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Authors: Carolyn Hart

Letter From Home

BOOK: Letter From Home
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Table of Contents
 
Praise for
Letter from Home
Nominated for the Agatha Award
 
“Hart's delicate touch balances the gentle restraint of a coming-of-age memoir with the hot passions of small-town tragedy.”—
The New York Times Book Review
 
“Hart has created a fabulous two-in-one: an excellent mystery and the poignant memoirs of her heroine, Gretchen Grace Gilman . . .The obviously well-researched history draws the reader into this atypical whodunit. Characters are Steinbeck vivid, as is the sense of time and place. Hart masterfully portrays an American small town during WWII.”
—
Publishers Weekly
(starred review)
 
“A solid stand-alone work.”—
Library Journal
 
“In
Letter from Home
the scene of the crime is bygone days in small-town Oklahoma. It took me back to my own boyhood and just such a summer . . . You'll enjoy it.”
—Tony Hillerman
 
Praise for Carolyn Hart:
“If I were teaching a course on how to write a mystery, I would make Carolyn Hart required reading.”
—
Los Angeles Times
 
“The reigning monarch of the amateur sleuth mystery delivers royally.”—
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“Carolyn Hart's thoughtful innovative mysteries make her, without a doubt, among the best writers living today.”
—Earlene Fowler
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
 
 
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either
are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously,
and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business
establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
 
LETTER FROM HOME
 
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with
the author
 
Copyright © 2003 by Carolyn G. Hart.
 
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate
in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of
the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
 
For information address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
eISBN : 978-0-425-19882-7
 
Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing
Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
The name BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the BERKLEY PRIME
CRIME design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
 
 

http://us.penguingroup.com

To my writing friends who encouraged me:
Mary Daheim, Jean Hager, Teresa Miller, and Eve Sandstrom.
And to Natalee Rosenstein, with heartfelt thanks.
Dear Gretchen,
You're rich and famous now. You've been all over the world, seen things I'll never see, met people I'll never know. I saw you once on TV going to a big night at the Kennedy Center. You had on a white satin gown and it looked like a diamond necklace around your throat. That was a handsome man with you. . . .
CHAPTER 1
THE RUSTED IRON gate sagged from the stone pillar. A winter-brown vine clung to the stones. Pale March sunlight filtered through the bare branches of sycamores and oaks, throwing thin black shadows as distinct as stylized brushwork in a Japanese painting. My cane poked through a mound of tawny leaves, some wizened and wrinkled as old faces, some damp and soggy, smelling of must and rot and decay. The rutted road looked much narrower than I remembered. When I'd last been in the cemetery, most of the headstones, even those dating back to Indian Territory days, had stood straight. Now many were tilted and some had tumbled to the ground, half hidden by leaves. Remnants of a late snow spangled shaded spots.
I walked slowly, stabbing my cane at the uneven ground. Nothing looked familiar. Our graves were surely this way. . . . Oh, of course. The weeping willow was gone. I'd always marked our family plot by a huge willow, its dangling fronds shiny green in summer, bare and brown in winter. A stump leaned crookedly near the plot.
I paused to rest for a moment. The sharp wind rustled the bare branches of the sycamores and oaks. I shivered, grateful for the warmth of my cashmere coat and leather gloves. I plunged my left hand into a pocket of my coat. My gloved fingers closed around the letter. The name on the return address had not been familiar, but I had recognized the postmark. My first thought when I received the square cream envelope had been as instinctive as breathing: Why, it's a letter from home. Second came a quiver of utter surprise. Home? I'd not been back to the little town in northeastern Oklahoma since I was a girl. Home . . .
When I opened the envelope and lifted out three pages—cheap paper with violently colored roses twining down one side, the writing a dense, almost indecipherable scrawl—I almost threw the sheets away unread. The salutation stopped me:
Dear Gretchen.
No one had called me Gretchen for well over a half century. Gretchen . . . Across a span of time, I remembered a girl, dark-haired, blue-eyed, slim and eager, who seemed quite separate and distinct from the old woman walking determinedly toward the graves.
I remembered that long-ago girl. . . .
 
GRETCHEN CLUTCHED THE folded sheaf of yellow copy paper and a thick dark-leaded pencil, sharp enough for writing but the point too blunt to break. That was just how Mr. Dennis did it when he covered the city council. Her first day at the
Gazette
, he'd waggled a thick handful of copy paper. “This is all you need, Gretchen. Take some paper and a couple of pencils, listen hard, make notes you can read, write your story fast.”
It still seemed strange to walk toward Victory Café and not hurry inside, welcoming the familiar smells of cinnamon rolls and coffee and bacon. Victory Café—she was almost used to the name now. It used to be Pfizer Café but after Pearl Harbor when people began to talk about Nazis and Krauts as well as the Japs, Grandmother hired Elwyn Has-kins to paint a new name in bright red and blue against a white background: Victory Café. There was a small American flag near the cash register and the mirror behind the counter held pictures of men in the service. Anyone could bring a photo and Grandmother would tape it up. Now people were beginning to believe in victory, especially since the invasion, though it seemed that the convoys rolling through on Highway 66 were longer than ever and the trains clacking past day and night pulled more and more flatcars carrying tanks and trucks and jeeps. Sometimes soldiers leaned from open windows and waved.
Gretchen stopped for the red light at Broadway and Main. She waited impatiently. The light was new and lots of people honked their horns at it when they had to stop. There'd been a big fight in city council about putting in a stoplight. Mayor Burkett got his way, insisting their town needed the light. After all, he'd pointed out, everything was different because of the war and they had plenty of traffic, people stopping off from Highway 66 and soldiers coming over the Missouri line from Camp Crowder and local folks streaming into town to buy whatever shopkeepers had to offer. There were lots of people in town every day, but most of them were old or middle-aged. The young men in uniform were never there for long, off for three-day passes and sometimes ten-day furloughs before their units were set to ship out. There wasn't much to buy, but people had money from war work. Lots of townspeople like Gretchen's mom had gone to Tulsa to work in the Douglas plant. Mom was making good money, more than they'd ever seen, thirty-five dollars a week. The Billup Shoe Store had closed. Mr. Billup couldn't get enough shoes. Most everybody had to depend upon friends or family to find shoes at Froug's or Brown-Dunkin in Tulsa and rationing only allowed two pairs a year anyway. Mr. Pinkley's gas station went out of business, but there was a motel—Sweet Dreams—on the edge of town, and some new little houses built from lumber salvaged from old barns and the abandoned Morris house. Mr. McCrory's gas station was going great guns despite rationing. He specialized in repairs and everybody needed to keep their old cars running for the duration.
When the light changed, Gretchen hurried across the street. She wanted to run, but she held herself to a fast walk. She, Gretchen Grace Gilman, was on her way to the courthouse, the big red sandstone building that looked like a castle with bays and turrets. When she was little, she'd made up a story in her mind about a princess held captive in a turret and a handsome swashbuckler like Errol Flynn leaping ledge to ledge, sword in hand, coming to the rescue of the fair maiden. That had been exciting but nothing to compare to the excitement she felt now. The courthouse was her beat and so was city hall on Cimarron Street. Of course, Mr. Dennis or Mr. Cooley covered the big stories, but there was plenty for Gretchen to write about. She'd been to both the courthouse and city hall first thing this morning, checked the sheriff's office for any overnight calls, asked the court clerk about lawsuits, dropped by the county records office to see about deeds registered, and scanned the police blotter at the police station. This was her last run to the courthouse and city hall for the day. She'd already turned in her stories for today's paper. Last deadline was one o'clock, but that was for late-breaking news, wire stories from the war front, especially the fighting in Normandy. Ever since D-Day, they'd had a map on page 1 showing the progress of the fighting. Most of her stories were turned in by ten. The press run was at two. She glanced across Main at the café. The windows needed a wash. Mrs. Perkins did a pretty good job. But she couldn't—or wouldn't—move as fast as Gretchen and she didn't help Grandmother the way Gretchen did when she worked there. That's how Gretchen had expected to spend the summer until the miracle happened: Mrs. Jacobs, the junior high English teacher, telling Mr. Dennis that Gretchen wanted to grow up and be a reporter and that she'd make a good hand while the
Gazette
was so short-staffed because of the war. Mrs. Jacobs told Gretchen to go ask for a job when Joe Bob Terrell was drafted. Gretchen had put on her favorite dress—a yellow-and-white-checked dirndl with starfish appliqués at the shoulder and near the hem and white ricrac as an accent at the neck, waist, and skirt—and pulled on short white gloves and a yellow straw hat. She didn't have any good summer shoes, but she'd taken her white sandals and polished them and hoped Mr. Dennis wouldn't notice that the straps were frayed. She'd never forget, never in a thousand million years, that May afternoon. School was almost out and Mrs. Jacobs got her excused from last hour. It was only May but it was hot, the temperature nudging toward ninety. Everybody said it was going to be a hot summer, the summer of 1944. But Gretchen didn't remember any summers when it hadn't been hot and dry and sometimes the wind blew dust through town, coating the buildings, turning the sky a smudgy orange. At the café, they'd wipe everything with a damp cloth, but it was hard to keep the dust out of the booths and off the tables and chairs and they'd come home to a house with a fine layer of dust on everything. It wasn't dusty that May afternoon. The sky glittered a sharp, bright, clear blue and she'd held tight to her hat as the Oklahoma wind gusted, bending the trees, skittering trash down the street. When she got to the
Gazette
office, she'd stared at the door and been so scared she'd almost turned and run away. Could she do it? She was editor of the
Wolf Cry
, the junior high newspaper. Mrs. Jacobs liked her stories, had given her bylines all this past year. One story, the one about Millard, Mrs. Jacobs sent in to the interscholastic contest. When Gretchen won first prize, she'd felt funny, happy, and sad at the same time. But Millard would have been proud for her. Mrs. Jacobs had told Gretchen to cut out all her stories and take them to show Mr. Dennis. Mrs. Jacobs called them “clips.” Somehow, her hand sweaty, her stomach a hard tight knot, Gretchen opened the door and walked inside. To her left was a door marked ADVERTISING CIRCULATION. Straight ahead was a square room with a half dozen desks. A telephone shrilled. In one corner, the clacking Teletype spewed out paper in an endless stream. Mrs. Jacobs had brought their whole class to visit the
Gazette
last fall and she'd been most excited to show them the Teletype, the very latest news from United Press coming in over a leased wire. Only one desk was occupied. A stocky man, shiny bald except for a fringe of gray hair, typed so fast it sounded like a machine gun. Smoke wreathed upward from a pipe cradled in a ceramic ashtray shaped like the state of Oklahoma. A door in the far wall banged open. A smell of hot metal rolled toward her. An old man with long sideburns and a big white mustache stuck out his head, shouting to be heard over a clattery metallic noise. “That newsprint ain't here yet, Walt. You better check again.” The door slammed, cutting off the metal ping of the Linotypes, making the newsroom seem quiet in comparison. Gretchen walked slowly toward the occupied desk. “Mr. Dennis.”
BOOK: Letter From Home
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