A Sissy Holmes Short Story

This one was previously published in The Letters a publication of the Sherlockians of Baltimore.

The Adventure of the Stormy Night

By Mary Stojak

Sure, I’ve got a couple of graduate degrees, but that doesn’t keep me from watching talk shows. You’ve probably seen a glimpse of one before you turned the channel. The wife comes on and says my best friend destroyed my marriage. Much to the faked surprise of the wife, the girlfriend appears and says she should have done more to satisfy her man. The scene ends with some beefcakes with lots of muscle separating the two women. This show was different, even my friend Sissy was interested. The program aired almost a year after the hypnotist uncovered Sissy’s previous life as Sherlock Holmes.

The stage lights dimmed, and a spotlight hit my favorite talk show host, Lovey Jumper. “Have you ever seen anyone murdered?” he said. “When we asked you to send us your stories, we never expected to receive so many. Our first story is from a Maryland woman talking to us from backstage to protect her identity.”  

A silhouette appeared on the screen behind him, and a woman’s husky voice started to speak. “The forecasters predicted that Hurricane Lisa would miss most of Maryland. After I left the house, the storm’s course must have changed, because it started to rain. You know, it was a dark and stormy night.” She laughed.

“Try not to be nervous.” Lovey said and smiled at the audience before his spotlight dimmed once more.

“I drove slowly because I couldn’t see very far ahead.” She paused before she went on. “Suddenly, a tree fell across the road. I slammed on my brakes and felt a thump on the hood. I couldn’t see through the leaves covering the windshield, but I thought only a smaller branch had hit the car. Once my pounding heartbeat slowed, I left the car to check the damage.

The rain pummeled me even though I held that day’s Baltimore Sun over my head. The branch had left a deep dent in the hood. Even if I could move it, which didn’t seem likely since it was still attached to the tree, I probably wouldn’t be able to start the car. Behind me, another car stopped, maybe twenty yards away.

Relieved, I ran toward the headlights until I saw that it was a red Mustang, the same make as my husband’s car. With all the money he’d made as CEO of my father’s company, he could have bought any car he wanted. Instead, he’d bought a car that reminded him of the junker he had in college. A few steps more, and I saw his license plate confirming my fears. I tossed my soaked newspaper to the side of the road and slid into the passenger seat.”

The spotlight hit Lovey. “We all want to hear what happened next from our mystery guest. Stay tuned while we take a break.”

“How could they go to commercial now?” I complained.  

Sissy stood up and stretched. “Do you think the husband is the murderer?”

“It’s too early to tell. She hasn’t told us anything about the murder yet.”

The expression on Sissy’s face changed, and one eyebrow went up. “My dear El, only two people are in the story. The lady telling us the tale and her husband, the driver of the other car. She would not be talking about her husband if he was not a major character in her tale.”

“Maybe he’s the murder victim, not the murderer.” Even Sherlock would need more information than we’d received so far.

“Then who is the murderer, the wife?” Sissy asked. “That seems highly improbable. Why would she confess what she’d done?”

“We’re back,” Lovey said.

I turned my attention to the TV.

“I expected him to complain about leaving my car behind,” the woman said. “Instead, he asked me how I felt. The falling tree had scared me, but I felt fine.

He backed up the Mustang because he couldn’t turn the car around. The road was narrow and followed a deep cut between the hills. It looked even narrower that night with the water already covering half the pavement. If the storm didn’t blow past us soon, the entire road would be covered with water. We both kept our thoughts to ourselves. I welcomed the silence and noting the time, took my evening pill.”

“What about the murder?” Lovey said.

Today’s story was supposed to be about a murder. We’d heard nothing about the nature of the crime, and we were close to the half-hour break. I said so to Sissy who’d started pacing the room after Lovey interrupted his guest.

Sissy put a finger to her lips.

“How do we know what we will do when we’re found out?” the woman said.

Lovey hesitated before he turned to the camera. I barely recognized his face without that sardonic sparkle in his eyes. “We’ll be back with our guest after these messages.” Someone was in trouble. Lovey obviously hadn’t expected to have a murderer on his show.

When they’d announced the series on murders, I’d imagined there might be a few or just one person who witnessed a murder. It was more likely that people had imagined a murder when someone suddenly disappeared.

Maybe they would run into another person on the road who, inflamed by the violent storm, would attack them both and only she would escape. In my imagination, a lightning bolt branched through a dark sky putting a lone stranger in stark relief.

“I do not believe that her statement is incriminating. Did she say that she’d murdered him? No. Remembering the episode is very painful for her,” Sissy grabbed a pillow from the couch just as I was ready to grab it myself.

“Everyone in the studio must think she admitted her guilt,” I said taking the pillow from her and plumping it before I returned it to where it belonged. I couldn’t stop thinking about the words, what we will do. Who had been found out? She was surprised to see her husband on the back road.

As a host for another talk show finished his spiel about a local car dealership, Sissy sat down beside me. I wanted to know if she’d changed her mind but didn’t ask because the commercial was over.

Lovey was more serious. “Please continue.” I imagine he’d been telling his staff that they better find out what their legal obligations would be if the lady ended up admitting she killed her husband.

The woman continued her story. “Ron slowly backed up. As we rounded the last curve, we entered the edge of the rushing water.

‘We have to get out,’ he said.

In front of us the road was blocked by the tree and at the lowest point of the gully, the road dipped down to the bridge that was already covered in water. We could not escape on foot either way, because the water had risen behind us too. The whole road would soon be covered by the stream streaked by dirty froth, green leaves, and small branches. As the effects of the storm intensified, I had no doubt those branches would be large enough to push the car down to the swollen stream.

‘Slide over to my side of the car,’ Ron said.

Rushing water had already blocked the less severe slope on the right. We could only escape up the sharp, almost vertical slope on the driver’s side of the road. I’m far from being an athletic type of person, and my shoes were definitely wrong for scaling a steep slope. But my three-inch black heels were better than the four-inch pink stilettos that I’d almost worn.

Ron climbed up first and offered his hand so he could pull me up to rest my back against a narrow pine growing between the rocks. The wood creaked as I leaned into the trunk. I wouldn’t be able to stop there only three feet above the ground. The tree might topple into the water. As far as I could see, the stone ridge was almost vertical.

He was about six feet above me before he reached down again. I’d already moved and now hugged the greenish stone instead of pushing back into the tree. The rocks he’d used as steps to climb upward jutted out a few inches from the wall. Before I searched for my first foothold, I kicked off my shoes and watched them bob up-and-down in the water as they were carried away. My hand found a ledge, and I pulled myself up to a spot still a good five feet from the hand he extended to me. Below us, the lights of his red Mustang flickered and went out.

My heart pounded in my chest. I wished I’d slipped my nitro tablets into my pocket. The beams of light from my BMW suddenly tipped upward as the water lifted the car, tree and all, and carried them away. We were left in darkness.

Once the heavy rains stopped the flash flood would quickly subside, but there was no way to know how high the waters would rise or if this particular arm of the hurricane would pass soon.

‘Rene,’ my husband said.  

His outstretched hand reminded me of our wedding day. My father’s best friend walked me down the aisle outside his large house in Virginia. Behind my veil, I pretended that my father stood beside me, but I’d been an orphan for almost three years since my eighteenth birthday. At the end of the aisle, my illusion shattered when my father’s friend lifted my veil and kissed me on the cheek. My disappointment must have shown because instead of waiting for me to step up to the altar, Ron leaned down and offered me his hand. As the rain battered us, I wished I felt the same way about him now as I had on our wedding day.

Soon I found another toehold and inched up the wall. After another step, I would be able to reach his hand if I stretched out my arm.”

“Will one of them fall?” Lovey asked the audience. “Will a stranger meet them at the top of the ridge? Stay tuned to find out what happens.”

“He’s certainly playing the story for all it’s worth,” I said. Obviously, they would want everyone to watch the entire show because of their advertisers.

Sissy’s left eyebrow went up making her look, at least to me, like the original Sherlock Holmes. “Do you still think she killed her husband?” Sissy asked.

“Only two characters are in the story, and she’s alive.” I got up from the couch. It was time for me to play hostess. “Would you like some coffee?”

Soon after she’d quit smoking, Sissy had discovered that caffeine helped when her nerves were on edge. She was becoming quite an expert on coffee beans.

“Arabica?” she asked.

The strong brew wasn’t done when Lovey appeared once more on my TV. I didn’t wait for the coffee to finish brewing. The woman was already continuing her story.

“I had a hard time finding the next foothold, because the rocks were slippery. After I pulled myself up, I stopped to rest.

The hood of his green slicker covered my husband’s face. ‘Rene, we need to keep going,’ he said in a muffled voice.

Our last years together hadn’t been happy ones. What should I do now? Freeze and hope that my strength would outlast the flash flood? I decided to take his hand. It was time that I started acting like an adult instead of a whining child. Ron was right that my father had spoiled me.

I didn’t know if I could reach him. He seemed farther away although I knew the distance between us hadn’t increased. I made myself taller by going up on the tips of my toes in an awkward, un-yoga-like pose. My fingers touched his. I expected him to grab my hand. He didn’t.

My toes slipped on the small ledge. I grabbed the nearest handhold as I slid down banging my ankles on an outcropping of rock. The fall from this height would not kill me. The rising water would. I clung to the rock, digging my fingers deep into the crevice.

I froze until his hand closed around my wrist. He pulled me up beside him allowing me to stand flat-footed again. I lowered my head to get some relief from the rain. One breath, two, I counted trying to slow the beating of my heart. He held me close. When he started climbing again, I missed him.

One breath, two, three, I counted as I inhaled more deeply. It was time to move. The slope ahead wasn’t as steep as below. Ron was almost to the top. I followed him using the handholds I’d seen him use and placed one foot after another on the outcroppings of greenish rock. Before long, I stood beside him on the top of a ridge about three-feet-wide with a sharp drop on three sides. The fourth side was blocked by a large boulder. I didn’t know if we would be able to make our way around it to the gentle path beyond. In the distance, lights twinkled from a house.

‘Why?’ he yelled over the roar of the storm.

He didn’t have to explain. Ron wanted to know why I was having an affair. Johnny’s house was at the end of this road. If Ron had thought about it, he would have known the answer.

‘You only love my money, not me,’ I screamed into the storm. ‘Why did you follow me?’   

He lowered his head so I couldn’t see his face. ‘You’re not going to leave me.’

Had he ever loved me? While I pondered this new idea, he grabbed my arm.

‘You belong to me,’ he said.

This was what he’d intended all along. He probably thought that the stress would make my weak heart fail. When he proposed ten years ago, I had warned him that the doctors said I wouldn’t last long. At thirty-two, my condition wasn’t any better, but it wasn’t any worse either.

I tried to pull out of his grasp. His grip tightened.

Falling from this height could kill me. When Ron told his story about how my heart had failed, they might believe him. I dropped to the ground on all fours except for the arm he still grasped.

He tried to change his grip, but I was already over the edge. Luckily, my feet came to rest on a mossy rock.  

‘Get up here.’

‘I thought you wanted me to go back down,’ I said as my hand slipped through his.

Although it happened very fast, when I remember that moment, it’s all in slow motion. He was crouched down, balanced on the edge when a rock slid away from under his foot and glanced off my arm before falling into the water below. I flattened myself against the wall as he fell past me screaming. I couldn’t watch, but I heard him hit the rocks several times before there was a splash.”

“But you didn’t murder him,” Lovey said softly. The camera was focused on the audience. People nodded their heads. One lady with a pixie cut of fine white hair wiped a tear from her eye.

“In a way, I did. I was having an affair. If I hadn’t been on that road, I wonder if he would have tried to kill me. We had a prenup, so he wouldn’t get any money in the divorce,” she said.

“You came on the show because you felt guilty,” Lovey prompted her.

“That’s true. I haven’t talked to anyone except the police. A kind man from the house I’d seen in the distance came to investigate when he heard Ron’s scream. He found me clinging to the rocks and called for help. Once they heard my story, they said it was clear that his death had been an accident.”

Sissy jumped to her feet.

The woman was lucky to be alive. “You were right,” I said, “Her husband was the murderer or would have been if he hadn’t slipped and fell. It’s a miracle she survived.”

What were the odds that a barefooted woman with a heart condition could scale a steep slope and not be overcome by a healthy male? Maybe the odds weren’t as high as the odds against winning the lottery jackpot, but they were high.

Sissy nodded. “Why didn’t he leave her on the road where he first found her? Nature had already made it easy for him. He could have backed up his car and left her, and she would have been swept away by the flood.”

I shook my head from side-to-side. “He would have been trapped there too. Everyone would have known that he’d left her there to die.”

Sissy’s strides widened as she paced the room even without the caffeine I’d promised. “No one would have known if she’d fallen from the rocks as they climbed or if she had simply been swept away by the water. There was no reason for him to hold her halfway up the slope. He could have let her fall.”

“He decided to kill her in the passion of the moment.”

“According to her, he was patient going up the slope and only faltered once. He already knew she was having an affair, or he wouldn’t have followed her that day.”

“What about the prenup?”

“Yes, there is that. But it does not sound like he spent much of his own money,” Sissy said and stopped in the middle of the living room.

Sissy sounded like she was trying to convince me that I’d been right. I’d never beaten her at this game before. And it was extremely unlikely that I should today. I pressed on. “The prenup is a good reason to believe her story.”

“He made his own money. She said he could have bought any car he wanted. But he was sentimental enough to buy a car like the one he had in college.”

“She admitted she was having an affair,” I said.

“Her outburst was clearly one of the few times when she was telling us the truth,” Sissy proclaimed.

I jumped to my feet, suddenly convinced. I had been right.

“What else, El?” Sissy said and smiled like her old self.

“Her shoes.”

Sissy laughed. “What about her shoes?”

“Who would trust a woman who wears four-inch pink stilettos?” To which Sissy responded, “Only if it was you!”

Lovey was talking again about his guest’s close call and thanking her for being on the show.

The woman spoke more loudly now. “I know my story isn’t what you wanted. I just needed to tell someone else what happened.”

The woman was so conceited she had to brag about what she’d done. I no longer cared that I’d beaten Sissy at her own game. I did care that a murderer was free to kill again.

The End

Out and About

After having a wonderful workshop at Tinker Mountain with Laura Ruby, home again and enjoying congratulations from friends and family about the launch of Sissy Holmes and The Case of the Dead Hypnotist.

Many thanks to the people at MX Publishing, Orange Pip Books, and the Cover designer Brian Belanger. so many have helped me, there are too many to list here. Thanks so much!

Death on the Nile

Agatha Christie wrote this book after a winter in Egypt. I’ve always wanted to go to Egypt and this past December I realized that dream. Obviously, the Egypt of Christie’s time varied in some important ways. The politics are more complicated today. The people are still complex too. Her characters focused on the Europeans on the cruise from Aswan with a complicated plot. I found the Egyptians surrounding me to far more interesting (no offense to my fellow travelers!)

Ms. Christie starts out in England where the difference between the have’s, the incredibly rich and beautiful Linnet, and the have not’s, Jackie and her fiancé Simon is blatantly obvious. The strength of Agatha Christie’s book always tracks to a significant theme. So we know something is going to happen even in the superb weather of Egypt’s winter. Hercule Poirot is never a disappointment.

As I cruised down the Nile myself, I had quite a few ideas for my second book about Sissy Holmes and her sidekick El who is full of surprises. Death could happen in the shadow of the large Ramses II statues that were moved instead of being left at the bottom of Lake Nassar when the most recent Aswan Dam was built. Or maybe in one of the many markets that are set-up outside of every tomb and temple. Thanks to Ms. Christie for the idea of  mysteries taking place in unusual locations!

Mary Stojak has had a number of short stories published in anthologies, journals, and magazines. Most recently she had stories published in The Letters a Sherlockian publication, In Short, Volume III a collection of Flash Fiction, and The Raven Review. Mary received her Masters in Fiction from Johns Hopkins Hopkins University.

Ann Cleeves

Telling Tales was intriguing. Once again, her title was well thought out and descriptive of how the plot evolves. Her use of characters grounded in the past and the struggle of the younger generation to make their own place in the world, could be set anywhere, but her characters have more meat on their bones than that. They are fully realized, their motives twining with the influence of their environment and their own wants and fears. Vera is even at a loss until she finds a way to get them all talking. Her use of this device reminds me of how Agatha Christie’s Poirot loved to gather all the suspects in the same room, except she does it in a more subtle way.

Wildfire, a Shetland Islands mystery, showed the effects of an outside family moving into the neighborhood, and the gossip that spread like wildfire as a result. The setting has a stronger influence in these books than her Vera novels that are so dominated by the lead character (even when we consider that her father stole endangered bird eggs and dragged her around in search of their nests!)

I did quite enjoy both books although I think I’ll take a break since I’m beginning to nitpick. Not about how she writes, but such things as using the same names frequently. Best to have some space between readings so I don’t confuse the characters. I wonder if the names she keeps using are close family members or if they are just very popular names in that generation? Something to remember in my own efforts. Both books are very good and well worth your reading time.

Ann Cleeves

If you’ve only watched Vera on PBS, give yourself a treat and read the books by Ann Cleeves who created Vera. The Glass Room was great fun with the playful jabs at the house full of authors, and the more serious bits about the ups and downs of a writing career. Having gone to plenty of writing workshops, I recognized many of the character types. In the Fall, I’ll have the opportunity to take a Mystery Writers of America workshop with Miss Cleeves! We’ll see if any mysteries ensue!

In The Glass Room, Vera seemed to have a sharper edge at first than her film version, but then I reminded myself that there is always some interpretation by the director and actors. It didn’t take long to feel right at home with Vera Stanhope in the written word.

But I’ve been reading these out of order! Telling Tales, the next book I read, was published in 2005 as the second Vera mystery, seven years before The Glass Room. In this Vera Stanhope case, some of the mystery writing trophs she used, might sound very stereotypical. Yet when I was in the act of reading the book, her original way of employing them, had me fooled. A very good read, even out of order.

Ann Cleeves didn’t start with her Vera Stanhope character. She started with her Palmer Jones books in the eighties and her Inspector Ramsey books in the nineties.  The Glass Room is the fifth book in the Vera Stanhope mysteries. I’ll be going back to the beginning to read all of her books in hard copy except for the ones that are offered in audio version from my library. All those tedious chores are much easier when I’m listening to a good story. And that is all possible because my car is smart enough to have Bluetooth technology which connects to the library app on my phone! My next audio book will be in the Shetland series.

Rex Stout in Maryland

Nero Wolf and Archie Goodwin are at it again in The Final Deduction. Not one of Stout’s best, a little nipping and tucking in the plot would have helped. This selection was studied by the Macabre group in Maryland that meets bi-monthly. If you know the geography of Maryland, we met at a restaurant by the water this month around Arnold. We missed our fearless leader and decided to ask for volunteers ahead of time for future meetings so no one person would be stuck leading the discussion.

I couldn’t help thinking about Sherlock Holmes when I was reminded of the selection, and there were hints about Agatha Christie in the book too. We were all a little disappointed that there weren’t enough suspects, and the red herrings weren’t followed up. Maybe he was a little rushed on this one.

The best unusual word, at least in my opinion, was thaumaturgury. It’s a good word to look up but might be hard to slip into a conversation. August’s selection will be Gambit.

Malice Domestic Wrapping Up

The banquet was last night and we are getting close to the end. The winners were announced and there were a few surprises. Ellen Byron won contemporary for her southern mysteries. There were ties in two categories which I don’t think has happened before. Sujata Massey won in historical. Probably every book in the historical category deserved a prize.

A special shout and congratulations to Grace Topping on the publication of her first book and first Malice Panel!

Malice Domestic 2019

The best novels, short stories, and nonfiction books have been nominated for the Agatha Awards. There are a lot of keepers such as Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan and of course Louise Penny has a book nominated too. I’m going to have a particularly hard time voting for only one Best Short Story and one Best Historical Novel. Take a look. The novels are worth picking up, and you can read the short stories at malicedomestic.org/agathas.html

Best Historical Novel

  • Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding by Rhys Bowen
  • The Gold Pawn by LA Chandlar
  • The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
  • Turning the Tide by Edith Maxwell
  • Murder on Union Square by Victoria Thompson

Best Short Story

  • “All God’s Sparrows” by Leslie Budewitz
  •  “A Postcard for the Dead” by Susanna Calkins
  •  “Bug Appetit” by Barb Goffman
  •  “The Case of the Vanishing Professor” by Tara Laskowski
  •   “English 398: Fiction Workshop” by Art Taylor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bouchercon 2017 – Toronto – Where It Hurts

If you’ve been wondering about my new background, it’s a street in New Orleans where Bouchercon was held last year. Soon, I’ll be leaving for Toronto for this year’s Bouchercon!

It’s always good to have an incentive to get back on a regular reading schedule! Today’s list is a review of Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where It Hurts. I’ve been known to read a police procedural or a hardboiled mystery once in a while so I wasn’t put off by Gus Murphy, a grieving  ex-cop, who’s lost his family. The formula works to make us feel his pain even though we don’t know for a long time how the instigating action, his son’s death, happened. The character is very likable and I enjoyed his friends from the sleazy hotel, The Paragon, where he now works.

His depiction of the Manhattan island setting was intriguing. Coleman obviously did his homework about the layout of the terrain and how the precincts are setup. Everything was going well until about two-thirds of the way through the book where I felt like I must have missed something. This is the point where I would have expected the logical links of the plot to fall in place. Instead, he tries out one plot ending after another. I lost count of how many times I thought the end was near. Instead, I found myself stumbling along with Coleman until we’re back to the doughnut shop. Did I say I didn’t like the ending? A very likeable lead character though, and Coleman has some obvious writing skills that could be enhanced by a later deadline. Not my pick for the Anthony.

 

Getting Back Into the Swing of Things, Marcia Talley’s first book, Sing it to Her Bones

Bouchercon is approaching which reminds me that I want to read the books nominated for awards. But first, I wanted to review Marcia Talley’s first book that won the Malice Domestic Grant in 1998. Almost two decades ago, I read this book for the first time. My mom recommended it which was always a thumbs up for me.

This book is the first Hannah Ives mystery. I remember that I wasn’t sure if I could relate to a cancer survivor. She’s had breast cancer and lived to tell the tale. Her thoughts echo the thoughts of all women about appearance, the possibility of reconstructive surgery, to the wig she buys to cover her sparse hair. She’s scarred by ordeal emotionally too which makes her very alive to the reader. Her sensitivity to the world around her and her estranged daughter make Hannah feel responsible when she finds the body of a girl in a well.

The setting is familiar to me because of friends I have who live near the Cheasapeake Bay, yet I had no trouble seeing the setting when I first read this book and was fairly new to Maryland. The sailing culture is a large part of the state which is natural when you consider how large the Bay is. Ms. Talley also uses sailing in the plot – no spoilers here! You’ll have to read the book to see how this fun and quick-moving plot works out. An enjoyable read!