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A Boston lawyer investigates a prep school teacher’s suspicious suicide.
Brady Coyne never meant to become the private lawyer to New England’s upper crust, but after more than a decade working for Florence Gresham and her friends, he has developed a reputation for discretion that the rich cannot resist. He is fond of Mrs. Gresham—unflappable, uncouth, and never tardy with a check—and he has seen her through her husband’s suicide and her first son’s death in Vietnam. But he has ...
A Boston lawyer investigates a prep school teacher’s suspicious suicide.
Brady Coyne never meant to become the private lawyer to New England’s upper crust, but after more than a decade working for Florence Gresham and her friends, he has developed a reputation for discretion that the rich cannot resist. He is fond of Mrs. Gresham—unflappable, uncouth, and never tardy with a check—and he has seen her through her husband’s suicide and her first son’s death in Vietnam. But he has never seen her crack until the day her second son, George, leaps into the sea at jagged Charity’s Point.
The authorities call it a suicide, but Mrs. Gresham cannot believe her son, like his father, would take his own life. As Brady digs into the apparently blemish-free past of this upper-class prep school history teacher, he finds dark secrets. George Gresham may not have been suicidal, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in trouble.
It was Florence Gresham who had set my career—such as it is—on its present course when she called me for the first time back in 1969.
"Is this Brady Coyne himself?" she demanded.
I assured her that it was.
"Because I don't want to speak to some flunky."
"No, it's me," I said. I didn't tell her that there were no flunkies at Brady L. Coyne, Inc. Just me.
"Okay. I have an unusual piece of business for you, Mr. Coyne," she continued in that whiskey-hoarse voice of hers. In those days I was taking whatever sort of business came my way—and there hadn't been much of it for a determinedly lone-wolf attorney in Boston, a city of staid, old firms which recruited almost exclusively from Harvard. I rather valued what I had learned at Yale Law School, but I found eyebrows raised when potential clients realized I hadn't worn the crimson.
Florence never told me how she got my name. I suspect she wanted someone exactly like the way I was in those days: energetic, independent, hungry.
"How can I help you?" I asked her, hoping desperately that I could.
"One year ago my husband and I received notification from the United States Army that our younger son was missing in action. A 'routine patrol northwest of Hué.' it said. We have heard nothing more. I want to know what has happened to my son."
"I'm an attorney, Mrs. Gresham," I said. "This is not, strictly speaking, a legal matter."
"I'll call someone else, then," she said. I soon learned that Florence Gresham was always direct.
I quickly assured her that of course I could conduct an investigation, that a discreet attorney was probably exactly what she needed.
"Do whatever you need to do," she said, adding that I needn't concern myself with the expenses. "Your fee will be adequate."
Implicit was the promise that, should I perform satisfactorily, there would be more business available to me from the Gresham family.
Lt. Winchester Gresham's old CO, I was able to learn, had been rotated stateside and was attached to the Pentagon. He received me graciously in his high-ceilinged office, an imposing figure in his starched and beribboned uniform.
"Lieutenant Gresham," he said. "Yes, I remember him well. Of course. A superior soldier."
Major Henderson stood by a floor-to-ceiling window and stared out over a broad lawn, watching a figure ride a lawn-mower across it. "He was on patrol. They walked right into an ambush. There were twelve of them altogether. It was a routine mission, really. We hadn't heard of any VC activity in the area. We didn't think there would be any problems."
Henderson turned to frown at me. "Four of the boys came back. The two who could walk carried the other two. One, as I recall, died shortly thereafter. Lieutenant Gresham was not among them. When we sent a patrol back, we found no bodies." He shrugged. "That's all we know, Mr. Coyne. Officially, they are missing in action. Prisoners of war, although the enemy has not given us the courtesy of an official pronouncement." Major Henderson ran his hand over his close-clipped, military haircut. "You understand, Mr. Coyne, they are probably all dead."
One of the survivors of that patrol, the Major informed me, was still recuperating from his wounds in a V.A. hospital in South Carolina. I found Corporal Lucas Potter sitting in a wheelchair in a big day room watching television the afternoon I visited him, a freckle-faced, red-haired young man with jug ears and sharp blue eyes. A blanket was thrown over him so that he looked like a disembodied head set atop a large brown sack.
"I'm Brady Coyne," I said, extending my hand.
He didn't shake it. "Hi," he said, not taking his eyes from the quiz show.
"You knew Win Gresham," I said to him, pulling up a folding chair.
"You were with him when "
"When we got it. Yup."
"Can you remember what happened to Gresham?"
Potter's eyes wavered from the television screen, and his head turned slowly to face me. "Listen Mr.—what was it?"
"Coyne. Brady Coyne."
"Okay. Mr. Coyne. There were machine guns and explosions all around us. I was flat on my belly, digging my face into the dirt the whole time, I don't mind telling you. Wondering if I was dead yet, you know? I had been hit and I was hurtin', and I didn't see much. But I could hear the Lieutenant. He was swearing and yelling at us, telling us to fight, goddamn it, to fall back. He was in charge. Wasn't for him, none of us would've gotten out."
"But he didn't get out."
"He didn't?" Potter frowned at me.
"According to the Army."
"The Army," repeated Potter. He looked as if he had bitten into a bar of soap. His eyes slipped back to the television. "They say so, I guess it's true. I was hurt bad. What the hell do I know about it?"
"You think he got out?"
"Nope. Not me. The Army says he didn't get out, he didn't get out."
"You never saw him, then, after that patrol?"
"I told you, mister. I was injured. Still am, in case you couldn't tell. They shot me up with morphine and loaded me onto a chopper, and I don't know what happened to anybody."
"Do you think Lieutenant Gresham's dead?"
"Could be. I guess so." He turned his head slightly toward me. "That's what the Army says, ain't it?"
"Then that's what he is."
"Okay." I paused. "Tell me. What kind of a soldier was Gresham?"
Porter's head swiveled around to look at me. "He was a good fuckin' soldier. A killin' machine, the Lieutenant. That's what he was. A killin' machine. He talked funny. Like an intellectual, you know? A college boy. But he was one mean son of a bitch. We all obeyed him. Oh, yes. He'd of shot us if we didn't. We all knew that. He hated everybody. He hated us, he hated the gooks, he hated the officers who gave him orders. Helluva soldier, the Lieutenant. He say shit, you say where, sir."
I stood. Lucas Potter was again staring at the flickering television screen. I couldn't tell what might have been registering behind those unblinking blue eyes. His expression didn't waver. I bent down to his side and said, "Thanks, soldier." I squeezed his arm as I turned to leave.
Except there was no arm under the blanket. I wondered what else that had belonged to Corporal Lucas Potter was still missing in the jungles somewhere northwest of Hue.
After that I could learn no more. I wrote up a report and delivered it to Florence Gresham at her home in Beverly Farms. She read it with narrowed eyes.
"He called Win a killing machine. Were those his words?"
"Yes," I said. "But remember, this was an ignorant farm boy whose arms had been blown off. A bitter kid. I wouldn't put too much stock in what he says."
She shook her head. "No, the boy's right. That would be Win, all right. A killing machine. My son had a great capacity for hatred and cruelty. Just the opposite of George. George is a gentle boy. My Cain and my Abel."
Florence Gresham said this matter-of-factly, much as if she were discussing characters in a book. She peered at me. "He could still be alive."
"Oh, now, Mrs. Gresham "
"No, he could," she said, nodding her head vigorously. "He's a survivor, Win. And," she added, her voice soft, "a killing machine."
I had not really done my job. The question of what had happened to Lt. Winchester Gresham in the jungles of Vietnam had not been definitively answered. But Florence Gresham seemed satisfied. She put me on retainer. Some of her wealthy friends began to do the same. I have, ever since, served the legal needs of rich folks.
A month or so after I delivered my report, two uniformed Army officers knocked at Florence Gresham's door. They presented her with a letter from the President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, which purported to recount Lt. Gresham's courage in battle and to cite the manner in which he met his death. They handed her two small, velvet-covered boxes. One contained a bronze star. The other held a purple heart.
Lt. Winchester Gresham was now, officially, killed in action. Florence Gresham thanked the gentlemen and didn't mention her son, the "killing machine," at least in my presence, for another twelve years.
Throughout the Winchester Gresham affair, Florence never revealed to me the slightest hint of emotion. Win might just as well have been a stranger to her. Her interest appeared to be strictly intellectual. She had a question, she wanted an answer, and she was prepared to pay a persevering lawyer handsomely to try to produce that answer.
As I worked with her over the next several years, I learned to recognize her characteristic response to bad news: Her eyes would narrow, the corners of her mouth would pinch, and she would say, "Well, that's a bitch, ain't it?"
She didn't believe in God, or the stars, or bad luck. She simply felt that one did the best one could, and that regrets and second-guessing were a waste of time. That philosophy held equally true for her personal tragedies as for her business reverses. What happened one sultry July evening in 1974 showed me that.
Florence and her husband, Dudley, had been sipping gin-and-tonics in the living room of their summer place, which Florence insisted in calling a "cottage"—all twelve rooms of fieldstone, with its nine acres of manicured lawns and formal rose gardens high on a hill overlooking the sea in Bar Harbor, Maine. They were watching the United States House of Representatives conduct impeachment hearings and chatting idly after a day of sailing in their thirty-eight-foot sloop, which Florence called "the little boat." Dudley had painted its name and port of call in square black letters across its transom. It read: DAUGHTER, BAR HARBOR.
Dud Gresham was absently scratching the ears of his pair of field trial champion English setters, Boone and Crockett. Their surviving son, George, was upstairs reading Toynbee.
A Republican Congressman from Maine named Cohen was declaring his mournful duty to the nation. A Profile in Courage in the midst of the President's Last Crisis.
"Think he's Jewish?" Florence asked.
"Mmm," replied Dudley. "From Maine?"
"I think he's Jewish," said Florence. "That explains it."
Dud Gresham scratched Boone's ears.
Dud was happy to leave the management of the Gresham holdings to Florence. I worked for her, not them. In the five years since I had investigated Win's death, though, I had come to know Dud well. We never talked business. He preferred to tell rambling tales of grouse hunting in Scotland and Wales, quail shooting in Georgia, and bringing geese to the decoys over Chesapeake Bay. Florence and Dudley considered their division of labor equitable. They both did what they wanted to do. It was more than tolerance—they seemed to be genuinely in love with each other.
On that July evening, Dud Gresham smiled at the image of the young Congressman from Maine, set down his empty glass, whistled to Boone and Crockett, and went upstairs. Florence wagged her fingers at him without taking her eyes off the television set.
I have imagined what Dud did then. He unlocked the polished oak gun cabinet that stood in the corner of his study and removed his Purdy double. He sat on the ragged, overstuffed easy chair, rubbing his thumb along the oiled stock of the fine shotgun. Boone and Crockett rested their chins on his leg. Then Dud stood up. "Wait," I can hear him instructing the dogs. He slipped a shell into the right chamber and carefully closed the gun. It shut with the satisfying click of an expensive precision instrument. Boone and Crockett sat and watched, their tails twitching expectantly.
I can still see Dud in my mind's eye, striding down the hallway, gun slung under his arm, as if he were crossing a meadow on a frosty October morning. I imagine his purposeful stride, as if he were intent on keeping up with the dogs as they ranged wide, seeking the day's first covey.
He entered the bathroom, locked the door behind him, sat on the closed toilet seat, bit down on the business end of the gun barrels, and blew the back of his head all over Florence's monogrammed towels.
Florence refused to let the police break down the door of the bathroom. It took an hour for the carpenter to remove the entire frame. "Wouldn't do Dud any good to ruin the door," Florence said. "Dud's an excellent shot," she added.
Dud left a note. "Not because of him," is what it said. The summer people of Bar Harbor were divided on the interpretation of Dud's note. Some figured Dud was referring to Win; others figured he meant Nixon. A third school of thought held that Dud meant George, whose decision to pursue the ascetic life of a scholar—and who detested hunting—must have been a grave disappointment to his parents, and that the note was Dud's way of absolving him.
The carpenter replaced the door. Florence's housekeeper cleaned up the mess in the bathroom. I settled the matter of Dud's estate. For Florence, life went on. A week or so after they buried Dud, she was back in the bathroom soaking in the old-fashioned porcelain tub when she summoned the housekeeper.
Florence pointed into the corner behind the toilet. "That looks like a piece of skull. Clean it up, if you please. Really, my dear, you must do better."
Florence told me that story herself. The point, she said, was: "You just can't get good help any more."
It wasn't until several years later that Florence told me why Dud killed himself. "The prostate cancer had spread," she said. "It was into his bones. The doctor gave him two months to a year. He made it clear that Dud would be luckier if it were on the two months' side. There would be pain. Lots of pain. So Dud and I talked about it. It was his decision, of course. That's how we left it. He'd make the decision. And he did."
"I don't understand his note," I said to Florence. "'Not because of him.' What did that mean, anyway?"
"Why, it was a joke, of course. A joke for all of us to enjoy. That's all. It wouldn't have been like Dud to mean anything very significant by a suicide note. He had already said what needed to be said." Florence paused then, I remember, and smiled wistfully. "Still," she said, "he really didn't have to make such a mess."
George Gresham remained an enigma to me. On the few occasions that I saw him, he seemed willing to defer to his mother in matters of the family fortune. Like his father, he did so without embarrassment. He made it clear that he simply wasn't interested in maneuvering large sums of money around. He was a small, balding man, a few years older than me. He taught history at a very swank little private school on the North Shore of Massachusetts, not far from the family estate in Beverly Farms. He drove second-hand cars, lived in faculty housing, and ate in the dining room with the students. He successfully side-stepped matrimony. For George, it always seemed more a matter of disinterest than active resistance to the lures that were trolled in front of the only heir to the vast Gresham fortune.
George Gresham did exactly what he wanted.
His mother, to her credit, supported George by accepting the life-style he had carved out for himself, satisfied that he spent his summers with her pecking out lucid articles for scholarly magazines from his study in the Bar Harbor "cottage." She asked no more of him. I suppose she knew his limits, respected them, and understood that he, in his way, was as tough-minded as she.
She wintered in Sarasota, continued to summer in Bar Harbor (still using the toilet where Dud squeezed off his last shot), and spent the spring and autumn months at the estate in Beverly Farms. She employed a cook, a maid, a chauffeur, a housekeeper (the same one who cleaned up Dud's "mess"), and two gardeners. Full time. Year round.
Florence Gresham is a leathery, shrewd old lady. I'm very fond of her.
When she called me on that rainy Monday morning last May, her tone was typically businesslike. "George is dead," she said.
"Ah, hell, Florence. What happened?"
"Drowned, apparently. Fell from some rocks by the ocean. They're investigating. I just wanted you to know. There'll be details, of course. I'll be needing you."
"Of course," I said. "Anything at all."
"They insist on doing an autopsy. Routine, they're telling me. And they've temporarily impounded his things. Damn inconvenient. Anyhow, until they're done there's really nothing. In due course, I suppose you and I will have documents to work on."
"The estate. Sure. Keep me posted," I said. "Are there arrangements?"
Excerpted from Death at Charity's Point by William G. Tapply. Copyright © 1984 William G. Tapply. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 21, 2014
I loved William Tapply and his lawyer-dectective, Brady Coyne, and this book is a good entry in the series. The main mystery comes together earlier to the reader than the protagonist, but it's a fun trip to the 1970s.
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Posted February 5, 2014
However had several big holes in plot e. g. Where and what happened to son in nam ? how did he plan to prove anything by conjector of the missing girl. Look forward to more in the series. Mom
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Posted March 21, 2014
I purchased this inexpensive ebook for my new Nook. The only William Tapply books I'd read in the past were the three he'd written with Philip Craig, all of which I'd enjoyed. He has an engaging style, a likeable character and interesting plots. Death at Charity's Point started me on the Brady Coyne series. I have a lot of catching up to do. I highly recommend this first-in-the-series mystery.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 2, 2014
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