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
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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!”