Dawn spread over Cabot Cove, a rosy haze on the eastern horizon that gave way to the sun, which rose and cast a road of fire across the Sea. The harbor town was just beginning to stir. Lobster boats were rigging to set out, and seagulls glided on the breeze against the morning sky in search of the occasional discarded bit of bait.
Jessica Fletcher was leaning against the fence that overlooked the harbor, her head on her hand, watching the morning unfold around her.
"You're up and about a little early, aren't you?" said a voice, and turning she saw her friend Dr. Seth Hazlitt walking toward her.
"Morning, Seth," she said, smiling. "I might say the same about you."
"You might," Seth said, "but I have an excuse. Mrs. O'Leary had her baby this morning. It seems that every baby in that family, including Mrs. O'Leary herself, manages to be born between four and five in the morning. As if it were genetics or something."
Jessica smiled again, and turned back to look at the harbor.
"You know," he said after a brief pause, "it seems to me that anyone looking as tired as you has no business being up at the crack of dawn ..."
She stifled a yawn. "I'm not tired," she said.
"Fine, have it your way. Not tired, exhausted."
"Seth ..." Jessica began in protest, but then she stopped. "All right," she said, "so I didn't sleep well last night."
"Again? That's the third night this week you haven't slept well, Jessica."
She looked back
at the harbor, and said, "I just got back from
"Or overwrought," said Seth.
Jessica held her silence.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.
"Not particularly," she said with forced lightness.
"Good. We'll make it dinner, then, and we can have a nice private chat about it this evening. I'll bake a pie - rhubarb all right with you? And you can make some of your wonderful red codfish chowder. Is six-thirty okay?"
Jessica stared at him in amazement. "Seth!" she exclaimed. "And you have the audacity to claim that I'm stubborn!"
"I'll be over there tonight then. Be seein' you, Jess."
And with that he wandered off down the sidewalk, hands in the pockets of his tweed jacket. Jessica looked after him with an incredulous expression on her face, then sighed, cast her eyes Heavenward, and shrugged, a "what can I do?" gesture.
The midmorning found Jessica outside in her yard tending to the flowers in her garden. As she was carrying a flat of bedding plants a cheerful voice hailed her from the street.
"Good morning, Jessica!" It was Loretta Spiegel, Cabot Cove's best beautician and most notorious gossip. She was riding her bicycle, but hopped off and leaned it against the fence. "I was just on my way into work when I saw you outside."
"Good morning, Loretta!" Jessica returned. "I was just trying to figure where the garden needs the most help. I guess it had a rough winter."
Loretta laughed. "We all had a rough winter, Jessica," she said. "It's a wonder that anything at all blooms around here. Say - have you heard the news about the development?"
Jessica pricked her ears. "What development?"
"Why, the one that's supposed to go up north of town. Apparently some company bought Greeling's Bluff ..."
"The tract owned by that out-of-town landlord?"
"That's the one. Anyway, they want to put up a real spread out there - condos, hotels, the works. Not that I think it's such a hot idea myself; I happen to like Greeling's Bluff just the way it is."
"I didn't even know that the land had been sold," said Jessica.
"Neither did anybody else! That's the really strange part about all of this. No one seems to know anything! I guess it was actually sold around last September. A lot of us wondered around that time how Eve Simpson had managed to buy herself such a big fancy car, but Eve was ... well, uncharacteristically silent about that, and eventually the rest of the girls and I forgot all about it."
"That's very odd," said Jessica thoughtfully. "I mean, why would Eve want to try to keep the sale of the land quiet?"
"Probably because the town is going to throw a royal fit when it finds out what the new owners plan to do with it," Loretta said. "Which will probably happen around five o'clock this afternoon, when the town council holds a public meeting about it."
"A meeting? This afternoon?"
"Yes. I just found out about it myself yesterday when Sam's secretary Mabel came in for her weekly manicure. I guess it was called on pretty short notice, so I'm trying to get the word out. Something about getting the town's opinions, and final board approval, and all of that."
"Sounds like an event not to be missed," said Jessica.
"Oh, I certainly hope so, Jess," said Loretta. "There hasn't been anything really good to talk about down at the beauty parlor for weeks. I'm getting dreadfully bored." She checked her watch. "Well, Ideal'll be down there by now, waiting for me to open the place up. Are we still on with that appointment to give you a trim next Monday?"
Jessica smiled. "We're on," she said.
"Good. Well, see you later, Jessica." Loretta said, hopping back on her bike and heading off down the street.
The late afternoon sun streamed red through the windows of the First Congregational Church, where the townspeople were gathering to debate the proposed Greeling's Bluff project. Jessica made sure to attend, and was pleased to see that the news had drawn a good crowd - but then, development issues usually did. Many residents had already arrived, and more were coming in. On the makeshift stage set up in the front were seated the mayor, members of the town council, Eve Simpson, her lawyer Niles Horton, and the various members of the firm known as the Limited: Todd Maddox, Frances Decker, and Bruce Monroe. Mort came in through a side door just before the meeting came to order, and sat down in a corner chair next to the stage.
Sam Booth approached the podium, and banged the gavel. The murmuring of the audience died down into expectant quiet.
"Afternoon, voters," said Sam with his usual cheerful grin on his round, cheerful face. "Sorry to bring this up on such short notice, but we figured that given the magnitude of the proposal at stake, we'd better make this meeting of the town council open to the public. Now, I think I'll turn the proceedings over to Mr. Todd Maddox, senior administrator of - what was it called again, Mabel? Oh yes - the Limited. They're a development firm. Mr. Maddox?"
A low rustle went through the crowd at the mention of the word "development." The town had been troubled more than once by that word "development."
Todd Maddox stepped forward and took Sam's place at the microphone. He was in his forties, brown hair and mustache beginning to be shot with grey, and carried himself with an air of self-confidence. But to the Jessica’s eye, he seemed just a little too slick, his smile just a little too shark-like, to be trusted on appearances alone.
"Thank you, Mayor," he said. "On behalf of my colleagues, it is my great pleasure to introduce the dawn of a new age in Cabot Cove."
"What was wrong with the old one?" somebody behind Jessica whispered. She had to keep from laughing.
"As some of you may know already, the Limited, with the help of your own Ms. Simpson, has just bought the piece of land north of your town known as Greeling's Bluff. Currently a desolate wilderness with no redeeming value of its own, just look and see how we plan to transform it."
A picture on a stand was set next to him, and with a flourish he removed the sheet that covered it.
"The Greeling's Bluff Development Project!" Maddox said. "A two hundred unit condominium complex, twenty story hotel and recreation center, twelve tennis courts, retail outlet mall, and the latest in security fence technology. It will be the gem of the Down East coast."
A collective gasp went though the assembled residents as they took in the sight before them. The blight of the Down East coast was more like it, Jessica thought. The thing was grotesque. The artist's rendition of the sprawling buildings portrayed them as garish, making no attempts at all to blend into the surrounding landscape aesthetically. The towering hotel would probably be able to be seen many miles out to sea. And the high security fence had a decidedly "us versus them" look to it.
"The economic benefits to your community will be immense," Bruce Monroe said, joining Maddox at the podium. He was a younger man, with sandy blond hair. "Several hundred jobs will be created from the construction of the development alone. Then of course there will be the benefits of the infrastructural changes needed to support Greeling's Bluff, such as wider highways leading inland, expanded water and sewage ... new industries will flock to take advantage of these improvements."
Maureen Galway, a bank teller, raised her hand. "Will the community be able to take advantage of the development's amenities, like the mall and the health center?" she asked.
Bruce Monroe looked at his feet. "As it stands now," he said, "the facilities are reserved for the use of the condominium residents and guests at the hotel. However, I'm sure something could be worked out so that residents of the town could obtain memberships for a nominal fee."
Jessica thought. By nominal fee he
probably means a hundred dollars a month, or something equally outrageous that
none of us could afford. Had living in
A man stood up in the back; she recognized Rory Hunter, the manager of the local grocery store. "You mentioned more jobs from the construction of this thing," he said. "What about after it's finished? Will you be hiring local people to help run it?"
A disapproving murmur circulated through the hall.
new workers would be patrons at your own local businesses, of course,"
"The way I see it, they'll be patrons of your own little retail center," someone else said.
"Yeah - what good will this do for us in the long term?" Wiley Stokes, a well-respected lobsterman, said. "Seems to me that as soon as the construction is finished, we're right back where we started from - except that we have that ugly thing surrounded by its ugly fence to look at where there was once a perfectly lovely bluff. Great for picnics."
There was a louder voicing of approval, and a few "You tell 'em, Wiley"s scattered through the audience.
"And what about the environmental impact?" asked David Marsh, an antique dealer who was the usual advocate for such issues. "Has a survey even been done?"
"Well, of - of course there has," Monroe stammered.
"Good. Then I'm sure you wouldn't mind at all releasing it to the public."
Maddox smiled and held up his hands. "Folks, folks ... you bring up some excellent issues, but I guess that you really didn't understand the point of this meeting. We're not here to seek your approval; we're merely informing you of what is already going to happen. The project is a go; nothing you do here today is going to halt it. We wanted to keep the town appraised of what was happening, in the name of good public relations, nothing more."
"WHAT?!?" was the collective cry.
Mayor Booth himself was back on his feet and spluttering. "Mr. Maddox," he said, "that was not the implication given to me and the town board! I thought that nothing would be decided until the council voted!"
"Well, I deeply regret the miscommunication, Mayor Booth, but what's done is done. The land has already been bought, and that area of the township is already zoned for development. I'm really very sorry."
"I'm not so sure that whole area falls under that development zone." It was Jessica who had spoken up.
"Oh, really? And what areas do you believe to be exempt?" Frances Decker asked, coming forward.
"Ironically, the very place you intend to build, Greeling's Bluff." Jessica rose from her seat so that she could be heard. "Perhaps 'exempt' isn't quite the right word. It may be zoned for development, as you say, but I seem to remember an older law on the books that prohibits any actual building on the property. I think I ran across it once in my research."
"Yes! From the time of old Harold Greeling's death!" said Wiley. "He left a whole pile of money to the town, but only if they'd pass an ordinance to keep his land forever wild. Is that law really still on the books, Jessica?"
"I don't know, Wiley," said Jessica, turning to him, "but it shouldn't be too hard to find out."
For a minute it looked as if Todd Maddox had lost his mask of cool composure, but just for a minute; then it snapped back up as unreadable as before. "Well," he said, "that may be so, but until it can be proven, this project goes forward. We break ground as soon as we accept a minimum bid. In the meantime, I suggest that you address your concerns to your town councilmembers, so that they can discuss with us how to best maximize Cabot Cove's benefit from our development. This will go much better for everyone if all of us work together. All of us." And as he said this he turned his cold stare on Jessica. She remained unfazed, and returned it, fire for fire.
Maddox averted his eyes first. "Well," he said, "I guess that's all we have to say for today. Thank you for hearing us out."
There was no applause; the crowd began to get to its feet amidst disquiet mutterings. Sam rushed up to the podium to get in a few last words before the audience had completely dispersed, then practically leaped off the stage and caught up with Jessica just as she was leaving the hall.
"I don't know about you, Jessica, but I'm not at all happy with the way things went with that at all! They sound as if they're coming in and taking over the place, and I don't like it!"
"I know, Sam," said Jessica grimly. "I don't like it either. I think that after this is over you might want to go over those zoning laws and ask yourself if they're a little too liberal."
"I'll do that," said Sam. "I'm all for a little development, but the voters won't stand for twenty story hotels! Jessica, you've got to find that law!"
Jessica looked at him. "Me? Sam, you're the mayor!"
"But I'm a very busy man, Jessica. Besides, if I go and dig for that law, people will say that I'm politically motivated."
"But Sam, you are politically motivated."
The mayor paused to consider this for a moment. "Well, you're right there. Nevertheless, Jessica, I'm appointing you as a committee of one to find that ordinance so we can stop this before it gets started. People trust you; it'll look better coming from you. ... That is, unless you already have plans for tomorrow."
Jessica gave a short laugh. "No plans that I know of," she said. "I'm between books. All right, Sam, I'll come by tomorrow and try and find your obscure ordinance."
Sam looked relieved. "I don't mind telling you that's a load off of my mind. Well, I've got to get home. Winston gets testy if I don't take him out for his walk before supper. Evening, Jessica."
Jessica watched him go, then shook her head in disbelief, and headed for home herself.
That same evening found Seth over at Jessica's house, carrying out the long tradition of using her kitchen to cook a meal together.
"That was a wonderful pie, Seth," Jessica said as she rose from the dining room table to clear the dishes. The laser printer and the stacks of papers which usually resided on it had been pushed aside for the evening, since Jessica didn't get to use her dining room as a true dining room very often.
"Ayuh, the rhubarb came up well this spring, once we finally warmed up a bit. Help you with those dishes?"
"Oh, no, no, I can manage it, thanks," she said. She carried the last of them into the kitchen and began to fill the sink with hot water and soap. Seth followed her in, and sat down at the kitchen table with his cup of tea.
"So," he said presently. "You’re suffering from stress.”
Jessica paused in the middle of wiping a dinner plate and turned to face him. “What makes you say so?” she demanded.
“You’re showing all the classic signs,” he said matter-of-factly. “Pallor to the skin, insomnia, and now, it would seem, irritability.”
Jessica said nothing, but began washing another plate.
“I could go on,” Seth said.
"There’s no need to,” Jessica said, wiping her hands on a dishrag and joining him at the table. "You’ve made your point."
“You need some real rest.”
“I’d love to get some real rest,” Jessica said with growing frustration. “But how can I when I wake up a dozen times every night with nightmares?”
“Nightmares?” Seth said, looking at her with growing concern. “How long has this been going on?”
“The past few months, I guess. They follow no particular pattern – except that they’re getting worse.”
“What do you think they mean?”
“I don’t know.”
"Well, if it's any small comfort, neither do I. I figured out a while ago, Jess, that none of the psychology they taught me in medical school works with you. You can take that any way you choose."
Jessica smiled to herself.
"The point is, I want to let you know that if you need to talk about these dreams - and I think it's a good idea to talk about these sorts of things - well, then, you know my number."
"Thanks, Seth," said Jessica, taking his hand. "I'll keep that in mind."
Seth looked at his watch. "Well, I'd better be going," he said. "Got to get up to the medical center. I promised Mrs. O'Leary I'd look in on her one more time before going to bed. As one of my better patients I suppose I owe her that much."
"Well, give her and the baby my best," said Jessica.
"I'll do that," said Seth, and he left by way of the back door.
Jessica watched him go, then returned to cleaning up the kitchen.
The later evening found Jessica curled up in a chair by the fire with a book, wrapped in her robe. She looked up as the clock on the mantle piece chimed ten o'clock, and decided that it was about time that she went to bed, even though she wasn't looking forward to it. She closed the book, folded her glasses, and went upstairs absently. She sat down on the side of her bed, and scribbled a short entry into her diary. This done, she set down pencil and book on the bedside table, turned out the light, and climbed into bed. For a long time she stared at the glowing face of the clock at her bedside, but eventually weariness overcame her, and she fell asleep.
She had been tossing and turning for only about an hour when the phone rang and jerked her back to consciousness. Jessica sat bolt upright in bed, but for a minute she didn't understand where the sound was coming from, still confused from the half-remembered nightmare she had been having. Then she shook her head, and picked up the phone on the third ring.
"Hello?" she said, running a hand through her tousled hair.
"Sorry to wake you, Mrs. F. It's Mort Metzger."
"Mort! What's the matter?" Mort never called this late unless there was something very wrong, and she dreaded to hear what it was this time.
"There's a fire down at the town offices," the sheriff said. "We don't know how it got started."
"Oh, dear Heaven," Jessica said in dismay. "I'll be down as soon as I can."
By the time Jessica arrived, the town offices were already well ablaze. Fire poured out of the front windows of the building as the volunteer fire department struggled to contain the flames.
"Oh, this is terrible, just terrible," Sam Booth wailed to her as she advanced as far as she dared toward the building, her wide eyes reflecting the glare. "My best set of golf clubs were in there!"
Looking at the burning structure, Jessica suddenly felt overwhelmed by despair. Hot tears stung her eyes as she watched the flames lick up the sides of the building. Abruptly she turned away, and reached out unsteadily for a nearby telephone pole. She leaned against it with her arm, and wept bitter tears that she hoped no one would see.
Someone did see. Seth, who was standing not far off, was watching as she withdrew, and now approached her. "Jessica?" he asked gently as he tentatively touched her sleeve.
Jessica raised her head. Her cheeks were tear-stained, and Seth was startled by the intensity that burned brighter even than the fire in her eyes.
"The town records - as far back as anyone can remember - they were all in there. Everything we needed. And now they're just so much ashes," she said angrily. Fire exploded out of another window on the ground floor.
Seth stared at her. "You think this was deliberately set?"
"I don't think so. I know so," she replied. "And if they think this will stop us, or that they can get away with this … then they are very sadly mistaken."
"Come on, Jess, let me take you home," Seth said.
Jessica shook her head. "No," she said. "I have to stay here and talk to Mort, to find out how much was actually lost. It’s important."
A couple of hours later the sheriff found her sitting on the curb watching the firemen clean up with half-seeing eyes. "Mrs. F," he said.
At the sound of his voice Jessica surfaced from her private thoughts and rose to face him.
"We just finished checking over the town offices," Mort told her. "Two of the filing cabinets got away with only minor fire damage. They contained more recent stuff, about 1910 to the present."
"What about the records from farther back?"
Mort sighed. "Destroyed," he said. "All of them."
Jessica sank back down to the curb.
"I know what you're thinking, Mrs. F," he said. "We just lost our ace in the hole against Maddox and his buddies. But we won't know until tomorrow if this was arson or not."
"Well, would you let me know when you do find out anything?"
"Sure. What are you going to do now?"
Jessica shook her head. "I don't know, Mort. But I'll think of something."
The next morning as Seth and Jessica were walking through town they passed by the charred town office building. The damage was mostly confined to the front of the building; fortunately some of the rooms toward the back had been more or less spared, suffering mostly smoke and water damage. Jessica paused to watch as the fire investigators sifted through the ashes, looking for some clue that would point toward the cause.
"Senseless," said Seth. "Who would do such a thing?"
One of the investigators caught sight of them, tossed aside the shovel he was using to dig through the rubble, and hailed them.
"Doc ... Miss Fletcher ... Quite a thing to happen here, isn't it?"
"Yes, Wally, it is," said Jessica, the anger flaring up in her eyes again as she gazed upon the building. "Any word yet on the cause?"
"Oh, yes," Wally said, wiping the soot off of his hands. "Me and the boys found traces of gasoline around where we think the fire started. Not a lot, just enough to get things going. 'Course, with all that paper stored up in there, it wouldn't take a lot. I told that to the Sheriff just an hour ago or so."
"Did you pick up any other clues?" she asked.
Wally shook his head. "Nah," he said, "it's been no good. Fire burned real hot, took most of the evidence with it. Well, I'd better get back at it. Still a lot of stuff to sift through. You never know."
"Thanks, Wally," Jessica said, and she and Seth walked on.
"So you were right," Seth said in a low voice, so he wouldn't be overheard. "It was arson!"
"Yes," said Jessica, "and you can bet that whoever started that fire was someone with a lot to gain from the development of Greeling's Bluff. Someone who didn't want anybody to find a reason buried in the town records why they couldn't go ahead with the construction."
"But half the people in town know that no one can build on that land!" said Seth. "It's a local legend by now!"
"Yes, but without any proof on paper what good can a local legend do? It wouldn't stand up in court for a minute. Unless ..."
"Jessica! Seth!" Eve Simpson came forward to greet them, a big smile on her face.
"Speaking of someone with a lot to gain," Seth murmured.
Jessica put on the best face she could. "Hello, Eve," she said. "How are you?"
"Oh, I'm perfectly fine. I wish I could say the same thing about the mayor's office." She gave them a conspiratory look. "You know, down at Loretta's they're saying that they've already proved that the fire was deliberately set."
"It seems Loretta's has broken another gossip speed record then," Seth said.
"Oh, Seth," said Eve. "You're just jealous because Norm the Barber never tells you anything."
"Don't be so sure about that," the doctor said dryly.
Eve laughed. "Anyhow," she said, "the reason I caught up with you is that I'm having a little dinner party tonight for some of the people involved with the Greeling's Bluff project, and I'd like you both to come. Say, seven, my place?"
"Well, I don't ..." Seth began, but Jessica cut him off.
"We'd be delighted, Eve," she said, silencing Seth with a look. "Seven o'clock sounds perfect."
Eve beamed. "Wonderful," she said. "I have to run now. So much to do before tonight! See you there!" And with that, she was off down the street.
Seth gripped Jessica's arm. "Woman ..." he said by way of protest.
"Seth," she said urgently, "I want you to go to that party, poke around, see what you can learn about the people behind this project - and see who in town shows up that might be sympathetic to their cause."
"Me?" Seth exclaimed. "Where are you going to be?"
"At the library," she said. "There may be one more little treasure trove that we can still use to save Cabot Cove."
Jean O'Neil came over to the table where Jessica was sitting surrounded by old books, and touched her shoulder. She jumped slightly, as she was suddenly brought back to the present after being lost for so long in what she was reading.
"Sorry to startle you, Jess," the wheel-chair bound librarian said, "but it's five o'clock and we're closing. I just thought you'd like to know."
Jessica blinked, shook her head, and looked at her watch. "Oh. So it is; how did it get that late? I don't suppose, Jean, that if I promised to lock up real tight, I could stay here a little longer, could I?"
Jean smiled; she was well used to this. "Sure you can, Jess. You know where the key is." She looked at the stack of books that she had assembled. "What are you working on, anyway?"
"Well," said Jessica, taking off her glasses and stretching, "these are copies of the town records for as far back as I could find. I figure that if I can find some reference to Harold Greeling's property trust in one of these books, we might not need those records from the town hall after all to stop the development. At least, that's what I hope."
Jean sighed. "If you can do that, Jess, we'll all breathe a little easier for awhile. And you'll be the town hero."
"Well, I don't know about that," said Jessica, blushing a little. "I just want to do what I can."
"I wish you luck, then. Good night, Jess. See you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow, Jean."
A few minutes later she heard the library doors shut, and Jessica was alone in the library. There was no sound except the rustling of pages as she continued her feverish search by the light of her lone desk lamp.
The evening wore on. Seth reluctantly attended Eve Simpson's party alone, a social burden that he had agreed to undertake only because Jessica had been so insistent about putting him up to it. If there was one thing he had learned, it was to not argue with her when she was in that frame of mind. She had warned him that her search in the library might carry through dinner, but he couldn't help but keep glancing at the front door in hopes of seeing her walk in. Anything to relieve the tedium of making small talk with Eve's guests and to keep from exploding out with his own feelings about the proposed Greeling's Bluff project. Jessica had warned him to hold his tongue about that - "the better for you to listen," was what she had said. Easy for her to say; she had the easy part, snooping around the old files in the library. Books didn't thrust platters of butterfly shrimp in front of your face at every turning. Though he did have to admit that these were quite good ...
"Doctor Hazlitt!" a voice exclaimed just as he plucked another from a passing caterer. It was Eve Simpson, wearing a dazzling smile that would blind the unaided eye. "Where's Jessica? I thought she was coming."
"In the middle of research, I expect," Seth replied. "She probably lost track of the time. You know how she gets when she has a plot by the tail."
"Oh, yes, wild horses couldn't drag her away from that library," Eve agreed with enthusiasm. "Well, hopefully she'll come to her senses before the soup's on." She spotted Todd Maddox a few paces off, and excused herself from Seth. "Todd! There you are! I was afraid you weren't coming. Where is Bruce?"
Maddox looked slightly distracted. "I - I don't know, really," he said, looking around the room nervously. "A meeting with the lawyers, I think. Will you excuse me? There's something I have to attend to."
"Of course," said Eve demurely, and Maddox brushed past her and left the house without a second glance.
In the library, Jessica was beginning to weary of her task. She had been through book after book of records, and had not found anything so far but a line recording the birth of Harold Greeling. A lack of indices was her problem, she decided as she started to scan through another book, a small one with a leather cover, her head propped up on her hand.
And then her finger stopped moving down the page. Her eyes went from half-mast to wide and bright as she lifted her head and reread what she thought she had half-seen.
"That's it," she whispered.
The book was an old ledger of zoning board proceedings. "October 24, 1890: The Board does hereby deny Mr. Nathan Quimby permission to build a feed store on his lot off of the Old Thoroughfare Road; for though he is the Holder of the deed, the ordinance of Mr. Harold Greeling does state that the said lot remain in a State of Perpetual Nature, binding all Descendants and Future Deedholders to this same Principle ..."
Jessica was so caught up in reading this and rereading it that the quiet sound of the library door handle turning went unnoticed.
If the party had been tedious in its early stages, it grew to be positively unbearable later on. Seth wandered from group to group with a cocktail in his hand, trying to glean what he could from the conversations going on around him. From what it seemed, there were a lot of contract bidders in attendance, all hoping to take away a sizable piece of the real estate pie that Todd Maddox and his associates had promised them. Besides himself, a few other prominent Cabot Covers had been invited, but they were largely limited to Sam Booth and some members of the town council, all of whom were looking a little uncomfortable with the position they now found themselves in. Even Sam was looking uneasy, despite the fact that he had his political charm turned up to the max. Clearly, the board was finding it difficult to make casual conversation with a bunch of outsiders that they didn't know and weren't sure they trusted. There were Howard and Ebenezer, questioning Frances Decker about some of the Limited's past development projects elsewhere along the coast. There was Sam, pumping as many hands as he could reach, as though by constantly introducing himself he could avoid engaging in any real conversation with any one person. And then there was Ben Devlin, gliding from group to group and tucking away everything that he heard. His presence here was obvious; but if Eve Simpson thought she could wine and dine the press into a favorable editorial, she would probably have to look elsewhere for someone more impressionable. At least he hoped so. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Ben.
Seth sighed; the present conversation he was listening to seemed to be mainly lawyer shop talk, so he excused himself and moved on. He was just about to take another shrimp hors d'oeurve when a strange feeling came over him. It was as if the memory of some old fear had been stirred, and the ticks of the grandfather clock seemed to be spaced farther and farther apart, like a faltering heartbeat.
A thump and the rattle of ice stirred him, and looking down he realized that he had dropped his drink.
Eve was across the room in a second with a napkin to wipe up the spilled liquor from her hardwood floor. "Seth, are you all right?" she asked.
"Um, ah, perfectly fine, Eve," Seth stammered. "I just wasn't paying attention and the glass slipped right out of my hand. All this dry weather, you know."
"How can you say that with the rain we've been having this spring?" Eve said as she picked up the ice cubes and plunked them back in the glass for a waitress to take away. "A few more weeks of this weather and I just know that my garden will be all drowned out for the season. Dry? I wish. Here, let me get you another drink, Seth."
"Ah, no, Eve, I think I'll pass on that if it's all right by you," Seth said hastily. He had felt this same sense of urgency before, but never this intense, and it worried him. "Look, there's something important that I think I forgot to do at the office. I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave."
Eve straightened up. "So early? But we haven't even sat down for dinner. Can't it wait awhile?"
"No, I'm afraid it can't. It may be an emergency. I'm sorry, Eve. I'll make it up to you sometime. Wonderful hors d'oeurves. Good evening."
Eve's mouth was open, but before she could say anything Seth had snatched his coat and hat from the hall closet and was out the door.
Back at the library, Jessica was busy returning the books that she had been searching through back to their places in the stacks. The one that really mattered was the small book with the old zoning board notes; she'd just take that one away with her and leave a note for Jean saying she had borrowed it. She returned to the table one last time and scooped it up with the last three volumes that needed to be put away.
Across the library, a book was knocked over on its shelf by accident. The sound of its fall seemed magnified tenfold in the silence.
Jessica froze in the glow of the desk lamp, wide eyes scanning the space. A cold chill ran down her spine. It was probably just a book that had been shelved improperly, and had picked now to fall over on its side. And yet she was still filled with a fear that this simple explanation could not dispel. For many long moments she stood perfectly still, listening as hard as she could, reluctant to venture out into the darkness. But finally she fought down her rising terror, stepped out of the circle of light …
… and came face to face with a crossbow aimed at her at point blank range.
Half way across town, Seth was driving as he had never driven before, and luckily the sedate station wagon was up to the challenge. He ran a stop sign, he took a turn at an unthinkable speed. As he tore down Maine Street, he passed Mort Metzger, who was stopped at a cross-street intersection. Upon seeing the doctor's car flash past, he picked up his radio and called back to the Sheriff's Station.
"Yeah, Andy? I just saw Doc fly past me like a bat outta hell. I'm going to go see if he needs any help. Maybe tell Floyd to come give me some backup, will ya?"
"Sure, Sheriff. Andy out."
Mort replaced the receiver, turned on his flashing lights, and pulled out into Maine Street after Seth.
Seth screeched to a halt at the curb, ran up the front steps of the library, and flung open the front door.
"Jessica?" he called. "Jess, where are you?"
There was no answer.
Leaving the library door open, Seth advanced slowly inside, not sure of what he would find. He could see the light of a desk lamp, and headed toward it. Then he rounded the corner of the stacks, and put a hand to his mouth in horror. He was too late.
"Jess! Oh my God, Jessica!"
She was lying unconscious and motionless on the floor, the black shaft of an arrow sticking out of her chest. Blood was already trickling down from the wound and beginning to form a small pool of crimson on the floor. Seth knelt beside her, gathered her up in his arms and touched her cheek, but it was pale and cold, and she did not wake up. Then he looked down to where she had been lying, and noticed a book, which he reached over and picked up. By fate or by design, Jessica had fallen on top of the all-important zoning board book, and shielded it.
Moments later there was the sound of sirens and Mort pulled up. He ran up to the library and called to Seth. "Doc? What is it?"
Seth heard him, but could not answer him. Mort came around the stacks and looked down at them; wordlessly, the sheriff removed his hat and stood there for a moment holding it in his hands.
"I'll send for an ambulance," he said when he found his voice.
Seth nodded, and said one word in a choked voice: "Hurry."
Mort went over to the county hospital as soon as his part in the investigation at the library was over for the night. He paced around the waiting room, waiting for Seth, and absently rejected a cup of coffee offered to him by one of the nurses. The clock paced slowly through another hour and a half before Seth finally appeared, and right away Mort knew something was wrong just by looking at him. His friend's head drooped, and he looked tired and defeated.
"Doc? What happened?"
Seth sighed heavily, and looked around to see if the nurses were listening. "She didn't make it," he said at last. "The wound was too deep; there was nothing I could do."
Mort didn't know what to say. He rubbed his forehead with his hand, looked at the floor. "I'm so sorry, Seth," he said at last.
Seth nodded. "So am I," he said. "So am I."
For a long moment the two friends stood in silence, each lost in their own private grief. Staff and others in the waiting room watched them with pity in their eyes. Everything fell quiet.
"Well," said Mort finally, a new sense of determination and purpose rising in the wake of his sadness, "if Jessica couldn't solve this murder, then Cabot Cove will."
Seth nodded. "She would want that."
Mort sighed. "I'd like to see her," he said.
"I think that would be a good idea," said Seth, and he led him down the corridor.
Sam Booth rushed into the Sheriff Station first thing in the morning. The mayor looked to be in a panic and distraught, which ordinarily wasn't all that unusual. But his appearance spoke of how much more serious the situation was this time: Sam looked positively disheveled, and that was unusual. His shirt was open at the collar with no tie, his hair looked like it hadn't seen a comb yet that morning, and he wore a battered overcoat that looked like he had thrown on because it was the first item of outerwear that had presented itself.
"Sheriff," he said, "is it true what I heard? That Jessica Fletcher is dead?"
Mort didn't look much better. He had had a very long night, and it was doubtful whether he had slept at all. He had been at the station since at least five that morning, and was now nursing a big mug of hot coffee that was serving as his first meal of the day.
"Yes, Mr. Mayor, it's true," he said. "She was murdered."
Sam paled and looked stricken. He eased himself into a chair and passed a hand over his eyes.
"I can't believe it," he said, "I just can't believe it! Sheriff, this is all my fault!"
Mort put down the coffee and looked at Sam in amazement. To hear Sam Booth take personal blame for anything was nothing short of unique.
"What do you mean, Mr. Mayor?" he asked.
Sam sat up in the chair, a rare intensity about him. "It was over that Limited firm, that Todd Maddox and his friends," he said. "After the town meeting the other day, I asked Jessica to search through the town files to find the law that would prevent that godawful development from going up on Greeling's Bluff."
"Then an arsonist torched the town offices," Mort said.
"To stop her, yes!" said Sam. "Only that wasn't good enough, I suppose, and they killed her!"
"Well, that would fit," said Mort. "You see, we found Mrs. F in the library last night. It seems she was going through the old archives there."
Sam groaned. "Looking for the law in one of the library's copies of the archival books," he said. "It figures she would. Now do you see what I mean, Sheriff? If I hadn't ordered her to go looking for that ordinance, she would still be alive this very day!"
"Calm down, Mr. Mayor," Mort said. "First of all, have you ever known anybody able to order Mrs. F to do anything she didn't want to do?"
"Well, no ..."
"So take it
easy on yourself."
"But Sheriff ..."
"You know what I think this town needs most, Mayor Booth?" said Mort. "Strong leadership. I mean, we have to all pull together, ya know? First there was this whole big stink with the Greeling's Bluff development, and that was bad enough. But now someone's killed Mrs. F, probably someone with some connection to the project, and that makes it personal. Personal for all of us, Mayor, everyone who knew her. But we can't just all take off in different directions at a time like this."
"Oh, no," Sam agreed.
"So what we need is someone level-headed at the top, someone with direction, so that we can lick this thing together. You'd be surprised how inspiring strong leadership can be in a crisis, Mr. Mayor."
"Yeah, sure. Why, just the other day I was telling Deputy Andy here how inspiring your leadership is from the Mayor's office."
Andy, who at that moment was passing by behind the Mayor's chair with a stack of reports, rolled his eyes.
"And that's just where that leadership should stay, Mr. Mayor. In the Mayor's office," Mort said, getting up from behind his desk, and coming around to Sam. He helped him up and walked him to the door. "So if I were you, I'd go to your office and stay there, and if you hear anything more from anyone in the Limited, or anyone even remotely connected with that development, you just give me a call."
"But Sheriff ..." Sam protested.
"Not now, Mayor," said Mort. "No time for it. The sooner you start leading, the sooner we'll have this all wrapped up."
"Well, all right," said Sam, with what sounded like new resolve. "I'll let you know if I learn anything. And Sheriff," he said, turning as he reached the door, "if you need any personal leadership, don't hesitate to pick up the phone."
Mort smiled. "I'll remember that," he said, and shut the door behind Sam. "Whew," he said, shaking his head, and he headed back to his desk to go back to work.
At the Hill House, the members of the Limited had also heard the reports. Todd Maddox broke the news over breakfast with his partners.
"I just heard it from the front desk clerk," he said. "That meddling writer was killed last night. Guess we won't have to deal with any more interference from that direction."
"News travels fast in this town," Bruce Monroe commented idly, taking a sip of his orange juice.
"Todd, what an awful thing to say!" Frances Decker said.
Maddox poured cream into his morning coffee. "Oh, come on, Frances, you've got to realize that this is the biggest break we've had with this project since we bought that land."
"He's right," said Monroe. "You know as well as I do that after that disaster with the town meeting, she was the biggest obstacle standing in our way. The only obstacle, in fact. And Frances, if this project goes down, we all go down with it. Then it's good-bye to that house of yours on Fire Island. Think about that." He took a bite out of a cranberry muffin.
"Still," said Frances, "it seems terrible to talk about it that way. I mean, someone has died! And all you guys can think about is how good it'll be for business! Is this how you deal with all your little 'obstacles'?"
Monroe's face clouded with sudden annoyance. "Frances, I don't think I like what you're suggesting," he said.
Maddox held up his hands and so got between them in the blossoming argument. "Guys, guys, please," he said. "Nobody is suggesting anything about anybody. Some of us are just a little more pragmatic about windfalls from unexpected sources, that's all. Yes, it's a terrible thing that Jessica Fletcher got herself killed. But there's nothing to be gained by sitting around wringing our hands about the tragedy. Besides, it was none of our affair."
"None of our affair? Todd, you just said that she was the only thing standing in the way of the development!"
"Yes, but who's to say that the two things were connected? Look how many enemies she must have made over the years. Something was bound to happen some time."
"It was just bad luck that it happened while we were here," Bruce said, spreading butter on half of an English muffin.
"Yeah? Well, the way I see it, we're the most recent enemies she made. Are you sure that someone didn't just decide to help our cause along by doing us a favor? I don't mean one of us," she added hastily. "I mean, someone in the town. Like that real estate agent, Eve What's-Her-Name."
"Simpson," said Maddox.
"Simpson, right. Or her lawyer, Niles Horton."
"Niles Horton couldn't kill a horsefly."
"Oh, I don't know," said Bruce, stabbing a forkful of egg. "I'll bet that beneath that tweedy exterior lies the heart of a desperate, unpredictable animal."
His remark met with general laughter from his partners. They were interrupted when one of the waiters approached their table, carrying a cordless phone.
"Excuse me, Mr. Monroe?" he said. "Telephone for you."
Monroe took the phone and waved the young man off. "Monroe here ... yes ... How soon? ... Terrific. We'll count on it, then. Thanks." He pushed down the phone's antenna and turned to Todd and Frances with a big smile on his face. "That was the contractor," he announced. "He says they'll be ready to break ground on Greeling's Bluff on Monday. We're back in business again."
The mood at Loretta's was subdued, if not positively somber.
"I just can't believe she's dead," Ideal Malloy said, as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue while sitting under a hair dryer. "I wonder what happened."
"Oh, Ideal, don't be so grotesque!" Phyllis Grant, Cabot Cove's travel agent, chided. "Really, to ask such a thing!"
"It's a valid enough question, I suppose," Loretta sighed from where she stood working on Eve Simpson's hair. "I mean, you can't deny that you're all dying to know."
"We all? What about you?" Phyllis said.
"I already know," Loretta said simply.
Ideal's eyes widened in amazement. "Loretta, you mean you know who did it?"
"No, no, I never said that. All I meant was that Lynette Mason was in here this morning to get her nails done. She was working the night nursing shift over at the hospital, and she told me that she overheard the sheriff say that Jessica had been shot, and he was going right back over to the library to investigate."
"Shot!" Ideal repeated. "Oh, how awful!"
"Jessica always hated guns," Phyllis said wistfully. "It would just figure that one would ... Ideal, give me one of your spare tissues, would you?"
"Anyhow, that's what happened," Loretta concluded. "You wanted to know."
"What's Sheriff Metzger going to do? Without Jessica, I mean?" Eve said. "She can't very well help him solve her own murder."
Loretta shrugged, put down her scissors, and picked up a comb. "Well, this mystery won't be that difficult to solve, I'd expect. I mean, you figure that it just has to be one of those people from away connected with that big development they want to put north of town - what're they called again, Eve?"
"The Limited," said Eve.
"Right. The Limited. Those folks."
"What makes you say that, Loretta?" Ideal asked.
"Think about it, Ideal. First the town offices are set on fire. Then Jessica gets herself killed. And what's the only connection? That ordinance that they brought up at the town meeting! I overheard Mayor Booth ask Jessica to go digging to find that law and save Cabot Cove."
"Then this is all Sam Booth's fault," said Phyllis, not in a mood to be reasonable. "Wouldn't that just figure. Now she's dead, and the town's doomed anyhow."
Eve was very quiet.
"Poor Jessica," said Ideal.
Phyllis blew her nose noisily. "Cabot Cove just won't be the same without her."
"Sheriff, I really must protest!" Ben Devlin was stalking around his office like a caged animal, waving an unobtrusive-looking piece of paper around in his hand.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Devlin," Mort said, "but an order is an order, and this one comes straight from the county seat. No news story concerning Mrs. Fletcher's death, not so much as a listing in the obituaries, is to appear in the Gazette until my investigation is complete."
"Sheriff, haven't you ever heard of freedom of the press? Or the the First Amendment?"
Mort leaned on the desk. "Look, Ben," he said, dropping the formalities, "I know you were Mrs. F’s friend. So was I. And I know you want nothing more than to give her some kind of fitting memorial, but if you do that, it could shoot this whole investigation straight to hell. And I know that is not what she would have wanted." He picked up the court order from where Ben had tossed it on his desk. "Sure, you could defy this. And you could probably get away with it without even having to defend yourself in court. A leak, or an anonymous source, or something like that. But would you really want to, if you knew it might mean her killer would get away? Think about it, Ben." And he turned to leave.
The newspaper editor was silent for a moment. Then, just as Mort reached the door, he spoke.
"You won't have to worry about word of this getting into the paper, Sheriff," he said. "I'll see to it personally."
Mort paused and turned around. "I appreciate it, Mr. Devlin."
Ben sighed. "And what's more, I'll even try to help you out on this one. I have friends at papers up and down the East Coast. I'll make a few calls, do a little digging, and see if I can find out anything about these folks from the Limited. They are at the top of your suspect list, I assume?"
"Up there among others," Mort said. "That would be a big help."
"I'll get back to you, then," said Ben, and with that assurance Mort left the newspaper offices.
Mort's first stop after the Gazette was to visit Eve Simpson. She was at her real estate office, with her big still-new car parked out front.
"Good morning, Sheriff," she said as he came in. "I just got back from having my hair done, and I heard about poor Jessica. What a terrible thing to happen to her! Of course, I guess it's amazing that it didn't happen long before now, isn't it."
"Well, if you know then I guess all of Cabot Cove knows by now," said Mort. "Ms. Simpson, I came to ask you some questions, if you have a few moments."
"Of course, Sheriff," Eve said. "What do you need to know?"
"What do you know about these people from the Limited?"
Eve leaned forward on her desk. "Well," she said, "Todd Maddox approached me last September about the land at Greeling's Bluff, north of town. The land had been listed for a couple of years, and the owner, who lives in Massachusetts, was getting anxious to unload it, so we moved the offer through quickly and sold it to Maddox's firm. They wanted it to develop. The only problem," she said, her voice taking on an ironic note, "was that they put aside all of their resources for the purchase and the actual construction, and didn't pay me my full commission."
"Was that a big problem for you?" Mort asked.
"You bet it was!" Eve said. "I bought a new car on the promise of that commission. But I have yet to see it! My lawyer, Niles Horton, is negotiating with them, but so far the only answer we've gotten is that they'll pay me the rest of the commission once the project is finished and it starts making money, not before."
"So you really want to see this development go through."
"Oh, yes, Sheriff. But not just because I have a lot of income riding on it. I believe that it really will be the best thing for Cabot Cove. Everyone will see what I mean once the project is finished."
Mort sighed. "Don't take this the wrong way, Ms. Simpson," he said, "but where were you the evening that Mrs. F was murdered?"
"Oh, that's easy," said Eve. "I was hosting a large dinner party at my house. I wanted the town council to have a chance to really get to know the people they would be working with on the Greeling' Bluff project, so I invited them and the Limited partners, and some prominent contractors, among others."
"Can anyone vouch for you being present the whole time?"
"Well, there were so many people," said Eve. "I'm sure that no one saw me for the entire time. .... Why, Sheriff, surely you don't think I had anything to do with Jessica's death, do you? What a ridiculous thought!" She laughed.
"I'm just trying to get my job done," said Mort, trying not to look as annoyed as he felt. "Thanks, Ms. Simpson. Be seeing you."
"Anytime, Sheriff. Anytime."
This done, the sheriff went in search of the Limited, and caught up with them in front of the Hill House.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, ma'am," he said, getting out of the patrol car.
"Oh, there you are, Sheriff," Bruce Monroe said. "We were just going to look for you. We heard the news about Mrs. Fletcher just this morning."
"Yes, a terrible thing to have happened," said Maddox. "Sheriff, we demand that you take prompt action to clear up the matter of her death and arrest whoever was responsible."
An expression of disbelief crossed the sheriff's features. "You demand?"
"Yes. As the vanguard of the development of Cabot Cove's future, we feel that it's our duty to contribute whatever leadership we can in making sure that this community is kept safe."
"And it's image kept clean, I suppose?"
"Of course. A good town makes for good business," Maddox said. "We're going to be neighbors, the Greeling Bluff Development and this village. And neighbors should look out for each other's best interests."
Mort tried his best to bite back his growing anger, and just barely succeeded. "Yeah. Well. I hope you won't mind then if I ask you a few questions."
"Go ahead, Sheriff," said Frances pleasantly.
"Well, for starters, would you all mind telling me where you were last night between seven and nine PM?"
"Not at all," said Bruce. "I had a late conference-call meeting with the lawyers from the firm, discussing a last-minute bid offer from another contractor. Since it beat out our previous lowest bid by a substantial margin, I felt it was worth sacrificing Ms. Simpson's dinner party."
"And your lawyers can substantiate this?"
"That might be difficult, Sheriff, since they are now currently out of the country."
"As for myself, I was at Ms. Simpson's party the entire evening," Frances said. "I was trying to convince your town fathers of the wisdom in smoothing the way for our development."
"Um-hm. And what about you, Mr. Maddox?"
"Well, I was at the party for most of the time, and then I had to step out for awhile, to make a phone call of my own. I had forgotten that I had promised to leave instructions with my secretary back in New Jersey concerning a certain proposal whose deadline was today."
"Eve Simpson says that you were gone from her party for about an hour."
"Well, I had to go back to my room at the Hill House to find the number first, and then I still had to place the call on my cellular phone and dictate my instructions to the secretary."
"You had to go and look up the number for your own office?"
"No, actually, I called her at home," Maddox admitted. "Receiving assignments during non-business hours is something my secretary has come to expect from me. I don't admit to being the most organized person in the world, Sheriff."
"I can see that," said Mort, making a note. "Well, that'll be all for now, I guess. But do me a favor and don't make any trips back to your home office any time in the near future, okay?"
"We wouldn't dream of it, Sheriff," Frances assured him. "Come on, Bruce, Todd, we need to get out to the site to find those papers."
She and Bruce went on ahead, but Todd Maddox hung back for a minute. "Sheriff," he said, "I just wanted to express my condolences to you. I grew up in a small town myself, so I know how everybody tends to know everybody else. I assume that Mrs. Fletcher was a friend of yours."
"Yeah," said Mort, a bit uncomfortable, "she was."
"And struck down with a crossbow arrow," Maddox went on. "What a way to go. Look, if there's anything we can do, just let us know."
"Well, we're trying to get to the bottom of it," Mort said, not buying Maddox's patently false sympathy for a moment. "We'll be in touch."
Todd Maddox hurried up the street after his partners. As Mort watched him go, his deputy Andy came out of the inn.
"Sheriff," he said, "I checked with the desk clerk. He says that he didn't see any of them come into the Hill House last night between seven and nine, but that there was about an hour there when no one was out front watching the desk."
"Then technically Maddox could be telling the truth," Mort said. "I don't know, Andy. Neither Bruce Monroe or Todd Maddox has a good alibi. And I know Eve Simpson's parties - she invites half the population of the town to them, so it's real easy to sneak in and out if you have to. That puts holes in Frances Decker's story as well."
"Not to mention Eve Simpson's," Andy commented.
"Yeah, I suppose so," Mort said. "Come on, we'd better get back to the station."
Seth pulled up in front of Jessica's house in his station wagon. He had felt too heavy-hearted to go there, but someone had to, if only to make sure that the place was all right. That someone, he had figured in the end, had better be him. And so he went.
He got out of the car, and went to the mailbox. There wasn't much there; a letter from Grady's family, another postmarked from Manhattan that was probably sent by one of her friends down there, a circular from a local store, a little junk mail. Tucking these things under his arm, he opened the front gate and went in.
Inside the house was very quiet. Seth put the mail on the kitchen table, then filled the watering can near the sink and started to water the plants in the living room. He was in the middle of doing this when there was a knock at the door.
Seth looked up in surprise, wondering who could possibly be calling at a time like this, then went to the door and opened it. It was Eve Simpson.
"Seth," she said as she swept inside. "I can't tell you how sorry I am. I saw your car here as I was passing by, and I just wanted to stop and offer my condolences. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Well, I - I was just watering the plants," he said, gesturing to the watering can that he was still holding. "No sense letting everything go to seed here."
"No, I suppose not," said Eve. "This can't be very easy for you, though," she continued, going down the steps into the living room and looking around.
"Well, no," Seth admitted, "but Jessica was a very close friend, and I suppose I owe her this much."
"Yes," said Eve, with a knowing smile on her face. "You and Jessica were quite close. Quite." She turned around and seemed to radiate warmth. "Doctor, we all know how you felt for Jessica."
Seth looked confused. "Pardon?"
"Oh, you can be honest with me," Eve said. "We all know that there was more than simple friendship involved between the two of you. Believe me, we understand!"
"Who is we?"
"Why, everyone! The girls at the beauty parlor, at least. And now that she's gone, there's no need for the secrecy anymore. Really, the best thing you can do now is to talk about it, Seth. Open your heart up to someone you can trust."
"And I suppose that you have yourself in mind?"
"Well, I ... "
"Eve," said Seth, setting down the watering can and assuming an authoritative stance, "I don't know who the original source of this little rumor of yours is, or how far back it goes, but I regret to inform you that you are dead wrong. Jessica Fletcher and I were friends, very close friends. Best friends, I suppose you might say. But that’s all. And beyond that, I'm afraid I have nothing more to contribute to the gossip mongers at Loretta's!"
Eve looked disappointed, and the warmth faded from her features. "Well, if that's the way you feel," she said, and returned to examining the books on the living room shelves. "It's really too bad that she will never see the finished development on Greeling's Bluff," she commented idly. "Too bad that she'll never see the proof that we were right and Cabot Cove will be the better off for it."
"That remains to be seen," said Seth, sloshing some water into a hanging basket.
Eve laughed lightly. "I wonder if there really was an ordinance that forbade anyone from building on that land," she said. "I mean, that was what she was looking for, wasn't it? Something to use as an excuse to stop the Limited? I guess we'll never know if she was on to something."
"I wouldn't be so sure," said Seth, as he emptied the last of the water from the pitcher and headed back to the sink with it. "Just because she didn't deliver anything into Sam Booth's hands before she died doesn't mean it isn't out there to be found ... or that she didn't leave instructions behind as to where to find it."
Now it was Eve's turn to look confused. "What do you mean?" she asked, following him into the kitchen.
"I mean that Jessica was pretty particular about her research. She typed notes to herself all the time when there was something she might need to remember later. I'd imagine that there's all sorts of interesting leads on that laptop computer of hers. 'Course, I wouldn't know where to begin looking. Sheriff Metzger said he might have a crack at it tomorrow, when he gets a moment."
"Did he," Eve said absently.
"Ayuh. Somewhere out there, there's a book with just what she was looking for in it, I'd bet."
"Oh, I doubt that," Eve said. "All this talk about Greeling's Ordinance has to be just a myth, some rumor cooked up a hundred years ago."
"This isn't Joshua Peabody we're talking about here. And since when have you been one to question the validity of a rumor?" asked Seth, turning to look at her over the tops of his glasses.
Eve laughed again. "That's where I have the advantage, Doctor," she said. "You have to know which rumors are worth spreading, and which aren't. If you went to Loretta's more often, you'd know the difference. Anyhow, I must be off. Remember, if you ever need to talk, I'm here for you."
"I'll remember that," said Seth.
As Eve opened the door to go, Seth called to her one last time. "Eve," he said, "as I recall, Jessica pulled your bacon out of the fire on more than one occasion. So if I were you, I'd not go around spreading your rumors. To do so would be … well, it would be a dishonor to her memory."
The remark struck home; Eve looked back with a troubled look on her face. She opened her mouth as though to say something, but then changed her mind, turned, and went out the back door.
That same afternoon found Eve and her lawyer Niles Horton in a closed door meeting with the members of the Limited.
"Mr. Maddox," Horton said, "I am here to warn you for the last time that if you do not come up with the money for Ms. Simpson's commission from the sale of Greeling's Bluff, we will be forced to begin litigation against your firm."
"You said that last month, and the month before that," Maddox said with a casual wave of his hand. "And I'm telling you again, we won't be able to come up with the commission money until after we start selling units. You knew that. You signed all the paperwork anyway."
"You could have paid her the money you owe with a loan backed by good credit," Horton countered. "It is beginning to look to me like you don't have credit of any sort."
"That's where you're wrong," said Bruce Monroe, sitting forward in his chair. "We have the best credit anyone could want - we have a contract with a new lowest bidder who can build us three times the development that we originally thought we could put up with our original bid, just as we hoped. That means that condos that would have rented for four hundred dollars will now go for eight, nine hundred. We'll have our original investment back faster than we had ever dreamed, and then you'll get your commission, not before."
"This is unacceptable," Horton said.
"It's the way it is, Mr. Horton," said Frances Decker. "All of our funds are currently tied up with this project. We're telling you we won't have the money until after we start renting units, and nothing is going to change that. So you can accept that and be patient until we can pay you, or you can take us to court ... in which case the project might be stopped in its tracks, and if that happens, you'll never see a dime."
Horton backed off, frustrated. "Eve, what do you think?" he asked.
Eve, who had been uncharacteristically quiet during the exchange, looked up suddenly as thought she had been lost in her thoughts. "I think it may not matter in the end," she said in a defeated tone. "It seems that Jessica Fletcher may have been on to the real Greeling's Ordinance after all. Doctor Hazlitt told me that she may have left notes as to where it could be found. If that's true, this whole project may be finished anyway."
"Notes? What do you mean? Where?" Monroe asked.
"I don't know," said Eve, getting frustrated in turn. "In her house, I guess. On her computer. Where else?"
"Damn," said Monroe. "Just when we thought we were out of the woods on that damn ordinance, and now this. That Fletcher woman won't leave us alone even from the grave."
"Now, now, don't panic," Maddox said. "We'll take this as it comes. No sense getting tied up in knots over some possible notes that might point to the existence of a supposed law. After all, she's dead. What kind of threat could she possibly pose to us now?"
The others weren't so sure, and Bruce and Frances exchanged worried glances. Eve went back to staring stonily out the window. Niles Horton shrugged and began shoving papers back into his briefcase.
Wiley Stokes was an observant man, the sort of lobsterman who survived because he knew how to listen to the wind and read the sky for changes in the weather, and who could tell if the lobsters would be on the move just by the color of the sea and the direction of the waves. At sunset he could still be found at dockside, arranging his traps and straightening his lines. But even when he seemed completely absorbed in his work, Wiley was listening; he had learned a long time ago that there were definite advantages to blending into the background, at least as far as people from away were concerned. Many tourists never stopped to considered that this particular piece of scenery was actually hanging on to their every word.
That was the case this evening, when two men came down to the docks seeking privacy for what apparently was supposed to be a secret meeting.
"I thought you said that this ordinance thing was a myth!" the first voice said.
"I did. And it's true! And even if there ever was such a law on the books, it doesn't matter now because those books went up in that pretty bonfire the other night."
Wiley ducked behind a pile of lobster traps as the two men paced slowly toward him and his boat. He held his breath, listening, but they never saw him.
"Well, if what Eve Simpson says is true, that fire may not have done as thorough a job as we needed," said the first man. "How can we be sure that there isn't some clue that Jessica Fletcher left behind?"
"I wouldn't worry about it."
"I am worried about it! Sooner or later it'll turn up, and they'll track down the ordinance in some obscure book we never thought to look for or couldn't find, and then it'll be all over!"
The men had been stopped right in front of Wiley's hiding place. There was a long pause, during which Wiley was afraid to breathe.
"I'll take care of it," the second voice said at length.
"Good," said the first man. "We can't afford to let anything get in the way of this development. Not after everything we've invested."
The second man chuckled softly. "Can't afford to let anything get in the way?" he said. "Why, you sound like a man desperate enough to ... "
Looking through a gap between two of the wooden traps, Wiley could see the owner of the first voice grab the second man roughly by the shoulder. "I didn't kill her," he said.
"I never said you did," the second one said mildly as he disengaged the hand from his overcoat.
The first, slightly placated, let go without resistance and walked a couple of paces away to cool down.
"I suppose that it is remotely possible that the fire didn't cover all the bases," the second man admitted. "But don't worry. One way or the other, we'll either find this ordinance record and destroy it, or at least satisfy ourselves that it was just a local legend. Okay?"
The first man let out a noisy breath. "Fine," he said, and stalked away into the gathering dusk.
His companion watched him go. Then he pulled a cellular phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and dialed a number. Wiley listened closely as he spoke.
"A decision has been reached," he said. "There's ten thousand in it for you if you'll just do a little job for us. ... No, nothing like that. Just a little information retrieval, that's all. ... My, but you are a fast guesser. You must have read my mind. Can you do it tonight? ... Excellent. We'll wait for your report in the morning. ... Good. ... Fine." He hit a button, and hung up. Then he put the phone back in the pocket of his overcoat, and sauntered back along the dock toward the ramp.
Wiley didn't move until he was certain that he heard the man's car drive away. Then he stood up with a thoughtful look on his face, and went back to sorting the lines on his lobsterboat as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
One might say that for Cabot Cove, nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
It was late in the evening when Seth and Mort went over to Greeling's Bluff and approached the trailer that was acting as the Limited's on-site office.
"I don't know why we have to be doing this here late at night," Seth muttered. "Seems to me daylight would have worked just as well ... you do have a search warrant, don't you?"
"Right here, Doc," said Mort, patting the paper in the breast pocket of his shirt. "Judge Baldwin had it sent over an hour ago. And we would have had to wait til tomorrow, except that luckily the judge is a fan of Mrs. Fletcher's books."
Seth rolled his eyes.
"This way is better," Mort said as he examined the lock on the door of the trailer. "The way I figure it, if we have a look around now, they don't have time to come out here and do any tidying up." He took a key out of his pocket, fitted it to the padlock, and undid it.
It was dark inside the trailer, but Mort found a desk lamp and switched it on. The trailer was littered with papers and manila folders.
"Any idea what we're looking for, Sheriff?" Seth asked.
Mort shook his head. "Nah. I figure we'll find it when we find it. Jessica did this all the time, right?"
Seth sighed. "Whenever she got the chance," he said, and began sifting through photocopies.
Mort began to go through the papers that had been left out on a desk at one end of the room, and he didn't have far to go before something caught his eye.
"Look at this, Doc," he said. "Canceled bank checks." He flipped through the stack. "And it looks like a lot of these bounced. Look here - here's one from a bank in Atlantic City, here's one from Portland, here's a whole bunch from Virginia Beach.."
"Sounds like somebody was having some financial difficulties," said Seth.
"Yeah, but if that's true, why plunge into a whole new project in Cabot Cove? Why not get your business's finances in order first?"
"Because business people don't think like ordinary human beings," said Seth. "That's one reason why I became a doctor."
"Yeah, Doc, you would have made a lousy business person," Mort said, not looking up from the checks.
Seth looked up with mild annoyance. "Well, that's not what I meant," he said. "Certain amount of business goes into running a practice, after all. Not many people appreciate that."
"I hear you, Doc," said Mort, who was actually barely listening. He reached down and picked up a photograph. It was black and white, and showed an unfinished high rise on a barren. Stuck to it was a post-it note. "Bank will foreclose in six months," the handwriting on it read.
"Here's something, Sheriff," said Seth. He held out a folder. "It's the various proposals for the development."
Mort took the folder and flipped through it. "Hey, this is weird," he said. "The earlier plans call for a much more modest building plan. Look here - this was dated last year, and it just calls for the tennis courts and half as many condos, no hotel, no mall. Now here's one dated this year, with more condos and a small motel."
"And here's the most recent one, with all the bells and whistles," Seth pointed out, "and the rest, as they say, is history."
Mort flipped through the design proposals again. "I don't get it," he said. "I thought that when development firms hit money troubles, they scaled back their projects. These guys seem to have gotten ideas of grandeur instead!"
"Got me, Sheriff," Seth said, and shrugged.
Mort and Seth went back to Jessica's house early next morning. They had just entered the back porch when Seth stopped suddenly.
"Look at that," he said, pointing. The glass in the window pane to the back door had been broken, leaving a jagged hole.
Mort drew out his service revolver. "Stand back, Doc," he said, and after listening closely, he opened the kitchen door very carefully.
Inside, everything was a wreck. Drawers had been pulled out and emptied, cabinet doors swung open. Things were no better in the dining room, or the living room. But it was evident that no one was there now, so the sheriff put away his gun.
Seth looked around at the mess. "If I had a dollar for every time somebody came in here and wrecked this place, I could retire!" was his comment.
Mort looked around the living room, trying not to step on anything. "Looks like someone was busy over here while we were out searching that trailer last night," said Mort. "See anything missing, Doc?"
Seth was looking at the picture of Jessica and Frank, which he had picked up from the floor. He replaced it on the mantelpiece with reverence. Then he had a thought - "Her computer!" he said. He went into the dining room to search for it, but didn't find it.
"Her laptop computer is gone, far as I can tell," he told Mort. "She kept it on the dining room table with the rest of this stuff."
"The printer's still here," Mort said, "so's the modem. So whoever did this didn't do it for robbery. Was Mrs. F keeping any important information on her computer, Doc?"
"I don't know, she might have been," he replied. "But not concerning this case. I told Eve Simpson a tall tale that maybe she might have been keeping notes on it, but I know it wasn't true. Of course, our perpetrator just might be the paranoid sort of fella who would take the computer anyway, just to be sure. No telling how many people Eve told that rumor to."
"Yeah, yeah," said Mort. He looked around, surveying the damage. "I'm kind of glad Mrs. F isn't around to see this; she'd have a fit."
Seth righted a dining room chair and nodded.
"There may be some clues lying around outside," Mort said as they went outside again. "Footprints, or something. I'm going to have a look around before Andy gets here."
Helen and Lillian Appletree, the two elderly sisters who were among Cabot Cove's most renowned gardeners and purveyors of cider and preserves, were to be found walking side by side along Candlewood Lane with a basket full of gardening tools and plant food.
"I hope that we don't catch Doctor Hazlitt there," Lillian said in a worried voice.
"Why should it matter?" her sister retorted. "We're just doing the neighborly thing. Someone has to look after all of her gardens - for a little while, anyway. And Doctor Hazlitt ... well, he's a man, and while he might have the best of intentions, he really can't manage a garden the way we can."
"I suppose not, Helen," Lillian said. "Isn't it just awful, though! I still can't quite bring myself to believe it."
"Neither can I, Lillian dear. Look, we're in such luck," Helen said as they approached the gate. "No one is here at the moment."
"Oh, good," said Lillian. "Let's get started."
The two ladies went into the yard and around to the back, where they put on their gardening gloves and each took a trowel.
"Just look at how these weeds have already gotten a foothold in here!" Helen exclaimed, and began to pull them out vigorously. Then something caught her eye beneath one of the young rose bushes. It was a little glint of golden metal. She paused, picked it up, and examined it, turning it in the sunlight. It looked like a little brass clasp.
"Why, what have you found, Helen?" Lillian asked from where she was cheerfully raking over footprints in the herb garden.
"I don't know," said Helen thoughtfully, "but we'll show it to Sheriff Metzger the very next time we see him." She put it in the pocket of her apron. "Meantime, back to work, Lillian dear!"
It was an unusual gathering that took place in the Cabot Cove Coffee Shop, and a fairly large one, such that Hannah had to put together four tables so that they all would fit. She had closed the shop to keep the gossip down to a minimum, after quietly passing the word that had summoned the assembly here at Seth and Mort's request.
At the head of the table sat Sheriff Metzger, with the doctor at his right hand. Also there were Ben Devlin, Helen and Lillian Appletree, David Marsh, Floyd, and Andy. Hannah herself took a seat at the other end of the table. They were just about to begin, when Wiley Stokes walked into the shop, looking like he had hurried to get there.
"I just put in only a half day haulin' traps so I could be here," he said. "Lost a bit of revenue, but I figure some things are more important."
"Wiley!" Mort exclaimed. "How did you know ... oh, never mind."
"You got something, Wiley?" Hannah asked.
"Sure do, ma'am," Wiley said. "May I take a chair?"
"Help yourself," said Seth.
Mort looked around the table at his friends and neighbors. The determined look that he saw in all of their eyes told him that they knew why they were here - to avenge, if they could, the death of their common friend, and finish the battle which she had begun.
"All right," he said. "We all know each other, so we can skip the formalities. What have you all found out?"
"I checked with one of my friends at the state DEC office in Augusta, Barry Woodbridge," David said. "He said that there was an environmental report done on the impact of the Greeling's Bluff development on the surrounding area. At first everything checked out; the project was not big enough to cause too many problems, and the state approved it. But what he described to me was not what we all saw in the town meeting!"
"Let me guess," said Mort. "He saw a report on a few condo units and some tennis courts."
"Exactly! There was nothing in it about the potential impact of malls or hotels. The DEC had never given its approval seal to those. Barry was pretty surprised when I told him about the 'improvements' that seem to have been added on to the proposal since it crossed his desk. Anyhow, he did a little digging for me, and when he called me back, he told me that a revised proposal had been submitted to the state, but without an environmental impact report. The Limited promised it would come under separate cover as soon as it was completed, and the state has been waiting on it ever since."
Hannah shook her head. "They probably never intended to complete one. Just hope the state forgot about it in time."
"Yes," said David. "It would have been pretty easy to do. Barry told me that with one approval already granted to them, it's doubtful anyone else would be asking any more questions about this project."
"Figures," the Sheriff said. "Well, that alone might put a stop to them."
"It might for the short term," David said, "but possibly not in the long run. We need a more permanent solution."
"We'll get to that. What else?"
"I've been on the phone with editors at five different newspapers," Ben said, speaking up next. "I've been trying to find out everything I can about our visitors from out of town, their past projects, relationship with the law, and so on. It seems that they've started developments all over the eastern seaboard, and finished none of them."
"We found out as much last night," said Seth.
"Never you mind."
Ben smiled. "Anyway, what you may not have found out from your nocturnal investigations was that two of the three partners in the Limited, Bruce Monroe and Frances Decker, both did time in a federal prison for fraud and conspiracy. Neither was in for very long. But these incidents were closely linked with the subsequent foreclosure on the unfinished hotels in three different states. There are some unhappy towns out there, Sheriff, ruined because of half-finished ugly buildings in them. It would be in our best interest to not let ours become one of them."
"Yeah, tell me something I don't know," said Mort. "Wiley, you said you had something."
"That's right, Sheriff," said the old lobsterman. "It's funny that Mr. Devlin here should mention conspiracy, because I do believe I stumbled across one just last night after I put in from a day hauling. There were two men, talking about that Greeling's Bluff Ordinance Miss Fletcher was looking for, all worried that she'd found something after all that someone'd eventually stumble over. I heard one of them making arrangements to do something about it."
"Could you tell who they were?" asked Seth.
Wiley shook his head. "No," he said, "it was getting too dark, and I couldn't see any faces. I might remember their voices if I were to hear them again."
"What sort of arrangements did that one make?" asked Hannah.
"Couldn't say. He wasn't too specific. But it was with somebody else, somebody he called on his phone."
"When was this, Wiley?" Mort asked.
Wiley leaned back in his chair. "Oh, 'bout when it was getting dark," he said. "I'd say somewhere between seven, eight o'clock."
"Andy," Mort said, "get on the phone with Laticia and see if she can trace that cell phone call. There can't have been that many last night."
"Right, Sheriff," said Andy, getting up.
"We found this, Sheriff," said Helen, standing and holding out the small piece of brass hardware. Mort took it and looked at it.
"Where'd you find this?" he asked.
"In Jessica's garden," Helen said.
"We went over there this morning to look after her flowers," Lillian said.
Seth looked taken aback. "Why, Helen, Lillian, you knew I was going over there to do that! Don't you have any faith at all in me as a gardener?"
Lillian and Helen exchanged looks. "Well ... " Helen said.
There was an insistent knock on the door of the coffeeshop. With an exasperated sigh Hannah got up and opened it. Niles Horton stood outside.
"Can't you see we're closed?" she said.
"I know, Hannah," Niles said, "but I saw people in here and I really have to use the phone. Can I come in just for a minute?"
Hannah paused, considering, then said "Oh, all right. But make it quick," and stood aside to let him pass.
"Thank you, I appreciate it," said Niles, and setting his briefcase down on the lunch counter, he went over to the phone booth just as Andy was coming out.
Andy gave Niles a strange look, and went over to Mort. "Sheriff," he said, bending down and speaking in a low voice so he wouldn't be overheard, "Laticia says that there was only one call placed with a cellular phone between seven and eight last night."
"Yeah? Who made the call?"
"She said it would take more time to find that out. But at the moment, you might be more interested to know who he was calling." And he nodded in the direction of the phone booth.
Mort caught on quickly, as did everyone else at the table. Then he looked down at the brass trinket in his hand, and had an idea. He got up and held it up to Horton's briefcase - where it matched the latch holding it shut, the mate of which was missing.
"Well, what do you know," he said.
At that moment Niles emerged from the phone booth. "Thank you, Hannah, I won't disturb you anymore," he said, and picking up his briefcase he headed for the door. Hannah stepped in front of it and blocked his escape with her ample frame, her arms crossed and a stern look in her eye.
"Just a minute, Mr. Horton," Mort said. "We've got a couple of questions we'd like to ask you. How'd you lose this clasp off your briefcase?"
Horton looked at it and frowned. "I didn't even know it was missing," he said. "Where did you find it?"
"Out in back of Mrs. Fletcher's house this morning," Mort said. "How did it get there?"
"I haven't got the faintest idea," said the lawyer. Then he paused, and said, "Unless someone is trying to frame me."
"We'll see," Mort said. "Why don't you open that briefcase for us?"
"Sheriff, there are sensitive papers in there that my clients would want to remain confidential!"
"I promise not to read upside down. Open it."
Niles looked very uncomfortable. He looked around for a way out, but with Hannah guarding the front door and Floyd and Andy standing by the back way, there was none to be found. Reluctantly, he set down the briefcase, released the remaining latch, and lifted the lid. Inside was a small folded computer.
"That's Jessica's laptop!" Seth exclaimed.
"Do you want to explain how Mrs. Fletcher's computer wound up in your briefcase, Mr. Horton?" Mort asked.
Niles sighed and sat down heavily in an empty chair. "It was the Limited's idea," he said. "They contacted me and offered me ten thousand dollars if I would just ... break into the empty house and take away anything that she might have kept notes on about Greeling's Ordinance. They told me in particular to be sure to get the computer. But there wasn't anything on it!" he said angrily. "I just called them to tell them that. I spent all morning searching files and trying passwords, and there's nothing there!"
"That's because I lied to Eve Simpson when I told her that Jessica kept notes to herself on her computer about whatever it was she was looking in to," said Seth. "She never did. On paper, maybe, but never on the computer. Probably because she was afraid this might happen someday."
Niles looked defeated.
Mort looked disgusted. He motioned to Floyd and Andy. "Take him down to the station," he said. "We'll deal with this later."
"Important a break as that might be," said Seth, as the two deputies led the lawyer past the scowling Hannah and out of the shop, "I believe that my news is the most important of all, and I'm oh so glad that you let me go last." He took a deep breath, then said, "Contrary to the popular gossip being spread around this town, Jessica did not suffer a bullet wound, she took a crossbow bolt in the chest."
"That's not what I heard," said Hannah.
"That's not what I heard," said Ben.
"That's not what I heard," said Helen.
"No, it isn't, but it's the truth," Seth said. "And she took that arrow for this." He removed a small leather-bound book from inside his jacket, opened it to a marked page, and put it on the table before them.
Ben quickly scanned the page. "Greeling's Ordinance!" he said in amazement. "A copy of the actual law! Seth, how did you come by it?"
"I can't take the credit for this," Seth said. "It was Jessica who used her last strength to protect this book so we could find it. But important as this is, what with saving Cabot Cove from evil developers and all, there is something even more important that I have to share with you."
Mayor Sam Booth was conferring with Mort when his secretary Mabel stuck her head into the room.
"Someone to see you, Mayor," she said, and the two men looked up as Todd Maddox came into the office followed by his partners and Eve Simpson. Niles Horton was conspicuously absent.
"Something I can do for you folks?" Sam asked.
"We have the final approved plans for the development, Mayor," Maddox said, flourishing a rolled up set of blueprints. "We just wanted to skim them past you for your approval before we started breaking ground."
"Well, that's awfully kind of you, Mr. Maddox, but I don't think it will be necessary. You see," Sam said, standing up to the full extent of his short height, "it looks like the town council will be able to block your project after all, before it even gets off the drawing board."
Maddox looked taken aback. The people behind him exchanged nervous glances. "Oh?" he said. "Has some new information come to light?"
"Not new information, just some old. The Sheriff here was just telling me how he believes that copies of all the old town council records may be stored in the library archives. Isn't that right, Sheriff?"
"Right. First thing tomorrow we're going over there to have a look. Probably that's where Jessica Fletcher was looking for some record of Greeling's Ordinance the night she was murdered. She certainly didn't carry those files away with her, so they must still be buried back there someplace. We'll find them. If I were you," he said to Maddox, a grin spreading across his face, "I'd save some time and start packing up that heavy machinery now."
Maddox rolled up his blueprints, turned on his heel, and left the office without another word. His partners followed suit, but Eve Simpson hung back.
"Was Jessica really on to something when she died?" she asked.
"I don't know," said Mort. "We'll find out tomorrow."
Eve left the office with a thoughtful look on her face.
Late that same night, when the town had mostly retired and the streets were quiet and deserted, a figure approached the library, a can of gasoline in hand. The front doors of the structure had been locked that day by orders of Sheriff Metzger, pending his search of the premises the next morning. With deliberate care that no one was around to see him, he pulled out a pair of hedge clippers and cut the chains looped around the handles. They fell to the ground with an eerie rattle, and for a moment he froze, startled, making sure that no one had heard the noise. Then he laid a gloved hand on the door handle, and went in.
Inside everything was very quiet and dark. The intruder pulled out a flashlight and cast its light around, checking everything out to be sure, and then, setting the light on a reading table, he unscrewed the top of the can and began to slosh gasoline around the base of a few of the stacks. He took a cigarette lighter out of his pocket, and had just flicked up the tiny flame when a desk lamp came on, flooding the room with dim light.
"I wouldn't toss that, if I were you," said Mort Metzger. "Put it down, nice and easy."
The lighter's flame was extinguished, and the gloved hand slowly set it down next to the flashlight. Todd Maddox looked up and faced Mort and Seth. Andy and Floyd were lurking in the background.
"Looking for this?" Seth asked, holding up the zoning board book that Jessica had fallen on. Maddox paled. "Yes, I figured you might be. Because in this book is the written proof that Greeling's Bluff is provided by law to remain forever wild. Greeling's Ordinance. The only thing that was going to stop your godawful condominiums and hotels from going up like toadstools just north of town."
"How - how did you know it was me?" Maddox asked.
"Simple," said Mort. "You arranged for Niles Horton to break into Mrs. Fletcher's house on your cell phone. So we checked the phone company records to see if that same cellular signal was registered at all between seven and nine PM the night she was murdered. It wasn't. You weren't on the phone with your secretary at all.
"A lot of people had a lot to lose if your development went bust, but you had the most by far. We checked on the status of some of your past projects along the East Coast. Five of the seven are closed down construction sites, still unfinished. The two you did come close to finishing are being repossessed by the bank. Not a very good record. No wonder you were so desperate to make this one work."
"I'd bought the land already," Maddox said. "It was with my own personal funds. That part of the deal was done. We pulled out of the other projects, put all of our resources into this project, and made it as big as we could for the best financial return. Everything depended on our making a lot of money on Greeling's Bluff."
"Which is why the plans for the project became bigger and bigger with every adjustment," said the Sheriff.
"We didn't know until the ink was already dry that there was an injunction on the books prohibiting development! But what were we supposed to do - just sit on all that worthless land? I had to make this project work, so that we could bail out the others."
"So you torched the town offices to get rid of all the written records of the old ordinance," Mort said.
Maddox nodded. "It was cheaper, faster, and easier than trying to get the law removed from the books through the courts. I didn't have the time or the money for a legal battle. Besides," he sneered, "after all the resistance we encountered from this ignorant backwater town, we figured you had it coming to you anyway."
"What about Jessica Fletcher?" Seth asked. "Did she 'have it coming' to her as well?"
"What are you talking about? I wasn't even here the night she was shot."
"No?" Mort said. "We talked to the librarian; she swears she never saw you set foot in this building since you've been in town."
"There. You see?" said Maddox.
"For a man who's never been inside this library, you certainly knew right away which shelves to douse with gasoline, Mr. Maddox," said a soft voice from the shadows.
Maddox turned to face it, and took in a sharp breath. A tall figure wearing a loose-fitting white gown and carrying a candle stepped forward, until it stood just outside the light of the lamp. The darkness concealed the figure's face, but when she raised the candle to it, there was no mistaking the golden hair, the large sea-grey eyes.
"You!" Maddox said, his face a twisted mask of rage and fear. "No ..."
"You look like you've seen a ghost, Mr. Maddox," Jessica said.
Maddox stood there and stared, oblivious to all else. "You're supposed to be dead! I shot you myself! It was the only way – you were jeopardizing this project! It was worth too much!"
"Worth enough to commit murder?"
Maddox snarled and pulled out a small gun with a silencer. "If I have to kill you twice, I will!" he said, and fired six times right at her heart. Six muffled shots sounded out before anyone could react, but not one of them hit Jessica. When Maddox had run out of bullets, she calmly set down the candle on the table, blew it out, and walked toward him.
“To quote another writer, Mr. Maddox,” she said, “’rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’” She reached out and took the gun from Maddox's unresisting hand.
"Mrs. Fletcher survived your attempt on her life," Mort said, drawing his own gun. "Somehow she knew it would be you showing up here tonight, so we replaced the bullets in your gun with blanks when we searched your room at the Hill House. The only murder here was the murder she wrote. Floyd, Andy - get him out of here and book him. Arson and attempted murder."
Andy nodded, and he and Floyd came up to fasten Maddox's hands behind his back with handcuffs. "Come on," he said, and they led him away.
When they had gone, Jessica sagged against the table, wincing.
"Pretending to be a ghost more of an effort than you thought it would be?" Seth asked dryly as he came over to help her. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
"Yeah, but it was worth it to see the look on Maddox's face," Mort said. He draped her trenchcoat over her shoulders and helped her stand up. "Come on, Mrs. F. It's been a long day."
And so Jessica walked back out into the land of the living, and the town she had helped save. She looked around from the steps of the library. It was a black night, overcast and dark, a cold, bitter wind blowing in mournfully from the Sea. The blackened, burned out shell of the town offices stood prominently just down the street, the flashing lights on the patrol car lit everything with a harsh red and blue glare, and it was beginning to rain.
"Cabot Cove never looked so beautiful," she said.
Back at the house, Seth got Jessica settled in a comfortable chair by the fireplace and changed the dressing on her bandage. He had finished tucking her in with a blanket and was rewrapping the extra bandages around his hand when there was a knock at the front door. Seth went to answer it, and found Mort standing on the front step with a bag in his hands.
"Hey, Doc," he said. "Mrs. F up for a visitor?"
"Come on in, Mort," Jessica called from the living room.
Mort set down the bag as the two men joined her. "How are you feeling, Mrs. F?" Mort asked.
"Better, now that it's over," she replied.
"Yeah, well, we booked Maddox an hour ago, on fraud, arson, and two counts of attempted murder."
"Lucky," said Seth. "You could have very easily been adding just plain 'murder' to that list as well." He gave Jessica a meaningful look. Jessica smoothed the quilt that covered her and avoided his eyes.
"Well, I think we have more than enough to keep him behind bars even without that," said the Sheriff. "Particularly with Niles Horton offering to testify in exchange for clemency. Pardon me for asking, but I never did hear this whole story. I mean, when I saw you in that library the other night, it sure looked like you had written your last chapter, Mrs. F. Next thing I know you're actually alive and Doc's dragging me into this whole conspiracy thing. What happened?"
Jessica looked to Seth, who picked up the tale. "I was too late to stop Maddox," he said, "but when I reached her she was still alive. There wasn't much time, though. Her pulse was getting thready and she had already lost a lot of blood. I was certain she would die on the way to the hospital." Here he paused and glanced at Jessica, who said nothing. "Anyhow," he resumed, "the arrowhead was very deep, but somehow had avoided hitting anything vital. I took it out, and sat back to wait. She came to around midnight."
"And that's when you decided to fake your death," Mort said.
"That's right," Jessica said. "I was in no condition to take an active role in this investigation any further. Today was my first day up! Also, Maddox was convinced that the last knowledge of Harold Greeling's Ordinance had died with me. So long as he believed this, I was safe, but if he were to find out that I was still alive, he would have come after me again."
"It was the only way to guarantee her safety," Seth added. "The ransacking of this house proved the wisdom of that."
"I also hoped that with me out of the way, the killer would get careless and make some mistake that we could pick up on - which he did," Jessica said.
"Yeah, what was it that finally tipped you off?" Mort asked.
"Well, it was when you came and told me about the conversation you'd had with Todd Maddox. He mentioned how strange it was that I had been killed with a crossbow. 'What a way to go,' he said. But that was one of the things we tried to keep quiet. Sure enough, I checked with Seth, and none of the other rumors floating around town mentioned anything about crossbows or arrows. Lots of people knew I'd been shot, but they all assumed it was with a gun. Maddox would have known otherwise only if he had been there."
"Yeah, well Maddox said he threw the bow into the harbor; we'll have it by next low tide, I'm sure."
"How was the damage control?" she asked anxiously.
"Not too bad. Ben Devlin didn't like the gag order we put on him, but he obeyed it, and that was enough to keep the rumors local. And if Loretta's Beauty Parlor is carrying on as usual, truth will replace rumor in no time." Mort shook his head. "I've gotta hand it to you, Mrs. F, your plan worked, but you sure had the whole town going there for awhile!"
"I think you've pestered my patient enough for now, Sheriff," Seth said with authority. "She exhausted herself enough as it was getting out of bed when she did, I don't need you exhausting her any further!"
Mort smiled and stood up. "Sure thing, Doc," he said, picking up his hat. "Oh - I almost forgot -" he reached over to the chair where he'd set down his bag - "we got your laptop back." He pulled the little computer out of the bag and handed it to Jessica, who accepted it gratefully. "Doc and me had quite a time cleaning up this place after this was taken. Anyway - I'll stop by later.”
Jessica smiled at him. "Thanks, Mort."
After Mort left, Jessica looked sternly at her friend. "You didn't need to chase him away like that, Seth. I'm perfectly fine!"
"Which of us here is the doctor, woman?" Seth retorted. "Now - would you like a cup of tea?"
"I'd love one," she said.
Seth went to the kitchen and made up a cup from the hot water left in the kettle. When the tea was ready, he carried it out to the living room - only to find Jessica fast asleep in her chair, still holding on to her laptop computer.
"Now, wouldn't that just figure," he said softly to himself. He took the cup of tea over to another chair and sat down with it to watch over her. Seth was about to take a sip of it himself when a thought occurred to him, and instead he raised the cup in a silent tribute.
Rain pattered against the window panes, and the wind sighed, as though regretting that it could not reach the warm fire inside the house. And so Jessica slept, and around her Cabot Cove slept, and the Sea, ever restless, murmured on and on in the night.
The next morning, as the flowers of her garden bloomed with all the glory of Spring, Jessica sat down at the kitchen table with her laptop computer. She sat there for a moment in thought, then began to type.
"Dear Friends," she wrote,
Tonight on "Murder, She Wrote", you have watched
our last and final weekly episode. My gratitude and
appreciation to all of you, our great family of viewers
who along with me have solved 264 murder mysteries
over twelve great years.
With Love, Jessica Fletcher
She printed out her letter, held it up to reread it, and smiled. Jessica lay it in the brown leather folder with the embossed gold lettering, and when she shut its cover, she found at last the peace she was looking for.