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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Face Value: An excerpt from a work in progress

In my current work in progress, we once again revisit the intrepid psychic detectives of Snowe Agency as they are launched on a third mysterious murder case, this one involving a well-liked elementary school teacher who was knifed to death while out jogging.  Unfortunately, the only witness is unable to identify the killer -- but there's no guarantee that this fact will keep him safe, once Seth, Bethany, Callista, and the other detectives start to uncover the clues and find out that this was more than just a random robbery/homicide.

Here's the first chapter of Face Value, the sequel to Poison the Well and The Dead Letter Office.

            Callista Lee looked up from an open folder of papers on her desk, and said, “Come in,” at exactly the same time as a knock sounded on her office door.
            The doorknob turned, the door opened about a foot, and a head, adorned with a lavender and pine green striped silk scarf, poked in.  “Callista, dear, Mr. Snowe would like to see you for a moment.  Although I expect you already knew that, didn’t you?  Only if you’re not in the middle of something, he said to mention.”  Arabella Leidenfrost, the agency secretary, gave her a cheerful smile.  Arabella was one of the only people Callista knew that was entirely unfluttered in her presence.
            It was refreshing.
            “It’s no problem,” Callista said.  “I was just finishing up the documentation on the Perry case, and it can wait.”  She stood up, and shut the folder.  “That’s a lovely scarf,” she commented, as she followed Arabella out of her office and down the hall.  Bethany would think I was being sarcastic, Callista thought.  I always seem to come across that way, somehow.  And actually, that scarf does suit Arabella, although I can’t see myself wearing it.
            Callista’s own clothing ran more to colors with names like “taupe” and “fawn.”  She’d once heard someone call one of her dresses “a burlap sack with a belt,” which wasn’t very kind, although to be fair the individual hadn’t said it out loud.
            But Arabella, of course, didn’t take it that way.  She never did.  “Oh, thank you,” she said, tugging at the end of it.  “I do love this one.  My niece got it for me in Sri Lanka, in an outdoor market.  She apparently haggled for a half-hour to get it down to a price she was willing to pay.  When she finally settled on a price, the merchant shook her hand and said he’d never known an American who was that good at playing the game.”
            They reached the end of the hall, and Arabella knocked on Mr. Snowe’s door.  A cultured voice said, “Come.”  She opened the door for Callista, and said, “There you are, then, dear.”
            “Thanks,” Callista said, and went in.
            Mr. Parsifal Snowe was seated at his antique mahogany desk, and looked up at her with a paternal smile.  “Miss Lee, excellent, thank you for coming.  I trust we have not interrupted you in anything too pressing?”
            “Not at all,” Callista said, and looked over at the other person in the room with some curiosity.
            The other occupant was a man of about thirty years, slim and rather fragile-looking, with a narrow face and large, luminous pale blue-gray eyes.  He had a tousled mop of sandy blond hair, and was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans that were rather too large for him.
            But the oddest thing was the thoughts that Callista picked up from him.  Her telepathic sense was normally powerful and accurate; she could hear sentences of internal dialogue, a continuous stream of words that faded with distance but which was still clearly audible from ten feet away, or sometimes even twenty or more with particularly readable individuals.  This man, although his thoughts were detectable, was somehow different.  His mental monologue lacked the booming, amplified resonance that almost everyone else’s had.  His thinking was soft, rounded, full of images with blurred edges; like watching a television through frosted glass.  She could hear him thinking, It’s a girl, I’d better be cautious, as he looked at her, but the words had no volume, no impact.  And the image of her in his mind faded as soon as he turned back toward Mr. Snowe, who spoke again.
            “Miss Lee, this is Mr. Quentin Joyner.  He came here today because of a rather disturbing situation, and has requested our assistance.  I thought that you in particular should be here, so I have asked Mr. Joyner if he would be willing to have you present.  He has agreed.  I will now allow Mr. Joyner to explain what brings him here, circumstances that are most upsetting to him.”
            Quentin Joyner looked over at Callista, and again, she had the fleeting image of herself as a wavering image through fog.  But he spoke, in a slow, patient voice, and she turned her mind away from what he was thinking to what he was saying.
            “I witnessed a murder last week,” he said, so matter-of-factly that it took Callista a moment to be certain she’d heard him correctly.
            “Of whom?”
            “You probably heard about it.  Her name was Tess Ethridge.  She was killed while jogging, out near Carlisle Lake.  I was out walking my dog, and I saw it happen.”
            “I read about it in the newspaper,” Callista said.  “The police called it a robbery.”
            Quentin nodded.  “The killer took her wallet.  The credit cards were used later that evening at a convenience store, and the person who used them was identified from the security camera and arrested for the killing.  But he swears that he didn’t kill her, that he found the wallet by the side of the road in Colville and just decided to use the cards.  He said he didn’t realize that the owner of the cards had been murdered.”
            “Were you able to identify the killer?”
            Quentin gave a little smile, but she could hear a flutter, like a mental sigh, pass through his mind, and she caught the words, Here we go again.  “Well,” he said, “I can’t.”
            “Why not?”
            “I have a perceptual problem.  It’s called prosopagnosia.
            Callista looked at him, raised her eyebrows, and shook her head.
            “I’m face blind.”
            “Oh,” she said.  “Then, you can’t…”  She hesitated, stopped.
            “It’s okay,” he said.  “I’ve been this way all my life.  You don’t have to act awkward.  But yes, it’s what it sounds like.  I can’t recognize anyone.  If you walked out, and then walked back in, I might not know who you were, although I have become pretty good at memorizing specific things and remembering them – like what a person is wearing.  But if you changed your clothes, or put your hair up – I wouldn’t have any idea it was you.”  He looked down.  “I wouldn’t recognize a photograph of my own mother.”
            “How do you do with voices?”
            He looked up and smiled, and the smile gave his face an almost ethereal beauty.  He looks like something from one of those paintings from mythology.  Like a woodland sprite or an elf.  But the smile was gone as quickly as it came.
            “I recognize voices very well,” he said.  “But the murderer didn’t speak.  Just stabbed that poor woman, grabbed her wallet, and ran.”
            “Do you know if the killer was a man or a woman?”
            Quentin shook his head.  “I’m not sure.  The murderer was wearing a cap and a heavy sweatshirt.  That was the first thing I noticed; it was a hot day.  I was in a t-shirt and shorts, and Tess Ethridge – the woman who was killed – she was running in shorts and a sports bra.”  He blushed a little.  “Like I said, I notice clothes.  It gives me an anchor if I need to remember someone later.  But the killer – he, or she, was wearing jeans and this bulky sweatshirt, and a cap pulled low.  And she – the victim – just came around a bend, near Willow Point, and I saw a figure jump out from behind some bushes.  I was about a hundred feet away or so.  My dog jerked to the end of his leash, and started barking.  By that time, she was already on the ground – it happened so fast.  I don’t think the killer knew I was there until then.  So the killer looked up, looked right at me, and then sprang up and ran, holding the knife in one hand and something he’d taken from her in his other hand.  I later found out that her wallet was stolen, so I guess that was what it was.”  He swallowed.  “It was horrible.  I shouted, and ran to see if I could help her, but she was unconscious.  I had my cellphone, and called 911, but she was dead by the time the paramedics arrived.  She never regained consciousness.”
            “The knife was later found, discarded, in the bushes further along the trail,” Mr. Snowe said.  “The killer was evidently either wearing gloves, or wiped it clean before it was tossed aside.”
            “I see,” Callista said.
            “The police questioned me,” Quentin said.  “I don’t think they believed me, that I had no way to identify even if the killer was male or female.  I tried to explain, but… you know, one thing I have found from having this disorder for 28 years is, it’s really easy to just think I’m making it up for attention, that I really do know who people are and that I just don’t want to admit it.  That’s what the police thought.  But then they caught the guy using her credit cards, and figured they had the murderer.  So case closed, right?”
            “And you don’t believe it.”
            “No.  For one thing, the guy who was caught with the credit cards was really heavy-set.  They showed me a photograph, still trying to get me to say that I recognized him.  I said that it couldn’t be him – that the person I saw ran really lightly, you know, with a spring in the step, a bouncy stride, someone who wasn’t overweight.  But then they said, ‘Do you recognize his face?’ and I said I didn’t, that I couldn’t say one way or the other for sure if that was the person I saw.  They didn’t get it, kept hounding me, harassing me.  Finally I had my doctor talk to them, and explain why I couldn’t say if I recognized the guy’s face, neither to rule it out or to support it – he said that if necessary, he’d come down to explain why my condition would prevent my either being a witness for the prosecution or for the defense.  So at that point they decided that I was useless and sort of left me alone.  But still – I kept thinking about that man in jail, and the more I thought about it, the more I was sure it couldn’t be him.  The way people move is something else I’ve trained myself to notice.”
            Callista nodded.
            “So that means that the actual killer is still out there,” Quentin said.
            “How did you find out about us?” Callista asked.
            Quentin gave a quick look at Mr. Snowe, who responded with an almost imperceptible nod.  “My sister is a friend of Marie Mackenzie’s,” Quentin said.  “I think you were on a case for Marie’s family last year.  Well, Marie apparently thinks you are the most amazing detectives in the world, and when my sister mentioned to her that I’d been a witness to Tess Ethridge’s murder, Marie told her that I should come to you.”
            A corner of Callista’s mouth twitched.  “Really?” she said.  “I was under the impression that Marie Mackenzie thought we were a bunch of bumbling incompetents.”
            “No,” Quentin said.  “The way she talked, she made you sound like magicians – like you could wave a wand and pull the guilty party out of a hat.”
            “Hardly that,” Callista said.  “I guess it’s good to know that she changed her opinion of us.  But in any case, I’m not sure we have a lot to go on, here.  Other than your feeling that the man the police arrested isn’t the actual killer, what more can you tell us?”
            Quentin Joyner blushed again, and shrugged.  “Nothing.  I know, it sounds ridiculous.  But it’s been bothering me.  I can’t sleep at night.”
            “So, you didn’t know the victim?”
            He shook his head.
            “Allow me to remind you, Miss Lee,” Mr. Snowe said, “that we have taken on cases far more hopeless-sounding than this.  If you’ll recall, in the Petrillo-Scanlon murder case, we didn’t even know the victim’s name for quite some time.  I have told Mr. Joyner that we are able to take this case on a provisional basis, and if we find other information that supports his conjecture that the murderer was not the man currently cooling his heels in the Colville Correctional Institute, we can pursue a full investigation at that time.”
            Callista shrugged.  “Okay, I’m game,” she said.
            “I suspected you would be,” Mr. Snowe said.  “And therefore, Mr. Joyner, I think at this point you may leave it in our hands.  You took the right course of action, coming to us, given your lack of success with the more conventional authorities.  If nothing else, for your own peace of mind.”
            Quentin nodded.  “Thank you.”  He looked at Mr. Snowe, his odd, pale eyes open wide.  “I can pay you for your work.”
            “I have no doubt that that is the case,” Mr. Snowe said.  “But let us discuss remuneration at another time, when I and my associates have confirmed that this case merits further inquiry.”  He gave Quentin Joyner a gentle smile.  “I will be in touch, Mr. Joyner.”
            It was clearly a dismissal, and Quentin stood up, fidgeting nervously and fishing in his pocket for his car keys.  “Thanks,” he said, and gave a quick, shy glance at Callista before leaving.  He shut the door quietly behind him.
            “Fascinating,” Callista said.  “I’ve never met anyone like him.  That’s a thinking pattern I’ve never run into before.”
            Mr. Snowe nodded.  “Prosopagnosia is, I believe, quite rare.  While some individuals have a lower than average ability at facial recognition, complete prosopagnosia is usually only found in the victims of strokes, where the damage has affected the fusiform gyrus and left the rest of the brain relatively intact.  It is extremely uncommon as a perceptual disorder suffered from since birth, as Mr. Joyner’s apparently is.”
            “I didn’t think you’d studied neurology, Mr. Snowe,” Callista said, smiling slightly.
            He turned his hands palm upwards.  “Call it a hobby,” he said.
            “One of many,” she responded.
            “It is essential to keep one’s brain occupied,” he said.  “But as far as Mr. Joyner, I feel certain that he is telling the truth.  I desired your presence because I thought that as a telepath, you would be in the best position to confirm that supposition.”
            Callista nodded thoughtfully.  “All I can say,” she responded, after thinking for a moment, “is that his thoughts aren’t like anything I’ve experienced before.  You remember the Garrick case, six years ago?  I was reminded immediately of Jason Garrick, not because Garrick and Joyner were similar, but because they were equally outside the norm.”
            Mr. Snowe nodded.  “Jason Garrick was an unfortunate young man.  Such a brilliant mind.”
            “He and Joyner are both difficult to read, but for differing reasons.  Garrick’s thoughts were disjointed, like turning a radio dial rapidly and catching bits of music and bits of talking, interspersed by bursts of static.”
            “Mr. Garrick was schizophrenic,” Mr. Snowe said.
            “Yes.  A vastly different illness.  And like I said, I didn’t get the same sense from Joyner – I only brought up Garrick because I was reminded of him by how unusual they both are.  Joyner’s thoughts were like… I don’t know.  As if they were wrapped in gauze.  Filmy.  You couldn’t hear or see them clearly.  Usually, it’s not hard to hear thoughts; in fact, I have more of a problem keeping them out when I don’t want them.”
            “The inevitable downside of being as sensitive a telepath as you are,” Mr. Snowe observed.
            “Yes.  But here… I kept losing him.  It was like, I don’t know – like his voice was so unobtrusive that I had to keep focusing on it, or I’d forget I was listening to him.  And the images – he really does see people as vague, faceless colored shapes.  They don’t stick at all in his mind.  I really do think that if he saw either of us on the street, he wouldn’t have any idea he’d ever seen us before.”
            “I’m quite sure that is the case.”
            “When he was describing the murder, primarily what I got was feelings – the breeze on his skin, the light of the setting sun on his back.  I could even feel what he’d experienced when his dog yanked on the leash.  He lives in a very tactile world – perhaps to make up for his lack of visual ability.  Feeling is everything to him.”
            “Witnessing a murder,” Mr. Snowe said, “was undoubtedly a dreadful experience for someone of Mr. Joyner’s temperament.”
            “Yes.  I picked up strong memories of his desperation to save the victim’s life.  It was weird – I could feel her blood on his hands.  The warmth, you know, the wetness – it was so real.  But then, I tried to fish around, get an image – and all I got were faint traces of bloody hands.  No emotion attached to the visual part of it.  It was like… I don’t know.  Like looking at a faded watercolor image, where you can barely even tell what you’re looking at.”
            “Do you think,” Mr. Snowe asked, “that Mr. Joyner was telling the truth about not knowing the victim?  I realize that he may seem an unlikely suspect, but it is worth considering.  After all, he was the only other person who has unequivocally been shown to be at the murder scene.”
            “No,” Callista said.  “No possibility that he was the murderer.  Like I said, I know that what he was telling us reflected true memories, because I could feel what he had experienced.  His dog pulling on the leash, barking.  Then the feeling of running, of feet striking the path.  Then lifting up the victim, the blood flowing, her weight in his arms.  The panic, the accelerating heartbeat.  There was nothing in any of that to indicate that he was lying.  I’d be willing to bet my next month’s salary on it.”
            “And no sense that he knew the victim?”
            “None.  Did you suspect he was lying about that?”
            “No.  I have just found that in practice it is always best to make as few ad hoc assumptions as possible.”
            “We therefore are left with something of a mystery.”
            “That’s putting it mildly.  A murder victim where the only witness can’t tell us anything about the murderer.”
            “You have more than once, Miss Lee, mentioned that you enjoy puzzles.” 
            What would have been sarcasm in anyone else came across merely as gentle encouragement.  He really has the demeanor of an eighteenth century gentleman-scholar, Callista thought, and then stopped herself; she had never been certain how much of her own mental voice her boss picked up.  Mr. Snowe’s paranormal skills, whatever they might be, were not something he shared with his employees.  The whole thing gave him an aura of omniscience.
            She regarded Mr. Snowe with a raised eyebrow.  “Well, it’s helpful to have at least a little information,” she said, watching his face carefully to see if it betrayed anything of what he was thinking.
            All he gave her was a beatific smile.  “Oh, there is always information, Miss Lee,” he said.  “It only remains to determine its location.  That, I believe, is the key.  The pieces are there.  What separates us from detectives who lack, shall we say, the rather unusual skill set that you and your associates have, is a unique ability to determine how to fit the available pieces together to make picture – a picture, in this case, of a person who knifed to death an innocent jogger.”

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