My overall goal is to complete the tenth story of my historical mystery series by September. I am nearly finished with the first draft of #9 and I have a solid outline for #10 so it shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve hit my word count (as meager as it is) for the past few weeks and the books are slowly taking form.
Here is the first chapter of #8. This hasn’t been edited by my editor yet, so this is not the final version.
IT happened one lazy summer afternoon at the Agora Society meeting hall that Otto Snelling snorted twice and then shouted in my direction.
“Look here,” he said, his deep voice thundering as he threw a meaty arm toward me.
The bachelors among us congregated each Sunday afternoon to do nothing but share whatever discoveries we gained from whatever material we brought.
Most Sunday afternoons were quiet affairs, the group tending to share only those curious little fancies which were sure to excite a common interest. The tone of these discussions varied greatly, ranging from the lofty intellectual to the idle palaver. With the boisterous Otto in attendance, however, the discoveries often showed a marked decrease in overall quality.
On that lazy afternoon, however, I had grown weary of the financial papers and, presenting to Otto a questioning glance, I indicated willing consent to the distraction.
Willing, that is, until the topic became clear.
“I say, Carl, this lonely hearts personal sounds like someone just for you.”
Edison and Scott popped their curious heads from their books and set their eyes in my direction. On that particular Sunday, Scott Lords, Edison Graves, and I found ourselves audience to dear Otto’s frequent bursts.
Pretending to have been injured by his words, I narrowed my eyes and then, once certain he had caught my vexed look, I buried my head in my papers and blocked Otto from sight. “Bah!” I said in a gruff and returned to the economic news and stock figures. My interjection and the paper shield, however, did nothing to hinder Otto’s voice, a voice capable, I should think, of waking the dead.
Otto cleared his throat and read the following in a dramatic fashion, affecting a girlish voice and marking each stressed syllable with a firm nod and a jiggling of his fleshy cheeks.
“Young lady wishes to make the acquaintance of an elderly gentleman with considerable financial means; mother says I’m pretty.” Otto pursed his lips and teetered his head in a dainty fashion. He continued. “I can darn stockings and make soup. I’m very fond of pickles but quite detest liver. Man must have a good set of teeth. Object, matrimony.”
With my left hand, I lifted my paper even higher. With my other hand, I grabbed a nearby fan and began pumping. The rush of wind, however, was a poor defense to Otto’s assault.
Nor did it stop his accomplice.
“You do have a perfect set of teeth, Carl,” Edison said.
“And,” Otto said, pausing to form a crafty smile, “you are elderly.”
Otto was three months younger than I and his relative youthfulness was a perennial subject of teasing.
Having had quite enough, I lowered my paper completely and gave Otto a stare that would better convey my dismay than any words of admonition.
“Regardless,” said Edison, continuing in his playful, yet subdued tone, “surely Otto has found someone with whom you can share your love of Shakespeare and Milton.”
I turned my attention to Edison and marveled at his solemn face utterly void of playfulness.
With characteristic melancholy, Edison sighed as he lit his pipe. He took two puffs and then, suddenly, as if he were Archimedes leaping from his bath, he shouted, “I have it! You must write your reply at once. Otto and I would love to help you.” Edison looked at our friend and said, “Isn’t that right, Otto?”
Otto’s chin eagerly bounced up and down. “Yes, indeed,” I heard him say as I turned to Scott and mouthed a desperate plea for aid. Scott appeared to be willing to come to my defense, but his spirit weakened when Edison cleared his throat and continued the assault. With an invisible pen in the air, Edison began dictating.
“Dear Soup Lady, my teeth have no equal. The whiteness of my ivory pearls excel beyond the teeth of many men.”
“—many pianos as well,” added Otto.
“Quite right,” Edison said with complete agreement.
“And I am quite elderly.” Otto’s expression showed his unbounded enthusiasm for their creative collaboration. “We mustn’t forget to add that.” He laughed raucously while holding the base of his plump belly as if to prevent it from falling off. “No, no. One must be honest with this sort of thing.” He laughed again loudly and finished with “Brutally honest.”
As Edison punctuated Otto’s words with a firm nod, I set my fan down and, with both hands, spread my paper wide, taking great pains to completely block both Edison on my left and Otto on my right. This was no easy task as they were on opposite sides of the room and both eager to continue their teasing within my line of sight.
Then I came upon an idea. Edison’s dogged zeal for accuracy might be called upon to remove myself from being the target of Otto’s teasing. Shielded by the paper, I wore a knowing smile.
“I prefer quiet,” I said. “As Milton once said, ‘Passions are the gales of life’.”
“That is Pope,” said Edison, correcting my attribution. He was never one to leave a matter, never mind how trivial, uncorrected.
I lowered the left side of my paper and presented to Edison a mock-contrite face. “A thousand pardons. As Milton was also known to say, ‘to err is human’.”
Edison met my eyes. I maintained our visual connection without a blink. After a few moments of tense quiet, we broke out in simultaneous laughter.
“It is hardly a laughing matter,” said Otto, crossing his arms and suddenly looking like all the fun had been spoiled. “This is matrimony we are talking about. Matrimony!” He let out a puff of air and deepened his frown. “Carl’s future happiness is at stake.”
“I really ought to return to studying these reports,” I said, allowing the last fit of laughter to run its course. Eyeing the business column I had brought, I said, “No more personals, please.”
In order to cement the serious intent behind my words, I lowered the right corner of the paper just enough to look Otto in the eye. For a few moments, Otto simply sat there dumbfounded with his mouth agape.
“No more personals,” I repeated slowly, a word at a time. Otto sighed and as his mouth closed, his brow lifted in a resigned manner.
Blessed quiet lasted for all of sixty seconds. Then, Otto cleared his throat, a sure indication he had found some new matter to share. This time, however, it had nothing to do with me.
“Oh my, would you look at this. There’s been a murder.”
I lowered my paper halfway.
“Not the normal sort of murder, mind you.”
He shrugged and turned his chin up, seemingly lost in thought.
Without a forthcoming explanation, I asked, “Normal murder?” and immediately regretted the question.
“You know, the kind of old-fashioned murder one might perpetrate with a vial of poison or by the deft use of a knife hand,” he said, striking the air a few times with his right hand. “Not like that at all.”
I put my paper down, folding it in half. “I say, dear Otto, tell us of this newfangled murder.”
Otto’s attention returned to the article, mouthing silent words as his eyes scanned the page to formulate a summery.
I gazed at my compatriots Scott and Edison. They were equally interested.
“The poor man’s ear was cut off and then he was hanged. The paper goes into excruciating detail.” Somehow Otto’s eyes grew larger. “Excruciating detail,” he repeated. “I think there’s something very wrong with the mental state of this newspaper reporter.”
“Was a name given?” asked Edison, suddenly and uncharacteristically loud.
“Harold Pumpernickel or something or another. I shall write a letter to the editor this moment. Something very wrong with his mental…”
“No.” Edison’s voice softened, becoming shaky and unsure. “The victim.”
Otto scanned the article once more and then said, “No. No name for the victim. Just that it took place in San Francisco.”
“Oh.” Edison sigh as if in relief.
I looked over at my friend. In the space of seconds, Edison’s face had turned pale, perfectly matching the sound of his voice.
“I say, old boy, are you all right?” I asked.
At first, Edison did not respond. He was lost, completely lost in some dark thought until, upon hearing my repeated words, he jerked his head up and with an enfeebled voice, he uttered a meek, “Yes.”
It took a few seconds more before Edison’s face color somewhat returned.
“Yes, I think I am,” he said with more vigor.
Otto whooped and said, “There’s more. Listen here Edison. This further detail sounds like it was written just for you. A sign was placed on the dead-man’s chest. ‘To Eddie Graves, remember thy oath’ it read. It is remarkable how similar ‘Eddie Graves’ is to Edison Graves, but I know that can’t be you. I distinctly remember when you first introduced yourself to us.”
Otto stopped to stiffen his shoulders and level his lower back in an attempt to mimic Edison’s eternally precise posture. He arched one eyebrow and squinted the eye under the other in a manner resembling that of a sagacious-looking owl. He continued in a higher voice intended to impersonate the tenor Edison. “‘The name is Edison,’ you said. ‘Not Edward or Ed and certainly never, ever Eddie.’ You made it abundantly clear ‘Eddie’ was a name to call you on pain of death.”
Scott and I laughed, seeing Edison impersonated perfectly in Otto’s mannerisms. I also clearly remembered those precise words as Edison had spoken them upon first making our acquaintance at the Agora Society. No one ever, even in jest, called Edison, “Eddie.” It was simply not done. Edison was far too proper to use such a diminutive nickname.
Scott stopped his laughter and, with a more serious disposition, said, “Still, I suspect there aren’t many names so close to Edison and with ‘Graves’ for a last name. One would not be amiss to presume the message was intended for you.”
My laughter ceased when I once again beheld a change in Edison’s face. In the decade or so of our acquaintance, I had never witnessed so complete a change. The previous paleness was nothing compared to the utterly pallid visage I saw before me. I spied a man sallow and weak, wilting like some poor soul who, having traversed a great desert with an empty canteen, suddenly realized the oasis he had been trudging toward was merely a mirage.
Before further questions could be posed, Edison shot up from his chair and left through the door and down the stairs without a word of explanation.
We were so bewildered by Edison’s non-characteristic flight that it took nearly a minute before any of us found the presence of mind to run after him. By the time we reached the door and peered down the stairs, Edison had flown out of sight, leaving the door opened. He had not even stopped for his hat and coat.
Stepping outside, we saw not a trace of Edison.