Was it murder--or something serious?
Philip Marlow in Murder, My Sweet

Friday, September 19, 2014

High Rhymes and Misdemeanors Redux

Grace Hollister is vacationing—under guise of researching her dissertation on the Romantic poets—in the English Lake District when she stumbles upon her first (but not her last) body. Before long she’s involved in kidnapping, murder, and the hunt for what she firmly believes is a lost work by Lord Byron.

Chapter One

The stream chattered merrily over the rocks, undeterred by the motionless form of the man lying facedown in the shallow water.
It seemed to Grace that she had been standing there for an eternity, not moving, not even breathing, trying to focus and telling herself it was a trick of the light.
But though the tall copper beeches cast long, sinister shadows, turning grass and water black, this was no illusion of the lingering English twilight. Nor was this a figment of her own active imagination. There really was a body lying in Grace Hollister’s path.
As the realization slowly sank in, it seemed to Grace that all the world hushed and paused, waiting, waiting… Only the burble of the stream and Grace’s own harsh breathing met her ears, and unexpectedly a feeling of light-headedness crept over her.
Impatiently she blinked back the weakness, forcing herself to focus on impersonal details. The body was male; a tall, graceful body ungracefully sprawled in the rocks and mud. It—he—wore Levis and a white shirt. His thick pale hair ruffled in the breeze revealing a sickening dark patch on the back of his skull.
Grace’s stomach rose in protest. She recognized him; it was Mr. Fox, a fellow guest at the inn where Grace was staying. Only that evening Grace had observed him in the dining room—or rather, observed the two young waitresses observing him. Mr. Fox with his copy of Punch, and his odd, not quite handsome face.
The lax, long-fingered hands moved delicately, feeling nothing as the stream rippled through them. Beneath the water Grace could see the second hand of his watch still methodically ticking away.
Only seconds had passed since Grace came upon the scene in the woods; it took far longer to describe than live those unreal, intense moments before she stumbled forward, clutching at the inert, sodden mass, dragging the body back out of the water and stones and mud.
Though he was a tall man and a dead weight, and Grace was only a medium-sized woman in average shape, adrenaline gave her extra strength. She hauled with all her might; the body of Mr. Fox slithered forward, the stream releasing him with a squelch.
Grace rocked back on her haunches, landing in the mud. Panting, sweating, she crawled over to the drowned man, rolling him onto his back. His head lolled, face white and wet in the gloom.
He looked dead, no doubt about it. He wasn’t breathing, and there was no telling how long he had been underwater. Grace hadn’t spotted Mr. Fox during her twilight ramble through the woods; he could have been soaking there since dinner.
So much for my nice, restful vacation in jolly old England, Grace thought, ripping open the dripping shirt and pressing her ear to a broad and clammy chest. Sparse golden hair tickled her cheek. There was no sound beneath her ear. At least nothing Grace could hear over her own thundering pulse. She stared and stared but could detect no rise and fall of his chest.
Pushing away the thought that it was already too late, Grace tipped back Mr. Fox’s heavy head. Face close to his, she listened intently.
Not a flicker.
Feeling the wet silk of his hair beneath her fingers, Grace stared down at the death mask of a face wiped clean of all intelligence, all emotion, all life. It was a strange face: high-boned and clever, a reckless slash of black brows, a wide, mocking mouth. It was a strange moment; Grace knew she would never forget it. Never forget Mr. Fox.
Accepting this, accepting that it was too late, still Grace went through the motions, pinching shut the man’s nostrils, taking a deep breath and covering his slack mouth with her own.
As Grace exhaled strongly she felt a faint resistance. This was so different from practice with dummies in a noisy gymnasium.
Between snatches of air, Grace breathed forcefully into Mr. Fox’s unresponsive lungs four times. Then she paused, feeling for the pulse in his throat with uncertain fingers.
It had grown too dark to see; dusk’s slow retreat falling back beneath the night which swallowed the green woods and fells, the mountains and dales of the Lake District. Feverishly Grace labored under the black tracery of leaves blotting out the first faint stars.
Still nothing? Not even a twitch?
Grace shifted around on her knees. Mr. Fox was all long, strong bone and muscle, no excess flesh as she felt cautiously over his rib cage, brushing over a hard, flat abdomen, finding the place where ribs met breastbone.
To pick the wrong place meant risking injury to the ribs and chest wall. Like it matters at this point, a pessimistic little voice whispered in Grace’s ear. She shrugged off the voice of doom. Surely a strong man like Mr. Fox wouldn’t give up his life so easily.
She placed the heel of one hand on Mr. Fox’s chest, the other hand on top. Locking elbows, Grace began compressing, at first tentatively, then more strongly. She counted, her voice sounding loud and fierce in the darkness.
“One and two and three and four and five.”
How many minutes did it take before the effects of drowning were irreversible? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. She had no idea how long Mr. Fox had been in the water.
Down and up, down and up. Finding her rhythm, Grace leaned into Mr. Fox’s body and relaxed. It was like squeezing a giant, sodden sponge. Grace worked over the body till her arms began to ache.
And then, just as she was giving up hope, Grace was startled to hear a great rattling cough. The corpse became a man again, suddenly giving up the stream water he had swallowed.
Grace had never heard a more beautiful sound.
Mr. Fox’s chest heaved beneath her palms, and she heard him gulp in huge lungfuls of the night air. Amazed at herself, at what she had just accomplished, Grace rested on her heels, her teeth chattering with reaction while Mr. Fox coughed and spluttered and continued to catch at gusts of air like a landed fish.
It was like a miracle. Heck, it was a miracle. One minute he had been a drowned thing. Dead. Ended. Finished. And the next, he was alive. Grace hugged herself against the cold, offering a silent prayer of thanks to the distant stars above.
“What…happened…?” Mr. Fox’s rusty voice trailed uncertainly. He made an effort to push himself up.
Grace bent over him reassuringly. “It’s all right. You’re going to be fine. Just rest here. I’m going for help.” She patted the long fingers that clutched weakly at her wrist.
“Wait—” Mr. Fox broke off to shiver convulsively.
Shock and the damp could undo all that she had fought for. Gently Grace freed herself, rising from her cramped position. “I’ll be right back,” she promised. “Just take it easy.”
Picking her way blindly over the roots and grass, Grace at last found the path and started back to the inn. She walked as quickly as she dared over the uncertain terrain, back toward warmth and light and people.
But a few yards down the trail a feeling of alarm swept over Grace. It wasn’t logical, it wasn’t even something she could explain, but she plunged back the way she had come, feet pounding the dirt, dropping to her knees once more beside Mr. Fox...

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