Not Death, But Love

With the words “You Look Like an Honest Man,” retired English teacher Charlotte London approaches Quill Gordon in a small-town café and gives him a manila envelope for safekeeping. That night, a fire destroys her house, her body is found in the ruins…
…and Gordon finds himself the unwitting custodian of her family history and personal journal from 25 years ago. When the politically sensitive sheriff seems content to call the fire an accident, Gordon and his friend Peter Delaney join forces with an aging-hippie newspaper editor, a librarian who talks too much, a factoid-obsessed local historian, and Charlotte’s best friend to investigate the death. Is the critical clue in the family history, which digs into a controversial land development and suggests her father’s “accidental” death may not have been so accidental? Or is it in her journal, where, amid reflections on Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina, Charlotte chronicles a clandestine love affair? Something in those documents is worth killing for, and the investigation becomes increasingly personal (and perilous) for Gordon and his associates, who need a solution before one of them becomes the next corpse.

The Searcher and the Match

THE INTRUDER WAS ABOUT to leave the house, but decided, out of customary caution, to look through the desk one more time. Missing something now would be no more than a minor problem, but it would be better to have everything in hand.

There was little point in checking the middle drawer; the owner used it to house the various paraphernalia — pens, pencils, stamps, envelopes, blank pads, paper clips — that one typically uses at a desk.

In the top right drawer was a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver. The intruder looked at it without touching. It was highly unlikely that the owner of the house ever touched it, either; probably it had belonged to her father and simply remained where he kept it after he died.

Next drawer down was the one that called for a special look. It contained the most papers, but nearly all were systematically filed in one of a half-dozen file folders, all labeled with some aspect of the minutiae of daily life. Taking each folder out separately, the intruder again flipped through them slowly and carefully. Nothing seemed to be anything other than what it plainly appeared to be. After several minutes of close scrutiny, the folders went back into the drawer. The business card that had been sitting on the top of the desk, however, puzzled and troubled the intruder, who decided to hold on to it just in case.

Her journal was in the third and bottom-most drawer, along with an address book, personal stationery and two boxes of thank-you notes. The last journal entry was dated three days ago, and the first entry three months ago. None of the 50 written pages dealt with what the intruder was concerned about. It was actually a bit depressing — the random musings of a seemingly dull life. The intruder began reading the last three pages again just to be sure.

The phone on the desk rang.

Dropping the journal on the floor, the intruder sat up, tensed, relaxed, then retrieved the journal, replaced it in the drawer, and began leaving the room while counting the number of rings.

Four, five, six seven. Who in God’s name, the intruder thought, has the phone ring seven times before letting the machine pick up? The intruder walked out of the bedroom that had been converted into an office and entered the spacious living room, with its massive stone fireplace, comfortable old furniture and large picture windows looking out over the lake. A trace of light remained in the sky behind the mountains, but darkness was fast taking over.

From the living room, it would be easy enough to hear the answering machine in the adjacent kitchen. It clicked on after the greeting, and the volume was clearly turned to the loudest setting. The voice on the other end practically bellowed.

“Hi, it’s me — Gina. Hope you haven’t forgotten our sherry nightcap. Maybe you’re just out getting a new bottle. I’ll be there in thirty. See you.” Click.

The intruder’s heart was beating faster now. No time to lose. Stepping over the woman’s body on the floor in front of the fireplace and moving to the front door, the intruder looked at the large pile of oily rags in the service area just off the entryway. For a moment, the intruder considered pouring some gasoline from the can in the car onto the hardwood floors but decided against it. The oily rags would take a bit longer to get going, but with any luck, it might look as if they had spontaneously combusted. The intruder took out a book of matches and prepared to light one, turning to the body on the floor and saying:

“So long. I don’t know where you put it, but as long as everything burns, it doesn’t matter. You should have stuck to gardening and left things alone. No sense in digging up the past. Just leave us to our memories. It was better then.”

Striking the match, the intruder threw it on the pile of rags, which burst into flame, then closed the front door, adding:

“And sorry about the sherry.”

The intruder walked briskly back to the car and drove off. By the time a neighbor called 911 and the sirens started, the intruder was miles away.