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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Dead Letter Office (an excerpt from a work in progress)

I have begun work on another mystery, a sequel to Poison the Well (that one's not even released yet!  Look for it in May or June).  It will center around another murder case, and the same motley crew of psychic private detectives will be bringing their unusual skill set to bear on figuring out whodunnit.  Here's the first chapter, just as a teaser (and also because I don't have any more written of the story at the moment!).

            The woman sitting in the high-backed chair in Mr. Parsifal Snowe’s office seemed faded, like an item of clothing that had been through the washing machine a few too many times.  Her hair had probably once been sandy blonde, but now was streaked with a tired-looking gray.  Her skin was pale, with a few faint freckles straggling across the bridge of her nose.  Even her eyes were an indeterminate shade of blue, like wilted cornflowers.  The overall effect was not helped by a rather hapless attempt to apply makeup.  She could, Bethany Hale reflected, be any age between thirty and sixty.  There was no way to tell.
            “I know I don’t have any proof,” the woman said, nervously twisting the handle of her purse between her fingers.  “It’s just a feeling.  Something just doesn’t feel right.  I know it sounds stupid.”
            “Nonsense, Miss Skelly,” Mr. Snowe responded, his voice reassuring.  “There have been many cases that have been initiated on the basis of a feeling, and not an inconsiderable number that have been solved because of a chain of deductions that began with something ‘feeling wrong’ to someone.  I urge you not to doubt yourself.  What you have told me thus far is interesting.  Please do continue.”
            The corner of Donna Skelly’s mouth twitched a little, and she cleared her throat.  “The police thought that Miss Dyer was killed by a burglar.  And, I mean… that’s what it looked like.  I’m the one who found her, and it sure looked like someone had broken in.  Her study… it was all a mess, and Miss Dyer was someone who always wanted to keep things neat as a pin.  And she’d been hit on the back of the head.”  She swallowed.  “It was dreadful.  There was quite a lot of… blood.”
            “You needn’t dwell on that point, Miss Skelly,” Mr. Snowe said.
            She nodded.  “Well, the police said they found footprints outside, beneath the study window, and some broken branches.  The window was open – that was the first thing I noticed, because I remembered earlier Miss Skelly had shut it, because night was coming on.  It was when I brought her her evening coffee.  She was at her desk, working on some of her papers, she said she was cold, and I asked her if she wanted the window shut and she said, ‘No, I’ll get it, stop fussing.’  So she went and shut the window, and then told me that she didn’t need anything more, that she was working on her research and didn’t want anyone bothering her.  But when I came in later that evening, around nine o’clock I think it was – as soon as I was near the study door I felt the breeze from the window, and then when I went in, I saw the curtains fluttering.  Then I saw the papers on the floor and the drawers of the desk pulled out and dumped.  And I just sort of automatically went to start tidying up – you know, when you’re shocked by something, and you just sort of keep doing what you always do, like you’re on autopilot.  But then I saw her… her body, behind the desk.”  She paused.  “It was dreadful,” she said again.
            “Why had you gone back?” Bethany asked.
            “I went to check on her, to see if she needed anything else,” she said.  “She sometimes likes a glass of milk before she goes to bed, or for me to bring her a book to read.”
            “Did you hear anything?”
            Donna Skelly looked from Mr. Snowe’s face to Bethany’s.  “No,” she said, and she sounded afraid.  “I’d gone to my bedroom.  It’s upstairs, and on the other side of the house.  It’s a big house.  I didn’t know anything was wrong until… I found her.”
            “Was there anyone else in the house at the time?”
            “No,” Miss Skelly said.  “I’m the only other one who lives there.”
            “How long did you work for Miss Dyer?” Mr. Snowe asked.
            Miss Skelly looked down.  “I don’t…  I don’t exactly work for her.  I’m her cousin.  She took me in four years ago, when I lost my job.”
            “Ah,” Mr. Snowe said, and his voice lowered a little, as if he were embarrassed at having brought up such an indelicate topic.  “I beg your pardon, Miss Skelly.”
            “No, it’s okay,” she said, in a defeated voice.  “It was kind of her to take me in.  I had nowhere to go, and she didn’t have to.  Taking care of her was the least I could do.”
            “But you think her death wasn’t the act of a burglar,” Bethany said.
            Miss Skelly looked up.  “No.  I don’t.  It’s just a feeling, like I said.  There was something about it – about the room.  Stuff was dumped out of the drawers, and off the desk, and some books were on the floor.  But it really… it really just looked like, I don’t know, like a stage set.  Like someone had come in, killed her, and then flung things around to make it look like they were robbing her.”
            “Was anything missing?” Bethany asked.
            “Not much,” Miss Skelly said.  “She usually kept a little bit of money in a wooden box on her desk – maybe twenty dollars or so.  You know, in case she needed cash.  That was gone.  And her necklace and rings were taken.”
            “Were they valuable?”
            Miss Skelly shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Probably a little.  Her rings were worth something, I’d guess, they were gold and had some little jewels of some kind.  The necklace looked like…”  She hesitated a moment.  “Costume jewelry.  I shouldn’t criticize, it’s not like I have any nice jewelry myself.  But it looked like something you’d buy at a craft fair.”
            “That is important information,” Mr. Snowe said.  “You needn’t hesitate to tell us what you think.”
            “It’s just…just that there wasn’t anything much of value taken,” she said.  “All told, maybe two hundred dollars, I’d guess.”
            “People have been killed for far less than that,” Bethany observed.
            Miss Skelly nodded.  “I’m sure.  It’s just that something didn’t feel right about it.  I know I keep saying that, but I don’t know how else to put it.”
            “Where did she keep her actual valuables?” Mr. Snowe said.  “Did she have any expensive jewelry?  Other items that a burglar might have been looking for?”
            “She had some nice jewelry, I think – mostly she kept it in the safe in her bedroom, upstairs.  She seldom wore it, or even took it out.  She didn’t care about that kind of stuff.  She was only interested…”  Miss Skelly stopped and looked down again.
            “Only interested in what?” Mr. Snowe prompted gently.
            Miss Skelly seemed suddenly to come to a decision.  “She only cared about the past,” she said.  “I guess she’s dead now, there’s no harm in saying it.  She lived for the past.  She spent all of her spare time researching the family tree.  She could spend hours poring over old records – that was what she was doing the night she died.  There are binders full of charts, and dozens of binders containing letters, each one in its own plastic sleeve.  Some of the letters are really old.”  She shook her head.  “I never understood why she was so devoted to it all.  Those letters were written to be private, by people who died years ago, people who never intended their correspondence to be… collected and displayed, like dead butterflies in a case.  It isn’t right.  Marie – that’s Miss Dyer’s youngest niece – called her study the ‘Dead Letter Office.’  She always made fun.  It’s why Miss Dyer didn’t like her.”  She shrugged a little, and said, “But all they are is old worthless pieces of paper, with a bunch of words written by dead people about dead people.  That’s what she valued.  Not money, not belongings, not… people.  Real flesh and blood were less important to her than names on charts.”  She fidgeted again with her purse strap.  “She wasn’t really a very nice person.”
            “But even so,” Mr. Snowe said, “you felt strongly enough about her death that you came to us to ask if we’d investigate.”
            Miss Skelly nodded.  “Even if she wasn’t nice, no one… no one deserves to be killed.  No one should have their personal things flung about as if they… as if they didn’t matter.  It’s just sad to think that someone would hit her like that, and after she was dead, that they would take things she cared about, and treat them as if they were nothing.  Dump them on the floor and walk on them.  It’s horrid.”  Her voice cracked a little.  “After all, all of those papers and books and charts… they mattered to her.”
            “It is a terrible thing to do,” Mr. Snowe said.
            “The problem is,” Miss Skelly said, “I don’t have much money.  Miss Dyer left me a bit of money – most of the estate went to her nephew Robert, of course, including the house, but I did get enough to get by on for a while.  And Robert told me I could stay in the house as long as I liked, although I’m sure eventually he’ll sell it and I’ll have to clear out one way or the other.”  Her brows furrowed with worry.  “I probably won’t be able to afford your fees, but I’ll pay if I can.”
            Mr. Snowe tented his fingers together, and Bethany smiled a little; she’d seen this scene reenacted before.  “Now, Miss Skelly, you needn’t fret on that account,” he said.  “I am quite prepared to commit our team of agents to doing at least a preliminary investigation without your needing to pay.  Dependent on what we find out, we will reconvene and apprise you of our progress, and at that point we can discuss whether remuneration for further services would be necessary.”  He smiled.  “This case intrigues me.  I think we can proceed on that alone for at least a while.”
            Miss Skelly slumped a little with relief.  “Thank you,” she said, and then added, “I hate always having to live off other people’s charity, though.  I would pay you if I could.”  There was a sudden edge of pride to her words that made Bethany frown a little; it was the first emotion she’d shown other than resignation.
            “I am certain that is the case,” Mr. Snowe said.  “We will speak no more of it.”
            “Did the police find anything else?” Bethany asked.  “Anything other than what you’ve told us?”
            She shrugged.  “Not really.  I overheard the detective in charge say something about it being a ‘clear-cut’ case.  Mr. Bradford – he was Miss Dyer’s personal assistant – had seen someone on the property one night the week before Miss Dyer was killed, and had gone outside to investigate, but he said the man ran off.  Miss Dyer’s house isn’t far from the high school, and we thought it might just be a teenage kid.  You know how they like to cause trouble.”
            Mr. Snowe nodded.
            “But the police told us afterwards that it might have been the burglar, you know, I forget what they call it…”
            “Casing the place,” Bethany said.
            “Yes.  Seeing if there was a way in.  And like I said, the night she was killed they found footprints outside the window, and one of the hedges had been stepped on and broken.  And the back gate was open.”
            “Where does the back gate lead?” Bethany asked.
            “There’s a loop of the driveway that goes behind the house.  Back in the day, there used to be a barn back there, but it was torn down, oh, years ago.  Now there’s just the garden shed, where the lawn mower and tools and all are kept.  Part of the back yard is fenced, because Miss Dyer used to have dogs.  And there’s a gate leading into the driveway.  It was open, like someone had run that way and not stopped to close it.”
            “I have one more question,” Mr. Snowe said.  “Please forgive me if it is… uncomfortable.  Did the police identify the murder weapon?”
            “Yes,” Miss Skelly said.  “It was a heavy brass vase.  It always sat on a stand in the corner of the room, near the window, the one the man came through.  He hit her in the back of the head with it, and…”  She stopped, swallowed, and then continued.  “They said he hit her twice more after she was already on the floor.  He wanted to make sure she was dead.”
            Mr. Snowe held up one immaculately manicured hand, and said, “No need to distress yourself further on that account, Miss Skelly, I understand completely.”
            “Would you be able to provide the names of some of the… other family members?”  Bethany only reminded herself at the last moment to use the word “other;” it was still far too easy to think of Donna Skelly as having been Miss Dyer’s servant.
            “Of course,” Miss Skelly said.  “Miss Dyer never married, of course, and her brother Robert and his wife died some years ago.  But there’s her brother’s children – Robert Jr., Katherine, and Marie.  All married now, and children of their own, except for Marie of course.  Katherine’s a Yates now, and Marie is Marie Mackenzie.  But they’re her nearest relatives.”
            Mr. Snowe nodded.  “You know them well, I would assume?”
            “Quite well, yes.”
            “Do you think any of them would have any objection to our asking them a few questions?   Just your impression, of course.”
            Miss Skelly shook her head.  “I don’t see why they would.”  A worried look crossed her face.  “They might wonder why you were investigating, since the police thought it was a burglary.”
            “You need have no worries on that regard,” Mr. Snowe said.  “There would be no necessity of telling anyone that you were the one who engaged us.”
            She looked relieved.
            “I wonder if I might ask,” Bethany said, “since you don’t think it was a burglar, do you suspect anyone else in particular of having committed the murder?”
            Donna Skelly froze, eyes wide, like a rabbit facing the talons of a hawk.  “N-no,” she finally stammered.  “Of course not.  I don’t have any idea at all.  How would I know?”  She shivered a little, and seemed to regain some of her composure.  “Just because I… I don’t think that what the police said, that it’s right… it doesn’t mean that I know what really happened.”
            “No, of course not,” Bethany said.  “I just wondered if you might have some ideas.”
            “None,” Miss Skelly said.  “None at all.”
            Mr. Snowe gave her a paternal smile.  “Now that you’ve put this into our hands,” he said, “you should relax.  You may rest assured that we will utilize all of the resources and skills at our disposal to determine if your suspicions are correct, and if they are, we will do everything in our power to bring the case to a just conclusion.”
            Miss Skelly looked at Mr. Snowe, her pale eyes still filled with a mixture of worry, doubt, and resignation, and then finally she gave a sigh and stood up.  “Very well, then,” she said.  “I guess I’ve done all I could.”
            “You have indeed,” Mr. Snowe said.  “We will contact you when we have more information, or if we have further questions for you.”
            “Thank you,” she said.  “And especially for being understanding about… about the money.”
            Mr. Snowe inclined his head.  “Let us consider that matter resolved.”
            “Thank you,” she said again, and then made her farewells and left.
            After the door had closed, Bethany regarded her boss with an expression of amused curiosity for a moment.
            “Another charity case, eh?”
            Mr. Snowe gave her a little shrug.  “Call it one of my failings.”
            “Hardly that,” Bethany said.  “What are your impressions?”
            “She’s fearful,” he said.  “And not just because, as I suspect, she has been forced into a subservient position in the family for years.  I will be very much surprised if this family is comprised of people who are paragons of compassion.”
            Bethany chuckled softly.  “I agree.  I’m a little surprised to hear you state it so directly, though.”
            “Uncharitable of me, I fear,” Mr. Snowe said, and turned both hands upward in a gesture of apology.
            “The old lady sounds like a hellion.  If a frightened churchmouse like Donna Skelly would say those things, and about someone who was dead no less, our dear departed Miss Dyer must have been a class-A bitch.”
            “I would not have phrased it that way,” Mr. Snowe said, “but I think your general inference is correct.”
            “I wonder what it was that gave Skelly the idea about the murder not being a burglary in the first place,” Bethany said.  “With her disposition, it’s a miracle she had the gumption to come to us.  Especially if it was just some sort of vague impression that something about the scene was wrong.”
            “Vague impressions can be amazingly powerful incentives to behavior,” Mr. Snowe said.  “But as for what was wrong, that was apparent to me almost from the outset.  Did you not see it, Ms. Hale?”
            Bethany frowned, and looked down for a moment, thinking.  “I can’t think of anything.  I mean, it does seem a little clichéd, the whole dump-out-the-desk-drawers thing – the classic ransacking the office to make it look like burglary was the motive.  But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have been a burglar.”  She looked up at Mr. Snowe.  “Right?”
            Mr. Snowe gave her a bland smile.  “It’s actually quite obvious, Ms. Hale.  Consider what Miss Skelly told us about the events on the evening of Annamae Dyer’s death.  She brought Miss Dyer her evening coffee – let us say, for the sake of argument, at seven o’clock in the evening.  Miss Skelly saw Miss Dyer shut the window at that time.  Miss Skelly then retired to her bedroom on the second floor of the house.  She went back at nine o’clock to see if Miss Dyer needed anything further before going to bed.  She found the window open and Miss Dyer dead on the floor.”  He stopped, and looked at Bethany expectantly.
            “Yes?” Bethany said.
            “Recall that she said that Miss Dyer had been absorbed in her genealogical research the night she died – a pursuit that Miss Skelly said that she could do for hours at a time.  It is very likely that Miss Dyer was in the room from the time that Miss Skelly brought her coffee until the time of her death.  She might have left for a few moments, perhaps to go to the bathroom, but otherwise it is a reasonable assumption that she was there the entire time.”
            Bethany opened her eyes wide.  “Oh,” she said.
            “You see?  Miss Skelly describes walking through an open door into the study, and finding her cousin dead on the floor.  If Miss Dyer was in the study the entire time, the presumed burglar would have seen her through the window – and almost certainly wouldn’t have entered.  Even supposing he was bold enough to come in anyway, Miss Dyer had ample time to escape from the study and call out for help while the burglar fumbled with opening the window from the outside, and then climbing through it.  In order to believe that it was a murder committed by a burglar, we have to suppose that either she left her study for a significant amount of time, leaving her precious research behind – or that she sat there patiently while a strange man came in through the window, neither saying anything nor attempting to flee.”
            “So the murderer is someone she knew,” Bethany said.
            Mr. Snowe nodded.  “It looks very much like it.”