This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional. Kirkhall Island is a fictional Barrier Island off the Georgia Coast. All the characters are imaginary.
My thanks to Bill and Alastair who get the shoddy stuff first. They make me insert commas and they make other suggestions on the language and the story. Any errors that remain are probably because I ignored their advice.
Monday evenings are always different. Six pm rolls around and you come to the surprising realization that you’ve made it through the first day of the week, so the chances are you’ll survive the next four days, too. Also, by then, the resentment caused by the alacrity with which the previous two days flashed by has metamorphosed into stoic acceptance.
It was in this frame of mind that Mike and I were clearing away our dinner plates when the doorbell rang and I discovered Sergeant Berson of the Kirkhall Island police on the threshold, asking if he could come in.
I was only slightly surprised to see him there: the small dinner party that we had thrown on Saturday night to celebrate Mike’s promotion and his move into my — our — house, had been a consummate success. So much so that towards midnight, hosts and guests alike had run across the beach with no more than bracelets and necklaces to cover our skin, pale in the light of the waxing gibbous moon, and cavorted noisily in the phosphorescent waves for about an hour. A half day later, had anyone cared to squint through the bright Sunday sun toward our deck, the old Greek word, Gymnasium — a school for naked men — might easily have come to mind as we worked on shedding our winter pallor.
So, as I said, the appearance of one of Kirkhall’s two police officers at our door was not all that unexpected. But once inside, we found out that his business, somewhat to my relief, was not public nudity, but rather to talk to Mike.
"We don’t have much crime down here," he explained to my partner after declining the offer of a glass of wine and accepting a can of Coke instead, "so I haven’t had much experience in these things. I guess you heard that Mrs. Steeby died on Friday?"
Mike looked at me and I shook my head. We’d been too involved with the party to listen to the news.
"Well," the Sergeant continued, "she was strangled in her house sometime Friday afternoon and we’ve arrested Pat Simmonds for the crime. He doesn’t have a lawyer, but when I tried to get one of the local public defenders from Brunswick assigned, he turned them down and said he wanted you. He said he could pay, but I ain’t so sure."
"What a misguided faith in my ability," Mike remarked without a trace of modesty.
"Do you know Mr. Simmonds?" the policeman asked.
"You’re talking about the beachboy, Pat, aren’t you?" Mike asked.
"Yup, he’s the one."
"I’ve spoken to him a couple of times when I’ve been jogging. One time he ran along with me on the beach and we talked some — as much as one can talk while jogging."
"Well, I thought I’d swing by and tell you in person, because, truth be told, I don’t think he’s got the money to afford a lawyer." The policeman stated this matter of factly and without any prejudice that I could discern.
Mike picked up his glass of Pinot Grigio and took a sip before inquiring, "What’re the charges?"
"Murder and robbery."
"OK. Tell me what happened," Mike said as though that was what most people came to talk to him about, and then added, "hang on, let me go get a pad to take notes. Why don’t we go sit on the deck: it’s more comfortable than standing around the kitchen?" And so, five minutes later, the sergeant, having acceded to a bowl of Orecchiette with a fresh tomato and basil sauce, was relating the story to Mike and me.
"Claire Steeby was 81 years old. She’s been a widder now for some years, but she was still active and well able to look after herself, as you know, Chris," he remarked in an aside to me. Indeed, during my spare-time work at the library, getting their books and other items into a computerized database, I had had the opportunity to have many a conversation with the sprightly old lady whose verve belied her age. "She lived in one of the older houses in Inverness," the sergeant went on for Mike’s benefit, "which had been her parents’ house before.
"A few weeks back, she put up a note on the notice-board in the library for someone to come paint her windows. Mr. Simmonds offered to do them all for three hundred dollars plus materials. He’d wanted four, but the old girl beat him down to three."
"These wood windows take a hammering," I remarked in his defense, "it’s the sea air and the wind."
Berson wiped his chin, then, prostituting his palate for the sake of duty, took a gulp of Coke. "That’s what he told her, but she weren’t budging, and in the end he agreed to the three hundred.
"He started the work last Wednesday and, by Friday, had done three sides and had worked his way around to the south side of the house. The woodwork on one of them sea-facing windows was so badly damaged that he told her that he needed to replace it completely. He reckoned this came under the terms of ‘materials’, so he up and asked Mrs. Steeby for thirty dollars to go purchase the necessary pieces of wood as well as some carpenter’s glue.
"His story is that she gave him the money and he figured, since it was Friday, he’d ask her for a hundred dollars advance on his payment, which he thought was more than fair as the job was close on three-quarters finished. He says she went upstairs and came back with the cash. Where she got it from he tells us he don’t know.
"He then went down to Etchells’ Hardware and fetched the wood he needed. The cashier there says that he paid for it from a fat wad of money, the sergeant put down his fork and used thumb and forefinger to show his interpretation of fat.
"Simmonds says he then went back to the house and worked until four, replacing the sill and part of the frame. That was his usual quitting time he tells us, and also that he wanted the glue to dry over the weekend. At that time he knocked on the door to tell the Steeby woman he was leaving for the day — something he had done the previous two days. He says there was no answer, and so he left, not having seen the old lady since she gave him the money. He said that her son, Eric, had been at the house earlier, and he assumed that she’d gone out with him.
"The waves were mighty fine on Friday, he says, so he picked up a couple of six packs, went home, got his wetsuit and surfboard and headed for the beach, where he stayed until it was almost night. Then he drove home. On the way, he admits, he passed the Steeby house to remind her not to open the window where he had just done the repairs. He says that there were no lights on, so he reckoned she was still out, and about and he headed home without getting out of his truck. He says that, as far as he could see, the house looked normal — other than being completely dark — no door open, or anything like that.
"Yesterday morning, when Mrs. Steeby didn’t show up at Church, her friend, Mrs. Hutchinson, tried to call her on the phone. There was no answer, so she and the Rector’s wife, walked over to her house. When nobody came to their knocking, they called the Rector and he called us. I went across and tried to see if any windows had been left ajar. The two women were taking on something fierce, I tell you. All the doors were locked shut, so I broke a pane, opened a window and climbed through. Inside it stank like two cats a’fighting so I knew everything weren’t all right. I found her body outside her bedroom. She had been dead a long time. At that point, I sealed the house off and called in the GBI.
"Mrs. Hutchinson, who lives in the big house in the next block, has told us that she had seen a man in black leather jacket, black pants and boots and long fair hair walking on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Steeby’s house. We’ve asked around, but no one has seen someone like that — no one’s seen anyone unusual around the house — or even around town. At first I didn’t put much credit on Mrs. Hutchinson’s report; she’s hasn’t got all that good eyesight. But then I figured, from her place, Mr. Simmonds in his wet-suit could have looked like a man in black jacket and pants. Mrs. Hutchinson also says that Mrs. Steeby always kept a good ol’ pile of money in her home, but, when we looked, we found about only about fifty dollars in her purse and none anywhere else. Her bedroom had been ransacked — we reckon in the search for the money.
"We contacted Eric Steeby to tell him the news. He came back down right away — he lives in Charleston. We asked him some questions and he then gave us a statement. He says he left his mother’s house at about two pm, shortly after lunch. His mother was in good spirits and, as far as he knows, not expecting any visitors.
"Also, because we knew he’d been around the Steeby house, we went to interview Mr. Simmonds on Sunday night at his apartment. He was acting more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs and. when he finally allowed us inside, it was plain why: the smell of smoked grass was real strong. We talked a little whiles, and I noticed that he got all edgy when any of us walked near the door to the bathroom. So I asked if I could take a pee. Well, what could the boy say? So I stepped inside and, sure enough, there was a little plastic baggy floating on the water — he’d tried to flush it down, but it must have floated back up. There were little traces of leaves inside — not a very big stash, but enough for the lab to tell us it was some high grade marijuana. As I said, he was high, so we took him in and booked him on drug charges."
The sergeant pushed his empty plate back. "You boys should go into the restaurant business. That was a mighty good supper. Better than they do up at that Board de Ocean place where my wife likes me to take her." That was a scant compliment, I thought to myself. A Bord d’Ocean tries to disguise its rather humdrum menu and mediocre cooking by serving the food on expensive china and charging outrageous prices. I didn’t comment on this, however, nor did I mention the Kurrajong. I don’t need The Law noshing in my favorite restaurant when I swing my leg over the saddle after a good dinner and a glass of wine.
"So when did the murder charges get made?" Mike asked, pen in hand.
"Last night. We had the drug-possession charges, so the judge gave us a search warrant. While they were looking around his apartment, the GBI guys found just over three thousand dollars in tens and twenties stuffed into a sneaker in his cupboard." He looked at me with eyebrows raised knowingly. "You know Pat. He does odd jobs around the place to keep him surfing. Where would he get three thousand bucks?" I made a non-committal gesture — I was having too much fun to get thrown out of this police-lawyer discussion by making an imprudent remark. Turning back to Mike, Berson continued, "So this morning I called the DA and just after lunch we charged Mr. Simmonds with the theft and the murder. He won’t talk much to us, and this afternoon he said he wanted you to represent him."
Mike ran his fingers through his hair and looked at his notes. "Did you find any more drugs in his place?"
"No, what he was trying to hide when we were there was all he had. Other than that it was just normal, over-the-counter drug store stuff."
Mike stared at the cop for a full minute, but his eyes were focused way past the officer’s dark hair. "OK, tell him I’ll take his case," he said at last. He glanced over at me and grinned, "Still think they don’t need a lawyer in this town?"
This was a dig at me for playing Devil’s Advocate with him. For almost two months we had been trying to reach a reasonable compromise on living arrangements. Being together only at weekends had been wearing pretty thin. Yet Mike’s job was in Savannah and, since I telecommuted anyway, it made more sense for me to move into the city with him. On the other hand, my home was bigger and (we agree on this, so I am not being immodest) nicer than his townhouse. The beach of Kirkhall Island, where the house is situated, is a more congenial place in which to live than Tybee, and my house has generally more space. Yet the commute for Mike from the island to the law firm where he worked each day would be about sixty three miles each way; the commute for me would not change if I moved to his place. With all theses imponderables to deal with, we had vacillated back and forth without getting much closer to a decision.
And then, as so often happens, Fate entered the game.
Assmussen and Watkins, senior partners of the law firm where Mike worked, made him an offer: a promotion to senior associate if he opened an office for them in Brunswick. Mike appeared elated with this news: it was a promotion he would not have expected for a year or two, and it would remove the main obstacle to him moving to Kirkhall — the commute. Brunswick was a mere thirty minutes away, twenty-five if he bought a bike like mine — an idea he firmly rejected.
But the offer did not sound so great to me. What was in Brunswick for a hot shot (my words!) lawyer that was not way better in Savannah? And what was this ‘senior associate’ crap — shit, hold out for nothing less than a junior partnership.
"Look, Chris," Mike had rebutted about two weeks later while finishing dinner at The Kurrajong, "this is not New York or Boston. Even there things are changing. Sure a partnership is great. It carries some weight, you get your name on the letterhead and, to be sure, it is a good career move. On the other hand, when I really come down to it, that’s not my goal right now. I want challenging work, I want to earn good money but I want to be with you. Say you get a promotion, or decide to change jobs, or go work in Seattle or San Francisco. As a partner, it’s harder for me to give up and move to another firm. As a senior associate, I’ll get in anywhere, easily."
When I’d protested at this, Mike pushed on. "Look, if I go the partnership route I can get the bucks, I get the cases I like. But then, as a senior associate, I’ll get all the same cases, and I’ll get about eighty-five percent of the money. To get that extra fifteen per cent, I have to take all the risks of a partner: malpractice suits, costs of running the business. Plus I’ve also got to spend time in getting new clients — something that I don’t find all that exciting."
"OK," I had acquiesced at last when it appeared he was insistent, "Let’s give it a go."
I had thought our problems were over with that decision, but of course, they weren’t. Mike had things to which he had deep sentimental attachment; so did I. And so began four weeks of weeding out stuff, negotiating, grouping, until we reached a good arrangement of furniture. And most things worked out well: I had no dining room table, Mike had a real neat one; Mike’s stereo was kinda woeful, mine was potent enough to cause whales in Antarctica to mate; The furniture on my deck looked as though it had been saved from the Hesperus, Mike’s was wooden — solid and comfortable; I set up a wireless network so we could work anywhere around the house, and Mike had a colleague draw up the contract that would govern the sharing of assets and the paying of bills.
And after the work was over, the co-mingling of our households was so successful that we realized that the party I mentioned earlier was the natural way to celebrate.
After Berson had left, I placed my notebook on the coffee table and pulled the local newspaper’s web site up. Sure enough, the murder was still prominently displayed. It was a local crime, so the story ran to three pages, with all the small-town officials eager to provide a quote. Even so, there were a limited number of people to be interviewed, and thus everything ran on pretty much as the policeman had said. Mike became impatient looking on from the side, and came over to sit on the edge of the couch between my legs, flicking the cursor back and forth through the articles and comments and, once or twice, jotting down a note on his pad as I looked over his shoulder.
"Not much the wiser," he commented after some ten minutes of browsing.
"So, what’s it worth to you to find out where the rest of Pat’s stash is, and possibly where at least some of that money they found comes from?" I asked rubbing my cheek on his.
"And you didn’t tell the Sergeant? That’s concealing evidence, Chris."
"He didn’t ask. I’m a computer whiz — not a mind reader. How’s the average guy supposed to know what a policeman wants if he doesn’t ask?"
"Chris " Mike expostulated.
I leaned forward and nibbled the lobe of his ear. "So, hot-shot lawyer, what’s it worth for you to find out what I know? Or should I go see what the Sergeant will offer? He looks as though he spends a lot of time in the gym!"
"He’ll bust your ass and put you in a cell for a year," my buddy replied, rubbing my thigh, but his eyes still on the screen.
He turned away from the PC, closed his lips on mine, then pulling away, said, "OK, I’ll bite. Where is his stash?"
"It’s worth more than a kiss," I bargained.
"That was a down payment. The remainder to be paid on delivery."
"Double the down payment and it’s a deal."
"OK," I said after our tongues untwined, "one of the odd jobs that Pat has, is janitor for the library. Every day he mops out the bathrooms and runs the vacuum over the floors. That’s his regular task. Then they call him on an ‘as needed’ basis whenever they have something heavy to move, or one of the light bulbs burns out and needs replacing, and they pay him piecemeal for that."
"And from that he has enough income to save a couple of grand and buy drugs on the side?" Mike asked in exaggerated disbelief.
"No. Look, Pat likes to give off the impression that he’s the dumb, blond, carefree surfer dude, but he’s actually a smart guy. He’s a registered nurse and works part-time at that during the winter to boost his finances. I kinda suspect that his family has money, but he wants to live his own life for a while — be independent — but I don’t know. He also reads a lot. That’s how he got the library odd jobs in the first place — he hangs around there quite a bit. But he thinks a little way outside the box. He’s the janitor, so he has access to the entire library; he’s got keys for all the doors, for the alarm system, whatever. He can even get out onto the roof. It’s actually flat, set down below that tiled parapet that runs around the whole building. I guess they did it that way so one doesn’t see the air-conditioning units from the street.
"Well, on this roof are maybe fifty, maybe more, plastic pots. There’s some plastic piping that runs from the air-con apparatus to the pots so that the moisture pulled from the air, drip-feeds all the little plants that grow in the warm, sheltered environment on the roof."
"He’s selling grass?"
"I’d guess! He’s not stoned often enough and, when he is, he’s not stoned badly enough to be smoking all he’s growing."
"Yeah. I know. The only way you can save his ass on the murder charge is to show that he’s a drug pusher. Although, from what I know of him, I’d be willing to bet that he only does grass. When you talk to him, you realize he’s way too sharp to be a druggie."
"So, Chris, how come you know about this, hmmm?" he asked, running his finger against my jaw.
"C’mon. You know I don’t touch drugs. Fuck, when do I even take an aspirin?
"No, I set up the LAN at the library. When I wanted to set up the wireless router I was experimenting with various sites that would give maximum coverage. I went up to the roof to see if I got any better rate with the antenna there than one floor down. It was only a marginal improvement, so I settled for the inside site where it was easier to maintain and less exposed to the elements.
"But that’s when I saw the little garden."
"So how do you know it’s Pat’s?"
"Well, shit, everyone else on the library staff is about sixty or older. I don’t see them sneaking off to smoke a joint amongst the encyclopedias. And I seriously doubt any of them could make it up the ladder to the roof without killing themselves."
"I guess ."
"So," I asked rubbing his chest under the T-shirt, "do I get my payment now?"
Mike stood up, pulling me to my feet with him. His arms went around me and he held me close to him. "Yeah. You do." His lips closed on mine as his hands dropped below my waist.
"Let’s go upstairs," I suggested tugging his shirt over his shoulders, "I’m not sure this couch is Scotch-Guarded."
Mike laughed out loud as I pulled him up the stairs to my — our — bedroom.
I was busy with my work the following day and, although I knew Mike had been down to the jail in Brunswick to meet with Pat Simmonds, it was only at dinner time that we had the chance to talk about it.
"He’s sticking to his story," Mike told me when I inquired. "He never saw anything, or anyone, around the house before he left on Friday. He never saw the man in the black clothes at all, and he denies going back to Mrs. Steeby’s place wearing his wetsuit.
"Not good, actually: he more-or-less underlines that he was the only person who was known to be around the house — other than the son, of course.
"You were right about the grass. He had a couple of regular customers in town, but he has a boom in the summer when the kids are on vacation and the tourists are here. He says, ‘Hi,’ by the way."
"You told him I told you?"
"Naah. As you said, he’s actually quite smart. He knew you’d seen his garden, as he calls it, when you were doing your computer stuff. So, when he started to hedge about the money in the sneakers, I jogged his memory about the library roof. He admitted it and then he laughed. ‘I wondered if Chris would tell you. ’"
"So, what’s going to happen?"
"I’m keeping quiet about that for now. We went up to court today: I got him to plead not guilty to the drug charges and request a jury trial. Meanwhile he’s in jail because of the murder charges. The judge was all righteously indignant and set the bail at thirty thou. Pat can’t raise that kind of money."
"How can you plead not guilty to the drug charge? They caught the guy red handed! That’s probably why the judge was all bent out of shape."
"Well, if I had, he’d be in jail now. He’s in jail anyway. At least he has no record. If he gets convicted of murder, the pot charge will be small potatoes. If he gets acquitted I’m going to try to get the drug charges dropped as a payback for the jail time he’s served for no reason. Whatever they may surmise, the amount of drugs actually found were less than half a gram."
"Wow! Smart lawyer! You must be queer!"
Mike smiled back at me. "What are the chances of me getting some help from a smart queer nerd on this case?"
I gawked at him. "Geez, Mike. I can try, but there’s no tech angle to this case. I mean, like, there’s no cam that I can think of that covers anything in the village other than the front face of the ATM; as we saw last night, there’s almost nothing on the web. And I really doubt that the old duck did much on a PC — if she even had one."
Mike sighed. "Yeah, I know. I might try getting the case moved to Savannah — there’s no way a local jury’ll accept a ‘death by unknown person’ defense. They’ll be wanting a head! I also need to see what this son of hers is like and how watertight his alibi is."
"I’ll keep my ear to the ground in the village," I said. "The funeral is on Thursday and there’s some sort of a wake or reception afterwards. I’ll go to that. You going to go?"
"No. I hadn’t planned on it. I didn’t know the woman and, you know, seeing that I’m defending the person suspected of doing her in "
"Yeah. I hear you."
Our conversation drifted on to the more mundane topics of day-to-day life.
And so, a couple of afternoons later, I dropped off a box of spanikopita I had made for the wake at the Hutchinson’s house, buried the bottle of Chardonnay in ice and pushed the six pack of Dos Equis into the fridge. With the important stuff out of the way, I pulled my tie up and drove through the town to the funeral.
The small Episcopalian Church of St Erasmus, though built in the 1980s, has all the appearances of a quaint Scottish chapel in the Hebrides constructed a century earlier. Standing on the small bluff that protects Inverness’ harbor, it acts as a beacon for those in need of spiritual guidance as much as its stubby spire provides a navigational reference for ships coming in from the sea. I made my way up the path, nodded briefly to some acquaintances gathered outside the door, and passed through the arched doorway into the interior with its scents of flowers and cold incense. I found a seat about half way back on the Gospel side and sat down next to Rolf Lee who runs the local book store.
The inside of the church is awe inspiring, the more so because it is very low-key. Behind the altar, in place of the traditional stained glass, is a large, clear window looking out onto the ever-changing aspects of the rolling North Atlantic. Beneath its sill stands the inscription from Psalm 130: ‘Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord.’ Along the interior sides, smooth stones, which contrast with the rough-hewn rocks that form the walls, bear the names of the two hundred or more local sailors who have perished at sea. I let my eyes scan the nave. About sixty people had arrived for the service. That’s one thing about Kirkhall: once you’ve been there for a year or more, you become family. Not everyone may talk to you in the street, but they’ll call on you for help, or offer theirs, in a time of need. And they’ll come to your funeral. The service, I knew, would be typical of both Kirkhall and the Anglicans: not overtly emotional, dispassionately accepting of the predestined cycle of life and death that is the human lot.
Eventually the chords sounded from the organ and we stood to sing the Kontakion as the coffin was borne in. Give rest, Oh Christ, to thy servant with thy Saints. The doleful four-note groups of the melody evoked an image of a desolate earthly life, death the only road to respite. I watched as Eric Steeby, Claire’s only son, himself a widower for a year now, followed the casket, stoic and with set face. Beside him, walked a young man, the genetic similarities evidencing that they were father and son. About mid-20’s I guessed, blond hair tousled by the wind outside, his obviously brand new suit hanging from the broad shoulders to the slim hips. I heard the very briefest of hiatuses in Rolf’s tenor voice and I laughed inwardly as I recognized that carnal desire knew no bounds of propriety. I looked over at him and raised an eyebrow. He gave the slightest of smiles and his finger traced the line we were about to sing: and we are mortal, formed of the earth. Yes, life and ardor and love and lust were the province of us left behind in the ephemeral land of the living. The coffin was placed on the catafalque and the two men moved into the front pew.
I am the resurrection and the life, Father Drummond intoned. My mind wandered as the service continued, my mouth making the required responses automatically. Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord. What judgment had been doled out to Mrs. Steeby? Why had she had to die? For what was her demise a repayment? Why was a man robbed of a mother, a cute blond youth bereft of a grandmother?
We sat for the sermon. My facial muscles, trained through biology classes in high school, chemistry lectures at college, and human resource harangues at work, maintained the polite, interested look on my visage, while my mind gamboled through an unbounded Shangri-La. St. Erasmus, I thought as the cleric waxed eloquent: there was an interesting guy. Also known as St. Elmo — after whom the eerie blue light that dances around ships masts and the propellers and wingtips of airplanes in stormy conditions was named. The patron saint, in the Roman faith, of a wide variety of people and conditions: boatmen and navigators, ammunition and explosives workers, but also of women in labor and of childbirth. He was martyred by being disemboweled, as a rather dramatic copy of Nicolas Poussin’s painting hanging on the wall near my pew depicted. It was a savage death, with one of the perpetrators pointing to his god as both exculpation and endorsement of his actions. What a piece of work is man? In a hundred years time, would there hang in some honored place a picture depicting the lonely Wyoming death of Matt Shepard, I wondered, one more testament to the fact that the civilization of man had not progressed much over the course of a millennium? There was rustling around me as the homily ended and the opening bars of ‘Rock of Ages’ dragged me back from the depths of my reverie
We filed out of the church and walked up the slope to the freshly dug grave. The wind off the waves blew Father Drummond’s cassock out like a sail as he read the sentences of scripture and the coffin was lowered into the rocky ground. De profundis — out of the deep. I looked out over the solemnly rolling waves. Everything in Kirkhall came from the sea.
"Can I get a ride with you to the wake? I see you came in the Jeep rather than that hell-bike you ride!" I was brought back to reality by the request from Dan Bartholomew as the service ended and the folk began to walk toward the parking area. "My wife took the car and went on to the Hutchinson’s to help get things set up."
"Sure. No problemo." I dug my hands into the pockets of my black jeans and we walked together in silence toward the cars. Dan was a sort of general contractor, kept busy doing odd jobs around the island. I had had a chance to work with him briefly when we set up the computer systems at the library. His work was good, and the little shelves to hold the screens and keyboards where people could access the index and catalogs were very professional looking. He was a taciturn man, but not in a curt or aloof way. He merely thought things through before he uttered words and, in many cases, having thought them through, he decided to say nothing.
"So what do you make of all this?" he asked, as I followed the line of cars leaving the churchyard.
"The murder?" I asked, unsure of whether that was what he was referring to, or the funeral service.
"I just can’t see the motive. I find it really hard to believe that Pat Simmonds could be guilty. He’s never struck me as a violent kind of guy."
"That’s what I’m talking about. I’d trust that boy with my boat if he asked." He looked slyly at me and added, "Not my daughter, mind you. I hear he has a silver tongue."
I laughed out loud. "Yeah, he’s a young buck in perpetual rut." There was a silence and then I added, "But I’ve never seen him lose his temper or be mean to anyone."
"No. Real easy-going boy. I don’t think that those GBI guys know the difference between shit and shinola about what life is like here, and Berson is too overawed by having state police around to set them straight." Another silence as we meandered through the village. "I hear your boyfriend is defending him."
"Yeah, Mike’s taking the case."
"Good. Word is that he’s pretty sharp."
"He sure is." I said as I backed into a parking space behind the shiny new Porsche that belonged to Lance Hutchinson, our hostess’s grandson. I pulled the handbrake on and killed the ignition. I gave my companion a grin, "He chose me, so I guess he must be smart!"
Bartholomew feinted a back-hand to my cheek. "You computer boys are all too full of yourselves," he remarked, but not unkindly. "Let’s get inside — I need a drink."
The wake progressed as most wakes do, starting in a mild chaos, people wandering around mumbling platitudes and trying to look earnest. I shook hands with Claire’s son, and with the blond Adonis, hoping that my voice didn’t sound too eager when I added the customary, ‘if there’s anything I can do ’ After fifteen minutes had passed, however, we all shook off our spirituality and dove in to the food and drink, circulating amongst the other guests, eddying into groups of people who knew each other and the conversation becoming less somber. Within half an hour, my blazer safely hung behind some door, the tie folded up in one of its pockets, and my sleeves rolled up as far as they could go, I had settled down with Dan, Ken Meadowcroft from the hardware store, Chuck Craig and a couple of younger guys who worked on the trawlers. At first we had edged around the murder out of decorum, keeping the discussion to the booze and the snacks. Then, as Dionysus pushed Hades aside, we became more embroiled in the case, trying to figure out motives and opportunities. Maybe our voices had risen as we discussed the events, in any event, of a sudden, we found Mrs. Hutchinson at our side bearing a tray of chicken wings.
"You don’t think Pat did it either!" she exclaimed. "Those stupid policemen won’t listen to me. I’ve told them that the Simmonds boy had nothing to do with the murder. In any case, he was outside the house the whole time. They just nod their heads and smile at me, but I see that they don’t write nothing down. I would have recognized him if that was the person I saw. They think just because I’m old I don’t know anything."
We looked at her, not sure what to answer.
"Anybody want some wings?" She remembered why she was there. "But be careful: the sauce is very hot — too hot for me."
"Just what I need," I said and lifted two off her plate.
"You know, Chris, I’m so pleased your er Mr er your house guest has taken the case "
"Oh, for God’s sake, Margaret, Mr. Jorgensen is Chris’s boyfriend," Ken Meadowcroft said taking a chicken wing and dipping it in the sauce.
"Oh! Oh, yes. Yes, of course. I’m sorry Chris, of course he is."
"He mightn’t be for long if Chris carries on giving other young guys the eye!" Dan said, nudging Chuck.
"Hey, guys!" I protested, almost dropping a wing in my embarrassment.
"Yeah! We saw you checking Glen out," Chuck said. "And in the church, too!"
"Now you hush, Chuck!" Mrs. Hutchinson, having made one gaffe, rose swiftly to my defense. "Plenty of times I’ve seen you gazing at the young girls outside the coffee shop and you’re a married man."
"Aw, that’s just window shopping," Chuck laughed. "No harm in that. Don’t you be a’worrying, Mrs. H, I’ve seen how Maria handles a knife when she’s cleaning the fish: I ain’t going to be messing around!"
"In any case, it was Rolf not me who was doing the window shopping today!" I protested and got a chorus of "Yeah, Right!" in return.
"You men are all the same," Margaret snorted, turning to leave. "Never grow up. Always there for the fun, never there for the work."
I shook my head and smiled then took a bite out of the wing. Margaret was right about one thing: the dip seared my tongue. "Holy shit!" I exclaimed, "That sauce sure is hot." I emptied the Dos Equis down my throat and wiped the sweat that had formed under my eyes away before attacking the second one. "Not bad at all! I do believe I need to chase her down and get another one before they’re all gone — and a fresh beer to put the fire out."
"I’ll come with you," Dan said, upending his bottle to drain the last drops into his mouth, and the two of us set off for the kitchen where Mrs. Hutchinson and her tray were just disappearing. I loved being inside these old houses: the ornamental metal ceilings, the solid wooden floors that were sometimes uneven, the fancy locks and door handles and the electric conduits on the surface, ending in the brightly polished brass switches with their ball-topped toggles.
"Yes, built like forts they were," Dan agreed when I commented on the house. "Of course the electric was something else. It’s no wonder more houses didn’t burn down." We entered the kitchen where Margaret Hutchinson and some other people were bustling around, taking food from the oven or the fridge and putting it on plates. As we lined up to get to the drinks Dan said, "You’re a smart guy with all that computer stuff. Come by my place some day and I’ll show you an old radio that I found in the attic of this very house when we put the new roof on. Just wired right into the wiring, no plug or anything. It doesn’t work now, of course. Everything’s FM and digital, but it sure looks interesting."
I edged through a group of people toward the table to get another wing.
"Open this for me, Sweetie." The request came from a pale young woman with dark brown hair that was cropped short. ‘Sweetie’ was a young man dressed in black suit pants, topped by a blue Armani shirt and silk tie. He took the jar of pickles from her and tried to wrest the top off, but it refused to budge.
"Put the lid under the hot tap," I suggested. "It should expand enough to loosen it."
He gave me a blank look and I was about to take the jar from him, when Margaret Hutchinson seized it from his slender fingers.
"Oh, give me that," she said in exasperation and, with a deft twist of the wrist, had the lid loose in her hand. "See," she said to Dan and me, "you don’t need to have a man — just a little experience in the kitchen to know how to do things."
We laughed and the youth looked embarrassed. "So, young Lance, what are you up to these days?" my companion asked to fill the void. "You still going for architecture?"
"No." he laughed. "That was way too much hard work. I left the university. I’m into land development now: going to go in with a couple of other guys on some undeveloped Florida beach land. We’re going to cream it, man."
"Florida!" my companion nodded, "That’s a pricy venture." He turned to the man standing next to Lance and rubbed his thumb over his index finger. "Business in Brunswick must be doing OK, Gordon!" he grinned.
"Doing OK, but not that good. This is his money — coming out of Grampa’s inheritance."
"Land is a good investment if you know what you’re doing," Dan said in the flat tone that indicated to me that there might be some doubt in his mind that Lance did know what he was doing.
"Lance is going to be very, very rich one day, aren’t you, Sweetie?" his consort said, hanging an arm over his shoulder. "But of course he won’t be in Georgia then. We’re going out to the West Coast. That’s where things happen. Georgia is so, like, dull!"
"Yup. Once I’ve got this off the ground, I’m outta here. Headed to California," he laughed. "A beach house in Malibu, a winter retreat in Colorado, maybe a yacht in the Caribbean. A Ferrari instead of a Porsche, for sure. All’s I know is I won’t be in this hick state where nothing ever happens."
The girl gave a giggle, "And I’m going to be a writer," she informed us. "There’s so much more to write about in California. Nobody could write anything about Georgia. Do people actually read in Jaw-juh do you think, Sweetie?" And with a little giggle, she dropped a kiss on Lance’s cheek and walked away to bestow her presence on someone else. This dialogue so sidetracked my mind that I took too large a dollop of the hot sauce and was brought back forcibly to reality as the breath was sucked out of my lungs. Fortunately, at that point, the crowd parted, and Dan and I had a clear path to the drinks table. I made a grab for a beer and doused the fire in my throat. By the time I’d wiped my eyes clear, the future famous land developer had moved away.
"Well now, don’t that just fry your tater? That boy needs a doctor to swap his ass and his brains back where they belong," muttered Dan in an uncharacteristically contemptuous tone.
With me still struggling to gulp in air and not sure that I’d ever talk again, we made our way out of the kitchen. Across the room I spotted Rolf and raised my bottle in a silent hello and he beckoned me over in reply. He had obviously not wasted much time in striking up an acquaintanceship with the blond young man from the church, so I excused myself from Dan and headed across.
"You behave yourself, otherwise your boyfriend is going to be your ex!" Dan admonished as I left.
I gave him a sardonic grin and walked across the room. For all my ogling, I had to admit the probability was that the guy was straight. That, and I already had a partner!
"Hey, Chris," Rolf said, "this is Glen. Glen, this is Chris, the computer guy I was telling you about."
"Hi, Chris." Again his hand held mine. "We met earlier this afternoon."
"Hi, Glen. Yeah. Although if you can remember one out of the hundreds of names, you’re a better man than I."
"Yes," he laughed and I noticed the firm jaw, the white teeth, the nose that jutted forward just a bit at the end, the eyebrows, darker than his hair, and the hazel-colored eyes. "It was a bit overwhelming. Some of these people I haven’t seen since I was a kid."
"Glen is on the lookout for a job," Rolf explained, "He works with computers, too."
"Oh yeah? Cool. What do you do?"
"I have my own web design and web-hosting service in Charleston. But you know how the economy is Catch-22: I could land a couple of big accounts if I could upgrade my setup, but I can’t afford to upgrade my systems until I land a couple of big accounts. I’ve gone through almost everything I have." He gave a rueful laugh and looked down into his wine glass, "You know what they say: a guy’s got to know when to hold, know when to fold."
"Couldn’t you get a loan from a bank?" I suggested. "You seem fairly sure about landing those other accounts."
"That’s what I’d planned to do before this," he responded, gesturing around the room with his hand. "You see Gran had taken out a loan secured by her house to set me up. Now with her gone, I’ll have to pay it back."
"Oh. OK." It actually didn’t make sense to me. As far as I knew, his father and he were the only relatives old Mrs. Steeby had had. I didn’t want to pry, but it sounded like an all-in-the- family kind of arrangement. I pulled my wallet from my back pocket and extracted a business card. "Here’s my email address. Send me your resume and I’ll send it up to a woman I know who runs a really hot shot contracting service. They have clients all over the East Coast. All over the country, too, if you want to move."
"Thanks, Chris. I appreciate it," he said taking the card and examining it. He looked up at me with earnest eyes, "I know you think it’s strange, but No, I realize it sounds hokey," he brushed aside my hurried protestation, made in the embarrassment of my thought process being so transparent. "You see, Dad got into quite a bit of debt over Mom’s illness. He needs this house down here to get some capital. I’m young: I’ll be able to make it doing something else. I can always start my own business up again later on."
I nodded. Some words can stand by themselves and don’t need anyone else’s comment or approval.
I pointed to my card in his hand. "Send me your resume, maybe some examples of your work. I’ll post it around."
"Thanks, Chris. That’ll be a help." He turned to Rolf as he placed my card carefully in his slim wallet, "Shit! Do you think I still need to stay here? I hardly know anyone, and I’d like to go over to Grandma’s house."
"You’ve probably met everyone you need to," Rolf concurred.
"Let’s go, then. Nice meeting you, Chris. And thanks for any help."
"No sweat. Anything I can do, let me know." For the third time I took his hand, and then watched with interest as Rolf and the blond guy moved off together. Was it my imagination or were they walking very close together?
I was still staring after them when a hand grasped my arm. "What did you want with my son?" I turned and looked straight into the face of Eric Steeby.
I blinked as my mind refocused. "He wanted to know if I could help him get a job," I answered as I shook my arm free of his hold.
"I’ve found out who you are. Your partner’s the lawyer defending my mother’s killer, aren’t you? You’re here to spy, to find out about us. Now your sleazy lawyer friend’ll say that my son or I had a motive to kill my mother and this murderer will go scot free. Isn’t that true?"
"No, it isn’t. That’s not how Mike works. I came here because I worked with Claire your mother at the library. I liked her."
"Don’t you say her name. Not while your your partner is busy helping her murderer to escape justice."
"Now, Eric, dear, don’t go pickin’ at Chris. He didn’t go to make trouble by coming here." Once again, Margaret Hutchinson, forever the Southern Belle, had appeared out of nowhere. With a gentle nod and a smile to me, she took the man’s arm, "Come, dear, there’s someone over here I’d like you to meet."
I stood where I was, a trifle nonplussed.
"So Glen is out scrounging for a job?" The future famous land developer stood next to me, drink in hand, unlit cigar in the other, like some unwelcome genie materializing from a jar. "I suppose I could help him — once we get the business going. We’ll need people to sell the condos we build." He raised his glass to his lips and then added, "It’s touching, really, Glen and his little ideas. I think he really believes that if he works hard enough he’ll succeed. One day he’ll learn that hard work is no substitute for connections. All he has to do is ask me and I can get him work." He paused and then a conspiratorial smirk touched his lips. "Maybe he could supervise the construction somewhere out in the boonies: I bet he’d like to see those muscled young guys without their shirts on. Oh well, let me go outside and take a few puffs of this," he concluded without waiting for a comment from me and, putting the cigar in his mouth, strolled toward the French doors.
I stood, mouth agape, looking after him, regretting that I’d never learned how to deftly break the bottom off a beer bottle to turn it into a stabbing weapon.
On Friday, I was headed up to the Harris Teeters for some groceries when I remembered Dan’s invitation to view the radio, and steered the Ninja toward his house. The scents of old paint, turpentine and varnish wafted through my nose as he pulled back the bolt on the weathered door and ushered me into the large shed. He walked to the back, shifted a crate so he could stand on it to reach a tall shelf, and came back bearing an old plywood box that had once held tools. I blew the cement dust off the table edge and set my helmet and gloves down as he lifted the lid. Inside was a bakelite base adorned with black holders for vacuum tubes, wires looped up to ceramic resistors and oil-stained capacitors. Down one side ran a lengthy coil with a sliding contact. From a transformer, shellac flaking off its coils, two wires sheathed in perishing rubber and cotton hung. "I cut these off," Dan explained. "They were connected directly to the house wiring."
"I don’t see any speaker, or a place for earphones," I remarked, bending over the collection, but keeping my hands reverently behind my back, as though I was observing religious relics.
"No. Didn’t find nothing like that. I thought maybe there had been one at some time and it had been thrown away, but I couldn’t see where it would’ve connected to."
I picked up a piece of cotton waste and gently passed it over the dusty brown plastic. The word ‘Telefunken’ could be seen in dim gray lettering. "It’s German."
"Could be. The tubes were all foreign, too. I took them up to Radio Shack to test them, but their bases didn’t fit. I wrote down on this paper where each tube went, and I've kept the tubes together in this box."
"That’s really strange. No microphone, no Morse key, no speaker. I wonder what it did? Maybe it was some kind of signal amplifier — you know, picking up a weak signal and re-transmitting it. Maybe for the trawlers."
"Could be — it had this three-wire antenna stretched all across the attic under the roof."
"You want it?"
I looked at him. "Sure. Don’t you want it?"
"First time I’ve looked at in eight years. If you can find out what it is, I’d like to know."
"Thanks a bunch, Dan! I’ll go home and get the Jeep and come pick it up."
"OK. I’ll leave it on the table. If I’m not in when you come back, just step round here and get it."
And thus, after dinner that night, I gently lifted the machine from its box and spread it out on the desk next to my PC. With a dry paintbrush and a whole lot of paper towels, I brushed and dabbed the accumulated dirt of decades away, while Mike stretched out on the couch and read. Once I had the dust and grime removed, I started to browse through the Web looking for anything about Telefunken radios, but nothing that bore any resemblance to my machine came up. However, checking my instant messenger contacts list showed Nate was online. Nate worked for NASA and was my liaison with them for the airplane control work I did. I IMed him and turned my webcam on. We chatted for about fifteen minutes as I rotated the radio in front of the lens, but at the end he was as perplexed as I. Promising he would ask around, he said goodnight and signed off.
He was as good as his word — a bare quarter of an hour later my cell phone rang.
"This is Chris."
"Hi, Chris. My name is Jason Trowbridge and I work at the Smithsonian in Washington. A Nate Samson has been talking to a colleague of mine, and he called me. I am very interested in the radio I believe you have."
"Wow! That’s fast! I only called him a short while ago."
He gave a slight chuckle. "The Internet makes it very easy to talk to people."
"Yeah, it sure does. Do you think you know what kind of radio I have? It doesn’t seem to have any mic or speaker connections."
"I have some pictures here that came from Mr. Samson, but I was wondering if you had any that were clearer? Taken with a digital camera, perhaps?"
"No, but I can do that now and email them to you."
Jason was enthusiastic, dictating the view-angles he wanted before hanging up.
Once the JPEGs were on their way, I had barely had time to pour a glass of Chianti and settle down next to Mike when he called me back. His voice was excited. "What I think you have there, Chris, is a World War II German submarine beacon. I’d have to see it to make sure, but if it is, it is only the second one still around."
"What did it do?"
"It was intended primarily for convoy use. The idea was that they would be sent to agents in England or British Commonwealth countries. There, they would be hidden in crates to be shipped by sea. The crates would be loaded on a ship that would become part of a convoy. The radios were battery powered — yours appears to have been modified to have the transformer - and would stay silent, in a listening mode.
"A submarine, or, conceivably, an aircraft could send out a signal on a certain frequency. When this radio picked that signal up, it would send out a ten-second tone on a preset frequency, it would then change frequencies and do the same thing again. It would then go back into its dormant wait state. The two tones that had been sent out would give the submarine a good bearing to steer for the convoy. The short duration and the change of frequencies made it hard for anyone else who was not listening for them to discover, or triangulate on, the transmissions.
"Yes. Well the flaw was, of course, that the steel sides of the ship either shielded the reception completely, or the submarine had to be so close that they could practically see the convoy. When the radios were placed in deck cargo, they worked well, but that was rare, and the risk of the agents being discovered was high, so the experiment was discontinued."
"So mine was placed on land as a sort of primitive radio beacon?"
"Was it near the sea?"
"Yes. In the attic of a house here on Kirkhall Island — one of the Barrier Islands off the coast just south of Savannah."
"Yes. It was probably used as a beacon, then, allowing submarines to get a quick fix on their position. Were the people in the house of German descent or Nazi sympathizers?"
"I don’t know. Don’t think so. As far as I know the old man was in the army — I think he got wounded in World War II somewhere. I don’t know the family that well."
"Probably not the same folk there now — it was over fifty years ago."
"Yeah. I’ll dig around some." There was a pause.
"Would you consider donating, or loaning, the radio to the Smithsonian?" my caller asked diffidently.
I mulled the idea over. It was a nice trophy to have, but, on the other hand, there wasn’t much I could do with it. So I told him that it wouldn’t be a problem, but added that I’d want to get Dan’s approval first, since he’d given it to me before he knew what it was.
My new treasure brushed all thoughts of the murder from my mind as I sat down next to Mike and pondered over all that Trowbridge had said. Few people remained in Kirkhall who remembered the 1940s. Claire Steeby would have. Margaret Hutchinson was another, but I could hardly go up to her and ask her if her family had had pro-Nazi sympathies long ago. The possibilities bounced around in my skull as I swung my feet over the arm of the chair and rested my head on Mike’s lap.
The matter was still on my mind when I walked into the library on Saturday to continue adding data to their database and happened to see Mrs. Seaburn leaving the book check-out desk.
"Well, there’s always my mother-in-law," she said when I asked her. "I was only about one when the war ended. Margaret is the only one I remember being around when I was growing up. There was Mrs. Edwards, too, but she passed away a couple of years back and I dare say, amongst the trawler folk there may be some.
"I really think it’s only Mother and Margaret left, Chris. Why do you ask?"
"Well, I am doing some research for a friend who works at the Smithsonian in DC," I danced nimbly within the strictures of the truth. If I was going to give Trowbridge the radio, he could be considered a friend I reasoned. "About the effects of the war on the smaller coastal towns."
"Do you think I could talk with your mother-in-law about that? I hate to bother Margaret while she’s got all this stuff about Claire’s death going on."
Mrs. Seaburn gave a chuckle. "I don’t blame you. I hear Eric gave you a dressing down at the wake!"
I managed a rueful smile. The news must be all over the island. "I don’t really blame him. It must be pretty tough to lose one’s mother, let alone to deal with her murder."
"Yes. I’m sure it was hard for him." She paused for a moment, "I don’t see why it would be a problem for you to go and speak with Mother. She has precious little to do and, reliving the past seems to be all she does nowadays."
The upshot of this conversation was that I arose early the following Monday morning to got some pressing work out of the way and after lunch I headed up to Savannah with my PC and a small electronic recorder of Mike’s in my backpack.
The home where the matriarch Seaburn lived was down a quiet street. I sat in a waiting room while someone went to find her. I had expected a frail, small lady, perhaps in a wheel chair, but the woman who was shown in was tall and walked fairly steadily, supporting herself on a cane.
"Yes. Carol-Anne phoned me and said you wanted to talk to me about the old days. Well, that is something I surely can do." She offered her hand, and her grip was steady, if gentle. "It’s nice outside, let’s go and sit on that bench."
I followed her obediently across the lawn to a small wooden bench beside a flower bed. "They think they can put us out in the garden and we’ll all be blissfully happy, like old horses in a pasture. They’re idiots. Most of us would rather have a seat on the sidewalk where we can see the comings and goings of people and laugh at how stupid the young folk look wearing the idiotic clothes they do!"
I gave a polite chuckle, but my humor was short-lived. "Why do have those straps and rings on your shoes?" she asked, pointing to my harness boots. "Are you afraid your foot will fly off?"
"Well er no. I mean I just think they look cool," I fumbled.
"They look silly, if you ask me," she said as she sat down. "Come, sit down. You didn’t come all this way to ask me about clothes. You wouldn’t pay any attention to what I said, anyway!"
I sat down gingerly, not sure what I was getting into. "Well, I wanted to find out about what Kirkhall Island and Inverness were like during the Second World War."
"Why on God’s earth would that be interesting?" she asked, but her voice had lost its edge — this was a genuine question.
"I’m doing some research about how the war affected life in on the smaller coastal towns," I explained trying to remember what I had told her daughter, "especially those on the Barrier Islands where they were right on the edge of the Atlantic. I might write something up for the Smithsonian."
She thought for a minute without saying anything and I prepared myself for another broadside. But when she spoke, she was more thoughtful. "That’s a good angle to take. It was very different in those days, none of this Internet, or even TV, to give people a wider look at events. And, heaven knows, the radio people never came down our way to find out about things."
I took the recorder out of my backpack. "Do you mind if I record all this? It’s much easier than taking notes."
"Go ahead. I’m not sure that I have that much of interest for you, though." I turned the device on and set it down between us with my riding gloves on either side to serve as a basic windshield for the microphone. "For those of us on the East Coast," she continued once I had settled back, "the war was a lot more real than for the rest of the country before Pearl Harbor. We saw the ships leave, filled with cargo, of course; we saw them come in, with survivors from other ships that been sunk lining their decks in odd clothes; one time, I remember, a ship was towed in to Brunswick with a big hole in its stern.
"Then there was December 7th. Our Navy was stretched very thin. There were the Japanese in the Pacific to fight, and there were few ships left to defend the Atlantic. It was like a turkey shoot for the German submarines." She stopped talking and looked out across the garden to the flowers, but the light blue eyes I felt sure were seeing the cold Atlantic waves. When she continued, her voice had a different tone as it came over the tightened vocal chords. "Almost every day, it seemed, wreckage or bodies washed ashore. Some of the men from the tankers were burned, burned horribly. The rest of the country didn’t see all that first hand, just we in the Atlantic States — from Virginia down to Georgia. The folk inland didn’t get to talk to the sailors who went out not knowing whether their ship would be sunk from under them on a dark night," she added quietly. "There was one night when we stood out on the porch of our house and watched a ship burning at sea after being torpedoed. Not one of our Navy ships came to her rescue, and it was our trawlers and our boys that eventually brought the men in."
"For everyone else in America, the war was somewhere else. The English desperately needed American goods and machinery to survive. They so needed our help. Before Pearl Harbor they would send young men from their Navy who had been in sea battles, or their airmen who had been shot down in dogfights, to talk to groups of Americans to get them to support the war."
She gave a little laugh and stretched out her hand to pat my knee. "Margaret Hutchinson — of course she wasn’t Hutchinson back then, she was Margaret Gallagher — anyway, she had a crush on this young English airman that came over to raise money for their war effort. He had come down to Savannah to talk to the shipyard workers and Margaret ran him over with her car!"
"Oh my God!" I exclaimed.
"Yes," she laughed. "Margaret had only just learned to drive and there she was behind the wheel of her father’s big old car. Of course back then, the cars were all straight drive — no cars had this automatic shifting — and she drove into him when he was crossing the street. Of course, there was none of this insurance nonsense then: people were brought up well and expected to behave correctly. Not like now, where everyone tries to blame everyone else for their mistakes. So, Margaret’s father paid for the hospital stay for the young man — she’d broken one of his legs — and then he brought him down to their house on Kirkhall to recuperate until he could get around again. He was a nice young fellow. Always very interested in everything going on. Once he was up and about on crutches, he’d go down to the harbor in Inverness — they were doing ship repairs and making other ships ready for the Atlantic crossing — and talk to the workers there, telling them how important their work was. He’d go all over, hop, hop, hop, and find out exactly what they were doing, and make suggestions for improvement.
"As I said, Margaret was sweet on him and maybe things would have gone further, but then came Pearl Harbor and, overnight, everyone in America was aware of the war. Then, of course, there wasn’t that much left for the young Englishman to do — we were in the fight with them, like it or not. He made a few more trips around the South — Savannah, New Orleans — and then went back home. Margaret was miserable, like young girls can be when a true love leaves them. She went around looking pale, a latter day Ophelia, ‘He is gone, he is gone.’" She threw her hands up in exaggerated distress and laughed.
"Claire Kanney, that’s Claire Steeby who just died, was much more down-to-earth and adventurous. When her young man was sent to New Orleans with the Navy, she wrote away and got herself a job in a factory there and followed him. Her family wasn’t happy, but she was a headstrong one: never cared about what other people thought."
She paused and a dry chuckle came from her throat. "Some adventure it turned out to be — when she got to New Orleans, she found that her young man had wasted no time in getting himself a new love. You see, she’d had this foolish idea to surprise him, and hadn’t told him she was coming." Mrs. Seaburn paused and examined her hands for a full minute. I sat there, not wanting to interrupt, although his story didn’t seem to be getting me closer to anyone with German sympathies. "So then, as young girls do, she thought she’d get him back by making him jealous." She spoke almost sorrowfully. "She got in tow with some sailor down there and, the next thing we knew, she was married to him. Not even her parents at her wedding. She said it was because her sailor was shipping out, but when she came home at Christmas, she brought Eric with her — he was just a few weeks old — so naturally we then knew why she got married. And we understood why she had persuaded Margaret to join her in New Orleans so soon after she had moved down there — alone and having a baby, she sorely needed a friend to be with her. If things had been normal, I don’t believe Margaret’s father would have let her go. Of course, he had no idea of Claire’s baby — it would have been a huge disgrace — but I think he was sick of seeing his daughter walking around the house looking like somebody had died, and crying all the time over the English boy.
"But, as I said, Claire never cared what anyone thought. She took the baby everywhere with her around Kirkhall and, after the New Year, she went back to New Orleans. She carried on with her job there, but Margaret stayed up here and got a job in her father’s business. Claire’s sailor had shipped out to the Pacific by then and I’m sure Claire had a hard time with the baby and the work, but she was a stubborn one all right and told everyone she didn’t need Margaret’s help any longer."
She shook her head sadly. "Eric’s father was one of those who never came back.
"So, how do you like that for some adventure?"
"Yeah that can happen in war time " I said, stunned by all the revelations, yet wanting to get back to the subject that had brought me there without seeming heartless about Mrs. Steeby’s marital problems.
"So Claire and Margaret were good friends?"
"Oh yes. Well certainly until they got married. There weren’t too many children on Kirkhall then, so we all went to the same schools and played with the kids our age. It never entered our minds to think of the difference in our parents’ standing. Margaret, her real name is Margaret-Mary, was always the lady, Claire was always the down-to-earth, no nonsense tomboy. After the war, of course, they were both married, so I think their contact lessened — Claire didn’t come up to Kirkhall much. Then, about five years ago her husband died and Eric was living up in the Carolinas, so she came back and moved into the house that had been her family’s. She had married some Air Force officer in New Orleans during the last part of the war, and he became quite a high ranking man in the end. Chief of Staff or some such, I think.
When Mrs. Seaburn didn’t resume her tale I felt it was safe to proceed. "On Kirkhall, how was this English guy received? I mean, were all the locals pro the English, or did some think the Germans had the answer to becoming a superpower?"
"Well," she paused, "of course, after Pearl Harbor everyone was against the Germans. Before that I don’t know. You must remember, I was only nineteen at the time and it was very much a man’s world, so it would have been unlikely for me to be included in many of those discussions. I seem to remember some of the teenage boys at school being taken in by the initial successes, the bombings with those diving airplanes. And, of course, in those days most of us were brought up to think the white race was superior. I know you young people don’t hear any of that talk now, but in those days it was relatively common. Well, at least down South it was. Anyway, that was also was what the Germans were saying, so that gave their cause some validity in some folk’s minds.
"Now, I don’t want you to be getting the wrong idea. We weren’t Ku Klux Klan or anything like that. It was just a way of life that nobody thought of questioning. A lot of folk were easily brainwashed by what they saw as the German ideology of hard work, motherhood and that kind of stuff. And," she tapped a well manicured finger on my hand, "it wasn’t just us down here. There were parades up North, too. Those people with armbands and that silly salute, marching around and ranting about America being a country for white people."
"How about the folk that you knew? For instance, how about your family, or Claire’s? How about Margaret’s family? Isn’t the name Gallagher Irish? So were they pro-German — or at least anti-English?" I asked, trying to keep her on track.
"My father thought America should keep right out of the war. Neutral, like Switzerland. Claire’s father thought that, too. I remember him saying it was Europe’s way of cutting their ties to their past like we had in our revolution. Margaret’s family was very much for the English. I believe their ancestors were from the North of Ireland and came over as land owners, rather than as refugees from the famine. They were definitely behind the English fight one hundred percent. But it was more of a philosophical argument: all our families — and a great many more people in Inverness — were sending food parcels to the Red Cross to send to England whatever they thought of the war in general."
"Were there any kinds of sabotage, or disruption of work, that you know of?"
"Not that I recall. But then, again, I was young and might not have heard about any if there was. Right after Pearl Harbor everyone was very nervous. We thought the Germans might land spies or saboteurs on the coast. My husband was a personal friend of Admiral Andrews who was in charge of the Atlantic Coast, and he persuaded my husband, who was mayor of Inverness at that time, to impose a blackout on Kirkhall after dark. He and some of the men in the town organized beach patrols at night, because they thought there might be landings. Nothing happened, of course. One old man on the beach patrol disappeared and there was a big flap that the Germans had kidnapped him, but it was far more likely that he had got drunk and fallen asleep and been washed out by the tide. The Germans wouldn’t have had a use for him at all — he was too old to go into the army!" Again she looked out across the garden to her past, and I kept silent, too timid to intrude.
She paused and gave me a long, piercing look. Eventually she spoke. "You’re not researching for an article, are you? That dog just don’t hunt. You are looking for something particular." Despite my best efforts to stay cool, I felt the blood rising to my cheeks. "I thought so. Well you’d best just come and lay it right out and we’ll get where you want to go that much faster."
Embarrassed that my thin stratagem had been so easily torn apart, I realized that I probably had no alternative but to come clean.
"OK. You’re right. I found out something strange. With Miss Claire dead, there are only you and Miss Margaret to ask." Having been caught like an errant schoolboy, I subconsciously dropped into the colloquial addresses as I explained about the radio.
"Well, I don’t know what to say," she responded having listened to my tale through in interested silence. "I really don’t know. The Gallaghers would not have done a thing like that. Claire on the other hand " There was a hiatus as she tried to assimilate her memories into the new pattern I had just presented. "I do know that Claire knew something about radios. She sometimes worked the radio in the harbor-office of her father’s trawler company." Another pause, and then in a slower cadence, "One thing I remember was my father getting very angry with Claire’s father. It happened only once. It was something about the trawlers. The Kanneys and the trawler men themselves, were very dependent on being able to fish for their living — and to be fair, providing food for us and a lot of other people. Well, it appeared that the trawler men had been keeping quiet about any German submarines they saw while they were out there. Apparently the submarines had to come to the surface to run their engines. Our men felt that if the Germans didn’t think they were a threat, they wouldn’t sink their trawlers. I have no notion how my father found out about this, perhaps Admiral Andrews told him, I don’t know. Anyway, he and Frederick Kenney had a big row in the street. A lot of people heard it, and everyone took one side or another. It was a bitter time because, as I said, we could see first hand what the submarines were doing to the ships off the coast, but yet the local families had to make a living, too. But then, eventually, one of the trawlers got torpedoed and the men realized their belief was wrong. After that, they became very good about reporting anything strange they saw out there."
We talked for about another forty minutes but, while I learned a lot about day-to-day life on the Barrier Islands, I learned nothing that helped me determine why a German submarine beacon could have been placed in the attic of a house in Inverness. The Gallaghers, whose house had been the site of the radio, had apparently been very pro-British at the start of the conflict and had worked hard to further the war effort after Pearl Harbor. But Claire — that was an open question. Her family, or her father, anyway, wasn’t pro-British. She knew about radios and their uses. And she had ready access to the house where it had been found.
As I walked her back through the garden to the verandah of the home, Mrs. Seaburn said, "When Carol-Anne said you wanted to speak to me I thought it was about Claire’s murder. I hear your boyfriend — that’s what Carol-Anne called him, but it sounds very odd, he must be a man, too, if he’s a lawyer — anyway, I hear he is defending the man they think killed her. I don’t think I know this person, but it has been my experience that the police don’t usually get things right the first time. Of course, they solve their cases in the end, but by their nature they are slow, methodical thinkers, so the first answer is nearly always the wrong one."
I laughed. I was beginning to really like this lady.
"I don’t think she was killed for money. Claire was very well off while her husband was alive. Now she isn’t wasn’t so flash with her money anymore." She stopped and held my arm. "You told me about your radio, so I’ll tell you something you can give your lawyer friend. Look for Claire’s first husband’s family. When he died, so soon after they were married, his family treated her mean. Real mean," she went on in the tone of voice that made it obvious that that was not how Southerners behaved. "Claire wouldn’t have taken anything from them anyway; she was always independent to a fault. But they came one day and took almost everything from their apartment. Said it was all their son’s stuff — which it probably was, but after a marriage, all that changes of course. But the boy hadn’t made a will — stupid, especially in war time — so they took everything and left her with nothing except the baby. And they would do nothing for her, even when the baby got sick once, I hear.
"But they say chickens come home to roost. Some years ago, one or other of their grandchildren needed something medical, some kind of treatment you can get only from a relative. Claire wouldn’t take Eric to get the test to see if he could donate whatever they needed. She said that they hadn’t wanted Eric when he needed them and they had no right to come after him now."
I stared back at her as the thought process became clear. "And you think that, if that kid had died, the relatives might have come and ?"
"Who can say? If it was my child, I might well want some revenge. But that was Claire: if she was your friend, she’d go to the wall for you. But if you crossed her, you had better watch your back, because she would get you."
"The female of the species is more deadly than the male!" I remarked lightly, but the skin over my spine crawled at the notion that had formed in my mind.
After dinner, as we sat in the living room, I discussed my visit with Mike. "That’s an angle I hadn’t heard about or though of," he said when I told him of Mrs. Seaburn’s hint. "I’ll get someone at the office to start digging up the records. If we turn up anything, like the kid dying, I’ll pass it on to the prosecutor’s office. I don’t want to be seen as the kind of lawyer that goes on far-flung fishing trips to come up with far-out alternative theories."
I nodded in understanding. "Other than that, how’s the beachboy case going?" I asked him.
"Some good, some bad. The cops found a rag outside Steeby’s bedroom. They’ve sent it to the lab, but it’s possible it was the one used to strangle her. They asked Pat about the rag, and he identified it as his. But he denies ever being near her bedroom."
"Oh, c’mon," I expostulated, "Claire could have taken one of his rags to clean up some spot of paint she found."
"I know. But it’ll be another thing in the jury’s mind. They cops have got nothing else on Pat, really, but I’m going to ask for a change of venue: down here it’ll be too easy for the prosecution to put over the ‘we don’t have anyone else, so it must have been him’ argument."
"No fingerprints anywhere?"
"Nope. Or rather, it depends. Downstairs, there are Steeby’s, Eric’s, that’s her son’s, Pat’s, that Hutchinson woman’s, the rector’s, his wife’s. But upstairs where the money was apparently kept, it was only hers. Pat’s were around the windows, but consistent with him opening and closing them from outside. But, that could be used as an added opportunity, the fact that he could have got in via a window — or seen her cache of money."
"And the good news?"
"Pat made bail today. One of the local guys from up here turned up and deposited the money with the clerk. He declined to answer any questions from me about the bail, or to why he deposited it. I don’t care, really. Pat surrendered his passport to the police in Inverness and he’s free to surf again until his trial comes up."
"Pat’s no threat to anyone," I declared. "I’m sorry, I just don’t believe he did it. I can see the barest of opportunity and absolutely no motive at all."
"I know," Mike sighed. "Everyone says the same thing. I really don’t believe your local police, who know Pat, really think he did it, but they’re not going to go against anything the GBI guys say. The real problem is that money. He says it’s mainly from odd jobs, but admits that some of it comes from selling the grass. I really don’t want to get into a debate about this in court. Wherever it came from, all of it was tax-free: no receipts or anything. I’m going to have to get about twenty people on the stand to testify that they paid him for doing work unless I can get the DA to stipulate that they accept that.
"Then this afternoon, Berson called me and said that someone in the town saw Mrs. Steeby after Eric left her and says she seemed ‘riled up’ about something. If I can get that out on the witness stand I might shake the case against Pat a bit."
"Could it have been because Pat asked her for some of his payment before he had finished the job?"
"Pat says that she hadn’t seemed to mind. I guess the prosecution could put that forward, but I doubt it. If that were the case, I’m sure she would have made some comment about it to this person. You know, the ‘modern generation not finishing work and wanting to get paid’ kind of remark."
I sat back and listened to the Gershwin music from the stereo, my brain vacillating between Mike’s problems and the puzzle of the little radio. It had been a week since Mike had taken the case, and the facts — and motive — were about as obscure as they had been seven days earlier. And my own quest, though trivial, was a lot more interesting.
On the way home on Tuesday I stopped off at the bookstore where Rolf was just closing up.
"How’s the young, blond god?" I asked him jokingly as he tidied up his desk and shut down the computer.
"I’ll tell you tomorrow," he replied with a wide grin, "we’re having dinner together tonight."
"That’s cool. Look, man, I need you to find out something from him discretely."
"What?" he asked, giving me a suspicious look, then added, "If it’s his cell phone number you want, I’ll tell Mike on you."
"No. Nothing like that. I want to know if his father was ever a candidate for being any kind of donor for medical transplant."
"Like what? Bone marrow?"
"Yeah. Or anything. Whatever medics transplant."
"What do you want to know that for?
"I need to tie some loose ends up for the Pat Simmonds case for Mike. I’d rather Glen didn’t know why you’re asking, though. Not till I see how things pan out."
"You scare me," he said as he reached for his coat. "OK, I’ll see what I can do."
I slid my helmet onto my head. "Thanks. And, by the way, Glen’s cell phone number is 843 795 02 "
"How do you know that?" Rolf interrupted, his arm stopping half way into the sleeve and his eyes opening wide.
"We’re getting together after dinner tonight," I stated innocently with my hand on the door. "We’ll see how good my moves are then."
I thought he was going to cry and I burst out laughing. "Rolf, you dork, it’s the only non-local number written on the notepad on your desk — and it’s got all fancy doodles around it."
"You asshole! You are so dead!"
I laughed at him. "Have fun tonight. Don’t forget the question."
"No way. Not after your jerk stunt!"
"Hey, next time I buy a book, I’ll come here first!"
"Go away! I know you. The places you buy books from have their windows painted over and an age restriction or their clientele."
"Not my problem if your stock is limited."
My visit to Rolf had an unexpected result. At about one the following afternoon, I was immersed in testing some new code I had written when the phone rang.
"You want to have a beer up at the tavern with Glen and me this evening?"
"Sure. So you got the answer to my question?"
"No. I tried, but it’s really difficult to ask that kind question subtly, but Glen didn’t seem to react to the mention of medical transplants. But he did mention something odd that he’d discovered at Mrs. Steeby’s house and I wondered what you’d make of it."
"K. I’ll be there at five thirty."
"That’ll be fine. See you then."
The Harbor Bar is an establishment whose appearance belies its caliber. From the street side, the peeling paint that exposes faded advertisements for beverages that haven’t been brewed in years keeps the hoi polloi, the tourists that descend from Atlanta like one of the last Seven Plagues, well away. But seize the brass-corroded-to-green doorknob, open the heavy door that creaks ominously and hangs a little skew, cross the threshold onto the uneven timbers aged to gray, tack between the tables through the haze of pipe tobacco that hangs in a stratum from hat to waist level, and you’ll find yourself in a pub where the salt of the earth has taken a beverage or two — maybe more — for close on three quarters of a century. More debates have taken place across its shiny, scarred surface than under the dome of the Capitol in the aforementioned city to the west. Certainly more sense has been spoken, less duplicity planned, fewer cabals formed in this hazy taproom than in the hallowed halls of the State Government. In the movies, when a stranger enters a bar, conversation invariably dies to nothing as the regulars scrutinize the newcomer with expressionless faces. Not so in the Harbor Bar. Here, to all intents and purposes, if you’re not known, you’re not worthy of interruption. Don’t take it personally. Buy your drink and sit quietly minding your own business. If Calum, the bartender of indeterminate age, speaks to you, respond. Otherwise remain silent unless the conversation around you is of a general nature, such as taxes, and you have a pertinent comment, such as how evenly every county pays them and how inequitably the necessities of some counties further inland are funded at the expense of others towards the coast. It is an egalitarian establishment, the gathering place of honest folk who perform honest work. At the Second Coming, it’ll be the place where you could well expect to find Jesus looking for suitable candidates for discipleship and changing Bud Light into Micro Brew.
I closed the door behind me and pushed my sunglasses onto my hair letting my eyes grow accustomed to the dimmer light inside. "Chris," came the simple acknowledgement from several of the regulars there. I nodded my response and, seeing that Rolf and Glen had not yet arrived, moved over to a vacant table and set my helmet by the wall and hung my leather jacket over the back of a seat before making my way over to the bar. There is no table service here. If you can’t walk to the bar and get what you want, you shouldn’t be in an alehouse in the first place. As I took the tall glass of the amber ale brewed not ten miles away, the door opened and Glen came in followed by Rolf. I raised my hand and they made their way over.
"Hey, guys," I said, "what’re you drinking?"
"I’ll take an Amber, thanks," Rolf replied.
"I’ll try one, too," Glen spoke in a slightly overawed voice. He had something that looked like a book wrapped in Harris Teeter plastic bag is his hand.
"Two more Ambers, please, Calum. This is Glen, Claire Steeby’s grandson. He’s over twenty-one."
The name sparked recognition and there were nods from several folk around us. Two more mugs, their sides already misting over, were pushed over to me. "Mighty sorry to hear about your Grandma," Calum said as Glen picked up his.
We made our way back to the table.
"That shirt doesn’t get you thrown out of here?" Glen asked after the greetings were over and referring to my HRC T-shirt. "Or don’t they know what it is?"
"They know. I’m out. This isn’t that kind of place. I wouldn’t recommend trying to pick a guy up here, and don’t start a fight, but other than that, stay cool and you’ll be OK."
Glen raised his eyebrows in surprised acceptance and took a sip of his beer.
"How d’you like it?"
"Pretty good. Is it local?"
"Close to. Made just outside Darien."
We chatted for a while about the beer, about my bike, about how the inventorying of Claire’s house was going. Glen took another swig of beer and set the glass down, holding it lightly between his fingers as he looked at me. "That’s a segue into what Rolf says I should tell you.
"Gran has had this room that was like a study, or a studio. She had all her photographs and camera stuff there. She had a bathroom off it that she’d turned into a darkroom. She had a big old radio and a gramophone with lots of the vinyl records.
"Her whole house was clean — I mean normally clean — but this room she kept really clean, because she used to hang her prints up to dry there, and said that a speck of dust could ruin a photograph.
"So, during the day, Margaret and I have been going through the house, clearing out stuff, putting clothes in boxes for the Salvation Army, throwing some stuff out. She’s a neat lady, by the way: knows lots of stuff, tells incredible stories about when she and Gran were growing up.
"Anyway, there’s pretty much nothing in this studio that we’re going to throw out. So a couple of nights ago I was up there sorting through stuff, more like seeing what she had. I’d remembered she had some of those old photo albums. I hadn’t seen them since I was a kid, but I remembered one from when she worked at the new airfield in New Orleans in the Second World War. There were all pictures of the old airplanes and stuff. Well, I found the album, but a whole lot of those pages were missing."
"How do you know they were missing?" I asked. "Maybe they were in a different album."
"No. Gran was real methodical. Each album was labeled. Like ‘1934 to 1936’, ‘1941 to 1942’ like that. All the general stuff was in time order. There were separate albums that had her seascapes, her photos of plants and flowers and stuff. But the one I was looking for was from the war. I remember it, all the pictures of how they built the airfield, the hangars, the runways, the airplanes. She’d shown it to me once when I was a kid."
"Did you ask Margaret Hutchinson about this?"
"Yeah. She didn’t really know. She said that she seemed to remember some stuff getting damaged by a leaking pipe sometime and that Gran had said she had lost some old photos and these must have been the ones.
"I didn’t like to contradict her, but I don’t think so. There’s no mark of any water damage on the album at all. I don’t see how a leaking pipe could damage maybe ten, twelve pages and none of the others.
"Look," and he unwrapped the plastic bag, took out an old photo album and handed it to me. I took the plastic bag and spread it on the table and set the book down on it. The first page, indeed, had ‘Oct 1941 — Nov 1943’ neatly inscribed in white ink on the black pages. They were the to-be-expected photographs of a young girl. People, especially a tall, gangly youth named, according to the white script, Tommy. Half way through, the boys began to appear in uniform. There were some scenes of the harbor, some trawlers, a destroyer with the tall upright funnels of the 1920s, a picture of a smaller boat with the laconic title ‘minesweeper’. Each of the pages had been numbered, but pages 18 through 25 were missing and thereafter the pictures almost always contained an image of a baby and the word ‘Eric’ in their label.
"You’re right. There are pages missing from 1942," I remarked, as I closed the old book.
"Yes. But what was real strange was that when I pulled the book out, little pieces of black paper fell out of the album. I looked at them for a while and then I realized that they were the pieces of pages that had been torn out and were pulled off by those cords that held the pages."
I looked at him not comprehending what his information meant.
"Don’t you see, Chris? That room was real clean. The shelves were all dusted. If those pages had been torn out long ago, the little torn-off pieces would have fallen out when she pulled the album out to dust and clean. I reckon these pages were torn out recently — maybe even when she was killed."
I sat and pondered what he had said. Who would care about something that happened some sixty years ago?
"Another beer?" Rolf asked.
"Naah. Thanks, I’m on the bike, so one’s my limit. You guys have, though."
While Rolf walked over to the bar, his slender fingers pulling his wallet out of the back pocket of his neat, gray slacks, I looked unseeingly at the photo album. Getting nowhere, I turned to my other interest of the moment. "You mentioned an old radio and gramophone. Was your Grandmother interested in radios?"
"Oh my God! Yes. She had her Ham license. There’s an old Hallicrafters SZ-122 sitting in her study. I turned it on once, but I think it needs a better antenna. When I was about 10 she got me a crystal set and I used to sit up at night trying to see what stations I could get. She gave me a SX-71 when I was sixteen and I learned Morse code. I can still read over twenty words a minute with a bit of practice." He bunched his thumb and next two fingers together and rapped a set of staccato beats on the table. We chatted about radios for a while until Rolf returned with two more mugs of beer and we returned to talking about the photo album, but Glen could shed no further light on his family’s history.
However, as I swung my leg over the saddle and turned the ignition on, an idea was germinating in my mind.
"Look at what we know," I said to Mike over dinner, "we start off with the family being somewhat equivocal, to say the least, about which side to support at the beginning of the war. Even when the war begins in earnest, their trawlers are not reporting U-boat sightings. Claire knows a fair deal about radios. A German radio submarine beacon is installed in a house where she and only a few others have access. Then she gets a job in a military installation — a new airfield near a major city. We have some evidence that she had photographs of hangars and runways. Is all this mere coincidence, or could Claire have been a spy for the Germans?"
"It’s possible. You knew her personally, does it ring true with her character?"
"I don’t know," I admitted. "If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said no, but now well, there seems like a lot of circumstantial evidence."
"But the war is long over," Mike countered. "Even if she had been a spy, who would care now, some sixty years later? Germany is our ally now. Also, when the Allies went into Germany at the end of the year, didn’t they find records of who the agents were?"
"OK. Let’s say that Claire is a German spy. Her headquarters, or whatever, in Germany is overrun by the Russians. They find her records: here is a German spy, in a vital part of the US Military, and she hasn’t been caught. So one of their agents approaches her. Their offer: spy for the Russians or they will hand the records over to the Americans. This is right after the war - if she’s caught then she could expect to face a long prison term. She has a husband and a young child. In any case, maybe the first job she has to do for the Reds is so minor that she doesn’t see much harm in it. Anyway, she thinks, aren’t the Russians our allies?
"Then she’s hooked. She is forced to become a Russian agent.
"Look at what she has? Her house, the stuff in it. Is that what one amasses on a military salary?"
"So why does she get killed at a time when the Soviet Union no longer exists and the Russians are no longer a big threat?"
"Exactly for that reason. They no longer need their agent. But she has a lifestyle to support. We know from Mrs. Seaburn that she used to have money, now she doesn’t. She had to mortgage the house to help Glen out with his business. So now she turns the screws on her former employers: pay up or I’ll expose an operation that the Americans know nothing about. Maybe she knows the identities of other agents and can expose them.
"The Russkies can’t have this, so they bump her off. The man in the black jacket and pants."
Mike sat and chewed his food while he digested what I had just laid out. "I s’pose," he conceded at last.
"But it’s not robust enough for you to take into court!"
"Well . yeah. I mean, I don’t want to rain on your parade, Chris, but it’s one heck of an extrapolation from some stolen photographs and a gallimaufry of hearsay. No one will bite. For instance, why, out of all the photos, do they steal a dozen or so?"
"Because, let’s say at the end of the war, the Allies find out that the Germans have photographs of an American airfield. They don’t know where they came from. Now, in this person’s album of photos she, personally, took, are the exact same ones. It’s a direct link and implicates her as a spy."
Mike considered this briefly and then shook his head. "Naah. I think your medical transplant theory is more probable."
"I know," I sighed. The Spy vs. Spy stuff is a lot more glamorous, though. I really wanted that to work out. Killing out of personal revenge is boring."
"But way more believable in the minds of a jury. The only issue it doesn’t cover is the theft of the photos."
"Oh, that’s easy. It has nothing to do with the airfield — there were probably some of the guy she married, her first husband. The family doesn’t think she’s worthy to have them since she refused the tests for transplant. They don’t take just the pictures because, either it’ll be to obvious a clue, or, more likely, they don’t have time, so they rip the pages out."
"Damn, how do you come up with these ideas? I mean, I just say something and you come up with a whole scenario of how it might come about. How can you just weave connections between things that I can hardly see?"
"It comes from having a curious mind and a dull-witted brother. Day after day, I would have fun making up stories as a kid and seeing how outrageous I could make them while my older brother still believed them!"
Mike grinned. "Well, I hate to think how I’d work if I didn’t have you around."
"You’d do fine. Millions of lawyers manage to win cases without the help of a computer nerd. What you really hate to think about is not getting your ass pounded every night!"
He laughed. "That, too!" And raised his foot to rub the inside of my thigh under the table.
Friday was a slow news day, even for the local newspaper that found the annual migration of sardines to be worthy of front page coverage. The Steeby case had largely dropped from the public gaze, but a small paragraph at the foot of page one mentioned that the police now thought that perhaps Pat Simmonds had not been involved and they were looking at another possible suspect.
Over lunch, one of the lawyers from the DA’s office filled Mike in on some of the details. Pretty much as I had surmised after the conversation with old Mrs. Seaburn, the brother of Claire’s first husband had a grandchild with a rare disorder. Transplanting of cells from one human to another was just becoming possible at the time, but it was at the bleeding-edge stage of the technology and the failure rate was high. For almost any hope of success, the donor had to be a blood relative. None of the family had tested acceptable as donors and Eric was the only hope. Claire had been contacted and, as Mrs. Seaburn had said, steadfastly refused, saying that her husband’s family had not cared one bit whether Eric lived or died and so had no claim on him to undergo a procedure which had no proven track record. Layers had been called in, but Claire was well within her rights.
The grandson ended up getting a transplant from a less suitable donor, who was not a relative. This was only partly successful, and the child had several years of repeated experimental treatments. Lots of pain. Gradually his condition deteriorated, until eventually he became only barely able to communicate. He remained in this condition until he was in his early forties, when he relapsed into a painful, semi-conscious state until death provided a release about a year earlier. Over the years, Claire’s name had often made the news due to her husband’s position in the military and was thus a continual rub to the unfortunate man’s family’s sore. The police were investigating whether the dead man’s brother had had the opportunity to commit the murder, or the means to have it contracted. It looked very likely that the charges against Pat would be dropped.
With my ego unnecessarily burnished by the satisfactory outcome of Mike’s case, I could turn my full attention to my radio. I had packaged it up securely a day or two earlier and entrusted it to a tanned young guy in a brown van with gold writing. But I wanted to dig a bit deeper, get some background and write up an article for the Smithsonian. In my mind’s eye, I saw a paraphrased version mounted on a board in the glass case in the museum. I know: I am transparently shallow! Thus it was that I spent almost an entire Saturday wandering through the library’s microfiche of the local newspapers, trying to extract the essence of the times. With no plan in mind, I loaded up the microfilm for January of 1942 and started to browse through the images. The main pages were full of the war in Europe and the news of the Japanese advances in the Pacific. The Dutch East Indies were likely to fall and the Dutch Navy was working with the US and Australians to keep them at bay. The inside pages held more information of what was going on locally. As the year progressed, rationing was introduced and people were writing in, promoting canning of home-grown foods, giving ideas on how to make old clothes look better, and how to best use food stamps.
On Kirkhall, plans were drawn up with gusto, covering air-raids and invasion. There was an article that detailed how to recognize a spy, which was so broad in its description that I wondered how many innocent people had been caught in the net and had to prove their ancestry. In the early part of the year I came across an article about the RAF officer that Mrs. Seaburn had mentioned. On page nine there was a photograph of him addressing a group of workers at the dock. The picture had not reproduced well on the microfiche and I couldn’t tell much about him other than he seemed a tall, slender man, but any facial features were blurred by the reproduction.
I moved on. As the year progressed, the well-known stories of the war blazed across the front pages, skewed by harried communications from the battlefront and also by the whims of the censors. The inside pages of the newspaper, however, were different. No black pen blocked the notes from the locals’ sequestered vale of life. The simple annals of their homely joys, their artless tales, opened a fascinating window for me on the island where I lived, and I started to type notes and an outline of my story into my PC. It is hard to imagine now, when, from a young age, people are on the move, and where the most distant of friends can communicate instantaneously by Internet, what it was like for people who had sometimes never been more than a hundred miles from their birthplace or, at most, had not left the state. Here, on the black screen with the blue-gray writing, I read of loved ones based ‘somewhere in England’, of men from coastal Georgia working in the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Women, too, were taking up the strain, joining the army, working in shipyards. I recognized some of the family names. I had learned Claire’s maiden name only a few days before and I now came across it again in a small snippet accompanying a photograph of her, dressed in blouse and long shorts, dark hair permed and curly, the image cropped from a group photograph of the New Orleans women’s volleyball team that had apparently won some trophy for their company at the end of summer.
"Somehow I hadn’t thought of women’s volleyball back then," I remarked to Mike as I flipped a couple of sole filets over in the pan that night while recounting to him my afternoon’s boondoggle. "I thought that sort of thing came along with the feminist movement in the 70s."
"One of the offshoots of the war was that it allowed a lot of taboos to be broken. It would have been hard to have a lot of spirited young females working either alongside males, or doing their work, without them taking their sports, too," Mike replied as he set the table. "Remember the movie ‘A League of Our Own’?"
"Right. Yeah, I’d forgotten that."
But my mind works in strange ways. At about four in the morning my brain woke me from my sleep. I rolled over and stretched out, looking at the dim ceiling as the synapses fired off with more energy than pattern. For about thirty minutes I lay there, thoughts ricocheting around my brain, and then, from this muskeg of information, the wisps of mist began to form into a picture. I looked across at the shape my partner, his breathing deep and regular, and decided that waking him would achieve nothing, so, pulling the sheet up over my shoulders, I snuggled up to him, his warm skin against mine, and tried to sleep, but my mind was now hyperactive and slumber eluded me. At five, the distant eastern horizon still as black as the sea, I slid out of bed, pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt and headed for the kitchen and the coffee machine. With the first sip warming my throat and steaming mug in hand, I went up to our office and sat down at my desktop computer with the big flat-screen monitor. I downloaded a couple of pictures from recent copies of the local newspaper and then set to work with PaintShop Pro. By the time I heard Mike stirring, the sun was well up and I had four good pictures printed out on high quality paper.
"What’s got you up so bright and early?" my lover asked as he ambled into the room absently scratching his scalp, his eyes only three-quarters open.
"Trying to get the real feel for the times for that article on my radio," I hedged, not ready to show him my work-in-progress quite yet.
Later in the morning, I put down the pages of the New York Times I was reading and asked Mike, "In all that stuff you got about Mrs. Steeby’s first husband, did you get Eric’s birth certificate?"
"It could have come. The clerks at the office collected the stuff and I looked at just what I needed to. Why?"
"The pile is upstairs in the office. I brought it home to do some work this weekend, which obviously hasn’t happened yet!"
"Can we go see?"
Within five minutes, we had rooted through several large manila envelopes and Mike handed me a long sheet. With eager anticipation I scanned the words, peering hard to read some of the hand written ones, and then my heart sank: one name on one line and my theory was dashed.
"What?" asked Mike.
"Doesn’t matter. I had a hare-brained theory in the night, but this proves it couldn’t have happened. Oh, well. Nothing serious."
Mike had become engrossed in some other document we had pulled out and fortunately didn’t press the point to embarrass me further. But the pictures I’d printed off in the morning still bothered me, and late that night, as we stood brushing our teeth together, I asked Mike, "How can I see somebody’s will?"
"Someone who is dead, I assume?" he replied through the foam.
"They’re public records after they’ve gone through probate. They’re archived. Anyone can get a copy. Whose are you interested in?"
"Patrick Gallagher. Margaret Hutchinson’s father."
"The guy who owned the house where your radio was found?"
"I can get it for you. You worried that the descendants might try and take your new toy away?"
"No. I just want to see how he divvied up his property."
Monday morning saw me up early again, trying to get my work out of the way so that I could follow my fancy later on. By two thirty the tests that I’d needed to run were complete, the results in an e-mail to Nate, and I was changing my tattered T-shirt and torn jeans for more presentable clothes before pointing the Ninja towards the North and the home where Mrs. Seaburn lived. When I had phoned earlier to ask if I could call, I had thought that I detected a note of eagerness in her voice and, indeed, when I arrived, her welcome was warm.
"I do enjoy getting visits," she said holding my hand that I had offered in greeting, "the days otherwise seem to blend into a sameness. Should we go into the garden again?"
We walked down to the bench, passing the time of day. Once we had sat down, however, Mrs. Seaburn asked me what errand had brought me back.
"I want to show you a picture," I said, and opening my backpack I took out the four sheets I had printed out the previous day. Selecting two, I passed them to her. She pulled the glasses that hung from a little beaded chain around her neck and placed them on her nose before holding the sheets up so she could examine them. She looked at one first, then the other.
"It’s the English officer I told you about," she said. "The one that came during the war and who Margaret ran over. Such a nice man, so refined — just as one would imagine an English officer to be." She dropped her head so that she could look over the rims of her glasses at me. I took the two sheets from her, returned one and then gave her one of the others that I had printed off. She looked at the second page, turned to the first, then back to the second. "My God! He’s the spitting image." For another forty-five minutes or so we spoke, as I told her my thoughts and she filled in certain facts that I didn’t yet know.
When I had taken my leave of the elderly lady, I called Mike on my cell phone as I walked to my bike. "Hey, Dude! Did you manage to get the will I asked you about?"
"Yup. Got a copy faxed here. No mention of your radio."
"When did it go through probate?"
"A couple of months back."
"Can you tell me what he gave to whom, or is it too complicated?"
"No. It’s really simple. A synopsis is that the house is left to Mrs. Hutchinson — his daughter, Margaret — for as long as she is alive. She gets the income from some properties of his in Florida and, when she dies, they go to her son Gordon. His money and investments are placed in a trust until May of 2006 when his grandson, Lance, turns 26, at which time he gets them all. Until then, he has access only to the interest."
"Pretty much. It’s wound up in a lot of legalese, but that’s the gist of it."
"Nothing left to anyone else? Nothing to the Steeby’s?"
"Nope. Just a pre-birth legal provision for sharing amongst the grandchildren, but unless Gordon had had another child since the will was written, in which case the trust would be split between Lance and this child, and I gather from the documents that that is not the case, the trust goes to Lance, some stuff to Gordon and the house to Margaret."
"Mike, you are so good. You are so fucking good, man, and you don’t even know it. I wish I was there to hug you."
"What did I say?"
"I’ll tell you tonight. I need to go and speak to Eric."
"OK " Mike sounded confused, but my mind was churning way too fast to explain everything to him on the phone. I clicked through the numbers on my cell phone until I found Rolf’s, and called him.
"Hey, Rolf. It’s Chris. I need a number for Eric Steeby. Can you give me Glen’s number so I can get it?"
"OK. What’s going on?"
"It’s about the case Mike is working on. I need to ask him a question."
Having got Glen’s number and repeating the explanations to him, I finally had Eric’s number punched in. Before hanging up with Glen I asked, "Could you do me a favor? I don’t think your dad thinks too much of me "
"Yeah, I heard about the scene at the wake. I’m sorry. He’s kind of direct sometimes."
"That’s no problem. But can you call him up now, tell him I need to ask him something very important, and tell him that I’m an OK guy?"
"Sure, Chris. Give me five, then call him."
I sat astride my bike outside Mrs. Steeby’s home waiting for the five minutes to pass. Then I placed the call.
"Yes. Mr. Lawrence?"
"Yes. Call me Chris. Look, I need to ask you something that is really important. You may think it’s impertinent, but it isn’t. At least I don’t mean it to be."
"OK. Apparently Glen seems to think you are a decent person, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt."
"Great. OK. On that last day you spent with your mother, did you happen to mention old Mr. Gallagher’s will?"
There was a long pause. "In a way, I guess I did."
"How ‘in a way’?"
"Well, not in what he’d done with his money, but I’d heard from an old friend who lives in Kirkhall that he’d put words in his will about more than one grandchild. Gordon is so completely dull that I found it amusing that there was a hint of him having had an out-of-wedlock child."
"What did Clai your mother say about it?"
"She said it was just a legal way of writing wills. She didn’t seem interested."
"One more thing, and I don’t want any details, just a yes or no answer. Was there any mention of the Gallagher or Hutchinson family in your mother’s will?"
There was no indecision in the answer. "No. None at all. What has all this got to do with anything? Neither Glen nor I know anything about my mother’s murder."
"I don’t believe that either of you do, either. Look, I can’t tell you any more than I have right now. But I think that you had better be prepared to come back to Kirkhall tomorrow or the day after. I think there will be some big developments by then."
I rode home slowly. If Eric had disliked me before, in a day or two he would hate me for what I was going to do. Doesn’t The Bible say ‘the truth shall set you free’? That’s a crock: it brings pain.
I fended Mike’s questions off until after we had had dinner. Then, with a fresh bottle of Chianti open I began laying out the facts. Ninety minutes later, Mike sat with his head in his hands staring at the legal pad in front of him on which he’d started to jot notes after I had been speaking for about five minutes.
"Chris, I have to go to the police with this."
"I know, Mike, I’m not trying to stop you. But you aren’t putting anyone in danger by waiting a day and, let’s face it, you hardly have a smoking gun. You’ve got the theory of an over-imaginative computer programmer. Let’s do it my way."
"Shit, Chris. I can’t afford to screw up. This job is a big break for me."
"Kirkhall isn’t Savannah. We have different expectations down here, Mike, and this is where you’ll be working. We don’t need slick guys from the city; we want honest, decent folk. That’s how you’ll get business, not by being Kojak."
And in the end, Mike acquiesced.
After breakfast, Mike made his move. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number I had given him. "Mrs. Hutchinson? This is Mike Jorgenson, the attorney. I would like to meet with you and discuss some of the matters concerning the death of Mrs. Steeby." He paused, listening to her reply, and then continued, "I shall present some scenarios to you. You will not be required to answer any questions or make any statement. In fact, I would suggest that you do not do so without having legal representation present. There is a distinct possibility that, after speaking with you, I’ll have to tell the police my concerns." There was a silence as he, once again, listened to whatever she was saying. "That was my inclination," he started up again, "but my partner, Chris Lawrence, whom I believe you know, has persuaded me that speaking to you first is a courtesy that is expected down here." He listened to her again. "He is all that. So can we say two this afternoon, then? Good. And if you need legal representation and don’t know of a lawyer, I can give you the name of two in Brunswick, and several in Savannah, who are more than competent."
After he hung up he looked at me. She took it very calmly. She says she has a fair idea of what we might say. While Mike got all his paperwork in order and consulted with the partners in the Savannah office, I phoned Rod, my manager, and wangled a half-day off. At quarter of two, I slid into the back seat of Mike’s Audi behind Sylvia, the notary who would record what we were going to discuss, and we set off on the short journey into town.
The last time I had walked through the front door of the Hutchinson manse had been on the afternoon of the wake. Now, Margaret Hutchinson, dressed up as though she were going to a tea party, was gracious as she ushered us in, giving me a hug as I came up the stairs. She directed us into the living room where a tray of glasses and two jugs, one of iced tea, sweetened as is the local custom, and the other of water. We sat down, Mike introduced Sylvia, then outlined what was going to take place. Once Sylvia had recorded everyone’s name, Mike reiterated his caution to Margaret about not having to answer any questions and the advisability of having her own lawyer present. She, in turn, in a quiet and civil manner acknowledged the advice and asked us to proceed. Mike gave a short introduction, basically summarizing the murder, then told her that I had come across some information that he thought might throw some light on the case.
"OK," I said pulling my folder out of my backpack. "On the day of the wake, Dan Bartholomew mentioned that, a few years ago when they were replacing the roof of this house, they found an old radio connected into the wiring in the attic. He thought I might be interested in it and later gave it to me. With some help from some techie friends, I discovered that it was a radio beacon used for guiding German submarines during World War II."
"In this house?" Margaret asked in genuine amazement.
"That’s incredible. My father was very patriotic, and my husband was in the army — got wounded at Anzio."
"Yes. I had heard that, and it puzzled me some, but it set me on a long trail. Since I am a relative newcomer here, I needed to find someone who was around during those times. Claire was beyond my reach, I could hardly ask you if your family were spies "
"I don’t know how you could have even thought that!"
"Things change, times change, people change. Anyway, I went to Savannah and talked things over with old Mrs. Seaburn. She has a very sharp mind and, what is important, she tries to make clear the difference between what she thinks she knows and what are her opinions. Since I had no idea exactly what I was looking for, I got a deluge of facts, and many of her ideas, until a picture started to form in my mind. For instance, I found out that Claire worked with radios for her family’s trawler fleet. I found out that, when war broke out, she got a job on an airfield at New Orleans, and that she had a baby there. That was a difficult time for her, and I was told that you, a good friend of hers since childhood, had gone down to be with her. Part of the rationale was that you were getting over the departure of a young Royal Air Force officer with whom you were enamored — after having run him over." I glanced from my notes to Margaret and met a faintly amused stare. "At Christmas time, Claire returned to Kirkhall briefly for the holidays, bringing Eric with her, then returned to New Orleans and her war work. You came back to Kirkhall, too, but stayed here and did not go back to New Orleans. While you had both been fairly close friends, you later married, and more or less led separate lives until, after her husband’s death, when Claire returned to Kirkhall — fairly recently. From these facts, I surmised that Claire had both the knowledge and opportunity to place a radio within the roof of your house."
"Claire a spy? How could you have come up with an idea like that, Chris?"
"Who knows the ideological drives that cause people to make decisions at any time? I found out that her father believed that America should stay out of the war, and that Germany was following a course somewhat similar to America’s in throwing off ties to an older Europe. Without the hindsight that we now have about the Nazi regime, giving some assistance to the Germans may not have been seen as too bad. Without going into all the details, if she had, indeed, been a spy, a set of circumstances could exist to give a plausible explanation for her being killed. More spies die unpleasantly than of old age."
"You are completely crazy, Chris. That was simply not Claire."
"No. I don’t believe it any more, either. But the value of thinking that she was was important, because it freed me to change tracks and do more research on the circumstances surrounding my radio. I went to the library and pulled the microfiche of the newspapers of the time. I learned a lot of fun stuff that I would never have known otherwise. I learned all about everyday life — the stuff that never gets into history books. Then, in one of the newspapers was a picture of a young Claire as a member of a company volleyball team. They were photographed as having won the championships at the end of summer. I didn’t notice the discrepancy until much later, but when I did, my whole hypothesis of Claire-the-spy came crumbling down." I met Margaret’s gaze again and found it calmly interested. I may as well have been reading from a novel.
"The issue was, of course, that if she brought Eric home as a baby ‘a few weeks old’ for Christmas, at the end of summer she would have been five months pregnant. Hardly the time a woman would chose to play competitive volleyball.
"So, if she were not pregnant in summer, then Eric was not her son.
"So what was the answer?
"Of course, the obvious response is, she could have adopted him. Then three other apparently unrelated facts fell into place. The most obvious was Eric’s birth certificate. It clearly stated that his mother was Claire Steeby, however, I knew that was almost impossible. Secondly, Mrs. Seaburn said that Claire was exceptionally loyal to friends — would go to the wall for them, I think was the phrase she used. And thirdly, she also told me that Claire had refused to let Eric be tested as a possible donor for some kind of transplant that could have possibly saved a young relative of his — a member of the family of her first husband. Mrs. Seaburn’s rationale for this refusal was that they had treated Claire very badly after her first husband was killed in action. Things could have happened just like that, I guess, but I knew Claire slightly, and anyway, I found it difficult to believe that any mother would withhold such any such aid to any other woman’s child.
"So how could all these be explained?
"As I said, I had to take all three facts into consideration at the same time: the birth certificate, Claire’s loyalty, and the refusal. Why would she refuse the test? Because the test would show the boy was no relative to her first husband. He was no better donor than the general population. How could that happen? Did she sleep around? That would be one possibility, but Mrs. Seaburn firmly believed that that was not the case and I have come to place a lot of credence in her opinions.
"Perhaps, having got one unexpected item of information from the newspaper, my mind was more receptive to the further possibility of there being more information there. In scanning through the microfiche, I had seen a picture of the young British officer who was touring around The South when he was struck down by you. I had merely glanced at it at the time, but something stuck in my mind to surface much later. Purely on a hunch, I showed a picture to Mrs. Seaburn and she readily identified the man in the picture as the British officer. This is the picture I showed her." I passed the sheet across to Margaret, and I was almost sure her hand shook as she took it.
"Where did you get this?" she asked. "I have never seen it before."
"No. You haven’t. I made it up on my PC at home by shortening the hair and superimposing a RAF uniform on another picture. This one." There was no mistaking the tremble in the fingers that took the photograph of Glen Steeby from my hands.
"Yes. Claire was loyal to her friends. You had fallen in love with the English airman. Some time before he returned to Europe and the war, you had had an affair with him and, after he had left, you discovered you were pregnant. What to do? You were in a small town, in the Southern United States, at a time when this kind of thing was a matter of no small scandal. So you went off to New Orleans, not to help Claire with her baby, but for her to help you with yours. I don’t know how the birth certificate came to have her name on it; maybe you found a sympathetic doctor, maybe you used her name. It is of little importance.
"There is no way you could keep Eric. But Claire has little regard for social niceties and she takes him. No adoption is necessary, because it is her name as mother on the birth certificate. Claire raises Eric as her own. She stays in New Orleans throughout the war, marrying an officer who was also stationed there. Later she goes to Washington with her husband, but is rarely, if ever, back here with Eric. You, in turn get married and have Gordon and, later on, he, in turn, gets married and has Lance.
"Whether your father knew what had gone on and kept quiet for the family’s appearances, or merely suspected, I cannot know. But in making his will out, he directed that a large part of his estate should be split ‘amongst his grandchildren’. Since as far as everyone knew he had only one, publicly acknowledged grandchild, Lance, is that phrase not something that is extraordinary?
"And this is where you first did wrong. Of all the people who knew about the will, you were the only one that knew the significance of that statement. And you kept quiet. You realized that the probability of Claire seeing the will was almost nil: we don’t generally go and get the wills of our neighbors from the probate court and peruse them.
"I believe you did it for Lance. Having given up one child early in life, Gordon became your darling and his only son became the apple of your eye. Perhaps, at the time, it looked as though Glen was getting all the breaks: famous grandfather, good education, and later, doing well, running his own business, personable, successful. Lance, on the other hand, cannot seem to get his act together. Without "
"It’s not his fault, it’s mine. When I had Gordon, the doctor told me that I would never have another child. I had lost one boy, I couldn’t lose another, I just couldn’t bear it. So I became over-protective. I didn’t see it then — I thought I was just keeping him safe. It became a habit with me, I had to be a living guardian-angel. When he married Janet and they had Lance it was no different. Lance was such a darling boy. Janet doesn’t have an ounce of sense between her ears, and I had the time and the money, so why should a boy not have what I could afford?
"But I never knew Glen needed money. Claire kept Eric and Glen’s lives very private. I couldn’t fault her for that: I had given Eric up, and that was that. But, you must believe me, if I had known Glen was in a hard way, I would have seen that he got some of my share, but Claire said nothing about it. She’d brought them up to be strong: Eric and Glen will always be the survivors." She grasped the arms of her chair as though she was going to spring at me.
"As I was saying," I went on, wanting to get this over with. I should have listened to Mike: it had been a dumb idea of mine to go through this charade. "Everything would have been all right if Eric hadn’t made a chance remark to his mother about the curious wording of the will. To him, that’s all it was — a quirky way of stipulating something. But to Claire, the implication was clear: Glen deserved to get half his great-grandfather’s inheritance, as it had been bequeathed. She didn’t let on to Eric, but later on during the day she was seen to be in a dudgeon over some matter or other, but it was something personal, something she didn’t share with casual acquaintances.
"I believe that later that day she confronted you and demanded a split of the inheritance. I believe that then, during an argument with her, or in a momentary fit of anger, or in disappointment or despair, you reached out and strangled Claire Steeby."
"I didn’t mean to kill her, just stop her screaming at me. She was in such a rage. It was the awfullest thing I’ve ever seen, her face was all red, and she went on and on screaming at me for what I’d done. I tried to tell her, I tried. Lance needed that money. He had an opportunity to get in on some land development in Florida. He had such difficulty getting a job. Each time his bosses were jealous of him and worked against him until he left. They never appreciated him. His only chance was to work somewhere where he was the boss. This would be his opportunity. I tried to tell her that.
"There was this painting rag on the floor. I had meant to cover her mouth with it to stop the sound, and then it was around her neck and I was pulling it tight." Her voice trailed off into nothing. I avoided her eyes. All I could think of was a young man in flashy clothes, smoking a cigar and driving a Porsche. For this, someone had died. I looked back to my notes and began speaking as though there had been no interruption.
"Once you realized what you had done, you tore out the pages from one of her albums because they showed the connection. My guess is there were photographs of an obviously pregnant Margaret Gallagher in New Orleans. Perhaps Claire had already had the book out, to show you that she could prove her story. I think you ransacked the room, and maybe even removed some money, to make it appear that a robbery had taken place.
"No one saw you leave her house, or everyone saw you and thought nothing of it. You made up that phony description of a man in black to throw people off the scent. I really don’t believe you meant to implicate Pat Simmonds. I was too dumb to see that until last Saturday when I was reading the New York Times: the description you gave the police is a very exact description of a man in an advertisement for Bergdorf Goodman. I never realized it until then, but if it had been Pat in his wetsuit who you had seen, you wouldn’t have mentioned black boots, because Pat is almost always barefoot when he has his wetsuit on. From a distance, conceivably, you may have thought you saw sneakers, but definitely not black boots."
I put my notes together, closed the folder, took a deep breath and looked at her squarely. "That’s what I think happened."
There was a silence in the room. The fan swished overhead, sending a breeze that chilled the sweat on the back of my shirt as I leaned forward and took a glass of water. A trapped fly buzzed impotently at a glass windowpane.
I looked at Margaret, knowing I was correct, terrified of what she would say. A tear ran down her cheek and she instantly wiped it away.
"Thank you, Chris." The voice was calm. "It had to come out. I knew it. If I could have walked into the sea and drowned, I would have, but I was too frightened. Too frightened. However bad things were here, on the other side, Claire would be waiting for me, with all the powers of eternity on her side.
"I never meant for them to take Pat. I gave the money to Elsheimer to bail him out: I didn’t want there to be any connection to me. When I gave the description I had thought it would be considered a crime by ‘persons unknown’."
"I don’t know what I’m going to tell Gordon and Lance."
I was aghast. She still didn’t see it. "I think maybe you should be thinking more of what you’ll say to Eric."
"Oh, I know," she wailed. Don’t you think that I have played that scene over and over in my head? What little I can say to him, how many coals of fire can he heap upon my head? What kind of mother tries to cheat her own son out of what is his?"
I sat in silence. Was ever there a punishment so onerous?
Mike broke the silence. "You must know, Mrs. Hutchinson, that I am duty-bound to tell what I know, and what I suspect, to the police. I must urge you, most strongly, to get legal counsel before you discuss any of these matters with anyone else."
"I know. Thank you. I have put everything here in order. I am ready. I have put some things in a little suitcase. Mr. Jorgensen, will you drive me down to the police station now, please."
Mike hesitated, looking at Sylvia and me. "You go," I told him, "We’ll wait on the porch until you get back."
I stood up as Margaret walked toward me. She put her arms around me and gave me a hug. I found my arms around her as, for an instant, I held the body that now seemed frail, close to me. A snatch of a song entered my mind and stuck there. I can’t for the life of me Remember a sadder day Strange how things just pop into one’s mind, I remember thinking at the time. And then it struck me, it was in the refrain, The mother and child reunion is only a moment away.
The next two days are officially blotted from my memory. Nothing good happened then. When I knew that Eric and Glen had gone up to the hospital, which was where they were holding Margaret, her blood pressure having become dangerously high, I rode over to the bookstore and gave Rolf a complete rundown of the whole sordid affair so that he’d be somewhat prepared when Glen came back. Of what was said between Eric and Margaret, of what confessions and absolutions, if any, were made and given, I have no idea. Again, it is something I block from my conscious mind, something too painful to think about.
Maybe it was something too great for anyone to understand; maybe, being closer to the epicenter, they were able to take a different perspective, but Eric and Glen seemed to weather this whole entangled opera better than I.
And then, six days almost to the hour after Mike and I had entered her house for the last time, Margaret summoned up all her courage and took the dreaded step into the next world to answer to Claire.
In Kirkhall, I think everyone involved gave a private sigh of relief. She had had no plausible defense: any explanation merely injured the people she had gone through the whole debacle to protect. The DA didn’t want to get a reputation of one who hounded an elderly woman, certainly not with elections on the not-too-distant horizon. Certainly neither old Mrs. Seaburn nor I wanted to testify; and, of course, for Eric and Glen, it allowed some form of closure, albeit leaving behind so many questions that would never, could never, be answered. Glen asked Mike to represent him in his claim for his half of old man Gallagher’s estate and Mike did him proud, securing a very favorable division.
After the settlement, Mike and I had a small dinner party for those that had been involved. Mrs. Seaburn firmly declined to ride behind me on my Ninja, so Mike brought her down in the leather-upholstered and air-conditioned comfort of the Audi. Glen and Rolf, who were becoming almost inseparable, came, as did Eric, bearing a case of rather fine Bordeaux as an apology for his attack on me at the wake. The conversation never lagged for a second. It seemed that everyone had questions to which someone else had an answer.
After the cognac and port had been passed around for the second time, Eric said, "You know, the British are being very evasive about my father. I can’t get any information out of them about his military records, whether he is still alive, or when and how he died. I have told them time and time again that I have no intention of making any legal claim, I’d just like to know and, perhaps, send him a letter. But they insist on claiming he doesn’t exist."
"Maybe he was one of the Royal Family or some Noble," suggested Rolf, "and they don’t want to divulge who it was." He nudged his consort, "Maybe you are Sir Glen!"
When the laughter died down, there was a silence that lasted a few seconds until I said, "They can’t tell you anything, Eric. He’s not in their records."
"What do you mean, Chris?" he asked. "Surely they keep records of all their servicemen, like we do?"
"They do. But I think your father wasn’t in their services. The way I figure it, he was a German agent."
When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
The song quoted in the story is "Mother and Child Reunion". Words & Music by Paul Simon.
(c) Horatio Nimier 2005