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A good tag line for this novel is “A genealogist and an unorthodox detective are drawn together when a cache of books, hidden for a hundred years, starts a chain of events that leaves to four deaths and scores of lives forever affected in a small southern county seat.”
After the dismal failure to finish MURDER IN THE PAST TENSE, I decided that I had committed the ultimate sin of not writing what I know about; I don't know anything about Time Machines! Of course no one else does either.
I still liked mysteries and since I had been a genealogist for over 25 years, I wrote the Wrong Branch in one long sitting of ten days, 65,000 words. I think it worked.
WRONG BRANCH: ARNOLD COUNTY SKELETONS
Mary Stuart knew immediately something was wrong when she
opened the door and smelled the faint odor of gunpowder. Her father and her late
husband had done enough shooting for her to remember the biting pungency of a
discharged weapon. She usually wasn’t the one to open the rare archives room
in the basement, but today the Index Committee of the Arnold County Genealogical
Society was coming over to catalog and index some old books recently found, and
she wanted to warm it up a bit from the freezing and rainy night.
Mary Stuart knew immediately something was wrong when she opened the door and smelled the faint odor of gunpowder. Her father and her late husband had done enough shooting for her to remember the biting pungency of a discharged weapon. She usually wasn’t the one to open the rare archives room in the basement, but today the Index Committee of the Arnold County Genealogical Society was coming over to catalog and index some old books recently found, and she wanted to warm it up a bit from the freezing and rainy night.
She quickly looked around the room; there was nothing out of place. Mary stooped and looked under the table; then she backed out of the room, locked the door and went up the stairs to the office area of the Old Court House, now a genealogical library. She had forced herself to go slowly in spite of the tension; the rickety narrow stairs were always difficult for Mary to climb, especially when she was in a hurry.
When Mary reached
the office, she crossed over to her desk and picked up the phone to call the
sheriff but paused, remembering that it was before 8 o’clock, and he would
still be on his way back from his fishing trip. She put the phone down slower
than necessary, and feeling vulnerable, she scanned around the open space of the
office and library. She went through the cloakroom, grabbing her heavy, lined
raincoat and quickly left through the rear door. She locked it and put on her
coat as she walked across the
When the high-pitched tinkle of the bell above the door sounded out, Meg turned, and seeing Mary, said, “I wasn’t expecting you until lunch!”
“I just wanted to talk to Bat. Has he been in this morning?”
Meg stopped wiping a table, and putting her hands on her hips, thought for a brief moment, then looking at the wall clock, said, “That’s odd. He’s usually in by now.”
Mary walked over to one of the front booths and sat down. She asked, “Could you get me some coffee while I wait?”
“Sure thing, Mary.” Meg poured a cup and headed over to Mary. “Is anything wrong?”
“Oh, no. I…I just wanted to settle something with him before I forgot.” Mary raised the cup and blew over it, absentmindedly sipping. Her eyes darted back and forth between the windows and the front door, her nerves driving her more than any conscious thought. A repetitious clinking caught her attention, and looking down, she saw that she had been stirring her coffee for several minutes even though she did not use sugar or cream. She smiled at her nervousness and calmed herself.
It seemed to Mary that a relaxing weekend of fishing once a month would not have the desired effect if someone always ended up driving all night, arriving at the last minute to start a stressful work day. She would have to ask Bat about that sometimes.
It was over an hour before the lanky and tired Sheriff walked in, his tall frame topped by a head that seemed slightly too large. Bat shook the water off his coat as he passed through the door, placed it on an empty hook of the coat rack, and took off his hat. His jet-black hair was uncombed and wet.
“Bat!” Mary called out.
Bat turned and spotted her. He tried to comb his hair with his fingers as he walked over.
“Mary! What are you doing here? Don’t usually see you in here till lunch.” He easily slid down into the booth across the table from Mary.
“Well, I had a start at the Court House and wanted you to come over and check it out.”
“Can I have breakfast first?”
“Well…Sure. I don’t see why not. I looked around and didn’t see anything wrong. I guess it would be okay.”
Bat responded to her repressed desire to go back to the library sooner. “Why don’t we go over and take a quick look as soon as I get some coffee. Meg, coffee! I can eat later,” Bat called out.
Meg came over and poured a cup. “Don’t you want the usual? Or did you already have breakfast? You’re late.”
“No. Nothing. Not yet. I’ll warm up a bit with coffee and see you later.” He quickly took a few sips, and then noticed that Mary was looking furtively toward the Old Court House. “I can drink while I walk.” Then turning, he called, “Meg, I’ll be back.”
They got up, and slipping on their coats, went out. The rain had become a heavy drizzle, and a sliver of blue was creeping slowly in from the northwest.
When they reached the building, Mary unlocked the rear entrance. The door opened to a room that had been converted into a coatroom. Mary muttered to herself that she would have to mop up the water that dripped off their coats as she put hers up. The other two doors in the room led to the office area and to the broom closet.
Mary led him through the office and then down the stairs. Unlocking the door to the archive room, she motioned him to go in ahead of her, while she remained outside the room.
“What am I looking for, Mary?”
“Not looking, smelling!”
Bat sniffed the air, “I don’t smell anything except old books.”
“Have you got a cold? It’s impossible to miss it.”
Mary stepped into the room and took in a deep breath. No gunpowder! Had she been wrong? Was it her imagination? She felt foolish.
“Sorry Bat,” she said, “I must have been half asleep.”
“What was it you thought you smelt?”
“Oh, skip it. You would think I was an old, silly woman.”
“Never think of you as that. Busybody, maybe!”
“Jasper J. Masterson! Get out of here so I can be embarrassed in private!”
“See ya later. Maybe it was a skunk!”
Mary stayed in the basement room after Bat had left. She sniffed in the corners, behind the stacks of books and even picked up the small rug at the door and smelled it. It couldn’t be a skunk, she thought, especially this time of year.
She looked at her watch, and muttered, “Oh my, I’ve got to get upstairs. Betty and the others will be here soon.” Mary raced up the stairs, almost slipping once. She went across the office area to the luncheon space, began measuring the coffee into the pot, and started the percolator. Mary glanced at the sink, and seeing several cups, she started washing them.
Not long after the door from the cloakroom opened, and a small census of genealogists walked in.
“Betty! Right on time. Sorry the coffee isn’t ready on a cold morning like this. I got off to a bad start today, and I had to wash the cups from our last meeting.”
Betty Masterson, Bat’s mother, said, “Bad start! From the way I hear it, you had a snoot full!”
“What?!” the other three ladies chimed in.
Betty set them at ease, “Bad joke. Mary brought my Jasper over here this morning because she smelled something strange or some such. If I didn’t know any better, I would say that Mary was just trying to get him alone in the basement. But if it’s as cold and damp down in the archives as it is here, Mary was safe.”
“If you’d let your son out with some of the young girls in town, then maybe an old widow-woman like me wouldn’t be tempted,” Mary retorted, “and since the library isn’t open today, I only turned on the archives zone of the heater system.” Everyone laughed and began to take their coffee cups from the dish drainer.
The door opened and another woman walked in.
“Mildred, I didn’t know you were coming. I’ll put on some tea water.” Mary started toward the hot plate, “Ah, the light’s on. Coffee anyone?”
“Never mind the tea water,” answered Mildred, “I think I will just have coffee this morning. Caffeine seems to suit this day better than herb tea. Betty, I’m surprised to see you here; when you weren’t there for our morning walk, I thought you must be ill.”
Betty answered, picking up her cup and not looking at Mildred, “No…I just overslept. I barely had time to make it here.”
Mary looked around as everyone filled their cups, “Where’s Don? Without him, we’re just a bunch of old ladies sitting around gossiping.”
Barbara added, “He does seem to get us back on track when we wander a bit.”
“I’m sure he’ll be here soon. I’ve never known him to miss a meeting, and with the excitement of the books that were found, I’m surprised he didn’t beat us here,” said Jane, Barbara’s twin. “Has anyone looked at them yet?”
Mary leered, “I promised that nothing would be touched. They’re downstairs in the archives still in the box where we left them Friday night.” It had been agreed on Friday that they would wait until Monday, since all of them except Prissy already had plans to attend a two-day workshop at the State Capitol over the weekend.
“Then let’s get started,” decried Prissy, the youngest of the group.
They all got their wide bottomed non-spill cups and headed for the basement archive room. As they entered the long, thin room, they each took a seat with plenty of room between each of them, but leaving a space for Don. Mary stepped up on the kick stool and reached for the box on the top shelf, “We need to move books to the top shelf and leave the one at table level clear.”
Barb spoke, “Or not put them all in one box.”
After a little wrangling over who got which book, they all settled down to read and index the books. The first step was the hardest, to lightly number the pages before they started to read them; even a glance at what was written would be enough to distract them.
After a few hours Prissy looked at her watch and exclaimed, “It’s 12:45! I hope Meg hasn’t given away our table.”
Everyone laughed and Betty said, “It would be nice to take a break for lunch, if that’s okay with everyone.” It was a rhetorical question as everyone started to stand up and stretch their arms and rub their eyes.
Barb said, “Speaking of ‘table’, you did a good job on cleaning this old thing; sorry about the water rings,”
“Not to worry. I was just trying to get at the built up dirt and grime. I don’t think it had been cleaned in decades.”
Jane asked, “Mary, could you turn down the heat a little? It’s getting a bit hot in here, and if it’s this warm when I get back from lunch, I’ll just nap the afternoon away.”
Mary went over to the thermostat and, as she turned it, remembered that when she had opened the Library this morning, she had automatically turned on the central heat; the hour and a half that she had waited for Bat had been enough to rid the room of the smell, if indeed she had smelled anything.
They walked over to the diner, and when they entered, Meg saw them and called out from the back of the room, “Mildred, I didn’t know you were coming. I‘ll set another place at the big table.”
“No need,” answered Mary. “She can use Don’s place. He didn’t show up this morning.”
Meg looked perplexed. “Don did not show up with that lot of books they brought over from the old plantation? What’s wrong? Is he dead?” she joked.
“Can’t be dead!” Barbara said. “I still have him ‘living’ in my data base. It would be just too much trouble to change things now that I have sent the proofs off to the publisher.”
“Don’t be so morbid,” said Mildred.
“Are you still going through with that vanity publisher, Barb?” asked Prissy.
“You’re just jealous because I beat you to it.” Barbara said over her shoulder as she went to their regular table.
The group quickly ate, saying very little, eager to get back to the Courthouse Library. They each got up and laid down their money. They had been there so many times and had eaten the same things for so many years, Meg didn’t bother to make out the bill; they knew what they owed.
As the troop of ladies crossed the street, Bob Masterson, Betty’s husband, came running down the street, and shouting before he got to the group, he said, “Betty! Have you seen Bat?”
“No, not since we saw him at home. What’s wrong?”
Bob stopped running several paces away and walked slowly toward them. His breath was coming up short, steaming like an old wood burning train. “It’s Don. I went there this…afternoon. He…had…my fishing reel…fix’n it. He’s dead. Murdered!”
© October, 2001 Fred (Woody) Hendrick
I'm still looking for an agent or better, a publisher. The second of the series is in the works and notes are being collected for the third.
Let me know what you think and don't worry, I have a thick hide. Woody
since posting on September 12, 2006