tried again and again, growing more and more violent as the desperation built up inside me. At last they decided that I was too dangerous to be kept with the other boys. I was given to the Christian missionaries in Lucknow.”

“The Christian fathers!” I exclaimed. Suddenly a terrible suspicion struck me. “You’re not...”

He smiled grimly and nodded. “I was little better than an animal when they found me. I trusted no one. I did not even know my name. I didn’t, and still don’t, know the name of my village. I can never go back to where I came from. The fathers called me John. They taught me to lipread, to write and speak.”

I couldn’t contain myself any longer and turned to face him fully. “You’re... you’re the priest?”

“At last you’ve guessed it,” he said sarcastically. “After all the hints I gave you, I’d have thought you’d catch on much faster. Why else can I speak English as well as you?”

“I... I never thought, never expected to find...” I stammered, uncomfortably aware that he was lipreading and wondering what else he could see in my body language.

“A priest here? Why not? I wanted to talk to a real sahib. And I knew you’d be brought here first.”

“I was coming to meet you tomorrow,” I explained quickly, guiltily.

He frowned. “Tomorrow? Tomorrow may have been too late. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you to learn if you were really a better person than me.”

“Why should I be better than you?”

“Because you rule this great country. I only take care of its soul,” he replied, not sparing the irony.

“From all I hear, you are the Pied Piper of this village,” I said drily. “You’ve taken away all the children.”

He gave me a strange look, not unmixed with respect. “I am no Pied Piper. I never told the government to refuse to educate its people.”

We were fencing with each other, I realized suddenly, and to my surprise, I found that I was enjoying it. “You hate the Hindus, don’t you? Because of your father.”

He laughed cynically. “My father was nothing. An unthinking animal with pretty words in his mouth. What did he know about God when he knew nothing of morality?” He looked towards the tent and his face twisted with bitterness. “Why should I hate these people? They are not people, they are a single undefined mass. They ooze over the earth unthinkingly. They can be stamped upon, and they won’t react, because they have no mind, only feelings. And feelings without a mind to direct them are powerless. But touch their symbols and they go wild with rage. My only regret is that my father’s Hindu blood is in me and will one day betray me.”

“Touch any group’s symbols and they will riot,” I said coldly. Then something made me add, “And yet, I will bet that Hindus are by far the most tolerant group. Take this, your own district. Christians and Muslims live happily in a Hindu majority state. There has never been a riot here.”

“Because Christians and Muslims know better than to try to wake the sleepers.”

“Or is it because Hindus tolerate you that you persist with your intolerable arrogance!” I snapped.

He just looked at me. Then his face split in a smile that had nothing spontaneous in it. All at once I had a premonition of disaster.

The priest stood up. “All right, let’s find out how tolerant these people of yours are,” he said, and ran towards the temple.

“Hey you! Stop!” I shouted after him. “What are you going to do?” I was talking to the wind. He kept running. I ran after him. People were streaming out of the tent. I pushed my way through them. They didn’t even react. Their eyes were dull and they fell away at the touch of my hand, their bodies crumpling like paper.

I rushed into the empty tent. It was dark and silent. The priest was nowhere to be seen. Then I heard the sound of feet on wooden floorboards. The priest was on the stage. I rushed up to the front of the tent and clambered onto the stage. In front of me, the devi  was unveiled and smiled intimately at me, her glassy eyes serene, reflecting the scores of tiny lamps beneath her. I couldn’t help staring at that face. Like a lake in the middle of a firestorm, I thought, deeply moved in spite of myself. Suddenly I sensed a presence behind me.

The priest stood there, his arms filled with garbage.

“Why...” Then a terrible thought struck. “Why have you brought that here?”

He grinned sardonically. “Wait and see.”

“What are you going to do?” My voice was a terrified squeak.

He leapt forward, pushing me aside. I fell heavily to the floor and lay there stunned. He put one foot upon my neck and kept me pinned to the floor. I didn’t need to look at him to know what he was doing. I could hear him whistling tunelessly. In the tiny pocket of my brain where my rationality had gone into hiding, I wondered how he had taught himself to whistle. Suddenly a hand was pulling me up. “Come on, get up. Take a look at what you’ve done,” he whispered.

I turned towards the devi . Horror welled up in my heart. Around her the curtains were on fire, bathing her in an ugly orange light. Her face was covered with clumps of half-eaten rice and vegetables, plastic bags, peels, and something brown and lumpy which I didn’t dare name. Her golden crown was ripped and fluttered like a moth in the current of air caused by the flames. Her sari had more brown stuff and food and leaf plates clinging to it, and her feet were completely hidden by more garbage. The lamps were upturned, and the prasada  of rice and laddoos  was scattered amongst the flowers at her feet.

I turned to the priest. “You bastard,” I screamed.

“Clean it up,” he ordered, laughing maniacally. “I’ll call the others to help you.”

He reached up and began to ring the temple bells. My fist wavered between his face and my duty. I stepped towards the desecrated idol. But it was too late. I heard the sound of many running feet, and shouts. The villagers were running towards their beloved temple.

The priest stopped laughing. He grabbed my hand. “Come on, we must get out of here.”

“No, you clean this up before they come. I’ll help. It’s not right.” I brushed the filth off the devi ’s clothes, leaving streaks of brown behind in the wake of my fingers.

He pulled me away. “They’ll kill you if they find you here. They won’t stop to ask questions.”

I looked through the gap in the back of the tent. The crowd had grown as the news had spread and now they were a huge mass, a black wall of destruction, unstoppable as a tidal wave.

He pulled me down the steps alongside the wings of the stage and we stumbled through the garbage dump from where he had collected his offerings for the devi . As soon as we were through, we began running, him in the lead. We leapt over the low wall that separated the temple from the churchyard, we ran across the graveyard, dodging tombstones, and around the corner of the building to the front of the church. The priest struggled with the heavy wooden doors and I waited tensely beside him.

At last he got the door open and we dashed inside. He locked and bolted the door after us.

“It won’t hold long,” I said grimly, feeling vaguely satisfied at the idea.

“You’re right.” He frowned and was silent for a moment. Then he looked up and smiled. “Follow me,” he ordered, pointing to some stairs at the side of the altar.

I hesitated. “Is that the other way out of this church?”

His eyebrows went up. “Out? There’s nowhere we can hide in this village. They’ll hunt us down like rats. We’re safer here.”

“My God!” The dire nature of our predicament dawned upon me. “Do you have a phone in here? I can call police headquarters.”

He gave a bitter laugh. “What would a deaf man do with a phone?”

I felt embarrassed and looked away. The silence was broken by the sound of fists banging on the door.

“Come on,” he said brusquely. “We can’t wait here any longer. I know a place where we can hide.” He dashed to the stairs and began climbing. I followed him, panting a little, for the stairs were steep. Only then did I realise what we were climbing towards. The breath caught in my throat, for he was leading me into a trap. The steps led up the church tower. Once we were up there we’d be stuck. I hesitated. He turned around as if he’d read my mind. “Don’t worry, I know what I am doing.” Such was the power of the man that I believed him.

The stairs opened onto a little platform. Directly above us, within touching distance, were the bells. Below us, the entire village and the surrounding countryside spread out like a black mantle gashed with colour. Beneath us, in the bright light of the floodlights, were the crazy reds and purples and pinks of the temple and fairground. Faintly visible around it in the reflected light were the white and burnt orange of nearby roofs and walls. Beyond them, the countryside was draped in the mantle of night. From where we stood, I could clearly see spreading across the fairground, like a tattered cloak, the villagers who had stood aside so docilely for me to pass through a bare three hours earlier. Their anger was palpable, made more fearsome by its silence and its apparent lack of emotion. They moved across the field like a wave, crowned by a bright saffron dot brandishing a trident. Suddenly, from the cook’s tent, torches appeared and rushed to join the main body of people massed at the entrance of the maidan. As the torches joined them, the others cheered once and then they swarmed forward. Every once in a while I heard a voice calling to the devi , calling to Mahadev, swearing to bring victory or die. The words seemed to belong to no one, they simply rose out of the mass of bodies streaming down the main street to the church doors.

“They’re not going to stop till they’ve burnt you precious church down,” I told the priest.

“But I’ll have won my bet,” he crowed.

“What bet? What are you talking about? You’re sick!” I cried.

He didn’t answer, he just looked at me and I felt every word that had passed between us come alive.

A cool wind cut through the heat and dried the sweat on my body, making me feel suddenly cold. “Please, you’ve made your point, now put a stop to this madness.”

I looked down at the villagers massed at the foot of the church.

The priest reached up and grabbed the ropes that hung from the crossbeam supporting the bells down the middle of the tower. He began to pull on them.

“What, what are you doing?” I shouted, terrified. “They’ll be up here in a second.”

When he didn’t answer, I tried to grab the ropes away from him. But he was physically at least one and a half times my size and twice as strong. He shrugged me off as if I were a blade of grass. I landed with a thud on the paving stones. For a second I felt nothing. Then I felt a burning in the base of my spine and my legs felt numb. I lay there and stared impotently up into the huge mouths of the bells.

At first the bells didn’t seem to respond. Then, slowly, they began to move, just a few inches this way and that to start with, the arc increasing a little bit with each rotation. But still the movement had not reached the cavernous center and no sound emerged. The priest looked up at them and pulled harder. Suddenly the bells found their rhythm and began to swing backwards and forwards, ringing out across the countryside, calling out for help, and at the same time singing out their anger and defiance.

I struggled up into a semi-crouch and looked down over the edge of the parapet. Men and women were massed around the church doors for at least a quarter of a mile down the road. Their flaming torches illuminated their upturned faces. They were all looking at the bells, fear and wonder on their faces.

Then all I could feel were the bells. Like a million tiny arrows passing through my body, the sound of the bells drowned out all other sensation. I looked at the priest. He was clinging to the ropes, swinging on them with all the transparent delight of a little boy. His eyes were shut, an expression of blissful concentration on his face. He was far away from this world, in a world of his own where nothing could touch him. And I was all alone.

I looked down. The crowd seemed to have thinned. They’ve gone away, I thought bitterly, the bells have scared them away. Or maybe word had gone around that I was in the tower with the priest and regretted the unhappy coincidence that had brought me to this place. Then I realised that the villagers hadn’t gone away. They had only retreated to the edge of the circle of light and were getting ready to beat down the front doors of the church with a wooden battering ram.

The breeze grew stronger, whipping through my hair and my fear-soaked shirt. Suddenly I smelt it, that first whiff of dampness mixed with dust that is the messenger of the rain.

“They’re going to break down the doors of your church,” I shouted to the priest.

“Don’t worry, my people will be here soon,” he shouted back through the freshening wind. “They won’t let the church burn.” He pulled at the ropes even more fiercely as he said this. The wooden platform on which we stood shook with the force of it. I looked up at the bells. They were swinging wildly back and forth, the beam on which they hung creaking ominously.

“Stop! The beam will break and the bells will crush us,” I yelled.

Suddenly I heard a tremendous crash. I looked down. The battering ram had begun its work.

“You see, they’ll be in here very soon,” I told the priest with gloomy delight.

“So will my people,” the priest answered.

“Your people are cowards,” I spat.

But the priest didn’t respond, he was swinging on the ropes, his eyes closed, lips moving wordlessly in prayer.

Another crash shook the building, this time accompanied by the breaking of glass. I leaned over the parapet. On the ground below, they were cheering weakly, scenting victory. Another cry to the devi  rent the air and they moved back for the third and last strike.

Suddenly the sky was rent by roll upon roll of thunder. But so intent were the people on the ground on what they were about to accomplish that they paid no attention. My ears seemed to be the only ones that were listening to God’s warning.

“Did you hear that thunder?” I shouted at the priest. “That’s God’s way of telling you to stop this madness now, before it’s too late. If you won’t listen to me, at least listen to him.”

The priest’s rapt expression never changed. His eyes were glazed. “I heard them,” he muttered blissfully. “I heard the bells.”

“That wasn’t bells you heard, that was thunder,” I cried.

He looked at me pityingly. “You don’t understand. God has given me His reward,” he said. “This was meant to be.”

I stared at him with revulsion. “Go down and apologise before it’s too late,” I begged, “or you will have blood spilt in God’s house tonight.”

“I did nothing wrong,” he said calmly. “You did this.”

“This is the work of your hate,” I said. “And it’s going to get us killed.”

“You shouldn’t have come here,” he said in reply. “You set this off.”

I hung my head. Somewhere inside me a voice whispered that the priest was right. Violence needed a spectator, someone who was outside it and could appreciate its horror. Then my ears distinguished thin cries, women’s voices screaming in warning, coming from the back of the crowd. A bolt of lightning flooded the village in momentary daylight and I saw an armed group of villagers running down the main street of the village towards the church. They had torches and farming implements as weapons and they too were silent.

The group by the church split down the center, half of them turning to face the oncoming group and the other half continuing to slam the battering ram into the church doors.

I lunged at the priest and pulled him to the parapet. “Look, the bloodshed is about to begin. Look!” I screamed into his face.

But the priest pulled away from me and grabbed the ropes again. The bells began to toll, and his face took on the same rapt, faraway look.

In the next instant, two completely separate events merged. The church door split wide open and two warring groups, one Hindu and one Christian, melted into each other with a roar. And in the bell tower, the priest knelt down and began to pray, thanking God for his personal miracle.

I tore my eyes away from the spectacle of the mad priest and watched in horror as below us the bloodshed continued. “No, no, no,” I moaned. “Please God, no.” But even as I did so, a part of me was already seeing how it would look in cold, permanent ink, in the words of the report I would have to file later, and was removing my mind to that safe place in the future. Suddenly I felt something cold and wet on my cheeks. I reached up to wipe them away, thinking they were tears. But there were too many of them. Then I became aware of the drops hitting my head and shoulders as well. I looked up. The bells had stilled. Their rounded surfaces were dark grey, slick and shining like the skin of wild elephants. The rain cast a blanket of silence over the sounds of battle. I watched it fall on those hot sweating bodies, on the still-warm stilled ones, on the shining grey blades and sharpened sticks and the red-brown mud. All I could hear was the sound of the rain, the hiss of the raindrops falling on leaves and the wind that whipped them off the leaves.

I don’t know how long I stood there, too afraid to go down. Finally the rain petered out. The few survivors dropped their weapons and took to helping the wounded and getting them onto their feet.

I heard the priest move. I looked around. “It’s over,” I told him.

He got to his feet at last and peered over the parapet expressionlessly.

“There! Are you happy with your work?” I cried.

He stared at the carnage below us and to my horror, his mouth split into a huge yawn. It closed slowly. Then he turned and, without looking at me, began to descend the stairs. “What are you doing?” I called after him. “Where are you going?”

We reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled into a nightmare. The battle had spilled into the church. Small, evil-smelling bonfires revealed the remains of burnt individuals. Others lay in pools of blood on the stone floor, many missing arms, legs, heads. The priest wove drunkenly through the bodies. Some were still alive and calling weakly for help. He stumbled down the aisle, splashing through puddles of blood, ignoring the calls for help.

“My God, what have you done, what have you done?” I moaned, unable to tear my eyes away from those astonished dying faces. Then I followed him down the aisle.

Near the door I caught up with him and forced him to turn around. “Where are you going?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I were a stupid child. “To sleep,” he replied casually. “To sleep, of course.”

Copyright © 2009 Radhika Jha

The Witch’s Baptism

by  Tom Tolnay

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Adding a further bit of spicy superstition to our fall double issue, Tom Tolnay returns with a story from his series about a family of Greek immigrants adapting to the strange new world they find in Brooklyn. Mr. Tolnay’s fifty-some stories in print have appeared in national magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Most recently his stories can be found in Otherwordly Maine  (Down EastBooks) and in two anthologies of prize-winning stories, one from Literal Latte, another from Writers Digest Books.

* * * *

No doubt a few stray aunts, sundry second cousins, and overzealous neighbors had already taken up places within finger-dipping range of St. James’s massive marble baptismal font, a sculpture so imposing it may well have been removed, along with the Elgin Marbles, from the Parthenon; and Father Nick, his tidal wave of white hair in danger of crashing onto his creased forehead, must have been glancing repeatedly at the bright chrome watch on his hairy wrist: It was two-thirty and the immediate families of Dropolous and Loch — not to mention the honored, littlest guest — should have arrived half an hour ago. Worse yet, we were still a long way from being ready to leave my mother’s house in Brooklyn, and we had a long drive ahead of us, for though we had moved out of Queens many years earlier, we had never given up on our loyalty to St. James. Meanwhile various members of two entirely different families were gathering in its pews for a wedding at three, and two things a guardian of holy rites does not want lumped together are a christening and a wedding. But in the confusion of rounding up some dozen-plus bodies, so we could cram our pressed suits and starched dresses into assorted vehicles and rumble off to church, we had lost my sixteen-week-old son.

“You had the baby last!” scowled my mother, Evangelina, in the direction of my mother-in-law, Geraldine, whose hand had already gripped the front doorknob to make her way to their bulky black Buick.

“Not me!” cried Mrs. Loch.

“I saw you leave the bedroom with the baby just as I was coming up the stairs.”

“I most certainly did not!”

“What about the aunts?” said Gwen’s sister Lucy.

“The aunts?” Aunt Delphinia whined. “No one will let me near my nephew.”

“What about Gwendolyn’s sisters?” offered Aunt Harriet, peering from under her leafy green hat at the two fair-haired young women. “I saw them tickling  the baby under the chin,” she said, her tone oddly suggestive of foul play.

Gwendolyn seemed on the verge of laughing out loud, as if she was the one who’d been tickled. Without a word she went down the hall and up the stairs, heading toward my old bedroom where the baby had been gurgling and sleeping and eating and wriggling in the bassinet — enjoying a steady supply of attention and liquid refreshment.

“Everyone just walks off,” I chuckled, “and forgets to bring the only one who really matters at a bapt

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Just then my wife cried out upstairs: “My baby’s gone! — He’s really gone!”

I looked toward the stairs, still smiling. “A kid doesn’t just evaporate,” I called to her. “Not even one that small.”

“That’s what you think,” Aunt Merrula said darkly.

Back in the living room, where there was more elbow room for accusations and recriminations, voices grew louder and more dramatic, reverberating from the buckled ceiling to the petrified wooden floor to the gravestone-shaped windows. In the meantime Gwen had dashed downstairs, into our midst, and demanded: “Who’s got my baby?”

Several of the accused held out the palms of their hands to prove they weren’t hiding anything. That’s when it finally hit me that the baby actually had been misplaced, and that, being the father, I was the person expected by everyone to take charge. But the best I could do was declare: “Father Nick’s gonna have a hemorrhage if we don’t get to the church soon.”

The mention of that pious firebrand seemed to ease our paralysis, and the pack of us swarmed up the stairs, down the stairs, opened doors, closed doors, ran into rooms, out of rooms. Harriet searched behind the sofa; Lucy and Penny crawled under beds; Merrula waved a flashlight beam into the attic from its doorway, not daring to cross over the threshold; grandmothers Evangelina and Geraldine yanked open cabinets in the kitchen and pantry; Mr. Loch stuck his head into the baby’s hamper and carriage — one in the shape of a frog, the other fleecy as a cat. Delphinia concentrated on hall closets, top and bottom; Uncle Augie, professional cynic, checked out the furnace.

And my wife and I ran around double-checking all of them.

Only my cousin Peter remained in place in the living room, refusing to look as ridiculous as the rest of us. After all, how could an infant have made its way into any of the places they were searching? Unless...

The irony — there always seems to be an irony handy to add richness to an absurd human activity — was that Gwen and I had waited far too long to get the baby named in a holy sanctuary — putting it off for some good and some not-so-good reasons for nearly four months. As each week passed my mother had assured me, in progressive order, it was a shame, a disgrace, a sin, a disaster, et cetera; and Merrula, bless her gloomy hide, was going around whispering that the child would turn out bad because Original Sin “sticks to the skin” if it’s not washed off with holy water within seven weeks. Why not six or eight weeks?  I wondered sarcastically. But it was ex-uncle Christos who forced me to drop the superior grin: He said that if a child should be “taken away by God” before being christened, the child would be doomed to be raised by the Devil “down below.” He actually pointed at the floor, jerking his long finger downward several times. Not that there was any more reason to believe his folklore than Merrula’s. It’s just that Christos was such a sober soul; everything he said vibrated with a sense of truth. So when we’d finally gotten around to making arrangements at the church, and inviting people, and setting up the party to follow the baptism, it was a big relief to all concerned — me as much as anyone else. Now that the baby had turned up missing, however, I was tempted to consider seriously Merrula’s assessment: “God is punishing the parents for waiting too long.”

A man who had both patent leather shoes lodged firmly in this world offered a more temporal explanation: “Kidnappers,” said Uncle Augie. I only wish he had merely dabbled privately with this possibility — hadn’t said that word aloud, reinforcing the most exotic fears of the family.

“Oh my Lord!” yelped the grandmothers, in harmony for the first time all day, as Gwen aimed a perplexed gaze at Augie, then at Merrula, then at me.

“Let’s not get carried away,” I cautioned everyone, at which time tears came spilling down Gwendolyn’s cheeks. “My baby,” she moaned, “my baby.”

While I tried to make my wife understand that our baby had  to be within arm’s reach — “It’s only common sense, honey.” — my own chest had come down a few notches with an increasing weight of distress that something awful had indeed happened to my tiny, helpless son. But I kept this notion to myself, wearing a valiant smile as I stood around as helpless as the rest. Unfortunately, the others were not shy about describing their fears, pushing Gwen and me and reason further and further apart.

The phone rang, silencing the bunch of us. I’m sure we were thinking the same thing: The kidnappers were calling in their demands. Encircled by both families, I whispered into the tiny holes in the mouthpiece: “Who is this?”

“Oh, it’s you,  Father Nick.”

The families released a collective sigh.

“Yes, yes, I know, Father. I’m very sorry. There’s been a slight mix-up — we’re trying to straighten it out right now... Yes, I think you’d better go ahead with the wedding, and then we’ll — oh, you’ve got a funeral at four... Well, how about five?... Thank you, Father, we’ll try our best... No,  I meant we’ll be there — one way or another we’ll see you before five.”

Inspired by Father Nick’s aggravated tone — plus a new outburst of opinions around me — I stepped up on a footstool and shouted “Everyone just shut up!”

Noone obeyed me, as usual, so I jumped off the stool, grabbed my grandfather’s gnarled cane (left in the umbrella rack after his death like a memento of his crankiness), swung the cane high, and smashed the ancient globe fixture above with a great crash. That light hadn’t worked as far back as I could remember, but had been allowed to continue collecting dust in part because Peter, the antiques dealer of the family, had once suggested that in addition to dust it was also collecting value. If the globe was worthless, as I suspected, it did serve one last, useful purpose: It restored order — without injuring anyone. But it was not the flying glass that shut them up so much as the destruction of an heirloom going to pieces, and were it not that her only grandchild was lost, I’m certain my mother would have used that cane on me.

I almost apologized for getting their attention in that extreme way, but I felt too upset by then to be contrite. “Listen,” I pleaded, “we’re running around like a bunch of cats without tails. We’ve got to go about this systematically.”

All three of my aunts glared at me fiercely; I’m not sure if they reacted this way because they had relied all their lives on their spiritual reserves to solve problems, or if they thought I was suggesting we should behave more like some other sect during a crisis.

“The last time I saw the baby was—” I checked my watch: ten to three — “maybe half an hour ago, when Gwen was laying out his christening suit in my old bedroom. Somebody had to be with the baby between the time I came downstairs and the time we realized he was—” saying the word made me compress inwardly — “missing.”

“Penny,” said Gwen, her makeup eroded but dry, “you went up to see the baby around that time.”

Gwen’s sister conceded this but said she had given way after a few minutes to Delphinia.

“All I wanted to do was bring the baby a piece of feta cheese,” my aunt Delphinia declared defensively, “but your mother barged in and yanked the cheese out of my fingers.”

Geraldine Loch was resolute: “Cheese is loaded with bacteria.”

Turning to Gwen’s mother, my aunt snapped, “It’s only goat’s milk; that’s the best thing for a baby.”

Before Mrs. Loch could counterattack, Gwen said, in a tremulous voice: “What happened when you were in the bedroom, Mom?”

“All I did,” Mrs. Loch testified, “was gather some of the baby’s things, but just as I was going down the hall to the bathroom I saw Evangelina coming toward his room.”

“I was only going to peek in on him before going to my own room to get my hat.” She pointed to the black pillbox on her head.

“Anyway, you were holding the baby,” Evangelina accused, aiming a finger at Mrs. Loch. “Too much everybody picks up the baby.”

“No! No! That bundle you saw was the bunting. The little one had dribbled all over it and I was taking it to the bathroom to wipe it clean.” Mrs. Loch wiped a rusty strand of hair off her speckled forehead. “When you came up the baby was still in the bassinet.”

“He’s not there now,” Merrula pointed out, flashing her eyeteeth.

Lucy’s husband, broad-chested, easygoing Tony, tried to sum up the proceedings. “That means the baby was  alone for a short time.”

“The baby was  alone,” I repeated stupidly.

“Couldn’t have been more than a minute or two,” Mr. Loch said. “After I let in your aunt downstairs I went into the kitchen and drank the last of my coffee. Then I went upstairs. Geraldine, you were in the hall outside the baby’s room. After I visited the bathroom, we walked downstairs together — and you were still carrying the bunting.”

“Without the baby?!” Gwen nearly shouted.

My mother-in-law screeched back at her: “The baby was gone from the bassinet, and since I’d seen Evangelina going towards the bedroom as I was going into the bathroom, I naturally assumed she’d grabbed my grandson. Everybody picks him up too much.”

“I didn’t touch my grandson,” declared Evangelina with an alarming arch to her neck, like a cobra about to strike.

Then Augie and Christos, Harriet’s current and former husbands, got into a squabble over whose responsibility it was to keep an eye on the kid. Of course they were really arguing about something else entirely.

“Quiet down!” I roared.

It was Penelope’s soft urging, “Take it easy, Alex,” that made me realize I’d become slightly hysterical, a reaction which only served to trigger another blast of hysteria from Gwen:

“Who stole  my baby?!”

Gwen’s sister Penny, though younger than everyone else, seemed the only mature soul in the room: “Daddy, which aunt did you let in before you went upstairs?”

“Anna, I think she said.”

Harriet snapped, “We got no aunt named Anna in this family.”

“Yes, I’m sure she said Anna. Anna Rhinoceros, or something like that.”

An ensemble of Merrula, Evangelina, Delphinia, and Harriet groaned starkly, and I verbalized what they were unable to express: “Mrs. Rhinosos is not an aunt. She’s a witch.” It wasn’t something I actually believed. But under that ceiling of emotional chaos I wanted to believe it — at least it would have provided an explanation to what otherwise seemed inexplicable.

Grunts and fretting and chuckles (the latter contributed by Penelope’s husband, tall and lanky, good-natured Bruce) filled the deep, stuffy room as Evangelina offered a brief history of potions and portents and disappointments relating to Anna Rhinosos, concluding: “No man would ever have her, so we began to call her Mrs. out of kindness.” My mother summed up her story by claiming, “Mrs. Rhinosos has been trying to steal the bloom out of a child’s face for many years with her Evil Eye. Alex, too, when he was a boy!”

Suddenly we were all yelping and blaming again. Mass madness it was, especially considering that Mrs. Rhinosos resided a long way off in Queens, was very old by that time, and hadn’t been heard from in years. Perhaps it was all this insanity jammed into that narrow space that impelled me toward the telephone and, nearly knocking the instrument off its designated table, I dialed 911. The sight of me hitting only three digits stalled the bizarre dance they’d been performing, and every eye, wet or dry, turned on me.

“Hello, yes, I want to report a kidnapping — yes, I said kidnapping!” half shouting the word.

“Tell them how little he is!” Gwen screeched.

Trying to wave her off, but without success — she hovered over me — I somehow managed to provide all the information requested by the operator. Once I’d finished, the mad dance churned up again, only it was more out of control than before, swirling around the room and accompanied by bellows and screams and tears, lots of tears. Especially from my wife.

Unable to take it anymore, I sprang out the back door to plant my feet on grass for a few moments, hoping to establish solid footing in my perspective too. And there they were, beyond the twisted, barren apple tree: Mrs. Rhinosos and my sixteen-week-old, unbaptised son. It had never occurred to me — to any of us — that he could have been carried just a few feet outside. Our minds would only permit us to think that if he’d been taken out of the house, it had to be far, far away.

Mrs. Rhinosos had walked into the house and straight up the stairs; and in the confusion, the one or two people who happened to notice her had assumed she had a right to be among us. Into the empty bedroom she went, picked up the baby, stepped down the back stairs, out the kitchen door, and into the yard. Planned or not, her timing had been brilliant.

Sitting in a rusted outdoor rocker, the witch looked as hunched over and as coil-haired as I remembered her from my childhood. Even her saucer-brimmed hat, with its crushed paper lily, seemed left over from those days. My baby, buttoned up in a frothy white suit, was giggling joyfully as the woman famous for her empty life held him close against her broad chest. Afraid to frighten her into doing something peculiar, I stepped softly over the grass up behind them, and was about to reach down and snatch the child out of her arms when she said, without looking back at me, “Your son, he is beautiful. What is the name you will give him?”

I stiffened and stuttered, “John... Christopher.”

“Good strong name for good strong baby.” She sighed, looking long into my son’s face, which was pink with laughter and sunlight... no shadows whatsoever of Original Sin.

As I stood there wondering how she’d heard about the baptism — secondhand through one of my mother’s visits to the old neighborhood, I supposed — a gang of relatives came bursting out of the back door of the house, growling audibly, teeth bared. I made a face and raised my right hand like a school crossing guard. Mr. Loch, Harriet, and Bruce stopped short on the grass. But Merrula kept coming.

“You’d better not take another step,” I threatened.

My aunt froze and suddenly looked hurt — looked human, the way she used to look before she’d begun to find evil everywhere. It was almost as if, for just a moment, she saw that evil existed more in her own mind than in the world.

I never felt a single pinpoint of coolness touch my hands or face, so I didn’t realize it had begun to rain until I saw the dots of wetness spreading on the paper lily stuck into the old woman’s hat.

“Mrs. Rhinosos, would you like to come to the christening?”

Faded green eyes of another place and time she turned on me, and said, in a child’s voice, “Ah yes, Alex, I’d like very much.”

Mrs. Rhinosos began pressing her black witchy shoes into the grass, rocking the chair gently back and forth, never allowing her eyes to move away from the baby’s face. Watching intently, my family, flat-footed on the hardscrabble lawn, didn’t speak, didn’t stir. Not until a figure in a dark blue shirt and trousers emerged from the back door, Gwendolyn right on his heels; his eyes were sharp, hers were wild. Fleetingly I mistook him for a man of the cloth, but then I noticed that the heel of his hand was resting on the gun in his holster. This time I raised both arms high and frantically waved them off. The officer stopped, but Gwen pushed past him, forcing me to intercept her midway across the lawn by wrapping my arms around her waist. Though she kept wriggling to break loose, I managed to hold on to her long enough to allow my son to remain in Mrs. Rhinosos’s wrinkled arms a minute longer: After all, in the wider scheme of the universe, the baby was as much hers as ours.

Copyright © 2009 Tom Tolnay

The Same as She Always Was

by  Keith McCarthy

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Keith McCarthy, a pathologist himself by trade, debuted a fictional series starring British forensic pathologist John Eisenmenger in 2003. The books, in the same vein as Patricia Cornwell’s forensic thrillers, have received strong reviews (though they’re not, PW  warned, for those with weak stomachs!). After a break for a nonfiction book, the author has just delivered the seventh Eisenmenger novel, Corpus Delicti , which Severn House will publish in late 2009.

* * * *

I am the same as I always was. 

I am the same as I always was. 

Acts do not change us. Acts spring from what we are, and what we believe, and perhaps most important of all, what we desire. I am still the Gilly I was on the first day I met Greg, as I was on the day that he left me, as I was on the day that the police came to call. 

It was Greg who changed, not me, Greg who altered the bargain, who changed the rules, who ripped up the contract. Greg who stole my life from me without even realising it. 

I still love Greg and I always will, until the day I die. 

The rain comes suddenly but not unexpectedly. When Greg and Gilly set out on their walk from the pub in the Forest of Dean where they are staying for the weekend, the wind was blustering and clouds, fluffy and bright, moved briskly before it, casting huge, traveling shadows on the land around them. He said to her then that he thought it would rain and she said, “Maybe, but let’s go anyway.”

Gilly loves walking. When Greg first met her, eleven years ago, it was on a walk, one for a breast-cancer charity, because her mother had died of the disease and because his mother had had a cancerous lump but was cured. She has vividly red hair and freckles and Greg has loved her from the first moment he saw her.

“We should take waterproofs.”

“Why?” she asks. “If there’s a shower, we’ll find some shelter somewhere; wait for it to stop.”

“If it does stop.”

She laughs. “So what if it doesn’t? We’ve nowhere else to go, nothing to be late for.”

And so they set out, walking through the lush green valley, beside dry stone walls, past pretty cottages and copses and fields of potatoes, corn, and grass. They have not been here since their honeymoon and the smells, the sights, the tastes bring back that time, reminding them of just how much they need the relaxation and respite from the stresses of their oh-so-busy lives.

Especially now.

A marriage is a pact. Everyone knows that, don’t they? And a pact involves sharing and pooling, giving and taking, so that something is created, something that exists that had no existence before. Gestalt. A third entity that is part man, part woman, but most important of all, part neither of them. A creation that is every bit as real as a work of art, or an invention... 

Or a child. 

They have come because they need to escape their troubles. They know that a week in the Forest of Dean will be only a temporary respite, but they also hope that it will allow them to see each other anew, to regain something that they both know (without saying as much) they have lost and, more importantly, that their relationship has lost.

Recent times have been hard.

Greg’s IT consultancy has been going through a difficult phase and he has had to lay off all but one of the eight people he once employed; he has hopes to gain a new contract from a national retail distribution company but fears that he is too close to the horizon of financial breakdown, the point beyond which no business returns.

And Gilly...

Poor Gilly has just terminated a pregnancy. She is thirty-eight now and she fears that she has made the wrong decision.

Who can blame her?

Three miscarriages preceded this pregnancy, one of which was at eighteen weeks and therefore the worst; she had dared then to hope that she might gain her prize.

The only prize that she has ever really wanted.

When did I realize that a child was all I ever desired? 

How odd it feels, to have longed for something for so long, yet not to have known it, not until recently. When I was young, I played with my dolls and teddies, yet I did not consciously appreciate that this was all that I wanted; when I was a teenager, I had boyfriends but not, I am sure, because I saw them as a means to motherhood. Yet now I know that that was precisely my reasoning. 

It frightens me, this recognition that I am driven, that I always have been driven, that perhaps all my decisions in life were guided by an imperative over which I have had no control, that was wired into me, whether by fate or blind chance. 

Or God. 

After forty-five minutes, when they have just stopped to admire two ponies in a field, he asks her, “Are you all right?”

She looks up at him and smiles. “Oh yes.”

This starts off fine but ends with a catch in her throat. She looks quickly away, back to the ponies.

“Hey,” he says gently, tapping her on the shoulder.

A nod. Shoulders hunched and a nod that is tensely sprung. She does not look at him.


He puts his arm around her shoulders, grasps the soft blue cashmere, squeezes them gently, lowers his face to be level with hers. Another quick nod, but this time with a sniff; still no words.

The ponies are skittish, kicking and suddenly galloping in short spurts. Perhaps they sense the coming rain.

Greg says quietly, in her ear, “You did the right thing.”

For a moment, she continues to stare fixedly at the ponies, but the sniffs come more and more quickly until she suddenly begins to cry continuously. Another squeeze of her shoulders and she turns to him and buries her face in his thick woollen jumper; she smells his eau de Cologne, the one she gave him for their first Christmas and that he still says he likes.

“We couldn’t have coped.” He is so calm, so reassuring, so certain.


“We both agreed, didn’t we? Do you remember, Gilly? How we agreed?”

Face still buried in his sweater, still trying to burrow into him, to hide from her grief, she nods slowly and only after hesitation. He is holding her tightly, but she draws comfort from it. He says, “You’re not strong enough on your own. You would have needed me, and at this moment, with things so difficult, I couldn’t have given you the support and  got the business going again.”

There is no nod this time. She withdraws slightly, looks up into his face where she has always found so much security. “I didn’t realise that it would be so horrible.”

He holds her face in his hands, smears tears with his thumbs. “I know, I know,” he whispers, although she wonders just how  he can know. “In a few years, when we can more easily afford it, when we’re more established.”

“But I’m getting old. What if I can’t have any more?”

A laugh, one that tells her she is being silly, that of course she will have more.

“You will,” he says. There is something of command about this but it is couched in the softest, most gentle of tones. “These days, no one is too old.”

It is flippant, almost insulting. The easy response to the unimportant fears of a subordinate.

“I knew that it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t think it would be this hard...”

For a moment he does not speak, then, “You’re too close to it, Gilly. It was only a month and a half ago. By the time Christmas comes, you’ll be able to think logically. You’ll see then that it was all for the best.”

And this makes her realise that he does not understand at all, that he had  thought it was easy, that he still  thinks it is. A light anaesthetic, a short sleep, and — hey presto! — no more problem.

Yet six weeks on, she still feels dirty, filled with sin, tainted by guilt.

She says, “I hope so.” But she is thinking through his words, his tone, the thoughts that must lie behind them.

A smile, and what he presumably believes is a warm laugh, as he replies, “You’ll get over it, Gilly. This will help. You’ll see.”

And then he kisses her and holds her again for a long, long time.

“Okay?” he asks.

She says that, yes, she is, because she can see that this is what he wants her to say.

They continue on their walk.

Greg rescued me. 

That sounds like an overstatement — hyperbole, I believe they call it — but that is what I always believed. 

My mother had died after a long illness and I thought that I was coping by being busy and by helping Dad come to terms with the situation, and by jumping into charity work. Except that I wasn’t. I was fading, day by day, good deed by good deed, and I was completely ignorant of it all. 

Greg gave me back a skyline, something to aim for, a concept that there was an outside world as well as the place where I lived. 

I just wish I thought that he knew what he was doing. 

I’m afraid, you see, that he did not perform any of his chivalrous acts consciously, that he has always been blithely unaware — if not uncaring — of what he did. 

Which is fine, I thought at first. 

After all, most good in this world is done unconsciously, as an unintended byproduct of acts performed for different, perhaps selfish, reasons. 

Oh dear. 

I wish I hadn’t said that. 

They are staying in an old coaching inn. The bed is fairly comfortable, although Greg complains that the mattress is too soft and giving him backache.

They have not made love for six months.

The meals are hearty, with far too much on the plate; the puddings are straight out of Gilly’s childhood, gorgeous, fat-filled sweetnesses that steam and beckon the diner with siren sighs.

Gilly is not really hungry.

It is a friendly pub, with a husky, deep-voiced landlady and low beams and the scents of scenes still remembered.

Gilly suspects that Greg is having an affair.

The first drops come after two hours. They are large drops, cold but not startlingly so. Greg looks up into the sky, his prominent nose and Adam’s apple silhouetted against the sky in which the clouds are now grey but still bright. He looks at Gilly. She has fully recovered, is back to a young, professional woman on a short break.

“I think it’s going to be heavy,” he says. There have been occasional mild flurries of rain, but this is different; the wind has got up and there is a slight chilled dampness around them.

They are in the middle of a small hump-backed bridge that crosses a fast-running stream that cuts deeply into a gully. Greg is leading because Greg always leads and Gilly is happy with that. She loves him, after all.

She looks around, points. “There’s an old cottage over there. Why don’t we shelter there?” It is some distance away, through some overgrown woods; it looks deserted, almost a ruin, but the roof appears to be intact.

He nods, holds out his hand for her, then they run together over the bridge and to their right, off the single-track road and into the woods. The rain becomes harder, the noise of its attack louder. By the time they reach the cottage, it is surprisingly torrential and they are very, very wet.

How did I know that he no longer loved me? 

This question torments me. 

If I could answer it, I would be so much happier, so much more contented, but contentment is a rare commodity, worth killing for, perhaps. I would be happy because then I would be certain in my mind, and uncertainty is killing me. 

But it is not to be. Certainty is second only to contentment in scarcity. 

Yet, without a doubt, I knew that he had a lover. 

It was like something seen out of the corner of my eye, a dancing spectre that teased me by leaping away as I turned my head to catch it. 

But that did not mean that it does not exist. 

The knowledge was there in his smile, his kiss, his kindnesses. 

All I lacked was proof. 

But I still loved him. I will always love him. He had his faults, but so do I. I thought to learn to live with it. 

Because I love him. 

The cottage had once been whitewashed, was now flaking. The faded blue front door is half off its hinges, the windows without glass. There are the remains of a garden, with a path in front of it.

There is even a well.

Breathless from the exertion, Greg says, “The gingerbread’s fallen off.”

Gilly laughs. “I hope the witch has gone, too.”

Greg looks around. There is no hallway and they are standing in the sitting room. There is no furniture and leaves are piled in the corners. The ceiling is low and beams cross it.

“It would have been a nice house, once.”

“I guess.”

He is taking in every detail, examining it, almost as an architect might, seeing possibilities in the decay. “We could live here,” he says, but he does not say it loudly, although she hears it.

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“I couldn’t.”

He looks around and the thing that she sees is a good-humoured smile. “It’s wonderful! What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s small and pokey and probably subsiding and almost certainly damp. And it’s nowhere near anywhere.”

He laughs. “But it’s charming, too.”

“I don’t want to live in charming, Greg. I want to live in convenient, warm, spacious, and cheap.”

A shrug of the shoulders. “You can’t have everything.”

“And what about work, Greg? We’re in the middle of nowhere here.”

“You know that I can do most things remotely. If I arranged matters properly, I would only need to be in the office one day a week.”

“Does that send the right message? I mean, does that tell your clients that you’re completely committed?”

He becomes angry. “My clients understand that commitment is nothing at all to do with sitting in a box in a city.”

Wondering why he is so defensive, she backs away, changes the subject. “What about children? I’m not sure that this would be a particularly suitable place to raise a family.”

At once he says, “Maybe not.”

And she is puzzled. Such acquiescence is unusual for Greg. He likes to win arguments.

“I didn’t know that you wanted to move.”

“I was just thinking.”

“If you’re not happy where we are, we can start to look around.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“If you’d said something...”

“I said, it doesn’t matter.” His tone is abrupt, annoyed, and she is forced into timid silence.

Gilly thinks that she has come to terms with Greg’s infidelity. She believes that love will overcome everything and that whatever his reasons for the affair, love is not one of them. She fears that she has failed him in some way, that this is a message to her to improve. Her logic starts from the premise that he loves her; if he loves her, then he must need something more, or something different, from a relationship than he gets from her. All she needs to do is find what that thing is and supply it.

She has gone through in her mind everything that seems to her to be likely, but cannot think of anything. She is certain that he enjoys the sex, that her cooking and housekeeping are of a reasonable standard. The only thing that she wonders about is the number of rows that they have had in recent months, and she has made a conscious decision to be less confrontational. This is hard for her, for she is by nature combative, but she calculates that it is worth trying.

“I wonder why this is deserted,” he says.

“It’s probably unsafe,” says Gilly.

Greg has begun to explore, examining recesses and alcoves; when he moves out of the sitting room into the darkness beyond she says, “Be careful, Greg.”

“I will.” He says this with marked irritation chiselled into the words and she bites down on her own annoyance at his retort because she thinks that perhaps she is being too maternal towards him..

She waits nervously, glancing around her and then back to the corridor down which he has disappeared.


His voice comes back from the dimness, replete now with a hinted reverberation, “I’m fine.” The reverberation does not disguise the tone.

She looks around again.

There is something pink on the dirty floorboards. It seems hard and out of place and she succumbs to her curiosity.

It is the leg of a doll.

A child. 

My God! A child. 

“Gilly! Gilly!”

At once, she is so scared that she drops it. Her breath is caught, her eyes are wide. She turns back to the darkness of the corridor down which Greg had walked.

Gilly does not know it, but she has had a nervous breakdown.

“Greg? Greg? What is it?” She walks forward but stops at the threshold to the darkness beyond. “Are you all right?” she calls into the heart of the house.

“Come and look at this. Out the back.” His voice is some way off, a slight echo its handmaiden.

“Is it safe?”

“If you’re careful.”

How typical of a man , she thinks as she gingerly picks her way down the corridor.

The plaster has fallen in patches, exposing rotten wooden battens; the floorboards are a landscape of dirt, leaves, rubble, and shapes that she cannot recognise but fears are rat droppings.

“Which way?” she calls tentatively.

“The hall turns right and leads into the kitchen. I’m out the back.”

As she moves forward, she makes out light coming from the right and she can also hear a rushing sound. As she turns the corner, she sees that light is coming through a doorway from grimy windows.

The kitchen is as laden with melancholy and decay as the rest of the house. A range cooker stands resolutely to her left and a butler sink accompanies it. The only other occupant of this space is a single half-glazed cupboard, bowed by age and oblivion, staring blearily at its companions from the opposite wall.

Ahead of her are the windows, some of them broken, and a door to the outside. The rushing sound is louder now.


But the rushing sound is too loud and she has to repeat herself.


She barely hears this word.

What is that noise? 

When she moves outside, her question is answered.

The stream over which they had crossed now passed below her into a narrow, man-made gully. She steps out onto a rickety wooden balcony about fifteen feet above the crashing water and to her left is a huge waterwheel. Greg is on the balcony by the wheel; he is beckoning her excitedly. Rain falls steadily, but the balcony is overhung by a sloping roof; bright sparkling drops of water hang and then fall from its edge.

“Isn’t this fantastic?” he calls.

She certainly finds it exhilarating — the sound is loud, her position is high, and the woodland around her is dense and green and beautiful — but she also finds it unsettling. The balcony on which she is standing seems to be dangerously fragile. Below her, the water moves from rain-specked flow to turbulent chaos as it passes through and under the wheel.

“Is it safe?” She has to raise her voice because of the white noise from below.

“I think so. Take it carefully, though.”

“You are joking...”

“You’ll be fine.”

She moves forward gingerly, feels some give but is reassured that it seems to hold. Just to be safe she clings to the wooden railing that runs along the length of the walkway.

“It’s incredible. Who’d have thought it?”

The wheel is about fifteen feet in diameter and reaches to about the level of their knees. It is in need of much repair and does not move despite the water rushing past it.

“I wonder what it’s for,” she says.

Greg leans over the balcony, scares Gilly. “The axle goes into the side of the house beneath us. There must be some milling equipment down in the basement.”

“Be careful.”

He straightens up, looks across at her, and smiles. “It’s perfectly safe,” he says. To demonstrate this he wobbles the railing, making her gasp slightly, eyes widening. This is typical of him, playing the macho man, trying to scare her.

“Don’t,” she pleads, making him laugh.

Turning back to the wheel, he says, “I can’t work out why it isn’t turning. It must be stuck. Probably silted up or something.”

This is amazing! 

Gilly is, for the moment, transported. The idea that she does not want to live here is suddenly absurd; this place is a paradise. Greg is right; of course, they must live here, deep in nowhere, surrounded by memories of things that perhaps never happened, enchanted and entranced.

Greg’s phone rings. Although the noise is almost swamped by the water’s rush, Gilly hears it.

She watches him reach into the breast pocket of his shirt, hardly look at the phone as he presses with his thumb, raises it to his ear.

She walks towards him, feeling the balcony giving slightly beneath her feet despite the fact that she is petite and light-footed.

Who’s ringing? 

Greg answers the call.


A brief pause.

“Oh, hi...”

He glances up at her as he turns slightly away, takes a step back.

But then there is a crack, for he has not noticed that the wood where he stands has rotted because when the wheel worked the water splashed for decades against the underside of the balcony. He falls through with a scream of shock. His knee is struck as he falls and he is aware of a shaft of pain that skewers into his leg...

His head strikes the side of the house.

Gilly screams.

Gilly’s head has made perfection of her life, yet her life is far from perfect and the foundations of what she has made are already cracking. She watches Greg disappear through the wooden flooring, sees the phone flip upwards out of his grasp and fall in front of her.

Please, no. Please, God, don’t do this to me. 

She rushes forward, now even more aware of the fragility of the balcony on which she treads, made fearful by the knowledge of how precarious her own position might be.

The phone is lying between two planks of the balcony, saved from falling into the water by an underlying strut, but this is barely registered.

“Greg? Greg?” She half asks this, half screams it as she approaches as close to the splintered hole as she dares, leaning forward to look down through it. What she sees makes her almost hysterical.

He is half submerged in rushing water and she can clearly see that his legs are being pulled away by the strength of the current; but the upper half of his body is caught. He has fallen onto the wheel — fallen partly through it — and is now wedged, splintered beams sticking into his abdomen just below his ribs, between the wheel and the house. The water falls and splashes around him and past him, only just missing his face.

“Greg?” she calls again.

She sees that he is dazed. He has hit his head and there is blood over the left side of his face. When he looks up, she can see that he is having trouble focussing on her.

And then the wheel moves.

I remember a curious incident. 

It was the good time, the time when I was pregnant and full of joy and expectation — and I mean, “full,” as in replete, filled to bursting, completely consumed by it. This time things had gone without a hitch and we were just awaiting the result of the choromosome analysis... 

I had lost my keys to the house and had looked everywhere. Greg’s car was a last resort — I had driven it briefly the day before to pick him up from the station when my car was at the garage — and I came across a savings statement from a foreign bank, one I’d never heard of. It was in the glove box, under some travel sweets. 

It said that Greg had saved twenty-six thousand pounds. 

I asked him, of course. What wife (or husband) woudn’t? 

He said that it was a tax avoidance scheme, a bolt-hole for money from the business. Not strictly legal, he said, but everyone did it. 

He was perfectly natural, perfectly convincing. 

I believed him. 

“Gilly?” She hears the terror in his voice as he comes to full realisation of where he is.

“Greg! Are you all right?”

It is a stupid question.

“It hurts, Gilly.”

He is only two meters from her, but they are meters that stretch to infinity. His voice echoes and the noise of the water is loud and insistent and menacing. Above all this, she can still hear his panic, his pain, his terror.

Gilly can see that he has fallen onto the wheel, partly broken it, and then come to rest in the narrow gap beside the sheer drop of the house wall. She sees also that his fall has loosened the wheel, that it is creaking faintly against the rush of the water, that it will soon start to turn and drag him under the water.

The creaking is getting louder.

Turning away from the wheel she looks around, searching for something to stop the wheel beginning to turn, without any ideas as to how she might achieve this. She sees a splintered plank, grabs it, but it is caught by nails at one end.

The wheel moves and she hears Greg scream.

Spurred by terror, she finally wrenches it free, then thrusts it down into the hole that Greg has fallen through. It is just long enough — but only just — to reach down between the spokes of the wheel and stop it turning.

The day they were given the results of the chromosome analysis has not faded into the past but lives with Gilly and always will. The events of the day — the emotions, the things seen and glimpsed, the sounds heard, and the places visited — revolve around a single discovery like dancers around a maypole, are tied to it for all of her eternity.

The obstetrician was very kind and very calm, the nurse with him even more so, but that counted as nothing when the implications of what he said burst into molten pain within her. The baby had Down’s syndrome, probably severely so.

Greg had been with her, had held her hand, but all human contact was detached from her existence at that moment.

The clock on the wall behind the obstetrician’s wiry grey hair had said that it was seventeen minutes past eleven; the calendar on his desk had said that it was the sixth of June.


The rain has begun again, adding to the noise. She peers down at him, now on her hands and kness.

“Help me, Gilly.”

But the futility of this request is obvious. He is beyond her reach.

“I’ll have to get help.”

“It hurts when I breathe. And my leg... I think it’s broken.”

“Don’t worry... I’ll run and get someone.”

But this only induces panic in him. “No! No! Don’t leave me, Gilly.”

“I’ve got to, Greg...”

“What if the wheel turns again? It’ll pull me under.”

“But I can’t do anything on my own...”

It is then that the mobile phone rings. At once she thinks, Of course! I’ll phone for help.  At the same time, she wonders who is calling him, who called him not five minutes before.

She looks at the screen.


She does not know anyone called “Nikki”; she does not know that Greg knows anyone called “Nikki”

It is a curiously intimate name, full of suggestion.

She knows then that it is the name of his lover.

She presses the red button, the one that cuts off the connection, sees a movement out of the corner of her eye, and looks around to see a small girl standing just behind her. She jumps in shock.

Greg sees Gilly’s head disappear from his view above.


The child has Down’s syndrome — severely so. She does not speak, does not even react beyond a smile on her face that is part beatific, part eerie; the look in her eyes is unfocussed, as if she does not see Gilly but far beyond her.

Gilly tries a smile; a friendly one, a gentle one. “Hello. What’s your name?”

No reaction; neither response nor movement.

Greg’s voice comes from below a second time, this time more urgent, more panicked, and almost angry.

Gilly turns back to him and calls down, “It’s all right, Greg. There’s...”

But as she turns back to the girl, she sees nothing there. There is no child, no sign that there ever was.

“What is it?” Greg is demanding, like a child himself.

Gilly has stood up, is looking all around her — through the windows of the mill, over on the other side of the fast-flowing stream. Nothing.

“Gilly, for God’s sake...”

At last she turns back to him but she is still confused, wondering.

He calls, “Will you get me out of here?”

She remembers the phone, bends to pick it up, but this time her head is filled with thoughts beyond Greg’s predicament.

Would my child have looked like that? 

I was going to call her Belle... 

She wasn’t ugly, not ugly at all... 

I could have loved her... 

Gilly has suppressed from her memory the fact that she was sexually assaulted as a seven-year-old girl by an uncle, a brother of her now dead mother. She has suppressed this, but it lurks there, not dead, not even dormant, just stealthy.

It has poisoned her, turned her.

She believes that she is still essentially innocent.

But she is not.

Virginity, both sexual and moral, went long ago, stolen from her, and the only thing between Gilly and depravity is the construct she has made of her life, the one that she has built on a foundation of a lie.

Gilly does not carry a mobile phone, does not want the leash that it represents.

She called him. 

Now, this week of all weeks, she called him. Couldn’t she let me have him to myself for just a week? 

She looks at the phone. She is familiar enough with it to work her way through the menus.

She hears Greg call again. “Gilly? What’s happening?”

Without looking down at him she replies, “I’m phoning, Greg.”

She comes across the call log, is about to call back the last number received (although she does not know why), but then she hears, quite distinctly, a child’s voice in her head; although she never heard the little girl speak, it carries with it certainty that the voice is hers. Nor does it come in words, only knowledge.

Gilly opts to look at the messages received.

The rain is falling hard now. The stream is rushing and there is a single but deeply menacing creak as the plank of wood that juts through the hole moves slightly.


Some are from her, some are from strangers, but most are from “Nikki.”

The ones from Nikki are graphic, sexual, illuminating. As Gilly reads them, moving backwards in time through the past few days, then weeks, she comes to appreciate just how little she has known about Greg’s life, about his thoughts, about his wishes for the future. She sees that Greg has gone elsewhere not just to complement something in his life that she is not supplying, that he has gone there for a completely different experience.

She is stunned.

The man with whom she has shared her pleasures and pains has been an actor. There is a facet to him that he has hidden from her, one that, now exposed, casts him as a liar, as contemptuous of her gullibility, as mocking of her sexual timidity.

This epiphany is a light in her head, but one that burns as bright as laser light, one that destroys as it enlightens. It cracks the entire edifice of her life, the beliefs that she has been in the possession of “truth.” It allows the evil that she went through as a child, that has adulterated her, to rise up and embrace her completely. It floods into the cracks in her mind and splinters it, making razor-sharp shards with which to wound.

It spreads through her and throws shadows in places that once were lit, lights crevices and thereby allows her to see the monsters that lurk within.

She reassesses his actions and words of the past weeks and months, but there is worse to come...

“Where are you, Gilly?”

Gilly’s head appears in the hole above him. “Here I am, dear.”

“What’s happening?”

She smiles. He is very, very cold; this helps the pain but dulls his thoughts. He can see that her attitude is somehow wrong, but he cannot bring his sluggish thoughts to wonder why. She says, “I’m sorting things out.”

“Hurry up... please.”

“It won’t be long.”

Another creak from the wheel.

He said, “We could live here.” 

He wasn’t talking to me, but to himself. 

Was he also talking to his girlfriend...? 

And the money... 

How far have your plans gone, Greg? How close are you to leaving me? 

Gilly is starting to feel strange. Her head is filling with all sorts of ideas and possibilities that have sprung into febrile activity, that scurry from corner to corner, feeding on all that has been done to her. She makes a last effort to control them, to counter the dizzying revolution in her mind.

She glances back at the phone, sees for the first time a time and date. It is from Nikki and it is full of anticipation, apparently agreeing to meet him that afternoon.

It is dated the sixth of June and it was sent at five minutes to two in the afternoon.

It would all have been different if we could have had children. Perhaps that is what the problem was, the reason for his infidelity; I have not been able to give him children, could only promise him a handicapped baby... 

This attempt is futile; worse, it is the fuel that causes the smouldering to erupt into conflagration.


I’m being so stupid, so trusting, so blind. 

He never wanted children. Not really. He was lukewarm about the idea, at best. He saw it as something to give to me, to shut me up. It probably would have suited him to give me a baby to look after; it would have been a distraction for me, while he bedded “Nikki,” pleasured her as she desired... 

No, no, no! 

God, how could I be so stupid? 

He doesn’t want me to have children! They would only complicate matters for him, make leaving me more problematic... more expensive. His twenty-six thousand pounds wouldn’t go too far then... 

This serpent of thought is now alive and feeding hungrily. Within seconds it is all that there is in her soul.

He made me abort Belle. He said that it was for the best, but whose best? 

He made me murder her. 

She might have been beautiful, like that little girl. Sweet and passive and somehow luminous in her innocence. 

All so that his life would be easier, so that he could screw around. 

He will say that he is leaving me because he wants children and I haven’t given him any. 

Gilly looks down at the phone, decides that it is time to call for help.

There is yet another creak from the wheel.

Gilly looks down at Greg. He is only half conscious.

“Greg?” she calls.

He responds slowly, first of all looking around, only raising his eyes after a while. His face contains pain, his voice is husky, as if he has phlegm in his throat.


 I’ve rung for help.”

“Thank God...”

“She may take some time to get here.”

He does not realise what she has said for a few seconds.

“She? Who do you mean?”

Gilly smiles.


She enjoys the look on his face, savours it for a moment, then in a single movement grasps the plank of wood that is jamming the wheel.

“I hope she’s in time,” she says.

She pulls the plank free and the wheel at once begins to turn. Greg screams, but it is a very short scream, ended abruptly as he is taken beneath the water and then wedged against the bed of the stream.

As Gilly walks out of the cottage she sees the little girl again. She is sitting on the wall of the bridge talking to a woman. The woman is laughing and joking with her, clearly her mother.

Gilly walks across to them to experience their shared pleasure.

I will have a child one day. I will be free of this curse. 

I am the same as I always was. 

I am the same as I always was. 

Copyright © 2009 Keith McCarthy


by  John Harvey

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John Harvey’s 100th work in print, the novel Far Cry  , was released in spring of 2009 to critical acclaim. The book features Will Grayson and Helen Walker, the Cambridgeshire-based police detectives from his 2008 novel Gone to Ground . In June, 2009, the Nottingham-based publisher Five Leaves brought out a small-format, hardcover, limited-edition collection of Harvey stories called Minor Key . Included are four previously uncollected stories featuring his famous series character Resnick.

It was mid morning, and Kiley was in his office two floors above a charity shop in Tufnell Park, stranded between his second cup of coffee and his third. Investigations,  read the ad in the local press, Private and Confidential. All kinds of security work undertaken. Ex-Metropolitan Police.  The absence of carpet made it easier to hear footsteps on the stairs. A pause and then a knock.

She was late-thirties, dressed ten years younger, and looked all of forty-five, with the eyes of someone who woke up every day expecting to be disappointed and was rarely, if ever, disabused.

“Jack Kiley? Rita Barnes.”

Her hand was all cheap rings and bone.

Kiley knew the name and a moment later he knew why.

“Bradford Barnes, he was my son.”

The flowers had spread across the pavement close to the spot less than a hundred meters away where he’d been killed; tiny candles had burned through the night. Photographs and messages taped to the wall. Always remembered. A tragic waste. Bradford had been on the way home from a party, not late, a little after twelve, and had inadvertently brushed the shoulder of a young woman heading the other way. When he’d stopped to apologise, one of the men with her had raised his voice and then his fist. Punches flew and then a knife. When the group sauntered off laughing, they left Bradford where he lay. A still-warm statistic, choking on his own blood. The twenty-second young person to have been stabbed to death in the capital that year and still months to go. Gang stuff, drug deals gone sour; the wrong look, the wrong word, the wrong place at the wrong time. Respect.

“I remember,” Kiley said.

The flowers had long since faded and been swept away; the photographs torn down.

“A year ago next week he was killed,” Rita Barnes said, “three days short of his birthday, an’ the police still in’t got a bloody clue.”

She took an envelope from her bag and counted the notes out on his desk. “There’s two hundred and fifty. I’ll get more. Find the bastard as did it, okay?”

What was he supposed to say? It was a waste of his time and her money?

Well, he had the time.

When she’d gone, he put in a call to a DI he knew at the local nick. Jackie Ferris met him in the back room of The Assembly House, its dark wood panelling and ornamented windows harking back to palmier days.

“Not got a clue, that’s what she says?” Still on duty, Ferris was drinking lemon and lime.

“She’s wrong?”

“We’ve had more than a clue since day one. Jason Means. It was his girlfriend Barnes bumped into. He’s got form and a mouth to go with it, but forensics didn’t give us shit and, surprise, surprise, no one’s talking. Least, not to us.” Ferris raised her glass. “You might have more luck.”

Rachel Sams lived on the seventh floor of an eight-floor block close to the closed-down swimming pool on Prince of Wales Road. Three of the flats on her level were boarded up and padlocked fast. The first two occasions Kiley called, she refused to open the door and then, when she did, it was only to slam it in his face. It took a fierce squall of rain — Rachel hunched against the wind as she maneuvered a buggy laden with supermarket carrier bags and containing a wailing two-year-old — for Kiley to open negotiations.

“Here, let me help.”

“Piss off!”

But she stood back while, after freeing the bags and handing them to her, he lifted the buggy and led the way.

Kiley followed her into the flat and, when she didn’t complain, closed the door behind him. The interior was dominated by a wide-screen plasma TV, the furniture, most of it, third- or fourth-hand. Toys were scattered here and there across the floor. While Rachel changed the child’s nappy, Kiley found a jar of instant coffee in the kitchen.

They sat at either end of the sagging settee while the boy piled wooden bricks on top of one another, knocked them down with a loud whoop, and started again.

“Darren, for Christ’s sake.”

“He’s Jason Means’ boy?” Kiley said.

“What of it?”

“Jason see him much?”

“When he can be bothered.”

“Bradford Barnes’ mother came to see me, a week or so back.”


“She wants to know what happened to her son.”

“She buried him, didn’t she? What else she wanna know?”

“She wants to know who killed him.Wants some kind of — I don’t know — justice, I suppose.”

“Yeah, well, she ain’t gonna find it here.”

Kiley held her gaze until she looked away.

After that he called round every week or so, sometimes bringing a small present for the boy.

“Listen,” Rachel said, “if you reckon this is gonna get you into my knickers...”

But, stuck up there on the seventh floor, she didn’t seem overburdened with friends and now, as soon as he arrived, Darren scrambled up into his lap and happily pulled his hair. Kiley hadn’t mentioned Bradford Barnes again.

Ten days short of Christmas, the sky a low, flat, unpromising grey, he got round to the flat to find Rachel hurling bits and pieces over the balc

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ony, tears streaming down her face.

“That bastard! That lousy bastard!”

Kiley tried to calm her down and she lashed out, drawing blood from his lip. When he finally got her back inside, she was still shaking; Darren cowering in the corner afraid.

“One of my mates rung an’ told me, he’s only gettin’ married, i’n it? To that skanky whore from down Stockwell. Saw it in Facebook or somethin’.” Picking up a half-empty mug, she hurled it against the wall. “Well, he’s gonna learn he can’t treat me like that, i’n he? He’s gonna pay.”

Kiley listened while she told him what had happened that night, how Jason Means had stabbed Bradford Barnes three times, once in the neck and twice in the chest, and then walked off laughing. He phoned Jackie Ferris and listened while Rachel told her story again, then promised to look after Darren while the two of them went to the station so that Rachel could make a statement.

Three days later, Jason Means was arrested.

Rita Barnes had tears in her eyes when she came to thank him and ask what more she owed him and Kiley said to forget it, it was fine. He would have given the two-fifty back if it hadn’t been for a little matter of paying the rent.

“You’re sure?”


She kissed him on the cheek.

That night, Kiley walked past the spot where Bradford Barnes had been killed. If you looked closely, you could just make out the marks where the photos had been taped, a young man smiling out, his life ahead of him, ghosts on the wall.

Copyright © 2009 John Harvey

Return to Sender

by  Val Davis

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Husband and wife writing team Robert and Angie Irvine pair up here for a classical mystery. More often, they use their joint pseudonym, Val Davis, for thriller novels such as Track of the Scorpion  and Flight of the Serpent.  Both Robert and Angie, who each also write separately, made their fiction debuts in EQMM’s  Department of First, in 1973 and 1992, respectively.

* * * *

The pigeonhole was stuffed. Bunny eyed the pigeon, her private name for postal boxes, with disfavor. It was cram-med so full that there was hardly room for the “box full” notice that she painfully managed to slip between a copy of Arts and Antiques  and a catalogue from The Sharper Image. The pigeon’s owner, Don Rogers, was a collector of almost anything and everything, from crystal chandeliers to real estate, and often neglected his box, to the inconvenience of postal workers like Bunny Booker, who would have to search out his excess mail when he came calling at his leisure.

She moved on to the next box and stopped. She ran a finger lovingly over the empty pigeonhole. It was her way of saying goodbye to an old friend. Reverently she sealed the pigeon. It would remain empty until a new resident applied for mail service in town.

Bunny sighed. In the nearly thirty years that she had worked for the post office in Carmel-by-the-Sea, each pigeonhole had become something like a friend. True, some she knew better than others. Some she knew not at all. But over the years she’d come to know hundreds of people, if not thousands. All because she diligently examined each piece of mail.

Because there were no street numbers in the town, the post office had more than seven thousand pigeonholes, each one representing a resident of Carmel and its environs, each protected by an ornate brass door, three inches by six, with a double-dial combination lock, as old as its old-fashioned look. Outsiders had boxes, too. Outsiders, by Bunny’s reckoning, were all those people who could prove some association with the coveted 93921 ZIP code, either by owning property or a place of business. They might claim the address, but they didn’t actually live in the one square mile that defined the town.

The sealed pigeon, number 7412, had belonged to the widowed Winnetta Belnap, whom Bunny had known since Sunset Grade School. Winnie, or Pooh, as Bunny had lovingly called her, had opened her pigeon door promptly at ten each morning, six days a week. Last week, when she’d missed two days in a row, Bunny went calling. When her knock at the front door went unanswered, Bunny headed for the police station and called on Chief Del Bennett, who at the sight of her got one of his long-suffering, spaniel looks.

“What is it this time, Elmira, another Peeping Tom?”

Del Bennet was the only person in town who still called her Elmira, her given name, which he had yelled every time he’d pulled her pigtails in grammar school. He’d been two grades behind her, but big for his age and something of a bully. Everyone else called her Bunny, since she started collecting stuffed bunnies as a teenager.

“I was right the last time, wasn’t I?”

He sighed, progressing from spaniel to hound eyes. “How did you sneak into my office without an appointment?”

“How long have you known me, Delbert?” she said, her tone rebuking. “You don’t think that young buck of a desk sergeant you’ve got out there could stop me.”

“Just get to the point.”

“It’s Winnetta Belnap,” Bunny said firmly. “She hasn’t picked up her mail and she didn’t answer when I knocked on her door not five minutes ago.”

The chief perked up. Winnetta Belnap, like Bunny Booker, was no spring chicken.

“I’ll take a look while you go home and get some rest.”

He said the same thing in the squad car, and again when they arrived at Winnie’s, and all the way to the front door. When he forced his way inside, he told her to say behind, but Bunny, deaf when it suited her purposes, stayed beside him step for step. They both saw Pooh hanging there, from one of the open beams in her Comstock cottage.

That had been five days ago. Today’s paper had run Pooh’s obituary. She was a grandmother many times over, survived by four daughters, all scattered across the country. No one of modest means who hadn’t lived in Carmel for decades could afford to live there now, since coastal real estate in California was more attractive than the 1849 gold rush. Cause of death was not mentioned. But then, suicide seldom was, that being the chief’s unofficial verdict, despite Bunny’s protestations.

“How did she climb up there?” Bunny had asked.

“See this chair?” The police chief pointed to a small, armless Victorian chair that lay overturned near the body. “She climbed up on that. Everybody knows you have to use a chair to hang yourself.”

“Delbert, I’ve sat in that chair more times than I care to think of, and it’s the lowest chair in the house. Winnie was a little bitty thing. There’s no way that she could reach the rafters on that.”

“Let’s see,” the chief said, righting the chair and standing on it. The chair promptly collapsed under his weight. “Dang it, Elmira, look what you went and made me do. Now you’ve gone and made me destroy evidence. It was suicide, I tell you. Case closed.”

No fool like an old fool, Bunny had thought. Delbert had never been the brightest bulb in the firmament, not even in kindergarten.

At work, Bunny clipped Pooh’s obit and slipped it into an envelope for safekeeping. Later, she’d add it to her ever-growing scrapbook of departed friends.

How many were left now? she mused during lunch at the Little Swiss Cafe, one of the few local establishments left in the tourist-driven town. Mentally, she ticked off her childhood friends. The count was down to the fingers on one hand. The same fingers that ached most of the time. The same ailment had plagued Pooh. So how in the name of police stupidity had an arthritic old lady managed to reach up to an eight-foot-high beam and anchor a rope around it while standing on that low Victorian bridal chair?

Leaving her lunch half eaten, Bunny hurried back to the post office. There, once her work was done, she hovered near Chief Bennett’s pigeonhole, 7277, waiting for him to make his daily pickup. The moment his pigeon door opened, she leaned close and blurted, “Winnie could never have reached that beam.”

“Dammit, Elmira, you startled me.”

“She was murdered,” Bunny persisted.

“Thanks to you, we’ll never know, will we? The only piece of evidence was destroyed.”

Bunny sighed. Delbert had always blamed others for his mistakes. What annoyed Bunny so much was that sometimes he got away with it.

“Besides, nothing was touched, nothing was taken. Nobody has a motive,” the police chief continued.

“Something has to be missing.”


“I don’t know, but I sense it. Besides, at today’s prices, her house is worth a fortune.”

“Are you saying her children did it?”

“Did you hear me say that?” Perhaps some real-estate speculator, she thought, someone like Don Rogers.

“Face it, Bunny. It’s time you retired and stopped sticking your nose into other people’s business.”

Bunny bristled, since Del was only a few years younger than she. The truth was that she loved her job and couldn’t imagine ever retiring. She would have worked for nothing if need be, which would have suited Jeff Evans, the postmaster. In fact, her total absence would have suited him even better, but Bunny was an institution in Carmel. Mess with her and people would protest, form committees, circulate petitions, and make Jeff’s life miserable. She was untouchable, a sacred cow. To get rid of her would chip away at Carmel’s quaint, villagelike character. It would be the equivalent of adding ugly parking meters, neon lights, and glaring traffic signals, all no-no’s. Keep things neighborly in Carmel, that was the ticket. Leave well enough alone. She said so herself every time Jeff got uppity.

Bunny left work fuming. What was needed was old-fashioned diligence, not that Delbert was even aware of the word. She’d wait until dark. No one, if there were any full-time residents left in the neighborhood, would remark on her flashlight. There were no streetlights in the village, and its inhabitants habitually walked with flashlights at night in order to avoid breakng their necks.

Things actually did go bump in the night, Bunny realized as she tried to jimmy one of Winnie’s rear windows. Then it occurred to her that she was acting like a silly old fool. Pooh always left her back door open so neighbors could drop in for tea. True to form, Delbert had forgotten to check it.

Once inside, Bunny crept into the living room where Pooh’s body had hung. Her flashlight was only good for avoiding tree roots when walking, so she switched on the lights. Even if someone called the police, she knew all the officers by name. The worst that could happen was another scolding from the chief. Even a night in jail might prove interesting. After all, she was a member of the Ladies Club, and they sponsored a law-enforcement support group. Their annual tea was a highlight of the year, for both the ladies and the police benefit fund.

Bunny started with the desk. The papers strewn over the desktop looked like Chief Bennett had been there before her. Bunny sighed. As she looked around something tugged at her memory. Getting old was a curse, she thought, and studied the room intently.

You’re getting senile,  she told herself. Nothing looked out of place. Everything was neat and tidy except the desk and Winnie’s prolific art collection.

Bunny quickly examined the rest of the cottage. The proliferation of pictures continued through every room. Pictures on easels, some just propped against furniture, others stacked against one another. Goodness,  she thought, Pooh was even more of a collector than I am. 

Like Bunny, Pooh had favored the local artists they’d both known personally. With Pooh gone, and Kitty Evans before her, only two of their all-girl gang remained. Since high school they’d called themselves the Gang of Four. Its members were Bunny, Pooh, Kitty Evans, and Muffy Moyle. They’d thought of themselves as budding writers and artists. But the closest they’d come to the creative life was falling in love with any number of the young, handsome painters who lived locally. Most were long gone and forgotten now.

Muffy once confessed to being in love with every last one of them. Bunny had loved only one. Billy Boy, as she thought of him secretly, but he’d been married. No doubt he’d realized how she felt, because he gave her one of his seascapes, along with a kiss, the day she’d visited his castle down the coast in the Carmel Highlands. That seascape was still her most treasured possession and hung in a place of honor over her mantel. Pooh and Muffy each had one of Billy Boy’s seascapes too, but they’d had to pay. Although, if memory served, Billy had discounted the price to the point where they were almost a gift.

Since the Gang of Four had collected when local art was a bargain, their walls were covered with paintings and sketches. Not a blank space in sight. Just like Bunny’s living room, or Kitty’s — God rest her — and Muffy’s. Bunny didn’t have a vacant wall even in her bathroom. Of course, she’d been saddled with a couple of her favorite nephew’s paintings, abstracts which she would have liked to have hidden away. But his unannounced visits, as infrequent as they were, made that impossible.

“Fool,” Bunny muttered. “You’re nothing but an old lady imagining things. Bumps in the night, for heaven’s sake.”

She took one last look. Soon, Pooh’s children would descend, squabble over the best pieces of furniture, send the rest off to Goodwill, and put the cottage on the market. Then it would be gobbled up by a contractor, torn down, developed into an oversized house on the tiny Carmel lot, and sold to outsiders, who’d use it as a multimillion-dollar weekender, neighbors to nobody. Of course, they would be shunned by the Old Guard,  as Bunny thought of those who’d been born and raised locally, like herself and Muffy Moyle.

Bunny left the same way she’d come in, by the back door. Sergeant Herb Watson, second in command of Carmel’s police department, was waiting for her out front.

“We got a call that someone was inside,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

Bunny’s heart swelled. At least there were still some concerned neighbors in residence. She straightened her back and said, “Herbert, how long have I known you?”

Too long,  he thought, and said, “Since middle school.”

“Since you were this high.” She held her hand at the three-year-old level.

He ground his teeth.

“She couldn’t have hanged herself,” she said. “You know that as well as I do.”

“I know what the chief tells me,” he said, hoping to deflect her condemning stare, which had been intimidating him for years.

“What about Kitty Evans?” Bunny went on. “I’ve been thinking on her this past month, ever since she died. In light of what happened to Winnie, I’m thinking Kitty’s death was suspicious too.”

“It was natural causes. A heart attack. Read the police report if you don’t believe me.”

“There was no autopsy?”

“You’ve been watching too much TV, Bunny. Now get in the car and I’ll drive you home.”

“As long as you obey the speed limit. I’ve seen how you drive when you’re in a hurry.”

The sergeant grimaced. When he got back to the station he collared the chief. “Next time,” the sergeant said, “you deal with Bunny. She scares the hell out of me.”

The chief grunted. “She’s got the mind of a criminal.”

“What does that mean?”

“To start with, she knows just about everybody in this town, and everybody’s business.”

“With that kind of knowledge she’s the one who could get away with murder.”

“Yeah, it makes you think, don’t it,” the chief said, mangling his grammar just to annoy Bunny, who wasn’t even there.

The next day Bunny caught Mattie Breen peering forlornly through her pigeonhole, number 6850.

“Sorry, dear,” Bunny said, “nothing but bills today.”

Mattie had been waiting months for a special letter. “Probably it will come certified,” Mattie had confided on a number of occasions. Her Nob Hill aunt up in San Francisco had died awhile back, promising Mattie an inheritance.

Bunny always nodded sympathetically.

“You’re a wonder,” Mattie said. “And I’m not the only one to think that. You’re everyone’s Bunny, that’s for sure.”

Bunny smiled. She’d been listening to people’s troubles for so long, they confided in her as if she were their confessor. Old-timers and shut-ins baked her cakes and cookies, which she shared with her post-office cohorts. To do otherwise wouldn’t have been right. Their confidences she kept as safely as if she really were a priest.

Twenty years ago Mattie had come to town as a young woman right out of library school. She’d been working at the library ever since. All that time she’d been renting, because an unmarried librarian without a husband’s second salary couldn’t afford to buy in Carmel. Worse, her salary hadn’t kept pace with inflation over the years. Beyond worse, there’d been cutbacks at the library and stingy raises for half a decade. The town council preferred to lavish money on the Chamber of Commerce in hopes of luring more tourists for fleecing.

All this had come in confidence, of course, with Bunny crossing her heart over tea at the Tuck Box. A few months back, Mattie had disclosed the worst. The cottage she was renting was soon to go on the market. Her option to buy, as good a deal as it was, required a hefty down payment, and that depended on her aunt’s legacy.

“I’ve marked your pigeonhole with your home number,” Bunny assured her. “I’ll call you the moment anything arrives.”

There were similar markers over dozens of pigeonholes, reminders of confidences given and promises made.

“Thank you,” Mattie had murmured.

Now Bunny thought she spotted tears in Mattie’s eyes, though it was hard to be certain through the tunnel-like pigeonholes. As the door was closing, Bunny called out, “Could you meet me at the parcel-pickup window?”

“Of course.”

Bunny knew this was Mattie’s day on the reference desk, so she asked if she would be kind enough to set aside any available news clippings on Kitty Evans’s passing.

“I’d like copies for my scrapbook,” Bunny clarified, although she already had clippings from the Pine Cone  and the Herald . But she might have missed something.

Mattie fished a notebook from her bag and jotted down a reminder.

“You wouldn’t have access to any other kind of records, would you?” Bunny asked.

“Like what?”

“These days, what with the Internet, everybody’s life is an open book.”

Mattie shook her head ever so slightly, almost a reproof. “I’d ask what you’re up to, but you keep secrets like a Swiss banker.”

Bunny liked that. She liked it that people knew she’d keep their secrets. As for her own, she kept those to herself too, along with her secret fears.

One of them came true the following week. She became the sole surviving member of the Gang of Four when she found Muffy Moyle’s body in the bathtub. Like Pooh, she hadn’t picked up her mail in days.

“She’s been murdered,” she told the dispatcher when she called the police.

When he arrived, Chief Bennett’s verdict differed. “She just drowned,” he said, “and there was no one around to help.”

“Water was splashed all around the floor, there are places where it’s still damp. Go see for yourself.” Bunny pointed down the hall to the bathroom where the emergency personnel were removing the body.

“She probably felt faint or fell asleep. If any water was splashed, that was probably an automatic reaction.”

“Del, you never did have any imagination. You’ve always been a...” Bunny found no adequate description for her feelings of rage and frustration. It seemed to her that all her friends, her whole life, was slowly being stripped from her.

“If there was foul play,” the chief said, “you’re the one on the spot. If we checked for fingerprints, I’m willing to bet we’d find yours. So if you have something to confess, Elmira, now’s the time.”

But Bunny wasn’t listening. Unlike Pooh, Muffy had kept her collecting urges somewhat in control. Billy Boy’s seascape, which had held pride of place over the fireplace mantelpiece, was nowhere to be seen. A photograph of Muffy’s daughter had taken its place.

“Do you mind if I go through the house?” she asked.

“It’s better than you breaking in again, but I’m sticking to you like gum while you’re here.”

The spare bedroom was just big enough to hold a bed, a small chest of drawers, and a nightstand. The walls were hung with a hodgepodge of local artists.

“She never had much taste in art,” Bunny said, shaking her head at the questionable collection. “Good-looking artists were another matter. One crush after another, I remember. But then, we all did. There was one man especially.” Bunny sighed at the memory of Billy Boy kissing her hand when he presented her with her prized painting.

“Who was that?”

“It was too long ago to remember,” Bunny said, keeping the cherished image to herself. “My memory isn’t what it used to be,” she lied.

“That’ll be the day. Sharp as a razor and I’m usually the one doing the bleeding.”

Bunny opened the closet and checked inside. She did the same with every storage area, but all of Muffy’s paintings were on the wall, not hidden away.

Bunny made a note to herself to hide away Billy’s seascape as soon as she got home. After that, she’d break into Kitty’s cottage, and maybe Pooh’s again if necessary. She was about to ask the chief to accompany her, but then decided against it. If someone spotted her, she could always do with another ride home with Sergeant Watson.

At home, Bunny searched high and low but could find no suitable hiding place for Billy Boy’s seascape. Her cottage was too small, had open-beam ceilings, so there wasn’t even an attic. Her one and only closet was too obvious. Suddenly, Bunny smiled. Hide it in plain sight. That was the ticket.

That done, she went to the library, where Mattie Breen handed her an envelope with the news clippings Bunny had requested.

“You’re a dear,” Bunny said. “But right now I want you to show me how to use the Internet. The computers at the post office aren’t good for much beyond ZIP codes.”

Once Bunny got started, she was amazed at the prices Billy Ritschel commanded. Any one of the seascapes owned by the Gang of Four was worth killing for. Total the three of them, four with Bunny’s, and you’d have more than enough to buy a picturesque Carmel cottage, complete with single-wall construction, drafty every time the wind blew, old plumbing, and linoleum that hadn’t been made since the 1950s. All for a mere million or so dollars.

The Internet, she soon discovered, also listed home sales, but none recent enough to suit her purposes. She’d have to stalk her prey more directly.

When she got back to the post office, she informed Postmaster Evans that she was taking some personal time. His answering shrug said he knew better than to argue.

That settled, she perched on a stool in front of pigeon number 1653 and waited patiently. The “box full” notice that she’d inserted the day she sealed Pooh’s pigeon was still there. She hoped that meant that the miscreant would appear soon.

Bunny was in luck. Don Rogers opened his pigeon just before closing time. Bunny pulled his mail out of reach, forcing him to lean forward, eyeballing her through the narrow slot.

“Don,” she said, “it’s about time you got here.”

“I didn’t know I was late.”

“Come around to the pickup window.”

“If this is about my mail piling up, I’m a very busy man.”

“No,” Bunny replied. “It’s about real estate.”

An hour later, she called Chief Bennett at home, interrupting his dinner. “I know who did it,” Bunny told him.

“If you’re calling to confess, couldn’t it wait till morning?”

“Do you want my death on your conscience?” she said.

He sighed. “I’m listening.”

He sighed again when she stopped talking. “Okay, Elmira. But even if you’re right, there’s no proof.”

“We’ll arrange my murder. That’ll give you all the proof you need.”

“I’m never going to live this down, am I?”

Bunny smiled to herself. She loved collecting favors, even if she never cashed them in. “I’ll make the call as soon as it gets dark,” she said.

That evening she fixed herself a pot of strong coffee. Normally, Bunny drank warm milk in the evening, laced with sugar and vanilla, or a spoonful of brandy if she was feeling particularly adventuresome. But the last thing she wanted to do was to fall asleep when she was expecting a murderer to come calling.

The house creaked in the cold night, worse even than her old bones, but not enough to cover the sound of breaking glass at the back door. No doubt her death would be made to look like a robbery gone bad. One painting stolen and Bunny’s dead body left behind to tell the tale.

Bunny finished the last of her now cold coffee, shuddered at the taste, and folded her hands in her lap just as a flashlight beam caught her full in the face.

“There’s no need for melodrama,” Bunny said and pulled the chain on the old-fashioned floor lamp next to her chair. The faceted glass shade, quivering slightly from the pull, cast dancing slivers of light everywhere. Much to Bunny’s satisfaction, the light made the abstract painting over the fireplace look like a nervous nightmare.

Even then Mattie Breen’s eyes flashed with malice as she moved close, looming over Bunny. The librarian pointed a shaking finger at the painting over the mantel and hissed, “Where is it?”

“Where’s what?” Bunny asked innocently.

“Your seascape, the Ritschel. The one that’s been hanging there for years.”

Bunny spread her hands. “Tell me, dear, why is it so important?”

“You’re just like Winnie and Muffy. Too stubborn to save your own lives. Now tell me, where is it?”

“I’ve left it to the library in my will, didn’t you know that?”

“Since you’re not dead yet, where is it now?”

Bunny smiled. “Where you would never find it. You see, I knew you were coming.”

“The police don’t know about me, so how could you?”

“Box 1653.”

“Make sense, you old bat.”

“It belongs to a friend of mine,” Bunny went on, “a connoisseur of real estate. He told me you’ve already put a partial down payment on your cottage. How could that be, Mattie, since we both know your inheritance has yet to materialize? Or maybe you lied about that inheritance?”

“It’s real enough. Why would I lie?”

“Oh my dear girl, murderers always lie,” Bunny said.

“If that’s what you think of me I guess I’ll have to prove your point.”

Mattie picked up a pillow to press to Bunny’s face when Chief Bennett stepped out of the closet and grabbed the librarian from behind. Once he had her handcuffed, the chief eyed Bunny with renewed respect. “Put me out of my misery, Elmira, and tell me where you hid that damn painting.”

“I took it out of its frame and tucked it behind that god-awful painting of my nephew’s.”

“I’ve always said you have the mind of a criminal.”

The day Mattie was arraigned, a certified letter arrived for her from a law firm in San Francisco. Bunny, marveling at the impatience of young people, stamped it RETURN TO SENDER and hurried it on its way.

Copyright © 2009 Val Davis

The Tumbril

by  William Bankier

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When it comes to the inventive and offbeat at short-story length, few can compare with William Bankier. The Canadian native, who lived in Eng-land for many years before settling in California, most often sets his stories in small fictional locations (usually Baytown) in Ontario. This time he’s penned a modern allegory of corporate greed. His very first story for us appeared in July of 1962, and he’s had stories in our pages almost every year of the forty-seven that have passed since then.

* * * *

Loading the bodies seemed to be a job without an end. But Higgins could not complain because it was his idea, this throwback to the time of the Black Death. He and Elmer, his drinking buddy, drove the tumbril along street after street. And because it was his idea, Higgins called out in a stentorian voice, “Bring out your dead!”

Elmer sat up front holding the reins because it was his horse. Old Daisy used to haul a milk wagon back when Baytown still had deliveries. It was not an easy pull with those thick wooden wheels. Elmer had offered the tires from a Buick he had on blocks in his front yard. But Higgins insisted on wood be-cause he enjoyed the funereal sound it made on the pavement as the tumbril creaked and rumbled through the mournful town.

The better-off could afford a proper burial. There were many, however, whose sons or daughters had taken the pills prescribed by doctors who were prisoners, in effect, of Cummerbund Pharmaceuticals. The big drug manufacturer was the true villain, according to Higgins. The doctors were so bewildered, so scared, they had st

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opped returning the telephone calls of patients whose limbs were breaking in the night as a side effect of swallowing the miracle antibiotic called “Cintillate.”

Before building the tumbril, Higgins had given much thought to the doctors. These educated men, these ethical men and women, had sworn an oath before entering into practice — “First, do no harm.” That was all Higgins needed to know. He could only imagine how this catastrophic situation had evolved.

Surely the medics had learned that a course of Cintillate could, in a matter of days, turn a healthy person with an influenza fever into a permanent zombie with calf muscles that burst and eyes unable to withstand the pain caused by any light at all.

Thoughts of suicide preoccupied the minds of many users of the drug. And some took that way out. Others were terminated by parents or caregivers driven mad by the constant sounds of agony. A pillow on the face brought guilty silence. And then, from the street...

“Bring out your dead!”

What to do with the bodies? There had to be an answer to this problem; Higgins thought of it before they built the tumbril. Elmer’s late parents owned a farm. It was located east of Baytown and had several flimsy wooden outbuildings on it. Elmer lived there.

It took forty-five minutes to reach the farm with Daisy moving at top speed. The dire effects of Cintillate had rendered most of the corpses less than human. Higgins and Elmer rolled them in canvas and lugged them through the doorway of a ramshackle barn. When the entire load was inside and the door closed, Higgins took a gasoline-soaked towel from the back of the tumbril and tucked it under a loose wallboard. He lit it with a match and flames ran enthusiastically up the side of the bone-dry structure.

As they stood back watching, Elmer suggested, “We should say something.”

“I know.” All he could think of was a song he had learned as a child in Sunday School. Higgins sang it now.

“Bring me my bow of burning gold.
Bring me my arrows of desire.
Bring me my spear; Oh clouds unfold—
Bring me my chariot of fire...!”

In Washington, D.C., Jason Cummer looked up from his desk and frowned at his secretary. “This better be important,” he said. “I’m taking the Senator to lunch and I’m running late.”

“It’s what’s going on in Canada. I have another bulletin from our man up there.”

“File it,” Cummer told her. He slipped into his jacket and peered at his face in the mirror above the washbasin. His eyes were glassy from a recent snort of cocaine. The hollow cheeks pleased him; he looked lean and dangerous. “I’m out of here.”

The secretary, whose name was Enid, watched him go. Not for the first time she wished she had never taken the job working for the CEO of Cummerbund Pharmaceuticals. Maybe the job had driven him crazy or perhaps he had been crazy to start with. Could be a little of both, the wise lady thought.

The Senator said yes to another drink. It was his third, but who cared. His host was leaning back in his chair watching him with obvious amusement over the white linen with its sparkling crystal and glittering silver. He resembled a vulture. As always happened on his visits with Jason, the politician had to resist the urge to get up from the table and run. And again, as always, he had to remind himself... the money was good.

While they were both partially sober, it was time to give Cummer a slap in the face with the drug subject. “The news from north of the border,” he mused. “Not good.”

Cummer was locked and loaded. “Always remember, I could purchase that entire country and flood it and freeze it and turn it into a colossal hockey rink.”

“Just wanted to remind you we have a problem.”

“That’s why I pay you,” the drug manufacturer said. “Do I have to go up there and attend to it myself?”

“Might be a good idea,” the Senator said. “You’d get a first-hand view of what is going on.”

With the empty tumbril safely parked under an apple tree behind one of Elmer’s barns, Higgins shook his partner’s hand and headed home. It was a long walk but with Connie dead and the house empty, it was not long enough.

All it had been was a case of the flu. People came down with this sickness all the time and they took something and got over it. But now there was a new drug — Cintillate. Dr. Farley prescribed it and Connie began the course of seven capsules taken over seven days.

She only got to day three. First there was the pain in the legs, the ankles, the feet. It was excruciating, unlike any pain she had ever experienced. Higgins did what he could after calling Dr. Farley, who said bed rest. And keep on with the capsules.

After day four, her eyes could not tolerate the light. Higgins would stand in the doorway of the darkened room listening to her gasp with every breath. She could still walk to the bathroom — only just.

“I can’t go on like this,” she whispered to him. “Do something.”

“I called Dr. Farley. He’s supposed to call back.”

“Shoot me. You’ve still got your gun?”

“That’s crazy talk.”

“This is not going away. I can tell. It’s getting worse.”

Higgins walked to Farley’s office. He encountered the doctor on his way out. He looked panicky, like a thief caught in the act. He spoke first. “You should be with Connie.”

“She’s talking about killing herself.”

“Then you should really be with her.”

“What are we giving her?”

“It’s a miracle drug, Cummerbund’s newest. Sometimes there are side effects.”

“Don’t they test these things? Doesn’t the government make them?”



“No system is perfect.”

“That’s a sickening answer.”

Higgins hurried home and found the place empty. He heard and saw through a window some sort of commotion at the freeway a quarter-mile from the house. This is what had happened: In her robe and slippers, Connie had managed to limp to the overpass where she flung herself down into rush-hour traffic. She was struck by three vehicles, killed by the second.

After the funeral, alone in the house for the first time in twenty-six years, Higgins missed meals, watched television, slept in a chair. A lot of people were dying from the flu epidemic. A news program showed a gathering of surviving family members outside the Cummerbund head office on Baytown’s west hill. When the pharmaceutical giant moved its operations to Baytown six years ago it was seen as a huge economic boost for the community. Now it was being said that the company founder was in town. Like the climactic scene from a horror movie, here was the monster fleeing from the wrath of enraged villagers.

The camera caught a shot of the vulture face as Jason Cummer ducked into a waiting limousine. His lips were moving; Higgins read the words. “Cintillate is a miracle drug. Go home, go home!”

That had been the moment when the bereaved man saw something in his mind’s eye — the tumbril!

Building the tumbril was not a problem. There was an old wagon on Elmer’s farm. And Daisy was available for locomotion. Was it the dynamite that gave Higgins his idea for some sort of revenge? “What’s this?” he asked, peering into a wooden box of explosives.

“My old man used it for clearing stumps.”

That was when Higgins refused the wheels from Elmer’s old Buick and set about building wooden ones. He made them hollow and six inches thick. They were like drums.

“What’s this in aid of?” Elmer asked as they fitted the wheels to the axles.

“For the sound they’ll make as we go down the street. Hollow and spooky. The sound of a tumbril.”

The rumble of the wheels was disturbing enough that the Baytown Banner  sent a reporter to interview Higgins and find out what the hell he thought he was doing. They met up late one afternoon when the tumbril was half full of bodies. Higgins was not eating much these days since Connie was no longer feeding him. As a result his voice was weak. It broke into a yodel as he uttered his invitation, “Bring out your dead!”

The reporter was on a bicycle. He pedaled slowly beside the wagon, teetering for balance as he put his questions. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I’m making a point,” Higgins said. “I want to get through to Jason Cummer. His new product is killing people.”

“Cintillate? They tell me it’s a wonder drug. I’m taking it myself. First capsule this morning.”

“Then hail and farewell.”

“If you get to see Cummer, what will you tell him?”

“I’ll think of something.”

The reporter snapped a picture of Higgins and then sped away on his bike. The photograph appeared next day alongside his story on the front page of the Banner. 

As for the reporter himself, he continued with his course of the new drug which had certainly killed his flu symptoms. He got as far as the sixth capsule before he died in agony. The tumbril happened to be approaching that evening along the street where the journalist lived. His father brought the body out and placed it on the flat bed of the tumbril. Higgins recognized the face. “Still writing?” he asked. “Scribble scribble?”

His secretary had traveled to Baytown with her boss. When she drew the article in the Banner  to his attention, Jason Cummer read it and then said, “I’ve had enough, Enid. Get hold of this Higgins person and bring him here.”

Told of the appointment, Higgins joined Elmer at the farm and expressed his satisfaction. “It’s working,” he said. “I’m to go and see Cummer tomorrow morning, ten o’clock.”

“Congratulations,” Elmer said. “I think.”

“Now where’s that dynamite?”

The sticks of explosive fitted neatly into the four wheels. Now the problem was detonation. Higgins showed his friend a length of fuse protruding from a hole drilled in one of the wheels. “I light this and up she goes,” he said.

“You figure if one wheel goes the others will too?”

“Why not?”

Elmer had an anxious look on his face. “What about Daisy?”

Higgins placed his hands on Elmer’s shoulders. “Next to you, Daisy is my best friend. When we roll the tumbril down into the underground parking at Cummerbund Pharmaceuticals, you’ll unhitch your horse and lead her outside while I go in to face the Devil.”

Jason Cummer’s inclination was to tell this wasted little man to go to hell. But he kept his temper. “Have you any idea how much money we spend on research and development? Miracle drugs don’t just fall off the tree.”

“How much on testing?”

“A fortune. We test them on mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters...”

“Any people?”

Cummer looked away. “Lots of people.”

“May I speak to them?”

“You may not. Try to understand. This organization provides work to thousands of wage-earners. We pay millions in taxes. Cintillate is not our only new product. We have many others in the pipeline.”

“Heaven help us,” Higgins said quietly. Then, “I read somewhere you have a contract with the army to develop chemical weapons.”

“It’s not a secret.”

“Is it possible that there’s some sort of unintended leakage between projects? Some element from a weapon of mass destruction has found its way into Cintillate?”

“Where did you read that?” Cummer’s cheeks began to inflate. “My lawyers are about to terminate that journalist’s career.” He got up from behind his desk, went to the office door, and held it open. “As for you, I want you to take that medieval meat wagon off the streets and keep it off. Now get out!”

As Higgins passed through the doorway he paused and said, “Don’t worry. The tumbril will never be seen again in Baytown.”

Elmer was waiting in the underground garage, having already unhitched Daisy from the cart. “What’s that bell I hear?”

Higgins was taking out a book of matches. “I touched off the fire alarm on the way out. I’m not sure how much damage the explosion will do to the building. But I don’t want to hurt any employees.”

Elmer led Daisy up the paved ramp and called back, “They all seem to be outside.” He jumped astride the horse’s back and urged her onto the street. That sight amused the office workers, who were enjoying an interruption in yet another boring day.

Higgins lit a match and touched the flame to the fuse. It began to hiss and sputter. He hurried to the ramp and left the garage. When he was outside and standing in the street beside Daisy and Elmer, a loud explosion sounded from the garage. This was followed by a blast three times as loud. The building shook and some windows fell out. Dark smoke began to issue from the garage and from the main floor of the damaged building.

Employees with cell phones began calling police and the fire department. Higgins slapped his hands on Daisy’s flanks and leaped up onto her back behind Elmer. “This would be a good time for us to disappear,” he said.

And they did, moving at old Daisy’s milk-wagon pace.

The head office building was not destroyed but it was damaged severly enough that no work could be done as it was being repaired. While this was taking place their employer demonstrated his sensitivity by paying his workers at one quarter their weekly rate.

Chief Greb had no difficulty in attributing blame for the explosion. When the fire was extinguished the damaged remains of the tumbril were found in the garage. Higgins and Elmer were arrested and taken into custody.

At the trial, the magistrate pronounced a lenient sentence. He himself had lost a daughter to the effects of Cintillate and he was aware of the suicide of Higgins’ wife.

The builders of the tumbril were placed under psychiatric care at the Ontario Hospital in Kingston.

Two important results followed these events. As the flu epidemic waned and Cintillate ceased being prescribed, the company withdrew the drug from distribution without comment. And a Baytown rock band recorded a song entitled “Bring Out Your Dead.” It went like this:

“When you get sick,
Don’t let it get you down.
The doc has stuff
He spreads all over town.
Just take those pills
And you will be in clover.
They’ll cool you out;
Your troubles will be over.
It’s like the geezer said...
Hey citizens, bring out your dead!”

The colorful and dramatic story of the tumbril made it into America’s leading news magazine. It occupied two pages and readers pelted their elected representatives with letters, telegrams, and phone calls. Cummerbund Pharmaceuticals explained that there was no need to worry. The Canadian “test market” would not be duplicated in the U.S.A.

Not satisfied, public opinion demanded an example be made of the CEO of the company. Washington moved quickly to cure the problem. Jason Cummer was forced to resign in disgrace, after which he contributed a hundred million dollars from his numbered account in Zurich to the election fund of the party in power. Then he accepted the position of Ambassador to Mozambique and hopped a fast plane out of town.

Copyright © 2009 William Bankier

Mob Violence

by  Peter Turnbull

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If, like many American readers, you are fascinated by the world of the York police depicted in Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich series, which has been running in this magazine for several years, you won’t want to miss the latest installment in the series at novel length. Entitled Informed Consent,  and published in May of 2009 by Severn House Publishers, it follows the investigators as they look into a suspect finance company’s possible involvement in murder.

* * * *


As George Hennessey, Detective Inspector with the York City Police, had grown older, he had accumulated what he referred to as his “piles.” Each time he did or did not do something the action or inaction of which caused him guilt, the incident went on his “guilt pile.” He also had a “regret pile,” an “achievement pile,” and “good” and “bad experience” piles, all of which grew larger and larger as he became more and more stricken with age. One such pile was his “getting old” pile, composed of sudden, unexpected observations which caused him to realise he was ageing. The first such observation occurred when he was sixteen years old, walking along Trafalgar Road in Greenwich, and he glanced at a passing blood-red London Transport double-decker, on the Waterloo Bridge to Plumstead route, and recognised the driver as a boy who’d been a few years senior to him at school. Then the time came when he found people looking to him for advice and guidance and leadership. Flattered at first, he became significantly less flattered when he realised the only reason people turned to him thus was because he looked older and “fatherly” in their eyes. When he reached the age of fifty years, he found he developed a distaste for new gadgets. There was also a sense that the world had changed, but that he had not changed with it, and there was a sense of being displaced by younger folk pushing him from behind. The latest observation to go on his “getting old” pile was his view of the “English abroad.” English football “fans” who had no interest in football had followed the English team abroad for no other reason than that once fuelled with continental beer, they were up for a fight with “fans” from any other nation. Favoured opponents seemed to be the Germans, for no other reason than the huge wars of the previous century, though that particular summer the English seemed to hold a special grudge against the Turks. And so, George Hennessey, close to retirement, sat on the settee in his living room, his mongrel curled up beside him, watching news reports on the television of “mob violence,” as beer-bellied English youths hurled chairs, tables, anything they could lift at a group of German youths who seemed to Hennessey to be giving as good as they got. Eventually, a charge from the Belgian mounted police dispersed the mob and Hennessey stroked his dog’s ears saying, “You know, Oscar, the Englishman abroad just isn’t what he used to be.” Instantly he knew what he had said and after exercising Oscar he walked into Easingwold for a pint at the Pelican and stayed longer than usual, having something to ponder.


It wasn’t as bloody as he thought it was going to be, but as Detective Sergeant Yellich had said, the man was riddled with bullets. The man was a trim, muscular figure, about forty-five, thought Hennessey, blue shirt, white slacks, brown sandals, and with lots of little black holes all over his chest, and two in his forehead, side by side. Flies buzzed about the room.

“Twenty-two calibre, I’d say.” Louise D’Acre knelt by the body. “I’m no firearms expert, but I’ve seen the like before, small entry wound by comparison to other gunshot wounds, no exit wound. I count twenty-four bullet penetrations of the body. Someone was making sure all right. I doubt that there’ll be difficulty in determining the cause of death in this case. I’ll trawl for poisoning, but I think the cause of death is obvious.” She stood. She was a slender woman with short black hair, graying slightly, no makeup at all save for a trace of lipstick. “Do you know who he is?”

“Yellich?” Hennessey turned to the younger man.

“He is believed to be a man called Phillips, sir. Matthew Phillips. No indication of an alias, all the fuel bills are in that name, for example.” Yellich stepped aside to allow a Scene of Crimes officer to photograph the body.

“Lived here alone?” Hennessey read the room: neat, ordinary, a television, a video recorder, prints of famous paintings on the wall, a Turner, a Monet, a Constable, a row of Reader’s Digest s. Mr. Phillips was a man of conservative tastes. The house was a small, three-bedroom, semidetached property with a neat, well-tended garden to the front and a neat, well-tended larger garden to the rear. Back again to the room. It had a “hard” feel. Phillips was a bachelor, no softening woman’s touch in this house.

“Yes, sir.” Yellich shifted again for the S.O.C.O. “No indication of any other resident.”

“Cause, as you say, seems obvious.” Hennessey turned to Dr. D’Acre. “Would you be prepared to estimate the time of death?”

“Time elapsed since death, you mean?” D’Acre smiled warmly at Hennessey and for a brief instant their eyes met. “That would be a better way of putting it. I’d say about forty-eight hours. Rigor is well established, as are the flies. But that’s an estimate.”


Dr. D’Acre looked at the body. “Possibly. Possibly Saturday, possibly yesterday. Establishing the cause is the exact science. The when cannot be exact, too many variables. I’ll have a look inside his stomach, look at the degree of digestion of his last meal, that might be a pointer, but frankly, you’d be better asking his neighbours when they saw him last, that will be more reliable than any scientific analysis.”

“He came about a year ago. July now.” The man mopped his brow. “He came in the winter months, so more than a year.” The man stood in his garden, talking to Yellich over the fence which divided his property from that of the deceased. About the two men were lush green suburban gardens, a high blue sky, and a relentless sun. “In the winter of last year. He bought his house through the White Rose agency. I remember their For Sale sign in the front garden. They’ll be able to tell you his exact date of entry.”

Yellich wrote “White Rose” on his notepad. “Kept himself to himself, you say?”

“I would say. Hardly spoke at all, but over the months, from spring onwards, when he spent a lot of time in his garden, we’d chat over the fence. I’m retired now, spend my days in the garden. He was younger than me but didn’t work. He too seemed to spend his days in the garden, growing things, weeding. At first I thought he was an American, had a strange accent at first, a mixture of North of England and American, the States, I mean, but rapidly settled down to North of England, but with a slowed form of speech, a ‘drawl,’ I think it’s called. Like the way you hear Yanks talk on TV. He spoke with an economy of words but spent a long time saying each word.”

“I see.”

“Then there were the Americanisms. He ran a small car. That’s his...” The man pointed to a red Nissan parked against the kerb, in front of the house, by which were also parked police vehicles and a black, windowless mortuary van. A few people, local residents, had gathered in ones and twos looking on. This was the suburb of Dringhouses, York, little of interest happended in Dringhouses, but the incident at the house of Phillips was a clear exception. “His car’s bonnet was a ‘hood,’ the bumper was a ‘fender,’ the boot was the ‘trunk.’ Women were ‘dames,’ men were ‘guys.’ In the evenings he’d walk to the ‘bar,’ not the pub. He once came to my house with a ‘package’ wrongly left at his house by the ‘mailman.’”

“As opposed to a parcel left by the postman?”

“Exactly. He’d clearly lived in the U.S.A. for a considerable length of time, but never talked about it. He gave me the impression of being a man with a history.”

“Source of his income?”

“Could never tell. Bought his house, though, and had a car, fed himself, went out for a beer in the evening. He lived modestly, as we all do round here, but he had enough to meet his needs. You know, the impression I had of him was that his life’s fight was out of him... ‘Fight’ is perhaps the wrong word. I don’t mean aggression or violence, but that energy you need to bring up children, to pay off your mortgage, that seemed to me to be out of him. It’s out of me; that’s all behind me and I think I recognised the same in him, sitting at home, sitting in his garden, except that he’s twenty years younger than me. He was a pensioner in terms of his attitude.”

“Any visitors?”

“His girlfriend and then the two men. I told the other officer about that, after I reported his front door was wide open and had been like that for two days. Suspicious, I thought.”

“Tell me about the two men?”

“They looked to be American. You can tell Yanks by their trousers... Oh yes, he once referred to his ‘garden pants.’ I thought he was talking about his garden panting for breath but he meant his gardening trousers... But American men always seem to wear trousers the bottoms of which are an inch or two higher than is the fashion in Britain. And their suits were loud, a light blue suit, very light blue, and the other had a sports jacket with a very loud check, yellow in places, whereas Englishmen would never wear clothing that brightly coloured. Trilbies, and both carrying briefcases; arrived by taxi.”

“When was that?”

“Sunday, about lunchtime. I thought they were visitors from the States, just caught sight of them arriving. Didn’t see them leave, but on Monday, yesterday, I noticed his front door was wide open, still open this morning, so I called the police. It didn’t look right.”

“You were correct to do so, clearly. Do you recall the taxi company?”

“The blue-coloured ones, nice colour scheme, dark blue — royal blue, I believe it’s called-with a white stripe off-centre, running the length of the car, bonnet, roof, and boot.”

“White Stripe Cabs?”

“Is that what they’re called?”

“That’s their colour scheme. What do you know about his girlfriend?”

“Younger than he was, nice-looking lass, honest face, works at a place called Redmill House. Don’t know what that is, but she drove up in a minibus with some adults in the passenger seats, got out, ran up his drive, popped something in his letterbox, and ran back to the minibus and drove away. But it was definitely Redmill House on the side of the van. A lass who worked with vulnerable people. Nice lass.”

“Wait and return. Real tippers.” The young man sat in the chair with his feet on the desk. He was thin-faced, ginger hair worn in a ponytail, faded denims. Behind him was a scantily clad female underneath whom was that year’s calendar. “Don’t forget tips like that in a hurry...”

The phone rang. The youth excused himself and answered it. “About five minutes, sir.” He replaced the phone and reached behind him for the microphone, switched it on, and said, “Town centre to Selby... any car?”

“Car six,” came a crackly response. “I can take it.”

“Car six... Station Hotel to Selby, two passengers, name of Jenkins. Thanks.”

“Car six... out.”

“Yeah... serious men... Sunday... I was on the rank outside the station waiting for the London train. They got in... slid into the rear seat, gave me an address... Dringhouses... street name and number. Knew exactly where they wanted to go. Got to the address, they said, ‘Wait here.’ Watched them go up the drive, ring the doorbell. A guy answered... He stood looking at them, then he nodded his head and walked into the house. The two guys walked after him. Moments later, they came back, leaving the front door open, told me to take them back to the station, paid the fare, tipped me fifty quid. For a ten-pound fare. Very serious attitude, didn’t talk on the journey other than to tell me where to go. But fifty quid, for a ten-pound fare?”

The phone rang again.

That evening George Hennessey stood in the garden of his home in Easingwold talking to Jennifer, his wife.

“We watched the CCTV videotape from the railway-station monitor, and sure enough, they were there, two men, mid thirties, trilbies, smartly dressed, dark glasses, each carrying a briefcase.” He sipped his tea as he gazed out over the garden to the flat landscape beyond. “Caught them on the platform monitor boarding the London train. They’ll be back in the States by now.” An observer would see a tall man in his late middle years standing in his garden drinking a mug of tea and talking to himself. The observer would not know that the man’s wife had died young, many years earlier, that her ashes were scattered in the garden, and that each day, rain or shine, the man would stand in the garden and talk to her.

Yellich sat at home with his son, Jeremy, aged twelve. Jeremy was making excellent progress. His wife found him tiring, but he was “getting there” and could now identify each letter of the alphabet and do simple division.


“He said that they would not come.” The young woman held the plastic cup in her hands. “We were not very close, but I know that I’m going to miss him. He’s already a significant event in my life and I just know he’ll become of even greater significance in the years to come. He hurt, each day he hurt, deep inside.”

“How did you meet?” Hennessey thought her a sincere young woman.

“At a church social. He didn’t attend often, but he came to a social we had.” Hennessey and Yellich and the woman sat in the dining room of Redmill House. The residents were at their afternoon therapy; behind them the canteen staff sang as they rattled tureens and cutlery, clearing up after lunch. “He was older than me, in his mid forties. I’m in my mid twenties. He really just wanted someone to talk to.”

“And did he? Talk to you? Tell you his story?”

“Not in one go, but I wa

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s able to get the gist of it together over the months. Matthew was a very private person and the first impression I had of him was that he was resigned to something. He’d got past being frightened and had become calm and accepting. He knew he hadn’t long to live. Before he came to York he was in London, but he said he knew he couldn’t hide and he’d got tired of running, so he came north to where his roots are, bought a house close to where he was born, not the same street, but the same estate. He said that that was neater.”

“Who was he running from?”

“Organised crime. ‘The mob,’ as he called it. The story was that he’d gone to visit relatives in the States, he got into a ruction in a bar, hotfooted it, and by jumping in and out of taxis ran rings around the police, bribing taxi drivers to tell their control that they’d dropped him off two miles from where they really were, things like that. He and his cousin sent convoys of police cars chasing off in the wrong direction. Unknown to him, his cousin was a ‘gofer’ for the mob, the mob heard about Matthew running rings round the police and they ‘recruited’ him. ‘Work for us or we’ll shoot you.’”

“Some choice.”

“So his six weeks’ holiday extended to fifteen years. He was a pressed man, but pressed or volunteer, you only leave the mob feet first. He did some things he wasn’t proud of.”

“This he told you?”

“Over time. There was nothing between us. I was his ‘confidant.’”

“I see.”

“But he left. He just slipped away, deserted. Got a flight back to the U.K. He’d had enough. He was a good man, trapped in a bad set of circumstances. But the mob’s violence is cool, detached, surgical, and he knew they were coming. ‘They’ll come tomorrow,’ he said, ‘or in twelve months’ time, or five years’ time, but they’ll come.’ All he could do was wait, dig his garden, grow living things; he planted trees in the countryside. He knew he wasn’t going to leave anything else behind him. And he went to the pub and sometimes he came to our church.”

“Had he stolen from the mob?”

“No. He deserted. He was a loose cannon. He had information that could put the mob leaders away for a long time. He said that just as the long arm of the law can reach across the Atlantic, so can the long arm of the mob. It was just a question of time.”

Copyright © 2009 Peter Turnbull

Don’t Ax Me Why

by  Maurissa Guibord

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Maurissa Guibord got her start in our Department of First Stories in 2006. Since then, she’s been at work on a book, which she recently sold to Delacorte Press. The young adult novel of paranormal romance and adventure (entitled Warped)  will appear in the spring of 2011. The Scarborough, Maine, author is also working on a young adult mystery novel. But she makes time for adult short stories too, like this colorful tale of a reporter looking for ideas for a piece on Halloween.

* * * *

When did Halloween become such a big deal? I pondered this question as I checked the price tags on some of the costumes at Big Willie’s Discount. No way was I going to pay sixty bucks to look like either a polyester Elvira knockoff or (the only other one that fit) Raggedy Ann on growth hormones. But I still had plenty of time to come up with something; the party wasn’t until the following week. What I didn’t have time for was writing my column. My boss had given one of his usual, vaguely terrifying suggestions for my piece. “Halloween,” he barked. “What’s it all about anyway?”

Sometimes he acts like most of our readership has just woken from a lengthy coma and our job at the Witka Leader  is their mass reindoctrination to society. That and selling advertising, of course.

I could do the historical angle; I recalled reading about how jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland, where people carved out turnips and used them as lanterns with the purpose of warding off evil spirits on Allhallows Eve. But I didn’t have time to worry about it; my phone was ringing when I got home.

“Are you that reporter for the Leader ? That Jung woman?” a female voice asked. She sounded breathless, as if she had been running.

I told her I was.

“This is Marilyn Doughty out on Little Brook Lane. Number Forty-two. It’s my neighbor Everett Halsey. I want you to come over here right away and see what he’s doing.”

“Is Mr. Halsey disturbing you?”

“Disturbing me?  I’ll say he’s disturbing me. I’m afraid to go outside. He’s gone demented. He’s got an ax and he’s carving up a woman right out there in the yard!”

She hung up.

Now most normal people at this point would have been dialing 911. But I had lived in Witka and been on the wrong end of “See news? Call 1-800-NUTBALL” for too long to get greatly excited. Besides, it was just around the corner. So I picked up my gear and headed out. It was a beautiful day; the leaves were falling in windswept spirals and the air had the cold, sweet tang of a New England autumn. Little Brook Lane was a winding residential street, checkered with small, well-kept houses, many of them decorated for Halloween with pumpkins, cornstalks, and scarecrows tied to lampposts.

The scene of the crime wasn’t hard to find. Marilyn Doughty had been right. In the yard of number 44, along with a mirrored ball on a pedestal and a leering ceramic lawn gnome, there was a man with an ax. But from what I could see, Everett Halsey wasn’t cutting up a woman.

He was cutting out  a woman.

Halsey was middle-aged looking, with wispy ginger-colored hair and a slightly stooped posture, dressed in a flannel shirt, blue workman’s pants, and half-laced work boots. He stood before a roughly six-foot-high, barrel-thick stump of a pine tree in the middle of his property. He was carving the stump into the crude, angular shape of a woman’s torso, using an ax.

The rest of the felled tree lay strewn across the lawn, in haphazard piles of roughly cut logs and twisted branches among the autumn leaves. Halsey didn’t seem to notice as I parked in the driveway of his next-door neighbor. He continued to work slowly, methodically, hacking at the form in front of him with a small red-handled ax. Each blow sent chips of white piney flesh arcing through the air. Thtt... thtt... thtt . His motions weren’t particularly violent, but I jumped a little every time the ax struck the figure. As I watched, he stopped to dislodge the blade from where it had wedged in too deep in the waist area. He stepped back and I got a good look at what he had done.

The figure had no arms, two massive breasts, and a deeply cleft “Y” to outline her private parts. The body was the pale creamy yellow color of fresh-cut wood, except for where the bark was left on, in two spots — delineating a grey, rugose nipple at the end of each torpedo-shaped breast. Oh, and unless Halsey was planning to add another chunk of wood up top, there was no head.

I wasn’t surprised that Marilyn Doughty was afraid to leave her house. I was still in my car.

I sat and watched for a few moments as the man worked on the bizarre wooden figure. It was definitely odd. And more than a little offensive. I just wasn’t sure it was news. So I called in.

“ ‘Course it’s news!” grunted Boss Hogg after I had told him what was going on. “Local color. Get the story. Get a decent photo this time.”

I sighed as I hung up and decided to get the neighbor’s story first, mostly because she had the attractive feature of not currently holding an ax.

Marilyn Doughty flung her door open as soon as I knocked and dragged me into her small, neat kitchen. She was a chubby woman with features that seemed too sharp for the round, puffy face nature had given her.

“You see?” she jutted a pointed chin toward the kitchen window, toward her neighbor, who was still chopping. We could both hear it. “What did I tell you?” she gasped, still in that breathless, runaway voice I had heard on the phone. “I’m living right next to a homicidal maniac. All these years, acting so quiet, so normal. I knew it. I knew he would finally lose it.”

“Well, it does seem sort of odd...” I peered out. Everett Halsey was setting down his ax. He took out a handkerchief and patted his balding head, blew his nose. He went inside his house.

I studied the carved woman-stump which stood, raw and upright, amongst the debris of limbs and leaves. The figure did look bizarre. Almost unreal, I thought, like some sort of ancient totem plunked out here in the middle of Maine. The crude, almost savage way the figure was cut added to the macabre look.

“Maybe he’s taken up sculpture,” I offered.

Marilyn Doughty gave me a blank look.

“You know, art.”

She frowned. “That’s crazy talk.” She leaned forward and held up a chubby finger. “It’s murder,” she said in a conspiratorial tone. “And if you want the truth, I think he’s been planning it for years. Oh, everything looked fine between him and Sheila but I could tell.”

“Who’s Sheila?”

“Sheila is — was ,” she corrected herself with emphasis, “Everett’s wife. He’s killed her.”

I looked at her in blank surprise. “How do you know that?”

The woman didn’t answer but looked out the window, her eyes directed at the wooden stump outside. Her head turned back toward me before her gaze did, as if she couldn’t tear her eyes away. “She’s gone,” she said softly. “Her car is still here, that little Subaru in the drive. But there’s been no sign of her for the past three days and she wasn’t at the fire station craft and bake sale.” She raised an eyebrow. “Which she never  misses. Not in thirteen years.” Marilyn Doughty folded her arms, tucking them up under the shelf of her broad chest. It was a stance of conviction.

Missing a bake sale, I thought. Carving a tree stump. This was the kind of high-profile criminal activity that journalistic dreams are made of here in Witka. It would be right up there with the big story of who switched the magnetic letters on the sign in front of Gillespie’s package store from “Buck-Off Fall Specials” to read, well, something else.

“Did you ask Mr. Halsey where his wife is?” I asked.

Marilyn Doughty shook her head at me in a pitying way. “What do you think a murderer would say?” she retorted. “Says she’s gone off for a little vacation . A retreat. To some yoga place in Nashua.” Marilyn Doughty let out one of those little pshaw sounds of disbelief — sounding like a popped tire. “Who goes to New Hampshire for vacation?” she demanded. Luckily, it was rhetorical, and she went on, “I called the police. But they haven’t done anything. He hasn’t committed any crime, they say. And as far as public indecency — it has to go through channels .” Marilyn Doughty’s expression left little doubt about her view of such bureaucracy. “If that ain’t indecent,” she jabbed a finger through her country-kitchen curtains at Halsey’s yard, “I don’t know what is. And I’ll bet we never see poor Sheila again,” she added.

I wondered which was stronger, Marilyn Doughty’s concern for Sheila Halsey or her outrage over the piney pinup girl in the yard.

“If Mr. Halsey did anything to his wife,” I pointed out, “surely the last thing he’d want is to call attention to himself with this kind of, um, display.”

“Murderers aren’t always logical,” said Marilyn Doughty with complacent assurance, due, no doubt, to many hours of television crime-show watching.

She narrowed her eyes and stared at the carved stump outside. “There’s  your evidence,” she said in dramatic tones. “It’s as plain a confession as I ever saw.”

I sighed. I didn’t blame the woman for being upset. I certainly wouldn’t want to look up from my kitchen sink and see that  every morning. It was pretty creepy. But that didn’t mean that Halsey was a murderer. No wonder the police didn’t bite. But like it or not, I was going to have to go over and get the story. And a picture.

Just as I came out, Everett Halsey was emerging from his own door. He had put on a weathered barn jacket and was getting into the Subaru. The other vehicle in his drive was a battered Ford pickup with a bumper sticker that read: “Welcome to Maine. Now Go Home.”

“Mr. Halsey,” I called out.

If he heard me, he gave no sign of it. Without looking up, he started the car, backed out, and drove off down the street. Darn it. Listening to Marilyn Doughty’s rant, I’d lost my chance to talk to Halsey. But I could still take some pictures.

The low afternoon sun sent glancing shafts of warmth and light through the trees and the smell of fresh-cut pine hung sweet in the still air. It felt weird being here alone, so close to the stump. I went closer, feeling uncomfortable, as if I was trespassing on a scene of intimacy. Despite how crude it looked, there was something about it that drew the eye. I walked around it slowly. The legs rose up from the ground in two sturdy columns, a shallow dimple hacked in each to indicate the knee. One leg was more in front, as if striding forward. Above the legs the figure flared out in the back and in the front — making protuberant female buttocks and belly. The waist was cut in deeply and the upper part of the body was angled, one shoulder slightly dropped — in a pose that was almost graceful. The arms seemed to be stretching backwards, but they ended abruptly, sawn off. I circled to the front and gave a grimace. It was those huge jutting breasts that were really distracting. And the bark. Yikes.

I took a number of shots from different angles — even a closeup that showed the pale rings of growth in one cross-sectioned plane.

Finished, I looked around. I didn’t really want to sit around and wait for Halsey to return. I wondered what the other neighbors thought of his... handiwork.

I didn’t have to wonder long. As I was putting away my camera, a minivan screeched to a halt at the curb. A tall woman in a purple velour sweat suit slammed the door and strode across the lawn, kicking branches out of her way.

“Are you here to do something about this?” she demanded.

“Uh, hello. No, not really. I was taking some pictures. For the paper,” I clarified. “Are you a neighbor?”

“I’m Evelyn Wyatt Szymanski,” the woman announced, not looking at me but glaring at the tree stump, as if she was addressing it. She was blond, in her late twenties, maybe, and her clingy sportswear showed off her figure well. “I live down at the corner there.” She turned and waved one hand toward a large house, only the roof of which I could see from this distance. As she gestured, something struck me as faintly familiar. I frowned, trying to pin it down, but she kept talking and I lost the thread. “This — thing  is disgusting,” she yelled, “and I think the town should do something about it!”

I didn’t point out that the only way she could possibly see Halsey’s yard from her house was with binoculars. Instead I asked, “Have you talked to Mr. Halsey?”

“Certainly not,” she said with an expression of disgust, as she circled around the stump. “I’m not going anywhere near that pervert! Can you imagine the kind of twisted mind that would make something like that?” She let out a huff of breath and eyed the carving with compressed lips. “There are children  on this street, you know. Impressionable young minds.”

As if to demonstrate her point, a little girl slipped out the side door of the minivan and calmly walked up to stand next to her. The woman gave no notice, but kept talking. The girl, the woman’s daughter, I assumed, was very pretty, maybe about five years old, with pale blond hair in a scrunchy-held ponytail. She looked up at me with wide-set blue eyes and I couldn’t help but notice the birthmark that marred her skin — an irregular, violently red splotch that covered her left cheek from her ear to the corner of her mouth. I smiled at her.

“—example of pornographic, misogynistic symbolism that I’ve ever seen. Right out here in the open!” Evelyn Wyatt Szymanski was saying as I turned back. “There must be some kind of ordinance or obscenity law or something,” she finished and, finally, drew a breath. Suddenly her eyes went wide. “Janie. Don’t!”

I whirled around. Little Janie had walked up next to the carving. She turned to her mother, one dimpled hand raised. “She’s pretty,” the girl said softly. She smiled, turned, and patted the stump figure on one luxuriant, bark-nippled boob.

The woman gasped and dove forward to snatch her daughter’s hand away, as if she were dunking it in hydrochloric acid.

“You tell that Mr. Halsey that we want this abomination removed,” she yelled over her shoulder as she hustled the little girl back into the car. “It’s a public disgrace.”

Actually, from what I could tell, Mr. Halsey’s figure was becoming something of a local scenic attraction. During the woman’s neighborly visit, a handful of cars had passed by, including one full of teenaged boys. Each and every one of them slowed down long enough to give the passengers a good eyeful. I was pretty sure that the traffic was more than usual for this street, this time of day. Word was getting around.

I decided to talk to another neighbor. Maybe one of them knew something more about Halsey’s project.

There was no answer to my knock, and no car in the drive at number 41, across the street. The yard here was decked out for Halloween, complete with a scattering of realistic-looking tombstones, one of which had a human foot sticking out coyly from the ground in front. Fake cobwebs drifted from the trees and a hooded figure of Death holding a bloody, raised scythe towered over the path to the door. Apparently the Uber-mom I had just met didn’t have any problem with this  yard; it seemed Gothic horror was perfectly okay for impressionable young minds.

From there I walked over to the small blue Cape diagonally across from Halsey, number 43. I knocked on the door. There was silence for a minute or two, but then from the corner of my eye I saw a slight flutter of the curtains at the bay window. The door opened.

A man answered. He was tall, perhaps mid thirties, with dark, tousled hair and a shadow of stubble on his chin. He was wearing a rumpled green T-shirt and drawstring sleep pants with a pattern of Irish beer logos on them.

“Hi, sorry to bother you,” I began.

“S’okay.” He gave me a lopsided smile and ran a hand through his curly dark hair.

I introduced myself. He told me he was Drew Richards. He looked down at his state of attire and said, with a rueful smile, “Sorry I’m kind of a mess. I work nights. You caught me sleeping.”

“I’m sorry. I was just wondering what you thought of your neighbor’s new landscaping.” I said it with a smile and angled away from him to indicate the Halsey yard.

Drew Richards laughed and kept his eyes on my face. He had very nice eyes, I noticed, with long, dark lashes. “Oh, that?” He gave a shrug. “Yeah, it’s kind of weird.”

“Did Mr. Halsey say anything to you about it?”

Richards frowned faintly. “Nope. Should he?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Neighbors talk to each other.”

“Oh. Yeah.” He shrugged. “Well, I just moved here not too long ago.” He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck. “Been here a couple of weeks. What with working nights and all, I don’t know many of the neighbors yet.”

I nodded toward Halsey’s yard again. “It doesn’t bother you?”

Drew Richards smiled at me and shook his head. It was a nice smile. Under the stubble and dressed, I realized, he would be very good-looking. Who was I kidding? Stubbled and undressed worked fine, too.

“Hey, it’s no business of mine,” he murmured. “In fact, it could have been a lot worse.” He twitched his eyebrows and widened his eyes in mock alarm. “It could have been some of those pink plastic flamingos.”

We both laughed.

“Right. It’s probably more of a woman thing,” I said. That sounded stupid. I cleared my throat and tried to concentrate on not thinking about not blushing. “Mrs. Doughty over there is pretty upset,” I said. “She thinks something may have happened to Sheila Halsey.”

“Really?” Drew Richards’s face sobered. “Wow. I did see the police over there earlier. I hope she’s okay.”

“I’m sure she is. Apparently she’s gone away for a few days. Well, thanks for talking with me.” I shook his hand, appreciating, as I did, the view of well-muscled arm.

“No problem.”

I walked back to my car, thinking about the fact that my husband had been dead for three years now and I was only just starting to notice again that there was an opposite sex. But that was something I didn’t want to think about. Instead, I focused on the story.

Story? Oh please. I grabbed my notebook from my backpack and flipped to a clean page to write a few notes. It would be one photo, small-font caption, probably on page seven, under “Witka Happenings,” next to the church bean-supper schedule.

Still, it was interesting, the variety of reactions that Halsey’s stump had gotten from the different neighbors. Differences. And similarities. I frowned, remembering my encounter with each of them. Something was bothering me about one of them, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

And where was Sheila Halsey? It shouldn’t be too hard to confirm her whereabouts if, as Halsey had told his neighbor, she was at a retreat. I figured the police probably would check up on that, if only to shut Marilyn Doughty up. I knew someone, Hughie, down at the station. I would call him and check it out later.

If and when she came back, I thought to myself, what on earth would Sheila Halsey think about the little arts-and-crafts project on her front lawn?

It was getting late. I’d have to come back the following day to talk to Halsey. It was possible that he had figured out that I was coming to interview him and high-tailed it out of there to avoid me. Suspicious? Yes, but not criminal.

As it turned out, I was wrong. There was indeed a criminal.

That evening, around eleven p.m., Everett Halsey was shot. The bullet went through the plate-glass window of his front room and hit him in the chest. He had been in the living room, having just gotten up from his recliner in order to shut off the floor lamp and go to bed.

Luckily, Halsey survived. It was Marilyn Doughty who got to him first. After hearing the shot, she ran over and unlocked the side door with the key she had noticed the couple always left under the mat. She went in and found Halsey on the floor of the darkened living room, in a widening pool of blood. Marilyn called 911 and stayed with her neighbor all the way to the hospital. Halsey was bleeding fast, and the doctors said he might have died if she hadn’t known where to find the key and gotten in so quickly. It was probably the one time her snoopiness had done some good.

The bullet had hit high, missing Halsey’s heart and major vessels. And because he was hit just as he turned out the light, the would-be killer couldn’t see to get in another shot. The next day Halsey was awake and recovering in a hospital room at Maine Medical Center.

The police interviewed the victim as soon as he was able to talk. Everett Halsey insisted he had no idea who fired the shot or even who might have wanted to harm him. Sheila Halsey was contacted in New Hampshire, where she was indeed attending a yoga retreat. She returned immediately. She had gone with a friend who drove, and she had any number of witnesses able to confirm that she never left the facility until she heard of the attack on her husband.

In fact, the only thing that made the shooting more than a random attack was the stump that Halsey had carved out in his front yard. But who would possibly resort to murder over something like that?

After they finished with Halsey and his wife the police started questioning the neighbors. I was questioned, too, Marilyn Doughty having informed them of my presence in the neighborhood the day before.

I described my conversations with each of the three neighbors. I also told the police something else, about the thing that had been bothering me. I remembered it now and told Lieutenant Marchand, who was leading the investigation. It might have been nothing, but it was strange.

Some hours later, I was allowed to talk to Everett Halsey. He was in a hospital bed with oxygen tubing in his nose, a large plastic chest tube coming out of his left side, and a variety of other tubes and monitor wires attached to various spots. His ginger-colored hair was damp and askew but he seemed alert.

Up close, Halsey was a big man, with a long, taciturn face and a prominent bony nose. His eyes were deep-set and of a pale, blood-shot blue.

“Saw you drive up yesterday,” he said in a low, raspy voice after I introduced myself.

“One of your neighbors called me,” I said. “About the... thing you were working on.”

He looked away. “Marilyn Doughty, I s’pose. Busybody old maid,” he muttered.


He turned back and said sharply, “She saved my life, you know,” as if warning me off the idea that being a busybody was in any way a bad thing. I told him I had heard about his good luck.

“It hardly seems important now,” I went on, “but yesterday I was interested in the, um, work that you’re doing out there in your yard.”

“Oh,” Everett Halsey said with a wave of his big, calloused hand. “That.”

“It’s very unusual.”


He was silent. There was going to be no way around it. I cleared my throat. “Why did you carve a naked woman out of a tree in your yard, Mr. Halsey?”

Halsey chuckled, then winced. “Well,” he rasped, “that pine had to come down. It was too big. Sheila said it made the front of the house too dark. Gloomy. You know?”

Sure, I thought. As opposed to the bright, cheerful mood a bit of lewd whittling always brings. “Okay,” I nodded my understanding. “But why the... you know.” I waved an hourglass shape in the air with my hands.

Halsey let out a deep sigh. “It’s hard to explain. I was gonna cut down the stump, but all of a sudden I started to see her. There, in the wood.”

“See her?” I repeated.

Halsey shrugged. “I’m no artist, but the feeling came over me to make something. Something beautiful.” His voice lowered with apparent embarrassment at the words. “My wife Sheila and I — we aren’t too much alike. She likes art and books and culture... you know. Me, I’ve always been just a plain person. Retired last year from Bath Iron Works. Anyway, now that I’ve been home a lot, seems like Sheila and I — we don’t have too much in common. But yesterday I was working out there and it kind of came over me. Inspiration. I worked all day, skipped lunch and never even missed it.”

“But you said ‘I saw her.’ What do you mean by that?” I asked. Something about his words was jangling a memory.

Halsey frowned. “The shape. It started to remind me of a picture I saw in one of Sheila’s books. It was about all the paintings and sculptures they have there in—” He frowned, and snapped his fingers with the effort of remembering. “What’s that big museum in Paris?”

“The Louvre,” I said absently. “You saw her in the wood,” I repeated. I pictured it — the upper torso slightly turned, the graceful droop of one shoulder... Then it hit me. What the thing out on the lawn was — what that splintered, sappy piece of pine stump was. I recognized it.

“It’s Winged Victory,”  I exclaimed.

Everett Halsey smiled, a smile of real sweetness that transformed his long face. He slapped a hand on the side bar of his hospital bed. “That’s the one,” he said, nodding. He was an artist, pleased that his work had been appreciated. “Something about how that stump was curved... I just saw it. I started chipping away and couldn’t seem to stop. It was relaxing. It doesn’t have the wings, of course,” he admitted.

“Of course,” I agreed. “The stump’s not wide enough.” Now that I thought about it — the resemblance was obvious. The posture of Evelyn Wyatt Szymanski, pointing back to her house, had reminded me of it, too. The angled upper torso with the gracefully arched back, the stance, one leg slightly forward. Everything except — I glanced at Everett Halsey and frowned. “It’s a little more... endowed,  up top, than the Greek one,” I said delicately.

“Well,” Halsey said, with a self-deprecating little shrug and a smile. His pride was evident.

So one small mystery was solved: Why Halsey carved the stump. But it left the bigger question. Who would shoot him over it? As it turned out, the information I gave the police led them to the guilty party. This was to the great delight of Boss Hogg, who insists on calling me his “little investigative reporter” now. It makes me want to smack him, but the moniker came with a raise, so I rein myself in.

It was Drew Richards. When the police went to Richards’ house to interview him they did exactly as I suggested and asked Richards to step outside. They walked him across the street and stood directly in front of Halsey’s wooden carving.

According to the lieutenant, Richards basically lost it right there. He started shaking and sweating and began rambling about how Halsey was out to get him. H

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alsey was trying to trick him. Into confessing.

Which is exactly what he did. It turns out that when Drew Richards looked at that headless, armless pine stump of a woman he was reminded of someone, too. Only it wasn’t a famous Greek statue. It was his girlfriend. Richards had moved to Witka from Lewiston, arriving on Little Brook Lane with a moving van and all his worldly possessions, among which was a large, commercial-grade plastic container that he buried in the backyard shortly after moving in. Later, the dismembered remains of his former girlfriend, Amanda Deveraux, were discovered inside.

And what was it that I had told the police? Just this: Drew Richards had been the only person that day who would not look at the stump . Everyone else, complain as they did, couldn’t seem to look at it enough. Richards couldn’t bear to.

So everything was back to normal in Witka, or at least as close as we get. Sheila Halsey made Everett cut down the stump after he recovered. Halsey was horrified to hear that some folks thought it was indecent, especially when “folks in France pay to see the same darn thing.” It’s funny, though, people here in Witka still remember Halsey’s statue and go over to Little Brook Lane to see it once in a while. Everett has it in the shed out back. The visitors include Evelyn Wyatt Szymanski. According to her, her daughter Janie’s birthmark began to disappear shortly after she touched “the wood lady.” It’s gone completely now. Evelyn, to this day, swears it was some kind of miracle. But I don’t know; they say those things just disappear on their own sometimes.

I do know that as I carved a pumpkin for my front step that Halloween I thought about the power of objects and images. That is what Halloween’s about, after all. The power of ghoulish images to frighten away evil spirits, to exorcise demons. Everett Halsey created such an object, one that spoke to each person differently. To some it was an artistic inspiration revealed, to others an expression of guilt, or a sick fantasy, and in the end, maybe even a miracle. And to Drew Richards? It was an accusation. One that his own conscience couldn’t live with.

Chalk up one evil spirit, chased out of Witka.

Copyright © 2009 Maurissa Guibord

The Way They Limp

by  Clark Howard

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Five-time Readers Award winner Clark Howard is one of the all-time masters of the mystery/crime short story. This autumn, at the Bouchercon Convention in Indianapolis, the Short Mystery Fiction Society will be recognizing his incomparable accomplishments in the field when they make him the first winner of a new award named in honor of EQMm’s  long-time, beloved contributor Edward D. Hoch. The Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for Lifetime Achievement will join many other certificates and plaques Mr. Howard has earned — including, of course, the statuette of Edgar Allan Poe that he won in 1981 for best short story.

Angus Doyle was having a late breakfast on the east patio of his gated, guarded estate when his attorney, Solomon Silverstein, arrived.

“You eat yet?” Doyle asked by way of greeting.

“No. And I probably won’t all day,” the lawyer snapped. “I’ve lost my appetite. And my ulcer is going crazy. It’ll probably perforate.”

“Oh? What’s bothering your ulcer, Sol?”

Silverstein sat and drew over an extra chair on which to place and open his briefcase. From it he extracted four documents folded in blue legal covering. “These are what’s bothering me,” he said, placing them directly in front of Angus Doyle’s breakfast plate.

“What are they?” Doyle asked, not touching them.

“Subpoenas, Gus. Federal grand-jury subpoenas. For Quinn, Foley, Dwyer, and Connor.”

“But not for me?”

“Not yet.”

Doyle grunted quietly. “What’s the grand jury looking at? RICO again?”

RICO. Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations. An all-purpose federal crime designed to bring down organized-crime operations.

“No, not RICO. Not this time, Gus.” The lawyer’s expression turned grim. “This time it’s income-tax evasion.”

“What!” Doyle was taken aback. “I pay my taxes!” he declared indignantly.

“Of course you do,” Sol said. “On your legitimate businesses. On your up-front operations: the bowling alleys and bars, the laundry and dry-cleaning services, the limo and escort services, the convenience-store franchises, all the rest. But you don’t pay income tax on the other stuff: the gambling, hijacking, prostitution—”

“How the hell can I?” Doyle demanded. “Those things are illegal!” 

“Exactly. And that’s what they’re now trying to get you for. Income is income, whether it’s legal or illegal. Remember a fellow named Al Capone?” The attorney leaned forward urgently. “Can’t you see what they’re doing? Quinn, Foley, Dwyer, and Connor. Your four top men. Between them, they know everything  about your operation. Everything you run, all the front businesses, the payoffs, where the money comes from, where the bodies are buried—”

“Sol, please. I’m eating,” Doyle said.

“Do you see my point?”


“Look, they’re going to bring in each of your men separately to be questioned by Department of Justice attorneys in front of a secret grand jury. No defense lawyers are allowed, there’s no transcript, no rules of evidence apply because the purpose is not to convict  anyone, merely to indict.” Silverstein took a deep breath. “Do you suppose I can get a glass of cold milk?”

Doyle rang a small silver bell on the table. In seconds a white-coated attendant appeared and the milk was ordered. “Sure you wouldn’t like something to eat, Sol? Eggs, bacon, O’Brien potatoes?”

“Good God, no! Do you want to kill me?”

There was a twinkle of mischief in Angus Doyle’s eyes, with just a hint of malice attached to it. Doyle was a stout, almost brutish, ruddy-faced man who could eat anything, and who could, and had, killed enemies with his bare hands. He was Black Irish to the core, and while he valued Solomon Silverstein to a large degree, he had never really been fond of him. In his entire life, Angus Doyle had never really been fond of anyone who was not Irish.

Sol fidgeted with a corner of the starched white cloth of Angus Doyle’s breakfast table. A thin, hyper, dedicated worrier of a man, he was nevertheless a brilliant litigator and appellate attorney who had kept Angus Doyle out of legal harm’s way for two decades, and someone whom Doyle had made very wealthy in return. When his glass of cold milk arrived, the lawyer gulped it down in several swallows, then rubbed his stomach as if to spread around its soothing effect.

“Tell me in plain language what’s bothering you, Sol,” Doyle said, continuing to devour the O’Brien potatoes laced with onions and green peppers.

“Quinn, Foley, Dwyer, and Connor. They will be questioned individually, in secret, and no one except the Justice Department attorney and the anonymous grand-jury members will ever know what they say. But  — everything they say can be used to find evidence against anyone they give testimony about.”

Doyle belched. “So?”

“So, Gus, suppose one of them cuts a deal with the government?”

“One of my  men? Sol, please.”

“It could happen, Gus. One of them gives enough information for the government to find cause to indict you, and you’d never know which one did it. Even they  wouldn’t know which one did it. You go down. Your entire organization is wiped out. And the government gives immunity to Quinn, Foley, Dwyer, and Connor — so nobody ever knows who the informer was.”

“None of my men would ever do that,” Doyle said confidently.

“What makes you so sure? How do you know how much the government has compiled on each of them over the years? How do you know how much pressure can be put on one of them? Immunity, Gus, can be an orchid in a field of weeds.”

Doyle stopped eating. His expression grew thoughtful. “All right,” he said quietly, “for the sake of argument, suppose one of them does  cut a deal. What happens next?”

“The government indicts you on numerous counts of income-tax evasion. They prove that you could not possibly have maintained the lifestyle you’ve established on the legitimate income you claimed on your tax returns.”

“How the hell can they prove something like that?”

“Paper trail, Gus. The cars you’ve bought over the years. The Canali suits and shirts you’ve had made. The Salvatore Ferragamo python shoes you wear. That Girard-Perregaux wrist watch you’re wearing that cost five hundred thousand dollars. The yacht you’ve got docked in Florida. The homes you own in Vail, Barbados, Costa Rica. Vera’s jewelry. Doreen’s private school in Switzerland—”

“Okay, okay.” Doyle raised a hand to stop the lawyer’s soliloquy, “I get the picture.” He pushed his plate away in disgust. “A man can’t even buy gifts for his wife and see that his daughter gets a proper education without the goddamned government sticking its nose into it,” he muttered irritably. After a few moments, he sighed wearily and said, “Assuming you’re right, what exactly happens then?”

“A caravan of federal agents will show up at daybreak some morning, put you under arrest, declare this place a crime scene, evict Vera, Doreen, and all the servants—”

“How can they do that? This is my home , for God’s sake! What right do they have to declare it a crime scene!”

“Your vault, Gus,” the lawyer said quietly. “Whoever blows the whistle on you will tell them about your vault.”

Doyle’s eyes widened to the point of bulging. Beneath his mansion was a lower level which housed an extensive wine cellar, a mammoth gun collection, and a floor-to-ceiling bank-style vault that was one of his most prized possessions.

“My vault,” he said to Sol Silverstein in a flat, dangerous tone, “is private  property. It’s where I keep my rare stamp collection, my movie memorabilia collection, my ancient-coin collection, my gem collection, my early American postcard collection, and my baseball-card collection.” Now his voice faltered a bit. “Those things are personal , Sol. They mean a great deal to me. The government has no right to meddle with my hobbies!” 

“That vault,” Sol quietly reminded him, “is also where you hoard money, Gus. I’ve seen sheaves of currency stacked to the ceiling in a back corner. The government will seize that money and everything else of value in that vault. I advised you not to have it installed, remember? Just as I advised you to have Quinn, Foley, Dwyer, and Connor retain private individual attorneys of their own, instead of having me representing them and  you.”

“I like to have everything under one roof, Sol,” Doyle fretted. “Easier to keep track of things.”

“Yes, well, in this case it just made it easier  to subpoena everyone with one stop.”

Doyle rose and walked to one end of the patio, from which he could see across meticulously manicured, flower-lined grounds to an eight-car garage behind and detached from the main house. In front of an open port was parked one of his wife Vera’s cars, a silver Bentley Arnage sedan. It was being wiped down with a chamois cloth by Harry Sullivan, a quiet but deceptively tough young man who was employed as a driver and bodyguard for Doyle’s second wife, Vera Kenny Doyle. Sullivan, known more commonly as Sully, also drove and bodyguarded Doreen, Doyle’s twenty-one-year-old daughter by his first wife, Edna Callahan Doyle, whom Doyle had lost to lymphoma when Doreen was only ten. Three years later, with Doreen approaching adolescence, Doyle had seen the need of a stepmother for her; there were, after all, many things of a sensitive, female nature with which even the most devoted single father was ill prepared to deal.

For his second wife, Angus Doyle had chosen and courted twenty-eight-year-old Vera Kenny, who managed Doyle’s escort service, and who was the daughter of a late friend of the younger Angus Doyle, at that time just making his mark in the Irish mob known as The Clan. Doyle, forty when he took his second wife, was twelve years older than Vera Kenny, but the two made a good fit and young Doreen took to her stepmother at once, thus removing a good deal of worry from Doyle’s mind. In all, Gus Doyle would have been a man of continuing contentment had it not been for the goddamned Department of Justice.

“All right, Sol,” Doyle said, turning his attention away from the eight-car garage, “what do we do now?”

“We have to get you as clean as possible before Quinn, Foley, Dwyer, and Connor are questioned at the grand jury. That means divesting yourself of as much liquid assets as possible. The other assets — real property, cars, the boat — we can put under protective mortgages so that the government can’t say that you bought them outright, therefore they can’t be used as evidence against you in a tax-evasion case. You see, it’s cash —  that’s what they need. Cash in bank accounts, safe-deposit boxes, certificates of deposit, cash in that vault of yours — how much do you have stacked up down there anyway?”

“I don’t know.” Doyle shrugged self-consciously. “Maybe seven or eight.”

“Seven or eight hundred thousand?”


“Seven or eight million?  For God’s sake, Gus.”

“It’s money I put away for a rainy day.” Doyle pointed an accusing finger at the lawyer. “You don’t know what it’s like to grow up dirt poor, Sol. If you did, you’d understand.”

Silverstein stared at his client in astonishment. From an inside coat pocket, he removed a handkerchief and blotted his forehead. He did not want to hear Angus Doyle’s poverty-in-the-Chicago-slums story again. “Gus,” he said firmly, “I want to know — exactly —  how much money you have — anywhere , Gus — that can be traced to you. How much?”

Doyle sat back down and drummed his thick fingertips silently on the tablecloth. After a long moment of staring at his attorney with pursed lips, he said, “Twenty-five million.”

“How long will it take to pull it all together — close all the accounts, empty all the safe-deposit boxes, cash in all the certificates of deposit?”

Another shrug from Doyle. “Three, four days, I guess. But what the hell am I supposed to do with that much cash?”

“Convert it to bearer bonds, Gus. Convert all of it, along with your ‘rainy day’ cash in that vault of yours.”

“What the hell are bearer bonds?”

“They are unregistered, negotiable bonds payable to the holder regardless of who they were issued to. They’re as good as cash at any bank in the world.”

“So what do we do with these bearer bonds, then?”

“Get them out of the country. Move them to a Swiss bank in the Cayman Islands, where U.S. officials won’t have access to them.”

“How do we do that?”

“Someone you trust has to take them there. Who do you trust?”


“Me! I’m your attorney , Gus. I can’t do anything like that. It wouldn’t be ethical. I could be disbarred.” Sol blotted his forehead again. “Who else do you trust?”

“Quinn, Foley, Dwyer, and Connor.”

“For God’s sake, Gus! They’re the ones I’m trying to protect you against! You can’t ask any of them to help  you, because you don’t know which one to ask. They’re all suspect at the moment. What about Vera? Or Doreen?”

“Not Doreen.” Doyle shook his head vehemently. “I don’t want any of my business touching Doreen. I want her kept out of this completely. Do you understand that, Sol?”

“Yes, of course,” the attorney said quickly. He recognized Angus Doyle’s cold, hard, warning tone, his deadly tone. “I understand. Doreen will be kept out of it entirely, I assure you. That leaves Vera.”

“Yes,” Doyle said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “That leaves Vera.”

After Solomon Silverstein departed, Doyle went inside to his richly appointed, soundproof, and surveillance-protected office and pushed the intercom button for his garage. After three rings it was answered by Harry Sullivan.

“Sully, will you come up to my office, please.”

“Yessir, Mr. Doyle, be right there,” Harry Sullivan said.

By the time Doyle had opened a cold bottle of root beer from an executive refrigerator and was back at his desk drinking it, Harry Sullivan was there.

“Sit down, Sully.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Doyle smiled a slight, pleased smile. “How long have you worked for me now, Sully?”

“Two years and eight months, sir.”

“Do you know what the first thing was that I liked about you, Sully?”

“No, sir.”

“You always addressed me as ‘sir.’ Nobody ever did that before — except, of course, waiters and clerks, servants, people like that. But nobody close.”  He tilted his head slightly. “Why did you do it, Sully? From the very beginning, I mean.”

“I don’t know, sir,” the younger man replied. “It just seemed like the natural thing to do. The respectful thing, I guess I mean to say.”

Doyle fell silent for a long moment, studying Harry Sullivan. The driver-bodyguard was more common looking than handsome, with light brown hair and brooding deep blue eyes. He had, Doyle thought, a dependable look about him, a steadiness . He could, Doyle already knew, be dangerous when necessary, as he had proved two years earlier when a drunken college boy at a house party had gone a little too far in his advances toward Doreen, had in fact torn open her blouse in the shadows of a porch, causing Doreen to yell for Sully, who was parked nearby waiting for her. Sully had broken the young man’s right eye socket with brass knuckles and ruptured his testicles. Doyle, of course, paid all the medical bills, and reasoned  with the parents to convince them not to file criminal charges against Sully, whom he promised to seriously punish himself. Sully’s punishment came in the form of a one-thousand-dollar bonus.

“Do you like your job here, Sully?” Doyle asked.

“Yessir. Very much.”

“Tell me what you like about it.”

“Well, sir, you pay me very good wages. I have nice living quarters over the garage. The work is easy. Mrs. Vera and Miss Doreen treat me very well; they give me Christmas presents—”

“I give you Christmas presents too, Sully. Two thousand dollars it was last year, I think.”

“Yessir, I know that, and it was very generous of you. But what I meant was, Mrs. Vera and Miss Doreen give me personal  Christmas presents.”

Doyle frowned slightly. This was something he didn’t know. “Personal presents like what, Sully?”

“Well, sir, last Christmas Mrs. Vera gave me a really nice sweater, cashmere. And Miss Doreen gave me a wallet with my initials on it. Here, I’ll show you—”

Sully drew a wallet from his hip pocket and stood to hold it over the desk for Doyle to see.

“Very nice,” Doyle complimented.

“That’s what I meant by personal, sir. They just treat me real nice, both of them.”

“Good. That’s good.” Leaning forward, Doyle clasped his hands on the desk. “Sully, I want to ask you a few questions and I don’t want you to be embarrassed by them, or afraid to give me honest answers. You drive for my wife and daughter, but you work for me. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“Definitely, yessir.”

“Good. Very good.” Doyle’s icy gray eyes fixed steadily on Sully. “Do you think my daughter is attractive, Sully?”

“Yessir, very much. She’s one of the prettiest girls I’ve ever seen.”

“You’d never get too, ah — friendly with my daughter, would you, Sully?”

“Never, Mr. Doyle! I know my place, sir. Miss Doreen is way out of my league. If I have any personal feelings about her at all, it’s like she was a little sister to me.”

“Little sister?” Doyle sat back and began drumming his fingers on the desktop while deciding whether he liked that analogy or not. He finally decided that it was all right. “I like that, Sully,” he said, giving the younger man a genuine smile. “You’re doing fine, boyo, fine. Now let me ask you a few things about Mrs. Vera. And remember,” he pointed a finger, “be honest with me.”

“I will be, sir.”

“Tell me about the places she has you drive her to.”

“Ah, let’s see, sir. There’s the hair salon, the manicure shop, her doctor now and again, the dentist, that big bookstore on Michigan Avenue, a lot of those — what are they called — bow something—?”

“Boutique shops?”

“Yessir, that’s it.”

“Does she ever have you take her anyplace you think is unusual?”

“No, sir. Mostly the same places all the time.”

“And what do you and my wife talk about when you’re driving her?”

“Not much at all, sir. Mrs. Vera is usually on her cell phone.”

“Who’s she mostly talking to?”

Sully looked down. “I couldn’t say, sir. I try not to listen.”

“Well, if you had to venture a guess, would you say she was talking to men or women?”

“Women, definitely, sir. I can’t help picking up snatches of her end of the conversation, and it sounds like they’re talking about clothes and shoe sizes and styles and spa treatments, things like that.”

“I see. Does she ever meet anyone for lunch?”

“Yessir. Two or three times a week.”

“Any men?”

“No, sir. Always ladies.”

“Always? Without exception?”

“Without exception, sir. I’ve never seen Mrs. Vera even speak to a man anywhere I’ve ever taken her—”

Just then there was a brief knock on the office door and Doyle’s daughter Doreen stuck her head in. “Daddy, do you know where Sully is? I want to go — oh, he’s in here with you. Sorry, Daddy.” She started to back out, but Doyle stopped her.

“No, no, it’s all right, dear, come in. Sully was just reporting on the condition of our cars. Where is it you want to go?”

“Miranda’s Fashions, downtown. Some dresses I ordered came in and I want to try them on.”

Doyle and Sully were both standing now, and Doreen’s father came around the desk to give her a kiss on the cheek. Doreen was what most people would describe as cute rather than pretty. She looked younger than her age and had a fleshy figure without exactly being plump. By the look on her father’s face, she clearly was adored by him.

“Sully can run you down right now,” Doyle said. “We were finished anyhow.”

“I’ll bring the car right up, Miss Doreen,” Sully said.

“No, I’ll walk down to the garage with you,” Doreen said. “I need the exercise.”

“Do you know where Vera is?” Doyle asked his daughter as they were leaving.

“Out by the pool, last I saw.”

After they left, Doyle watched them through a big picture window as they walked side by side across the manicured lawn. Little sister, he thought. Good. Very good.

Grinning to himself, Doyle returned to his desk and called Sol Silverstein on the lawyer’s cell phone.

“I’m going to take your advice, Sol. I’ll make up some lists today, then tomorrow I’ll have some security people take Vera around to pick up all the cash I have locally. They’ll have a backup car follow them for protection. The outside money, bonds and stuff, I’ll have one of my brokers wire-transfer to a central bank. I’ll have that same bank pick up what I’ve got in the vault and what Vera collects tomorrow. Then I’ll have the bank convert everything to bearer bonds, like you said. I’ve decided to have Vera take it all by charter jet to the Caymans on Saturday. You make the arrangements down there.”

When he finished the call, Doyle went outside and strolled across the west grounds of his estate to the pool to look for Vera.

A mile down the road from the Doyle estate, Sully pulled over and stopped to allow Doreen Doyle to move from the rear seat of the Mercedes-Benz McLaren to the front seat with him.

“What was the big powwow with Daddy all about?” she asked, lighting a forbidden cigarette.

“He wanted to make sure I wasn’t making any moves on you,” Sully said. They leaned together and kissed briefly on the lips.

“If he had any idea the moves you’ve already  made,” she declared lightly, squeezing the inside of his thigh, “he’d kill us both.”

“Me, anyway,” Sully agreed. “I’m sure he’d find a way to forgive his little princess. Is everything all right between him and Vera?”

“Far as I know. Why?”

“He asked me a lot of questions today about where I drove her, who she talked to on her cell phone, whether she ever met any men for lunch.”

“Really! You don’t think he thinks she’s cheating on him, do you?”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“I wonder. You know Sol Silverstein was up to see him this morning.”

“Yeah, I saw his car.”

“They had a kind of intense talk out on the east patio while Daddy was having breakfast. I watched them from my bedroom window. Sol tossed papers of some kind onto the table. They both seemed very serious. Daddy got up and paced. And he drummed his fingers on the table, you know how he does sometimes. Could he be thinking about divorcing Vera?”

“I doubt it. Not for cheating, anyway. He knows if she was cheating on him, I’d be suspicious. And he knows I’d tell him.”

“You would?”

“Sure. I work  for him, Dorry.”

“That doesn’t keep you from sleeping with his daughter.”

“That’s different. I couldn’t help myself. You seduced me.”

I  seduced you!”  Doreen reached to his thigh again, this time pinching it smartly. “You practically raped  me the first time we did it after the party that night when you put poor Freddie Carter in the hospital. God, I will never  forget that night!”

“Me neither. I think we probably raped each other.”

Now she rubbed his thigh a little higher. “Step on it, baby. Let’s pick up those damned dresses and get out to the room.”

Sully kept a small kitchenette that he rented by the month at a long-term executive motel in a nearby suburb. Feeling warm from Doreen’s touch, he eased down on the accelerator.

Back at the mansion, Vera Doyle was sitting up on the chaise lounge where her husband had found her, staring at him in uncertainty.

“This was all Sol’s idea?” she asked.

“Yeah. He said it was the only thing to do. To be on the safe side, you know.”

Doyle had drawn up a deck chair beside Vera’s chaise lounge, and was drinking another root beer.

“What do you think of his theory about Quinn and the others?”

“I don’t know. I’ve known the four of them since we were all kids together on the Lower West Side. We were all in the West End Dukes together. We were like brothers.”

“People change,” Vera said pragmatically. “Then too, Sol is only guessing. He doesn’t know  what the Justice Department is planning.”

“Well, Sol is usually right about those things.”

Vera nodded. “I can’t argue that.” She took the root beer bottle from him and had a sip herself. “It’s the money thing that really bothers me, Gus. That’s a lot of money to be moving at one time. And why me? Can’t somebody else do it?”

“Like who?” Doyle shrugged. “Those four guys are the only ones in the whole of my outfit that I’ve ever  trusted. If I only knew which one was about to rat me out, maybe I could have one of the others move the bearer bonds. But that’s the snag: I don’t  know.”

“You’ve no idea at all who it might be? Not even a suspicion?”

“None. Ed Quinn and Tom Foley and I grew up together down around Halsted and Van Buren. Mike Dwyer and Dan Connor I met in the reform school out in St. Charles. Charleytown, we called the place.” He grunted quietly. “I can’t imagine any of them betraying me. If only one of them limped.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s an old Irish prayer. My granddad Padric taught it to me when I was a boy. Goes like this:

‘May those that love me, love me.
And those that don’t love me,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts,
May He turn their ankles,
So’s I’ll know them by the way they limp.’ ”

“If only that were true,” Vera said.

Doyle took her hand. “Look, sweetheart, the money isn’t going to be that big a deal. After Sol has it all converted into bearer bonds, they’ll be packed neatly in a suitcase. You’ll fly to the Cayman Islands on a chartered plane. I’ll have Sully go with you—”

“Sully? Why Sully? He’s only a driver.”

“And a bodyguard. He’s dependable and very loyal to you. Naturally he won’t know about the bearer bonds; it’ll just be another suitcase. There are several Swiss bank branches in the Caymans; Sol will tell you which one to use. Sully will accompany you to the bank, where a large safe-deposit drawer will already be arranged. Have him wait outside the safe-deposit vault; he won’t ask any questions. You’ll put the bonds in the drawer, get the key, and that will be that. Sully will fly back the next day with the key and leave you to have a nice carefree vacation. I’ll set you up with a suite at the Casuarina; that’s the place you like, remember? As s

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oon as I can, I’ll join you.”

Doyle lifted her hand and sucked on her forefinger. “Say you’ll do this for me, Vera.”

She took her finger out of his mouth and kissed him. “You know I will, Gus. I’d do anything for you, love.”

It took four days to accumulate all the cash into a central downtown bank, and another day for it to be tallied by auditors and the total converted to bearer bonds. The bonds were then moved by a private security firm to Doyle’s mansion, where they were put into his underground vault.

In the interim, Doyle took Sully down to a line of expensive shops on Michigan Avenue and bought him a wardrobe of fashionable vacation wear: sport coats, slacks, shirts — everything he needed to look good with the always elegantly attired Vera.

When they got back from their shopping trip, Doyle himself driving his prized Rolls-Royce Phantom, Doreen came out to meet them in the porte-cochere. As Doyle got out and Sully came around to put the car away, Doreen said, “Sully, did you happen to see my yellow-tinted sunglasses in the Mercedes? I can’t find them anywhere.”

“No, but I’ll look for them, Miss Doreen,” Sully said.

“I’ll ride down to the garage with you in case they’re there.” She kissed her father on the cheek. “Vera wants to talk to you, Daddy. Something about her trip, I think.”

With Doreen in the front seat beside him, Sully guided the big luxury car around a drive that circled the grounds back to the garage building.

“What’s all this about you going somewhere with Vera?” Doreen asked, a little crossly.

“Beats me,” Sully said. “I was hoping you might know. We’re going to the Caymans.”

“For how long?”

“Not long for me. I’m coming back the next day. Vera’s staying on.”

“Something very weird is going on. Sol has been in and out of the house for two days now. And Daddy didn’t hold his usual Tuesday morning meeting with Mr. Quinn and Mr. Foley and the others.”

“I noticed that too. Very unusual.”

Doreen slapped his knee. “I’m not wild about you flying off to some romantic island with Vera.”

“Come on, Dorry. She’s your stepmother.”

“So? She’s not that much older than you. And more than easy to look at, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“You’re talking crazy. This is all business of some kind.”

“It’d better be,” she warned, not a little sternly.

Sully reached over and ran a hand up her skirt.

“Relax, baby. I’m all yours.”

The flight from O’Hare to Grand Cayman was nonstop, six hours, in a luxurious chartered Gulfstream V-SP jet. Sully personally handled all the luggage, including a new Hartmann leather bag Doyle had bought for Sully’s own clothes. In flight, Vera and Sully were served drinks and a three-course gourmet meal pre-ordered by Vera. A limousine met them at Owen Roberts International Airport in Grand Cayman and drove them to the ultra-deluxe Casuarina Resort and Spa, where a two-bedroom beachfront suite had been reserved for Vera. As soon as they had checked in, Vera went into her bedroom and called her husband on one of a dozen disposable, untraceable cell phones she carried.

“We’re here, Gus,” she reported. “No problems. I asked at the desk and was told that the bank is open for another three hours. We’re going there now.”

“Good girl. How’s Sully doing?”

“Like a fish out of water, but he’s okay. I have to admit, it was a good idea sending him. I feel safer with him along. But it’ll be a relief to get this stuff into a bank drawer.”

“To me as well. Let me know when it’s done.”

After the call, Vera gave the cell phone to Sully and watched as he put it under his heel on the patio and crushed it to pieces. Gus, Vera knew, had done the same with the disposable phone on which he had taken her call.

The Cayman Island branch of the Private Bank of Switzerland was on Sheddon Road in George Town. “It’s very easy to find,” Sol Silverstein had told Vera when preparing her for the trip. “Just down from the American Express offices. You’ll ask for a Mr. Unterman. He’ll be expecting you. There’ll be a safe-deposit drawer already rented and waiting for you in one of the private cubicles in their vault. Have Sully take the suitcase in and then wait outside for you. Just put the packets of bearer bonds into the drawer, close it up, and ring for Mr. Unterman. He will lock the closed drawer back into its niche and give you one of the two keys to the niche door; the bank retains the other key — the two keys are different, you see, and it takes both of them to open the door. You send the key he gives you back with Sully the next day. It’s all very simple, really.” Sol had given her a brief hug around the shoulders. “Don’t be nervous, dear. We’ll have this grand-jury mess cleared up for Gus in a couple of weeks at the most. In the meantime, just relax and enjoy yourself.”

“I’ll try,” Vera said.

The federal grand-jury testimony of Edward Quinn, Thomas Foley, Michael Dwyer, and Daniel Connor took place one week later, and consumed only two court days. None of the four gave any testimony that could in any way incriminate Angus Doyle.

But on the third day, a surprise witness did.

“State your name, please,” said the federal prosecutor after the witness had been sworn.

“Vera Kenny.”

“Were you previously Vera Doyle?”

“I was.”

“You were married to Angus Doyle, the subject of this inquiry?”

“I was.”

“Are you now divorced from Angus Doyle?”

“I am.”

“When were you divorced?”

“Five days ago.”

“And where were you divorced?”

“In the Dominican Republic.”

“Your Honor,” the prosecutor said to the presiding federal judge, “at this time we offer the grand jury a certified copy of the Dominican Republic divorce decree of the witness, along with a ruling from the U.S. Department of State confirming that one-party Dominican Republic divorces are recognized as legal in the United States.” He then turned back to the witness. “Miss Kenny, were you recently in the Cayman Islands?”

“I was.”

“What was the purpose of your trip there?”

“To deposit a quantity of bearer bonds into a safe-deposit drawer.”

“What was the value of those bearer bonds?”

“Ten million dollars.”

“Did you deposit them into the safe-deposit drawer?”


“What did  you do with them?”

“I brought them back to Chicago after my divorce in the Dominican Republic and turned them over to the Department of Justice.”

Again the prosecutor addressed the judge. “Your Honor, we would now offer the grand jury a receipt from the Department of Justice for ten million dollars in bearer bonds received from Miss Kenny.” Facing his witness again, he asked, “From whom did you get the bearer bonds in question?”

“From my former husband, Angus Doyle.”

“The same Angus Doyle who is the subject of this grand-jury inquiry?”


“Now then, Miss Kenny, in return for turning over the bearer bonds to the government, and for your testimony before this grand jury, have you been promised anything in return?”

“Yes. The Department of Justice has guaranteed me full immunity from any federal prosecution, and the Department of State has promised me a permanent residence visa in a foreign country. I am also being given protective custody until I am safely out of the U.S.”

“That concludes the testimony of this witness,” the federal prosecutor said.

Two hours later, the grand jury voted a true bill against Angus Doyle and indicted him for twenty-one counts of federal income-tax evasion, each count being a separate criminal felony.

Later that day, a federal strike force surrounded and closed off the estate and grounds of Angus Doyle, and Doyle himself was arrested, handcuffed, and taken away.

Doreen Doyle, in a daze bordering on shock, watched as federal agents began swarming into the house. She was standing out front when Sully and several agents walked up from the garage. Hanging around Sully’s neck was a Department of Justice photo-ID credential identifying him as Federal Agent Harry Sullivan O’Keefe.

“You son of a bitch,” Doreen said.

“Give me a minute with her,” Sully instructed the other agents, gesturing them into the house.

“You dirty, lowlife, lying bastard.” No longer in a daze, Doreen was glaring coldly at him.

“What is it that you’re angriest about?” Sully asked. “The arrest of your father? Or the fact that we had sex?”

“Forget about the sex,” she snapped. “I enjoyed it as much as you did. But without my father, I have nothing. I’ll be all alone — no family, no money—”

“Not true,” Sully told her. “Check with Sol Silverstein. You’ll find that you have a five-million-dollar trust that your father set up for you shortly after your mother passed away. The government can’t touch it. You are very well off, Dorry. You can make a good life for yourself.”

“What about Vera? Do you know where she is?”

“She’s on her way to a foreign country where she will be under the protection of the U.S. Embassy. You’ll never see her again.”

“What will happen to my father?”

“He’ll probably receive a fifteen-year sentence on the tax-evasion charges, and new racketeering violations will be brought against him while he’s in prison. Your father is a major crime figure; he’ll probably never be a free man again. Get used to that, Dorry.”

“Stop calling me ‘Dorry.’”

“All right. Miss Doyle, then. I’ll give you an hour to pack your things, then you’ll have to leave the premises.”

She smiled wryly. “I don’t suppose you’ll be driving me away, will you, Sully?”

“I’ll have another agent give you a lift to a downtown hotel.”

She started into the house. At the doorway, she stopped and turned back. “About the sex. I suppose that was just part of your job.”

“No. That was real.”

“Thanks for that much,” Doreen said. She continued inside.

The senior Department of Justice agent in charge of Operation Gus, as it was called, smiled broadly across his desk at Agent Harry Sullivan O’Keefe.

“One hell of a job, Sully. With all the other bits and pieces of intelligence you provided during your undercover assignment, we’ll be able to get Quinn, Foley, Dwyer, and Connor, too. We may even be able to nail Solomon Silverstein on something. I think we can at least get him disbarred.”

“You’ll leave Doreen Doyle’s trust alone, right?” said Sully.

“Absolutely. You kind of liked her, didn’t you? No, we don’t need it for our case. But we’ll attach everything else. And about a year from now, after we get everybody else, they can all have a big reunion at the federal Supermax prison in Colorado. And you , my friend,” he pointed a finger at Sully, “will get a nice commendation from the department.”

“That’s nice,” said Sully, “but I’m more interested in my thirty-two months’ accumulated salary — and  the six months paid leave I was promised when I went under.”

“That money has already been credited to your personal bank account, as your monthly salary will be while you’re on leave,” said the senior agent. “And that paid leave officially begins right now. Incidentally, I meant to ask you: When you returned from the Caymans, did Angus Doyle or Sol Silverstein ever seem suspicious about the safe-deposit key you brought back?”

“Not a bit. There was no way they could tell that it came from a Chicago bank. It was just a key with a number on it, like any other safe-deposit key.”

“That was a clever plan you worked out with Vera Doyle, switching keys so that they thought the ten million in bearer bonds that she took down there were still in the Caymans bank, instead of being turned over to us.” The senior agent whistled. “Ten million, Sully. A lot of money.”

“Yes, a lot of money.”

And even more, he thought, was the other fifteen million.

The two men shook hands and Sully left the office.

A week later, in the Air Emirates travel office in Manhattan, a lovely Arab woman, dressed in the airline’s stylish ground employee’s uniform, smiled at Sully and said, “Your visa to the United Arab Emirates is valid for six months, Mr. O’Keefe, but is renewable every six months thereafter. You’ll find that the U.A.R.’s visa restrictions are very flexible; our small federation is actively encouraging Western tourism and retirement.”

“That’s good to know,” Sully said.

“Now then, for your flight over, Air Emirates offers a variety of fares. The most comfortable accommodations, of course, are our new private suites which can be closed off from the rest of the cabin, and which are equipped with individual storage space, a coat closet, vanity desk, and personal minibar. Their extra-large seats recline to become a fully flat bed, and the front wall is a wide-screen LCD monitor featuring six hundred channels of entertainment in all languages. Gourmet food service is available at any time. The flight time is twelve hours, forty-five minutes, and you will be met in Dubai by a chauffeured Bentley sedan. The ticket price is twelve thousand, three hundred and twenty-two U.S. dollars. Shall I book a suite for you?”

“Please do,” Sully said, handing her an American Express Platinum card. Vera had wire-transferred fifty thousand dollars to him and he was standing there in a Canali suit, Hathaway shirt, Gianfranco Ferré necktie, and Ferragamo shoes. Might as well get used to going first class all the way, he thought.

As he waited for his ticket to be processed, Sully took from his pocket and reread the letter Vera had sent to him:

You’ll love Dubai, darling. I’ve already leased an absolutely gorgeous apartment for us at the Jumeirah Beach Residence Hotel, with a terrace overlooking the Arabian Gulf where we can sit and have cocktails while the sun goes down. This city is fantastic: restaurants, clubs, entertainment, shopping like I’ve never imagined. We’ll have a wonderful life here, Sully. Hurry over to me. I’m hungry for you... 

Ticket in hand, Sully left the Air Emirates travel office and walked down 59th Street in the direction of his hotel to pack for the midnight departure of his flight.

Vera was right, he thought. They could have a wonderful life together in Dubai. Fifteen million U.S. dollars would buy a lot of good living.

As long as Vera never found out about Doreen.

Copyright © 2009 Clark Howard

Murder in Black and White

by  Mignon F. Ballard

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Author of an award-winning children’s novel, South Carolina’s Mignon Ballard has also been delighting adult readers with a series featuring guardian angel Augusta Goodnight. The seventh book in that series, Hark! The Herald Angel Screamed,  was published by St. Martin’s Press in November of 2008. The first in a new Ballard series, Miss Dimple Disappears,  is due in the fall of 2010, and Bella Rosa Books recently reprinted two of Ms. Ballard’s earlier novels, Final Curtain  and Cry At Dusk .

* * * *

She didn’t remember when she first began to feel afraid. They were such little things: the open window she was almost sure she’d closed; the Boston fern moved a few inches from its usual place on the porch; the fragile lilac she’d pampered all year snapped off at the ground. But when Marty Vaughn saw the broken whiskey bottle in her driveway, she knew it had to be him, and the old terror came rushing back like acid in her veins.

“It’s only a bottle,” her neighbor said, mopping her damp face. Cora Lundy paused in her pruning to shove a strand of graying hair from her eyes and darted a look over her shoulder. “You’d be surprised at the broken glass I’ve picked up out here. Riffraff! What do they care? Now, your husband... what’s his name?”

“Paul. Paul Rydell, and he’s not my husband anymore.”

“Well, let me tell you, honey, he’s not the only one who drinks.” Cora glanced briefly at the large house across the street where bikes and skateboards littered the overgrown yard, and dropped her voice. “Wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it wasn’t that oldest Crutchfield boy — the one with the crazy haircut. Can’t say I like the looks of some of his friends. That bottle likely came from Ed Crutchfield’s liquor cabinet.”

“Not this brand. It’s the cheapest kind of sour mash, but Paul got to where he actually preferred it.” Marty was dismayed to see her hands were shaking.

Her neighbor noticed it, too. “Come on, now,” she said, and with a firm hand led Marty to a bench in the shade. “Don’t let this get you down. You gonna be okay?”

Marty took a deep breath and nodded. “It’s just that I felt so safe here. I didn’t think he’d find us.”

Cora shook her head. “How long has he been out?”

“A little over two months.” Marty knew exactly how long: two months, two weeks, and four days.  “But I left no forwarding address, and I’m using my mother’s maiden name. Cora, how does he know? ”

Her neighbor’s round, flushed face was solemn. “Maybe he doesn’t. You can’t be sure, you know, and I wouldn’t let on to Lynn. You don’t want to frighten the child.” Her voice took on a hearty tone. “Guess she’s all excited about going camping?”

Marty smiled. “Can’t wait! Sleeping bag’s all rolled up and packed — and that blessed camera, too. She should finish her badge requirements this weekend — and won’t we all be glad?”

Cora laughed and pretended surprise. “You mean I won’t have to put on lipstick when I go out to empty the trash? I can hardly wait!” Her expression became serious again. “Marty, what does Lynn really know about her father?”

Marty stared at the grass at her feet. It needed mowing. “She thinks he died. What else could I tell her? She doesn’t remember, and I’m glad. Her father  is a crazed alcoholic who struck me once too often. He would’ve hurt Lynn, too, if I hadn’t come between them... and she was only three.” The vile words seemed to swell in her throat. “Sometimes, Cora, I honestly wanted to kill him.”

Marty leaned against the staunch oak and looked at the quiet street of older homes. Revived with new paint and hard work, they housed a pleasant assortment of families and provided what she had hoped was a peaceful environment to raise her child. Just looking at her own house, a cheerful yellow with dark green trim and narrow porch, made her want to smile. It was hers  — hers and Lynn’s, finally, after moving from one apartment to another, bouncing from town to town every time Paul Rydell had served his puny term in jail, every time the phone rang. The last time he’d been put away for five years for assaulting someone in a bar. It was time enough for Marty to save the down payment while working as an executive secretary, and to be on her way to becoming established as a freelance artist. Her amusing cartoon sketches were especially popular with the greeting-card market, and she was at last able to work out of her own home.

Her home.  And she had earned it. This time neither Paul Rydell nor anyone else was going to ruin her life!

“Hey! Why the big frown? I didn’t bring any bills today.” Brad Myrick, their jovial postman, paused to delve into his bag and bowed as he presented his findings to the two women. “Looks like invitations to the big library fund-raising gala...” He dealt the mail like a poker hand. “Catalog for you, Ms. Lundy... and, oh my! Looks like payday for the Vaughns!” He gave Marty her check with a flourish. “Now you can buy a good-looking outfit for that gala — like that little black job in Addisons’ window.”

Marty smiled and shook her head. “Not this time, Mr. Myrick. I’m afraid that’s not in my budget.”

“You should see what Arlene Harrison ordered,” he said. “Kelly green with a handbag to match. Came in yesterday from California. Now that cost a pretty penny!”

Cora rolled her eyes and directed his attention across the street. “Are the Crutchfields on vacation? That grass is as high as the cost of living, and it’s been awfully quiet over there.”

Brad Myrick wiped his moist face with a large handkerchief and shook his head. “It’s Doreen’s mom. Fell and broke her hip — close to eighty, you know. She took the little ones up to Ohio with her. Oughta be back sometime next week though.”

With a weary sigh he shifted his bag and turned to go, pausing at the end of the walk. “How’s my girl coming with that photography badge?” He laughed. “Must be hard up for subject matter. Even took a couple of me. Hope it didn’t break her camera.”

“She should finish the requirements on their camping trip over the weekend,” Marty told him. “Lynn’s really worked hard on this one. She’s only using black- and-white film and some of her photographs are impressive.” She shrugged. “Or at least they are to me, but I guess I’m a bit prejudiced.”

The postman waved as he resumed his walk. “Well, you tell her I’ll be dropping by that book I promised — the one on photography. Maybe it will help.”

Cora turned away to make a face. “Silly old fool! It’s obvious he has a crush on you, and him old enough to be your father.”

Marty laughed. “Oh, he’s harmless enough. Nosy, though. Probably knows everybody’s secrets.”

Cora watched the wiry figure make his way down the street. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said.

He couldn’t possibly know mine, Marty thought as she dropped her daughter off at the Scout Hut after school that day. The inquisitive Mr. Myrick thought she was a widow who, with her ten-year-old daughter, had moved into the house on his route the year before. Or at least that’s what she hoped he thought.

Lynn gave her mother a parting kiss as they collected her belongings for the trip. “Is something the matter, Mom? Don’t look so sad. I’m coming back, you know.”

Marty returned her hug. “Are you kidding? I’m planning a wild party — can’t wait! Here, don’t forget your camera.” She helped load her daughter’s bulky gear into the van and waved as they pulled away.

What was she going to do with herself? It was only four o’clock and she had the entire weekend to spend as she liked. Alone. Any other time Marty would have looked forward to the luxury, but not now. She felt threatened, vulnerable.

And she was even more intimidated when she saw the dead bird on her front steps.

“A cat. Marty, calm down. It was only a cat. It’s the nature of the beast, you know, and there are several in the neighborhood.” Her friend Pam O’Keefe put a cold glass of water in her hand. “Here. Now, drink it slowly and tell me what’s going on.”

Marty glanced out the window of Pam’s small gift shop a block from her home. Nothing bad could happen to her here where the tree-shaded street seemed welcoming and friendly. Seemed.  She took a sip of water and a deep breath. “It’s Paul. I know it’s Paul, Pam. It’s just like something he would do!”

Pam was one of the few who knew about Marty’s past and of her fear of Paul’s returning. Now she looked at her watch and grabbed keys from a hook by the door, pausing only to put a Closed sign in the window. “Come on! Let’s walk. The air will do you good.”

The two women had become friends when Pam agreed to sell some of Marty’s watercolors and often walked together in the afternoons after work. Pam was one of the few people she had trusted with her secret, but Marty could tell her friend thought she was overreacting.

Now Pam’s voice was light. “Since Lynn’s deserted you to rough it with the Scouts, I’m treating you to pizza tonight. We’ll start with a glass of wine.”

“But what about your family? Really, Pam, you don’t have to—”

“Just hush! Scott can take the kids out for burgers.” Pam linked her arm through Marty’s and picked up her pace. “After all, we deserve a break now and then, don’t you think?” She lowered her voice as they walked past the Crutchfields’. “I don’t like to sound like a prude, but Doreen shouldn’t have left those kids alone like that even if they are in their teens. Their dad’s gone all day, and that oldest one’s a poor excuse for a sitter.” Pam covered her ears as rock music blasted from a room upstairs. “I’ll bet it was that middle boy who put the bird on your steps. Didn’t you tell me he and Lynn had an argument on the school bus last week? You know how vindictive kids can be.”

Pam grinned. “Now, tell me, has the shutterbug earned her badge yet? When’s my picture going to be in Vogue ?”

Marty laughed. Maybe Pam was right. She needed to lighten up, forget about the broken bottle, the dead bird, and all the other trivial annoyances, and enjoy her brief respite from responsibility while her daughter was away.

Later, driving home that night, Marty thought of Lynn’s excitement on receiving the small camera for her birthday. She had zoomed in on earning the photography badge with enthusiasm, recording outings, making photos that told a story, and had even photographed their street at different times of day to achieve variations in light and shadow. Marty smiled. Maybe Lynn would become a skilled photographer someday.

It had begun raining before they left the restaurant, but now it was coming down in earnest and the house was dark as Marty pulled into the driveway. Keys in hand, she dashed for the porch, wishing she’d thought to leave a light on, and barely noticed the bulky object propped against the front door. Marty paused to pick up the bookand hurried inside to switch on the light. She smiled when she saw the title, Plains, Prairies, and Pioneers: Photographs of the Old West,  remembering the friendly postman’s promise.

She knew something was wrong as soon as she stepped into the hallway. Nothing was out of place — at least nothing she could put her finger on. Everything seemed rigidly in order; even the comforter on Lynn’s bed was folded neatly at the foot. Had Paul Rydell been in this house? She was certain someone had.

The police wouldn’t believe her. What could she tell them? That she thought  someone had been here. She had called them once before when shrieking winds sent branches bumping outside her bedroom and had been embarrassed when they found no intruder. Marty checked doors and windows, then turned on a late-night television talk show for company. She would get very little sleep that night.

Yawning over coffee the next morning, Marty was watching Cora water her flowers next-door when Pam appeared, white-faced, at her kitchen door. “Thought I’d better tell you in person,” she began. “Your friend the postman was killed last night. They found him on a street near his home early this morning. Said it looked like a hit-and-run.”

Marty put her head in her hands. Not poor, silly Mr. Myrick! Paul had always been jealous, but surely he hadn’t been envious of the harmless, middle-aged postman! Then she remembered the book. Did Brad Myrick see  who had been in her house the night before?

With unsteady fingers she phoned the police.

“Have you heard anything yet?” Cora asked as they sat on Marty’s porch in the waning twilight.

Marty shook her head. “The police are trying to get in touch with Paul’s parole officer. They have no idea where he went, of course, but I know. He came here.”

Cora had offered to stay the night and Marty accepted, glad of her neighbor’s comfortable presence. Pam had been with her all day, but Pam had her shop as well as her own family responsibilities. Across the street, Ed Crutchfield yelled at one of his boys as the lawnmower struck an object in the grass. Earlier, when he heard about Paul, he had come over and offered to keep an eye on her house, and Marty was grateful for the suggestion. Just then she didn’t care how unkempt his yard became.

“How did Lynn’s pictures turn out?” Cora asked over after-dinner coffee. “Am I on display in the post office yet?”

Marty laughed as she put down her cup. “I’m not sure the ones of you have been developed yet. They might be still in her camera, but I know she has some in an album. It’s in a box in her closet. I’ll get it if you’d like to see them.”

“Never mind! You’ve been through enough. I’ll find it. You just sit there and rest.”

Cora had already started upstairs before Marty could protest and she heard her open the door to Lynn’s room and close it behind her. How did Cora know which room belonged to Lynn when she had never been inside their house before? she wondered.

The telephone rang as her neighbor came downstairs, and she perched on the arm of the sofa thumbing through Lynn’s photos as Marty talked.

“Not bad news, I hope.” Cora glanced up as Marty replaced the receiver. “Why, you’re as white as a sheet, honey! What’s wrong?”

“It’s Paul.” Marty stared at the dark street outside. She mustn’t break down. Not now. “He knows we’re here alone.”

“But how? Are you sure? Where is he?” Cora let the album slide to the floor.

“Somewhere nearby. Watching. Don’t leave me, Cora. Please!”

“No, no, of course not.” The older woman patted her shoulder. “But what about Lynn? Isn’t she in danger, too? One of us should warn her.”

“You’re right. I’m not thinking straight. Oh, Cora, would you?” Marty gripped her neighbor’s plump, freckled ha

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nd. “I’ll be fine — really. I’ll call Ed Crutchfield — the police — just hurry!”

“Yes, yes, but where?” Cora quickly gathered her belongings as Marty rushed her to the door, spouting directions all the while.

She had the receiver in her hand as her neighbor’s car pulled away. The same officer answered who had just telephoned her about Paul’s death. Police had found him earlier in some distant fleabag hotel, dead of alcohol poisoning, he’d told her.

“Please send someone out to check on my daughter at Camp Daisy on Red Bridge Road,” Marty told him, “and I think you might want to look into the background of my neighbor, Cora Lundy, as well. If you’ll take a good look at that dent in her bumper when she gets back from her wild-goose chase in the next county, I believe you’ll learn who killed Brad Myrick last night.”

“How in the world did you know?” Pam asked after Cora was handcuffed and led away. “Sweet little gray-haired Cora! I never would’ve suspected.”

“Sweet little Cora just about had apoplexy when she thought Lynn had taken her picture,” Marty said. “We teased her about it — said we were going to put it on the bulletin board in the post office.”

“Come to think of it, I’ve never seen her photo in the newspaper, even with all the clubs she belongs to,” Pam mused.

“And then I said that about wanting to kill  Paul,” Marty continued. “Honestly, I never guessed she’d done away with three husbands before coming here. They’ve been looking for her for years.”

Pam sat on the living room floor sipping tea. “Then it was Cora who moved the fern and broke your lilac. But why?”

“By accident, I think. She must’ve been trying to see if we were at home so she could get inside and find that film.”

Pam frowned. “But why the dead bird, the broken bottle?”

“When I started asking questions, she needed someone to blame,” Marty explained. “She knew I was terrified that Paul might find us, so he made a natural scapegoat. And I’d said something about Paul’s fondness for sour mash earlier. Remember the neighborhood Christmas party? Somebody was drinking it and I mentioned to Cora that I couldn’t stand the smell.”

Pam stared into her cup. “And poor Mr. Myrick probably saw Cora prying about here last night when he came to leave Lynn the book.”

Marty nodded. “I think so. And this morning when I thought she was watering her flowers, Cora was actually washing his blood from her car. I wondered why she’d be watering after that big rain we had last night.”

Pam looked at her in silence for a minute. “But Marty, when did you really  know?”

“Not until the police called to tell me they’d found Paul. Cora had gone up to Lynn’s room, and it all came together. If it wasn’t Paul, then who was  it? It was obvious that Cora wanted that film.

“Lynn was in danger, and so was I, but I couldn’t let her think I suspected a thing.”

“So you made her think he was really out there watching.” Pam smiled. “Cora must’ve been scared to death.”

“Not half as much as I was,” Marty admitted. “And if she only knew, it could all have been avoided.”

Pam frowned. “Only knew what?”

“I should’ve mentioned it earlier, but she made such an issue of it, I was afraid I’d hurt her feelings, and I didn’t want to disappoint her.” Marty began to laugh. “When Lynn took those photos of Cora, she forgot to put film in the camera.”

Copyright © 2009 Mignon F. Ballard

Too Late

by  Nolen Harsh

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His head is down; his spirits too.
He walks alone in gloom.
His heart is filled with deep despair
As one who nears his tomb.

Not always was his life this way.
He used to dance and sing.
His days were filled with happiness
As flowers in the spring.

He caught his Beth with his best friend
And shot them both quite dead.
His wife, his love she left this world
But would not leave his head.

If he could change that awful deed
he would not hesitate.
But, what is done cannot be changed;
Remorse has come too late.

Copyright © 2009 Nolen Harsh

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На главную » Andrews Dale C. » Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 134 & 135, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 817 & 818, September/October 2009.