Into Thin Air, part 1

-- Written by Anne


This is a pretty long story, meant to function in about the same way as a two part cliffhanger episode.  If you want to experience it fully, I recommend reading part one, then waiting a day or so before reading the rest – because half of the fun of a cliffhanger is that delicious anticipation you feel wondering what’s going to happen in part two!


The story takes place in the spring of the eleventh season, or thereabouts.  Many of the places mentioned really exist in Portland – you can stay at the Eastland Hotel, visit the old observatory, and have lunch in Post Office Park … but beyond using the names of the places and their descriptions, everyone and everything else is made up.


Thanks for reading!





Thomas VanDower sat at ease behind his massive mahogany desk, and considered the situation before him.  He had been thinking about retiring for the evening with a good book and a cup of soothing tea, but these thoughts had been interrupted, as they so often were, by business.

      His henchmen stood on either side of their prize, obviously nowhere near aware as he of her importance, or her value.  Still, theirs was a job well done, and they would be rewarded for their vigilance later.

      He casually waved them away.  "Wait outside," he said, and without another word they withdrew, leaving their employer alone with his prisoner.

      VanDower studied his captive closely; a pair of defiant grey eyes blazed back at him.

      "Well, well," he said at length.  "Jessica Fletcher.  I suppose I should be honored.  One could not wish to overcome a more worthy adversary."

      Jessica, her hands bound before her at the wrists, said nothing.

      "I know what brought you here," he went on.  "I had heard rumors to the effect that you were endeavoring to reopen the Bernard Patterson murder case.  A pity that your investigations led you to stumble across the merchandise in my warehouse."

      "Across crates of semi-automatic weapons being smuggled into the country, you mean," she said.

      " 'Smuggling' is such an ugly word," VanDower said lightly.  "I prefer the term 'expedient importation.'  But I am curious as to what led you to that warehouse in the first place."

      "Bernard Patterson's murder," she replied simply.  "He was found dead there, ten years ago.  The fact that I discovered your gun smuggling operation only heightens my suspicions of your involvement in his death."

      "I fail to see what one has to do with the other," VanDower said.  "Don't you believe in coincidence?  No, I suppose you don't, do you.  Well, it doesn't much matter now, I suppose.  You have uncovered my activities, and that alone makes you a very dangerous liability to me and my organization.  Surely you must realize that, even without any solid evidence linking me to Patterson's death.  In light of that, you cannot be permitted to leave this house alive.  Does this come as a surprise to you?"

      "It was hardly unexpected."

      "Good, I'm glad we understand each other.  I'm sorry that I cannot offer you my hospitality for a greater length of time, but I am very tired, and I will rest easier once I know you have been dealt with."

      Jessica clenched her hands, hoping to keep them from shaking with the very real fear she felt.

      VanDower rose from behind his desk with an air of finality, but as he came around towards her he paused in mid-stride, and frowned in thought.

      "Unless ..." he said, and looked hard at her as she continued to stand impassively before him in her bedraggled trenchcoat.  He seemed to come to a decision then, and perched informally on the corner of his desk. 

      "There have been a series of accidents around here," he began, "if you can call them accidents.  First a stone cornice came loose from the exterior of the townhouse and nearly fell on me, then it was the car that nearly ran me down as I was walking home a few nights later, and then it was the frayed electrical cord in my bathroom.  In short, I have reason to believe that someone within the organization is trying to kill me.  Now, your reputation as a detective is well-known and well-deserved.  Find out who is behind these 'accidents,' and I may spare your life."

      Jessica turned on him angrily.  "Mr. VanDower, my talents are not the sort of thing that can be commanded at your whim," she said.

      "Ordinarily, I would agree with you," VanDower said mildly.  "But these are hardly ordinary circumstances.  Your situation is this:  you can either take me up on my offer, or you can die tonight."

      And so Jessica reluctantly agreed, having no choice.  "But if I am to do this, I need to know everything that goes on around here," she said.

      "You will know everything that I consider relevant," he said.  "But it is too late tonight to start.  You shall be given a room, and may begin first thing in the morning.  I suggest you rest while you can; the security system in the townhouse makes it impossible for anyone to come in or go out without my knowledge, so any effort at escape would be worthless."

      He opened the doors of the office, allowing his hired goons to come back in. One of them took her by the arm, and led her out into the foyer.

      She was taken to the third floor, which was largely unused, and pushed into a room.  The door was closed behind her with a click of the lock, and she was left alone in the darkness.

      The only light came from the streetlamps outside, and as her eyes became used to the dim light, she was able to look around at her surroundings.  Not that there was much to see; the room was quite bare.  The wooden floor was scuffed and marked, and a small table badly in need of varnish stood next to a cot with a mattress and a tattered blanket.  Aside from a couple of straight backed chairs and some empty filing cabinets stacked against one wall for storage, that was the extent of the furnishings.  A small washroom adjoined it; the floortiles were cracked and the plumbing looked ancient, but at least it still seemed to have running water.

      Jessica pulled one of the chairs over to the window and gazed out at the quiet street.  She was terribly unhappy, and couldn't help but blame herself for being so careless on the waterfront.  She took stock of her situation, and found that at the moment the only positive thing she could see in it was that she was still alive. 

      "I'm scared," she admitted softly to herself, "and alone … and more than anything else I wish I were back home."


      Seth Hazlitt came to the Sheriff's Office just as Mort Metzger himself was arriving first thing in the morning.

      "Morning, Doc," the Sheriff greeted him as he unlocked his office in the converted farmhouse.  "You're here awfully early."

      "Mmph.  I have a feeling it's going to be a busy day."



      As Mort handed him the paper cup, he took a closer look at his friend.  Seth seemed unusually subdued this morning, and it worried him.

      "Is everything okay, Doc?" he asked.

      Seth rubbed his eyes.  "Didn't sleep well last night," he said.  "Have you heard from Jess?"

      "Nope.  I expect she's got her hands full researching that old murder down in Portland for her book."  He took another glance at the doctor as he poured a cup of coffee for himself.  That was when the phone rang.

      Deputy Andy picked it up.  "Sheriff's Office ... Just a moment.  Sheriff," he said, holding a hand over the receiver, "it's a Detective McGray from the Portland PD."

      Mort went around his desk and picked up his phone.  "Metzger."

      "Sheriff," said Harrison McGray, a fiftyish man with graying hair and a quick grin.  "I'm sorry to bother you at such an early hour.  I'm a friend of Jessica Fletcher's."

      "No problem," Mort said.  "What can I do for you?"

      "Well, I was wondering if you had heard from her either last night or this morning."

      Mort took a sidelong glance at Seth, who was sitting as still as a statue.  "Uh, no, we haven't, Mr. McGray.  Why?"

      A sigh on the other end.  "She was staying with me and my wife while she was here doing her research in the city," he said, "but last night she never came in.  I didn't think anything of it when I went to bed because we turned in early, but when it was clear her bed hadn't been slept in ... well, we were wondering if perhaps something had come up and she'd returned home unexpectedly."

      Mort threw a questioning look at Seth, who shook his head.  "No, she hasn't come back to Cabot Cove," he said.

      "Well, then, Sheriff," McGray said, "it appears we may have a problem on her hands."


      "Ours is a tightly run operation," VanDower told Jessica next morning when he had her brought down to his office.  Jessica was seated in a chair in front of his desk, feeling as trapped there as if she had been tied into it.  "We have only six employees - the two gentlemen you met last evening, and four others who are involved in more, shall we say, administrative work.  Ken LeMasters is our accountant; he manages the money coming in and going out as we handle the various shipments.  Ryan Longwell is our contact man; he directs when shipments are to be brought in and where they are to go from here.  Rick Collins oversees the movement of the merchandise from ship to shore, and Kim Harris handles the day to day operations - maintaining our front, doing the paperwork, and so on.

      "It's really quite simple," he went on, getting up from his desk and wandering over to a window to look out at the morning.  "We are what you could call middle-men.  We handle the merchandise when it first enters the country, and then move it out of state, covering everyone's tracks as we go.         

      "We usually receive shipments from Chinese freighters that dock in Portland for legitimate reasons; very cleverly designed, these freighters are, they have holds in places where you would never thing to look for them.  They usually stay tied up here for at least forty-eight hours to resupply; that's more than enough time for us to get our special orders unloaded in such a way that they don't attract attention.  Then we move it to a special warehouse on the piers."

      "But you don't actually own that warehouse," Jessica pointed out.

      "No, we don't.  An out-of-state firm owns it, and they're currently looking for renters.  In the meantime, the place isn't being used, so we just help ourselves and are very careful to leave things just as we found them.

      "The merchandise is usually stored there for only a day; any longer and we might attract someone's suspicions.  That was how you came to stumble upon our little secret; usually our clients ship the crates out by truck under the cover of darkness within a day, but this time our contact met with an unexpected delay, and couldn't make the pick up until the day after he was supposed to be here."

      "And where do the guns go from here?" Jessica asked.

      VanDower waved his hand in the air.  "Oh, all over," he said.  "Out of state, usually out of the Northeast.  Many of them end up in the Los Angeles area, or in Florida and Texas.  Down there the market is so flooded with illegal firearms that we are but one drop in a very dilute pond."

      "Fascinating," said Jessica dryly.  "If things are going so well, why would anyone want to kill you?"

      "There are any number of reasons," VanDower said.  "One might be that someone in the organization aspires to take my place.  The chance to call the shots, to inherit a well-run gun smuggling operation established by someone else's work - the prospect undoubtedly opens up temptations.  Then too, it is possible that one of my employees is in fact a traitor, and hopes to bring down the organization by cutting off its head.  I find this very unlikely, still, it is possible."

      "Is there any chance that an outsider might be behind this?"

      "Not a chance," he replied.  "The fact that the attempts have happened on or near the grounds rules that out.  No one comes or goes here without my knowledge."

      "Unless, of course, there is a traitor in your midst, in which case someone could be easily smuggled inside you gate."

      "An intriguing thought," VanDower admitted.  "At any rate, that's up to you to find out.  You are at liberty to speak with my employees; they are already aware of your presence and your function here, and I have instructed them to be as open with you as possible.  Fair enough?"

      "I suppose it will have to be," sighed Jessica, and VanDower gave her leave to go.


      Seth and Mort left for Portland in a hurry, and as soon as they had checked into the Eastland Hotel, headed straight to the headquarters of the Portland Police Department to meet with Harrison McGray.  They were shown into the detective's somewhat cramped office, where McGray sat behind a desk overflowing with papers and pictures of his family.  In a chair off to the side sat a younger man, informally dressed with his tie loosened and his collar open.

      McGray stood, his hand extended.  "Sheriff Metzger ... I didn't expect you to come all this way, but I'm not sorry you did."

      "Well, under the circumstances, there really wasn't much choice," Mort said.  "This is Dr. Seth Hazlitt."

      "Doctor," McGray said, shaking Seth's hand in turn.  Then he turned to introduce the other man:  "This is Peter Holland, a reporter for Channel 8, the ABC affiliate here in Portland.  He has been working with us closely on this case, and may be able to provide us with some information."

      Seth and Mort greeted the young reporter, and then they were all seated.

      "Now, where to start," McGray mused.

      "The beginning seems as good a place as any," said Seth dryly.

      "Right.  Okay, as you probably know, about two weeks ago Mrs. Fletcher contacted me and told me that she was interested in looking into an old crime, the ten-year-old unsolved murder of Bernard Patterson, a Portland dockworker.  His death was significant because at the time he was working undercover for the Portland police, trying to gather information on an organization suspected of smuggling guns into the U.S. by way of Portland harbor. 

      "I was the detective on that case; Patterson was supposed to have touched base with me that night, but he never showed up.  The next morning we found him in a warehouse, lying face down on the floor with his head bashed in from a blow with a heavy pipe or some other blunt object.  Here's a copy of the coroner's report," he said, and handed Seth a folder.

      Seth looked it over.  "Mmm ... blunt trauma to the left occipital lobe, they must have come up from behind so he never saw it coming."

      "We searched the warehouse, and it was empty," McGray went on.  "The building had been for lease for about seven months, and the current owner was trying to unload it from Oregon.  To make a long story short, we never found any evidence linking any one particular person to his murder.  We figured that the gun runners were behind it, but Patterson died before he was able to give us any concrete information about their movements or membership.

      "We kept an eye on that warehouse for several weeks, hoping to come up with some leads, but the smugglers had gone to ground and become virtually invisible.  Since then we've known that guns are still coming in through the harbor, and we've even made a couple of busts, but the core organization, the professionals running the show - they have remained out of reach."

      "So you have no idea who might be behind the operation," Mort said.

      McGray shook his head.  "At the moment, no.  Rumors we've had; most of them had no foundation."

      "I've been keeping my ear to the ground on this case ever since the beginning," Holland said.  "I've got contacts all over the city, and when they hear anything, they pass it on to me.  That was how we were able to get any leads on the activity at all."

      "And it's those contacts that we're going to need to talk to now," McGray said.  "Jessica's disappearance is both a serious liability and a windfall."

      "Serious liability I understand," said Mort.  "You need to find a bunch of smugglers that have eluded you for ten years within a few days.  But a windfall ...?"

      "Yes, strange as that may seem," said Holland.  "Kidnapping Mrs. Fletcher may have been a necessity once she stumbled on something vitally important, but it was a serious detriment to the preservation of their low profile.  You cannot take a well-known mystery writer and hide her away without attracting some attention.  It's my belief that her disappearance will send out ripples of rumor that my contacts should be able to pick up."

      "Then we follow the ripples back to their source," Detective McGray said, "and hope that we aren't too late."


      Jessica felt at loose ends; more than anything she wanted to bolt from this house and run, and put as much distance between her and these people as she could.  But escape was impossible; the windows were painted shut, the doors locked from the inside with keys she did not have, and the whole of the grounds was surrounded by an iron fence topped with nasty looking spikes.  And everywhere she went she was shadowed by at least one of the two men who had captured her the night before; since then she had found that the stocky one was Sydney Morse, and the tall one with the blond hair was Jeffrey Flanders.

      The first person she came upon was Kim Harris, who was standing at the center island in the kitchen with a carton of coffee creamer in her right hand, pouring it into her coffee.  She barely glanced up at Jessica, then picked up a spoon and started stirring her coffee with a scowl on her face.

      "I know who you are," she said before Jessica had a chance to speak, "and I think it's really insulting that Thomas should bring in an outsider to interrogate his own people."

      "Well, for what it's worth, I'm not exactly delighted to have the assignment," said Jessica.

      "No, I'd imagine not."

      "You seem to think that Mr. VanDower's suspicions are unfounded."

      "No; I think someone is out to get him, but it's ridiculous to think that it's one of us," Harris said, turning to face her for the first time.  "I've been here since the beginning; I went from a two-bit drug running operation in New York to this, and I haven't looked back.  The reason this organization works is that VanDower's got the contacts - lose him, and half our business goes up in smoke.  Everyone who works here knows that."

      "Surely he's not irreplaceable."

      "Nobody's irreplaceable, or so I've been told," Harris said.  "But we've got the closest thing yet with Thomas."

      "Ah," said Jessica, who could think of nothing better to say at the moment.  "Do you know where I might find Mr. Collins?"

      "Sure, he's in his office.  Down the hall, third door on the left."


      Jessica knocked on Collins's open door and looked in tentatively.  Rick looked up from a messy pile of papers covering his desk and waved her in with his left hand while he wrote.

      "Come in, Mrs. Fletcher," he said.  "Just let me finish this up."  He made some notes on a calendar with red pen, then set it aside.

      "The dates of your next incoming shipments?" Jessica asked.

      "Yes, yes, it seems that no sooner do I coordinate one then there's another coming down the pipeline," he said, seemingly much more willing to talk than Kim had been.  "I suppose you're here to find out about these 'attempts' on VanDower's life."

      "It would help," she said, "if someone who was here could explain to me what's been happening."

      "If you ask me, Thomas is imagining the whole thing," Collins said, leaning back in his chair.  "No one actually saw any of the incidents.  I saw the broken stonework lying on the path, sure, but I didn't see any evidence that it had fallen on purpose.  Of course, who can tell from a bunch of rock fragments?"

      "But what about the car he said tried to run him down?"

      "It was getting dark, he didn't look before crossing the street, whatever," Rick said dismissively.  "No one saw that either.  Coincidences, that's all I think it is.  Thomas is becoming a little paranoid in his old age, I suppose."

      "I would imagine that two accidents coming so close together in time might make anyone suspicious," said Jessica.

      "Well, VanDower didn't get where he is today by being trusting," admitted Rick.  "When I brought Ryan Longwell into the organization, VanDower did everything short of sending his fingerprints to the FBI to confirm that he was who he claimed to be."

      "This Ryan Longwell," Jessica said.  "Is he around here?"

      "No, he works down on the waterfront," Collins said.  "He only comes up here for meetings and assignments, and to find out when the next shipments are coming in so he can have the warehouse ready.  He has a profile to maintain.  Now you'll have to excuse me, but I really have to get these dates coordinated."

      "Yes, of course," Jessica said, and turned to leave.  "One more thing," she asked at the door.  "Did Mr. Longwell know Bernard Patterson, the dockworker who was murdered?"

      Collins paused before answering.  "Yes, I imagine he did," he said at last.


      It was shortly before noon; Exchange Street was beginning to fill up with people for the lunch hour.  It was a nice day, a warm wind blowing in off the Sea, and a number of people were eating lunch in a little cobblestoned Post Office Park on boulders shaded by the young green leaves of Spring.

      Peter Holland stopped in front of a shopfront proclaiming itself as Fran’s Delicatessen and looked inside.  "This is the place," he told Seth and Mort, and they went inside.

      Seth had not been in a place quite like this before.  It was bright, and full of colour.  A cooler filled with a dizzying variety of new-age fruit drinks stood on one side of the room, and a rack of off beat wines stood across from it.  A ceiling fan spun from the ornate tin ceiling, creating a fresh breeze.  Tables with crisp checkered tablecloths crowded together against a booth that ran the length of the wall and under the front window, looking out on the street.  In the back a glass deli counter displayed some of the place's specialties, including locally raised hams and turkeys, and, Seth noticed especially, a number of complicated looking desserts that were homemade on the premises.

      Seth nearly bumped into a stand holding organically grown potato chips while he tried to take this all in.  But Mort looked completely within his element.  He scanned the menu posted on boards behind the counter with an expert eye, and seemed to come to a decision without thinking.

      "Can I help you?" a young woman in a white apron asked him.

      "Yeah, I'll have your New York rare roast beef sandwich on rye, with tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, no mustard, easy on the onions, hold the sprouts, and make that a dill pickle on the side, please," he said with practiced ease.

      The waitress nodded, noting the order on a slip of paper, and then turned to Seth.  "And you, sir?"

      Seth was caught somewhat off guard.  "Um, ah ... I guess I'll have ham," he said, peering up at the board and feeling bewildered by the number of choices before him.

      "Baked Virginia or honey mustard ham?" the woman asked.

      "Um, baked Virginia."

      "On white, whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel, or roll?"

      Seth glanced at Mort, who mouthed the word "rye" at him encouragingly.

      "I'll take whole wheat," Seth said.  Mort rolled his eyes in exasperation.

      "Tomato, lettuce, onions, sprouts?"

      "Ah, no thanks."

      "Mustard or mayonnaise?"

      "Mustard, I believe."

      "Sweet or dill pickle?"

      Seth considered.  "I guess I'll take the sweet pickle," he said at last.

      The waitress finished jotting down his order with a slight smile on her lips, and then turned to the reporter.  "And you?"

      "I'll have the cold turkey club," he said, and gave her a significant look.

      The waitress's pen paused over the order slip, and she returned his gaze.  "Sweet or dill?" she asked him.

      "Dill," Holland replied quietly.

      Tight lipped, the woman ripped the order slip off her pad.  "You can sit down and make yourselves comfortable," she said.  "Someone will bring your order out in a few minutes."  And she disappeared into the back.

      The three men turned and found an empty corner table that afforded them a view of both the restaurant and the sidewalk outside.

      "What was that all about?" Mort asked Holland.  "There was no turkey club up on the board."

      "They'll know what I'm talking about," Peter replied placidly, and sat back to glance over the complimentary Portland Press Herald that was sitting out on their table.

      Seth and Mort exchanged glances.

      Holland had only just reached the regional news section when a blonde woman in her mid-thirties, also dressed in a white apron, came up to their table with their lunch.  But instead of simply depositing the tray and going back to the kitchen, she pulled a chair from a neighboring table, turned it around, and sat down in it, her arms folded across the back.

      "Okay, Peter," she said, "I know it's dill, but just how dill is it?"

      "What are you talking about?" Mort asked, looking confused.

      "It's part of the code we've got worked out," Holland explained.  "When I come in here and order a cold turkey club, Fran here knows it's me and that I need to talk to her as soon as she can tear herself away from her kitchen."

      "Yeah, and whether he asks for a sweet or dill pickle tells me how serious the news is," the woman said.  She extended her hand.  "Francine Marino.  I run Fran’s Deli."

      "Mort Metzger, Cabot Cove Sheriff," Mort said, taking it.  "This is Doctor Hazlitt."

      "Pleased.  So, Peter, you didn't answer my question - how bad is it this time?"

      "Pretty damn bad," Holland said.  "Jessica Fletcher was in town looking into the old Patterson murder for a book she was writing.  She was making good headway, and then all of a sudden she disappeared into thin air.  My guess is that she got on to something big, and that certain interested parties put a hold on her investigation before it could go anywhere."

      Francine pushed back a stray strand of hair.  "Peter, the guys involved in that murder were pretty heavy hitters," she said.  "Professionals.  Not the sort you'd want to mess around with."

      "Well, it's a little late for that," Holland said.  "If they're the ones who took her we really don't have a whole lot of choice, do we."

      "How can you be sure she's even still alive?"

      "How can we be sure she’s not?” Holland countered.

      "Heavy hitters," said Mort.  "You mean the gun smugglers."

      "Yes," said Francine.  "They are powerful, and elusive.  The Portland chief of police has been working on trying to eradicate them ever since he took the job, but they're highly organized, and nearly impossible to track down.  That your Jessica was able to get close enough to them to attract their attention is not a good thing."

      "What will they do to her?" Seth asked hoarsely.

      "They will kill her," she answered.  "If they haven't already, then they will."

      "Then we haven't got a lot of time," Holland said.  "Fran, Harrison McGray over at Portland PD headquarters is throwing as many resources at this as he's got, but he's going to need some … unofficial help."

      "I figured as much," she said.  "I know the drill.  Look, when I hear something I'll contact you, okay?"

      "Fine," said Holland.

      "I've got to get back to the kitchen," Francine said, rising and swinging the chair back under its table.  "Nice to meet you, Sheriff, Doctor."

      "Well, now we wait," Holland said after she had gone.  "In the meantime, I think you'll find these to be the best deli sandwiches you'll find north of Boston."


      They walked along Exchange Street after lunch, looking at all the shops that crowded the street in the Old Port district.  They went past a shop called, very simply, Books, Etc., when Mort stopped suddenly and turned back.

      "I don't know why I didn't think of that sooner," he said, and disappeared inside.  A few minutes later he re-emerged with a paperback edition of one of Jessica's books.

      "A little photo ID?" he said, showing them her picture on the back.  "Might come in handy."


      Jessica had thoroughly inspected the first floor of the house without finding anything important, at least nothing important that had been left out.  There were many locked drawers and closets that she would liked to have gotten into, but Morse and Flanders claimed not to have the keys, and she had no choice but to believe them.

      That afternoon she wandered up to the second floor, and in the course of poking around the mostly empty rooms came upon one used for file storage, its walls lined with metal filing cabinets and shelves filled with binders.

      A man was in the room searching through some folders; when he heard her step behind him he slammed the drawer of the cabinet shut with extreme haste and swung around to face her.  From the relief that passed across his features upon seeing her, Jessica had the strong impression that he had expected someone else.

      "Excuse me," said Jessica.  "Are you Mr. LeMasters?"

      "Yes," he replied.  "I've seen you wandering around; for what it's worth, I don't like what Thomas is doing to you, making you ferret out our dirty laundry for him, ask the questions he doesn't want to ask himself."

      "Thank you," said Jessica with a slight bow of her head.  "I am afraid that under the circumstances I was given very little choice."

      "Yes; I doubt I would have chosen differently in your place with the only alternative being immediate execution."

      "May I ask what you were working on just now?" she asked.

      LeMasters hesitated.  "Oh, it's nothing, really," he said, scratching his left ear with his pen.  "Just checking up on some old accounts.  I keep track of the payments, no easy task, you may imagine, when the money's being laundered every step of the way."

      "No doubt," said Jessica.

      "Someone has to keep track of things," LeMasters went on.  "There's too many opportunities for things to slip by.  All Ryan Longwell has to do is sign the papers left handed to disguise his handwriting on the payment stubs and he's in the clear, but I have to make sure what he sends back to me actually reaches the bank accounts, I have to make sure the very people we're dealing with aren't robbing us blind right under our noses.  It's a difficult job."

      "No doubt," Jessica said again.

      "I really would like to explain it further to you, Mrs. Fletcher, but I do have many things on my agenda to do this afternoon, so please excuse me."

      He left the room with a stack of envelopes, and Jessica, having nothing further to do at the moment, returned to her room to think over everything she had heard.


      Jessica was not given much latitude after dark, but instead was confined to her room not long after sunset.  A tray of food was brought to her for dinner, and she picked at it absently while she watched dusk settle over the city of Portland.

      She was startled out of her thoughts by a shout from the hallway.  A few minutes passed, and then Thomas VanDower himself unlocked her door and looked in.

      "You're going to want to see this," he said.

      Jessica nodded and followed him out, motivated as much by her own curiosity as she was by fear.

      VanDower escorted her down to the second floor, where the two henchmen and Rick Collins stood clustered around the doorway to a room furnished largely with filing cabinets, shelves, and a metal desk.  Taking her by the arm, he led her through the spectators inside, where she stopped short in surprise at the sight of a man, Ken LeMasters, slumped over the open drawer of a file cabinet, a knife handle sticking out of his back.

      Jessica took a step forward with the intention of looking for a pulse, but VanDower held out his hand and stopped her.

      "Don't bother," he said.  "We already checked."

      She took a couple of steps forward nonetheless to get a closer look, then turned to the others.

      "Who found him?" she demanded.

      "I did," said Collins.  "I came up here to file the shipping forms from our latest delivery.  The room was dark, but when the lights came on I saw him just like that, dead."

      "Did you touch anything?" she asked.

      Collins shook his head.  "No," he said, "my primary concern was to get the hell out of this room."

      Jessica brushed her hand against the dead man's cheek and shivered.  "He hasn't been dead for very long," she said.  "Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.  The coroner will be able to tell better."

      "He would," VanDower said, standing off to the side with his arms crossed, "if he were notified."

      "But ..."

      "This is an internal affair," VanDower said firmly.  "There will be no police investigation, everything will be taken care of quietly without any outside interference.  And that means that if his killer is to be found, it falls to you, Mrs. Fletcher, to find him."  The tone of his voice made it clear that argument would be useless.

      To Flanders and Morse he said, "We're going to need to make arrangements to dispose of him."

      The henchmen nodded and went off without comment.

      "Well, if you don't need me, I think I'll be taking off," Collins said when they had gone.  "This gives me the creeps."

      "Yes, yes, Rick, go do whatever you need to do," VanDower said, and Collins left with an obvious air of relief.

      "Well," said VanDower.  "It would seem that one of those 'accidents' finally hit home."

      "Perhaps," said Jessica.

      "Perhaps?  A man stabbed in the back in a darkened room, it's obvious that the killer mistook LeMasters for me in the darkness!"

      "But we don't really know that it was a mistake," Jessica said.  "Your 'accidents' and his murder could be totally unrelated.  It's possible that someone specifically intended to kill Mr. LeMasters, and succeeded."

      VanDower waved this aside.  "I find that highly unlikely," he said.  "LeMasters was an inconspicuous sort of man of minimal importance to this organization.  I can't think of a single reason why anyone would want to kill him."

      "Well, someone may have come up with at least one."

      "Ah, how refreshing," he said, chuckling.  "A mind that stubbornly persists in being open.  It is getting late, and I am too tired to argue with you.  You may consider this overnight, and we can discuss it further tomorrow."

      Jessica took one more swift glance around the room, froze the image of the dead man in her mind, and reluctantly returned to her room to be locked in for the night.


      "Doc," Mort said wearily, "are you going to pace all night, or are you going to go to bed?"

      Seth paused in midstep, and looked at the Sheriff, who was already in his bed and trying to fall asleep.  "Sorry, Mort," he said, "I just don't seem to be tired."

      "After the day we've had, Doc, you should be exhausted," said Mort.

      "I know, I know.  I'm just ... worried, is all."

      Mort sat up and sighed.  "Look, I understand," he said.  "I know how you feel, I'm worried sick too.  But you won't be helping Mrs. F any by pacing all night and wearing yourself down."

      "I know that," Seth sighed.  "But I feel better doing something.”     

      "Yes, but Mrs. F would be the first person to smack you around if she saw what you were doing to yourself,” Mort pointed out.  “Now, are you going to go to bed, or do I have to call Tipper Henderson and have her come down here with her tranquilizer gun?"

      Seth actually smiled a little at this.  "I would sooner get hit over the head with a two-by-four."

      "Well, then."

      Seth climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling for quite some time, watching the lights of car headlights from the street below move across the wall.  Mort was right; there was nothing to be gained by pacing all night.

      Eventually he drifted off to sleep.


      Mort Metzger looked doubtfully at the morning light reflecting off the windows of the establishment at 212 Danforth Street.

      "What is this place?" he asked Seth.

      "This is Danforth’s," Seth answered promptly.  "Absolutely the best breakfasts in the West End, or all of Portland for that matter.  The food is good, it's cheap, and there's lots of it.  I always make it a point to come here whenever I'm in the city."

      "It looks like a bar," said the Sheriff.

      "That's because it is a bar, Mort," said Seth.  "One of the last authentic neighborhood bars left in these parts.  I told McGray we'd meet him here - ah, here he is now."

      McGray came around the corner, a copy of the Portland Press Herald in his hand.

      "Morning, Sheriff, Doctor," he said.  "Shall we go in?"

      Mort didn't think he could ever have adequately prepared himself for the sight that greeted him when he walked in the door.  Danforth’s was unpretentious, but despite the functional decor the place positively leaked atmosphere from every pore.  The walls were covered with barnboards, which in turn were covered with a motley assortment of Portland-themed posters, beer advertisements, and dart boards.  A pair of dry-erase boards sporting that week's menu and featured Beer of the Week was illuminated by some dim overhead track lights; narrow horizontal blinds muted the outside light filtering through the windows.  At the wooden bar there sat a varied assortment of people eating breakfast and drinking coffee, a few tourists mixed in with locals.  Behind the bar's ceiling racks of glasses a neon sign for Samuel Adams beer announced that today was Walter Miller's twenty-fifth anniversary.

      McGray led Seth and Mort to a corner table near the dart board display case.

      "Is there any news yet?" Mort asked him.

      The Portland detective shook his head.  "No," he said.  "We're chasing down every lead that looks even faintly promising, and there's nothing yet.  We busted that warehouse we think they've been using last night, and the place was cleaned out."

      "Surely they must have left some little thing behind," said Seth.

      "You'd think so, but I'm telling you, you could have eaten off the floor of this place."

      Mort pointed to the newspaper and asked, "Has anything turned up in there?"

      "Mercifully, no," said McGray.  "Peter Holland seems to be the only member of the Fourth Estate who's tracking this so far.  We've been particularly tight-lipped about it; I can't think of anything that would make these people go to ground faster than having their suspected activities splashed across page one and leading off the local news at six."

      "So what do we do next?" asked Mort.

      "We wait, we keep following what leads we have, we hope Holland's contacts can dig something up,” McGray answered.  “This morning we're going to start going through our collection of seized weapons, and try to trace back the particularly interesting ones as far as we can."

      "If I were in this business, I think I'd be sending all my ill-gotten booty out of state," said Seth.  "Do you really think they'd let any of their stuff float around Portland?"

      "Probably not, but hey, we might just get lucky," McGray said.  "We have to try something.  If nothing else, maybe we can eliminate some possibilities.  I certainly hope so, at least; the chief’s really breathing down my back on this one.  Not only is illegal firearms his real pet peeve, I know for a fact that he stays up nights reading Jessica's books.  This whole thing has not made him happy."

      "Well, if we're going to make a productive day of this, we can at least start off with a good breakfast," Seth said.  "I recommend their apple pancakes with a side of sausage ..."


      "Kim!" Rick Collins said, catching up with Kim Harris as she went down the hall past his office.  "Has VanDower said anything about Ken's murder?"

      "Not since I got in this morning," Harris answered coolly.  "And frankly, I'm not sure I feel comfortable talking about it with you."

      "Why?  Because I was the one who found him?"

      "Because you were the one who happened to be there first," Kim said.  "Awfully convenient that you picked last night to work late."

      Collins took a step back.  "Now wait a moment, do you think that I ..."

      "I just wonder how come the person who has discounted the 'accidents' around her the longest and loudest just happened to be on hand when someone finally got killed," Harris said.  "What's that line from Hamlet – ‘the lady doth protest too much'?"

      "You're getting as paranoid as VanDower," Collins said.  "I'd like to remind you that it didn't have to be me; Morse and Flanders were also here last night, and no one's heard from Longwell for two days."

      "Well, he'll be here tomorrow when Thomas outlines the next shipment transfer," Kim said coolly.  "We can ask him where he was then - and then we'll know, won't we?"


      Peter Holland gazed idly out the window of his office at Channel 8's headquarters, watching the foot traffic pass below him on Congress Street.  It was nearly eleven-thirty, and so far it had been a slow news day, which he supposed was good in that it allowed him the freedom to mull over the much larger, unreported case at hand.  However, with no new leads, there  wasn't much that bore thinking about, only the same problems chasing each other around inside his head.  McGray hadn't called, nor had Dr. Hazlitt or Sheriff Metzger, and without some input from somewhere, he was effectively stalled.

      A knock on the door of his office woke him from his unproductive reverie.

      "That sandwich you ordered from Della's, Mr. Holland," Will, one of the junior reporters, said, leaning inside.

      Holland looked up, confused.  "I didn't order any ... oh, that sandwich," he then amended, catching on.  "Ah, yes, I'd almost forgotten.  Thanks, Will."

      He took the brown paper bag the junior reporter handed him, and returned with it to his desk.  Inside he found a corned beef sandwich on rye, easy on the mayo, just the way he liked it, wrapped up in waxed paper.  He unwrapped the sandwich and its pickle, then read the message that had been included with them, written on a napkin in black marker:

      "Fletcher was seen speaking with Matthew Jacobs," it read. "35 Wharf Street."

      Holland wadded up the napkin with a satisfied grin and tossed it into his wastebasket, banking it off a file cabinet for style points.  Good old Fran.  Now maybe they were getting somewhere.

      He only hoped that they wouldn't be too late ...