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A Better Class of Murder
(A Betty Trenka/Lady Margaret Priam Mystery)
by Joyce Christmas
Fawcett Books, 2000

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       Almost no one noticed the little green car creeping along the fog-shrouded roads of Redding's Point, a summer beach resort on Long Island Sound in Connecticut. There was almost no one to notice, since most of the summer people had departed, and the few locals were barricaded in their winterized homes with shades drawn against the foggy night. Except for Stan Thurlow, who had abandoned his cozy living room and taken Venture, the household's clumsy black lab, for his evening's walk.

       Stan had Venture on a leash, but was intending to let him run on the beach, something forbidden during the summer months, but as a year round resident, Stan felt that the beach was his and Venture's.

       The car pulled into a stretch of grass above the beach, while Stan and the dog were still a distance away, but he saw two people got out. The fog wrapped around them like shawls as they found the steps down to the sand. Maybe he wouldn't take the dog to the beach after all, lest he alarm the others. Stan couldn't tell what sex they were, but then he heard a woman's voice say, "It's weird. I love it." She took off her shoes so as to be able to dig her toes into the sand. It wasn't cold, or even chilly. Stan approached the beach and watched as she danced along in the waves that broke gently on the land. The tide was going out, and she left a trail of footprints in the damp sand. Her dark hair floated behind her as she disappeared into the fog. Her companion appeared to be watching her, then followed. Stan was curious about them, because not too many casual visitors turned up at Redding's Point, but he continued on with the dog along a road away from the beach. Venture would have his run another night.

       The two strollers finally came together where the beach ended in an outcropping of sea-smoothed boulders. The woman dropped her shoes in the sand and climbed up on a rock, signaling to the dark shape of her companion.

       "Catch me if you can," she called, and her voice was taunting. The other clambered unsteadily onto the rock beside the woman, grasped her arm, and said, "Give me what's mine."

       "Don't be so melodramatic. It's not yours." She laughed. "It's mine now anyhow." She took a silvery object from the pocket of her slacks and held it high in the air. "What a lovely idea coming here to the beach. It's magical."

       "It's mine," the other said, and put a hand to the woman's throat. She pulled away, but the other held on tightly, and tried to reach the silver object, to no avail. The woman struggled slightly, lost her footing, and crashed facedown into a tidal pool at the foot of the rocks. The other carefully slid down the rocks and pressed a foot on the woman's neck as she struggled to raise her face out of the water. After a long moment, her thrashing stopped, and the silver object was no longer in her hand.

       The other decided it must be on the bottom of the tidal pool, but couldn't see it. Somewhere behind the fog and clouds there was a full moon, but no light penetrated the mist. The tide would probably take it away as the water ebbed. It would be swept out to sea, so it was lost, and in some ways, that was for the best. Away at the other end of the beach, the highlights of a car crossed the causeway. The other carefully climbed over the rocks and back onto the beach, and returned to the green car, keeping close to the seawall, although the fog gave the gift of invisibility.

       The little green car backed up to the road and moved away quietly. The lights weren't turned on until it had passed the row of summer cottages that lined the road, and had turned onto the road that led away from the beach colony back to the main road. The other car must have turned into the driveway of one of the few houses with lights among the many that were dark and closed-up for the season.

       The dead woman had been pretty, a charming friend. Desirable and witty. It was a pity to lose her, but business was business, and if she chose to play games, she had to suffer the consequences. There was a long drive ahead. No point in worrying about that business on the beach.

       It rained during the night, and high tide came again very early in the morning, filling the tidal pool and rocking the floating body gently. No one ventured along the beach until midday, when a new bank of fog rolled in across the slick surface of Long Island Sound. It was dense and determined, soon hiding the two little offshore islands and reaching the gently sloping beach, where modest little waves broke daintily on the wet sand. The fog crept up the narrow creek that had cut a path through the wetlands and emptied into the bay.

       At the end of the beach, where a pile of water-smoothed boulders formed a rocky cove, and the water stood a foot deep, clusters of blue-black mussels attached to the rocks floated their beards in the retreating tide and six tiny green crabs clambered across the pebbles, the empty shells, the bits of blue and brown sea glass. They skittered across the pale white hand that floated in the pool, became entangled in the long black hair that covered the surface, and scuttled around a silvery gold object wedged in a crevice in the rocks. But they didn't pause at the slim body that lay face down in the water. The tide was rapidly retreating, and they went with the flow, out of the cove and into the deeper offshore water.

       Pete and Jack Thurlow found the body an hour or two later when the tide was fully out, and the fog had settled in firmly on the beach and the cove. The boys had been scouring the beach for sea-tossed treasures abandoned by the waves from a modest autumn storm a few days earlier before the fog appeared yesterday: a piece of rope, an odd shell, a tangle of nylon fishing line with sinkers and hooks still attached. They had marveled at the very dead seagull with tattered feathers, and had used the toe of a sneaker to flip over a stranded overturned horseshoe crab with all those fluttering feet. The survivor of primordial times and the dangers of modern weather then inched its way across the sand back toward the safety of the water.

       The summer was over, the summer people had gone back to their homes upstate. The boys remained because they were locals and lived with their family beside the Sound year round in the now mostly deserted beach colony, with streets of boarded-up cottages and empty yards. They had to entertain themselves through the boring, quiet days of autumn and the oddly beautiful days of winter when snow fell on the beach and was licked away along the edges by the rising tides. On the rare freezing cold days, they found rims of ice had formed on the rocks that formed the cove and even the salty tidal pools would sometimes show a thin cover of ice.

       They almost turned back before they reached the cove, but Peter, the older boy, saw something that interested him. A pale pile of fabric in the tidal pool over which wisps of fog hung. It could be a life jacket or a sail, something rare and wonderful, a real treasure. That's when they found her, and looked at each other with momentary terror. A gentle prod with the trusty sneaker revealed her white face, wrinkled by submersion, but they didn't dare touch her. She was certainly appeared to be dead. They looked at each other, the eleven-year-old hoping that his year older brother would know what to do.

       "We better get Dad," Pete said. Then Jack spotted a round silver object caught between the rocks. This was a real treasure for sure. He pulled it out and put it into his pocket, not telling his brother, who in any case was examining a pair of women's shoes left on the sand. Then they ran back along the beach, up the stairs the summer people used to descend to the sand loaded down with beach towels and chairs, umbrellas and books, and sunscreen. But there was no one on the beach now. They ran along the narrow roads past empty, staring windows to their house, an old summer cottage that had been made over into a year round home, snug and quiet in the midst of the deeper quiet of seasonal abandonment all around it. Oh, there were a few people around in some of the cottages, people who refused to admit that summer was over, and chose to stay on in chilly, damp rooms just a few days longer. Could the dead girl be one of them? The boys hadn't recognize her as coming from the handful of other year round families.

       Their father, Stan Thurlow, called the resident Connecticut State trooper in the nearby town and went back to the tidal pool with the boys to be sure they were telling the truth. They were. The water had almost drained away, and the slim body lay on the sandy and pebble bottom of the pool, face down, with her hair plastered on her back. Stan didn't recognize her either. He realized that she was probably the woman he'd seen the night before. Whatever had happened, her companion had fled, leaving her there.

       "She must have drowned," the father said. "We'll wait for the cops to tell us what really happened. You boys go on home now. I don't want you seeing this."

       But of course they wanted to see all of it. It was the best thing that had ever happened to them in the off season, better than a deal gull, better than the hurricane that had lashed its way across the Sound last fall and had briefly cut them off from the rest of the world when the road into Redding's Point had flooded in the storm. It was better even than the time the Fourth of July fireworks had gotten out of hand, and the whole pile of them had all gone off at once.

       The police came and questioned the boys.

       "You kids didn't see any strangers around, did you? Any cars you didn't recognize?"

       They'd seen no one on the beach, they'd touched nothing. Jack didn't mention the silver thing in his pocket. Indeed, he'd forgotten it in the gory excitement of seeing the body moved to a stretcher and taken away, and anyhow, he wasn't overly concerned with crime scenes and evidence. Pete showed the policeman the shoes, which seemed to interest him. Stan noticed that she seemed to have been a good-looking young woman, not at all disfigured by her mishap. He noticed a ring on one finger with a pretty hefty colored stone, and perhaps those were bruises on her neck and arms.

       "I'll let ya know what happened, Stan, when we find out what killed her," the State Policemen said. He'd known Stan for a good many years. They were pals. "She might have fallen off a boat out in the Sound during that storm. I'll check with the Coast Guard." He looked around at the all-encompassing fog that seemed to be getting heavier by the minute. "I hate these damned foggy days. Accidents on the roads, kids up to mischief in town because they think nobody can see them. End of summer for sure. Wonder if she was one of the summer people. Didn't find any ID on her." He spoke sternly to Peter and Jack. "If you boys find anything on the beach like a handbag, sure you get it to me pronto."

       "Yessir," they said as one, and immediately set off to scavenge.

       Stan knew he had to tell his friend the State cop what he'd seen. "I was walking our dog last night and noticed a car parked on the right of way just above the beach." He gestured toward the steps. "Two people got out, but it was so foggy, I couldn't tell whether they were men or women. Then I heard a woman's voice, they went down to the beach, and the dog and I continued on back home. Never thought another thing about it."

       "Pretty rare to get visitors this time of year," the state policeman said. Stan agreed, but there was nothing more he could tell the cop. It had been too foggy and dark to notice the license plate on the car, although he thought it had been a light color.

       "We're probably looking at a lovers' quarrel," the cop said. "Kind of an odd place to break up, as it were, don't you think? Unless the guy lived around here." Again Stan agreed and wondered if his friend the policeman was looking at him in an odd way.

       "I didn't recognize her," Stan said. "And my wife and the boys will tell you I was out with the dog just a little while. And you know I don't fool around with women."

       "I'm not suggesting anything," the policeman said. "The Major Crime boys will want to know. Too bad you didn't get a closer look at the pair and the car." When the boys got home, Jack pulled Pete down to the basement, out of earshot of their parents, and displayed his find. Pete thought the silver thing his brother had found near the body was a computer disk. It certainly hadn't played music on his CD player, and he'd didn't own a computer, knew little about them.

"Dad's not going to like this," Pete said. "It's like…evidence or something." They'd watched enough cop shows on television to know that withholding evidence was not a good thing, so they decided to postpone any trouble they might be in and hid the disk in a drawer and tried to forget about it. But they both knew they'd end up confessing, eventually.

       Meanwhile, word of the discovery of a body on the beach spread through the last of the summer people and into the nearby small town. The local paper picked it up and a photo of Pete and Jack Thurlow appeared on the front page. The local television news even had a story or two on the dead woman and showed an artist's sketch of her face.

       It was a day or two later that investigators came across a sodden lump of leather in the tidal pool that turned out to be a wallet. It had probably belonged to the dead woman.

       The police went about trying to locate someone who had known Jane Xaviera Corvo, identified by her California driver's license. She had died by drowning in a small tidal pool on the Connecticut coast just before a really big fog rolled in and covered much of the state and others nearby. According to reports, her death had probably been aided by some human intervention, because there were bruises on her neck. They seemed to indicate that she'd been murdered.

       The tides ebbed and flowed while a fruitless search for anyone who had known the dead woman continued on both coasts. Then the authorities located her mother near San Diego. Mrs. Corvo wept, but not for long.

       "Janie went her own way, never called me, kept moving here, there, mostly in California, but then I think she moved east. I never knew where she was, who she was with. She liked money and she was really pretty, so she attracted men with money. We're not rich people. We weren't good enough for her. What did she do? She worked for a while at a company that had something to do with computers. I don't think she knew anything about them, she just worked in the office, but she got involved with the boss, an important guy, and rich, of course, so she started putting on airs. Even changed her name to something fancier than Jane. Her name was not Xaviera. She started calling herself that, but she was Jane, that was the name I gave her. Jane. I hope you find the person who killed her."

       "It may have been just a terrible accident, Mrs. Corvo. She may have slipped overboard from some boat or on the wet rocks, hit her head and drowned in the tidal pool."

       "Xaviera," Mrs. Corvo sniffed. "Will I have to put that name on her tombstone?"

Copyright © 2000-2001 by Joyce Christmas. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted With Permission.

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