A New Way to do The New Year

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We’ve all done it.  You know what it I’m going to say, don’t cha?  Yep, I’m talking about resolutions.  How many of you have made resolutions and then promptly forgot ’em?  Or worse, you make a serious attempt, only to lose your mojo around mid-February.  At least, that’s when I notice the parking lots at the gym start to thin down.  Not that my ass is in one mind you.  It’s cold out.

Most of you, by the time you get to be my age stop making resolutions altogether because you just make yourself feel bad when you aren’t able to change the things you want to change.  That would be me.  I started to rethink resolutions a few years ago.

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I didn’t want to give up doing the New Year’s thang altogether.  There is a part of me that loves the idea of a fresh new year.  It’s like a pretty new piece of blank stationary.  Writers love pretty stationary.  And pens.  I have a very nice pen that my husband won for hitting a sales goal.  I promptly stole it while he was celebrating.  He was so drunk, he didn’t notice.  True story.

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Okay, I got sidetracked by pretty paper and perfect ink pens with just the right weight.  Sorry, they’re like catnip for writers.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the new year.  First, I quit making resolutions and set goals for myself instead.  This worked better.  I hit a few goals and felt invigorated, but I still wasn’t quite there yet.  Then, the other day, I was Reading “Awaken the Giant Within” by Tony Robbins.  For those of you that don’t know me, I am an avid reader of self-help books.  And books on writing. And fiction, of course.  Who doesn’t love fiction?   I have about 55 books in my Kindle and I set my new goal on Goodreads for 52 books this year.  If you are ever trying to find a good book to read, you can find plenty of suggestions on my blog or friend me on Goodreads.

Anyway, in this awesome book, Tony mentions a discovery he made about words.  Apparently the words you use in everyday conversation when referring to your life have an effect on how you feel about your life.  If you want to change your life, you just have to change your words.  I don’t know about you, but this idea blew my mind.  Could it really be that simple?  If I start peppering my conversations with the word fabulous, will I feel fabulous?

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I’m feeling fabulous already.  I decided that not only did I need to test out this idea, but I needed to do it on a grand scale.  Why?  That’s just who I am baby.  Amber likes to go overboard.  That’s how I roll.  I decided to choose five words.  I could have chosen like a hundred, but my life coach Brooke Castillo talks about constraining your focus.  That’s a hard one for me obviously.  I have twins for crying out loud.  I couldn’t even have babies one at a time.

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Yep.  Those are really my twins.  Are they cute or what?  Even without the bangs that their big sister cut off like a week before picture day. I tease my son that he is going to be an underwear model one day.

As I was saying, I chose five words that I wanted to epitomize 2018.  Not the year I think I will have based on past experience.  No.  I’m talking about the year I want to have.  The kind of year I dream about in those rare dreams when you wake up smiling because you were so happy.  You know, like I’m a size six and I’m wearing a stunning designer evening gown and Steven Spielberg is hounding me about movie rights while a hot English actor is dragging me onto the dance floor.  That kind of dream.  Don’t tell Chris.  Shhh.  Our secret.

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So what are the words/phrases I have chosen?  Drum roll please.  They are as follows:

Prosperity

Adventure

Legacy

Willingness to Fail

Fun

 

There they are.  That is the year I want to have.  What kind of year do you want?

Why I Write

So you dream of being a writer? At least, I assume that you do or else you wouldn’t be reading this blog posting. Perhaps, like me, you dreamed of getting a degree in creative writing, but chickened out and trekked down the safer path. In my case, I got an accounting degree instead.

I’m going to share something with you here. Most subjects in school came naturally to me, except one. It was math. I struggled to break a B, starting in the fourth grade. At times, I got a C, which for any of you other perfectionist first-borns out there, you know that missing the honor roll by a small margin is enough to chap your ass. For years, my self-esteem was marred by this one cursed subject. Stupid, I know. This is my teenage self we are talking about. I wanted acceptance. I wanted to feel worthy and being smart was my ticket to getting what I longed for deep inside. Because of arithmetic, it alluded me. I didn’t feel smart because I wasn’t good at everything and I deeply believed that I should excel in everything. Other girls wanted to be cheerleaders or make a sports team. I dreamed of being Valedictorian. Yes, I am a nerd. You probably already figured that out, but I’m a straight shooter, so there it is. Anyway, we had seven valedictorians the year I graduated. I won’t tell you what year it was, but I will tell you that I wasn’t one of them.

So why in God’s name, did I then turn around and choose a major that focused on my Achilles heel. I discovered it yesterday in a book by Martha Beck called Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Have. It’s because my social-self was resisting my essential self. My essential self (a.k.a. my true self) wanted to be a writer or a history teacher or a social worker, but my social-self wanted the acceptance of the people closest to me. My then-boyfriend, now-husband Chris didn’t like the sound of any of my career choices. We’ve all heard of the starving artist and teachers, and social workers aren’t known for making the big bucks. Chris wanted me to make a good living. Actually, he wanted me to make an exceptional living. The kicker is that without the elusive sense of worth the money was never going to come. Especially as an accountant. I always felt like an imposter when I was doing accounting. It’s a struggle to be something you’re not. It takes away all of your energy. Doing other people’s taxes makes me feel like I am slowly dying. I guess, if you think about it, we are all slowly marching towards death, but I don’t notice the gradual crawl towards being worm grub until I’m staring at a 1040.

You might be feeling a bit of outrage right now. You may be thinking that I should have told Chris to kiss my ass. I can’t say that I disagree, but you have to understand that he had the best of intentions. He wanted me to do something stable and being a writer doesn’t sound like a safe option. Most of us have family members like this. They mean well. They want to protect us. They think they are saving us from the fall. After all, the reality isn’t kind. The world is a cold, hard place and the sooner you accept it, the better. To this day, I cringe when people ask me how my hobby is going.

Okay, so the amount of money that I have earned so far is technically within the hobby range, but I refuse to give up. Why? You know what my relatives are thinking. That’s a lot of work to put into something to make a mere pittance in return.

I’ve had to fight my inner critic just to get words on the page. I’ve had to face fears of persecution by society at large when I hit the publish button. Fears I didn’t expect to feel until they were right there in my face staring back at me.  My book has swear words in it, I thought. What is my mother-in-law going to say?  In case you are wondering, she said, “She was disappointed in me.”  It kind of stung, but Fuck it.  It’s my life after all.  It was a long hard road just to publish one book, and now, I am working on another. I’m getting ready to send it to the editor and spend a decent chunk of change that I might never see in return, and yet I persist.

Here is why. I write because I feel cranky and out of balance if I don’t. I write because it’s my air. It’s my North Star, and I have to follow it even if I never receive the critical acclaim of Stephen King or manage to eke out a living. I spent years waiting for the people close to permit me to do what I love, and it never came, so I had to stand firm and give myself permission. If you long to write, then write. Doing anything, for the sheer love of doing it, is worth it.  Don’t worry about what your parents will say or your spouse or your kids or your mother-in-law. Know your why and follow your North Star. If you still need permission, then I give it to you now. Go chase your star. Seriously, like now. Right now. What are you waiting for?

How to outline a novel or can you teach an old dog new tricks part 2?

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Update on my wiener dog Buddy: He refuses to Shih Tzu in the litter box.  He seems to think it’s quicksand and that I’m some sort of evil villain hell bent on sending him to his doom.  Insert maniacal laughter here…  I’m giving up.  Perhaps the guy I saw on shark tank the other night that invented the automatic pad-roller thingy will have his invention at Wal-Mart soon and I can buy it.  That brings us to our next order of business, outlining a novel.  In my last installment, I covered the first three steps.  Now I’m going to give you the next one and it’s a biggie.  Drum roll please.  Characterization.

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You should have a general idea of what your story is about and who your characters are.  It’s time to refine and add detail.  It’s time to do character sketches on all of your main characters – Who is this person? Think very carefully because this is going to be very important. What your character wants should be the driving force behind the story.  It makes the the difference between writing a page turner people can’t put down and gee I wonder what’s on Netflix. What are their circumstances? What kind of conditions do they live in? What obstacles are they facing?  Don’t just focus on generalizations.  Dig deep.  Based on your macro outline, what kind of person would be the most fun to transplant into these circumstances.  You don’t want them to be a perfect fit to their surroundings.  Give them something to struggle against.  For example: If their parents are difficult then don’t make your character strong and unaffected.  Make him timid and weak or better yet, kill the parents.  Hey, Disney does it in every movie.  In Big Hero 6, they killed the parents and the brother.  I’m amazed the poor aunt survived, but hey, it pulled you in didn’t it.  It worked on me.  Not that I cried or anything.  Okay, okay, maybe just a little.  Animated films get to me.  I admit it.  Back to the point of characterization, though.  There is some very good information on how to accomplish kick ass characters in 90 Days to Your Novel.  No, Sarah Domet doesn’t say kick ass.  That’s just me being colorful.  If you are interested, there should be a link to Amazon at the bottom of this page.  If not, it’s not a requirement.  If you are like me, then you probably have a shelf full of books on writing.  Pull out one on characterization and go to town.  Let me know how you are progressing at thewritedestination@gmail.com.

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If your really stuck, turn on the t.v. and see what jumps out at you.  Borrow bits and pieces from historic figures.  Expedition Unknown is great for that.  Okay, I just really love this show.  When I grow up, I’m totally getting a job on Josh’s crew.  Why?  Because it looks awesome.  But then, I love history.  I’m a nerd that way.  Shhhhh.  Don’t tell anyone.

 

10 Tips for Finding Time to Write


Hello creatives! I’m so excited to share this with you. I discovered Life Coaching over the summer and it has made a huge impact on my life and I have been learning so many cool things to share. Here are ten tips for finding more time to write. It’s life changing stuff. Promise.

1. Make a plan. Okay this sounds simple, so it should be easy. Right? Deceptively simple but not easy. A lot of us avoid making a plan because then if you don’t follow through on that plan, you will feel bad about yourself and it will compound your feelings of inadequacy and self doubt. It’s time to show up for yourself. In my life, I have been so guilty of this. I show up for everyone else, but me. If you made plans to help your friend with her garage sale, you wouldn’t just not show up for her. Would you? Why do it to yourself? Love yourself like you love your best friend. Follow through. But that sounds so structured and constricting some of you are thinking. Here is what I have found. Making a plan of how I am going to use my time is incredibly freeing. I not longer have to think. I just do. I don’t just plan for work either, I also plan for fun and I look forward to and enjoy my fun time more. I don’t feel guilty or worried about getting it all done because I have a plan in place. Just taking all of the swirling to do’s from inside your brain and putting them on paper is empowering. Getting them on paper gives you something to attack. They don’t seem so ominous on paper.

2. Make decisions with power. Indecision is a time suck. Make a decision and stick to it. Warning! Your brain may possibly fight you on this. It will try to get you to change your mind. Your primal survival instincts will kick in. This is especially true if you have made a decision to step outside of your comfort zone. Commit to your decision and do not let your brain derail you. Finishing the task will only help your personal feelings of well being towards yourself. Start with little things if you have to and then work up to larger things.

3. Take massive action. I love this one. Most of us think we take action in life. We go to college. We get married. We have kids. We’re living life. We’re taking action. Once you reach a certain point, however, you begin to coast. You hope to get a promotion, but you don’t actively do anything to get it. Sure, your doing a good job and you hope the boss notices, but what are you really doing other than sitting back and waiting for life to hand you something. Plan the life you want. Decide what you need to do to get it and then focus on massive action.

4. Ignore how you feel in the moment. Okay, you’ve made your plan. Let’s say, you are going to get up one hour earlier each morning to work on writing the next great American novel. You have an epic dream and you’ve finally decide to make it come true. When the alarm goes off, you aren’t going to feel it. The self doubt will creep in and try to talk you out of it. You will feel tired. You’ll have a cold. You stayed up too late watching the Game of Thrones season finale. Ignore the feeling and do it anyway.

5. Practice constraint. Pick one thing to focus on and attack it with everything you’ve got. I used to be incredibly guilty of this. My brain is usually going a hundred miles an hour about all of the things I need to do and it is hard for me to focus because I want to do them all. What happens is you waste your time trying to do ten things at once. It hurts your productivity. So pick one. If you can’t decide which one to do first, let fate choose for you. Write each one on a piece of paper and put them in a hat. Draw one out and go for it. No looking back. No, but maybe’s. Just go for it. When that item is finished, you’re allowed to draw a new one out of the hat. And so on.

6. Fail. You read that right. I just ordered you to fail. Don’t fear failure. Embrace it. Most people who have had huge success in life also had epic failures. The difference between them and most people is that they chose to learn from what didn’t work and press on. Most of us avoid fear like our lives depend on it. When we lived in caves and caught our own food this was necessary. Now it mostly just keeps you from being the next best version of you. If you don’t have any epic failures, odds are you don’t have any epic wins either because you’re not really put yourself out there. Start patting yourself on the back for failures. It means yours living a life of intention instead of complacency. Uncomfortable? Hell yes. Worth it? Hell yes, again.

7. Learn to say no without making excuses. Most of us are people pleaser’s to one degree or another. Your boss asks you to tackle an extra project. Of course. Can you make brownies for the church bake sale? Sure. Can you volunteer for the PTA? It’s for my kids. How can I refuse? No one can do it all. Give yourself permission to say no. You don’t need to give them a reason. You know what you can reasonable handle. If you are asked to do something outside of that, then say no without guilt. Okay, If you won’t give yourself permission then I’ll give you permission. Amber says, “It’s okay not to be supermom or superman”. Although, if you follow all of this advice, you are going to feel pretty super. Just saying.

8. Delegation. Focus on the things you do best and the things you like doing most and delegate the rest. One of my biggest goals in life is to get a housekeeper. It’s seriously on my list. As soon as I make enough money, I’m getting one. I am a terrible housekeeper. If my husband read blogs he would comment his agreement. The poor man had no clean underwear yesterday. I would rather be writing and planning and working on my self development. That’s my jam. Housework always feels like drudgery to me and with three children, an exercise in futility. They mess up faster than I can clean. I’m not a messy person myself, I just can’t keep up with everyone else and I don’t like trying. I could beat myself up about it, but why not hire it out instead? Although, I will probably still have to wash Chris’s underwear. I’m guessing that no one else will take that job. Did I mention how glad I am that my husband doesn’t know what a blog is?

9. Completion. Don’t quit before you finish. This goes back to following through. No doing just half or three quarters of a task. See it through to the end no matter how much it hurts and you’re lying brain is going to tell you that it hurts, but you will feel better on the other side. Promise.

10. Take the word try out of your vocabulary. You are not going to try to write a novel. You are going to write a novel. Using the word try is giving yourself an escape hatch. That way if you don’t finish, “Oh well, I was just trying after all.” Saying try is not committing yourself. You’re not all in. Saying you are going to do something creates a subtle, but powerful mindset shift in the way you think about yourself and the thing you are going to accomplish. Notice, I didn’t say try there. You can do it.

Follow these ten tips and you will be amazed at all you can do. Start by taking a time audit for a week to find blocks of time in your schedule. The next week, plan each day in advance. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Let me know how it works for you. I’m super excited to hear from you. Until next time.

A Pastiche of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck often wrote stories that dealt with fate and Gary Little has offered to share with me his pastiche of John Steinbeck that instantly makes you question the fate of his characters.  For more about Gary, check out his site at littlebittie.wordpress.com.  For more information on how you can be featured on The Write Destination and receive helpful newsletters on improving your craft, sign up for my e-mail list.

Down Is The Moon
by Gary Little

By ten-forty-five it was all over. The dome was occupied, it’s citizens pacified and the war was finished. The conquerors had prepared for this campaign as carefully as they had for any other.

On this Sunday morning the postmaster and the sheriff had gone rock hunting in the rolligon of Mr. Coleman, the popular store keeper. He had lent them his new rolligon for the day. The two friends were a few kilometers into the badlands when they saw the flare of a drop-ship’s descent engines pass overhead. As officials of the dome, this was their business, and they turned the rolligon about.

The battalion was in possession of the dome by the time the postmaster and sheriff  returned to the entry port. They were denied entry to the dome, and when they insisted on their rights, they were taken prisoners of war and locked up in the sheriff’s own jail.

The local defenders, twelve new members of the Lunar Guard, were also occupied this Sunday morning. Mr. Coleman, that ever popular storekeeper, had provided those twelve men and women with M-452 low velocity defense weapons, all the ammo they could use, targets, and even a nice lunch. They had rolled off early in the morning in the one piece of equipment provided by the Lunar Guard: an ancient rolligon, passed it’s prime but with decent maintenance, still functional. Their destination was a bivouac and practice range the town had helped fund, but these twelve Guardsmen had built.

At ten-hundred the rolligon’s RADAR pinged and sent a data packet to the squad. “What the hell?” Sergeant Ted Brewster said, looking at the heads up display in his helmet. “Incoming! Incoming! Everyone back to the transport!” The drop-ship had dumped its load of forty drop-pods right on top of the town.

Twelve Lunar battle suits bunny-hopped back to the rolligon. By the time the rolligon arrived, the conquerors had flanked the road with anti-tank guns and M-86 SAWs. The rolligon exploded in silence as two anti-tank rounds tore into it. Brewster, while inexperienced in combat, was not stupid and had his troops offload before coming into view of the enemy guns. The brave defenders opened fire with weapons designed for close combat. The two SAWs opened up for but a moment, and six of the soldiers became dead bullet riddled combat suits, three became bullet riddled half-dead combat suits, and three soldiers escaped into the badlands, carrying their useless low-velocity M-542s, and as much equipment as they could.

By ten-thirty, the remainder of the battalion had landed and the invader’s brass band was playing rousing marches and sweet ballads in the main square of the dome. The citizens of the township wondered what had just happened. They stared at the helmeted, combat suited soldiers carrying combat assault rifles in the streets of their home.

By ten-thirty-eight the six bullet riddled combat-suits of the local Guard had been shoved into an abandoned mine shaft and the entrance sealed with explosives. The three wounded were taken to the clinic, combat-suits and weapons confiscated, and guards posted. The drop-pods had been retrieved, and the battalion billeted in Mr. Coleman’s warehouse near the dome’s main entry port. How convenient that the warehouse had blankets and cots for the battalion.

By ten-forty-five old Mayor Bowen had received a formal request that he grant an audience to Colonel  Samson of the Earth forces, an audience set for twelve-fifteen at the Mayor’s cubic.

Mayor Bowen’s residence was spartan but comfortable. The main entrance way airlock led into a large room cut out of Lunar rock. Comfortable chairs and couches covered with durable fabric were set about. Three doors opened from the waiting room. One door led to a standard Lunar sanitary unit. Another door led into the official Mayoral office, and the final door led to the residence. A desk sat to the right of the office doorway. Data terminal and controls were built into the desktop. It was all touch control. Wall decorations consisted of paintings and photos, both flat and holo-graphic, depicting large dogs protecting small children.  A small wall plaque centered among this pack of canines read “Nor water nor fire nor earthquake could do in a child as long as a big dog was available.”

I think that is from Steinbeck, old Doc Kildear thought. Physician and historian of this small community in the Lunar badlands, he sat in the more comfortable wing back chair, facing the “den” as he called it; the wall of canine pictures. Close cropped silvery hair, and gray stubble from a day or two without shaving, Doc sat watching as his thumbs rolled over and over on his lap. This was his nervous tic. He wondered if Jonathan had noticed this habitual thumb rolling.

Jonathan, the subject of Doc’s gaze, was perusing his own nervous tic: arranging and re-arranging the furniture. Making sure it was lined up just so, and never out place. Of course, Doc always had to turn the wingback to face “his den” when the Mayor was delayed. The Mayor may be the leader of  this small community in the badlands of the moon, but Jonathan was the placer of furniture, the organizer of the room, the stacker and arranger of book shelves.

“Twelve-fifteen?” Doc Kildear asked.

“Yes sir,” Jonathan replied as he adjusted the desk chair. “Twelve-fifteen. The note said twelve-fifteen.”

“You read the note?”

“No, of course not. It was addressed to Mr. Mayor. But he did read it to me, and it did say twelve-fifteen.”

Jonathan went back to his adjusting and arranging of anything in the office that may have the impertinence to become out of place or misaligned. He always scowled when he detected a misalignment, a chair leg not at the proper angle, or a paper corner peeking out from the others in a stack. He would have loved dust and tarnished silver, for then he could shine the silver and eradicate the dust. Elderly and lean, his life was so complicated that only the profound would see him as simple. He saw nothing amazing in Doc’s rolling thumbs. He found Doc’s habit irritating.

Something important was happening today. Earth forces landing and killing the local militia, and then demanding to see Mr. Mayor. Not politely asking for an appointment, but sending a note and specifying the time. Oh, yes, something important was in the ventilators. He wanted no nonsense from impertinent furniture or rolling thumbs.

Doc adjusted his chair, again, and Jonathan waited to put it back again. “Twelve-fifteen. These are punctual people. They run by the clock. They’ll be here on the money.”

Jonathan responded, not  listening, “Yes, sir.”

“These people will be punctual,” said Doc.

“Yes, sir,” said Jonathan.

“Little timing loops in their brains that go Ping, right on the second. Tells them when to push or to pull the world,” said Doc.

“Of course,” said Jonathan, simply because he was tired of saying, “Yes, sir.” He did not care for this turn of the conversation. He had no idea how to explain it to the cook. Was he supposed to tell her, “A punctual people, Sandi”? That would make little sense. She would ask, “Who? Why?” and then say, “Oh that is nonsense, Jonathan.” He had tried many times to carry Doc’s words to the kitchen. Sandi always declared what Doc said as nonsense.

“What is keeping his honor?” Doc looked up from his rolling thumbs and asked.

“He is dressing for the Colonel, sir,” said Jonathan, always courteous even in his irritation.

“You’re not assisting? He’ll leave his fly open with out your able assistance, Jonathan.”

On the Moon, leaving ones fly open was one of the most egregious errors one could make. If not quickly corrected, one was very quickly dead.

“The Missus is helping him. She wants him at his best, and is trimming the hair in his ears. It tickles when I try, and he will not let me.”

“I do have the same problem,” and Doc rubbed a finger around one of his own ear lobes. “Darned hair never was a problem as a young man. Now I have less on top and more where not needed.”

“Indeed, sir, but the Missus does insist.”

Doc laughed, stood, stretched, and performed a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm on his ample belly. Ignoring another of Doc’s irritating mannerisms, Jonathan took that opportunity to move Doc’s chair back into proper alignment.

“Ain’t this just grand,” said Doc, Jonathan scowled and thought, Isn’t, you old coot.

Doc continued. “We have been invaded, some of our finest young men and women killed, some of them chased out by the circumstances, our postmaster and sheriff detained in our own jail, and here we are, arranging furniture, and getting our eyebrows trimmed.”

“But they needed it, sir. He was getting a bit shaggy.”

“I know, I know,” Doc paused, looked at the chronometer on the desk display, and noted the console light on the desk indicating someone in the corridor. “I believe they are early. Please let them in Jonathan.” The warm light of the waiting-room was sucked away, leaving only a little grayness. 

A Dickensian Tale by Amber Meyer

There was a tiny knock upon the door followed by a larger, heavier knock. Bailywick wrinkled his brow and pushed aside the payroll papers he had been working on. He approached the door with caution. It was rare that another human being ever encroached upon the solitude his personal residence offered. It was for this reason; he so often brought work home with him and labored in the lamplight at the sensible oak table that sat in his study. He peeked through the thick draperies and saw on his front porch, a gentleman and a small boy he judged to be around six years of age.

“Go away,” he roared, without opening the door. “There’ll be no charity found for you here.”

“Please Mr. Bumble. I have urgent personal business to discuss,” came a voice from the other side.

“Why bring a little lad with you to discuss business with me? Clearly, he is a tool you use to draw sympathy from your patrons and encourage them to donate more to your cause. I say again, go away.”

“This lad is your nephew,” said the voice on the other side taking on more than a hint of agitation. Bailywick pondered this new information and all of its potential implications and grudgingly opened the door, upon which action the man rushed in without invitation; the small boy and a great gust of December fast upon his heels.

“Thank you,” said the man turning to face him, “For your gracious invitation.” His voice was laced with sarcasm dipped in venom. Despite the acidity of his manner, the boy clung to him practically hiding beneath the man’s waistcoat. “As I was saying,” he continued, thrusting the boy forth, “This is your nephew Peter Clark. My name is Alexander Lawson. I am tasked with the handling of orphans in the case of an estate.”

Mr. Lawson was dressed as well as he spoke. He was wearing a pair of sleek leather gloves that glistened in the lamplight. Lawson was a man of professionalism and efficiency and had Bailywick ever bothered to ask his superiors; he would have heard testaments to Lawson’s ability at his chosen occupation.

Bailywick lifted his lamp to take a closer look at the boy. He had still not ruled out the possibility of robbers. He made a mental note as to the location of his blunderbuss and his purse. Just two fortnights ago, he had heard of a stagecoach robbery that had been attempted with the use of a young boy as bait. Both undesirables had been shot by the veteran stagecoach driver and had limped off into the night with the boy on their heels.

Even children could not be trusted anymore. He surveyed the boy carefully and drew in a deep inhale of breath. The boy was a much younger reflection of himself. The resemblance was undeniable. He’d never laid eyes on the youth, but he no longer doubted the truth of the man’s statement.

“Whose?” He whispered.

“Your sister Ruth’s I’m afraid,” said Mr. Lawson.

“Ruth died in childbirth,” Bailywick said a twisting pain of old grief for the loss of his twin, wiggling in his chest.

“Yes, but Peter here survived. His father has been raising him alone until he recently passed as I’m sure you are well aware. His other relatives are all unable to manage the care of a child. Three of your siblings are in the poor house as we speak.”

“Balderdash,” Bailywick said with a sneer. “Ruth’s husband has a brother that could…”

“Had a brother,” Lawson retorted. “Both Peter’s father and his brother perished recently under mysterious circumstances.”

“You can’t expect me to raise him?” Bailywick said raising his furry brows with an almost pleading expression.

“It is your duty,” Lawson said.

“That’s what orphanages are for,” Bailywick said, indignant that such a man as this should dare preach to him about duty. He voice exited his throat louder than he intended. At this the boy returned to the safety of Lawson’s coattails, only his eyes visible as they peeked back.

“The orphanages here are currently full,” Lawson returned. “I can send a letter up to London to see about placing him there, but until then, he is your responsibility.”

“I see,” Bailywick said meeting Lawson’s frigid stare with an icy glare of his own design. “Send your letter then. I expect to hear back from you soon.”

With that, Lawson nodded and removed himself from Peter’s grasp and Bailywick’s lodging with nare another word spoken.

Peter blinked, but did not cry and Bailywick considered this fact with quiet gratitude.

“Are you hungry?” Bailywick grumbled. “I have some stew.”

Peter nodded without lifting his eyes from the floor. He was wringing his hat with nervous energy, but was otherwise quiet and polite.

Bailywick led him to the dining room table. He placed some thick volumes on a chair and the boy climbed up with a smile. Bailywick then pushed in his chair and fetched them both a steaming bowl of stew which he laid upon the table with a “Clunk!”. The boy jumped a little, but wasted no time dipping his spoon into the piping hot dish. He gave his laden spoonfull two puffs of his thin, little breath and then shoved the entire spoonful in his mouth. Bailywick opened his mouth to exclaim that it was too hot for the boy to conduct his meal in this fashion, but he shut it again when the boy repeated the process with energetic determination.

Bailywick turned up the lamp so that he could conduct a more proper examination of the boy without notice. Peter was thin and his hair disheveled and overgrown. His clothes were tattered and covered in the general filth associated with the lower class. It was a state that Bailywick remembered well, having been born himself in a workhouse and he shuddered at the uninvited remembrance of what had been shoved to the back of his mind, where it cracked the whip, which drove Bailywick Bumble ever onward and away from his poor early existence.

The boy proceeded to scrape the bottom of the bowl with his spoon. It made a small noise as he did so and he glanced up and braced himself as if about to suffer a blow.

“Would you like some more?” Bailywick said. The boy nodded politely as if he had been offered something of little consequence, but his eyes looked desperate. Bailywick ladled out another bowl and started to sit it in front of the youth and then stopped for a moment. He watched a tear run down the boys cheek as if he thought his prize about to be taken as part of some sick sport.

“Slower this time,” Bailywick said softening, before setting the bowl down. He gave Peter a gentle pat on the back and the boy looked up at him with a glow of admiration.

When he smiled, he looked like any other boy and without the dirt, Bailywick supposed a rather attractive youth at that.

“Have you had any schooling?” Bailywick said, dipping into his own stew.

“A little,” the boy said not looking up from the golden mixture before him.

“You should have finished your first year by now.”

“I don’t go all the time sir,” he said with a sheepish glance. “My father needed my help sometimes.”

“I see,” said Bailywick raising a bushy brow.

“It made you happy to miss your lessons, I suppose.”

“Oh no sir,” Peter said looking up at him and putting down his spoon for the first time. “I really enjoyed school. I rather missed it most of the time and I begged to go, but as father insisted he needed me and all, I just couldn’t. Mrs. Pettigrew really was lovely about it though. She never complained or made me feel bad. I always swore I’d make it up to her and she’d smile and sneak me a piece of candy.”

“A piece of candy?”

“Yes, the most delightful butterscotch. It’s the only candy I’ve ever tasted. Do you think they have teachers like her in London?” Peter said hopeful.

“I highly doubt it,” Bailywick said, not wanting to give the boy unreasonable expectations, but then regretting it the moment he saw Peter’s crestfallen expression.

“That’s alright,” Peter said. “I can at least tell her good-bye before I go. Can’t I? Just once?”

“You will have to attend school until Mr. Lawson finds you a permanent situation. I will send you to Mrs. Pettigrew first thing in the morning,” Bailywick said. Peter smiled again and a happy tear slid down his cheek and Bailywick fought an angry gnawing in his stomach.

Peter was a mirror of himself some twenty-five years ago. Bailywick Bumble was a successful man by anyone’s standard. He owned three mills and they ran with the efficiency of a Swedish timepiece and churned out money, but he oft wondered what he could have accomplished if he’d been born into better circumstances. He could have owned ten mills, twenty even. What could Peter do with the right tutelage? He resigned himself to discuss it with Mrs. Pettigrew. He needed to a clearer picture as to Peter’s aptitude before he did anything further with the idea that was beginning to take shape inside his breast.

The next morning, Bailywick Bumble awoke before daybreak and was surprised to find Peter seated at the table with his hands politely crossed. He was clean, mostly clean and he was wearing what Bailywick surmised to be his best clothing although it was still quite shabby.

“Good morning sir,” Peter said.

“Good morning,” Bumble grumbled, still rubbing his eyes. “I’m glad you’re up early. We have some things to take care of before school.”

“Yes sir,” Peter said. Bailywick then turned his attention to preparing breakfast. Mrs. Juniper was hired to keep the house and cook most of his meals, but today was her day off. Normally he prepared porridge for himself on these days, but just yesterday he had decided to treat himself with the purchase of bacon and eggs and he cooked both now in an iron skillet, still in his bedclothes and slippers. Peter’s face resembled the angels captured in stained glass at the church on Barnaby Street as he sat patiently waiting. Bailywick sat a heaping plate down in front of Peter with three eggs and three slices of bacon and a whole roll. It was much more than a boy his size should be able to eat. Peter looked up at him, his eyes pleading for permission.

“Go on,” Bailywick said. “We have much to do.”

Peter lifted his fork and dug into the eggs with enthusiasm. Bailywick saw a tear of joy run down the boys cheek as he took a careful bite of the bacon and chewed it like it was the last morsel he would ever receive. “This is the best breakfast I have ever had,” the boy said. “Thank you sir. Thank you very much.” Then, without wasting another breath he made the rest of his breakfast disappear without so much as a trace.

“You’re welcome,” Bailywick said. He couldn’t help but smile to himself as his dipped his own fork in the yolk and smeared it around with his bread. As soon as breakfast was concluded, they bustled out in the wicked wintry cold. Peter stomped along behind, following quite literally in Bailywick’s footsteps. They trudged all the way to town. By the time they trumped into the clothing store, Bailywick’s cheeks had a rosy red glow as did the top of Peter’s ears. Bailywick sent Peter back with the shop owner to take his measurements.

“How long will it be before my order is filled,” said Bailywick.

“I’m three weeks out right now due to Christmas,” the tailer replied.

“Get it done before Christmas and I will be sure to reward you,” Bailywick said, patting his purse to make clear his point.

“Yes sir,” said the shop keeper with a glint of surprise. The trudged back out into a blinding wind. Peter led the way now. They were close to the school house and he new the way from here, his youthful enthusiasm making his way.

“Good morning, Peter,” Mrs. Pettigrew greeted them as they entered. “Is this your father?”

“No ma’am,” Peter said. “This is my Uncle Bailywick Bumble. He’s the best Uncle a boy ever had.”

“I don’t doubt it,” replied Mrs. Pettigrew with a radiance that only a woman in her gentle condition could maintain.

Bailywick was slightly taken aback by her swollen abdomen. It was somehow not at all what he had expected. He proceeded cautiously. “May I speak with you privately for just a moment,” he said. “I promise not to take up to much of your time.”

“Certainly,” she said. “Peter, why don’t you go take that empty seat right up front?”

Peter bobbed his head with joy. “Fare thee well Uncle. I will see you when school is out,” he said, rushing to his seat with all of the self-control that a six year old boy could be expected to muster.

“He is a delightful boy,” Mrs. Pettigrew said, closing the classroom door. “I do hope that he will be in school more often.”

“His father recently passed,” Bailywick began, clearing his throat. “And he was brought to my door.”

“How kind of you to take him in,” Mrs. Pettigrew said. “I’m so glad. He is such a good boy. Always a joy to have in class, he is.”

“Is he a very good student?” Bailywick ventured, unsure of how to broach the matter at hand.

“Oh yes,” she said. “He is very bright. Catches on so quickly to all manner of things. I dare say he’s one of the brightest students I have ever had. Such a shame the way his education has been conducted. I’m sure that a man such as yourself will not let that continue,” She said. “You will know how to take care of a bright boy like Peter and give him a decent way in life.”

“Yes,” he said. “About that. I was just wondering as you seem to be so close to Peter, much closer than I, well, I just wondered if there is any way that you could oversee his upbringing? I’d pay for his keep of course.” Bailywick stared at his feet and twisted his hat like a school boy that had misbehaved and was busy figuring out an apology.

“Oh Mr. Bumble,” said Mrs. Pettigrew. “I wish that I was able. I’m about to have number eight and we just haven’t any more room. Besides, a boy like Peter would do better under a wise man of business. You could teach him so much and he would make such a fine heir for a bachelor.” Bailywick glanced up at her. Her eyes were still gentle and kind without the least bit of judgment in them.

“Of course,” Bailywick said, shuffling his feet. “I was just worried about him growing up without the love of a mother, you know. I think he is quite fond of you. My poor sister Ruth would have loved him so, if she had just had the chance.”

“That’s very kind of you Mr. Bumble,” she said. “I’m sure that Peter will grow up to be a fine young man.”

“I’m certain that you are correct,” Bailywick said, tipping his hat and walking away. Being a man of business, Bailywick Bumble was a master of difficult negotiations and he knew when he had been beaten. Mrs. Pettigrew was kind and had a face that hailed all the sweetness of the virgin Mary, but she was as artful a dodger as he’d ever witnessed.

Outside, he found a stagecoach to carry him to the mill. He stepped inside and wrapped his jacket tightly around his ever expanding waistline. He took a small flask out of his pocket and sipped a bit of brandy to warm up his blood and clear his mind. As they approached the mill, he looked at it in the distance. It was a fine mill, as fine a mill as any a man had ever owned and Mrs. Pettigrew’s words about an heir echoed in his mind.

He shoved it out of his mind and busied himself with the work of the day. He was surprised when his office door opened shortly after lunch and Mr. Lawson breezed in with scarcely a knock. Bailywick’s shoulders tightened at the sight of him.

“Your back rather sooner than expected,” Bailywick said not bothering to get up.

“I gave the matter my utmost attention as you requested,” Lawson said with a sniff.

“You found a nice place for the boy?” Bailywick said putting his pen down. He held his breath.

“Most certainly,” he said. “I found him an apprenticeship.”

“An apprenticeship,” Bailywick said feeling himself relax. “That sounds promising. What trade would the lad be learning.”

“He will be training as a chimney-sweep,” Lawson said taking a seat and peeling off his gloves. He pulled some papers out of his pocket and slid them across the large oak desk.

“Chimney-sweep?” Bailywick roared.

“He’s an orphan of lowly stock,” Lawson said. “You can’t afford to be choosy.”

“But a chimney-sweep,” Bailywick said. “He’s a very bright boy. He could learn most any trade. I dare say he could be a doctor or a lawyer. I would be more than happy to help pay for his education.”

“His father died in the commission of a stagecoach robbery. You won’t find any doctors or lawyers who want to take in the son of a known criminal. I was lucky to find this. Just sign the papers and I will be on my way.”

Bailywick picked up the papers and tried to read them, but the words blurred. He got up from the table and walked across the room stopping in front of the hearth to warm himself. He looked down at them again. The words youth and chimney-sweep printed in deep black swirly handwriting stared back at him and he tossed the papers into the fireplace in disgust.

“In God’s name,” Lawson said jumping out of his chair. “Those will have to be rewritten now.”

“No,” Bailywick said. “I have changed my mind. I will be keeping the boy.”

“Are you quite sure,” Lawson said.

“Yes. Quite certain of it. I’m sorry to have caused you trouble,” he said sitting back down behind the desk.

“Well then,” Lawson said. “Here are the papers I was going to have Mr. Lacy sign. If you will sign these naming Peter as your dependent, then I will take my leave of you.”

Bailywick Bumble pulled out his pen and signed the new papers with a smile.

“A Merry Christmas to you,” Lawson said as he collected them an bustled back out into the December snow. A smile alighted upon his face as soon as he exited the mill.

“And a very merry Christmas Peter,” he whispered under his breath. “A very Merry Christmas indeed.” He couldn’t help laugh to himself as there had never been a chimney-sweep. Mr. Lawson, as you have been told, was indeed very good at his job.

The Prison Tide by Sef Churchill

Sef Churchill took up my challenge to “Write like the Dickens.”  Here is her new masterpiece.    I’m so proud to be honoring her hard work on my blog.  Be sure to check out Sef’s own blog at http://sefchurchill.com/.   I am declaring February to be “Poe Your Heart Out Month,” so be sure to sign up for my e-mail list for information on how to create your own Edgar Allan Poe inspired piece and be featured on this blog.  Good luck to all of you creatives out there and happy writing!
The ship on the marsh swayed in the November wind. As it swayed, it groaned, and as it groaned, it echoed the cries of the gulls which swooped down to the silvery mud, hoping for unlucky fish.
A low boat wove among the treacherous channels which meandered across the mudflats. At slack tide the flats appeared benign enough. Enterprising folk plucked a living from mollusks and cargo which had been insufficiently secured. At high water, however, these very streams made a deadly funnel for the incoming sea. No boat ventured out then, and only the wiliest of local watermen  knew the safe route through.
Mercy Grabbett gathered her shawl about her and watched the gulls. To anyone watching, it might seem that her thin figure was another one of the huddled sacks of laundry, heaped against each other in the belly of the little boat. But closer inspection would show a girl of perhaps nineteen, hair of the colour they call chestnut, and hazel eyes dimmed often by long work and short rest. There was a light in her eyes, however, a fresh light, as yet unnoticed by anyone but the person who inspired it, which made her face twice as interesting as that of most washer women.
Mercy’s guardian, Frozzle, steered the craft. She called him simply Frozzle.  He was Mr. Frozzle only when they were in company, which was nearly every night, for as well as supplying the prison ship with fresh linen, Frozzle and Mercy tended the ale barrels at the Silent Tide, the inn on the marsh.
Frozzle took Mercy in when her parents were drowned near the old jetty,  and since nobody else wanted her, kept her as his daughter, or niece, or maid of all work, depending on the circumstances and who might be asking. Frozzle, with his wiry grey hair and cap always askance, ran the Tide, and the laundry service, with a quavering hand, but it might still be raised against Mercy when strong drink was in the question.
“Here she is,” said Frozzle.
Since the hull of the prison ship rose before them like a cliff, Mercy made no reply.
“You run up and fetch the dirties,” continued Frozzle. “I’ll put these aboard.”
Mercy did as she was bade, slithering up the rope ladder as nimbly as any lascar, onto the slimy deck of the prison ship. Meanwhile Frozzle attached a hook and rope to the first of the laundry sacks.
Mercy bobbed a curtsey to Dodge, the prison steward and, by default, ship’s captain. Dodge saluted back, in a way he’d studied from real sea captains. Dodge had earned his present rank at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He ascended to the lofty title of Captain  principally by being the only prisoner who had ever been on board a ship prior to being incarcerated on one.  He did not have many maritime duties, for this, like other prison hulks, would never sail again.
 Mercy hurried to the hatch.  Her thin shoes slipped and slid on the mildewed deck, but she kept her hands stuffed into her apron pocket. Into the hatch she went, and down, down, down a rotting ladder to the prisoner decks,
In spite of the dark, she found the place she wanted. She sought not the room where Dodge piled up the stinking laundry for collection, but a narrow door, one among many, with a number 77 painted on it. She knocked five times.
Immediately a slip of folded paper shot out from under the door. Mercy snatched it up, and unfolding it,  read with eager eyes. She nodded, although there was nobody to see. From her apron she pulled a small bundle, which might have been twigs, or cigars, and a thin coil of ship’s rope. “How can I give them to you?” she whispered.
“Wait,” came a hoarse cry from within. “Wait one moment!”
Mercy waited, praying that nobody, especially Frozzle, would come upon her here, among the makeshift prison cells, where she should not be. 
“Stand back a little,” said the voice behind the door.
She complied.
A sound came like a rat gnawing an empty bone, and then a splinter of wood freed itself from the door, and made a hole, just at the level of Mercy’s eyes. She bent to it.
“I could free myself from this hole anytime,” said the prisoner, “if I was prepared to pay the price on my head. Which I’m not. Pass me what you have brought.”
Mercy hesitated. “If I’m caught, we’ll both hang,” she said. “Even though you are innocent.” He had protested his blamelessness many times.
“They care not for innocence or guilt, only the appearance of justice,” said the prisoner. “Quick now!”
Still Mercy held back with the rope, and the matches.
The prisoner pressed his eye to the new gap, and gazed at Mercy. “You are as kind as I imagined,” he said. “And more beautiful.”
Mercy said nothing. However much she might wish to return the compliment, she could not, for she could see only an eye, and a hank of black hair.  Sighing, she poked the rope through the hole, and the matches.
“You do your country a great service.”
“I do myself the service,” said Mercy, emboldened, “and I care nothing for the country as long as we can run away, and be married.”
He drew back a little.
“Stand back,” she said. “Let me see you.”
He did so.
She saw a tall, thin man, dressed in the fashion of twenty years before. A long coat, and full shirt hung from his shoulders, and the remains of stockings clung to his calves. His shoes were intact,  but for missing the silver buckles , sold, by Mercy, to pay for certain supplies. He was not handsome, but what is handsome when justice is in the question? And he loved her, or said he did. Either one was more than Mercy had ever known.
“It will be tonight,” he said. “I will light the ship, and you will guide me across the marsh.”
“I will be ready,” she said, “with a lantern.” 
She hesitated. “A stranger came to the Tide. Asking about you. I told him nothing, but Frozzle, my, my uncle, may have told him you were here.”
“How would he know that?” cried the prisoner in sudden anger. “Have you betrayed me? You harlot,  who has told you my name  -“
“Your name is on your laundry,” said Mercy.
Silence. Then, in the old gentle tone, “Forgive me, my love. When this is over I will never doubt you.”
“I must go,” she said. “Goodbye. and – I long for when we will be together!”
She turned, and with all the confidence of youth and love, slipped away into the dark
***
The prison hulk flamed against the winter sky. Night was drawing on rapidly, advancing over the marsh like a black fog. The tide followed the night close at heel, like a dog sniffing for scraps, liable to turn vicious if refused.
Mercy stood at the edge of the mudflat, her face lit by the fire raging through the shell of the old ship. She watched for the prisoner to arrive, which at last he did, his boots mud-drenched, his clothes dripping. She gave him her cloak, and said she would lead him to the road.  He strode towards it.
She ran after him. “Wait my love, where shall we meet?”
“We shan’t. I’m free now.”
“But you promised -“
Too late, she realized her folly. Before her hunched a desperate man, convicted of the gravest crimes, and now believed by all to be dead. Why would he choose obligation, when he could choose freedom?
In Mercy’s heart, a hardness formed, a lump of loss and bitterness. “Wait, she said, “the road, you will never find your way. Not at dusk, not even by the light of the flames.”
“I see it there.”
“No! The tide, the water here deceives.”
He stopped and waited for her. “Which way then?” he said, folding her cloak tightly about him to disguise his ragged clothes.
She pointed. “Make for the old jetty. From it, you will see the road. East is Rochester, west is Dartford.”
He grunted.
“No farewell for me,” she said. Here was his chance, his last chance. “No thanks?”
“For a laundry girl who sold my silver buckles and doubtless profited more than the paltry coins I got?” He laughed, a cold laugh, and his face twisted. 
The bitterness in Mercy’s heart set to stone.
“Then go,” she said, “the way I told you.”
She picked her way towards the Silent Tide inn.
Frozzle was waiting, with a glass of porter, and a frown at her muddy clogs. “Evil deeds tonight,” he said. “The prison ship aflame and all the men dead, they say.”
“Is that what they say,” she said, swallowing porter.
“And a big tide coming,” he went on, “twill sweep what’s left of that vessel up to London and back out again to France. There will be nothing to see come morning.”
Mercy bent her head over her drink, and thought of the prisoner, following the line of the jetty into the path of the tide. She swallowed the last dregs, and turned aside thoughts of the past. “The tide takes what it will,” she said, and held out her glass. 

The Sodden Spectators by Joslyn Chase

I could not be more proud to share the following story by Joslyn Chase.   She is a very gifted writer and has captured the essence of Agatha Christie in this piece.  I hope that you enjoy.   She is an up and coming author, so be sure to check out her website.  The link is at the end of her notes.   I will be featuring Charles Dickens in December so fire up your imagination and write like the Dickens (pun intended).  Join my mailing list and send me your Dickens inspired piece to be included on my blog like Joslyn.  Happy writing!


THE SODDEN SPECTATORS

Joslyn Chase

“The old woman’s body was upstairs in the bedroom. She’d been dead for twelve hours.”

Margot Cummings stirred sugar into her tea, tapping the spoon against the rim of the cup with more force than was necessary.

“But Aunt Cathryn, you said she’d just been scrubbing the front steps. Two of the neighbors saw her an hour before the body was discovered.”

“You needn’t take out your frustration on my fine china, dear.” Cathryn Harcourt took a cautious sip of tea and blotted her lips with a rose-colored napkin, a prim smile showing in her tawny eyes. “It’s simple, really. The neighbors never saw her that day.”

“Aunt Cathryn,” Margot’s tone held a faint reproach. “I just finished reading your latest chapter this morning, and you made it quite clear that both Mr. Bunter and Mrs. Cunningham saw the old lady.”

“Oh, they testified they’d seen her and, really, they thought they had. They saw what they expected to see, because they’d seen it every morning—rain, shine, in the blast of heat, or flying snow—the old woman scrubbing obsessively at the front steps. The murderer had only to await the moment, put on the apron, pull the cap down over his own hair, and scrub at the steps, making sure to be seen. Then he went into the house, put the cap and apron back on the body, bundled into a bulky coat with a scarf wrapped round his head, and left.”

“But surely the medical examiner would pinpoint the time of death, making the charade pointless.”

“And that,” said Cathryn, one eyebrow raised for drama, “is why he left the bedroom window open, letting in the snow and the cold, successfully confusing the issue. Never underestimate the powers of expectation and misdirection.”

Margot groaned. “Very well, Aunt Cathryn, you always manage to stump me with your stories, but now I’m turning the tables on you. I’ll tell the mystery and you’ll dance to my tune.”

Cathryn leaned back in the papasan chair with the well-worn cushion and crossed her legs. “Oh ho! Let the piping begin.”

A wash of pink spread over Margot’s face and her eyes, a remarkable shade of blue, lost their flame and became sober.

“Actually, I would hate to stump you with this. The happiness of two people I care for deeply depends on your being able to solve it.”

Cathryn uncrossed her legs and leaned forward in a posture of rapt attention. “Let’s have it, then.”

Margot closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out on a shaky sigh. Her eyelids opened and the azure beneath had regained some of their fire. “I’ll try to present the facts of the case as clearly as you do in your books.” She cleared her throat. “A man committed suicide. His jacket, wallet, and car keys were found, neatly arranged, at the top of a seaside cliff, along with a bottle of prescription medicine and his cell phone, which contained a recorded message. His suicide note.”

Cathryn nodded her comprehension. “Go on.”

“He’d suffered a string of misfortunes—some problems with his business, a decline in health, and then his wife and only child were killed in a plane crash. He was clearly depressed, and though his body was never recovered, it is believed he took his life by jumping off the cliff into the sea below. A pair of spectator wingtips, the sort he always wore, washed up on a nearby beach.”

Margot stopped speaking. Cathryn was gazing out the window, a far-away look spreading across her face. Margot picked up a teaspoon, and dropped it with a clatter onto a china saucer.

Cathryn blinked and focused her topaz eyes on Margot’s pleading face. “I’m sorry, child. I was just thinking about Reverend Townsend, a character I created for my Westover Glade mystery. Such a sad thing. You’ve done an admirable job presenting the facts, but what is it you expect me to do with them?”

“I want to know—was it suicide, or murder?”

A bubble of laughter escaped Cathryn’s lips, and she shook her head. “And you accuse me of being unfair in doling out information. You’ll have to give me more than that. What is your interest in the case?”

“It’s Belinda. She’s my dearest friend, and so desperately unhappy just now. You see, she’s fallen in love with Abel Grandy.”

Cathryn stared. “Who?”

“I see I’ll have to start plugging in names and particulars. The dead man’s name was Jordan Phillips, though everyone called him Jordy. Have you heard of him?”

Cathryn shook her head.

“He was quite well-known in the world of horse-racing. He used to train, and ran a large stable in Kentucky. But he ended up more on the business side of racing, analyzing pedigrees, buying and selling as a bloodstock agent. His firm grew very successful, and he took on a partner, Abel Grandy.”

“Ah, I begin to see.”

“Yes. Abel is a bachelor, in his early forties, and my friend Belinda—if you recall, her husband died about three years ago—loves the man and wants to marry him, but he refuses to bring her into the shadow he lives under. You see, even though Jordy’s death was ruled a suicide, there are rumors that Abel actually killed the man. He came into quite a lot of money by it and that, alone, will keep the tongues wagging. He’s miserable, and refuses to let Belinda share his burden. As if she doesn’t, already, just by loving him.”

“Indeed.” Cathryn’s head dipped down into her thinking pose, a posture that looked deceptively like snoozing, but Margot knew better. She imagined the inside of her aunt’s head humming and snapping as neurons snaked around, making connections. At last, the honey-blond head, just starting a fade into silvery gray, rose and the golden eyes opened.

“Where is Mr. Grandy? I must speak with him.”

“He’s got a spread near Lexington, Kentucky. It’s a six-hour road trip, and Belinda told me he’d be in all week.”

Cathryn cast a fond smile on her niece. “You’re offering me a cookie.”

“I’ll bake you six dozen cookies if you’ll only come along and solve this thing.”

“Six dozen cookies would wreak havoc with my digestive system.”

Margot laughed. “Shall we leave first thing tomorrow?”

Cathryn rose and stretched her calves. They tended to bunch painfully if she set off without warning them. “I’ll go pack a bag.”

“And I’ll clear the tea things. Oh!” She stopped, and the delicate china cups were once again threatened by cascading cutlery. “I forgot to tell you one curious detail.”

“I shall be very displeased if you crack my teacups. What is it, girl?”

“The shoes that washed up on shore—they were size ten and a half.”

“So?”

“Jordy wore a twelve.”

~~~~

A patchwork quilt of green and white stretched over the gentle hills. Emerald squares of pasture were sectioned off with white fences, sprinkled with stables and moving dots of horseflesh. The air smelled of clipped grass and leather, and Cathryn breathed it in, felt it tickle in her nose. She leaned against the fence post and watched the string of horses run through their paces, their hooves producing a pleasant rhythm that she could hear, and faintly feel, vibrating against the rich earth.

Abel Grandy passed over a pair of binoculars. “That mare in the lead,” he said, indicating a bay with white socks, “is where you’ll lay your money, if you’re the betting type. Impeccable breeding and a fine set of legs.”

Cathryn focused on the head of the string, following with the binoculars, before handing them on to Margot. Abel allowed Margot a moment or two to observe the predicted champion before climbing off the rung of fence where he’d been perched.

“Lunch is waiting in the dining room. We can talk there.”

Cathryn had expected moneyed elegance in the house, to impress the paying clients, but both fare and furnishings were of the plain, nourishing type, and she formed a sensible opinion of Abel Grandy.

“I’m glad you ladies will be staying overnight. Belinda arrives this evening.”

“Yes,” said Margot, “I’m so happy she’s coming.”

He smiled, and turned to Cathryn. “I understand you have some questions for me?”

She heard the humoring tone in his voice. She was used to it. No one really expected a quiet, conservative old gal to be a crack investigator. Not unless they’d read her books or written a mystery novel themselves. Margot gave him a meaningful stare.

“Tell her everything,” she said. “You’re in good hands with my aunt Cathryn.”

Cathryn fixed her topaz-colored eyes on him. “Will you start by telling me your view of events?”

“Certainly.” Abel recounted things much as Margot had done. When he finished, Cathryn worked to fill in the blanks.

“What kind of health problems troubled Mr. Phillips?”

“His work put him under a great deal of strain, and his heart was affected. The doctor put him on medication and warned him to ease up on the pressure.”

“I see. And then his wife and daughter were killed. No easing up on pressure there, I am sure. Poor man. What did his suicide note say?”

“It was a recording.”

“So I understand. Do you recall the exact words?”

“I can do you one better. The police released his personal effects to me after they cleared his death as a suicide. I’ll go get the phone.”

He returned, wearing a chagrined frown. “I’m afraid the battery is dead, but I’ll put it on the charger and we can hear it later.” He connected the charger and returned to the table.

“What were the terms of his will?” Cathryn asked.

Abel sighed as he pulled out a chair. “Jordy probably meant to make changes later. He amended his will after Clarissa and Elaine were killed, but it was a hasty and half-hearted attempt which he never got round to changing. The only family he had left was a brother who’d married a Brazilian woman and was managing the family holdings near Gravatai, Brazil. He left the ranch and all the business there to his brother. His name is Brandon.”

“And his American interests?”

“All to me, I’m afraid.”

Cathryn studied his unhappy face. “I see that, to you, this is more than just a turn of phrase. You are afraid, Abel. Why?”

“I’m afraid Jordy’s generosity may cost me a great deal more than I am willing to pay.” He bunched the edge of the snowy tablecloth in two fists, reducing it to a mass of wrinkles. “I live under a cloud of suspicion, and in my darkest moments, I fear the police will get around to arresting me for Jordy’s murder, and make the charges stick.” His voice dropped and thickened. “I love Belinda. I want to marry her and raise some children, but not like this—not when I’m balanced over a black hole on a branch that could break any day.”

Margot gave her aunt a beseeching look. “Surely you can do something?”

Cathryn looked away, her lips pursed. “This is a very serious matter.” She sat, silent and pondering, for some moments, then roused herself with a little shake and beamed her golden eyes once again on Abel Grandy. “There are one or two places where I might dig a little deeper. Do you mind?”

“I’ll tell you everything I can.”

“What sort of medication was Jordy taking?”

He looked startled. “I don’t know, exactly. Richard could tell us.”

“Who’s Richard?”

“Richard Messinger.”

Cathryn drew back in surprise. “The pharmaceutical magnate?”

Current news stories heralded the success of a new drug marketed by Messinger Medical, designed and tested by founder, Richard Messinger. Stock in the pharmaceutical was soaring.

“He got his start as a veterinarian,” Abel told her. “Right here in Lexington. We were friends—Jordy, Richard, and I. Richard formulated Jordy’s medicine in his lab, called it a true designer drug, and Jordy swore it worked better than the standard fare he could pick up from the Rite-Aid.

“Was that legal?”

“I doubt it.”

She watched him gravely. “What else can you tell me about Richard?”

He pressed his lips together and drummed at the table with his fingers. “Quite a lot, actually. Can you be more specific?”

“Is he married?”

“Oh, well that’s rather interesting. He was preoccupied with a messy divorce about the time Jordy died. He’s married again, now, to the wife of the pilot who was killed with Clarissa and Elaine.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, Jordy was in the Bahamas, on business, and chartered a private plane to fly his wife and daughter out to meet him. The pilot, Mike Windham, was one he often used. A year or so after his death, Mike’s widow married Richard Messinger.

“Intriguing. This is all so much more complicated than Margot led me to believe.”

Margot shrugged, assuming a look of innocence.

Cathryn fastened her attention back on Abel. “And the shoes?”

“I beg your pardon—the shoes?”

“The spectator wingtips that washed up under the cliff Jordy supposedly jumped from.”

He hesitated. “Oh, those. What about them?”

“Why were they a size and a half too small?”

“Well, that was a funny thing. I was with Jordy when he bought those. His signature shoes, he called them, and he always bought the same kind—two-toned brown and white wingtips. We were on a business trip on the coast. The day before he died, we had lunch together, and afterward we stopped off at a shoe store. The pair he wore looked fine to me, but he insisted he needed new spectators. He was a bit miffed that they didn’t carry his size. The closest he could come was a ten and a half, and I could tell they pinched his feet, but he bought them anyway.”

Cathryn watched him carefully. “How very curious,” she said.

He stirred under her gaze, a tinge of red rising on his cheeks. Clearing his throat, he stood and walked to the phone charger.

“Shall we listen to Jordy’s last words?”

He returned to the table, accessed the app, and touched the play button.

My life has been more wonderful than I had any right to expect. I have been happy in business and love, until recently. I miss Clarissa and Elaine unbearably, and I feel the added misery of responsibility for their deaths. It was on my account they were in that plane, arranged for and necessitated by me. My health is failing, and I feel too burdened, too heavy to go on. I choose to end my life here. I have only made it this far on the strength of knowing what I would do, and planning for it. I thank my friends for their kindness and efforts on my behalf, and beg them not to mourn me. I am happy to leave a world I can no longer bear to live in.

Respectfully, Jordan Phillips. Jordy, to my friends.

Cathryn observed Abel as he listened to the voice of his partner and friend.  His head was bowed so that she could not see his face, but his Adam’s apple bobbed a number of times. When the recording stopped, he rose from the table, mumbled an apology, and left the room.

Margot turned to Cathryn. “Well, what do you think?”

Cathryn replayed the message and listened with her eyes closed, head cocked to the side. When it finished, she stood and stretched her calves. “I need to make a phone call, and then book a flight to Brazil.”

Margot shook her head. “You need a visa for Brazil, and it’ll take weeks to come through.”

Cathryn smiled. “I already have a visa, and they’re good for ten years.”

Margot was astonished. “When did you get a visa?”

Cathryn danced a little samba step toward the door. Over her shoulder, she tossed, “I went to Carnival last winter.”

As she left the room, she caught of glimpse of her niece’s face, wrapped in open-mouthed amazement.

~~~~

“I’m extraordinarily busy, Mrs. Harcourt. I only took your call because you said it concerns Abel Grandy. I hope you will be direct.”

“I just have one question, Mr. Messinger. Did Abel ask you to alter Jordan Phillip’s medication?”

There was an indignant splutter. “Certainly not.”

“But if he had, it would have been easy for you to do?”

“You’re wasting your time, Mrs. Harcourt, and I’ll thank you to stop wasting mine. Goodbye.” The connection ended as Margot entered the room and came to stand beside her aunt, a worried frown etching lines above her delicate brow.

“It sounds as if you suspect Abel had something to do with Jordy’s death.”

“I wonder. The drug angle bothers me, and we have only Abel’s account of the shoe shopping situation. I hate to say it, but he could have cut and spliced pieces of recorded messages to craft that suicide note. If the police decided to reopen the investigation, I’m afraid there are aspects about this business that look bad for Abel. I must speak with the brother, in Brazil.”

“Why don’t you just make another phone call?”

“As Mr. Messinger has demonstrated, when backed into a corner on the phone, one simply hangs up. I intend to meet this one face to face.”

~~~~

Much of the layout at the Brazillian ranch was similar to Abel’s Kentucky spread, but the color scheme was softer, muted greens and browns, and there was a different smell in the air, a resinous tang of burnt wood. The string of horses ran their training regimen, though it was Spring here, rather than autumn, as in the northern hemisphere. Brandon Phillips wore a rough pair of pants that ballooned slightly around his thighs and disappeared into worn leather boots with wooden soles. A sweat-stained leather hat sat atop his head and his chambray blouse was open at the neck, revealing manly curls of chest hair.

He watched the morning exercise through binoculars, but did not offer them to her.

“I’m sorry you have come all this way for nothing. I was here, a world away, when it all happened. I don’t know much about it.”

“But he was your brother. You cared about him.”

He turned to stare at her. “Of course I cared about him.” Resignation settled into his eyes. “I can give you a meal, and then you should go back. Come into the house.”

They entered through a back door into a sort of mudroom. Brandon peeled off the leather boots and threw them onto a pile of shoes in the corner.

“Shall I remove my shoes, as well?” Cathryn asked, determined to be polite in the face of his brusqueness.

He eyed her ballerina flats and snorted. “Do what you like.” He stalked from the room.

Cathryn chose to retain her flats, but she poked at the pile of shoes. Underneath the top layer, she found a pair of two-toned wingtips, size twelve. She peeked at the tag inside the flap of Brandon’s boot. Size 43. Not much help, she couldn’t remember the conversion for men’s shoe sizes, but she held the soles of the boots against the wingtips. A considerable difference.

She dropped the shoes and stood, her head drooped in her thinking pose. In the depths of her brain, connections were confirmed, and she stepped to the window and looked out over the pastured land. On a far-off hill, a lone horseman, silhouetted against the sky, looked back at her. For a long moment, he was still, and then he prodded the horse forward and rode slowly toward the house.

She sat down to dinner with the two brothers.

“Was the suicide drama really necessary?” she asked.

Jordy sighed. “I really did want to end it all. I wanted to die, without dying. If I engineered it right, I could walk away, all ties neatly cut and no one the wiser. I craved a simpler life, and didn’t like who I’d become. I thought it would be best for everyone if I cleanly ceased to be.”

“You should have known better,” Cathryn chided. “Poor Abel’s been put through a world of torment.”

“I never intended—“

“Road to hell, Jordy, road to hell. You will return with me and make your apologies to Abel.”

Jordy waved a fork at her, but quelled under her stern gaze. “Yes, ma’am.” He chewed and swallowed. “How did you know?”

Cathryn pushed back from the table. “There were a number of things that didn’t sit right with me, but it was your suicide note that clinched it.”

Jordy’s eyebrow quivered. “In what way?”

“You said, I choose to end my life here. In the context of the note, you seemed to mean here, as in this point in time. But I realized you may have meant here, as in physical space. You planned to end your life in Kentucky and begin a new life elsewhere. This was the logical place.”

Jordy looked stunned. “One little word.”

Cathryn smiled. “To a writer, every word carries weight.”

~~~~

Abel was angry. His face grew scarlet and his eyes pulsed in his head. Who could blame him? Words were exchanged, each carrying a weight of grief and rage, but by the end of the tirade, they were lightened by relief, and even joy. Abel’s shadow had evaporated. He and Belinda could stand in the light.

They gathered in the dining room of the Kentucky ranch for a congratulatory drink.

Margot raised her glass. “To another mystery solved.”

“Here, here,” was murmured around the table and Cathryn met Jordy’s eyes with an ironic smile.

“I almost feel sorry there wasn’t a murder involved,” said Margot. “Since that is your specialty.”

“But my dear,” said Cathryn, “There is a murder involved, and I’m afraid the truth will be quite painful.”

They all stared at her.

“Your druggist friend betrayed you. Unless I am mistaken, he and the woman he later married engineered the murder of the pilot.” She looked at Jordy. “A very ruthless couple. They didn’t allow the death of your wife and child to stand in their way. I’m sorry.”

Jordy fell into his chair, a spill of red wine staining his lap.

“I tipped my hand a little with my phone call, and he may have scrambled. But I doubt it. He’ll stand and fight. He’s arrogant, and he’s got too much at stake.” She put down her glass. “I’ll leave it to you to call the police. I really must get back. Deadlines await.”

She rose and nodded her goodbyes, moving to the foyer where she stopped, grimacing in pain.

Margot took her elbow. “Aunt Cathryn, what’s wrong.”

Cathryn massaged her leg. “Next time you insist I dance to your tune, remind me to stretch out my calves first. Let’s go home.”

NOTE: In writing this story, I played with two themes that are ubiquitous in the stories of Agatha Christie. She frequently used the device of deceiving appearances in her mysteries, much like the conjuring trick of a stage magician, and her detectives often made comments on human nature, in regard to such deceptions.

Another theme that pervades Christie’s fiction is that of innocence—how the innocent are affected by crime and injustice, and how, when suspicion falls, the innocent suffer under a cruel shadow, thus compounding the wickedness of the guilty.

I also had to face the decisions whether I would set my story in England, or transport my version to America (which I did) and whether I would set the story in Christie’s own time-frame, or move it to modern days (which I did). I had so much fun writing this piece that I may want to use Aunt Cathryn as a series character, and I picture more longevity in the modern, American version.

I’m a whole-hearted Agatha Christie fan. She was a genius plotter, and though she is sometimes criticized for shallow characterization, I disagree with that assessment. Without going into deep detail, she nevertheless pointed to the habits, desires, lusts, and weaknesses that make us human, and she revealed her characters through their behavior. There’s no better way, in my opinion.

Trying to walk in her footsteps, even in a small way, was a daunting task, and yet, it had its pleasures. I hope you enjoyed the story. Please visit my website at joslynchase.comand catch the power of Story.



“Catch the power of Story!”

Into The Future

Okay, It’s October 14th and I am already excited about NaNoWriMo.    I want to get my non-fiction project Puppy Love: Life Lessons In Obedience finished this month, just so I have a clean slate for next month.  It’s proving to be super motivating.  Here is a question for friends in the blogosphere though.  I have a project I have been kicking around for five years called Stealing The Amber Room.  I have 61,535 words and am approximately 20,000 words shy of completion.  I was going to use the momentum of NaNoWriMo to give me the push I need to put Stealing The Amber Room to rest.  I want so badly to send it off for a developmental edit and move into the next phase of my self-publishing dreams.  This is my last year of stay home motherhood as the twins go to Kindergarten next year and my husband wants me to get a paying job in fall of 2017.  Also, very motivating.  So here is the question.  Is it unethical to use NaNoWriMo to get a project finished?  I have an idea for another project set during the gold rush.  I could start fresh on that, but then I question whether or not this is resistance rearing it’s ugly head and trying to keep me from reaching my goal.
Also, I want to give everyone a heads-up on December.  I am going to be featuring Charles Dickens and will be writing a short story in the style of Dickens.  By this, I mean that I will be using his techniques in a new, original story of my own.  My intention is in no form or fashion to commit plagiarism.  I am inviting my fellow scribes to write your own Dickens inspired piece and send it to me.  Join my e-mail list and send me your Dickens piece via e-mail!  I will then choose the most noteworthy stories to post on my blog.  I look forward to seeing all of my writing buddies out there in NaNoWriMo.  Until then, happy writing!

My Agatha Christie Imitation is Here!

Here it is.  I can honestly say that I learned a great deal in writing this piece.  A big shout out to my friends at The Write Practice for all of the help polishing my numerous drafts.  If you are looking for an online community, I highly recommend it.
The Case of the Gypsy Curse

It was during my early years working at Scotland Yard that I investigated one of the most extraordinary crimes of the day. The sensationalist newspapers called it The Case of the Gypsy Curse.
Hard upon the tragic death of Mr. Edmondo Zacchini, retired circus performer, came the murder of a mysterious American–both deaths occurring at Longmeade Manor, home to the Harlows, one of the wealthiest and most respected families in Devonshire Heath. The local police were baffled, and in due course; Lei Liang was called in—his success in another recent case having brought him increasing prestige and notoriety, despite Liang being newly appointed.
My uncle Albert, head of Scotland Yard at the time, received a specific request from Charles Harlow for the renowned Liang to be lead investigator on the case. Rumored curses are apparently bad for business, and Charles Harlow was considered a very astute businessman. My uncle, still dubious of foreigners and resigning the previous case’s success to be pure luck, was skeptical of Liang’s true capabilities, and assigned me to be his subordinate.
Our first encounter was at London Victoria station. We were to catch the 8:00 a.m. train that would take us to Devonshire Heath. I was searching through the crowd for a singular Chinaman, a most unusual sight at the time, and I was startled by a tapping on my shoulder. I spun around to meet a set of tiny, dark eyes studying me. He smiled and took a polite bow as I pondered his appearance, seemingly out of thin air.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Inspector Higgins,” he said.
“How do you know who I am?” I replied, unsettled.
“You are the only person here searching for someone,” he said still studying me like an exotic bird on a perch.
“Yes. I suppose I am,” I said, giving him a cursory glance. Although he was middle-aged, his hair did not contain a single strand of gray. It was sleek and dark, shining purple in the sun like the wings of a raven. He wore a smart suit, ever so slightly snug in the middle. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” I said feeling a little annoyed.
“Many apologies. I was detained by a cheese danish,” he said, giving his tiny paunch a pat.
“I see. Try to be more punctual next time,” I replied, certain now that my Uncle’s skepticism had been well founded. Lei Liang was an odd bird, indeed.
********
The air was still crisp when we arrived in the sleepy town of Devonshire Heath. It was the kind of day when the sun is shines, but the cold bites one’s ears. I pulled up my collar as we headed straight to the office of Herbert Abernathy, town coroner. He was a very stern and serious sort of fellow. Elderly, he wore spectacles that magnified his eyes like enormous, blue marbles, but his faculties were razor sharp.
“I conducted an autopsy as soon as we pulled him out of the pond,” he said. “Cause of death was a blow upon the head. Most unsavory business.”
“Could it have been caused by a fall, perhaps?” I asked. “Hit a rock or something?”
“Certainly not,” Abernathy replied, indignant. “My best guess would be a hammer. The wound was very distinct.”
“What do the residents think happened?” Liang interjected.
“They think a tramp came along and did him in.”
“Does that seem likely?” Liang asked.
“No,” Abernathy said shaking his head. “This is a quiet community. If there was a tramp about, someone would have spotted him.”
“How long was Mr. Donaldson in the pond?” I asked.
“Oh, I’d say about three days, judging by the sight of him,” Abernathy said.
“He died a week ago Tuesday, then?” Liang said rubbing his chin.
“That Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning,” Abernathy said matter-of-factly.
“Do you know what his business was here?” Liang asked.
“No idea whatever. I only dealt with the body. The Harlows can tell you more,” Abernathy said, rising with an arthritic groan.
“What about the police?” I said.
“Police chief’s wife is having a baby. Dr. Weaver just left to deliver it. It’s Chief Chesterfield’s first. I’m sure he will be of little use to you right now,” said Abernathy waving us toward the door. We took our leave of the coroner’s office, my mind whirling as we walked along the street.
“If what he said is true about the lack of suspicious characters about–” I started.
“Then we are walking into the proverbial lion’s den,” Liang replied, finishing my sentence for me.
*******
After a twenty-minute drive, the car we’d hired deposited us at the doorstep of Longmeade Manor, a sprawling estate which adorned the property in the grand fashion of a bygone era. The lawn looked meticulous, but one glance at the garden revealed signs of decline. It sat off to the side, mostly out of view, but one could tell that it was in desperate need of attention. Many of the wealthier families had been hurt by the economic collapse in the States, making these grand estates a burden, but old families held onto them out of pride. Human psychology seemed to dictate that one should hold on to what one knows at all costs.
I rang the bell and a well-dressed man who made too much use of pomade opened the door.
“My name is Reggie Castor. I am Mr. Harlow’s secretary,” he said as he bent down to pick up a watering-can from the front steps. “My apologies. The gardener is always leaving this lying about.”
“I am Inspector Walter Higgins, and this is my associate, Mr. Lei Liang of Scotland Yard,” I said.
“We have been expecting you,” Harlow replied, ushering us into the foyer. The smell of polished wood assaulted my senses, reminding me of boarding school.
“We will need to speak with the family,” Liang said.
“Of course. If you would just follow me,” Castor replied with a nod. “Terrible mess, this.”
“Could you tell us your impression of things?” Liang said.
Reggie Castor stopped and stared at Liang for a moment.
“Well,” he began, shifting his weight as he considered. “Mr. Donaldson showed up here unannounced on Tuesday, claiming to be a friend of Mrs. Zacchini. He begged to meet with her privately, and was invited to stay the evening. He dined with the family, but then took his things and left shortly before everyone retired. I offered to call a car to take him to the inn in town, but he declined. He said that he was meeting someone who would take him to town. He left and was not seen again until he was discovered in the pond.”
“Did you see a car come and collect Mr. Donaldson?”
“No,” replied Castor. “My quarters are on the rear of the house. I cannot see the road from my window.”
“Did he seem angry?” Liang said, studying Reggie Castor carefully.
“No. Not angry. More nervous I’d say,” Castor replied.
“Afraid of something, perhaps?” Liang quizzed.
“Perhaps. It is difficult to read a man’s mind,” Castor said as he resumed his task of guiding us to the drawing room.
“True,” said Liang, nodding thoughtfully.
Suddenly, a beautiful creature in black mourning garb appeared in the foyer, carrying a small, blond child of cherubic proportions. The child appeared to be just under a year old. A honeymoon baby, no doubt. Tear stains lined the mother’s cheeks, but she appeared otherwise together.
“Are these police?” she asked.
“Yes milady,” Castor said gently. “Would you like to sit down? I’m afraid that…”
“No need to worry,” she said. “Will you please collect my parents? Father is in the study, and I believe mother’s in the greenhouse.”
“Yes milady,” He said, finally retreating after a sorrowful glance resembling a puppy who had been scolded.
“My name is Amelia Zacchini,” she said, her dark eyes peering beneath long thick lashes. A specimen of the female form, even in widow’s weeds.
“I am Inspector Lei Liang, and this is my associate Mr. Higgins,” Liang said with a nod in my direction. “I am most sorry for your loss.” His eyes took a lengthy glance over the fair child with bobbing curls and a rosy nose. “What a handsome little boy,” he said as the nurse came in and carried the child off.
“Yes,” Amelia replied absently. “He is quite handsome. Just like his…,” She turned her face slightly, her lower lip quivering.
“There, there,” Liang said, offering her a handkerchief. “You have been through quite an ordeal.”
She nodded accordingly and was about to speak when a tall, slender woman with an intelligent face entered the room with her husband close behind. Jane Harlow commanded attention and I dare say, respect. She was wearing a smart wool skirt with sensible shoes, and her face was full of color. “Amelia?” she said, breathless.
“These are detectives Liang and Higgins,” Amelia said.
“Oh, I can’t tell you how glad I am you’ve arrived,” Jane Harlow said, waving a wisp of hair out of her face.
“This has all been terribly upsetting, as you can imagine,” said her husband Charles, indicating for us to take a seat.
Liang sat in a high back chair next to the fireplace and stared into the coals as if he were reading tea leaves. Charles Harlow looked puzzled as he studied the renowned investigator.
“Can you tell me what happened?” I said respectfully as I took my place on the settee across from Mr. Harlow.
“It’s just so dreadful,” Jane Harlow said with a cough.
“You alright, dear?” Charles said, feigning concern.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, looking at me with blue-green eyes that resembled a storm at sea. “I just need a moment to catch my breath.”
“You’ll have to excuse my wife,” Charles said. “She has a heart condition, and this ordeal has been a great strain.”
“Please continue, inspector,” Jane Harlow said as a servant poured her a glass of water.
“I just need a detailed account of Mr. Donaldson’s visit,” I replied.
“That’s easy enough,” Charles Harlow said, lighting a cigar. He was a competent sort of man—the type that succeeded in business and all facets of life. He exuded confidence as he puffed smoke into the air. “Mr. Donaldson showed up quite unannounced. I found him rather rude, to be honest.”
“Father,” Amelia interjected.
“I’m sorry, but he was really of no account. Amelia made excuses for him and insisted on seeing him as he was a friend of hers, so I agreed,” he said, pouring himself a Scotch to compliment his cigar.
“I’ve heard enough,” Amelia said, bristling, and rushed out of the room.
“Ah, she doesn’t understand. She is still very much like a child,” Harlow said, sipping his Scotch. “Her friend, Mr. Donaldson, pulled me aside and asked for several thousand pounds shortly after he arrived. I turned him down flat, and he had no reason to hang around. He took his leave shortly after dinner. That was the last we saw of him until…”
“Is there anyone you know that would have wanted to harm Mr. Donaldson? Did he mention any enemies?” I queried.
“No. He didn’t share anything personal, but who knows the sort of company he liked to keep? I tried to tell Amelia he was no good, but you know how children are these days.”
“He wasn’t as bad as all that, Charles,” Jane Harlow snapped.
“You were blinded by his good looks,” Charles said rolling his eyes. “A businessman like myself knows how to read a man.”
“It is odd that he chose to leave so late in the evening,” Liang interjected from his perch. I’d almost forgotten his presence, as had Mr. Harlow, judging by his startled grimace. “Did something prompt his swift departure? Something you are not telling us, perhaps?” Liang cocked his head, studying Charles Harlow now with his full attention.
“Look here,” said Charles. “Are you accusing me of hiding something?”
“Nothing you think is important, no. However, sometimes it is the tiny details that matter most. Something about Mr. Donaldson made you uneasy, did it not?” Liang said, his demeanor calm and unruffled.
“His behavior was peculiar,” Charles said slamming down the rest of his Scotch. “I didn’t like the way he looked at Amelia. It was obvious he was in love with her, and I’m afraid my daughter returned his affections. There. I said it.” He looked at Liang with defiant hatred.
“Charles!” Jane Harlow snapped.
“You don’t know what they talked about?” Liang pressed.
“No,” Charles said with vehemence.
“I see. And what of Mr. Zacchini? He died the very next day?”
“Yes. Tragic accident,” said Charles Harlow, shaking his head.
“Was it?” Liang said.
“You don’t buy into all this balderdash of a curse?”
“No. I do not believe in curses, but I do believe in evil, Mr. Harlow. Can you please describe for me the circumstances of your son-in-law’s death?”
“You really believe someone could have killed Edmondo?” Jane Harlow said, clutching her hand to her heart.
“Preposterous. It had to be an accident!” Charles roared.
“Just the same, could you tell me about it?” Liang asked, undeterred. I could feel the color rising in my cheeks. This case would be Liang’s last. Charles Harlow and my uncle would make sure of it. Of that I was certain.
“My son-in-law was formerly a circus performer,” Charles began through gritted teeth. “I’m sure that much you have ascertained.” Liang nodded earnestly for him to continue. “He dragged that silly contraption all the way across the ocean. He wanted to start his own circus, and wanted me to back him in the venture. I told him I’d have to think about it. I hoped he would drop the matter. Instead, he insisted on giving a performance. I dare say he thought that it would further encourage me.”
“Was this a spur-of-the-moment decision?” Liang ventured.
“No. Not exactly,” he said pouring another Scotch. “He announced it at dinner the night before.”
“The same night Mr. Donaldson joined you?”
“Indeed.”
“Had he perform this trick many times before?”
“Hundreds, to hear him tell it,” Charles said.
“But clearly he made an error. He had not performed it since they arrived last year,” Jane interjected.
“How did Mr. Zacchini calculate the trajectory?” Liang pressed. I felt a tight ball forming in my throat and took a deep breath as Charles Harlow rolled his eyes.
“He had a dummy specially made. It weighed the exact same as his own body. He was emphatic the weight had to be exactly right to the last ounce. Any difference could throw off things completely. It had an opening in its chest so that the weight could be adjusted.”
“He loaded the dummy into the cannon himself?” Liang asked.
“No, actually he was busy taking some measurements. He had Reggie hoist it in the cannon.”
“Reggie is a dear, though. He wouldn’t harm anyone,” Jane remarked
“Is there any way that we can see this dummy perhaps?” Liang said. At this remark, Charles threw up his arms.
“Oh, my,” Jane Harlow exclaimed gripping her chest suddenly.
“You alright, love?” Charles said with genuine concern this time.
“I’ll be fine. I just need to lie down a moment,” she said as Charles summoned a maid to assist them up the stairs. Reggie Castor appeared swiftly from around the corner where I suspected he had been eavesdropping. There was a definite uneasiness in his manner I had not seen before.
“If that is all at present,” Charles said with venom as he slid his arm around his wife.
“About the test dummy,” Liang reiterated as the Harlows started up the stairs.
“Take the damn thing if you please!” he shouted without turning.
Reggie Castor indicated for us to follow and didn’t say a word as he led us toward the east wing. A preponderance of dust indicated that this wing was little used and had been relegated to storage. Liang ran his finger along a piece of trim as we followed and gave a sigh of distaste. At the end of the hall, we were ushered to a room at the right full of odds and ends. Furniture that was not in use, old paintings, and a sterling tea set in need of polish all sat idle. In the corner sat the dummy in question. It was a doll the size of a man. The material was a thick blue cotton. A certain amount of skill had gone into its construction.
Liang examined the dummy for several long moments. He surveyed every inch of the doll’s body and finished his examination by unzipping the pocket and reaching inside.
“Was the test dummy always kept in this room?” Liang asked as he probed the dummy’s inner cavity.
“Yes. Mr. Zacchini was very particular about how it was stored.”
“Most unusual,” Liang muttered.
“What is that?” Reggie Castor and I asked in unison.
“We will need to speak to Mrs. Amelia privately right away,” Liang said, ignoring us both.
“Certainly,” said Mr. Castor with a smirk. “I will go and fetch her for you.”
Amelia Zacchini met us in the study. Liang shut the door and ushered her into a chair.
“I need perfect honesty from you Mrs. Zacchini. I am afraid. Yes, I am very much afraid that another death could occur.”
Amelia Zacchini stared at Liang opened mouthed.
“You don’t really buy into this curse business? It’s such rubbish.”
“It is not a curse that I fear, milady,”
“What do you require of me?”
“I assure you of the utmost discretion, Madame, but I need to know. Mr. Donaldson was the father of little Robert, was he not?”
Her mouth fell open, and she hesitated for a moment. “But how could you know that?” she said incredulous.
“I saw pictures of your husband in the newspaper. I knew the moment that I looked at little Robert that he was not a Zacchini. When you said he was handsome like his father you were referring to Mr. Donaldson—the real man you fell in love with in the States. He had come to claim what had rightfully been stolen from him. Am I correct?”
Amelia began to sob. “Yes,” she whispered. Liang offered her his handkerchief, which she gladly accepted as I sat dumbfounded.
“Patrick confessed to Edmondo that I was with child. Patrick was in a quandary; we were in a terrible fix. Patrick rushed off to his parents and told Edmondo to let me know he would return for me. He was so impetuous. He just took off and trusted Edmondo to tell me the truth. That horrible man convinced me that Patrick had run off. He offered to marry me to save my honor. You have to understand my life would have been ruined if I had come back home…”
“You have been through a great deal,” Liang said.
“He killed Patrick, didn’t he? Oh it’s all my fault,” she said stomping her tiny foot.
“You cannot possibly blame yourself. It is very difficult to stand in the path of evil.”
Amelia Zacchini gave a shudder. “But surely it’s over now. Edmondo is gone.”
“Yes. He is gone, but the evil that he brought with him pervades, I’m afraid. We must act quickly,” Liang said, rising. “Mrs. Amelia, you stay here.” She nodded like an obedient child.
I followed Liang out of the room, still in a bit of shock.
“So the dead man did Donaldson in right before he died himself?” I said, breathless.
“But of course–Donaldson threatened to upset all of his plans, and Edmondo Zacchini was a man of ruthless ambition.”
“But what do we have to fear now?” I asked, incredulous.
“The other murderer,” Liang said, reaching the top. “Or perhaps I should say, the murderess.”
“You can’t mean to say…” I was cut short as he knocked on Mrs. Harlow’s door.
“Yes?” Jane Harlow called as we barged into the room. Jane Harlow sat on a divan, staring. Her expression held equal parts contempt and admiration.
“What on earth do you mean by interrupting me here?” she demanded.
“You already know,” Liang said politely.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said her eyes stormy.
“You are an astute woman. You knew the moment you saw Patrick Donaldson who he was and why he was here. Your husband may not have understood Mr. Donaldson’s intentions. He didn’t want to, but you saw it right away.”
“Yes. Of course, I saw it, but my hands were tied,” she said popping her medication and taking a drink of water. I detected a subtle tremble in her hands.
“You are the one that Mr. Donaldson was going to meet that night. You were going to give him money until a divorce was arranged.”
“Jane!” Charles said charging into the room. “Is this true?”
“Yes,” she whispered, “but Edmondo got to him first. “I couldn’t prove it, but I knew. You should have seen him that morning. He was so proud of himself. So smug. You saw him Charles.” Mr. Harlow stared at his wife still uncertain.
“You saw an opportunity,” Liang said with a nod of understanding.
Mrs. Harlow was breathing heavy now. Her face became flushed. “I couldn’t let Amelia be married to that horrible man,” she said, pounding her fist. “Reggie sat the dummy on the front step and went inside to do something. The watering-can was sitting right there in front of me.”
“Jane, you didn’t,” Charles said aghast.
Mrs. Harlow shrugged, leaning back on the divan. “Reggie came out a moment later and hoisted the thing up without a…” Her eyes fluttered, and she began to slide. Charles rushed to her side. Liang called for help. Reggie Castor rushed in with the maid on his heels.
“Her pills!” Charles called to the maid.
“She already took her pills,” the maid cried.
“Why?” Charles whispered as Amelia rushed in and took her mother’s hand.
“Promise me you will be happy,” Jane Harlow whispered closing her eyes.
“Mother! No!” Amelia cried.
“I will call for the doctor,” Liang said rushing out.
“Extraordinary,” I exclaimed following Liang. “I guess she couldn’t handle it.”
“That woman can handle most anything my friend. Once she knew that her capture was imminent she overdosed on her heart medication.”
“But how did you know?” I asked.
“With experience comes intuition,” he said staring at me with those tiny dark eyes.
“Such a sad business,” I replied shaking my head.
“Yes. However, I think Mrs. Zacchini will find the happiness her mother fought so hard for her to have.”
“Who would have thought it?” I said still aghast.
“One who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself,” Liang replied as he dialed Herbert Abernathy’s office.
Sometimes about town, you can still hear people talking about the Gypsy Curse. As for me, I don’t believe in curses, but I do believe in the deductive reasoning of detective Lei Liang.