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Short Fiction Contributed by our Author-members

May 13, 2016

FINDING PEACE
by

Sandra Carey Cody

Caroline Morrow stood for a moment, watching the ebb and flow of the crowd. She couldn’t help being a tad skeptical of such universal good nature. Everyone was smiling and chattering, obviously pleased to be celebrating their heritage. Well, why not? Pennsylvania has a proud history and Bucks County is perhaps its proudest sector. The cosmos itself seemed to approve, having created a perfect day for the celebration. The concrete walls of the towering castle-like museum glowed in the sun. Bubbles in the old glass of mullioned windows captured light and became iridescent jewels. A cheerful melody in harmony with the bucolic scene floated through the air. A dog barking in the background was the only dissonant note. Except for the dog, everything was going according to plan. But what is it they say about plans? Especially best-laid plans? That dog changed everything.

Caroline tried to ignore the animal. She was usually quick to go to the aid of any creature in distress, but today she was taking a break from the things she usually did. She was tired. Bone tired. Worn out from what she’d begun to fear was a futile quest. She had marched in demonstrations, rung doorbells, made phone calls, signed petitions, camped on her congressperson’s office steps—in short, had devoted her life to the basic tenets of her Quaker faith.

Did any of it make a difference? Most of the time she could convince herself that it did. But, last night, watching the news, something inside of her had snapped. From around the globe came story after story of horrors too brutal to comprehend. Life on the streets of her own city—the City of Brotherly Love, no less—was no better: children wielding deadly weapons, grown men shooting each other over a parking place, a wheelchair stolen off a front porch, a teenager delivering a pizza knifed for less than twenty dollars. The list went on. Unable to bear it, she switched off the TV and went to bed, telling herself the world would look brighter in the light of day.

It didn’t. She ate her usual hearty breakfast, but it did nothing to satisfy the hunger in her soul. She looked ahead to her day and dreaded the bickering she knew would be a part of the Peace Initiative meeting—yes, even there, dissent prevailed. Sometime between washing the breakfast dishes and brushing her teeth, she made a decision. Today there would be no dealing with bureaucrats, no fighting for lost causes, no tiptoeing around oversized egos. Today, the only peace she planned to worry about was her own.

That’s how she came to be in a picture-perfect small town, listening to a sweet-faced young woman play country airs on a dulcimer while trying to ignore a barking dog. Not an easy thing. The girl’s finger slipped and the melody went off key.

The dog paused, as though to get his breath, then resumed.

Murmurs rose from the crowd, merging with the bleating of sheep in the shearing area, the laughter of children at the puppet theater, the steady hum of the glassblower’s oven. The juggler dropped a club. The stilt-walker stumbled. But no one moved to help the animal.

An annoyed voice separated itself from the general restiveness. “Someone should do something.”

“Yes, they should,” Caroline said to no one in particular. “That poor animal needs help.” Unable to leave a task to a vague someone, she headed for the source of the distraction, the shed behind the museum.

The lean-to structure was filled with wagons and carriages from an earlier time. Caroline peered inside. After the brilliance of the summer day, objects in the shaded interior were a blur of indistinct shapes. She squinted and pressed against the rope that protected the antiques from too-curious visitors.

The dog stopped barking and looked at her.

The quiet that ensued seemed to Caroline almost palpable. The dog remained silent, staring at her, and, after a moment, comments from passersby reached her: “Thank goodness.” “It’s about time.” She ignored the voices and focused on the dog, almost lost in the shadows of the shed’s darkest corner. When she leaned over the rope, he yipped a couple of times and put his nose in a basket that sat nearby.

There was a gurgling sound, soft as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings.

Dear God! Caroline ducked under the rope and scrambled over the bed of a hay wagon to reach the corner where the dog stood guard. She scraped her elbow against the rough timber of the shed wall in her haste to reach the basket.

The dog stood, legs braced, ears at attention, watching her.

She inched forward and held her hands near the animal’s muzzle.

He sniffed and moved aside.

Caroline took another step, bent over and looked down into a small perfect face, wide trusting eyes, as blue as a summer day. A fuzz of rust-colored hair peeked from beneath a lace-trimmed cap. She held her breath and lifted the baby. The cap fell away, exposing tiny flat ringlets. Caroline placed the baby on her shoulder and felt the beating of its heart. She moved her head and savored the tickle of downy hair on the soft flesh under her chin.

A crowd gathered in front of the shed. Whispers became murmurs, then swelled into an excited babble. Someone said, “Call the police.”

Caroline, oblivious, completely mesmerized by the child, lost all sense of time. She was surprised, almost outraged, when a thickset man in uniform appeared and put his hands out to take the baby from her. She half-turned, rotating away from him.

He sidestepped, making the circuit with her. “This your child, Ma’am?”

The dog moved, rigid as a clenched fist, between Caroline and the man.

The man glanced down at the dog, but did not retreat. “We need to check the baby, Ma’am. Make sure everything’s all right.”

The next hours went by in a blur. Caroline, usually the most precise of women, certainly not sentimental, was vague about most of the details. A few remained vivid, carved into her heart as though onto a stone tablet. She never forgot the ride to the hospital in the police car; sitting behind the officer with the baby in her arms; the basket on the seat beside her; and, most of all, the ache she’d felt when she relinquished the child to the doctor.

She recalled examining the contents of the basket while she waited. The small cap was white, made of fine linen. A band around the front was edged in lace and embroidered with daisies. She let her fingers caress the fabric and could tell that it was old. There was a pillow, embroidered with the same pattern as the cap and the words Peace be with you. A silver cup lay on its side near the pillow. It looked recently polished, its surface mirror-bright except for a small smudge. Caroline picked it up and rubbed the spot with her shirttail.

“Hey!” The policeman shouted and lurched toward her. “Don’t do that! There might be fingerprints. You’ll destroy them.”

Good. She managed to wipe the cup clean before he grabbed it from her.

“Don’t you want to know who this baby belongs to?”

The doctor came back with the child before she could answer. “It’s a little girl,” he said. “I’d say she’s about a week old. And perfect.”

Perfect. Something Caroline Morrow already knew. Maybe she couldn’t save the world, but she could rescue this child. She understood all too well the red tape that would be involved: an investigation, forms to fill out, bureaucratic hoops to jump through, a waiting period, but ultimately, she vowed, the child would be hers. She looked down into the basket, at the pillow with its fine embroidery work and knew her daughter’s name: Peace Daisy Morrow. Her Peace.

Copyright owned by Sandra Carey Cody

 

November 23, 2012

KB Inglee, an author of historical mysteries, has contributed this charming story set during the holiday season.

The Chain of Music
by KB Inglee

Cobbs Crossing, Delaware, December 1752

Silas was humming something under his breath as he fitted a piece of flint in the lock of his musket. The tune sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place it.

“What are you humming?” I asked.

“I’m not humming anything,” he replied.

Mrs. Cobb, my mother-in-law, looked up from her knitting and frowned at her son. “Hannah is right. You are humming something.” She picked up the tune and hummed a few bars. I still couldn’t place it.

We worked separately at our chores, Mrs. Cobb knitting a pair of warm stockings, Silas cleaning his musket, I preparing vegetables for the stew to simmer in the cooling oven overnight.

Silas and I had married after the harvest was gathered and had gone to housekeeping the next week.

I had moved next door to the house that Silas shared with his mother. I liked Mrs. Cobb fine, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to live with her. We were still negotiating our positions in the household.

“Had an interesting call today,” he said as he tested the sharpness of the flint with his thumb. “Mrs. Trent said someone was looking in her window.”

Silas had served as constable of our village for several years now. The fact that the town bore the name of his grandfather seemed to give him extra authority. He loved the place fiercely.

“Did you find out who and why?” asked his mother.

“No, but there were footprints under the window in the newly turned soil. She gets good sun and she is looking to plant a crop of winter greens.”

The Trents, like most of the inhabitants of Cobbs Crossing, fished and farmed to earn a living. Unlike most of the residents, Rachel had a small inheritance from her well-to-do family in Philadelphia.

 “She didn’t recognize him,” Silas went on with the story. “He turned away before she had a good look.”

“Do you think he was looking for a hand out?” I asked.

“Perhaps, he’s not from the Crossing or she would have known him.”

Silas was still humming snatches of that tune when we went to bed.

~~oOo~~

“You hear about the ax murder west of Stanton?” asked Mrs. Phelps the next morning when I was searching for eggs in the market.

“No. I suspect Silas knows all about it but he hasn’t told me a thing. I can’t think it would be hard to find an ax murderer. Do we know the victims?” I’m sure I sounded calmer than I felt. I had read a story about an ax murder when I was a child and the thought of it chilled me. How can any human being, no matter how angry, take an ax to someone?

After an hour or so in the market, I had plenty of information about the murderer, but no eggs. Everyone had a different tidbit about the affair. The family lived a mile west of Stanton, in the woods. Only the husband and wife were home. The three children were off with their grandparents. The house was splattered with blood, so by extension, the murderer would be tainted as well.

Bly the blacksmith had his own tidbit. “The Sheriff thinks the murder was over money. The Radleys had just sold off some cattle and had purse full of coin.”

The market was crowded and noisy but somewhere behind me I caught a wisp of the tune Silas had been humming last evening. I couldn’t see who it was but the whistler was making a better job of it than Silas had. I could even recognize it as one of those merry Christmas songs we English adore so.

On my way home I passed a stranger and nodded to him. I was pretty jumpy so I assumed at once he was the ax murderer. I found Silas at the blacksmith shop and told him what I had seen.

“Now, now, my girl, you aren’t thinking that every stranger is an ax murderer, are you?”

The stranger came into the blacksmith shop almost on my heels. Was he following me? Was I the next target?

“Good day, Gents. Ma’am.” He tipped his hat to me.

Everyone in the shop murmured a greeting except me.

“I was wondering if you would be able to re-shoe my horse. I’m in a hurry and they are worn down.”

He was leading a pretty little bay with three white feet. She needed a good grooming. Sweat had dried on her neck and her mane and tail were tangled with brambles. His clothing was in keeping with the quality of his horse but better kept.

“I can do it this afternoon,” said Sam Bly the blacksmith, “but no sooner. Would that suit? You can put her in that stall in the corner. I’ll have the lad bring her to you when she’s done.”

He pulled out an ancient leather purse, stiff with age, and handed the blacksmith a few coins.

“Good enough. My name is Harlan Scott. I’m staying with the Trents.”

“I’m Silas Cobb. You a friend of the Trents?” asked Silas offering his hand for shaking.

“Cousin to Rachel Green, as was.” Rachel had married Fredrick in the late summer.

The stranger didn’t seem to think anything was amiss, but those gathered in the shop gave him a sharp look.

~~oOo~~

“I’ll be riding to New Castle this afternoon, care to go with me?” Silas asked.    

I was always up for a trip to the city if I could get away. It was a well-to-do market town. Perhaps I could find eggs there. I found Mrs. Cobb and asked if she wanted anything brought back to her. She said no, but mother-in-laws, like children, always like a bit of sweetness at the holidays. I would surprise her with some of her favorite candy.

As I sat behind Silas on Joshua, his sturdy mount, we discussed the events of the day. He tried to talk me out of the notion that Harlan Scott was the murderer. He was dressed in fine clothing so he couldn’t need the money. He was related to the Trents, so he was from a good family. He showed no signs of the blood that would have spattered him if he had taken an ax to a family. It would be easy enough to check his story that he had ridden up from Dover rather than south from Stanton. I sighed and gave in to his logic. I slipped my arms around him and rested my head on his strong back.

Silas dropped me at the market and went into the court house to find his boss, the sheriff of New Castle County.

A farmer I had met before and trusted, had a cart full of late vegetables that looked far nicer than anything I had seen in Cobbs Crossing that morning.

“Do you know if anyone has eggs? Our hens have stopped laying for the winter and there weren’t any at my market today.”

“I’ve got a few tucked away for some nice lady like yourself, Mrs. Cobb. Pretty dear this time of year, but if you’re willing to put down the brass, they’re yours. How about some nice ginger-peach jam? I know your new mother is fond of sweets.”

I bought six eggs, plump winter squash and a bunch of parsnips. I hesitated over the jam, but gave in because ginger wasn’t to be had everywhere and would be a treat.  

“Merry Christmas to ye, miss.” The farmer turned away and began to hum under his breath. The greeting seemed premature since Christmas was two days away.

Silas was humming again when he came out of the courthouse.

The Christmas Spirit seemed to be everywhere.

“Have they caught the murderer yet?” I asked.

“No, not the least notion of who he is, though someone turned in a bundle of bloody clothes so they know his size and what he was wearing before the murder. The general knowledge is that both husband and wife had quite a bit to drink. The house is far enough out of the way so that no one heard anything. The last anyone heard was husband and wife singing some of the songs from the party.”

“Where did they find the clothes?” I asked.

“Under a bush on the south side of the town. We rode right past it coming in.”

“You think the killing was over money?”

“Yes, the purse of coins from the sale of the beeves was missing but nothing else as far as anyone can tell.”

~~oOo~~

Early the next morning, Christmas Eve, I went to call on the Trents, since they would be on the afternoon packet to Philadelphia to spend the holidays with her parents. The Trents were Anglican and would surely know the tune that had been plaguing me these last few days.

The door was opened by Isaiah, their man servant. “Good Day, Mz Hannah. Mz Rachel is in the parlor.” He stood back from the door and I made my way to the pleasant room.

“I met Harlan Scott in the blacksmith shop. He says he is your cousin.”

“Yes, he showed up unexpectedly just in time for the mid day meal yesterday. He lives in Philadelphia. He will be going back with us this afternoon. That man is the perfect dandy. Every hair was in place and not a wrinkle on his clothing.”

I remembered how his turn out contrasted so sharply with his horse. Why would he take the packet if he had a perfectly fine horse?

“Is this where you saw the man looking in your window?” I asked.

Rachel rose to greet me. “Yes he was standing by that widow. Silas said he found footprints there.”

“How frightening. Was it late at night?”

“No early morning. Still dark. When we stepped out the door, the man was gone.”

“Would you know him if you saw him again? He wasn’t from the town?”

“I didn’t get a good look. His face was in shadow. He was shabbily dressed. The best I can say is that he didn’t look familiar. I would probably not recognize him if I saw him around town.”

“How long will you be in Philadelphia?”

“Til the new year. You don’t suppose the man looking in the window had anything to do with the murder of that family in Stanton?”

“I don’t think there is any way to know until they catch him.”

“Well, we will be out of here on the tide. I hope he is caught before we return. How hard can it be to catch an ax murderer?”

As she showed me to the door, she hummed the wisp of the tune that seemed to be catching everyone’s fancy these days.

“Where did you hear that tune?” Hannah asked.

“What tune?” Rachel asked.

~~oOo~~

Silas had more news for me. Fredrick Trent had seen signs that someone spent the night in their barn. Whoever it was had discarded a worn and ragged shirt and a pair of stockings with holes in the toes.

“Could it be the murderer?” I asked.

“No way to know. He didn’t see any blood or find an ax or anything.”

~~oOo~~

The good ship Thomas Reed had been at anchor off Cobbs Crossing for several days now. Silas had overseen the loading of cargo. The Trent family, headed to Philadelphia was to embark this afternoon and most of the town went out to watch and wish them a safe voyage. Two small boats were waiting at the dock to ferry the passengers out to the ship.

Rachel and Fredrick waited til the last of their bundles were loaded and then stepped into the small boat. Rachel was looking around as if she was expecting someone who was late, finally took her seat and the little boat shoved off.

“Wait,” called someone from the crowd. The oarsman grabbed the piling at the end of the dock to steady the boat for the late arrival. Harlan Scott cut a jaunty figure as he stepped into the boat, then taking his seat he began whistling a gay tune.

I recognized it at once. I saw the whole chain of melody from the poor Radley family to the murderer, the farmer in New Castle, the Trents, and finally to Silas. He must have dressed in the victim’s clothing until he could get to his cousin’s house, slept in the barn and changed into something better. His mare looked like she had been ridden hard all night. The ancient leather purse might have been stiff with blood.

“Harlan Scott,” I grabbed Silas’ arm and pushed him toward the boat. “He’s the ax murderer.”

Much to my amazement Silas didn’t question me or hesitate for a second, but leapt onto the dock and shouted, “Stop in the name of the law.”

His courage and authority took my breath away.

Then he spoiled it.

“I arrest ye, merry gentleman.”

END

Historical note:

I don’t usually add notes to the end of my holiday stories but this time I have an admission. The song “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is certainly catchy enough to become an earworm, but it wasn’t published until the 1760s. I hope I have not caused an earworm in any of my readers. Happy Holidays, whatever you may be celebrating at this time of year.                   KB Inglee

 

November 3, 2012

This is a story Kathleen Anne Barrett wrote specifically for Woman’s World, which publishes a weekly Solve-it-Yourself Mystery in a prescribed format and length. But, alas, the magazine rejected it (~sniff~), so she decided to share it with you. See if you can solve the mystery before you read the solution that follows the story.

 

Tuned Over and Out
by Kathleen Anne Barrett

Detective Sweeney and his partner, Detective O’Hara, arrived at the music studio just minutes after the violin teacher, Ms. Venuto, reported discovering the body.

“His name is Zach Hernandez,” she said with a sob. “I came back from getting my coffee and found him like that.” She pointed to the body of a young man sprawled on the carpet in front of a music stand. A violin lay beside him, within reach of his outstretched hand. “It was time for his lesson,” she explained. “He always came in early and warmed up, because he knew I’d be back any moment.”

“And how could he know that?” Sweeney asked. His cynical tone made her feel he doubted her word.

“Because he knows I go next door for coffee at this time of day,” she snapped. “His lesson is at the same time every week. He gets here several minutes before I return, and squeezes in some extra practice.”

O’Hara took a close look at the body. “He has a gash on the back of his head,” he remarked. “And there’s a paperweight on the floor.” He squinted at the weight. “Appears to have blood on it.”

“He was probably hit from behind,” Ms. Venuto said. “Look at the music stand.” She indicated the metal stand holding an open book of music. “He would have been facing the stand, with his back to the door.

“He was so talented,” she added with a catch in her voice. “He was almost certain to win the contest for a valuable scholarship on Saturday.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “He would have been so involved in his playing that he’d never have noticed someone enter the room.”

“The violin,” Sweeney said, “is it worth anything?”

Ms. Venuto raised an eyebrow. “Quite a bit,” she said. “It’s a Stradivarius.”

“Then one thing’s for sure,” O’Hara said. “Violin theft wasn’t the motive.”

“What about the contest?” Sweeney asked. “Do you have any other students competing for that valuable scholarship?”

“Oh, yes,” Ms. Venuto replied. “There’s Alicia Grant and Gabriel Coleman. They’re in the next room right now, practicing a duet.”

“Were there any other people in the building while Zach Hernandez was here?” Sweeney asked.

Ms. Venuto brought a finger to her lips. “Now, let me see. I had just finished Carly Shumacher’s lesson before I stepped out for coffee, and her father was with her because she’s too young to drive.”

“Separate those two students,” Sweeney instructed O’Hara, “and question them.”

After O’Hara left, Sweeney pulled out his phone and made a call. Ms. Venuto took the opportunity to kneel beside Zach Hernandez and whisper a last good-bye.

What a terrible waste, she thought to herself. What an unspeakable tragedy. Never again will I hear him play this beautiful violin. She lifted the Stradivarius from the carpet and gently plucked each of its four strings, GBAE.

“Get away from there,” Sweeney bellowed. “This is a crime scene. You’re tampering with evidence. That violin hasn’t even been dusted yet, and we need to take photographs of the scene.”

O’Hara poked his head in just as Sweeney finished his rant. “This is going to be harder than we thought. There were three more kids in that room, listening to the other two practice.” He withdrew a notebook and flipped through the pages. “A Brian Fulmont, an Adrian Smith, and a Nancy Peterson.”

Detective Sweeney blew out an exasperated sigh.

“Oh, don’t worry about all that,” Ms. Venuto said. “I already know who killed Zach Hernandez.”

 

SOLUTION:  How did Ms. Venuto know who the killer was?

Zach had clearly identified his killer. Although no writing implements were found nearby, the violin lay within his reach. Ms. Venuto, an experienced violinist, picked up the violin and plucked the strings. She knew, of course, that violins are tuned in perfect fifths, to GDAE. Zach’s violin was on pitch, except that the D string had been re-tuned to a B.  Zach must have seen his killer leave the room, and used the only means available to identify him: re-ordered, the strings spelled GABE, the name Gabriel Coleman usually went by.