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Claudia finds herself swept up in the mystery of Madeleine's life and death, soon realizing that Madeleine left behind more questions than answers, and no shortage of suspects. Her academic success and personal fortune made her the envy of fellow faculty members. The University where she worked anticipates being the beneficiary of Madeline's estate. But that seems in question when a stranger claiming to be Madeleine's nephew turns up brandishing a new will, all bets are off.
Release date: July 6, 2021
Publisher: Write Choice Ink
Content advisory: Some profanity
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The cabin was the size of a master bedroom; a ramshackle shed whose cedar logs had expanded and contracted until the spaces between them were large enough to admit small vermin. Inside, the musty smell and scat on virtually every surface confirmed that many such creatures had availed themselves of the accommodations over the years while it fell into disrepair.
It had been unused for so long that few in the village of Summerhays remembered that the cabin stood—or more accurately, leaned—in the overgrown clearing in the woods, let alone who had built it. Most folks readily agreed that given the one room, a hunter was more likely than a family to have occupied the place.
No evidence of any dweller endured; no furnishings other than a rough-hewn kitchen chair. No guesses how long the chair had stood in front of the old wood-burning stove, waiting for someone to sit down and warm their hands.
Each summer that passed, the vegetation crept closer to the cabin. What little light that managed to penetrate the sagging windows was murky at best. In winter, even when the trees were stripped of their leaves as they were now, the metallic snow-laden skies darkened the cheerless room to a permanent dusk.
It was through those grimy, sagging windows that searchers spotted the remains of Professor Madeleine Maynard.
Chaos theory—the science of surprises—teaches that one small change to a system can later produce tremendous, and often unintended, consequences. You start the day taking a friend to the doctor and end up making a choice that ends up altering lives. Including your own.
Claudia held open the doctor’s office door and followed Zebediah Gold out into the hallway. A week following hip surgery, he was eager to get back to the gym, to walks on the beach, and to driving his car whenever he felt like it. To his chagrin, he was being forced to face the fact that in at seventy, his body was going to take longer to heal than he had expected.
The patience he generously imparted to his psychotherapy clients was less evident when it came to himself, and the unhappy thump of his cane on the polished floor shouted his feelings louder than an F-bomb. That he was stewing over something more had been noticeable from the moment Claudia picked him up. The drive to the Beverly Hills medical building had been made in near silence, even when she told a silly joke that on any other day would have made him groan.
“The Buddha said to the hot dog man, ‘Make me one with everything.’” Barely a head shake. “Come on, Zebediah, that was funny. Okay, then: the Buddha hands the hot dog man a twenty. The man puts it in his apron and the Buddha says, ‘Where’s my change?’ The hot dog man says, “Change must come from within.”
Zebediah—ordinarily the most good-humored person you could find—barely responded. He had not flirted with the woman at the reception desk, nor the nurse. Definitely out of character. By the time she pressed the elevator button for the parking garage, Claudia was burning with curiosity and could hold back no longer.
“What did the doctor say? How’s your progress?”
Unsatisfied by the noncommittal answers, Claudia stepped inside the elevator, glad to find it empty. In her view, a ride shared with strangers took longer—everyone uncomfortable, avoiding eye contact by watching the floor numbers flash past. Her friend, Kelly Brennan, would have made some ribald quip to break the ice. If she was here now to vamp with Zebediah, she would certainly have found a way to make him laugh.
The doors opened on the parking subterranean garage.
“Would I get an answer if we played twenty questions?” Claudia asked, her voice hollow in the gloomy cave-like underground parking structure. It made her think of earthquakes and being trapped underground. This time, he managed a faint smile. “Twenty questions sounds like fun.”
“Is there a problem with your recovery?”
“Not at all, darling, I’ll be leaping tall buildings in a single bound by next week.”
“Does that mean you got a clean bill of health?”
“All is well. Doctor Rajagopian says I’m right where I should be.”
They reached his Lexus and Zebediah handed over the cane, maneuvering into the passenger seat. It was easier for him to negotiate than Claudia’s low-slung classic ‘85 Jaguar.
Before closing the door, she leaned down. “Then what’s with all the cane thumping?”
“Too many restrictions. No air travel for the next three months.”
“Then, what’s the problem? You don’t need to fly anywhere in the next three months. Do you?”
“As it happens—” Zebediah started, then broke off. The exit gate arm rose, and Claudia shouldered the Lexus into the endless stream of vehicles on Wilshire Boulevard. L.A. might have dealt the smog a crippling blow, but the traffic monster consumed the Southland with the appetite of King Kong.
“As it happens, what?”
“I do need to fly. To Maine.”
“Yes, darling. It’s a large state on the East Coast.”
“I know where Maine is, thank you. What’s there?”
“Blueberries in the summer. Loads of snow in the winter.” Gold shifted his position, wincing as he did so. “Something just came up.”
“Something that requires travel to Maine.”
“Yes, and now I’m forbidden to go,” said Zebediah, then paused. “I have a very large favor to ask. Would you to go in my place?”
Focused on avoiding a collision with a sports car that was drifting into her lane, it took an extra second for Claudia to register what he had said. She shot him a surprised glance. “Wait. What? You want me to go for you?”
“That’s exactly what I want, sweetie. You would charge your regular fee for out-of-town travel plus all expenses. Money no object.”
“To do what? I’m not a licensed psychologist.”
“You don’t need a Ph.D. to do what’s needed in this case. And don’t sell yourself short. You know plenty about human behavior. Listen, I’ve been thinking about the possibility all night, and I know it’s a big ask—”
The sudden prospect of an unexpected trip to the East Coast was going to take more than thirty seconds to absorb. “Why don’t you tell me what it is you need me to do.”
“To interview someone, for one thing.”
“I hear an echo.”
“Please knock off the mystery. Interview whom?” The question hung in the air between them, the very definition of a pregnant pause.
“A prison inmate. Nothing you haven’t done before.”
“Getting warmer. Someone in prison in Maine. Who?”
“Does the name Roxanne Becker ring any bells?” Zebediah asked.
“The serial killer?”
“One and the same, dearest. Pique your interest?”
Zebediah did not need her answer. He knew her interest to be piqued. He had baited the hook and was dangling the worm in front of her.
It had been at least twenty years ago since Becker was convicted of killing eight men who had hired her for sexual services. Much like Aileen Wuornos who came later, Roxanne had picked up clients from street corners and bars. The ones she selected as victims ended up stabbed to death on country roads and alleys across a wide swath of states. There had been rampant speculation that she killed many more, but it was never proved.
A horn blasted behind them, letting Claudia know the light had turned green while she was dredging up what she remembered about Roxanne Becker. Waving a hand in apology to the impatient driver, she accelerated across the intersection at Merv Griffin Way, puzzling out why Zebediah was asking her this favor. He had been a prison psychologist for many years, working with a long string of hardcore inmates before he could no longer stomach the cruelty of their misdeeds, the often-hideous childhoods that had led them to perform them, and the barbarous conditions of their incarceration.
He had published several articles about serial murder in prestigious journals and textbooks on abnormal behavior. Since semi-retiring, he had taken his practice in as opposite a direction as he could, treating mainly celebrities—an interesting contrapositive, he liked to say. They might be as antisocial in their thinking as the inmates, but in most cases the acting out was less violent.
Titanium hip notwithstanding, an opportunity to interview Roxanne Becker should have attracted him like a heroin addict to a 20 bag. Something was missing; Claudia sensed it as strongly as if it were an empty thought bubble floating between them.
“What’s the rush? Why not wait until you can go yourself? Or does Roxanne have a date with the executioner?”
“As it happens, she got the death penalty in Connecticut, where she was originally sentenced. They changed the law while she had an appeal pending. It’s no longer a death penalty state.”
“Seriously? What happened to all the people on death row?”
“Their sentences were commuted to life without parole. Roxanne was moved to Maine, which doesn’t have the death penalty, either.”
“All very interesting, but why are you stalling, Zebediah? I’m going to ask you again, what’s the rush?”
“Sorry, love. There actually is a deadline: a publication deadline.”
“You have a new book deal?”
“It’s not my deal. The author has been consulting with me on some of the research.”
“So, the book is about Roxanne’s life?”
Zebediah nodded. “The working title is ‘The Road to Serial Murder.’”
“Who’s the author?”
“Her name is Madeleine Maynard.”
“I don’t recall you ever mentioning her.”
“She published a number of textbooks on criminal psych, scads of journal articles. Serial murder is a specialty of hers. She was a professor at a small private university in Maine.”
Zebediah fell silent and gazed through the side window of the car. There was nothing more interesting in this section of the Wilshire Corridor than a street full of luxury high rises, and Claudia was quite certain he had no interest in the architecture. She waited, giving him space to get where he needed to go without prompting. When he picked up his story again, his voice was filled with deep sadness.
“I just got a letter from Maddie’s attorney that she recently passed away. It was in that bundle of mail you picked up from my P.O. Box yesterday. I’ve been asked to finish the book and I’m happy to do it. The thing is, the publisher wants it by April 1st. They’ve already extended the deadline twice. Maddie was out here a few months ago and we worked on the outline, so I know where she wanted to go with it. She had made a lot of progress on the manuscript. That’s the other part of your task, if you’ll agree to go. I need you to bring it back here.”
“She was here in L.A. and yet you never mentioned it.”
“There was no reason to.”
“Good God, Zebediah, you have a whole secret life that you’ve kept from me. I’m devastated.”
“Very amusing, my sweet. Now, think about the interview you could have with Roxanne Becker. She and Maddie had been corresponding over a number of years and developed a friendship. Maddie visited her at the prison several times. It’s only about an hour’s drive from her home.”
While she listened to him trying to persuade her, Claudia had already started running through her head what it would take to make the trip. Her workload was light over the holiday season. Her fiancé, Homicide Detective Joel Jovanic, would be in San Francisco, where his mother was scheduled for surgery. She had offered to go with him, but he was staying at his sister Jane’s small apartment in the City, and she didn’t have room for both of them.
Zebediah, beginning to act more like himself now that he had dropped the bomb, gave his most winning smile. “You’re a world class handwriting analyst and you’re bright, analytical, compassionate. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could get Roxanne to supply a handwriting sample. Your analysis would make an excellent added dimension to the book. I have full faith in you to do the best job.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Dr. Gold.”
“I called the attorney, Jim Spencer. According to his office recording, he’s out until Christmas, but that doesn’t have to stop us from booking your flight. The sooner I get the manuscript in my hands the better. Working on it will give me something to do while I’m recovering. Please say yes.”
Claudia hesitated, that uncomfortable hinky sensation still pecking away at her intuition. “There’s more, isn’t there? What are you not telling me?”
“I would be forever in your debt. You can take the Thursday night red eye and fly to Boston, change planes and arrive in Portland, Maine, on Friday morning. I’ll make sure someone is there to pick you up.”
“The weekend after Christmas? The whole world will be going home. I’d never get a flight.”
“We’ll book you in business class. First class if necessary.” Zebediah sounded cheered, already knowing her answer. “Maddie lived in an old sea captain’s house just outside a place called Summerhays. You’ll love it.”
“Summerhays? I’ve never heard of it.”
“You wouldn’t have. It’s not much more than a village. There’s a small river near the house; it’s quite beautiful in the summer.” He made a wry face. “Not so much in December. That’s the downside of the job—a taste of Maine winter.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Once or twice.”
“Yet, you’ve never mentioned it.” Claudia cast a suspicious glance at him. “What’s the big secret about this professor? What did she die of?”
“Mr. Spencer didn’t mention the cause of death, but Maddie had severe asthma. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was related to that.”
Long ago, before Claudia and Zebediah became ‘just friends,’ they had briefly been lovers. Those days were in the distant past, but the emotional bond between them had stayed strong over the years. She felt the tug at her heart, remembering the many times when Zebediah had been there for her when she had needed him the most—especially last year when she had been suffering from PTSD after a brutal attack. Even Jovanic had not been able to reach her. Zebediah had allowed her to reach out to him in her own time and helped her find her way through the terror. Now it was his turn and she could not find it in her to refuse him.
“You know I’ll go. Obviously, this Maddie meant a lot to you. Even if you didn’t tell me about her.” The mild rebuke was meant as a joke, but Zebediah released a long sigh of relief. The silence became so protracted that Claudia took her eyes off the road long enough to steal a glance at him. He was staring straight ahead, his lips pressed tight together. His next words took her breath away.
“Madeleine was my wife.”
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