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Alan, look at this!"
I waved the letter I held in my hand. One of the nice little benefits of living in England is the mail. It arrives early enough in the morning to be consumed with breakfast, and with a predictable regularity that is unknown in America. Or at least it's nice when there's something more interesting than bills, as there certainly was this morning.
Alan lowered the Times and took the letter, while I poured myself a second cup of tea and spread marmalade on my toast. We were breakfasting in our kitchen, the coziest room in the Jacobean cottage we both love so much. The sun shone through leaded glass windows and sparkled on the geraniums on the windowsill. Esmeralda and Samantha, our two cats, were outside napping in the sun and trying to ignore the raucous cries of the magpies. The cats hate the magpies, and I have to admit myself that they're messy, noisy, thieving rascals, but I can't help liking them; they're so handsome in their black-and-white livery, and so very English.
Alan read my letter aloud. "`Dear Mrs. Nesbitt.'" He paused for a moment to smile at me. "Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?"
I grinned back idiotically. We'd been married nearly two years now, but we still weren't quite used to it. One might think that a pair of widowed sixty-somethings would react to marriage with more decorum than is usually exhibited by sweet young things. One might be wrong. I don't actually use my husband's name, feeling more comfortable with the name I used for over forty years, but people often make the naturalmistake, and Alan was right. It sounded good.
He went on. "`It is my sad duty to report to you the death of Dr. Kevin Cassidy, who was, I understand, a very old friend of you and your late husband.'"
"In both senses," I replied to his quirked eyebrow. "Frank and I had known him forever, and he was in his nineties. The chairman of biology at Randolph when Frank first went to teach there, and one of our dearest friends. He retired ages ago, of course. He was very kind when Frank died, but when I moved over here I—oh, I don't know, I didn't write very often, and neither did he, and after a while we lost touch, except for Christmas cards. I suppose it's been over a year.... "I sighed. Why do we forget about our friends' mortality? Why do we assume we can always make up for lost time? Another sigh. "Go on, get to the next part."
"`... pneumonia ... not unexpected ... merciful release ... rather an unusual clause in his will.' Ah, we're getting to it. `Bequeathed to you the sum of five thousand dollars, tax free, with the stipulation that you must return to Hillsburg to collect it. Should you fail to comply with this stipulation, the money is to go to the Full Gospel Church of the Redeeming Spirit in Beanblossom.' What in the name of all that's holy is that?"
I made a face. "I'm not sure holiness has anything to do with it. They do various odd things with snakes, I'm told, if indeed the church is still in existence. Beanblossom is a tiny town not far from Hillsburg. More of a wide spot in the road, actually. Nothing thrives in Beanblossom, or not for long. But the point is that dear old Kevin and I used to have a sort of standing joke about the place and its remarkable theology. It was rather rude of us, I suppose, but he knew quite well that one way to make sure I accepted his bequest was to threaten to give the money to them. I wonder what they'd do with it? Buy bigger and better snakes?"
Alan grinned and went back to the letter. "`—not a large sum of money, of course, but Dr. Cassidy also stipulated that your travel expenses were to be paid by his estate, should you choose to accept his condition.' This fellow ought to be writing television scripts."
"Woman. Look at the signature."
"Ah, yes. Michelle Carmichael. To continue: `In order to comply with these conditions, you must make arrangements to arrive in Hillsburg within one month of his death, which took place yesterday.' But the letter's dated ninth December—"
"No, it isn't. American-style dating. The month comes first. Nine twelve means September twelfth. Four days ago. So the poor old dear died last Monday. Alan, I'm so sorry I'll never see him again. I owe him a lot."
I took a sip of my cold coffee and leaned my elbows on the table, remembering. "We never had children, Frank and I. You know that. But I did have a—I was never sure what to call it. A false pregnancy or a miscarriage or something. For nearly three months I had all the symptoms of pregnancy, and we were wildly happy. I was over forty and we had just about given up hope. I'd been to the doctor and had the test, and it had come back negative, but the tests are sometimes wrong, and I was so sure. And then—well, then the dream fell apart. I had what almost amounted to a hemorrhage, and my body went back to normal again."
I sipped some more coffee. Alan moved his hand to cover mine. "My body went back to normal, but not my mind. I couldn't stop crying. I would go to school in the morning, dreading a day of teaching, and I would see all those lovely, healthy children, and I couldn't stand it. After a month or so I was in such a state I had to take a leave of absence, but then I was alone all day with nothing to do but mourn. I couldn't talk to Frank about it. He was unhappy, too, but he buried himself in his work, the way a man will.
"I really think I would have collapsed completely if it hadn't been for Kevin. He saw Frank every day, of course, and he knew something was wrong. So he came and made me tell him what it was. And then he listened. Dear man, I cried all over him, and he hated to see women cry, but he just handed me Kleenex until I was finally all cried out. Then he made me take something for the raging headache I had after all that crying, and then he gave me a good old-fashioned talking-to. Told me it wasn't the end of the world, that I had a job I loved and a husband who adored me and a beautiful world to live in, and I should count my blessings. I was in no mood to listen to good advice, but he did something more practical. He went and got the liveliest, naughtiest kitten he could find and gave it to me."
"A kitten refuses to be ignored. If I was tempted to spend the morning in bed feeling sorry for myself, the little demon would come and pounce on my toes with those razor-sharp claws. Or she'd climb the curtains or knock things off the dresser or—oh, you know all the kinds of trouble kittens can find to get into. So I'd have to get out of bed, and I'd have to get dressed, too. Jezebel's claws would go right through a bathrobe."
"Because she was so wicked and so beguiling. Once she had my undivided attention, she'd climb into my lap and lick my hand and be such a sweet kitty. Then she'd purr herself to sleep and nap until she was refreshed and ready to torment me again. She wore me out, chasing after her and cleaning up when she created some disaster—which was frequently—and I began to sleep again nights. And when Frank came home, we'd have Jezebel's antics to laugh about, instead of spending the evening in painful silence avoiding the topic we couldn't discuss. After a couple of weeks I was more than ready to get back to the classroom and thirty-seven children who could not, between them, create anything like as much chaos as three pounds of frisky feline.
"So you see, Kevin saved my sanity. He was an invaluable friend. And unless he failed badly in the last year or so, that part about `a merciful release' is hogwash. His memory was better than mine's been for years, and he still lived alone. Managed very well, too."
"I suppose his neighbors helped."
"Hah! He was the one who helped them. Not that he had many close neighbors; he lived out in the country. But he still drove, the last I knew, and he'd go in to town for groceries and bring some back for the woman next door if she was too busy to go for herself—that kind of thing. It's just like him to give me a last, nice little surprise, and I feel guilty as anything for not having kept in closer touch with him."
"Well, then, you'll want to comply with his last request, won't you?" Alan squeezed my hand and pretended not to notice the tear I had to wipe from my cheek.
"Well—I know it's ridiculously short notice, but—you would go with me, wouldn't you? You're not off on some international jaunt or other?"
For Alan, though he retired some time ago as chief constable of Belleshire, is still asked to contribute his expertise to police forces all over what used to be the British Empire, and I never knew for certain when he'd be hopping off to Africa or India or wherever.
"My dear, I am entirely at your disposal. Let's plan to stay on a bit after you've dealt with your business—at our own expense, of course—and make it a holiday. You write back to this solicitor or whatever she is, and tell her you're coming."
I barely heard him. "Alan." I stopped, groping after an elusive thought, and he looked at me quizzically. "Why do you suppose he wanted me to come back? I don't understand it. If he'd wanted to see me about something—though I can't imagine what—he'd have written, or phoned. But this way, making me come home after he's dead—it's odd. Bizarre. Almost—ghoulish." I shivered.
"Calm down, darling. He probably just wanted to give you a little treat, and chose this way of doing it so that you weren't likely refuse."
"It's not like him," I insisted, "He was always generous, but never manipulative. He was full of good advice when someone needed it, but he never tried to make anyone take it. This is out of character. I'm not really sure I like it, after all."
"You're speculating ahead of your data, my dear. Sherlock Holmes warned us about that. Doubtless all will be made clear when we get there."
I'd never before organized an international journey on a few days' notice, but between the two of us, we managed. Alan bought our tickets at the exorbitant rates charged last-minute fliers. I took a leave of absence from my volunteer job at the Cathedral Bookshop and arranged with our next-door neighbor to look after the cats. And a sunny Wednesday afternoon in late September found us standing, somewhat stiff and tired, in the international terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
Alan yawned and dragged a hand across his cheek. "I could do with a shave."
"I could do with a nap."
In the end, after Alan had picked up the rental car and driven cautiously to our hotel, he thought of a better way to spend an hour or two. Afterward, relaxed and rejuvenated, we had a leisurely dinner and fell into bed.
I woke well before dawn the next morning and lay quietly, trying not to wake Alan. Something about his breathing, though, seemed a little too quiet.
"Alan," I whispered, "are you awake?"
"For the past hour, love. I didn't want to disturb you."
I sat up on one elbow. "Are you hungry?"
"Then let's go! The coffee shop here won't be open yet, but we can eat on the road. I know a place in South Bend—the food's wonderful, though you won't like the coffee."
"Happy to be home, are you?" He swung his feet out of bed and headed for the bathroom.
"Oh, Alan, I hadn't realized how much I wanted to show you! You can have the shower first, but hurry up!"
I drove. We were early enough to escape Chicago's horrendous rush-hour traffic, and a little over two hours later we were digging into an enormous breakfast at a pancake house in South Bend.
"You're English, aren't you?" The waitress smiled as she poured us a second cup of the sort of coffee my family used to call "damaged water." "I can tell by your accents."
Accents, plural? I gave Alan a shocked look. He patted my hand. "I'm English. My wife is American."
"Yeah? You sound just alike to me. Can I get you anything else?"
"Just the bill, please."
"Here you go. You pay up front. Have a nice day."
"Alan, I don't sound English? I said indignantly, once we were back in the car.
"Not to me, love, but I expect you do to her. You can't expect to spend three years in a country and not absorb some of its influence. Careful!"
I swerved back to my side of the road and tried to ignore the angry shouts from the other driver. Clearly I had some adjustments to make.
Cincinnati is the closest major airport to my hometown in southern Indiana, but we'd chosen to fly into Chicago. The fare was a good deal cheaper, for one thing, and besides, I wanted to show Alan lots of my home state. So we meandered south from South Bend through lush farming country, acres of golden cornfields and green-yellow soybeans. Leaves were just beginning to turn in the northern part of the state. Here and there we saw a sumac hedge blazing with red and orange, a maple beginning to turn yellow. With the rising of the sun the day had turned almost hot. The cloudless sky was an intense shade of blue that I have seen only in the Midwest.
I fumbled for the air-conditioning controls and sighed with contentment. Alan looked out the window and smiled in agreement.
We stayed off the interstates. Superhighways are great for getting places in a hurry, but if you want to see anything, slower roads win hands down. So we went through Indianapolis, rather than around. The traffic gave us plenty of time to see the Circle and the Statehouse and the various monuments and, it must be admitted, the seamier aspects of town as well. We stopped in Columbus, just a little way south, to have some lunch and walk off too much driving, enjoying the famous, varied architecture of the town. Alan had to pull me back to the curb as I crossed one street; I'd looked the wrong direction for traffic and nearly gotten run over.
It was only a short drive then, along a narrow state highway, to Hillsburg.
We'd booked our hotel room from England and had been warned that we had to make other arrangements after a few days. "That next weekend's a home game," the desk clerk had said. I'd had to explain to Alan.
"Football. Our kind, not soccer. The sine qua non of American college life in the fall. And we're playing Notre Dame. They haven't had a really good team for a couple of seasons, but they're still a legend in college football, and beating them would make the whole town happy all year. There won't be a hotel room for miles around that weekend, but we can either take off for a few days, or stay with one of my friends. I didn't like to impose on anyone for two or three weeks, but there are a lot of people who'd be glad to put us up for a weekend. Unless you'd rather just get away from all the crowds and hullabaloo."
"I want to see the football game," Alan had said firmly.
My mouth had gaped. Neither of us has much interest in sports.
"I like to learn," he'd explained. "I've never seen American football, and I understand it's part of the culture."
"I don't know that culture is exactly the word, but I'll see if I can get tickets."
It had felt odd, dickering by international telephone with box office personnel who'd never heard of me or Frank, when Frank, as faculty, used to be offered season tickets automatically. And it felt odd now to be hunting for a hotel in the town where I'd lived all my life. The hotel was new and I had trouble finding it, peering at street signs, looking for landmarks that seemed to have moved.
"Alan, I must have gotten turned around somehow. There ought to be a beautiful old bank on this corner."
The corner held an ugly new drugstore with a spacious parking lot. Alan looked at the old street map I'd found buried in a box back in England and said only, "No, this must be the place. Turn right."
We checked in and unpacked, rather silently.
"Pleasant room," Alan said.
"Yes." I folded underwear into a drawer.
"A little. It was a long drive." I bit my lip and turned away. Tears were trying to escape from the corners of my eyes.
Alan is a perceptive man. His natural powers of observation have been sharpened by years of training and experience as a policeman. He is also keenly sensitive. He said nothing more, but whistled as he hung up his clothes and arranged his shaving things to his liking in the bathroom.
I had planned to take him on a tour of the town and the university as soon as we arrived, but I was tired. Jet lag and a long drive and—well, that was enough, for goodness' sake. Undoubtedly weariness was responsible for the tears.
"I think I'll take a little nap."
"Good idea." Alan's tone was determinedly cheerful. "If you don't mind, I think I'll walk a little and orient myself."
I didn't want him to go, and he knew it, but after he'd left, I realized I was glad he was gone. I could cry if I wanted to, and I did.
I'd thought I was coming home. Why did everything seem so foreign?
My appointment with the lawyer was the next morning, Friday. For moral support, I put on one of my best-looking suits, a string of very nice pearls, and a soft velvet hat that packs well and flatters my gray hair.
"Do you want me to come with you, love?" Alan's hand paused over a selection of ties.
Even Alan was behaving oddly. "Of course I want you to come!"
"Sorry, darling. I seem to feel just a trifle out of place here. Slightly de trop."
I smiled somewhat grimly. "Not half as much as I do, I'll bet. And I'm not moving a step away from this hotel without you."
"Well, then." He chose a sober navy blue tie, presumably suitable for a lawyer's office, knotted it, donned a blazer, and held out his arm. I clung to it all the way out the lobby door.
"Do you want me to drive, as well?"
"I'm not sure which of us is the worse driver in this country, to tell the truth. I used to be really good, too! Let's just walk. It's not far, and my head needs clearing."
It was another lovely day. Our hotel was on one side of the Randolph University campus, the lawyer's office on the other, so it seemed natural to cut across. There were small changes that I, with heightened sensitivity, noted and resented. "That's a new wall. And what on earth have they done to the Bryant Building? Good grief, it's got a whole new wing! And double-ugly, too."
We dodged hurrying students.
"They, at least, haven't changed a bit. Except they look a little scruffier."
"That," Alan pronounced gravely, "is an inexorable law of nature."
The sun was warm. So was my suit. By the time we reached the office, I was grateful for the air-conditioning. I was, I told myself firmly, sweating only because of the heat.
"You're not nervous, are you, darling?" Alan spoke in an undertone.
"Of course not? Why should I be nervous?"
He smiled and clasped my hand.
Ms. Carmichael kept us waiting for only a moment or two before meeting us in a rather austere conference room.
"Sorry. I had a phone call at just the wrong moment." She shook hands with us. She was an attractive woman in her early forties, dressed with a minimum of feminine touches and very much all business in manner. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Nesbitt. I've heard a lot about you and Professor Martin. I'm sorry for the occasion that brought you here, however. Dr. Cassidy was a fine man and a fine teacher."
"You studied with him?"
"One class only, early in my undergraduate career. It was the last year he taught, I believe. He was in his seventies and made us all run to keep up with him. We would have done anything for him. And this must be your husband?"
"Alan Nesbitt, yes. And I don't actually use his name. I prefer Dorothy Martin."
"I can understand that," she said, and grimaced, suddenly looking more human. "I took back my own name after my divorce."
Alan and I exchanged looks. My choice of name had nothing to do with feelings about my marriage. "Yes, well. I suppose you'll want to see some identification? I brought my passport."
"That's fine." She studied it, carefully comparing the photo with my face, and handed it back. "Well, that's that. Not that I was in any real doubt. You're exactly the way everybody described you."
She was looking at my hat. I grinned. "I guess I'm pretty old-fashioned, but I like hats."
"And they suit you. Now, I don't want to delay you, Mrs. Martin. I have your check prepared." She opened a slim manila folder on the table. "If you'll just sign the receipt—that's fine. You won't forget to send me your expenses, will you? And, finally, here is something I was directed by Dr. Cassidy to give you."
She handed me two envelopes, one with a check showing through the cellophane window. The other was a stiff, heavy envelope. The flap was not only gummed down but sealed with a blob of wax. I studied it, suddenly nervous again.
"I'm sure you'll want to read your letter, if it is a letter, in privacy, and I have another appointment. Here's a letter opener. If you'll excuse me? Please take all the time you like. Can you find your own way out?"
I muttered something, Alan stood politely, and the young woman left the room, closing the door behind us.
"Alan, I don't like it!" I whispered. "The letter from beyond the grave. It feels spooky."
"My dear, I don't know why you're making so much of this." His normal tone of voice lowered the emotional temperature. "There are no doubt some things the professor wanted you to know, and perhaps he didn't trust international mail. An opinion that I must say I share."
"But why did he seal it so elaborately, then? Why did he seal it at all? I can't imagine anything he would have to say to me that would be as private as all that."
"Hmmm. That is perhaps a trifle odd, though some people have an exaggerated sense of privacy." Alan took the envelope from me and examined it carefully. "Well, it doesn't look as though the seals have been tampered with."
"Why should they be?" I demanded.
"I haven't any idea, except that when someone takes such precautions, it's usually because he expects some hanky-panky. Just in case, love, why don't you open it at the bottom?"
I looked at him sharply, but picked up the paper knife and slit the bottom of the envelope.
The enclosure was a single sheet of paper, again thick and heavy and expensive. "I don't understand this stationery, either. Kevin lived very simply. He was never ostentatious about things like stationery."
"More of the privacy concern, perhaps. I'd defy anybody to read that through the envelope, even held up to the strongest light."
The paper was covered on both sides with the shaky handwriting of the very old. I spread it flat on the table so Alan and I could read it together.
By the time you read this, I'll be gone. We both know death isn't the end, and I'll see you again, though I trust not for some time, as time is counted on your side of the great divide. I wish you a long and happy life.
There is, however, one thing I wish you to do for me, which is why I have brought you here in this melodramatic way. It is a matter, I suppose, of shutting the barn door after the horse is stolen. I have tried to get in touch with you, but the idiots in the phone company claimed they didn't have your number, and you never replied to my letter.
"Alan, I never got a letter!"
Alan was reading ahead. He didn't respond.
You see, I have heard about your exploits as an amateur detective. You must be very careful
—this was underlined three times—
and say nothing to anyone, because this is a small town, and it could be almost anyone—my doctor, my lawyer, the police chief, one of my friends, even my own family, however painful it is to believe such a thing.
"What is he talking about?"
"Read on," said Alan, his voice grim. I looked up at him in surprise and then turned back to the letter.
You see, my dear, someone is trying to kill me. When you read this, they will have succeeded. There is little I can do. I hate to admit it, but I am too old and too frail to pursue an unknown enemy myself. I have no concrete evidence to take to the police, even if I could be sure the police were to be trusted. No, my murderer, or murderers, will succeed. It is not a great tragedy, not at my age, but it makes me angry. I would prefer to live out my life to the span God intended. Furthermore, I believe in justice. No one should be able to kill without retribution. I want you to find my murderer.
I repeat that you must be careful, but I have every confidence in you. You have done some remarkable things in the past, and with that Scotland Yard husband of yours to help, I know you will not fail me.
All my love, Kevin
Posted December 9, 2008
Sexagenarian American Dorothy Martin has lived in England for three years. Her husband of two years ex-Deputy Constable Alan Nesbitt recognizes that Dorothy has a zest for living, but cannot understand how she always seems to land in the middle of a homicide investigation. While the happily married duo eats breakfast, a letter arrives from the states stating that a dear friend recently passed away leaving Dorothy with $5,000 provided she returns to Indiana to collect her inheritance. <P>Dorothy knows that ninety-five year old Kevin Cassidy would never have capriciously called her home unless he had cause. Accompanied by Alan, Dorothy returns to the American hinterland only to receive the check and a letter in which the deceased claims someone murdered him and he wants hr to investigate his claim. The medical records state that Kevin died from pneumonia, but a little digging surfaces viable suspects with means, motives, and opportunities to abet Mother Nature. <P>KILLING CASSIDY seems similar in style to the works of Agatha Christie and consequently fans of the great author will enjoy this old-fashioned amateur sleuth tale. Alan and Dorothy are a warm couple whose sweet, realistic romance proves the furnace still runs. The story line is cerebral and complex with strong secondary characters (including the deceased) adding depth and color to the plot. Jeanne M. Dams creates another winning novel that will send elated mystery lovers seeking her previous works. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.