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A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"'Don't even whisper that word in my daughter's presence,' said the lawyer, pretending to be stern. 'I'm hoping she'll have a very quiet trip with no unusual adventures.'
'Oh, Dad,' Nancy said in quick protest, as she heard his latest remark, 'I can't imagine a vacation without a mystery to solve!'"
-Carolyn Keene, The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk
My first detective case came to me in a Priority Mail flat-rate box postmarked from Rice, Minnesota, and packed with a dozen Nancy Drew novels, the classic bright yellow hardcovers that I could picture lined up on the top shelf of the pink bookcase I had by the head of my bed when I was ten or eleven. I was about to earn the official designation of "Girl Detective" a decade and a half too late.
Between the neatly stacked books in the postal service box was an index card with a handwritten note suggesting that I might particularly enjoy The Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trunk, the seventeenth volume Carolyn Keene's classic series. That's where the details of my assignment were hidden. Chester Hall hadn't signed his name to either the index card, or the laser-printed instructions that I found folded between Chapter VIII ("The Missing Passport") and Chapter IX ("A Diamond Bracelet"), but it really wasn't necessary. I recognized his flair for the dramatic, or at least his eagerness to cater to mine.
Chester Hall was a private investigator working out of southern New Hampshire, and he looked me up last spring as part of a case he was working on. We kept in touch after that, and we became friends somewhere along the line. I helped him out on another case last summer. Around the beginning of January, we became business partners. Chester Hall had gotten a windfall of cash, and he fronted the money for Gaslight Books, the business I'd dreamed of opening ever since college. Then he disappeared, traveling around the country, looking for God-knew-what, sending me the occasional postcard from this town or that. He always put a post office box in Bedford, New Hampshire, as his return address, and I wrote him once a month to update him on how the business was going (sales slowly increasing, still not profitable).
There was another aspect to our partnership, one that I suspected meant a good deal more to Chess Hall than how soon I started providing return on investment. Chess had enemies in New England, and he needed someone to keep an eye on things while he was gone.
So here I was. Nancy Mateo, bookshop owner; ready at a moment's notice to become Nancy Mateo, girl detective. Lady sleuth, maybe? Or maybe just Nancy Mateo, detective. Some of my friends would probably find the "girl" part of the label demeaning. Some might find it even more demeaning that our arrangement involved me running around doing Chess Hall's dirty work for him. But I'd gotten enough of a glimpse of what Chess was up against to know that he was one of the good guys, and that the bad guys were genuinely bad. Besides, he hadn't actually given me anything to do in the first few months the store had been in business.
A real estate speculator named Craig Putnam has made several recent property purchases in Worcester County. Putnam is connected with Christina Kenney and Richard Harrington. Find out whatever information you can through legal channels and send it to me. Keep it discrete and take care of yourself. And enjoy the books.
There were three business cards stapled to the note. One was Putnam's. He was listed as President, Putnam Properties, with a post office box address in Boston, an AOL email address, and a FAX number. The second was for an independent realtor named Stephanie Slovin, with an office here in Worcester. The third was a contact email for Chess. I checked the back of the paper, half-expecting a warning that the instructions would self-destruct in ten seconds. Nothing there. I flipped through the rest of the books, found no more hidden messages, and data entered them into the store's inventory before placing them in the stack of books to be shelved in the children's section. The books were library editions from the 1930's and 1940's, although none were from the first thirteen volumes in the series. Those original trade editions had been printed with four glossy illustrations in each, and were the really valuable collectors' items of the series. Still, these might be interesting pieces for a collector.
It was Friday afternoon, one of the first hot days of the year, and I had the doors to the store propped open with a fan running near the window, and I could already tell the fan was not going to be up to the task once the real summer heat set in. People passed outside with ice cream cones from the shop down the street, but my business was slow. No one wanted to be indoors. School wasn't out yet, but there seemed to be more kids on the streets than usual for a weekday. I had a feeling that there was quite a bit of hooky being played. Unfortunately, the ones interested in books were probably the ones dutifully plugging away in their hot classrooms.
I decided I might as well play a little hooky myself. If I closed up shop now, I could get a start on my detective work while the city and county offices were still open.
A few minutes of searching online got me to the website of the Worcester District Registry of Deeds. I read the FAQ and decided to pay a visit in person. The office was only a few blocks away at the Worcester County Courthouse, and the website indicated that it took several months for new records to be uploaded. The transactions that Chess were probably sitting around waiting to be data entered.
I flipped the store sign to "Closed", locked up, and set out for the Courthouse, making a brief detour for one of those soft-serve cones that were so popular.
I read most of the Nancy Drew Mysteries on summer vacations up in Maine. I couldn't help but smile as I crossed the Main Street. This would be the point in one of those stories where a mysterious stranger on the street would shove some odd package into the arms of the girl detective, or some unexpected accident would strike. We'd learn later that it hadn't been an accident after all.
I arrived at the steps of the courthouse without any significant Nancy Drew incidents, and placed the keys and change from my pockets into a plastic bin along with my purse. I stood with arms spread as a wrinkled security guard ran his metal detector wand over my curves while the bin with my purse and keys and change made its crawl through the x-ray conveyor.
The guard directed me to an elevator and I descended into the lower basement level of the courthouse. The office of the Register of Deeds looked like a library, complete with a severe-looking woman who fixed her gaze on my nose-ring and asked if she could help me in a tone that suggested she sincerely hoped she couldn't.
I had spent a couple of semesters in college with a work-study library job, and I knew my way around card files and microfiche machines. There were two computer terminals in the room as well, and once the caretaker was convinced that I could navigate the system on my own, she decided that her best tactic would be to ignore me and hope I went away soon. Fine by me.
I located the first of Craig Putnam's transactions in a card file after only about five minutes of looking, and in another ten minutes, I had located five more if his transactions. I figured that was enough to start with. I sat down, got out a pen and a note pad from my purse, and started writing down addresses.
"The hell?" I muttered it under my breath, but it was loud enough to earn a glare from the librarian. I'd planned on writing down the addresses and Googling them later. I hadn't expected to find one I recognized, but there it was:
Fifty-seven Berkshire Street. Robert Olson's townhouse. Robert Olson, founding member of the New Hampshire Paranormal Society. When Olson died, his son James had sold me his collection of books, one of the best collections of its type anywhere. Those books had formed the core of my stock of valuable rarities.
I'd been sweating out on the street, and I was suddenly aware of my muscles tightening up in the chill of the air conditioned basement. I'd had one run-in with Christina Kenney, and I wasn't eager to repeat the experience, but all of a sudden here was her man suddenly involved in business dealing with the same people I'd been doing business with. I scribbled down the remaining information and got myself back out into the light of day.
I caught a movie with Em Friday night. Belle was going to join us, but she wasn't feeling well and decided to stay in. I kept wanting to tell Em about my assignment from Chess. She'd have ideas. But I knew this had to be done on my own. Chess was trusting my to keep things quiet, and that meant that even trusted friends couldn't know. And this wasn't something I'd want Em and Belle too mixed up in anyway. Nancy Drew always had a couple of sidekicks to share her mysteries with. I'd have to go it alone.
So we went out for drinks and I told Em about all of the drama from the gaming convention a few weeks back. I reminded her that I work Saturdays, so we called it an early night and she dropped me off at my apartment.
I spent Saturday researching the list of properties while I minded the shop. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for the purchases. Besides the townhouse, Putnam had recently filed paperwork for the purchases of a condo, two houses on opposite ends of town, a commercial property, and a vacant lot. I saved all the information I could find, and emailed it off to Chess.
After I closed up shop, I caught a bus across town to get another look at the Olson townhouse.
I walked up Berkshire Street, unsure of what I was going to do. It occurred to me that I should have brought a camera. Chess might want some pictures of the properties. Didn't they sell one-use digital cameras at the drugstore? Or maybe just use one of the old-fashioned disposables. Get the film developed onto a CD and send the files out to Chess that way. If I would just join the rest of humanity and buy a cell phone, that would solve the camera problem, but every month I'd run the numbers and every month I'd decided the budget was still a bit too tight.
As I walked past the townhouse, I decided I'd worry about the camera issue another day. The places looked as empty as it had the first night I came to look at books, the night of that bad storm in January.
That thought brought back the cold-sweat feeling, and I stopped, surveying the townhouse from across the street, suddenly unsure if I wanted to get any closer. I remembered there was a side entrance, which became a compromise of sorts over walking directly up to the front door. I didn't want to go to the front door, and it probably wouldn't have been useful anyway. The place was empty.
I made my way across Berkshire Street, passed by the front of the Olson place, and turned into the alley that separated it from the next row of brownstones. I could see the shapes of chairs draped in sheets or drop-cloths through the first-floor window, but the light didn't penetrate very far into the living room. I approached the back door, and caught myself wondering if it was locked. Of course it was. This might be an upscale neighborhood, but it was still the city. People locked their doors. I still reached out to try the lock.
A hand pushed the door open from within revealing a figure framed in the darkness of the doorway. I didn't scream, although I may have started to. The sound ended up caught in my throat and I took two big steps backward.
"Ms. Matteo! You'll never believe what I've found! Come have a look!"
It was the most excited I had ever seen James Olson, and it was the strange dissonance of his sudden appearance of the scene and his excited tone with my own memories of him as dull and stilted that put me at ease.
I started an explanation of what I was doing back at the house of his late father, but he didn't seem to care.
"Quite unexpected. So good of your to stop by so quickly. I wasn't sure if you'd gotten my message." I hadn't, but no sense in complicating matters. I nodded and smiled.
He led me through the kitchen into the front all to a place where a part of the wall had been cut away. At first I thought it was paneling lining the inside portion of the wall, but I could smell the faint scent of cedar as I got closer.
"I was getting the walls ready to be repainted for the new owner. Odd, isn't it? Like a hidden safe or something. And take a look at these."
On a chair nearby were three books, and a small bit of folded cloth, a dark green bit of velvet or felt. Two of the books were bibles; at first glance I figured them to be late 19th Century. The other book was handwritten, a diary or journal.
"These could be valuable, don't you think?" Olson's eyes were nearly alight with the prospect of some additional profit from his father's estate.
"I'll need time to appraise them."
He nodded eagerly. "Of course. Oh, and what do you make of that other thing."
I reached to pick up the cloth and a little piece of metal fell out. It was a bit of jewelry, a small pendant of sterling silver with a marking etched on it.
"Itís a rune," I offered. "Doesn't look like anything too valuable. Unless it's very old, I suppose. Have an antique jewelry dealer give it a look. Is it something from your family, do you think?"
Olson was Swedish, and the runes were a Scandinavian tradition.
He shook his head. "Oh, no. See, have a look at this."
He showed me the remnants of layers of wallpaper where he had made the cut to discover the hidden compartment.
"Here is the wallpaper that was here when my father moved in." He explained. "See how there are three more layers. This probably goes back to a couple of owners. Let's see. My father purchased this place from an old family who moved down to Florida. Their name was Pratt. And they acquired it from an old widow, Mrs. Kenney."
I'm not sure how he managed to keep oblivious, because I nearly dropped the books I was holding. Still, all Olson could see was the dollar signs in front of his eyes, and I let him package up the three books for me and got out of there as fast as I could.
The office of the Register of Deeds opens at eight. Gaslight books opens at nine. I was waiting at the courthouse when it opened Monday morning. A few minutes after eight, I was skimming through microfiche copies of old deeds, tax assessments, appraisals, and loan papers.
There had been a Christina Kenney who owned the property at fifty-seven Berkshire Street. She sold it to the Pratts in 1970. I kept looking. Further back.
A house out in Auburn, deeded to a C. Kenney in 1962. A farmhouse belonging to Christine Kenney in 1937. Another farmhouse, another Christine Kenney, this one with a whole series of tax records going back to 1919.
I kept going. At a few minutes before nine, I realized I'd be late opening up the store as I asked the old librarian for the microfiche records covering 1820 to 1840.
I was half an hour late for work when I was informed that the oldest records kept by the Worcester District Register of Deeds were for the year 1750, the year a Mrs. Kenney had signed the deed on a lot in downtown Worcester.
I walked out of the courthouse, thinking about my Grandmother and of gifts passed down generations of daughters. Stepping into the sticky glow of another hot day was like waking up.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007