A Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery: When a student goes missing and a professor ends up dead, Dulcie Schwartz realizes that midterms are going to be worse than ever. She's hard at work on her thesis, but present day concerns — including the destructive mischief of her growing kitten — keep dragging her back into a tangle of motive, misbehavior, and maybe even murder. If only Mr Grey, her beloved feline ghost, would lend a hand, at least with that rambunctious kitten . . .
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From Grey Zone:
Writing, writing furiously, she pushes back her long, loose curls, heedless of the ink that smudges her pale cheek. Heedless, too, of the sparks that scatter, each time the fire pops and hisses in response to the storm outside. Rain and wind hurl themselves at the window, dashing against its many panes and finding their way down the old chimney, their mission carried through by smoke and crackle, by tumbling embers. They want her out; they want her gone. Still she scribbles, but time itself runs short, snatched away by the fury outside. The storm that floods o’er all. One line – one phrase to make her case. “Such noisome beasts as do attack...” No, she scratches it out. “The pernicious spirit...” Not that, either. If only she had time. The thunder cracks the night, and the sparks fly. Two hover, glowing an unearthly emerald green and growing into almond-shaped eyes. Cat’s eyes, staring...
They want her dead.
“You’ve got murder on the mind.”
The disembodied voice could have been miles away. In front of her, the kitten blinked, and Dulcie, thinking of her dream, found herself drawn into those glowing eyes, unable to decide if they were more yellow or green. Unable, as well, to block out the terror she had felt early that morning when she had woken, gasping, in the dark. Hours later, the horror still lingered, chilling her like a draft. Or the presence of a ghost.
But the voice persisted. “You do, you know. Murder.”
Chris, Dulcie’s boyfriend, was on the phone. It was almost noon, a workaday Monday. The wisps of the dream should have faded as Dulcie sat at her desk with a pile of student papers before her. But while the sun, for now, shone brightly and purposefully through the window and her sweetie sounded equally intent, Dulcie couldn’t be dissuaded.
“I don’t simply have ‘murder on the mind,’ Chris.” A doctoral candidate in English literature, Dulcie considered herself an expert with words, and this inability to explain her suspicion was frustrating. “I just know something happened.”
In the light of day, sitting in the cozy, albeit slightly shabby, apartment she shared with her best friend Suze, it did seem silly. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t told Chris about her nightmare right away.
It didn’t help that he wasn’t there. Not that she could really blame him. Ever since the spring semester had geared up, her computer geek boyfriend had been hard at work, picking up the overnight shifts that paid the most, even when they conflicted with the Red Sox preseason. With the onset of midterms, two weeks earlier, he’d been stuck in the Science Center basement almost every night, helping clueless undergrads with their programs. He needed the money, she knew that. Living on grants and student loans like most grad students, they were both struggling to pay their bills.
Dulcie had a full schedule, too: wrangling freshmen through Puritan sermons in English 10 and herding several upperclassmen in one-on-one tutorials. Increasingly, she barely found time to work on her own thesis, a study of an obscure Gothic novelist – and, if her suspicions were true, possible victim of some kind of crime. Their romance, she realized, was paying the price.
Besides, she realized as she watched the kitten tackle a stray thread from her quilt, she could never describe how scary the dream had felt. How real. Chris might love her, but he was a computer guy. A mathematician. He’d taken a lot on faith from Dulcie, but she knew she’d be on more solid ground detailing her suspicions in scholarly terms, without reference to her strange and troubling dream. If only she could do that.
Trouble with her thesis she was used to. But trouble talking to her boyfriend? Dulcie felt uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
“I believe you, honey.” Chris was trying, she could tell. “But I’m not on your thesis review board. And you do sound kind of obsessed over what is basically a hunch.”
As if on cue, the kitten abandoned the thread and jumped to the desk, reaching one white paw for Dulcie’s red pencil. “No,” said Dulcie to both members of her audience, clear at last. “It is more than a hunch, Chris.” She could stick with what she could prove and still make her point. She was Dulcie Schwartz, soon-to-be PhD. “You don’t know the history of this woman like I do. The writing. The work.”
Dulcie looked over at her bookcase: Five collections of Gothic literature, their battered black spines as familiar as Chris’s face. A library book of essays, soon to be overdue. And her copy of The Ravages of Umbria , its fanciful title set off in gold ornate type, with the single credit, Anonymous, just a little smaller.
“Nobody knows her name,” Dulcie continued. “But I know her writing style as well as my own, and there are signs of her all over the canon. Repeated phrases, specific images so distinctive they have to be from the same writer. They show up in essays, letters, as well as the fragments of her novel, all going up until about 1794. And then, nothing. No, Chris, I have my reasons. There must have been a threat or pressure. Something nefarious. People like her do not just disappear because of natural causes.”
“Maybe she didn’t disappear.”
Dulcie swallowed what she was about to say. Had he had the same dream? But, no. True to his discipline, Chris was trying to be rational. “Maybe your so-called victim simply stopped writing,” he was saying. “Had kids. Retired to the country. It happens.”
“But there’s so much of her work, and then no trace of her.” Dulcie began summarizing her research for Chris. Waving her pencil in the air as she talked, she cited paper after paper, their dates stuck in her mind like cat claws in velvet, until the kitten interrupted, reaching up to bat at the pencil’s eraser. Kitten? Esmé, the onetime foster she’d adopted was looking more and more like a cat every day. But not, she thought with a twinge of sadness, anymore like her old cat, Mr Grey. “She’s just gone,” said Dulcie, ceding the pencil to her pet.
“Well, it’s not like you can call the police, Dulcie.” Chris sounded tired. He’d never tell her, but she suspected that her call had woken him up. With his hours, that was always a risk.
“I know; it’s just preying on me.” She should have told Chris about her nightmare right away. She should have trusted him to have faith in her. Maybe, she realized, she didn’t entirely believe in the power of her vision.
“I can’t help but think something was going on.” The feeling had begun to fade. Her boyfriend, daylight... the kitten. But then the image of a woman, writing for her life, flashed before her. “Something besides kids, or an early retirement.”
As Dulcie talked, the certainty grew. “My author was silenced, Chris, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it. Even if I am two hundred years too late.”
© Clea Simon