Into Thin Air, part 2

-- Written by Anne


And now, the conclusion …


White and grey, seagulls and pigeons wheeled over Congress Square, where High Street met Congress and Free Streets, and flags, yellow and red, fluttered over the Portland Museum of Art.

      "None of the firearms in our seized property lockers seemed to have any Portland connections beyond their last owners," McGray told Seth and Mort when they met at noontime in the square, just outside the Eastland Hotel.  A decent little sandwich shop around the corner had provided a fine lunch of eggplant sandwiches on hard rolls, and now they were sitting on the brick steps of the recessed little outdoor theater under its bright sail-like awnings.  A juggler had taken center stage, amusing the business people on their lunch breaks and the families with small children strapped into strollers, while a guitarist performed under the sign announcing upcoming events in the Arts District.

      Peter Holland came walking up Congress Street, a paper bag in his hand.  He paused for a minute to watch the juggler with appreciation, then dropped a dollar bill into his upturned hat and came over to where they sat.

      "That's what I love about Portland," he said when he sat down.  "We've got more culture here per capita than Boston."

      "What's the word from your non-conventional sources?" McGray asked.  "Anything percolate down through the nosy gossips in the Old Port?"

      Peter smiled and held up his hand.  "Now, now, that's hardly nice to say about concerned citizens performing their civic duty," he said.  "Especially when little notes like these get slipped into my lunch."  And he showed them the napkin with its message.

      Mort took it and read it.  "What's at 35 Wharf Street?"

      "Tony little restaurant down in a corner of the Old Port, a couple of blocks away from Exchange Street," Holland said around a mouthful of corned beef on rye, easy on the mayo.

      McGray snatched it next and read it for himself.  "Yeah, but how do we know this is good?" he asked.  "This could be another lead that grew in the telling, like that one you gave me last year that came down through three restaurants, two antique stores, that used book place on State Street and an espresso bar."

      "Hey!" said Holland.  "Is it my fault that you found illegal fireworks when you thought you were looking for plastique explosives?  You got your bust."

      "Yes, and I was the laughingstock of the bomb disposal unit for months."

      "That's hardly my fault."

      Now Mort took the napkin back and looked at it again.  "The way I see it, there's only one way to find out how authentic this is," he said.  "Seth, tonight you and I are dining out."


      The filing room.  That, Jessica felt, was probably where the key to this whole matter lay.  But getting in there alone so she could poke around uninterrupted was going to be a problem.

      Fortunately, the guards were not being as vigilant as they might have been.  She had made no escape attempts as of yet, and she was getting the impression that they considered her not much of a risk to try.  Usually either Flanders or Morse was assigned to watch her, but not both.  At the moment it was Flanders, and he seemed content to merely keep an eye on her from a respectable distance.

      Jessica was keeping much closer tabs on him than he was on her.  Sooner or later he would be distracted, and she needed to be ready the instant that happened.  She lingered around the second floor, and bided her time.

      She didn't have long to wait.  Flanders's cell phone rang, and he pulled it out of his jacket pocket and answered it.

      "Hello?" he said, turning his back and moving away so that he wouldn't be overheard.  "No, everything's fine.  The shipment should come in today, and then we'll be sending it out tomorrow or the next day ..."

      Jessica ducked into the filing room.

      She remembered from the night before which cabinet drawer LeMasters had been slumped over, and immediately went over to it.  She opened it and started to rifle through the files, trusting her intuition to alert her to anything significant she might stumble across.  She was so intent on this that her intuition failed to warn her of the danger coming up behind her.

      Flanders grabbed her by the shoulders and slammed her up against the wall, holding her there with both hands.

      "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.  "Answer me!"

      Jessica was too startled to do anything but stare back at him.

      "Is there a problem, Jeffrey?"  Thomas VanDower stood at the door, looking in.

      Flanders released her, and turned to face him.  "I caught her snooping around where she didn't belong," he said.

      "Something that probably would not have happened if you had been paying closer attention," VanDower said mildly.  "But no matter now, what's done is done."  He turned to Jessica, who was leaning against the wall trying to catch her breath, and asked, "Did he hurt you?"

      Jessica, who'd had the wind knocked out of her, shook her head.

      "Wait outside," VanDower said to Flanders.  To Jessica he said, "You might have asked permission before coming in here on your own."

      "If I had, would you have granted it?"

      VanDower smiled.  "Probably not," he said.  "These files are rather sensitive, and I do not think they bear any relevance to the attempts on my life or LeMasters's murder."

      "I disagree," said Jessica, pulling herself back up to her full height and straightening her jacket.  "We don't know for certain that LeMasters wasn't the intended victim.  And if that's the case, he might have been killed for something he discovered in that drawer."

      VanDower sighed in resignation, went over to the open drawer, and pulled a file out from the front, which he handed to her.  "This," he said, "is the file that LeMasters's hand was in when he was stabbed."

      Jessica took it and looked at the contents.  "Jewelry invoices?"

      "Yes," said VanDower.  "We cover our money trail by converting our payments into gemstones and then back again at a later time.  We have an agent in another state who works with us;  we send him the jewels, and an invoice under separate cover."

      "Who makes up these packages?" she asked.

      "I do," he said.  "I was a jewelry appraiser by trade; no one else in the organization has the ability to accurately assess what is being sent out.  So it falls to me to write up the invoices.  I rather enjoy it; it's not often I get to revisit my former profession."

      "And a copy of the invoice gets filed away up here."

      "For our own records, yes.  That's good business."

      "Yes," she said.  She looked at the most recently dated invoice; four pages detailing some very interesting pieces.  "By the looks of this the last shipment must have been very impressive," she observed.

      VanDower seemed to swell a little with pride.  "Yes," he said, "I was very pleased with what I picked out this time.  I would show you them myself, but unfortunately they have already been boxed up to be sent out."

      "Well," said Jessica, closing the folder, "perhaps some other time."

      "Yes," he said, his lip curling slightly.  "Perhaps."


      35 Wharf Street proved to be the highly acclaimed Wharf Street Restaurant, famed for its trendy Italian seafood and cozy atmosphere.  The restaurant was surprisingly small and narrow, with tables clustered together against the brick walls.  Wooden beams ran overhead hung thick with ropes of garlic and hot peppers, and the limited menu was written on chalkboards that were placed around the room.  Sharp-looking waiters and waitresses maneuvered around the close confines of the restaurant floor, carrying platters laden with pasta topped with fresh shellfish that had been brought from the Sea that morning, loaves of crusty Italian bread, and various specials, everything from grilled swordfish to clams casino.  Up in the very front of the restaurant the chef worked in a small kitchen open to the floor for all the patrons to watch him in his work.

      The place was packed when Seth and Mort walked in, and the sounds of conversation and silverware ricocheted off the brick mason walls as a contented cacophony.

      Seth jumped as the chef lit a flambé near his right elbow, the flames leaping nearly as high as the ceiling.

      "Trendy yuppie eatery," he grumbled.  "I'll bet they don't even have lobster on the menu!"

      "Sure they do, Doc," Mort replied.  "See, it's part of the fettucini primavera with garlic and seafood special.  Sixteen bucks a plate."

      "Fettucini," Seth sniffed.  "Give me an old fashioned clam bake any day!"

      A waitress with her blond hair tied in a bun at the back of her head approached them and asked, "Two?"

      "Actually, we're not here to eat," Mort said with a sidelong glance at his friend.  "We're looking for someone by the name of Matthew Jacobs.  We were told he works here."

      "Yes, he's one of the sous-chefs," she replied.  "Would you like me to see if he's available?"

      "Please," said Seth.

      "In the meantime, would you like to wait for him at a table?  We have one setting for two left."

      Seth started to open his mouth to protest, but Mort cut him off and said, "Thanks, that'd be great."

      She led them to the back of the restaurant, where a small table was crammed into a corner, and left them with a complimentary loaf of bread.

      Mort didn't hesitate to cut himself a thick slice and spread herb butter on it.  "Come on, Doc, it's not a clam back, but this place doesn't get the rave reviews in the Portland Phoenix for nothing."

      Seth hesitated.  "Ohhh ... when in Rome," he said at last, and picked up the bread knife.

      He had just bitten into his third slice of the bread when they were approached by a young man wearing an apron and wiping his hands on a towel.

      "Are you Matthew Jacobs?" Mort asked him.

      "Yes, sir," he answered, slinging the towel over his shoulder and extending his hand.  "Maria said you wanted to speak with me."

      "I'm Sheriff Metzger, and this is Doctor Hazlitt," Mort said as they shook hands with him.  "We were wondering if you'd seen this lady here recently."  And he took the paperback edition of Jessica's book out of his coat and showed him her picture on the back.

      Jacobs's mouth compressed into a tense line when he looked at it.  "Oh, boy," he said quietly.

      "I take it that's a yes?" Seth asked.

      "I did see her," the young man said.  "She was here about three days ago.  Why do you want to know?"

      "Because she's been missing now for two days," Mort answered.

      Jacobs looked distinctly uncomfortable.  "Um, listen, this is not a good place to talk," he told them.  "I get off work at nine tonight.  Meet me at the observatory on Munjoy Hill at nine-thirty.  It's right on lower Congress Street; you can't miss it."


      The Old Observatory on Munjoy Hill was not in the nicest section of the city; this part of Congress Street was thronged mostly with houses converted to apartments, convenience stores, and laundromats.  The observatory itself was an ancient wooden tower sitting on the very top of the gently-sloping hill, where it commanded sweeping views of Portland and Casco Bay.  Normally open during the day to tours, at this hour it was locked and quiet, with only a single spotlight illuminating the memorial plaque mounted at its base.

      It was fully dark when Seth and Mort arrived, and behind them the city was sparkling with lights against the last remnants of dusk in the West.  Out across the dark sweep of the horizon they could see the flashes of lighthouses and navigation buoys in the bay, and the red and green lights of the occasional fishing boat.  The cruise ship Scotia Prince was passing out of the harbor on its regular nightly excursion to Nova Scotia, ablaze with lights from every porthole and strung from the masts from bow to stern.

      "Sheriff ... Doctor," a voice beckoned to them from the shadows, and Matthew Jacobs stepped out from under the stairs leading up the side of the tower.  "Thanks for meeting me here.  You never know who might be listening to you in the restaurant - it's not the greatest place for a quiet, confidential chat."

      "We understand," said Mort.  "So - what can you tell us about Mrs. Fletcher?"

      "She stopped by the restaurant three days ago, like I told you," he replied.  "She was looking for information about a murder that occurred on the waterfront ten years ago."

      "Bernard Patterson," Mort said.  "So what's your connection to him?"

      "I was Bernie's friend," Matthew told them.  "Before I got this job I used to work down at Barry’s Chowder House on Commercial Street.  Bernie was a dockhand, he worked around the various warehouses on the piers, and he'd stop by for a beer when he got off his shift.  He used to tell me what was coming in from where; most of the time it was pretty routine.

      "Bernie dropped out of sight for awhile, and I didn't see much of him.  Then one night he came in scared.  He said he'd seen something in one of the warehouses that he wished he hadn't, and he was afraid he wasn't going to be able to let the right people know about it in time.  Then he told me what was going on, and made me swear that if anything happened to him, I wasn't to tell anyone about it, ever."

      "And what, exactly, was going on?" Seth prompted.

      Jacobs took a deep breath.  "He told me that for the past few weeks he'd been keeping tabs on one of the organizations that was using one of the run-down warehouses in the port.  He told me that he knew something fishy was going on, that he'd been able to find out that whatever they were moving through there, the money from it was being passed through semi-precious stones, Maine tourmaline."

      "Money laundering," Mort said grimly.

      Jacobs nodded.  "That's what Bernie thought.  Change the money into jewels and back again, and it makes the trail almost impossible to follow back.  Anyhow, that night he'd gone down there to poke around, and the warehouse was packed to the rafters with crates of illegal guns - semi-automatics, that sort of thing."

      "Did he know who this organization was?" Mort asked.

      "No," said Jacobs, "but he was afraid they already knew who he was.  And he was scared.  By the next night he'd been killed."

      "And you told Mrs. Fletcher all of this?" Seth asked him.

      "Yes," said Matthew.  "Everything Bernie had told me ten years ago.  It's been branded into my memory.  I told her about the tourmaline, about the guns, where the warehouse was located.  I didn't figure they'd still be using the same cover after ten years, I had no idea they were going to go after her."  He shrugged as a chill gust of wind blew over them from off Casco Bay.  "She knew too much - just like Bernie Patterson knew too much a decade ago."

      "And they killed Bernie Patterson," said Mort.


      One thing Jessica had learned during the restless nights since being taken prisoner was that one of her guards, Sydney Morse to be exact, snored.  Although he was supposed to sit outside her door and guard it all night, he reliably fell asleep in his chair in spite of himself somewhere around two in the morning.  His snores were loud enough to wake the dead, and were more than adequate to cover any sound as she endeavored to pick the lock.

      The night after LeMasters's murder, her third night in captivity, Jessica finally succeeded in overcoming the trick of the lock with a nail file.  When she had got it, she tentatively opened the door just a crack, and peeked out.  Morse was fast asleep, slumped in his chair, raising his usual nightly ruckus.  Encouraged, she opened the door still wider, and stepped out into the hallway - causing a floorboard to creak beneath her foot.

      Jessica cringed and froze in place, certain that the groan of the floor would awaken her guard and bring down instant retribution.  But Morse merely shifted in his chair, and resumed snoring in his usual cadence, oblivious to the rest of the world.  Jessica gave a silent sigh of relief, and started off down the hall.

      A dim light at the end of the hallway lit her way, and she went down the carpeted stairs to the first floor.  Escape was not foremost on her mind - she had seen the securities set upon this house with her own eyes, and they were formidable.  Rather, her goal was VanDower's personal office.  It was becoming obvious that a great deal of information was being withheld from her, and if she did not go looking for it herself, she might never have all the pieces she needed to put this puzzle together.

      One of the double oak doors stood open; in his own stronghold VanDower saw little reason to lock the office at night.  But he did lock his desk drawers, she soon found out, and left nothing out on the desktop for her to use.  Jessica was very disappointed to have come so far for so little, and was just about to head back to her room to figure out her next move, when a thought occurred to her, and she returned to the desk, sitting down behind it in VanDower's huge leather chair.

      VanDower bought his postage stamps by the roll, and kept them on his desk in a fancy little dispenser with his initials on it.  Jessica picked this up, and pulled a length of the strip of stamps out.  Then she took a tissue out of her pocket, dampened it with her tongue, and very, very carefully wiped as much of the glue as she could off the backs of the first five.  When this had been done, she fed the strip back into the dispenser, and got up to leave.

      A heavy tread on the stair coming down made her retreat back into the shadows of the office.  Her heart was pounding with panic - what if it was VanDower, coming down to his office to do some late night work?  What would he do if he caught her there?  There was nowhere to hide, and nowhere to go.  Eyes wide, she shrank against the wall, where she could just see the foot of the stairs.

      Her relief was profound when she saw that it was just Sydney Morse, come down to get a midnight glass of milk.  But she was hardly out of the woods; there was still the matter of getting back into her room before Morse knew she had been out of it.  She waited until the bleary-eyed henchman had vanished around a corner, and made for the stairs with all the stealth she could manage.

      She took the steps carefully, keeping a hand against the wall to steady herself and looking back over her shoulder.  Morse's footsteps could be heard on the stairs behind her as she reached the top, and she fled ahead of him down the hallway.  She stepped on the creaky floorboard again as she reached her door, eliciting another wince of annoyance, and then vanished inside just as the guard appeared at the top of the staircase.

      Morse paused at the end of the hallway - he thought he had heard something, but could not be sure.  Returning to his post, he opened the door and looked inside to check on his prisoner.  The room was still and dark; Jessica was curled up on the cot apparently fast asleep.  Reassured that everything was as it should be, he closed the door and sat back down in his chair to resume his watch - and most likely his nap.

      Jessica opened one blue eye as the door shut behind him.  Then she reached out and took the nail file from the table where she had left it out in plain sight, slipped it back into her pocket, and counted her blessings.


      "Look, sir," Mort said with growing exasperation, "all we want to know is whether anyone has purchased a large amount of your tourmaline stock recently, and if so, who it was."

      "As I have said, information pertaining to our clients is strictly confidential," Stephen Marcus, the president of Casco Bay Jewelers, said.  Seth and Mort had come to his shop on Congress Street in the middle of the afternoon, and Marcus had come out to speak with them in the store's small display room, where glass display cases showed off the finest they had to offer in tourmaline jewelry.  "It is not our policy to give out the names of our clients and compromise their privacy."

      "I'm afraid something more is at stake here than the privacy of your clients," Seth said.  "This is the third jewelry store dealing in tourmaline that we've visited; the others at least could tell us that no one had made any unusual purchases!"

      Marcus looked pained.  "You put me in a difficult position," he said.

      "Would it make a difference," Seth said, "if I told you that this was a matter of life and death?"

      "What do you mean, life and death?"

      Mort took out the paperback and showed it to him.  "This writer is missing," he said.  "She was kidnapped in Portland three nights ago.  Anything you could tell us could help the authorities find her before it's too late."

      The store's president stared at Seth open-mouthed - something in Seth's very serious expression seemed to convince him.  "All right," he said quietly, "all right.  Yes, we do have some 'special' clients who occasionally order unset stones from us.  They tend to be hobbyists interested in setting their own pieces, or independent appraisers acting on the behalf of another buyer.  We know who most of them are, they have made no secret of it, but there is at least one who prefers to remain anonymous.  Periodically we are sent a sum of money and requested that we supply an assortment of our best uncut stones worth that amount."

      "So when was the last time your 'special' mystery client placed an order?" Mort asked.

      "Quite recently," Marcus replied.  "Within the past few days, actually."

      "And how much did they want?"

      The jeweler sighed.  "Twenty-thousand dollars worth of tourmaline, bicoloured was preferred," he replied.

      "And when's he coming to pick it up?"

      Marcus stiffened, and said, "I'm not at liberty to say."

      "Oh, come on!" Mort said.  "What do you mean, you're 'not at liberty to say'?"

      "I mean that I have already substantially pushed the envelope on this matter, telling you this information.  I'm sorry, I realize the gravity of the situation, but we have a trust with our clientele.  I've told you everything I can.  I can only hope it's enough."

      "Yeah," said Mort.  "So can I.  For that matter, so can Jessica Fletcher."


      Seth and Mort came back out onto Congress Street feeling discouraged.

      "Damn," said Mort.  "We're so close!"

      "I'm afraid that in this case, Mort, a miss is as good as a mile," said Seth heavily.  He took a deep breath.  "Well, we can at least tell Detective McGray about this.  Maybe he can use some power of jurisdiction and get somewhere with it."

      They started back up towards their hotel, but before they had gone more than half a block, they heard someone running after them in high heels.

      "Dr. Hazlitt!" an out of breath voice called.  "Sheriff Metzger!  Wait!"

      Turning, they saw the curly-haired woman from the jewelry store come up to them.

      "Look," she said when she had caught up, "I know it's against store policy, and I could lose my job if anyone were to find out, but ... I recognized that book you showed Mr. Marcus, A Faded Rose Beside Her, JB Fletcher's second novel.  I've been such a fan of Mrs. Fletcher's books for so long, I just couldn't stand by and do nothing to help her!"  She took a couple of deep breaths to steady herself.  "That big tourmaline purchase," she then said.  "I'm not supposed to tell you this, but that's supposed to be picked up by a courier this afternoon, just after we close at five o'clock."

      "Do you know who the purchase was made by?" Mort asked.

      The woman shook her head.  "No.  I didn't see the billing information, only the note on the schedule to have the pieces ready by closing today.  Sometimes we let people in through the back to pick up orders after hours, especially expensive ones.  It's happened before."

      "This could be the break we're looking for," Mort said.  "Thank you very much, Miss, er ..."

      "Valya," the woman said.  "Georgina Valya.  I have to get back to the store now, before someone notices that I'm gone.  Oh, I do so hope you find her!  And if you do, do you think it would be too much trouble to ask her if she could sign a book for me?"


      Jessica was wandering the downstairs late in the afternoon, under guard as usual, observing the usual goings-on of the business from an inconspicuous distance.  As she passed the foyer she paused - the mail had come, and was lying in a pile on the floor under the mail slot.  And sticking out from under a piece of junkmail she could see the bright yellow "return to sender" label on a letter.

      Aware that Sydney Morse was watching her, she ventured further into the foyer and pretended to study the artwork on its walls.  A quick glance down confirmed what she had suspected - there was no postage stamp on the envelope.  Her idea had worked, then - one of her doctored stamps had fallen off, and without postage, the letter had returned to where it came from in the afternoon mail.

      Now there was the matter of getting hold of it, no easy thing to do under the watchful eye of VanDower's henchman.  She stared at a vase on a little display table, her mind racing.  Time was of the essence; if she lingered too long Morse would get suspicious of what she was up to, and make her move on.  But if that happened, someone would collect the mail in the meantime, and the letter would be out of her reach ...

      She looked out one of the ornate glass windows flanking the door, and took a step back.

      Morse noticed her sudden movement instantly.  "What's the matter?" he asked.

      "Outside," she said, pointing.  "Someone is coming to the door."

      "That's strange, no one has an appointment," Morse said, and he headed for the front door to see who was there.  As he went past her, Jessica casually stuck her foot out, and tripped him.

      Morse had not anticipated this, and pitched forward, flailing his arms in a futile effort to regain his balance.  He made a grab for the table, but only succeeded in bringing the antique down with him; there was the sound of splintering wood, and a crash as the porcelain vase shattered into a million pieces on the marble floor.

      Jessica seized her opportunity and snatched up the letter, and not a moment too soon because Morse was quickly back on his feet, and he was angry.

      "Bitch!" he shouted at her.  "You - you did that deliberately!"

      Jessica backed against a wall and tried her best to look innocent.

      Morse looked like he was counting to ten.  He stopped somewhere around eight and advanced upon her, clenching and unclenching his fists with his face a mask of rage.

      "I'm going to be in a lot of trouble," he said with surprising patience, "and it's your fault.  Now you are going to go back to your room before I get into more trouble for doing something to you that Mr. VanDower would not like.  Now move!"  And he grabbed her by the arm and hauled her back upstairs.


      Morse threw her into her bare little room and slammed the door shut behind her, turning the lock with a solid click.  Jessica caught her breath, then crept up to the door and pressed an ear against it, listening for any signs of life out in the hall.  Hearing none, she let out a shaky breath and pulled the letter out of her pocket.

      It was a business-sized envelope, originally addressed to someone she had never heard of in Aspen, Colorado.  She turned it over in her hands, and broke the seal in the back, pulling out its contents.

      The letter consisted of sheets of paper that she immediately recognized as being the invoice she had seen in the storeroom, the one listing all the pieces of tourmaline that were being sent abroad for conversion into hard currency.  She scanned the first page, the second, and the third ... and then looked in vain for the fourth.

      "I know there were four pages," she said softly to herself, "so why were only three sent out?"

      She stared at the three sheets before her, thinking hard, and then the answer occurred to her.  And when it did, she sank down into a chair, rested her head in her hand, and closed her eyes in despair.  The papers slipped out of her fingers and fell to the floor unnoticed.


      At five o'clock Mort, Seth, and Peter Holland were sitting in Seth's station wagon in the parking lot on Free Street that served Casco Bay Jewelry's rear entrance.  Holland had insisted on coming along; knowing the city as well as he did, he knew that he would be able to find his way back to any place a courier led them later.

      Mort checked his watch.  "It's just five now," he said.  "They should be closing up about now."

      "We'll give it half an hour," Seth said.

      They hadn't been waiting long when headlights pierced the gathering twilight and a car swung into the parking lot and into a space across from them.  They ducked down so that they wouldn't be spotted, and peeking over the dashboard, watched as a young man got out of the car and disappeared into the rear entrance of the store.

      Ten minutes later, he re-emerged carrying a black jewelry case.  He went straight to his car, not paying any attention to the watchers at all, and starting up the engine, pulled away.

      "This is it," said Mort as Seth turned the key and the station wagon roared to life.  "Give him a bit of a head start, Doc, we don't want him to know he's being tailed."

      "I know that, Metzger, do you think I'm an idiot?" Seth retorted, and they pulled out on to Free Street a respectful distance behind the courier's car.

      They wound through mostly residential streets and into the Deering Oaks district of the city.  Here brick townhouses lined quiet streets shaded by tall trees of venerable age; cobblestone sidewalks were lit by ornamental street lamps that were beginning to come on with the fall of dusk.  At length the car stopped in front of one particularly asture home.  The courier got out, passed through the wrought-ironwork gate, and vanished around the side of the building, presumably headed for some private entrance around the back.

      Seth, Mort, and Peter observed this from half a block away, their headlights extinguished.  Then Seth cautiously pulled up in front of the house so they could read the number on the brick pillars flanking the gate.

      "402," Holland repeated to himself softly.  "I know this place!"

      "You do?" Mort asked, turning around to look at him.

      "Yes.  The guy's name is VanDower.  He's a philanthropist, gives a lot of money to the city every year, supports the symphony, that sort of thing."

      "What's he do for a living?"

      The reporter shrugged.  "That I can't tell you.  I remember something about him making a fortune on the stock exchange, and that he's pretty much independently wealthy.  It's hard to believe that someone so respected in the community would be involved in such a nasty business as gun smuggling!"

      "Wouldn't be the first time," said Seth.  "Maybe it's his hobby."

      "Well, either way, I think we may have enough for McGray to get hold of a search warrant," said Mort. 

      "If he phrases his request carefully, you mean," Holland said.

      Seth passed a hand over his eyes.  "He'll have to think of something," he said.


      Thomas VanDower was surprised when an hour later Jessica broke into a meeting he was having in his office with his partners, not bothering to wait to be ushered in.  She was followed by a panicky looking Flanders who seemed barely able to keep up with her determined pace.  The writer looked pale and her hand shook as she clutched some sheets of paper, but her eyes were bright and when she spoke it was with the careful control of one who was keeping a tight rein on her fury.

      "Mr. VanDower," she said steadily, looking him straight in the eye, "I have concluded who was behind the attempts on your life, and the murder of Ken LeMasters."

      VanDower rose to his feet.  "Most impressive," he said.  "I didn't expect you to come to a conclusion so soon.  So - tell me, who is the guilty party?"

      "You are."

      VanDower laughed.  "What a preposterous notion!" he exclaimed.  "Really, Mrs. Fletcher, I expected much better from you.  This isn't one of your books, after all."

      But Kim Harris, Rick Collins, and Ryan Longwell weren't laughing.  They looked at her, and then they looked at their boss, and it was plain who they believed.  VanDower was shocked.

      "Why - surely you can't be taking her seriously!" he exclaimed.

      "I think we should hear her out," Longwell said, perfectly serious.

      "Very well," he said, and faced his opponent.  "Tell me how you arrived at this fascinating conclusion."

      Jessica continued to maintain her strict mask of control.  "There were never any attempts on your life," she said.  "You engineered those accidents yourself, to set the stage for the real murder you were planning.  You knew that Ken LeMasters had figured out that someone was skimming the profits from your gunrunning operation, and you knew it would only be a matter of time before he had proof that it was you.  And so the very night that he went to the filing room to confirm his suspicions, you followed him and you killed him."

      "But the room was dark when LeMasters was found," VanDower reminded her.  "How could the killer have known it was LeMasters he was stabbing?"

      "Because when the murder took place, the room wasn't dark," Jessica said.  "The filing room is equipped with motion detectors designed to turn on the ceiling lights when someone enters the room.  I noticed them when I first arrived.  When LeMasters came in, the lights went on, and so long as he was there moving around, the lights stayed on.  There is no way the killer could have mistaken him for you.  After LeMasters was dead, the lights naturally turned off again after a period, until Mr. Flanders here arrived and tripped them on again."

      "That's very clever," said VanDower, "but it still doesn't prove that I had anything to do with it."

      "No," said Jessica, "but this does."  And she showed them the invoice that she had brought in with her.  "You were very careful in choosing which clues you allowed me to see.  You used the pretense of protecting your business interests in the event that you released me, but in actuality you were screening out any clues you thought might lead me to you.  And so I took the liberty of gathering a few clues of my own.  This," she said, indicating the papers, "is the invoice you sent out in the morning mail.  It came back into my hands after the stamp I had prepared fell off, and it was returned for postage.  It's the same invoice as the one you let me see yesterday, the one LeMasters had been looking at when he was killed, except for one thing - this one is missing a page. 

      "What better way to keep a share of the tourmaline you were using in your transactions for yourself?  The agent in Aspen would only be expecting what was listed on this invoice, so he would never know if another whole page's worth of gemstones failed to arrive with the others.  But LeMasters must have noticed a discrepancy, and started to look into it.  He probably thought at first that the Aspen jeweler was cheating you, but then it occurred to him that the omission might just as easily have occurred on this end before the tourmaline was even sent out.  And when he realized that, you knew you had to murder him before he put it all together."

      "But why me?" VanDower exclaimed.  "Anyone in this organization could have been responsible for skimming the stones and sending out an incomplete invoice."

      "Because you told me yourself that it was you personally who wrote up the invoices, since only you had the expertise in appraisal to do it.  What's more, the envelope this went out in was addressed in your handwriting.  As the author of the invoice and the one who mailed it out, you were the only person here with the opportunity to tamper with it."

      VanDower was speechless.  Jessica took a deep breath before going on.

      "This whole thing was a set-up," she said.  "You never intended to set me free.  My involvement was only part of an elaborate game that you put together, using me for your own amusement."

      Thomas VanDower sat back down behind his desk and regarded her with cold eyes.  "Very true," he said at length, "though I never guessed that you would come to see the entire picture so clearly.  Truly you deserve the reputation that you have earned."

      "So what happens now?" she asked quietly.

      "You lived up to your end of the bargain beautifully," VanDower said, "and I regret the fact that I cannot honor my end as well.  But you represent a double liability, and that needs to be dealt with.  So I'm going to adjourn this meeting and ..."

      "Wait a minute, we're not finished," Kim Harris said.  "I'm not letting this meeting end until we deal with your cheating us out of our fair share of the profits.  Tom, how could you do this to us?"

      "I founded this organization ..." VanDower began.

      "You founded it with our hard work!" Ryan Longwell said with some heat.  "We were out there making all the arrangements, taking care of all the details, risking prison, while you were hiding behind the scenes taking advantage of us!"

      "Now just a minute ..."

      "I agree with Ryan," Rick Collins said.  "There had better be some kind of payback or I just might decided to turn informant."

      "Yes, even the Feds have some idea of what fair play is," Harris added.

      VanDower, under obvious strain and seeing a possible mutiny on his hands, let go of the last of his temper and slammed his fist down on the desk.

      "Quiet!" he shouted at his unhappy partners.  "Granted, I admit that we have much to discuss, and that perhaps some explanations are required.  But may I remind you all that we are all in danger so long as she remains alive.  I am tabling this discussion until after Mrs. Fletcher has been disposed of.  Morse, Flanders," he barked, "get her out of here.  Take her to the cellar, and guard her there until I arrive."

      Flanders pulled a small gun out of his pocket and held it on her while Morse brought out his ropes; under such circumstances Jessica had little choice but to submit to having her wrists bound before her as when she had first been brought here.  Morse still bore the grudge of the trick she had played on him in the foyer, and tied the ropes so tightly that tears welled up in her eyes.  Harris, Collins, and Longwell looked away, but Van Dower watched intently, overseeing the tightening of each loop around her wrists.  When this had been done, Morse clapped a firm hand on her shoulder and pushed her out of the office.


      With Flanders leading and Morse following, they brought her down a flight of wooden stairs into a dark basement room.  The air was cool and slightly damp; the scent of old wood suggested that it might have once been a wine cellar.  Windowless, the only light came from a single low-wattage bulb hanging from the ceiling, which cast dark, wavering shadows before them.

      Morse gave her a hard shove that sent her tumbling forward, unable to use her hands to regain her balance or to catch herself.  She fell to her knees, and her shoulder hit the concrete floor with such force that she stifled a cry of pain.  Then Flanders and Morse left her to return to their post outside the door at the top of the stairs.

      For many long moments Jessica lay where she was, stunned, trying to collect her wits.  She became increasingly aware of the throbbing in her shoulder and knees, of the bite of the rope around her bound wrists, and of the coolness of the concrete against her cheek.  Closing her eyes, she summoned all the reserves of strength she had left, and with an effort managed to push herself up into a sitting position against the wall.

      "It was hardly unexpected, Jess," she reminded herself softly, and drew her knees up for warmth.

      After what seemed like an eternity, she heard the door creak open on its hinges above her, and the sound of feet coming down the stairs into the wine cellar.  Thomas VanDower stepped into the pool of light cast by the ceiling bulb and looked down at her, arms crossed, his eyes hard and cold.  All at once he reached down and struck her across the face, the ring on his hand cutting a slash across her cheekbone.

      "You played the game a bit too well," he said.  "Have you no sense of self-preservation?  It's enough that you discovered my guilt,  but then to fling it in my face in front of my employees ...!"

      Jessica fought back tears from the stinging blow.  "I serve the truth," she said through clenched teeth, "not you."

      "And for this you threw away your only chance at freedom.  Does it not matter that you will never see your beloved Cabot Cove again?"

      "If I have destroyed your organization from within," she said, "it will have been worth the sacrifice.  Besides," she added, "you weren't going to let me walk out of here alive no matter what I did."

      VanDower allowed the faintest quirk of a smile to cross his features.  "Touché," he admitted.  "Clearly I underestimated you.  Fortunately, however, that is a mistake I will not be in danger of making again."  He pulled a Beretta from the pocket of his jacket and began to attach a silencer to its muzzle.

      "This is where it ends," thought Jessica sadly, and she steeled herself to face her death with all the dignity she could summon ... when there came the sound of shouting from upstairs.

      The door at the top of the stairs was kicked open, sending a shaft of light down into the cellar as VanDower raised his gun and pointed it at her.  Three figures, two with their own guns drawn, appeared silhouetted against the light, and she heard Mort Metzger's familiar voice shout, "Hold it!"

      But VanDower, his face a tight mask of rage and hate, did not lower his arm.  His hand shook as his finger tightened on the trigger.

      Jessica tore her eyes from the barrel of the Beretta she was staring down and steadily met VanDower's.  "Maybe no one can punish you for all the innocent lives your gun smuggling has claimed," she said softly, "but it's too late to escape punishment for the murder you are about to commit."

      Still VanDower hesitated.  Jessica held her breath, and all around them there was absolute silence.

      Then, like a man transfixed, Thomas VanDower's arm went limp, and the gun clattered to the floor.

      "You win," he said.

      The silhouettes watching from the top of the stairs now rushed down; Lieutenant McGray and Mort took VanDower into custody, while Seth Hazlitt rushed over to his friend.

      "Jessica!" he cried, taking her shoulders in a gentle grip.  "Did he hurt you badly?"

      Jessica felt rather faint; she knew that if she tried to stand up she would collapse on the spot.  "Just some bruises," she replied weakly.  "Nothing fatal.  And this," she added, bringing her bound hands up to the bleeding cut on her cheek.

      "We'll put some ice on that," Seth told her.  He had his pocket knife out and was sawing through the ropes.  "There," he said when they fell away.  "That better?"

      "Much," she murmured, her eyes drooping.  "I'm sorry, I can't stand up ... not just yet."

      "Did anyone ask you to, woman?" Seth retorted.  "Just sit there and rest, and let Mort and Lieutenant McGray clean up things upstairs.  I'll stay here with you," he added reassuringly.

      This seemed to comfort her, and she let out a sigh.  "Thank you, Seth," Jessica whispered, and she released her tenuous hold on consciousness.


      Back at the Eastland Hotel, Seth tended to the wound VanDower's ring had inflicted on Jessica's face, cleaning it with a washcloth dipped in cold water and then placing a light bandage over it.  He also examined her shoulder and knees, which were bruised but not broken, then ordered her into a hot bath while Mort called up room service for the three of them.

      The bath did much to revive Jessica's spirits, and when she came out, wrapped in a thick robe supplied by the hotel, she looked and felt more like herself.  They sat down to dinner, speaking of anything but what they had recently gone through, and were just finishing when Peter Holland knocked at the door.

      "McGray just told me," he said when he came in.  He went over to Jessica and shook her hand warmly in both of his.  "Mrs. Fletcher, I am so pleased to meet you at last."

      "I understand you were instrumental in finding me," she said, smiling.

      Holland shrugged modestly.  "It's a long story," he said.

      "And one which I'm dying to hear."

      And so Seth, Mort, and Peter took turns telling her their tale from their arrival in Portland until they had found her, after which at their insistence Jessica poured herself a cup of tea and told of what she had been up to during her captivity, about the murder and how she had come to solve it.

      "So who killed Bernie Patterson?" Mort asked when she had finished.

      Jessica twisted a slice of lemon into her tea and wrapped her hands around the cup gratefully.  "Ken LeMasters did," she said.  "From the coroner's report on Patterson's murder ten years ago, it was clear that he was hit from behind by someone left-handed.  How else to account for the fact that he was found face down with blunt trauma to the back left side of his head?  Now, VanDower's organization was very small, and I had plenty of time to watch all of the members at one time or another.  All of them were plainly right handed - except for LeMasters.  I suspected as much the first time I met him, and when he was found dead, he was clutching a pen in his left hand."

      "Huh," said Seth philosophically.  "In a way, what went around, came around."

      "Yes," said Jessica, "though I think there were other, better ways that justice could have been brought about."

      "No doubt," said Seth.  "Though under the circumstances, I'm glad enough that we got whatever justice we could."

      Holland put down his coffee cup and stood up.  "This is the biggest scoop of my career," he said. "I see it now: 'Respected Portland Philanthropist Accused in Alleged Gun Running Operation and Kidnapping.'  The affiliate is going to sweep the ratings on this one.  I need to get back down to Channel 8; if you're still awake at eleven o'clock, check us out."  At the door he paused.  "Thank you,” he said unexpectedly, and left.

      Staying awake until eleven o'clock was clearly out of the question for Jessica.  She protested weakly when Seth gave her his bed and offered to sleep on the couch, but it didn't take much convincing for her to give in and accept. 

      She was asleep practically before her head hit the pillow.



The End