For Mom and Dad
With the typical mystery story, readers are enthralled by the talents and imagination of only one writer. However, with this crime caper, the reader will enjoy the skillful spoils of twenty-six esteemed wordsmiths who craft plots, wield poisons, and toggle the life-death switch with the best of them. This is a rare thing indeed because mystery writers are notoriously reclusive, paranoid, and unfriendly folks when it comes to their work. They like calling the final shots on their novels; such absolute power is intoxicating if only for its rarity, particularly if they’ve sold their work to Hollywood and find that their power has withered to less than zero. However, outside the realm of stories and with drink in hand, they are interesting and convivial people who always have a crowd around them at parties, as all good storytellers do. That so many have agreed to craft chapters in the tale you’re about to plunge into is as much a testament to the persuasive powers of the editors at The Strand Magazine as it is to the graciousness of the creators assembled here.
Mysteries are the guilty cheats of the book world. Some highbrow critics and reviewers look down on them in public and then eagerly read them on the subway hidden behind an absolutely pristine copy of Ulysses, bubbling with the pleasure of the child who has just discovered Sherlock Holmes. It is also perhaps the sole arena on processed paper where the reader can match wits with the creator. If you’re really good, you can sometimes arrive at the answer before the creator wants you to. You may also cry, as you do with love-story weepies; or laugh as you may at the pratfalls of comic characters; or be horrified as only horror stories can induce. Yet with the unique class of the whodunit you may enjoy all of those emotional swings and still be primed and poised to reveal the answer prematurely! And if you do succeed in besting the creator, you of course have de facto license to race to Amazon or Barnes andnoble.com, or else your personal blog, and crow about your victory to the digital heavens.
However, here I believe you will have met your match. The lineup of writers who have contributed to this mystery is akin to the Murderers’ Row of the 1927 New York Yankees. There is not a weak spot in the bunch. You will be enthralled as much by the charming quirks provided by individual voices as the story passes from one creator’s mind to the next as you will by the quality of the tale. While they each deliver their own signature brand of storytelling to the novel, it is startling how these writers, several of whom are friends of mine, have woven a yarn that seems to be the product of one mind, one imagination (albeit schizophrenic), and one on steroids of such strength that even Major League Baseball would ban them, and that is indeed saying something.
The story kicks off with a bang. A murderess was executed ten years ago. Rosemary Thomas brutally killed her husband, Christopher Thomas, stuffing his body inside an iron maiden and shipping it to the German Historical Museum of Berlin. Everyone knows she did it, though a few doubts linger, which led to the detective in charge losing his bearings and his wife. Then a stunner comes along. A memorial service is planned for Rosemary on the tenth anniversary of her execution. All the usual suspects, and several folks with passable motives to have done the deed, are invited. The scene is set. I won’t give away any more than that because it would be unfair to the creators who have worked hard to put this all together.
Yet I will add that if you were expecting an Agatha Christie ending where Poirot or Marple stands up, calmly lays out the case, and reveals the true murderer, you’re in for a shock. The creators have, collectively, another denouement in mind. And in my humble opinion it’s a twist that is so original you won’t have to concern yourself with bragging on your blog about how you figured it all out long before the conclusion. Well, I guess you still can, but you’d be lying.
If this were a peer-review process, I’d give everyone involved a glowing report. A vigilant reader can certainly tell when a writer is operating at a high level. But it really takes another writer to delve into the nuances of a story, break it down like game film, and truly see the effort that has gone into the product. We can well appreciate what it takes because we aspire to do it with every book. Being merely human, sometimes we triumph and sometimes we don’t.
Yet there’s nothing like drilling a line just right, honing a plot twist to perfection, or tooling a character arc until it gleams with the shine of genius. All of which originates with the sweat on the writer’s brow. It’s hard, what these writers have done. Give them their due. When you’ve finished with the story, tell your friends to read it. Let them in on the fun. Tell them it’s a brain twister for sure. And, okay, you can tell them you figured it out in the last three pages and therefore found it a bit predictable, but they won’t. Which will make you look like a person who is several pay grades above the FBI’s best. And everyone will have a good time enjoying the simple (and complex) experience of tearing through a great mystery.
There is always that case, the one that keeps me awake at night, the one that got away. It’ll always be there, gnawing at the edges of my mind. It doesn’t matter that ten years have passed, it doesn’t matter that the case is officially closed. An innocent woman was executed, I was the one who helped make it happen, and on the sad night when the needle was inserted into her arm, injecting her with death, part of my life ended too.
Back then, I thought I was working a straightforward case, but every action I was taking was a step closer to ending it for Rosemary-destroying her life and mine. I thought I had the facts-the physical evidence: the bloodstained blouse, the missing button, her fingerprints; her contradictory answers during the investigation; the public argument she’d had with her husband after he demanded a divorce; her trip to Mexico the week he went missing when she’d told friends that she doubted Christopher would ever come back. Of course she was right. He never did come back, not alive.
Christopher Thomas’s badly decayed body was found inside an iron maiden in the German Historical Museum of Berlin several weeks later. It seemed like a simple case, crazy, but simple: in a fit of rage Rosemary Thomas killed her husband, then dragged his body inside the maiden because she knew that it was going to be shipped back to Germany.
It didn’t take long for the jury to convict her.
An open-and-shut case.
It never felt right, never made sense. Sure, there was motive and opportunity, there was the physical evidence, but if you met her, if you knew her the way I got to know her…
But it wasn’t until later, after I’d taken a step back from the case, that I realized it had angles I hadn’t seen, layers I hadn’t uncovered, back when it mattered, back when I could have saved her. Back when I was too busy making sure not to let any personal feelings for the suspect interfere with my duty. Back when I was standing too close to see anything clearly. Maybe some of you have seen the movie Vertigo. Well, picture me as the guy who is manipulated like a puppet and whose life unravels as a result.
Luckily, I had a friend.
When I was lost and close to suicide after Sarah left, Tony Olsen picked me up and never let me feel that I was a burden, or that he was doing me any favors. When I was drinking myself into oblivion, it was Tony who brought me to his home, made sure I stayed away from drink, and gave me a job handling security for his firm. The crazy thing is he’d also been a friend of Rosemary’s… you’d think after what I had done he’d want me dead.
I gave up drinking but the ghosts remained, and for years, both drunk and sober, I’ve fantasized about getting all the suspects together, all those I’d mistakenly ruled out, getting at the facts and exacting justice, for Rosemary, for her kids, for my own life.
It took me a long time, but I managed to convince Tony to help me. I needed closure, and it could only come from a second bite of that poisoned apple. It’s why now, all these years later, I need to get the principals together in one place. I need to confront the people who might have done it.
But Tony was right-we couldn’t just ask them to come together to give me another crack at solving the case.
We talked a lot about it, how we could get them all together, but the answer was there all the time-the memorial that Rosemary had requested in her last will and testament, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of her death. The innocent would pay their respects. The guilty would attend to avoid rousing suspicion. And why worry? Rosemary had been found guilty and executed. No DA in his right mind was going to reopen the case. They would all come, I was sure of it, some of them wearing innocence like a mask.
I’ve been an agnostic all my life. I’ve never believed in anything. I can’t imagine the phoenix rising from the ashes. From what I’ve seen, ashes always remain ashes, and sooner or later everything rots and decays. But with this idea of bringing them together, of finally uncovering the guilty party, I was going to resurrect myself.
You’re probably thinking I’m just a policeman obsessed with a case he couldn’t crack. But you’re wrong. It’s more than that. I have to know the truth: the truth about Rosemary and the truth about who really killed Christopher Thomas. You see, I have to find out who destroyed my life, who slept well the night Rosemary Thomas knew she’d never again see the bright morning through her cold prison bars.
August 23, 2000
Valley State Prison for Women
I am already a ghost.
Rosemary Thomas stared at her long fingers painted with stripes, the cell’s bars casting shadows. She raised her hand and studied it as if it were a newly discovered specimen, noting the pale blue veins under translucent flesh.
Yes, she thought, I am disappearing. She traced fingertips across her cheeks like a blind woman touching a stranger’s face, could barely feel them, barely take in the reality of her situation: I have less than an hour to live.
“How did this happen?” she whispered to no one, yet it was real and she knew it, knew that her husband, Christopher, had been murdered, knew that he had absurdly been sealed into an eighteenth-century torture device on loan to her department of the museum, knew that all of the evidence somehow pointed to her.
WIFE’S FINGERPRINTS ON IRON MAIDEN
Just one of the many headlines in the many newspapers that detailed the crime, her crime, or so the district attorney had proved.
Rosemary pictured him, an aging peacock in a three-piece suit, how he’d lobbied loudly and publicly for equality-No deals for the rich! his motto throughout the trial-and with his reelection only weeks away not something he was going to trade for the life of one rich woman. He’d gone for blood on day one, asking a surprised judge and jury for the death penalty and “nothing less.”
Her case had become a cause célèbre, pro-life versus pro-death forces having a field day. Funny, thought Rosemary, that it had taken a murder to finally get her some attention.
Had it not been an election year with the DA, the judge, and the governor up for reelection, her lawyer insisted she would have gotten a reduced sentence.
But it was an election year. And she was going to die.
When had it happened, when had she finally given up hope? When her brother’s words condemned her, or when the cop, Jon Nunn, whom she’d trusted, had given his damning testimony?
She thought of the burly cop on the stand, hair a mess, three days’ growth of beard, the dark circles under his eyes. And how, when he’d finished testifying, he’d glanced over at her with eyes so sad that she’d nodded in spite of her anger, as if to say she understood he was doing his job, even as she realized that the prosecution now had all they needed, and the absolute certainty of her fate washed over her.
Rosemary sighed, took in the bare walls of the special security cell where she’d been moved after she’d lost her last appeal. She had lived with two weeks of hourly checks, the “death watch” as it was known, a guard taking notes as if there were something to report: the inmate moved from bed to chair; the inmate did not eat her dinner; the inmate wrote in her diary; the inmate is crying.
Yes, she had cried. But not anymore. She was past tears. That’s what she’d told the psychiatrist and the chaplain and the caseworker, all of them well-meaning but useless. What could they do for her?
She was sane.
She’d been born a Christian but was now an agnostic.
She was charitable.
She’d actually said that to the caseworker, and the absurdity of the statement had made them both laugh.
Was it the last time she would ever laugh?
Rosemary paced across the tiny cell, back and forth, hand tapping her side, adrenaline coursing through her veins. She hadn’t slept but wasn’t tired, the evidence against her replaying on automatic-the blouse, the button, her strands of hair, the fight, the fingerprints-but none of it mattered now. She was going to die.
Today, her last twenty-four hours, she’d felt almost resigned to her fate. That was how she’d described her state of mind to her friend and only visitor, Belle McGuire.
Loyal, dependable Belle. She had given Belle something to safeguard until the children were older. But would it even matter in ten years time? It would to Ben and Leila; it always would to them. Rosemary squeezed her eyes shut at the thought of her children. She’d refused the nanny who offered to bring them to say good-bye. How do you say good-bye forever to your children? How do you explain this to them?
She sagged onto her cot, played with a loose thread at the cuff of her orange jumpsuit, wrapped it so tightly around her finger the tip turned white, until the picture of another finger-Christopher’s finger-flashed in her mind along with other crime scene photos of her dead husband’s decomposed body.
Rosemary pushed herself up from the cot, six steps to the bars, pressed her cheek against cold steel, squinted to read the clock at the far end of the hall. But why? To tell her that the minutes of what was left of her life were ticking away?