It’s spring break, and Dulcie Schwartz has stayed behind in almost-deserted Cambridge, Massachusetts to concentrate on her thesis. But when a former student turned vagrant, Jeremy Mumbles, is found injured, with a valuable missing book clutched in his arms, Dulcie can’t seem to let it go. What was he doing with the book? And why has it turned up after all these years?
With Jeremy now the prime suspect for a series of break-ins in the area, Dulcie is determined to clear the unfortunate former scholar’s name. But when she finds a connection between the book he was carrying and her own research into an anonymous Gothic author, the search for clues takes on a new intensity – and a new menace.
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A Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery
By Clea Simon
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Clea Simon
All rights reserved.
Like any ill-witted Hare trapped in the hunter's snare, she was caught, her limbs clasped tight about her heaving sides not by a subtly laid cord but by the captor himself. The Treacherous Beast had come upon her from behind, laying hold of her body as her Lungs gasped out for liberty as essential as the very Air. No matter her desperate struggle; 'twas too late. Her corporeal self, Traitor to her will, would not answer, as her cries, stifl'd by the pressure upon her face, subsided painfully to one last startled gasp. The taste of Leather, of a glove, upon her face, holding her and binding ...
'Oh, hell and —' Dulcie caught herself before she said more. 'Zounds!'
It wasn't deadly. It was merely uncomfortable. Merely, well, Cambridge in March, and Dulcie had been reading while she walked.
Hopping over to a lamp post, Dulcie reined in her temper and pulled off her boot, emptying it of the half-melted slush that had slid in. Even as she had been reading – the text on her cell phone, something she'd sent herself only a few minutes before – she hadn't been totally unaware of her surroundings. She had stepped off the curve on to pavement, of that she was sure. Except that as her foot descended, the slate-grey solidity below her had melted around it, like something from a Gothic horror tale, resolving itself into that disgusting mix particular to New England at this time of year and slipping, just as inexorably, into her boot. The only good news was that even as she caught herself, newly wet and increasingly cold, and hopped back up on to the slick dry pavement, she hadn't dropped her phone.
'Bother,' Dulcie muttered as she pocketed the distracting device. Only an optimist could call this spring, she thought as she slipped her soaked sock back into the boot's wet interior. No matter what the calendar said, it was hard to consider this anything more than another winter thaw, a tease. An accident of the calendar, her own 'treacherous beast.' Because on top of everything else, she was alone, heading home to an empty apartment. This week the university was on recess – ten days if you counted the weekend – and while in the past she had enjoyed the break from classes and students and all the rigmarole that went with being a graduate student, this year the quiet was a bit much. Not only had most of her students taken off for warmer climes, but even her friends had deserted her.
Not deserted. That was too harsh. Trista was presenting a paper in Texas. Her blonde and multiply pierced friend had successfully defended her own dissertation the year before, but now she was busy scrambling for what she could do once her postgrad fellowship here ended. And after the flood – a burst pipe – had closed not only the English grad students' office space but also part of the computer labs, Trista's boyfriend Jerry – an applied math doctoral candidate, like Dulcie's own sweetie, Chris – had chosen to accompany her to Austin. Then Chris's mother had practically begged him to come home to New Jersey – something about a failing aunt and family obligations. Dulcie was welcome, too; they had both made that clear. (Chris, in particular, had pleaded.) But if she was going to finish writing her dissertation this year, she really needed to buckle down. Despite the repairs and a flurry of belated maintenance work – most of the buildings in the Yard had antique plumbing – the main libraries had stayed open.
Not that this mattered now. What mattered was that she was standing in Harvard Yard with a wet foot, dark descending, and no prospects for anything but a cold, cheerless walk home.
She took a step. Her boot squelched.
'Argh!' she yelled as the icy wet squirted up between her toes, and just as quickly she put her mittened hand over her mouth. It was reflex, nothing more. Dulcie wasn't sure why she was even worried. She was alone. Utterly alone. During spring break, no one can hear you scream.
Cambridge had it in for her. As Dulcie crossed the street, the wind picked up. A Nordic blast, more suitable for February than this late March day, it hit Dulcie like a slap. Or, no, more like a scrape, as if careless claws had raked her face. Freeing one hand from its mitten, she raised it to her cheek. It wasn't her imagination. The grit and sand that had been laid down on icy walkways all winter long had been freed by this last dubious thaw as if purposely to pelt her.
'Insult to injury,' Dulcie muttered, wiping her face as the wind continued to build, chasing her through the arched brick gate on to university property. Whipping around Sever Hall, its unlit classroom windows framed by scaffolding, it howled like some trapped beast as it made its way around the other empty university buildings that filled the Yard.
That sound – along with the raw scrape on her cheek – gave Dulcie pause, reminiscent as they were of a particularly displeased feline. 'Please, don't tell me this is a message, Mr Grey.' She turned away from the blast, away from the open Yard with its stark and leafless trees, and toward the pale shelter of a wall, the better to evoke the feline spirit who still occasionally visited her. 'Because if it is, I really think you have better means at your disposal.'
A loud thud was the only response. By the wall, a sign – 'Closed for Repairs' – had fallen over, another victim of the gust. And not, as she had half hoped, the result of a giant, playful paw. Unless ...
At times, Dulcie believed, the elements were more than mere weather. Sometimes, she thought, the kind spirit she knew as Mr Grey would use the outside world to guide her. Today, however, she couldn't see any rhyme or reason in the pummeling. Even at his worst, the ghost of her late, great pet would never be this ungentle.
No, this was simply March in full leonine fashion. Only, shouldn't it be more lamblike by now? Another blast answered that question, and Dulcie turned again to find herself facing the library's recessed back entrance. The blue security light glowed like a beacon by the brick foyer. It was past time for the stacks to close, but perhaps one of the guards she knew would be on duty. She thought of Ruby, with her welcoming smile, or the new guy, Kyle, who had remained freckled all winter long. Maybe one of them would have an extra pair of socks. Or a space heater, where she could dry off. It wasn't like Chris was waiting for her at home.
She didn't need the next arctic blast to convince her. With a squish, Dulcie turned and raced toward the library entrance.
'Oh! Excuse me.' Dulcie stopped short. The brick-lined passage wasn't empty. At her approach, a skinny man had pressed himself flat against the wall. 'I didn't see you.'
'Didn't see. Couldn't comprehend, more likely.' The other occupant scowled as he recovered his composure, his face skull-like above his worn tweed overcoat. 'Unable to fathom the unplumbed complexities. Unplumbed and disemboweled, excavated to extinction.'
'Jeremy? I'm sorry I startled you.' The scowling man stood a head taller than Dulcie, but she couldn't be frightened of him. Jeremy Mumbleigh – 'Mumbles' to many of her classmates – was one of those unfortunates who inhabit university towns. A one-time scholar who had gone off the rails at some point but still hung around his old haunts, the skinny man was more scarecrow than scary, a silver-haired casualty of the academic battlefield. 'Are you all right?'
'All right, or all left?' He raised an eyebrow, as if his question made logical sense. 'Turn right to stay right. Which way are we turning here, for good or for ill?'
'Jeremy, it's me, Dulcie.' Unlike some of her classmates, Dulcie felt only pity for the man. In part, that was because she could see how alike they were. Although Chris and certainly Trista would pooh-pooh the notion, Dulcie saw the tall man in the threadbare tweed as a cautionary tale. A reminder to keep her focus, and finally to finish her dissertation. She also saw how he was shivering, his arms wrapped around himself as if to add their poor warmth to that of the worn coat.
'Are you hungry, Jeremy?' Dulcie didn't have much of a budget, but she could certainly stand a fellow scholar a bowl of soup. She thought of Lala's rich split pea, thick with bits of ham, and her own mouth started watering. Besides, the company would do them both good. 'Would you want to come to dinner with me?' She kept her voice soft. The man was skittish.
'Dinner, winner.' He turned away, and she saw that he was scratching on the brick. Writing one of his long nonsense verses, she thought at first, though in this weather his words would probably be erased by the wind. But, no, it looked like he was drawing: she saw ears and – were those whiskers? Yes, it was a cat. 'Cat's dinner for a winner. The kind-hearted woman will save the sinner.' Jeremy seemed to be illustrating his own rambling. 'It's a secret. You can't tell anyone.'
He turned suddenly, with a look of such ferocity that Dulcie stepped back.
'I wouldn't,' she stammered, unsure of what exactly she was agreeing to. Jeremy had never been violent, despite what some of her classmates had whispered. But he had never looked quite so ... intent.
'It's a conspiracy, you know.' His voice, low and deep, was as piercing as his gaze. 'And they won't stop until they've gotten it all.'CHAPTER 2
'I'm being careful, Chris. You know I am.' Dulcie could hear the peevishness creeping into her voice. 'I promise,' she added, in a softer tone. Chris was honestly concerned, she knew that. He never liked her going out after dark, and being several hundred miles away with his anxious mother wasn't helping.
'I got the latest text alert.' He wasn't going to be mollified so easily.
'That was about the burglaries.' Dulcie was trying to be reasonable. 'The ones we already know about,' she added, before Chris could worry more. 'And those were on campus, Chris.'
She heard a grumble and took a deep breath. The university's text alerts were, in general, a good thing, warning the campus community about problems or delays. But the latest series, reminding people about a string of robberies, didn't seem particularly well thought out. She'd gotten one while walking home, the buzzing phone making itself known through all her layers. When she'd seen the message from Chris, she'd known what he was calling about. The general alert had been designed to scare, at least a little. But the information it conveyed wasn't new.
The problem lay with those pipes. Originally laid in an ornate maze of steam tunnels that ran between most of the older university buildings, the repairs they required had necessitated the packing up of several freshman dorms, as well as a dozen university offices, and maintenance crews were busy emptying out ancient basement storage units as they searched for the source of the leaks. Dulcie had never been more relieved that English and American Lit had its own headquarters a few blocks away. Although the offices, a tiny clapboard house, were closed for the break, and Nancy – the motherly secretary who staffed it – was enjoying a well-earned week in Aruba, Dulcie's home away from home was safely away from the ruckus in the Yard. She couldn't say the same for all the offices in the campus's busy center. With all the activity, doors would be left unlocked – and possessions would go missing, even if for utterly innocent reasons.
Still, there was no denying that somebody was taking advantage of the situation. The thieves were targeting empty dorm rooms and offices – places left dark and vacant – and while the university police couldn't ascertain exactly what was being taken until the students returned and employees could re-enter their offices, it was assumed that any valuables left unsecured were at risk. At least, that's what the text warned about. Only there was one problem: anybody who had already left for the break couldn't really do much about security now. The only people around were those like Dulcie, who didn't live on campus.
'I'm not worried about the apartment,' said Chris, sounding quite reasonable. 'Honestly, Dulce.'
Dulcie relaxed. Of course he wasn't. Though they didn't talk much about it, they both knew that their current cat, Esmé, had more powers than the average house pet.
'I worry about you, Dulcie. You saw someone huddled in a doorway, and you went to join him? What if you had accidentally interrupted a burglary?'
'But I didn't.' He wasn't being logical. 'It was Jeremy. You know, Mumbles?'
'Great.' He didn't sound any happier about that.
'Chris,' she said. 'You know he's harmless.'
'I know you think he's harmless.' Despite the miles between them, she could hear the strain in his voice. 'But, really, Dulcie, what do you know about him?'
'I know he was a graduate student here, same as I am. I know he had some kind of breakdown —'
Chris interrupted before she could finish. 'I mean, what do you know of him now, Dulcie? How does he even live? For all you know, he could be the one doing these break-ins. Or maybe, I don't know, he's a look out.'
'Chris ...' Dulcie struggled to find the words. 'You don't know him. I do. I mean, I kind of know what he's gone through, you know?'
'No.' Her boyfriend's voice was firm. 'I don't. And neither do you, Dulcie. You see him as a kind of cautionary tale. A worst-case scenario of what can happen if you don't finish your dissertation. I get that, I really do. But Dulcie, you're not like him. You're going to write your thesis and get your degree, and even if you didn't, you'd be OK. Mumbles is ... well, he's something else again. For starters, he's really sick. And Dulcie? He's not a metaphor – the romantic hobo or a Depression-era poet on the rails, or something. He's a man, a disturbed man, and it scares me when you're alone with him.'
By the time they got off the phone, Dulcie was exhausted. Sometimes, it seemed, these long-distance conversations were worse than no contact at all. Here she was, curled up on the sofa, an afghan over her lap and warm, fuzzy socks on her feet. Chatting with Chris should have been a cozy end to the evening. Instead, it had left her feeling unsettled and even more alone.
'Why is that, Esmé?' The round tuxedo cat had left the room as her voice had gotten heated and only now returned to regard Dulcie with a quizzical glance. 'Why can't we just have a conversation?'
In response, the feline jumped up on the sofa, landing heavily.
'Watch it, kitty!' Dulcie pulled her feet out of the way as Esmé gave her a cool look, indecipherable by human standards, and began kneading the edge of the blanket.
'It's not like I'm exactly alone here.' Dulcie watched as the little cat worked, her whiskers directed forward as she concentrated. 'It's not as if ...' She paused. Maybe that was what was bothering her. It wasn't just that Chris was acting as if Dulcie didn't have any common sense. That was bad, but in truth she knew she tended to get carried away sometimes. Books just seemed so much more real than, well, mundane events. It was that he was doubting their other feline companion – Mr Grey. Her beloved pet had never let her down. Surely, he would watch out for her now. He would warn her if she were in any real danger, wouldn't he?
'Mrrup,' Esmé chirped, which Dulcie took as agreement. But when the feline turned and sat, Dulcie realized she may simply have been congratulating herself on a job well done.
'Well, we all have our own projects and concerns, don't we, Esmé?' Dulcie watched as the little cat settled down, purring. 'And at least you and I are getting our work done.'
Careful not to disturb her pet, Dulcie reached for her laptop. Before Chris had called back, she'd been looking over her notes for the latest chapter of what would, at some point, be her dissertation. This chapter dealt specifically with the new pages she had found, handwritten pages that appeared to be part of a forgotten work by the anonymous Gothic novelist who was the focus of the dissertation. Identifying them among the unclaimed papers file of the esteemed Mildon Rare Books Collection had been Dulcie's latest coup.
Excerpted from Code Grey by Clea Simon. Copyright © 2015 Clea Simon. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Code Grey (A Dulcie Schwartz Mystery) by Clea Simon is a very confusing mystery. Dulcie Schwartz has decided to stay home (in Cambridge) during spring break to work on her dissertation. Her boyfriend, Chris went to his mother’s house at her request. There have been a series of break in’s on campus. No one is sure what if anything has been stolen since everyone is away during the break. Then Jeremy “Mumbles” Mumbleigh is arrested for the crimes. He was found clutching a rare book from the Mildon. The book went missing in 1989. Jeremy was a former student who had a breakdown (but he continues to hang around the campus). For some reason Dulcie decides she has to clear his name. She is sure it is all just a misunderstanding. So instead of writing, she runs around campus investigating. Then someone breaks into the library using the old steam tunnels. The Islington Bible is stolen (which has beautiful jewels embedded in the cover) and then is found nearby with the cover ripped off (cover was found as well with the jewels intact). Whoever is behind the burglaries knows about the steam tunnels under the college especially the library. Dulcie is guided by the voice of Mr. Grey, her dead cat (her spirit animal according to her mother). He provides her with cryptic clues. Does this book have anything to do with her research on an anonymous Gothic author? Detective Rogovoy (who is tired of Dulcie’s interference with cases) tells her to stay out of it and so does her boyfriend, Chris. Dulcie works with Thomas Griddlehaus, the Director of the Mildon Rare Book Collection. Dulcie follows the clues to find out who is committing the thefts. I did not enjoy Code Grey. It is never explained if Dulcie actually hears the cat’s voices (Mr. Grey’s and her new cat, Esme) or if it is her imagination. We never get Chris’ last name (he comes across as very whiny and controlling). We get long paragraphs of Dulcie’s ramblings or thoughts on the crime, her dissertation, and books. It was just not a fun book to read. I give Code Grey 2.5 out of 5 stars. The basic idea is good, but the execution was lacking. The perpetrators of the crime were easy to figure out with the clues and information provided. Would it have made a different if I had read the previous books? I do not know and I do not think I am willing to read any more books in this series. I received a complimentary copy of Code Grey from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The review and opinions expressed are my own.