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Unfold the Evil
An NJ Mystery
By Ellen Larson
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2014 Ellen Larson
All rights reserved.
Natalie Joday balanced herself with both hands on the arms of the chair and raised her feet off the floor. Ignoring the wobble, she crossed her legs and sat Indian-style on the swivel chair. Satisfied with the result, which had the effect of realigning wrists and keyboard at an angle better suited to her long-term physical well-being, she pulled herself, castors moving unwillingly over the newsroom linoleum, snug against the desk. Thus primed for action, she addressed the computer:
Aug 30—1993 Police Puzzled by Dollhouse Dilemma
A Hackensack family awoke yesterday morning to find 22 tiny dolls and pieces of dollhouse furniture dangling from the branches of the crabapple tree in their front yard, sources at the Bergen County Sheriff's Department say. Stumped law enforcement investigators are toying with the idea that it's just a prank undertaken by local youths. But, according to investigators, the absence of any signs of trespass indicates that care was taken to hide the identities of the perpetrators. "It's the second time since January we've seen this scenario played out," says County Superintendent Sandrine Louden. "We have a lot of serious questions. For example, why was the plastic poodle in the little refrigerator?"
Natalie turned to the newsroom doors and beheld Ginny Chau, ace Crime Bureau reporter, dressed uncharacteristically down in a strapless red dress, sandals, and large-frame sunglasses.
Ginny made her way through the maze of desks and flopped onto a nearby vinyl chair. "Dja miss me?"
"Ceaselessly," said Natalie. "But you're not due back till after Labor Day."
"This is just a pit stop." Ginny crossed her legs, flashing her golden toenails. "I'm off to Montreal tomorrow."
Natalie hit Save and leaned back. "Did you have a nice vacation?"
"Working holiday." Ginny chucked her handbag into Natalie's in-box. "Which didn't stop me from having a fine time. To think I never knew Virginia had a beach!"
"How was the conference?"
"Oh, the usual." Ginny hooked her arms over the back of the chair. "Jaded Washington insiders being cynical about politics. Seminars by one or two of the giants—guys who've covered crime since Cain versus Abel. Made some contacts with a few TV producers, talked shop ... Y'know."
Natalie shook her head. "Same ol' same ol'."
Ginny cast a lazy look around the newsroom. "Nothing much different, here either. Although I saw in yesterday's paper that Star stock dropped four points while I was gone. Not that I'm implying a connection. What about you?" She flipped the sunglasses onto the top of her head, wrecking havoc with her black bangs. "How did you enjoy your stint in the Crime Bureau? You sure look at home at my desk."
"It's my desk till next Tuesday at nine a.m., so keep your mitts off it." Natalie straightened the keyboard. "My computer at home became obsolete when that graphical Internet browser came out."
"Poor baby. And how did you get along with—" She glanced at the cubicles at the far end of the newsroom. "Tyler?"
"Fine." Natalie removed a twist from the mouse cord. "No problems. Not one."
"Sure." Ginny stuck her tongue in her cheek.
"I'm serious!" protested Natalie. "He never said a word out of line. Of course," she laid a finger against her cheek, "now that I think of it, he never actually spoke to me at all."
"I knew it!" Ginny sat up and uncrossed her legs. "His nose is out of joint because I suggested you to cover for me. Tch. He's been running the Crime Bureau with his antiquated ways so long he thinks every story is an exclusive with his name on it."
"He's only 46."
"Like I said! Antique! His approach is twenty years out of date!" She fished in Natalie's candy dish. "His idea of covering a crime is to report whatever his police contacts tell him. He thinks of a trip to the courthouse as being out in the field. These days there's plenty to go around for two reporters—I mean, three. The competition for readership is too fierce for a paper to cover just the murders and the holdups and let the rest go! There are scads of good juicy felonies going unreported!" She unwrapped the candy.
"There didn't used to be so much crime in Bergen County," sighed Natalie. "In my day, my brother and father were the only crooks I knew."
Ginny grinned as she popped the butterscotch into her mouth.
"Oh, Miss Hunt!"
Both women's heads turned. A scrawny young man in an orange coverall leaned against the counter that separated the mailroom from the newsroom. He held up an envelope and wagged it back and forth. Natalie and Ginny turned to follow his gaze.
An elderly woman was standing stock-still by the double doors to the hall. She wore a high-waisted polka dot dress that accented the hips of her plump figure. As the young man called out again, she swung her head from side to side, then turned and looked.
The young man flipped the letter up and down with his forefinger. "One more for you, Miss Hunt." His little round eyes were open wide, expressive of an innocent desire to help.
The woman clutched her book bag to her bosom and walked to him with the air normally associated with martyrs on their way to the lions.
Ginny spoke out of the side of her mouth. "And here's another example of what happens when you hire fossils instead of journalists."
Natalie nodded in reluctant agreement. Thanks to her nephew, who sat on the board of directors, Louise Hunt had been taken on as the Star's advice columnist ("Ill at Ease? Ask Louise!") the previous fall. It was an open secret (thanks to the indiscretions of Rudy, the mailroom clerk) that for the first three months of her sojourn (and despite the regular appearance of her 500-word column in the Sunday Star Life Styles section), she had not received a single letter. Further, it was widely assumed (particularly by the writing staffers, wizened past masters at judging these delicate matters of "style") that such letters as had arrived shortly after Rudy let the cat out of the bag had one and all flowed from the same lugubrious pen.
Rudy showed his teeth as Louise approached. "You get so many letters these days I just can't keep track of 'em." His tenor voice was audible from end to end of the suddenly hushed newsroom. He looked at the envelope before he gave it to her. "River Vale," he said helpfully. It was a standing joke that Louise spent all her spare time crisscrossing Bergen County to ensure that the letters she sent herself carried different postmarks.
Louise, cheeks scarlet but head held high, took the letter and mumbled her thanks. When her back was turned, Rudy clutched his sides and mimed helpless laughter, then disappeared into his den.
Natalie watched the double doors swinging in Louise's wake. "What a vile young man." She turned to Ginny. "What's his problem, anyway?"
"Congenital viciousness." Ginny held her butterscotch between her front teeth. "That said ... Louise shouldn't have gotten into this situation in the first place. Or rather, she shouldn't have been allowed to get into it. The poor woman can't even type—and yet she's hired to work for a paper with a circulation of 100,000? This Dickensian management style is ridiculous!"
"Oh, I know what you mean, but—there are places for all kinds of journalism, Ginny. Even the frivolous." Natalie glanced around the busy newsroom. "Just because you or I don't want to write advice to the lovelorn doesn't mean there's no place for it. We'd all shrivel up and die on a steady diet of serious news."
"There's a difference between frivolous and ridiculous. No—don't go all philosophical on me! Tell me you don't blush whenever you read that applesauce Louise writes."
Natalie gave a grudging nod.
"Of course you do." Ginny pointed a finger. "You want substance as much as I do. And if not substance, at least some drama, or something with a little shock value. Which reminds me—what have I missed? I'm counting on you to help me catch up on all the latest suburban villainy. Anything really big hit while I was gone? What are you working on?"
She got up and moved around to Natalie's side of the desk. Leaning both hands on the ink blotter, she straightened her bronzed arms and peered at the monitor. She read for a minute, crunching her candy.
She shifted her gaze. "Where do you get these stories?"
Natalie, anchored to the desk with one hand, rocked the chair back and forth. "Oddball, isn't it? There's something about it that struck me. Somebody went to the extent of drilling little holes in all the dolls so they could be hung by those little Christmas ornament hooks. I think the story has legs."
"You do. Unh hunh. I see." Ginny glanced downward. "Do you have your feet on my chair?"
* * *
An hour later, Natalie fired the dollhouse piece off to the summer editor, who changed the title (to "Police Perplexed by ..."), cut an adjective, cut a line about the history of dollhouses, and approved it (Local News, page 3).
Natalie glanced at her watch as she waited for confirmation that typeset had received the approved version: 1:15 p.m. An hour before deadline. She might just pay a quick visit to the mega-toystore down the street and check out their dollhouse furnishings. Get a feel for what was available. The Thank-You-for-Filing icon flashed on her monitor, and she logged off the network with fingers accustomed to the task. She shoved her notebook into her briefcase, switched off the computer, and headed for the exit.
Her mind preoccupied with visions of miniature kitchen appliances, she barreled through the double doors and straight into Louise, who staggered back, waving her arms.
Natalie moved quickly forward to lend a steadying hand. "Jeez! Louise! I'm sorry!"
"Oh no, it's my own silly fault." Louise slid out from under Natalie's grip. "Stupid of me to be standing so near a door."
"Are you okay? Did I hit you?"
"I'm fine." She touched a wrinkled hand to her hair.
"I'm so sorry!" Natalie looked Louise over anxiously. "Are you on your way out? Can I give you a lift?"
Louise looked down the hallway. "No, I'm not on my way out."
"Of course." Natalie smiled foolishly. It had been an hour since she had seen Louise leave. "Did you come back for something?"
Louise glanced up the stairs. "No, no, I wasn't coming back."
Natalie's smile grew fatuous. Louise's problem expressing herself was not limited to print media. "Well, I guess I'd better be going and let you go do ... whatever you're doing."
Louise's eyes wandered to Natalie's face. They were large, brown eyes, filled with trepidation. "May I speak with you a moment, Natalie?"
Natalie shifted her briefcase from one hand to the other. She really wanted to get to that toystore. "Well, gee, what about?"
The doors burst open and a summer intern appeared carrying a bundle of files. She glanced at them, then clattered up the stairs.
"I know we don't really know each other," Louise lowered her eyes, "but—you are so intelligent, and so tactful too. I admired the way you handled yourself in the Dow murder investigation last spring. So sensitive. I promise not to take up too much of your time. I've been waiting here hoping—"
"Here? In the hall? Louise!" Natalie looked around in dismay; there wasn't even a place to sit. "Why didn't you just call me on the interoffice line?"
"I didn't think of that." Louise's round bosom rose and fell. "That's just it—I'm not good at analyzing a problem and coming up with a plan of action. I just do the first thing that comes into my head." She looked at Natalie timidly. "Are you angry?"
"Of course I'm not angry! I'm just," Natalie groped for an adequate descriptor. "Confused. What do you want to talk about?"
Louise's soft brown eyes widened to the maximum and then blinked. "Something odd has happened, and, although it may be embarrassing for me—professionally—I know I can't handle it on my own anymore."
Curiosity kindled in Natalie's heart and burst into flame. She took a step closer to Louise and lowered her voice. "What is it?"
Louise moved closer too and placed her fingers on Natalie's arm. "Someone's been writing me letters!"CHAPTER 2
"They have?" Natalie heard herself saying. She winced. "I mean, of course they have!"
Louise's face flushed rosy pink, and she lowered her eyes.
"Well, that's great!" said Natalie heartily. But her congratulations seemed only to etch the lines of worry more deeply into Louise's pink face. "Isn't it?"
Louise shook her head, then opened her mouth to speak.
There were footsteps on the stairs below, and a member of the maintenance crew appeared, toting a toolbox.
Natalie made up her mind. Dollhouse research, however intriguing, would have to wait. "Let's go someplace we can talk."
Relief flooded Louise's eyes. "Oh, thank you!" She hefted her book bag and followed Natalie down the stairs.
From the front door of the Star building, it was only a step or two across the pedestrian terrace to Charlie's Diner, preferred hangout for Star employees since the paper had moved to Hackensack in the 1960s. Natalie led the way beneath a venerable oak tree and up the cast iron stairs of the diner. They secured a back booth, and—since it was Wednesday—ordered hazelnut coffee. Charlie only made the hazelnut on Wednesdays.
As the waitress left, Natalie turned to Louise. "So something odd has happened?"
"Yes." Louise fingered the silverware. "I've been so foolish. I should have told someone sooner, but when the letters first appeared, they seemed harmless. Just nonsense, you know. I didn't think it would go on and on like this."
Natalie held up a hand. "When did the first one arrive?"
"Last May. I was so excited!" When she smiled, her eyes crinkled up and a pair of dimples appeared. "I've had some difficulty building up my clientele, you see, and the mail had been slow."
"That happens sometimes—it's seasonal." Natalie winced again, but Louise nodded as if receiving one of life's great lessons.
"But the letter was very strange," continued Louise, "disjointed and hard to make sense of. He said he knew a terrible secret about someone he called the Villain, who had once destroyed the life of someone he called the Victim. He thought it wasn't fair that such a hypocrite should get away with the terrible thing he had done, but he worried that if he exposed the Villain, he would be doing exactly what he had condemned him for. But if he remained silent, the Villain would remain unpunished. He wanted me to tell him what to do. He signed it, Enigma."
The waitress arrived with their coffees, along with a complimentary plate of vanilla wafers. Natalie picked up a cookie and ran a mental check of Louise's recent columns, which she read as the fan of a losing team glances at the box scores. She couldn't recall this scenario. "How did you answer it?"
"I didn't." Louise stirred sugar into her coffee. "I thought it must be someone playing a joke on me. Someone mean-spirited, or perhaps deranged."
"You didn't answer it." Natalie eyed Louise over the rim of her cup. "Your biggest worry is building up your clientele, but you don't answer a letter when you get it?"
Louise blushed. "It didn't seem to fit the scope of the column."
Natalie let it go. It was no use talking to Louise as if she were a fellow journalist; she just didn't get it. "So what happened next?"
Louise put her spoon down. "I threw the letter away. I thought that would be the end of it. But it wasn't. He sent another one. He sent one every week. As time passed, he became annoyed with me. Because I was ignoring him, you see. He tried to give me more information, so I would understand what it was all about and be able to help. But I never really understood him. Then today ..." She reached into her book bag and pulled out a letter.
Excerpted from Unfold the Evil by Ellen Larson. Copyright © 2014 Ellen Larson. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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