Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836, March/April 2011 Doug Allyn (2024)

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836,March/April2011

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836, March/April 2011 Doug Allyn (1)

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836, March/April 2011 Doug Allyn (2)

A Penny for the Boatman

by Doug Allyn

Multiple EQMM Readers Award winner Doug Allyn has displayed an amazing array of talents in his work for us in recent months. When we asked him to read a story by Clark Howard for our podcast series, we never expected the tale to be rendered with a theatricality worthy of a professional actor, nor did we realize that he would not only perform the music for the podcast but create his own arrangement. Now he’s completed an original musical composition for a podcast of one of his own stories. Don’t miss it; it’s coming up soon!

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836, March/April 2011 Doug Allyn (3)

Raising her grizzled head, the black Labrador growled a warning, low in her throat. Luke Falk paused a moment, listening, then went back to his work, sanding the rounded keel of the pontoon in the open double doorway of his boat shop. His grandfather, fishing from his lawn chair on the lakeside deck of Falk Boatworks, paid no mind to the dog, either. Echoes roll for miles along the lakeshore and the Lab could hear visitors long before she saw them. On the isolated cove north of Point Amalie, the only sounds the men could hear were the waves gently lapping and the lonely cries of the gulls.

Annoyed, the Lab rose stiffly to her feet, stalked to the edge of the deck, and barked, a single whuff. This time her warning was answered by the roar of two vehicles speeding along the Point’s narrow access road.

Luke kept on working, shaving a twenty-foot pontoon down a final sixteenth of an inch. He barely glanced up as the two vehicles pulled out of the forest into his yard. Twin black Lincoln Navigators. Identical. The four men who piled out of the first car were also nearly identical. Hard black men in matching dark suits and sunglasses, they quickly established a defensive perimeter around the second Navigator, scanning every inch of the boatyard.

Their leader was nearly seven feet tall, with a shaved head, black suit, snow-white shirt with a red bow tie. His thin, hawkish face was highlighted by tribal tattoos on both cheeks. The oval lenses of his custom-framed sunglasses gave him an alien, praying-mantis look. He took a moment to look over the clearing, then stalked to the open shop door.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for the owner, Mr. Lucas Falk?” the African said politely. His accent was crisp and British.

“That would be me,” Luke said, straightening. He was dressed for work, sleeveless T-shirt, jeans, and cork boots, dark, shaggy hair hanging in his eyes.

“My name’s Deacon, Mr. Falk. I’m chief of security for Miss Aliana Markovic. Do you mind if my people take a quick look around the grounds?”

“Help yourself.” The question was academic anyway. The four dark-suited security types were already prowling through the yard. The search didn’t take long. The only buildings in the clearing were two open drying sheds with their tall stacks of curing lumber, a cabin, and the boat works itself, which extended out over the water on pilings. The buildings were rustic, but carefully crafted, hand built, using timbers taken from the surrounding forest.

As his men scouted the grounds, Deacon walked around the deck that circled the workshop. At the rear of the boathouse, at lakeside, an elderly man was sitting in a lawn chair, fishing off the dock. He was dressed in faded denims, with a seamed face the color of golden oak, his thick, silvered mane hanging loosely to his shoulders. The grizzled Labrador Retriever resting beside his chair growled a warning, her dark eyes locked on Deacon.

“Easy, Razz. Howdy. I’m Gus, Luke’s grandfather,” the old-timer said cheerfully, as though seven-foot Africans stepping onto his deck were an everyday occurrence. “I got cold Coors in the cooler if you’d care for one, Mr...?”

“Deacon,” the African said. “Thank you, but no. I’m working.”

“Relax, son, you’re safe as houses out here. Nobody lives on the Point but us, and this old dog can hear folks coming five miles away. She heard you twenty minutes ago.”

“We weren’t trying to be quiet, Mr. Gus.”

“She hears the quiet ones even quicker,” Gus said. “Are you sure you don’t want—?” But the tall man had already moved on.

Two bodyguards took posts outside as Deacon ducked through the boat-shed doorway. Luke kept working as the tall African moved warily through the building, occasionally picking up a hand tool for a closer look, a chisel here, a hatchet there.

The air in the workshop was rich with the sweet scent of wood shavings and spar varnish. A half-dozen cigar-shaped wooden hulls were laid out on trestles in various states of completion, their seams invisibly joined with pegs and wood glue. But for the bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling beams, the workshop could have time-traveled from the last century. Or even the one before that.

Deacon made no comment until he opened a cabinet, revealing a couple of Winchester ’94 lever-action carbines plus an ’03 military Springfield bolt-action with a telescopic sight.

“What are these?”

“Hunting guns,” Luke replied without looking up.

“The Springfield was a sophisticated weapon for its time. What do you hunt with such a rifle, Mr. Falk?”

“I don’t hunt, my grandfather does. Me, I build boats. Would you like to see a boat, Mr. Deacon? If not, collect your little army, get back in your cars, and hit the road.”

For a moment, Luke thought the African might do just that.

Instead, he took out a cell phone, flipped it open, and pressed a tab. “All clear here,” he said.

The sparrow of a woman who stepped out of the second Navigator seemed much too small to merit all the drama. She was dressed in a simple black skirt and blouse. Her dark hair was covered with a black silk scarf, her eyes hidden by sunglasses.

If she was dismayed by the rough conditions in the shop, she gave no sign of it. Instead, she eyed the pontoon Falk was working on curiously, running her fingers over the wood. She gave Deacon a curt nod, and he stepped outside onto the deck.

“Are you famous, miss?” Luke asked, continuing to plane the long plank, filling the air with the sharp tang of raw pine.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You travel with quite an entourage. Are you a celebrity?”

“No, just a potential customer. I read about your boats in the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog. They looked unique and quite lovely. Though at the prices they listed, I was expecting your establishment to be...”

“A bit less rustic?” Luke offered. “It’s a wood shop, miss. I build handcrafted boats. A shiny new factory would be a contradiction in terms.”

“Perhaps,” she said, sizing him up. Luke was slender as a railroad tie and looked just as hard, with a strong jaw, thick, dark hair, and a Semper Fidelis tattoo on his bicep.

“Do you know anything about boats, miss?”

“I grew up in Dubrovnik, Mr. Falk. I was sailing solo on the Adriatic at ten. Later, we lived in Venice, where even the taxis are watercraft.”

“Excellent,” Luke said, laying the hand plane aside. “Then suppose we skip the sales pitch. I’m lousy at it anyway. C’mon out back, let me show you a boat.”

From the back deck, a pier extended forty feet out into the bay. The sailboat moored at the end was unlike anything Aliana had ever seen. The wooden vessel was poised so lightly atop the water she scarcely seemed to be floating at all. Arched wings connected the central hull to the twin outriggers, giving her the look of a prehistoric bird. She looked more like a mobile sculpture than a sailboat.

“She’s a very... striking craft,” Aliana said quietly.

“She’s a trimaran,” Luke explained. “Two foam-filled outriggers mounted on either side of the central hull, hand carved from Sitka spruce, round bottomed for minimum drag. Her main mast is anodized aluminum, eighteen foot, forward mounted. She’s thirty-two feet long and nearly as wide, with a shipping weight of just under six hundred pounds. The co*ckpit seats four, but she’s much faster with only one or two. Multihulls slow down in a hurry if you overload ‘em.”

“Her deck isn’t spruce,” Aliana observed.

“You’re right, it’s not,” Luke acknowledged, surprised. “Because of the arch, most boatwrights use marine plywood but the Anishnabeg prefer—”

“I’m sorry, the what?”

“Native Americans, my grandfather’s people. Around here, folks call them Ojibwa or Chippewa, but Anishnabeg is their term for themselves. We were too busy grabbing their land to bother getting their names right. The lake tribes often framed their war canoes with red or white cedar. It’s resilient, its natural oils make it water resistant, and it’s soft enough to allow for intricate carving. For them, every boat was a work of art.”

“No more than this one,” Aliana said quietly. “The pictures in the catalog don’t do her justice, Mr. Falk. She’s magnificent. Is your hull design based on the Shearwater series?”

“You really do know boats,” Luke nodded in approval. “Actually, this design predates the Prouts Shearwaters by a thousand years. Ancient Polynesians built multihulled proas with rounded bottoms.”

“They never built anything like this,” Aliana said. “Can we take her out?”

“Sure, if you don’t mind shucking your high heels. I have extra deck shoes if you—”

“I’ve never worn shoes on a boat in my life,” she said, slipping off her pumps, leaving them on the pier as she stepped gracefully into the craft. “I’m not a civilian, Mr. Falk.”

And she wasn’t. After cranking up just enough sail to maintain headway, Aliana took the helm and guided the trimaran skillfully through the breakers near the shore and out into the bay. Seated in the stern, Luke coached her briefly on the boat’s behavior, but mostly he just watched. She was clearly at home at the tiller, absorbing his instructions and every quirk of the craft like a skilled rider learning the gait of a new horse. And she was a very quick study.

Before long, she relaxed, enjoying the ride. As they neared the open water of the bay, she took off her scarf, letting the lake wind riffle her dark hair, cropped short as a boy’s.

But as Luke started to winch up the mainsail, she shook her head. “No. Keep her short-sailed, please. Within sight of the shore.”

Luke glanced shoreward. The tall African was standing beside Gus’s chair, arms folded, watching them intently.

“You can’t demonstrate her properly this close to land, miss.”

“Deacon worries if I’m out of his sight. I’d prefer not to upset him.”

“You’re perfectly safe out here.”

“You create beautiful boats, Mr. Falk. Deacon’s vocation is keeping me safe. He takes his work very seriously.”

“So I gathered. Why all the bodyguards? Northern Michigan isn’t the Wild West.”

“America has the highest murder rate in the industrialized world. Michigan is its most violent state.”

“That’s in the big cities down below, miss, Flint and Detroit. Up here, you’re on the tip of the mitten. The nearest town is Valhalla and a Saturday night bar brawl is as rough as it gets.”

“Perhaps we live in different countries called America, Mr. Falk. Thank you for the demonstration, we should go back now. You’d better take the helm.”

“Whatever you say.” Luke shrugged, trying to hide his annoyance as they traded seats. But as he brought the craft about and headed back to the landing, he couldn’t help staring at the woman. She wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she was a striking figure. Drab as a sparrow and as alone as anyone he’d ever met. He wondered what her eyes looked like behind the shades... She caught his glance, and he quickly looked away.

At the dock, she stepped briskly ashore, slipped on her shoes, and retied the black scarf. Murmuring something to Deacon, she followed Luke into the boathouse, eyeing him curiously as he picked up the wood rasp and returned to his work.

“You weren’t joking when you said you weren’t much of a salesman, Mr. Falk. Fortunately, your handiwork speaks for itself. She’s a lovely craft. I’ll take her.”

“What?” Luke was so startled, he ran the rasp across his knuckles. “Damn!”

“Are you all right?”

“I’ll live,” Luke said, grimacing. “Did you say you want to buy the boat?”

“Yes, why?”

“You didn’t give her much of a test run, miss. And you haven’t even asked the price.”

“Very well, how much?”

“Sixty thousand dollars.”

“That seems little enough for such a beauty — you’re bleeding, Mr. Falk. Do you have a first-aid kit?”

“At the end of the counter, miss, but you needn’t—”

“Let me see to it. You’re bleeding all over that hull.”

Popping open the metal box, she quickly found disinfectant and gauze. “Give me your hand, please.” Reluctantly, Luke offered his wounded paw. She frowned, eyeing the new gash and a dozen more scars surrounding it.

“Sorry,” he said, “it’s been awhile since my last manicure.”

“You’ve never had a manicure in your life,” she said briskly, swabbing down the cut with disinfectant. “You needn’t apologize for using your hands to create beauty. I do business with manicured men every day. The planet would be a better place if most of them were stood against the nearest wall and shot. Hold still, please.”

Taking off her sunglasses, she expertly constructed a butterfly bandage from surgical tape and a bit of gauze and applied it to the gash. Luke scarcely noticed. Minus the glasses, her eyes were utterly magnetic, dark as deep water. And just as unreadable. Sensing his eyes on her, Aliana glanced up, meeting Luke’s gaze, and holding it. Taking his measure. Then she returned to her work. But she didn’t replace her sunglasses.

“That should do it,” she said briskly, pressing the bandage in place. “As for the boat, I’ll take her, but not at sixty. She’s worth seventy to me, so let’s make that the price.”

“A penny for the boatman?” Luke asked coldly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s a poem, miss. Every kid in the north country knows it.

Her sails may be tattered, her seams caulk’d and old,

but the river is the glacier’s daughter.

Spare a penny for the boatman, you’ve no use for gold

If ye drown in her deep green water.”

“It’s not a very... cheerful verse, is it?” She smiled.

“The point is, boating on the Great Lakes is serious business. Life and death, sometimes. Ask the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. But I’m not a ferryman, Miss Markovic, or a bellhop. You don’t have to tip me.”

“I wasn’t trying to insult you, Mr. Falk, I’m only saying sixty thousand for that craft isn’t nearly enough. How many hours did you work on her?”

“I’m — not exactly sure.”

“Why am I not surprised? Look at this place! You’re a marvelous artist, Mr. Falk, but no serious businessman could work here. It’s a freaking shambles.”

“I know exactly where everything is.”

“I don’t doubt that, but—”

Deacon poked his head in. “Is there a problem?”

“We’re haggling!” Aliana snapped. “Get out!”

Deacon got.

“I’m not talented, Mr. Falk, I can’t create beauty, but in my business I appraise merchandise and price it fairly every day. I won’t cheapen your work by paying you less than I know its true value to be. Trust me, I can afford it.”

“That’s not the point. I’m not a charity case.”

“I didn’t say you were,” Aliana said, exasperated. “Look, do you want to sell the damned boat or not?”

“Of course, but—”

“Fine! We’ll split the difference. The price is sixty-five thousand, or you can burn her at the dock for all I care!”

Luke almost told her where to stick her sixty-five. He took a deep breath instead. “You drive a hard bargain, miss,” he said. And they both burst out laughing.

“Done deal.” Aliana nodded. “I’d like her delivered to New York at—”

“Whoa, slow down, miss,” Luke interrupted. “Your boat isn’t ready for delivery. She has to be properly fitted to you. I’ll need to make some adjustments, then you’ll have to come back to be sure they’re right.”

“That’s simply not possible. My schedule—”

“I create custom crafts for a select clientele, Miss Markovic. They’re not toys or decorations, they’re meant to be used. If you haven’t time for a proper fitting, you’ll never be one with your boat, and I won’t sell her to you.”

“Dear God! Please don’t take offense, Mr. Falk, but I deal with a great many merchants. You are the rock-bottom worst salesman I have ever met.”

“I’m not a salesman at all, miss, I’m a boatman. And what is it you do?”

“I... deal in surplus commodities.”

“That’s awfully vague.”

Her taut smile was equally vague. “My business is my business, Mr. Falk. But I do want the craft, so I suppose I’ll just have to free up some time. What adjustments have to be made?”

“The bench will be custom carved to your size and the winches moved within easy reach. And she’ll need to be named, of course. What will you call her?”

“I... hadn’t given that much thought.”

“Why not the Aliana? It means morning star, doesn’t it?”

He could almost hear her defensive shields clicking into place. “How would you know that?” she asked suspiciously

“I read a lot, miss. Call her whatever you like. I’m just saying Aliana’s a pretty name.”

“It’s tempting,” she said wryly. “I doubt anyone else will name a boat after me. But no. She should have a name of her own. What was that poem you recited?”

” ‘A Penny for the Boatman’?”

“Right. Since we had so much trouble over her price, we’ll call her the Penny.”

It was a day for visitors. Barely half an hour after Deacon and Aliana roared off in the twin Navigators, an unmarked blue Chevy Blazer rumbled into the boatyard. Two men in summer-weight suits climbed out, looking around warily. The older man was balding, fortyish, and pudgy, with dark rings under his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a decade. The younger was bullet-headed, wide as a linebacker, with fiery red hair and an attitude to match.

“Federal agents, ATF,” he announced, flashing a badge in Luke’s general direction. “I’m Agent Gordon Larkin, he’s Ridley. Are you Lucas Falk?”

“Guilty,” Luke said. “But I’m a bit behind on my federal alphabet. What’s ATF?”

“Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Mr. Falk. Why was the Markovic woman here?”

“She was shopping for a boat, why?”

“Just answer the questions. How many men in her crew?”

“I didn’t count.”

“A woman shows up in the middle of nowhere with a small army and you didn’t notice?” Larkin snorted.

“She had an entourage, sport, so does Madonna. What is all this?”

“I talked to the tall one,” Gus offered, coming around from the deck carrying his fishing pole. “Said his name was Deacon. Seemed like a nice fella.”

“Butt out of this, pops, I’m talking to Mr. Falk.”

“We’re both Mr. Falks,” Gus said mildly, “I’m Luke’s grandfather. Taught the boy everything he knows. Most folks call me Gus, not Mr. Falk. But nobody calls me pops, sonny. It’s disrespectful.”

“No offense intended, Mr. Falk,” the older agent put in. “But we’re dealing with a matter of national security here, so—”

“Which nation?” Gus interrupted. “We got a slew of ‘em up here. The U.S. of A., Canada across the lake, France, England, the Cree Nation, Ojibwa and Odawa tribes have all claimed this ground, one time or another. Fought for it, too. Which nation do you boys work for?”

“The United States of America, grandpa,” Larkin said, flushing dangerously, “and you’d best show a little respect—”

“Lighten up, mister,” Luke said, cutting him off. “He’s jerking your chain. Grandfather, give me some space with these guys, okay? The sooner I figure out what they want, the sooner they’ll be gone.”

“Not soon enough,” Gus grumbled. “That redhead’s got no manners — yeah, yeah, I’m going,” he added, before Larkin could react. “Me and Razzy will be out back fishin’. If you need help bouncin’ these two, you just whistle, Grandson. I’ll be happy to oblige. C’mon, girl.” Gus and the old dog disappeared around the back of the shed, with Gus muttering to himself all the way.

“That old man—” Larkin began.

“Is a full-blooded Cree chief,” Luke finished. “He won the Silver Star in Korea before you were born, and he’s right, you’ve got lousy manners. Now tell me what you want, or take a hike.”

“You don’t talk to a federal agent like that,” Larkin blustered.

“Will everybody just calm down,” Ridley said, waving off his partner. “We’re all Americans here, Mr. Falk. The Markovic woman is a witness of interest in an ATF investigation. Would you be kind enough to tell us why she was here? Please.”

“She bought a boat,” Luke said reluctantly.

“What kind of a boat?”

“A custom sailboat, the only kind I build.”

“When will she take delivery?”

“Not for a few weeks. I have to make some modifications, then she’ll test sail it again.”

“Perfect,” Larkin said, nodding at his partner. “While you’re at it, you can install a device for us.”

“What kind of a device?” Luke asked. “You mean a bug?”

“That’s classified—”

“It’s also stupid,” Luke snapped, exchanging his rasp for a narrow-bladed hand chisel. “Your gimmick would have to be mounted in the co*ckpit and the woman knows boats. She’d spot anything out of place in a heartbeat. And don’t you guys need a warrant or something?”

“Leave that to us,” Ridley said. “We’ll install the device ourselves. Just let us know when she’s taking delivery.”

“I don’t think so.”

“This isn’t a casual request,” Ridley said. “You were a soldier once, Mr. Falk. Your country needs your help again.”

“Stow the flag, sport, you’re waving it at the wrong guy.”

“You don’t care about your country?” Larkin asked dangerously. “What kind of American are you?”

“The kind who served two tours in Iraq,” Luke said. “How about you, Larkin? Ever wear the uniform?”

“I’m serving my country now,” Larkin said.

“Wise move,” Luke nodded, carefully shaving down a seam with the chisel. “My time in Iraq didn’t go too well.”

“Why not?”

“I was stationed in the boondocks near the Iranian border. Because of suicide bombers, anyone approaching our position out of the desert got a warning shot at fifteen hundred yards. If they didn’t turn back, the next one was in the head. In fifteen months, I dropped eight intruders. One was a boy. Thirteen or fourteen, tops, wheeling a bicycle loaded with enough Semtex to erase half our base. They gave me a medal for capping him.”

“Then what’s the problem?” Larkin asked. “If he was armed—”

“Oh, I can live with popping that kid. Bad as it was, he was damn sure trying to kill us. It’s the others that bother me, the poor bastards who were probably lost, looking for water. Nobody gave a damn about them, not their government, certainly not ours. But I remember them. Can’t sleep sometimes, remembering them. So I took a Section Eight discharge and came home to the lake country. There’s plenty of water here. If you’re thirsty, you can drink all you want. But I don’t do government work anymore, guys. I never will again. Have a nice day now, hear?”

Luke turned to go back to his work, but Larkin grabbed his arm, jerking him around.

“We asked you politely, mister, but you’d better wise up. Nobody gets a pass from the War on Terror. One word from us and the IRS can shut down your little jerkwater shop and tie you up in court for the next ten years.”

“That’s a lot of trouble for a bug that won’t hear anything.”

“Just do as you’re told,” Larkin said, pulling Luke closer, face-to-face, “or you’ll have more trouble than you ever dreamed of.”

“You don’t know what trouble is, sport,” Luke said softly, flipping the chisel into the air, snatching it by the haft, and pressing the blade lightly against Larkin’s necktie. “Not even when you’re in it.”

On reflex, Larkin started to reach for his gun.

“I wouldn’t do that, young fella,” Gus said with a chuckle, stepping around the corner of the building, an old Winchester carbine cradled casually in his arms. “Don’t lose your head.”

“Everybody stand down!” Agent Ridley snapped, raising his hands. “We came here looking for cooperation, Falk, not trouble. If you won’t serve your country—”

“I’ve paid my dues, mister. In blood. This is my country now, forty acres and a workshop. And the only orders I take are for boats. Go away. Leave us alone.”

Ridley read Falk’s eyes, ice blue and just as cold. “Sorry you feel that way, Mr. Falk. If you change your mind, you can reach us at this number.” He laid a business card on the workbench. “Let’s go, Gordie.”

“You should have backed my play,” Larkin complained. They were in the Blazer, on the road back to Valhalla. “We could have busted them both for assault.”

“They aren’t suspects, Gordie, they’re citizens. We had no grounds for an arrest.”

“Lying to a federal agent’s a crime. Falk’s military records didn’t mention anything about sniper school.”

“The rest of it fits,” Ridley said. “Falk was assigned to an intercept unit near the border, and a Section Eight discharge for mental instability isn’t something a guy would brag about. I’m ninety percent certain everything Mr. Falk told us back there was the flat-ass truth.”

“That doesn’t mean we can’t lean on him,” Larkin argued. “We can order an IRS audit, have the bank cut off his credit—”

“There’s no time for that! HQ says the Markovic woman is a ‘significant witness.’ They need dirt on her in a hurry. Falk made head shots on a half-dozen people he wasn’t even mad at. He’s not somebody we can push.”

“Then we go at him another way.”


“He said the Markovic woman would test the boat. If she’s on the water alone, and we find drugs on board, it’s open and shut. If Falk’s with her, all the better. We collar him, too.”

“You mean plant dope on board?” Ridley said, staring at this partner. “Our instructions are to plant a bug.”

“You’re the one who says HQ wants her in a hurry.”

“Jesus, you’re crazier than I thought. Didn’t you learn anything from that co*cked-up shooting in Detroit? You wounded two civilians trying to bust a trucker smuggling cigarettes, Gordie. You’d be in jail yourself if your uncle wasn’t a deputy commander at Quantico.”

“But he is,” Larkin said flatly. “And if the bureau dumped a screw-up like me up here, what does that make you, Ridley? What’s your great sin?”

“I... have a... bit of a drinking problem,” Ridley admitted.

“So now we’re both stuck here in Siberia. Look, all the bureau cares about is results. My uncle still jokes about framing mob guys back in the day, and the War on Terror’s a bigger threat than the Mafia ever was. This Markovic broad is our ticket back to the world.”

“I’m only saying we have to be careful,” Ridley cautioned. “Another foul-up and we’ll both be unemployed, no matter who your uncle is.”

“Then help me do it right! Cover for me on our other cases, I’ll stake out Falk’s place. The first time he leaves, I’ll plant... whatever needs planting. When Markovic tests the boat, we’ll take her down, and be on the first plane out of here. Just leave it to me.”

Ridley eyed his young partner doubtfully, chewing his lip. Larkin had powerful family connections in the Justice Department. He was also a hothead.

But he was dead right about one thing. The Bureau didn’t transfer agents up to the big lake country to further their careers. Professionally speaking, they were both marooned. And Ridley had already been stuck up here for two years.

“All right,” Ridley nodded, swallowing his misgivings. “I’ll fake the paperwork on our other cases to cover you. The hills across from Falk’s cove are all state forest. Set up your observation post there. Do your binoculars have a built-in range finder?”

“Sure, why?” Larkin asked.

“Because if I were you, partner, I’d make damn sure I didn’t get any closer than fifteen hundred yards.”

For the next five days, Luke worked on the Penny, full-time, personalizing the rigging to match Aliana’s slight stature, artfully painting the name and a gleaming coin logo on her stern and both outriggers. Ordinarily, he found his work totally satisfying. After Iraq, he’d been so glad to get home to the lake country, he was sure he’d never leave.

But now, standing on the back deck with his morning coffee as the sun rose over the bay, he felt uneasy. Haunted. And not by the kills he’d made in a faraway desert.

He kept seeing flashes of the sloe-eyed woman, her raven hair riffling in the lake breeze, the concern in her eyes as she bandaged his hand. He felt oddly diminished by her absence, as though greeting a sunrise without her was unnatural now.

Maybe he’d been living alone in the boondocks with Gus for too long. Or maybe the army was right to give him that nut-job Section 8 discharge.

Or maybe it was the golden weather. In the lake country, July is more the end of spring than the onset of summer. In the shadowed forests, lingering traces of snow were still melting, trickling off to join the freshet streams wending their way home to the rocky shores of the Great Lakes. A final act of renewal in a season of change.

Aliana Markovic returned with her entourage a week later, rolling into the boatyard in the twin Navigators. Her bodyguards were every bit as thorough on their second visit, prowling the grounds like bloodhounds sniffing for prey.

Only Deacon seemed more courteous. Instead of rummaging through the shop, he simply escorted Aliana in. She was wearing a simple capri sunsuit, with an aqua headscarf, and Luke felt his breathing go shallow at the sight of her. He looked away, and realized Deacon was eyeing him curiously.

“Is anything wrong, mister?” the African asked.

“You tell me,” Luke said. Then told them about the two ATF agents.

“What did they want?” Deacon asked.

“Information about Miss Markovic.”

“And what did you tell them?” Aliana asked.

“The truth.” Luke shrugged. “You’re a customer, buying a boat. You don’t seem surprised they were here.”

“Nor do you,” Deacon noted.

“I was a soldier once, I’m used to unpleasant surprises.”

“Unfortunately, so am I,” Aliana sighed. “I’ll take the craft as is, Mr. Falk. Under the circ*mstances, testing her is out of the question—”

“Actually, it’s not,” Luke said quickly. “I have a motor launch moored beside the Penny. You can still put your boat through her paces, and your guys can tag along to keep an eye on things.”

“I don’t like boats,” Deacon frowned.

“Well, I do,” Aliana said firmly, “and I’ve come a long way to try this one. Have Ibrahim and Rakki follow us in the launch. I’m going sailing.”

Scampering happily into the Penny, Aliana took the helm, while two of Deacon’s men fired up the outboard in the powerboat, rumbling along in the Penny’s wake.

Still scowling, Deacon stood beside Gus’s lawn chair, arms folded, watching the two boats out on the bay.

“Beautiful day for a sail,” Gus observed. “Warm, though. Especially in that monkey suit. Can I offer you a beer, Mr. Deacon?”

“Thank you, no.”

“Still working, huh? How about your guys? Hey, fellas?” he called to the guards at the corner of the boathouse. “Anybody feel like a beer?”

“My men are from the Sudan,” Deacon said. “They don’t speak English.”

“No kidding? How do they manage in this country?”

“They don’t manage. I manage.”

“Ah, I see.” Gus nodded. “So? How do you say ‘anybody want a cold beer’ in Sudanese?”

“It’s better you don’t know that, Mr. Gus,” Deacon said, shaking his head. “I think you enjoy making mischief.”

“I’m surprised you noticed me at all.”

“Why?” Deacon asked.

“In this country, when your hair goes gray and you walk a little slower, you start to disappear, a little bit more each day. People talk past you at first, then after a while they look right through you. Like you’re already halfway to being your own ghost. Is it like that where you’re from?”

“Where I come from, it is well known that old lions are the most dangerous. As they near the end of their time, they lose the fear of dying. That is when they become man-killers.”

“I’m no man-eater, son, and everything scares me. Especially you.”

Deacon smiled broadly, showing canines that came to a point. “That’s not fear, Mr. Gus. That’s wisdom.”

“Sure you won’t take that beer?” Gus prompted.

Deacon eyed the old man curiously, his dark glasses and narrow jaw reinforcing his alien, predatory look. Gus met his gaze with utter innocence.

“An old lion who loves mischief,” Deacon mused. “Be careful, Mr. Gus. That’s a very dangerous combination.”

“I can’t believe how vast these waters are,” Aliana said, once she had the Penny past the breakers into the open. “It’s one thing to see the Great Lakes on a map, but out here? They’re not lakes at all, are they? They’re inland seas.”

Luke nodded, watching her. “The largest bodies of fresh water in the world.”

“But it’s all so... immense. Don’t you find it lonely here?”

“More peaceful than lonely. And it’s not always empty. Next week is the Mackinac Regatta. Two hundred and fifty craft will pass the Point, sailboats scattered from here to the horizon, as far as you can see. Heading for the Straits and then on to Chicago.”

“How far is that?”

“The race is over six hundred miles, but for boatmen, there’s really no end to these waters. My grandfather says that up in Cree country, around Nipigon or Lac Seul, his people can travel upriver a thousand miles, to Hudson Bay or the Great Slave Lake, and never set foot on shore. Free of the land and all its troubles.”

“Maybe that was true once, but nowadays, no one can hide. There are satellites above us that can count the freckles on the back of your hand.”

“But why should they want to? Who are you, Aliana? Why are those feds dogging you?”

“I’m truly not an important person, Mr. Falk, but...” She took a deep breath. “My father is an international arms merchant who deals in surplus munitions. He lives like a prince in Damascus, in a villa that once belonged to the Sultan of Oman. But the Arab world is stifling for a modern woman. I prefer to live in the West.”

“Why all the bodyguards?”

“I’m not a dilettante, Mr. Falk. We were not always rich. I have worked in my father’s business since I was a child. And please spare me the ‘merchants of death’ speech. Americans are our best customers.”

“Lady, I’m the last guy on the planet who can criticize your trade. I’ve worked at it myself. But why are the feds so interested in you?”

“Your government wants to make my father a double agent. But their track record in such matters is terrible. They would only get him killed. So he stays in Syria, a prisoner of his own success. And because I could be a valuable hostage to his enemies, I am always guarded.”

“Seems to me you’re practically a prisoner yourself.”

“Sometimes, it seems so to me, too,” she said with a wan smile. “But not today, out here on the water. I feel free here. Or I would if I didn’t have my two shadows along. It was very... considerate of you to provide my security people with a motor launch.”

“I’m sure Deacon thinks so, too. But then, he doesn’t know much about boats, does he? For instance, in a light chop like this with a quartering breeze, the Penny’s one helluva lot faster than that dory. With a bit more sail she’ll rise on her outriggers and dance across the waves like a gull. If a person wanted to feel really free for a while, she could zip in amongst those offshore islands and disappear.”

“You think?” Aliana asked, grinning as she cranked the mainmast winch, raising the sail another eighteen inches. The Penny responded like a quarter horse coming out of the gate, rising on her pontoons, scampering over the wave crests.

“Oooh, look at her go,” Aliana cooed, enraptured by the speed. “She can almost fly.”

Laughing like a schoolgirl, Aliana quickly left the powerboat far astern. The two bodyguards cranked the outboard motor wide open, but they only pounded the dory into the surf harder, soaking themselves with spray as the heavy craft plunged and bucked in the rough water.

Nearing the south end of the cove, Aliana artfully guided the Penny in among a cluster of wooded islets. Green alder and cedar, cloaked with wild grapevines, quickly closed in on both sides of them like a forest curtain.

Without thinking, Luke reached across and tugged her scarf loose. She shook her hair free, then glanced at him curiously.

“Why did you do that? Was this a trick to get me alone?”

“We’re not really alone. One of those ATF goons is parked in the state forest across the cove. He can probably see us from there.”

“Then let’s give them something to look at,” she said, leaning across the helm, kissing Luke hard on the mouth. Leaving him staring as she resumed her seat.

“What was that for?”

“Curiosity,” she admitted. “I’ve wondered what that would be like since the first day. Now I’m sorry I waited.”

“How did you know I wouldn’t be grievously offended?”

“I negotiate million-dollar deals for a living, Mr. Falk. I’m quite good at reading people. Were you offended?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, kissing her back, and holding it a bit longer.

“Nope,” he said, softly as he drew away. “Definitely not.”

She co*cked her head, reading his eyes. And listening to the motor launch drawing closer.

“I suppose we’d better go back,” she said wistfully, wheeling the craft about. “Pity.”

She waved gaily at her bodyguards as the Penny flew past them, heading back to the dock. And Luke couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“You have to come back,” he said suddenly.

“Why? The Penny performed perfectly.”

“She still needs a few adjustments.”

“What adjustments?”

“I’m a creative guy. I’ll think of some.”

“That would be a mistake for both of us,” she said, her mood darkening. “I know I’m no great beauty, Mr. Falk, but I’m not someone to be trifled with either. I’m a wealthy woman and you’re an attractive man who is, how should I put it? A bit casual when it comes to money?”

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For the ‘attractive man’ part. As for the rest of it, you’ve got to be kidding. The Cree say that a man who has enough is rich enough. I have more than enough. I live the way I want, put a little aside for a rainy day, and donate a major chunk of my earnings to tribal charities. About half, I think.”

“You give away half your income?” she echoed, incredulous.

“I have sins to atone for. And I don’t need it. Every morning, the dawn turns this bay to gold. And in winter, the waters freeze the lakes into a diamond wonderland far as you can see. I don’t give a damn about your money, Aliana. I just want to see you again. To listen to you. And look at you.”

“Come live with me and be my love?” she said ironically. “In my cabin in the forest?”

“You’re way ahead of yourself. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘come let me buy you a cheeseburger.’”

She laughed in spite of herself. “I like cheeseburgers,” she admitted. “And where would we dine? At the local McDonald’s? You, me, and my entourage?”

“I didn’t say it would be easy.”

“It’s not possible. Life isn’t poetry, Mr. Falk, especially mine, I — why are you smiling?”

“Because I don’t believe you, lady. I’ve always understood boats and rifles better than women. But somehow... I can read you. The way I can read winds or currents or tracks in the forest. And I think you really want to come back, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not a trick question. Are you happy with your life? Traveling with armed guards, living like a prisoner? Is that what you want?”

“Americans.” She shook her head. “You think everyone gets to live happily ever after.”

“It beats the alternative.”

“I didn’t choose my life,” she said evenly, “it chose me. But I have to live it. I have responsibilities.”

“To your family, sure. But not necessarily to your father’s business. Trust me, the arms trade won’t grind to a halt if you choose to do something else.”

“You don’t understand.”

“I understand better than you think. I had a choice like yours once. I chose to do my duty, for my country and my government. And I killed people in a faraway place and nearly destroyed myself. Take a lesson from my mistakes, Aliana. You can make a different choice.”

“What choice do I have?”

“A simple one, I think. You can keep moving, selling more weapons. Or you can step away, and spend time here, with me. And see what happens.”

“This is crazy,” she said, looking away. “You’re crazy.”

“Certifiable,” he agreed. “I’ve got papers to prove it. But that wasn’t the question. Do you want to come back, Aliana? Or not?”

“We have to go, right now,” Deacon said angrily as Luke eased the Penny to the dock. “There’s a watcher in the hills. One of those federal men, probably. This place isn’t safe.”

“Compared to what?” Aliana snapped, stepping gracefully ashore, slipping on her shoes. “Damascus? Kosovo? Will anyplace ever be safe enough for you, Deacon?”

“I don’t know, miss, but this place definitely is not. Is something wrong?”

“This damned boat won’t do at all! Mr. Falk needs to make further adjustments.”

“I’ll get right on it, miss, “ Luke agreed. “She’ll be ready to try again in a few days.”

“Out of the question!” Deacon said. “We’re too isolated here, too vulnerable. We can’t come back.”

“Damn it, Deacon, you’re my guardian, not my jailer!” Aliana flared, turning on him furiously. “I ordered a boat from these bumpkins and I want it properly fitted. If one agent hiding in the woods frightens you, maybe I should ask my father for a new security chief.”

“Perhaps you should, miss. We can both fly home tomorrow to discuss the question in person. And see which of us your father believes.”

Aliana went pale, reading the tall African’s face. But she didn’t back off an inch.

“Deacon, I love you like an uncle, you know that. But if you drag me back to Damascus, I swear you’ll die in the desert with your mouth full of salt!”

It should have been no contest, the seven-foot warrior glaring down at the tiny slip of a woman. But size and force of will have little to do with each other.

“If you insist, miss,” Deacon conceded grudgingly. “One more visit.”

“Thank you, sweetness,” Aliana said, reaching up to cup the giant’s cheek with her palm. “You’re my oldest and dearest. Shall we go?”

But as the security team headed for the Navigators, Deacon glanced back at Luke. He didn’t say a word. Didn’t have to. The fury in his eyes would have spooked a lion off a fresh kill.

“Maybe you should stay in town with Aunt Min for a while,” Luke said, standing with Gus, watching the Navigators roar round the cove into the forest.

“Aw hell,” the old man groaned. “You’re not getting involved with that woman, are you?”

Luke didn’t answer, which was answer enough.

“She’s a pretty thing, I’ll grant you that,” Gus conceded, “but you can buy pretty in a bottle at Walgreens. Didn’t you hear that ‘die with your mouth full of salt’ business? There’s a difference between a woman with spirit and one with an evil temper.”

“Which did my grandmother have?”

“Both,” the old man admitted. “But those were simpler times.”

“Better times,” Luke said. “That’s my point. We may have serious trouble coming, Gus. I can smell it on the wind, like a storm just over the horizon.”

“I feel it, too,” Gus agreed. “Don’t worry about me, Grandson, I won’t get in your way. Nowadays, I’m almost invisible anyway. “

“So they kissed, so what?” Ridley said at the stakeout later that afternoon. “Why should we care about her love life?”

“Because they went to some trouble to conceal it from her bodyguards,” Larkin said. “We could e-mail a warning to her father, stir things up.”

“How does getting Falk stomped by Markovic’s goons help us? I know the boat builder ticked you off, but stay on point, Gordie. We only want the woman. Did you plant a stash on her boat?”

“Haven’t had the chance,” Larkin admitted. “Falk’s up at first light, works in his shop until dark. He never leaves, and except for occasional customers, nobody visits. And that damned dog is around, twenty-four/seven.”

“You’d better figure something out quick. I can’t cover your ass much longer.”

“You won’t have to. I’ve got an idea.”

“What idea?” Ridley asked. But when Larkin ignored the question, Ridley didn’t press it. He really didn’t want to know.

The yuppie couple seemed a bit off to Luke, though he wasn’t sure why. They looked wealthy enough to be shopping for expensive toys. She was tall, slim, and blond, he was shorter and chunkier, but both dressed well and they were driving a vintage Mercedes 450SL convertible. They asked the right questions, or at least he did. She seemed a bit uneasy. Maybe they weren’t quite as rich as they looked.

They walked through the workshop and oohed and aahed over the Penny, but didn’t ask to take her out, so Luke wasn’t surprised when they drove off without placing an order.

“Who were those two?” Gus asked, wandering into the shop from the deck with Razzy at his heels. In the distance, the Mercedes was vanishing around the final curve into the forest.

“Potential customers,” Luke grunted, sighting down a spar, checking the curve.

“You sure?” Gus said. “While the husband was looking over the Penny, the woman ducked back into the shop. I thought she was looking for the john but she was only gone a moment. She gave her husband a look when she came out. Right after that, he checked his watch and said they had to leave—” He broke off as Razzy began growling low in her throat, her hackles rising as she stared down the cove road.

“Apparently Razz didn’t like them either,” Luke said.

“She never growls when people leave,” Gus said, frowning. “Only at strangers coming in.” Then they both heard it, the sound of engines roaring in the distance, drawing closer by the second as Razzy snarled louder in defiance.

Gus and Luke exchanged a split-second glance of understanding. “The woman,” Luke snapped as he ducked into the shop. “Where did she go in here?”

“I didn’t see,” Gus said, “but she was only in here a few seconds. It’ll be near the door.”

“Got it,” Luke said, snatching up a small paper bag stuffed behind a bench grinder and upending it. A small automatic pistol fell out, along with two glassine bags of white powder.

“What the hell is that?” Gus asked.

“About ten years in prison,” Luke said, removing the magazine from the gun butt, tossing it aside. Grabbing an acetylene torch, he opened the valves and lit it up.

“What are you doing?” Gus asked.

“Cooking.” Dropping the pistol and the packets onto a ceramic retort, he seared them with the torch, spraying the room with sparks as the pistol and powder disintegrated. “Who is it?”

“Them two feds from last week,” Gus said, “and they got a posse with ‘em.” The blue Blazer skidded to a halt, with a Valhalla county prowl car and a black police van close behind, flak-jacketed cops piling out while the vehicles were still rocking. A burly deputy carrying a riot gun came charging up the steps.

“Search warrant! Put your hands on the wall!”

“Screw yourself, fat boy,” Gus flared, folding his arms, blocking the doorway.

“I said move it!” Shouldering Gus aside, the deputy bulled into the shop, covering Luke, who carefully switched off his torch and set it aside. “Up against the wall, mister! Move! Get the dope dog in here!”

“Wait a minute!” Luke said. “You can’t bring a dog—”

But he was too late. A female officer leading a dope-sniffing Alsatian Shepherd had trailed the deputy up the steps—

Razzy exploded past Gus like an ebony rocket, barreling into the Alsatian, both dogs snarling and snapping at each other, whirling like demons. Taken by surprise, the lady cop tried to pull her dog off, but the Alsatian was too strong and his blood was up.

Leaping into the fray, Gus grabbed Razzy’s collar, and got his wrist torn open for his trouble. The raid was in total confusion now, cops yelling, dogs slashing at each other. Gus was still in the scrum, still trying to pull Razzy free when Larkin charged up the steps, weapon at the ready.

“Restrain your animal!” he yelled at Gus. Then he shot Razzy, the gun exploding like a thunderclap. The slug caught the old Lab high in the shoulder, tumbling her onto her back, yelping in pain, with the Alsatian in snarling pursuit.

With a roar, Luke came flying through the shop doorway, tackling Larkin chest-high, both men crashing through the deck rail, slamming to the ground, hard, with Luke on top. Slapping Larkin’s gun hand aside, Luke drove a fist into the agent’s face, flattening his nose. Before he could swing again, two deputies pinned Luke’s arms, dragging him off.

Scrambling to his feet, blood streaming from his mouth, Larkin drove a knee into Luke’s groin, doubling him over, then jammed the gun muzzle against his forehead, his eyes wild with killing fury—

“Hold it right there!” the sheriff yelled. “What the hell are you doing?” Sheriff Jerry Garrison was a big-bellied man, in a tan summer uniform. Pushing fifty, he was a bit slower than the others. He’d been last out of the car, but he was in charge now.

“Officer Kincaid, get your damn Alsatian into that building and get on with the search! Agent Larkin, if you strike that prisoner again you’ll be in the cell next to his!”

“Falk attacked me!” Larkin protested. “You all saw it!”

“Put a cork in it!” Garrison barked. “This is my crime scene and so far we’ve got no crime. Gus, are you okay?”

“Hell no!” Gus was sitting on the deck, cradling Razzy in his arms. “Your police dog tore my arm open, or maybe Razzy did, I ain’t sure. What the hell is this about, Jerry?”

“We’re executing a search warrant, Gus. This agent had a tip about drugs and illegal weapons on the premises,” Garrison growled, jerking a thumb at Larkin. “How about it, Kincaid? Find anything?”

“The dog got a little antsy by the rear door,” the lady cop said, emerging with the Alsatian firmly in tow. “There’s definitely no dope on the premises, and as for firearms, all we found was a rack of hunting rifles—”

“Those are mine!” Gus said.

“And we found this.” The lady cop held up the slim black magazine from the automatic. “Looks like it’s from a thirty-two auto.”

“What about it, Falk?” Garrison asked. “Where’s the gun it belongs to?”

“Ask Larkin,” Luke growled. “His stooge planted it.”

“Search again!” Larkin ordered. “The gun must be there!”

“I doubt that,” the lady cop said. “There was a puddle of slag metal near the clip, still hot. Looks like somebody melted something with an acetylene torch.”

“Is that true, Falk?” Garrison demanded.

“I use torches every day, Sheriff. I was using one when you guys drove up.”

“He must have destroyed the weapon,” Larkin snapped. “That proves it was illegal!”

“What was illegal about it?” Luke asked. “Stolen? Serial number filed off? How would you know that, Larkin? Unless you planted it?”

“The gun doesn’t matter anymore, Falk. You’re under arrest. Assault on a federal officer!”

“I wouldn’t push that, Agent Larkin,” Sheriff Garrison said sourly.

“The sonofabitch broke my nose!”

“And you shot his dog! Any north-country judge would cut Falk loose and hang your ass, if we had a death penalty. This is my jurisdiction, my call, and I’m making it. You got a bad tip, Larkin. We didn’t find any dope and there’s no law against owning a puddle of molten steel. Pack it up, people! We’re done! Gus, do you want us to run your dog in to the vet?”

“I’ll see to my dog, Jerry. The bullet’s through and through. That stupid bastard is a worse shot than he is a cop.”

“You’d better watch your mouth, grandpa,” Larkin said.

“And you’d better pay up your life insurance, mister,” Gus retorted. “You ain’t long for this world.”

“That’s it!” Larkin snapped. “Sheriff, arrest this man for threatening a federal officer.”

“That wasn’t a threat, sonny,” Gus said, “it was a fact. Mastodons used to live around here, saber-tooths too. People find their bones in these hills. Big critters, bigger than you, even. But too stupid to live. The way a man who’d shoot an old dog is too stupid to live.”

“Sheriff?” Larkin demanded.

Garrison sighed. “I don’t hear a threat. Only an old-timer talkin’ about dinosaurs. We’ve got no cause to arrest anybody except maybe each other for disturbing the peace. Let’s go, people! We’re out of here! You too, Agent Larkin. Move it.”

Luke was still clearing up the damage from the search, when Razzy growled from her bed, struggling to rise as Gus held her collar, trying to keep her from loosening her bandages.

Picking up his grandfather’s Winchester, Luke stood in the shadow of the doorway as the two black Navigators rolled into the yard. The three guards spread out, taking up positions around the yard. But instead of coming in, Deacon held the door open for Aliana, then folded his arms, waiting beside the vehicle as she stalked up the shop ramp alone.

Stepping inside, her smile faded as she read their faces. Kneeling beside Razzy, she patted her grizzled head. “What happened here?” she asked quietly.

“Your two feds raided us, with county law for backup. Looking for drugs, they said.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” Aliana said. “I should never have come here.”

“It’s a bit late for that,” Luke said. “What’s the rest of it? Why did you come? I didn’t call you about the boat.”

“No. My situation has changed as well. My father received an e-mail warning from federal authorities, probably the same agents who were here. They sent documents that show you were discharged from the army as unstable. They say you’re a danger to me, and offered me federal protection.”

“I was a little nuts after Iraq,” he admitted. “I must be over it, though. That piece of crap who shot my dog is still breathing.”

“A holy warrior,” she smiled wanly.

“I had my war, Aliana, now I just want a life. I can’t promise things will work out for us, but—”

“Our time together was a nice dream, Luke, but it’s morning now. Your government has voided my passport. My father fears I’ll be arrested soon, to be used as a bargaining chip against him. He’s shutting down our operations in America. I’ve been ordered back to Damascus.”

“He’s got a right to be worried,” Luke conceded. “Those two ATF clowns are off the leash. What will you do?”

“I’ll be safe at the Syrian embassy in Detroit. They can arrange a flight to Damascus for me. We have a magnificent home there. As a child I loved it, but now...” She took a deep breath. “I was wondering... if you’d consider coming with me?”

He stared at her.

“Come live with me and be my love,” he quoted dryly. “And do what, exactly? Build boats in the desert?”

“Do whatever you wish.”

“I’ve done my time in the desert, Aliana. Things went terribly wrong for me there. I can’t go back. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” she said briskly. “I told you it was impossible, remember? Sell the Penny for me, Mr. Falk, donate the proceeds to your tribal charities if you like—”

“Luke’s grandmother was teaching second grade when we met,” Gus interrupted, stroking Razzy’s massive head. “I came down from Canada with a Cree logging crew. We were rough boys in those days, wore our hair long, sported buckskin shirts and skinning knives. Back then, folks didn’t call us Native Americans, we were just Indians. Wild ones at that. Most townies crossed the street to avoid us. Or spat in the gutter as we passed. Kathleen was no different. It took weeks to talk her into going out with me. An Irish girl, fair skin and freckles, fiery red hair, fiery red temper. But she was the perfect woman. For me, anyway.”

“I really must go,” Aliana said.

“Wait,” Luke said, waving off her objections, eyeing his grandfather curiously. “Go on, Gus.”

“Kathleen’s family cut her off when we got hitched,” the old man continued. “Mixed-race marriages were frowned on in those days. No one would rent us a room, let alone a house. So I bought this land, built a cabin for us here. Added the boathouse later, started crafting canoes for the tourist trade. Cree war canoes,” he added, smiling. “Tourists didn’t know the difference.”

“Where are you going with this?” Luke asked.

“North,” Gus said simply. “I didn’t take your grandmother back to Cree country because there was no work up there. No life for her. Even now, there’s not much. But as my grandson, you’re a Cree by blood. Entitled to full citizenship. And you have a two-year backlog of orders for boats.”

“You’re saying we could build them in Canada, in Cree country?” Luke asked.

“I don’t understand,” Aliana said.

“Across the great lake in Ontario, the Cree are a nation within a nation,” Gus explained. “American law has no authority there and even Canadian lawmen walk soft on tribal land. It’s magnificent wild country, even more beautiful than here.”

“You were right about the shop, Aliana,” Luke added, glancing around. “It’s too small. I need a new plant and new equipment, but I’m a terrible businessman. I could use a partner with international marketing experience, who loves boats. Do you know anyone like that?”

“Even if I did, they’ve voided my passport. I can’t leave the country.”

“Up here, the border is only a line on a map drawn across the middle of a lake.”

“But the satellites—”

“The Mackinac Regatta begins tomorrow, a three-day sailing race from Port Huron to Chicago. Hundreds of craft will take part and still more will carry judges and spectators. From fifty miles high in the sky, I expect sailboats all look pretty much alike.”

“It’s a very... intriguing idea. But I’ve brought too much trouble on you already. I’m sorry,” she said, rising, taking a last look around. “It’s simply not...” She broke off, eyeing Gus curiously.

“Not what?” the old man prompted.

“I was going to say it’s not possible,” she said. “But things were even more impossible for you and your Kathleen, weren’t they? So. Just for the sake of argument, maybe you should tell me a little more about this... boat race.”

Ridley was sitting at the bar, hunched over his third boilermaker when Larkin stalked into the Northview Lounge in Valhalla. The agent looked sour and surly, both eyes blackening above the bandage across his broken nose. Ridley looked even worse, green around the gills, like he’d been kicked in the belly.

Slumping onto the barstool beside Ridley, Larkin ordered a double scotch, neat, knocked half of it back with one swallow.

“What happened with Sheriff Garrison?” Larkin asked. “Did he give you any static?”

“He did a lot more than that. He’s filed a formal complaint with bureau HQ,” Ridley said. “We’re to report to Detroit first thing Monday morning to explain that co*cked-up raid yesterday. You’re facing charges of fabricating evidence and reckless discharge of a firearm. We’re in a world of trouble, Gordie.”

“Balls! It’ll be our word against some hick-town sheriff and we’re federal agents—”

“That’s not the problem! Garrison staged that raid because you claimed you had a tip from a reliable informant.”

“Damn it, the dope was there!” Larkin snapped. “That freakin’ boatman must’ve found it—”

“The dope’s the least of our troubles. On Monday, the Detroit AIC will demand the name of your informant.”

“That’s confidential,” Larkin said automatically. “National security.”

“It’s not confidential from the Agent in Command, you idiot! You’ll have to give up their names, and I doubt very much that your college buddy and his girlfriend will hold up under questioning. Forget about saving your job, Gordie, we’ll be lucky to stay out of jail.”

“Never happen,” Larkin said slowly. “My uncle—”

“Can’t do a damned thing about this!” Ridley finished. “We’re looking at multiple felonies!”

“Sweet Jesus,” Larkin said, as the full weight of the disaster sank in.

“What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know. Bartender!” He held up his empty glass. “Again!”

“It’s all because of Falk,” Larkin muttered. “If he’d stood up for his country, none of this would have happened.”

“You can try that line on the AIC, but I doubt it’ll fly,” Ridley said.

“It’s not a line,” Larkin said grimly, taking a hit of his drink. “It’s the flat-ass truth. And maybe it’s not too late.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If we can deliver the Markovic woman, HQ will forget all about the botched raid. We can still pull this off.”

“How?” Ridley demanded. “We don’t even know where she is.”

“No, but I’m betting Falk knows,” Larkin said, slamming his fist into his palm. “If I ask him hard enough, he’ll damn sure tell us.”

“Jesus, Larkin, have you flipped? We can’t roust the guy. We’ve got no warrant, no probable cause for anything.”

“You’re right, we haven’t,” Larkin said, tossing back his boilermaker with a single swallow. “We’ve also got nothing to lose. Drink up, buddy, let’s move.”

“Where’s Falk?” Larkin demanded, as the two agents shouldered past Gus into the shop.

“He’s not here,” Gus said.

“We can see that,” Ridley said. “Where the hell is he?”

“I don’t know.”

From her bed, Razzy growled at the two federal men prowling the room. “That dog’s a slow learner, isn’t she, pops?” Larkin grinned, pulling his automatic. “She’s threatening me again. Now either tell us where Falk and the woman are or I’m gonna finish off your dumb-ass dog. And since I’m a lousy shot, it might take me four or five rounds.”

“You lowlife son of a bitch,” Gus said evenly.

Smiling thinly, Larkin eared back the hammer on his automatic.

“Luke’s in Canada,” Gus said, looking away, his eyes welling up. “The woman’s with him.”

“Where in Canada?”

“Safe. In the Cree nation in Ontario.”

“I expect the federal government can handle a few Indians.”

“Custer thought the same thing,” Gus said, sliding a cell phone out of his shirt pocket, flipping it open.

“What are you doing?” Ridley demanded.

“Calling nine-one-one, to tell the sheriff two burglars are waving guns around.”

“The hell you are!” Slapping the phone out of Gus’s hand, Larkin ground it under his heel.

“We’ll be going now,” Ridley said abruptly. “We’re sorry about the disturbance.”

“What the hell are you doing?” Larkin demanded.

“We’re too late, Larkin, they’ve gone!” Ridley snapped, holstering his weapon. “Let’s go. That’s an order!”

“Hey, Larkin?” Gus called after them. “I almost forgot. Luke left something for you.” Fishing an envelope out of his shirt pocket, Gus passed it to the fed.

Ripping it open, Larkin shook the contents into his palm. A single copper penny. “What’s this?”

“I don’t know, maybe a bribe. The price seems about right.”

“Just keep pushing me, old man,” Larkin snarled. “Your time’s coming.”

“No, my time’s almost over, sonny,” Gus said softly. “So is yours.”

“Don’t look at me like that, Razz,” Gus said, kneeling to check the dog’s bandages after the feds had gone. The Lab stared up at him, her liquid eyes dark with reproach. “I had to tell them. He would have shot you. Maybe both of us. They’re half crazy, those two, and about half drunk. Bad combination. I have to drive to town and tell the sheriff...”

The dog just stared up at him.

“You’re right,” Gus said, rising stiffly. “There’s no time for that. And we’ve had too much law around here already. You rest easy, Razz, I’ll handle this.”

“Why the hell did you back off without searching the place?” Larkin demanded. They were speeding along the coast road to Valhalla in the Blazer, Larkin at the wheel. “Falk could have been hiding on the grounds. Hell, he never leaves.”

“Falk’s not the hiding type,” Ridley said. “The old man said they’re gone and I believe him.”

“They may be gone,” Larkin snarled, “but they haven’t had time to cross into Canada, yet. We can notify the RCMP to grab the Markovic woman at the border, then take her into custody and work a deal with the agency.”

“We’ve got no authorization for that, Gordie, and we’re in too deep already.”

“We wouldn’t be if that freakin’ boat builder cared about this country — what the hell is all that?” Larkin asked, glancing out the side window at the lake. “What’s going on?”

Nearly fifty sailing vessels were already well above the horizon, tacking toward the shore, bucking the crosswind.

“The Mackinac Regatta,” Ridley said. “Biggest sailing race of the season.”

“Jesus H!” Larkin snarled, slamming on the brakes, skidding the Blazer broadside onto the shoulder, staring at the growing fleet of sails. “The woman’s got no passport. She can’t risk a border crossing, they’re going right now. They’ll slip through that mob out there to the Canadian side. We can still grab them.”

“Are you nuts? We’ve got no authority out there.”

“We’re packing all the authority we need,” Larkin said, slapping the butt of his Glock automatic. “There was a motor launch back at the boatworks. We’ll commandeer it, run them down, and bust them both.”

“For what?”

“Assaulting a federal officer,” Larkin said grimly, backing the SUV around, making a U-turn. “Falk already attacked me in front of witnesses. If I rough up the Markovic woman, he’ll try it again, guarantee it. And it’ll be the last mistake that half-breed ever makes!”

Matting the gas pedal, Larkin roared back toward the boathouse. Clutching the armrest, Ridley stared at his partner. Larkin’s eyes were wide and wild, so consumed with rage he could barely keep the speeding SUV on the road.

Ridley knew he should tell him to slow down, knew he should get the hell out of the car and run like a scalded dog. But he didn’t.

Because back at the bar, Larkin said one true thing. Grabbing the woman was their only chance now. They had nothing left to lose.

From the surveillance satellites wheeling high overhead, the Great Lakes looked like the Spanish Armada had risen from the deeps to take a hard run at Chicago. Over two hundred sailing vessels were strung out in a twenty-mile skein for the annual Mackinac Regatta. Battling the stiff onshore winds, the boats were veering and bucking like a herd of wild mustangs thundering over the plains.

As the leaders began rounding the tip of the Michigan mitten, a small trimaran began threading its way through the fleet, skillfully avoiding any interference with the racing craft.

Focused on maintaining headway against the wind, the racers paid no attention to the Penny. She was clearly not competing, since her course was more easterly, bearing toward the Ontario shore. And the couple nestled in the stern were obviously in no hurry at all.

Roaring into the boatyard, the two feds piled out of the SUV while it was still rocking, pistols drawn. Larkin was hoping for some static from the old man, but he was nowhere in sight. The wounded dog growled at them from the doorway, but made no move to rise as the agents sprinted past her to the powerboat moored at the end of the dock.

Leaping into the launch, Larkin fired up the motor as Ridley freed the mooring lines and scrambled aboard. Gunning the powerboat out of the cove, Larkin tossed his binoculars to Ridley.

“Find ‘em!” he shouted over the howl of the engine. “They’re out here somewhere!”

But all the damned sails looked alike to Ridley, as Larkin roared out into the bay, plowing through the outer ring of racers, leaving sailboats rocking in the launch’s wake, earning curses and shaken fists.

And then he spotted them! The bat-like craft was already a third of the way through the northbound fleet, bearing northeast.

“There!” Ridley yelled, lowering the glasses, pointing out the Penny. Falk spied the powerboat at the same time, and stood up to shield the woman.

“Federal officers!” Larkin yelled, pulling his automatic, firing a round in the air. “Halt where you are!”

Luke started to winch down the Penny’s sails, but didn’t move quickly enough for Larkin. The fed opened fire again, and these weren’t warning shots. He was aiming at Luke, shooting to kill. Wild slugs kicked up tall splashes on both sides of the Penny as Larkin struggled to steady his aim in the bucking motor launch. Other racers were shouting now, veering their crafts away from the gunfire.

Letting go of the wheel, Larkin stood up, grasping his weapon in a two-hand hold. Leveling his sights on Falk, he began squeezing the trigger — and a halo of red mist suddenly sprayed from his right ear. Stumbling sideways on rubber legs, Larkin toppled out of the launch, plunging into the waves with his pistol still clutched in his fist.

Ridley stared at Luke and Aliana, who were clearly unarmed. Then he wheeled around, scanning the other boats around him, filled with stunned, staring witnesses.

There wasn’t a weapon in sight. Yet his partner was sinking slowly into the deep green waters, dead as a stone, a look of utter surprise frozen on his face.

Ridley hadn’t drawn his own weapon and made no move to now. Instead he raised his hands in the air, circling slowly to show he meant no harm. Taking the wheel of the launch, he brought the boat about, heading back to the spot where Larkin had gone under.

The dozen yachtsmen who saw Larkin fall assumed he was just a drunk, that the whole scene was some kind of crazy charade. They looked on, waiting for him to flounder to the surface, sobered by the icy lake.

When he didn’t, several men leapt overboard, trying to find him. But they were too late. Larkin was already far below and still sinking. A yachtsman dialed 911, but it would take nearly an hour for a police boat with divers aboard to motor out to the fleet.

In the furor, nobody noticed the trimaran moving off, working its way through the racing boats on an easterly course.

“I don’t understand,” Aliana said, manning the helm while Luke reset the sails. “What happened back there?”

“Somebody saved our lives,” Luke said, measuring the distance with a practiced glance. “Damn. That was one helluva shot. Eighteen hundred yards at least.”

“But it couldn’t have been Deacon. I sent him back to Detroit.”

“Then maybe it was someone else. My grandfather taught me everything I know, including how to shoot. He was a sniper in Korea, won the Silver Star.”

“We must go back. They’ll arrest him.”

“I don’t think so. At this distance there’s no way to tell who did what. Whoever fired that shot took Larkin out in front of a hundred witnesses to make sure we couldn’t be blamed. He opened the door for us, Aliana. We have to go through it.”

Back at the boathouse, Gus settled into his deck chair with Razz at his feet, sipping a beer, watching the last sails vanish over the horizon. He’d already used Luke’s acetylene torch to reduce his ancient ‘03 Springfield to slag and ashes. It was a pity to destroy such a fine old weapon, but he’d watched C.S.I. on the TV. The police could do wondrous things with evidence nowadays. Like tracing a gun to the man who fired it. Destroying the weapon was a prudent move. Gus might be getting on, but he still had his wits about him.

And he still had a few skills. He hadn’t killed men at a distance in many years, but the terrible arts a man learns in his youth are embedded in his bones, impossible to forget, even when he wishes he could. As Luke found out after Iraq.

His grandson and Aliana would do well in Cree country. She was a pretty little thing and very intelligent, a trait far more useful than beauty.

He even admired her evil temper, so much like Kathleen’s. Living with such a woman might be difficult at times, but it would never be dull.

If the law did come for him, it wouldn’t matter much. Any trouble would be only temporary. His true love and most of his friends were already in the next world. He knew more people there than here.

When he was a boy with the Cree, the old ones said a man nearing the end of his time would hear an owl call his name. A foolish superstition.

Here on the Point, Gus often heard owls, horned owls and great grays hooting deep in the forest. They never spoke to him. Only to each other, in their own tongue.

But in the gathering dusk, as the shadows settled gently over the lakeshore, he found himself listening to the wind whispering through the tall pines.

Waiting for the cry of an owl to pierce the soft silence.

Hoping to hear his name.

Copyright © 2011 Doug Allyn

Mystery Sonnet:

Agatha Christie

by Shawn Matthew Hannigan

O dear deceptive Dame Agatha Christie,
Mistress of the mis-direction;
Master of the clue so misty—
Unequaled in mystery detection;
It is a mystery cliché
But one must suspect the unsuspected;
Like an early snow that will not lay
Upon the ground melting unmolested;
From And Then There Were None
To Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
Like an elaborate web that’s spun
By a suspenseful spider of the heavens—
Many times I’ve been entangled
On a sticky plot that she has dangled!

Copyright © 2011 by Shawn Matthew Hannigan

Cheating the Hangman

by Judith Cutler

Fans of this historical series featuring early 1800s Reverend Tobias Campion won’t want to miss Judith Cutler’s two novels starring the sleuth: 2008’s The Keeper of Secrets and 2009’s Shadow of the Past. The British author also has two recent novel-length installments in her Lina Townend antiques-dealer series, which frequently appears in EQMM at short-story length. See Ring of Guilt, Severn House Publishers (February 2011) and the earlier Silver Guilt.

* * * *

Of all the days in the Church calendar, Easter is surely the most important — when the Master I serve defeated death that we might all be saved. This particular Easter Day I was given the joy of celebrating Holy Communion twice over — once with my own dear friends in Moreton St. Jude and once at All Saints, Clavercote. The incumbent of this parish, never very assiduous in his duties, had recently and at the shortest of notice informed the bishop that he was about to travel on the Continent for the sake of his health. Why, with Europe in its present state, the Reverend Dr. Nathaniel Coates did not choose to repair to Bath or to Cheltenham, no one knew. Suffice it to say that the church in his care was but half full, and there was surprisingly little joy in the voices raised in the Easter hymns.

Having blessed them all and offered what I hope were comforting words, I mounted my faithful Titus and set off for the village I now thought of as home — although my parents, in the vastness of their Derbyshire estate, would have disagreed. The shortest route was through the woods of Lord Wychbold’s estate, though the rides were badly maintained and the byways little more than rabbit tracks. Lord Wychbold, a man in his seventies, led the quietest of lives, receiving no visitors and only venturing out if he considered the occasion was pressing. Perhaps if he had set a better example, more of his estate workers would have been in church today.

Comprehensively losing my way, I resolved to follow what seemed the most recently trodden path in the hope that it would bring me to a clearing where I could orientate myself by the sun, the overhead canopy being far too thick for the early spring rays.

Despite the chill beneath the branches, there was a hum of insects: flies. And a sickly smell that spoke of death. Thinking an animal had died in a trap, I dismounted and led Titus very slowly, keeping my eyes peeled, lest he or I be similarly caught.

Alas, the corpse I found was all too human. And it was not caught in a trap. In a dreadful parody of what we had just been celebrating, a man hung on a tree, nailed by his ankles and wrists, a deep gash in his side. But for a loincloth and a crown of thorns, he was naked. Even a local could not have recognised him, for his face was beaten to a pulp. There was a great deal of dried blood.

“You have done well to find your way back here, Tobias,” Dr. Hansard said, trying in his kind way to distract me from the horror we faced. We had brought with us my former groom, Jem, whose new post as village schoolmaster had not rendered him too grand to assist Dr. Hansard whenever there was a need. Now he was carrying what was once an old tabletop, adjusted to carry either the living or the dead in need of the doctor’s skills. For Edmund was developing an extraordinary prowess in examining bodies to help determine the cause of death, a process at which I found myself totally unable to assist.

We had brought a couple of trusted men to assist us in the grisly task of removing the corpse from the tree. Hansard and I placed them under the most solemn oath not to reveal what they had found, but I was sure that by the time we were back in Langley Park, Dr. Hansard’s residence, our activities would be all the way round the two villages and probably others besides.

I was deputed to break the news to Lord Wychbold. A surly butler showed me into a shabby morning room. After near on twenty minutes, Wychbold entered the room, reading my card. “The Reverend Tobias Campion! My idiot of a butler did not tell me a man of the cloth had called! What can he be thinking of, to leave you cooling your heels in here? Pray, come with me to my library, which has the advantage of a fire, and join me in some sherry and biscuits.”

Only when we were seated, one each side of a fitful fire, did I break the news to him.

“A corpse? In my woodland? And in such a state? Dear God, how can that be?”

His face went so grey I wished Edmund had been there to administer restorative drops. But a sip of sherry did much to improve his colour, and he was soon able to speak quite rationally, offering me the help of all his estate workers to search for the evidence so beloved of my friend.

“Dr. Hansard insists that he wants but two or three of your most trusted men,” I said. “And they must work with the utmost discretion — we do not want to frighten away the killer.”

He rang for the surly butler and gave his orders.

“You told Lord Wychwood the method of the corpse’s death?” Edmund expostulated, slapping his glass down so hard the port slopped over the rim. “Dear God, Toby, I took you for a man of discretion. Surely you know the rumours surrounding the old reprobate? That in his youth he was a member of the Hellfire Club, and most assiduous in its vilest practices? Of all the men I can think of, he is the one most likely to have been involved in such a sacrilegious parody!”

Mrs. Hansard laid a calming hand on his arm. When we supped informally, she never retired while we men drank our port, instead sipping a glass of champagne and joining in the conversation. “My dear, even if you had personally sewn Tobias’s lips together, and employed only blind and dumb men to assist you, the news of the man’s death and the manner of it would have reached his lordship before nightfall. At least Tobias was able to observe how he received the news.” Her bright eyes prompted me.

“His colour was poor, his breathing shallow. I feared for his health, and indeed cursed that I had forgotten to take some of your restorative cordial when I went on my errand. But a sip or two of sherry restored him.”

“So he was shocked,” Jem said.

Edmund nodded. “Did you at any point feel that his shock might have its roots in guilt?”

I considered. “I thought he was simply as appalled as any man might be. And I cannot think differently now.”

“Very well. We have,” he continued, “a victim aged between forty and fifty, I would say, strong of build. So whoever overpowered him and killed him must have been even stronger.”

“Who would choose such a dreadful method of execution?”

“An interesting choice of word, Tobias. You would be right, had the victim actually been killed on that tree. But when Jem and I examined the corpse, we came to believe that the man was killed first — that knife thrust into his side. I will spare you and your ticklish stomach the details, my friend,” he said with a laugh. “However, even assuming the man had expired, it would not have been an easy task to lift him and nail him in place.”

“A dead weight,” Jem observed, with a dry smile.

I asked bravely, “How do you know he was dead before he was crucified?”

“Apart from that wound? Well, you may have observed that there was surprisingly little blood from his hands — very well, Maria, I will not ruin an excellent supper by making Tobias cast up his accounts. I will just say this, Tobias — we are sure, Jem and I, that there is a sexual motive to the crime. An element of revenge, I would say.” He looked meaningfully at his wife and said no more.

Mrs. Hansard, however, was a redoubtable woman. “Do you imply that a female avenged herself by stabbing and then mutilating—?”

Jem overrode her. “We are sure a woman was at the heart of the problem. But not as the killer, unless she were an Amazon indeed. Even her jilted or outraged lover would surely have needed assistance.”

She nodded sadly. “So we need to find the betrayed young woman.”

“If only Dr. Coates were here to consult,” I said. “I suppose that in his absence we must refer to the verger.”

Maria smiled enigmatically. “If you and Tobias are going to Clavercote in the chaise, my love, perhaps you will take me as your passenger. An old friend of mine, the widow of a steward at a noble house, has retired there to share her son’s house. I think it is time to pay her a visit.”

The verger at All Saints, a man of few smiles, insisted that he had no forwarding address for Dr. Coates. He was entirely uninformative, in fact. If any villagers had hurriedly quit Clavercote, if any strangers had been in the neighbourhood, he knew not — and seemed to care less. Frustrated, Hansard and I retired to the tiny inn, hunched round-shouldered on the edge of the village. Perhaps the landlord would offer us information as well as ale.

We were just abandoning our attempts to squeeze more than a monosyllable from the sour-faced man, and were waiting for the chaise to be brought round, when a party of riders trotted by. Mine host, forgetting the claims of his existing customers, was all at once full of smiles and forelock-tugging, clearly recognising members of the ton from forty yards’ distance. But it was not his toadying that brought the party to a halt.

One of the riders wheeled his horse and brought it back to where I stood. “Tobias, you whelp — what in Hades are you doing outside a foul drinking-den like this?”

I was ready to faint with shock. I had been estranged from my father for many years, ever since I took Holy Orders, and had never dreamed to see him in this neighbourhood. But from somewhere I drew enough strength to bow low, and to kiss the hand he extended. “Father! Sir, may I present Dr. Hansard? Edmund, Lord Hartland.”

Both, one from the height of his magnificent horse, the other an equally proud pedestrian, bowed with great civility. Neither eyed the other with any pleasure.

With less haste, the other riders had turned their mounts and gathered round us. I recognised one as Lord Ewen, whose estate adjoined Lord Wychbold’s. He greeted me far more cordially than my father had done, bidding me to sup with them that very night. “And your friend, too,” he added with a careless smile. “You must both join us for dinner and a hand of cards. It’s a bachelor establishment, Campion, so do not expect more than a mutton stew.”

“I regret that I am engaged, my Lord,” Hansard said, as I knew he would, since his love of gambling had once near ruined him and he no longer played whist for so much as a matchstick. “A friend of my dear wife’s...” he murmured.

“Another evening,” Ewen declared with a smile. “Campion shall furnish me with your address.” He nodded to me. “We sup at six-thirty.”

“Of course you will go, Tobias,” Mrs. Hansard said severely as, in the chaise on our way back to Langley Park, I explained what had happened. “You are the first to preach reconciliation and forgiveness: Now you must act on them. I have no doubt that you parted from your father with great anger on both sides, but in my experience, that simply shows how much love you bear for one another. And my dear Edmund is quite right to have cried off, so that you may have private conversation with Lord Hartland, though I hope he will present himself on a more eligible occasion — no country doctor can afford to spurn a possibly lucrative acquaintance,” she added, impish dimples belying the mercenary motives she suggested.

Silenced by her logic, Edmund and I exchanged a sheepish glance. Edmund recovered more quickly than I. “But we have far more important matters to discuss. What gossip did you two old biddies dish over your tea?”

Since, with her fine complexion, excellent teeth, and elegant figure, Maria might have passed for a lady ten or more years her junior, to stigmatise her as an old biddy was a gross slander. But it earned him no worse a rebuke than an ironic raising of her eyebrow. “No one has left the village in a hurry, man or woman. There has been no talk of broken betrothals. All is, it seems, perfectly well. I must tell you, however, that Mrs. Hendry’s little serving-maid looked at me as if I were an avenging angel when I asked how she and her family did. And Mrs. Hendry reports more gossiping in corners, a greater sense of unease about the village, than is usual. In short, my dears, everyone knows something and no one dares admit anything.”

Edmund nodded.

“I rely on you to be our eyes and ears at Ewen Court tonight, Tobias,” he declared.

The murder might be on everyone’s lips, in everyone’s thoughts, but my father took a different view. “Investigating a crime! With some bumpkin sawbones!” he repeated, so that the words, originally spoken quietly, echoed round the dining room. “You are a man of the cloth, Tobias, not some flea-bitten parish constable.”

Ewen, perhaps shamefaced, though the amount of port he had consumed made it hard to tell, explained that Dr. Hansard was a medical man of considerable reputation. As for the constable, none of the small villages in the area had such a representative of the law.

“Then it is about time you did,” my father growled, topping up his own glass. Such were his potations that I was alarmed; many a time I had seen an evening like this followed by many days of painful, gout-ridden repentance.

Soon cards were called for. Although, unlike Edmund, I had no fear of gambling, I had neither taste nor money for the occupation. So at last I made my excuses and left, with an odd sense that my action irritated and pleased my father in equal measure.

I make no excuse for failing to concentrate on the journey home. My mind, when I let it wander, was still afflicted with images of the crucified man. Then there was my strange reconciliation with my father, in which nothing at all was said about the six or seven years since our last meeting. Titus was used to my absentmindedness, and was as surefooted as any horse, but even he could not have been calm in the face of two men jumping up in front of him and grabbing his bridle. Wrenching me from the saddle, they set about me with a will. I tried to fight back, but at last I lost my footing and slipped into the darkness surrounding me.

The first face I saw was the dour verger’s. Then Edmund’s swam into view.

“Stay where you are, Tobias. You have taken a rare beating. It is only thanks to Mr. Weller here that you escaped worse. He saw you lying in a ditch and gathered you up and brought you here to his own home.”

I managed to frame a few words of gratitude. “Titus? My horse, Mr. Weller?”

“Long gone. Run off. Stolen. Who knows?”

I could not hold back a deep groan. Titus and I were old friends — I had depended on him to take me to deathbeds and weddings alike.

“And I am come to take you home to Langley Park, where Maria is even now preparing you a bed. I don’t think any bones are broken, my young friend, but you are as bruised as if you had taken on the great Cribb himself. Let me help you into the fresh garments I have brought for you.”

Even as I pulled on my breeches — an agonising task — I heard a commotion outside the cottage. Against the low drone of the verger’s protests, a man’s voice rose in desperation and anger. Edmund went out to see what the matter was, returning long-faced.

“Here’s a pretty pickle. I have one patient who should be conveyed as swiftly as possible to his sickbed, and I have another who has been brought to bed of a child and is likely to die. Can you remain here, Tobias, awhile longer, if Mr. Weller permits?”

I forced my arms into my coat. “Indeed I cannot stay here. My place is with you and the dying woman, Edmund, as well you must know. If you would be kind enough to lend me an arm — and you, Mr. Weller, if you please — then I can pray while you heal.”

The wretched young man likely to lose his wife and his son was distraught twice over, weeping that his son would die unbaptised. I sent him reluctant but hot-foot to the church, for holy water and wine and wafer. His son would be baptised and his wife receive the Sacrament on her deathbed.

“So both live? Edmund, what a miracle! But Tobias should be in bed — no arguments now.”

I could not argue. Nor could I tell how long I slept.

There was no sign of Hansard when I awoke to find Maria sponging my face and hands with lavender water.

“Edmund left these drops for you,” she said, “Only think, he has already been summoned to Ewen Court to treat one of the gentlemen there. How wonderful it would be if he became their regular medical man.”

“It would indeed,” I agreed. Idly I wondered who needed his ministrations; I also wondered if he had been admitted to the front door, or if, like many a country doctor, had been forced to present himself at the servants’ entrance.

Voices downstairs and a tap at my chamber door took Maria from my side. In her absence I resumed my drowsing state, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, dimly aware that whoever attacked me must have been provoked by our questions.

Edmund returned home with a huge basket of fruit from Lord Ewen’s succession-houses and an even larger smile. “You’ll never guess who my patient was,” he said gleefully, his enthusiasm distracting me as he embarked on the painful process of replacing my various bandages. “Lord Hartland himself! Yes, of course — the gout. I prescribed for him a lowering diet and perhaps a sojourn in Bath, where you might do well to accompany him to allow those bruises to heal. The inner ones, Tobias, as well as the outer ones. But perhaps you are two men who will always love each other more when you do not have to rub along cheek by jowl. Certainly neither of you is in any position to visit the other at the moment. Almost done — hold still awhile longer! But he wants above all to hand over your assailants to the justices. Like you, he believes Dr. Coates would be well placed to know the cause of all the unhappiness in the village, and has promised to locate him.”

“My father has friends in many of the embassies in Europe,” I said. “If anyone could run the man to earth, it is he. Thank you, Edmund, I am much more comfortable now.”

“You lie, of course,” he said cheerfully. “The pain may get worse before it gets better. But there is good news. Titus found his way back to his stable, safe and sound. And now I am off to Clavercote to see how my other patients do.”

Soon I was able to sit in a sunny corner of the Hansards’ terrace, absorbing the healing rays of a suddenly benign sun, which greened the hitherto joyless browns of the fields and promised a future of plenty — at least to those who still had unenclosed land to farm. Edmund wanted me to rest. But I insisted I needed to make three journeys — to my own dear church and to All Saints, to take divine service in each, and then to Ewen Court, to pay my respects to my father and thank him for his endeavours on my behalf.

Once again he surprised me by not asking for the latest news of our investigations.

“These strange potions this quack friend of yours insists I drink — will they kill me, do you think?” he demanded the moment I entered his chamber.

“If they are herbal remedies, based on the folklore round here, then you should obey to the letter his instructions,” I said cautiously. “Just because they are derived from innocent-looking flowers does not mean that they are harmless. But — in the quantities he recommends — are they doing you good?”

He surveyed his foot balefully. “He says himself he doesn’t know if it’s the plain regimen he insists I follow or the tinctures that are doing me good. Seems a decent enough fellow, Tobias.”

“He is. He has the most charming wife, too, possessed of true elegance of mind and person.”

“You are telling me this because there’s something you don’t want me to know,” he growled, looking at me from under his eyebrows. “Admit it!”

“I do indeed,” I said, not knowing whether to be pleased by this sudden allusion to the way he had always dealt with my childhood peccadilloes. “But it is not my secret I would betray if I told it.”

“Oh, everyone’s told me he married his doxy of a housekeeper—”

“Then everyone has misled you, sir. He married a lady who was someone else’s housekeeper — and was far more intelligent and learned than those who employed her. Indeed, it is she who introduced Edmund to many of the simple remedies he now employs. When you do me the honour of dining at the rectory, sir,” I pressed on bravely, “you will have the chance to meet them — for I would not invite the one without the other. And if Mama happened to be of the party, I would say no different.”

He looked suddenly furtive. “Your mother must know nothing of this, do you hear?” He pointed at his foot. “Or I shall never again have peace in my own home.”

We exchanged a smile: This was the first time we had ever entered such a conspiracy together.

Edmund’s other patients continued to do well. In due course, I was able to church the mother, having must needs baptised her first, Dr. Coates never having formally welcomed her into the church. Edmund and Maria sponsored her, Edmund regarding with covert concern the two frail men, her father and father-in-law, who accompanied her and her husband to the font. One was detailed to hold the lusty babe, who had had a much less formal baptism, but Maria soon seized him, for safety’s sake as much as anything else.

After the ceremony, the two old men hung back. And for the most solemn reason. They wanted to confess to Edmund and me that they had committed the vile murder and crucifixion. Along with horror, my first impulse was to laugh. How could these two living skeletons have overpowered such a powerful specimen? They insisted that they had acted in concert, to kill a vagrant who had in some unspecified way insulted them. Despite our questioning, they would say no more. So, in his capacity as justice of the peace, Edmund was bound to have them confined in the local lockup, a poor affair of but three pitiful rooms — two cells and the jailer’s office.

Justice soon took its course. They were found guilty after the most perfunctory of trials and condemned to death within the week. Privately, Edmund doubted whether the elder would survive to take his punishment.

Since the lockup could not provide the men with more than the most rudimentary sustenance, I was permitted to take food with me when I visited them each day to preach the Gospel and assure them of the forgiveness of sins.

I was not the only visitor, nor the only provider of food. On their last day, several of the womenfolk of the village came to say their farewells, bearing pies and a cake, so small the jailer made a sad jest about it not being big enough to contain a file.

So tender were their final embraces I could scarce forbear to weep. At last we all wended our way home; only Edmund and I could promise to be there to accompany them on their final earthly journey.

“Dead!” I had repeated, staggering back as the jailer broke the astonishing news. “What? Both dead?”

He had nodded, equally amazed. “You may see for yourself, Mr. Campion. There they lie, with as sweet smiles on their faces as if they had never done the dreadful deed for which they stood condemned.”

“But which, I am as sure as I am sitting beside you in this chaise, Tobias,” Edmund confided, as we returned to Langley Park, “they did not commit. When I anatomise them — and I promised it would be me and no other, remember — I am sure I will find signs of mortal illness in both. They were dying, Tobias, and knew it. They confessed — mark my words — to protect someone else.”

“But surely it is more than coincidence that they both died the night before they were to be hanged!”

“No coincidence at all. I can only surmise what was in those pies and cakes. And surmise, too, who put it in. There must have been half a dozen women bidding them goodbye, and others outside the jail. How can we bring them all to justice? Or any of them? Now, I intended to call on your father, while we are so close to Ewen Court: Will you accompany me?”

“This Reverend Dr. Nathaniel Coates of yours,” my father greeted us, “has not presented himself at any of our embassies in Europe, nor is he known by reputation. I tell you straight, gentlemen, there’s something havey-cavey about this vicar of yours. As Lord Wychbold here avers.”

The aged earl had ridden over to greet Lord Ewen and his guest and now sat with my father, an old political ally.

“I fear that in my youth I did great wrong, gentlemen,” he said. “But I repented and changed my ways. So imagine how I felt when none other than a man of the cloth invited me to join him in the most nefarious debauchery. It is my opinion and that of Hartland, here, that Dr. Coates never fulfilled his aim of escaping to the Continent. The wronged villagers must have got wind of his plans and decided to make his journey from this place his last.”

I frowned. “Surely they would do so secretly? And dispose of his body where it might never have been found?”

“Who knows what anger his regular betrayals of village maidens — aye, and some young men too!— may have caused? Anger that drives the perpetrator beyond common sense. Anger that wished you dead, Mr. Campion. Anger that quailed in the face of your kindness to sick strangers when you were so ill yourself.”

“So those two poor old men may have put themselves forward as soi-disant murderers,” my father mused, “in order to protect other men.”

“My theory exactly,” Edmund declared. “And what the men started, the women completed. Human justice has prevailed, even if state justice was gulled.” He stroked his chin. “I must ask my dear wife if she has any idea what herbs they employed.”

“I will be pleased to hear the answer myself,” my father said. “I propose to dine at this rectory of his before I return to Derbyshire. Young Tobias is such a scatterbrain he may well have engaged a cook who cannot distinguish culinary herbs from those with — let us say — a deeply soporific effect, and undoubtedly we need your expertise: yours and Mrs. Hansard’s, if you please.”

And to my joy we exchanged a second conspiratorial smile.

Copyright © 2011 by Judith Cutler


by Tim L.Williams

After a stint working on screenplays, Tim Williams is back to writing fiction and has produced a fine new entry in a series that was nominated for the 2010 Shamus Award for Best Short Story. Charlie Raines is the protagonist; “Suicide Bonds” the story recognized by the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award judges. Here is Raines again, in a story that is more ambitious and disturbing than any of the previous cases. His creator lives in western Kentucky and teaches at a local college.

* * * *

When I tracked Terrell Cheatham’s grandmother from her last known ad-dress to the subsidized apartment she’d moved into after her husband’s death, she didn’t do any of the things I expected. Instead of slamming the door in my face or denying that her grandson lived with her, she invited me in for a cup of coffee and then added a shot of bourbon to my mug, “just to keep the cold out of my bones.” This was a long way from the reception a private investigator usually gets when running down bail jumps in southwest Memphis, where the average annual income is a few dollars higher than it is in Calcutta and even the most law-abiding residents see a white face as an intrusion from an alien and hostile world. I was so shocked I wanted to believe her when she insisted that her grandson was a “fine young man” who wouldn’t cause me “an ounce of trouble.”

Frances Cheatham seemed like a decent woman. She was in her late fifties or early sixties, still trim and attractive but with deep worry lines around her mouth and eyes, and I could tell she loved her grandson. From what I’d read in his jacket, Terrell Cheatham didn’t seem like the kind of kid who belonged in jail. At twenty, he had a single blemish on his record. It had been two years since his arrest for breaking into the video-game store, and he’d kept clean since then. He’d completed a semester of college, earning a spot on the honor role before he dropped out to take a full-time job in the kitchen at a Tops Barbecue on Elvis Presley Boulevard. If he’d shown up for his court appearance a week and a half ago — in Memphis a trial two years after the offense is considered swift justice — Terrell would have faced no more than six months’ probation.

“Terrell’s momma left him when he was just a baby,” she said now, blowing at the steam rising off a fresh cup of coffee and then shrugging. “Our son Marcus Junior gave Terrell to us to raise, but he came to visit Terrell every weekend up until the time he was killed in a car wreck outside of Jackson, Mississippi.”

Her husband, Marcus Senior, had passed away less than a year ago. He was a good man, she said, one who’d worked for twenty-seven years as a night watchman at the West Parrish Industrial Park to put bread on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

“Bone cancer. He went fast, but don’t let anyone tell you fast and easy are the same thing.” Her smile was tired, maybe a little bitter. “I bet you hear your share of sad stories, don’t you, Mr. Raines. Probably get sick of them.”

I told her to call me Charlie and said how sorry I was about her loss. And she thanked me for that even though we both knew words were little comfort.

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say, so we sat in silence for a few minutes before Frances Cheatham forced a smile and said it looked like both of us needed a refill. While she was in the kitchen, I went to look out the front window. The last of the light was seeping from a January sky. When you say Memphis, people think blistering August heat, but there are days in January and February when the skies are mold-gray, a slanting, almost-frozen drizzle falls from dawn to midnight, and a wind whips across the Mississippi that makes you wonder if you haven’t been transported unaware from Beale Street to Boston. I was still standing at the window, dreading going back out into that cold when a tall, scrawny kid dressed in a parka, sock cap, and sneakers crossed the street and headed into the parking lot.

“You see Terrell coming?” Frances Cheatham asked, handing me my coffee.

Before I could answer, a black Tahoe fishtailed into the lot, nearly slammed a row of parked cars, and then skidded to a stop. Peering over my shoulder, Frances Cheatham said, “Good Lord, they almost run right over Terrell.”

Outside, the SUV’s passenger door was slung open, and a man, fiftyish, white, not much bigger than an oak tree, got out. Terrell tried to run. Tried was the operative word. He didn’t even get started before the guy in the overcoat raised a sawed-off shotgun and squeezed the trigger.

“Oh sweet Jesus!” Frances Cheatham screamed in my ear.

I pulled my.45 from beneath my jacket and ran for the door. I’d just opened it when the shotgun roared again. I knew it was too late for Terrell Cheatham, but I ran anyway, taking the stairs two at time and nearly slipping and falling halfway down. His grandmother ran behind me, calling on the name of the Lord with each step she took.

Just as we reached the lot, the Tahoe screeched away. I caught a glimpse of the driver — white, older than the shooter, thick, curly gray hair and glasses — but then the Tahoe was gone, heading northeast towards the interstate. Cursing, I stuffed my.45 back into my holster without having fired a shot.

Frances Cheatham hunkered beside her grandson, screaming his name again and again. Now that the shooting was over, a few faces had emerged from the apartments, staring at the scene, some of them whispering their prayers.

“I’ve called an ambulance,” a pretty girl about Terrell’s age shouted.

An ambulance wasn’t going to help. The first blast from the shotgun had caught him just below the kidneys; the second, fired point-blank, had taken off most of the back of his head.

“A PlayStation 3,” Frances Cheatham said when I touched her shoulder. “That’s why he robbed that store. That’s all my baby wanted. And just look at what someone done gone and did.”

Four days later, the homicide detective who’d caught Terrell Cheatham’s case finally got tired of dodging my calls and ducking down the backstairs and agreed to meet me for a late lunch. Ray Pardue was a stoop-shouldered man with thinning, sand-colored hair and a nervous grin that never quite made it to a full-blown smile. Now he pushed aside a platter of Neely’s barbecue spaghetti and gave me a pained expression.

“I feel as bad as you do for the kid’s grandmother. But Jesus Christ, Raines, where have you been living the last ten years? Kids in south Memphis get murdered every day. The Chamber of Commerce don’t advertise it in their See the River City brochures, but we both know the way it is.”

He was right, of course, but Terrell Cheatham’s murder was the only one I’d witnessed. “So you’ve got no leads.” I said.

“You were a cop. You know how it goes. You’re a day into one case when two or three more fall in your lap, so what do you do?”

“You focus on the easiest to solve.”

“It’s not that one victim’s more important than another, but a bird in the hand...” He paused while the waitress set fresh beers on the table. “You take a gang-related murder like Cheatham’s. Eventually someone will get pinched and want to make a deal. Until then, I got two other homicides to worry about.”

Gang related. Terrell Cheatham’s murder hadn’t rated a lot of coverage. The local news stations were too busy covering the latest scandal in the mayor’s office and the groundbreaking for the Michael Montesi North Memphis Children’s Health and Recreational Center, a multimillion-dollar complex that was being built by Vincent “Little Vinnie” Montesi, head of the Italian mob in southwest Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, in honor of his son. The news anchor talked a lot about the tragedy of nine-year-old Michael Montesi’s death from leukemia and about the generosity of his grief-stricken father. They failed to mention all the kids who’d died from the drugs Montesi and his crew brought into the city, or the ones he’d orphaned during his reign at the head of the Montesi family. When you donate a few million dollars to a local charity, people tend to overlook the things you’ve done to make that money. The death of yet another black kid in a Memphis project didn’t have the same appeal to the public imagination, but during the terse, thirty-second spot that the murder had been given, the news anchor had used the same phrase. Gang related. Unless south Memphis street gangs had started recruiting late-middle-aged white men, someone was making a serious mistake.

“The shooter and the driver were white,” I said. “I told that to the on-scene detective.”

“She noted it in her report, but we got a half-dozen other witnesses who say the perps were young black men, late teens or early twenties.” He stifled a belch with the back of his hand. “Acid reflux,” he said. “I chew Tums by the dozens, take this prescription medicine that costs a fortune, sleep with my bed propped up on bricks so that I got a crick in my neck all the time. Doesn’t do a damn bit of good.”

“I saw them. They were white.”

“And other people say they were young black men. What do you want me to tell you?” He pulled a five and a one from his wallet and dropped them on the table. “That should cover the tip.”

“A kid whose only criminal record comes from stealing a couple of video games gets his face blown off and y’all decide it’s gang related, put it in a file and forget it?”

He took a deep breath. “Look, Raines, I shouldn’t be telling you this, because it’s information that you got no right to have, but Terrell Cheatham was running with gang kids, two in particular. Demond Jones and Bop-Bop Drake. Drug dealers, pimps, suspects in a half-dozen robberies and a couple of murders. The way I figure it, either Cheatham got targeted by a rival gang or he had a falling out with his good pals Bop-Bop and Demond.”

“Your other witnesses tell you that?”

“Surveillance tape, witnesses, informants.” He stood up, took his coat from the back of the chair. “And a guy who matched Cheatham’s description is a suspect in an attempted murder.”

“You’re serious?”

“A forty-six-year-old truck driver for a company called Mid-South Transport. He was making a delivery in the neighborhood and had engine trouble. The guy was sitting behind the wheel, trying to get the ignition to fire when three black kids, we’re figuring Cheatham, Jones, and Drake, threw a Molotov co*cktail at his truck.” He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and his eyes were hard and angry. “I guess they figured blowing up a white guy was a fun way to spend a Friday night. Maybe you ought to drive down to Southaven, take a good look at the burn scars and then ask Don Ellis what priority he thinks this Cheatham kid’s murder ought to get.”

“Don Ellis? From Southaven?” I said. “I think I know him.”

“Well, you won’t recognize him if you do.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, but it didn’t matter. Pardue had already turned on his heel and was headed for the door.

Don Ellis’s house was a small, two-bedroom ranch in a neighborhood that had probably been nice ten years ago. I sat on a beer-stained sofa in his living room, asking myself why in the hell I was here. No one had hired me; I hadn’t been a cop in over ten years, and Terrell Cheatham’s life and death were none of my business anyway. But for two days I’d been worrying it like a bad tooth. I couldn’t get Frances Cheatham’s raw, wounded voice out of my head, couldn’t stop hearing her say, “A PlayStation 3, that’s all my baby wanted,” and couldn’t get a handle on Terrell Cheatham himself. Who was he? An honor student, a hard worker, and a loving grandson or a gangb*nger who’d tried to burn an innocent man alive? Finally, I’d given in, looked up Don Ellis’s address and number, made a call. Now I was waiting for him to identify Terrell Cheatham as one of his attackers so I could call the kid’s murder karma or justice and get back to the serious business of repossessing cars.

But it didn’t look as if it was going to be that easy. Don Ellis studied the photograph for a second, laid it back on the coffee table, and shook his head.

“He could have been one of them. But it was after midnight and the streetlights down there don’t ever seem to work.” He glanced at a picture of his ex-wife and his sons on the end table beside his wheelchair. “The truth is, the pain’s been so bad and I been so doped up that I’m kind of hazy about that whole night.”

I smiled and said sure, I understood. It was a lie, of course. Understand? I couldn’t even imagine. The burns were less than six weeks old — he’d only been out of the hospital for three days — and his face resembled a rubber Halloween mask that someone had snagged from a bonfire. The skin was bubbled and shiny, bright pink in most places but splotched with patches of bleached-out white just below his cheeks. The damaged facial muscles made it seem as if his lips were twisted into a permanent sneer, and he spoke with the halting slur of a stroke victim. It didn’t take a psychic to see his future: long hospital stays, multiple skin grafts, lots of pain.

“We should have kept in touch,” he said. “After we graduated, I mean. You get so busy you don’t realize you’re losing touch with all your friends.”

I said that’s just the way it was, but we were never really friends, just classmates on friendly terms. I hadn’t thought of him in years.

“So who is he?” Don finally asked.

He looked away from me when he asked the question, and I had the feeling that he remembered a lot more about the night he had been attacked than he said. Call it intuition if you want. That sounds a lot nicer than cynicism or paranoia.

“A twenty-year-old kid who had his head blown off by a shotgun a few days ago,” I said.

“The same age as my oldest boy.” He picked up the photograph of his family from the table. “You got kids, Charlie?”

“No. Just didn’t happen.”

There was a lot more to it than that, but catching up on old times has its limits.

“When you have kids, you want to give them everything.” He stared at the photograph and took a long breath that made him shudder. “What am I going to give them now? A truckload of debt? The thirty-three dollars I got left out of my SSI check?”

“Mid-South Transport isn’t paying you? If you’re in a union...”

“I’m not a truck driver. I’m a body man and painter, been doing it since the week I got out of school. The truck-driving thing was just on the side. After my divorce I had the free time and with the boys starting college, I needed the extra money.” He shrugged his narrow shoulders. “I try to send Cass a little something extra when I can. We had twenty-one and a half good years and you never know. People get back together the same as they split up, right?”

“You worked nights. Local deliveries?”

“The general area, yeah. Sal Junior, my boss at the shop, hooked me up with the gig. The pay was good and in cash and what was I doing anyway? Sitting around here by myself, drinking too much beer.”

“Sal Junior.” I made a connection I didn’t want to make. “You work for the Arcados?”

His flinch was all the answer I needed. Arcado Automotive was the largest independent body shop in Memphis. Everyone knew that if you wanted a first-class paint job or if you needed a totaled ‘67 Mustang restored to cherry perfection, you went to Arcado Automotive. Everyone in law enforcement also knew that the garage had been a front for the Montesi crime family since JFK was in the White House. If Sal Junior was involved with Mid-South Transport, it meant something very profitable and most likely very illegal was going on.

“What were you hauling for them, Don? Electronics? Television sets? Hijacked cigarettes?”

“Nothing like that. Just garbage,” he said. “And it didn’t have nothing to do with my attack, anyway. I’d unloaded my truck at the industrial park. We were on our way out of the neighborhood when the engine broke down.”

“I thought you were alone when it happened. You said we.”

His eyes darted away from me. “The drugs,” he said. “They make me fuzzy.”

“I’m not trying to accuse you of anything.”

“Look, Charlie. I’m tired, okay? I think I need to lie down.”


“I’m going to lie down.”

I got the message so I said sure, that was probably a good idea. Then he stopped me.

“Those kids who did this?”


He shivered a little, remembering. “I tell you the truth, Charlie. I think they just wanted to watch me burn.”

Frances Cheatham looked as if she’d lost five pounds and added ten years since the day her grandson died. She sat in her shadowed living room, surrounded by flowers and condolence cards and her photo albums, sipping straight bourbon from a coffee cup.

“I don’t see what my husband’s job has to do with Terrell.”

“I’m not sure that it does,” I said.

But that was only partly true. Nate Randolph, my old partner in the homicide division, had surprised me by not only returning my call but actually doing me a favor. A decade ago I’d ended up in a situation where I had a choice between destroying evidence that could have put the former head of the Montesi family, Fat Tony, in prison for twenty years or saving the life of a woman who was very close to me. The internal-affairs investigation that followed my decision led me to resign from the Memphis P.D. Guilt by association ended Nate’s chance at making captain. Maybe his new wife had mellowed him.

Two years retired, Nate still had a lot of friends. It had taken him less than twenty minutes to find out that although they hadn’t been arrested, Bop-Bop Drake and Demond Jones were considered the only suspects in Terrell Cheatham’s murder and that four of the five witnesses who claimed the perps were young black men were employed at the West Parrish Industrial Park, the Depression era sprawl of abandoned brick warehouses, corrugated tin shacks, rusted-out water and gasoline storage tanks, and collapsing docks on the banks of the Mississippi River just a few blocks from Frances Cheatham’s apartment. The Park had last operated at full capacity back during the Vietnam War but somehow seemed to employ everyone on the scene of the murder as well as Frances Cheatham’s late husband.

“Terrell worked there, too, before he went to Tops,” I said.

“It was temporary work, is all. About the time Marcus found out he had cancer Terrell’s job played out. Things always happen at the worst time.” She glared at me from over the rim of her coffee cup. “At least, that’s the way it works around here.”

“Your husband worked the night shift,” I said. “It’s odd, don’t you think? That the Park would need twenty-four-hour security, I mean?”

“We were thankful to have a steady paycheck.”

“Did your husband or Terrell ever mention Mid-South Transport?”

“Not that I remember,” she said, but her eyes darted away from me.

“Mrs. Cheatham, you and I both know that Terrell was killed by two white men. Somehow five people claim the shooters were young and black. Four of the five work at the industrial park where your husband and grandson were employed. The fifth works for Mid-South Transport, a trucking company that makes regular deliveries to the Park and one I’m fairly certain is a front for the Mafia. If your husband ever mentioned what goes on there...”

“He never said and I never asked.” She met my eyes. “I’ve not hired you for anything, and you’re not a cop so I don’t know what you think you can do.”

It was a good question, and I didn’t really have an answer. Part of it was pride, maybe. I didn’t like being told that I hadn’t seen what I knew I had. But it was more than that. The pain I’d seen in Frances Cheatham’s face when she realized Terrell was dead and that impotent drowning feeling I’d had as I rushed into the parking lot a few minutes too late to do anything that mattered haunted my sleep. This was the only way I knew to put those memories to rest.

“If someone has threatened you or if you’re...”

“Ain’t no one done nothing,” she said, her voice quavering and angry. “But what does it matter anyway? Nothing you or me do is going to bring my grandson back, is it?”

“No, ma’am,” I admitted.

“Then what’s it matter?” She shook her head and reached for her coffee mug. “It doesn’t matter. Not now.” Her eyes flashed at me. “This was our home. We told ourselves if we raised him right, things could be different for him, that if you was fair to people they’d be fair to you, that if you did the right thing it would be right. We was stupid, and I’m just a fool. My husband was a good man and Terrell was too. At least he was going to be.”

She stared into her empty coffee mug as if she could will whiskey to appear. After a minute, she pulled herself from the couch, wobbling a little as she waited for me to stand.

“Sometimes you got to look after yourself. You can’t always be worrying about what ought to be. Sometimes you just got to take care of your own.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I agreed with her that sometimes you did. Then she reminded me that this was a dangerous neighborhood, especially for someone with my skin tone.

“What I’m saying,” she said in case I hadn’t understood, “is that it would probably be best if you didn’t come down here anymore.”

Then she slammed the door. In the parking lot, a little boy, ten or eleven, maybe, stepped from between two cars. He was small, delicate looking, with huge brown eyes that seemed to swallow his face, but he already had the walk, the aggressively slumped shoulders, the sneer of a gang kid. Ten years from now, he’d have the jailhouse banter, the dead eyes, and the rap sheet to go with them — if he lived that long.

“You Raines, right? They some people want to see you.”

“Oh yeah?” I said.

“I’m telling you,” he said. “You pass that school up the block? See the courts in the back? Bop-Bop and Demond ballin’ up there.”

“Thanks for the message,” I said, opening my car door.

“So you going?”

“Depends on what they want.”

“Man, they don’t tell me what they want. They just say go get that white guy, tell him we got something to talk about.” He kicked at the pavement with the toe of a scuffed sneaker. “So?”

“You want a ride?”

He took an instinctive step backward and his large eyes got larger. “I don’t get in cars with strangers.”

“You tell me who you think had Terrell killed,” Demond Jones said.

He was a rangy kid with a bushy Afro, a slow smile, and a shark’s eyes. He sprawled on the icy metal bleachers near a fenced-in basketball court, his long legs stretched out in front of him, a Kool dangling from the corner of his mouth and a 32-ounce can of Icehouse beer resting by his side. One row up, Bop-Bop Drake perched over his friend’s shoulder like an overgrown parrot.

I wasn’t sure what I thought about any of what they had said. I looked away, watched the four-on-four game on the court. Most of the players were good, but one was spectacular, quick and surefooted with a smooth jump shot and a crossover dribble that could blow out a defender’s ankle. I recognized him from sports reports on the local news. A sophom*ore in high school, he was being recruited by half the major universities in America and destined to be an NBA star, but none of the kids gathered around the courts were paying him any attention. Down here Demond and Bop-Bop were the stars, the heroes that all these thirteen- and fourteen-year-old kids wanted to be. It made sense. None of those kids had the talent of Kyrie Taylor, but they all knew they could learn to deal drugs or use a gun.

“You’re telling me you guys firebombed that truck for political reasons.” I finally said.

“We ain’t saying we did anything illegal at all,” Bop-Bop said. “I’m telling you that Terrell threw that Molotov because he was drunk and angry that they was killing us.”

“Genocide is the word Bop-Bop’s trying to think of,” Demond said. “That’s what Terrell kept saying when he was drunk. They’re committing genocide, just like in Rwanda, but nobody knows it. T-Bone was smart. Educated, you know?”

“He was in your gang.”

“What gang?” Bop-Bop asked. “There ain’t no gangs around here.”

“Terrell wasn’t in nothing. He just came to us because he knew I’d listen to what he had to say.”

“Why?” I asked. “Was there money involved?”

He gave me a slow grin. “You act like ‘cause I do a little business I don’t care about nothing else. Making money is the American way, ain’t it?”

“He told you what was going on at the industrial park? Enlighten me.”

“I’m not clear on the particulars but I know something ain’t right around here.”

“He said they were dumping?”

“Chemicals and all kinds of sh*t like that. Illegal stuff from all over. T-Bone said it’s why his granddad died of bone cancer.” For the first time, Demond’s eyes softened and I remembered that he wasn’t just a gangb*nger or a monster but also a nineteen-year-old kid. “He said it was the reason my baby sister got leukemia.”

“There’s all kind of people sick down here. The apartments where I stay? I know at least six families got kids with cancer. You just go down to the Med, you’ll see,” Bop-Bop said.

“T-Bone had all kinds of numbers and things he’d gathered,” Demond said.

“He called it some foreign word,” Bop-Bop said.

Demond gave him a look. “Dossier. It ain’t foreign, man. It’s American.”

“Ain’t no word I ever used.”

“Damn, Bop-Bop, I know you went to school. Maybe you should have paid attention.” Demond looked back at me. “Terrell had pictures he’d taken on his cell phone while he was working there, notes about things his granddad had told him, this research he’d done on the Internet. He showed us that stuff ‘cause he knew I’d be interested, since I watched my baby sister die of cancer.”

“What happened to it?”

“We ain’t got it. That’s for sure.”

“Why did you firebomb the truck?”

“Let’s just say Terrell might have put away a few too many and claimed he was going to take care of things his own damn self. A couple of his buddies might have gone with him, you know, maybe ‘cause they thought he wasn’t really going to do anything.” He closed his eyes for a second. “Or maybe they went with him ‘cause they were hurting pretty bad and wanted to strike out the same way he did because a little sister had died. Say this little sister was just six years old and crying for her brother to hold her hand but he was too scared because it hurt too damn much to see her that way.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We all sorry, man.” He took a long drag from his cigarette and then elbowed Bop-Bop’s knee. “Tell him all of it.”

Bop-Bop cleared his throat and fidgeted. He seemed as nervous as an actor on opening night.

“Well. It’s like this.” He halted, coughed into his fist, tried again. “Okay, say these two friends and Bone are...”

“Just tell him what happened,” Demond said. “He ain’t a cop no more. Besides, if he says anything, it’s our word against his.”

Bop-Bop thought it over a moment and then shrugged. “We were all wasted, you know, and T-Bone, that’s what we called Terrell ‘cause he was always talking about steaks, he kept saying they’d killed Paula, Demond’s little sister, kept saying they poisoned her and wasn’t no one going to do nothing but us. We were going to throw them bottles of gasoline through the front gates at the Park, but on our way, we saw the broken-down truck. T-Bone went crazy, yelling at them that they were child killers and as bad as the Nazis. Then he threw the Molotov and the truck caught on fire.”

“You keep saying ‘them,’” I said, remembering Don Ellis saying “we broke down.” “Were there two people in the truck?”

“That’s where things get complicated,” Demond said.

“Yeah, there was a guy in the passenger’s seat. He jumped out of the truck with a gun.”

“Maybe he had a gun,” Demond said. “But it don’t matter. He came out of the truck running towards us, and I put three bullets in his chest.”

Bop-Bop glanced around and then leaned a little closer. “Guy’s name was Giacomeli. We ran into him here and there in the kind of business we do.”

“Sam Giacomeli?”

“Called himself Sammy the Saint,” Demond said, snorting his disgust.

“You guys killed Paul Cardo’s nephew,” I said. “And Cardo is...”

“He’s with the Montesis,” Bop-Bop said.

“Not just with,” I said.

“We know who he is,” Demond said. “That’s why we sent for you.”

Bop-Bop nodded. “Word on the street is you’re in tight with Montesi.”

“That’s not...”

Demond cut me off before I could finish. “Just name us a price, man. I ain’t saying we’ll pay it but it’ll give us a place to start negotiating.”

“You want to hire me?”

“We don’t care what you call it,” Demond said. “We just want you to make it go away.”

My first thought was that this was some kind of joke, but their eyes were desperately earnest. They kept watching me, waiting for me to say I could do something to help, the shaky smiles on their faces caught somewhere between hopeful and damned.

At eleven o’clock the next morning, I sat on a bench outside of the Physical Rehabilitation and Therapy building on the campus of Baptist Memorial Hospital and tried to make sense of it all. After I’d left Drake and Jones, I’d headed for the main branch of the Memphis library. Two hours later, I’d walked back out into the cold night with words like benzene, dioxin, and dichloromethane buzzing in my head. One sentence echoed: twenty-two billion pounds of toxic and hazardous chemicals released each year through illegal disposal. From New Jersey to Alabama, the mob had used its experience in late-night burial to make millions by handling sticky and usually toxic messes for corporate bosses who were more concerned with profit margins than questions. Whether they were in urban industrial wastelands or backwater burgs, the dumpsites had at least two things in common: They were always located on the edge of poor, usually black neighborhoods and they continued to poison generations long after the dumping had been forgotten and both the mob’s and the corporate shareholders’ profits had been spent.

It was nearly eleven-thirty when a part-time home health aide parked Don Ellis’s Dodge minivan in front of the building and scurried around to help him to the front door. When I walked into the second-floor cafeteria, Don was waiting at a table near a row of vending machines, sipping Dr Pepper through a straw. “I’m glad you called. Since you came to the house I ain’t thought about nothing else. You left the picture of that kid at my house.” He shrugged. “I’m a coward these days, Charlie. I lost what little nerve I had.”

I felt sorry for him, but that didn’t stop me from asking questions. I’m still enough of a cop that it rarely does.

“We hauled lots of stuff,” he said. “Don’t ask me what it was because I don’t know other than there were vats and barrels of it, and it came in from everywhere. Even I could tell the logs and inspections were phony, but no one seemed to ask any questions.”

“How long?”

“For me, five years off and on.” He slurped his Dr Pepper, stared at a point somewhere past my head. “They’ve been dumping down there since the early seventies, I think, but that’s just a guess.”

“Why was Giacomeli with you?”

“It was just one of those things. He was at the industrial park on some kind of business. I don’t ask questions. I just drive trucks. Anyways, his Mazda broke down. I offered to take a look, but it was late and he said forget it, he’d just catch a ride back with me. Then the truck started acting up. The last thing I remember him saying was ‘Jesus Christ, two engines in one night, maybe I’m frigging cursed.’ Then those kids came from nowhere and...” His voice trailed off, and he chased his straw around with the tip of his tongue, finally gave up and licked his lips instead. “After the fire started, someone must have made a phone call, because when I woke up everyone was saying I was alone. A guy visited me in the ICU, told me that’s the way it happened and I didn’t want to complicate matters by saying any different.”

“Listen, Don,” I said. “I still got a few friends on the force.”

“Forget it,” he said, his voice loud enough to turn heads in our direction. “I’m telling you this ‘cause it’s been on my mind a lot and you knew about it anyway, but I’m not talking to anyone else. Ever.”

“Don, something needs to be done.”

“Listen to me, Charlie. The thing I thought about while I was in the hospital was that maybe I had this coming, that maybe I deserved to die. But I got my boys and my ex-wife to think about.” He licked his lips again. “I said what I got to say. And I’m never going to say it again.”

I was furious. I wanted to tell him that he was right: He had become a coward. Maybe I even opened my mouth to do it, but the sight of him struggling to stand, his ruined face straining from the effort, left me wordless and ashamed.

Two hours later, I lay on the asphalt outside my apartment building and stared up at the flushed and bloated face of the man who’d dented the back of my head with a pool cue and cracked a couple of my ribs with the toe of his snake-skinned cowboy boot. He looked familiar, but my mind was reeling from shock and pain, and I couldn’t quite get a handle on his name or who he was or why he seemed intent on killing me.

“Look here, Charlie. Moan a lot, thrash around like you’re really hurting and this will go a lot quicker,” he said in a voice that sounded as if he started each day by gargling broken glass. “I tried to beg off this one, but you know how it is.” He stomped my left hand, ground the bones under his heel, grinned down at me. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”

If I’d had the strength to do anything except whimper and cringe and try to remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer, I would have told him that I didn’t really give a damn who he was. He could have been Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the frigging Easter Bunny, for all I cared. I just didn’t want him to hurt me anymore.

“It’s me, Frankie Giageos,” he said. “I guess I put on a few pounds, huh?”

I blinked cold sweat from my eyes, squinted up at his face, and saw a guy I used to know buried beneath a fresh fifty pounds of fat. Frankie Gee. The last I’d heard, he was in federal prison for conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

“You got out,” I said.

“Couple of months ago.”

Then he kicked me again, left side this time, and I felt a rib crack. Say what you wanted about Frankie Gee, he was a professional. Another kick to the solar plexus and then he took a step back and stood looking down at me, breathing hard, the air whistling through his nose and rattling in his chest.

“I’m getting too old for this crap,” he said, gasping for air.

“Me too,” I said

“That’s pretty good, Charlie.” He wiped his face on his coat sleeve and pulled a pack of Camels from his inside pocket. “I got a message for you.”

I coughed hard, nearly passed out from the pain but felt a little better when I saw that I’d spat out a mouthful of phlegm instead of blood. “Let me guess. Stay away from Parrish Industrial Park.”

He lit a cigarette with a gold Zippo. “You know this stuff already, why am I here?”

He glanced over his shoulder at a silver Lexus parked in a handicapped space. A heavyset man with gray curly hair was sitting behind the wheel, sipping from a Styrofoam cup while he watched us. I recognized him as the man who’d been driving the SUV when Terrell Cheatham was murdered. Seeing him here with Frankie Gee brought his name back to me. Jackie Marconi, a bottom- feeder who’d been doing grunt work for the mob since he was sixteen. It looked as if he’d taken a giant leap up the ladder.

“Jackie Macaroni sits in the car while you’re out...”

” ‘Jackie Macaroni.’ That’s good,” Frankie said. “Since Tony retired and Vinnie’s been so screwed up over his kid, God rest his little soul, things ain’t the way they used to be. Between you and me, they ain’t right at all.”

“Cardo’s calling the shots,” I said.

“And Jackie there is the king turd in the toilet bowl.” He flicked his cigarette away, grunted as he stooped to retrieve the sawed-off pool cue. “Cardo’s serious about this one, Charlie. Next time I’ll have to put a bullet in your head. Only reason you got a pass this time is because even though Tony ain’t the boss no more, his opinion carries weight.” He took another quick glance back at the Lexus. “If he were to make a direct request on your behalf, people would be inclined to listen. You hear what I’m saying?”

“I hear you, Frankie.”

“You listening?”

“I hear you.”

“Same old Charlie R,” he said.

I wasn’t expecting the kick in the crotch. It caught me off guard, sent stars shooting behind my eyes and the bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit I’d gobbled for breakfast spewing onto the pavement. He hadn’t pulled the kick or tried to soften the blow. Like I said, Frankie Gee was a professional.

“When you talk to Tony, give him my best wishes,” he said.

I wiped the vomit from my mouth. “What makes you think I’m going to talk to Tony?”

“You’re stubborn, Charlie. Not stupid.”

When the Lexus pulled out of the lot, I curled up into a ball and lay on the asphalt, taking deep breaths of cold air until my stomach settled. A few curtains ruffled in the apartments across the way, but no one bothered to come out to help or took the trouble to call 911. Five minutes later, I crawled to my car and drove myself to the emergency room.

In a perfect world, his loyalty as an old friend and his commitment to justice, decency, and the American Way would have led Nate Randolph to use his influence to get the department to launch an investigation into illegal dumping and Terrell Cheatham’s murder. But no one seemed particularly interested.

“Call the EPA,” Nate said. “They got a hotline for things like this.”

“That’s all you got to say?”

“No,” he said, nodding at the can of Tecate I’d set on his new coffee table. “Either keep that damn thing in your hand or use a coaster.”

I reached for my beer, winced from the pain in my ribs. I’d gotten lucky. Only three were broken. The rest of me was so sore and swollen that I felt like I’d been locked into a barrel with a rabid wolverine and pitched over Niagara Falls.

“You’ve got nothing and you know it, Charlie,” he said. “The word of a couple of street punks? The truck driver’s going to deny everything.”

“Frankie Gee didn’t pay me a visit just to catch up on old times.”

“Being right don’t change anything.” He finished his beer and set the empty back down on a coaster. “Call the EPA. They go in with a search warrant and find anything out of the ordinary, the Feds will be on Cardo like stink on an outhouse.”

“And by the time they get around to filing charges, all of the important witnesses will have disappeared and I’ll end up in the Mississippi River.”

He gave me a wicked grin. “Not my problem. I’m retired. Remember?”

I’ve seen movies and read books about ordinary people who are willing to disregard their own safety to testify against the mob or reveal the abuse of power by corrupt public officials or blow the whistle on corporate bosses who deny knowledge of the poisons they peddle. These people are real heroes, capable of putting the good of the whole in front of their own self-interest. I’ve always marveled at their courage and appreciated their sacrifice. But I’m not one of them. No one would describe my life as glamorous, and it’s a long way from what I’d imagined it would be when I was a kid, but I was in no hurry to throw it away. Instead of calling the EPA, I called in a favor from an old friend.

The next afternoon I exited the 240 loop at Summer Avenue. At his Uncle Tony’s request, Little Vinnie Montesi had agreed to spare me half an hour of his time. I’d expected him to choose one of the half-dozen Italian restaurants he frequented or, if I were lucky, the warehouse-sized gentleman’s club he owned on Brooks Road. Instead, I’d been summoned to a Waffle House that sat between a run-down motel where half the guests cooked meth in their rooms and a convenience store that seemed to specialize in prepaid cell phones and three-dollar-a-bottle wine.

When I stepped into the restaurant, the hairs tingled on the back of my neck, and my pulse roared in my ears. Three broad-shouldered men hunched over coffee cups at the counter. I didn’t need to see their faces to know they were Montesi’s men, but Vinnie himself was nowhere around. A setup? The thought made my mouth dry and my pulse throb in my neck. It struck me that I was putting a lot of faith in the respect Little Vinnie might have for his uncle. Before his health and his age had led him to a condo in Sarasota, Florida, Fat Tony ran the Mafia in Memphis for twenty-five years. He was greedy, power hungry, ruthless when it came to competition, but he was also a rational man, capable of great loyalty and occasional generosity when it came to his friends.

His nephew wasn’t just Tony’s opposite in physical appearance. Around police stations in Memphis, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama, the years since Tony retired and Vinnie took over were referred to as the co*kehead Reign of Terror. Vicious by nature and possessed by an addict’s megalomania, Little Vinnie Montesi had set about renegotiating all of the old understandings. Black drug dealers, redneck meth cookers, and point men for the Mexican drug cartels had been turning up in vacant lots, abandoned warehouses, and torched cars for the last six years. Now, looking at those three broad backs and all those empty booths, I wondered if I hadn’t made the worst mistake of a life that had been full of them.

Then one of the broad-shouldered men swiveled on his stool to face me, and my pulse and my nerves settled a little. Frankie Gee. I wondered what it said about my life and my chosen profession that seeing the guy who’d broken my ribs, stomped my hands, and nearly kicked my testicl*s into my sinus cavities was a comfort.

“Last booth,” Frankie Gee said.

The seats were empty, but a waffle swimming in blueberry syrup, a half glass of chocolate milk, and a platter of bacon sat on the table. I slid into the side opposite the food and waited. A couple of minutes later, Vinnie Montesi came from the men’s room, patting his face with a paper towel. In the movies, people are always kissing the rings of Mafia bosses, but he didn’t even offer to shake my hand. Instead, he slid into the booth and gave me a curt nod. I knew he was younger than me by a good seven years, but today he seemed much older. He was ten, maybe fifteen pounds lighter than I remembered, with dark bruises beneath his eyes and fresh patches of gray in his dark brown hair. His movements were wooden and lifeless, a million miles from the jerky, earthquake-beneath-the-skin manner of a co*ke addict on a binge. He looked as if his grief for his son had scooped out his insides and left a hollow shell.

He picked up the glass of chocolate milk but instead of drinking it, sniffed the rim and then set it back down. “You like milk?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said and then shrugged. “Not really. I pretty much stick with coffee and beer.”

“I can’t stand the stuff,” he said. “Milk, I mean. Chocolate or white, either one. The taste makes me vomit, has since I was a kid.” He picked up the glass again, and his smile was crooked and damned. “Before he got sick, Michael drank it by the gallon. He loved this place. Waffles, bacon, sausage, fried eggs. My wife, she’s a health-food addict, always worrying about nitrates and sodium and on and on, but as long as Mikey was up to it, I’d bring him every Sunday.” He shut his eyes for a second. “I thought I’d never want to step foot in this place again, but now... now it’s where I come to feel peaceful. My wife, she goes to church. I come to this dump and order a bunch of food that makes me sick to my stomach.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, hating the hollow empty sound of the words as I spoke them.

He waved away my condolences. “My uncle likes you,” he said. “The way he ran things... well, they aren’t exactly my way but that don’t mean I don’t appreciate him. Out of respect for him, I’ll listen, but I’m not making promises.”

When I finished telling him what I knew and what I suspected, he nodded to himself. Then he spent a couple of minutes staring at a point on the ceiling.

“I’ve heard what you got to say.”


“Paul Cardo’s a businessman, so am I. The way we do things is, he deals with his problems and I deal with mine.”

“You’re saying you don’t know what goes on at West Parrish Industrial Park?”

“Don’t know and don’t care.”

“As long as you get your cut.”

His tongue darted over his upper lip. “I have a piece of advice for you, Charlie, and I’m giving it because of your friendship with my uncle. This thing you told me today? You don’t want to be telling it to anyone else, especially not anyone connected to the federal government. A thing like that...” He shrugged and gave me a rattlesnake’s grin. “Well, my affection for my uncle only goes so far.”

I took a deep breath, glanced at the untouched waffle and the half-empty glass of chocolate milk. “What did your son die of? It was cancer, right?”

“Leukemia,” he said, his voice as cold as wind blowing over an iceberg. “Don’t push me, Raines.”

“I was in the Med the other day,” I said. “The emergency room...”

“I heard about that, too.”

“When they finished with the X-rays and the bandages, I had a little extra time, so I visited a few people, most of them from South Memphis.”

“We’re done here,” he said.

I shook my head. “Take a ride with me.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Take a ride with me.”

He grimaced. “To the Med?”

“One hour. That’s all I’m asking. Then I go away and keep my mouth shut. You don’t have to worry about offending your Uncle Tony...”

“I’m not that worried.”

“Then it’ll save you the trouble of having me killed.”

My heart hammered and a little voice in the back of my head shouted that the only thing I was going to accomplish here was to get myself murdered, but I held my gaze as steady as I could. Then he caught me off guard.

“Tony says you lost a child.”

Even though all that was over twenty years ago, I felt as if he’d sucker- punched me in the center of my chest. “A daughter. Stillborn,” I said. “It’s not the same.”

He nodded more to himself than me. “You ride with us and I’ll give you an hour.” Then he grabbed my wrist and leaned across the booth so that a passerby might have thought he was about to kiss me. “And if you ever try to use my son’s memory to jerk me around again, I won’t bother having someone kill you. I swear to God, I’ll do it myself.”

It didn’t take an hour. After twenty minutes on the pediatrics wing of the Regional Medical Center, he grabbed my arm and stared at me with the wild, trapped eyes of a rabbit caught in a snare.

“I got to get out of here,” he said. “I can’t breathe. I just can’t get any air.”

Frankie Gee and another, younger soldier who’d come up with us turned to me as Vinnie bolted past them, his head down, his hand clamped over his mouth. When I tried to follow him to the elevator, Frankie blocked my path.

“Why’d you bring him here?” Frankie asked, his dark eyes glassy beads set in fat. “What the hell did you think you were doing?”

“Trying to save my life,” I said.

Frankie’s expression made it clear that he no longer thought of me as a friend. “Yeah, well good luck with that,” he said, but he stepped out of my way.

Vinnie Montesi sat on a brick wall just outside the entrance. A cigarette dangled from his lips, and he was frantically rummaging through his coat pockets.

“Lost my damn lighter again,” he said. “Did I have it at the Waffle House?”

I shook my head and handed him my Zippo. “You all right?”

He fired the tip of his cigarette, took a drag, and exhaled towards the gray clouds that drifted from across the river. “I spent two eternities in these frigging places. Michael was in Baptist Memorial,” he said. “But they’re all the same. They feel the same. Like hopelessness and loss and bad memories. When Mikey died, he held my hand. He was too weak to squeeze it or anything but he held on as long as he could.”

“I didn’t...”

He flicked his hand to tell me to shut up. Then when Frankie Gee and the other guy stomped towards us, ready to break the rest of my ribs, he flicked his hand again.

“Those kids up there. We gave them cancer, didn’t we? The stuff we dumped at the Park.”

“Not all of them,” I said.

“That’s why God did it,” he said. “Right? That’s why Mikey got leukemia. We dumped that crap and made a lot of people sick, so Mikey got cancer.”

“I’m not saying that.”

“Never mind that Paul Cardo’s been running this scam since the seventies or that my Uncle Tony raked in his share of the profits. I took my cut for six years so God killed my kid.” He exhaled smoke at the sky. “But what are you going to do? He’s God, right? The boss of bosses. You eat his crap and pretend you’re thankful.”

“I didn’t bring you here to hurt you,” I said and wondered if my feeling sympathy for Vincent Montesi meant I’d gone crazy or the world had turned upside down.

“You know what I think? I don’t think God waits until the afterlife to punish you. I think he does it right here.” He flicked his cigarette away. “Way I see it? Screw eternity. Right here, right now is hell.”

“Maybe not,” I said, seizing what might have been the only opportunity I had to keep myself out of that cold, dark river. “Maybe every day is purgatory,” I said, grabbing at the shadow of a rope. “Maybe it’s your chance to put right what you did the day before.”

It was pretty lame, I guess. Something I might have heard on a late-night drunk or read on a men’s room wall. But it was all I had, and I was betting my life on it.

“Yeah?” he said, frowning, wanting to believe it. “Your chance to do what? Some kind of penance?”

I knew he’d taken the bait. “Maybe.”

A smile flittered around his lips and then died. “So maybe you can set things right, get to heaven where you can see...” He let the thought fade and buried it alongside the smile. “Shutting down a business like that would cause problems. Paulie wouldn’t be happy. I’d have to deal with it.” He closed his eyes, nodded to himself. “But you know that, right?”


“Three weeks,” he said. “That’s what I need to make sure there’s nothing that could cause me or Tony any trouble. Three weeks. Then you can call the Feds, let them start getting that garbage out of there. That’s the only deal I’m going to offer.”

The people in South Memphis had been poisoned for over thirty years so I figured three weeks wouldn’t matter that much one way or the other. If saving my life — and Demond and Bop-Bop and Don Ellis’s, I told myself to feel a little better — meant that some of the guilty would go free? Well, they always do, don’t they?

“All right,” I said.

He stood then, motioned for Frankie and the other guy to head to the parking garage. There was no question about it. I wasn’t invited.

“You really believe that?” he asked. “That every day is one more chance to do penance, settle old debts?”

“I want to,” I said.

He turned away and left me alone. But that was okay. I knew what I’d just done and that people were going to die because of it, and alone seemed like the right place for me to be.

How would you want it to end? If it could turn out any way you wanted, what would be different? I wasted a lot of time asking myself those questions. In the end, this is what happened.

Paulie Cardo and his mistress were found dead in her condo. According to Nate Randolph, the girl had been shot twice in the chest and hadn’t suffered. They kept Paul Cardo alive for a while. After a couple of beers, I can tell myself that I’m not responsible, but I know better. When you suggest the idea of penance to a violent man, there’s no reason to expect that his version of penance would be anything but violent.

In a perfect world, Demond and Bop-Bop would have realized the error of their ways. But of course, that didn’t happen. Six weeks ago, Bop-Bop was arrested for slitting Demond’s throat in a South Memphis pool hall. Most likely it was over an argument about the profits from their thriving drug business, but in perverse moments I wonder if Bop-Bop didn’t finally get tired of Demond’s vocabulary lessons and decide to silence him forever.

Vinnie Montesi has put on a few pounds and looks healthier, but I’d given him a balm for his conscience, not the key to a change of life. If you buy smack or co*ke or rent a prostitute anywhere from Dyersburg to Biloxi, odds are you’re still lining Vinnie’s pockets. Don Ellis committed suicide when the papers broke the story about chemical dumping in South Memphis. Maybe he did it because of the guilt or because he wanted to save his sons and his ex-wife from Vinnie Montesi’s brand of penance. Whatever the reason, I like to think that in the end, Don Ellis found his courage.

For the next two weeks, people who were connected to the industrial park or Mid-South Transport turned up in the unlikeliest of places — burning wrecks on the interstate, sandbars in the Mississippi, abandoned warehouses downtown. It was an actuary’s nightmare. I’d sentenced those people to death when I accepted Vinnie Montesi’s offer to give him three weeks to tie up loose ends. To help myself sleep at night, I pretended that what happened to them was justice.

Eventually, the FBI and the EPA gave up their investigations. The mob members who seemed to be involved ended up just as dead as the potential witnesses who might have testified against them. The corporate bosses and hospital administrators and paid-for politicians who made all this possible were never named in an indictment. Any chance that the people who profited from the dumping could have been found went away when I cut my deal with Vinnie Montesi.

I’m just like everyone else. I find it hard to live with the cowardly, self-serving parts of myself. I told myself that if only I’d had Terrell Cheatham’s dossier things would have been different, that I would have taken it to the papers or turned it over to the EPA and more of the guilty would have been identified. But thinking about the folder only brought more questions. What had happened to it? How had Cardo known where to find Terrell Cheatham but been clueless about Demond and Bop-Bop? That’s when I started thinking about what Frances Cheatham had said.

When I paid my third visit to her apartment, spring had finally come to Memphis. Dogwoods were blooming. The sun was bright gold, and the entire world, even the toxic wasteland part of it, was cloaked with green. But inside Frances Cheatham’s apartment, the shades were drawn and everything seemed to be coated with a layer of gray.

“He was a good boy,” she said, tapping a photo album with her index finger. “Smart too. I should have listened.”

“He showed you his file. His dossier,” I said.

“Just like he showed me the roses or the rainbows he drew in school when he was a little child.” She picked up a glass and swallowed a mouthful of whiskey. “He loved his granddaddy, that’s why he wanted to stop it. But he brought it to me. He told me what it was, what them men had done. He wanted to take it to somebody at the paper. I told him to take it to Mr. Lewinski instead. He was the white man who was head of security at the Park. They were holding back on Marcus’s pension.”

“His pension?”

“Nine hundred and thirteen dollars a month. He had that coming, Marcus did. He worked hard and it killed him. So when Terrell showed me all that, I told him to take it to Mr. Lewinski, to tell him to give us the money my husband earned or we’d make it public. Terrell didn’t want to. He kept saying it was wrong, that we had to do something, but I told him, ‘Son the only person that ever does something for you is yourself.’ He loved me, so he let me talk him down. But you know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“I told myself I was doing it for him, so he could have the money to go to college and get out of this neighborhood. But I was doing it for myself, too, because I was scared of ending up sleeping under an overpass and eating garbage. But I knew as soon as they sent him away and told him they’d call us that they meant to kill him. That’s why I was so glad to see you. I figured he’d be safe in jail.”

There was no point in telling her that half the cons and a third of the jailers were bought and paid for by men like Montesi and Cardo. Instead, I said that she’d done the best she could. It didn’t matter anyway. Lewinski was one of the corpses who’d turned up in the river.

“I’m sorry,” I said, but the words just hung there.

On my way out the door, I stopped and looked back at her. She was tracing the photo album with the tip of her finger, cocooned in the guilt that would follow her to her grave. Then I thought about Vinnie Montesi drinking chocolate milk and staring at a syrup-covered waffle to hold on to the memory of his son and Demond Jones telling me that his little sister had begged him to make the pain go away. I thought about Don Ellis looking at his face in the mirror, wondering what had happened to the life he’d once known.

I closed the door behind me. Then I closed my eyes. For a moment I was back there in that hospital, smelling antiseptic and pine trees, listening to my wife weep and staring at the blue, lifeless lump that should have been my little girl.

A few blocks away, the cleanup at the industrial park was just beginning, but I knew it didn’t matter. In the end, we don’t dump the worst of our toxic waste in abandoned warehouses or slow-moving rivers. We carry it around in our memories until it’s safely buried six feet underground.

Copyright © 2011 by Tim L. Williams. Black Mask Magazine title, logo and mask device copyright 2011 by Keith Alan Deutsch. Licensed by written permission.

The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train

by Peter Turnbull

George Hennessey of the York P.D. is back in another involving short case. If you’d like to see him in a longer work, the latest Hennessey and Yellich novel, Deliver Us From Evil, becomes available in paperback this month; it was first published in hardcover in June 2010 by Severn House. “Throughout this long-running series,” said Booklist in reviewing the novel, “Turnbull has delivered engaging writing, involving plots, memorable characters, and realistic descriptions of police work.”

* * * *

Over the years the story of the man who took his hat off to the driver of the train grew to have three parts. Three, George Hennessey mused as he took a pleasant walk on a pleasant summer’s evening, late, from his house to the pub in Easingwold for a pint of stout, just one before “last orders” were called. Yes, he thought, the story had three distinct parts. There was, he remembered as his eye was caught by a rapidly darting bat, the incident itself and the story therein, then there was the story as he had told it to Charles, then, finally, there was seeing the woman again.

She had not grown old gracefully: She had refused to surrender to the years, and like so many women who pursue that policy she had, in the opinion of George Hennessey, quite simply made things worse for herself. Even if her figure had remained slender she could not at the age of fifty-plus wear T-shirts and jeans and trainers and drink among the university students and hope to blend in.

Hennessey was walking the walls from the police station at Micklegate Bar to the fish restaurant on Lendal intending to take lunch “out,” as was his custom, when he saw her approaching him. She didn’t recognise him and walked quickly, urgently, in a manner that a casual observer would see as a woman about a pressing errand, a woman going somewhere. But Hennessey, a police officer for the greater part of his working life, and now nearing retirement, was a keen student of human behaviour and he saw instead a frightened woman, speeding away from something, something within her, something in her past from which there is no escape, no matter how breathlessly fast you walk. He recognised her as she wove in and out of the tourists who strolled the walls, but he could not immediately place her, except that he knew she belonged to his professional rather than private life. She approached him and swept past him, the sagging cheeks, the heavy makeup, glistening red lips and scraggy hair, and the quick, quick, quick, short, short, short steps along the ancient battlements, beneath a vast blue, cloudless July sky. On impulse, George Hennessey turned and followed her, quickening his pace to keep up with her.

She passed Micklegate Bar and left the walls at Baile Hill, turned sharp left into Cromwell Road, and entered the Waggoners’ Rest. Hennessey followed her into the pub. He was familiar with the pub, though didn’t often frequent it, knowing it to be a “locals” pub. Few tourists to the Faire and Famouse Citie of York find it, and further, it is the haunt of the youthful set of locals, to which the woman clearly felt she belonged, though it didn’t surprise Hennessey that by the time he entered the pub, the woman had purchased a large port and was sitting alone in the corner of the room. Hennessey purchased a non-alcoholic drink and sat in the far corner, observing her out of the corner of his eye.

Olivia Stringer.

Of course, Olivia Stringer. Her name came to him suddenly. So this is how she has ended up, alone, wasted, probably a drunkard if not an out-and-out alcoholic, judging by her emaciated appearance. A massive glass of port wine and no food to be seen, and that in the middle of the day. And a day-to-day, hand-to-mouth existence too, judging by the threadbare denims and the shapeless green T-shirt. But he felt no pity for her, no compassion, not after what she had done twenty years earlier.

The case, as Hennessey recalled, had unfolded when the driver of a London express train had brought his train to a rapid but controlled stop and had reported to York control that he had “one under” and gave the approximate location. All railway traffic on the down line was halted, and the emergency services had sped to the scene.

George Hennessey, then a detective sergeant with the North Yorkshire Police, was asked to represent the CID. A suicide has to be considered suspicious until foul play can safely be ruled out. By the time Hennessey had arrived at the scene, the body had been lifted from the track, a relief driver had taken the train on, and rail traffic was flowing normally.

“I always said if I had one under, that I’d look away.” The train driver, still clearly shaken, leant against the police vehicle and pulled heavily on a cigarette, and judging by the number of butts screwed into the dry ground at his feet, it was one in a long line of cigarettes he had smoked between the time of the accident and Sergeant Hennessey’s arrival. “But you can’t, you see,” he appealed to Hennessey. “You can’t look away.” He was a small man, Hennessey recalled, and he recalled being amused to note that driving a locomotive capable of 125 miles per hour clearly didn’t involve the use of great physical strength. Up to that point, he had always thought of train drivers as being large, brawny types. Clearly, he found, that was not the case. “I rounded the bend, sixty miles an hour at this point, not fast as fast trains go, but no time to stop before impact. I brought the speed down as fast as I safely could, but there wasn’t enough track to stop. Reckon I hit him doing about forty miles per hour.”

“Fast enough.”

“Oh, aye, fast enough all right, but we had eye contact, right till the end. I mean, he was looking right into my eyes and I was looking right into his. He just stood there. Other drivers say their ‘one unders’ turn away before impact, or stand facing away from the train altogether, or attempt to jump to safety at the last minute.”

“But not this man?”

The driver took one last desperate drag of the cigarette and tossed it to the ground, whereupon he stamped it into the soil with the others. “Not this man, oh no, not this man. Not a bit of it. Have you seen him?”

“Haven’t. Why, should I?”

“Only his appearance, not the normal ‘one under,’ not shabbily dressed, if dressed at all. One of my mates had a ‘one under’ who was totally naked, escaped from a psychiatric hospital, but this guy, well dressed, pinstripe suit, bowler hat, he looked like a bank manager or an accountant, and do you know what he did?”

“Tell me.”

“Just before impact, he raised his hat to me and mouthed, ‘Thank you.’”

Hennessey sipped his tonic water and glanced across at Olivia Stringer, who sat staring into space and was now, courtesy of the planet Earth’s revolutions, bathed in a shaft of sunlight which streamed through the stained-glass window.

The “one under,” that particular “one under,” Hennessey had recalled as being very rapidly identified. What was his name? What was his name? It had an unusual ring to it, something... ordinary surname, but very unusual Christian name. Webster. That was it it... Webster. What was his Christian name? Something... Webster?

Thomson. That was it. Thomson Webster. A bank manager of the Gilleygate branch of Yorkshire and Lancashire Bank, one of the last of the family-owned banks, as it is still fond of announcing. At first Hennessey had assumed that it was a hyphenated surname.

“No,” Mrs. Webster, sitting in her very “just so” house, had said. “No, it’s a real Christian name, north of England and unusual, but it’s a real Christian name. Thomson. His grandfather was called by that name and he was christened with that name. He wanted our son to bear that name but I refused, of course.”

Hennessey sat ill at ease in the drawing room of the house, which had a superficial appearance-is-everything feel about it. Even Mrs. Webster’s distress had not seemed genuine, and with the passage of time, still didn’t seem so. The French windows opened onto a manicured lawn on which two miniature poodles played and yapped at each other, so Hennessey had further recalled.

“I’m so pleased that Cyril was able to identify poor Thomson, I’m sure I couldn’t.” Mrs. Webster had sniffed and Hennessey couldn’t help thinking that “Cyril” had been short-changed in respect of his name. Given the choice, Hennessey would have preferred to be a “Thomson” rather than a “Cyril,” especially if he had to grow up in the gritty north of England where Cyrils can have an uncomfortable time.

“Can you think of any reason why your husband should have committed suicide, Mrs. Webster?”

“None. No reason.” She had sniffed into a delicately embroidered handkerchief. “He had everything. Me, two children, this house. What more could any man want?”

George Hennessey watched as Olivia Stringer drained the glass of port and staggered with the empty glass to the bar. She fished out a plastic bag from the pocket of her jeans and from it tipped coins onto the bar top. She counted out, in silver and bronze, enough for another large port. She carried the drink unsteadily back to the seat in the corner and began to sip it. She also began talking to herself, as Hennessy’s mind went back to the next stage in that inquiry.

The next stage had been a visit to Mr. Webster’s place of work. He had found the mood among the staff sombre and subdued.

Mr. Penge received the then Sergeant Hennessey in Thomson Webster’s paneled office. “I’m a caretaker manager,” he explained, “here to look after the shop until things get sorted out.”

“Things?” Hennessey had asked. “Many things?”

“About half a million things. We would have been calling the police in now anyway,” Penge, a tall man with a serious attitude, sighed. “I confess, I never thought... a smallish family-owned bank... we enjoy a lot of staff loyalty...”

“A half-million things?” Hennessey had pressed.

“A half-million pounds.”


“Well, yes, but not in the sense that we don’t know where it’s gone, but missing in the sense that it’s not where it should be. We don’t keep money like that in the vaults; it’s been drained out of a number of dormant accounts. Only found out when one account was activated and we traced the money to Thomson Webster’s personal account, from where it has been taken out in the form of cash. Confess, for a banker he left a trail any idiot could follow.”

“When did you first notice something amiss?”

“About a week ago, which was when Mr. Webster phoned to say he had flu and wouldn’t be coming in to work. We did our investigation and have concluded what we have concluded, that Thomson Webster, loyal employee of the bank, not long to go before retiring, has ruined his life by embezzling half a million pounds of customers’ money. We were about to call the police, but your timely arrival has saved a phone call. Suicide, you say?”

“Appears to be so. This morning on the railway line just south of York.”

“Poor Thomson. I knew him, knew him well. I always found him to be a man of integrity. I can’t imagine what brainstorm he must have had to make him do that... then to kill himself... Now that is the Thomson Webster I knew, a man who’d rather take his life than live with a compromised integrity, but Thomson Webster a thief... no... no way. He was a practising Christian. It must have been a period of insanity. If he had returned the money, it was something the bank would have managed... Early retirement, I would have thought, something of that sort.” Penge leaned forward and rested his forehead in the palm of his left hand. “Oh dear... then this morning we received this in the post.” He handed Hennessey a receipt. “It’s a left-luggage receipt from York station. It came with this.” He then handed Hennessey a second piece of paper which revealed itself to be a handwritten note. “It’s all there... so sorry. T. Webster.” “It’s Thomson Webster’s handwriting.”

“You haven’t collected it?”

“Well, we’d want the police with us anyway if he has put the half-million pounds in the left luggage at York station. We wouldn’t be happy walking through York with a bundle like that.”

“I can imagine. So, shall we go and see what he has left us? I can arrange for a number of constables to bolster our numbers.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

Hennessey and Penge rendezvoused with three constables at York Railway Station’s left-luggage office and presented the receipt. In return, they were handed two large suitcases. Neither was locked and when opened, both were observed to contain large quantities of bank notes.

“We’ll escort you back to the bank with this,” Hennessey said. “A police vehicle and a couple of constables.”

“Appreciate it,” Penge had said. “It’s all going to be there. All half a million. Poor Tom... I know why he killed himself... He couldn’t live with himself after doing this. But why, why did he do it in the first place?”

“I’d like to know that too,” Hennessey had said.

By this point in his recollection, Olivia Stringer was about halfway through the glass of port and was staring into space, chatting quite amicably with herself. Hennessey couldn’t remember who supplied the name, Mr. Penge, or Mrs. Webster, or one of the bank staff. Hennessey couldn’t even remember the name, but it was the name of a man who was of Webster’s age and he and Webster were described as being “like brothers.” Hennessey met him the day after Webster’s suicide, by which time the man had heard the news and was in a state of shock. They sat together on solid wooden garden furniture in the pleasingly mature garden at the rear of the man’s house in Nether Poppleton, where, beyond the garden, was a pleasant view across the meadows to the River Ouse.

“I should have seen it coming,” the man said. “All those signals, clear as daylight in hindsight.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, it started, or stopped, whichever way you look at it, after the birth of their second child. After that, Mrs. Webster moved into the spare room. ‘He’s got two children, no further point in sleeping together.’”

“She said that?”

“Yes, in this house. Tom didn’t know where to put himself.”

“A man wants more than that.”

“Of course he does, and a woman, too, but not Mrs. Webster. From that point onwards, her idea of keeping romance alive in her marriage was walking arm in arm with her husband to and from the ten o’clock service. So long as it all looked right, the reality didn’t matter. And he stuck it, too, for fifteen years, more, he put up with that charade. Then, maybe it was because he’d finally snapped, maybe it was because he’d found himself in a mid-life crisis, he told me that he’d found a ‘girl.’”

“A girl?”

“That was what he said. He was delighted, he could not contain his excitement, he was like an adolescent with his first real girlfriend. It was all a bit embarrassing. That was about three months ago.”

“Did he mention her name?” Hennessey remembered that he had asked that question.

“Olivia. Never told me her second name. She’s about thirty, that puts her twenty years his junior. Didn’t like the sound of her, really, seemed a bit of a good-time girl, not Thomson’s type at all. Then, earlier on this week he phoned me. He said, ‘I’ve ruined my life,’ and then he put the phone down. I phoned him at work, then at his home, he wasn’t at either place. He was nowhere to be found.”

Hennessey watched Olivia Stringer drain the glass and then look disappointed and lost. She stared at the glass as if willing it to refill as if by magic. He remembered meeting her for the first time.

“My boyfriend pays for it,” she said, smiling. Designer clothes, designer jewellery. “This flat, it’s rented, as is, furnished, but my boyfriend pays for it all. Well, he’s older than me, a bit of a sugar daddy, I suppose, and I’m his sugar baby.”

“I see,” Hennessey growled disapprovingly.

“Men do what I want them to do,” she said, twirling her figure. “I can make men do anything.”

“Can you?”

“Oh, yes. I’m thirty, have to start thinking about settling down, so I told my sugar daddy that if he got some serious money I’d go away with him and we’d settle down together. Anyway, how did you find me? And what do you want?”

So Hennessey had told her that her name had been found in her “sugar daddy’s” address book. He also told her that just that day previous said “sugar daddy” had stood on a railway line and said thank you to the driver of the train a second before the impact despatched Sugar Daddy to the hereafter.

And that, Hennessey mused, as he drained his glass of tonic water, was the first part of his story.

The second part of the story occurred some ten years later when George Hennessey and his son Charles, by then a student, had whiled away a winter’s evening by burning fa*gots in the hearth in the living room of their home in Easingwold and “jawing.” George Hennessey’s dear wife, and dear mother to Charles, had died sadly young some years earlier but had left a strong and warm ghost in the house and garden, and father and son had bonded in her absence. It had grown to be George Hennessey’s practice to tell his son of cases he had been involved in, never compromising his professionalism by naming names or cheapening their jaw sessions by relating salacious or sensational incidents, but rather choosing incidents which offered his growing son some insight into the human condition. The story of the man who took his hat off to the train driver was one such, and he had related the story one evening as the dried twigs crackled and flamed in the fireplace.

The third part of the story was a wholly unexpected exchange between Olivia Stringer and George Hennessey. That lunchtime an emaciated Olivia Stringer, focusing her eyes on Hennessey as the only other customer in the pub, had staggered over to him and said, “Can you buy me a drink, sir? I’m down on my luck, sir.”

Hennessey had stood and said, “No, Olivia, I can’t,” and had walked away, out of the Waggoners’ Rest, feeling Olivia Stringer’s eyes burning into him, wondering who he was and how he knew her name.

Copyright © 2011 by Peter Turnbull

Lie Like a Rug

by Margaret Maron

Margaret Maron is the winner of several major American mystery awards: the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity. She is the author of twenty-five novels and the New York Times has said: “Every Margaret Maron is a celebration of something remarkable.” The sixteenth entry in her Judge Deborah Knott series, Christmas Mourning (11/10) is no exception. Readers who crave more of the author’s short fiction should check out her podcast of her story “Virgo in Sapphires” (www.themysteryplace.com/eqmm).

* * * *

One of the last to see Felicia Hernandez Parker before she disappeared from her home near Raleigh was a woman who came by to deliver a bushel of tomatoes that Mack Parker had bought at her roadside vegetable stand on his way to work that morning. She was a stranger to both Parkers and when the case came to trial, her testimony was dispassionate and objective.

“I saw her black eye when she came out to the truck to get the tomatoes. She asked me how to can them. She’d never canned anything before, but her husband wanted tomato vegetable soup like his mother makes. I suggested that she call her mother-in-law and ask her, but she said that her husband wouldn’t have anything to do with his family. They didn’t approve of the marriage and he wasn’t one to take criticism.”

“Objection!” said the defense attorney. “Hearsay.”

“Sustained,” said the judge.

“Isn’t it true that you dated Felicia Hernandez first?” asked the defense attorney on cross-examination. “And that you resented her for dumping you for your brother?”

“Not a bit,” said Randy Parker. “Yeah, Felicia and me, we went out a couple of times, but I wasn’t gonna marry a Mexican, no matter how hot she was.”

“The rest of your family had cut him off, yet you continued to visit him at his house?”

“Me and Mack’ve always been tight, so yeah.”

“Even after he punched you in the nose for trying to kiss his wife earlier that week?”

“He didn’t mean to hurt me. Mack’s always had a hot temper, and Felicia knew how to keep him on a boil.”

“You’re saying she came on to you?”


“So why did she tell her husband that you initiated that kiss?”

“Guess she didn’t want another tail-whupping.”

“Instead, you got a broken nose. Did you resent her for that?”

“The way my nose hurt? Damn straight.”

“What happened to her, Mr. Parker?”

“How should I know?”

“About six months before she disappeared, she came in bleeding heavily,” the emergency room nurse testified. “She had a bruise as big as a dinner plate on her abdomen. We couldn’t save the fetus.”

“Did she say what caused the bruise?”

“No, sir. We asked if her husband had hit her there, but she said no. She said she had fallen. Most falls don’t leave a round bruise. Fists do.”

“Objection!” said the defense attorney. “Conclusion.”

“Which this witness is qualified to make,” the prosecutor argued.

“Overruled,” the judge agreed.

“Yeah,” said a stockman who worked for Mack Parker at a hardware chain store in Raleigh. “He’s got a short fuse, and he’d go off like a rocket if Felicia ever answered him back. She was a real lady, but Mack said he wouldn’t have married her except that he wasn’t going to let his family tell him what to do.”

“Did he ever speak of divorce?” asked the prosecutor.

“Not really. He said it would be admitting that he’d made a mistake.”

“Did he say anything about her miscarriage last year?”

“Just that her crying got on his nerves.”

“We were out on our side porch,” said the next-door neighbor. “The lights were on over there and we saw him come storming past the kitchen window. We heard glass breaking and them yelling and then we heard him smack her and—”

“Objection, Your Honor.”


“Okay,” said the neighbor. “We heard what sounded like a smack and then we heard what sounded like her crying. That’s when I called nine-one-one.”

“It looked like a slaughterhouse,” said the patrol officer who had responded that night. “Her lip was split, there were superficial cuts on her arms and legs, and she was bleeding like a stuck pig. Broken glass. Tomatoes all over the floor and wall. I thought at first it was blood, too. She wouldn’t let us arrest him, though. She said she’d accidentally knocked over the jars, then slipped on the mess and cut herself and that’s why they were upset and yelling at each other.”

“And you believed her?”

“No, sir, but she wasn’t the one who called in the complaint, so I couldn’t arrest him.”

“No, it’s not that we thought he’d done away with her when he first reported her missing,” said the sheriff’s detective, “but we always look closely at the spouse in cases like these. We found her blood in the kitchen and some more on a tank top and shorts in the laundry hamper, but that could be explained by the broken glass jars the night before. It did not explain how her blood got in the trunk of his car.”

“Was anything missing from the house?” asked the prosecutor.

“Yessir. A six-by-eight rug in the entryway.”

“How big was Felicia Parker, Detective?”

“Everyone describes her as about five-three and small-boned.”

“Could she have been rolled up in that rug?”

“Objection!” cried the defense attorney.

The defense attorney was sympathetic. “Mr. Parker, you admit that you were occasionally violent with your wife, yet you insisted on testifying. Why?”

“Because I didn’t kill her. She was fine when I went to bed. I told her she had to clean up that mess in the kitchen before she could come to bed herself, but she didn’t. She must’ve just walked out of the house.”

“Without taking any of her clothes?”

“She could’ve taken some. Who looks at his wife’s clothes? And she did take that rug and my money.”

“Ah, yes. Your money,” the prosecutor said on cross-examination. “Almost two thousand in cash that no one ever heard you mention. She just walks away with a rug over her small shoulder. No clothes, no toothbrush, no purse, just blood in your car trunk. Where’d you dump her body, Mr. Parker?”

“Don’t worry,” said the defense attorney. “A jury doesn’t like to convict without a body. That’s why the D.A. didn’t ask for the death penalty.”

“Mr. Foreman,” said the judge. “Have you reached a verdict?”

“We have, Your Honor. On the charge of murder in the second-degree, we find the defendant guilty.”

Three years later: Central Prison

“I’m sorry, Mack,” said Parker’s attorney. “The appeals court says there was no error in your trial. Keep on keeping your nose clean and you could get paroled in ten years.”

Six years later: New Mexico

The stockman who had once worked for Parker was now a manager in a different hardware chain. He paused in the doorway to watch his small son push a toy truck around the Zapotec rug, a family heirloom that she had refused to leave behind even though shipping it here to his hometown had cost almost as much as her bus ticket.

The anonymous bus trip had been his idea. Touching her finger to her wounds and then dabbing blood on the mat of Mack’s car trunk had been hers.

“Mama? Daddy’s home!” their son called, but she was already coming down the hall with their baby daughter on one slender hip, a cold beer for him in her free hand, and a loving smile on her beautiful soft lips.

Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Maron


by C.J. Harper

C. J. Harper is the pseudonym of Plymouth, Minnesota, lawyer Charlie Rethwisch. His three previous stories for us all featured 1950s P.I. Darrow Nash. In 2009, the author was highly commended by the committee for Britain’s Debut Dagger Award for his as yet unpublished Nash novel. The judges particularly praised the book’s likable protagonist and “sexy 1950s Hollywood setting.” We hope that novel will be bought for U.S. publication soon. In the meantime, here’s a non-series C. J. Harper tale.

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836, March/April 2011 Doug Allyn (4)


Icarus is coming for me.

I can feel it.

Can sense it.

It’s not paranoia.

I know he’s coming.

Because he knows I can see what he does. Can see the results of his depravity. The results of his madness.

Icarus is coming for me.

I am a psychic.

It is not a gift.

This is how it starts:

I see the body from above. From the vantage point of God.

At that moment, I know only two things: that I am awake and in bed. Nothing else has had time to register.

That is how it starts.

That is when the vision comes.

The first one:

The body is sprawled facedown on the rocks along the Mississippi River beneath the Short Line Railroad Bridge. The scene is dark, but an ambient glow from the city lights, refracted down by the overcast sky, brings out a human shape on the rocks. The head is bare and balding and turned to the side, the white, stubbled hair stark against a backdrop of black-looking blood. The pants are dark. The legs are in the position of a rock climber in mid step, one straight down and one bent as if lifting for a toehold. Thick-soled athletic shoes cover feet pointed in opposite directions. The shirt is white with vertical stripes and is untucked. Elbows jut out below arms sprawled over the head. Dark lines encircle the wrists like bracelets. Even from this height, a single word is visible: “Hunter.”

My eyes blink open. My heart hammers against my chest. Sweat stipples my forehead and upper lip. It takes me a moment to get my bearings. To calm down. To realize that what I’ve seen wasn’t in front of me. Had only played out in my mind.

The memory of a dream.

The digital clock on the bedside table reads 3:28 a.m. Its characters are vivid. Blood red.

I’m lying on my back in my double bed, the tan sheet and burgundy bedspread in a pile on the floor. My legs are splayed, my arms bent above my head in the shape of a broken halo. My back aches as if I’ve slept wrong. My head is turned to the side. My posture reminds me of what I’ve just seen in my mind’s eye, that of a man who has fallen from a high place.

Fallen to his death.

It isn’t until later that I begin to understand what I’ve seen.

What I am.

The psychic I’ve become.

In the four weeks since that morning in early April, I have developed a fear of waking. Of finding myself lying in bed in that fallen condition, in that moment between reality and dream, between the conscious and the subconscious.

I fear that moment when I see the aftermath of Icarus.

See the body of his latest victim.

In the four weeks since that first sighting, I have woken that way four times. And four bodies have been found. Right where I told Detective Phelps they would be.

I fight sleep.

Am exhausted nearly to the point of delirium.

To the point of madness.

The circles under my eyes are the shade of bruises. When darkness falls, a dread bears down on my heart with the gravity of shackles. I try to stay awake to avoid what I don’t want to see, but my exhaustion drags me into a deep, dark sleep.

A sleep of density.

The sleep of death.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come...”

Hamlet knew.

For all his weaknesses, Hamlet knew.

I miss Denise and McKenna.

This curse of seeing beyond my senses never followed me before their deaths. My life before that first day of August, 2007, was one of hope, built on the naive belief that there was — is — a purpose and a destiny to life.

That balance does not splinter.

That music does not die.

That bridges do not fall.

Eight months later, only a simmering rage has attempted to fill the chasm of loss and hopelessness that has hollowed out my soul. Rage at a world that goes blindly on. Blind to the devastation wrought on a single soul. Focused instead on the inanity of television and the Internet. On the banality of celebrity. On the meaninglessness of sports.

People in the grocery store offer their pop psychology on talentless celebrities without taking a moment to analyze themselves and their shallow fixations. They worship emptiness. They worship a culture that, to borrow from Macbeth, is nothing more than “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.”

These people have no concept of the depth of the loss burrowing inside the man standing in line behind them. They are oblivious to the tectonic shift that has left massive fissures in his heart. They are unaware that he could wake up one morning frozen in a fallen and graceless pose and see the death of their loved one before they are told of it. See the devastation that awaits them before their cell phones have begun to ring.

A number they will not recognize.

A detective they will soon come to know.

I fear these psychic visions.

Yet a part of me revels in the power.

Of seeing death before others do.

After they died, I moved from the suburbs to a place known as the Mill District. The birthplace of Minneapolis. Where the Mississippi River tumbles over the Falls of St. Anthony. Where wheat became flour. Where flour became fortunes.

Only a couple of the mills still stand. Others are gone, or left in ruins. Little more than the jagged edges of stone walls from buildings that once hummed with the energy of milling wheat into flour.

Of turning one thing into another.

Many of those mills exploded from the grain dust that had built up inside them. Destroyed by their own unstable breath. By an unforeseen byproduct of their own existence.

Some of them were rebuilt. Others were left as rubble.

A place of rebirth and ruin.

That is why I moved here.

I knew I’d fit in.

One way or the other.

I thought maybe that first vision had just been the vestige of a dream, an illusion of the cruel subconscious that had bled into my perception. But the noon news later that day had led with the story of a missing person, an elderly man, Donald Grayson — white male, age seventy-three, five-eight, 165 pounds, last seen leaving Sidekick’s Bar wearing black jeans and a white Twins jersey. He was a fan of Torii Hunter, the former Minnesota center fielder, and that name was stitched on his back.

I’d picked up the phone that first day to call the police, but hesitated. What was I calling to report? A dream? A coincidence? Would they think I was a lunatic? Yes. But how could seeing the name “Hunter” be a coincidence?

Someone was missing a family member.

Someone was about to understand.

I dialed 911. Told the woman who answered what I’d seen. Where they might find Donald Grayson’s body.

When Denise and McKenna died, time stopped.

I lost track of the months after their deaths. The days, the endless hours of darkness when I was afraid to sleep — almost as afraid as I am now. But back then, I didn’t fear visions. I feared dreams.

New, unlived, frighteningly real dreams. Wishful dreams of scenes of a life I would never have with them. Scenes of a secret life played out under the cover of sleep.

I feared the disorientation of waking from those dreams. Waking to find that it had all been an illusion. A vanished, vanquished dream.

A lie born from the inherent cruelty of the subconscious.

Was I punishing myself? For what? For not saving them? For not dying with them?

I lost track of time. Time I’d measured by other people’s lives.

When Denise was due home from work.

When McKenna was due home from school.

When I had to be home for dinner if I was out on my bike.

When McKenna had to turn off the TV if it was a school night.

When Denise and I would go to bed.

When Denise and I would make love.

An hour after I dialed 911 that first time there was a knock at my door. Two men in tired suits standing on my front stoop.

“James Enright?” said a tall, thin man in a concrete gray suit. His hair was closely cropped and receding, leaving a black, wispy peninsula that reached down to the top of his forehead. His upper lip protruded slightly over his bottom lip, which made his face look unusually long. His teeth never showed when he talked.

I opened the door wider. “That’s right.”

“I’m Detective Phelps.” He turned his torso in the direction of the man standing behind him on the step but kept his eyes on me. “This is Detective Lewis.”

Where Phelps was maybe fifty, Lewis was no more than thirty, still bearing a youthful pudge on his cheeks. He combed his brown hair straight down. His suit was a slightly darker gray than his partner’s.

Phelps stuck out his arm as an afterthought. We shook hands like children, weak and awkward.

“I understand you phoned in a tip this afternoon regarding the whereabouts of a missing person.”

I nodded. “I know it sounds crazy, but it just came to me. I thought I should call.”

“May we come in?”

“Certainly.” My heartbeat quickened. Was I a suspect? When I had called, I hadn’t considered the likely assumption that knowing the location of a body meant I might be the killer. It hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d simply called because I thought it was the right thing to do.

Then again, what did I have to hide?

I opened the door to let them in.

Denise and McKenna did not drown.

They died on solid ground.

They had just reached the north end of the bridge heading south when the main span gave way, leaving the span they were on with nothing to hold up its south end. That end fell, but the north end held, creating a sudden, sharp incline toward the ground.

Not a long incline, maybe fifty feet, but nearly vertical.

The medical examiner determined that they had survived the initial fall — the steep slide down.

What killed them had come after.

From above.


A semi.

Other vehicles.

Other people.

It wasn’t until I let the detectives in that I first took a good hard look at where I was living. Took the time to see what others saw.

The outside was three stories of bricks, tall arched windows, and a front stoop. Part of a new building fronted to look like old rowhouses. Rowhouses that had never been a part of the area. Never a part of the true history of the milling district and its skid-row environs of railroad yards, bars, and flophouses. The rowhouses creating the facade of a mythical time. A mythical place.

But while the outside was designed to look old, the inside reflected the new.



So spare that it seemed lifeless. One big open room of concrete and ventilation pipes. It was supposed to look like a loft or converted warehouse, but instead it just looked cold. A hollow imitation.

The kitchen was open, exposed, marked off by a granite-topped, elongated island and filled with large swatches of stainless steel that covered the refrigerator, dishwasher, and stove. In what passed for the living room, a large television filled one wall opposite a dark green sofa. A green wing chair sat ninety degrees to the sofa and faced the front, curtainless windows.

The only items out of place with the modern interior were the vestiges of my old life. A Schwinn mountain bike leaning against the wall near the front door. A pair of oak bookcases filled with hardcovers, spines exposed, some standing, some on their sides. The tired green couch and wing chair. A forties-era Baldwin spinet piano. And a tan, square coffee table stained with dark brown water marks and the rainbow spectrum of McKenna’s crayon ticks that had run beyond the edges of the paper. The table that had been her favorite place to color.

I’d bought the rowhouse before I’d even collected the insurance money. We’d lived in the safety of the suburbs in an Arts and Crafts bungalow.

The perfect home for a family.

The worst place to live after your family has died.

I sold it so fast I hardly remember the closing.

Or moving out.

Or moving in.

The subconscious has a way of blocking those things out.

I’m a professor at the university. Was. Am still, I guess. Music Department. The dean of the department was kind enough to approve a sabbatical after the bridge collapse. It was his idea. The students needed a teacher. I’d stopped coming in.

After Denise and McKenna died, there didn’t seem much point to music anymore.

During that first visit, Phelps settled on the front edge of the wing chair. I sat on the couch. We had to turn our heads to look at each other. We each faced a side of the coffee table, little more now than a receptacle for my debris: a dozen empty bottles of Summit beer, a glass, emerald-green ashtray stuffed with a bloom of short, bent Winstons, and, open but facedown, a book of poems by W. H. Auden. The marks on the table from McKenna’s crayons looked like fading confetti amid the debris.

Lewis stayed on his feet, perusing the few details of my life that were on display. He shuffled past the bookcases, the bloodless kitchen, and the urban view out my front window. But he stopped at the photographs on top of the walnut-colored piano, my shrine to Denise and McKenna: half a dozen photographs in frames amid McKenna’s drawings and Denise’s handmade pottery. Who they were and what they were.

To me.

Phelps rested his elbows on his thighs. His folded hands hung down into the empty space between his knees.

“We appreciate your help in this matter. And nothing sounds crazy to me, Mr. Enright. I’ve been on the force long enough to know that anything that might help us solve a crime is worth checking out.”

My mouth opened as I began to understand. “Was the body there? Where I said it would be?”

The detective pushed his lips together and nodded.

It was in that nod that my life changed. What I’d seen in my mind had not been a dream or an illusion. It had been a view of reality. A reality beyond my own.

More than a memory of a dream.

More a dream of someone else’s memory.


That’s what they are calling him now. I saw it in a headline in the newspaper after the third death. The media always need a catchy name for everything murderous. The Green River Killer. Jack the Ripper. The Boston Strangler. Son of Sam. They need the name and the fancy graphic, the Pavlovian trademarks they flash on the screen to draw in viewers to the latest gruesome details.

Now it’s Icarus.

I named him.

I’ve been reading Auden lately and came across his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” In it he considers the cold-hearted indifference of daily life to the tragedy befalling others all around us. And it struck deep into my heart. It was all I’d been feeling since the bridge collapsed. Since my life collapsed onto the muddy banks and into the muddy waters of the Mississippi.

Daedalus, the story goes, had constructed wings of feathers attached with wax for himself and his son, Icarus, so they could escape imprisonment. Daedalus had warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but, caught up in the glory of his own good fortune, Icarus ignored his father’s advice. The wax melted, the feathers came off, and Icarus plunged into the sea.

Auden considered the indifference of those who might have seen the fall of Icarus, an indifference I see every day of my life:

... how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I’d mentioned this to Detective Phelps in a vain attempt to explain the indifference to my tragedy that emanates from the world around me. The indifference that infuriates me. The indifference that makes me want to shake them. To shout at them. To show them my hell.

But I guess he only took away the image of Icarus falling.

So now the killer is Icarus.

And once again the cops and the media have gotten it wrong.

Icarus the mythological character falls.

Icarus the murderer does not.

In that first meeting, after Phelps had confirmed what I had seen — confirmed my psychic ability — I began to feel sick. My head dropped between my knees.

Phelps quickly kneeled by my side. With a gentle push, he helped me sit upright again. “Take some deep breaths.”

I did as I was told, swallowing down slow waves of bile as they rose in my throat. After I assured him I was better, Phelps returned to his chair.

He pulled a notepad and pen out of his inside coat pocket, flipped the notepad open, and clicked the pen. “You told the dispatcher that you saw the man in a dream, is that correct?”

“Well, it wasn’t exactly a dream. I was awake. I’d just woken up and this image popped into my head of a man in a Twins jersey facedown on the rocks.”

“Did you see anything else?”

I tried to revive the picture, but my mind was racing. “I... like what?”

“Anything. Anything unusual.”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know. I probably saw what you guys found. But I did notice that his wrists may have been tied at some point. There were lines of blood where whatever had bound them had cut through the skin.”

“Do you know what might have been used? Handcuffs? A rope? A cord of some kind?”

“No idea.”

“How did you know it was the Short Line Bridge?”

“I used to bike a lot around here. I’m a professor — or was — at the U and I’d go biking over lunch. The paths go everywhere. If I wasn’t on sabbatical I’d probably bike to work.”

“A professor of what?”


Phelps nodded as if that had relevance. Then he frowned.

“Have you had visions like this before?”

“No. Never.”

I had nothing to hide.

For several days after the first vision, I fought sleep. Drifted off at times, but never for more than a minute or two. And I never woke to the horror of a new image. A new body.

But one week to the day after the first vision, I failed.

I fought sleep and failed.

And the horror returned.

The second one:

The view is from above, looking down on West River Road, a twisty two-lane parkway that skirts the Mississippi like a shadow and runs directly beneath the Washington Avenue Bridge, the two-level link between the East and West Banks of the University of Minnesota. The lower deck bears cars, the upper deck students, either on foot or on bikes.

The fallen radiance of a whitish-blue streetlight adds a high-definition vividness to the scene below the bridge. To the body facedown on the centerline of the road. To a pair of blue jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt mostly hidden by a navy blue backpack that is still strung from his shoulders. To a baseball cap lying upside down in a pool of blood that has settled in the nearest tire depression in the asphalt. To the wind-blown leaves that tumble down the road, some already mired in the ripening blood. To the arms that stick out from the body like dead branches. To the dark lines that surround the wrists like black tourniquets.

I wake again with my arms over my head in a broken halo, my legs splayed, my back aching, my head turned to the side.

3:28 a.m.

Phelps answers on the third ring. I tell him what I have seen.

By noon, Phelps and Lewis were back in my concrete room. The body was where I had said it would be.

I gave them the same answers as in the first interview.

Then Lewis piped up.

“Do you have a job?” he said.

I looked up at him. He stood near the piano again, his arms folded across his chest like Mr. Clean.

“I told you before. I’m on extended leave. A grief sabbatical, you might say. Since the accident I’ve been having... coping issues.” I took a long drag on my cigarette. My hand shook.

“Get a good night’s sleep last night?” It carried an undercurrent of mockery.

I glared at him. “I fight sleep, Detective. I wasn’t born with these bags under my eyes.”

I could feel Phelps staring at me. He began nodding. His lips puffed out as he pushed them together.

Lewis took a long, deep breath. “Did you know the victims you saw in your dreams?”

“They weren’t dreams.” I couldn’t keep the irritation out of my voice. “But no, I didn’t. Are you going to get another search warrant?”

Phelps put his hands up as if to repel an unseen enemy. “No, no. We’re all done with that. We trust you, Mr. Enright, but we don’t understand how you do it.”

I fought tears. “Join the crowd.”

Phelps pushed down on both knees and rose to his feet. “I think that’s enough, then. Thank you again for helping us with these cases.”

I didn’t get up. They saw themselves out.

It took me six months to begin to live again.

Not live.



Like an old car left out in the brutal, sub-zero cold. The winter cold that only added to my paralysis. My hibernation. My dislocation.

Coming out only long enough to see my shadow.

To leave the suburbs.

To leave my dreams.

To come to the ruins.

From that first meeting:

“Where were you last night, Mr. Enright?”

It was Lewis. He was leaning against the piano, his arms folded. His tone implied a different question.

“Do you think I did it?”

“We have to check all avenues,” Phelps said. I began to see their roles. It was the detective version of good cop/bad cop. A cheap interrogation trick. Something out of the movies.

Still, I became worried.


They weren’t convinced of my innocence yet.

I looked at Phelps when I answered. I couldn’t keep the sense of pleading out of my voice. The cheap interrogation trick was working. “I was here. All night.”

“Is there a Mrs. Enright who can vouch for that?” It was Lewis again.

I met his gaze as he blocked my view of the shrine on top of the piano. My throat tightened as the tears began to well in my eyes. “You’re standing in front of what is left of Mrs. Enright.”

Lewis glanced back at the pictures.

“She and my daughter were killed in the bridge collapse. There’s no one left to vouch for me.” I couldn’t say anything more. My throat clenched as the tears advanced.

Phelps cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Mr. Enright.” He took a deep breath.

I held my hands to my face, fighting back the tears, battling for composure.

For the ten thousandth time.

Phelps must have signaled Lewis, because they moved to the door at the same time. After a moment I followed them. They stepped outside and Phelps turned to me. “Thank you, Mr. Enright. We appreciate your help with this case. And we’re sorry for your loss. If we have any more questions, can we call you?”

“Yes, of course.” I wiped the tears from my cheeks. “Sorry.”

“No need to be. Thank you again, sir.” Phelps fingered a contact card out of an inside pocket of his suit coat and handed it to me. “If something like this happens again, call me. Day or night. Okay?”

“I don’t want it to happen again.”

“No, but if it does...”

I closed my eyes and nodded.

Phelps and Lewis returned to their car. Lewis never said a word, but as he climbed into the black Ford Taurus, his eyes kept coming back to me. Even as they drove away.

It’s more than a shrine.

More than a memorial to them or to their memories.

It IS them.

All that I have left.

Phelps and Lewis were both back by one that first day.

“I hope we’re not bothering you, Mr. Enright,” Phelps said breezily, ever the good detective. His broad upper lip spread into a smile but still hid his teeth.

Lewis stood behind him on the stoop, his cold blue eyes telling me that his role hadn’t changed either. “Had any more visions?”

I met his cynical gaze. “No. What do you want?”

Lewis stepped forward and stuffed a piece of paper into my hand. “We’ve got a warrant to search the premises,” he said as he shouldered past me.

“Strictly routine,” said Phelps, still smiling.

“What are you looking for?”

Lewis answered from behind me. “Evidence.” A dozen cops who had hidden themselves from view converged on my door and flooded the house. Phelps took me by the elbow and led me to the couch.

I fought the urge to panic. Whether I had something to hide or not, the police invading my home rattled me. Heavy footsteps thumped the floor above me. Drawers slid open and slammed shut. Orders were shouted up and down the stairs. The whole place seemed to groan under the onslaught. I’d seen movies where evidence had been planted, and that paranoia began to infect me.

“I have nothing to hide,” I said to Phelps as he sat again on the front edge of the green wing chair. “They’re not going to find anything.”

Phelps held up his hands to calm me. “It’s okay. I believe you. But we have to do this. Obviously, most people aren’t psychic, so we have to verify that you weren’t involved in any way. The information you gave us was so specific that we have to check you out. Between you and me, I hope we leave empty-handed.”

I was distracted by a cop who was reaching for the pictures on top of the piano. Attempting to remove the shrine.

My vision frayed.


I jumped to my feet.

Fear and rage.

Rage at the cops.

At the bridge.

At life.

At death.

At Icarus.

Phelps anticipated my next move and grabbed my arms.

“Calm down, Professor.” He looked at the cop. “It’s okay, Rob. Just leave it.”

Rob shrugged and moved to a bookshelf.

Phelps settled me back onto the sofa.

He kept his hand on my back as the sobs echoed through me.

“I don’t want anyone to touch them anymore,” I said, forcing out words swollen by the tears. “Not EMTs. Not medical examiners. Not cops. I want them to rest in peace.”

The search was over an hour later. As Phelps had hoped, and as I’d known they would, they left empty-handed.

Much to Lewis’s dismay.

Once again, he didn’t say anything to me as he left.

The third one:

The bridge deck has maroon railings. Maroon streetlamps with drooping heads — drooping as if bowed in prayer — spilling lonely pools of light onto the pavement. Two bike lanes in the middle, two pedestrian lanes on the sides. Twenty feet wide at the most.

Beneath the bridge, the man’s clothes are ragged, soiled, from living on the streets, in dumpsters and under bridges. Living in the dark, dirty places of society. One of the feral humans who live below the radar. Below the surface.

He’s on his back, lying perpendicular to the railroad tracks that run beneath him, one rail under his shoulders, the other under his knees. His face is dark, covered by a matted beard and skin that has been leathered by sun and wind. A black stocking cap remains on his head, having somehow managed to survive the fall in place, nearly blending into a shiny halo of blood. His arms are out to the sides, as if he had tried to fly. Black lines look like tethers on his wrists.

3:28 a.m.

Legs splayed.

Back aching.

Head to the side, arms surrounding it in a broken halo.

I lift myself up to my elbows. The room is dark except for the red numbers on the clock and a gray glow bleeding around the edges of the curtains. I wipe sweat from my forehead. My T-shirt collar is wet, my pillow damp. I can smell lilacs.

Phelps answers on the fourth ring, his voice a nearly unrecognizable croak. “Phelps.”

“I’ve seen another one.”

He clears his throat. His bed creaks from movement. Him or someone else?


“Yes. This one is on the railroad tracks under the Dinkytown Bikeway Connection.”

“The what?”

“The old Northern Pacific Bridge that runs between the east and the west banks at the U. It’s a bike path now.”

“Which bank is the body on?”

“The east bank. On the railroad tracks below it.”

“Do you recognize him?”

“He looks homeless.”

“Are you sure he’s dead? Those guys can sleep anywhere.”

“His wrists were bloody. Just like the others.”

Phelps hesitates. He wants to stay in bed. “Are you sure about this one?”

“So sure I can smell the lilacs.”

The piano, a Baldwin Acrosonic spinet, was my mother’s. She was a music teacher. I was her student. McKenna was learning to play, too. She was my student.

By eight years old she was better than I had been at that age.

I loved sitting in the other room listening to her practice. The mistakes. The breakthroughs. The moments of near perfection. The innate challenge of it. The will to succeed. To prevail.

The lessons of life found in something as simple as “Chopsticks.”

An hour after I called him about the third one, Phelps was at my door. This time without Lewis. I offered him some coffee. He held the mug with both hands, as if he needed its heat. He was out of uniform, wearing running shoes, navy blue athletic wind pants with three white stripes down the legs, and a navy blue baseball jacket with white leather sleeves. His skin looked pale under the fluorescent kitchen light. A light that buzzed like a fly caught in a mason jar.

“Just as you described it,” he said.

“How long ago did it happen?”

“An hour or so.”

I nodded. I didn’t know what else to do.

“Mr. Enright, we need you to see these things before they happen. That would really help us.” He wasn’t smiling.

Neither was I.

“What’s odd,” he continued, “is that the bodies are under bridges that seem to be progressing in this direction. First, the Short Line Bridge. Then, the Washington Avenue Bridge. Now, the Great Northern. All moving upstream. Icarus seems to be moving this way.”

“I know. I think he’s coming for me.”

Phelps’s eyes widened. “Do you know who he is?”

“No.” I hesitated, not sure he would understand. But I had to tell somebody. “I think he knows that I can see what he does.”

Phelps nodded with unconvincing concern, then gave me a pat on the shoulder. “If it’s any consolation, there may not be a pattern here. He missed the Franklin Avenue Bridge.”

“That’s true,” I said, “but it may have been too busy there. The others aren’t open to car traffic.”

Phelps nodded again, his concern more real this time. Then he tried to smile. “You have quite an eye for detail, Mr. Enright. You should be a cop.”

I struggled to smile back, wondering why it was that a detective would need my insight. Weren’t detectives the ones who were supposed to be trained to think like killers?

“Man Dies in Fall from RR Bridge” — Star Tribune, April 8, 2008.

“U Student Dies in Fall” — Star Tribune, April 15, 2008.

“Transient Falls to Death” — Star Tribune, April 23, 2008.

“Icarus Strikes Again” — Star Tribune, April 29, 2008.

The fourth one:

He wears a royal blue polo shirt with a logo on the left breast. It’s an employee shirt, the kind worn at a gas-station convenience store. It’s raised up, showing the man’s belly. Not a big belly, but more than should be there. A college beer belly. Below that, khaki pants and sandals. It’s an unseasonably warm night.

His body lies at an unnatural angle, his back broken sideways from hitting a bridge abutment before hitting the ground. No blood this time, his injuries all internal. All except for the bloody rings around his wrists.

3:28 a.m.

Arms over my head.

Broken halo.

Legs splayed.

Back aching.




I reach for the phone.

“The Tenth Avenue Bridge this time,” I tell Phelps. “North end, near the Amoco.”

“I’m going to send Detective Lewis over. Is that okay?”

“He won’t believe me.”

“He’s a good cop, Mr. Enright.”

I hear the bed squeak, then a voice.

A woman’s.



Lewis was not happy about being up at four-thirty in the morning. He stood on the doorstep with a large paper cup of coffee from a gas-station convenience store. It wasn’t for me. It had been two weeks since I’d seen him. After the second murder. Four weeks since the first day. The day they searched my house.

“Phelps told me to come.”

After I let him in, he strolled slowly around the room, his tired eyes searching, only glancing at me now and then to make sure I was still there. As if he thought I might flee. He didn’t say anything as he moved. Finally, he came to a stop in the center of my concrete room and leaned against the back of the wing chair. I stood in the kitchen behind the elongated island. The steam from his coffee cup rose between us.

His eyes settled on me and stayed there. It was the look of someone whose natural inclination was to intimidate.






But I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me. I had nothing to hide.

“I’ve watched you,” he said before taking a relaxed sip from his cup.

“Excuse me?”

“I tried to get the department to put a twenty-four-hour surveillance on you, but they wouldn’t. Couldn’t afford the overtime. Too many budget cuts. Apparently in this economy the budget is more important than four lives.”

He walked up to the island that stood between us and set down his coffee cup. “So I did it myself. Sat outside all night for six days straight, watching this place. On my own time.”

“And you never saw me kill anyone, did you?”

“No. But the seventh night I fell asleep in my car.” He hesitated, his eyes on me, but his focus inside. “I fell asleep. And what happened? A body was found under the Washington Avenue Bridge.”

“That’s not evidence of anything. That’s a coincidence.” I felt the heat building inside me. Then a thought struck me. “Maybe you’re Icarus.”

He ignored me. “I still watch you. Not every night, but most nights.”

The heat intensified. “You can blame me for the killings if you want, Lewis. You can blame me for your bad career or your bad kids or your bad marriage or any other bad things you have in your life, but it doesn’t make me guilty. I have a... I don’t know what to call it. A gift. A curse. Whatever it is, I can see things that have happened.” Tears followed in the wake of the heat. “And I hate it. And on those nights you’re sitting outside, I’m sitting in here fighting sleep, fighting to avoid what might come when I wake up. And it’s killing me. Can’t you see that? Icarus is killing me, too.”

I turned away from him, the tears streaming down my face, my breath coming in fitful waves.

When I turned back, I expected scepticism.

What I got was nothing.

Lewis was gone. But he’d left his coffee cup, still steaming, on the edge of the island.

I heard the front door click shut.

Neither hard nor soft.

Just a door clicking shut on a lingering darkness.

It has been roughly twenty hours since Lewis left. It’s pushing two in the morning. I’m battling sleep.

I played a note on the piano. The first note I’d played since August.

Since the collapse.

Thought it might help me stay awake.

Pressed one key.

The most basic key.

Middle C.

The point between treble and bass.

The tipping point of the piano.

It was soundless. The ivory key stayed down.

No tension in the string.


I feel the urge to check it. To fix it. To give it sound again. To bring it back to life.

But the shrine sits on top of it. I’d have to move my family to get to the vertical strings. To get at the problems inside.

I’m hesitating.

Should I touch the shrine? Move it? Remove it? What would that mean? Was I beginning to heal? Beginning to move on?

I’m afraid.

Afraid to touch something of my own creation. Something that has become a sacred space. Afraid of what trespassing into that sacred space will bring.

The Egyptians feared curses; the Lakota, angry gods.

What do I fear?

The silent key haunts me.

Music has always been in my soul.

The thought of a quiet string — a broken string — distracts me. Has its own hold on me. Creates another kind of fear in me. Fear of silence.

Silence where beauty once was.

Silence that whispers to me.

Whispers I haven’t heard in eight months.

Has something changed in me? Is the old me still there?

But they’re not the whispers I used to hear eight months ago, before the collapse, whispers of hopes and dreams.

What I hear now are whispers of silence.

Whispers of trouble.

I have to fix it.

I have to move the shrine and see what damage lies inside...

Icarus has come for me...

I found him in the silence of the piano...

In the silence of the cruel subconscious...

Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:

If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,

And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,

Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.

Who does it, then?

2:28 a.m.

Phelps didn’t answer. His phone was off.

I left a message. Told him where he would find Icarus.

The last one:

The body will lie within the confines of Hennepin Island Park, at the base of the fourth abutment of the Stone Arch Bridge. Time of death will be 3:28 a.m.

The body will be on its back, legs splayed, face turned to the side, arms encircling the head like a broken halo. His back will be broken. The wrists will be bleeding, still tied with a D string from an old Baldwin Acrosonic piano. Icarus will have left the string tied on because there will be no reason to hide any more evidence. Now that his identity has been uncovered.

A Schwinn mountain bike will be resting against the railing on the bridge decking directly above the body. The piano strings used by Icarus — a C, an A, a G, and an E — to bind the wrists of the other victims will be dangling from the handlebars next to a fanny pack. Inside the fanny pack will be a.38 caliber Smith and Wesson, the gun Icarus used to persuade his victims to submit.

Revelations from inside the heart of a silent spinet piano.

There you go, Phelps. I saw one before it happened. Like Auden’s expensive delicate ship, I saw Icarus fall.

And like that ship, I had somewhere to get to and — stepping from the railing of a bridge that did not collapse — sailed calmly on...

“Musée des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden, currently collected in Collected Poems by W. H. Auden. Copyright ©1938 by W. H. Auden, published in print throughout North America and electronically by permission of the Wylie Agency L.L.C.

Copyright © 2011 by C. J. Harper

The Jury Box

by Jon L. Breen

Short story collections have always been considered a dubious commercial proposition. Even when magazine markets were numerous and lucrative, single-author mystery collections were relatively rare. Ironically, today, with the number of major markets shrinking and mainstream publishing offering fewer slots of any kind for non- blockbuster writers, the rise of independent publishers and print-on-demand self-publishing has delight- fully increased the availability of single-author collections. Note that not one of the volumes considered below is from a major New York publisher.

**** Clayton Emery: Mandrake and Murder: The Robin and Marian Mysteries, Merry Man, $12.95. Eight of these dozen adventures for Robin Hood and the former Maid Marian first appeared in EQMM, the rest in original anthologies. A density of historical lore remarkable in such brief tales is combined with picturesque prose, well-described physical action, and sound detection. The sense of period authenticity is greater than in most historical detective fiction; wise though they are, the married sleuths respect and often share the attitudes and superstitions of their time. “Shriving the Scarecrow” is a fine example of the series.

**** Ed Gorman, Noir 13, Perfect Crime, $14.95. Of these 13 tales by a short-story master, over half are previously uncollected and apparently new to print. Especially chilling are “The Baby Store,” science fictional crime about designer children, and “Flying Solo,” about two cancer patients turned vigilante do-gooders. “A Little Something to Believe In,” written with Larry Segriff, examines religious belief through urban fantasy. Gorman goes for the gut and always hits his target.

**** Jonathan Woods: Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem, New Pulp, $15. These 19 tales of erotic or absurdist noir are lively, imaginative, sometimes parodic, often darkly funny, accurately likened on the back-cover blurb to opium dreams and Quentin Tarantino. The final novella, “No Way, José,” is especially reminiscent in style and mood of Pulp Fiction. Exotic backgrounds abound, with “Incident in the Tropics,” equally damning of the Ugly American and the unscrupulous local, a strong example. Not my usual cup of tea, but it’s all executed with enormous skill by a writer of formidable talent.

*** Ennis Willie: Sand’s Game, Ramble House, $32 hardcover, $20 trade paper. Two novellas and three stories about ex-mobster turned avenging detective Sand, written for the 1960s sleaze market, represent an unfairly obscure writer highly regarded by crime-fiction pros like Max Allan Collins, who contributes an introduction; editors Lynn F. Myers, Jr., and Stephen Mertz; and introducers of individual stories Wayne D. Dundee, Bill Crider, Bill Pronzini, James Reasoner, and Gary Lovisi. Willie is most often compared to Mickey Spillane. For me at least, he’s better.

*** Arthur Porges: The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey, Richard Simms, $20.95. Paraplegic scientist Grey plays wheelchair detective on a variety of bizarre cases, usually of the locked-room or impossible-crime variety. The fourteen (six from EQMM in the 1960s, five from AHMM in the 1970s, three new to print) are mostly very brief, with few developed characters apart from Grey, his genius teenage son, and police detective Trask, but they are full of ingenuity, humor, and learned allusions to science, literature, and music.

*** L. Ron Hubbard: The Trail of the Red Diamonds, Galaxy, $9.95 for book or dramatized CD set. Two novella-length adventure cum mystery stories based in 1930s China offer further evidence of Hubbard’s pulp-action mastery. The title tale recounts the search for Kubla Khan’s treasure, while “Hurricane’s Roar” concerns the unconventional and mysterious flying peacemaker known as Wind-Gone-Mad, met in an earlier collection.

*** Stephen D. Rogers: Shot to Death: 31 Stories of Nefarious New England, Mainly Murder, $14.95. The sometime EQMM poet is so smoothly readable, explores such a variety of inventive situations, and is so ambitious in structure and theme, even the stories that don’t quite hit the mark make enjoyable reading. Especially good ones include “A Dog Named Mule,” “A Friendly Game,” “Discharged,” and “Last Call.” Offbeat pure crime stories appear alongside unconventional private eye tales like “Sidewalk,” with its black-comedy punch line.

** William F. Nolan: Dark Dimensions, Darkwood, $17.99. The latest from one of the great masters of popular fiction, all previously uncollected and first published between 1995 and 2010, is a mixed bag. Making up for some minor items are the lead novella, “Horror at Winchester House,” an occult detective story about a real San Jose tourist attraction; a Hollywood private eye tale, “Vampire Dollars”; and a moving non-criminous autobiographical piece on loss and aging, “Getting Along Just Fine.” Nolan completists will want this; others should try earlier collections first.

** Gary Lovisi: Ultra-Boiled: Hard-Hitting Crime Fiction, Ramble House, $19.99 trade paper, $35 hardcover. Small-press publisher Lovisi’s tough crime stories are highly variable in quality. Good examples of his inventive plotting are “Love Kills” and “Not Much Joy in Prison,” while “Political Year” is a deeply cynical account of American politics that may be more accurate than we would hope. Seven of these 23 have been previously collected; five are new; the others appeared in various print and online publications.

Francis M. Nevins’s Night Forms (Perfect Crime, $16.95), includes everything in his earlier collections Night of Silken Snow (2001) and Leap Day (2003) plus four previously uncollected, among them his brilliant Ellery Queen pastiche “Open Letter to Survivors” and the Harry Stephen Keeler parody “The Skull of the Stuttering Gunfighter.” An extensive introduction and story afterwords add to the interest.

The title novella of Philip Wylie’s Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments and Other Tales of Mystery (Crippen & Landru, $29 hardcover, $19 trade paper) is a good 1944 American Magazine whodunit notable for its specialized background (the American Museum of Natural History) and its World War II period. Bill Pronzini’s introduction summarizes the author’s remarkably prolific and versatile literary career... Loren D. Estleman’s Amos Walker: The Complete Story Collection (Tyrus, $32.95) brings together 32 cases of the Detroit private eye, most previously uncollected and one new, plus an introduction by the author about his famous character... An obscurely-published and excellent 1959 short story, “Hard Case Redhead,” is included along with a novel and novella previously unpublished in the latest Peter Rabe omnibus, The Silent Wall/The Return of Marvin Palaver (Stark House, $19.95), introduced by Rick Ollerman... A mixed collection of Arthur Upfield’s fiction, Up and Down Australia (Lulu, $24.96), edited by Kees de Hoog, includes “Wisp of Wool and Disk of Silver,” the only short story about Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, originally published in EQMM in 1979 after being lost for decades, plus the first chapter of an unfinished Bony novel featuring the half-Aborigine sleuth’s wife, an off-stage presence in most of his cases.

The advent of the e-book reader has made easily accessible many old books expensive and scarce in their original editions, including some classic short-story collections. Anna Katharine Green’s 1915 volume about a young woman detective from the ranks of New York high society, The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange, contains delightful period detail, agreeably old-fashioned prose and dialogue, and some offbeat and cunningly plotted mysteries, including the bizarre classic “The Second Bullet.” It’s available from Amazon’s Kindle store for free.

Copyright © 2011 by Jon L. Breen


by Erika Jahneke

Department of First Stories

Erika Jahneke is an author and blogger whose subjects (for publications such as Smile, Hon) range from how the city of Baltimore is depicted in pop culture to women’s reproductive health. Her fiction has appeared in several e-zines, but this is her first paid print short story. The Phoenix resident says her writing almost makes up for the physical power she lost when she developed a brain injury at birth and became a life-long wheelchair user.

* * * *

It was the most perfect copy of The Maltese Falcon any of the antiques-shop owners of downtown Glendale had ever seen, and it was in my dad’s store. I missed not having to care about things like that, but the recession had brought such tough times to writers that nowadays I had to try to convince myself there were worse fates than feeling twelve years old every time someone’s old book was pronounced “shelf-co*cked” and therefore too bent and damaged to sell. I had only worked there a short time, but I was feeling shelf-co*cked myself.

I tried to feel lucky. The old man had thought of me, for once, rare books being a big part of his trade; just the fact that he’d pitched me the job at all could represent a real turning point from our past: criticism on his side, rebellion on mine. Although, in view of what eventually happened, I suppose I should say that my father neither touched me inappropriately nor locked me in a closet for whole nights at a time. Does it count as inappropriate touching if you remember the one time he rubbed eucalyptus on your congested chest more clearly than when the space shuttle blew up? Because I still do, along with the little jingle that may have kept me from joining my friends in college in fierce denunciations of television commercials. I think it’s inappropriate that I can count the times he hugged me on one hand. I use all the fingers, but just barely. I suppose if he didn’t spend his days and nights pricing snuff boxes and thimbles it would be easier to think of him as the strong, silent type, but at least my mother’s post-divorce nickname for him, Claude Rains, made sense now. Once in a while, though, he had a sentimental craving to be on Mom’s good side, and she probably told him that my term-paper editing business had gotten slow and my articles weren’t selling like they used to. For too much of my life, he’d been invisible. While it was probably too late for him to save the day with soft words and circus tickets, I admit that I came into the job very determined to get something at last. The role of model employee was definitely out, as he and Lola spent most of every work day together, laughing at private jokes and poring over eBay on her pink laptop. I tried hard to impress for a few weeks, though, as the something I wanted started out recession-modest and as naked as a good girl’s need for gold stars. At least you have a job, I told myself. And I did get to take a book with me and read in the back sometimes, which was good — if I could edit out the way Lola treated me as if I left Pig-Pen stink-lines as I walked away.

It was hard to have much faith in my good fortune, though, with demented old duffers attempting to grope me while I bent to show their wives something from our bulky display cases. But even I was psyched by the discovery of the Falcon, though I was mostly a Chandler girl at heart. I was also one of the few people to come in here who saw books as more than investment opportunities or something to match the couch.

I was not among my people.

And that was before I thought about Lola, the other sales assistant, who’d been an eighth-grade classmate, although not a friend, and who only seemed to come to life to accept my father’s compliments about her “good eye” for glassware and thirties brooches. She wasn’t pretty when we were in school together, and I had to admit she had ripened a lot, but this knowledge hadn’t made her calmly confident of anything but wrapping men around her little finger. She whiled away her mornings watching me work. If you’ve never worked retail, you’d be surprised at how little time selling stuff to people actually takes up. When I worked in a gift store during college, we were expected to vacuum, dust, and fill any holes in the display cases on a regular basis. Lola never felt such pressure, so between that and my drive to be worthwhile, that old carpet had never seen so much attention.

“I was about to vacuum... I hope it doesn’t interrupt your reading or anything.” I was more tart than I expected after holding my tongue for weeks.

If you can mouse with attitude, Lola did, and completely missed the point of my sarcasm. “Oh, it’s no big deal,” she said, after a desultory keystroke.

“In case it’s not clear, I doubt my dad is paying you to sit around and read TMZ and Go Fug Yourself all day. But I’ve only been here doing all your cleaning and dusting for four weeks so I could be wrong.” When I thought about it later, I wondered how much of my subsequent pain could have been avoided if I, a grown woman with publications and everything, hadn’t been so childish as to talk about my dad like that at work.

“If I got that fat,” she remarked, pointing to a photo of a comedy actress from the eighties who seemed to like to overeat, “I think I would kill myself. You know?”

Even though I hated Lola, it would have been anti-feminist to point out the way her thighs strained against the tight jeans she insisted on wearing. I can point it out to you now, though, since she’s dead.

“I found the Falcon, Natalie,” she said.

“Yes, you got lucky, accepting a box full of books from a widow who didn’t know what she had. Forgive me, your Highness.” I fumbled with the vacuum, which, like everything else in this place, was ancient, and, as I used the hoses, I fantasized that my hands were around Lola’s neck. It was a surprisingly vivid fantasy; hard to shake. It was unusual that we found a first edition so unattended yet so pristine, but I could just as easily have accepted the box, if I hadn’t been wrangling stock in the back while Lola practiced simpering in all the chandeliers.

I didn’t know why I even cared; my worst nightmare would be developing a talent for this sort of thing, but it was hard to walk past the Falcon every day (even without the helpful lecture about the rare Falcon imprints on the back cover, specific to the 1930 edition) without seeing a pile of greenbacks arranged in a case. It was the down payment on a house, or maybe my creative-writing masters... More to the point, it could get me the hell out of the store, if I could hold out till something else shiny distracted the collectible-crazed masses and eBay it out of state. It could be the perfect crime, if, once I got it out of the store, I could somehow manage to turn my untidy office into something resembling a bank vault. Even too much sunlight coming through the windows could render all my sneaking around almost moot, as perfect condition was paramount. It amused me to think of a Communist bruiser like Hammett coming down to Earth to find his most famous creation, written about the fears of working men, being coveted by nerdy people who gardened and had special cotton book-fancying gloves to protect the murder and mayhem from the acidic oils in their hands. I don’t really know if Dash would need a drink to cope with that, but there were times when I did, and I found myself emptying Chardonnay bottles with alarming frequency as I bided my time and told myself I’d get up early and write. Tomorrow.

Put more crudely, my fantasies about the first edition filled me with the deepest lust I’d ever felt in my life. I craved that book, and woke from dreams feeling its binding under my fingers... I’d stop short of saying that it made my panties wet, but I did occasionally fantasize about filling my apartment with its mint value, all in fives, and rolling around in it naked. I thought I finally caught a break when I was asked to close the store following “Glendale Glitters,” the holiday street festival that kept all the stores downtown open late. Dad liked for two people to be there at night, so Lola pursed her lips in a pout she’d been taught someone found fetching. I swallowed my gorge behind a team-player smile. “I can handle it myself... don’t worry about it. Lola, you just go and enjoy your Friday night.”

I was a little too hearty about the last part, so suspicion fought it out with relief. “You sure? Because I don’t mind staying...” But her eyes flicked to the door as if in anticipation a day in advance.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, “And if it gets slow, I’ve got some poems I could work on.” I thought this was a nice sop to the old man, the image of his eldest girl plugging away in a dusty store like the forbidden love child of Abe Lincoln and Emily Dickinson, but I wondered if I’d oversold it. He looked satisfied, though, as if in that one moment we’d come to understand each other.

Sometimes I still feel guilty about that. That night, though, I practiced feeling nothing. Unlike movie cons, however, I couldn’t get a break. Five minutes before ten, some European tourists came in, and I couldn’t make them understand “We’re closing soon” in my broken German, but they bought a lot, without even looking twice at my black book-robbing outfit. I was just about to take my literary spoils and disarm the alarm (Dad’s birthday, 8-25-51, which he only changed from 1-2-3-4 at my pre-criminal insistence. I was grateful for his predictable habits of mind) when the lock rattled again and Lola came in, vastly overdressed for a shift of work and showing copious cleavage. “What are you wearing?” she asked. “That goth thing is so over. And you suck at it anyways... Goths always wear skulls and dangly sh*t. Just black is a more emo, check-out-my-pain kind of trip.”

“I could ask you the same question. But for right now, I have to deal with the fact that you interrupted me during my cutting ritual... I may have to do both wrists now.”

She looked at me with distaste. I don’t think she cared that I was joking. My plan ruined, I watched as the shadows lengthened and removed the tiny bit of charm from our town square.

We both froze as the lock rattled again. Maybe my father had forgotten something. It took everything I had not to go over to the case with the Falcon in it and stare moonily at its dust jacket. I was about to invent one last task to enable this, when an unfamiliar voice cut through the silence.

“Hello, ladies.” The figure before us was slight, five-nine at the absolute tops, with a twangy accent. “I’m going to need the contents of your safe, if you don’t mind.”

It was the Gentleman Bandit, named by police and local news for his courtly and polite robberies of west-side minimarts and car washes. The local press loved how this guy had made area businesses part with so much coin without cursing once. The suggestion that some of the clerks he had robbed had seen a gun was much less gentlemanly. “If you could lie on the floor for me, that would be fantastic. Thank you.” Something in his waistband clicked, and I hit the dusty floor, all the while wondering if I’d been taken in by a water gun, but not enough to stand my ground. “Do let me know if this is uncomfortably tight, won’t you?” he almost purred as he tied us back to back with the bungee cords we usually used to tie furniture to the tops of people’s cars.

“Is it true that you can get everything in twenty minutes?” Lola asked, as languid as if she’d just woken up in his passion-tossed bed. I couldn’t believe she was flirting with him as he robbed us, but Lola flirted with everything. In the darkness, my cheeks burned.

“This looks a little light,” he remarked of his haul.

“Business is down... times are hard all over. The owner” (nothing would induce me to say “my dad” at work again) “tries to make it up on eBay, but, you know...” I made a sweeping yet helpless gesture that I hoped conveyed the vast economic machinery that kept me in the store and stuck on page 100 in Paul Krugman’s book.

“Shut the hell up.” I made a sceptical sound and he added, “Please.”

I had to smile. In the YouTube era, everyone was worried about his press.

The bandit licked his lips, which I had been trained by thousands of third-rate crime thrillers to view as the behavior of a drug-crazed psychopath, and my heart seemed to skip a beat.

“There’s water in the fridge in the back.” I don’t know why I said it. Maybe I just wanted one thing I could control, or maybe I was beginning to relate to the stranger who broke into this dust-scented stillness. He just wanted to get something out of being here, too. For a moment, I almost asked him his secret and offered to put him up in Mexico. A flicker of headlights made us all tense up. He was methodical as he searched the place for the glitter of gold and the sheen of silver and cleaned us out.

He left my corner, and my attempted haul, alone. I don’t suppose he would know what he had, nor how important it was to shield it from the elements. The flicker of headlights returned and, in the glare from the faux-old-fashioned streetlight, I saw that the vehicle in question had a tiny dent.

“Get rid of them,” the bandit said, after viewing a piece of jewelry in the glow of his flashlight. “Please.” He loosened my restraints, and though he made no overt threat, the way he flicked the loose skin at my elbow delivered a potent promise of pain deferred, and he squeezed my arm in an ungentlemanly way. Tears stung my eyes and I was profoundly conscious that he was watching me.

I swallowed and said, as if I had free will left, “Yes, it’s probably better. We used to... date.” I suppose buying takeout tacos and leaving panties in someone’s Suburban counted as dating, but the word was ridiculous. He never bought me flowers, or introduced me to anyone, and he was miles away from the kind of guy I’d like in my “real” life, even though real life was becoming as misty and distant as my memories of childhood summer camp. I held on to it; in the wake of my failed life of crime, it could be all I had.

I plastered some semblance of an expression on my face and actually ran my fingers through my hair. Habit, more than anything.

“Hey, saw that there was a light still on.” What Jon lacked in conversation, he made up for in attention to rent-a-cop detail. It had its advantages, but I said, “You noticed that from across the street?” and felt my voice quiver.

“Oh, no,” he said, and smiled my favorite goofy smile, as if I were a prom queen with whom he was hoping to score. “I was in the neighborhood. Empanadas.” And he held up a white bakery bag on which I was forced to imagine lashings of grease.

Speaking of imaginings, I wanted Jon to be more William Douglas, less Barney Fife. I took the bag, because not doing it would have gotten his attention instantly. I stepped in close, willing him to be a television detective and smell my fear.

I settled on one last red flag that the bandit wouldn’t spot as a red flag. I cooed, “You’re terrible,” and kissed Jon hard, in a way I wouldn’t when we both had our clothes on. It might have raised my antennae if I were in his place, but I’d forgotten how much men’s lessons about life were different from mine. He probably thought this was more a sign of order retained than disrupted. I bitched him out (girlishly) for not waiting for my call and, in a shocky, dispassionate way, wondered if he would be the last person to talk to me alive. I found some fake cheer, told Jon inventory had run long, and he left, tasting my desperation-fueled kiss on his lips along with the starchy pastry. He was sweet, but he wasn’t a hero.

The bandit led us back to the storeroom and tied us back to back. Unless it was my imagination, it seemed there was more slack this time; it had probably been a long night for him as well. “I’m going for it,” Lola whispered.

“Don’t flatter yourself. He’d probably do anything to stay out of prison.”

“Not like that. God. What do you think I am?”

Here’s an elementary etiquette fact: The moment when a coworker offers to do something crazy-dangerous to disarm a robber is not the moment to reveal you think of her as a lazy whor*. Even if I hadn’t left some high-road on the floor mats of a certain Suburban. “I’m getting out, or getting the gun. Or something.”

“Can I help?” I asked, moved. I had been so wrong about Lola... maybe there was really a giving soul in there, with a higher purpose. My eyes were wet.

“Don’t take this wrong, but you’re, like, better at talking than fighting.”

She wasn’t sweet, but she was a hero. She sprang to life faster than I might have predicted, if I’d been laying bets instead of sitting around with my heart in my mouth. She was no Michelle Yeoh, but the bandit did grunt as she kneed him in the groin. The struggle took a brief turn for the hand-to-hand and ancient atlases hit the floor with explosive bangs. I tried to tell myself that’s what the smaller, more automotive pop was, too, but I knew it wasn’t.

The bandit held his head in his hands. “What have I done?” he moaned, as Lola’s dressy outfit became spattered with blood. By the time he let me see to Lola, or think of 911, it was too late. I knew that much from my big high-school “Be a writing doctor” phase. It never amounted to anything because I suck at math in an epic fashion, but I could figure out one equation: Bleeding + time away from doctors = death. I did what I could, but first-aid class seemed far away and the bandit seemed to have folded in upon himself. We both turned from her body without saying anything. I cleaned myself up and took the Falcon, at last. He seemed to head for the men’s room, but I can’t be sure. I went to the back to play victim, my spoils in my sweater.

I picture the bandit slipping out the unscreened window like fate, but I never found out for sure, and my paper-white complexion and unwillingness to speak for a week discouraged many questions. If it hadn’t been so traumatic, being close to death could have been the best thing that ever happened to me. My brief encounter with death had suddenly made my articles and stories worth reading, so I told my father the truth when I said that a “new opportunity” would mean that I wouldn’t be at the store for much longer. “Besides,” I moaned, playing the girlie card I’d resisted and squeezing out a snuffle, “anything might have happened to me in there.” Which of course, it had. My work nemesis was now dead after saving my life. But usually, when I mentioned anything happening, it involved body parts my father wasn’t comfortable with below my neck.

True to form, he patted my shoulder awkwardly and offered me a napkin to dry my fake tears on. We walked through the place, both determined not to mention the imperfectly lifted stains. “I was always planning to replace that carpet anyway,” he told me and I nodded, trying hard to focus on something in the store so I didn’t see the flecks of blood from my futile and ill-informed attempts to save Lola’s life. Everything left in the store now was too heavy for a bandit to make off with, like heavy oak furniture, or kitsch, like a first-edition Operation game from 1965. As we walked through the section Dad still gamely called mine, I felt almost as if I could lock eyes with the red-nosed Operation character in a “Can you believe this sh*t?” eye-roll.

We approached “my” bookshelves. Joy of Cooking was still there, as were Bennett Cerf and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “He didn’t take much out of here.” My father sounded half relieved, half rueful. “Except the obvious... God, that newspaper feature on the Falcon was a big mistake.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” I assured him. “It will give you proof with the insurance company. Besides, criminals don’t read.”

I couldn’t read his face for a moment and almost feared my jig was up. “Is that more hippie stuff they taught you at college?”

I sighed and acted like I had to let the archaic insult roll off my back and nodded. “You’d be shocked how many felons didn’t learn how to read by third grade.”

I knew I was safe when he said, “Huh,” the same one-syllable grunt he used for sad inner-city documentaries and foreign food. It said, “I don’t want to absorb this. Change the channel.”

I never thought that sound would protect me, but it has. My last day at the store is Friday... it’ll be awhile longer until I can sell my literary treasure, but until then, there’s always Go Fug Yourself.

Copyright © 2011 by Erika Jahneke

Method Murder

by Simon Brett

Simon Brett’s latest mystery set in the fictional village of Fethering, Bones Under the Beach Hut, has just been published by Five Star Press. The previous book in the series, The Shooting in the Shop, earned this remark in Booklist’s starred review: “... with the talented Brett, the character clash and the amazingly high homicide rate for a tiny village come across as both brilliant and perfectly reasonable. The secret is in Brett’s range. He moves effortlessly from sharp, pitiless physical description... to flashes of compassionate insight.”

* * * *

As an actor, Kenny Mountford yearned to be taken seriously. Since finishing at drama school, he’d done all right. A bit of theatre work, but mostly television, which was good news, because it paid better. However, a continuous round of small parts in The Bill, Heartbeat, and Midsomer Murders had left him, by the time he reached his early thirties, with a deep sense of dissatisfaction. It wasn’t celebrity that he craved, it was respectability. He wanted to be able to hold his head high amongst other actors when the discussion moved on to the issues of the “truth” and “integrity” of their profession.

And really that meant doing more theatre. For the more obscure and impenetrable the theatre work, the higher the integrity of the actors involved. This meant, in effect, working with one of a small list of trendy directors, directors who didn’t pander to the public by making their work accessible or simply entertaining. So Kenny Mountford set out to meet and ingratiate himself with such a director.

It was a good time for him to make the move. A stint playing the barman on a successful sitcom had bolstered his income to the point that he had paid off the mortgage on his Notting Hill house. And, besides, his live-in actress girlfriend, Lesley-Jane Walden, was not only a nice bit of arm candy to satisfy the gossip columns, she was also making a good whack as the latest femme fatale in a long-running soap opera. Her hunger for celebrity was currently satisfied, and they weren’t in need of money, so Kenny Mountford was in a position where he could afford to pursue art for art’s sake.

The latest enfant terrible of British theatre was a director called Charlie Fenton. Like many of his breed, he had a great contempt for the written word, rejecting texts by playwrights in favour of improvisation. In the many television and newspaper interviews he gave, he regularly pontificated about “the straitjacket of conformity” and derided “the crowd-pleasing lack of originality demonstrated by the constant revival of classic theatre texts.” One somewhat sceptical interviewer had asked if this meant Charlie Fenton considered one of his improvised pieces to be better than a play by Shakespeare and, though hotly denying the suggestion, the director made it fairly clear that that actually was his view.

What Charlie Fenton was most famous for was his in-depth approach to characterisation. Though claiming to have developed his own system, he owed more than he cared to admit to the pioneering work in New York of Lee Strasberg, the originator of the “Method.” This was a style of acting which aimed for greater authenticity, and its exponents had included Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, and even, surprisingly, Marilyn Monroe. Rather than building up a character from the outside and assembling a collection of mannerisms, a “Method actor” would try so to immerse himself in the identity of the person he was playing that he virtually became that person.

So if an actor were playing a milkman in a Charlie Fenton production, the director would send the poor unfortunate off to spend three months delivering milk. Someone with the role of a Muslim terrorist would be obliged to convert to Islam. An actress playing a prostitute would have to turn tricks in the streets around King’s Cross (and almost definitely service Charlie Fenton, too, so that he could check she was doing it properly). And one poor unfortunate had once spent three months in a basem*nt blindfolded and chained to a radiator for a proposed production about hostage-taking. (It would only have been three weeks, but Charlie Fenton neglected to inform the actor when he abandoned the idea.)

Once his casts had immersed themselves in their characters, weeks of improvisation in rehearsal rooms would ensue, until the director edited what he considered to be the best bits into a script. After the production had opened, this text, based on the actors’ lines, would then be published in the form of a book, for which Charlie Fenton took all the royalties.

The carefully leaked details of his rehearsal methods only added to the director’s mystique, and very few people realised that ordering actors around in this way was just part of Charlie Fenton’s ongoing power trip. The lengthy build-up to his productions was nothing to do with the quality of theatre that resulted; it was all about his ego. Also, the total control he exercised over his companies proved to be a good way of getting pretty young actresses into bed. (He had a wife and family somewhere in the background, but spent little time with them.)

Awestruck accounts of the director’s procedures, tantrums, and bullying ensured that any actor in search of theatrical respectability was desperate to work with Charlie Fenton. And so it was with Kenny Mountford.

They finally met after a first night of a National Theatre King Lear. The play wasn’t really Lesley-Jane Walden’s cup of tea, but it was a first night, after all. Any occasion when there was a chance of her being photographed and appearing in the tabloids suited her very well indeed (though she had been a little disappointed by the lack of paparazzi down at the South Bank). As soon as the final curtain was down, Charlie Fenton was at the bar, surrounded by toadies, who hung on every word as he proceeded to list Shakespeare’s shortcomings as a dramatist. Kenny and Lesley-Jane had gone to the performance with one of their actor friends who had once spent six months picking tomatoes and learning Polish in order to take part in a Charlie Fenton production about migrant workers. And the friend effected the coveted introduction.

The director, who sported a silly little goatee and grey ponytail, favoured Lesley-Jane with a coruscating smile. “I’ve seen some of your work,” he said. “It’s amazing how a really good actor can shine even amidst the dross of a soap opera.”

She blushed and smiled prettily at this. Which wasn’t difficult for Lesley-Jane Walden. She was so pretty that she did everything prettily.

Kenny Mountford felt encouraged. If Charlie Fenton had recognised his girlfriend’s quality in a soap opera, the director might look equally favourably at his work in a sitcom. But that illusion was not allowed to last for long. Looking superciliously at him over half-moon glasses, Charlie Fenton said, “Oh yes, I know your name. Still paying the mortgage rather publicly on the telly, are you?”

“Maybe,” Kenny replied, “but I am about to change direction.”

“Towards what?”

“More serious theatre work.”

“Oh yes?” the director sneered. “That’s what they all say.”

“No, I mean it.”

“Kenny, I don’t think you’d recognise ‘more serious theatre work’ if it jumped up and bit you on the bum. You have clearly been destined from birth for a life of well-paid mediocrity.”

“I disagree. I’m genuinely committed to doing more serious work.”

“Really?” The director scrutinised the actor with something approaching contempt. “I don’t think you could hack it.”

“Try me.”

Charlie Fenton was silent for a moment of appraisal. Then he said, “I bet you wouldn’t have the dedication to work with me.”

“Are you offering me a job?”

“If I were, I’m pretty confident you couldn’t do it.”

“Again I say: Try me.”

Another long silence ensued. Then the director announced, “I’m starting work on a new project. About criminal gangs in London.”

“What would it involve for the actors?”

“Deep cover. Infiltrating the gangs.”

Kenny was aware of the slight admonitory shake of Lesley-Jane’s head, but he ignored the signal. “I’m up for it,” he said.

“I’ll phone you with further details,” the director announced in a magisterial manner that suggested the audience was at an end.

“Shall I give you my mobile number?”

“Land line. I don’t do mobiles.” Clearly another eccentricity, which was indulged like all Charlie Fenton’s eccentricities. He flashed another smile at Lesley-Jane, then looked hard at Kenny, his lips curled with scepticism. “If you can come back to me in three months as a member of a London gang, you’ve got a part in the show.”

“You’re on,” said Kenny Mountford.

Lesley-Jane wasn’t keen on the idea. If Kenny was going to go underground, he wouldn’t be able to squire her to all the premieres, launches, and first nights her ego craved. Their relationship was fine while he too had a high-profile television face, but she didn’t want to end up with a boyfriend nobody recognised. She also knew that her own work situation was precarious. Young femmes fatales in soap operas had a short shelf life. One of the scriptwriters had already hinted that her character might have a fatal car crash in store. There was a race against time for her to announce that she was leaving the show before the public heard that she’d been pushed off it. And then she’d need another series to move on to, and there weren’t currently many signs of that being offered. At such a time, she’d be more than usually dependent on the reflected fame of her partner. (She had always followed the old show-business advice: If you can’t be famous yourself, then make sure you go to bed with someone who is.) The last thing she wanted at that moment was for Kenny to disappear off the social radar for some months while he immersed himself in gangland culture.

But Lesley-Jane’s remonstrations were ignored. Her boyfriend’s mind was now focused on only one thing: proving his seriousness as an actor to Charlie Fenton.

And to do that he had to infiltrate a London gang. Which actually turned out to be surprisingly easy. He didn’t have to hang around Shepherd’s Bush Green for long before he was approached by someone with a heavy Russian accent and asked if he wanted to buy drugs. After a couple of weeks of making regular purchases of heroin (which he didn’t use but stockpiled in his bathroom cabinet), he only had to default on payments twice to be hustled into a car with tinted windows, blindfolded, and taken off to meet the organisation’s frighteners.

They didn’t have to hurt him to get their money. Kenny Mountford had the cash ready with him and handed it over as soon as his blindfold was removed. He found himself seated on a chair in a windowless cellar, loomed over by the two heavies who’d snatched him and facing a thin-faced man in an expensive suit. From their conversation in the car, he’d deduced that his abductors were called Vasili and Vladimir. They addressed the thin-faced man as Fyodor. All three spoke English with a heavy accent from somewhere in the former Soviet Union.

“So if you had the money all the time, why didn’t you pay up?” asked the man in the suit, whose effortless authority identified him as the gang’s leader.

“Maybe he enjoys being beaten to a pulp,” suggested the heavy who Kenny was pretty sure was called Vasili.

“Maybe,” said Kenny Mountford with a cool that he’d spent three years at drama school perfecting, “but that’s not actually the reason. I just thought this was a good way of getting to meet you, Fyodor.”

“Do you know who I am?” the man asked, intrigued.

“I only know your name, but it doesn’t take much intelligence to work out that you’re higher up this organisation than the two goons who brought me here.”

Kenny felt the men on either side of him stiffen and was aware of their fists bunching, but he remembered his concentration exercises and didn’t flinch.

Fyodor raised a hand to pacify his enforcers. “You are right. I control the organisation.”

“And am I allowed to know what it’s called?”

He smiled a crooked smile. “The Simferopol Boys. From where we started our operations. Do you know where Simferopol is?” Kenny shook his head. “It is in the Crimea. Southern Ukraine. Near to Yalta. I assume you have not been there?” Another shake of the head. “Well, we did what we could over there, but the pickings were small, and there were a lot of... entrenched interests. Turf wars, dangerous. In London our life is easier.”

“And how many are there in the Simferopol Boys?”

“Twenty, maybe thirty, it depends. Sometimes people become untrustworthy and have to be eliminated.”

Kenny was aware of a reaction from Vasili and Vladimir. Clearly elimination was the part of the job they enjoyed.

“And do you just deal in drugs?”

Fyodor spread his hands wide in an encompassing gesture. “Drugs... prostitution... protection rackets... loan-sharking... The Simferopol Boys are a multifunction organisation.” Then came the question that Kenny knew couldn’t be delayed much longer. “But why do you want to know this? Curiosity?”

“More than just curiosity.”

“Good. If it was just curiosity, I think Vasili and Vladimir would have to eliminate you straightaway.” The gang boss smiled a thin smile. “They may well have to eliminate you straightaway, whatever the reason for your enquiries. You could be a cop, for all we know.”

“I can assure you I am not a cop.”

“But that’s exactly what you would say if you were a cop.”

“Well, I’m not.”

“Mr. Mountford, I am not here to chop logic with you. I am a busy man.” He looked at his watch. “I have a meeting shortly with a senior civil servant in the Home Office. He is helping me with some visa applications for members of my extended family in Simferopol. Now please, will you tell me why you are here? And why I shouldn’t just hand you straight over to Vasili and Vladimir for elimination?”

Kenny Mountford took a deep breath. There was no doubt that he had put himself in very real danger. But, as he had that daunting thought, he couldn’t help also feeling a warm glow. Charlie Fenton would be so impressed by the lengths he had gone in his quest for authenticity.

“I’m here because I want to join your gang.”

“Join the Simferopol Boys?” asked Fyodor in astonishment. Vasili and Vladimir let out deep threatening chuckles at the very idea.


“But why should I let you join us? As I said, you could be a cop. You could be a journalist. You could be a spy from the Odessa Reds.” The reactions from Vasili and Vladimir left Kenny in no doubt as to what Fyodor was talking about. They might sound like a breed of chicken, but the Odessa Reds were clearly a rival gang.

“How can I prove to you that I’m none of those things? What are the qualifications for most of the people who join your gang?”

“Most of them have family connections with me in Simferopol which go back many generations. At the very least, most of them are Ukrainian.”

“I can sound Ukrainian,” said Kenny, demonstrating the point. (He had made quite a study of accents at drama school.)

His impression didn’t go down well with Vasili and Vladimir. They clearly thought he was sending them up. Two giant hands slammed down on his shoulders, while two giant fists were once again bunched.

But again a gesture from their boss froze them before the blows made contact.

“Anyone who wants to join the Simferopol Boys,” said Fyodor quietly, “has to pass certain tests.”

“A lot of tests?” asked Kenny Mountford, maintaining his nonchalance with increasing difficulty.

The gang boss nodded. “The big one’s at the end. Not many people get that far. But if you want to have a go at one of the starting tests...”

Kenny nodded. Fyodor leant forward and told him what the first test was.

Like most actors, Kenny Mountford always felt a huge surge of excitement when he got a new part. However trivial the piece, hours would be spent poring over the script, making decisions about the character’s accent and body language. The part that Fyodor had given him prompted exactly the same adrenaline rush, though in this case he had no text to work from. Kenny started reading everything he could find about the Crimean region, and Simferopol in particular. He also tracked down recordings of Ukrainians speaking English and trained himself to imitate them.

The new direction his career was taking still failed to raise much enthusiasm in Lesley-Jane. From an early age, her main aim in life had been to be the centre of attention, so she didn’t respond well to being totally ignored by the man she was living with. But Kenny was too preoccupied with his new role to notice her disquiet.

The first test he had been given by Fyodor was relatively easy. All he had to do was to sell drugs in Shepherd’s Bush, just like the dealer who had served as his initial introduction to the Simferopol Boys. Apart from the work he was doing on his accent, Kenny also spent a considerable time sourcing clothes for the role, and was satisfied that the hoodie, jeans, and trainers he ended up with had achieved exactly the requisite degree of shabbiness. He found it a welcome relief to be selecting his own clothes for a part, rather than having to follow the whims of some queeny costume designer as he would in television.

He needn’t have bothered, though. The kind of lowlife he was peddling the drugs to didn’t even notice what he looked like. The only thing they thought about was their next fix. But for Kenny Mountford as an artist — and a potential participant in a Charlie Fenton production — it was very important that he should get every minutest detail right.

After his first successful foray as a drug dealer, he got home early evening to find a very impatient Lesley-Jane Walden, dressed up to the nines and in a foul temper. “Where the hell have you been?” she shrieked, almost before he’d come through the door. “You know we’re meant to be at this Tom Cruise premiere in half an hour.”

“I’m sorry. I forgot.”

“Well, for God’s sake get changed into something respectable and I’ll call for a cab.”

“I don’t want to get changed.” Kenny Mountford hadn’t really formalised the idea before, but he suddenly knew that he wasn’t going to change his clothes until Charlie Fenton agreed to give him the part in his next production. He was going to immerse himself in the role of a Simferopol Boy until that wonderful moment. “And don’t try to change my mind,” he added in his best Ukrainian accent.

“What the hell are you talking about — and why the hell are you using that stupid voice?” demanded Lesley-Jane. “If we don’t leave in the next five minutes, we’ll have missed all the paparazzi. And if you think I’m going to be seen at a Tom Cruise premiere with someone dressed like you are, Kenny, then you’ve got another think coming!” Her face was so contorted with fury that she no longer looked even mildly pretty.

“Listen,” Kenny continued in his Ukrainian voice, “I’ve got more important things to do than to—”

He was interrupted by the phone ringing. Lesley-Jane turned away from him in disgust. He picked up the receiver. A seductive “Hello” came from the other end of the line. The man’s voice was vaguely familiar, but Kenny could not immediately identify it.

“Hello,” he replied, still Ukrainian.

The voice changed from seduction to suspicion. “Who is this?”

Then Kenny knew. “Charlie,” he enthused, reverting to his normal voice, “how good to hear you.”

At the other end of the phone Charlie Fenton sounded slightly thrown. “Is that Kenny?”

“Yes. What can I do for you?”

The director still didn’t sound his usual confident self as he stuttered out a reply. “Oh, I just... I was... um...” Then, sounding more assured, he said, “I just wanted to check how you were getting on with your infiltration process.”

“I thought you weren’t going to be in touch for three months.”

“No, I, er, um... I changed my mind.”

“Well, in answer to your question, Charlie, my infiltration is going very well. I’m already working for a gang.”

“That’s good.”

“They’re Ukrainian,” he went on, reassuming the accent to illustrate his point. “And, actually, it’s good you’ve rung, because there’s something I wanted to ask you...”

“What’s that?”

“How deep do you think I should go into this character I’m playing?”

“As deep as possible, Kenny.” With something of his old pomposity, the director went on. “My style of theatre involves the participants in total immersion in their characters.”

“I’m glad you said that, because I’ve been wondering whether I should actually be living in my house while I’m doing this preparation work. A Ukrainian gangster wouldn’t live in a Notting Hill house like mine, would he?”

“No, he certainly wouldn’t.”

“So what I want to ask you is: Do you think I should move out of my house?”

“No question. You certainly should,” replied Charlie Fenton.

He took a grubby room in a basem*nt near Goldhawk Road and, as he got deeper into his part, Kenny Mountford realised that he could no longer be Kenny Mountford. He needed a new identity to go with his new persona. He consulted Vasili and Vladimir on Ukrainian names and, following their advice, retitled himself Anatoli Semyonov. He also cut himself off from the English media. He stopped watching television, and the only radio he listened to on very crackly shortwave was a station from Kiev. He bought Ukrainian newspapers in which at first he couldn’t even understand the alphabet.

Meanwhile, the tests set by Fyodor got tougher. On top of the dealing, Kenny was now delegated to join Vasili, Vladimir, and other of the Simferopol Boys in some enforcement work. Drug customers dragging their feet on payments, prostitutes or pimps trying to keep more of the take than they were meant to... to bring these to a proper sense of priorities called for a certain amount of threatening behaviour, and frequently violence. In such situations, as with the drug dealing, Kenny — or rather Anatoli Semyonov — did what was required of him.

The thought never came into his mind that what he was doing might be immoral, that if he were caught he could be facing a long stretch in prison. Kenny Mountford was acting, he was researching the role of Anatoli Semyonov with the long-term view of appearing in a show created by the legendary Charlie Fenton. When such a conflict of priorities arose, morality was for the petty-minded; art was far more important.

As he got deeper and deeper under his Simferopol Boys cover, Kenny saw less and less of Lesley-Jane Walden. He didn’t feel the deprivation. He was so focused on what he saw as his work that his mind had little room for other thoughts.

At the end of an evening with Vasili, Vladimir, and some baseball bats, which had left a club owner who was behind on his protection payments needing three weeks’ hospitalisation, the three Simferopol Boys — or rather the two Simferopol Boys and the one prospective Simferopol Boy — reported back to Fyodor.

The gang leader was very pleased with them. “This is good work. I think we are achieving more since Anatoli has been with us.” Vasili and Vladimir looked a little sour, but Kenny Mountford glowed with pride. He had reached the point where commendation from Fyodor was almost as important to him as commendation from Charlie Fenton. “And I think it is time that Anatoli Semyonov should be given his final test...”

Kenny could hardly contain his excitement. In his heavily Ukrainian voice, he asked, “You mean the one that will actually make me a fully qualified member of the Simferopol Boys?”

Fyodor nodded. “Yes, that is exactly what I mean.” He gave a curt nod of his head. Vasili and Vladimir, knowing the signal well, left the room. A long silence filled the space between the two men who remained.

It was broken by Fyodor. “Yes, Anatoli, I think you have proved you understand fully the role that is required of you.”

Kenny Mountford could hardly contain himself. It was the best review he’d had since The Stage had described his Prospero as “luminescently compelling.”

“So what do I have to do? Don’t worry, whatever it is, I’ll do it. I won’t let you down.”

“You have to kill someone,” said Fyodor.

At first Kenny had had difficulty with the amount of vodka drinking that being an aspirant Simferopol Boy involved, but now he could match Vasili and Vladimir shot for shot — and even, on occasion, outdrink them. They tended to meet during the small hours (after a good night’s threatening) in a basem*nt club off Westbourne Grove. It was a dark place, heavy with the fug of cigarettes. Down there in the murk no one observed the smoking ban. And, having seen the size of the barmen, Kenny didn’t envy any Department of Health inspector delegated to enforce it.

He was always the only non-Russian speaker there, though his grasp of the language was improving, thanks to an online course he’d enrolled in. Kenny had a private ambition that, when the three months were up, he would return to Charlie Fenton not only looking like a Ukrainian gangster, but also speaking like one.

That evening they were well into the second bottle of vodka before either Vasili or Vladimir mentioned the task they knew Fyodor had set Kenny. “So,” asked Vladimir, always the more sceptical of the two, “do you reckon you can do it? Or are you going to chicken out?”

“Don’t worry, tovarich, I can do it.” He sounded as confident as ever, but couldn’t deny to himself that the demand made by Fyodor had been a shock. Playing for time, he went on, “The only thing I can’t decide about it is who I should kill. Just someone random I happen to see in the street? Would that be the right thing to do?”

“It would be all right,” replied Vasili, “but it would be rather a waste of a hit.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, if you’re going to kill someone, at least make sure it’s someone you already want out of your way.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand you.”

“For heaven’s sake, Anatoli,” said Vladimir impatiently, “kill one of your enemies!”

“Ah.” Kenny Mountford tried to think whether he actually had any enemies. There were people who’d got up his nose over the years — directors who hadn’t recognised his talent, casting directors who had resolutely refused to cast him, actors who’d stolen his laughs — but none of these transgressions did he really think of as killing matters.

His confusion must have communicated itself to Vladimir, because he said, “You must have a sibling who’s infuriated you at some point, someone who’s cheated you of money, a man who’s stolen one of your girlfriends...”

“Yes, I must have, mustn’t I?” Though, for the life of him, Kenny Mountford still couldn’t think of anyone who was a suitable candidate for murder. He also couldn’t completely suppress the unworthy feeling — which he knew would threaten his integrity as an actor in the eyes of someone like Charlie Fenton — that killing people was wrong.

The conversation became becalmed. After a few more shots of vodka, Vladimir announced he was off to get a freebie from one of the Bayswater working girls controlled by the Simferopol Boys. “Got to be some perks in this job,” he said.

But Vasili lingered. He seemed to have sensed Kenny’s unease. “You are worried about the killing?”


“It is common. The first one. Many people find that. After two or three, though...” Vasili downed another shot of vodka. “... it seems a natural thing to do.”

There was a silence. Then Vasili leant forward, lowering his voice as he said, “Maybe I could help you...”


“There is a service I provide. It is not free, but it is not expensive... given the going rate.” He let out a short, cynical laugh. “There are plenty of Simferopol Boys who have got their qualifications from me.” Kenny Mountford looked puzzled. “I mean that they have never killed anyone. I have done the killings for them.”

“Ah.” Kenny couldn’t deny he was tempted. He knew that for the full immersion in his character that Charlie Fenton required he should do the killing himself. But he couldn’t help feeling a little squeamish about the idea. And if Vasili was offering him a way round the problem... “How much?” he asked, not realising that, now the danger of his actually having to commit a murder had receded, he’d dropped out of his Ukrainian accent.

Vasili told him. It seemed a demeaningly small sum for the price of a human life, but Kenny knew this was not the moment for sentimentality. And he did still have quite a lot of money left from the sitcom fees. “So how do you select the target? Even more important, how do you make it look as if I’ve actually committed the murder?”

The Ukrainian dismissed the questions with an airy wave of his hand. “You leave such details to me. I have done it before, so I know what I’m doing. So far as Fyodor is concerned, it is definitely you who has committed the murder. So far as the police are concerned, nothing ties the crime to you. All you have to do is to get yourself a watertight alibi for tomorrow evening.”

“Tomorrow evening?” Kenny was rather shocked by the short notice.

With a shrug, Vasili said, “Once you have decided to do something, there is no point in putting off doing it.”

“I suppose you’re right...”

“Of course I am right.”

“But I’m still not clear about how you select the victim.”

“That, as I say, is not your problem. Usually, I kill one of my client’s enemies. That way, not only does Fyodor recognise there is a motive for the murder, the client also gets rid of someone who’s bugging them. It is a very efficient system — no?”

“But if your client doesn’t have any enemies...”

“Everyone has enemies,” said Vasili firmly. Kenny was about to say that he really didn’t think he did, but thought better of it. “So, Anatoli, have we got a deal?”

“Yes, we’ve got a deal.”

Having checked with Vasili the proposed timescale for the murder and handed over the agreed fee the next morning, Kenny set about arranging his alibi. It couldn’t involve any of the Simferopol Boys, because Fyodor wasn’t meant to know that he had an alibi. So, to keep himself safe from police suspicions, Anatoli Semyonov would have to, for one evening only, return to his old persona of Kenny Mountford.

He decided that a visit to a fringe theatre was the answer. A quick check through Time Out led to a call to an actor friend, who sounded slightly surprised to hear from him, but who agreed to join him in darkest Kilburn for an experimental play about glue-sniffing, whose cast included an actress they both knew. “You’re not going with Lesley-Jane?” asked the friend.


“I’m not surprised.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing, Kenny, nothing.”

Normally he would have asked for an explanation of his friend’s remark, but Kenny was preoccupied with his plans for the evening. Even if the audience was small, as audiences for fringe theatre frequently are, he would still have people to vouch for where he was at the moment Vasili committed his murder for him. Kenny Mountford felt a glow of satisfaction at the efficiency of the arrangements he had made.

The serenity of his mood was shattered in the afternoon by a call from Fyodor. “Anatoli, I want you to keep an eye on Vasili. I’m not sure he’s playing straight with me.”

“How do you mean?” asked Kenny nervously.

“I’ve heard rumours he’s doing work on the side, not just jobs I give him for the Simferopol Boys.”

“What kind of work?”

“Contract killing. If you can bring me any proof that’s what he’s been doing, Anatoli, I will see to it that he is eliminated. And you will be richly rewarded.”

“Oh,” said Kenny.

He spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get through to Vasili’s mobile, but it was permanently switched off. By the time he met his friend at the fringe theatre in Kilburn, Kenny Mountford was in an extremely twitchy state. There was no pretending that his situation wasn’t serious. If Fyodor found out that he had actually paid Vasili to do his qualifying murder for him, Kenny didn’t think it’d be long before there was a contract out on his own life. But he couldn’t let anyone at the theatre see how anxious he was, so all his acting skills were called for as he sat through the interminably tedious and badly acted play about glue-sniffing and then, over drinks in the bar, told the actress who’d been in it how marvellous, absolutely marvellous her performance had been.

His friend had his car with him and offered to drop Kenny off. As they were driving along they heard the Radio 4 Midnight News. The distinguished theatre director Charlie Fenton had been shot dead in Notting Hill at ten o’clock that evening.

“Good God,” said his friend. “If you hadn’t actually been with me, I’d have had you down as Number One Suspect for that murder, Kenny.”


But his friend wouldn’t say more.

Had Kenny Mountford not completely cut himself off from the English press and media, he would have known about the affair between Charlie Fenton and Lesley-Jane Walden. Their photos had been plastered all over the tabloids for weeks. He might also have pieced together that the director had never had any interest in him, only in Lesley-Jane — hence the request when they first met for their mutual land line rather than Kenny’s mobile number. How convenient for Charlie had been the actor’s willingness to go undercover and leave the field wide open to his rival.

Vasili, however, read his tabloids and knew all about the affair. He recognised Charlie Fenton as the perfect victim. The guy had gone off with Kenny’s girlfriend! Fyodor wouldn’t need any convincing that that was a proper motive for murder.

So Vasili had laid in wait outside the Notting Hill house, confident that sooner or later Charlie Fenton would appear. As indeed he did, on the dot of ten o’clock. A car drew up some hundred yards away from Kenny Mountford’s house and the very recognisable figure of the director emerged, blowing a kiss to someone inside. Vasili drew out his favoured weapon, the PSS Silent Pistol which had been developed for the KGB, and when his quarry was close enough, discharged two bullets into Charlie Fenton’s head.

Job done. Coolly replacing the pistol in his pocket, Vasili had walked away, confident that there was nothing to tie him to this crime, as there had been nothing to tie him to any of his previous fifty-odd hits. Confident also that Fyodor would assume that the job had been done by Kenny Mountford.

What he hadn’t taken into account was Charlie Fenton’s tomcat nature. No sooner had the director bedded one woman than he was on the lookout for another, and his honeymoon of monogamy with Lesley-Jane Walden had been short. She, suspecting something was going on, had been watching at the window of the house that evening for her philandering lover to return. As soon as Charlie Fenton got out of the car she had started to video him on her camera, and thus recorded his death. The footage, when handed over to the police, also revealed very clear images of Vasili, from which he was quickly identified and as quickly arrested.

Lesley-Jane Walden was in seventh heaven. To be at the centre of a murder case — there were actresses who would kill to achieve that kind of publicity. In the event, though, it didn’t do her much good. The police made no mention of the help she had given to their investigation in any of their press conferences. They didn’t even mention her name. And all the obituaries of Charlie Fenton spoke only of “his towering theatrical originality” and his reputation as “a loving family man.” Lesley-Jane Walden was furious.

Her mood wasn’t improved when Kenny ordered her to get out of the house. She moved into a girlfriend’s flat and started badgering her agent to get her on I’m a Celebrity — Get Me Out of Here!

“You are a clever boy, Anatoli Semyonov,” said Fyodor, when they next met. “To get rid of your girlfriend’s lover and arrange things so that Vasili is arrested for the murder — this is excellent work. I have wanted Vasili out of the way for a long time. You are not just a clever boy, Anatoli, you are also a clever Simferopol Boy.”

“You mean I have qualified to join the gang?”

“Of course you have qualified. Now you will always be welcome here. You are one of the Simferopol Boys.”

So Kenny Mountford too thought: job done. Except, of course, having done that job was not going to lead on to the other job. Kenny had done what he promised — infiltrated a London gang — but the man to whom he had made that promise was no longer around. There would never be a Charlie Fenton production about London gangs. All Kenny Mountford’s efforts had been in vain.

And yet the realisation did not upset him. No one could say he hadn’t tried everything he could to achieve respectability as an actor, and now it was time to move on. Time to get back to being Kenny Mountford. All that Method, in-depth research approach to characterisation might be all right for some people in the business. But for him, he reckoned he preferred something called “acting.”

When he finally spoke to his agent, she revealed that she’d been going nearly apoplectic trying to contact him over the previous weeks. The BBC was doing a new sitcom and they wanted him to play the lead! He said he’d do it.

But Kenny Mountford didn’t lose touch with Fyodor and the Simferopol Boys. As an actor, it’s always good to have more than one string to your bow.

Copyright © 2011 by Simon Brett

Fly Me to the Moon

by Patricia Melo

Passport to Crime

Brazilian writer Patricia Melo is the author of eight novels, five of which have appeared in English translation. The Killer, a bestseller in Brazil, was made into the 2003 film The Man of the Year, directed by José Henrique Fonseca. In 1999, Time magazine listed Ms. Melo as one of the fifty Latin American leaders of the new millennium. Her novels have also been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Greek, Finnish, and Chinese. This is her first work of short fiction published in English.

* * * *

Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers

A malfunction of the neurotransmitter system, that’s basically what it is,” he told me. I didn’t understand but I felt relieved. I avoided doctors. I thought the countdown was already under way. The inexorable one. The inevitable one. Death, in a word. I was sure the problem was with my heart, that I would suddenly be turned off. He explained it to me as if I were an imbecile, stressing syllables: PsychoLOGical disORDer, VIRTually incaPACitating, what we call an anxIETY atTACK. “Is it fatal?” I asked. He said no. He was going to prescribe an antidepressant and psychotherapy. Medicine maybe, but psychobabble never. Anxiety attack. That was a crock of crap.

I was burned out. I’d long since lost interest in work. I went into the Department of Criminal Investigation building; the line for the elevator was huge. I walked up six flights; in the hall I ran into Rubinho with a three-by-four photo of the Lapa rapist and the artist’s impression he’d done two months before: “Looks just like him, doesn’t it?” I didn’t answer. I was irritated, had a bad headache. The doctor said it’d be like this in the period between crises. It was normal. Anxiety attacks. How could anybody believe that story? Really, I preferred leukemia.

I went into my office. An envelope was on the desk, with a note attached to it: “Take a look at this. Paulo.” It’s nice to be the boss: Take a look at this and get rid of the problem for me. I opened the envelope. Some photos, a couple of newspaper clippings.

“Teacher found dead in bathtub,” said the headline of the first article. “Lucia Basconte, 32, drowned in a bathtub at the Hotel Miranda where she was spending her honeymoon.” Accidental drowning. Photos. Lucia Basconte in the tub. Dead. How did they manage to get so many photos? Lucia Basconte at the beach, hands on hips. Lucia Basconte at a school party, long hair, children. Lucia Basconte in a passport shot. I’m quick in the emotional area, Lucia Basconte. I locked onto you. Like that. Immediately. I know just from seeing the photos. I could have loved you. I could have married you. We’d have dinner together tonight. Not tonight, tomorrow. I have a shift tonight.

It’s funny what a calling women have for unhappiness. Soraya, for example. She can’t bring herself to admit that I’m a piece of crap. I do everything wrong, cheat on her, lie to her, treat her badly, ignore her — and she loves me. If you had married me, Lucia Basconte, that wouldn’t have happened.

I brushed against the coffee cup and wet the second clipping. Damn. I could still read it. It was from a paper in Rio. “Honeymoon ends in tragedy,” said the headline. The story was exactly the same. Newlywed drowns in bathtub at honeymoon hotel while her husband is out. Rigorously identical details. Only the name changed. Victim: Eleonora Mendes Brandao. Husband: Nelson Brandao.

Lucia Basconte, I’ve been lead detective in the Homicide division for fifteen years and I’m going to tell you something: You and Eleonora died of blind love. You were killed by the same man. Starting today, he and I are playing chess.

“No, Soraya, I’m on duty tonight. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I put a photo of Lucia Basconte in my pocket, called Tonho and asked for a car. We’re on our way to investigate at the Hotel Miranda, near the Copan Cinema, where you died, Lucia Basconte; the place where your killer was. I’m tired of being a detective, love. Promotion parties. Confiscated-weapons exhibits. Homicide killed my faith. I’ve had these people up to my eyebrows. I was even going to take some time off. Good thing you came along.

The woman who owns the Hotel Miranda thinks she’s a blonde, with that Barbie hairdo of hers. I feel sorry for women who age like that. We went up to the place where you were murdered, Lucia Basconte. It was murder, of course. Nobody could drown in a teacup like that, Lucia Basconte! “I have a fabulous memory. She did nothing but cry, the poor thing. That was no honeymoon. It was martyrdom. The two of them fought a lot, and one of the times it was because of the bathtub. Not that I was eavesdropping. I don’t do that kind of thing. But he yelled, that man. That murderer. That monster. That criminal. You can imagine how I felt when I opened the newspaper and saw the poor woman had drowned. A horrible thing. I clearly remember his face. Bald, a real unattractive guy. I’d recognize him if I saw him.”

It was only noon and I’d already had half a dozen cups of espresso with sweetener. Soraya had called again, I don’t know for what. She knew I was on duty. The report on Lucia Basconte was already on my desk. I read and reread the death certificate five hundred times — natural death, they said. I phoned the pathologist who did the autopsy. He told me, love. He told me there were no marks on the body, no lesions, no hematomas, no sign of a struggle, nothing of that sort, Lucia Basconte. Very strange. So how did he kill you, love?

“Hamilton on line one.”

“Tonho told me about the Lucia Basconte case,” he said.


“And it made me think of the story my crazy sister-in-law told me some time ago. She runs a small hotel in Mooca. A guy shows up there one day wanting to rent a room. He doesn’t ask about the price, whether it had a minibar, air conditioning, nothing, he just wants to see the bathtub. She shows him. Then the guy climbs into the tub, clothes and all. My sister-in-law thought he was nuts and didn’t rent him the room. Whaddya make of it?”

Eight a.m., I was going home. I began feeling pains in my chest. Panic syndrome, whatever; it was a heart attack, I was going to die. I got out of the car and asked to be taken to the emergency room, fast. Sweating. Our Father, etc. Hail Mary, etc. Tremors. God. I only believe in God when I think I’m about to die. I only believe in God when I get onto an airplane. God, I’m dying. Ten, God, nine, eight, seven, six. Emergency room. Zero. It was over. Nothing. Zero. No trace of the crisis. Zero. I didn’t look at the doctor; I had screamed at the nurses who took care of me.

“I think it’d be advisable for you to see a therapist. The attack is just that, a sensation of imminent death.” I thanked him and left the hospital, devastated. Lucia Basconte, don’t summon me again. I don’t want it.

I opened the door and saw Soraya asleep on the sofa. She always manages to get in, she must have some deal with the doorman. I lay down beside her. We intertwined and had sex for over an hour. She lit a cigarette and took a book from her handbag. Soraya is a college student, twenty-four years old. She read:

“A: Did I ever leave you? B: You let me leave.”

She thought of herself as B and of me as A. I buried my face in her hair and went to sleep. Lucia Basconte, with you it would be different, I feel it.

I woke up ten hours later. Soraya was crying beside me. Every time I see that scene I remember Meryl Streep, the worst actress I’ve ever seen. All crying women are alike. Meryl Streep. Soraya showed me the photo of Lucia Basconte that she’d found in my pocket. “Who is this woman?”

“My lover,” I confessed. “Soraya, I always wanted to spare you, but now that you’ve found out, screw it.”

She slammed the door. I heard Meryl Streep crying in the hallway, waiting for the elevator to come. Do you remember, Lucia Basconte, what I told you about women?

Later, at Homicide, I received a phone call from one Mauricio Fraga.

“I work in the legal department of Delta Insurance,” he said, “and I learned that you’re investigating the death of Lucia Basconte.”

There are just two kinds of murder: the interesting and the contemptible. My opponent was involved in both, Lucia Basconte. His execution was flawless, but his trail smelled to high heaven. A huge insurance policy taken out only hours before your death, love. Lucia Basconte, a woman in love is a stack of foolishness. You. Eleonora. Soraya. Three fools.

I should have done it earlier, but overcoming inertia was something beyond my strength. I called Renato, the great Renato, chief of the 2nd Precinct in Rio, where the inquiry into the death of Eleonora Mendes Brandao began. I asked for information about the case.

I can’t swim in the ocean. I can’t travel in planes. I can’t go on boats. Or hang gliders, jet skis, or shantytown raids. Fights, amorous arguments, crowded elevators. All forbidden. Stress triggers the attack. It occasions discharges of adrenaline in the body. The certainty of death is a great illusion. You’re condemned, but at the moment of execution it does no good. There are no warnings like with epilepsy, the auras that announce an attack. In the bathroom, at the lunch stand, crossing the street. Suddenly you realize the abyss that’s opening beneath your feet. No one’s sure, but the affected region of the brain may be the locus coeruleus. That’s why the increasing doses of Anafranil. I’m one of the two percent of the population with panic syndrome. “Why?” “No one knows,” the doctor said. Doctors are the most ignorant people I’ve ever met. Panic syndrome. Because of it, I was avoiding being by myself. It’s horrible when even an Uzi can’t protect us. I phoned and left a message on the answering machine: “Soraya, even killers have the right to lie.”

On Friday, as I was leaving, the report arrived from Rio. I bought pizza, Coca-Cola, and cigarettes and went home. It was going to be an awful weekend.

I opened the stack of papers (I thought of you, Soraya). Six years ago, Nelson Brandao arrived at the Hotel Calamar in Copacabana. He had recently married Eleonora Mendes, 30. The husband insisted on a suite with a bathtub. A large bathtub. (The phone rang. I answered and they hung up. It was Soraya, I’m sure of it. A good sign.) The next day, the couple left to visit the Christ statue on Corcovado. Christ the Redeemer. They returned at the end of the afternoon. Eleonora went to take a bath. In the tub. A good tub. (Was Soraya going to call again? 9:15.) The husband went out briefly to buy aspirin. When he got back, he found his wife dead in the bathtub, the cunning bastard. (Soraya, stealing my thoughts away to her hot triangle.) He didn’t say anything else, nor was he asked. Read, recorded, and signed by the constituted authority, my great old friend in Rio, Renato, who loves Sao Paulo only because of Dada, that luscious dark-skinned beauty who engages in explicit sex at a nightclub there.

Eleonora wasn’t beautiful like you, Lucia Basconte. She had blue eyes. She was a secretary. She met her husband at a pizzeria, on a Sunday. One day before the wedding, Eleonora, like you, Lucia Basconte, took out a life insurance policy, and guess who was the sole beneficiary?

When I was almost asleep, Tonho called.

“I’ve got the guy’s rap sheet in my hand,” he said. “His name’s not Ernesto or Nelson. It’s Gilberto Santos. Seems the son of a bitch’s business is to dupe ugly women. He specialized in it. There’s three more in line, just small stuff.”

“Any witnesses?”

“That’s the problem. None.”

Monday, the Department of Criminal Investigations. I arrived dying for some coffee. It’s incredible, but there’s no bar near the Department that sells espresso. There wasn’t a line for the elevator. The door closed and I was surrounded by detectives, poor people, murderers, lawyers, mothers, brothers, damn, I want out. I began to sweat. Lucia Basconte wants to see me immediately. I don’t want to die. I want beaches. I want to leave Homicide. I want to sleep. I want money. I want gentle people. I want nice smells. I want to visit my mother. I want the sea. I want sex. I want vodka. I want God. I was learning to control myself. I didn’t faint, it just got darker. When I opened my eyes, I saw Tonho fanning me. “They’re saying you’re pregnant, sir.” I called my doctor: “Did you go see that psychotherapist I recommended to you?”

I got an audience with Judge Edevaldo Fontoura. I spoke of the double identity of the husband, Ernesto Basconte and Nelson Brandao. Lucia Basconte, you don’t know how good it feels when you get a bench warrant for the arrest of a homicide suspect.

I always say my profession is to play chess with murderers. The trap was ready, Lucia Basconte. Now I’m going to tell you about my encounter with your ex-husband, at the Delta Insurance Company office door.

“Homicide Division. You’re under arrest. Checkmate.”

He looked at me as if he were better than me. Please explain to me, Lucia Basconte, why the best women always end up with the scum? Did you love that traitor? How did you marry that guy?

Lucia Basconte, your husband is in jail. My time is short: I have just five days to prove he’s the killer. Five days. After that, he walks. That’s the way our justice system works.

The next step was Lucia Basconte’s exhumation. I thought about Gregorio, the forensic expert and professor who left the university and the morgue for a private forensic investigation lab. We had worked together in the days when he was poor. Now he only did autopsies on the beautiful people and is constantly in the crime pages. A respected guy, even if he’s a bit too much the celebrity type for my taste, always giving interviews with his hair in a ponytail, but let it go. I gave him a call. “I don’t have a penny. It’s for old times’ sake.” It’s been said that the rich have no past, they have selective memory. But he remembered. He agreed at once. Philanthropy in the police moves me deeply.

We set up a meeting. As I was leaving, Soraya called. “I want to return your records. And your books too.”

“I love you,” I said. Silence, a long silence.

“What about Lucia Basconte?” Soraya took on a childish tone when she felt she could dominate me.

“We ended it.” She remained silent at the other end. She was happy, I could tell.

When the lid of the coffin was raised, I felt a chill in my belly. You were still beautiful, Lucia Basconte.

Gregorio found no sign of violence on your body, love. I believed it was poisoning. Twelve cases in the last three months. The crazy woman who turned in her husband. Acqua Toffana. Poor woman, she was right. That’s how the police are, they know somebody’s going to be killed and they sit on their hands. There’s nothing we can do. Nobody can do anything for anyone, ever. Gregorio, the humanist. I don’t like the guy.

Results of the exhumation:

You didn’t have a heart condition.

You’re beautiful.

You didn’t faint in the bathtub.

You weren’t poisoned.

Your skin was all wrinkly (an indication of death by drowning).

You’re beautiful.

You married the wrong guy.

You’re beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

You’re the woman of my dreams.

Gregorio and I left there and went to the Department. “The drowning is a fact,” he said. “Except, my friend, that nobody drowns in a puddle.”

We found Soraya in my office, tiny miniskirt, firm legs, long hair, young. Gregorio liked her, I could tell. She also liked the playboy. Screw them both.

I asked Tonho to make a full-scale replica of the deadly bathtub in the Hotel Miranda and send it to Gregorio’s lab in Jaboticabal. That son of a bitch womanizer wanted to run some experiments.

I descended six flights of stairs mute, with Soraya trying to catch up to me. “What’s with you, man?” I didn’t open my mouth on the way down. Soraya, at my side, was talking nonstop. At home, I ordered a pizza. Soraya was gorgeous, shaved legs. She sat on top of the table. We had sex there, almost fully clothed. She wanted to know why I was so quiet. “Soraya, Lucia Basconte called me and we’re getting back together. I had to tell you that.” She slapped my face and left. We were even. That’s how it is with me.

I took off my clothes and was getting into the shower when I felt a wave of heat. I nearly pissed my pants. My legs were tingling. Shortness of breath. Lucia Basconte wants to make a date. Not today. There’s not enough air, Lucia Basconte. I promise I’ll see the psychotherapist. I promise I’ll pay my bookie. I promise to spend more time with my son. I promise to treat Soraya better, Lucia Basconte. I promise to stop. I promise anything. I hit my head on the bidet. When I opened my eyes, I saw Soraya. She said she had come back to kill me. A dog, that’s what she called me, a real dog, but even so, she loved me. I wanted to sleep, to vomit, go away, Soraya. “I’m not going to let you vomit in peace,” she said, “do you really want to be my boyfriend?”

I’ve always been afraid of cancer, of cirrhosis. Now I was afraid of a hypercrisis. Psychotherapeutic techniques. All that’s missing is those color tests. I dialed the number my doctor had given me. “Psychological Clinic, good morning.” I hung up.

There are 3,583 investigations going on, Lucia Basconte, and I can think of nothing but you. Your photo is still in my pocket. Soraya will get used to it.

Gregorio phoned me with the latest. (Could he have called Soraya?) He hired some starving university coeds to do tests in the killer bathtub and confirmed that without violence it was impossible to drown them. (How did he get Soraya’s phone number?)

Lapa Cemetery. We were impressed by the good condition of Eleonora Mendes Brandao’s body. The exhumation was only possible because she’d been embalmed. Gregorio, insufferably professorial, explained, “Whenever a corpse is transported from one city to another, we do that. It slows down decomposition.” Know-it-all. Two-bit media-friendly playboy. Screw you.

The results of the exhumation led us nowhere.

Eleonora had died by drowning just like Lucia Basconte. Drowned in a water puddle. We still didn’t have a shred of evidence against the bastard. That was the truth.

Gregorio gave me a ride. Silently, I mulled over the same question: How is it possible to drown someone in a tub without leaving a trace?

I arrived home, took off my shirt, and collapsed onto the bed. Soraya didn’t call. No one called. I fell asleep thinking how good it would be if you were here, Lucia Basconte.

The phone rang. Soraya checking up on me?

“Jaboticabal? Jesus, Gregorio, now, at this hour?”

At four-thirty I was arriving in Jaboticabal. Gregorio is married and has seven kids. I’m going to mention that to Soraya. I’d like to see her a newlywed taking care of all seven. We went into a room packed with books and glass. In the middle was a bathtub filled with water and three inflatable dolls.

“Take off your clothes and get in,” said Gregorio, pointing to the tub. “Why?” I asked. He was grandstanding, which irritated me. I hate people who grandstand. My situation was ridiculous. There I was, in undershorts and T-shirt, in a pathologist’s lab, getting into a bathtub. (I can’t believe you’re seeing this guy, Soraya.)

“I think I’ve discovered how Lucia Basconte and Eleonora Brandao were murdered. Put your feet here, please.” I obeyed, more irritated than ever. “They were found with their feet outside the tub, you know why?” I had no answer. Gregorio held my feet. “You don’t know, but I do. See, the killer stood here, near the feet of the women, and like a Don Juan—” I felt water rushing into my nose.

I awoke dizzy, my head throbbing. (I’m sure of it, Soraya wasn’t screwing this guy.) He was a doctor, he’d probably heard of the panic syndrome. I was going to tell him. I have panic syndrome, whatever the hell that is. I was just about to spit out the first word, when he delivered the gold. “When I pulled on your feet, the water went up your nose suddenly and provoked a collapse in your nervous system. You fainted. If I had let you, you’ve have drowned in the tub, and no one would find a single sign of violence. The murderer did to Lucia Basconte and Eleonora Brandao exactly what I did to you,” Gregorio explained.

I now know what your final moment was like, Lucia Basconte. That bald clown yanking with all his might on your feet. You deserved better, love.

I lit a cigarette. I was tired, it was six a.m. Gregorio lent me some dry clothes. I could smell Soraya on the shirt. There was no mistaking it. Fake Azzarro Number 9. It was my Christmas present. I started the car:

“Why didn’t you do that with the coeds?”

“Do what?”

“Pull their feet.”

“I didn’t get the idea till this morning. They weren’t here.”

We laughed. You son of a bitch. I’ve got my eye on you.

I’m going away, Lucia Basconte. Try to forget me, love.

Copyright © 2011 by Patricia Melo; translation ©2011 by Clifford E. Landers

The Teapot Mountie Ball

by James Powell

In 2010, Canadian-born James Powell received a nomination for the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story for his February 2009 EQMM tale “Clown-town Pajamas.” He’s a previous winner and multiple nominee for that award. Mr. Powell has lived in the U.S. for many years, mostly in Pennsylvania. He has several series running in EQMM, but it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen an entry in that starring Maynard Bullock of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836, March/April 2011 Doug Allyn (5)

On a warm October night three buses with curtained side windows drove up Canada’s Gatineau Valley Highway from the direction of Ottawa. Passing an abandoned quarry, they doused their headlights and turned off onto a narrow macadam road. Behind them, dark figures came out of the trees carrying a large metal sign marked “Road Closed.” They were followed by a loaded gravel truck which parked behind the sign to reinforce its message.

More figures with flashlights stood along the roadside to guide the buses until they reached the dark shape of the Quarryview Dance Pavilion, where their passengers stepped down. Then the pavilion doors swung open, casting a quadrangle of light that revealed sixty men and women, not one of them over five foot six inches tall, in red tunics and Stetsons formed in ranks of six abreast. From inside the building a dance band with muted horns struck up “Little Things Mean a Lot” and the new arrivals marched smartly inside. The Tenth Annual Teapot Mountie Ball had begun.

After the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s successful infiltration of organized crime during the 1980s, the mob became so gun-shy that an undercover Mountie needed more than a loud tie, an applied scar, or a fake cauliflower ear to get taken on. In fact, they gave a quick bum’s rush to any mobster wannabe who met Mountie height and weight requirements or had the hint of a steely gaze.

So the Force recruited a secret cadre of short, stout men and women for undercover work. The Mountie Academy taught them shiftiness of eye, slouching, language no Mountie would ever use, wisecracking, how to cheat at cards and, for the ladies, the seductive walk and come-hither look. The Force nicknamed these short, stout newcomers “teapots,” Mounties in every sense of the word except that they were not allowed to wear the uniform in public or enter headquarters by the front door.

Thanks to teapot infiltration, mobsters were soon crowding the halls of justice again or had fled the country. (The United States scratched its head over this sudden return of people they’d gotten rid of for years with a stiff boot in the pants, a bus ticket for Toronto or Montreal, and a stern warning not to come back.)

Searching for a way to honor these short, stout, unsung heroes, Mountie Commissioner Ralston came up with the Teapot Mountie Ball. On this occasion, Ralston decreed, the teapots would come in full dress uniform, while the Mountie brass and other members of the Force would attend in civvies.

Acting Sergeant Maynard Bullock was pop officer for the ball again that year, in charge of the soft-drink stand. He’d come on the buses’ earlier trip with the Mountie musicians and others in attendance.

Bullock never cared much for wearing civvies or what he called his mufti duds while on duty. For him, the uniform was a real morale booster and the dress uniform all the more so. One day awhile back he’d gotten himself real down in the dumps thinking he might have made a bad career move when he left field work to go into the public relations end of Mountieing, posing for tourist photographs among the flowerbeds on Parliament Hill and doing TV public-service spots with the popular Mountie mascot Winnie the Peg, the small black bear who wore a wooden replacement for a leg lost in a trap. So when good old Mavis, his wife, reminded him they’d been invited to a party that night he decided to buck himself up by going in full Mountie regalia, boots, breeks, scarlet tunic, and all. It wasn’t until their host greeted them at the door dressed as Chuckles the Clown that they remembered it was a costume party. So Bullock spent the night trying to convince the other guests in fancy dress he really was a Mountie. No one believed him, not even the guy in what looked like a Swiss cheese kilt who claimed to be Sponge Bob Squarepants’s Manhattan cousin, Harold Squarepants. The man eyed him up and down sceptically before walking away humming “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Good old Mavis hadn’t helped any by telling everyone she’d come dressed as a Mountie’s wife.

Anyway, Commissioner Ralston said mufti duds and mufti duds it was. But when the latest issue of The Scarlet Trumpet, the Mountie newsletter, announced that Sweden had awarded Ralston the Star of Saint Olaf, Second Class, for his work against international crime, Bullock bet himself Ralston would put on the dog and show up at the ball with the decoration around his neck. To the man’s credit, he arrived in an unadorned tuxedo so as not to distract from the teapot Mounties’ moment of glory.

Of course, Bullock’s sidekick Winnie the Peg was there in full dress uniform. He was a teapot favorite. The men liked to throw an arm over his shoulder and mock punch him in the stomach. The women loved teaching Winnie the latest dance steps.

Ball security was always tight. The underworld must not learn the identities of these secret Mounties. Tonight it was tighter still. Last year, an attaché at the Norwegian Embassy had tried to crash the event disguised as the piano tuner. But an alert constable spotted the cleated horseshoe on the man’s cuff links, the insignia of the Royal Norwegian Mounted Police. This cavalry unit, famous in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’s day for using cleated horseshoes to smite the sledded Polacks on the ice, had morphed into the Consolidated Scandinavian Intelligence Service known popularly as the Scandihoofs.

(Along with infiltrating the mob, the teapot Mounties worked to frustrate Canadian crime at every level, even loitering on street corners in plainclothes to arrest drug pushers, street hoodlums, and scofflaw jaywalkers. Word had it that gloom descended over the Scandinavian countries when they heard rumors Canada was about to pass them in the United Nations’ annual listing of nations with the highest quality of life. Baffled — they considered Canadians a frivolous southern people much like the Italians — they had ordered the Scandihoofs to investigate.)

When those less-than-standard-size Mounties swept into the dance hall ramrod proud in the uniforms they so seldom got to wear, everyone stood and applauded. Bullock got a lump in his throat. Yes, he’d been sceptical. But, by Godfrey, the teapots had proved themselves an invaluable arm of the Force.

The uniformed arrivals were followed by their spouses and well-vetted dates. Now Commissioner Ralston stepped forward to invite the wife of Corporal Tinker, the ranking male teapot, to take his arm for the opening dance while Tinker bowed and led the commissioner’s wife onto the floor. The band struck up the first foxtrot of the night.

The young Mountie working behind the counter with Bullock was Constable Preston Armstrong, an advanced weapons expert and recent transfer from Regina. Earnest in manner, he’d proved a tireless listener to Bullock’s locker-room stories of his early adventures with the Force.

Becoming a Mountie had been Armstrong’s boyhood dream. But somehow along the way he’d fallen under the spell of the Force’s predecessor, the North West Mounted Police. So Bullock felt obliged to take him in hand and tell him about the Retros. This small backward-looking Mountie faction had been long before Armstrong’s time. They despised the Stetson as a cowboy thing and yearned for the NWMp’s scarlet and gold pillbox hat and the rugged days of yore when one Mountie on horseback could stare down whole tribes of Indians, crews of drunken miners come to town to raise hell, or rival lumberjack gangs out for blood. The Retros scorned everything modern from the automobile to the Internet. Their bellyaching grew louder when women were admitted to the Force. A few years later, along came Constable Arthur McAdoo, who transformed these malcontents into the Retro Lodge, a disciplined fraternal organization with a secret handshake and initiation rites.

When the first women took part in the Musical Ride, McAdoo and the Retros were outraged. Perhaps they wouldn’t have minded as much if the women had ridden sidesaddle, but they rode astride. The Retros protested by detonating a bomb hidden in the buffalo head on the wall behind the commissioner’s desk. When the fur stopped flying, the commissioner, who only moments before had gone down the hall to the canteen for tea and a butter tart, ordered an internal investigation, including a Force-wide foot inspection. (Many Retros emulated NWMP Constable “Gimpy” Flanagan, who’d sworn never to pull his revolver without drawing blood, an oath that cost him several toes.) After the courts- martial of McAdoo and the ringleaders, most Retros resigned from the Force. But there were still some sympathizers around and they didn’t like the teapots. Recently Bullock found this written above a headquarters urinal: “Constable Pillbox says: You can’t stare the bad guy down if you’re staring up at him.”

Clearly impressed when he heard Bullock was pop officer for the ball, Armstrong had asked if he needed any help. “The more the merrier,” Bullock replied. The young constable had come in his own car. Bullock was happy he’d found the place since he was new to the Ottawa area.

Now the O’Haras, a quartet from the Scarlet Ladies, the female Mountie chorus, came out on stage to sing some lively numbers from the forties and fifties while Winnie jitterbugged with the female teapots. Peg leg or not, Bullock had to admit the bear danced better than he did.

At intermission, there was a great crush at the pop counter. Then, soft drinks in hand, everyone took seats around the bandstand for the halftime entertainment. A table was brought out with ten thick candles on it. Later the commissioner would say a few words and light them to commemorate the Tenth Teapot Mountie Ball.

But first, Constable Riddles, the Force’s standup comic, slick show-business smile and all, came out, “hello-helloing” all the way, to tell from his store of humorous puzzlers like: “What do little Eskimo boys and girls shout when they go from igloo to igloo on Halloween? Answer: ‘Blubber or blubber!’ ” Most of his jokes went back to 1885 and the second Riel Rebellion. “Why’s a man like a three-pull telescope? Answer: Because a woman picks him up, draws him out, sees through him, and shuts him up.”

When Riddles got to “Why’s a woman like a hinge? Answer: Because she’s something to a door,” Bullock turned the counter over to Armstrong and stepped out through the fire doors for a smoke. He’d heard the man’s material many times over and knew the next one would be: “Why are women like telegraphs? Answer: Because they’re faster than the mails in intelligence.”

The large harvest moon now stood above the trees. Bullock lit his pipe, uncrossed his eyes, leaned back against the pavilion wall, and pondered women being like telegraphs. No, he just didn’t get it. He’d told the joke to good old Mavis and she’d laughed loudly but wouldn’t explain why.

Bats staggered across the night sky. Years before, stones from the nearby quarry were used to build the Rideau Canal, leaving a natural amphitheater in whose crevasses the bats lived.

Now an owl hooted. Bullock thought he smelled the faint odor of skunk. Or was it the animal’s only predator, the great horned owl? He’d read somewhere how many of these stuffed birds in museums still reeked of skunk after a hundred years on display.

Applause from inside signaled the end of Riddles’ routine. In a moment the standup comic came out through the fire doors and strode off purposefully down a path through the trees in the direction of the highway.

From behind the window curtains Bullock now heard the commissioner welcome the teapots, describing them as the stout red line in Canada’s war against crime. Wasn’t this the same speech he’d delivered the year before? When Bullock heard enough to determine it was, he decided to follow Riddles and get him to explain the telegraph joke.

As he walked down the path, Bullock suddenly smiled to himself. “No, I was a liar back there,” he thought. “The great horned owl isn’t the skunk’s only predator. We mustn’t forget Arthur McAdoo.”

Many predicted a great future on the Force for the young, articulate, and personable Constable McAdoo. But as the years went by and he was passed over for promotion he turned bitter and made himself the first and only Grand Skunk Master of the Retro Lodge. The members were said to dine on a favorite dish of the NWMPs, skunk simmered in three changes of water and then roasted over a campfire. One of the Skunk Master’s jobs was to catch the creatures. He was good at it and wore a cape made of their fur.

As it happened, Bullock had been court bailiff for the trial of McAdoo and the Retro ringleaders after the buffalo-head incident, meaning when the guilty verdict was pronounced his job was to take each man’s Stetson and break its brim over his knee. The others didn’t care. Their hearts were with the pillbox. But when Bullock broke McAdoo’s Stetson he saw hatred in the man’s eyes, hatred for him and for the Force. As a boy, bet on it, McAdoo had dreamed of being a Mountie, too. A sad ending to a sad story.

Afterward, McAdoo returned to Alberta to work at his father’s lunch counter before striking out on his own with a drive-in he called Stripey’s Skunk-on-a-Stick. The last Bullock heard, he’d changed the name to a more upscale Mr. Stripey’s House of Skabobs and was selling franchises across the Prairie Provinces.

Bullock still hadn’t caught up with Riddles. He lengthened his stride. At last, as he hurried around a turn, he saw the man ahead of him on the path. “Wait up,” he called out.

Riddles swung around in surprise.

“I give up on the telegraph being faster than the mails in intelligence,” said Bullock, hoping the man would laugh and explain the joke to him.

Instead Riddles said, “You’re following me, Bullock. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Bullock blinked. Then, smiling at his own slowness, he waited for him to say “Answer” and finish his new riddle.

From the now distant pavilion the band struck up “Dancing in the Dark,” meaning the commissioner had said his piece, the lights had been turned off, the window curtains opened, and everyone was dancing by candles and moon- shine.

Just then, three men appeared on the path behind Riddles. Two wore security detail IDs. The third, to Bullock’s amazement, was the Skunk Master himself, Arthur McAdoo, in smelly pontificals which now included a Stetson with a broken brim that gave him an Australian air. He had gray hair now and walked with a gouty limp.

“Good work, men,” said Bullock, thinking security’d caught McAdoo up to some mischief. Then he saw their pillbox hats. And all three were armed with shoulder missile launchers. In fact, each security man carried an extra. One passed Riddles his spare.

“What’s going on here?” Bullock demanded.

“Well, if it isn’t Maynard Bullock, the scourge of the litterbugs,” said McAdoo, referring to the public-interest TV spots Bullock and Winnie did for the “Don’t Dump on Canada” campaign where Winnie wore a special ferrule on his peg leg for spindling trash. “Don’t worry. We aren’t littering. Just a little nipping in the bud.”


“Meaning we don’t like what we see coming down the road, these teapot Mounties, this runting of the Force.” He slapped his missile launcher. “We won’t let that happen.” McAdoo signaled the others to move past Bullock.

“Over my dead body,” announced Bullock and stood in the middle of the path with folded arms, the traditional challenge to a good old Mountie stare-down. He’d practiced it in the bathroom mirror many, many times, one man against a mob of troublemakers. He was sure the men in front of him had practiced it, too. He stared. They stared back. Three against one.

Ex-Mountie McAdoo didn’t even try the stare-down. He stepped out of the line of fire and said, “You get the scenario, Maynard. Teapot Mountie boy meets teapot Mountie girl. Wedding bells followed by blessed events. Remember, Mountie children get special consideration at the Mountie Academy. So today it’s short and stout. Tomorrow, heredity tells us, it’s going to be squat and roly-poly.”

Bullock didn’t answer. He focused on the stare-down. A few minutes into it, sweat broke out on his brow. He cranked his stare up a notch and saw Riddles touch fingertips to his temples. Bullock felt a headache coming on, too. But he jacked up his stare again.

Somewhere a great horned owl hooted. McAdoo’s cape seemed to stir at the sound. The smell made Bullock’s eyes water. He stared on through the tears and knew he was winning when Riddles asked, “Anybody got an aspirin?”

Then Bullock heard a step behind him on the path. Reinforcements! Without turning he said, “You’re just in time. These guys mean to destroy the dance pavilion and everybody in it.”

“Sorry, Maynard,” came Preston Armstrong’s voice. “I’m with them.”

Bullock broke off the stare-down and swung around. His first thought was “By Godfrey, who’s tending the pop counter?” Then he saw Armstrong’s gesturing automatic and raised his hands.

“These men are my lodge brothers,” said Armstrong. “Yes, I’ve eaten roast skunk. Frankly, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. But I’ve sworn my oath to obey the Skunk Master. The teapots got to go.”

“Good man,” said McAdoo.

Armstrong handed the Skunk Master his automatic and went over to get a missile launcher from the other security man.

As Riddles tied Bullock’s hands behind his back, McAdoo looked up at the broken brim of his Stetson then down at the automatic. “I should shoot you here and now, Maynard. But that’d alert the pavilion.” He stuffed the handgun in his belt. “Besides, I’ve got other plans for you.”

“Come off it,” said Bullock. “You can’t kill the Mountie brass and everybody else just to get rid of the teapots.”

“He’s got a point there, sir,” said Armstrong.

McAdoo shook his head. “Nothing’s going to happen to the brass, at least not for now. That’s where Operation Trip Wire comes in.”

At the height of the Cold War, the United States feared a Russian sneak attack by land through Canada, either down through Alaska and British Columbia or from some secret Russian base in Greenland through Ontario or Quebec. So Canada agreed that in the event of such an attack the Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would stand shoulder to shoulder in their assigned places, weapons at the ready, facing northward waiting for the Russian tanks and troop carriers to emerge from the trees heading south. Die they might, but at least they would delay the invaders long enough for the U.S. to get its defenses up and running. Canada had given its word. Why? Because it knew that if Mexico ever tried to invade Canada by land, the United States would do the same for Canada.

“I don’t get it,” said Armstrong.

“Me either,” said Riddles.

“Men, I was keeping this for a surprise,” said McAdoo, looking at his watch. “I’ve somebody in headquarters communications. Commissioner Ralston’s about to get an Operation Trip Wire alert.”

Now Bullock understood McAdoo’s plan. Operation Trip Wire meant Ralston would have to get himself and the other Mounties home to change out of their civvies. He’d need all the transport he could find. So he’d leave the teapots behind and send the buses back for them later.

The music stopped back at the pavilion. Now came shouts mixed with police whistles calling the security people in, car doors slamming, and the growl of bus engines starting up. Headlights sprang to life. Through the trees Bullock saw Ralston’s limousine coming up the road toward the highway. McAdoo and his men stepped into the shadows, dragging their prisoner with them.

Bullock hadn’t realized how close they were to the road. As the car approached, he opened his mouth to shout a warning. But Riddles was ready for him. He looped a bandana over Bullock’s head, pulled it between his jaws, and tied it tight behind his head.

The car hurried on past before coming to a stop at the gravel truck. The driver honked several times. The first bus pulled up behind the car. Through its now curtainless windows the Mountie dance band could be seen packing up their instruments. The commissioner’s driver got out and stepped up into the cab of the truck. Then the call went out for the truck keys. They were found with a security man on the third bus when it finally arrived. Then the caravan of Mounties, desperate to change into their dress uniforms and face certain death in Operation Trip Wire, sped away down the highway.

Bullock regretted he wouldn’t be there with them. Instead, it looked like he would face certain death here. Alone. And in his mufti duds. Well, at least Commissioner Ralston would get to wear his Star of Saint Olaf, Second Class.

“All right, men, let’s not keep the teapots waiting,” ordered McAdoo. “Armstrong, you bring Maynard here.” As Riddles and the two security men started back down the path toward the pavilion the Skunk Master continued, “No, Maynard, we won’t be killing the brass. But I bet they’ll wish we had. I see a lot of resignations down the road. A parliamentary inquiry will sure want to know how they allowed a degenerate Mountie, unhappy that the teapots had alienated his unnatural affection for his animal sidekick, to fire missiles into the dance pavilion, before killing himself in lovelorn remorse.” McAdoo rubbed his palms together until they squeaked. “Yes, I’m settling beaucoup scores here tonight,” he said and limped away to the front of the line.

Bullock and Armstrong followed behind the others. After a few minutes the young Mountie said, “Boy, Maynard, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather when Mr. McAdoo told me about your unnatural relationship with Winnie.”

Purple-faced with effort, Bullock tried in vain to shout a denial through the gag.

Armstrong shook his head. “That’s when I threw in with him. The Force is degenerating. That’s got to be stopped. But look on the bright side. When our heat-seeking missiles zero in on the anniversary candles the teapots won’t know what hit them.”

They had come within earshot of the pavilion. As the teapots and their guests and spouses waited for the buses to return, they’d fired up the jukebox and went on with what was left of the dance.

While Armstrong led him forward, Bullock began working on the rope that bound his wrists. If he could free himself, then when they got closer to the pavilion he’d tear off the gag, shout warnings to the teapots, and duck into the trees. But he was still struggling with the knot when the pavilion came in sight.

“Keep the noise down,” McAdoo ordered his men. “Little pitchers have big ears. When I launch you launch.”

McAdoo stopped behind a clump of trees near the entrance, gesturing for Armstrong to bring Bullock and join him. Then he signaled Riddles and the others to take up positions at the large windows on the other three sides of the building. When they were in place and weapons on their shoulders, McAdoo and Armstrong raised their weapons, too.

Bullock’s only chance now was to bolt for the front door of the pavilion. But the Skunk Master must have read his mind. When he took his first step, McAdoo swung around and struck him down with the barrel of his weapon. Suddenly Armstrong, who must still have had some spark of Mountie decency in him and could not stand to see anyone strike a tied and gagged prisoner, shouted, “Mountie down!” In a rage McAdoo swung back and knocked Armstrong to the ground, too.

Up on one wobbly knee, Bullock saw scarlet-tunicked teapots surging out of the pavilion to aid a fallen comrade.

McAdoo cursed loudly. He knew the heat-seeking missiles were useless now.

The teapots set their angry stares on stun when they recognized Constable Riddles. Then they saw the missile launchers and moved toward McAdoo’s men with slow, fearless strides. (Bullock remembered reading in The Scarlet Trumpet that the only thing a fighting teapot feared was hitting below the belt.)

McAdoo’s men were looking over their shoulders for escape routes. The teapots came on ahead. “By Godfrey,” thought Bullock, “who says you can’t stare down a bad guy if you’re staring up at him?”

McAdoo shouted to his men to fall back to the rendezvous point and they vanished among the trees. With another glance up at the brim of his broken Stetson he turned back to hit Bullock again. Just then he saw Winnie the Peg heading toward him fast. Perhaps McAdoo remembered the “Don’t Dump on Canada” spots, and decided to get his gouty foot out of range of Winnie’s peg leg. He followed his men into the darkness.

The teapots broke off their pursuit. They had a downed Mountie to find. Winnie’s growl of discovery brought them running. Tinker took off Bullock’s gag and helped him to his feet. The teapots formed a protective circle around the unconscious Armstrong.

It was some time before Armstrong came to. He wore a considerable bump on his noggin. But Bullock thought it may have knocked some sense into him, for he saw Armstrong look around at the teapots guarding and caring for him and hang his head in shame as he realized he would have killed them all.

“Guess I’ll have to resign from the Force,” he told Bullock.

“Sounds like the Mountie thing to do,” said the pop officer sadly.

Suddenly several explosions came from the direction of the quarry. The teapots looked to Tinker. Tinker looked to Bullock, who told him, “It could be a trick to get you to show yourselves and compromise your undercover work. I say stay here and wait for the buses to come back.”

Then he turned to Armstrong. “I’ve still got a chance to make Operation Trip Wire. If you’re up to it I could use a ride home for my uniform.”

“You’ve got it,” said Armstrong. “Me, since I’m resigning, I think I’ll pass on certain death. But I envy you, Maynard.”

Armstrong’s car smelled of Skunk Master. “I drove him out here yesterday with the weapons,” he explained. “Mr. McAdoo stayed with them in the quarry overnight.”

As they reached the end of the macadam road and turned onto the highway, a man came staggering out of the bushes and into the car headlights. Armstrong hit the brakes. The man was wild-eyed and bleeding from a scrape on his forehead. Bullock jumped out of the car. “By Godfrey, man,” he said, “what happened? You can tell me. I’m Acting Sergeant Maynard Bullock of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.”

His words seemed to focus the man’s attention. He gave Bullock a Harold Squarepants look. But at least he didn’t hum. Then after a moment he said smoothly, “Of course you are. And I’m Lars Larson with the Swedish trade delegation at our embassy here.”

“Of course you are,” purred Bullock. Armstrong was now out of the car, too. Bullock caught his eye and led it to the man’s cleated horseshoe belt buckle. (The Scandihoofs seemed to be into accessories.) “What brings you to these parts, Mr. Larson?”

Larson had a well-prepared answer. “Ever heard of the Bat People?” he asked. “We’re very big back home. Some say the bat is Scandinavia’s bluebird of happiness. Anyway, wherever we are on the night of the October full moon our members visit local ruins, abandoned quarries, or belfries and do a bat count.”

“I’m listening,” said Bullock.

“So I was up in the old quarry here counting when suddenly below me came this man wearing a cowboy hat with a lighted candle on its broken brim followed by three men in bellboy hats. All I could think of was Saint Lucia’s Day in my country, where we mark the start of the Christmas season with a procession of children led by a young girl who wears a crown of lighted candles. A bit early for starting the Christmas season, I thought. Then I remembered that at my previous posting in Washington the Americans told me that Canadians, for some reason they could not for the life of them understand, celebrated Thanksgiving in October instead of November like everyone else. That left me unsure when you people celebrate Christmas.

“Anyway, when the first man stopped, the others stepped forward and he gave them each a candle which they lit from his. They dribbled melted wax on the tops of their hats and stuck the ends of their candles in it. Then all four formed a wide circle facing inward and raised these long tubes they were carrying to their shoulders. Just then some bats flew from a crevice behind me. As I turned in surprise, several explosions threw me hard against the quarry wall. When I recovered consciousness there was nothing but blood and body parts below me.”

“Thank you, Mr. Larson. We’ll investigate this matter,” promised Bullock, who suspected the man had witnessed a circular firing squad. Constable “Gimpy” Flanagan rides again. Except you can’t blow a toe off with a heat-seeking missile. “Meanwhile can we give you a ride into town?”

The man shook his head. “Thank you, but I’m parked just up the road.” As he started toward his car, the opening notes of the Swedish national anthem sounded delicately. Larson answered his cell phone, grunted a couple of times, and put it away. He gave Bullock and Armstrong a thoughtful look. “Let us say you are who you say you are. You might be interested to know I’ve just been informed that your Operation Trip Wire alert was a false alarm.”

Looking a bit shamefaced, Larson gave an apologetic shrug, winked at Bullock as one policeman might to another, and made a circle of his thumb and forefinger, which he laid on his chest. Then he nodded down at it and walked away.

As they watched Larson head back to his car, Armstrong said, “McAdoo was sure full of surprises. When he told me this was a do or die situation all I thought he meant was it was a really serious business. I didn’t know he was planning a Gimpy Flanagan.” As the two of them got back into Armstrong’s car he added, “Sorry about Operation Trip Wire.”

“Oh, there’ll be other times for facing certain death,” said Bullock, confidently. But right now, if he read Larson’s wink and a nod correctly, what he needed was a tactful way to tell Commissioner Ralston that the Scandihoofs had bugged his Star of Saint Olaf, Second Class.

Copyright © 2011 by James Powell

One-Hit Wonder

by John Morgan Wilson

Edgar Allan Poe Award winner John Morgan Wilson has been called, by Booklist, “[Graham] Greene’s heir apparent and the savior of the mystery as morality play.” His latest novel in the award-winning Benjamin Justice series, Spider Season, was published in late 2008 and acclaimed by Mystery Scene magazine as an “exquisite novel... the finest in a powerful series.” He returns to EQMM with his shortest story for us to date, but one that lingers in the mind.

* * * *

Frankie Daytona sits in a bar across the street from his appointment, drinking some courage, when somebody slips a quarter in and “The Letter” starts playing.

Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane,

Ain’t got time to take a fast train...

Frankie looks up from his empty shot glass, shaken. Thinking, why this song, at this moment? Like whoever selected it knows something about him and is trying to mock him. Like they want to crush his confidence just when he needs it most.

Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home,

’Cause my baby just a-wrote me a letter.

Frankie knows “The Letter” backward and forward, inside and out. 1967, four weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100. Penned by a Nashville tunesmith, Wayne Carson Thompson. Performed by the Box Tops, blue-eyed soul group out of Memphis. Catchy, commercial, but with real feeling to it, thanks to Alex Chilton’s lead vocal. Still around on some jukeboxes, especially in retro joints like this one, at the end of a SoHo side street the artsy New York crowd forgot to revive. Frankie was only a kid back when “The Letter” rode the airwaves, but he knows his pop musicology. His old man was a song plugger, always jawing about the music business, how great it can be, and how cruel. That’s how Frankie first heard about the Box Tops, one of those legendary groups that had one smash single, and that was it. One-hit wonders, that’s the term you hear, which makes Frankie’s skin crawl.

Jolted from his groove, Frankie orders another bourbon. He’s never been able to get those lyrics and that driving rhythm out of his head. Not just for the obvious reason, that he digs the song. But even more because of what happened to the Box Tops. It isn’t fair, Frankie thinks, the one-hit wonder label they got stuck with. Fact is, they had a few more. Maybe not chart toppers, but damn close, solid Top Forty. “Cry Like a Baby,” “Neon Rainbow.” And don’t forget “Soul Deep” — that one puts a lump in Frankie’s throat every time he hears it. Which isn’t so often anymore, not after he smashed the Box Tops’ Super Hits album late one night when he was up alone with a bottle, thinking about what might have been. Broke plenty of his old LPs that night, platters by so-called one-hit wonders he’d inherited from the old man. Splintered vinyl everywhere, just like all those shattered dreams. Frankie understands. He had big plans, too — plans that went nowhere, faster than you can say Vanilla Ice. At least he’s managed to stay close to the music biz, running errands for the big shots, waiting for one more break. A comeback, just around the corner — that’s what’s kept him going all these years. Until recently, anyway, when he hit his late forties like a brick wall and realized time was running out on his dreams.

I don’t care how much money I gotta spend,

Got to get back to my baby again...

The truth is, Frankie himself is a one-hit wonder. It’s what people call him behind his back, what they whisper when he walks into a bar in the old neighborhood, causing laughter to ripple through the place like a tremolo from a golden oldies doo-wop group. It’s the reason “The Letter” rattles him every time he hears it, like an unwelcome blast from the past, reminding him what a loser he is. If the Box Tops couldn’t shake the one-hit wonder tag, he thinks, what chance do I have?

One hit, nearly thirty years ago, and then the nosedive. Only now he’s been given another shot at making it, if his five p.m. appointment across the street works out. Abe Leventhal, veteran record producer. Not the most successful guy in the business, but he’s got a small label and knows how to work the download market, or so he says. He’s in the game, and that’s all that matters to Frankie. I got prospects again, Frankie thinks, nearly thirty years after I flamed out. Age forty-nine, second chance, who would have thought? It was never about his ambition, or even his talent, those weren’t the issues. It was always about the pressure, stage fright when the big moment arrived. Frankie swears he won’t choke this time, now that fate has smiled again. What’s that old saying about luck and success? Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Well, this time I’m prepared, he tells himself. I’ve had years to get ready for this. He glances at his fake Rolex, trembles a little, orders another shot.

Well, she wrote me a letter

Said she couldn’t live without me no mo’...

Frankie Daytona, the one-hit wonder. It caroms around in his head like a cue ball with too much action on it. Could anybody be left with a more pathetic legacy, the guy who got his break and blew it? Not the Box Tops, though. Maybe their run was brief, Frankie admits, but it was memorable. A couple of good years, two Grammy nods, a handful of worthy tunes, fans who don’t forget. At least they have that.

And where am I? Sitting in a dead-end bar in lower Manhattan, watching the second hand tick closer to five p.m. Time to take a leak, check my hair and jacket in the mirror, then cross the street to what is surely my final chance at the big time.

Listen mister can’t you see I got to get back

To my baby once a-mo’ — any way, yeah...

The song ends. One minute, fifty-eight seconds, one of the shortest pop numbers ever recorded. The bar’s quiet for a moment, then a new cut starts playing. “Elusive Butterfly” by Bob Lind. 1966, his only Top Twenty hit. Frankie winces at the irony.

“You got anything new on that jukebox?” he asks the bartender.

“We like the oldies,” the bartender says.

“ ‘Elusive Butterfly.’ ” Frankie smirks. “Talk about your one-hit wonders.”

The bartender says nothing, just turns away to dump ashtrays.

Frankie’s bogus smile evaporates. It’s time. He leaves a few singles on the bar and slides off the stool, his forehead glistening with sweat.

In his glory days, Abe Leventhal had offices in the legendary Brill Building on Broadway, just off Times Square. The hub of the music business decades ago. But the changing marketplace left Leventhal behind about the time “Rico Suave” came and went like MC Hammer pants. That’s what Frankie’s heard, anyway, although a gambling habit might have figured in Leventhal’s slide. Now the old guy’s in a three-story walkup with buckling linoleum in the lobby, no security guard or surveillance video, and more vacancies than tenants. The kind of office building for people on their way up or their way down, but not many in between.

Disheartening, Frankie thinks, that I’ve sunk this low. He climbs the creaky stairs to Leventhal’s second-floor office, working up his nerve. But beggars can’t be choosers, can they? If this works out, Frankie reminds himself, if he can just believe in himself this time, there’s no telling how far he might go.

As he exits the stairwell onto the second floor, he sees Leventhal emerge from his office at the end of the hallway and turn into an adjacent restroom. A geezer in shirtsleeves and suspenders, wizened, hunched-over, frail. Otherwise, the hallway’s empty, the building quiet. Leventhal doesn’t even have staff anymore; he answers his own phone, hustling his second-rate clients, shuffling his debts, trying to find a way back, or just out. It doesn’t help that he still plays the horses, the only thrill he’s got left.

Frankie knows a couple of the tenants up here. That’s how he met Leventhal. Running errands for the boss, handling payola transactions, debt collections, the usual stuff. But Frankie doesn’t expect to run into anyone else who knows him, not this late on a Friday in a dump that sees about as much foot traffic as a mausoleum. Leventhal always works late, though. Frankie’s done his homework. Widower, no kids, not much to do at this hour but bet the ponies and work the phones to the West Coast, where the lunch hour is just ending. Desperate for a second act, just like Frankie.

He decides to follow Leventhal into the john, rather than meet him in his office. He doesn’t see what difference it makes. He takes a deep breath and strides down the hallway, hitching up his sharkskin slacks. As he reaches the restroom, he slips his right hand inside his jacket and draws a semiautomatic from his waistband. He feels his heart pounding, hard enough to make his gold chain jump. He carefully turns the doorknob and opens the door a crack to peek in.

Across the checkerboard tile floor, Leventhal faces a urinal, coaxing a weak stream. Frankie shuts the door soundlessly behind him, starts to turn back on the old man, then decides to lock it. Better safe than sorry. As he turns the lock, the click sounds like a sonic boom in the tiled bathroom. He knows instantly that he’s made a mistake.

He whirls to find Leventhal standing with his back to the porcelain, facing Frankie with a handgun of his own. Leventhal fires four times before Frankie can even raise his weapon. Frankie doubles over, clutching his chest and gut. His gun clatters to the floor, beyond his reach. Leventhal kicks it across the cracked tile, under a stall door.

“They pick a schmuck like you for a job like this?” Leventhal says. “It’s an insult, they send the one-hit wonder to take me out. I deserve better.”

Leventhal spits in Frankie’s direction, which hurts worse in its own way than the slugs searing his insides. He slides down to the cool tile, his back against the door. Another gunshot booms within the close walls. He flinches but doesn’t look up. He hears Leventhal’s body hit the floor and knows the old guy got out while he could, on his own terms. Preparation meets opportunity, Frankie figures. We should all be so lucky.

As he sits there dying, he drifts back to his one and only hit, all those years ago. Just turned twenty-two, plenty of moxie, everything ahead of him. Take out a low-level wiseguy, that was all he had to do. A bullet to the back of the head at the top of a dark stairwell in a neighborhood where witnesses never remember a face. A test, about as easy as a rookie could hope for. But even that one Frankie botched. Came time to pull the trigger and he hesitated, froze up. His mark broke free, ran for his life. Fortunately for Frankie, the guy tripped and tumbled down the stairs, breaking his neck, expiring in the minutes after Frankie bolted in a panic. If only Frankie hadn’t tried to claim credit for the hit, he might have been okay. But he did, and the truth got out, and word got around. Frankie Daytona, demoted back to errand boy, known forever as the one-hit wonder.

He hears “The Letter” again, the final refrain, only it’s deep in the background now. Fading slowing down, like an old forty-five on a turntable set at the wrong speed.

Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home,

’Cause my baby just a-wrote me a letter.

’Cause my baby just a-wrote me a letter.

It isn’t fair, Frankie thinks, as the light dims and his pulse grows faint. It isn’t fair, what happened to the Box Tops.

“The Letter,” written by Wayne Carson Thompson, copyright 1967 Budde Songs, Inc. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted by permission.

Copyright © 2011 by John Morgan Wilson.


by David Dean

2010 was a good year for 2007 EQMM Readers Award winner David Dean, who received nominations for two awards for his EQMM stories: “Awake” (7/09) was nominated for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award in the category of Best Flash Story and “Erin’s Journal” (12/09) was nominated for Deadly Pleasures Magazine’s Barry Award for Best Short Story. This new story was inspired by a vacation the author and his wife took to Belize not long ago.

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836, March/April 2011 Doug Allyn (6)

Brandon read Julia’s words on the screen and felt something, the knot of his heart perhaps, uncoiling like a serpent within his chest. His vicious hangover, momentarily overcome, retreated like a whipped, angry dog to skulk at the dark edges of his consciousness. The message was from the previous Friday evening, but as he had taken Monday as a sick day, he was only now discovering it. She made no mention of their fight prior to her leaving, or of missing him at that moment. In fact, she made no mention of him at all. Instead, she rendered a breezy accounting of her impressions, so far, of Belize and the resort she had been sent to scout. The message was clearly intended to be passed on to the upper echelon after it completed its job of wounding her one-night lover. This being accomplished, Brandon clicked on Forward, selected the appropriate addresses, then tapped Send.

He sat for several moments in the blue light of his computer and stared out his office window into the street. Outside, a steady, cold rain fell and the sidewalks were empty; cars planing past like water-skiers. The office around him was deserted and he expected no walk-ins and had no appointments. In honor of this, his mood, and his hangover, he turned off all the lights of the small ground-level office and sat in artificial twilight.

He wanted to hate Julia now, but instead found himself wondering how to stop her from ending their relationship — a relationship that had hardly begun. Perhaps she was simply punishing him for his inquisitiveness — his possessiveness; he didn’t know. How could he?— they barely knew one another. In an act of self-flagellation, he read through her words once more, carefully mining them for any hidden reference to her feelings for him:

“Hi all, guess what? It’s hotter than blazes here! Who would have thought it, Central America in August, huh? Duh! Next time (if there is a next time) I’m coming in January... please!”

Brandon could picture Julia as he scrolled through her words — her wide, laughing mouth that could be so generous in passion and so set in anger; her long, fragile neck, the hollow at the base of her throat beaded with droplets of sweat. He could hear her trilling, nervous laughter as she wrote the words he was reading; could visualize her whipping her silken brown hair from her narrow face to reveal the large dark eyes — eyes that showed far too much for her ever to be safe.

He shook his head as if to clear it and continued reading: “Well, as you know, it takes two planes to get here. There are simply no direct flights from PHL to BLZ... period. That’s a big drawback for a lot of folks. The airport is, well, picture the Atlantic City bus station — before it was remodeled! Ha, ha!

“Now comes the fun part — the puddle-hopper to Dangriga! I never knew I had a fear of flying until now! On the other hand, for clients who are into extreme sports, this is just the ticket. It’s more like a ride at Six Flags than a mode of transportation, but trust me, it’s the only way to get around here if you’re in a hurry, as most vacationers are, to get to your destination.

“Dangriga is nothing to write home about, so I was glad the driver from the resort was there when I arrived. The people here seem nice enough, though god-awful poor. The ride to the hotel was another thirty minutes over very bumpy roads! Again, there’s a big part of our clientele who are not going to buy off on this kind of thing... it’s too much like work and not very comfortable. The driver was very pleasant and did his best to make me welcome. The staff did the same when we arrived. Everyone here speaks English — big plus!— it’s the national language (former British colony don’cha know), though several other languages are spoken as well, it seems. Note: The people in this district are mostly Garifuna, they tell me. They are descended from African slaves who escaped from St. Vincent Island in the 1700s, stole some ships from the Spanish, and sailed them here where they have lived ever since. Quite a story, isn’t it? They are very proud of their heritage and have their own colorful customs. Who knew? On Thursday they will have dancers and musicians perform in their native costume. Big plus. It may be kind of poor around here, and certainly remote, but it’s still authentic! They have me fooled, anyway.

“Now to the accommodations: The design is pretty much as their photos promised. It gives the appearance of an African village (now I understand why) nestled against the Caribbean Sea. Most of the cottages are spacious, with white-washed stucco walls and thatched roofs — a little bit like Ireland, oddly enough. Each has a lovely porch beneath the overhang furnished with wicker chairs. This is a great idea as it rains a lot here this time of year, so you might as well settle down with a book, or laptop in my case, and enjoy the sea view. Which brings me to another slight disappointment — the sea, while still that lovely green we turistas are so fond of, is rather flat and uninteresting. It seems the resort is built on a sheltered, very shallow, bay. The beach is a problem too, I’m afraid — very gritty; almost yellow; not very clean. In spite of their location, this is not a beach destination — sorry. And the bugs, OMG! You cannot be out at dusk or dawn! The no-see-ums will drive you to madness. You should see the welts on me!”

Brandon thought of Julia’s smooth whiteness against the dark blue of his sheets; her sleek, unblemished skin; her cheeks and throat flushed with passion. He shuddered with the immediacy, the force of the memory, then glanced shyly around the empty room. Their boss, Donna, would return tomorrow from her niece’s wedding in Fort Lauderdale, but until then he was alone. He noticed the voice-mail message light pulsing on her phone. It was her private line and she had not given him the code to retrieve her messages. In the dimness of the office, its persistent beacon seemed to flash a warning from across the room. He turned away and resumed Julia’s narrative.

“The resort’s lobby, gift shop, dining area, and bar are all beneath the same roof — a large building designed just like the cottages but on a grander scale. Kind of one-stop shopping, I guess. On the plus side, it’s all very charming and well kept up and clean, but on the down side there’s not much to choose from, be it gifts, food, or drink. The chef here does a great job, but it’s surprisingly English — lots of mayo on everything... I ask ya! Still, there are several excellent fish dishes to balance things out.”

Brandon leaned back in his chair remembering Julia eating hungrily from a can of fruit co*cktail; dredging the diced fruit with a spoon. Once, she stopped to smile shyly at him from the other side of his bed, then returned to her task with childlike absorption. He smiled at the memory and at the thought of her slender, almost famished-looking frame. How well she hid that fragility beneath her business suits, her office armor, her ambition and drive.

Outside his window the cars plowed by, throwing up cascades of dirty water; a man on the opposite curb teetered uncertainly beneath a black umbrella that seemed close to collapse. He could not cross without getting drenched and Brandon briefly wondered why he didn’t just do it and get it over with; then returned to the pulsing words on his screen.

“Lastly, for now anyway, the two owners (and our potential partners) leave something to be desired. It’s not that they aren’t nice; they both have excellent manners as everyone here seems to, and are intelligent; that’s obvious enough when you talk to them, but there’s something I can’t put my finger on. One is Hispanic and comes from San Pedro. That’s way inland where most of the people are of Guatemalan or Mayan descent. This one is Hernando Fuentes. He’s very sweet but drinks a bit, I think. I can smell it on him when he sits too darn close! He seems harmless enough, though; he’s always talking about his wife and children.

“The other one is Claudell Paige, and he is Garifuna. He is a large, heavy man and seems to be the driving force behind the lodge. I think Señor Fuentes is the money. Mr. Paige laughs and jokes with all the employees and they appear to like him very much. He grew up in the nearby village of Hopkins just as they all did. Señor Fuentes, on the other hand, keeps a low profile. He is very small and thin and spends most of his time with the bartender — get the picture? Most of the staff here hardly acknowledge him. Curious, isn’t it?”

Brandon already did not like Fuentes. Happy family man, my ass, he thought jealously.

“Anyway, they’re an odd couple, and an uneasy one too, if you ask me. Still, I’m not exactly sure what troubles me here — it’s a little bit of a lot of things, I think. The location, while beautiful, is just... off, if you follow me. While the facilities are charming and unique, an air of... something... desperation, maybe, hangs over the place. Of course, when you see some of the poverty here, the desperation becomes understandable — they have to succeed!

“Then again, it might just be me, as I haven’t been sleeping well at all here. The rooms and beds are comfortable enough, but I keep getting awakened by someone knocking at my door in the wee hours! Naturally, I don’t answer it, but no one ever answers me back when I call out either. I’ve tried looking out the window to catch them at it, but I can never see anyone. I’m a little worried it might be bandits, but the management says they have a security man on duty all night. It’s very peculiar and a little unsettling, and the staff denies all knowledge of anything. One of them suggested a lizard might be in my room and the rest laughed. I guess that was a sample of the local humor at the expense of the turista. Ha! Ha!

“Tomorrow I take an excursion inland to visit some Mayan temple ruins. I’m really looking forward to getting away from here for a while. I’ll send more then.

“The no-see-ums are beginning to find me so I’ve got to take shelter. The sun is setting, and I must say, in spite of my misgivings, that it is truly beautiful here. The entire horizon is blood-red and a lone fisherman is out on the water in his dugout — that’s right, the locals actually use hollowed-out logs carved into little canoe-like boats. Amazing, isn’t it, in this day and age? He’s just standing out there like a stork — I don’t know how he doesn’t fall in. For some reason it makes me feel very lonely and out of place here. Ta, all. I’m looking forward to coming home. Julia.”

Brandon read the last few sentences once more — were those words really meant for him? They could almost be read that way. Was it him that she was really lonely for? This thought gave him hope, and for the first time in over a week he felt a tingle of excitement, a renewed interest in life. They were young, after all, he reasoned, so it was only natural they have their fights. And when Julia returned, they could make up, as young couples the world over and for time immemorial have — they would kiss madly and confess their remorse. The forgiveness that followed would be joyous and cathartic and he could hardly wait! He jumped up and rushed over to her desk to search for her return date. He felt quite certain she was due back any day now. Maybe he could pick her up at the airport.

He felt the damp breeze before he heard the man cough and looked up guiltily in the midst of rifling through Julia’s desk. It was the man with the umbrella and he was, as predicted, soaked. The damaged umbrella hung from his hand like something he had tried, and failed, to save from drowning.

“Yes,” Brandon said, startled. “How may I help you?”

The visitor wore glasses and had to prop the umbrella in a corner in order to wipe them dry with his handkerchief. His tired-looking grey suit was made several shades darker by the rain; his thin hair was plastered to his narrow skull. “This is Resorts Investments, isn’t it?” he asked politely.

Brandon nodded his head even as he gauged the man. Without understanding why, he knew that he was neither a potential client nor a salesman. “How may I help you?” he repeated. The hangover crawled, dark and ugly, across his vision and back into his brain.

“Does Julia... that is, is this the office where Ms. Julia Catesby was employed?”

Brandon tried to digest this. “Was?” he came to at last.

“Are you a coworker?”

“Yes,” he answered like a man in a dream. “I am a... coworker. Why?”

The man appeared to consider this, then withdrew something from his inner jacket pocket. He held it out for Brandon to see. “I’m from the State Department, our office in Philadelphia.” Brandon could see that the older man’s ID confirmed this. “Are you her employer? We’ve called here several times and left messages,” he said.

“No, no, I’m not,” Brandon answered, the message light flickering redly at the edge of his vision. “She’s out of town and won’t be back until tomorrow. What’s this all about?”

“We’re trying to locate her next of kin. Would you know how to do that?”

Brandon felt as if the room was growing darker yet, as if the rain outside was only the prelude to a greater storm. He shook his head and whispered, “No, I don’t.” His ignorance made him feel sick and selfish. “She’s from upstate New York... I think.”

The State Department official appeared to give this some consideration, then said, “We have her out at the airport, I’m afraid. We’d like to take her home, if we could.”

“The airport,” Brandon repeated. They had her at the airport, he thought, struggling to regain the surface he was sinking beneath. Did they think she was a drug runner — a smuggler of some kind? “Why do you have her at the airport? What’s she done?”

“Done?” the official repeated. “She hasn’t done anything, Mr...?”

“Highsmith,” Brandon answered with some attempt at bravado. “Brandon Highsmith.”

“We have her because she’s... she’s dead, Mr. Highsmith. She died in Belize, and it’s one of our jobs to return Americans to their homes in circ*mstances like these. We were hoping you could help.”

Brandon seized the edge of Julia’s desk to keep from sinking to his knees, and stared up at the older man through bloodshot, brimming eyes. He was unsure whether he would be sick or pass out, but he was certain that he could be of no help.

The resort appeared exactly as Julia had written and as was depicted on the postcard Brandon had received several days after her funeral. It was the only personal item he had been given by her in their brief, secret relationship and he carried it in the pocket over his heart like a talisman. The words scribbled on it gave no recognizable clue as to why she would hang herself no matter how many times he read it. Even so, as the porter left him to get unpacked, he retrieved it once more in the hope that the setting it was written in might aid him in deciphering its meaning. The cottages in the foreground were as charming as depicted, but the mountains looming in the near distance, undoubtedly meant to be alluring and mysterious, appeared brooding and shadowed to Brandon’s eyes.

He sat wearily on the edge of the bed and read the cramped, tiny words: “Don’t know when this will get to you — weeks, probably. Went into the mountains you see on the front. On the way we hit a traffic jam! You’ll never guess why — the driver tells me that there’s a haunted spot on the road and when the ghost (a mysterious woman, he says) is seen, no one will travel through for a while. She’s a warning, he said. It’s a bad curve and a far fall. Can you believe it? Ghost crossing! We stop for the dead! The driver laughed like it was superstition, but we didn’t go around the other cars, either. Soon, Julia.”

Soon... the word stood out from the soiled white of the card, scribbled and sweat-stained, and Brandon’s eyes kept returning to it. Soon. Had she meant simply that she would see him again before too long, or was its real meaning concealed within her own intentions? Her death, he knew, had occurred mere hours after her return from the mountains.

He had not seen the police photos taken of Julia, but they had been described to him by the man from the State Department. He had not known of Brandon’s connection to Julia and Brandon had chosen to remain silent on the subject. The agent knew only that they were friends and coworkers and appeared to accept that this explained Brandon’s reactions sufficiently. Fortunately, his secret remained just that. Otherwise, it would have been unlikely that his boss, Donna, and the Philadelphia head office, would have agreed to his completing Julia’s assignment. He had five days, and no more, to follow up on her impressions and recommend a decision to advance or withdraw from the tentative deal.

Julia’s choice of death had been simple and effective, in fact, a method quite popular in jails and holding cells, he had learned. Utilizing the terrycloth belt that had been provided by the lodge with her complimentary bathrobe, she had secured one end to the clothes hook on the bathroom door. The other end she had fastened around her neck in a simple slip knot. The length of the belt allowed her to kneel on the cool tiles of the bathroom (she had used the bath mat to cushion her knees) and simply lean forward. After a few moments, Brandon was assured, the lack of oxygen would have rendered her unconscious, allowing gravity to accomplish the rest. There would not have been much discomfort, the kindly official had assured Brandon. She had left no note of explanation or goodbye. Presumably, her last words were those scribbled on the resort postcard.

The local police had summoned the U.S. Embassy shortly after they had determined the nationality of their victim, but her body had been removed from the scene prior to their arrival. The autopsy, however, had been witnessed by one of their investigators, the official had told Brandon in his kindly, factual manner, and no evidence contrary to the police investigation was obtained. The results of a rape kit had been negative. There was no apparent reason to disbelieve the in situ photographs the Belizean police had taken. “Suicide,” the older man had assured him, “often happens in situations like these... when people who are disturbed and vulnerable find themselves in strange places, uprooted, if you will. I can’t tell you how many situations like your coworker’s I’ve had to look into over the years. It’s not good to travel alone, in my opinion, and believe me, I’ve done enough of it to know — you have to be strong.”

Repeated knocking drew Brandon from his reverie, and he hurried from the bathroom to answer the door. The man who had driven him from the Dangriga airport and who had carried his suitcase to his room smiled up at him. He was slightly pudgy, and yellowish in color, with carefully combed and lacquered grey hair. His smile was large, the teeth as yellowish as the man himself. Brandon could not readily assign him a race or ethnic group. “Hello, again,” he chortled. “I hope I have not awakened you, Mr. Highsmith?”

Brandon shook his head, even as the man thrust a bottle into his hands. “Compliments of management, sah,” he continued, the vestiges of a British accent buried deep within his own patois. “Our very own national rum. It is very good, if I must say so... but, please, you are the judge.”

Brandon turned the brown bottle in his hands and studied its cheap paper label and foil cap. “Thank you... and thank the management. It really wasn’t necessary. I’m sure that I’ll enjoy it.”

The yellow man bowed slightly and turned to go. “I was wondering,” Brandon blurted out, “if you knew which room Ms. Catesby stayed in? Was it this one, by any chance?”

The driver stopped and turned, his smile dimmed by a slight creasing of his round face. “I was not her driver, I’m afraid. Management will best answer such a question, Mr. Highsmith; they will surely know.” With a wave he resumed his short journey along the boarded path to the main lobby building, where, presumably, management dwelled.

The sun was settling into the molten bay as Brandon made to retreat into his room, but as he closed the door against the heat and the glare of the sea, he noticed a lone silhouette floating on the reddening horizon. Just as Julia had described, a fisherman, as still as a heron hunting the shallows, stood poised within his pirogue some fifty yards from shore. Brandon could not guess his intended quarry, and did not really care, because for a brief moment the sight afforded him an image as sharp as the image of the man on the water itself — a picture of Julia sitting with her laptop, perhaps on this very veranda, seeing exactly what he was seeing and sending that image to him across the ether.

He did not answer the knocking on his door — the combination of several tots of the sweetish local rum and his own physical and emotional exhaustion had rendered him almost senseless. In the event, though the knocking was insistent and loud enough to rouse him, he was unable to answer its brief summons and fell back into a deep slumber before its echoes faded into the inky darkness where jungle met sea.

Management revealed itself the following morning at breakfast. Brandon had just seated himself near one of the wall-length open windows in the dining room when he was joined by Paige and Fuentes.

“Well, you don’t look much the worse for wear,” Paige declared happily while completely blocking Brandon’s view of the gently undulating sea mere yards away. “That is the great beauty of being young — so much stamina!” He seized one of Brandon’s hands in his great paw. “So glad you have joined us, Mr. Highsmith. I am Claudell Paige and this,” he stepped aside slightly to reveal his much smaller partner, “is Hernando Fuentes. I hope your journey was pleasant. How is the breakfast... hmmm?”

Brandon hastily swallowed his mouthful of scrambled eggs and attempted to rise. “Glad to meet you,” he managed.

“No, no, please sit, I insist,” Paige said. The partners pulled out chairs and did so as well. Paige signaled a waitress and shouted across the nearly empty room, “Coffees, Brenda... please, dear girl.” Brandon noticed Fuentes wincing at the larger man’s volume.

Paige surveyed Brandon’s plate with scepticism. “You did not have the chef prepare you one of our delicious omelets?” He shook his great head sadly. “That is a shame... a great shame. You are really missing out, I assure you.”

“Yes, I’ve heard the food here is good,” Brandon lied, then added, when he saw Paige’s dark face crease in disappointment, “excellent, actually... Julia wrote and told me.”

Paige’s smile grew in wattage, then dimmed by degrees as the name of the dead girl floated, ghostlike, between them all. Brandon thought the sallow Fuentes appeared to grow queasy, though whether it was over the conjured name or perhaps from his previous evening’s drinking, he could not know. The coffees appeared at the men’s elbows.

“Oh dear,” Paige intoned. “Yes, that poor girl.” He stirred several spoonfuls of brown sugar dispiritedly into his cup. “We’ve never had anything like that happen here before,” he assured Brandon.

Brandon noticed Fuentes cross himself and whisper, “Madre de Dios.” When he saw that Brandon was watching him, he smiled in a sickly manner and said in perfect English, “My wife and I pray for her, Mr. Highsmith. We have lit candles in our church for her soul; perhaps it will help.”

“Help?” Brandon asked. “What do you mean?”

Paige looked down on his diminutive partner as if he were contemplating knocking him over. “Suicide,” Fuentes murmured, “it’s a bad thing, is it not... the sin of despair?”

“What do you mean?” Brandon repeated a little more loudly. A middle-aged couple several tables over glanced nervously at them and then hastily away again.

“Her soul,” Fuentes continued, oblivious to the heat in Brandon’s voice. “It is lost to God. Was she Catholic?” he inquired gently.

“Drink your coffee and be quiet, man,” Paige calmly commanded Fuentes. “You are upsetting our guest.”

Brandon recalled drops of water, cold and unexpected, splashing his face as the priest blessed the coffin that concealed his lover. “Yes,” he whispered, “she was a Catholic.”

“Well,” Fuentes continued, as unaware of his partner’s disapproval as he was of the depth of Brandon’s feelings, “there are exceptions, of course — insanity... an altered state of consciousness... the Church understands these things.” He rose unsteadily to his feet and said, “I’ll be back presently. Please continue in my absence.” Brandon watched the disheveled little man shuffle off towards the far end of the restaurant, his pace picking up as he drew near the double doors that concealed the bar.

Brandon turned back to find Paige regarding him solemnly, small beads of sweat dewing his hairline. “Do forgive him,” he said. “He is not a well man and this... this business... Ms. Catesby, I mean, has upset him very much. It has upset us all, of course; you as well, I suspect.”

“Yes,” Brandon admitted. “Yes, it has.”

“Did you know the young woman well?” Paige asked.

Brandon hesitated, stirring his forgotten eggs with his fork. He hadn’t known her, he thought; hardly at all, he realized now. “Did she seem unhappy here?” he asked in return, evading Paige’s question.

“No, not at all,” Paige boomed once more. “Quite the contrary. She appeared very interested in our resort here... our culture, as well... very inquisitive. No one could have been more surprised than me.”

Outside, Brandon saw a huge frigate bird lofting in the thermals made by the rapidly heating beach. It hung in the air like a kite over the few sunbathers who languished beneath it, rocking to and fro with the feigned indifference of the predator. “Someone was bothering her at night, Mr. Paige... someone kept coming to her door. Were the police told of this?”

“Please call me Claudell,” Paige responded. “Oh yes, of course I heard of her complaint and we did look into it. I had the security guard posted just yards from her door. But it was to no avail. The following morning she complained of someone knocking at her door once again. My man saw nothing.” He let this last piece of news hang between them for a few moments. “He’s a very reliable man... Brandon, isn’t it? May I call you Brandon?”

“Yes,” Brandon agreed. “Was there any other way to her door?”

Paige regarded the younger man for a moment. “Brandon, if you look out you will notice that we rake the sand each evening.” He made a sweeping gesture meant to include the entire grounds. “Whenever anyone strays from the walkways they must leave behind their prints... yes? My security man placed his chair on the walkway that led to Ms. Catesby’s door and saw nothing. But, even had he fallen asleep, the... visitor, shall we say, could not have passed him without stepping into the sands. So you see, unless our culprit is an angel... or a ghost, he must have left footprints in his wake.”

“Then what did happen?” Brandon asked hoarsely.

“Why did anything have to happen?” Paige replied, sitting up a little taller. “She did what she did, and I must say, Brandon, that she did us little good in the act. Have you considered that? It is clear to me that you have considerable feeling for the young woman and I am wondering now why you have come here. Can we expect you to be objective about us, Mr. Highsmith? Will we receive a ‘fair shake,’ as you say in the States, with your investors? We had nothing to do with this young woman’s death.”

Fuentes stumbled out from the bar, righted himself, and then set his sights for their table. His walk was more vigorous, his color better. He waved at the two men as if they were a great distance away. “I am coming,” he assured them happily. “Everything is arranged now.”

“Perhaps we could begin your tour now?” Paige offered.

Brandon stood up, suddenly angry. “Security is a concern of our investors, Mr. Paige.”

Fuentes sidled up to Brandon and gripped his elbow, his breath a fog of brandy. “We’d best get underway before the day gets too hot, my friends,” he said. “I have made all arrangements.” He struggled to situate his snap-brim hat on his small head.

Paige stood as well, towering over his two companions, his jet skin glistening in the growing heat of the day. “You two go ahead, I have some business to attend to here, and then I’ll catch up to you.”

Undeterred by his brush-off, Brandon asked, “Can I see Julia’s room?”

Both partners went silent. After a moment, Paige answered, “You already have, young man. It’s the best bungalow on the beach; naturally, when we received word that you were coming, we assigned it to you.” He turned for the kitchen, then added, “Of course, I didn’t know then of your personal involvement — I’ll have your things moved at once.”

“No,” Brandon blurted out, then went on more quietly, “that won’t be necessary.”

Paige gave a shrug, then continued on into the kitchen.

Fuentes, having finally settled his hat, tugged Brandon toward the entrance, the grounds beyond glowing whitely in the late morning sun. “Not to worry, my young friend,” he assured Brandon with a sweep of his arm, “the room has been exorcised. We paid good money for the priest to do it.” He leaned into Brandon and whispered confidentially, “These people are very superstitious, you know.” He waggled his eyebrows at the black waitresses in their colorful head scarves. Several seemed to be laughing at the little man behind their hands. “We can’t allow ghosts around here, you know, or we’d have no one to work the place — they’re more afraid of them than they are of jaguars.” He put a finger to his lips. “Let’s just keep that between ourselves, my friend, shall we?”

Brandon said nothing, as the image of Julia’s displaced soul, tormented and now cast out to wander in this foreign land, floated before his eyes. But as the two men crossed the threshold, it was burned away like a scrap of paper in the roaring furnace of the sun.

That night the knocking came before he had fallen asleep. There were three loud raps and then silence. He lay in the darkness of the bed, his eyes wide and his heart hammering within him, and could not move. The reverberations of the summons recalled the previous visitation, which he had forgotten. He struggled to rise and look out, but the image earlier that day of Julia’s homeless spirit rose unbidden in his mind’s eye and transfixed him with horror. He had never given any thought to the nature of the soul before this day, and now could not set it aside. What if it was she who summoned him to the door, demanded to be returned to her room? In the stygian darkness of this steaming backwater, anything seemed possible. And though he had traveled thousands of miles to find some evidence of Julia’s passage, he lay in rigid, sweating silence awaiting the next blow to fall.

After what seemed like ages, the howler monkeys began to scream and cry to one another in the near distance, and with that, as if they heralded the return of the natural world, Brandon was released and fell into a deep, troubled sleep.

Even before he opened his eyes, he knew that day was long arrived. The light penetrated the simple cloth curtains of his room and warmed his eyelids. Outside he could clearly hear birds chattering with the news of a fresh day and the tapping that awakened him held no other significance than a polite request for entry. With a groan, Brandon threw back his sheet and placed his feet on the still-cool ceramic tiles of the floor.

“Mr. Highsmith, we missed you at breakfast this morning... are you all right? Last night’s fish agreed with you, I hope?” Señor Fuentes’s voice held a note of urgency. “Mr. Highsmith... Brandon?”

“Yes,” Brandon answered, inexplicably feeling like a man with a hangover in spite of the fact that he had drunk nothing alcoholic the night before. “I’m fine, Hernando... thank you.” He staggered to the door in his underwear and pulled it open; Fuentes almost fell into the room. “Good morning,” Brandon mumbled around his swollen tongue.

“Oh good... yes, I can see now that you are well... good.” He stood awkwardly at the threshold feeding his hat brim through his fingers. Brandon could smell the brandy that Fuentes seemed to wear like cologne. “Yes, okay... so you are well, then.” He appeared genuinely relieved.

“Noises,” Fuentes repeated, glancing around the room uncomfortably. “I see. Perhaps a change of rooms is desirable, no?” He smiled weakly at Brandon while nibbling at a yellowed fingernail.

It suddenly occurred to Brandon that Fuentes, and probably Paige as well, was concerned for him for reasons that had nothing to do with last night’s dinner — they were afraid for what he might learn, and what that might do to their plans for the resort. “No,” Brandon assured Fuentes in what he felt was a calm, resolute voice. “I’m fine here. After all, you and Claudell have assured me that all is well, so why should I be concerned with someone knocking on my door in the middle of the night?”

Fuentes’s veined eyes slid over him and away and he cleared his throat. “Quite so... quite right, my friend... Claudell runs a tight ship, as they say... but, sadly, not all is controllable in this world... only the very young believe that.” He studied Brandon’s stubbled face for a moment and appeared to come to a conclusion. “Pests,” he announced almost happily. “Perhaps your problem here is pest-related... a rat in the thatching... a visitation of monkeys — they can be very inquisitive, you know, and very persistent in their attentions; even a lizard, in my experience, a damned gecko.” He looked hopeful.

Brandon recalled the forceful, insistent knocking of the two previous nights. “I don’t know what you and Paige are playing at, Mr. Fuentes, but someone came to my door last night and the night before, too. The same thing happened to Julia... she wrote me about it. All I want to know is what happened to her, what’s going on here.”

Fuentes sputtered almost angrily, “I am not aware that I am playing at anything, Señor Highsmith, but I cannot account for all things in this world; you should know that. I assure you that Claudell and I are not at playing; we have a business to run,” he concluded huffily. He studied Brandon for a moment, then added, “Will you not come out with me, young friend? I had hoped to show you the Mayan temples today; they are quite spectacular, very popular with our guests. It will do you good to get out.”

Brandon thought of Julia’s trip through the mountains, the ghost in the road, and said, “Give me a few moments to get ready. I’ll meet you in the dining room.” Fuentes skipped away, delighted.

Their trip over the mountains was uneventful and they encountered no traffic jams as the result of apparitions. The driver, the same yellowish man who had driven Brandon from Dangriga, admitted to having heard of the haunted curve, but laughed at the tale as proof of the backward, superstitious ways of mountain people. Fuentes woke up long enough to heartily agree, then returned to his snoring.

As they wound their way upwards, the grey clouds that appeared to rise up from the wet carpet of jungle condensed and grew trailing beards. Moments later they showered a thick warm rain on the battered Land Rover and obscured the sheet metal and plywood shacks that clung to the roadside slopes along their way. By the time they reached the ruins, the sky had cleared and the sun beat down with renewed force, as if to reclaim every drop of moisture given.

After parking their vehicle and before ascending the slope to the temples, Fuentes excused himself for a trip to the men’s room. Brandon suspected that he wanted a pull on the flask of brandy that was ill-concealed in the rear pocket of his trousers. He made use of his time to wander through the small army of vendors who had set up their wares near the park entrance. Most of the tables were manned by Indios, Mayan, he assumed, and their wares ran the gamut from ashtrays to necklaces, carved masks to paintings. But even to his untrained eye, most of the objects appeared amateurish and cheaply imitative of their ancestors’ craftsmanship, and he wandered listlessly from stall to stall. The heat and humidity was draining his small reserve of energy and soaking his clothes in sweat.

He turned irritably to scan the area for Fuentes when his eyes alighted on an object carved from some dark wood on one of the makeshift tables. At first, he mistook it for some type of walking stick, then realized it was far too short for such a purpose unless it was designed for a dwarf. He sauntered over to where it was displayed, attempting to appear disinterested. The vendor, a powerfully built young man, had spotted him, however, and gauged his customer from long experience. He seized the very object in question and held it up for Brandon’s inspection, his black eyes sharp and bright with pride. “Forty dollars,” he said by way of greeting. “It is an authentic war club of the Mayan peoples, worth much more.”

Brandon thought it certainly looked authentic in the capable-looking hands that wielded it. Up close, he saw that the shaft was the body of a snake, smoothly scaled and slightly curved, the tail tightly wound to a small knot, presumably to prevent its wielder’s hand from slipping off the end. At the top of the shaft perched not the expected serpent’s head but some creature more birdlike, its beak curved and cruel. When he took it into his hands, the wood felt as hard as an iron bar. He had to force himself not to swing it around like a little boy playing Indian. He paid the forty without dickering and hurried away with his prize. He felt silly walking about with a souvenir war club, but for the first time since his arrival he felt a sense of security.

When Fuentes found him, he blanched slightly, but managed to say, “I hope that you have paid no more than seven dollars for that... Always haggle with the vendors, my friend; it’s in everyone’s best interest.”

Brandon enjoyed the tour of the ancient temples even as he found himself the object of curious stares. Standing at the top of one pyramid, he lofted the club above his head and shook it, warriorlike, at the tiny figure of Fuentes standing in the grassy courtyard far below and laughed. He could not see the older man’s expression, only that Fuentes looked quickly side to side as if scanning for witnesses or a way to escape.

When they returned to the resort, darkness was already creeping out from the jungle and Fuentes made a hasty farewell, pleading his wife’s intolerance for his long hours. Brandon suspected that he was overdue at the bar, as evidenced by the tremor that had started in his mottled hands.

After securing his purchase in his room, Brandon had a quick meal in the perennially empty dining area. The heat of the day was being gently swept away by a breeze off the ocean and when he returned to his bungalow he opened all his windows to allow it in. After a cool shower and after having made a few notes about his observations for Resorts Investments, he lay down on his bed. Within minutes he fell asleep to the soft wash of the waves against the grainy beach, while nearby, he could hear the steady sweep of a worker’s rake being drawn slowly and carefully over the coarse sands in the fading light of the long day.

“Yes,” he cried, sitting straight up in bed, “who’s there?” His voice was swallowed up by the darkness even as the echoes of the knocking still banged about in his skull. Brandon stared at the outline of the wooden door across the room and had no idea whether it was standing open or closed tight. His hand drifted to the hilt of the Mayan club, his fingers caressing the coils of the snake. As if released by its solidity, its violent purpose, he slipped silently from the bed and drifted like smoke towards the door, sloughing his fears like an old skin with each step. As he neared and his eyes adjusted, he was reassured to see that the door was indeed fastened and the war club which he had unconsciously raised to shoulder level was lowered to hang by his side. He eased over to the window in order to peer out onto his porch.

The second series of knocks drove him backwards in shock — it was as if they were being sounded within the very room itself. “Goddamn,” he cried out as the club rose into the air, “Goddamn!” He charged the door and threw it open. The night outside washed up to his very doorstep, an inky ocean. The kerosene torches placed along the walkways had been extinguished to economize, while the weak light next to his door glowed without illumination in its smeared lantern. The inlaid eyes of the war eagle stared sightlessly after its prey. Brandon was sure he heard footsteps slapping the boards of the walk.

In the near distance, a small pinprick of light indicated the hotel desk and as Brandon watched, it suddenly blinked out and returned a mere second later, as if someone had run past it. Brandon began to run as well, the adrenaline coursing through his veins removing any vestiges of sleep and fear. He sprinted toward the lobby and its beacon.

The girl behind the desk leapt to her feet with a strangled scream as he pounded into the room. He looked this way and that for whomever he had chased. The doors to the dining room were closed, as was the gift shop, but he tried each to make sure they were locked. He turned towards the clerk. “Who came in here?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, but walked towards her and around the counter, as there was no other place for his tormenter to have gone but into the office behind the check-in desk. She backed up slowly to allow him to pass, her eyes wide and moist with terror. He stepped into the cramped office. There was no one there. The small room contained nothing but two metal desks and a filing cabinet. An exit door at the rear stood open, allowing for a cross-breeze; beyond it lay the endless night of the jungle.

When Brandon returned to the lobby, he found himself alone.

Brandon staggered into the dining room the following morning, his sleepless night evidenced by the bruised-looking smudges beneath his eyes. Paige was waiting for him. “Mr. Highsmith,” he called out in his large voice, “after you get your coffee, perhaps you’ll join me in my office.” He pointed at the tiny room Brandon had visited the night before. The waitresses watched him like a row of owls from across the room. Brandon nodded, filled his mug, and followed the big man into the lobby.

“Mr. Highsmith,” Paige began as he settled heavily on the edge of one of the desks — he did not offer Brandon a seat. “In the short time you have been with us you have managed to frighten my staff and insult me, and Mr. Fuentes tells me that you made threatening gestures at him yesterday at the temple. There is no point in this situation continuing; I’m sure that you agree. I must insist that you leave our company at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps you will make arrangements now for an earlier flight home. Please feel free to use my phone.” He stopped and took a breath while studying the younger man. The morning breeze had faded with the rising sun and both men were perspiring heavily in the closed confines of the office. “You need to go home,” he concluded more softly.

Brandon looked up from beneath his eyebrows at the older man and whispered, “She wasn’t going to give you a good report; she was going to recommend against bringing investors into your resort. She didn’t think things were right here.” He placed emphasis on the word “right.”

Paige’s great dark face grew darker yet. “Who?” he asked.

“You know who,” Brandon answered. “Julia.”

Paige seized the office phone and thrust it at Brandon. “Call... now, please!”

Brandon made no attempt to sleep that night, as he knew it would be useless. His flight from Belize City was the following afternoon, but he would have to leave the resort at first light in order to make the plane. In any case, he had determined, after his conversation with Paige, that he would not be caught sleeping again under his roof.

Across the sandy expanse that separated his bungalow from the main building the thudding rhythm of drums reached him. This was the night the resort hosted the celebration of Garifuna music and dancing that Julia had written of. A barbeque was provided on the beach for the few guests. Occasional gusts of alcohol-fueled laughter reached him above the thumping music, the incomprehensible songs. His war club rose and fell on his chest with his breathing, its oystershell eyes winking in the overhead light. After several hours, the world outside his door grew dark and silent once more.

The tapping seemed not so loud and he wondered if its previous resonance had been fueled by his dreams. Its source this time, however, was evident even in the glowworm light of his porch lantern. The slim young man who tapped shyly at his door had not even seen Brandon sitting mere feet away in the wicker chair at the end of the porch. As Brandon watched, he placed his ear to the door and listened intently for a moment, his hand drifting over the doorknob, then away. He stepped beneath the feeble lamp and studied something in his hand, looked back to the door, then appeared to shake his head.

It was as he was bending over to retrieve something he had placed at his feet that Brandon spoke. “Did Paige and Fuentes send you... did they send you to Julia?”

The young man spun around to Brandon’s voice in time to witness his materialization from the greater gloom, the club rising rampant in his hands, the cruel beak slicing hungrily through the thick air. His only word was, “Mercy.” After the first blow brought him to his knees, Brandon completed his task with workmanlike efficiency — a passerby might have thought he was chopping wood.

The disheveled policeman sat outside Brandon’s cell and watched him drink the tepid coffee as his wife and three children studied the young murderer from around the edge of the outside door. The policeman removed his ill-fitting hat and waved it at his family as he would at flies. “Go away,” he commanded. They withdrew with titters and smiles to the safety of the outside world. The eastern sky had just begun to pink with the promise of day.

“You are a bad murderer,” the policeman observed aloud, “to remain with your victim instead of running away — not that that would have done you any good, of course.”

Brandon made no answer to this, but said softly, “Thank you for the coffee... thank your wife for me.”

“Why did you kill our brother and friend, Marcus Donda, young man? You are covered with his blood. Why did you lie in wait for such an innocent?”

When Brandon remained silent the policeman continued angrily, “He was an altar boy, did you know this? But how could you,” he asked the room at large. He sighed deeply, then added, “I cannot protect you here, young man; not once the word is spread. You will be transported at first light to Belmopan.” He seized the paper grocery sack that contained the bloody club and made for the door.

“Not so innocent, maybe,” Brandon said quietly to his back.

The policeman turned and studied his prisoner with genuine interest. “How could you know anything of him... of his innocence or badness? How would you have met or known him?” he persisted. “He only began his new job as waiter last night. That was why he went to your room — he had gotten the bungalows mixed up, poor boy. He was delivering room service, you fool.”

“His first night?” Brandon questioned softly, the metal cup drooping in his fingers, its contents dribbling unheeded onto the concrete floor. “... But there was the rapping... the knocking...?” But the policeman had already left to pull his truck around to the cell entrance.

Brandon felt everything whipped loose from its moorings like a twister dismantling a barn, board by board, even the nails being sucked out and driven like shrapnel before the maelstrom. He tottered to his feet like a drunk and peered out the barred window to the dawning, hellish day. On its ledge a gecko filled its throat-sack with air and sang its few improbable notes to the departing night, filling the echoing chamber with the resounding tap-tap of wood striking wood, or perhaps it more resembled the sound of someone knocking at the door urgently demanding entry or attendance... tap-tap... tap-tap-tap.

After a moment of this Brandon began to scream.

Copyright © 2011 by David Dean

Vanishing Act

by Christine Poulson

Yorkshire-born Christine Poulson is an art historian who wrote several books on 19th century art and literature before creating her academic mysteries starring Cambridge University English lecturer Cassandra James. The most recent novel in that series is 2006’s Footfall. She currently lives with her family in a water mill in Derbyshire. Her short fiction for EQMM includes 2010’s “A Tour of the Tower,” which was short-listed for the Fish-Knife Award, offered jointly by the CWA and Fish Publishing.

* * * *

“One of these men is a murderer.”

Edward looked at the grainy black-and-white photo that Edith held up. Three men smiled out at him.

“What’s this all about?” he asked. “Who are they?”

“I’ll give you a clue. One of them’s my brother — and he’s not the murderer.”

Edward gestured impatiently. “I need a better look.”

She brought her wheelchair closer to his bedside and leaned forward, bringing with her a gust of perfume, something warm and spicy.

Theirs was a new friendship and it would inevitably be a short one. The doctors were careful not to offer any predictions, but Edward knew that he didn’t have more than a week or two. He was bedridden now. The morphine took care of the pain, but what he hadn’t expected was the boredom. Strange that time should drag when there was so little of it left, but so it was. That was why Edith was such a godsend. She was in the hospice for a week’s respite care. They had taken to each other and she visited him every evening, scooting down the corridor in her wheelchair. She was an interesting woman, had spent most of her working life in Canada as a museum curator. He enjoyed her “take no prisoners” attitude without feeling it was one he could adopt himself.

“Your brother is the one in the middle,” he decided. They had the same nose: That bump on the bridge was unmistakable. “Who are the others?”

“Let’s call that one Dr. X and that one Dr. Y.” She pointed with a red-varnished fingernail.

Edward studied the photograph. Dr. Y was tall and fair with something irresolute about his mouth, the kind of man who is a little too anxious to please. Dr. X was short and dark with a widow’s peak and full, sensuous lips.

“When you say murder...?”

“This all happened a long time ago — say, twenty-five years, even thirty? A surgeon had an affair with a theatre nurse. When it turned sour, he murdered her to save his marriage — and his reputation. There was a conspiracy of silence amongst his colleagues, and he was never brought to book.”

“Then how do you know?”

“My brother told me. He was one of the doctors who kept quiet. Fred died a couple of months ago.” She gave a caw of laughter. “He’s beaten me to it. Just. He was very near the end when he let it out of the bag. It preyed on his mind. You know how it is...” She shrugged.

When you’re near the end? Yes, he did know — who better?— and counted himself lucky. On the big things, marriage, children, work, he’d done just fine. He did rather regret that he’d never got round to reading Proust, but you can’t have everything.

“Fred told me what I’ve just told you,” Edith went on. “One of these men is a murderer.”

“Did he say how...?”

“She was found dead in bed. Healthy young woman, never had a day’s illness in her life. One of those unexplained deaths. Hospital dispensaries are full of things that could bring that about. They weren’t as strict about keeping track of drugs in those days.”

Edward thought it over.

The stillness was broken only by the slap of sleet on the window. The curtains hadn’t been drawn against the November night. Streaks of rain gleamed on the glass and overlaid the smeared lights of the town in the valley below.

At last he said, “After all this time, it’s pretty academic...”

“Is it, though? What about all these breakthroughs in forensic science and what they can do with DNA? If the police reopened the case, who knows what they might find.”

There was a knock at the door.

They both started, caught each other’s eye, and laughed.

“Edith?” A nurse, a thickset man that Edward hadn’t seen before, was standing at the door. “It’s time for your injection.”

Edith swung her wheelchair round.

“Hey! You can’t just leave it at that! Which one is it?”

“You decide. Observing criminals was your job, after all.” As she headed for the door, she raised a hand in farewell. “Let’s see how good a judge of character you are.” The words rang out like a challenge.

He watched as she disappeared through the door. Helpless and exasperated, he slumped back on his pillows. That was Edith all over. Surprising that someone hadn’t murdered her before now.

She had left the door open, but it didn’t matter. He liked to see people coming and going up the corridor.

His glance strayed to the clock on the wall. Only nine o’clock. An hour until he could expect his daughter’s phone call. He sighed and picked up the photo again. Yes, he had seen many killers in his time as a court artist. But he had long ago learned that, as Shakespeare put it, “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Appearances could indeed be deceptive.

The men were standing on the steps of a building — neo-Georgian — and now that he looked more closely he saw that one of them had a glass in his hand. Some kind of celebration? Had this been taken before the murder? If indeed there really had been a murder. The three men were much the same age, somewhere around the mid thirties. The clothes and the body language — it was surprising how much you could learn... Was Dr. X or Dr. Y wearing a wedding ring? If only he had a magnifying glass...

When the phone rang, he was surprised to see that an hour had passed.

Jennifer co*cked her head. Her ear was so attuned to the night and the silence that she was alert to the smallest unusual noise. She wasn’t the nervous type — never had been — and she was used to working nights, but... what was that sound?

She put her paperwork to one side and went out into the corridor. It stretched out in both directions. It was empty, but she had the feeling that she had just missed someone. She listened again. The silence was unbroken. On a quiet night like this the hospice must be one of the most peaceful places in the world. No visitors, no phones ringing, no consultants’ rounds. And tonight she wasn’t expecting anyone to die while she was on duty.

She looked at her watch. Nearly one o’clock. She’d got into the habit of sitting with Edward for a while around now. He didn’t sleep well and enjoyed the company.

She brought him his tea and settled down for a chat. This was what nursing should be, really getting to know and care about your patients. It was a privilege, and so often you saw the best of people at times like this. People sometimes asked her, did that make it harder when they died, but strangely enough, it didn’t.

“Any news about the baby?” she asked. Edward’s only daughter, Laura, was in New Zealand waiting for her own daughter to give birth. It had been a difficult pregnancy with enforced bed rest.

He shook his head. “Laura rang earlier. She’s still fretting about not being here. I’ve told her not to be so silly. Melanie needs her mum with her. And as for me, I don’t want any harm to come to my first great-grandchild, do I? Just so long as he or she arrives before I go.”

“I’d put money on it,” Jennifer said.

She would, too. Edward would hang on for that, though afterwards it would be a different matter. The real question was whether Laura would get away in time to be with him at the end. She could guess how sorely he yearned for his daughter, but it remained unspoken between them.

“I’m not short of visitors,” he said, as if he had read her mind.

“The day staff tell me you’ve made quite a hit with Edith.”

He winked at her. “Oh, I’m not so far gone that I don’t have an eye for a good-looking woman. Kathleen popped in earlier on, too.”

Kathleen was the hospice chaplain, a Church of England vicar who came in four afternoons a week.

“I thought you Quakers didn’t have any truck with the clergy?”

He laughed. “Oh, I’m happy to chat to anyone. And anyway, we don’t talk about religion. We’ve discovered that we’re both keen on classic crime fiction. She’s promised to lend me a collection of Ellery Queen short stories.”

Jennifer nodded. She wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but her own faith was simple and secure. She was certain that the souls of her patients found safe harbour. She didn’t know how she knew that, but she did know it.

They talked for a while longer. When she saw that his eyelids were drooping, she arranged his pillows for him and put the emergency buzzer within reach. She dimmed the lights and went quietly away.

As she walked back to the nurses’ station, she glanced into each room in turn. She had actually passed Edith’s room before she registered that something was wrong. She turned back and went in. What she had seen was the light reflected off Edith’s eyes. They were half open. She moved without haste to the bed and touched the pulse-point at the throat. The skin was cool under her fingers. Sometime in the last couple of hours, Edith had slipped silently away.

Jennifer closed Edith’s eyes and said a short prayer.

“You weren’t expecting it, were you?” Edward said. “I know Edith wasn’t. She thought she had awhile to go yet.”

It was the following night and Jennifer was rearranging his flowers. “Well, yes. But these things don’t always go according to a timetable.”

“I can’t believe it. She was so full of life.”

Jennifer gave him a compassionate look. He had no difficulty in interpreting it. Funny: The more his body wound down, the greater seemed to be his insight into what other people were thinking. He could almost see the thoughts flitting through her head. Poor old boy, she was thinking. It brings home the fact of death. Bound to be upsetting.

What she actually said was, “The doctor says her heart gave out — it could have happened at any time.”

“I know, I know. ‘Death in Hospice’: hardly a banner news headline, but all the same...”

Jennifer plucked out a dead carnation and dropped it into the bin. “To go without any fuss or pain, that’s not a bad thing.”

He snorted. “Maybe not. But it sure as hell wasn’t Edith’s style. I can’t imagine her ever taking the easy way out. I’ll miss her,” he added, suddenly realising he was close to tears.

Jennifer put her head on one side and tweaked the arrangement to conceal the gaps.

“The family didn’t expect it, either,” she admitted. “And that reminds me. According to her niece there was a bag of family photos that she’d brought in to sort out. We can’t find them. She didn’t leave them in here, did she?”

“Not a bag full, no, but she did leave one.” Edward fumbled on his bedside table for the photo of the three men.

She came over, took one look, and said, “Doctors.”

He was taken aback. “You recognise them?”

“No, no, but they have that look about them and it’s obvious what the occasion is.”

“It is?”

“Of course. They’ve just set up in practice together. Look,” she pointed to something in shadow on the left-hand side of the picture. “That’s their new nameplate. They’re drinking a toast.”

To think that he had missed that! But of course he had been concentrating on the faces. He squinted at it, trying to make out the letters. They were tantalisingly out of focus.

“Who are they?” Jennifer asked.

Edward hesitated. But what was there to lose?

He told Jennifer what Edith had told him.

She thought about it for a while. Again he could read her thoughts: Should she pooh-pooh the idea, or be honest?

She decided to be honest. “d’you know the joke about the man who dies and goes to heaven? He sees someone rushing around in a white coat and asks St. Peter who it is. St. Peter says, ‘That’s God. He thinks he’s a doctor.’ Some of those old-style consultants did pretty much think they were God.”

“Some still do,” Edward said wryly. “So you’re not going to say it couldn’t happen?”

“We both know that it could. As long as nothing was said, people could pretend they didn’t know.”

“And after a while, they’d be able to tell themselves that it really didn’t happen, and that if there were any real evidence, the police would have been onto it. But, you know, he could still have a lot to lose. What about those murders in Finland? At Lake Bodom. Someone was brought to trial over forty years later. And Edith wasn’t the kind to let sleeping dogs lie. If he felt threatened by her...”

But that was one step too far. He saw that he had lost her. He felt a stubborn determination to press on. “You think I’m letting my imagination run away with me, morphine dreams...”

He saw from the slight flush on her face that he was right.

“There’s something you’re forgetting,” she said. “Even if someone wanted to murder Edith, how would they get in here? All visitors have to sign in and this isn’t like a huge hospital. I know everyone who works here. It just wouldn’t be possible for anyone to masquerade as a doctor.”

“They wouldn’t be masquerading as a doctor, they would actually be one. I asked one of my friends from my Quaker meeting to bring in my pastels.” His sketchbook was lying on the bed. He opened it to show her. “I’ve tried to age them,” he said. “Dr. Y — that sort of fair hair tends to get thin. It’s already receding a bit in the photo. By now he’s probably bald on top. And the face — he’s the kind of man that gets gaunt with age. With that long jaw, he’ll look a bit skull-like.” He had her full attention now. She was studying the drawings, fascinated.

He went on. “Dr. X is the type that puts on weight easily. Not just his build; he likes his food and drink. He’s a bit greedy. His hair might recede a bit, but not a lot, it’ll just make the widow’s peak more prominent. He’ll have some grey in his hair by now. It’s a distinctive face — with that strong nose.”

“How old would they be now?” Jennifer asked.

“In their sixties.”

“Neither of them is on the staff.” But she was frowning, narrowing her eyes as she stared at the drawings.

“You’re not certain?”

“Yes, I am, but... no.” She shook her head. “I don’t know either of them.”

A bell rang from a nearby room and she got up to leave.

“Take them with you — the photo and the drawings — please. Something might come to you.”

She hesitated, and this time he wasn’t sure what she was thinking. A shutter had come down.

Was it just to humour him that she did what he asked?

Things got busier for Jennifer after that. Mrs. o’shea, who had been lingering for several days, took a turn for the worse. There are no set visiting hours in a hospice, and her large and devoted family were in and out all night. Not one but two priests arrived to give her the last rites. She was still hanging on when Jennifer went off duty.

At home, there was the fuss of getting the kids ready for school and then she flopped into bed. She woke up at two o’clock, put on her dressing gown, and made a strong cup of coffee. She took it back to bed. The cat followed her up and stretched himself beside her. She stroked him absent-mindedly. The idea that Edith might have been murdered almost wanted to make her snort with laughter. In the cold light of day it seemed absurd, it was absurd. Like something in one of those old-fashioned detective stories that Edward liked so much and maybe that was even where it had come from. Patients on high doses of morphine did get strange notions.

She rummaged around in her handbag and found Edward’s drawings. She stared at them again. The uneasy feeling she’d had earlier came back to her. That widow’s peak... and that bag of photographs going missing... not so odd in itself... She saw again the look of surprise on the duty doctor’s face. He really hadn’t been expecting it, though he had signed the death certificate willingly enough. And — face it — how hard would it be to get away with murder in a hospice? Just one more needle mark in someone who had been having several injections a day.

Her eye fell on the bedside clock. Oh Lord, she was going to be late collecting the kids. She threw her clothes on and was out of the house in two minutes. Then it was nonstop: supervising piano lessons and homework, simultaneously cooking the dinner and listening with half an ear to a convoluted story told by the twins. Five children under the age of nine. Whatever had they been thinking of? Then Matt was home and it was all right again just as it was every evening. He was a computer person, worked in hospital admin, nine to five, which was what made the whole thing possible. Then dinner was over, it was eight-thirty, and the kids were in bed.

This was their time. She told him everything and so she told him about Edward.

“Of course it’s all nonsense,” she said, hoping he’d agree.

“Interesting little problem, trying to identify these chaps,” Matt said, looking at the photo over the top of his glasses. “That nameplate — I could scan the photo and fiddle about with Photoshop, increase the contrast. The one who was Edith’s brother — do you know his name?”

“I don’t think she was ever married — so I expect it’s the same as hers: Johnson.”

“You can do wonders with online records and Google. Leave it with me, love.”

“Of course there can’t be anything in it. Can there?”

“Nah. But if I find out who they are and they’re both long gone, well then, you can put the poor old boy’s mind at rest, can’t you?”

Edward was restless. Kathleen had brought in the collection of Ellery Queen short stories, but they failed to hold his attention. He found himself looking at the clock every other minute. Laura always rang at ten o’clock to say goodnight to him. It was now eleven o’clock. There must be something wrong. He sent his thoughts winging off to the Bay of Plenty, held in the light his daughter and his granddaughter and the child waiting to be born.

Jennifer had popped her head round the door to say she’d do her best to pop in for a chat around one o’clock. So there was that to look forward to, but he had the feeling it was going to be a long night.

When the phone rang he was startled. He knocked a slew of things off the bedside table as he stretched out his hand.

The moment he heard Laura’s voice he knew that it was all right.

The words came tumbling out. “Dad, it’s all over! She went into labour naturally — and after all those problems — couldn’t have gone better, only a few hours — amazing for a first baby. Didn’t have a chance to ring you—”

“The baby—?”

“She’s perfect, oh Dad, she’s perfect. They’re going to call her Alice, after Mum.” He heard tears in her voice. “And Melanie’s just fine. She’ll speak to you herself tomorrow. And that’s not all. The airline rang ten minutes ago. There’s been a cancellation. I’ve got a seat on a flight leaving in three hours.”

“So soon...”

“Look, I’ve got to go. John’s waiting to take me to the airport. When he gets back, he’ll send some photos through to the hospice. Just hang on! I’ll be with you the day after tomorrow.”

The day after tomorrow. A little girl called Alice.

The happy news lit up the room and tears filled his eyes. Now that he knew Laura was coming he could let himself yearn for her. He thought of the day he had held her in his arms as a newborn baby. It was only right and fitting that her dear face should be the last he would see.

There was a far-off muffled boom. A couple of days to go until Bonfire Night, but someone was setting off early fireworks. There was a flash of light and above the town a firework unfolded like a big blue chrysanthemum. There were more distant bangs and whizzes: coloured lights blossomed and chased each other across the sky.

He had always loved fireworks. He settled back to enjoy the show.

Paperwork, paperwork. The downside of modern nursing. Jennifer sighed. One day she might actually clear her desk. She looked at her watch. Twelve-twenty. Forty minutes until her tea break and her chat with Edward. She put her head down and ploughed on.

She was puzzling over a questionnaire from the local health trust when the computer gave the little ping that meant there was incoming mail. She ignored it. It wouldn’t be anything that couldn’t wait.

When the phone rang ten minutes later, she reached for it with her eyes still on the form.

Matt’s voice brought her head up with a jerk. Something wrong with the children? She breathed a sigh of relief when he said the kids were fine.

“What are you doing still up?” she asked.

“Got a bit carried away on the computer. Didn’t you get my e-mail? I’ve managed to work out who they were, the men in the photo. Charles Ballantyne — distinguished career — Southampton Hospital, big wheel in the BMA — you won’t care about all that. Thing is, he died last year. The other one, Robert Cleaver, went to Australia, returned about ten years ago, he’s an Emeritus Professor of Oncology, specialising in a rare form of cancer at—” Matt named a London teaching hospital.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone pass the open door. She caught a glimpse of a dark suit and a clerical collar. The footsteps went on down the corridor.

She opened Matt’s e-mail.

Matt was still talking. “There’s a photo of him on the hospital website. If you want to see what he looks like, click on the link.”

She did, and a face stared out of the screen at her. It was uncanny, how right Edward had been, except for—

Her instincts were telling her that something was wrong. The footsteps had stopped further down the corridor. Who was he visiting? Not Mrs. o’shea. She had died earlier that evening and her body was in the hospice mortuary waiting to be collected by the undertakers.

And he wasn’t visiting Edward. Edward was a Quaker.

Jennifer dropped the phone and sprang to her feet.

Edward’s eyes were heavy, but he forced himself to stay awake. He wanted to hang on until one o’clock so that he could ask Jennifer if an e-mail had arrived with photos of the baby and Melanie. He wished he could tell Edith. Funny how much he missed her. That story of hers — he couldn’t quite understand how he had let himself get so carried away by it. Perhaps he had been groping for a reason for her death, unwilling to believe that she had simply disappeared, given him the slip, pulled off the vanishing act he was so shortly to pull off himself.

Just for a moment he had the feeling that she was somewhere close by. He seemed to catch a whiff of her perfume.

When the man in the clerical collar appeared in the doorway, Edward’s first thought was that he had come to the wrong room.

His second thought, as the man closed the door behind him, was that he had done a good job of updating the photo, but he couldn’t possibly have guessed about the beard.

His third was that he wouldn’t be seeing Laura after all, because among the things he had knocked off the bedside table was the emergency buzzer.

Jennifer punched the panic button to summon help.

Nurses aren’t supposed to run, and Jennifer was a big woman, but she flew down that corridor.

She reached the room in time to see the man standing by Edward’s bed.

Light glinted on a hypodermic.

Another moment and she flung her arms round him from the back. She squeezed. He struggled, but years of manhandling toddlers at home and lifting patients at work had given her arms like steel hawsers. He didn’t stand a chance.

The hypodermic went clattering to the floor.

Then Paul, the burliest of the hospice nurses and an ex-soldier, appeared in the doorway and it was all over.

“Just a black shirt and a strip of plastic cut from a bottle of washing-up liquid,” Edward marvelled for at least the tenth time.

Jennifer nodded. “That was all it took. Dressed like that, he could walk into any hospice — or any hospital ward — claim to be visiting a parishioner and no one would bat an eyelid.”

It was nearly the end of Jennifer’s shift on the following night and she hadn’t been able to resist popping in to talk it over one more time. It was as if she needed to go over and over it again to convince herself that it really had happened.

“Only sorry I won’t be here to follow the trial,” Edward said with an effort. “But it’s clear enough what happened.”

“His bad luck that Edith had the same rare cancer that he’d made a speciality and consulted him privately.”

“Johnson’s such a common name — no wonder he didn’t make the connection.”

“But she did. I wonder if she really had anything on him. She certainly made him think she had.”

“And that she’d shared it with someone in the hospice.”

Edward closed his eyes. He claimed that the excitement had given him a new lease of life. Jennifer wasn’t so sure of that. The disease was progressing fast now. He was too weak to sit up and his face was very pale against the pillow. She wondered if he would be alive when she returned in the evening. She hoped so. She’d like to be there at the end and she wanted to meet Laura.

Her eyes strayed to the colour printout of a beaming young woman with hair plastered to her sweaty forehead. She was cradling a tiny baby with a face like a crumpled rosebud.

She patted Edward’s hand and was getting up to leave when she saw that Edward had opened his eyes. He was gazing past her into the corridor.

She turned her head and saw a handsome middle-aged woman approaching.

“Laura,” Edward murmured. “You’re here...”

“Dad! I hired a car at the airport.”

“This is Jennifer.”

The two women clasped hands as they passed in the doorway. Laura gave a smile of recognition that made her look very like her father.

Jennifer closed the door behind her and went to get a Do Not Disturb sign.

No one would be needed here for a while.

Copyright © 2011 by Christine Poulson

Au Bon Coin

by Eric Wright

Born in England, Eric Wright emigrated to Canada in 1951. His distinguished career as a novelist and short story writer has earned him Canada’s most prestigious crime award, the Arthur Ellis, four times. His new novel, published in late 2010, is A Likely Story; it’s the third in his Joe Barley series. The Kidnapping of Rosie Dawn, in which Barley debuted, won a Barry Award and was nominated for three other awards, including the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar.

* * * *

“Hello, Daisy. Come in, come in. My, how pretty your hair is today; that lovely silver color really suits you. Come in; sit down. I’ve just made coffee. Good of you to find the time. There. Cream? No? Then let’s get started.

“First, here’s an e-mail I got from Robert two weeks ago. Lots of the usual personal stuff — he still gets very uxorious in his letters. Sorry: got. I’ll miss that. Anyway, after a couple of pages of that and some mentions of the parts of Paris that he and I had seen together — very little, really, though Givenchy was a wonderful afternoon; then the obligatory visit to the Café des Lilas — there was this:

” ‘Last night I took a colleague to one of our favourite restaurants, Au Bon Coin; you remember? Near the Place Monge Métro station. It was as good as ever, especially the herring and potato starter. Last time you and I both had sweetbreads followed by the apple tart. Afterwards we walked along the Rue Mouffetard,remember? All the time I was there I was thinking of you, and hoping we could get back to Au Bon Coin together one day soon.’

“The rest is about the weather, the conference, and his jet lag. That’s the essential passage.

“I was very frightened. You can imagine why. You’re not saying anything. I’ll get on, then. The thing is, dear, I’ve only been to Paris with Robert once, and never to a restaurant called Au Bon Coin,so understand my alarm. You remember about a year ago — no, exactly eleven months ago — I had a small stroke which temporarily affected my memory, though I remember the date of the stroke exactly. However, I was young for that sort of event, and I got over it pretty quickly. I’m not allowed to drive but I never liked driving, anyway, so it was a bit of a relief, sometimes an excuse to avoid doing things I don’t want to do. And the memory thing is manageable. Nowadays I’m careful to write down all appointments, even casual arrangements with friends, and I’m rarely at a loss anymore. So you can understand when Robert’s e-mail asked me to remember something I had no memory of, I got frightened. I thought I had regressed, even had another stroke. Then I decided to reconstruct the event for my memory. That works sometimes, in smaller things. If I can’t remember anything about a movie I saw the previous day, not even the title, I can usually work at it and recover it eventually. I have a lot of trouble with those movies that are all imagery and no plot, foreign movies especially. But my neurologist said the brain is like a computer — it’s all there somewhere, you just have to find a path to it. Sorry, I’m wandering.

“As I say, I’ve only been in Paris with Robert once, and I have no memory of a restaurant called Au Bon Coin,or walking along a street called Rue Mouffetard,some sort of market street, I gather, but I keep a journal when I’m traveling — the same book contains all my travel experiences — so after Robert’s funeral I dug it out and found the trip to Paris. With the help of this journal I could remember and reconstruct everything about that trip, including meeting the nice American girl who asked Robert if he knew the French word for ‘quiche.’ I had to stop him making fun of her. And there was no dinner at Au Bon Coin. No, sir. Dinner was accounted for every night, the name of the restaurant, even what we ate and if we liked it. And both times we stayed a long way away from that Métro station, at a hotel called Hotel des Balcons on the Left Bank. There, see. Even now, I don’t have to look it up. I remember. Paris was like that.

“More coffee? No? So from being frightened, I now started to be worried. What was going on? I can tell you my mind touched on all kinds of possibilities. I mean you never really know anyone, do you? I mean, if other people knew what was going on inside our heads, we’d all be arrested, or at least very hard to live with, I’ve often thought that. So — do you remember that Ingrid Bergman movie about a man who was trying to drive his wife mad so he could get her money? I don’t have any money, of course, but it did occur to me that maybe he wanted to be free of me and was starting some sort of campaign. I mean, once you realise you don’t know all about someone you’ve lived with for twenty years, there might be a lot of things you don’t know. All the rest of the stuff in his head, or his psyche, I guess.

“Luckily, I woke up very clear-headed one morning and realized that if I went on like this I would go mad. So I decided to find out. How? First, I thought, I would fly to Paris, and see if the actual restaurant would bring back memories.”

“You flew to Paris?”

“No, dear, I thought of it, but then I had an idea for a simpler and cheaper way. I found a detective agency in Paris that could make my enquiries for me. You know how distinctive Robert was in appearance. He shaved his head when he started to go bald, and that along with the new goatee and the gold earring he put in when he got his Ph.D. made his appearance at least memorable, if not as distinguished as he hoped, so I dug out a couple of recent pictures of him and e-mailed them to the agency with some instructions. I told them to find out if any of the waiters remembered seeing Robert lately, and who was with him. I suggested they could say he was wanted by the Toronto police, but they said that wouldn’t be necessary.

“It took them two days to reply, saying that all, my dear, all of the waiters as well as the cashier, who was the proprietor’s wife, remembered him, because of his appearance and his clumsy French. And they all remembered that his partner was an attractive woman of a certain age with pretty hair. That was a surprise, but I found a picture of who it might be and e-mailed it to the agency. Sure enough, I’d guessed right.

“Now there was just the mystery of the letter. How had he screwed up? Sit down for a minute, Daisy, I won’t be long.

“Robert may have seen himself as the suave adulterer — I think he did — but he was also an academic so he was a bit of a fusspot, especially, lately, around his computer. He had taken his laptop with him, of course, but I guessed that he had backed everything up, twice over, probably, so I set about looking through his files, you know, his backup discs, where he would have stored everything in case he lost his laptop. It took me a couple of days, but I found it eventually.

“I started searching with the name of the restaurant, Au Bon Coin,you remember? That was all I needed. I found the name mentioned in one letter, in the paragraph I just read to you, and then I had an idea. I found a phrase somewhere else in the letter that was very distinctive. Here it is: ‘I was reminded of a poem by Lamartine: “Le Lac.” ’ I searched for and found exactly the same phrase in two other letters to different people. So I started a real search and, to cut a long story short, I realized what he had been in the habit of, so to speak.”

Now Daisy spoke. “Sending the same letter to different people? Surely not. It must have been a glitch in his address book.”

“No, inserting the same travel-writing chunk in different letters. Harmless enough if he had more skill with his computer, and hadn’t been so obsessive about backing everything up. The thing is, along with the travel bit, he had screwed up and copied — highlighted, probably — more than he intended. Once you realized what he had done, you could see it all.”

Daisy said, “Is there a chance that all of his correspondents would have got the same message?”

“We’ll never know, will we? Let’s move on.”

“Did you kill him?”

“One step at a time. I didn’t mean to kill him, if that’s what you’re asking. It was an accident.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just wanted to land a symbolic blow before I kicked him out. It seemed appropriate. His field was the French Symbolistes,after all. So I waited until he put down his laptop — I wanted to hit him with that — that’s what I call symbolism — and I picked it up and swung it down on his head. The thing that killed him, though, according to the doctor, was hitting his head on the corner of the table as he went down. He was dead when the paramedics arrived. It was the hall table, not me. So it was accidental. That’s the verdict.”

“You meant to hit him, though.”

“Just symbolically.”

“What did you tell the police?”

“I said he tripped on the rug and hit his head on the table. They were very sympathetic.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“Obviously, so that you will know. I think you ought to know how your little dalliance in Au Bon Coinended.”

“Isn’t that a bit of a risk? If I take this story to the police?”

“Not much risk of that, is there? I’ll keep the letters on file. There’s the other story there, isn’t there, the one you wouldn’t want to share with anybody?”

Daisy stood up. “Robert told me all about you. I see now what he meant.”

“Did he? He didn’t say a word to me about you, and that’s rather the point, isn’t it?”

Copyright © 2011 by Eric Wright

The Last Days of the Hols

by Robert Barnard

In September of 2010, a large-print edition of Robert Barnard’s much-praised novel A Stranger in the Family (Scribner, June 2010) was released by the Wheeler Large Print Book Series. Also new from the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award winner is his podcast for EQMM of his story “Rogues’ Gallery” (March 2003), which can be accessed from iTunes, from PodOmatic (eqmm.podomatic.com), or from our website (www.the mysteryplace.com/eqmm).

* * * *

Miss Trim, the English teacher and form mistress of 6A, looked around at the eleven-year-olds staring stolidly back at her. “The essay topic for your Easter break,” she said, then paused solemnly. She had begun to sense a giggle going through her class every time she set the inevitable “How I spent my school holidays” as the vacation task. This time they were going to get a surprise: “is ‘How I spent the last day of my holidays.’ ”

She was disappointed, because she sensed an identical giggle going around the class. She frowned like a disappointed fish, her protuberant eyes glaring through the rimless spectacles until she noticed that Morgan Fairclough was already setting down the odd note on a piece of rough paper. She did not ask herself how Morgan could be making notes for an essay on the last day of his holidays when the holiday had not yet begun. She approved of Morgan: solid and hard-working, though these virtues were tinged with arrogance when he talked to his less gifted classmates. But his estimable qualities were so much better than brilliance or flair that she looked forward to reading his account.

Morgan began his account two days after the day in question. He knew it was going to be hard to get the facts and angle right. He was, after all, the son of a writer. And he had to use mostly fact. There were still so many around who knew the facts: Mum, Deirdre, Timothy, Samantha...

Morgan licked the point of his Uniball and began.


Morgan Fairclough, aged 11.

Please excuse all spelling mistakes. My dad has not tought me to use a dictionery as he promised to do in the holidays.

While she was clearing away breakfast things my Mum said: “Are you planning to have one almighty row over lunch, or would you prefer this time to have a series of minor explosions going off throughout the day?”

My father stretched, smiling a narsty smile.

“I think the latter, all things considered. Or maybe it would be fun to have no row at all. Have them waiting nervously all the time for something that never comes.”

“Oh, very suttle,” said my mother. “Anyone would think they were not family but enemies.”

“Can’t they be both? I must say that’s how I regard them.”

All this I’d heard over and over in previous years. By now it sounded rehearsed, like a play. One of my dad’s plays. Rows were an everyday occurrence in our house, and the terms of the rows never really altered.

“You only regard them as enemies because they’re my family,” said my Mum.

“They can be your family and still be your enemies,” said Dad. “In fact I remember when you and I were courting, you and Deirdre were constantly at each other’s throats. Both of you were feisty girls, after all.”

“Now you’re being ridiculous,” said Mum. “Of course I love Deirdre, and did then.”

But I noticed Mum disappeared into the kitchen and began the washing up. Running away from a fight — that’s how I saw it.

“Anyway,” said my mother ten minutes later, coming back with her arms white from soapsuds, “after all these yearly rows they won’t come expecting a good time.”

“I don’t know why we don’t stop asking them,” said Dad. “They don’t ask us to Greenacre Manor. Probably afraid we’ll use the wrong knives and forks.”

Deirdre’s husband Timothy had sold his father’s car hire companies when he inherited them and bought into traditional bricks and mortar, playing the squire to the point of ridiculousness (these are my dad’s words — he can be very spiteful). Uncle Timothy is Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC. Dad says his religion is tweed-suiting, pipe-smoking and Brideshead Revisited.

“I think you’re right,” said Mum. “Just make a row big enough to justify it and I’ll put my oar in and suggest we call it a day. It will follow naturally if we do that.”

“Hmmm. Not a bad idea,” said Dad. But I could tell he was having second thoughts about his proposal. He always gave the impression of enjoying himself in these annual rows, and I must admit I thought they were quite fun.

“I like Uncle Timothy,” I said. “Some of the things he says make me laugh.”

“They make me laugh, too,” said Dad. “Like his pretending to be still in love with Deirdre after all this time.”

“So the row is still on the schedule,” said my mother. “Is after the walk the best time for staging it? Because that’s what it is: a little play, stored away for when, if ever, you write your own Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.”

“If that’s what I’m aiming for, the rows would have to be with you, Lois.”

“Well, God knows, you’ve had enough experience of them. Oh sh*t — that’s them now.”

My father cast an eye at the window, the Rolls outside, and the path that led from the front gate.

“Oh, God Almighty!”

For a household containing not one Beleiver we were very free with God’s name. When I wrenched my eyes away from Auntie Deirdre, who looked as if she was carrying a shopping basket in front of her under her dress, I caught a look on Dad’s face that was a mixture of relish and foreknowledge. He’d known in advance!

Exclamations took up the first two minutes of the visit.

“Well, this is a surprise!”

“Exactly what it was to us, too.”

“How far are you gone, Deirdre?”

“Do you know what it is?”

“Samantha, are you looking forward to having a brother or sister?”

This welcome on the front doormat was quite convincing. It was led by my Dad, who, being a playwrite of sorts, knew what people tended to say on all kinds of occasions. Mum hugged her sister, perhaps to hide the horrid display of jealousy on her face. Whatever Deirdre had, Mum had to be jealous of, even if she would have died rather than be pregnant again.

“No, we weren’t ‘trying,’ as they say,” said Deirdre, her voice high and a bit strident, “and yes we are delighted, the feetus is five months old, we’re doing all the right things that doctors and nurses recommend. All right? Sensation over?”

And she steamed ahead into the sitting room as if her shopping basket gave her all the rights of the lady of the house. There was a sparkle in her eye that suggested that she, like me, had something up her sleeve.

“Tim? What will you have?” gushed my father. “And Deirdre, what can you have?”

“I’ll risk a gin and tonic,” said Uncle Timothy. “We go on the principle of ‘one off, all off’ in our household, but I’m on leave at the moment. Deirdre will have pineapple juice, won’t you, darling?”

“Yes, darling, and so will you. The fact that we are away from our own household doesn’t let you off the ‘no alcohol’ regimen.”

Timothy sighed.

“I would swear if the children weren’t here. All my abstention valued as nothing if I have one little lapse.”

“Go away, children,” said Dad, waving an artistic hand towards the garden. “Your uncle doesn’t like being found out, Morgan.”

When we got outside in the hallway I put my finger to my lips and we listened for a minute or two to the conversation.

“So, then, you’re happy are you?” my father asked. “Not just putting a brave face on a nasty accident?”

“We’re over the moon! We talk baby talk all the time, and discuss colours for the nursery. We’re even more delighted than Samantha.”

“Maybe she’s too old to be totally pleased. At three — yes. At thirteen — no. They feel they’ll degenerate into the resident babysitter.”

“I didn’t realize you knew so much about growing families, Bernard.”

“I have a creative writer’s understanding of how people think and feel, Timothy.”

Same old dialogue. Dad, as a scriptwriter, ought to have been able to think up something better, or at least different. Samantha and I shook our heads and moved over towards the kitchen door, where Aunt Deirdre and Lois my Mum were well away.

“I’m not going to pretend it didn’t come as a shock,” said Auntie D. “We didn’t take out all our old Noddy books and Paddington Bears and look forward to reading them at bedtimes over and over again. But when all is said, Catholics are right about abortion. It is murder, and just thinking about it we felt like murderers. I’ve settled down to all the rules and the deprivations... This martini is heaven, though.”

“You’re a bit mean not letting Tim off his oath of abstention, I feel.”

“Timothy has nothing to complain of. Do you think he hasn’t got a cash of booze somewhere in the house, if only I could find it?... But really, sis, you ought to try a late pregnancy.”

“I can’t think of a single reason why I should.”

“You wouldn’t believe how different pregnancy is in the twenty-first century. And almost always for the better. We had Morgan and Samantha at pretty much the same time, didn’t we?”

“Yes, we did. Almost as if there was some kind of competition.”

Deirdre waved away the suggestion with a well-manicured hand.

“Oh, we were silly about some things then. But pregnancy is not what it was — it’s easier, more straightforward. I tell you: you should try it.”

“Not on your life,” said Mum.

“Don’t you dare!” I shouted.

“Morgan — vamoose,” called Mum. “This is girls’ talk.”

We didn’t vamoose, and they started up again immediately. I waited until I was sick of the anatomical details (many of which I knew already) and I made off towards the garden. I was rather surprised (because I count her even lower than the earthworm) when Samantha followed me. She started in on why she had come out — she felt in a position to give advice.

“Don’t let my mum persuade yours to have another baby,” she said.

“She won’t,” I said dismissively. “I was more than enough for her.”

“I was quite pleased at first. Not delighted, but quite pleased. Then I thought that this is the age when I should be getting more freedom. What shall I get in fact?”

“Twenty-four-hour slavery.”

“Right. Unpaid babysitter. Changing nappies nonstop. They’re indescribably smelly and nasty, including the instantly disposable ones. I know she’ll be poohing the whole time.”


“Mummy pretends to Daddy that she doesn’t know, but she does. It’s a she. And Daddy does desperately want a son and hier. Greenacre Manor will be as dust and ashes without someone to inherit it — and of course to Daddy that means a male. He’s often said he’d like to adopt you.”

I pricked up my ears.

“You’re joking, of course. He hardly notices me.”

“He notices. If he had his way you would be son and hier.”

I considered this.

“Your daddy’s not that rich. It wouldn’t be worth my while. I’ve never really considered him when I’ve dreamed about being adopted by a filthy-rich man or woman.”

“Daddy is high up in the BBC. The BBC is run by families. Dinnersties they call them: the Magnusens, the Dimblebies, the Michelmores. Being child of a BBC person is a passport to a good, cushy job, well-paid and with lots of presteege. And jobs for your kids as well.”

“He’s got you. Why should he need a son?”

“He’s horribly old-fashioned.”

“Well, England has had queens since fifteen fifty-something. You’d think even Uncle Timothy could have got used to the idea by now...”

“He did once condesend to ask me if I wanted to work at the BBC.”

“What did you say?”

“I said I wanted to do a degree in the History of Western Art, then go and work in the Queen’s Gallery at Buck House.”

“Beats the corridors of the dear old Beeb.”

“It just occurred to me as he spoke. I’m going to keep all my options open, but those options certainly do not include the Beeb. I said: ‘Give the job to the newcomer, Daddy. He or she is probably thick as pigsh*t.’ ”

“How interesting. Come on — that’s Mum calling for lunch.”

“Oh God! Rack of lamb and tiramisu.”

I will slip quickly over what we had for lunch, apart from the lamb and the tiramisu. There was a lot about babies, a lot about the power structures and the behavioural disharmonies (their words) at the BBC, and quite a lot (from my Dad, of course) about the creative urge, and how it needed to be stimulated, not crushed. After lunch Dad and Deirdre did the washing up while Tim and Lois talked in the living room. Tim had a stiff tumbler of white wine concealed between his chair and the wall, and kept taking quick surreptitious gulps. Mum, for some reason, was asking whether he saw a big change in Dad, whether he looked older and whether the nonstop creativity (he’d had a half-hour play on Armchair Theatre on Radio Four in the last two years) wasn’t taking it out of him. When Dad and Deirdre came back in they all four (juniors were not consulted) agreed on a brisk walk up to Trevelyan Cave, and they were just rugging up and putting on walking boots when Deirdre dropped her bombshell.

“Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you since we arrived, but there hasn’t been a convenient opening. In one of Bernard’s plays there would have been one, but he just forgot to provide one for real life.”


“So I’ll just have to tell you at an unsuitable moment. Bernard and I go back a long time, as all of you know, and we have been meeting up again over the last six months. In grubby little hotel bedrooms hired by the hour. We were taking things up where we left them off twelve or thirteen years ago. This” (patting her stomach) “is Bernard’s. He’d quite like a daughter in place of that little know-all in short pants he has already. He thinks we are going to get married as soon as the divorce goes through. Think on, Bernard. Marriage has outlived its usefulness. So far as I’m concerned sex is a short-term affair, with plenty of swapping. So it’s bye-bye Tim, bye-bye Bernard. And welcome anyone young, fit, and into it for the laughs.”

And she left the room and the house with a merry wave of her hand. The two men hurried after her and Samantha followed them, and we passed all four a few minutes later along Caves Pathway, arguing and jesticulating. Mum didn’t honour them with so much as a glance. She and I were usually together on these walks because we are the slowest. This year we were in front, and well in front too.

“Are they coming?” Mum asked after a bit. I looked round.

“Yes, but quite slowly. They’re still arguing.”

“They would be, wouldn’t they? When is it any different on these reunion days? I could murder Bernard.”

“Well, we’ve come to the right place,” I said, but seriously, not waggish at all. “Sheer drop at several points. Hardly a soul around.”

“True,” said my mother, also treating the question seriously. “But murder is too good for him. I should leave him alive, to moulder in his horrible skin, with his horrible self and his awful little talent.”

“I think murder would be better.”

At this point in his writing, Morgan laid down his pen. Had he overdone it in directing suspicion on himself? It was a common ploy in crime fiction he had read. Probably it mirrored reality — policemen are really thick and do get it wrong, in all probability. If a reader took it too seriously he had only to read on to change his opinion.

He took up his pen again.

“You’re probably right,” said my mother. “But do you think I’m the murdering type?”

“You’re the Agatha Christie type: least likely suspect.”

“I’m not sure the police would take that line. I don’t get the impression they read Christie.”

“It’s about half an hour to Trevelyan’s Cave. Sheer drop from there. Half the suicides’ bodies are never recovered.”

“Little monster. Have you been planning this? How did you know that?”

“The South Devon Chronicle.”

“Shame on them... I was telling the truth when I said I could murder him... Taking up with that whor*, twelve years after he ditched her for me.”

“I thought she ditched him for Uncle Tim, and you got him instead.”

“No... Well, have it your own way if you like... To go back to her, have regular... meetings in gungy hotel rooms—”

“Sex. It’s called sex, Mum.”

“I know, cheeky. Or I remember... Well, that’s the end, murder or no murder — and I think I can restrain myself from slortering him.”

I was afraid that was true. But when we got to Trevelyan Cave I was relieved that she went into the dirty little hole and sat down among the rocks. I stood outside where I had a spectacular view of the deadly rocks on Westcot Cove, and also of the path, winding its vert-something-or-other way up to the cave. I was looking for a little party of four, but I soon saw I was mistaken: the party had broken up, with Deirdre, Tim, and Samantha probably going back to the village and then back to their Manor home which one day may be mine. There was one solitary trousered figure trailing his way up to us. All he needed was a nap-sack on his back and he’d be one of your typical boring-as-hell walkers.

“Here comes Dad,” I said. Mum elbowed her way to the front of the cave and I took over the shadows. “He’s going to beg you to take him back,” I said, in case he did.

“He’s got a nerve,” muttered my mother.

But he didn’t do anything of the sort.

“I’m not stopping,” he panted, in the misstatement of the century. “I just wanted to say goodbye. You always knew Deirdre was the one, didn’t you? You always knew I was imagining her when we were... you know. It makes me sound a jerk, I know.”

“Not just sound,” said Mum.

“All right, all right. But I’m going to win her back. I’m going to go to her. Tim knows he’s lost her, and I’m not sure he’ll care all that much. He’s told me he always loved you, Morgan — Oh, like a father, you know. I told him to keep his hands off you because we don’t want his bloody Brideshead—”

I shot out of the cave, and the sentence was only completed with an “AAAAHHH.” When I was capable of taking my eyes away from the prospect at the bottom of the cliffs Lois was looking around — up, down, and towards the edge — with a gaze of total bewilderment on her face. I felt almost sorry for her.

“Congratulations, Mum. You did it.”

“But I didn’t. I mean I can’t remember that I... Did I? Morgan, DID I? Oh my God, I must have. What are we going to do?”

“Go home. Tell people Bernard’s been called away.”

My mother put her hand to her face.

“Australia! He was thinking of going to Australia. He’s writing some material for Dame Edna.”

Was writing,” I said. “Of course the body might be found.”

“But nothing to connect him to us. It would be much more likely that he committed suicide, or just missed his footing. There’s been no one on the path to say that he ever got as high as Trevelyan Cave.”

“And no one to say we were here. Come on, Mum: Let’s get back home. I think Dad’s going to like Australia so much he’s going to be there for a very long time.”

Morgan stopped writing. He wondered whether it was totally clear what he wanted the reader to think. Well — not totally clear: This was a literary exercise, but one which could result in his being parentless and ripe for adoption. For a literary exercise, it was surely a lot more exciting than most.

When Morgan was called into Miss Trim’s office he knew exactly what he was going to say. The end of his father had been to a degree impovised, as he called it, but the broad outlines had been with him (as a fantasy hardening to a project) for some time. He could cope with the likes of Miss Trim.

“I must say, Morgan, that your essay bewildered me, even shocked me.”

“Oh? Why was that, Miss Trim?”

“I expected it to be a factual, that means truthful, account of what you did on the last day of your holiday.”

“You didn’t say that, Miss Trim. And I expect you know that my father is an imaginative writer.”

“Well, your father wasn’t—”

“He makes it up. I find it runs in the family. I get to a certain point and then my imagination takes over.”

“Ah!” It was a sigh of relief. “So you made a little play out of your day, so to speak?”

“A little story, Miss Trim. A play would be all dialogue and stage directions. I hope you enjoyed the story.”

“Oh, I did,” said Miss Trim untruthfully. “But of course it made me uneasy, since all the others were truthful accounts of their day.”

“They’re not a very imaginative lot, 6A.”

“Tell me, Morgan, why did you decide to write a story in which your father got... well, killed?”

Morgan shrugged.

“Well, it’s just one sort of story, isn’t it? They call it a whodunit. You don’t know till towards the end who did it. My father’s never had much time for me. Oh, he’s there if I need him, but he hopes and prays I don’t need him too much. Same with my mother. He cares more about the characters in his piffling plays. He’ll pack a few things and take off at the drop of a hat. You wouldn’t know this, Miss Trim, because he never comes to parents’ days or anything like that. Doesn’t care.”

“Oh, I’m sure he does. Some people find emotional things very difficult. Well, I think that was all. You’ve cleared up things nicely. I think I’d better ring your mother in case she hears rumours — gossip from your classmates or their parents.”

“They wouldn’t know fact from fiction,” said Morgan contemptuously. He got up and walked towards the door. “Thank you for being so understanding, Miss Trim.”

As he opened the door he saw her hand straying towards the telephone. His face was suffused with an expression of sublime self-congratulation. He stood outside the door, his ear close to it.

“Mrs. Fairclough? Oh, it’s Edith Trim, from Westward School. I’ve just been talking to Morgan, always a pleasure. Sophisticated without being, well, snooty with it. He’s written this essay about the last days of the school holidays, and he turned it into a really promising little story — he must be reading Agatha Christie and writers like that... Oh, he is! I guessed well. Now, there’s a murder, of course, and it’s quite intriguing and exciting, but I just wanted to tell you, in case rumours come back to you that he is writing gruesome stories which gave kids sleepless nights and all that. Parents tell all sorts of silly tales about any child who makes up stories. It’s really not that sort of story at all... I hope you can make it to the next parents’ evening, Mrs. Fairclough. We could have a good talk. And do try to bring your husband. I know Morgan would appreciate his being there. Oh... Oh... Oh, Australia. I see. Well, I’m sorry. We’ll hope to see him next term.”

Morgan heard the receiver being put down. He started walking along the corridor, the smug expression still suffusing his face. This was going to be one of those sub-genre stories, in this case one of those in which the wrong suspect is fitted up for a murder he, or in fact she, didn’t do. And it was going to be one in which the murderer is the one telling the story. Morgan was enormously pleased with himself for thinking of that. It was exceptionally clever, and something he was quite sure would never occur to a pedestrian mind like Agatha Christie’s.

Copyright © 2011 by Robert Barnard

No Mystery

by Terence Faherty

Terence Faherty has three series currently running in EQMM: that to which this new story belongs, following a Star Republic reporter; the tales featuring post-WWII Hollywood P.I. Scott Elliott; and the series that launched his career, starring former seminary student and sometime sleuth Owen Keane. The first Keane novel, Deadstick, was translated into Italian in 2009. In 2011, there will be two new Scott Elliott novels: Dance in the Dark (Five Star Press) and The Hollywood Op (Perfect Crime Books).

* * * *

That the story of the levitating rocks in Yellowwood State Forest had been reported first by a Bloomington paper, the Herald, didn’t bother E.N. Boxleiter, my editor. He considered our employer, the Star Republic, to be Indiana’s newspaper of record. Nothing that happened in the state, not even a gubernatorial election, was really official until the Star Republic mentioned it, in Boxleiter’s view. Other papers’ headlines were only slightly better than anonymous notes.

The headline from the Herald was a simple one: “The Yellowwood Mystery.” The accompanying story was a little more complex. It described how a man named Gordon Guilford, who was hunting deep in the Brown County woods, had discovered a large “boulder” high in a chestnut tree. Forty-five feet off the ground, in fact. This had aroused the hunter’s curiosity, naturally enough, and he’d returned with friends the next weekend. They’d located the original stone and while getting slightly lost on the way back to their car, they’d stumbled across a second example, this one in a sycamore tree. Since then, a search of the area by state conservation personnel had turned up three more high-rise rocks, for a total of five.

A Department of Natural Resources spokesman was quoted as estimating the average weight of the stones to be four hundred pounds. He also insisted, a little defensively, that the stones had been placed very recently. Otherwise, the forest’s civil-service caretakers would certainly have noticed them first.

The article was accompanied by a photograph that clearly showed a large rock high in a tree. The photo’s caption, like the story, called the rock a boulder, but it was actually a flat slab wedged into the tree at the point where the trunk split into multiple branches. The slab sat perpendicular to the trunk, giving it the look of a crow’s nest on a sailing ship.

Several explanations for the phenomenon were given, ranging from the impossible — that the trees had lifted the rocks as they grew — to the highly unlikely — that the slabs had been blown into the trees by a passing tornado. UFOs were mentioned, if only to be dismissed. The dismissing was done by the Brown County sheriff, who thought the flying stones were more likely the work of “kids mixed with beer.” Though why they’d done it and how they’d done it the sheriff couldn’t say.

His scepticism was seconded by a professor from Indiana University, Kevin Karnes, who was described as a “hoax buster” by the Herald’s reporter. Karnes scoffed at the idea that the rock placements were supernatural or extraterrestrial. He went on to predict that the hoaxers, whoever they were, would be “caught and soon. The mystery will turn out to be no mystery at all.”

Professor Karnes was the man Boxleiter had arranged for me to interview. I gathered that my editor was at least as intrigued by the hoax buster as he was by the Yellowwood mystery. “Get his autograph,” was how Boxleiter expressed it.

I visited the IU campus at Bloomington on a mild day in early December. Karnes’s office was in the Physical Sciences Building, which was on the same hill as the massive football stadium and built of the same brown concrete. The professor’s second-floor office had a poster taped to the front of its open door. It featured a flying saucer with a line drawn through it below three large letter a’s. Beneath the saucer were the words “Alien Abductees Anonymous.”

I found Karnes seated at a desk in the comfortable space beyond the open door. He was reviewing some papers while a dark-haired young woman in a wildly oversized sweatshirt stood at his elbow. She looked up at me, smiled, and nudged the reading man. He looked up, too, processed the information, and said, “You’re the reporter.”

When he stood to shake my hand, I was surprised by his height or lack thereof. I’d been deceived by the size of his head, which wouldn’t have been out of proportion on a basketball center. His regular features were handsome enough to remind me of Boxleiter’s joke about the autograph.

Karnes introduced the woman who now stood a respectful step behind him as his graduate assistant, Gennetta Jones. Jones wasn’t given any lines in the scene. I soon learned that, around Karnes, few people were.

“The Yellowwood business is on the Internet already, did you know that? A UFO website, of course. Encounters close dot com, or something like that. It’s listed right after a story on strange cases of dog amnesia in Wisconsin. And there’s a link to a site that claims the pyramids were built using a ‘lost science’ of levitation. I’ve personally participated in several demonstrations showing how large stone blocks can be moved around using a whole lot of manpower and ropes and pulleys. We conducted one at a limestone quarry over in Bedford last year. Last May, wasn’t it, Gennetta?”

The dark-haired woman, whose striking eyes were also very dark, nodded, though Karnes hadn’t paused for a reply.

“But people still cling to mumbo jumbo like levitation. They think that just because a task seems difficult to them, it must be impossible to accomplish without supernatural aid. Now they’re talking about levitation in connection with these tree stones. I guess some Egyptian priests wandered into the Yellowwood Forest.”

Before we wandered into the forest ourselves, I wanted to know how Karnes had gotten into hoax busting. I was just able to squeeze the question in.

“Via Egypt, coincidentally,” he said. “You’re about the right age. Do you remember all the pyramid nonsense that was going around back in the seventies? Not just levitation, but how the Egyptians had selected the pyramid shape because it focused mystical energy. How you could sharpen an old razor blade by leaving it in a pyramid overnight. That kind of thing.

“When I was an undergraduate, I had a roommate who accepted all that manure uncritically, just because it was in a book. It showed me how vulnerable people are to cons like that, especially people who aren’t trained in the sciences. It’s almost as though the human race has a genetic flaw, a fatal weakness for mystery. I’ve dedicated my life to attacking that weakness head-on.”

The woman behind him stirred slightly. She didn’t cough or look at her watch, but Karnes got the message.

“Right, Gennetta. We have to go if we’re going to visit the forest and get back in time for my two o’clock lecture. But before we head out, take a look at this map.”

He pointed to a cork board that hung on one wall of the office. Pinned to it was a large map of Yellowwood Forest with such notable landmarks as Scarce of Fat Ridge and Sour Water Creek prominently identified. Three red pins had been stuck in the map just above Yellowwood Lake. They formed a straight line running due north.

“The red pins show the first three stones they found,” Karnes said. “We call them the red line. Just to the east is an incomplete second line, the green line.”

He indicated two green pins to the right of the red ones. One was due east of the northernmost pin in the red line. The other was across from the southernmost red pin.

“You can see that the middle pin in the green line is missing. That should be where the rock lifters perform their next feat of prestidigitation, assuming they haven’t been scared off by all the publicity. The need to complete a pattern is a common weakness of hoaxers. It’s what will trip up these rock people. We’d better head out now. Who’s going to drive?”

We decided that I’d follow Karnes’s Range Rover in my Chevy, in case I wanted to head straight back to Indianapolis. I said goodbye to Gennetta Jones, who was minding the store, and we set out on the short drive northeast to the forest.

Another advantage of driving two vehicles was the break I got from Karnes’s voice. Unfortunately, we still had a hike ahead of us after we’d parked near Yellowwood Lake. It gave the professor plenty of time to tell me about his most recent triumph. He had investigated some crop circles that had appeared in a field of winter wheat near Hopewell. I remembered the case, though I hadn’t had a chance to check out the circles myself. I even remembered the solution, but that didn’t stop Karnes from describing it proudly.

“It turned out to be the work of the farmers who owned the field, two brothers named Happe. Alonzo and Albert. They’d read about the crop circles in England and decided to fake their own. So they could bilk gullible tourists, probably. It doesn’t matter how many of those crop circles are exposed as fakes; people still want to believe in them. Even some so-called scientists. There were a couple of guys from Ball State who were convinced they were detecting electromagnetic abnormalities in the Happes’s field.

“Electromagnetic abnormalities,” he repeated with disdain. “You can find those anywhere if you look hard enough. They’re the scientific equivalent of staring at a bowl of pudding so long you think you see the Virgin Mary.

“I came down pretty hard on the Happes. Did my best to humiliate them. To serve notice that their kind of fakery won’t be tolerated in my part of Indiana.”

If I’d had a map handy, I would have asked Karnes to point out his part of Indiana, perhaps using colored pins. He descended a little from his pedestal without my prodding.

“Not that I really accomplished very much,” he said. “The faithful are always ready to stream to the site of any new miracle. Look at this path we’re following. It wasn’t here the first time I came out. It’s been worn since by the curious and the credulous. There’s the first rock, about fifty yards dead ahead.”

I could just make it out through the leafless trees. At that distance, the brown slab looked like one of the wooden platforms placed in trees for deer hunting, though this would have been an unusually tall tree stand. As we drew closer, I saw that it would also have been an unusually thick one. In shape, the flat stone resembled an arrowhead, its two long sides about four feet in length and the shorter base three. It looked to be four to five inches thick. It had been placed so that each side was supported by a healthy branch.

“They matched the stone to the tree with some care, but as you can see, there’s no shortage of sandstone rocks lying around. Or of suitable trees, of course.”

Getting one of the plentiful rocks into one of the convenient trees had still been an impressive feat. I asked Karnes how he thought it had been done.

“With an old-fashioned block and tackle, it wouldn’t be as hard as you might think. A hundred years ago, every Hoosier farm boy knew how a block and tackle worked. Now that knowledge is lost, at least as far as the average undergraduate on my campus is concerned. Thanks to television, they know more about tractor beams and magic crystals. A bad education is a kind of slavery.”

I flirted with the ranks of the disenfranchised then by saying something admiring about the way the stone lifters had managed to form one perfectly straight line and part of another.

“No great trick,” Karnes said dismissively. “Not with GPS, the Global Positioning System. With a hand-held GPS, you can make any pattern you want. The urge to form a pattern is what always trips these bozos up.”

He’d said something similar back in his office. I asked him what he meant.

“It’s not enough for the average hoaxer to do this stuff randomly. They have to impose a pattern. That tells me that the motive isn’t just to baffle people. It’s to suggest that there’s an underlying intelligence behind these phenomena and, by extension, behind the universe itself. The need to believe in something big is a fixation for these guys. Their anti-rational cast of mind makes them the natural prey of a scientist like me.

“And as I said earlier, their pattern, whatever it is, is also the hoaxers’ Achilles’ heel. It suggests where they’ll strike next, like the gap our guys have left in the green line.”

I asked him if he had the gap under surveillance.

“You’ll pardon me if I don’t answer that,” he said. “I don’t want my arrangements to end up in the Star Republic.”

Karnes offered to show me one of the other rocks, but I’d seen enough. Neither of us said much on the march back to the cars. He was saving his voice for his afternoon lecture, and I was thinking about my next stop.

It turned out to be Hopewell, a small farming town just far enough south of Indianapolis to have been spared the promotion to bedroom community. Something about the way the rock mystery had been more or less laid on Karnes’s doorstep made me think the people behind it might have a bone to pick with the professor. That made me think in turn of the Happes, the notorious crop-circle forgers. The men Karnes had gone out of his way to humiliate.

I located the Happe farm without too much trouble. I found the brothers in the shadow of a barn, changing a tire on a pickup. They were both big men, both in their sixties, both dressed in heavy boots and overalls and canvas jackets. The one who answered to Alonzo wore a brown ball cap on what appeared to be a hairless head. Albert, who must have been the family fashion plate, sported a hat of red and black plaid. They both looked down at their muddy boots when I mentioned Karnes.

“That guy,” Alonzo said. “He said we did the crop circles to cheat people out of money.”

“We didn’t,” Albert clarified.

I asked for their real motive.

They looked at each other and shrugged.

“We read about them,” Alonzo said.

“You can’t understand something just by reading about it,” Albert said.

“You’ve got to do it yourself,” Alonzo said.

Albert gestured toward the old truck. “Take it apart and put it back together.”

I pointed out that the Happes had allowed people to think their crop-circle experiment was something else.

“That was part of understanding it,” Alonzo said, and Albert nodded.

When I asked them if they’d heard about rocks finding their way into trees down in Brown County, the brothers looked at each other again. This time I thought I saw a small smile pass from one weathered face to the other.

“Nope,” Alonzo said.

“Why ask us?” Albert added.

I pointed upward to a beam that extended outward from the peak of the barn’s roof. Hanging from it was a heavy pulley block and several ropes. It was an example of a block and tackle, the device Karnes had mentioned. This one was used to lift heavy objects into the barn’s loft.

“That’s nothing,” Alonzo said. “Lot of those around.”

“No great trick to using one,” Albert said. “We could teach somebody in an afternoon.”

They shared another smile and returned to the tire project.

“Karnes is probably missing something simple,” Alonzo said as I turned to go. “College people are like that.”

“Probably something right under his nose,” Albert said.

I was so convinced by then that the old men were involved in the Yellowwood mystery I almost warned them not to place the last stone. Instead, I thanked them for their time and went off to interview a likely accomplice.

I obtained the address and phone number of Gordon Guilford, the hunter who had first discovered the rocks, from the Bloomington Herald. Guilford lived near Fruitdale, which was about midway between the Happe farm and Yellowwood State Forest. I drove to his house without calling ahead.

I’d realized, perhaps belatedly, that the Happes’s plan required that their handiwork in the forest be discovered and reported. Otherwise, Karnes would never have been called in and their elaborate joke would have remained incomplete. The brothers wouldn’t have left the discovery to chance, either, as that might have taken years. They would have arranged it.

All of which meant that Gordon Guilford knew more about the business than he’d told the Bloomington paper. At first, it seemed he would tell me even less. When I presented myself at his double-wide trailer, press card in hand, he came very close to shutting the door in my face. That was my impression, anyway, based on a guilty widening of his dark brown eyes and a nervous twitch of the hand that held the door. Then he gathered himself and asked me in.

Guilford was a grizzled gentleman only a little taller than Karnes. His trailer’s front room was nicely furnished and very neat. There were no hunting trophies on display, no deer heads or hides or gun cabinets. All of the room’s personal touches were dedicated to the game of golf or to family. An example of the latter stood on a table next to my chair, a faded color photograph of a woman who might have been Guilford’s sister, posed with her husband and two doe-eyed children. I’d never seen the sister before, but she looked quite familiar.

My conversation with Guilford was brief. Without my prompting him, he repeated, almost word for word, the story the Herald had reported. I asked him when he’d been hunting, and he named a weekend in late October. I remarked that the leaves must have been beautiful, and he said they had been. I said it was lucky he’d been able to see the rock with the leaves still on the trees. He shrugged. I asked what he’d been hunting, and he said deer, though squirrel would have been a better answer, as he would have had an excuse for looking up into the treetops, a place deer seldom hid. As I stood to go, I asked what gauge of shotgun he preferred, twelve or twenty.

Guilford said twenty, making the mistake many people who don’t hunt make about shotguns, the assumption that the larger number means a larger gun. I happened to know that a twenty gauge was a bird gun, something that would barely get a deer’s attention.

I didn’t ask Guilford about the Happes. My thinking had progressed considerably as a result of my brief stop at the trailer. After saying goodbye to the grizzled man, I pointed the Chevy in the direction of Indiana University.

Kevin Karnes’s Range Rover was back in its parking space, but the hoax buster wasn’t in his office. Gennetta Jones, graduate assistant, was. She’d discarded her tent-size sweatshirt, revealing a T-shirt that was much more becoming. More interesting, too, since it bore the legend “Question Authority.”

Jones told me that Karnes was still at his lecture. I said I was there to see her. She stared at me. When I’d had my fill of that, I asked her why she was setting stones in trees in Yellowwood Forest.

“How did you find out?” she asked.

I gave her the short answer, which was that I’d recognized her picture in Gordon Guilford’s trailer. She was one of the little children in the family photo I’d seen there. I’d realized that after first mistaking the woman in the picture for Gennetta. It had actually been Gennetta’s mother, at about the same age Gennetta was now.

“I guess I shouldn’t have used Uncle Gordie,” the assistant said. “I don’t want to be in the newspapers. Not yet.”

I told her that would depend on her story.

She shrugged. “I did it to get back at Kevin. He used me for sex last summer and then dumped me. Turns out he uses all his assistants for sex. I didn’t like it, so I worked up a little puzzle for him.”

I asked her why she hadn’t just reported Karnes.

“For what? Getting tired of me? This way is better. I’ll get my doctorate in the spring. Then I’ll give the Yellowwood story to the school paper. The laughing will be so loud, you’ll hear it in Indy.”

I asked her how she’d managed the thing.

“Putting the rocks in the trees wasn’t hard. I had some help. I recruited some of the other women from Kevin’s past.”

After she’d received a crash course in block-and-tackle theory from the Happe brothers. When I ran that guess by Gennetta, she nodded.

“The Binary Brothers, I call them. I met them during that crop-circle thing. They’re sweet old guys. Kevin never understood them. He sees the need to be part of something larger as a weakness. Especially if your mind tells you the larger something can’t be true. People used to call that faith. Kevin feels sorry for people like the Happes. I feel sorrier for him. He doesn’t believe there’s any mystery in the world. But every person you meet is an incredible mystery. Kevin can’t see that.

“He thinks he can solve anything with his instruments and gadgets. He’s got infrared cameras out there waiting to record whoever puts the last rock up.”

I asked her how she planned to get around them. She smiled at me in a way that told me I’d missed a clue.

I looked at the map with the colored pins and saw what I should have seen much earlier in the day. Stepping over to the map, I traced the red line with my finger. Then I drew a line from the upper green pin to the center red one and from there down to the lower green one. The pattern was already complete. The pins formed Karnes’s redundant initial, the letter K.

I asked Jones when the professor would spot that.

“Never,” she said. “It would mean admitting that he was wrong. Besides, it’s right under his nose. You never see what’s right under your nose.”

It was the phrase Albert Happe had used. The farmer had been referring to Karnes’s assistant, I now knew. Albert might have thought, as I did, that Karnes was a fool not to have recognized the mystery that was Gennetta Jones.

That wasn’t the safest thought for a married man to have, so I wished her luck with her degree and headed north.

Copyright © 2011 by Terence Faherty

The Backyard Cow

by Trina Corey

Trina Corey debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in March/April of 2009. (See “Vacation.”) The teacher of twenty years lives with her family in northern California and is currently at work on both a new short story and a novel. The following tale arose from her own family history: a great-grandmother who was widowed young, worked in a laundry, and bought a cow to keep in the yard...

* * * *

We agreed not to talk about it, to each other or to anyone, but she’s been dead for — how is it possible — forty years, and I’m an old lady now, and who pays attention to what old ladies say? So there can’t be any harm in old words about what is lost and forgotten...

Alma and I ate breakfast every morning before there were any lights outside, except the stars and the moon and below them a few lanterns bobbing gold light in the darkness, carried by folks out to do chores or visit the outhouse or heading early to their work. Mama left soon as the sky grayed, every time saying, “Wash the bowls before you go round with the milk,” and, “Watch out for your sister,” as if I needed telling. We scrubbed our faces and hands at the sink, getting rid of every bit of grime. We’d learned more people bought milk from clean children.

Like always, the covered pail was on the bottom step where we’d set it before breakfast, and it took both of us to lift it, the milk sloshing close to the hood, the pail digging into our fingers. The gravel crunched under our bare feet, but we hardly felt it. By the time fall came, we could step on broken glass.

We sidestepped past several houses to the Harrisons’. The honey-colored light from their kitchen poured out onto the little porch, and when we called, “Hello, hello...” Mrs. Harrison came out without making us knock.

“Just set it down right there, girls,” she said. “I’ll get the pitcher.”

Alma unhooked the end of the dipper from her apron and handed it to me without a smile. I’d just started letting her carry it, and she took her responsibility seriously, like she did everything.

“Bless your hearts, girls, bringing us fresh milk every day,” said Mrs. Harrison, holding out the chipped blue pitcher, moving it just enough to keep it under the sometimes wavering stream of milk as I dipped and poured the four cups it took to bring the milk up to the lip. She put the pennies in the palm of my hand one by one, Alma counting them out loud, and I put them in my pocket. I wasn’t ready to share the job of carrying the money with my sister.

The pail was lighter now, but we still carried it together as we turned and went the other way to the Micklebys’ house, and then down the street to the Garneys’. The baby’s crying was loud, like every morning. All the Garney babies cried and cried, and then they stopped and never wept again. Nobody could make a Garney child cry once they grew big enough to decide not to. Even when their father or the worst bully at school caught up with them, they still wouldn’t cry, but just stand there and take it, hands clenched and green eyes burning holes into whoever was whipping them, and when it finally stopped, they’d hand over their lunch or get back to whatever chore they hadn’t been doing good enough. But five minutes or an hour or a day later, whenever they could, they’d run away, like a wild thing to lick its wounds. Maybe they cried where no one could see them, but I doubt it.

When Mama led Patty home that first summer, and told us we’d have milk and butter for ourselves and money from selling the rest of it to the neighbors, Alma and I said we were big enough to help. We planned which houses we’d go to and which we’d skip and we never meant to stop at the Garneys’, but that first week, walking home with the near-empty pail swinging between us, we saw Jessie crouched under her porch, skinny arms wrapped around her bent knees, and I couldn’t help going over to her and touching her shoulder. Her head came up, eyes shining like I thought emeralds would, the bruise under the left one coal-dark.

“What happened?” I asked, and Jessie shook her head. Alma reached out, but stopped, her fingers not quite touching Jessie’s face, milk-white under the freckles and the bruise.

“Doesn’t matter.” And the hopelessness in her voice was echoed in the thin, mewling cries coming from the house, and in the tired voice that called out, “Who’s out there, Jessie? Who’re you talking to?”

“It’s Alma and Marie, Ma,” she answered. I wondered if Jessie had been watching us since we first came down our steps that day, and how many other mornings she left her house to crouch on cold dirt and watch who went past.

We heard steps on the porch, and we moved away from Jessie to where her mother could see us. “Good morning, ma’am,” I said. “My sister and I are selling milk from our cow. We could come by tomorrow if you’d like, a penny a cup.”

She stared at us, her eyes flat and dull as the stones kicked around in the middle of a road, fussing baby in her arms, another, just old enough to walk, clinging silently to her skirts. She pursed her lips, then nodded slightly. “That’d be all right. Tomorrow. Two cups, I think.” She bent over the rail. “You come in now, girl, take the baby.” Jessie stood up and went inside. We’d turned around by the time we heard the door slam shut.

Jessie didn’t come to school that day or the rest of the week. It was different for boys. Her brothers came no matter how many bruises they wore on their faces. The teacher never asked about it, of them or any other child, not like nowadays when such things could not go unremarked or unreported. Why would the teachers care when they had rulers and switches always close to hand and used them every day on one or another of their students? Not me or Alma, though. Never on us. We never talked out of turn, and our work was always done well. We knew what school meant for us. It was the way out. Out of icy mornings in the shed, when we took turns milking. Out of a home where there wasn’t enough to eat and we’d always pretend we were full anyway because the pain on our mother’s face when we’d asked for more, before we understood how much had changed, was so much worse than the hurt in our bellies. Alma and I made plans. We’d be teachers ourselves, or clerks in a store, any work would be fine as long as it was in a place that was warm and clean and dry, and we could use our minds more than our bodies. Bodies wore out or broke. Like our father’s under the wheels of a wagon, from one instant to the next. Like our mother’s in Johnson’s laundry, worn down day after day from lifting the water-logged clothes from one vat to the next, her hands and arms scoured by hot water and cheap soap made from tallow and ash.

Not all the other children saw school in the same way. The Garney boys certainly didn’t. For Stephen and Micah, the twins, school was a place to sit with their primer open in front of them and stare at it, their lips twitching a little as if they were reading, but when Miss Collier called on them to recite, they’d startle like they were waking up from a deep sleep, arms jerking out, bony elbows bumping whoever was sitting to the side of them. We learned to shift out of the way when the teacher looked in their direction. But the twins came every day, at least every day that we didn’t see them in back of their house, set at first light to hours of splitting green wood kindling or lifting wet sheets that must have weighed more than they did from the washtub and twisting them through the mangle. The Garneys came to school and didn’t seem to learn much of anything, but it must have felt an easier place than their home. On the winter days when the marks on their faces were fresh and raw, and the cold air when we played Crack the Whip or Fox and Geese would have cut sharp, Stephen and Micah stayed inside, near the wood stove, and stared at the orange flames wavering behind the bars of the little iron door.

When we got home from our rounds, we’d take Patty down along the river and let her graze where she liked, on the stretches of soft, long grasses in the spring, or the summer rushes, then the dry, crackling stems of whatever she could find in the fall. When the snows came, we let her go no further than our yard, for fear of her breaking a leg on a patch of ice, and fed her hay we had bought out of the money she made for us.

We counted it over and over again. Out loud, keeping the total in our heads as we walked from customer to customer, the coins clinking in my pocket. We made a small, tidy stack on the table before we left for school, and again when we got home, carefully adding the day’s count to the paper that we folded and kept in the little box. No one we knew kept money in a bank, no one had enough of it. No one we knew locked their doors. It wasn’t neighbors that posed any threat. Ma would check our addition, and subtraction, when we took money out for hay, and for tithing. The total slowly, achingly slowly, grew. We made no plans for the few dollars in the box in the drawer. We weren’t saving for something special. We saved for the day when a knock came at the door, and everything changed.

So we managed somehow, the three of us together. Ma walked the two miles to the trolley every day except Sunday, took it across Ogden to the laundry, and retraced her path every evening. When she came home to us and bent close as we showed her our homework, she smelled of soap and starch and near-scorched clothes. She always took a book with her, told us she read it on that clattering, swaying ride that set my stomach to churning when we’d go to visit our grandfather, but the bookmark never advanced from morning till night, not until she sent us to our prayers, then sat there at the worn table, reading in the small circle of yellow lamplight.

I don’t know if help was ever offered, and my mother refused just because we were lucky that the house and yard were ours and we could scrape by, or because whatever help might come from my grandfather would be grudging and bitter. He had enough for himself, and what he had he kept. We had taken his son from him, and in his mind, we deserved no more after we lost what he valued most.

The day before it happened, February third, after days of hard snows, we left for school. There had been no new money for Alma and me to count that day, nor had been for weeks. We had dried off Patty as she was due to freshen in March and needed her strength. Mama told us not to worry, that after the calf came there would be plenty of milk, and money from the promised selling. The Mickelbys would buy the calf, if it was a heifer, or the butcher would buy it if it was a bull calf. Alma understood, and contented herself with counting over the same small stacks of coins, a tiny copper and silver fence that only a small child could believe was a guard against disaster. It was harder for me. I missed the early morning milking, when the air was cool even in summer, and the only warm thing was the cow’s body, heat rising from it as I leaned my face and shoulder against her side, and the milk pulsing through her teats warmed my hands.

John Garney shoved past us as we walked, making us stumble. He was muttering, to himself or to the wind, who knew, the words slurred and angry, and the smell of alcohol sharp on his breath. At the corner, where we would always stop and plan our way across with care, for the road sloped and besides the snow that had hardened there into slick ice there were manure piles in various stages of freezing, John — I can call him that, for I am more than twice the age he ever came to be — rushed across and into the path of Harrison’s wagon. Mr. Harrison pulled up his team, but John Garney swore at man and beast and raised his hand to the horses. Earl Harrison was off the wagon before I could blink, and he and John were flailing at each other, then fell and rolled, shouting, on the frozen ground. I pulled Alma back from the road and the men and the stamping, nervous animals. We huddled against the fence of the nearest yard as other men came to the fray and pulled Mr. Harrison off the bleeding and swearing John Garney. He turned over, managed to get onto his hands and knees, swaying, raised his head, and looked at those who had not hurried off, eyes averted. Alma and I were still there, stunned at the public violence between grown men. This was not the norm in our experience. The town was dry, and the hand of the church was heavy. John’s gaze slid over my sister and me and fixed on something behind us.

“You. Come here.” His voice was hard as ice, and the twins, who I guessed had seen near everything of their father’s defeat, went past us as silent as two small figures made of snow. They knew, as did we, what would happen once they helped their father back to their house. But even though they’d bear the brunt of their father’s anger for having witnessed his fall, I believed they would be in school, bruised but stubborn in their quiet staring attention if not to our teacher, at least to the fire dancing in the iron stove. They knew better, I realized later, and Stephen held Micah’s hand in his as they walked to their father. Stephen came alone and would not explain his twin’s, or Jessie’s, absence. Alma and I watched that day and said nothing. What was there to say? Who was there to tell? All we did was sit on the hard bench beside Stephen, silent except for our recitations of that day, the capitals and products of the Mid-Atlantic states, and the conjugations of the verb “to choose.”

I woke during the night, as I had every night since my father died, and turned over and set my hand close to Alma’s mouth to see that she still breathed. Then I walked to my mother’s room, the bare floor cold on my feet, and watched for the slight rise and fall of her shoulders. Satisfied that all was well — as well as it could be, within our house — I wrapped my mother’s green shawl over my nightgown and went to the back porch, slipped on my boots, and went out to check on Patty. The moon was no more than a thin line of light, the snow dull as unpolished silver, and our cow slept in the deep shadows of the shed. As I stood there, watching her breath make little clouds, I heard footfalls on the snow, someone passing through our yard. I looked out and saw a moving shadow, picked out by the light the small figure carried. I must have made some sound, though I meant not to, because he stopped and raised his lantern to see, though it did no more than brighten his face and blind him to me. I was quiet then, and after a few moments he moved on. I watched the light moving away, bobbing as Stephen leaned down to slip through the rails of our fence. So I was not the only one who woke, and walked, though I would not venture as far as he did.

The cries and alarm rose not long afterward. I had returned to bed, though not to sleep, when the shouts and sounds of running pounded in from out on the street. Alma had startled awake, and begun her noiseless crying when Mama came in and took us by the hands, and we went to the door together to see what trouble had come. The neighbor men were rushing past, down to where a glow rose behind the Harrisons’ small house. “Get dressed, girls, quickly,” Mother told us, “we’ll go to see if we can help.”

The fire was burning high when we got there, orange and yellow against the still-black sky, the men throwing buckets of water and shovelfuls of snow on the flames rising from the wagon and the two-stall barn. The snow hissed and melted and ran in ashy streams to where we stood with the other women and girls. The boys pushed in closer, and voices rose, loud and harsh as crows, crowded together in a babble of words and cries. “... happened... start... both horses out... saw anything...” Then a few words began to be repeated. “Lantern... broken... Garney... Garney... too much... no more...”

Finally the fire died down, and the men stood beside the collapsed wagon and the fallen beams and boards of the barn, warning off the boys who danced in near as they dared to the sparking embers. The elders of our ward gathered around Earl Harrison and what they talked of we could not hear. Earl Harrison walked into his unburned house and came out carrying a rifle. The elders turned as one and without regarding those of us who watched, set their buckets and shovels against the fence and walked, each man slow and weary-looking, down the street. Some younger men stayed to stand sentinel over the fire lest the wind rise and feed it, others saw to the horses, and several women went inside with Sarah Harrison to tend to those who had been burned on their hands or faces, but the rest of the crowd, and us with them, followed the elders. Men broke off from the group, went into their dark houses, and when they caught up, carried rifles of their own. I wondered how long it had been since any were fired. Since deer hunting months before, I thought.

They stood at the foot of the steps and looked up at the dark windows of the Garney house. “Brother Garney,” they called out, so he must have been a member of the church at some time, though I had never seen him inside its walls or following its teachings. They called again, voices roughened by smoke and exhaustion. These were men who worked fourteen hours or more most days, and to have lost half of what little rest they could claim each night lay heavy on them all. I wondered what they would do if no answer came, but the door opened and Sarah Garney stood there, the baby in her arms.

“We’ve come to speak with your husband, Sister Garney.”

She shook her head, said, “He’s asleep.”

“Wake him, then. We must see him.”

A long minute went by as she stared at us, then turned away. Before she went back in, I saw her mouth move, though I heard no words from where I stood, but what she said satisfied the men for they stood quiet, shoulders sagging.

A match must have been struck and a lantern lit, for light flared behind a window, and John Garney came out. He leaned against the door, reaching across the narrow space with his other hand, holding onto the frame, and I could see how he shifted, looking for balance and not finding it.

“Where have you been tonight?” he was asked. And so it began, the questions that had no answers anyone wanted or would believe.

“I’ve been in the house all night and what business is it of yours?”

“A good man’s wagon and barn have been burned, the same man you fought for no reason just hours ago. Several of those who helped have suffered injury.”

“That was no doing of mine. If I come at a man he sees my face when I lift my hand to him.”

Through the doorway, I saw Sarah Garney return, to stand behind her husband, just out of reach, and from around the back of the house, Jessie walked, so slowly I think few people marked the movement. She had both twins beside her, one arm around each.

The men waited, calm and implacable, and Garney turned, so unsteady I thought he would fall, but he grabbed his wife by the arm and thrust her before him.

“Tell them,” he said. “Tell them where I’ve been all night.”

Again she waited, silent long enough to give weight to whatever opinion the listeners had of her — that she would lie to protect him, that she would lie out of fear of him, or that she would tell the truth no matter how many were set against her husband.

“He’s been here. He’s been here since the accident.”

Mutters rose in the crowd that it was no accident if a drunk filled himself with moonshine and stepped in front of a team of horses. Nor was it an accident when a lantern broke against both wagon and barn.

I looked over at Jessie, who crouched there now in the snow with her brothers. No one else noticed them. She had made them put on their shoes and coats. I wondered, was it for waiting in the cold while the grownups talked and made their decisions, or was it preparing to run. She saw me watching her, and her arm tightened around Stephen.

The men shifted, stood with their shoulders touching, made a fence of their tired bodies. One spoke. “You will have to leave, Brother Garney. Whether this burning can be laid at your door by the sheriff or not, we know where the blame rests. This is not the first of the many troubles you have brought us. It must be the last.”

Garney took a step toward them. “I’ll not go. Damn all of you.”

“You will. The elders of his ward will speak to the owner of this house and he will evict your family tomorrow.”

I saw Jessie flinch, and heard the outcry from her mother.

“Or you leave by yourself. We have no quarrel with your wife or children. If you are gone, they may stay. We will help them find work. Choose now.”

Jessie’s eyes blazed through the darkness. She knew. There would be too few lanterns in her house for her not to see that one had vanished. Her hand crept further around Stephen, closer to his mouth to keep him from calling out. But I knew he would not. He was still and silent as the ice frozen down to the mud on the floor of the river.

Had he done it to free them? Known the blame would fall on his father? Known to use the men who stood there to finally stay his father’s hand? Men who waited there tired and worn, who would risk their lives to save wood and iron, but would never have saved his family from beatings. Or had he done it out of the broken thinking of victims I have seen so often acted out, to turn on the one who attacks their attacker? I didn’t know. I still don’t. I only knew Stephen would use no words that night. Whatever sent him out into the night with fire, now he would stand and watch, and see what else was done.

As I watched, I knew what the loss of a father, even one so miserable as John Garney, meant to a family dependent on his earnings, but I said nothing. If any of us who knew — Jessie, me, Stephen himself — told that he had set the fire, a promise of restitution would be demanded, but then everyone would turn away and leave Stephen at the mercy of his father. The smell of smoke and burned things hung in the cold air as we waited for Garney to make his choice, the men thinking they were protecting neighbors and property, while I knew they were shielding one boy. Garney turned to his wife, and Sarah, after a wild-eyed look at the people crowded round her steps, wrapped one arm tighter around the baby she held, the other hand on the toddler who clutched at her skirts, and stumbled down the steps.

“You worthless piece of...” he snarled at her, “I’ll be well rid of you and those brats.” He clenched his fist, ready to strike, but she was out of reach so he leaned down, grabbing the worn railing, and spat at her, then spun awkwardly around and disappeared.

My mother moved forward then, put her arm around Sarah Garney, said, “You and your children come home with us until your husband has taken his things and left. The elders will see to him. Marie, Alma, you bring Jessie and the twins along.” So she had noticed them, too.

Before we could turn away, he came back out, a rifle cradled in one arm.

“You’ll not tell me what to do or where to go, you self-righteous sons of whor*s,” he shouted, and lifted the gun to his shoulder, the barrel swaying back and forth, but always pointed into the crowd.

Two shots rang out, one after another, and he fell back, his shot wild and harming none of us.

Sarah seemed to collapse against my mother, but my mother was strong from lifting clothes heavy with water, so she bore Sarah and the small ones quickly along, and Alma and I followed, Jessie in the center, me beside Micah — I could feel him shaking — and Alma next to Stephen.

My mother forced cup after cup of tea into them all, and then food, and that night they slept in our beds. By the morning, the body was gone, the blood scrubbed from the porch, and the family returned to their house. But a sort of friendship had begun out of the smoke and secrets of that night.

The elders found Mrs. Garney a place at the laundry where my mother worked. Jessie stayed home to care for her little sisters. At her house after school, we would take out our books and homework and teach her what we had learned that day. Stephen and Micah were given jobs at the grocer’s, measuring out grain, washing and trimming vegetables, cleaning up after the butcher. They would come home with their hands nicked and clothes stained, but they would also bring the beets or potatoes or green apples that had not been good enough to sell, and the marbled trimmings the butcher gave to them. The twins never returned to school. Micah eventually drifted off, disappearing for weeks, then months, and then we saw no more of him. As the years passed, Stephen was given increasing responsibilities and came to be manager, and then started his own store. Jessie never married. She had seen enough of the institution and had no use for it, though she would spend her life taking care of other people’s children.

When I finally realized what had come to be between Alma and Stephen, I sat Alma down at the old table and told her what he had done. Not to keep them apart, I had no expectation that was possible, or any wish for it. He was no more like his father than my own had been like his.

Stephen never asked me for silence. I don’t know if Alma told him I knew. I expect she did. They were so close they seemed to share each breath, and after she died, too young, too young, he walked through this world only out of obligation to all those who depended on him.

Copyright © 2011 by Trina Corey

The Long Way Down

by Edward D. Hoch

“One of Ed’s finest stories,” says Douglas Greene of Crippen and Landru, the publisher of several Hoch collections, “is ‘A Long Way Down,’ an impossible crime tale — man jumps out of skyscraper window but dis-appears on the way down.” The story first appeared in AHMM in February 1965, three years after the author’s first sale to EQMM but eight years prior to his beginning his 36-year streak of unbroken EQMM publication. It’s been reprinted several times, but never before in this magazine.

* * * *

Many men have disappeared under unusual circ*mstances, but perhaps none more unusual than those which befell Billy Calm.

The day began in a routine way for McLove. He left his apartment in midtown Manhattan and walked through the foggy March morning just as he did on every working day of the year. When he was still several blocks away, he could make out the bottom floors of the great glass slab that was the home office of the Jupiter Steel & Brass Corporation. But above the tenth floor the fog had taken over, shrouding everything in a dense coat of moisture that could have been the roof of the world.

Underfoot, the going was slushy. The same warm air mass that had caused the fog was making short work of the previous day’s two-inch snowfall. McLove, who didn’t really mind Manhattan winters, was thankful that spring was only days away. Finally he turned into the massive marble lobby of the Jupiter Steel Building, thinking for the hundredth time that only the garish little newsstand in one corner kept it from being an exact replica of the interior of an Egyptian tomb. Anyway, it was dry inside, without slush underfoot.

McLove’s office on the twenty-first floor had been a point of creeping controversy from the very beginning. It was the executive floor, bulging with the vice-presidents and others who formed the inner core of Billy Calm’s little family. The very idea of sharing this exclusive office space with the firm’s security chief had repelled many of them, but when Billy Calm spoke, there were few who openly dared challenge his mandates.

McLove had moved to the executive floor soon after the forty-year-old boy genius of Wall Street had seized control of Jupiter Steel in a proxy battle that had split stockholders into armed camps. On the day Billy Calm first walked through the marble lobby to take command of his newest acquisition, a disgruntled shareholder named Raimey had shot his hat off, and actually managed to get a second shot before being overpowered. From that day on, Billy Calm used the private elevator at the rear of the building, and McLove supervised security from the twenty-first floor.

It was a thankless task that amounted to little more than being a sometime bodyguard for Calm. His duties, in the main, consisted of keeping Calm’s private elevator in working order, attending directors’ meetings with the air of a reluctant outsider, supervising the security forces at the far-flung Jupiter mills, and helping with arrangements for Calm’s numerous public appearances. For this he was paid fifteen thousand dollars a year, which was the principal reason he did it.

On the twenty-first floor, this morning, Margaret Mason was already at her desk outside the directors’ room. She looked up as McLove stepped into the office and flashed him their private smile. “How are you, McLove?”

“Morning, Margaret. Billy in yet?”

“Mr. Calm? Not yet. He’s flying in from Pittsburgh. Should be here anytime now.”

McLove glanced at his watch. He knew the directors’ meeting was scheduled for ten, and that was only twenty minutes away. “Heard anything?” he asked, knowing that Margaret Mason was the best source of information on the entire floor. She knew everything and would tell you most of it, provided it didn’t concern herself.

Now she nodded, and bent forward a bit across the desk. “Mr. Calm phoned from his plane and talked with Jason Greene. The merger is going through. He’ll announce it officially at the meeting this morning.”

“That’ll make some people around here mighty sad.” McLove was thinking of W.T. Knox and Sam Hamilton, two directors who had opposed the merger from the very beginning. Only twenty-four hours earlier, before Billy Calm’s rush flight to Pittsburgh in his private plane, it had appeared that their efforts would be successful.

“They should know better than to buck Mr. Calm,” Margaret said.

“I suppose so.” McLove glanced at his watch again. For some reason, he was getting nervous. “Say, how about lunch, if we get out of the meeting in time?”

“Fine.” She gave him the small smile again. “You’re the only one I feel safe drinking with at noon.”

“Be back in a few minutes.”

“I’ll buzz you if Mr. Calm gets in.”

He glanced at the closed doors of the private elevator and nodded. Then he walked down the hall to his own office once more. He got a pack of cigarettes from his desk and went across the hall to W.T. Knox’s office.

“Morning, W.T. What’s new?”

The tall man looked up from a file folder he’d been studying. Thirty-seven, a man who had retained most of his youthful good looks and all of his charm, Knox was popular with the girls on 21. He’d probably have been more popular if he hadn’t had a pregnant wife and five children of varying ages.

“McLove, look at this weather!” He gestured toward the window, where a curtain of fog still hung. “Every winter I say I’ll move to Florida, and every winter the wife talks me into staying.”

Jason Greene, balding and ultra-efficient, joined them with a sheaf of reports. “Billy should be in at any moment. He phoned me to say the merger had gone through.”

Knox dropped his eyes. “I heard.”

“When the word gets out, Jupiter stock will jump another ten points.”

McLove could almost feel the tension between the two men; one gloating, and the other bitter. He walked to the window and stared out at the fog, trying to see the invisible building across the street. Below, he could not even make out the setback of their own building, though it was only two floors lower. Fog... well, at least it meant that spring was on the way.

Then there was a third voice behind him, and he knew without turning that it belonged to Shirley Taggert, the president’s personal secretary. “It’s almost time for the board meeting,” she said, with that hint of a Southern drawl that either attracted or repelled but left no middle ground. “You people ready?”

Shirley was grim-faced but far from ugly. She was a bit younger than Margaret Mason’s mid thirties, a bit sharper of dress and mind. But she paid the penalty for being Billy Calm’s secretary every time she walked down the halls. Conversations ceased, suspicious glances followed her, and there was always a half-hidden air of tension at her arrival. She ate lunch alone, and one or two fellows who had been brave enough to ask her for a date hadn’t bothered to ask a second time.

“We’re ready,” Jason Greene told her. “Is he here yet?”

She shook her head and glanced at the clock. “He should be in any minute.”

McLove left them grouped around Knox’s desk and walked back down the hall. Sam Hamilton, the joker, passed him on the way and stopped to tell him a quick gag. He, at least, didn’t seem awfully upset about the impending merger, although he had opposed it. McLove liked Sam better than any of the other directors, probably because at the age of fifty he was still a big kid at heart. You could meet him on even ground and, at times, feel like he was letting you outdo him.

“Anything yet?” McLove asked Margaret, returning to her desk outside the director’s room.

“No sign of Mr. Calm, but he shouldn’t be long now. It’s just about ten.”

McLove glanced at the closed door of Billy Calm’s office, next to the directors’ room, and entered the latter. The room was quite plain, with only one door through which he had entered, and unbroken walls of dull oak paneling on either wall. The far end of the room, with two wide windows looking out at the fog, was only twenty feet away, and the conference table that was the room’s only piece of furniture had just the eight necessary chairs grouped around it. Some had been heard to complain that the room lacked the stature of Jupiter Steel, but Billy Calm contended he liked the forced intimacy of it.

Now, as McLove stood looking out the windows, the whole place seemed to reflect the cold mechanization of the modern office building. The windows could not be opened. Even their cleaning had to be done from the outside, on a gondola-like platform that climbed up and down the sheer glass walls. There were no window sills, and McLove’s fingers ran unconsciously along the bottom of the window frame as he stood staring out. The fog might be lifting a little, but he couldn’t be certain.

McLove went out to Margaret Mason’s desk, saw that she was gathering together her copy books and pencils for the meeting, and decided to take a glance into Billy Calm’s office. It was the same size as the directors’ room, and almost as plain in its furnishings. Only the desk, cluttered with the trivia of a businessman’s lifetime, gave proof of human occupancy. On the left wall still hung the faded portrait of the firm’s founder, and on the right, a more recent photograph of Israel Black, former president of Jupiter and still a director though he never came to the meetings. This was Billy Calm’s domain. From here he ruled a vast empire of holdings, and a word from him could send men to their financial ruin.

McLove straightened suddenly on hearing a man’s muffled voice at Margaret’s desk outside. He heard her ask, “What’s the matter?” and then heard the door of the directors’ room open. Hurrying back to her desk, he was just in time to see the door closing again.

“Is he finally here?”

Margaret, unaccountably white-faced, opened her mouth to answer, just as there came the tinkling crash of a breaking window from the inner room. They both heard it clearly, and she dropped the cigarette she’d been in the act of lighting. “Billy!” she screamed out. “No, Billy!”

They were at the door together after only an instant’s hesitation, pushing it open before them, hurrying into the directors’ room. “No,” McLove said softly, staring straight ahead at the empty room and the long table and the shattered window in the opposite wall. “He jumped.” Already the fog seemed to be filling the room with its damp mists as they hurried to the window and peered out at nothing.

“Billy jumped,” Margaret said dully, as if unable to comprehend the fact. “He killed himself.”

McLove turned and saw Knox standing in the doorway. Behind him, Greene and Hamilton and Shirley Taggert were coming up fast. “Billy Calm just jumped out of the window,” McLove told them.

“No,” Margaret Mason said, turning from the window. “No, no, no, no...” Then, suddenly overcome with the shock of it, she tumbled to the floor in a dead faint.

“Take care of her,” McLove shouted to the others. “I’ve got to get downstairs.”

Knox bent to lift the girl in his arms, while Sam Hamilton hurried to the telephone. Shirley had settled into one of the padded directors’ chairs, her face devoid of all expression. And Jason Greene, loyal to the end, actually seemed to be crying.

In the hallway, McLove pushed the button of Billy Calm’s private elevator and waited for it to rise from the depths of the building. The little man would have no further use for it now. He rode it down alone, leaning against its padded walls, listening to, but hardly hearing, the dreary hum of its descent. In another two minutes he was on the street, looking for the crowd that would surely be gathered, listening for the sound of rising sirens.

But there was nothing. Nothing but the usual mid-morning traffic. Nothing but hurrying pedestrians and a gang of workmen drilling at the concrete and a policeman dully directing traffic.

There was no body.

McLove hurried over to the police officer. “A man just jumped out of the Jupiter Steel Building,” he said. “What happened to him?”

The policeman wrinkled his brow. “Jumped? From where?”

“Twenty-first floor. Right above us.”

They both gazed upward into the gradually lifting fog. The police officer shrugged his shoulders. “Mister, I been standing in this very spot for more than an hour. Nobody jumped from up there.”

“But...” McLove continued staring into the fog. “But he did jump. I practically saw him do it. And if he’s not down here, where is he?”

Back on 21, McLove found the place in a state somewhere between sheer shock and calm confusion. People were hurrying without purpose in every direction, bent on their own little useless errands. Sam Hamilton was on the phone to his broker, trying to get the latest quotation on Jupiter stock. “The bottom’ll drop out of it when this news hits,” he confided to McLove. “With Billy gone, the merger won’t go through.”

McLove lit a cigarette. “Billy Calm is gone, all right, but he’s not down there. He vanished somewhere between the twenty-first floor and the street.”


W.T. Knox joined them, helping a pale but steady Margaret Mason by the arm. “She’ll be all right,” he said. “It was the shock.”

McLove reached out his hand to her. “Tell us exactly what happened. Every word of it.”

“Well...” she hesitated and then sat down. Behind her, Hamilton and Shirley Taggert were deep in animated conversation, and Jason Greene had appeared from somewhere with a policeman in tow.

“You were at the desk,” McLove began, helping her. “And I came out of the directors’ room and went into Billy’s office. Then what?”

“Well, Mr. Calm came in, and as he passed my desk he mumbled something. I didn’t catch it, and I asked him what was the matter. He seemed awfully upset about something. Anyway, he passed my desk and went into the directors’ room. He was just closing the door when you came out, and you know the rest.”

McLove nodded. He knew the rest, which was nothing but the shattered window and the vanished man. “Well, the body’s not down there,” he told them again. “It’s not anywhere. Billy Calm dived through that window and flew away.”

Shirley passed Hamilton a telephone she had just answered. “Yes?” He listened a moment and then hung up. “The news about Billy went out over the stock ticker. Jupiter Steel is selling off fast. It’s already down three points.”

“Goodbye merger,” Knox said, and though his face was grim his voice was not.

A detective arrived on the scene to join the police officer. Quickly summoned workmen were tacking cardboard over the smashed windows, carefully removing some of the jagged splinters of glass from the bottom of the frame. Things were settling down a little, and the police were beginning to ask questions.

“Mr. McLove, you’re in charge of security for the company?”

“That’s right.”

“Why was it necessary to have a security man sit in on directors’ meetings?”

“Some nut tried to kill Billy Calm awhile back. He was still nervous. Private elevator and all.”

“What was the nut’s name?”

“Raimey, I think. Something like that. Don’t know where he is now.”

“And who was usually present at these meetings? I see eight chairs in there.”

“Calm, and three vice-presidents: Greene, Knox, and Hamilton. Also Calm’s secretary, Miss Taggert, and Miss Mason, who kept the minutes of the meeting. The seventh chair is mine, and the eighth one is kept for Mr. Black, who never comes down for the meetings anymore.”

“There was resentment between Calm and Black?”

“A bit. You trying to make a mystery out of this?”

The detective shrugged. “Looks like pretty much of a mystery already.”

And McLove had to admit that it did.

He spent an hour with the police, both upstairs and down in the street. When they finally left just before noon, he went looking for Margaret Mason. She was back at her desk, surprisingly, looking as if nothing in the world had happened.

“How about lunch?” he said. “Maybe a martini would calm your nerves.”

“I’m all right now, thanks. The offer sounds good, but you’ve got a date.” She passed him an inter-office memo. It was signed by William T. Knox, and it requested McLove’s presence in his office at noon.

“I suppose I have to tell them what I know.”

“Which is?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. All I know is a dozen different things that couldn’t have happened to Calm. I’ll try to get out of there as soon as I can. Will you wait for me? Till one, anyway?” he asked.

“Sure. Good luck.”

He returned her smile, then went down the long hallway to Knox’s office. It wasn’t surprising to find Hamilton and Greene already there, and he settled down in the remaining chair feeling himself the center of attention.

“Well?” Knox asked. “Where is he?”

“Gentlemen, I haven’t the faintest idea.”

“He’s dead, of course.” Jason Greene spoke up.

“Probably,” McLove agreed. “But where’s the body?”

Hamilton rubbed his fingers together in a nervous gesture. “That’s what we have to find out. My phone has been ringing for an hour. The brokers are going wild, to say nothing of Pittsburgh!”

McLove nodded. “I gather the merger stands or falls on Billy Calm.”

“Right! If he’s dead, it’s dead.”

Jason Greene spoke again. “Billy Calm was a great man, and I’d be the last person in the world to try to sink the merger for which he worked so hard. But he’s dead, all right. And there’s just one place the body could have gone.”

“Where’s that?” Knox asked.

“It landed on a passing truck or something like that, of course.”

Hamilton’s eyes widened. “Sure!” he remarked sarcastically.

But McLove reluctantly shook his head. “That was the first thought the police had. We checked it out and it couldn’t have happened. This building is set back from the street; it has to be, on account of this sheer glass wall. I doubt if a falling body could hit the street, and even if it did, the traffic lane on this side is torn up for repairs. And there’s been a policeman on duty there all morning. The body didn’t land on the sidewalk or the street, and no truck or car passed anywhere near enough.”

W. T. Knox blinked and ran a hand through his thinning, but still wavy, hair. “If he didn’t go down, where did he go? Up?”

“Maybe he never jumped,” Hamilton suggested. “Maybe Margaret made the whole thing up.”

McLove wondered at his words, wondered if Margaret had been objecting to some of his jokes again. “You forget that I was out there with her. I saw her face when that window smashed. The best actress in the world couldn’t have faked that expression. Besides, I saw him go in — or at least I saw the door closing after him. It couldn’t close by itself.”

“And the room was empty when you two entered it a moment later,” Knox said. “Therefore Billy must have gone through the window. We have to face the fact. He couldn’t have been hiding under the table.”

“If he didn’t go down,” Sam Hamilton said, “he went up! By a rope to the roof or another window.”

But once more McLove shook his head. “You’re forgetting that none of the windows can be opened. And it’s a long way up to the roof. The people checked it, though. They found nothing but an unmarked sea of melting snow and slush. Not a footprint, just a few pigeon tracks.”

Jason Greene frowned across the desk. “But he didn’t go down, up, or sideways, and he didn’t stay in the room.”

McLove wondered if he should tell them his idea, or wait until later. He decided now was as good a time as any. “Suppose he did jump, and something caught him on the way down. Suppose he’s hanging there now, hidden by the fog.”

“A flagpole? Something like that?”

“But there aren’t any,” Knox protested. “There’s nothing but a smooth glass wall.”

“There’s one thing,” McLove reminded them, looking at their expectant faces. “The thing they use to wash the windows.”

Jason Greene walked to the window. “We can find out easily enough. The sun has just about burned the fog away.”

They couldn’t see from that side of the building, so they rode down in the elevator to the street. As quickly as it had come, the fog seemed to have vanished, leaving a clear and sparkling sky with a brilliant sun seeking out the last remnants of the previous day’s snow. The four of them stood in the street, in the midst of digging equipment abandoned for the lunch hour, and stared up at the great glass side of the Jupiter Steel Building.

There was nothing to see. No body dangling in space, no window-washing scaffold. Nothing.

“Maybe he took it back up to the roof,” Knox suggested.

“No footprints, remember?” McLove tried to cover his disappointment. “It was a long shot, anyway. The police checked the tenants for several floors beneath the broken window, and none of them saw anything. If Calm had landed on a scaffold, someone would have noticed it.”

For a while longer they continued staring up at the building, each of them drawn to the tiny speck on the twenty-first floor where cardboard temporarily covered the shattered glass. “Why,” Jason Greene asked suddenly, “didn’t the cop down here see falling glass when it hit? Was the window broken from the outside?”

McLove smiled. “No, the glass all went out, and down. It was the drilling again; the sound covered the glass hitting. And that section of the sidewalk was blocked off. The policeman didn’t hear it hit, but we were able to find pieces of it. You can see where they were swept up.”

W.T. Knox sighed deeply. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll go to lunch. Maybe we can all think better on a full stomach.”

They separated a few moments after that, and McLove went back up to 21 for Margaret Mason. He found her in Billy Calm’s office with Shirley Taggert. They were on their knees, running their hands over the oak-paneled wall.

“What’s all this?” he asked.

“Just playing detective,” Margaret said. “It was Shirley’s idea. She mentioned about how Mr. Calm always wanted the office door left exactly as it was, and with the directors’ room right next door, even though both rooms were really too small. She thought of a secret panel of some sort.”

“Margaret!” Shirley got reluctantly to her feet. “You make it sound like something out of a dime novel. Really, though, it was a possibility. It would explain how he left the room without jumping from the window.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense,” McLove said. “Did you find anything?”

“Nothing. And we’ve been over both sides of the wall.”

“They don’t build them like they used to in merrie old England. Let’s forget it and have lunch.”

Shirley Taggert smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt. “You two go ahead. You don’t want me along.”

She was gone before they could protest, and McLove wasn’t about to protest too loudly anyway. He didn’t mind Shirley as a coworker but, like everyone else, he was acutely conscious of her position in the office scheme of things. Even now, with Billy Calm vanished into the blue, she was still a dangerous force not to be included at social hours.

He went downstairs with Margaret and they found an empty booth at the basem*nt restaurant across the street. It was a place they often went after work for a drink, though lately he’d seen less of her outside of office hours. Thinking back to the first time he’d become aware of Margaret, he only had fuzzy memories of the tricks Sam Hamilton used to play. He loved to walk up behind the secretaries and tickle them — or occasionally even unzip their dresses — and he had quickly discovered that Margaret Mason was a likely candidate for his attentions. She always rewarded his efforts with a lively scream, without ever really getting upset.

It had been a rainy autumn evening some months back that McLove’s path crossed hers most violently, linking them with a secret that made them drinking companions if nothing more. He’d been at loose ends that evening, and wandered into a little restaurant over by the East River. Surprisingly enough, Margaret Mason had been there, defending her honor in a back booth against a very drunk escort. McLove had moved in, flattened him with one punch, and they had left him collapsed against a booth.

After that, on different drinking occasions, she had poured out the sort of lonely story he might have expected. And he’d listened and lingered, and sometimes fruitlessly imagined that he might become one of the men in her life. He knew there was no one for a long time after the bar incident, just as he knew now, by her infrequent free evenings, that there was someone again. Their drinking dates were more often being confined to lunch hours, when even two martinis were risky, and she never talked about being lonely or bored.

This day, over the first drink, she said, “It was terrible, really terrible.”

“I know. It’s going to get worse, I’m afraid. He’s going to turn up somewhere.”

“Dead or alive?”

“I wish I knew.”

She lit a cigarette. “Will you be blamed for it?”

“I couldn’t be expected to guard him from himself. Besides, I wasn’t hired as a personal bodyguard. I’m chief of security, and that’s all. I’m not a bodyguard or a detective. I don’t know the first thing about fingerprints or clues. All I know is about people.”

“What do you know about the Jupiter people?”

McLove finished his drink before answering. “Very little, really. Except for you. Hamilton and Knox and Greene and the rest of them are nothing more than names and faces. I’ve never even had a drink with any of them. I sit around at those meetings and, frankly, I’m bored stiff. If anybody tries to blame me for this thing, they’ll be looking for a new security chief.”

Margaret’s glass was empty too, and he signaled the waiter for two more. It was that sort of day. When they came, he noticed that her usually relaxed face was a bit tense, and the familiar sparkle of her blue eyes was no longer in evidence. She’d been through a lot that morning, and even the drinks were failing to relax her.

“Maybe I’ll quit with you,” she said.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve talked. How have things been?”

“All right.” She said it with a little shrug.

“The new boyfriend?”

“Don’t call him that, please.”

“I hope he’s an improvement over the last one.”

“So do I. At my age, you get involved with some strange ones.”

“Do you love him?”

She thought for a moment and then answered, “I guess I do.”

He lit another cigarette. “When Billy Calm passed your desk this morning, did he seem—?” The sentence stopped in the middle, cut short by a sudden scream from the street. McLove stood up and looked toward the door, where a waiter was already running outside to see what had happened.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know, but there seems to be a crowd gathering. Come on!”

Outside, they crossed the busy street and joined the crowd on the sidewalk of the Jupiter Building. “What happened?” Margaret asked somebody.

“Guy jumped, I guess.”

They fought their way through now, and McLove’s heart was pounding with anticipation of what they would see. It was Billy Calm, all right, crushed and dead and looking very small. But there was no doubt it was he.

A policeman arrived from somewhere with a blanket and threw it over the thing on the sidewalk. McLove saw Sam Hamilton fighting his way through the crowd to their side. “Who is it?” Hamilton asked, but he too must have known.

“Billy,” McLove told him. “It’s Billy Calm.”

Hamilton stared at the blanket for a moment and then looked at his watch. “Three hours and forty-five minutes since he jumped. I guess he must have taken the long way down.”

W.T. Knox was pacing the floor like a caged animal, and Shirley Taggert was sobbing silently in a corner chair. It was over. Billy Calm had been found. The reaction was only beginning to set in. The worst, they all realized, was still ahead.

Jason Greene glared at Hamilton as he came into the office. “Well, the market’s closed. Maybe you can stay off that phone for a while now.”

Sam Hamilton didn’t lose his grim smile. “Right now the price of Jupiter stock happens to be something that’s important to all of us. You may be interested to know that it fell fourteen more points before they had to suspend trading in it for the rest of the session. They still don’t have a closing price on it.”

Knox held up both hands. “All right, all right! Let’s everybody calm down and try to think. What do the police say, McLove?”

Feeling as if he were only a messenger boy between the two camps, McLove replied, “Billy was killed by the fall, and he’d been dead only a few minutes when they examined him. Body injuries would indicate that he fell from this height.”

“But where was he for nearly four hours?” Greene wanted to know. “Hanging there, invisible, outside the window?”

Shirley Taggert collected herself enough to join the conversation. “He got out of that room somehow and then came back and jumped later,” she said. “That’s how it must have been.”

But McLove shook his head. “I hate to throw cold water on logical explanations, but that’s how it couldn’t have been. Remember, the windows in this building can’t be opened. No other window has been broken, and the one on this floor is still covered by cardboard.”

“The roof!” Knox suggested.

“No. There still aren’t any footprints on the roof. We checked.”

“Didn’t anybody see him falling?”

“Apparently not till just before he hit.”

“The thing’s impossible,” Knox said.


They were all looking at McLove. “Then what happened?” Greene asked.

“I don’t know what happened, except for one thing. Billy Calm didn’t hang in space for four hours. He didn’t fall off the roof, or out of any other window, which means he could only have fallen from the window in the directors’ room.”

“But the cardboard...”

“Somebody replaced it afterwards. And that means...”

“It means Billy was murdered,” Knox breathed. “It means he didn’t commit suicide.”

McLove nodded. “He was murdered, and by somebody on this floor. Probably by somebody in this room.” He glanced around.

Night settled cautiously over the city, with a scarlet sunset to the west that clung inordinately long to its reign over the skies. The police had returned, and the questioning went on, concurrently with the long-distance calls to Pittsburgh and five other cities where Jupiter had mills. There was confusion, somehow more so with the coming of darkness to the outer world. Secretaries and workers from the other floors gradually drifted home, but on 21 life went on.

“All right,” Knox breathed finally as it was nearing eight o’clock. “We’ll call a directors’ meeting for Monday morning, to elect a new president. That should give the market time to settle down, and let us know just how bad things really are. At the same time, we’ll issue a statement about the proposed merger. I gather we’re in agreement that it’s a dead issue for the time being.”

Sam Hamilton nodded, and Jason Greene reluctantly shrugged his assent. Shirley Taggert looked up from her pad. “What about old Israel Black? With Mr. Calm dead, he’ll be back in the picture.”

Jason Greene shrugged. “Let him come. We can keep him in line. I never thought the old guy was so bad anyway, not really.”

It went on like this, the talk, the bickering, the occasional flare of temper, until nearly midnight. Finally, McLove felt he could excuse himself and head for home. In the outer office, Margaret was straightening her desk, and he was surprised to realize that she was still around. He hadn’t seen her in the past few hours.

“I thought you went home,” he said.

“They might have needed me.”

“They’ll be going all night at this rate. How about a drink?”

“I should get home.”

“All right. Let me take you, then. The subways aren’t safe at this hour.”

She turned her face up to smile at him. “Thanks, McLove. I can use someone like you tonight.”

They went down together in the elevator, and out into a night turned decidedly coolish. He skipped the subway and hailed a cab. Settled back on the red leather, he asked, “Do you want to tell me about it, Margaret?”

He couldn’t see her face in the dark, but after a moment she asked, “Tell you what?”

“What really happened. I’ve got part of it doped out already, so you might as well tell me the whole thing.”

“I don’t know what you mean, McLove. Really,” she protested.

“All right,” he said, and was silent for twenty blocks. Then, as they stopped for a traffic light, he added, “This is murder, you know. This isn’t a kid’s game or a simple love affair.”

“There are some things you can’t talk over with anyone. I’m sorry. Here’s my place. You can drop me at the corner.”

He got out with her and paid the cab driver. “I think I’d like to come up,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry, McLove, I’m awfully tired.”

“Want me to wait for him down here?”

She sighed and led the way inside, keeping silent until they were in the little three-room apartment he’d visited only once before. Then she shrugged off her raincoat and asked, “How much do you know?”

“I know he’ll come here tonight, of all nights.”

“What was it? What told you?”

“A lot of things. The elevator, for one.”

She sat down. “What about the elevator?”

“Right after Billy Calm’s supposed arrival, and suicide, I ran to his private elevator. It wasn’t on 21. It had to come up from below. He never rode any other elevator. When I finally remembered it, I realized he hadn’t come up on that one, or it would still have been there.”

Margaret sat frozen in the chair, her head co*cked a little to one side as if listening. “What does that matter to you? You told me just this noon that none of them meant anything to you.”

“They didn’t, they don’t. But I guess you do, Margaret. I can see what he’s doing to you, and I’ve got to stop it before you get in too deep.”

“I’m in about as deep as I can ever be, right now.”

“Maybe not.”

“You said you believed me. You told them all that I couldn’t have been acting when I screamed out his name.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking that he’d heard something in the hallway. Then he said, “I did believe you. But then after the elevator bit, I realized that you never called Calm by his first name. It was always Mr. Calm, not Billy, and it would have been the same even in a moment of panic. Because he was still the president of the company. The elevator and the name — I put them together, and I knew it wasn’t Billy Calm who had walked into that directors’ room.”

There was a noise at the door, the sound of a familiar key turning in the lock. “No,” she whispered, almost to herself, “no, no, no...”

“And that should be our murderer now,” McLove said, leaping to his feet.

“Billy!” she screamed. “Billy, run! It’s a trap!”

But McLove was already to the door, yanking it open, staring into the startled, frightened face of W.T. Knox.

Sometimes it ends with a flourish, and sometimes with the dull thud of a collapsing dream. For Knox, the whole thing had been only an extension of some sixteen hours in his life span. The fantastic plot, which had been set in motion by his attempt at suicide that morning at the Jupiter Steel Building, came to an end when he succeeded in leaping to his death from the bathroom window of Margaret’s apartment, while they sat waiting for the police to come.

The following morning, with only two hours’ sleep behind him, McLove found himself facing Greene and Hamilton and Shirley Taggert once more, telling them the story of how it had been. There was an empty chair in the office too, and he wondered vaguely whether it had been meant for Knox or Margaret.

“He was a poor guy at the end of his rope,” McLove told them. “He was deeply involved in an affair with Margaret Mason, and he’d sunk all his money into a desperate gamble that the merger wouldn’t go through. He sold a lot of Jupiter stock short, figuring that when the merger talks collapsed the price would fall sharply. Only, Billy Calm called from the plane yesterday morning and said the merger was on. Knox thought about it for an hour or so, and did some figuring. When he realized he’d be wiped out, he went into the directors’ room to commit suicide.”

“Why? Why couldn’t he jump out his own window?”

“Because there’s a setback two stories down on his side. He couldn’t have cleared it. He wanted a smooth drop to the sidewalk. Billy Calm could hardly have taken a running jump through the window. It was far off the floor for even a tall man, and Billy was short. And remember the slivers of glass at the bottom of the pane? When I remembered them, and remembered the height of the bottom sill from the floor, I knew that no one — especially a short man — could have gone through that window without knocking them out. No, Knox passed Margaret’s desk, muttered some sort of farewell, and then entered the room just as I came out of Calm’s office. He smashed the window with a chair so he wouldn’t have to try to dive through the thick glass, head first. And then he got ready to jump.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“Because he heard Margaret shout his name from the outer office. And with the shouted word Billy, a sudden plan came to him in that split second. He recrossed the small office quickly, and stood behind the door as we entered, knowing I would think it was Billy Calm who had jumped. As soon as we were in the room, he simply stepped out and stood there. I thought he had entered the room with Margaret and me. I never gave it a second thought, because I was looking for Calm. But Margaret fainted when she saw he was still alive.”

“But she said it was Billy Calm who entered the office,” Greene protested.

“Not until later. She was starting to deny it, in fact, when she saw Knox and fainted. Remember, he carried her into the next room, and he was alone with her when she came to. He told her his money would be safe only if people thought Calm dead for a few hours. So she went along with her lover; I needn’t remind you he was a handsome fellow, even though he was married. She went along with what we all thought happened, not realizing it would lead to murder.”

Sam Hamilton lit a cigar. “The stock did go down.”

“But not enough. And Knox knew Calm’s arrival would reactivate the merger and ruin everything. I don’t think he planned to kill Calm in the beginning, but as the morning wore on it became the only way out. He waited in the private elevator when he knew Billy was due to arrive, slugged him, carried his small body to that window while we were all out to lunch, and threw him out, replacing the cardboard afterwards.”

“And the stock went down some more,” Hamilton said.

“That’s right.”

“She called him Billy,” Shirley reminded them.

“It was his name. We all called him W.T., but he signed his memo to me William T. Knox. I suppose the two of them thought it was a great joke, her calling him Billy when they were together.”

“Where is she now?” someone asked.

“The police are still questioning her. I’m going down there now, to be with her. She’s been through a lot.” He thought probably this would be his final day at Jupiter Steel. Somehow he was tired of these faces and their questions.

But as he got to his feet, Sam Hamilton asked, “Why wasn’t Billy here for the meeting at ten? Where was he for those missing hours? And how did Knox know when he would really arrive?”

“Knox knew because Billy phoned him, as he had earlier in the morning.”

“Phoned him? From where?”

McLove turned to stare out the window, at the clear blue of the morning sky. “From his private plane. Billy Calm was circling the city for nearly three hours. He couldn’t land because of the fog.”

Copyright ©1965 by Edward D. Hoch

The Mentor

by Dave Zeltserman

The last two short stories Dave Zeltserman contributed to EQMM featured the inimitable anthropomorphic computer who plays Archie to his detective, Julius Katz. The first of those stories, entitled “Julius Katz,” recently won both the PWa’s Shamus Award for Best Short Story and the SMFs’s Derringer for Best Novella. Mr. Zeltserman is also a much-lauded novelist, whose forthcoming novel, Outsourced (Serpent’s Tail) is already optioned for film. Also not to be missed, 2010’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field. The last two short stories Dave Zeltserman contributed to EQMM featured the inimitable anthropomorphic computer who plays Archie to his detective, Julius Katz. The first of those stories, entitled “Julius Katz,” recently won both the PWa’s Shamus Award for Best Short Story and the SMFs’s Derringer for Best Novella. Mr. Zeltserman is also a much-lauded novelist, whose forthcoming novel, Outsourced (Serpent’s Tail) is already optioned for film. Also not to bemissed, 2010’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field.

* * * *

Patrick was fifteen when he got ahold of a dog-eared paperback copy of Charlie Valtrone’s 1960 hardboiled crime novel I, the Killer. The novel was Charlie Valtrone’s first and was considered a cult classic. It was also unlike anything Patrick had read before or even imagined that a book could be, both in its realistic depiction of violence and mob-related crime and the raw visceral energy within it, which hit Patrick as hard as if he’d been smacked in the face with a sledgehammer. After that book, Patrick greedily devoured everything else he could find of Charlie Valtrone’s, and would later buy every subsequent book as it was published.

It was because of Charlie Valtrone and the power of those books that Patrick wanted to become a writer. He majored in English Literature in college and supported himself now installing carpets while he worked on his unpublished manuscript. For a long time Charlie Valtrone had been his literary hero. Now the great man was not only his acknowledged mentor but his buddy. Hell, the two of them, at that moment, were drinking Buds and smoking Cohiba cigars as they lounged in the backyard of Charlie’s modest Paterson, New Jersey home, while porterhouse steaks sizzled on the gas grill.

A year ago Patrick had sent Charlie his manuscript. He fantasized that he might get a short note back from the man, but certainly didn’t expect anything. After all, Charlie Valtrone was a legend while Patrick was an unpublished twenty-six-year-old nobody. Even though he only lived a couple of towns over from Charlie, the last thing Patrick expected was Charlie calling him to tell him, “Kid, there’s some good stuff in this. But you need to fix a few things. Let’s get together.”

Patrick didn’t waste any time getting together with his idol. That first meeting was spent drinking whiskey and talking about everything except writing. More late evenings followed, and before long Patrick was coming over to Charlie’s home three or four times a week. It was more than Charlie becoming his mentor, it was as if Charlie and his wife, Eunice, had adopted him. They’d feed him when he’d come over, and after Eunice went to bed, he and Charlie would drink long into the night, with Charlie telling him about his younger days when he used to hang out with members of the mob.

“Now, remember,” Charlie would say, “I was just hanging around these guys. Doing a little bookmaking on the side, a few errands here and there, but nothing heavy. I wasn’t going around breaking legs or nothin’ like that, so don’t get any big ideas in your head.”

“Yeah, right,” Patrick would respond. “Someone late in paying up, and you telling me you wouldn’t lean on them?”

“Me?” Charlie would wink and show a thick-lipped grin from ear to ear. “I’m a regular puss*cat. Who could I have scared into paying up?”

Not quite a puss*cat. Even at seventy-four Charlie was an imposing figure. A big man, barrel-chested, thick heavy arms and large hands with knuckles as hard as concrete. Although his hair had turned from black to white over the years, he still had all of it, and it was still cut short in that trademark bristle cut of his. His jaw heavy and his face broad and square and with enough scars marking it to show that he’d seen his share of barroom brawls and back alley scraps in his younger days. You’d know this even if you didn’t notice his somewhat flattened nose. Patrick watched as Charlie blissfully blew smoke rings from his mouth. He tried to imagine what it would be like if he didn’t know Charlie and the guy came knocking on his door to collect on a late loan. Yeah, if that were to happen, even with Charlie Valtrone being a geezer in his seventies, the sight of the guy standing outside his front door would probably have caused Patrick to piss his pants.

Patrick was still watching his mentor blow smoke rings when Eunice walked over to Charlie and started rubbing his shoulders. She was maybe fifteen years younger than Charlie. Patrick had seen pictures of her when she was a young woman, and she was gorgeous back then and she was still a good-looking woman now. Over the years she’d kept herself slender without ever becoming bony. There weren’t many wrinkles on her face and she dyed her thick long hair the same red that it had naturally been twenty years earlier. She was a woman of class. Charlie slid his eyes sideways so he could look at his wife without moving his head. In his raspy, gruff voice he asked her how the steaks were coming.

“Look at the kid,” he growled. “The boy’s famished. We got to feed him soon before he keels over on us.”

Eunice laughed at that. “I think he’ll survive another five minutes.”

“I don’t know. The kid’s all skin and bones. He’s wasting away in front of our eyes.”

That wasn’t exactly true. Patrick carried twenty pounds more than he should thanks to all the junk food he ate on the job, as well as all the booze and good food Charlie and Eunice fed him. Eunice rolled her eyes and told Charlie she’d get them a couple more Buds and that that would tide them over. As she walked away, Charlie reached out to smack her playfully on the rear. She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled wickedly before stepping back into the house.

“Ah, nothin’ like a good woman,” Charlie said in a contented growl. “Kid, you need to get yourself one.”

“I’m working on it.” Patrick looked away and found himself tensing as he asked whether Charlie had had a chance yet to look at the latest draft of his manuscript.

“Yeah, I did. Kid, you’re getting closer. Plot, pacing, structure, characters are all good. This book could be great, but some of the scenes just don’t ring true to me. Especially your bank heist scene. Too over-the-top, not realistic enough.” Charlie paused to blow out another smoke ring. He sat pensively and watched as the smoke dissipated into the air before he continued.

“I don’t know, kid. I think you need to have more experiences in life. Maybe spit in some tough guy’s eye and get yourself in a barroom fight. And go to a damn shooting range so you know what it feels like to fire off a clip. And goddamn it, wake up in a drunk tank some morning!”

Patrick nodded, feeling his disappointment. He had been hoping this latest version would get his mentor’s seal of approval. Somewhat dryly, he said, “Or maybe you could just introduce me to some of your old friends and I could break a few legs for the experience like you once did.”

Charlie gave Patrick a dull-eyed smile. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, kid.”

“Yeah, sure you don’t.”

“Seriously, kid, I don’t. But you’re being kind of bold here, don’cha think?”

“Come on, Charlie. I read Leave Them Screaming. Several times, in fact. There’s no way you could’ve written that if you hadn’t really worked as muscle for the mob.”

“Nah, that was all imagination.” Charlie tapped his skull with a thick, stubby index finger. “All of that came from up here. Sure, I listened to stories that guys in the neighborhood were telling, but no, I never did any of that stuff.”

“Damn, I’d love to meet some of those guys and hear their stories.”

Charlie’s small pale eyes grew wistful. “Yeah, I know you would, kid. The problem is all the guys I knew back then are either dead or missing.”

A cell phone ringing interrupted them. Charlie took from his pocket what looked like a cheap disposable cell phone and listened intently for several minutes as a hardness settled over his features. Then, with the same irritable suddenness that you’d see with an old dog turning surly, he lashed out. “What are you talking about,” he demanded into the phone, his face reddening with anger. “The thirtieth is still a week away! You nuts or something?”

It was the thirtieth. Patrick got Charlie’s attention and signaled to him that it was the thirtieth. Charlie looked at him with a perplexed uncertainty before realizing his mistake. He turned away from Patrick. His voice low and tight, he said into his cell phone, “I was just screwing with you. Of course I know what day it is, so don’t go thinking this is some sort of senior moment.” There was a long pause before Charlie muttered into the phone for the other party not to worry about nothin’. After he ended the call, he stared into space until Patrick brought his attention back by asking whether he had missed a book deadline.

“Yeah, something like that,” Charlie murmured out of the side of his mouth. As he sat staring blankly at Patrick, confusion dulled his eyes and his lips folded downwards into a dour frown.

Eunice came back then with fresh beers. After she reported that the steaks were done, they moved inside. Charlie seemed distracted during dinner and made only a few guttural responses to Eunice’s attempts to engage him in conversation. After dinner, while Eunice was clearing away the dishes, Charlie turned to Patrick and told him he needed his help.

“I’ve got an errand to run,” he said. “A half-hour driving back and forth to Paramus, but we’ll be back in an hour. But kid, I could use your help.”


Charlie nodded, and lumbered to his feet. He left the room, and when he came back he was carrying a gym bag. He signaled with a tilt of his head for Patrick to follow him. On the way out he stopped in the kitchen to give Eunice a kiss on the cheek.

“I’ll be back soon, doll,” he told her.

“You two be careful out there,” she scolded him. “I don’t want you corrupting our boy here by taking him to a strip club, or anything like that!”

Charlie made a face at the suggestion and left the house with Patrick following behind. Once they got on the road, Charlie pulled into a strip mall parking lot a few miles from his home and parked his Cadillac Escalade before getting into an older model Buick Regal nearby. “Don’t ask,” he told Patrick. “I got to deliver this piece of crap. It’s a long story.”

“I thought that call was over a book deadline?”

“Yeah, it was. This is a different matter.”

During the ride to Paramus, Charlie made small talk about politics and recent TV shows and the Yankees prospects for the upcoming season, but seemed mostly distracted and didn’t appear to pay attention to any of Patrick’s responses. After a while, Patrick found himself drifting asleep, partly from his friend’s ramblings and mostly from the steak dinner and beer. He was jerked awake when they slowed down in front of a small run-down-looking ranch-style house, and with some curiosity noticed that Charlie had turned off the headlights before gliding the car into the driveway. As they left the car, Charlie put a finger to his lips, hushing Patrick. Charlie had taken his gym bag with him, and while they walked to a side door of the house, Charlie removed a couple of objects from the bag, one of which he pressed into Patrick’s hand. It was too dark for Patrick to see what it was, but it had a cold metal feel and it was heavy. It wasn’t until Charlie was rapping his knuckles against the door that Patrick realized he had been handed a gun and that Charlie held one also. He was still trying to make sense of this when the door opened a few inches and Charlie shot the man on the other side of the door in the chest. The man fell backwards into the house. The noise the gunshot made was only a puff. A silencer must’ve been used. Patrick was still trying to understand what was happening when Charlie pushed the door open. The man who had been shot looked dead as he lay on the floor. He was thin and wiry, in his thirties, and wore a wife-beater tank top and khakis with his chest torn open by the bullet. As Charlie moved past him he shot the man one more time in his right eye, then turned and nearly snarled at Patrick as he ordered him to follow him into the house. Patrick obeyed, at this point moving purely on autopilot. Even without Charlie ordering him to do so, he shut the door behind him.

There was a man’s voice from deeper inside the house. This man was yelling to someone named Tony, asking him what was happening. Charlie moved quickly and stealthily towards that voice, and Patrick followed him, his mind still refusing to accept the events that he had witnessed.

As they moved through the house, a man walked out of a bathroom. He was bigger than the man Charlie had earlier shot, taller and wider in the shoulders, and he must’ve been the one who had been shouting out to someone named Tony. His eyes grew wide as he saw Charlie. Before he could reach for the gun he had tucked away in his waistband, Charlie fired three rounds, each of them leaving expanding red dots on the man’s chest. He toppled backwards. Charlie moved to him so he could search through the dead man’s pockets. He was doing this when a noise sounded from behind Patrick.

“Goddamn it, kid,” Charlie growled in exasperation. “There’s someone behind you! Do your job as backup!”

Without even realizing he was doing it, Patrick started firing his gun as he turned. Like Charlie, his gun had a silencer attached to it, and the bullets made only a soft puff as they hit their target. It was a girl. She was unarmed, no older than twenty, and was half naked, wearing only a pair of panties. She must have stepped out of a bedroom to see what was happening. Patrick had shot her twice in the stomach, and she collapsed on the floor and moaned in agony. Charlie pulled a thick roll of bills from the dead man’s pocket and gave Patrick a disgusted look. Patrick stood paralyzed as the girl writhed on the floor nearby.

“What’s the matter with you, kid? You going to let that poor girl suffer?”

Charlie waited for Patrick to act. When he didn’t, Charlie walked over to the girl and shot her once in the temple. She stopped moving then. Patrick must’ve gone into shock, because everything became dreamlike after that. Charlie taking his gun from him, the two of them leaving the house, Charlie giving him the car keys and telling him to drive, saying that he was to drop Charlie off at the strip mall in Paterson where he had left his Escalade and then lose the car at an address in Newark. It wasn’t until Charlie had taken a flask from his jacket pocket and made Patrick drink from it that the world snapped back into focus. He started shivering then, his arms shaking as he gripped the wheel. Charlie had him take another swig of the bourbon that was in the flask.

“Kid, you must’ve figured out by now that I did more than just muscle in my younger days,” Charlie said, his voice flat, a weariness softening it. “The thing is, it don’t matter if you become a bestselling crime novelist, once you’re in you’re in, and you stay in until they nail the coffin lid shut on you.”

They sat in silence while Patrick drove. After several minutes of this Patrick muttered under his breath, calling Charlie a lousy stinking bastard.

“What was that?”

“You’re a lousy stinking bastard,” Patrick repeated, his voice louder, but sounding odd, as if it weren’t really coming from him. “You drag me to a mob hit?”

“Kid, you better watch your mouth. I like you and I’d rather not knock those pearly whites out of your mouth.” Charlie pushed a thick hand across his eyes and let out a heavy sigh. “About dragging you to this hit, I’m sorry about that, kid, but it couldn’t be helped. Somehow I lost track of the date. You’ll see when you’re my age. That stuff happens. But the hit had to go down tonight and I needed backup and didn’t have time to arrange anything else. You did a crappy job shooting that broad in the stomach like that, but here, for your troubles.”

Charlie tried to hand Patrick the roll of bills he had taken off the second man he had shot inside the house. When Patrick wouldn’t take it, Charlie shoved the money into Patrick’s jacket pocket.

“There’s over two grand there,” Charlie said. “Don’t be a schmuck. Yeah, I know, you’re upset about that broad. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone else in the house except for those two mooks I took out. In a way it’s a shame she was there. That broad had a nice rack on her. But in another way, it was a damn lucky break. If she wasn’t there and things didn’t go down the way they did, I would’ve had to leave you in a landfill tonight with your brains leaking out of your skull, and I like you, kid, and I’m glad I don’t have to do that.”

They didn’t say another word to each other after that until Patrick pulled up next to Charlie’s Escalade at the strip-mall parking lot where they had earlier left it. Charlie put a hand on Patrick’s arm. He said, “Kid, be over at the house tomorrow at seven. I’ll have Eunice make a lasagna the way you like it with chopped up sausage. Afterwards I’ll introduce you to some guys. Whether you like it or not, you’re in now, but I’ll take care of you and make sure you get treated properly. And this is what your writing needed. I’m sure of it. You’ll see that I’m right.”

Charlie nodded to Patrick and left the car. After the car door closed, Patrick headed off towards Newark without looking back at the other man. For a long time all he could feel was sick to his stomach as he replayed in his mind what went down in that house. He kept seeing the faces and the gaping wounds of the people they had killed. Especially that girl’s. She was so young, and even when he squeezed his eyes closed he’d see her as she lay on the floor with her guts leaking out of her stomach. At some point before he reached Newark his thoughts had shifted away from those killings and to his novel. Almost as if a light switch had been flipped on, he saw clearly how he needed to rewrite the bank heist scene so that it would have the same type of realism that he loved so much in Charlie Valtrone’s novels. He started getting excited over the prospect of doing this. By the time he ditched the car at the address he was given, all he could think about was getting home and working on his novel. He also found himself salivating over the thought of Eunice’s lasagna with chopped sausage.

Copyright © 2011 by Dave Zeltserman

Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 137, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 835 & 836, March/April 2011 Doug Allyn (2024)


Is Ellery Queen magazine still published? ›

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine has published the world's leading short mystery fiction for over 75 years. Published 6 times a year, each 192-page issue is chock-full of the broadest possible range of short mystery fiction.

Where can I watch Ellery Queen? ›

Watch Ellery Queen: Season 1 | Prime Video.

What was the first Ellery Queen mystery? ›

Dannay and Lee first collaborated on an impulsive entry for a detective-story contest; the success of the result, The Roman Hat Mystery (1929), started Ellery Queen on his career, and after publication of two more mysteries, the cousins were able to become full-time writers.

Is an American fictional detective mystery series based on the fictional character Ellery Queen? ›

Ellery Queen is an American TV drama series, developed by Richard Levinson and William Link, who based it on the fictional character of the same name. The series ran for a single season on NBC from September 11, 1975, to April 4, 1976.

Is Ellery Queen magazine good? ›

This is absolutely the best magazine I've every had the pleasure of reading. This is a fascinating magazine with a total variety of mystery stories, covering many styles of writing. Often, the editors even find humorous stories to include.

What is the response time for Ellery Queen? ›

Response time is up to three months. Please do not send a query about a submission until at least three months have passed.

Who played Ellery Queen in the 70s? ›

Dana James Hutton (May 31, 1934 – June 2, 1979), known as Jim Hutton, was an American actor in film and television best remembered for his role as Ellery Queen in the 1970s TV series of the same name, and his screen partnership with Paula Prentiss in four films, starting with Where the Boys Are.

How many episodes were there of Ellery Queen? ›

Does Hulu or Netflix have Queens? ›

Watch Queens — Season 1 with a subscription on Hulu, Disney+, or buy it on Prime Video, Apple TV.

Are Ellery and Ezra twins? ›

Twins play a major role in the plot of the story; Sadie and Sarah are twins, as are Ellery and Ezra. In both cases, their personalities are very different, and Ellery thinks often of how she is similar to Sarah, who disappeared, and expects that the tragedy of Sadie and Sarah might repeat itself in her and her brother.

How many series of Queens of Mystery are there? ›

Queens of Mystery
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of series2
No. of episodes12 (6 two-part stories) (list of episodes)
11 more rows

Who is known as the queen of mystery? ›

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, DBE (née Miller; 15 September 1890 – 12 January 1976) was an English writer known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, particularly those revolving around fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Who are the 4 queens of detective fiction? ›

The Queens of Crime - Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. These four were the most dominant women crime writers of the Golden Age of crime in the 1920s and 1930s.

Who is the most realistic fictional detective? ›

Influential fictional detectives
  • Sherlock Holmes. Main article: Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is the British fictional detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. ...
  • Hercule Poirot. Main article: Hercule Poirot. ...
  • C. Auguste Dupin. ...
  • Ellery Queen. Main article: Ellery Queen.

What was the last book of Ellery Queen? ›

The last novel featuring the character Ellery Queen, A Fine and Private Place, was published in 1971, the year of Lee's death. However, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine is still in print as of 2023, now published as six "double issues" per year by Dell Magazines.

What magazines have stopped publishing? ›

There are many magazines we loved that are no more. Remember Sesame Street's 3-2-1 Contact (1979-2001)? Disney Magazine (1965-2005), Atari Connection (1981-1984), Autoweek (1958-2019), Barney Magazine, (1994-2003), CD-ROM Today (1993-1996), Children's Digest (1950-2009), Cosmogirl (1999-2009), Cracked (1958-2007).

Are magazines still published? ›

Magazines are still being published, but they are facing a number of challenges, including the rise of digital media and the decline of print advertising. In the past, magazines were a major source of information and entertainment. They were also a valuable advertising platform for businesses.

Is Alfred Hitchco*ck's mystery magazine still published? ›

We continue to feature stories that encompass every subgenre of mystery fiction, from classic whodunits, dark noir, cozies, and cutting-edge graphic stories to venerable mystery classics and hardboiled tales of suspense.

Is more magazine still being published? ›

In February 2010, More was updated with a new logo and tagline: "For Women of Style and Substance". In February 2016, the Meredith Corporation announced that More would cease publication with the April 2016 issue.


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