Hello, Stranger: A Mustang Sally Mysteryby Virginia Swift
Sally felt the cold gale, heard the scream of police sirens, the honking of fire engine Klaxons. Every detail of the scene sharpened in surreal focus: the weathered plank fences that lined the alley; the bare branches of cottonwoods peaking above the fence tops, flapping in the keening wind; the garbage cans, chained down to board boxes to keep them from
Sally felt the cold gale, heard the scream of police sirens, the honking of fire engine Klaxons. Every detail of the scene sharpened in surreal focus: the weathered plank fences that lined the alley; the bare branches of cottonwoods peaking above the fence tops, flapping in the keening wind; the garbage cans, chained down to board boxes to keep them from blowing away; the clattering sound of dust and gravel flung against hard surfaces.
And the body on the ground. Now she looked at him. Blue pinstripe suit, black wingtip shoes. Not, Sally thought with an unbelievably inappropriate giggle, a Laramie look.
College professor Sally Alder returns to her office one cold, blustery afternoon to find Charlie Preston, a student in her women's history class, slumped in a chair outside her door. The girl has suffered a very recent, brutal battering, but she refuses to call the cops or her family, or go to the hospital. With little other recourse, Sally gives Charlie the cash in her wallet and the coat off her back, and the girl leaves.
Charlie's been gone for two weeks when a body turns up, a man beaten to death in an alley. It's Brad Preston, and his estranged daughter heads the list of suspects. The police immediately start to look for the girl, and so does Sally. The more Sally discovers, the less convinced she is that Charlie is guilty. She has to find the real killer before there's another victim and an innocent young woman must pay the price.
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By Virginia Swift
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Virginia Swift
All right reserved.
The Rule of Thumb
The rule of thumb was one of those grotesqueries of English common law. For centuries, it had stood rock-solid, entitling -- no, make that obliging -- a man to "correct" the misdeeds of his wife and children with physical force, but holding that the instrument of household justice be no bigger around than a man's thumb. Some kind of limit, that. A switch cut from a tree, hickory or willow; a leather whip, braided rough; a well-knotted piece of rope; objects close to hand, within the reach of a modest man. A prince might have more means at his disposal: the blade of a fencing foil, say, or a length of iron chain. Such things would certainly remind a woman of her duty to submit to her husband's authority. As God and nature and the Bible and everybody had decreed.
The hell you say, thought Professor Sally Alder.
Whenever Sally taught the course titled Women's Rights in America, she opened the class on domestic violence with a few minutes on the Rule of Thumb. Talking about the rule made her a little sick to her stomach every time she gave the lecture, but it was something that had to be done. The students needed to know, or at the very least, to be reminded, that history could be a horror show. That a woman's right to be secure from bodily abuse should never be taken for granted. Even in the twenty-first century, there was plenty of reason to assume that not everybody had gotten the message.
Some students stared vacantly back at her, or surreptitiously checked their cell phones. More scribbled busily in their notebooks, knowing that this Rule of Thumb was likely to show up on a test. She might just as well have been telling them the names of the states, or the atomic weight of zinc. But at least the scribblers would have some memory of this lecture, unlike the girl who'd taken out an emery board and spent most of the class happily filing her nails.
Sally brooded all the way back to her office, huddled into her coat against the wind. Did she really imagine that bearing history's lousy news was actually doing any good? They had given a new meaning to blase today, she thought as she entered Hoyt Hall and climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, headed for her office hours.
She already had a customer. Sally had put a chair in the hall outside her office, a molded plastic thing with a fold-down desk, so that students waiting their turn to see her wouldn't have to hunker down on the floor. Just now, a girl slumped uncomfortably in the chair, a knit cap pulled down over her head. She'd put a backpack on the desk and lay on top of it, her head on her arms, motionless, the picture of dejection.
What in the world had happened to Charlie Preston?
This was the first time Sally had seen the girl in nearly a month. Charlie was registered in Sally's class, but she hadn't been around before spring break, hadn't returned in the week after.
Plenty of students bagged lots of classes. They dropped out, or failed, or contented themselves with Cs and Ds. But Charlie hadn't struck Sally as your typical half-assed student. A third of the time she didn't show, true, and she'd missed a number of assignments. She never said a word in class. But she listened. And it seemed as if she got it. And Sally's real measure for intelligence in a student: She laughed at the professor's jokes.
When Charlie did turn in the work, she showed real spark and insight. She'd come to Sally's office hours more than once, simply to talk about women's history. Sally'd been delighted, encouraged her interest. Charlie was only a freshman, but Sally was already imagining writing recommendations to get her into graduate school.
"Charlie?" she said, touching the girl on the shoulder. "Are you okay?"
A moment passed.
The girl raised her head, and it was excruciatingly obvious that she was not close to okay. The cap covered her ears, but revealed a face that was a mass of bruises, darkening, it seemed, before Sally's eyes. Her lower lip was cut and swelling fast, and one eye was nearly closed. It occurred to Sally that the spike Charlie wore through the eyebrow, the ring through the lip, would be trouble soon, if she didn't get them off.
It wasn't the first time Sally had seen a woman who'd been beaten up. Back in her own student days, she'd run the University of Wyoming Women's Center, which had taken calls for the local shelter. More than one woman had called up crying, asking what to do, where to go. And more than one woman had shown up at the center, grim or shaking or shamefaced, mumbling something about having walked into a door.
This was the worst she'd ever seen.
"Come in with me," she told the girl, bending over to rub her back briefly before unlocking the office door. "I'll call an ambulance and go with you to the hospital. And we'll call the police."
Charlie hefted her backpack, an effort that cost her, and followed Sally in. But then what Sally had just said seemed to sink in. A look of terror swept over Charlie's face. "No!" she exclaimed, grabbing Sally's arm, grimacing at the pain that opening her mouth had caused. "I can't. Can't go to the hospital. No cops." Tears sprang into her eyes, leaked down the sides of her cheeks.
"Charlie," said Sally, as gently as possible. "Sit down a second."
The girl collapsed into the broken-down easy chair in front of Sally's desk, the backpack slipping to the floor with a clunk. These kids. Sally bet there wasn't a backpack at the University of Wyoming that weighed less than forty pounds. They'd all be in back braces by the time they were thirty.
Excerpted from Hello, Stranger by Virginia Swift Copyright © 2006 by Virginia Swift. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Virginia Swift teaches history at the University of New Mexico. She also writes nonfiction under the name of Virginia Scharff. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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