Justice Once Removed
“Crossman (has) clearly mastered the crafting of page-turning stories. His skills are evident in this book.”
Bangor Daily News
“Every chapter reeks of Alfred Hitchcock. Winston Crisp is an unlikely superhero in these times of brawn versus brains.”
The Midwest Book Review
In order to save a kidnapped child, Winston Crisp must first battle a merciless and insidious enemy: senility. Where does the past end, and the present begin; and how does one untangle them? Why do the ghosts of so many dead suddenly people his dreams? Or is he dreaming?
Justice Once Removed
by David A. Crossman
ooooWhat was left of Winston Crisp hadn’t been sleeping well. Those parts of him which events of the past two years had forwarded to the afterlife—assorted toes and fingers awaiting imminent reassembly—were complaining in absentia.
ooooIt was his mind that troubled him, though. Somewhere below the waterline the soggy hull of his short-term memory had sprung a leak. Only occasionally did it interfere with his navigation through the present, but it was evident—at least, he imagined—that the Final Phase had begun. While he and the other men of his generation—assembled in parliament around the cast iron candy skillet at the hardware store—would make light of the mind-eating beast in the comforting glow of daylight, camaraderie, and the pot bellied stove, they were tweaking the nose of that which they feared the most; ancient children standing tip-toe, peering in the window of the last haunted house on the street. The one by the graveyard.
ooooOnly now they all knew the monster within was real.
ooooNot often, but sometimes it took Herculean effort for Crisp to mentally sequence and catalog recent events, like whether or not he’d put on his underwear, or eaten breakfast. The past, though, was as sharp as shrapnel, tearing through his dreams on a reckless search for his soul, and had lately taken to reliving his activities during World War II. Why? He didn’t know. Lately, he’d gone years at a time without giving it a thought.
ooooHe threw aside his blankets, and dragged himself upright, dangling his feet off the bed. Outside his head, everything was quiet. The grandmother clock in the hall below ticked off muted reminders of time passing, passing, passing. Outside the window a leafy pussy willow stood sentinel, the shadow of its branches projected on the wall by a solitary streetlight.
ooooWho would have thought he’d live to see another autumn? Even Matty had been hard-pressed to maintain her optimism. Last winter’s ill-advised jaunt to the Everette place at the far end of the island had nearly proved too much for him. But it had told him how Johnny Bermann had died.
ooooAt the end of it all, when the plague of human vices precipitating that grim and pointless death had been forced into the open, he’d achieved the only goal he had left in life – to become a published author. The copy of The Atlantic Monthly in which his poem was printed sat on his bedside table, dog-eared and permanently open to page 137. The Bucket, by Winston Crisp. His legacy in fifty-nine words. The only memento of all his years worth passing along; but there was no one to pass it along to.
ooooMatty, coming into possession of it by default, would probably cut it out, frame it and hang it somewhere she could see it as she went about her endless chores, until the day she could no longer remember what she was doing, or who he had been, or who she was, or what was signified by the strange figures that peopled the yellowed bit of paper in the little doily frame.
oooo“Stop it!” he scolded, as if the morbid whispers were not his own. He ran his fingers through the folds of his face. Soon reality would overtake the illusion of helplessness that had made him so effective at his craft, obliterating the most potent tool in the arsenal that time had ransacked and depleted.
ooooHe put on his glasses, stood up and shuffled to the window, lifting it open gently. If the counterweights banged in the walls, Matty, sleeping in the next room – from which his was separated only by a shallow closet—was sure to hear. If she should find him standing by the open window—and in his t-shirt, no less—who knew how high the mountain of guilt he’d have to climb?
ooooIt had been raining off and on since Labor Day, as if the island was mourning the departure of the tourists. Even in his cheerless mental state, Crisp had to smile at the notion.
ooooCursing the rain, he took his favorite pipe from the tobacco rack and filled it with Edgeworth. He raised the screen and leaned out the window far enough so the smoke wouldn’t seep into the room and tattle all through the house. Of course Matty wouldn’t banish him, should she catch him at it—he wasn’t only her star border, but her prize possession—nevertheless, she had subtle ways of registering disapprobation. She could make something as simple as putting down a teacup seem as lethal as putting down a beloved family pet. And it would all have been his fault.
ooooHe lit the pipe and turned the bowl upside-down against the softly falling rain. The leaves of the pussy-willow tree acted as an umbrella, of sorts, keeping him relatively dry, with the exception of an occasional drop finding its way down his neck, tracing his spine like the tip of a surgical blade, a frigid reminder he was still alive. He remembered sneaking cigarettes behind the barn as a boy, now he was eighty-three, and sneaking his pipe. “Full circle,” he said in response to the thought.
ooooHe drew a jinn of smoke deep into the dungeon of lungs, released it slowly on the night and decided the rain was responsible for his melancholy. At least ninety percent. Well, seventy-percent. Everyone in town had been complaining about it. They were beginning to feel like fungi—human-shaped mushrooms silently bloating in shapeless places of dark and damp—subject to bouts of emotional mildew.
ooooA car went by, its headlights sweeping the neighborhood as it rounded the corner by the bandstand and headed downtown. It would be quiet there this time of night. A few holdouts at the pub, maybe, testing the envelope of Suave Thompson’s patience by nursing their thirty-five cent Narragansetts right up to closing time.
ooooCrisp breathed deeply, inhaling the musty sweetness of decaying leaves sprinkled with sea salt, and released a sigh on the exhale. Strange how smells stirred memories.
The Dordogne, France
May 21st, 1945
ooooThe churchyard was still. In the week or ten days since it had last been used, leaves had collected on the shallow grave, and the perpetual dampness of the Dordogne was turning them into fragrant mulch. Bosch guns punched angry holes in the night sky a couple of miles to the north, but they were firing over their shoulders at nothing in particular. The Nazi war machine was, literally, running out of gas. Abandoned military vehicles lined the twisting thoroughfares of the mountainous countryside, and the footsteps of their drivers all headed in the same direction. North.
ooooThe primary factions of the guerilla Maquis, tenuously united in their hatred of Germany, sensing their unexpected victory, and had turned on one another, politically, if not yet militarily, vying for supremacy in the wake of the anticipated departure of the occupying forces; an opportunity to shape the ashes of the ancien regime into a new France in their own likeness. Only hours earlier – at the Chateau, Crisp had gotten a taste of what that likeness might be.
ooooThe commander of the Communists was called, simply, Louis, and even in a nation full of Louies, his name stood alone. Ensconced in the chateau he had commandeered for his headquarters, Louis epitomized the pettifogging tribal leader—like scores of others Crisp had met slogging through the world’s underbelly in recent years. Living in opulence that peacetime would never have afforded a mechanic, which is what he was, Louis surrounded himself with the requisite cadre of sycophants who fed his vanity and allowed him to gorge on his own self-importance. He was the kind of man who gains weight during war.
ooooBut Crisp refused the impulse to underestimate the man. He was no idiot. Nor was he a coward. Like many of those who had initially fled to the hills to avoid conscription –meaning forced labor under the heel of Nazi oppressors – he had risked all to oppose the Vichy government. That decision, Crisp knew, had cost him two of his three sons. Here though, nearing the end of it all, he was alive and, having clawed his way to the top echelons of the Resistance over the years as it coalesced into an organized fighting force, he had molded a little fiefdom from the spoils of war the likes of which the proletariat—should Moscow appoint him to the position of leadership he so brazenly desired—could never hope to share.
ooooThose under him, among them many fugitives from the Spanish Civil War, were men – and women – hardened by years of privation and hardship. Forever on the run, pursuing the apparition of freedom through the forests, crags, and time-weary caves of Limousin, they lived mostly outdoors – through freezing winters and soaking summers – or among the bats and pigeons in the attics of ruined chateaux. Most of their time had been spent scouring the countryside for food to fuel their bellies, and ammunition to fuel their hatred. Their defining characteristic, evolving in a world where it was impossible to determine friend from foe, was suspicion.
oooo“I can’t let you have him,” Louis said in response to Crisp’s request. “He is of no importance.” He smiled, evidently content to let Crisp wrestle with the contradiction.
oooo“If that’s the case, why not let GHQ attend to the expense of his care and feeding?” Crisp replied. “You’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
ooooLouis inclined his head slightly, feigned interest in the end of his cigar, and grinned. “I could do no such thing. After all your country has done for us, it would be most ungracious to burden you with the annoyance. No. He will stay with us. He may be of some use. The war is not over, you know.”
ooooWho knew better than Crisp? The plane that had deposited him behind enemy lines six days earlier had been his last contact with his chain-of-command. In the intervening days he’d fought his own private war behind enemy lines, on his way to the objective given him by that chain-of-command: to secure one Lieutenant Colonel Walter Hertz, presently the unwilling guest of Louis’ Maquis, and return him, alive, to the Allied Command in London. That was the official Top Secret plan. Who knew if there was an unofficial Top Secret Plan?
ooooHis was not to reason why.
oooo“He’s of no use to you,” said Crisp, following the script he’d been given in anticipation of Louis’ likely unwillingness to surrender his captive.
ooooLouis raised an eyebrow, but didn’t take his eyes of the end of his cigar. “You have a saying, do you not: what is good for the goose, is good for the gander? Which of us is the goose, and which the gander, I cannot say. But we are allies, are we not? If he’s of no use to me, he can be no use to you.” He looked piercingly at Crisp, and smiled.
ooooCrisp spread his hands. “As far as I’m concerned, a goose is only good for foi gras. I’m here at the direction of the High Command. If you wish to run the risk of their displeasure, that’s entirely up to you.”
ooooLouis appeared to consider for a moment. He sipped his Armagnac brandy with exaggerated satisfaction. “Perhaps the Germans are only the first phase of a greater war,” he said, “High Commands may come and go.” He extinguished his cigar. “No. Hertz will stay here. That is the end of it.” He stood and extended his hand. “You’ve come a long way, and I am desolated to disappoint you . . . but disappointment is a step-child of war, is it not? Now, as you say, I have other fish to fry.”
ooooCrisp had four days in which to get Hertz where he needed to be. Failure was not an option.
oooo“It is my natural desire, of course, to help you in any way I can, especially as you have just saved our lives,” said Louis, his tone of voice and expression registering offense at having been preserved from destruction by this American derelict, “mais, c’est la vie.”
oooo“C’est la guerre,” said Crisp.
ooooLouis smiled, and gestured toward the door. “Yes. That’s war.”
ooooThe sudden ringing of the phone downstairs in the entryway startled him, so that he bumped his head on the window. Matty’s phone never rang after 8:30. He looked at the phosphorous dial of the bedside alarm: 3:17. That told him two things, the call was for him – because no one who knew Matty would call her at such an hour except to announce the arrival of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse – and it was an emergency of some kind because, well, because nobody would call somebody as old as he was at this time of night unless it was an emergency.
ooooThe sound of Matty stirring in the next room reminded him he had a more pressing emergency of his own to worry about. There was no time to tap his pipe out, so he just dropped it into the hydrangea below—making a mental note to fetch it in the morning, if he’d remember—drew himself in and closed the window. By the time he’d tip-toed back to bed, he could hear Matty muttering in the hall and descending the stairs to the accompaniment of the phone ringing for the fourth time.
oooo“Hold your horses,” said Matty, securing her flannel robe around her ample waist with a sharp tug at the worn terry cloth belt.
ooooCrisp followed in his mind’s eye as her slippers scuffed across the floor, then padded onto the oriental runner that muffled them the rest of the way to the phone. He got up, took his bathrobe from the bedpost, and went to the door. He opened it softly and stepped out onto the landing.
oooo“Hello? … Yes, speaking … What? … why, yes, he’s here, but … Who is this? Do you know what time it is?”
ooooApparently the caller was suitably contrite because, when Matty spoke again, there was a little less edge to her voice. “Well, I don’t know. Can’t this wait ‘til morning?” Pause. Sigh. “Yes, yes. I’m sure it’s an emergency. It always is. He’s an old man, you know … yes. Well …” she glanced woefully up the stairs. “All right, I’ll see if he wants to talk to you.” Her voice became stern. “I make no promises, understand.” Pause. More contrition. “Yes. Well. You just hold the line.”
ooooShe trudged up the stairs. Of course, she could have made promises. She’d never known Winston—the ‘Professor’, as the caller kept calling him, much to her consternation—to turn down someone with a problem.
ooooThey were all emergencies. Seemed like it had been just one after the other, lately. “He needs his rest, poor thing,” she muttered as she reached the landing. “Why can’t they leave him alone?”
ooooCrisp shuffled back near the bed, the better to appear to have just awakened in response to the phone ringing, and awaited her knock. When it came, he could barely hear it. “Yes? Matty?”
ooooMatty pressed her forehead to the door. “Winston, dear, are you awake?”
oooo“I heard the phone…”
oooo“It woke you, I know,” she said, before he could lie.
That’s what he liked about people jumping to conclusions, it left a great deal of latitude in the construction of facts. Was it a lie to let someone continue to think what they were determined to believe?
oooo“I’m so sorry,” she fretted. “I can’t think what anybody’s doing out of bed at this hour. You’d think he was a Hindoo.”
ooooFor some reason Matty had long ago gotten the idea, probably from something she read in Kipling as a child, that Hindus stayed up all night and slept most of the day. Not that Kipling had said anything of the kind but, having applied her own interpretation to some incidental phrase in one of his poems, it had become a idée fix, and through no amount of cajoling over many years, had Crisp been able jostle it loose.
oooo“It’s for you,” she continued, tracing the doorknob with the tip of her finger. “Michael Jessup. Didn’t be move down to Washington? Anyway,” she said, not caring enough to wait for a reply, “it’s long distance. An emergency.”
Crisp emerged slowly, like a moth from its cocoon, and she stepped back to allow him room on the landing. “He’s still with the government, I suppose,” she said, nodding toward the front hall, as if he might have forgotten where the phone was. Which was not impossible.
oooo“Thanks, Mat,” he said gently, patting her shoulder. “You go on back to bed. I’ll take care of it.”
ooooMatty looked up at him, her eyes pooled with the sleep she’d been denied. “You want me to fix you something hot? Coffee, or cocoa?”
oooo“No,” Crisp said, patting her again in emphasis. “You go on, I’ll be fine.”
oooo“Well,” she replied reluctantly, though a little relieved, “you tell him to stop having emergencies this time of the night.”
oooo“I’ll do that.” He watched her away, then descended the stairs, his body struggling to catch up to his brain, which was already at the phone. “Hello?”
oooo“Professor? This is Michael Jessup.”
ooooFormerly one of Maine’s assistant attorneys general, Crisp added mentally. Now one of J. Edgar Hoover’s bright young men. “This is unexpected,” said Crisp. “What can I do for you?”
ooooJessup had been prepared with an obligatory social preamble for which Crisp had left little room. He dove in. “Yes. Well . . . A couple of weeks ago a Supreme Court associate justice – Hartley Willis – bought a house on Spruce Head.”
oooo“Yes, I know that.”
oooo“How could you? The information’s been under wraps.”
ooooCrisp smiled. “Ever heard of the pot-warp telegraph?”
oooo“What’s that?” said Jessup. Maybe it was something J. Edgar should know about.
oooo“There’s not much that happens around the Bay that fishermen don’t know about,” Crisp explained. “I first heard about Justice Willis week before last. It was big news down at the lobster co-op.”
oooo“Damn,” said Jessup.
oooo“Anyway,” Crisp prompted, having allowed Jessup a moment to absorb the news. “What can I do for you?”
oooo“What I’m about to tell you is . . . very sensitive.”
ooooCrisp waited, and wondered how many fishermen already knew whatever it was.
ooooJessup seemed to be deliberating. “He got a call last night.”
oooo“He’s on Spruce Head?” Crisp interrupted. If he was to make sense of whatever information Jessup was about to impart, he had to have a handle on the incidentals.
oooo“The caller said he’d kidnapped Willis’s daughter, then went on into all the Barnaby Jones crap about not contacting the police, and that he’d be notified where to deliver the ransom. TV has standardized the script for these idiots.”
ooooIt was meant to be a joke, but was apparently wasted on Crisp, who didn’t know who Barnaby Jones was. He adjusted his spectacles. oooo“But he notified you anyway?”
oooo“Not immediately. The first thing he did was get in touch with the governess. Apparently she and the girl are en route from Washington; they were supposed to have arrived in Spruce Head last night, but got held up in Boston with car trouble.”
oooo“Where’s the child’s mother?”
oooo“Willis says his wife’s visiting her sister in Denver,” said Jessup. “Anyway, the governess out she was in bed, sound asleep. He had the woman double-check. She woke the girl up and he spoke to her.”
oooo“Sounds like a prank,” said Crisp. Some people had so much time on their hands and had nothing better to do than come up with ways to make others miserable. “Was there anything distinctive about the caller’s voice?”
oooo“Willis said it was a male. Sounded nervous. Probably in their twenties or thirties. Thereabouts.”
oooo“Maine local, as far as he could tell. Could’ve been someone faking it.”
oooo“I see.” Crisp had yet to hear a believable fake Maine accent. Most mimics were under the impression that all you had to do was drop your ‘r’s. Not true. A lot of dialects orphaned or misplaced their r’s: Bostonians, Brits, Kiwis, South Africans, Aussies, even certain southerners, yet they sounded nothing alike. The trained ear would have detected the absence of linguistic subtleties, of tonal intricacies, and colloquial emphasis.
ooooPerhaps Willis, however, like most people, was not a discerning listener. “And he said he’d call again?”
ooooThe shuffling of papers could be heard on Jessup’s end of the line as he consulted his notes. “‘. . . you’ll be contacted,’ that’s all he said.”
oooo“I take it he has only the one daughter?”
oooo“Okay. So,” said Crisp, he could feel his heart rate increasing in anticipation of the news about to come, “what are you not telling me?”
ooooJessup fidgeted, and sighed. “The granddaughter of Mrs. Boatwright – his house keeper at the Spruce Head place – turned up missing this morning.”
oooo“Same general description?”
oooo“Likely. Like I said, the girl – Willis’s daughter – was supposed to be here.”
oooo“And how do you think I can help?”
oooo“The name of the girl the kidnapper’s ended up with is Tabitha. Tabby, they call her. She’s seven or so,” he read his notes again. “Seven. That’s right. She’s a severe asthmatic . . . but her medication was left behind. The kind of excitement she’s going through . . . “
oooo“I can imagine,” Crisp sympathized.
oooo“I don’t think you can,” Jessup interjected. “She’s also autistic, easily traumatized by abrupt changes in her routine. Time is definitely a factor.”
oooo“What can I do?” said Crisp. More importantly, he thought, what can I do that you can’t?
oooo“Frankly, I don’t know,” Jessup confessed. “I’m on unsure ground here, legally. I mean, the telephone call and the girl’s disappearance may not be related. It might just be coincidence. She might have just wandered off. She’s done that before, her mother said. If that’s the case, it’s not the FBI’s business.
oooo“At the same time . . . understand, I’m not demeaning the local authorities, but if she has been kidnapped . . . I don’t have a whole lot of faith that they’ll find her before …”
ooooCrisp was wishing he’d taken Matty up on her offer of a hot drink. A faint, cool breeze had found its way around the stuffed terry-cloth dachshund lying at the foot of the front door, and was crawling up his pajama legs.
oooo“You’re good at this kind of thing,” Jessup affirmed, if somewhat reluctantly. “I just thought if I laid it out, you might have some idea. Anything. Two heads are better than one, and all that. And I’m worried for the kid.”
ooooCrisp’s experience of Jessup hadn’t indicated someone guided by sentiment. Quite the opposite. In fact, he’d found this somewhat officious son of a long-dead colleague overtly ambitious. Truth be told, Crisp suspected he’d taken much of the credit for the resolution of the Bermann case, and had ridden it all the way to his present position with the Bureau. He was welcome to it. Perhaps there was another, more human, dimension to the man after all. Crisp was happy to extend the benefit of the doubt. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
ooooJessup thought a while, again referring to his notes. “Like what?”
oooo“Can you check the phone records?”
oooo“Already did. The call came from a phone booth in Camden.”
oooo“What time was the call made?”
oooo“A little after one this morning.”
oooo“Not likely to have been any witnesses, then. I take it you’ve begun a search?”
oooo“We haven’t,” said Jessup. “That is, the FBI hasn’t. The county sheriff’s department is on it. They’re doing a door-to-door, covering the fish houses and boat shops. The usual stuff,” he paused, and Crisp let him. “God, I hope they find her.”
oooo“You don’t think all that activity is going to tip the kidnappers that police have been brought in?”
ooooIf a shrug makes a sound, it made one now at the other end of the line. “They’ll be as discrete as possible.”
ooooThere was a long silence, during which distant voices could be heard in the electronic hiss. “May I ask you something?” Crisp said finally.
oooo“Why are you so interested in this? Please don’t take any offense but, at least on the surface, it’s a missing child case. Happens all the time.”
oooo“My wife’s little sister is autistic,” said Jessup. “A special kid.”
ooooCrisp allowed the silence to answer for him. “I’ll call the Chief Justice first thing in the morning.”
oooo“Well, you won’t have to,” said Jessup. There was hesitancy in his voice.
oooo“I’ve sent the Coast Guard out to pick you up. They’ll be at the public landing within the hour.”
ooooObjection sprang from Crisp’s throat. “That’s really not … I couldn’t possibly. Hello? Hello?”
ooooOf the several impracticalities of rousing from his slumber at midnight an eighty-three year-old whose inventory of digits had been significantly diminished, who had been all but murdered a year earlier and lain in a coma for the better part of nine months, and whose adrenaline, even after the fact, coursed wildly through his neurons at the thought that Matty might have caught him smoking – among those that didn’t occur to Jessup in his implied command was how the hell was the octogenarian in question supposed to get to the public landing at just after three in the morning, by which time everyone but Clyde Bickford would have been several hours in bed?
ooooInstinctively Crisp reached for the island phone book, then thought better of it. Clyde wouldn’t be at home this time of night. The town’s resident insomniac and de facto guardian angel, he’d be out driving the streets of town in his gold Toronado, the occasional sweep of its headlights reassuring those islanders stumbling through the darkness of their homes to empty their bilges that all was well.
ooooThe island entrepreneur, Clyde’s considerable holdings dotted the waterfront from the lobster pound to the crab factory and, together with his trawlers, the Althea & Clyde, the Kingfisher, and the Betsy – all tied securely to their respective piers or at work on Georges Bank – were his primary concern. That everything else in town fell under his all-night jurisdiction was a given.
ooooAt the end of the thirty minutes it took to assemble himself, tip-toe out the front door without waking his Keeper, retrieve his pipe from the bushes, and put a stone’s throw between himself and the house, Crisp was leaning his fleshless haunches against the pyramid of startlingly cold cannonballs by the little monument across from the library.
ooooThe effort had nearly killed him. He was breathless. Pain shot through his left ankle, the result of having to compensate for lack of balance owning to the missing toes. They hurt, too, absent or not.
ooooHe looked down the street, toward the harbor. Something between an eighth and a quarter mile. Child’s play. If he had his bike…
But Matty had had the wheels removed, “until summer, when there’s no leaves, or ice, or sand all over the place.” By which time, she hoped, he’d have forgotten all about “such foolishness.” It hung in the shed, impotent; stripped of that motive element which defined it. Matty’s modus operendi. Very effective. Besides, he was no child.
ooooCrisp waited. Sooner or later, Clyde would be by. Meantime, he should try to focus on the missing girl. What was her name? Tammy? Patty? The tether slipped slowly though his mental fingers – so often the case with recent events – and began to sink in irretrievable depths. His attempts to snatch it back only churned up sedimentary memories, particularly those so recently awakened. They, though unbidden, came back so easily, with such ice-down-the-neck clarity that he drew a sharp breath.
London, May 14th – 1944
ooooAs Colonel Buckmaster, swaddled in shadow, leaned into the yellow smudge of light, the ash from his cigarette fell on the map, obscuring the railroad junction at which he’d been pointing. “As far as anyone’s concerned, you’re a Jed.” He blew the ash away.
ooooSince being seconded to the British Special Operations Executive at Bletchley Park in his role as head of cryptanalysis for the Navy’s OP-20-G, Crisp had heard of the Jedburghs, shadowy three-man military units that operated behind enemy lines in France. Their purpose, as he understood it, was to help the Resistance make a nuisance of themselves by providing communications between the guerillas and Special Forces HQ in London, together with advice and whatever armaments and explosives it took to implement that advice.
ooooCrisp wasn’t expected to respond. He listened.
oooo“Which means you’ll be in uniform, until you’re safely on the ground and away from the landing strip,” Buckmaster continued. “According to the Geneva Convention that should keep you from getting shot on the spot, should you fall into enemy hands. Not that Hitler’s much of a stickler for the Convention. In fact, he’s issued something called the Commando Order which, as far as the Bosche are concerned, makes it perfectly legal to shoot you on the spot regardless.”
ooooIt had been Crisp who had intercepted and decoded that particular tidbit of information, a fact he refrained from mentioning.
ooooSomewhere nearby another bomb took a bite out of the city. Buckmaster, who’d been in London during much of the Blitz, didn’t seem to notice.
oooo“Might as well dress up like Napoleon or Queen Victoria for all they care. Still,” said the Colonel, standing and massaging his back, “something to complain about in the court of public opinion if they shoot you, I suppose. But you are, in fact, a spy so, what does it matter?” He studied Crisp as he sipped his scotch and seemed to be thinking ‘What the hell is HQ doing sending an old fogey like you on a mission like this?’ Crisp, at fifty-six and already sampling from the banquet of physical limitations that would one day be his, was thinking pretty much the same thing. No one had been more surprised than he when he got the call from the newly-formed OSS and Donovan told him his ‘peculiar skills’ were needed in the European Theater. What he perceived those skills to be, he didn’t specify. As far as Crisp was concerned, the only ability he possessed to any exceptional degree was that he perceived patterns. Simple as that.
ooooCrisp had thought he’d put front-line action behind him in the last war. Even then, at thirty-one, he’d been considered ancient: the teenaged cannon-fodder alongside whom he served called him ‘Sphinx’, more for his age than inscrutability. If they wondered what a civilian of advanced years and operating seemingly independent of military control was doing among them, they knew not to ask. He kept to himself in the shelters, pressing sweaty headphones to his ears, listening intently to extract intelligible sounds from the hiss and crackle that electrified the air, scribbling endless notes and stuffing them into his canvas attaché bag, traveling freely between the front lines and HQ. Even the officers never bothered him.
ooooChildren. Their faces lined the walls of the chamber of horrors that had set up shop in his mind. Wave after wave they had clambered out of their sodden trenches into tangles of barbed wire and percussive walls of machine gun fire.
oooo“You’ll find George Noble at the end of the corridor, last on the left. He’ll fill you in.”
ooooGeorges Begue – renamed George Noble by his handlers in British Intelligence – had escaped from France in the aftermath and confusion of Dunkirk. A short time later, appreciating the mastery of English he’d acquired years earlier as an engineering student in Hull, the army had commissioned him, stuffed his head with enough information to operate a field radio and open a parachute, and promptly dropped him back in France from a low-flying reconnaissance plane, armed only with a heavy transmitter in a beat-up pasteboard suitcase.
ooooWithin six months Begue and three other agents for whom he paved the way, were instrumental in setting up a regimen of regular communications to unite the various Resistance factions, arranging arms drops, and establishing a network of field agents throughout France. During that time, at considerable personal peril, he had been Britain’s primary contact, their most reliable eyes and ears on the ground in Vichy France, broadcasting as often as three times a day.
ooooIt had been Begue who had suggested that the BBC Overseas Service be used to send coded messages to the Maquis and other underground operatives in Europe, a tactic that was proving itself daily.
ooooUltimately, he’d been discovered, imprisoned four times, once upon arriving in Spain after having made his way over the Pyrenees on foot. Eventually Spain – ostensibly a neutral country – had released him and he’d made his way back to Britain, where he was made Signals Officer of F section, under Buckmaster.
ooooBy the time he’d reached that last door on the left at the end of the hall, Crisp had sifted through and exhausted his store of knowledge on Georges Begue. He was about to meet a hero.
ooooHero he might be, but Begue was destined to remain forever unsung. Far too unassuming to trade on his accomplishments, he quietly and competently did whatever was asked of him. He was a gray man, who inhabited a gray office, in a gray building, in the gray capital of a tiny gray nation, in a world made gray by the ashes of too many dead.
ooooThe gray man looked up when Crisp knocked on the open door, flashed a quick smile that briefly ignited his eyes as he stood to shake hands, and settled back in his chair. If he was taken unawares by Crisp’s apparent age, he didn’t show it. “I understand you have accepted the mission,” he said, gesturing the visitor to a straight backed steel chair.
oooo“So it would seem,” Crisp replied with a smile. “’Accepted’ in the military sense.”
ooooBegue nodded and laughed softly, almost apologetically. “Yes. It is wonderful the things we volunteer for with our mouths closed and our hands in our pockets, is it not?” He opened a drawer of his massive metal desk, withdrew a small manila envelope, and dropped it on the desktop. “In there you will find everything you require, I think. Maps, contact names, codes, and schedules. You may take the packet into the room across the hall. You are to go in and close the door, memorize the material, then bring the envelope back here to me. You will repeat to me the salient points and we will destroy it together. You may take as long as you like. This is agreeable?”
ooooCrisp thought it best not to remark the not-insignificant difference between ‘agreed’ and ‘agreeable.” He nodded, took the packet, and did as he was told.
ooooWithin an hour he and Begue were staring, mesmerized, into Begue’s wastebasket as the papers burned. A noisy box fan with a bent blade had been wedged in the open window, and was drawing the smoke out to mix unobtrusively with the perpetual miasma that draped the city.
oooo“Perhaps one day, all secrets will go up in smoke, no?” said Begue, almost dreamily.
oooo‘Heaven forbid,’ thought Crisp. The keeping, cultivation, and discovery of secrets was his career. But he understood that Begue was not coming from the same place.
oooo“Meantime, I’ve got to make my way across over hundreds of miles of Vichy France, get Walter Hertz away from the Maquis, one way or another, before Louis transfers him to the Communists – which is scheduled to take place at 2100 on the night of the 2nd, and deliver him to a sub waiting off the Bordeaux by the 4th.”
ooooBegue feigned covering his ears. “None of that information exists,” he said, barely above a whisper. “It is gone.” He fanned the smoke away with the back of his hand. “Gone.” A small manila envelope was sitting on Begue’s desk that hadn’t been there when Crisp first entered the office. The gray man picked it up and handed it to Crisp. “We’ve had a pair of trousers made with a special pocket in them. Sew these documents into it. You are to return through Boulazac – no later than the night of the 3rd. Read them then.”
oooo“If I live that long.”
ooooBegue nodded. “I’m given to understand that a great deal more than your life depends upon your doing so.”
ooooCrisp knew better than to ask what the envelope contained. It was not likely that Begue knew. It was definite that he wouldn’t say if he did.
France, May 17th – 1944
ooooA Lysander aircraft was built to hold the pilot and one passenger. It was rumored that, in extreme situations, and with debilitating discomfort, three passengers could be crammed into the compartment.
ooooTonight, it held four.
ooooCrisp had no sooner tumbled from the hatch and begun to unfold the human knot he had become, than the plane had disappeared into the blackening underbelly of the clouds and his traveling companions into the forest along with whomever it was who had been responsible for lighting, then extinguishing the four small lanterns marking the boundaries of the makeshift runway.
ooooWithin a minute, a brief fusillade of gunfire erupted in the direction toward which the crew had fled, but he was under orders not to concern himself in such an eventuality. He had a job to do.
ooooCrisp thumbed the wheel on his Zippo, striking just enough spark to get his bearings from his compass and headed southwest. Once safely on his own in the countryside, he removed his uniform – which he stashed in a hedge – and put on the clothes he’d brought with him; those of a peasant farmer. It suddenly dawned on him that his age hadn’t been merely a consideration in his being selected for the mission, it was the reason. This ‘special skill’ would allow him to pass largely undetected … at least largely unsuspected … through the countryside.
ooooHe laughed aloud.
ooooHe soon stumbled upon a rutted tractor path striking off in his general direction, and began to jog as fast as his limited visibility and uncooperative joints would allow. Nevertheless, jogging felt good after nearly an hour and a half compacted like a sardine beside three Jeds in full kit, unable to wiggle a finger or draw more than a shallow breath of warm, stale air, that tasted of exhaust fumes and had already passed through someone else’s lungs.
ooooHe sucked the cold French night into his chest, and experienced that exhilaration unique to those suddenly released from captivity in a confined space. For some reason, his brain chose that moment to replay Buckmaster’s final words. “You bring Walter Hertz back here, alive and bubbly, lieutenant.” Technically, Crisp was a civilian, but Buckmaster had called him ‘lieutenant’ from their first meeting, so lieutenant he was. “Or you can jump off a cliff, as far as I’m concerned. Do I make myself clear?”
oooo“And don’t let him kill you on the way.”
ooooCrisp hadn’t been prepared for this. “He … he’s not … that is, he won’t be coming willingly?”
ooooBuckmaster laughed unexpectedly and violently. “Would you be taken to Berlin willingly, lieutenant?”
oooo“Well, no, but …”
oooo“He’s no turncoat, if that’s what you were hoping. He was captured. The man’s as Nazi as Himmler’s knickers, and would only be comfortable heading west if he was surrounded by a division of Panzers.” He tapped his watch. “You’d best be off.”
ooooCrisp’s instructions had been clear-cut: “appropriate” a vehicle – or “other means of conveyance” – cross several hundred miles of hostile territory to Beaulieu on the Dordogne, negotiate or otherwise secure the transfer to British control of the mysterious Walter Hertz from Louis, and bring him back to England or, failing that, to Gibraltar.
Simple. On paper.
ooooVehicles were not a problem. Halftracks, staff cars, tanks, military transports of every shape, size, and description were scattered through the countryside like sheep; abandoned when and where their last atomized ounce of fuel had run out.
ooooThat was the problem.
ooooThat and the fact that the roads and bridges, having been sabotaged by both sides at one time or another – depending which way the winds of war were blowing – were nearly impassable, except by bicycle or on foot; which is how a rising tide of Germans, bristling with weapons and anxious to use them, were attempting to make their way north, either to the warmth of their Fuehrer’s welcome, or to reinforce the Axis forces in defense of the long-anticipated cross-Channel invasion.
ooooThe generals had yet to decide where the bulk of that defense would be positioned.
ooooIn the wake of this withdrawal, the fraying fringes of the Third Reich exposed partisan nerves rubbed raw by years of abuse at the hands of those of their countrymen who had “taken Hitler’s pfenning.”
ooooAt the same time those collaborators – the Vichy French and the Milice, the private police force of the puppet government – aware that their brief moment of ascendancy was rapidly drawing to a violent end, were growing increasingly timorous, and not without reason. No one was suggesting that, when the time came, they would be welcome to join in the northward retreat with their jackbooted masters. Nor, they knew, could they hope to secure pardon from their countrymen in post-war France, regardless which faction of the Resistance came out on top.
ooooTimorous, indeed. But timorous and armed. A deadly combination, in Crisp’s experience.
oooo“And the partisan unity,” Crisp said to himself as he considered these impediments to the swift accomplishment of his mission, “is unraveling. Which means it won’t be long before they turn their guns on each other.” He thought of the hundreds of miles of occupied country he somehow had to negotiate in six days. “Welcome to France.”
ooooApproaching headlights stabbed through the perforations in his reverie. Clyde Bickford pulled to a stop beside the sidewalk, six or seven feet from the cannon. “Professor?” he said, incredulously. “What’re you doin’ out this time’ve night?” He half suspected the old man must be sleep-walking.
oooo“Waiting for you, Clyde.”
ooooAcross the corpulent man’s usually jovial face twitched a brief spasm of concern. He knew as much as everyone on the island about the Professor’s exploits the last couple of years and, while the secrets he’d uncovered and their tragic consequences hadn’t been the old man’s fault, still, their darkness attended him almost palpably, and his appearance here, in his condition, at this time of night, suggested that the island’s brief peace was about to be shattered yet again.
oooo“What can I do for you?”
oooo“I need a ride down to the public landing, if you could manage it.”
ooooClyde’s car doubled as his office. He turned down the radio – on which an editorialist was commenting the release ‘last month of noted crime boss Joseph Candalfini from the State Penitentiary in Walpole’ – scooped an armload of paperwork from the passenger seat and tossed it on the seat behind him. “Sure, sure. Happy to. Hop in.
oooo“So,” said Clyde as Crisp attempted to accommodate his various aching members in the leather seat, “what’s goin’ on down to the landing at this hour?”
ooooAs they drifted down the hill, Crisp was compelled to concede rumors he’d heard around town – specifically at the pool hall – that Clyde’s opulent Toronado was, in Leeman Russell’s words, “like heaven in leather.” Add a couple of doilies on the arm rests, Crisp thought, and his seat might have been one of the easy chairs in Matty’s living room.
ooooThis comfortable awareness aside, Clyde’s perfectly logical question presented certain difficulties. The presence of a Coast Guard vessel at the town wharf in the middle of the night couldn’t fail to excite comment. Time was Crisp wouldn’t have missed a beat spinning a probable lie. As it was he had to think about it. This could be attributable either to age and the simple disuse of the mechanism or to having lived so long under Matty’s influence. The woman was very particular about the truth. She had no patience for subtleties; for the shadings and colorings that, for years, had been his stock-in-trade.
oooo“I just got word that an old friend hasn’t long to live,” he said. “Up at Togus.” Reference to the VA hospital lent just the right air of verisimilitude.
oooo“Oh, sorry to hear that.”
oooo“So I called in a favor from another friend … in the State Department … to see if the Coast Guard wouldn’t mind giving me a ride across the bay.”
oooo“Shoot,” said Clyde as they pulled into the parking lot, “wish you’d’ve asked me, Professor. I’d’ve been happy to have one of my boys take you over.”
ooooThe Coast Guard skiff was unobtrusively tugging its tether at the float. Crisp reluctantly opened the door and extracted himself from the seat. “You’re right, Clyde, I should have. Frankly, it never occurred to me. Next time.”
oooo“Any time, day or night.” Clyde waved with his customary cheerful bon hommie, tapped the gas, and resumed his nocturnal peregrinations.
ooooA uniformed seaman met Crisp at the foot of the ramp shaking his hand and, simultaneously, taking him by the elbow and helping him to the float. “Mr. Crisp. I’m petty officer Drake. Welcome aboard.”
ooooCrisp spent a dubious glance on the skiff. Once upon a time he and his friends had criss-crossed the bay in far less reliable craft than that, but once upon a time anything was possible, and it was a very long time ago. “We’re going across the bay in that?”
ooooDrake smiled. “No, sir. We’ve got a cutter out between Hurricane and Green’s Island. We’re under orders not to attract too much attention.”
ooooThe ride to Spruce Head stirred sensations in Crisp he hadn’t felt in years. Sitting on a rope locker at the stern, wrapped in a warm wool blanket the thoughtful crew had provided, he watched the islands – compressed to a two dimensional silhouette cut from a celestial sea of shimmering stars – recede to the horizon, the way home marked by a scintillating trail of phosphorescence briefly awakened by the churning propellers. None of the crew bothered him. Their assignment was to get him safely to the mainland, nothing more.
ooooHe breathed deeply. The air presented his senses with a bouquet of changing impressions; the sharp tang of the sea tinged – even at this distance from shore – with an overlay of pine, spruce, and pungent seaweed. The ship tossed in odors of its own, diesel fumes, damp rope, oil, fresh paint on polished metal, chemicals of some sort. None of it unpleasant; the vibrant throbbing and waftings of a world in motion, so unlike the world in which he’d been cocooned of late, one given over to the anticipation of death, swaddled in the aromas of unguents, ointments, and medicaments meant to disguise or, at best, forestall, the body’s slow decay.
ooooHe lit his pipe, propped his feet up on the gunwale, and smoked defiantly, brazenly, and with all his might, right there below the watching moon, which only winked. His right leg hurt, so he put it down. Which made his hip hurt, so be put his left leg down as well. Life was a process of first acquiring, then accommodating physical infirmities until they obscured all else, numbing the senses to joy. So what if it hurt? Hurt was a feeling, wasn’t it? Isn’t that something?
ooooUsing his hands, he lifted his legs back up on the gunwale. So, it hurt. What the hell? He smiled, and spit overboard, and smoked every last riff-cut leaf in the bowl of his pipe to dust and ashes.
oooo“I swear I heard him singing,” said one crewman to the other as they dropped anchor just beyond Radcliff Point, a five minute skiff-ride from Spruce Head Island.
oooo“Hope he didn’t catch his death of cold,” said the other. “We’ll never hear the end of it if he ends up with pneumonia.”
oooo“Could you possibly get Mrs. Boatwright something hot to drink,” said Crisp. Chief Justice Willis had been pacing distractedly back and forth, and Crisp was worried that one of these times he’d forget to duck under the big ship’s timber beam that spanned the low-ceilinged room. Added to that, his agitation was doing nothing to calm his housekeeper so Crisp could get her story.
oooo“What? Tea?” said Willis, as if trying to interpret a foreign language. “Oh. Oh, yes. Of course. What would you prefer, Gloria? Coffee or tea?”
ooooThe housekeeper raised tear-filled eyes and sniffed. “Oh, I’ll get it, Mr. Willis. That’s not your job.”
ooooShe started to rise from her chair, but Crisp laid a firm hand on her shoulder and made her sit back. “I’m sure he can manage. Tea or coffee?”
oooo“Well, tea, please, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. The canister’s the one with the puffins on it, beside the breadbox.” She looked at Crisp. “Would you like something?”
oooo“I’m fine,” said Crisp. He nodded Chief Justice Willis out of the room.
oooo“Now, tell me all about your granddaughter.”
ooooThe housekeeper threatened to burst into tears. Crisp squeezed her shoulder and shook it slightly. “That’s not going to help, Gloria. I need you to talk to me.”
ooooWith great effort, the woman mastered her emotions. “Tabby,” she began. “She’s … very special.”
oooo“I understand,” Crisp replied gently. “She’s asthmatic?”
ooooGloria nodded, dabbing at her eyes with the corner of her kerchief.
oooo“And she’s …”
oooo“She’s not retarded!” Gloria defended quickly.
oooo“No. Of course not,” said Crisp, a little taken aback by the housekeeper’s vehemence.
ooooThe telephone rang in the kitchen. “I should get that,” said the housekeeper, rising, but a moment later they heard Justice Willis answer it and immediately begin a conversation with whomever was on the other end.
oooo“There goes hope of any tea,” said Gloria. “He should have that thing sewn to his ear, he’s on it mornin’ to night. Mostly about poor Mr. Nixon. Seems to be havin’ the devil of a time down there to Washington, don’t he? Well,” she said, patting her upper chest. “It’s this war in Vietnam, ain’t it? You seen that Dan Rather on the news, countin’ them body bags every night? Like to kill them boys’ parents, wouldn’t you think? Well, who wouldn’t?”
ooooWho wouldn’t what, exactly, would remain a mystery. Crisp felt that getting the conversation back on track would take a sharp tug.
oooo“Perhaps you could tell me how else she’s special, Tabby, I mean?”
oooo“She’s got a condition,” said the housekeeper, relaxing somewhat. “She’s autistic. Not ‘artistic’” she clarified, swallowing the ‘r’ the way coastal Mainers do, which made the difference almost indistinguishable, “that’s what I thought it was first time I heard it. I thought, ‘well, so she’s artistic. There’s worse things to be, ain’t there? I mean long as you don’t cut off your ear like what’s-his-name. But then they told me autistic ain’t the same thing.
oooo“It’s just that she doesn’t think like the rest of us, you see? She … bounces around a bit.” Clearly this was a speech she’d made before. “And she doesn’t like change. Or loud noises. Or linoleum or tap water. Some things just set her off. Heaven forbid the peanut butter should touch a slice of banana! Lord … I hate to think what she’s going through, Mr. Crisp! Can you help us? Can you find her? I’ve read about you in the Courier. I know you do wonderful things, but …”
ooooCrisp patted her hand. “Does Tabby live with you?”
oooo“What? Oh, no. She lives with her mom and daddy over in South Thomaston. But she stays with me Thursday nights, because her mother works the late shift at Fisher. I usually get a pizza from Snappy’s – she likes pepperoni, but just the shapes of ‘em. She takes ‘em off and stacks ‘em in little piles. Oh! You should see the snit she gets in if they don’t come out even!”
ooooCrisp had a vague awareness of the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of autism, but nothing more. He looked around the room. A small menagerie of stuffed animals, dolls, and puzzles with pieces broken or missing were strewn between the sofa and the Franklin fireplace. “Her toys?”
oooo“Some,” said Gloria. “Sorry about the mess. She’s just all over the place. You wouldn’t believe. I shouldn’t have left it ‘til morning, but I was so tired by the time I got her to bed last night …”
ooooSomething occurred to Crisp. “Does she have a favorite toy? A doll, perhaps?”
oooo“Oh, yes. That one over there,” said the housekeeper, pointing at a quadruped of some kind. It might have been a bear, or a monkey, or a rabbit, but its defining characteristics had long since been loved or otherwise expunged from existence. “She calls it Treaty of Versailles. You ever heard such a thing? No nickname. Always the whole kit-an’-kaboodle. ‘Treaty of Versailles,’ she calls it. Now she couldn’t think up something like that if she was retarded, could she?”
ooooCrisp now knew that Tabby had been kidnapped. How he came by the knowledge, he couldn’t say, but he was aware that if an autistic child formed a powerful attachment to an object, it often became as much an extension of them as an arm or a leg. Had Tabby left of her own accord, it was more than likely she’d have taken that particular doll with her.
ooooThe notion occurred to Gloria at the same time. “She didn’t take it.”
oooo“That means … but why? We’ve got no money, Mr. Crisp. We’re hand-to-mouth folks. Always have been. Ain’t no big secret. Why would anybody want to take Tabby?”
ooooCrisp was comforted by his knowledge that the kidnapping had been a case of mistaken identity; that the child, therefore, had not been taken for even darker purposes.
oooo“You’ll find her, won’t you Mr. Crisp? She needs her medicine. If she gets excited, she can’t breathe without it … Oh, my God, I can’t bear to think …”
ooooAgain, Crisp ran his hand (what a stained, spotted, and ancient dry velum hand it looked, he thought) over hers. She seemed to draw comfort from the gesture.
oooo“Where was she sleeping, Mrs. Boatwright?”
oooo“In the Kennebec,” said the housekeeper, rising. “Oh, that’s the name of the bedroom. The Morrisons – who owned the house before – they named the bedrooms. Kennebec is the blue room down here at the end of the hall, and Katahdin is just across the hall and down one door. That’s the bathroom in there,” she said, as Crisp turned a worn wooden knob. The door swung silently open upon a pleasant room whose dominant features were large fixtures of veined porcelain and marble, a huge clawfoot tub, polished brass, white wainscoting over half-wall bead-board, and a pleasant wallpaper with a delicate but not effeminate pattern. Very New England, like the rest of the house.
ooooA large six-paned picture window above the tub overlooked a sprinkling of treeless islets in a sunny bay, beyond which the ocean spread to infinity. But something was wrong. The ocean was too still. And the light was coming from the wrong direction, unless he’d gotten turned around on his tour through the warren of halls.
ooooThe housekeeper chuckled. “Happens every time,” she said, walking over to the window, which she tapped. The sound was unmistakably that of knuckle on wood.
oooo“Darndest thing, ain’t it? So real. I wouldn’t think nothin’ of it if a boat come out from behind that island and sailed across the bay, would you? Never seen nothin’ like it.”
ooooIt was so real that the discovery was almost unsettling. Crisp leaned close to inspect the brush-strokes, at the same time casting upon the scene an old-man-shaped shadow that promptly flattened the illusion into two dimensions.
oooo“Things ain’t always what they seem, are they?” Mrs. Boatwright observed. Crisp arched his eyebrows, drawing his gaze up over his glasses and at the housekeeper. “How true, Gloria. How true.”
ooooSomething in the old man’s searching eyes was so deeply interrogatory that Mrs. Boatwright felt a momentary affinity for those standing before the Judgment Seat. She looked quickly up at the painting. “Nossir.” She wanted to say something else, to break the spell she felt herself slipping under, but expression forsook her. “Nossir. Well, there.”
oooo“Who painted it, do you know?”
ooooMrs. Boatwright tilted toward the place she expected to find a signature. “Been here longer than I have,” she said. “Don’t seem to be signed.”
oooo“Well,” said Crisp, straightening, “it’s clear Tabby wasn’t taken from here. Let’s go to her bedroom.”
oooo“Of course. Yes. This way.”
ooooCrisp followed the woman up the hall, a perspective prompting him to observe that it was not unlike following Matty around the house, as he had often done. Both women were formed in the same mold, together with fifty others he could name off the top of his head, and countless more up and down the coast who shared minor variations on the same patent. They possessed the same blend of softly rotund womanliness expressive of welcome rather than allure; female casseroles of things warm and wholesome inhabiting a different plane than others of their sex – the poster-child painted pencils in fashion magazines; the nubile hippies who no sooner came into possession of their endowments than shook them at the world. Crisp admired the Mattys and Glorias of Penobscot Bay, their ability to steadfastly return life’s unflinching gaze, take what was handed them without complaint and simply not allow themselves to be beaten by it.
oooo“Here we are,” said Mrs. Boatwright, extending a fleshy hand and giving the door a gentle push. It creaked softly as it swung open.
ooooCrisp hadn’t the right kind of imagination to form a preconception of the sanctum sanctorum of a young American girl, but if he had, it wouldn’t have been this. The room was an expression of inner chaos, the sturm unt drang of an unsettled, if not tortured, seven-year old psyche. The walls were covered with crayon drawings; stick-figure demons, and pipe-cleaner angels, pulsing whirlwinds struggling to tear themselves from their two-dimensional confinement: violent storms of combative colors surging and spinning in a palpable arabesque to an endlessly repeated three-note refrain that would never allow them rest. And one letter, T, endlessly repeated.
oooo“That’s her signature,” Mrs. Boatwright explained.
ooooThe leitmotif of broken, tormented, and discarded playthings only hinted at in the living room continued here unrestrained.
Crisp made a sound of bemusement at the back of his throat.
oooo“Sad, ain’t it?” said Mrs. Boatwright. “And this ain’t even her own home.”
oooo“The Willis’s don’t mind?”
oooo“I’m sure they do. Who wouldn’t? It’s their house, after all. But they don’t say. Mr. Willis seems to accept the fact that Tabby’s part of the package I come with, same as the Morrison’s did. Maybe that’ll all change when they settle in and the Mrs. has her say.”
ooooMrs. Boatwright nodded. “She hasn’t really been here much since they bought the place. Just a weekend or two. She’s out with her sister in Colorado now. Her name’s Silvinger.”
oooo“And her daughter?”
oooo“Kiley. With the governess. They was s’posed to be here yestiddy af’noon, but only made it far as Boston.” She softly closed the door behind them as they left the room. “She called … Emily Bailey, the governess … said the car broke down and they was havin’ to stay to get it fixed. Looks like they won’t be here for a couple days yet, unless they take the train or a bus. I don’t see a governess on a bus, do you? Mary Poppins wouldn’t do it. They got a house in Boston, the Willis’s do. An apartment, if you can call that a house. I expect they’ll stay there.”
oooo“But, they were expected here?”
oooo“Mm. Last night.” They re-entered the living room and the housekeeper spoke over her shoulder. “Looks like he’s gonna be on the phone forever. Can I get you something?”
ooooIt had been Crisp’s experience that nothing was as effective as hot chocolate for dissolving barriers. “You know, Mrs. Boatwright, I don’t mean to put you to any trouble, but if you happen to have any hot chocolate …?”
ooooThe woman was pleased by the unexpected request, as Crisp expected she would be. She left to make preparations, leaving Crisp free to absorb what he had learned thus far.
ooooKiley, the Willis’s daughter, had clearly been the intended victim so – apart from finding out what had happened to Tabby – the most important thing at the moment was that she be kept out of harm’s way. She should be safe enough in Boston for a couple of days, but he’d have Jessup post men to keep an eye on them, from a distance, just in case. Jessup could also deal with ascertaining why someone would want to kidnap the girl. Money? Influence? Thankfully, all that was beyond the scope of Crisp’s commission.
ooooThe two policemen who had met him at the landing and accompanied him to the house remained on the porch, as he had asked them to. One of them smoked stoically, the other talked incessantly, but quietly; no doubt – if his expression was any indication – voicing his displeasure at being relegated to the status of babysitter for the old guy.
ooooCrisp smiled and, punching his glasses up his nose with his forefinger, surveyed the room. It had little to tell him. Why should it? It was a place in transition, still mostly Morrison sprinkled with abstract daubs and dabs of Willis. In the coming weeks and months, the brush strokes of Willis would become bolder – especially with the arrival of ‘the Mrs.’ – asserting themselves until the fading influence of the Morrison canvas was overlain entirely. Then it might tell him something. Not now.
oooo“Who else knew the governess and the Willis girl were expected here last night?”
ooooCrisp called. He rifled absently through an old copy of Down East magazine.
ooooMrs. Boatwright replied from the kitchen, where she was alone, Justice Willis having migrated to the sunroom. “Kiley.”
ooooCrisp stopped rifling. “Who’s Kiley?”
oooo“The Willis’s daughter. Her name’s Kiley, poor thing. Imagine having to go through life with an odd name like that.” Mrs. Boatwright bustled in with a tray, the centerpiece of which was a steaming mug of cocoa. Evidently water was kept hot in a pot on the oil stove. Around the mug, three ladyfingers prostrated themselves in neat array – befitting ladies – sacrificial worshippers of the cocoa god. She placed the tray on the wickerwork table. “There we are. Help yourself.”
ooooCrisp did as he was told.
oooo“I knew, of course,” said Mrs. Boatwright, who seemed to glean more satisfaction from sitting opposite him with her hands folded in her aproned lap, watching him eat, than she would have from eating herself. “Barnacle knew. He’s the caretaker.”
ooooCrisp spoke with his mouth full. “His name’s Barnacle?”
oooo“Oh, well, I don’t suppose that’s his Christian name, but I’ve never heard him called anything else, and I’ve known him since we was in kindergarten. And, without givin’ too much away, that was more than fifty years ago. Barnacle Martin. Maybe it’s Barny … no, that’s short for somethin’, too, ain’t it? Nicknames stick, don’t they?”
oooo“Like Barnacles,” said the Professor wryly.
oooo“Like Barnacles!” Mrs. Boatwright echoed, clapping her hands once. “Ain’t you clever.”
ooooCrisp allowed his companion to relax further. “This is excellent chocolate,” emerging from a sip with a ring of marshmallow on his nose. “Who else knew they were coming?”
oooo“Is this going to help you find Tabby?” the housekeeper wondered, leaning forward she wet a corner of her apron on her tongue and dabbed the marshmallow from his nose as thoughtlessly and naturally as if she’d been doing it all her life. “Not that I can think of. I mean, I may have mentioned it down at the grocery store or the post office. Be surprised if I didn’t.” So would Crisp. “But no one ‘specially, that I can think of.”
ooooSo the whole town knew.
ooooThere seemed to be nothing else to be gained by this line of questioning. It was time to conclude the interview. Crisp stood.
oooo“Oh, are you leavin’?”
oooo“Unless there’s something you’ve forgotten to tell me?” he prompted.
ooooGloria scratched her head. “Not that I can think of. Can I get in touch with you if something comes to mind?”
oooo“Just call the police station, Gloria. If you’ve got a message, they’ll get it to me.”
oooo“Yes. Well that’s good, then. So, you’re going to go find Tabby now?”
oooo“I’m going to try.”
oooo“Oh, you will. I know you will. You’re cleverer than whosever got ‘er. You’ll find her.”
ooooCrisp wished he was as confident. But these days, when finding his socks tasked his deductive powers to the limit and remembering to take his medicine without first being reminded by pain constituted a milestone in the passing parade of hours. “I’ll do all I can.”
oooo“Here,” said Mrs. Boatwright, rummaging through the pockets of her apron. She drew out an inhaler. “You give this to ‘er when you find ‘er. Right away, hear? She’ll know what to do with it – two quick squirts.” She simulated the process, inhaling twice sharply. “Don’t you worry. She knows.”
ooooShe had just left the room, which seemed to darken a degree or two in her absence, when Justice Willis entered. “I’m sorry for the distraction, Mr. Crisp. I’ve been called back to Washington – this Watergate mess, you know. There’s just no avoiding it. Listen,” he sat down, sinking deep into the blue-and-white striped sofa, and looked up at Crisp like a supplicant, “I know this is a terrible . . . it’s an awful lot to ask of you. But I’ve done my research. I know who you are . . . what you’ve done. Frankly, even if I had somewhere else to turn, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather . . .” He gaze fell to the floor. “Just find Tabby, Mr. Crisp. I couldn’t bear the thought . . . just find her.” He looked up again. “Mrs. Boatwright has my number. If you need me, for anything. Anytime . . . “
Crisp decided to keep to himself the obvious comment: Tabitha Boatwright is the least of your problems.
ooooAs he left the house, allowing the screen door to slap shut behind him, one thing resounded in his mind: if Jessup’s estimate was correct, the girl had less than four hours to live. He tried to force the urgency of that fact to the forefront of his mind as the police car ate up the twenty miles to Camden, but, as he stared out the window at the passing fogscape, memories – rising from their graves in buried precincts of his mind – had begun wandering its streets of his consciousness, buttonholing him like beggars at every turn.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I hope you’ve read the first two Winston Crisp Mysteries, A Show of Hands and The Dead of Winter* and are sufficiently intrigued by these sample chapters to download the rest of Winston’s final challenge Justice Once Removed to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone or other reading device for only $2.99. To do so, simply click here, or click the book cover at the top of this page which will take you to Amazon where you can place your order safely and securely. And if you enjoy these mysteries, I welcome you to read the sample chapters of Dead and Breakfast, and the Albert mysteries. Meantime, PLEASE Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail everyone you know, tell them how much you love Winston, and send them to http://www.davidcrossman.com!
Thank you. The rest of Winston’s story awaits!
David A. Crossman
*Dead of Winter is presently available only from the original publisher, in paperback.