In her fourth book featuring the Beary family, Elizabeth Elwood delivers another thoroughly satisfying collection. "The Agatha Principle" is followed by seven cleverly crafted shorter stories with a variety of settings. In "The Man in the Cage", a child falls into deadly peril at the 2010 Winter Olympics; a dramatic historical mystery dating back to the War of 1812 is featured in "Tragedy at The Oaks", and the book closes on a delightfully light-hearted note as the Bearys visit Vancouver's Bright Nights and solve "The Mystery of the Christmas Train".
With intriguing puzzles to challenge the reader and an engaging story of a charming heroine whose relationship with a Vancouver detective is as captivating as the cases they solve together, The Agatha Principle and Other Mystery Stories is a must for lovers of classic mystery fiction.
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THE AGATHA PRINCIPLE and Other Mystery Stories
By Elizabeth Elwood
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Elwood
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE AGATHA PRINCIPLE
The corpse lay in Blood Alley, huddled like a sleeping vagrant amid the dumpsters that lined the high brick walls at the back of the Water Street shops. However, at seven o'clock on a cold January evening, it was unlikely to be noticed by the solitary walker who was entering the far end of the old throughway, which once had been home to the butchers that gave the alley its name and now contained the odd trendy restaurant amid the parking-garage entrances and rear shop doors.
The walker passed through Blood Alley Square, serenely unaware of its grim history of public executions, his thoughts on other pressing and immediate matters. The previous day's snowfall had been cleared to form a pathway, and his footsteps echoed eerily on the patchwork pavement of grey granite stones, red bricks and concrete slabs. The area was deserted, and he accelerated his pace, suddenly aware that his decision to dodge the icy sidewalks and walk the rough stones of the alley had not been wise when the shops were shut and dark had closed in. Some light filtered down from the apartment windows that overlooked the square, augmenting the soft white beam of the single streetlamp and the shimmering reflection from the snow, but the palely golden shafts seemed to heighten the menace in the shadows, and when he saw an opening on his left and realized it was a back entrance to Gaoler's Mews, he turned and headed towards the arcade. The shops were closed, but their overnight lights created a welcoming glow.
The path in the snow was narrower here, and he kept his eyes down and watched his step carefully. As he neared the entrance to the mews, the light spilling from the corner coffee-shop window illuminated a set of footprints in the snow. Someone had come from the other end of the alley and had cut diagonally across to the mews rather than follow the cleared path. Curiously, he noted the unusual shape of the prints and the way they curved from the dumpster at the right of the passage; then the thought swept from his mind as the distant sound of the Gastown steam clock reminded him that his rehearsal would be starting soon. He hurried through the arcade and emerged onto Water Street without noticing the reappearance of the strange footprints in the pile of snow by the curb or the square heel mark that was now plainly delineated in the shallower snow at the edge of the mound. The snow had started again, and he pulled up his collar, wrapping his scarf snugly around his neck to hold it in place. Only another two blocks and he would reach his destination.
And back in Blood Alley, the soft flakes drifted down, blanketing the footsteps by the dumpster, concealing the bloodstains in the snow, and making a cold, white shroud for the body that lay slumped in the shadows of the wall.
* * *
The walker who had emerged from the alley was Jordan Hope, a skilled thespian with considerable experience and high expectations, and once safely under the lights of Water Street, he reverted to his earlier preoccupation. His current professional engagement was threatening to tax his patience to the limit and he wondered if the remuneration was worth the aggravation. If there was anything worse than having to direct a bunch of amateurs, he thought testily, it was having to direct a bunch of professional amateurs. Lawyers, he suspected, were going to prove the worst of the lot, particularly since their fundraiser for the Children's Society happened to be an Agatha Christie murder mystery. During the preliminary reading of The Mousetrap, his cast members had made it plain that they had far greater knowledge of crime and police procedure than he did, not to mention far higher incomes. Every supercilious lift of an eyebrow had reminded him that, unlike their humble director who was earning a paltry fee that probably constituted his sole income for the month of January, his performers were donating their time. His actors had insisted that they needed no vocal direction since they were accustomed to public speaking, and when he had attempted to discuss character interpretation with the judge who was playing Mrs. Boyle, she informed him that she needed no assistance since she had dealt with every possible perversity of human nature over the course of her career. The last straw had come when the handsome and humourless litigator who was playing Giles drew him aside to explain with Teutonic solemnity that he was not to take offence if his actors argued over points of staging since they were creatures of far superior intelligence than the normal riffraff one would find in the theatre. Jordan still steamed at the memory. No wonder, he thought venomously, that Shakespeare had said, "Kill all the lawyers." Yes, he decided, as he headed into the Old Chandler for the first blocking rehearsal, it was definitely time he took charge.
Fifteen minutes later, his cast was assembled in the vast rehearsal hall that dominated the backstage area of the theatre-restaurant. Jordan contemplated the circle of faces. His actors stared back at him, their countenances forming a collective challenge to his authority. Squashing his negative feelings about the group, for there was a job to be done, and Jordan was nothing if not professional, he coolly assessed his performers. They would do, he decided. The individuals suited their parts well.
Andrew McCardle, media darling and anti-drug crusader, was ideal for Major Metcalf, for he was suave and assured, and like the character he portrayed, he stood on the side of the angels—as did Judge Mary Worthington, who was well known as a woman with a strong social conscience. But the judge was playing against type. Her role was the unpleasant Mrs. Boyle who expressed no regret for having placed three helpless children into a catastrophic foster-care situation. Jordan admired the serene, grey-haired woman; however, he did not find her approachable. High-principled people who were renowned for their probity were often revered, but rarely liked.
At the junior end of the spectrum, the two youngest performers sat together. They looked vaguely conspiratorial, possibly due to the fact that they were both fresh out of university and articling with the same firm. Terry Gleason, who played the faux-policeman, Trotter, was clearly besotted with Jeannie Dunbar. Dunbar was darkly beautiful and lacked the fresh innocence that was needed to play Mollie, although Jordan had to admit that she acted well and disguised her sophistication on the stage. However, when not in character, she seemed worldly-wise for one so young. Her belladonna eyes reminded Jordan of some of the young women of his pot-smoking youth and there was an edge to her that he found distasteful. A woman with no scruples, he decided, though that might stand her in good stead in her chosen profession. A promiscuous little minx, too, thought Jordan, recollecting the come-hither looks she had cast his way when they were first introduced.
Jordan's eyes slid around the circle and lit on the only married couple in the play. Sylvia and Norton Barnwell were a study in opposites. Sylvia's blonde elegance went with an extremely business-like air, which made her a credible Miss Casewell. Her husband, with his receding hairline and wire-rimmed glasses, looked totally wrong for the flamboyant Christopher Wren—a wig would definitely be in order—but his vaguely ineffectual manner was not inappropriate, if only it could be channelled to work onstage. The man was certainly bubbling over with enthusiasm, which was more than could be said for the other members of the cast who sat there as if they had been hauled in by a press gang.
The remaining two roles were adequately cast. Mollie's husband, Giles, was being played by the Teutonic prig who had so annoyed Jordan earlier. Günter Sachs was stiff and humourless, but then, so was Giles, and Günter was certainly good-looking, which was always advantageous in a male lead. Jordan glanced at the gnome-like man seated next to Günter. Side by side, they looked like Beauty and the Beast. Still, Henri Gerard, who played Mr. Paravicini, might be deficient in looks, but he was reputed to be as fabulously rich as the fairytale beast. It was Gerard who had arranged for the production to take place at the Old Chandler. The wealthy corporate lawyer had provided financial backing for the theatre-restaurant, and it could well be his money that was paying for the current production. That might, Jordan mused, be the reason for the grim set to his jaw that marred the man's usual affable countenance.
Jordan decided a pep talk was in order. He called his team to attention.
"The object of this venture may be money for charity," he began firmly, "but we owe it to the audience to give them full value for the exorbitant ticket price. We also have an obligation to the Gaslight Theatre Company to ensure that the product on their stage does not damage their reputation with their regular clientele."
"Not likely," snorted Terry Gleason. "Antiquated Dame Aggie is hardly the sort of fare to bring Gaslight audiences in."
"I sense attitude," said Jordan. "The cry of the theatre snob: 'Dame Agatha sucks but she brings in the bucks.' Don't underrate her. For one thing, this show is extremely topical because it deals with an issue that's constantly in the news—foster care. Every month or so, a story about a social worker's mistake hits the headlines. The play may have been written in the fifties, but the subject matter is still relevant. Revenge is as powerful a motive today as it has ever been."
Jeanne Dunbar spoke up before Jordan had time to draw breath.
"You sound as if we have to play it straight," she protested. "Surely we can have some fun with it. I mean, it's so archaic!"
Jordan's tone hardened.
"I do mean you to play it straight," he stated. "It may not be the world's greatest drama, but it's a mystery, not a farce, and don't any of you forget it. In other words, no camp acting from smart-asses who rate the piece as a lumbering dinosaur. Neither do I want to see a raft of modern interpretations that are alien to the intent of the piece."
Jordan shuddered, recollecting a particularly dire production of The Mousetrap where the director had dredged up cheap laughs by portraying two of the characters as flagrantly overt homosexuals. "Remember the era in which the play was written," he cautioned his cast. "Agatha Christie would have been well aware of the gay/lesbian issue, though it wasn't talked about as much then, but she would be appalled to see Christopher Wren played as a screaming fairy, especially since Mollie's husband is supposed to be jealous of him. And Casewell's gender-bender personality is more for creating mystery than to make a statement about gay pride."
"Thank heaven for that," muttered Sylvia under her breath.
"So I want strong, disciplined performances. Good pace, clear delivery and no gimmicks. This play is a classic mystery. It's a perfect example of what I call The Agatha Principle, and I expect you to listen to what I say, follow my direction and do it right."
Norton raised a tentative hand. His blue eyes blinked behind his spectacles.
"Yes," said Jordan. "You have a question?"
"I was just wondering," said Norton curiously, "what you mean by The Agatha Principle."
"Oh, sorry," said Jordan. "I'd assumed that was obvious. The least likely person is the killer, and no one is really who they seem."
* * *
Detective Constable Robert Miller strode down the sidewalk, dodging the icy mounds, which were all that remained of the record Christmas snowfall. The white drifts, which had blanketed the city for weeks, had finally diminished into hard-packed piles, leaving the streets of Vancouver vaguely resembling a moonscape. Yet as Miller glanced up through the spindly branches of the trees that lined the sidewalk, he realized that the lull in the weather had only been a temporary respite, for the lowering sky threatened another fall of snow. Winter, it seemed, was never to end.
It was only three in the afternoon, but the round glass balls hanging from the iron lamp standards were already alight. Distantly hearing the famous Gastown steam clock piping the hour, Miller put on a burst of speed. Having invited Philippa Beary to meet him for coffee, he didn't want to annoy her by being late. He had the distinct impression that the young singer was a highly disciplined individual who took casual dates as seriously as rehearsal calls.
However, as he approached the wide intersection where the statue of Gassy Jack on his barrel of whiskey looked sadly bereft without its usual ring of admiring tourists, Philippa was nowhere in sight. Miller breathed a sigh of relief, which manifested like a wraith in the frigid air. He slowed his pace. Then, just as he reached the corner, a petite redhead bobbed into view from the other side of the historic figure. Miller's face broke into a smile. Even in jeans and a turtleneck, which just showed under her navy winter jacket, Philippa exuded style and elegance. It was probably her stage training, thought Miller, as he watched her cross the square. Her posture would rival that of a soldier on parade. To his delight, when she reached him, Philippa's smile mirrored his own.
"This is nice," she said. "Are you working in Gastown today, or did you make a special detour to meet me?"
Miller was tempted to lie, but couldn't quite manage it.
"I did have business here," he admitted. He took her elbow and steered her around the tall maple that towered over the statue. "Where do you want to go for coffee?"
"Mirella's is good. It's on the next block. We can cut through the arcade and dodge the snow." She pointed to a passageway between the shops on the far side of the street.
"Lead the way." Miller fell into step beside Philippa and found that she was leading him back the way he had come. Exactly the way he had come, it transpired, when the arcade forked to the left and came out on the street where the Old Chandler Theatre Restaurant was located. At this end, the arcade was framed by a jewellery store and a Royal Bank. Philippa could not resist a quick glance at the jeweller's sparkling display, but Miller's eyes were automatically drawn to the red brick building on the other side of the road. Then, noticing that Philippa was ready to move on, he followed her onto the street.
They walked past the bank and strolled along until they reached a tiny deli that nestled between a toyshop and a used bookstore. The lower half of the coffee-shop window was covered with red and white checked curtains, but Miller could still make out a glass counter crammed with tempting delectables. He followed Philippa inside and was greeted by the pungent aroma of freshly ground coffee. Behind the chatter of the patrons, the lyric tones of Pavarotti singing Neapolitan songs emanated softly from a speaker at the corner of the room. Miller joined Philippa at the counter, and once they had ordered, they settled themselves at a table by the window.
Miller's eyes slid back towards the glass pane. From where he sat, he had a clear view of the Old Chandler. Beside the entrance was a large poster announcing an upcoming dinner-theatre event but he could not make out the title of the play. Philippa followed his glance.
"The Mousetrap," she said. "That's the next production."
"You have good eyesight."
"Not really. I just happen to know that the Agatha Christie is coming up. My sister and brother-in-law are in it."
"You mean they act as well as do puppet shows and sing country and western?"
"You're thinking of Juliette and Steven. I'm talking about the other ones—Sylvia and Norton. You know, Bonnie and Clyde. You must remember them."
Miller looked suitably embarrassed. His first meeting with the members of the Beary family had been on the occasion of Philippa's arrest en route to a Halloween party. The young detective had not been thrilled to discover that his suspect was the daughter of a city councillor and the sister of an RCMP detective inspector, and he recalled Philippa's oldest sister, Sylvia, and her husband, Norton, very well. They were members of a prestigious downtown law firm, and they had arrived at the police station, still dressed as thirties gangsters, to act in Philippa's defence.
"Yes, I remember them. Sylvia and Norton are the lawyers." Miller saw no point in prevaricating. "Why are they involved in a play?" "The Law Society mounts a fundraiser each year on behalf of the Children's Society and the minute Norton heard about the project, he was raring to get involved. He tried his hand at acting last year and was the surprise hit of the show in spite of the fact that he has no natural ability, so he's very gung-ho about the project. Sylvia wasn't going to participate, but one of the women dropped out so she stepped in to fill the gap. She's not overly enthused, but she believes in supporting charitable causes and she's so efficient that she's bound to do well."
Excerpted from THE AGATHA PRINCIPLE and Other Mystery Stories by Elizabeth Elwood Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Elwood. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsTHE AGATHA PRINCIPLE....................1
THE MAN IN THE CAGE....................71
THE WINDOW IN ROOM 21....................91
LOST IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC....................135
THE TRAGEDY AT THE OAKS....................167
THE DEFENCE RESTS....................189
SORRY HER LOT....................201
THE MYSTERY OF THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN....................233