Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Here's the first part of a story I wrote:

Murder on the Rocks, by Colleen Downey Morse
(penname: Maggie Millstone)

I always knew that Cassandra Ross was the most intelligent, charming, witty, clever and beautiful woman I had ever met, but I never realized the extent of her ambition until the day she asked me to be her partner in her newest business endeavor. Ask is perhaps too light a word. Told would be more appropriate. Cassandra had a way of telling people what was going to happen, much as a professional salesman does when he uses the trick of assuming the sale. Cassandra went a step further. By the time she was finished getting what she wanted, she had people thoroughly convinced that it was entirely their own idea to give it to her.

Cassandra was five foot four with blonde hair and incredibly intense blue eyes that seemed to look right into your soul. After knowing her for one hour I felt as though I had known her not only all of my life this time around, but in all my lives since the beginning of time. She, for some unknown reason, became attached to me. She said I was the only man she had ever met whom she could totally relate to and trust. She said she’d looked her whole life for someone she could communicate with mentally, spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. I was flattered, but I secretly wondered what she wanted. Then I got to know her and finally realized that the only thing she wanted was to be cared about and understood. She had never had either from anyone, and constantly tried to make up for it with ambition and a quick tongue and sharp wit which kept most people from ever getting too close to her. She’d been hurt enough in her life and wasn’t taking any more chances on trusting anyone. She made an exception for me.

We met at a community college where we were both taking classes. We got to know each other while working on the school newspaper. She was a writer and I was the
photographer. We covered theatre events and school news. After being thrown together at various events, we soon became friends. During the first year of our friendship, we became very close. I think she began to fall in love with me, but I was very young and had the ideals of youth. I still carried the chauvinistic idea that the man had to be older, more intelligent, and make more money than the woman he is with. The last two were no problem, for I was on her level intellectually, and I eventually became a criminal lawyer with an excellent income. Cassandra, though, was several years my senior. I was never sure exactly how many years, for she would never reveal her age. She claimed to be ageless, which I eventually decided was probably true. She had three kids, the oldest being fifteen, and she had once revealed to me in a moment of confidence that she had been a virgin at eighteen. So she had to be at least thirty-three. I was only twenty-two and thought that anyone over thirty was old. Eight years later I changed my mind. I also began to fall in love with Cassandra, but by that time she had decided to think of me as the kid brother she’d never had. She said it was either that or completely lose her sanity.

In spite of the lack of physical intimacies between us, there was a deep bond and a unique closeness that neither of us had ever been able to achieve with anyone else. Then, a couple of years after we had both graduated from the community college with two-year degrees, and then went on to graduate from the University, she offered me the chance at a partnership in her new detective agency. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. Not only did it afford me the opportunity of working next to her in what could only be exciting and adventurous pursuits, but it would also allow me to make better use of my own analytical inclinations.

The first three months of business proved to be less than either of us had hoped for. We had plenty of clients, but they were limited to the usual array of jealous husbands and wives wanting a tail put on their wandering spouses, distraught parents seeking the location of their runaway teenagers, and corporate officers attempting to prove embezzlement charges against their subordinates.

Ninety days of this was quite enough. We decided to take a week off and drive to Minnesota’s North Shore on Lake Superior. Cassandra had purchased a townhouse at Bluefin Bay in Tofte. She had always loved to sit on the rocky shores of Lake Superior and write stories and poems. She said those were the only times when life was what she wanted it to be.

I had to admit that it was a place of peace and serenity. There was something about being on the shores of the Great Lakes that was inspiring. I spent many hours at Cassandra’s side, watching her write while I further developed my own skills in painting and photography. I could see why many artists had decided to live on the North Shore. It was much easier to be creative away from all the distractions of the Twin Cities.

On the fourth morning of our vacation, we were enjoying the view of the lake from the large picture window while breakfasting on Cassandra’s Gouda cheese omelettes and pomegranate crepes. We were happily engaged in one of our notoriously deep conversations which, in this instance, had literary undertones, when we were unwillingly roused from it by a sharp knock on the door.

“Someone’s rapping on our chamber door,” purred Cassandra contentedly.

“’Tis the wind,’” quoth I, “’and nothing more.’”

“Answer the bloody door,” she retorted.

I sauntered casually yet obediently to the door and flung it open in a totally masculine manner. Cassandra’s long-time friend Susan pushed past me and, nearly tripping over my feet as well as her own, rushed to the breakfast table.

“Cassie!” she shrieked. Susan had a way of talking that made you want to listen intently to her every word. Each sentence she uttered was full of an abundance of energy, enthusiasm and exuberance. It always made you wait expectantly for the next part of whatever fascinating story she was telling. This morning, I could see, was no exception.

“Cassie, you’ll never believe what they just found behind Lutsen Resort. You know the path that goes across the bridge and then goes through the woods and ends up on the rocks down by the lake? Well, this couple from the Resort were out for a walk this morning, and they found this body lying on the rocks. Oh, it was awful. His throat had been slit, and there was blood all over. Oh, I couldn’t believe it. These things happen down in the Cities. They never happen up here. People come up here to get away from things like that.”

Susan paused momentarily for breath before she continued.

“Kevin was down at the Resort fixing the main furnace, and he was right there when this couple came in, see, so he went back down there with them while Bob from the Resort waited for the police to come. By the time Kevin got home, his face was so white. This will probably make his allergies flare up again.”

Kevin was Susan’s husband. They made quite a pair; he was quiet and reserved, while she was talkative and outgoing. They were both hardworking and loved each other enough to have a continuously happy marriage.

By this time Cassandra had her coat on and was halfway out the door.

“Come on, Andre, don’t just stand there gaping. Susan, help yourself to omelettes and crepes. They’re the best you’ve ever tasted.”

When Cassandra made up her mind to do something, she did it in a hurry without a backward glance. By the time I had stepped into the parking lot she had her Jaguar backed out and ready to go. I vaulted into the seat beside her just in time to close the door before she took off with a screech of rubber. She did the eight miles to Lutsen Resort in five minutes flat.

There must have been police cars from every county between Duluth and the Canadian border in the parking lot. There were more red lights flashing than you would find on an average day in Watts. Cassandra lost no time in getting across the bridge and following the path through the woods. She knew that path as well as she knew the quadratic formula. (Cassandra loved to work out algebra problems in her leisure time.) Not wanting to miss out on what was turning into the high point of the year, I was right on her heels.

As we came out of the woods and onto the rocky shores of Lake Superior, we slowed our pace and gazed silently at the scene before us. There were a dozen plainclothesmen, twice as many uniformed policemen, and more reporters and photographers than I could ever feel comfortable with. In the midst of this throng of people, lying on the ground and covered with the traditional white sheet, was the victim.

Cassandra walked up to what looked like the detective in charge, offered her card, and asked politely to see the body. The lady had charm as well as guts, and when she turned it on, no one could refuse her.

She held on to me for strength as we approached the body. One of the police detectives pulled the sheet away, and what we saw will be remembered for the rest of our lives.

It was a male, around the age of forty, and his throat had been neatly slit from ear to ear. I stared at the blood; I shall always remember what an immense amount of it there was. It lay in pools in the clefts of the rocks, and it had soaked the victim’s clothes. The upper half of the white sheet was quickly turning crimson. The eyes of the victim had been closed, but there was still a grotesque look of horror on his face. It could not have been a pleasant way to die.

It was too much even for Cassandra. She clung to me as I put my arm around her and drew her back to the protection of the trees. We stayed there for awhile, just the two of us gathering support and courage from each other, until the rain began to fall. I looked at Cassandra and found that the drizzle had mingled with her tears and washed them away.

Bringing my gaze back to the murder scene, I saw that there was a young woman just arriving. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties. Her blonde hair hung long and straight to the middle of her back, and she was dressed in the casual style appropriate to the lifestyle of the North Shore. I noticed her tight-fitting jeans were designer-made, and under her unzipped jacket she wore a blue plaid flannel shirt. At her side was a man not much older than herself. He was about six foot two with black wavy hair and blue eyes. I suppose most women would think him handsome.

The man spoke to the head detective, then quickly approached the body. The sheet was once more raised. The man took one look, shuddered, then nodded briefly to the detective. The woman caught the significance of the gesture and flung herself sobbing into his arms.

Sensing that we both had a need to withdraw, I took Cassandra’s hand and led her back to Lutsen Resort. Once inside, I found a corner with comfortable chairs and sat her down. We mused in the silence that we always found so companionable and comforting.

I looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps and saw the man and woman from the scene of the crime. The man came forward and began to speak.

“Andre Dupre?”

“Yes,” I said.

“And Cassandra Ross?”

“Yes. How can we be of assistance?”

“My name is Todd Easterly. This is my fiancĂ©e, Gina Chatterly. The man who was murdered this morning was her brother. His name was James Chatterly. The police say that it looks like it may be a tough case to solve. They’ve been working for a few hours but so far have turned up no clues. They say that we have to be patient, that these things take time, but quite frankly, I’ve seen the way they work up here. It leaves a lot to be desired. They tell me that the two of you are private detectives. I think that’s just what we need. Are you any good?”

Cassandra looked at him with eyes of steel and said, “The best.”

“In that case, Miss Chatterly and I would very much like to engage your services to find out who brutally murdered her brother.”

My eyes sought Cassandra’s, and we quickly communicated our agreement. She rose to her feet, went over to the woman, and gave her a warm hug.

“Of course. We’ll do everything we can to help you. We’ll start immediately. Give us your address and phone number, and we’ll keep you constantly informed of our progress.”

As Gina Chatterly wrote the information on a small slip of paper, Todd Easterly slipped five Ben Franklins from his alligator-skin wallet and handed it to me.

“I trust this will be enough of an advance for now?”

I nodded my assent, and he left with his arm around Gina.

Turning toward Cassandra, I suggested that a drink in the lounge might be a good idea for both of us. Neither of us were heavy drinkers. We preferred to keep our minds sober for the analytical tasks that were always presenting themselves to us. I felt that this was one of those rare occasions when a good stiff brandy was desperately needed to take away the shock of what we had seen on the rocks.

As we waited for the waitress to bring the order, we began to discuss how we might best approach the mystery of who murdered James Chatterly.

“The first thing we have to do,” said Cassandra, “is look for possible motives. Why don’t we ask questions here first. We need to find out what kind of a man he was and why anyone might hate him enough to want to seek such horrible revenge. Then after that, we’ll have to see Susan. If there’s anything local to be known about our victim, she’ll know it. She always knows all the gossip within a hundred mile radius. She’s also wonderful about repeating it in the most minute detail.”

It was quite true that Susan was the best storyteller in the county and possibly in the entire state. One could sit and listen to her for hours without needing to interrupt once to ask questions, because Susan didn’t forget a thing.

We covered the resort first. Susan talked to the housekeeper and the maids. I questioned the wait staff, the desk clerk and the manager. We met back in the lounge and found that between the two of us, we had learned quite a bit.

An hour later we were sitting in the comfortable living room of Susan and Kevin’s mobile home. Susan should have been an interior designer, for she was always utilizing her creative talents in beautifying their home. Her friends often asked her advice on making their own homes cozy and cheerful.

Our questions at Lutsen Resort had turned up nothing conclusive. We discovered that James Chatterly had been considered one of the most outstanding citizens of the community. His murder was a complete shock to all who knew him. Those who quickly gathered at the Resort spoke of him in reverent, hushed whispers. He had, they said, been a wonderful friend and business associate. He owned a restaurant in Grand Marais. And he had doted on his parents and sister. He’d been a loving son and brother. And now he was dead, murdered on the rocks.

His death made no sense, and the murderer must be found. Word traveled quickly on the North Shore; people were beginning to panic. Since the victim could not be conceived of as a person who could possibly have deserved his fate, it could only be concluded that there was a psychopathic killer in the area. In just a few short hours, the community had begun to exert an enormous amount of pressure on the police to find that killer. Meanwhile, very few would venture out alone.

In just twenty minutes, Susan filled us in on details about James Chatterly that apparently no one else was aware of.

“When I found out the victim was James Chatterly,” Susan was saying, “I breathed a sigh of relief. That means there’s probably no psychopathic killer on the loose.”

“What do you mean? I thought he was supposed to be a model, upright citizen. Are you saying that someone may have wanted him dead? That someone had enough of a vendetta against him to have a motive for murder?” Cassandra leaned forward and gazed intently at her friend.

“Everyone up here thinks he is a model citizen. He’s active in the church and he’s on a lot of civic committees. He volunteers with the Boy Scouts, too, and once a month he works at the co-op. And he’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowing about healing with herbs and homeopathy. He has everyone fooled.”

I could tell that everyone did not include Susan.

“Whenever I talked to him and watched him very closely,” she continued, “I could see he wasn’t quite what he seemed. I always thought there was something really strange about him. I could tell by his eyes. He would never look you in the eye when he was talking. And he had a manner that always seemed suspicious to me, like he was trying to hide something.

Susan was a very observant woman.

“Go on,” coaxed Cassandra.

“Well, I found something out last year that confirmed what I had already thought about this guy. At least, it proved to me that he wasn’t the ideal citizen that he pretended to be.

“I used to know this girl who lived up here, see, and we were pretty good friends. At least, she used to talk to me a lot. I think she was really lonely, ‘cause she lived way up on the Gunflint Trail and didn’t know many people. She liked to just stay to herself and paint. She was very good, and she’d sell her paintings down in the Cities. Anyway, one day she just disappeared. She took her little girl and moved away. She never said a word to me or anyone else about leaving or where she was going.

“About two weeks later, I got a letter from her. She said she was sorry she had to leave so suddenly without saying goodbye, but something very personal had come up and she’d moved back home to Oregon to live with her parents for awhile. She wanted to let me know she was okay and how much she’d appreciated my friendship. But she never gave me her address and there was no return address on the envelope. She didn’t give a phone number where I could reach her, either.”

“What’s all this got to do with James Chatterly?” asked Cassandra.

“Well, last year Kevin and I took the kids and went out to Oregon on vacation. Remember my brother? Well, he still lives there, and we haven’t seen each other for a few years. So we went out there to visit him, and one day I was in this shopping mall, and who do you think I ran into?”

“The woman who moved away?” I asked, already knowing intuitively what the answer would be.

“Yes,” agreed Susan. “Talk about a small world. I never thought I’d see her again. Anyway, we went to a restaurant for lunch and she told me the whole story.”

Susan has a way of getting people to tell her everything without even trying. It’s because she’s such a good listener that everyone feels an overwhelming urge to bare their souls to her as well as reveal all the gossip they can think of.

“She told me,” said Susan, eager to help, “that when she lived here on the North Shore, she met James Chatterly one night. His brand new car had hit a moose up on the Gunflint Trail. It happened right outside her house, so he asked to use her phone. She doesn’t normally let strangers into her house, being it’s so secluded, but she’d remembered seeing him around town and knew he had an impeccable reputation, so she let him in. Well, apparently they got to talking, and she decided she liked him a lot. I think she was so lonely she would have liked anyone who was nice to her.

“Anyway, he came back to see her a week later, and then several times a week. She ended up falling for him in a big way, and soon they were sleeping together. The strange thing was that he would never take her anywhere in public. He told her that he couldn’t let anyone think he had a girlfriend because of some kind of inheritance he was getting from his uncle’s estate. He told her that according to the terms of the will, he could only receive the money if he remained unmarried and completely celibate until he reached his thirty-first birthday. He wasn’t even supposed to go out with anyone or be seen walking down the street with a woman.”

“What an incredibly strange will,” I mused.

“Yet perfectly legal,” inserted Cassandra.

“James told my friend that his uncle despised women,” Susan went on. “He thought that all they wanted was the security of having a man with money. Once they had that, they tied you down even more by getting pregnant so the man would marry them. Then when they had you right where they wanted you and had access to all your money, and when they were sure you trusted them, they’d run off with someone else. Apparently that’s what happened to James’ uncle, and so he didn’t think any man should have
anything to do with women until he was over the age of thirty and wise enough to see through them.”

“When will men ever learn to stop judging all women by what a few have done,” interjected Cassandra.

I looked at her and thought about how she was doing the same thing. She trusted very few people because of what a few men had done to her.

“So,” continued Susan, “my friend believed everything he told her, and she went along with it ‘cause James told her he loved her and wanted to take care of her for the rest of their lives. He told her he would marry her in three years when he turned thirty-one. But Theresa got pregnant, and she told him she wanted to marry him right away because she loved him so much. She said that the inheritance didn’t matter to her and they could be happy without it.

“He convinced her that he loved her, too, but the money did matter because he wanted to give her a good life. He had quite a bit of money already, but he wanted the two million that he said he was getting from his uncle’s will. Anyway, he bought Theresa a bus ticket and gave her two hundred dollars to go home to Oregon. He said he’d come visit her when he could, and then they’d get married in a few years. She was obsessed  enough with him to agree, so off she went. But he never came to visit, and he never wrote or sent her any more money.

“After the baby was born she finally got tired of waiting for him. Her pride and anger overcame her love, and she had her family for support. So she met someone else and married him instead. She’s really happy now, and she’s glad she never married James. She said she often wonders if there ever was a will. She thinks he was just embarrassed to be seen with a single mom who’s never been married. He had his image to live up to, you know. And he was always very careful not to let his parents be disappointed in him. He always wanted to please them. They doted on him, and he always forced himself to live up to their expectations. At least, he made sure he covered his tracks when he did wrong in their eyes.

“Are you going to tell the police this information?” I asked Susan and Cassandra.

“No,” they both said together. Then Cassandra said, “I don’t think that would be a good idea. After all, it doesn’t really have anything to do with his getting murdered, does it?”

“That’s right, it doesn’t,” agreed Susan. “And I don’t want Theresa to have to get involved. She’s been through enough.”

“I agree,” said Cassandra thoughtfully. “Andre?”

“Susan’s right,” I said. “I’m not sure it’s important enough for the police, although it just might be important for us.”

“I trained him myself,” beamed Cassandra.

We thanked Susan, finished our peppermint tea, and drove back to Bluefin Bay. This time Cassandra gave me the keys. She hated not being in the driver’s seat, but as usual, she made an exception for me. She trusted me completely with every aspect of her life. It was a big responsibility to be thought of so highly, and I often wondered how I could ever live up to the idealistic image she had of me. Then I realized that Cassandra just accepted me the way I was, loving all the good parts and overlooking the bad ones. It made me feel like quite the man, like I was really someone special.

To her, I was.

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