A Show of Hands
“Crossman is a skilled mystery writer with a knack for suspense, clues, local color, and a flowing story. His creation, venerable Winston Crisp, is a compelling and likable old fellow whose reappearance in future stories will be warmly received.” Times Record
“The writing is fast-paced and full of enough twists and turns to engage the most avid of mystery readers. Crisp is a delightful, plausible sleuth. I look forward to more Crisp books.” Maine Sunday Telegram
“As clever as (this) premise is, as satisfactory as the complex plot may be to the mystery buff…it is the peripheral characters that make this book shine. Let’s hope Mr. Crisp and his pals survive the mayhem and entertain us again.” Ellsworth Weekly
RETIRED INTELLIGENCE agent Winston Crisp thought his career of delving into dark, unpleasant secrets was long over. He’d forsaken adventure and settled comfortably into the tiny community on Penobscot Island off the coast of Maine. There, he’s content to write poems no magazine will publish, gossip with the locals around the pot-bellied stove at the hardware store, and gain weight on his landlady’s homestyle cooking. But when the body of a young woman is found, he just can’t refrain from asking a few questions; how did she end up frozen in the ice of an abandoned quarry? Whose fingerprints are those on her slender neck? What was her relationship with the son of Senator McKinnison? And why is her beautiful face caked with forty-year-old theatrical make-up?
Before long, octogenarian Crisp finds himself caught up in a tangled murder investigation, haunted by a red-headed ghost, and the target of a killer with a strangely twisted mind. His own grip on reality is slipping, and he’s losing his will to keep digging. But he’s determined not to go to his grave with these questions unanswered…
A Show of Hands
by David A. Crossman
Chapter OneooooOlaf Ingraham leaned into the light. “I’d like to’ve seen the look on Bergie’s face when he started cuttin’ that fish hole and seen her lookin’ up at him.” Olaf did his impersonation of a young woman frozen in ice and laughed his stupid laugh.
oooo“They got Gammidge over from Rockland. He’s up at the funeral parlor now, lookin’ at her,” said Stuffy Hutchin. In long years of practice, s’s and c’s had worn a path around Stuffy’s four teeth. That’s why they called him Sylvester. But his real nickname was Stuffy. He slurped the foam off his beer and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Fifteen for two.”
oooo“Blast it, Syl’! Where’d you get that five? Every time I got tens, you got fives.” Wendell played a jack. “Twenty-five.”
oooo“And every time you got eights, he’s got sevens,” said Harry, and sipped his Coke. For most of his seventy-odd years, Harry had only rarely been without a six-ounce Coke in the thick green bottle, and he sipped after every sentence—softly for a period, loudly for an exclamation. He wasn’t the kind of person to ask questions, so he hadn’t developed an interrogatory sip.
ooooOlaf and Bill, cut in half by light and shadow, floated headless in the cigarette smoke behind Stuffy, studying his cards, tossing nods and winks through the shadows of the poolroom.
ooooStuffy’s bottom lip curled over his gums and played a perpetual game of push tag with his tongue. “Thirty-one for two,” he said, dropping a six of clubs on the cribbage board.
oooo“Fours, fives, and sixes,” Wendell exclaimed. He rose partly out of his chair and slammed down the cards in disgust. “I shoulda known.”
oooo“Should have,” said Stuffy. “I got fifteen two, fifteen four, fifteen six, and three is nine.” He jumped his peg gingerly down the board. “Puts me out with a hole to spare.”
ooooHarry smiled. “Nossir, you can’t beat luck like that.”
oooo“Skill,” said Stuffy. “Pay up, Wen’.”
oooo“If I’d ’a’ had first count . . .”
ooooStuffy sat back and crammed the overflow of his belly into his pants. “If wishes was horses,” he said philosophically, “we’d be up to our necks in fertilizer. That’s three dollars, I believe.”
oooo“Play me again.”
oooo“One more. Double or nothin’.”
oooo“I don’t want to play no more. I think we’ve crossed the line between competition and abuse. Besides”—he burped—“that was double or nothin’.”
ooooWendell stood up the rest of the way. “That wasn’t neither.”
oooo“Was so,” repeated Harry with an authoritative pull at the visor of his plaid wool cap.
ooooEither Olaf or Bill, floating in clouds of smoke like Zeus, said “was so” from the shadows. That made it so, whether it was or not. Wendell reluctantly dug out his old leather change purse and paid up in quarters, dimes, and nickels. The others watched in silence as he counted out. A glimpse at the inside of Wendell Slocum’s purse was a rare thing, like a solar eclipse or Halley’s comet, demanding some measure of reverence.
oooo“She musta fell in and banged her head,” said Stuffy, counting the coins with his eyes. “Drowned.”
oooo“You’ll have to take the last ten cents in pennies,” said Wendell. He dumped a little pile of pennies into his palm and resumed counting, by ones.
oooo“Could have,” said Harry. “You shouldn’t go walkin’ ’round them quarries if you don’t know what you’re doin’. Lotta loose rock up there.”
oooo“Yup,” said Olaf. “Loose rock all over the place.”
oooo“Some dangerous,” said Bill.
ooooStuffy waited patiently while the last few coins fell into his hand. “Musta froze over that same night.”
ooooWaymond Webber was quietly rolling balls on the billiard table. Nobody cared enough about Waymond to give him a real nickname. Some called him Oozie, but it was more adjective than noun. “She didn’t have no clothes on,” Waymond said. He was the kind of person who would wait all night to say something like that.
oooo“Leeman Russell was up there when they chipped her out,” said Harry. “Fresh as a mornin’ in Paris, he said she was, froze like that. Doc Pagitt put her in one’ve them bags like you seen ’em do on TV. A clear one, like Phyllis Clayton puts the dry cleanin’ in, only thicker. You could see right through it.”
oooo“She didn’t have nothin’ on, did she?” said Waymond. Nobody paid any attention. Not paying any attention to Waymond was a community pastime.
ooooThe cowbell on the back of the door clanged loudly, and everyone looked to see who had come in.
oooo“Professor,” said Stuffy. He lifted a chair from the table behind him and spun it around. “Come have a seat over here. Brenda, get the professor a Moxie.”
ooooHarry dropped his bottle among the empties in the crate beside the counter. “Nickel, Brenda,” he said, holding out his hand. The bottle deposit was one of those unique economies necessitated by life on the island with its scarcity of disposal space. Harry hadn’t lost a nickel yet. Brenda was busy wiping off the grill. “Bergie said he puked when he found her.”
oooo“I don’t hardly wonder,” said Olaf.
oooo“Me neither,” said Bill.
ooooWinston Crisp was made from leftovers of Jimmy Stewart—lanky, soft-spoken, pale and milky around the eyes. Gold wire-rimmed spectacles conspired with a pleasant, forgettable face and stooped shoulders to give Crisp a bookish appearance. Hence the nickname “Professor,” which the locals had given him when he spent his first summer on the island as a boy of seven or so. They had called him that ever since. Now that Crisp had retired to the island, the nickname had thoroughly supplanted his Christian name even on his mail. Sometimes even Matty called him Professor, though she claimed to hate the name. Over the rims of his glasses, with eyebrows vaulted in a perpetual query, Crisp surveyed the world that always seemed to be running off without him. He sat down as he was told.
ooooBrenda circumnavigated Harry’s outstretched palm and handed the professor his Moxie. “Nickel, Brenda,” said Harry, shaking his open palm, eliciting a glare that put a severe strain on two or three of the more popular commandments.
oooo“We’re talkin’ about that body they found up to the quarry, Professor,” said Stuffy. “Some summer girl.”
oooo“Oh, yes,” said Crisp. “Matty said . . . she told me . . . while I was having my oatmeal. Terrible.”
ooooAt that moment the cowbell clanged again. The door flew open and an agitated individual burst in and stopped dead in his tracks.
oooo“What’s wrong with you, Leeman?” said Olaf, by way of greeting.
ooooMost small towns have a town crier. On Penobscot Island it was Leeman Russell. He was the one who always managed to get to accident scenes before the blood dried. He could be counted upon to convey the unpleasant news to the rest of the citizenry in the most alarming manner possible—like the evening news. His eyes ransacked each face in the room. “They found out who it is!” he said.
ooooBrenda poured Leeman a coffee. This was going to be news worth a free drink.
oooo“It’s that girl who was up at the senator’s last summer,” said Leeman, lip deep in the ephemeral puddle of attention, “the one the FBI was out here lookin’ for last fall.”
oooo“The one they was tryin’ to keep so quiet about, you mean,” said Olaf.
oooo“How many others there been, Olaf?” Stuffy chided.
ooooWhen Harry finally closed his hand, he found a nickel in it. He went to the refrigerator and took out another Coke. “What’re you talkin’ about?” he said. “You talkin’ ’bout Senator McKenniston? What’s she got to do with him?”
ooooStuffy shuffled the cards habitually. He was one of those people—not as rare on the islands of the Maine coast as elsewhere in the world—whom nothing surprised. The wrath of God could reduce everyone in the room to pocket lint or refrigerator magnets, and he wouldn’t bat an eye. He’d suck his lower lip a little and shuffle the cards. “McKenniston’s boy, Neddy,” he said. “He brought this girl up here last summer.”
ooooHarry could make a noise at the back of his throat that was the very embodiment of disgust. He made it twice now. “That boy . . . that boy was never nothin’ but trouble!” Big sip. oooo“Always up to somethin’.”
oooo“That big outdoor weddin’ he had up by TipToe Mountain a couple’ve years ago don’t seem to have settled him down much, did it?” said Wendell.
oooo“They didn’t even invite anybody from the island,” Olaf recalled.
oooo“Walter Cronkite was there,” said Bill.
oooo“So was that opera lady,” Olaf said. “Isabelle . . . Elizabeth, somethin’. What was her name, Professor?”
oooo“Beverly Sills, I think you mean.”
oooo“I thought it was somethin’ like that,” said Olaf. “All them jet-setters.”
oooo“Not a clam digger in the bunch,” said Stuffy. The lobstermen laughed.
oooo“Ain’t hardly any clam diggers left in the jet set these days,” said Olaf dryly.
ooooWendell was indignant. “Well, what was Neddy doin’ bringin’ a girl out here if he’s married?”
oooo“He never brought his wife here,” Olaf observed.
oooo“Nope,” said Bill. “Always left her in Massachusetts.”
oooo“That boy chases anything with skirts, I’d say. Got a different girl every time you see him.” Harry spat, seeming to forget he didn’t have any chewing tobacco. He nearly lost his dentures. “Prob’ly all over the girls who go to work up at the house.”
oooo“Like white on rice,” said Waymond, whose only ad-libs were things everyone had heard a few thousand times before.
oooo“Well, you know what happened to Sarah Quinn,” said Olaf.
oooo“She ain’t still workin’ up there, is she?” Wendell asked.
oooo“Who?” said Bill. “Sarah? Not since she had that baby, I shouldn’t think.”
oooo“She’d’ve had one, one way or the other anyway,” Harry observed with a draining pull on his Coke bottle.
ooooOlaf narrowed a critical eye. “What’s that s’posed to mean?”
oooo“Ragged Islanders,” said Harry, “and rabbits. They both start early with whoever’s handy. And if there ain’t fresh blood, well, there’s friends and family, and up there it’s one and the same, ain’t it?”
oooo“Oh, here we go,” said Olaf. “Everything you ever wanted to know about anything from someone who knows nothin’ ’bout everything.”
ooooHarry continued. “And when your brother’s your father and your uncle, like most of ’em, there prob’ly ain’t a Noble Prize in your future, if you know what I mean. Sarah Quinn’s a good example.”
oooo“Well, if the Nobel Prize was given out for foolishness,” Bill interjected contemptuously, “there wouldn’t be anyone between you and King Gustav when it come time to pick it up.”
oooo“Started work up there when she was fourteen or so,” said Stuffy, nudging the subject back on track.
oooo“That’s her old man’s doin’,” said Olaf. “I bet he drug ’er up there.”
oooo“That’s one thing you can say about Ragged Islanders, you know,” said Wendell. “They was always like that. Soon’s a kid’s old ’nough to make his way, out they go and make it.”
oooo“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that,” said Harry. “I was payin’ board when I was thirteen.”
oooo“That was over sixty years ago, Harry,” said Wendell. “Lotsa things changed in sixty years.”
ooooHarry scoffed. “Change don’t signify improvement.”
oooo“I don’t imagine life on Ragged Island did much to make her ready for young Ned,” said Olaf.
oooo“No denyin’ puberty hits some boys like a drug,” said Stuffy. He went into a long, animated stretch. “Anyway, that’s why you never read nothin’ about it in the papers when that girl run away.”
oooo“That’s why they had the FBI out here,” Leeman added.
oooo“Pays to be a senator, I guess,” said Stuffy.
oooo“I ’member thinkin’ that was some strange, though,” said Olaf. “There was all kinds’ve people saw her leave the island ’bout that time, ’member? Mostly Sanborn seen her get off the boat in Rockland. So did a couple’ve others. Becky Gable and Evelyn Swears was over doin’ shoppin’ that day—they seen her get off.”
ooooThere was a dull murmur of consent.
oooo“And nobody saw her get back on?” Crisp asked.
ooooAll heads shook.
oooo“That’s why I couldn’t figure out why the FBI come over here lookin’ for her,” said Olaf in summation.
oooo“Well, she musta got back out here someways,” Stuffy said. “ ’Cause she sure is here now.”
oooo“So, that’s the same girl,” Wendell sighed. “Well, that’s some awful.”
ooooThere was a brief intermission during which everyone entertained his own thoughts. Crisp slowly rotated the Moxie bottle in his hands. “That was about Labor Day, as I recall, wasn’t it—when the FBI came out?”
oooo“Thereabouts,” said Stuffy.
oooo“It wasn’t more than two, three days after the Calderwood boys’ boat blew up, right?” Olaf recollected. “Remember them fellas thought she mighta been on board, since it happened just off McKenniston’s float. Not what you’d call startlin’ intelligence there.”
oooo“You don’t s’pose it likely she was out lobsterin’ with ’em?” said Harry, to a chorus of laughter.
oooo“Yessir, I bet that’s just what it was,” said Olaf. “I tell you, I can’t hardly beat them summer jerks off my boat with a stick.” Olaf waded into the spirit of things with his boots pulled up. “Now Senator, you get your hands outta that bait box! Princess Caroline, I told you to bring your own baitbags!” The good time being had by all was brought to an abrupt end by the epilogue. “ ’Course, all they ever found was Herbie and Andy—what was left of ’em.”
oooo“Just after Labor Day, you say?” said Crisp, listing toward the speaker with his good ear.
oooo“I said it was just two or three days after Herbert and Andy Calderwood’s boat blew up, Professor,” said Olaf, a little louder. “He’s deaf as a post,” he mumbled aside. “The boat blew up the day after Labor Day. Remember?”
oooo“Mmm.” Crisp nodded. “Oh, yes. Yes, I remember. But they found her frozen, you say—this girl?”
oooo“Like a fish dinner,” said Leeman. “I saw her when they pulled her out.”
oooo“You did?” said Crisp thoughtfully. He shuddered. “I shouldn’t like to have seen such a thing, myself.”
oooo“She didn’t have no clothes on, did she, Leeman?” said Waymond. “You could see everything, couldn’t you?”
oooo“She had a shirt on,” Leeman replied. “Just a sweatshirt or whatever you call it.” He looked embarrassed. “That’s all I could see.”
oooo“That ain’t what I heard,” said Waymond.
ooooLeeman didn’t appreciate having his reportorial integrity questioned. oooo“Well, I was there, f’r pete’s sake. I guess I oughta know.”
oooo“A gruesome thought,” said Crisp. He looked at Leeman over his glasses. “Not a pleasant sight after all that time, I shouldn’t think.”
oooo“Oh, well, it wasn’t . . . I mean . . . it was just like she was asleep, except her eyes were open,” said Leeman. “She was funny colors in places. Her face looked strange, but—”
oooo“Asleep?” said Crisp. “You mean she wasn’t . . . that is to say . . . after all that time . . .”
oooo“She was froze, Professor,” said Olaf. “Bodies don’t rot if they’re froze.”
oooo“No,” Crisp replied softly. “No, of course they don’t. Not as fast anyway, I understand. But . . . when was the earliest hard freeze last year?”
oooo“Last of October?” Wendell said tentatively. “Early November, maybe?”
oooo“Not ’til the last week in November,” said Stuffy unequivocally. “My nephew and nieces was out skatin’ just after Thanksgivin’.”
oooo“After Thanksgiving, yes. That’s what I thought,” Crisp said. “And there was even a thaw after that, seems I remember.”
ooooStuffy corroborated Crisp’s recollection with expert testimony. “Yup.”
oooo“Good long spell, as I recall.”
oooo“Almost up to Christmas,” said Harry. “I hate it when it don’t snow for Christmas. Ever since I was a kid, I hated when it didn’t snow for Christmas. All we got was rain last year, right up ’til the day or two ’fore—then the weather turned.”
oooo“Mmm,” said Crisp and massaged his forehead with two fingers. “Then that’s a problem, isn’t it?”
oooo“Why?” said Olaf.
oooo“Well,” said Crisp, leaning over his Moxie and speaking so low that everyone had to gather around to hear, which, with the exception of Stuffy, they did. “If the girl drowned just after Labor Day, as you suppose, and she couldn’t have frozen ’til after Thanksgiving, what happened to the body in the meantime? Assuming she was dead in the interim, that is.”
oooo“Professor’s right,” said Stuffy with a wry smile. “A body don’t stay very fresh settin’ out for two and a half months.”
ooooCuriosity rested a foot in the furrows of Olaf’s forehead. “And it woulda been worse floatin’ in the quarry the whole time,” he said.
oooo“That’s right,” said Bill. “Remember Benny Howell? They found him not more’n a few days after his boat capsized. He was blue as a moose’s balls and half the size of a whale.”
ooooThere was a murmur of agreement. “’Course, that was salt water, that was,” said Wendell.
ooooCrisp cleared his throat and everyone fell silent. “But you say she was not . . . that is, she was . . .”
oooo“Like she was asleep,” said Leeman. “She even had makeup on.”
oooo“Makeup?” said Crisp, and reflected a moment. “Makeup, you say?”
ooooLeeman nodded. “That’s what Chuckie said. Prob’ly why she looked funny.”
oooo“Well, my, my,” Crisp said to his reflection in the cigar cabinet. “Imagine that.” He looked at Leeman. “I don’t suppose any mention was made of how she died.”
oooo“I still say she drowned,” said Olaf. “Must’ve.”
oooo“You think so?” Crisp replied.
oooo“Well, you find someone dead and they got a four-inch hole in their head, and they’re holdin’ a thirty ought six, it’s a fair bet to say they died of a gunshot,” said Olaf.
ooooEveryone but Crisp and Stuffy nodded and made agreeing noises. Stuffy generally withheld agreement on principle. Crisp took a long pull of Moxie and winced. Moxie was good for that. “Makes you less likely to look elsewhere for the cause, I’ll say that much,” Crisp commented. He stood up, paid Brenda for the drink, and riffled briefly through his pockets, until he remembered that he’d lost what he was looking for, so he quit. “Well, good day, gentlemen.”
ooooThe cowbell rang in reverse when anyone went out, which it did now as Crisp left. Everyone watched him through the grimy, rippled windows as he stepped out into the cold, tucked his scarf into his collar, pulled his hat down around his ears, and charged off across the street. “Wouldn’t take long to count the beans in that old fella’s jar,” said Olaf.
oooo“Don’t think so, do ya?” said Stuffy, dealing out the cards for four. Four immediately took their places.
oooo“Don’t take much sense to figure he ain’t got any,” said Olaf.
oooo“Cut for the crib,” said Stuffy, drawing an ace. “High card.” No one else cut higher than a jack, so Stuffy dropped a five into the crib. “Shows what you know.”
ooooOlaf scoffed. “I s’pose you know all about it?”
oooo“Ain’t sayin’,” said Stuffy. “But I know he worked for the NSA for ’bout half a century, is all.”
oooo“What’s that?” said Wendell. “Gov’ment?”
oooo“I know he was in gov’ment,” said Harry. “Everybody knows that. Argues pretty strong in Olaf’s favor, you ask me. Anybody who’s been in gov’ment for fifty years is all set for the happy jacket.”
ooooStuffy played thirty for a go. He lit a filterless cigarette and worked it into a damp groove in his lower lip. “National Security Agency is what NSA means,” he said in a cloud of smoke, dampened appreciably by ss and cs. “That’s just above the CIA. Seventeen for two. You heard of the CIA, ain’t you, Olaf?”
oooo“Crisp worked for the CIA?” said Wendell, impressed. He’d imagined the professor more in the spokesman-who-asked-to- remain-anonymous type of work.
oooo“The NSA,” Stuffy corrected. “That’s more secret. Most folks don’t know nothin’ about it.”
oooo“What’d he do?” said Olaf in a face-saving maneuver. “Shred paper?”
oooo“He ain’t pretty enough for that,” Bill observed.
ooooStuffy used his eyebrows to drag Olaf into focus. “Chief code breaker,” he said.
ooooThe brief silence that followed was heavy with awe. All but Stuffy’s eyes turned again to the window. The professor was struggling up the Net Factory Hill, holding his hat, his head, or both against the bitter northwest wind.
oooo“Code breaker,” Wendell whispered.
oooo“Twenty-eight for six,” said Stuffy, playing a seven. “Chief code breaker,” he amended.
ooooChapter TwoooooWhen Winston Crisp first moved to the island, he’d planned to have the old family cottage winterized and live there year-round. But it was too lonely, even in summer when most of the other cottages along the shore were full. That surprised him. He’d never been lonely before. All those years in the belly of the beast, bent over a microscope, squinting at a computer screen, straining to hear telltale clicks through symphonies of hisses, doodling endlessly in pencil on every available surface, traveling to places no one had ever heard of. He’d never been lonely before. He always had his riddles.
ooooLoneliness lost all pretense when the neighbors left after Labor Day, so he decided to close up the house for the winter and find a place in town.
ooooHe’d known Matty Gilchrist most of his life, and they’d always got on pretty well, so he moved into her rooming house. Seemed the natural thing to do. It was a cozy place, with ruffles, porcelain figu-rines on lace doilies, and gilt-framed portraits of people nobody knew. Little shelves for dishes and pictures of family. Nothing in common with his old digs on Connecticut Avenue in Washington—design by neglect, shades of dried-mustard brown and musty gray, where woman never trod except Miss Flyguard from the Bureau. She’d been there a couple of times, but she was one of those women who’d been neutered by feminism.
ooooAlarmingly nice ankles, though.
oooo“Ah, there you are, Winston,” said Matty as Crisp came in the front door. Matty always left the kitchen door open so she could see who was coming and going. Of course during the winter it was only Crisp or, on Wednesdays, the telephone men over from the mainland. Still, knowing who it was didn’t stop her from checking to make sure. “Any mail?”
ooooCrisp took off his hat, untied his scarf, and carefully draped them on the bentwood stand behind the door. He shuffled through the mail as he headed down the hall toward the kitchen. “Water bill,” he said, “something about saving . . . blackflies? Well, I didn’t know we had a shortage of blackflies, did you, Matt? I’d always assumed there was a surplus. Seems everything needs saving these . . . Here’s something from your sister.” He handed her the letter. “And The Island News. That’s about it.”
ooooMatty wiped her hands on her apron. “Nothin’ about . . . ?” she said hesitantly.
oooo“No,” Crisp replied. “No. Not today.”
oooo“Well, then,” said Matty. “No news is good news. There’s always tomorrow.”
ooooCrisp turned his kindly eyes on her and smiled a distant smile. “Always tomorrow, my dear,” he said, and squeezed her shoulder.
ooooMatty was the only person in the world who knew about Winston’s poetry. It had been their secret for years, and she’d suffered with him through rejection after rejection—form letters most of the time. But once in a while someone had taken the time to jot a note in the margin: “too sentimental,” “maudlin,” “out-of-date,” “what century are you from?” That type of thing.
ooooMatty liked the poems. They rhymed. She thought they were honest and heartfelt. But the world that valued those things was gone, she knew that. She saw the void every night on TV.
“You sit down there and get comfy,” she said with a nod toward one of the old cane-bottomed chairs that lined the table. “I’ll put some water on for tea. Just let me get them scones out’ve the oven and put this potpie in—it’s for the church supper—and we’ll talk about it.” She limped slightly as she went about her business. She’d broken her knee in a fall on the ice three winters ago. It often bothered her when the weather changed.
ooooWinston pulled out the chair and sat down. “They’ve had this poem a long time,” he said softly. “Usually they don’t keep it this long. I mean, they usually let you know.” As his voice fell in on itself, he fixed his eyes on Matty and followed her back and forth from one end of the counter to the other.
ooooHe tried to remember when they’d first met. He often made a game of it, not that it brought him any closer to remembering, but sifting through the memories always turned up one in particular. It was of Matty at about fifteen or sixteen, tumbling over the moors out on James’ Island, like a paper doll cut out of the blue sky, her thick, long yellow hair troubled into tangles and edged in gold where the sun tried to peek through. Just the faintest outline of her lithe, young body was visible through the thin blue summer dress. There were lots of little white flowers in the pattern, too. They fell into valleys, danced over the folds, and swept gracefully up to gentle peaks in the most beguiling way.
ooooMatty had aged easily. During the war she was a radio operator with the Coastal Watch. Always practicing her Morse code, ever vigilant. Ever ready for an invasion that never came. Pauline Revere.
ooooThe first summer Crisp returned to the island after the war, Matty had taken on a fair amount of what she called “cuddle flesh” and thereafter grew cuddlier and cuddlier as time went on. Never married, she became everyone’s favorite aunt. Though she had pretty much overwhelmed the youthful promise of womanhood in almost every respect, she was no less pleasant to behold at the pres-ent stage of her life. The overflow was soft and homey and always smelled of something fresh from the oven. Everything about her said “welcome.”
ooooMatty lay the crust on the pie as gently as a mother putting a child to bed and crimped the crust with practiced fingers. It was a ballet, perfectly choreographed to the music of her constant chatter. Winston didn’t suppose he’d ever write a poem like Matty.
ooooHis gaze fell to the table, and he sat quietly for a moment while Matty cleaned up. After a while he was so lost in thought he didn’t notice her staring at him.
oooo“Somethin’ on your mind?” She poured the tea and put a cup on the table in front of him.
ooooThe sound of her voice called him from far away, and he stuttered and stammered a little, as might be expected of any visitor from another dimension. “Huh? Oh, I . . . well, Matty . . . I was just thinking about . . .”
oooo“Poor thing,” said Matty. She had pulled out a chair but didn’t sit down; she just wedged it under an ample cheek of her bottom and suspended herself against it, tempting gravity. Through the steam of her tea she regarded her star boarder. When he looked up, she looked down into the cup.
oooo“Poor thing,” he echoed.
oooo“Terrible way to die, isn’t it? Drowned.”
oooo“Oh, I don’t think she drowned,” said Winston. “I don’t think that’s very likely.”
oooo“What do you mean? They found her up at the quarry, didn’t they? Luther told Milly Thompson they found her frozen in ice up there, like I told you this mornin’.”
oooo“I know,” said Winston. “They were talking about it down at the poolroom. Leeman Russell was telling them how they chipped her out of the ice.” Matty turned away. “Sorry, Matty,” he said. “But Leeman was there, you see. Now, what makes it odd is that the girl went missing just after Labor Day and now she turns up frozen, ‘fresh as a mornin’ in Paris’ I think is what Leeman said. Like she was asleep.”
ooooMatty lowered herself into the chair. “What do you mean ‘went missing’? Who went missing?”
oooo“What girl? That one?” She pointed toward the mortuary.
oooo“Yes, from Senator McKenniston’s house.”
ooooMatty stood up. “You mean that’s the girl young McKenniston was paradin’ all over town last summer, the redhead?”
ooooMatty took her incredulous expression out of mothballs and tried it on. “But she ran away.”
oooo“In September,” said Crisp.
oooo“Then how’d she turn up froze in the quarry?”
ooooCrisp used his eyebrows to flip the question back to her.
oooo“My word,” said Matty. She would have said more, but her eyes had drifted toward the window at the very moment something of interest was happening across the common. “My word,” she said. This was clearly an independent remark, to which the previous exclamation was only distantly related. “Looks like they’re finished already.”
ooooCrisp turned toward the window, pushed the glasses up on his nose, and brought the world into focus. Four men were leaving the mortuary. Luther Kingsbury, the policeman, was easy to tell under his patrolman’s-issue blue fur hat with the upturned flaps and a big gold-colored badge. So was Dr. Pagitt, who always walked as if he was leaning on the wind in a force nine gale. Immediately behind them was the only stranger in the trio, undoubtedly Gammidge from the mainland. Last, and most recognizable, was Charles Young, the undertaker. Chuck walked like an inverted pendulum because one leg was a lot shorter than the other.
ooooMatty looked at her watch. “Too late to make the boat.”
oooo“What?” said Crisp, cupping his ear. “What’d you say, Matty?”
oooo“That fellow from the mainland—he was goin’ to try to make the last boat. Too late now,” she said. “He’ll be stayin’ here tonight, I expect.” Her supposition was punctuated by the sound of the boat whistle blowing in the distance. The ferry would return after dark, but the island was effectively severed from the mainland for the long winter’s night. Natives slept better in the knowledge. “Better get supper started. Beef stew all right with you, Winston?”
oooo“Fine,” Winston replied. He got up from the table and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
oooo“I hate simmerin’ stew for less than four hours,” she fretted.
oooo“I know you do, my dear,” Crisp said. “I’m going up to my room to write for a while.”
oooo“You do that,” said Matty. “I’ll bring you up some scones later on.” No one was surprised that Crisp had gained nearly twenty pounds since he moved in with Matty. They would have been surprised if he hadn’t. But he was still thin as Salome’s veils.
ooooPoetry wouldn’t come this afternoon. Every time Crisp closed his eyes to concentrate, all he could see was the dead girl in ice. Of course, his imagination was somewhat handicapped, never having seen her himself. No doubt this accounted for the fact that, in his mind’s eye, she looked uncommonly like Olaf Ingraham. This made the vision no less disturbing.
ooooThe front hall door opened and Luther Kingsbury’s voice searched the premises without a warrant. “Matty! You t’home? Matty!”
ooooFor a moment the only reply was the loud ticktock of the grandmother clock over the umbrella stand. Momentarily, though, that worthy lady’s footsteps could be heard in the hall.
ooooCrisp went to the top of the landing. “Evening, Luther,” he said.
oooo“Hi, Professor.” Luther turned to the stranger who accompanied him. “Nate, this here’s—” But it was too late to make an introduction as Matty entered under full sail.
oooo“There you are, Luther.” As usual she was wiping something wonderful off her hands. “I’ve been expectin’ you.”
oooo“I told you,” Luther said to the stranger. “News travels fast out here.”
oooo“News got nothin’ to do with it,” Matty interceded on her own behalf. “I saw you come out of the mortuary same time as the boat whistle blew. And since I’m the only place open year-round, I put a few extra carrots in the stew. Stew okay with you?” she asked, holding out her hand.
ooooThe stranger shook her hand. “Nate Gammidge, ma’am.”
oooo“Matty Gilchrist,” she said. “Everybody calls me Matty.”
oooo“Matty,” Nate Gammidge said with a tilt of the head. “Stew’s fine with me. Sorry to put you out at the last moment like this.”
ooooMatty took his coat, hat, scarf, and gloves and hung them on the stand with all the creases pointed in the same direction. “Only time innkeepers get put out is when they ain’t put out. Come on in and have some coffee, or would you rather have tea? Winston generally likes tea this time of day.”
ooooCrisp had waited halfway up the stairs for Matty’s initial wave of hospitality to subside. She was one of those people who’d practically force her services on you—press your shorts and darn your socks somewhere between “hello” and “walk this way.” She needed room to maneuver.
ooooCrisp descended the rest of the way. “She’s not referring to the family pet, Mr. Gammidge,” said Crisp. “At least not in so many words.” He held out his hand. “I’m Winston Crisp.”
oooo“Call me Nate,” said Gammidge, shaking Crisp’s hand warmly and looking him in the eye. Crisp noted what a rare thing that was. “Winston Crisp?” he said thoughtfully.
oooo“Sounds a bit like an after-dinner mint, I’m afraid,” said Crisp apologetically.
ooooGammidge’s mind was recalled from elsewhere. “What? Oh . . .” He laughed politely. “No . . . well . . . I was just wondering if I’ve heard that name before.”
oooo“Seems I have, though. Not a name you’re likely to forget.”
oooo“Nor a person you’re likely to remember,” Crisp replied with a smile.
oooo“You stayin’ for coffee, Luther?” said Matty.
ooooLuther, who lived in mortal dread of his wife, gathered his wits toward supper, excused himself, and—having informed Matty that “the town will take care of it,” meaning the bill—left.
Matty deposited her boarders in the parlor and bounced off to the kitchen to tend dinner.
ooooWinston let Gammidge have his choice of chairs. Gammidge sat in Winston’s favorite, by the fireplace. Winston sat opposite him and loaded his pipe. “Do you mind?”
ooooGammidge shook his head. He looked around the room. “Cozy place you got here,” he said.
oooo“Oh, it’s . . . it’s Matty’s,” Crisp replied. “I’m just . . . I board here, is all.”
ooooGammidge nodded. “Cozy.” He took a magazine from the stand, opened it, and stared at the fire over the top of the pages.
oooo“Your first time on the island?” Crisp asked.
oooo“No. Well, in an official capacity, you could say . . . but I come out here once a year or so, with my wife. She has family out here. Usually we stay down at the Tidewater.”
oooo“Oh,” said Winston. “That’s closed for the winter. Repairs of some kind, I gather.”
ooooGammidge nodded and his eyes reverted to the fire. Crisp let the silence turn the screws (it had the effect with most Americans, he’d observed) and finally force him to speak. “Nasty business.”
oooo“Really?” said Crisp. “Oh, you mean the . . . my, yes. Awful business. Awful.”
oooo“Nasty,” Gammidge reiterated, but he failed to attach the anticipated explanation.
ooooCrisp was not prepared to let the topic lapse. “Terrible,” he said. “To die like that.”
ooooGammidge looked at him sharply and seemed about to say something. Instead, he just smiled. “Mmm.”
oooo“They say she drowned.”
oooo“That’s what they say,” Gammidge replied.
oooo“She didn’t, though, did she?”
ooooGammidge studied his companion a little more closely. “You don’t think so?”
oooo“I would say it was murder.”
ooooFor some reason Gammidge took hasty inventory of the doorways with his eyes. “Murder?”
oooo“Strangled or poisoned, most likely. Am I right?”
oooo“What makes you say that?”
oooo“Just a hunch,” Crisp replied softly. “No water in her lungs, was there?”
ooooGammidge produced a cigarette.
oooo“Don’t let Matty see you with that,” Crisp warned.
oooo“She likes the smell of pipe tobacco. At least this kind. It’s the same as her father smoked. But she hates cigarettes—foul the air, she says. Burns in the furniture, you know.” Gammidge started to put the cigarette back. “You want to go out on the porch and have a smoke?” Crisp offered. “I’ll go out with you.”
ooooOnce they were out on the porch swing, heavily garbed against the cold, the conversation picked up where it had left off. “Why do you think I didn’t find water in the lungs?”
oooo“From what I’ve heard, she wasn’t bloated,” said Crisp. “She was dead before she went in.”
oooo“Well, I expect it’ll be all over town by morning anyway,” Gammidge sighed. “She was strangled. Pretty brutally, too, from what we can make out. Must’ve been huge hands to reach clear ’round her neck like that.”
oooo“Who could have done such a thing?”
oooo“Well,” said Gammidge after a long, satisfying pull at his cigarette, “it won’t be a mystery for long.”
oooo“Fingerprints!” said Crisp. “That’s quite unusual, isn’t it? I mean, if the body had been in the water any length of time.”
oooo“Tomorrow I’ll put it down to expert detective work, Mr. Crisp,” Gammidge confided. “But, just between us, it was pure luck. Seems the girl had fresh makeup on”—his hands went to his neck—“all the way down here.”
oooo“And that’s where the fingerprints were preserved, in the makeup?”
oooo“In the makeup,” Gammidge echoed. “Plain as day. You can see ’em with the naked eye.” He smiled. “Somebody’s in for it.”
ooooA corner of Crisp’s mouth smiled all by itself. “No doubt,” he said. “No doubt at all.” The moment’s silence that followed was finally broken by Crisp. “I’m curious, though. You see, I’m . . . that is, in my line of work—well, I’m retired now—but . . . I was a bit of a chemist. I like to do little experiments now and again. Would you happen to know what kind of makeup it was?”
oooo“Haven’t the foggiest,” Gammidge replied. “Ugly as sin. Must have been some kind of chemical reaction with the water. You’d know better than me. Anyway, I took some samples. They’re in my case. But that’s more than a little out of my line, if you know what I mean. I’m an appointee—just sign the death certificates, basically. Leave all the hands-on business to doctors and the lab folks up in Augusta. That’s who I got the sample for.”
oooo“I don’t suppose it would be possible to have a look,” Crisp asked, only poorly concealing his excitement.
oooo“Oh, no,” Gammidge replied quickly. “No. I don’t think that’d be a good idea. It’s evidence, you see. Not a whole lot of it. That is, I didn’t take a lot—”
oooo“Oh, but I only need a dusting, really.” Instantly Crisp regretted putting Gammidge in an awkward position. “I’m sorry, Nate,” Crisp said with a smile. “I tend to get a little carried away from time to time. Of course I understand . . . evidence, and all . . . you need to—”
oooo“I have to turn it in.”
oooo“Turn it in, of course you do,” Crisp said.
oooo“Send it up to Augusta,” Gammidge said. “That’s their job.”
oooo“Of course it is,” Crisp agreed. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.” He tapped out his pipe on the porch railing and, producing a pipe cleaner from his coat pocket, began a meticulous cleaning process. For a while the noises of the night took over the conversation. “Just curious is all,” Crisp said at last, as if to himself. “If it’s oil based, well, that’s curious.”
ooooGammidge took the bait. “What?”
oooo“You said, ‘If it’s oil based.’ What do you mean?”
oooo“Oh, well, I was just thinking out loud, you know, about the makeup. To have stayed on any time in the water . . . is she fair skinned or dark skinned, would you say?”
oooo“Fair,” said Gammidge. “Very fair.”
oooo“Mmm. Fair. Well, then. To have stayed on any time in the water, the makeup would have to be oil based—anhydrous,” said Crisp.
oooo“Most makeup is water-based nowadays. It would wash off in less time than it takes for water to freeze, you see? And whatever hadn’t washed off—well, it’s not likely you’d notice it straight out of the ice like that.” Crisp waited. Just a nudge or two in the right direction. “But Leeman said Chuck noticed it as they were chipping her out. Curious.”
ooooGammidge scratched his neck and pulled his collar up a little higher. “What’s fair skin got to do with it?”
oooo“Fair skin and dark, or ruddy, skin react differently to makeup. The makeup would probably have congealed on someone with darker skin.”
oooo“They do?” said Gammidge. “If that’s true, well, it just beats all, don’t it?” said Gammidge.
oooo“Curious,” said Crisp. “A little bit of a puzzle.”
ooooGammidge studied Crisp long and hard while Crisp looked absent-mindedly into the distance, pretending not to notice that he was being stared at. He’d learned a lot about human nature in seventy-odd years. He knew that silence was the midwife of thought.
oooo“I don’t see what we’d gain,” said Gammidge. “I mean, what difference does it make? She was strangled, then thrown in the quarry.” The statement had a rhetorical ring about it, so Crisp let it marinate. Gammidge made thinking sounds. “Maybe how long between when she was strangled and thrown in . . . You think it might tell us that?”
ooooCrisp doubted it. “You never know what an investigation will turn up.”
oooo“It wouldn’t hurt.” Gammidge looked again at Crisp. “You’re really a chemist?”
oooo“Hmm?” said Crisp as if his train of thought had gone off on another track. “Pardon?”
oooo“You’ve done that sort of thing before? I mean, have you ever worked for the police? Forensics?”
oooo“The police?” said Crisp. “Well, no. No, I can’t say I have . . . worked for the police. No.”
ooooIt would have made it easier if he had. “Oh,” said Gammidge.
oooo“Mmm,” said Crisp. “Nope.” He paused, laying a foundation of silence upon which to build his addendum. “Unless you count the CIA,” he said, more steam than sound. “I don’t suppose they’re police though, are they?”
oooo“I beg your pardon?”
oooo“What did you say about the CIA?”
oooo“Oh,” Crisp said. “I was just . . . thinking out loud, you know. I said I’ve done a little work for the CIA in my time. Well, actually it wasn’t the CIA when I started. It was—”
oooo“You worked for the CIA?” said Gammidge, suspended tightly between skepticism and the wish to believe.
oooo“The OSS,” said Crisp, who thought it impolite not to finish a sentence, providing you could remember what you wanted to say. “Not directly, though. I mean, they didn’t . . . I was working for another branch of the government at the time, but—”
oooo“But you did work for the CIA? Chemistry work?”
oooo“They’d call me in from time to time for some little problem or other. Yes,” said Crisp. “From time to time.”
ooooGammidge would need a moment or two to argue with himself. Meanwhile, Crisp worked at looking like the kind of person with whom Gammidge wouldn’t mind entrusting important evidence.
“You have what you need here, up in your room, I suppose?”
oooo“Don’t need anything very elaborate. . . ”
ooooGammidge got up. “It’s cold out here,” he said, faith having triumphed over reason. “Won’t hurt to see what you’ve got up there, would it?”
oooo“I don’t see how it could,” said Crisp. “Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to do anything you might feel uncomfortable about.”
ooooTwo hours later, amid a jumble of dinner dishes, ashtrays, and test tubes, Gammidge found himself leaning over Crisp’s shoulder as the latter arranged a few specks of residue on a glass slide and fixed it under his old brass microscope.
oooo“Of course, this isn’t the real problem, is it?” said Gammidge. “Given what we know about the fingerprints and . . . The question is, what happened to her after she left the island? And why did she come back? And who killed her?”
oooo“I understand she was seen in Rockland,” said Crisp, trying to bring the smudge into focus. “Did anyone else see her? I mean, anywhere else?”
oooo“Not that I know of,” said Gammidge. “ ’Course, the FBI was handling the whole thing. Senator got ’em in on it, so we didn’t have a whole lot to do with the case. But she wasn’t seen anywhere else, far as I know.”
oooo“That’s strange,” said Crisp.
oooo“What? Do you see something?”
oooo“Well, that explains why it didn’t come off in the water. Not so strange, I wouldn’t say,” replied Gammidge.
oooo“No,” said Crisp thoughtfully. “No. What’s strange is, it contains traces of lead.”
oooo“Lead?” Gammidge peered into the microscope. “Lead?”
ooooThey looked at each other at close range. “Reddish traces, in the pigment.”
oooo“That’s awful poisonous to put in makeup, isn’t it?”
oooo“It is indeed,” said Crisp. “That’s why they stopped making it in 1932.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I hope you’ve enjoyed these sample chapters and are sufficiently intrigued to download the rest of A Show of Hands to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone or other reading device for only $4.95. 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 A Show of Hands be sure to download the sequels, The Dead of Winter* and Justice Once Removed. Meanwhile, PLEASE Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail everyone you know, tell them how much you love Winston, and send them to www.davidcrossman.com!
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David A. Crossman
*Dead of Winter is presently only available in paperback.