The Valentine's Day Murder

“I have a theory.” She crossed her legs. “I think the idea to walk across the lake was Matty’s. Matty’s crazy, always has been. He’s a practical joker, a dare-taker. He makes me nervous. Clark is kind of a quiet guy, though when the three of them got together, they were always boisterous. I’m trying not to point a finger. I want to be fair. I’ve known these people—and their wives—for as long as I’ve known Val. But if I had to make a judgment, I would say Matty said, ‘Hey, let’s walk across the lake to Canada. We may not have another chance for a lot of years.’ And I think Clark probably went along with him because it’s what Clark always did. But Val isn’t stupid, he doesn’t take chances, he’s a grown-up, not just a big kid that dresses like a man. I don’t think Val went with them.”

“That’s a big theory. Can you back it up?”

“Not with anything hard. But I know my husband. He knew the value of life, the value of our marriage. I don’t think he’d take a chance like that.”

“That’s very interesting,” I said. “But where is he if he didn’t go with them?”

“That’s what I want you to find out.…”

By Lee Harris
Published by Fawcett Books:

THE GOOD FRIDAY MURDER
THE YOM KIPPUR MURDER
THE CHRISTENING DAY MURDER
THE ST. PATRICK’S DAY MURDER
THE CHRISTMAS NIGHT MURDER
THE THANKSGIVING DAY MURDER
THE PASSOVER MURDER
THE VALENTINE’S DAY MURDER
THE NEW YEAR’S EVE MURDER
THE LABOR DAY MURDER
THE FATHER’S DAY MURDER
THE MOTHER’S DAY MURDER
THE APRIL FOOLS’ DAY MURDER
THE HAPPY BIRTHDAY MURDER

A Fawcett Book
Published by The Ballantine Publishing Group
Copyright © 1997 by Lee Harris

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Fawcett is a registered trademark and the Fawcett colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

www.ballantinebooks.com

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-96984

eISBN: 978-0-307-77533-7

v3.1

For Barbara Dicks

Trust not one night’s ice.
             G
EORGE
H
ERBERT

 

The author wishes to thank
Ana M. Soler; James L. V. Wegman; Richard Burton;
Elliott Shapiro, head librarian at the
Buffalo News;
and Professor John F. Dobbyn of Villanova University
for their help and expert information.

Contents
1

When the phone rang that beautiful spring day, I think I knew before I answered who would be on the other end. Since the beginning of the week, I had been waiting for this call, although I had hoped it would never come.

I picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Chris?” It was the same female voice that I had first heard in February.

“Yes.”

“This is Carlotta French. They’ve found the bodies.”

A chill rippled through me. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “Then the worst has happened.”

“Not exactly. There was a surprise, a very interesting surprise.”

It had been a winter crowded with the kind of troubles that make people come to me for help. A chance involvement in solving a forty-year-old murder two years ago had led to a kind of second career for me, looking into murders when all else has failed or when the proper authorities show a lack of interest or determination. Over Christmas I had worked on one connected with St. Stephen’s Convent, the place where I had spent fifteen years of my life before rejoining the secular world. Not
long after that, my friend Melanie Gross’s uncle asked me to look into the disappearance of his second wife more than a year earlier. And on the heels of that, Mel and her mother presented me with the unsolved murder of a relative sixteen years ago. Enough, I thought, as spring made its welcome appearance and I found out happily that I was newly pregnant. All I wanted to do was get a garden going and watch seeds sprout. But it was not to be. There had been a phone call in mid-February and then a meeting with Carlotta French, and nagging at me all through the rest of the winter into early spring was the feeling that a certain week would come and the phone would ring. As it had just now.

I remember waking up on the fourteenth of February, unaware it was a day that would change my life. I got a hug in bed from Jack, my husband of less than a year, and a murmured, “Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetheart.” Then I got up and went downstairs to get breakfast ready.

While Valentine’s Day is one of the most well-known days in the calendar, to Christians and non-Christians alike, the day is not one of great importance in the Catholic calendar. It’s not a Holy Day of Obligation like New Year’s Day or All Saints’ Day. The Missal says only that St. Valentine was a holy priest of Rome who was martyred under the Emperor Aurelian in 270, and there’s nothing special about him in the mass for that day. But as everyone knows, it has become a day on which to proclaim or renew one’s love. This was the first Valentine’s Day of my married life, and I had a little surprise for Jack that I was saving for his return home, a bottle of cognac that I had been assured was very fine and would be appreciated by a man of taste. I liked that.

It was a little too cold that morning for my sometime
walk, so I stayed inside until Jack left for the Sixty-fifth Precinct in Brooklyn where he is a detective sergeant. He didn’t say any more about the day, and I didn’t either. Later I would go to a bakery in the next town and pick up a heart-shaped cake for tonight’s dessert.

I was just about to leave that afternoon to pick up the cake when the doorbell rang. Assuming it was a neighbor, I pulled the door open to find a young man standing on my doorstep with a long box.

“Mrs. Brooks? Happy Valentine’s Day, ma’am. Looks like someone sent you the best.”

Flushed and flustered, I took the box inside and pulled it open. The young man had been right. Inside the long, narrow box was a dozen roses, half red, half white.

I stood staring at them as though they were from another planet. Twelve beautiful roses, all for me. I could feel my eyes misting as I pulled out the tiny envelope and removed the card. “For Chris,” it read, “From the one who loves you most.”

I was absolutely overcome. While the flowers were extraordinary, each with a water-filled tube clamped to the stem, the tiny note with its heartfelt sentiment had left me in tears. Tough guy, I thought. You’re sweet as sugar. When did you even have time to order them?

Jack had given me flowers before, but nothing as extravagant as this. I went to the china cabinet that, like most of the contents of the house, I had inherited from my Aunt Meg, and took out her prized Irish crystal vase. I had never used it, but this was the time for a first. I carried it carefully into the kitchen, filled it with warm water, and mixed the little packet of powder that came with the roses. Then I uncapped the stems, cut them on the diagonal, and put them in the vase, intermingling the colors. I
set them on the coffee table in the living room and stood back to admire them. When I had utterly filled myself with their delicate beauty, I went out to pick up my cake and a couple of Valentine cookies for Mel’s kids.

So it was a special day. Jack thought the cognac was too good to drink, but I insisted he open it and give it a try. A man of taste, he pronounced it the best he had ever had. He told me he had wanted to get me a piece of jewelry, but he had no idea what I would like and I had never hinted at anything. (His mother hinted when she wanted something, and he thought all women did the same.) I had never thought about it, but I expect hinting isn’t my style. As for jewelry, I have very little of my own, having spent almost half my life as a Franciscan nun, but what I have is very precious—my wedding ring, a small gold ring given to me by a lovely woman who lives on the west side of New York and whom I met when I investigated the murder of an old friend of hers, and a few pieces I inherited from my mother and my aunt. I am quite content with what I have, and I was happy Jack hadn’t gone to great expense for something it had never occurred to me I needed.

The Gross children thought my heart-shaped cookies were the best they had ever tasted—although anything their mother bakes is probably superior—and the roses brightened our house for many days, reminding me of the love Jack and I feel for each other. All very nice, very romantic, the things that sweet memories are born of.

I was busy, as usual. On Tuesdays I taught my poetry course at a local college, and when I wasn’t looking into one or another murder, I worked for my friend Arnold Gold, a lawyer with a practice in New York City. It was
when I returned from the city after putting in a day at his office that I first learned about Carlotta French.

There was a message on my answering machine to call Amy Grant, an Oakwood woman I had met at meetings as well as socially. When I had my coat off, I called her.

There was a lot of small talk at the beginning of the conversation and I thought perhaps she just wanted to be neighborly, but after about five minutes, she said, “Do you remember meeting my old college roommate when you and Jack came over last fall?”

“Yes,” I said, recalling a very pleasant evening. “Carlotta something.”

“Carlotta French. She’d like to talk to you. Do you have a little time?”

I looked at my watch. It was six o’clock and Jack would be home for dinner, as it was Friday. “Not right now. I just walked in and I have some cooking to do.”

“You think tomorrow?”

“What’s this about?”

“I’d rather not say. It’s a little complicated and I want her to do the talking. She remembers you very fondly from that evening.”

I liked Amy and I remembered Carlotta well, kind of a vibrant person who did more in her life than I could ever contemplate doing in mine. “Maybe eleven tomorrow morning,” I said, thinking that we’d be up and about by then, and if Jack were out doing his weekend thing in hardware stores and lumberyards, it would be a good time to hear Carlotta out.

“We’ll be there at eleven,” Amy said, and that was the end of our conversation.

* * *

I heard them coming up the walk just at eleven, and I set the paper aside and opened the door.

“Hi, Chris,” Amy said, pulling off a beautiful fur hat. She stamped snow off her fashionable black boots and came in. “I’m sure you remember my friend, Carlotta French.”

I said hello and took their coats. A gust of cold air had come in with them, and I shivered a little after the door closed. I hadn’t made any coffee because I didn’t want to encourage a long visit. I had things to do today, so the sooner we cleaned up the business of the meeting, the happier I would be.

“We appreciate your talking to us,” Amy said. “Carlotta’s a friend from college and she’s staying with me for a while. It’s really very good of you to give us your time.”

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