For those who didn’t see when I announced this on Twitter, I’ve taken the plunge in writing a mystery novel. I’ve wanted to for years, but kept putting it off because I couldn’t get the right motivation. Recently though, I’ve been on a renewed mystery kick, and rereading the works of some of my favorite authors like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, along with contemporary writers Gigi Pandian and Tom Mead, helped ignite that spark to get my ideas put to paper. I’m going for a bit of an interesting hybrid, a police procedural impossible crime novel. Basically think of Columbo if he was investigating a locked room murder.

This is going to be a lengthy process. I need to stay focused and try to get a little bit written each day if I want to have it complete by the end of the year. But I’m determined to see it through to completion. I want to share some of my progress, so I’ll be posting the first chapter here. It’s still a first draft and may be revised later, but I hope it will intrigue some readers. With that out of the way, please enjoy chapter one of The Master of Miracle Murders

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

June 22, 1976

            Visitors who came to Philadelphia interested in learning about the city’s historic status tended to spend most of their time in Center City, where the greatest hits of the colonial era could easily be found. The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, Besty Ross’ house, the Benjamin Franklin Memorial, and so many of the notable locations that had been taught in history classes for decades were all within easy walking distance for anyone who wanted to vicariously experience the daily lives of the Founding Fathers. Attendance had skyrocketed in recent months with the upcoming Bicentennial igniting a patriotic fervor in many, though a good number of these tourists had mostly come simply to say that they had been there rather than out of any genuine interest in the significance of these monuments.

Those who sought a deeper appreciation knew that they couldn’t restrict themselves to the same square mile thousands had walked around just an hour before. That places of historical value were spread throughout the city if you knew where to look for them. For example, just nine miles north of Center City was Germantown, a fairly affluent neighborhood that was rich with colonial lore. It was here that the first Bank of the United States was establishes, where the Quaker church drafted the first petition to abolish slavery in the nation, and where Washington and the Continental Army suffered a significant defeat against William Howe’s forces. Prominent figures such as author Louisa May Alcott and Edmund Randolph, America’s first Attorney General, had been born in the area or considered it their home for a period of time. And Germantown was still making history in the present day.

Over the past two decades a handful of Germantown locals had made their way into the spotlight. Russell Thompkins assembled a group of Philly soul singers into The Stylistics, penning hits that earned them steady spots in the Top 10 charts. The gorgeous Lola Falana had a meteoric rise that took her from dancing in nightclubs to appearances on Broadway and national TV. A house on Morton Street served as the rehearsal center for the enigmatic Sun Ra and his band, and while neighbors would often complain about how loud and discordant the music produced during their sessions was, they couldn’t deny that it got people talking. The town had seen its fair share of rising stars, as well as those whose fame was in steady decline.

The faded talent in question resided in the northern part of the neighborhood in a fancy schist stone Colonial. In its heyday it had hosted many luxurious parties attended not only by the upper class of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, but esteemed authors literary icons from around the country. It had been many years since there was anything to celebrate there, as now the only memories echoing through the vast, empty rooms were those of burned bridges and lost opportunities. The house was far too large for its single occupant, though some would say it wasn’t big enough to hold his massive ego.

On this sweltering afternoon the resident in question had sequestered himself in his second story office, hunched over his desk while he banged away on his typewriter. He’d spent the better part of the past month sitting behind it, sometimes for half the day or longer. But he’d never say those hours were wasted. He had to get the book finished while the spark was still fresh within him. The ideas were solid, even if he had run into a few false starts and points where he struggled to bring plot threads together, problems he’d become all too familiar with. He’d made so many revisions to chapters that he previously thought were flawless that he lost count. But it had to be perfect. He couldn’t afford another failure. Some would call it persistence, others obsession, but his drive had finally seen him through to the end.

The writer was beginning to show his years, looking far older than he actually was (he’d be 60 come September). He was lanky, his skin dry and wrinkly, most noticeably around his face and hands, balding with only a ring of short white hair running around the back of his head, and needed thick lenses to see anything clearly. He attributed his aged countenance to the stress caused by his fall from prominence and failure to reclaim his past glory, along with a heated divorce some years back. Yet he had the energy and enthusiasm of a man a third his age, reinvigorated by the thrill of completing a novel he was certain would be successful. Nicholas Wood, formerly considered to be one of the greatest mystery novelists in America before entering a sad decade-long decline, was ready for his triumphant return.

Wood exhaled as the rising heat started to him, adjusting his desktop fan so that it would stay in place rather than oscillating back and forth. The steady blast of cool air provided immediate relief. He needed to be comfortable if he was to stay focused. Strewn about his desk were various other tools he’d used to keep motivated. A radio at his left, just in front of the fan and next to a telephone, provided stimulation when the long periods of silence caused his mind to wander. It came in handy last Saturday when he’d managed to get five chapters out during the Top 40 countdown. To his right was a thick ream of paper, his manuscript, waiting for the final page. A short distance from the stack sat a bottle of brandy, a cheap brand but still tasty, that remained unopened. He had promised not to indulge in any liquor until the book was finished to keep his mind sharp, and now that the end was approaching, he couldn’t wait to taste that heavenly elixir once more. In the topmost right drawer were the last six issues of Penthouse, kept out of sight in case company arrived, but useful when his morale was low.

And of course, there were the books, stacked one on top of the other close to the edge. They weren’t any Wood had written, just his personal favorites from over the decades, the ones he’d returned to over and over again to bask in their genius. Anthony Berkeley’s The Layton Court Mystery, Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, The Door Between by Ellery Queen (he always referred to it like that, amused by the poetic structure), Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine, and of course the two works that he considered the finest in the genre (aside from his own), The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window by John Dickson Carr, who wrote the first under his own name and the second under the pseudonym Carter Dickson. He’d kept them out as a reminder that his name used to be included in the same breath as these luminaries, and that he would be worthy of that honor once more after his latest work was published.

The moment was fast approaching. The killer had been exposed, his alibi shattered, and the devious method by which he carried out the grisly act revealed before all. Now all that remained was for the detective to sum things up in a pithy, cynical quote lamenting the sad state of affairs. “I heard the business world was cutthroat,” his world-weary P.I. remarked, “but I never knew it could be this brutal.” He pulled the sheet out from the typewriter and placed it face-down on top of his manuscript. It was done.

Nicholas Wood cracked a wide smile as he leaped up from his chair and hollered triumphantly. Eleven grueling years of failure and setback could finally be put behind him. Once this novel was out he’d be back on top. He just had to take care of a few loose ends first.

Wood opened the center desk drawer which contained several items he wanted to keep out of sight, though unlike the magazines, it was for the discomfort they caused him. One object was a framed black and white photo of himself in his younger days, wearing a fancy suit and smiling as he escorted his beautiful bride out of the church. Next to the picture rested a pair of rings, the only physical reminder of that once happy union. Wood jerked his head to the left as soon as the drawer slid open. He didn’t want to even glance at the picture, didn’t want his euphoria ruined by unpleasant memories. Instead he focused solely on the several envelopes lying inside, gathering them all up with one sweep of his hand.

Slamming the drawer, Wood fumbled around the pockets of his slacks until he found a lighter. He’d been planning a celebratory smoke along with the brandy once he’d finished writing, but the lighter would serve another purpose. The letters he held were just some from a larger set that had accumulated over the last year. Most of them had gone out with the trash, but with these few he wanted to make sure there was absolutely no trace remaining.

Wood made his way to the wastebasket by his desk and crouched down. Holding one envelope over the bin, he flicked the lighter until it produced a flame and touched it to the edge. Slowly the envelope and its contents burned away, the ash falling into the trash can. Once it was completely gone Wood repeated it with the others, gleefully humming to himself as they were incinerated. “Let’s sing a song of cheer again, happy days are here again.”

After a few minutes every single envelope was gone. Wood let out a sigh of relief, content that no one would ever know what they had held. He felt the pain in his knees as he rose upright once more, but he could bear the discomfort considering how well everything else was going for him. He just had one last matter to take care of before he could indulge.

Wood picked up the phone’s receiver and dialed a number he had called so many times before. After a few short rings someone picked up. “Yes, put me through to Louis Langston,” Wood said, keeping his eyes on the manuscript and the brandy bottle. “Tell him it’s Nicholas Wood. I want to schedule a meeting with him. I’ve got something I think he’ll be very interested in.”

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