“WRITTEN OFF” (click on the cover for more information)
A Forensic Handwriting Mystery, Book 7
BY SHEILA LOWE
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, though 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, 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 make 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. The week following hip surgery he was eager to get back to the gym, to long walks on the beach and driving his car whenever he felt like it. To his chagrin, he was being forced to understand that in his early seventies his body took longer to heal than it used to. 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 had been noticeable from the moment Claudia picked him up at the guesthouse where he lived in Venice Beach, the drive to the Beverly Hills medical building made in near silence. Even when she told a silly joke that on any other day would have made him groan, Zebediah—ordinarily the most good-humored person on earth—barely responded.
“The Buddha said to the hot dog man, “Make me one with everything.”” Half a head shake. “Come on Zebediah, that was funny. Okay, the Buddha hands the hot dog man a twenty. The man puts it in his apron. The Buddha says, “where’s my change?” The hot dog man says, “Change must come from within.” Nothing.
He had not flirted with the woman at the front desk, nor the nurse, and that was definitely out of character for her friend. Now, back at the elevator, Claudia kept waiting for him to tell her what was on his mind. By the time she pressed the button for P2, she was burning with curiosity and could no longer contain it.
“What did the doctor say? How’s your progress?”
The noncommittal answer was infuriatingly unsatisfying. Claudia was glad when no one else shared the ride to the parking garage. She held the view that when shared with strangers the trip took longer, everyone uncomfortable, avoiding eye contact by watching the floor numbers flash past. Her friend Kelly Brennan would inevitably make some ribald quip to break the ice. If Kelly were there now to vamp with Zebediah, she would certainly have found a way to make him laugh.
They bumped to a stop at the subterranean parking level. Dozens of parked cars and she and Zebediah the only humans in sight. It made Claudia think of earthquakes and being trapped underground. “Would I get an answer if we played twenty questions?” she asked, her voice hollow in the gloomy cave-like structure.
This time, he managed a faint smile. “Twenty questions sounds like fun.”
“Number one, is there a problem with your recovery?”
“Not at all, darling, I’ll be leaping tall buildings in a single bound by tomorrow.”
“So, does that mean you got a clean bill of health?”
“All is well. Doctor Rajagopian says I’m right where I should be.”
“Then what’s with all the cane thumping?” Reaching his Lexus, Claudia opened the passenger door. Zebediah handed her the cane and maneuvered into the seat. In his present condition, it was easier for him than her low-slung classic ‘85 Jaguar. “Too many restrictions,” he grumbled. “No air travel for three months.”
She handed him back the cane and went around to the driver’s side. Up the winding slope to the exit, she inserted the parking ticket in its slot, happy to see daylight. “What’s the problem? You don’t need to fly anywhere in the next three months.” He didn’t say anything and she glanced over at him. He was staring down at his hands, twisting in his lap. “Do you?”
“As it happens…” Zebediah started, then broke off. The 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?” she asked when Zebediah left his words hanging.
“As it happens, 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, with a sotto voce “dammit.” Then, “Something just came up.”
“Something that requires travel to Maine.”
“Yes, and now I’m forbidden to go.” They passed several traffic lights before Zebediah spoke again. “I need you to go in my place. Would you do that for me?”
With her attention focused on avoiding a collision with a sports car that was drifting into her lane, it took an extra second to register what he had said. Claudia shot a surprised look in his direction. “Wait. What? You want me to fill in for you?”
“That’s exactly what I want, sweetie. You would charge your regular fee for out-of-town travel plus all expenses, of course. 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. I’ve been thinking about the possibility all night, and I know it’s a lot to 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 you need me to do.”
“To interview someone, for one thing.”
“I hear an echo.”
“Zebediah, please knock off the mystery. Interview whom?” The question hung in the air between them, the very definition of a pregnant pause, while Claudia tried unsuccessfully to imagine what name he might come up with.
“A prison inmate. You’ve done that before.”
“Getting warmer. Someone in prison in Maine. Who?”
“Does the name Roxanne Becker ring any bells?” Zebediah asked.
It did seem familiar. Claudia searched her memory for references. Then it clicked and her eyes opened wide. “The serial killer?”
“One and the same, dearest. Pique your interest?”
Zebediah did not need an answer to that. Of course her interest was piqued, as he had known it would be. 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 was far from a high-priced call girl. Over a period of ten years, she picked up clients from street corners and bars. The ones she chose as victims ended up stabbed to death on country roads and alleys across a wide swath of states. Speculation had been rampant that she killed many more, but it was never proved.
A horn blasted behind them, letting her know that the light had turned green while Claudia 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.
Claudia sensed that something was missing 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 did get 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 writing it?”
“Her name is Madeleine Maynard.”
“I don’t recall you ever mentioning her.”
“She’s 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 went silent and gazed through the side window of the car. There was nothing more interesting than a street full of luxury high rises in this section of the Wilshire Corridor, 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. It took a full two minutes before he picked up his story again. When he did, 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 already started writing the manuscript. That’s the other part of your task, if you’ll agree to go. I need you to bring her work 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 funny, 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 as he was staying at his sister Jane’s small apartment in the City they decided it would not work out.
Zebediah, beginning to act more like himself now that he had dropped the bomb, gave her 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 of the office for 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, of course. 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 and 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, Maddie meant a lot to you. Even if you didn’t tell me about her.” The mild rebuke was meant as a joke, but he said nothing, just released a long sigh of relief. When the silence became a vacuum so prolonged that Claudia took her eyes off the road long enough to steal a glance, she saw that Zebediah was staring straight ahead, his lips pressed tight together. She waited, and when he spoke at last, his words took her breath away.
“Madeleine was my wife.”
Suspense Publishing. Copyright © Sheila Lowe, 2017.