Celebration of Life

-- Written by Anne


     Some stories are like pulling teeth to get written, while others flow out of the keyboard like honey. This story, a prequel of sorts to Season Three’s two-part opening episode “Death Stalks the Big Top,” is one of the latter. I wrote it in about one week.

     A special thank you goes to Stephanie, whose exhaustive research on Jessica and Frank’s family trees helped me immensely as I sorted out the cast of characters.

-- Anne (5.18.06)





“We are gathered here today to mourn the loss of a man who was dear to all of us – a husband, a father, a brother, a friend …”

            The memorial service for Neil Carlton Fletcher drew a large crowd despite the cold, drizzly autumn weather outside, as friends and family gathered into the small chapel of St. Bonaventure-the-Faithful to say good-bye to the man that had been abruptly torn from their lives. At the pulpit the Right Reverend Garrison Mackey eulogized the deceased, while the assembly listened respectfully. 

            “And although we are left with no earthly remains of him to commit to the earth, we can at least take comfort in the fact that each of us holds the memory of him alive in our hearts …

From where she sat next to her husband Frank three pews from the front, Jessica’s view was mostly limited to the other members of the family, which had gathered in the small town of Marion, Virginia outside of Washington, D.C. on short notice at the news of Neil’s unexpected death.  In the front pew was Neil’s widow, Constance, who was making a great show of grief, frequently sobbing into the delicately embroidered lace handkerchief she carried. Beside her, daughter Audrey leaned against her husband Howard Bannister for support, looking shocked and lost, as though the reality of the loss had yet to sink in.  Their daughter Carol, a girl of fifteen, was inconsolable, tears running down her face as she silently accepted another offered tissue from her great-grandmother, Agnes Fletcher, who sat next her. She had been very close to her grandfather Neil, and had taken the news of his death hardest of all.

As for her mother-in-law Agnes, Jessica thought that she was holding up amazingly well considering the fact that Neil was the third son she had lost to death – perhaps repeated tragedy had exhausted her emotions, or maybe it was true that a broken heart healed stronger than it had been before. If so, Agnes’ heart must be very, very strong after burying first her husband, then sons Ambrose and William, and now her eldest child, Neil.

            “So let us not dwell on our grief, which Neil would undoubtedly have spared us if he could, but instead remember him with love and fondness in our hearts, cherishing our happier moments with him while he was still alive as he would have wished …

            Other members of Frank’s large family had gathered to Constance’s side in the wake of the tragedy. Across the aisle from the immediate family were Frank’s three younger sisters, Rita, Alicia, and Theresa. Rita and Theresa had brought their husbands along for company, and Rita’s daughter Victoria was also in attendance, seated with her mother and father.  Also present was William’s orphaned daughter Anita, who since her parents’ deaths nine years before had been raised by her grandmother Agnes. Alicia’s son John and Theresa’s daughter Jill were too young to bring to an occasion such as this; Alicia’s husband Bernard had stayed home to look after their son, while Jill had been left in the care of other relatives.

            “… for it is in remembering him that we honor him, and in carrying on with our own lives that we fulfill our promises to him …”

            Jessica’s eyes wandered back to the portrait of Neil that was the focal point at the front of the chapel, framed with a swag of black velvet and surrounded by lush bouquets of flowers. It was an excellent likeness, painted by someone who clearly had known him well in life. The artist had captured the steely look of determination in Neil’s eyes, yet had also managed to soften the portrait with his quick smile. Most poignantly of all, the canvas conveyed the strong family resemblance once shared by all of the Fletcher brothers, now preserved in Frank alone.  The portrait stood in the place where the casket should have been, acutely reminding the assembly that this was a memorial service, not a funeral – the boat explosion that had taken Neil’s life had been so violent and all-consuming that it had left nothing of him to bury.

            Jessica’s attention finally returned to Reverend Mackey, who appeared to be wrapping up his eulogy and drawing his words to a close.

            “Let us go forth, therefore, to celebrate Neil’s life, to keep him alive in our hearts, and to finish the work that he has left in our capable hands, secure in the knowledge that the Lord, who marks the fall of even the least sparrow, holds him now securely in the palm of his loving hand. Amen.”

            “Amen,” the congregation murmured obediently in response.


            After the service was over, the family and close friends of Constance and Neil returned to their house, where caterers were just finishing setting up a lavish buffet on the main floor of the sprawling home. The atmosphere was subdued, yet Jessica sensed a subtle current of tension beneath it. She caught Frank’s eye, and he nodded, inclining his head toward the opposite end of the room and confirming her suspicions about its source.

            “There she goes again,” he said in a low voice as Jessica followed his gaze. Constance was standing in the middle of a circle of well-dressed people that Jessica didn’t recognize, chatting with them in an animated fashion that seemed at odds with the display of grief she had just shown at the memorial service. “It didn’t take her long to shake off the family in favor of her powerful, well-connected friends.”

            The rift between Constance Fletcher and her in-laws was long standing, and well-known to Neil’s surviving siblings. It was an ill-kept secret on Constance’s part that she looked down on her husband’s family; the only child of a powerful former US Senator, she considered them socially beneath her, and made little effort to ingratiate herself with them. What Neil, a self-made success who established a profitable chain of northern Virginia lumber yards, had seen in her was a mystery.  To the rest of the Fletcher clan it was obvious enough that Constance had married Neil for his money.

            Audrey circled the room, taking the time to thank each guest for their well-wishes and support.  Jessica could tell from her nervous glances in her mother’s direction that she was more than a little embarrassed by Constance’s indifferent behavior, but she lacked the backbone to challenge her directly. It had always been so with Audrey, ever since she was a child.  Lacking affection for her husband, Constance had over-compensated by practically smothering Audrey with attention.  Only the fact that Audrey was not particularly smart had saved her from becoming the cold, calculating woman her mother was before her, even if her passive demeanor doomed her to reside in Constance’s overbearing shadow.  Neil’s family tolerated Audrey, in no small part because in one blazing instant of good sense she’d stepped outside of her mother’s sphere of influence to marry stockbroker Howard Bannister, as nice a man as anyone could ever hope to meet, in spite of – or perhaps because of – Constance’s objections to him.

            Their daughter Carol was fortunate enough to inherit little more from her mother than her dark brunette hair and brown eyes.  In happier days her personality was sunny and outgoing, the gift of her good-natured father. From her grandparents she had inherited Neil’s quick wit and lively intelligence but none of the arrogance of her grandmother. Despite what her mother and grandmother thought of Neil’s family, Carol was very close to her aunts and uncles, and especially to her cousins Victoria and Anita. All three girls had been born in the same year, and had been pen pals from the time they were old enough to write letters.  Carol fled to her bedroom as soon as she returned home from the memorial service, accompanied only by her cousins, to share her grief with them in a more private setting. She wanted nothing to do with the dreary adult gathering that was going on downstairs.

            Eventually, Audrey worked her way around to Frank and Jessica, who were looking at the portrait of Neil, now installed in a prominent place in the foyer.

            “Uncle Frank,” she said, embracing him. “Aunt Jessica. Thank you for being here.”

            “It’s the least we could do, Audrey,” Jessica said, hugging her in turn.

            “Where is Grady?” Audrey asked. “I didn’t see him at the service.”

            “Beginning his freshman year at Purdue,” Frank told her. “It didn’t make much sense to pull him out of school just before his midterm exams, so we advised him to stay there. But he did want us to tell you how sorry he was about the loss of your father.”

            Audrey blinked back a few tears. “Thanks,” she said.  “I’m sorry that Mother isn’t making herself more available to you, but she, ah, has other obligations at the moment.”

            Jessica put a comforting hand on Audrey’s arm. “That’s all right, dear,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to talk to her later.”

            “Are you staying beyond today?” their niece asked.

            “Just for a couple of days, until Neil’s affairs are all in order,” said Frank.

            Audrey seemed relieved. “Good,” she said. “Howard was hoping you would stay. He says the two of you have been like pillars of strength. After the past few days, we could all use some sanity around here.”

            Audrey left them to continue her rounds. Not long afterwards her husband caught Frank’s eye from a doorway, and indicated that he and Jessica should join him on the covered patio just outside the living room’s tall French doors.

            “Well, things are going tolerably well so far,” Howard said as he shut the doors behind them. “The caterers are staying out of the way, Carol’s got her cousins for comfort, and so far Constance hasn’t offended anyone.”

            “Howard, can you tell us exactly what happened?” Jessica asked. “When Constance called us, she didn’t have a lot of details.”

            Howard sighed heavily and pulled a chair out from one of the patio tables to sit, motioning to Frank and Jessica to do the same.

            “I’m still not completely clear about what happened myself, to be perfectly honest,” he told them. “Apparently Neil took the boat out on the river early Sunday morning to do some fishing. He went to Potter’s Cove – it’s a pretty secluded area, near state park land. About an hour or so later some hikers heard the explosion, and saw the smoke coming from the direction of the cove.  By the time the fire department arrived, there wasn’t much left except for some floating debris – the boat had already sunk to the bottom.”

            “And there was no sign of Neil at all?” Frank asked.

He shook his head. “We had people out combing the river banks for any sign of him, but they found nothing. Later, when the divers salvaged the hull of the boat for the investigation, the only evidence of him they could find was his fishing pole, and his keys in the boat’s ignition.”

“Could the current have swept his body away from the boat?” asked Jessica.

“If he’d been in the channel, maybe,” Howard replied. “But the water in Potter’s Cove is very still, and has no current to speak of.”

Frank frowned. “The boat – where is it now?”

Howard shrugged. “Sitting in the weeds over at Wright’s Marina, I suppose,” he said. “The state fire marshal’s people hauled it off the bottom and took it there so they could go over it, bow to stern, and find out what happened. They haven’t released the results of the investigation yet, so I assume it’s still there.”

They were interrupted by a loud rapping on the glass of the French doors, just before Constance opened them and stepped outside, looking cross.

“Howard,” she said, “I need you to run to the store right away. The caterers didn’t bring enough crackers for the caviar.”

Howard rolled his eyes. “Isn’t running errands to the grocery store part of Marlowe’s job description?” he asked.

Constance put her hands on her hips. “Marlowe,” she informed him, referring to the household’s butler, “is busy helping in the kitchen. Now, are you going, or do I have to make Audrey do it?”

“No, don’t make Audrey do it,” Howard said with a sigh as he pushed back his chair and looked at Frank and Jessica apologetically. “I’m going.”

When he had disappeared back inside, Frank took Jessica’s hands in his.

“Bright-Eyes,” he said to her, “you’re going to think I’m crazy, but …”

Jessica looked at her husband in concern. “But what?”

“I think … that Neil could be alive after all.”


            Carol did not make an appearance at dinner, and neither did Victoria nor Anita. Aware that the girls were probably hungry despite their absence, Jessica raided the refrigerator for leftovers stashed there by the caterers, and carried a tray of things she thought they might like up to Carol’s bedroom.

            Her quiet knock on the door was met with, “If you’re over thirty, go away!”

            Undeterred, Jessica called through the door, “Carol, it’s Aunt Jess.”

            Immediately the door was opened, and Victoria pulled her into the room even as Anita relieved her of her tray.

            “You brought us dinner!” Anita exclaimed when she saw all the food that Jessica had heaped on the tray for them. “That is so cool of you.”

            “Does it make up for the fact that I’m over thirty?” Jessica asked innocently.

            “Oh, you don’t count,” Carol said from where she lay sprawled on her bed. “It’s just Mother and Grandmother we don’t want bothering us.”

            Looking at Carol, Jessica felt a measure or relief: judging from her brighter mood, Victoria and Anita had done a good job of cheering their cousin up. The wastebasket was filled with spent tissues and the Kleenex box was empty, but Carol’s eyes were not red rimmed, as they would have been if she had recently been crying.

            “Aunt Constance has been absolutely impossible,” Anita said as she passed the tray around. “She won’t let Carol express her feelings honestly.”

            “Instead, she wants her to get dressed up, scrub her face, and put on a smile for the visitors,” Victoria added.

            “All I want is to be left alone,” Carol sighed. “I don’t care if Mr. So-and-So hasn’t seen me since I was this high.” She held her hand about three feet off the floor.

            “All of us have to put a brave face on when we don’t feel like it at one time or another,” Jessica said as she sat down on the side of the bed next to Carol. “But I agree – it is a little much to ask of a teenager on the day of her grandfather’s memorial service.”

            “I’m glad you understand, at least,” Carol said. “Mother doesn’t seem to.”

            “Your mother and grandmother are hurting too,” Jessica gently reminded her. “They’re older, so they don’t show it on the surface as much, but inside they miss your grandfather just as much as you do.”

            “You may be right about Audrey,” Anita allowed, grabbing another finger sandwich from the tray, “but I’m not so sure about Aunt Constance.”

            “Nita!” Jessica exclaimed reprovingly. “If your grandmother heard you talk like that …”

            “… she’d agree with me, word for word,” Anita finished for her. “Gram can’t stand Aunt Constance. She says she’s a pretentious little gold-digger with an ego the size of Kansas.”

            Victoria tried to smother a giggle behind her hand.

            “Well, you have to admit, she always looks like she just tasted something awful,” Anita persisted. She scrunched up her face into a passable imitation of Constance’s, which sent Victoria and Carol into gales of laughter. Although she was trying to be diplomatic, Jessica had to admit that Anita’s performance was right on the mark, and she soon found herself laughing along with her nieces.

            At the very least, it was preferable to crying.


            “All right, Frank,” Jessica said as she slipped into bed next to her husband. “You promised me you’d explain why you think your brother is still alive, and why I shouldn’t think you’re crazy.”

            Frank propped himself up on one elbow to face her. “They didn’t find his body,” he said simply.

            “Is that all?”

            “No,” he admitted. “The other reason is that … well, I just have a feeling that he’s alive. I can’t explain it, but while Howard was telling us what happened, suddenly I just knew, somehow, that Neil escaped.”

            Jessica considered what he had said. “Well,” she said at length, “it is very strange that they found absolutely no trace of him with the wreck.”

            Frank chuckled. “Does that mean that my ‘feeling’ reason proves I’m crazy?”

            “I never said that.” She leaned closer and gave him a kiss. “It just so happens that my instincts are also telling me that there’s more to this ‘accident’ than meets the eye.”

            “Hmm. That means a lot coming from you, Bright-Eyes,” said Frank, lying back down and gathering her into his embrace. “I always trust your instincts.”

            Jessica settled into his arms, resting her head on his chest with a slight sigh. “Perhaps tomorrow we should follow our instincts, and make some inquiries of our own.”

            “Good idea.” Frank reached over and turned off the bedside lamp. “I’m glad that you believe me,” he whispered to her in the darkness. “I’m quite certain no one else would.”


            The next morning Theresa and her husband Richard departed for home, followed soon afterwards by Rita, her husband Stephen, and Victoria. Agnes and Anita also left to head back to upstate New York, with Agnes sparing only the coolest of farewells for her eldest son’s widow. Of Neil’s sisters only Alicia remained, explaining that with John being looked after by his father, she was not needed back home right away. She had consulted with Jessica and Frank over breakfast, and it was decided that the three of them together would make a stronger presence as representatives of the rest of the Fletcher clan.

            Having managed to rid herself of most of her in-laws, Constance turned her attention to finding a way to convince the rest of them to leave as well. It would be tricky; Audrey had been very liberal in inviting her aunts and uncles to stay as long as they liked, and then when Constance’s back was turned had seemingly instructed Marlowe to put them up in the nicest guest rooms the house had to offer. Unless that had been Howard’s idea – Howard always seemed to favor Neil’s side of the family.

            Regardless, as soon as she had seen her mother-in-law off, Constance set out in search of Jessica. As the daughter of a prominent politician, she was well-versed in the gentle art of persuasion, which she hoped to exercise now to get her own way. She found Jessica in the spacious grounds behind the house, admiring a well-tended rose garden.

            “Jessica,” she said, approaching her with a smile. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

            “Well, you’ve found me,” Jessica said, eyeing Constance with a certain amount of distrust. For as long as she’d known her, Constance had determinedly maintained an attitude of aloof disdain and thinly veiled condescension toward her, rebuffing any efforts on her part to establish any sort of rapport. To be greeted now with open affection could only be viewed with suspicion. Nevertheless, she remained friendly and polite, as she always had. “I was just admiring Neil’s rose garden. It’s amazing how late roses continue to bloom down here!  Mine were finished for the season over a month ago.”

            “Yes, well, they do seem to thrive in the climate here,” Constance said. “Of course, it’s a climate that doesn’t agree with everybody. I imagine that you’re anxious to return home to Maine?”

            “I will be happy to get back, yes,” Jessica admitted, “but the accommodations here have been extremely comfortable.  I must thank Marlowe for being so attentive to our needs.”

            “Yes, he’s very conscientious,” Constance murmured. “Tell me, dear, what are your plans?”

            “We intend to stay for the reading of the will, and leave the day after.”

            “The reading of the will!” said Constance breezily with a wave of her hand. “That’s hardly of any concern to you, Jessica. It’s merely administrative formalities. You shouldn’t feel obligated to stay for something as tedious as that. Besides, our lawyer is very meticulous – I’m sure that if you and Frank are among the beneficiaries, he can take care of your bequests long-distance.”

            “That may be so, but Audrey and Howard felt that it was important that we be here,” said Jessica. “Don’t worry, Constance, we have no intention of wearing out our welcome. As soon as the will is settled and the accident investigation is complete, we’ll be on our way.”

            Since it was clear that Jessica was not going to be swayed by her arguments, Constance masked her disappointment by shifting her attention to the roses in front of them. “I’ll never understand why Neil wasted his time with these roses,” she said, a hint of irritation leaking out in spite of herself. “We have a perfectly good gardener to look after the grounds, yet he always insisted on taking care of the roses himself.”

            Jessica cupped one of the roses, a delicately shaped yellow one, in her hand and smiled at the thought of Neil out here among them on his hands and knees, feeding and watering the bushes and coaxing them to bloom. “Sometimes,” she said, fixing Constance with a piercing look, “the process is just as important as the product. Neil felt that way about his roses, I think.”

            “He was the same way about his boats,” Constance sniffed. “Always tinkering with them himself. I wouldn’t be half surprised if his tinkering led to the accident.”

Jessica seized upon this opening to ask a question that she otherwise would have felt somewhat awkward bringing up.

            “Constance,” she asked, “did you happen to notice anything strange about the way Neil was acting in the days or weeks leading up to the accident?”

            “Nothing strange at all,” she answered promptly. Then she paused, and frowned. “There was one thing – Sunday morning, the day he died. As he was getting ready to leave with his fishing rod and tackle box, he stuck that ugly little silver leprechaun figurine he kept into his pocket.”

            Jessica looked at her, trying to fathom what meaning this could have. “Why would he do that?”

            “I asked him the very same thing,” said Constance. “All that he would tell me was that it was ‘for luck.’”


            As they had resolved to do the previous evening, Jessica and Frank came up with a plausible excuse to absent themselves from the house for awhile and went into town to hunt down the answers to their questions. Their first stop was the Marion Police Department in search of the lead investigator on the case.

            “You want Tom Morganstern, then,” the officer at the reception desk told them. “He’s the state fire marshal.  You’ll find him through that door over there.”

The fire marshal had been granted a corner of the building to serve as his field office for the duration of his investigation. It was partitioned off from a larger conference room and equipped with the minimal amount of furnishings and equipment he needed to do his work.

“Come in, come in,” Morganstern said, waving them into his temporary office. “Grab a seat wherever you can find one. Sorry about the accommodations – when your job moves you around from town to town as much as mine does, you have to make do with whatever they’re willing to give you.”

Jessica and Frank carefully removed piles of paperwork from a couple of folding chairs set in front of the makeshift table that served Morganstern as a desk and sat down.

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with us,” Frank said.

The fire marshal took a sip of coffee from a Styrofoam cup and made a face. “That’s weak stuff … It’s no bother,” he then said to them. “You said on the phone that you had some questions about the accident investigation?  My condolences, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Jessica replied. “We were just interested in hearing what you’ve found out so far. Judging by the fact that the accident happened three days ago and the investigation is still open, I assume that it hasn’t proved to be an open and shut case?”

Morganstern leaned back, his own folding chair creaking as he did so. “You assume correctly,” he admitted. “The fact is, there are some circumstances surrounding Mr. Fletcher’s death that might be considered suspicious – hence, the open investigation.”

“Like what?” asked Jessica.

“Well, like the fact that a boat that passed a Coast Guard inspection just a few months ago should suddenly develop a catastrophic mechanical failure and explode,” he replied. “All the usual things that cause fires and explosions on boats – leaking fuel, wires shorting out – all of that stuff got a clean bill of health back in June.”

Frank and Jessica looked at each other, as a new thought they had not previously considered dawned on them. “Are you suggesting that someone may have tampered with the boat?” Frank asked, voicing the concern they both shared.

“It’s a possibility,” Morganstern admitted reluctantly. “The fact that the explosion happened early in the morning, on a Sunday late in the season and in a remote area of the river, supports the possibility that arson was involved.  Also, the marina mechanic that went over the remains of the wreck with me says the fire burned hot, hotter than most purely accidental fires he’d seen in his experience, like someone wanted to be sure any evidence of arson got burned up with the boat itself.”

Frank swallowed hard. “So you’re saying that … Neil could have been murdered?”

“Maybe, though I gotta admit, there have to be easier ways to kill someone,” Morganstern admitted. “There’s just too much that would be left to chance if someone sabotaged the boat with the intent to murder Mr. Fletcher. I’ll be honest – if it weren’t for the fact that Mr. Fletcher died in the accident, murder wouldn’t be at the top of my list. Insurance fraud would be.”

Frank and Jessica were taken aback by this. “Neil, guilty of insurance fraud?” Jessica exclaimed. “That’s impossible.  He was secure financially; his business was doing well. What motive could he possibly have?”

Morganstern sat up and took another sip of his weak coffee before answering. “I know, I know, I have problems with the motive as well. I checked into his finances, and the business is on solid ground. By all accounts he’s had no recent disasters that would drive someone to take extreme measures to get hold of some money. But he did call his insurance agent the Friday before the accident to make sure that the policy covering the boat was still in effect. And we found very few personal effects at the scene, which is sometimes another indication of arson – people usually take away the things they care about rather than let them burn.”

“What of Neil’s personal effects did you find?” Jessica asked.

“Just the fishing pole,” he told her. “Everything else we found was just equipment from the boat itself – seat cushions, life jackets, charts, that sort of thing.”

Jessica thought about this for a moment, then asked, “What about his tackle box?”

“What about it? We didn’t find it,” Morganstern said. “It must have been destroyed, melted down or burned by the fire.”

“But you found the fishing rod intact,” she reasoned. “Why not the tackle box as well?”

Morganstern spread his hands open. “Couldn’t tell you,” he said. “Anyway, the point is moot – insurance fraud only works if you survive the arson to collect the settlement, and Mr. Fletcher didn’t. Unless …” here he got a doubtful look, and seemed reluctant to go on.

“Go on,” Frank prompted, although he was sure he wasn’t going to like what the fire marshal was about to say next.

“Unless – and believe me, I really hope I’m wrong about this – unless this was a case of botched arson that your brother set up, but died in carrying out.”


When they returned to their car, Frank rubbed his temples wearily, as though trying to forestall an oncoming headache. “No, no, no,” he said firmly. “I would sooner believe that Neil was murdered before I would accept even the suggestion that he died trying to commit insurance fraud. It just isn’t possible.”

“Oh, I agree,” said Jessica wholeheartedly. She looked at her husband in sympathy – this week had been difficult enough for Frank, and now the uncertainty and suggestions of foul play were making things ten times worse. “But take heart – even Mr. Morganstern admits that Neil had no financial motive to destroy his own boat, and without that, proving arson will be next to impossible.”

“I hope you’re right,” Frank sighed heavily.

Jessica turned his head so that he was facing her, and kissed him tenderly on the lips. “Of course I’m right,” she said, smiling as she ran a hand lightly through his hair.

Frank relaxed a little, and returned her smile. “Well, you usually are,” he admitted. “So – what’s our next stop?”

“Wright’s Marina,” she replied. “I think that we need to have a look at what’s left of that boat for ourselves.” She took a piece of scrap paper out of her pocket with a name scribbled on it, and gave it to him. “While we were talking with Mr. Morganstern I was reading some of his preliminary report upside down, and I got the name of the mechanic he worked with at the marina.”

Now it was Frank’s turn to lean over and kiss her exuberantly. “Bright-Eyes, you are wonderful!” he exclaimed. “I would never have thought to do that.”

“I thought it might save us some time, and time is not something we have in abundance,” she said. “In a few days this investigation is likely to be closed, and then we may never know what happened to Neil.”


“We should split up,” Jessica suggested once they had arrived at the marina where Neil had kept his boat over the years. “Mechanical things are your strong point, not mine. Why don’t you try to find the mechanic that worked with Mr. Morganstern, and I’ll see if I can find anyone down at the service dock who might have seen Neil leaving the morning of the accident.”

“Deal,” said Frank. “I’ll meet up with you at the car afterwards.”

            Jessica made her way down to the marina’s service dock, where fuel pumps stood at the ready for any boats that needed gasoline or diesel.  A young man was currently engaged in filling the tank of a fairly large cruiser, chatting amicably with the vessel’s skipper about the weather, and the prospects for rain over the next few days. She stood by and watched the exchange until the job was done, then approached the attendant as the cruiser cast off on its way.

            “Excuse me,” she said to him politely as he picked up a mop to swab the dock’s planks clean. “I wonder if you could help me – I’m looking for anyone who was working here at the service dock last Sunday morning, the day Neil Fletcher’s boat caught fire and exploded.”

            The young man paused in his task.  “That’s easy,” he replied, taking off his baseball cap long enough to wipe his brow. “It was me.  I fueled his boat up that morning when he left the marina.  I was real sorry to hear what happened – did you know him?”

            “Well, he was my brother-in-law,” Jessica said.

            A look of genuine sympathy crossed the attendant’s face. “Gee, that’s rough,” he said. “Everyone who worked here was real fond of Mr. Fletcher. I’m South Gannon, by the way.”

            “Jessica,” she replied, accepting his outstretched hand and shaking it. She gave him a curious look as she did: “’South’?  That’s an interesting name.”

            The young man chuckled. “It’s short for ‘Southpaw,’” he explained. “I’m left-handed.”

            She smiled. “Then it makes perfect sense,” she said. “Do you remember anything odd about that morning?  Anything strange about the boat, or the way Mr. Fletcher was acting?”

            South leaned on the handle of his mop and chewed his lip. “Not really,” he said. “Well, except for the fact that he stopped for fuel at all.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “He had fully three-quarters of a tank of gas in the boat already,” South explained. “He told me he was going fishing up Potter’s Cove way, but that’s a short trip. Three-quarters tank would be plenty to get there and back three, maybe four times over.  So why he bothered to top her off, I’ve no idea.  Unless it was because he was worried about how the engine was running.”

            Jessica picked up on this last comment with interest. “Neil was concerned about how the boat’s engine was running?”

            “Yeah,” said South. “He told me that she’d been running real rough lately. I had to take his word for it, because I listened as he pulled away, and she sounded just fine to me – but maybe he was hearing something that I just didn’t pick up on.  If there was one thing Mr. Fletcher knew real well, it was boats.”

            “Yes,” said Jessica. “You wouldn’t happen to know if anyone besides Neil was around his boat in the days leading up to the accident, would you?”

            “I know for a fact no one did, just Mr. Fletcher himself,” South assured her. “He spent a good bit of time working on her the weekend before the accident, and then Saturday night he took her out for a spin ‘round sunset.” He shrugged. “I guess he was trying to fix whatever it was he could hear that was wrong with her. He could fix just ‘bout anything that needed fixing on a boat.” Here South shook his head sadly and looked down at the dock. “Whatever was wrong, it must’ve been more serious than he thought.”


Meantime, Frank went to the marina’s office, a small room carved out in the front of a large barn with a metal roof. Inside he found a middle-aged man sitting behind a battered counter, talking on the phone.

“I don’t care if you’re due to go back to Florida next Tuesday,” he was saying to the customer on the end of the line as he waved Frank in. “The boat hoist won’t be fixed til we get that part in, and that won’t be til a week from Thursday. Til then, nobody’s boats are getting hauled out, including yours, and that’s all there is to it … You know Congressman Knowles, do you? Well, tell you what – if he knows how to fix a hydraulic boat hoist, you go right ahead and call him. But if he can’t do that, it’s not going to do you a bit of good. … Yeah, I’m sorry too. Have a nice day.”

The man put the phone receiver down with some force, and sighed in irritation. “Some of these D.C. power players feel like the world revolves around ‘em,” he said wearily to Frank. “They don’t understand that when something’s broken, sometimes they just have to sit tight and wait for it to get fixed, just like the rest of us. Anyway – how can I help you?”

Frank stepped forward. “I’m Frank Fletcher,” he said, introducing himself. “Neil Fletcher was my brother.”

The marina manager’s face changed from disgruntlement to recognition. “Oh,” he said, getting to his feet and shaking Frank’s hand. “I’m Butch Wright.  Pleased to meet you.  Neil was a real good customer.  Never pushy.  Kept his boat here with us for years. I was real sorry to hear about the accident. What can I do to help you?”

“Well, I was hoping to speak with one of the mechanics who works here,” said Frank. He consulted the piece of scrap paper Jessica had given him – “Mickey Reese. I was hoping to ask him a few questions about Neil’s boat. Is he working today?”

“Yep.  He’s around here somewhere,” Butch said. Coming around from behind the counter, he opened a door in the back of the office that led to the main part of the repair barn.  Boats in various states of repair or assembly crowded the space, which was dimly lit by light filtering through banks of dusty windows.

“Handy!” Butch shouted, his voice bouncing around the cavernous space. “You busy?”

“Not really,” an answering voice came. There was the sound of a deck hatch being slammed shut, and a moment later a face framed with grey hair and smeared with grease popped up over the side of a small cabin cruiser. “What d’you want?”

“This nice gentleman’s Neil Fletcher’s brother,” Butch said, gesturing to Frank. “He wanted to talk to you about his boat.”

“What, the one that blew up?”

“That’s the one.”

Handy looked at Frank and shook his head. “Mister, there ain’t enough left of that boat to bother with,” he said.

“I don’t want to claim the boat,” Frank explained. “I just wanted to ask you about what you found when you went over it. You are the mechanic that worked with the fire marshal, aren’t you?”

“That’s right,” Handy said. He swung a leg over the side of the cruiser and on to the rung of a ladder that leaned against its hull, and climbed down. Pulling a rag out of his back pocket he wiped his hands as he approached them; from the looks of the stains on the rag, Frank was uncertain whether the mechanic’s hands were any cleaner for the wiping. “Mick Reese,” he said. “My friends call me Handy, ‘cuz I am.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Frank.

“Sorry to hear about your loss. Neil was a nice guy.”


Handy pointed to the tall sliding double doors at the opposite end of the barn. “What’s left of your brother’s boat’s out back,” he said. “C’mon, and I’ll show you.”

Frank thanked Butch for his help, wished him luck in getting his boat hoist repaired, and followed Handy through the barn and out the double doors. The tall grass in back of the shop was a graveyard of boats, many of which looked like they had been sitting there for years. Older wooden hulls, their boards cracked and shrunken with the passage of time, littered the back of the field, while other boats of more recent vintage occupied the front, where they were apparently being harvested for parts.

“Butch keeps sayin’ he’s gonna clean up this mess,” Handy grunted as Frank surveyed the derelicts, “but he never gets ‘round to it.”

Off to the side, next to a narrow dirt track that wound its way amongst the neglected boats, were the remains of Neil’s runabout. When Frank saw it his heart sank, and for a moment he abandoned all hope that his brother might be alive: no one could possibly have survived the explosion that had ripped this boat apart. It had literally been torn to pieces by the force of the blast; the only thing holding it together now was a makeshift arrangement of ropes and strategically placed jack stands, set up for the purpose of reconstructing the hull for the investigation. The deck and sides were scorched black by the resulting fire; only the bow retained any resemblance to what it had once looked like.

“The fire marshal thinks the explosion happened aft, in the bilge, probably from a short in the fuel pump wiring igniting the gasoline vapors,” Handy said, bending down and peering at the blackened remains of the keel. “’Course, the tank was full, so that just made it all the worse when she went up.”

“Did you find any actual evidence of a short?” Frank asked. “Frayed wires, or anything like that?”

“Naw. Fire marshal was looking for the same thing – he wanted to see if any of the wires had had their insulation worn away, or removed more recently. But seeing’s how that’s where the fire started it burned hottest there. Everything got melted down to nothing.”

“Well, what about the tank or the fuel line itself? Could the fuel line have been tampered with, causing a leak of fuel or vapors?”

Handy rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Maybe,” he said after considering the possibility. “But there ain’t nothing left of the fuel line to look at either. It melted down right ‘long with everything else.”

“Hm.” Looking around, Frank found a discarded cinder block and used it as a step so he could look over the side of the boat and into the cabin. The seat coverings had been burned away to their metal frames and the wheel was bent at a crazy angle.  The dashboard showed evidence of the intense heat of the fire as well – the glass over the gauges was cracked and the dials smudged with soot. The keys were still dangling in the ignition, just as Howard had reported – they appeared to be partially fused together. Beside the shattered gauges was a row of switches, all flipped down in the “off” position. The labels indicating what each switch was for had been burned off by the fire.

“Would one of those switches have been for the bilge’s blower fan?” Frank asked.

Handy heaved a second cinder block into place and joined him in looking over the side into the interior of the boat. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “In this model of boat, the leftmost switch is the running lights, the middle one’s the bilge pump, and the rightmost is the blower.”

“If Neil had turned the blower on, that would have evacuated any leaked gasoline fumes from the bilge, decreasing the chances of a fire starting, right?”

“That’s how it’s s’pposed to work,” said Handy. “Running the bilge blower fan before hittin’ the ignition is a basic rule of boater safety.”

Frank looked at the rightmost switch, set to “off” like the others, thoughtfully. “Looks like Neil didn’t follow that rule.”

“There’s one other thing we found that he did that wasn’t too smart. That,” Handy said, pointing to the keys in the ignition, “is an automobile ignition set-up. Found it when we took apart the dash to check out the wiring. Had an automatic starter wired into it and everything. Some people’ll do that – replace a worn-out marine ignition switch with a car one – to save a few bucks. But they ain’t as safe – they tend to corrode a lot faster. Why your brother didn’t use marine-grade parts to replace the ignition I’ll never know.”

“I guess none of us will ever know,” Frank sighed as he stepped off the cinder block. “Well, you’ve been very helpful, Handy. Thanks for your time.”

“Pleasure. Your brother sure knew his way around boats,” the mechanic told him. “Too bad he was sloppy about replacing that ignition, and careless about using his blower – but y’know what they say, all it takes is one little mistake.”

“Yeah,” said Frank heavily. “One little mistake.”


“Neil was not the sort to cut corners wherever safety was concerned,” Frank told Jessica as they left the marina and headed back to Marion. “He would never have replaced a marine-grade part with something inferior just because it was cheaper.”

“He also didn’t seem like the sort to overlook such a basic safety precaution as running the blower before starting the boat either,” Jessica agreed. “You’re right – it doesn’t add up, it’s too far out of character for him. And then there’s what I learned from South over at the fuel dock …” She proceeded to describe her conversation with the young marina worker that had fueled up Neil’s boat that fateful Sunday morning. By the time she had finished, Frank’s face was lit up with excitement.

“This whole situation,” he said, “is beginning to smell as fishy as a washed-up cod.”

“The trouble is, none of it is provable,” Jessica pointed out. “Even if all these things were part of some elaborate plot to destroy the boat, we still have nothing solid to dislodge the simplest explanation – that Neil died in a tragic accident because of an accumulation of careless errors and lapses in judgment.”

“I know,” Frank said sadly, his earlier exuberance fading.

Jessica put her hand on his knee sympathetically. “Before we make any judgments ourselves, there’s another person we should talk to,” she said.

“Who?” Frank asked. “His lawyer?”

“No,” Jessica replied. “We need to talk to his insurance agent.”


“Yes, Neil did call me last Friday to check on his boat owner’s insurance policy,” Justin O’Neill of Consolidated Casualty told them when they met with him later that day. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time – he’d been checking on the status of all his insurance policies over the past couple of weeks.”

“Did he increase his coverage on any of those policies?” Frank asked.

“No,” O’Neill replied. “Definitely not on the boat policy – the police and Tom Morganstern already asked me about that. In fact, if anything, Neil decreased his overall coverage.”

This came as a surprise to Jessica. “He decreased his coverage?”

“That’s right. Three weeks ago he asked me to cash in his life insurance policy.”

“Into … cash?” Frank asked.

O’Neill nodded. “Yes. I offered to simply deposit the balance into his checking account at First National, but he said he’d rather have the check itself, up front, so he could cash it himself.”

“That seems highly unusual,” Jessica commented. “Did he mention why he was disposing of the funds in this way?”

“No, and I didn’t ask,” O’Neill told her. “I didn’t consider it to be any of my business.”

“And you’re sure that it was Neil who did this.”

“Oh, yes, Mrs. Fletcher, absolutely sure,” the insurance agent assured her. “I’ve known Neil for years. I suppose I could have asked him why he was going about this the way he did – if there were any troubles with the business, or at home – but he’s been such a good customer for so many years, I guess I just figured he knew what he was doing.”

“Who was the beneficiary, before Neil cashed in the policy?” asked Jessica.

“I believe it was his wife, Constance.”

“There’s a new question that comes to mind in light of all this,” Frank said. “Namely – where is that money now?”


            At dinner that evening Constance held forth at the head of the table as the de facto matriarch, with Audrey, Howard, and Carol seated on one side of the table, and Jessica, Frank, and his sister Alicia on the opposite side. The conversation for much of the meal was kept light, deliberately steering away from the topic of Neil, until Constance, who had been shooting suspicious looks at the Fletchers all evening, addressed Jessica directly:

            “You and Frank weren’t around much today,” she said. “What did you do – go into the city to take in the sights?”

            “No,” said Jessica. “No, actually we were in town, talking with some people about the accident.”

            “Did you learn anything, Aunt Jess?” Carol asked with interest.

            “Well, it’s going to be difficult to prove exactly what happened for sure,” Jessica replied. “The boat was heavily damaged, and some evidence was bound to have been destroyed along with it. Still, there are some puzzling aspects to the case that remain to be worked out.”

            “Like what?”

            “Well, like the fact that your grandfather topped off an already nearly full tank of fuel before setting out on a short fishing trip, and mentioned that the boat was not running well even though the dock attendant thought it sounded fine,” she said. “And the fact that the only thing of his that was recovered was his fishing pole.”

            Constance set her knife and fork down on her plate with a loud clatter. “I fail to understand what the point of any of this is,” she said impatiently. “Neil is dead! What purpose does questioning the circumstances of it serve, except to stir up trouble?”

            “With all due respect, Constance,” Jessica said, “Mr. Morganstern would not have left the investigation open all this time if there were not some questions yet to answer.”

            “He would have closed the investigation by now if it were not for your meddling,” Constance fired back. “Why can’t you just leave well enough alone?”

            “Constance, Jessica is merely giving voice to questions all of us have about the accident,” Frank said firmly, coming to his wife’s defense.

            “You of all people should want to know the truth of what happened to Neil,” Alicia added. “You were, after all, his wife.”

            “I appreciate your concern in my affairs, Alicia,” Constance said frostily, turning her glare in Frank’s sister’s direction.

            “I’m sorry if we’ve upset you, Constance,” said Jessica, “but all we want to do is get to the truth.”

            Constance kneaded her napkin angrily in her hands, and brusquely motioned for Marlowe to start clearing the table. “That may be,” she said tersely, “but this is my house, and it’s my family that you are upsetting with your inquiries. I’m sure you’ll understand when I request that you all head home as soon as possible and leave us in peace.”

            “No,” said Audrey.

            Constance’s head whipped around to face her daughter. “Excuse me?”

            “I said ‘no,’” Audrey said more clearly, lifting her eyes to meet her mother’s gaze defiantly. “This is my home too, and I say that they stay – until the fire marshal’s investigation is complete.”

            “Good for you, Audrey,” Howard said quietly at her side.

            “Audrey, don’t be a fool!” her mother exclaimed, still shocked by the unexpected show of backbone from her usually pliant daughter.

            “They’re just trying to help,” Carol piped up, “to find the truth about what happened to Grandfather – which I, for one, need to know. Don’t you?”

            For a moment Constance’s mouth opened and closed without any words coming out as she tried to master her anger. Finally she gave up, threw her napkin down to the table cloth, and left the room in a huff. 

Audrey, Howard, and Carol were left facing Alicia, Frank, and Jessica in the sudden silence that followed Constance’s departure. For a moment no one was quite sure what to say, but then Audrey calmly picked up her fork and resumed finishing her meal as though nothing had happened.

“Now that that’s settled,” she said with a gracious smile at her uncle and aunts, “would anyone care for dessert?”


The reading of Neil Fletcher’s Last Will and Testament occurred the next morning, in the austere offices of his lawyer, Louis Schuyler III. A collection of chairs had been assembled in front of the vast oak desk occupied by Mr. Schuyler, a venerable gentleman with precisely-trimmed white hair and wire-rimmed reading glasses who seemed to personify the image of the prestigious solicitor. It was a small gathering: Constance, Audrey, Howard and Carol were joined by Neil’s partner in business, Kent Thorndike, Jessica, Frank and Alicia.

Predictably, the bulk of Neil’s considerable assets were left to Constance and Audrey.  At hearing the final assessed value of the estate she would inherit, Constance looked supremely satisfied; Audrey mainly looked awe-struck. In addition, a trust fund had been set up for Carol to help pay for her eventual college education.

Neil bequeathed various items of mostly sentimental value to his numerous friends and relatives. Since of his sisters only Alicia had been able to stay for the reading, she promised to make sure that the items that Neil had given to Rita, Theresa, and their families, as well as to Agnes, would be delivered to them.

To Frank, Neil left his prized fishing gear – a trio of rods and a collection of fresh-water and fly lures that he had carefully selected over the course of years.

“And to Jessica,” Schuyler continued gravely, “Neil has bequeathed three cuttings from his prized yellow rose bushes at the house. He also wished for you to have his first edition copy of the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A message went with this item: ‘To Jessie, in thanks for marrying my brother, a gift that marries your love of mystery with your love of the written word.’”

Jessica nodded in acknowledgement, unable to speak as tears welled up in her eyes.  Neil’s gifts to her were beyond generous, and she knew she would always cherish them – especially the roses, which she had always had a particular fondness for.

Constance, however, was incensed – not so much about the rose cuttings, which to her had always constituted mere landscaping, but about the book, which was far more valuable. “That book is worth several thousand dollars!” she protested. “And he gave it to her?”

Schuyler surveyed her over the tops of his reading glasses. “Those were his precise instructions, yes,” he said, his tone clearly signaling an end to the topic. Still muttering angrily to herself, Constance subsided. Carol shot her grandmother a dirty look.  Frank patted Jessica on the arm, and smiled at her.

“Now, regarding Neil’s business assets – his half interest in Lumber Storehouse of Northern Virginia, LP,” the lawyer said, turning to a different section of the document. “Neil wrote a personal message to you, Mr. Thorndike. It reads, ‘Kent, I have left my half of the business to my wife as is expected of me.  However, no doubt she will wish to sell it to you, as she possesses very little business acumen of her own.  I would encourage you to follow through with this - we may not have always agreed on the direction the company ought to go, but you always acted with the company's best intentions in mind. Guide it well in my absence.’”

Kent looked pleased at hearing this, and glanced at Constance, but the widow, stung by her husband’s assessment of her as lacking in “business acumen,” did not return his look.  Schuyler peered over the top of his reading glasses at her.

Constance, as the primary heir, Neil’s half of the ownership of the company does in fact pass to you. Regardless of Neil’s words you may, of course, retain ownership and run the company in partnership with Mr. Thorndike, or you may do as Neil suggests and negotiate with him regarding the sale of your half interest to him. I should make you aware that Mr. Thorndike has already expressed an interest in buying you out, and has put forth what I would consider to be an attractive offer.”

Constance smiled sweetly, continuing to deftly avoid eye contact with Thorndike. “We can discuss it at a later time, Louis,” was all she said.

“Of course.”  Mr. Schuyler removed his reading glasses and folded them. “At the present time, the only assets that have not yet been settled are the proceeds from the insurance policy on the boat. I have been assured by Justin O’Neill at Consolidated Casualty that as soon as the accident investigation is complete they will be in contact with me regarding disbursement of the funds. Are there any questions?”

There was silence and a few of the beneficiaries shook their heads.

“All right, then,” Schuyler said, gathering the papers together and standing, a clear sign of dismissal. “We’ll consider the matter settled, then.  Thank you all for coming.”

The others filed out of the room, but Jessica lingered behind.

“Mr. Schuyler,” she said quietly, causing the lawyer to look up at her. “Did Neil’s will mention anything about the cash proceeds from a life insurance policy he carried?”

“Er, let me look.” He put his reading glasses back on and skimmed through the pages of the legal document. “I see no reference to any here,” he concluded when he was finished. “The titles to the homeowner’s policy, the business policy, and coverage for the vehicles all revert to Constance, of course, and the boat policy will be dealt with in time, but there is no mention of a life insurance policy. Why do you ask?”

“Jessica.” Constance had noticed her absence by now (despite Frank’s attempts to distract her), and was standing in the doorway. “Are you coming?”

“Just curious,” Jessica said to the lawyer. “Thank you for your time.” She smiled sweetly at Constance, and obligingly followed her out of the office.


            When they returned to the house Howard took Jessica aside. “Come with me,” he said, “and we’ll go get your book.” He led the way to the library, a room dominated by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a tall bow window looking out towards Neil’s beloved rose garden.

            “I’m pretty sure it’s in here,” Howard said, heading over to a glass-fronted cabinet set at one end of the room. “I figure you might as well have it now, before Constance has a chance to ‘misplace’ it.”

            “Oh, I really don’t think Constance would do something like that,” Jessica said.

            Howard quirked an eyebrow at her as he opened the cabinet doors. “Don’t be so sure,” he said. He quickly located the book, which was further protected from time by a wooden box lined with velvet, and handed it to her. “Here you go,” he said. “Constance was right about one thing: it’s worth a lot of money if you ever decide to sell it.”

            “I’m not going to sell it.” She lifted the lid of the box, and carefully removed the book from its velvet nest. “I didn’t know Neil collected rare books.”

            “He didn’t, at least not to any great extent,” said Howard. “But he recognized quality when he saw it, and when he spotted this at an auction, he couldn’t resist.”

            Jessica carefully opened the cover of the old book and flipped through the pages. “Did Neil actually read this book?” she asked. “He has a bookmark set in the pages here.”

            “I imagine he probably did.”

            “Howard,” said Jessica, closing the book and settling it back in the wooden box, “did Neil have any enemies?”

            “Not that I know of,” he said. “He told me there’d been some friction at work, but I didn’t get the impression that it was anything serious.”

            “Friction, really?”

            “Yeah,” Howard said with a shrug. “He told me that he and his partner in the lumber yard business, Kent Thorndike, had been having some ‘philosophical differences’ over the way the company was being run. Kent was pressuring Neil to sell him his half of the business.”

            “Did Neil seem open to that suggestion?” Jessica asked.

            “Well, he didn’t dismiss it out of hand, at least,” said Howard. “Whether he would have followed through on it or not I have no idea.”

            “What did Constance think about all of this?”

            Howard gave a short, mirthless laugh. “You think he actually discussed this with Constance?” he said. “No, Constance’s interest in Neil’s business decisions went only as far as how much money was in the checking account. I doubt that the topic ever came up between them.”

            “I had no idea things were as bad as that,” Jessica mused.

            “They were bad enough,” Howard said grimly. “I really felt sorry for poor Neil, actually. The marriage had been deteriorating for quite awhile, but it seemed to take a nose dive over the past couple of years. He’d take me fishing just to get away from her for a few hours, and he’d talk to me about his dreams of escape – escape from the pressure of running the business, from the whole suburban lifestyle, and especially from the constant demands Constance was putting on him.”

            “He must have been very unhappy,” said Jessica sadly. “Much more so than he let on to Frank and me, or to anyone else in the family.”

            “Well, it was not in Neil’s nature to want anyone’s pity.” Howard sighed. “Perhaps the most tragic aspect of all about his death is that now he’ll never have a chance at living the wild, free life he longed for.”

            Jessica said nothing, but in her heart hoped that if Frank was right, then Neil was in fact living that wild, free life right now.


            “Would ‘philosophical differences’ be reason enough for a business partner to commit murder?” Frank asked when Jessica told him about her conversation with their nephew-in-law. It was after dinner, and having excused themselves for the evening they were on their way back to their guest room to pack, in anticipation of their departure the next morning.

            Jessica shrugged. “Who knows? There have been weaker motives for murder.”

            “It’s possible that having failed to convince Neil to sell out to him, Thorndike killed him in order to shift his focus to Constance, who he knew would be more likely to accept an offer,” said Frank.

            “The problem with the whole idea of murder is that unless an actual bomb was planted on board, there was no time for someone to tamper with the boat – otherwise, it would have blown up when Neil first started it Sunday morning, or when he took it out at sunset on Saturday evening.”

            “Yes,” Frank agreed. “And something as blatant as a bomb would probably have been uncovered in the subsequent arson investigation.”

            Jessica sighed at the thought of the still open investigation. “It’s frustrating to leave when we still have no firm answers as to what happened,” she said.

            “I know, Bright-Eyes,” said Frank, who shared his wife’s unease over leaving something so important unfinished. “But I think we’ve done everything that we could possibly do here. Carol seems to be doing all right, and Alicia’s leaving tomorrow; I just don’t know what would be accomplished by our staying on. Besides, look at the bright side – do you want to be here when Constance finds out that Neil’s life insurance policy was liquidated, and the money is nowhere to be found? I certainly don’t!”

            This brought a smile back to her face. “I hadn’t thought of that,” she admitted.

            As they passed the master bedroom Jessica and Frank paused at the sound of a dresser drawer being slammed shut. Having just left Constance downstairs in the drawing room, there was no one with a legitimate reason to be in the bedroom, much less a reason to be going through the drawers.

            Jessica held a finger to her lips, pushed the bedroom door open, and stepped into the room, with Frank right behind her.

            “Carol?” Jessica said in surprise as she flicked on the light. “What are you doing here?”

            Carol whirled to face them, her back against the dresser, looking guilty. “I was just … looking for something that Grandfather promised me,” she said. “There was no mention of it in his will, but he really did promise it to me – it was our secret.”

            “What was it that he promised you?” Frank asked.

            Carol cast her eyes downwards, her face reddening with embarrassment. “It was a leprechaun,” she told them. “A little silver leprechaun. The will said that Grandmother gets everything that wasn’t specifically given to anyone else, but she’s getting so much, why does she have to get the leprechaun too?”

            Jessica looked at her with compassion as she put her arm around her niece’s shoulders. “Oh, Carol,” she sighed. “I know what happened to that figurine – your grandmother told me that Neil took it with him on his fishing trip the day he died.”

            “Well, then it must have been found with what was left of the boat, right?”

            “No, sweetheart,” Frank told her gently. “The only personal item they found was his fishing pole. I’m so sorry.”

            Carol looked crestfallen. “Oh,” she said dejectedly.

            Frank looked to Jessica for guidance as to what to say next, but instead saw his wife’s expression abruptly shift from pity to shock as the meaning of his words sank in.

            “Jess?” he said to her. “Bright-Eyes?”

            At the sound of his voice Jessica shook herself out of her thoughts with an effort, and came back to the present. She looked down at Carol, who was staring at her in confusion, and said, “Carol, if your grandfather promised you that leprechaun, then believe me, some day that leprechaun will find its way back to you.”

            “You really think so?”

            “Yes, I do. Now, why don’t you run along to bed – your uncle and I are leaving in the morning, and we still have to pack.”

            “All right,” said Carol reluctantly. She gave Jessica a hug, and then hugged Frank in turn. “Thanks,” she said to them.  “You guys being here really has meant a lot to me.”

            “We’re here for you whenever you need us,” Frank assured her. “Good night, and we’ll see you at breakfast in the morning.”

            After Carol had gone to her room, Jessica grabbed Frank by the hand and pulled him along to their own bedroom. She checked the hallway to make sure no one was around, closed the door, and locked it to guard against any unexpected intrusions.

            “Frank,” she said at last when she was certain they were alone, “Neil is alive. I know it for sure now.”

            “How?” he asked her.

            “The leprechaun!  It wasn’t found – just like Neil’s body wasn’t found!”

            Frank looked at her blankly, trying to keep pace with her thoughts without success. “What do you mean?”

            Constance said that Neil took the silver leprechaun with him for luck,” Jessica explained, her eyes alight with excitement. “Not only was that an odd thing to bring along on a fishing trip, but it wasn’t found among the wreckage in the cove. The only way it could have disappeared was if Neil took it with him.”

            “But what about the tackle box?” Frank asked her. “That was missing too.”

            “Yes, because the point of this trip wasn’t fishing, it was disappearing. The money from the cashed-in life insurance policy was probably in it, and he took that off the boat when he left it as well.”

            “He couldn’t have run off with just money, the leprechaun, and the clothes on his back,” Frank said doubtfully.

            Jessica waved his objection away. “He probably hid a duffle filled with other essentials on shore near the cove earlier.”

            “But when would he … oh! Saturday night, when he took the boat out at sunset!”

            She nodded. “He probably had the duffle hidden aboard the boat earlier, and used that Saturday night excursion to get it in place on shore, and scope out a hiding place for himself until the search died down – probably up in a tree, I’d guess, since everyone would be looking for signs of him on the ground, not up in the air.”

            “And then he hitchhikes away once the coast is clear,” Frank said, the picture starting to become clear in his mind. “It makes sense. So the fact that he swapped out his marine-grade ignition system for an automotive one the weekend before was not carelessness on his part, but a deliberate part of the plan.”

            “Right,” she said. “He installed the automotive ignition because it had an automatic starter that he could trigger with a remote control. I think that the morning of the explosion he filled the boat’s gas tank to the top to ensure a good fire. To offset the oddity of buying extra gas for a short trip, he made a point of mentioning that the boat was running badly to the service dock attendant. Once he was in the relative seclusion of Potter’s Cove he rigged the boat to explode when it was restarted.”

“Slicing the fuel line to create a gasoline leak and fraying the wires of the fuel pump would probably be the easiest and surest method,” Frank speculated. “Okay, then what?”

“Then he swam ashore with the tackle box full of money and the leprechaun in his pocket, climbed the tree he’d stowed his duffle in, and started the boat remotely,” Jessica concluded. “If you’re right about what he tampered with on board, when the fuel pump kicked in the stripped wires shorted out, ignited the leaking gasoline, and caused an impressive explosion.”

            Frank sighed. “It makes sense,” he said. “You know, it would have been perfect, except for one thing.”

            “What’s that?”

            “He should have started the blower fan before he left the boat. If the switch had been found in the ‘on’ position when the wreck was salvaged, I would have been more inclined to agree that the explosion was an accident.”

            Jessica cocked her head and smiled. “Well, given the fact that by that point there was probably a good bit of gasoline already leaked into the bilge, I can understand him not wanting to take any chances by starting an electric fan in there,” she said. “Besides – it’s also possible that in leaving the blower switch off, Neil was sending a tacit message to you that this was not the simple accident that everyone would assume it to be.”

            Frank began to pace the room as a new thought occurred to him.  “It’s brilliant, Jess, but now we have a new problem.”

            “What’s that?”

            He paused, looked at her, and said, “If we’re certain that Neil is alive, what do we do now?”


            There was no obvious answer to that question, and so they ultimately agreed to set the matter aside until morning, in hopes that the best course of action would become plain by the light of day.  Secure at least in the knowledge that his older brother had not died a violent death after all, Frank fell asleep within moments of retiring to bed. Jessica, however, remained awake and restless beside him.  Simultaneously elated by her discovery of the truth and troubled by its potential consequences, she could not relax as thoughts chased one another through her mind.

            Eventually she gave up trying to sleep and got out of bed, thinking that if she read for a little while, it would soothe her nerves and allow her to finally get some rest. There was not much to read in the room, the sole exception being the first edition Sherlock Holmes book that Neil had bequeathed to her, which she had not yet packed away. Removing it from its box, she took it to the small writing table that sat in a corner of their bedroom, turned on the desk lamp, and settled in to read.

            The book fell open to the page Neil had marked with a leather bookmark the last time he had handled the volume. Well-versed as she was in Holmes literature, Jessica immediately recognized “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the tale in which Conan Doyle, bowing to the demands of his readers, reluctantly resurrected the great detective whom he had tried to kill off in “The Final Problem.”  Near the bottom of the page her eyes were drawn to a single sentence that had been lightly underlined in pencil:

“I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead …”

Suddenly unnerved by what she had just read, Jessica sat back and considered the significance of this notation. It could mean nothing; it was entirely possible that the book’s previous owner had made the underlines for some other purpose. After all, what possible reason would Neil have to mark the page?

As an apology? An explanation? A final good-bye? 

It was all of these things, she realized, delivered in the safest way Neil could think of to the one person he knew would be able to interpret the message, and its intent, for what it was.


Breakfast the next morning was subdued; Jessica and Frank remained firm in their plans to head back to Maine, and Constance was trying to act like she wasn’t pleased that they were going.

As they were finishing, they were interrupted by the doorbell ringing. A few moments later Marlowe came into the dining room with Tom Morganstern behind him.

“Morning, folks,” the fire marshal said. “I apologize for barging in like this, but the investigation into Mr. Fletcher’s death last Sunday has been closed, and I thought that you would want to hear the results as soon as possible, first hand.”

“And what did you conclude?” Constance asked.

Morganstern took a deep breath, and glanced at Jessica and Frank before speaking. “Given the general lack of physical evidence and motive, the conclusion of my investigation is that Neil Fletcher died as the result of an accidental fire and explosion aboard his boat,” he said.

“Ha!” Constance said, shooting a triumphant look at Jessica. “I knew it!”

“An accident? That’s all?” Howard asked.

Morganstern nodded. “That’s all. Although there were some aspects of this case that were suggestive of arson, any suspicious behavior undertaken by the deceased is canceled out by the fact that he apparently died when his boat exploded. And there is simply not enough evidence of any sort to suggest that his death was due to anything except a tragic accident.”

Constance seemed relieved. “Thank goodness that’s over with!” she said. “The whole idea that this was anything but an accident was preposterous anyway.  Now, maybe, we can all get on with our lives.”

“I suppose so,” said Audrey. She seemed a little reluctant to accept the verdict, but not reluctant enough to challenge it.

As for Jessica and Frank, they exchanged a meaningful glance but did not say anything. Carol, however, caught their look, and although she didn’t know what silent thoughts were communicated between them, she did not forget it.


“Why didn’t you say anything?” Frank asked when they were out of earshot of the rest of the family. Following Tom Morganstern’s announcement they had said their good-byes, collected their belongings, and were headed back to their car to go home, at last, to Maine. “I thought you had everything figured out.”

Jessica sighed. “It was the implicit message Neil sent me by way of the book,” she said quietly. “When I saw the passage that he had marked, I … I just knew that he doesn’t want to be found.” She turned and looked her husband straight in the eyes, and returning her gaze Frank knew that she spoke with complete conviction. “Neil is alive, Frank – of that, I have no doubt,” she told him. “And although we may never know the reasons why he chose to run away in this fashion, how else can we show him that we love him, except to simply let him go?”

Frank looked down at the ground, struggling with his emotions – his desire to find his brother again conflicting with his obligation to honor Neil’s choices, as hard to fathom as those choices were. Finally, he looked up at his wife again.

“I guess it is enough just to know that he’s alive,” he said at last. “As long as we know that, there is always the hope that someday we’ll see him again.”

“Yes,” Jessica agreed as they continued down the driveway arm and arm, “there is always hope.”


MAY, 1982


            It rained the morning after the funeral. Somehow, the metaphor that suggested seemed appropriate to Jessica. She had already shed so many tears of her own that the image of the world crying with her was vaguely comforting.

            It was early, and no one else was around. Jessica had come to the grave site alone with no clear purpose other than trying to reconcile the hollow, aching pain in her heart with the numbness that still refused to admit that anything that had happened over the past few days was for real.

            The fresh-laid sod could not completely disguise the scarred earth, and the sight of it brought the devastating reality of Frank’s death crashing down on her again, the grief still as fresh and raw as it had been since this endless nightmare had begun. But there was also something new, something that had not been here at the time of the burial service the day before. Something that reminded her that even in the darkest hour, there was always hope.

            Jessica knelt down on the cut sod and picked up the bunch of yellow roses laid at the foot of Frank’s headstone with trembling hands. She breathed in deeply of their scent and clutched them to herself, her face upturned toward the overcast sky as she openly wept, and for the first time in days her tears of grief were mingled with tears of joy.





            Carol Bannister accepted the latest gift to arrive, thanked Marlowe for bringing it up to her room, and sat down to open it. With her wedding just three days away, gifts of all sorts had been pouring into the house, so many that sometimes they were difficult to keep track of.  But this one was different. As she parted the tissue paper to reveal what was inside, Carol’s heart skipped a beat.

            It was a silver leprechaun figurine.

            Jessica, who had only just arrived, saw her niece go pale with shock. “Carol, what is it?” she asked in concern.

            “This is from Grandfather!” She crossed the room, the figurine held gingerly in her hands, and showed it to her aunt.

            “Neil? Oh, no, child …”

            “I know, I know, he’s dead. Or he’s supposed to be,” Carol said, still looking at the figure in amazement. “But no one else knew!”

            “Knew what?” Jessica asked. “It’s just a little leprechaun.”

            Carol took a deep breath and explained, “When I was a little girl, Grandfather used to say that when I got married a leprechaun would come to my wedding and bring me the gift of a happy life. He said that it was our secret and that no one could ever know!”

            “This has to be some sort of coincidence,” Jessica said uneasily, even as her memories told her otherwise:

“As he was getting ready to leave, he stuck that ugly little silver leprechaun figurine he kept into his pocket …All that he would tell me was that it was ‘for luck.’”

“Carol, if your grandfather promised you that leprechaun, then believe me, some day that leprechaun will find its way back to you …”

            “The leprechaun!  It wasn’t found – just like Neil’s body wasn’t found … The only way it could have disappeared was if Neil took it with him …”

Carol retrieved the paper the gift had come wrapped in. “Yes, but look – there’s no card, there’s no return address … he’s alive, I know it!” She looked closely at Jessica, who was gazing at the figurine with a misty look in her eyes. “You know it too, don’t you.”

            Jessica looked up at her, startled out of her thoughts as she remembered the private hope that she and Frank had shared ten years before.

            “Frank was devastated when he heard about Neil’s boating accident,” she recalled. “He never could believe that his brother was dead.” She took the wrapping paper and held it up so she could read the postmark. “Cat- Catlinburg, Arkansas. Well, that’s a start.”

            There was no question but that she had to go look for him, to see for herself if that private hope had been for real or in vain. She stood up, and Carol saw the determination and resolve burning in her aunt’s eyes.

            “Carol, the family must not know about this,” Jessica told her. “I’ll invent some reason – ah, my publisher.”

            “Aunt Jess?” her niece asked in bewilderment as her aunt hastily gathered her things.

            “One way or the other I’ll be back for the wedding,” Jessica promised her.  Somehow, she was certain that their hope had not been misplaced. And so she set out, spurred on by this hope, bound for a little town in Arkansas that she had never heard of.


The End