On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Friday, March 6, 2015

Murder at Toll House: An Excerpt

This slightly abridged early chapter of my most popular mystery indicates the crux of the novel and specifies those who are involved, including the sleuth, Judge "Baby" Godbold, who is attending an out-of-state writers conference.

     Baby was enjoying what her nose had accurately predicted to be a delicious meal, seated at one of four round pine tables with five other guests.  There were twenty people at the workshop, counting the participants but not the two guest writers.  This was an extraordinarily small number to participate in a eighteen-day conference and the hefty price reflected this.  Yet compared to rates at a hotel, she knew from her travels, it was economical.  Also, the brochure stated that the college had gotten a grant to help defray expenses–probably to help pay for the guest writers, Harold Hillman and Diane Marvel,  both of whom had had national recognition for their literary works. The program director was Estelle Odom, employed by the college as a Special Events Coordinator.
     Baby turned her attention from her herb roasted chicken breast to the most famous person in the assemblage, who happened to be at her table, novelist Harold Hillman.  A dark, slight man in his fifties, he was holding forth with a variety of opinions as he had been since they had taken up knife and fork.  Somehow he managed to shovel in his food deftly while holding the floor, at least in his immediate vicinity.  He had been the recipient of questions on writing and rapt attention from the two graduate students from New York.   The entire assemblage had taken on, it seemed to Baby, the atmosphere of the first day at camp with some self-conscious participants and the toadies hanging around the favorite camp counselor.
     Baby was interested in Hillman’s comments, but only moderately so.  She liked to read fiction, had many favorite authors, but she had not been tempted to write it.  Furthermore, she never even cracked one of Hillman’s books, his reputation as a “sensational” writer not appealing to her taste.  Since her area of artistic endeavor, if she could characterize it so grandly, was poetry, it was to the guest poet, Diane Marvel, seated behind the judge, that she craned her ear.  Unlike Harold Hillman, however, the woman was soft-spoken, and her voice didn't carry far enough for Baby to hear her comments.  But what she said or didn’t say was not the focus of Baby’s attention, for she had been correct in deducing that Diane was the woman with the rough-looking fellow seated to her right.  Baby didn’t know his name yet but she would be interested to hear what his connection was to the svelte New York poet.  Of course, they could have simply met while out walking.  Mustn’t get carried away with speculation, she cautioned herself.
On Baby's right was a social worker from Nashville named Vicki Duggan, the judge found after introducing herself. “Are you here alone?” she inquired of the quiet woman beside her.
     Vicki nodded, putting down her fork politely.  “Yes, I didn't think I'd know a soul here, but oddly, someone–“   She was interrupted by Hillman's coarse laugh and loud recital of an encounter with John Updike at a party in New York.  Baby listened along with the others for a while, but then turned away from Hillman, obviously an insufferable fool, and spoke again to Vicki Duggan.  She was a woman of around forty with dishwater hair and nondescript features, but rather pretty for all that.  She, too, was to be attending the poetry workshop, mentioning off-handedly that she had published her work in “several” literary journals. 
    This chastened Baby and she became rather more silent than she ordinarily would have been.  She hoped she hadn't made a dreadful mistake, opening herself up to embarrassing readings of her inferior work.  Now, now, she said to herself encouragingly, don't start putting yourself down.  She hadn’t even tried to get published, and her work had been evaluated before she’d been accepted for this workshop.  She turned to Moss Cunningham seated next to her and said in a confidential tone, “You shouldn't have any trouble getting an opinion out of Hillman.”
    The doctor laughed and leaned closer, “I've got mixed feelings about this whole thing.  Even though our work was supposedly critiqued before we were accepted, I wonder how bad it had to be to be rejected.”
    Baby nodded.  “I know.  I'm not one to give up, but if I see I'm really outclassed, I may turn tail and run for home.”  Waiting for dessert to be served, her gaze wandered to the french doors opposite.  They led to a porch which overlooked the side yard, a sloping, grassy expanse several hundred yards wide which was bounded by a rock fence. Midway between the porch and the fence, a tall, round, stone tower was just visible from Judge Godbold's vantage point.  She wondered its purpose aloud.
    “Maybe a lookout for the Indians,” said Cunningham.  “It looks like a bell tower.  We're supposed to have a tour to introduce us to this place.”
    As they spooned up the last of their creme caramel, Estelle Odom, the workshop director, stood up and clinked a spoon on her glass for attention.    “Welcome to the Nashua Writer's Workshop!  If I can interrupt our guest novelist for a minute--“ she looked pointedly at Hillman, who was still talking, until he noticed the silence and gave Estelle a slight nod, “--I'd like to introduce him and Diane Marvel to those of you who will be participating in their workshops.”
    Diane Marvel stood up to polite applause and made a few predictable remarks about her excitement at working here in this historic and picturesque spot with such a likely group of writers.  Baby listened with interest and decided she liked the poet’s low-keyed approach, which seemed reassuring.
    Hillman gave what promised to be a speech about the long and rocky road of life he had to travel before arriving at the pinnacle that he now occupied.  Baby wondered if she was being a little hard on him.  He obviously suffered from deep insecurities, a condition that his notoriety had not been able to alleviate.  Finally, Estelle, who had been standing all along, cleared her throat and stopped Hillman mid-sentence.
    “I know each of us will be fascinated to hear about your career difficulties and literary achievements during your general lecture.  Right now, however, we thought to take all of you on a little tour of the dwelling and the grounds.  We don't want anybody to turn up lost, and believe me, that's a possibility with such an unusual house and the surrounding woods.”
    Chairs scraped and the room quickly emptied, the group following Estelle down the short steps through the front room in a scraggly, caterpillar line to the front porch.  Judge Godbold found herself standing next to a dignified, tall man in a khaki suit but couldn’t see his name tag without rudely craning her neck.  He wore an authentic looking pith helmet, and with his white, bushy mustache and a pipe clenched in strong teeth he looked the part of a British colonel.  But when she introduced herself and he gave his name as Delancy Hart, she heard a pure Southern accent.
    “I'm retired from my insurance business and always wanted to write stories, so here I am,” he laughed.  “My wife thinks I'm crazy, but I said, ‘Look, Jane, you've got your golf and bridge clubs; I guess I can do my thing, right?’ and she had to agree.”  

    But Estelle had begun her lecture, and others were giving Delancy Hart dirty looks as his voice rumbled over Estelle's piping soprano.  Baby smiled at him and nodded toward Estelle.
While the woman pointed out features of the property and the terrible time old Samuel Bolen had constructing the house almost two hundred years ago, fighting off Indian attacks and starvation, Judge Godbold wondered if the college had documents about the former owners of Toll House.  Then the Director switched to information about Nashua College itself and how the writers workshop came into being.  Baby’s attention, without being completely diverted from the drone of Estelle’s voice, went to studying the members of this motley group, all wearing their regulation name tags.  She stood slightly to one side at the front near Estelle, so she had a clear view of nearly everyone.  Dr. Cunningham leaned against the porch rail, looking interested in the history lesson.  Near him was an elderly woman, frail looking and white-haired, who was taking notes in a small notebook.  Baby couldn't read the name on her tag, which was drooping on her baggy cotton sweater--a sweater in this weather! 
    On the other side of the doctor, leaning against the rail, his arms folded over his broad chest, was the burley, quite attractive man she’d seen with Diane.  He looked to be in his early to mid-thirties.  His chestnut brown hair was worn brushed back from his forehead, and in the light from the evening sun, the thick golden hairs on his arms gleamed.  A very sexy man, thought Baby, admiringly.  Her own late husband had been a big man, too, and although not so handsome, Dan had emanated a personal magnetism that was not unlike this man's–what was the name–Rafe, the tag said, Rafe Barlow. 
    Next to him was a slender man with a beard in his early thirties, perhaps, whose name tag wasn’t quite visible to her.  The fellow she’d run into upstairs, was according to his tag, Major Joseph DeAngelo.  And slightly removed from the small cluster of men who seemed to be needing each other for support in this sea of women were the grad students at the judge's table who had hung on Hillman's words.  They were, according to their tags, George Childress--fuzzy long hair, shrunken t-shirt and torn sneakers--and Omar Zacharian, swarthy and good-looking.  Hillman, looking bored, stood at the far end of the porch.

    The judge continued her observations and saw, opposite her, near Estelle, another pair of eyes roving toward Rafe Barlow or the slim man next to him, whose tag she now could read as “Blair Babcock,” or maybe it was the military man, she couldn’t be sure.  Vicki Duggan, Baby's dinner
companion, then gave a stifled exclamation.  She had a slight frown on her face as she stared across the porch.   Next to her stood an attractive redheaded woman, paying close attention to Estelle’s words.
    Baby noticed that Barlow was looking unblinkingly at the striking profile of Diane Marvel, who was oblivious to this attention.  She had a cluster of sycophants around her, all glancing at her when one of Estelle's remarks seemed to call for an exclamation or eyebrow-raising.  Diane merely smiled, keeping a kind of private dignity about her person.  She was dark-haired and white-skinned with amber eyes rimmed in black.  Not exactly pretty, she was attractive, almost beautiful, in a smart, brittle way.  Her navy linen slacks and white shirt looked just right for a midsummer rural setting.   An expensive and spoiled woman was Baby’s clear-eyed estimate, but she was a wonderful poet, and Baby anticipated learning much from her.
    The women around her wore tags that said, “Dottie Morris,” a late-twenties, over-made-up type; “Sarah Husbands,” another fashionably dressed young woman with a page boy and lots of gold jewelry; and “Lois Jelenick,” nearer Diane's age of mid to late forties but a plainer sort of woman.       After Estelle explained about the architecture of the place, which evidenced early 19th century design, crude though it was, the woman named Lois Jelenick asked rather unnecessarily, Baby thought, why the place was called “Toll House.”  
    “The early owners built and then maintained the road in front as a toll road,” Estelle replied.  “Back then, it was the main passage, other than the rivers in the area, from the Smokies to the interior.  I’m afraid it looks as if it could use a little outside money nowadays, doesn't it.  Maybe the college should set up another toll booth,” Estelle added with a roguish grin.  Everyone had turned to look at the road, chuckling politely.

     Estelle then beckoned the group to move inside to the reception room where several important and original pieces of furniture were pointed out--a country Hepplewhite secretary with interesting bell flower inlay and settee with ragged upholstery, two framed maps of the area drawn by French cartographers, and three maple Windsor chairs, fashioned in a simple, county manner.  Judge Godbold found herself next to the major, whose nose whistled slightly when he breathed.  His whole persona struck her as intense and serious. Baby tried not to let the whistle distract her from Estelle's words. 
    Pointing to a portrait over the fireplace of a beautiful woman in her twenties, dressed in a full-skirted antebellum style, she said, “And this is Angelica, the young wife of Samuel's son, Thomas.  She was brutally murdered in this very room.”
    The atmosphere seemed suddenly charged, with only some shocked gasps breaking the silence.   Estelle had a way, thought Baby, with dramatic effect.  The man next to Baby had not flinched, however.  “Who did the deed?” asked Baby.
    “That's still open to debate, according to some historians.  This place was a cattle and horse farm at the time, and a young man who was hired to train and care for the horses was tried and sentenced to death for the murder.  According to legend, the woman and the trainer were romantically involved.  We have some old newspaper accounts, but they don't give much of a clue as to the people themselves.”
    “Sounds like she might have deserved it,” said DeAngelo in an aside to Baby, who raised an eyebrow at his words.  She thought he had formed a conclusion without much evidence.  And even if Angelica was guilty of having an affair, did he think killing her the appropriate penalty? 
    “No letters,” asked the elderly woman, frowning in concentration, “of any of the principal characters?”
    “We have some letters that were written by Angelica to her husband when he was in Washington, D. C. serving as U. S. Senator, and some of his to her.  I read them a couple of years ago.  Hers seem very formal, newsy, telling of the business of the farm, the weather, that sort of thing.  His letters seem rather cranky.”
    “You actually have the letters here, in this house?” asked Baby eagerly.

    “Yes, still tucked away in this file cabinet,” she said, gesturing to a grey metal cabinet in the corner.  “That’s where I found them.  I expect they should be treated for de-acidification, in the interests of preservation, but without a curator--“ she shrugged, then turned to lead the group out of the room.  
   “One more thing,” asked Baby, “how was the lady killed and when?”
   “Strangled, around 1855, as I recall.” 
    Even louder gasps.  With one last look at the portrait, Baby began to shuffle with the others out of the room like a herd of sheep being rounded up.  They were allowed a peek, two by two, into the formal parlor, closed off for the activities; the room had a valuable collection of 18th and 19th century furniture donated by a wealthy alum, Estelle explained.  Then the group edged through the doorway into the hall where the director explained how the house had been built in sections over a period of time.  During her recital, Baby noticed from the corner of her eye a couple of participants slip away from the group out the door.
     "The two front rooms and those above them are the oldest.  This hallway was the original dog trot, open at one time to the elements.  The section on what we might call the mezzanine level up the short flight of stairs behind this hall was built next and served as the dining parlor then as it does now.”
       A quick look at the library, with Estelle pointing out its merits, completed the house tour.  The visitors shuffled back to the dining room and onto the porch and stood looking at the vista, which had a kind of rough beauty, Baby thought, the property rimmed by tall trees–mainly oaks and massive hackberry trees.  The heat seemed to be worse after coming from the cooled house.  Baby rolled her sleeves above her elbow, lagging behind the others as they plodded off across the yard.  If she could get behind that tower, the hot rays of the low western sun couldn't reach her.  To heck with the tour, she thought.  She'd wait here until they came back to view the tower.  
    A stump cut off at chair height seemed a perfect resting spot.  She could survey the back and side of the house without being observed by the traveling party who were at the southern perimeter looking at specimens of trees near an old stone wall enclosure--a graveyard?  She’d check it out later.  To the rear of the house, cabins ringed the yard in an uneven line.       
    A movement and flash of color caught her eye.  Someone seemed to be in the woods, hidden for the most part behind the trees.  Another flash of a different color indicated two people.  Clandestine meeting?  Or maybe just students from the nearby college taking a shortcut.  The group had been informed that trails led through the woods for jogging, so it wasn’t surprising that someone had taken the opportunity for a shady walk.  Baby peered but the people disappeared into the shadow of the trees.  Nothing more to be seen.  She held a knee for support and looked upward at the tall stone structure next to her.        
    A board door led into the tower itself, where she presumed she'd find a rope to pull the bell, maybe a stairway.  As protection from the Indians, such a structure might have come in very handy indeed.  She yawned.  The tour group were taking their time; it was now dusk.  She looked toward the porch, or veranda, really.  It began at the double doors into the dining room, went toward the rear of the building and then around the corner.  A man and a woman were at the far end near the back, apparently deep in conversation.  She couldn’t make out who they were.  Possibly the two who had slipped away earlier.  On the porch, in front of the glass dining room doors, was Mittens the cat, waiting for someone to let him in.
    Then Baby saw Diane Marvel emerge alongside the cabins as if coming from the woods.  She knew the workshop leader had a room upstairs in the house, so she must have been out walking.  Had she been the one she’d spotted in the woods earlier?  Rather strange.  The couple on the porch had moved to the back side and were out of view altogether.
    Baby rose from her seat as the group, chattering now rather companionably, approached.  Several more must have dropped out of the tour and gone back through the front of the house, for Baby counted only ten people who showed up by the tower.  Estelle was explaining to them that it was both a bell tower and an early refuge from marauding Indians.  One of the first structures to be built, the bell tower had served, small as it was, as living quarters, and later the bell was used as a practical way to call in the field hands or announce births, weddings, funerals, and so forth.
    With some evident relief, the group was dismissed for the evening.  Those who weren't quite ready to retire were invited to amuse themselves by watching television or playing cards in the library.   Baby thought she might like something to quench her thirst before going to her room.  Moss agreed to join her for a soft drink from the machine.  As they passed through the door into the dining room, Mittens joined them and trotted along.    
    “I'd like to take a look at the collection of books.”  She pointed to the tall, glazed bookcases against the inner wall.  “Books can tell a great deal about their owners, and I'm rather interested in the Bolen family.”
    Baby eased open the door to one of the bookcases; it gave a squeal as if protesting intrusion by a stranger.  The books were orderly, seemingly stacked by size rather than by category.  She pulled one out and examined it.  Congressional record from 1846, no doubt brought back by Samuel's son when he was in Congress.  Other books selected at random revealed a typically catholic taste through the years--books on mathematics, Greek mythology, agriculture, history, and even some novels by Goldsmith, Cooper, Thackeray, Scott, and other less well known authors.
     She replaced a book and shut the bookcase door.  Though the hour was late and she had had a full day, she felt restless, jumpy.  She knew full well what was causing her agitation.  Even as a young law student she had not been able to turn her back on a criminal mystery.  It was one of the ironies of her life that she’d spent her judicial career hearing civil cases.  Estelle’s relating the tragedy of Angelica and the horse trainer had whetted her sleuthing appetite and driven out all thoughts of books or poetry for that matter.  She glanced at her friend across the room.

    Moss and Delancy Hart were chatting with animation as if they were old friends.  They looked quite comfortable in a pair of scruffy brocade wing chairs that were to one side of the fireplace.  Baby heard them discussing horse breeding and moved discreetly away and out through the dining room, then down the steps, into the hall, and from there to the reception room where she met Estelle talking to Sarah Husbands.  Baby wandered around the room, looking again at the portrait and at the furniture, some of which, according to Estelle, must have been here at the time of the murder.
Though the crime took place over 150 years ago, Baby's interest in it was as keen as if it had been yesterday.  Who were those people?  Would any clues to their relationships remain?  And most importantly, could she examine any original materials if available to the public? She didn’t want to begin her sojourn here by being chastised if she did a little snooping.  
    She awoke early the next morning.  It was still too dark to see the hands on her watch, but after turning on her bedside lamp, she saw it was only 5:05, too early to tend to her morning ablutions.  Still, she couldn’t lie abed with her mind beginning to be active.  She slipped into her dressing gown, a lightweight plissé and her travel scuffs.  She would avail herself of the inferior coffee from the machine downstairs.  By the time she finished drinking it, she would be able to run water for her bath before the others arose.  Then maybe a walk around the grounds in the cooler morning air since the day’s activities wouldn’t begin until breakfast was served, beginning at 7:30.  Workshops would convene at nine o’clock. 

    Grabbing her door key and sticking it in her billfold, she stepped quietly to the stairs, or at least she’d hoped it would be quiet.  But the old wooden staircase betrayed her with squeaks and groans even as she crept down, clinging to the banister and feeling her way cautiously.  She needn’t feel guilty--nothing had been said about being restricted from going to, say, the snack area at any time. 
As she sat in front of the same window where she and Moss had sat the day before, she felt a kind of peace steal over her.  The day was dawning out back with a soft yellow light on the horizon.  She sipped the coffee and reflected on her decision to attend this workshop.  It had been spur of the moment, but even though she might be embarrassed about her writing, there would be compensations.  The picturesque Toll House, for instance, and the history behind it.  That was something she intended to pursue.  As a matter of fact, she thought excitedly, why not now before the house came to life?  She would check out the file cabinet in the reception room.
  The door opened to a semi-darkened interior.  Early morning light was spreading its dim glow through one of the windows, casting shadows.  The file cabinet was, as she remembered, in the corner opposite the front door.  Two steps into the room, she stopped.  There seemed to be a sleeping bag on the floor in the middle of the room--or was it a rolled-up rug?  She walked over to it slowly and peered at the obstruction.  She saw legs, a woman's legs.
    Baby looked for the nearest lamp, which was on the desk.  She had to fumble a bit to find the switch.  She leaned over the body and saw that the woman was Vicki Duggan, the social worker from Nashville.  The blank staring eyes, the face suffused with blood indicated that she was dead and, unquestionably, had been strangled.