Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sample Sunday: Rolled-Up Streets, Chapter One

Tuesday

She was definitely dead. It wasn't just that people don't usually lie there on the floor in that position; the darkness seeping from the back of her head was a clue as well. So much for getting to catch some of the babel tournament this afternoon!

I looked around the main room. It was pretty ordinary for someone living in Martynotte. The deceased woman had afghans draped on the chairs, some artwork on the walls that probably came from New Provincetown, and a sturdy table and chairs set that no doubt came from Brindisi, judging by the carvings. The stone fireplace was cool; the ashes were probably from last evening. It looked like she had been sitting over there – that afghan was lumped on the chair, and there was a partial cup of some drink as well as a bookmark on the table – but no book.

"Geez, what kind of teacher has no papers to grade? My wife is always bringing home tons of stuff, like she has no other life!" That was Daryl. He can't work without talking. Me, I like to check things out. Process them. No matter – today I had Daryl with me.

"Well, we'll talk to the school. Do you see a book anywhere?" Daryl looked at me like I was an alien, and pointed to the bookcase (which also came from Brindisi, judging by the ornate scroll work – she got money from somewhere besides teaching!). Five shelves of books were upright, plus books were lying on their sides on top of these books wherever they fit. Some still had the Hornbaker University sticker in them (Province & Culture, Teaching in the Multicultural Classroom), and some were more mainstream (including the entire Kileen series). I opened one up to see if it was a first edition. My wife says I'm a snob. Inside this book was a label with a number and a web site address.

"Hey! Check this out!" Daryl had a copy of Babel Hall of Fame opened. On the inside were a label and a number.

"This book has a label, too. There is also a web site on the label. That means she must have a computer here somewhere. You keep looking, while I see if I can find the book that goes with this bookmark." My partner went into the other room while I looked under furniture. Except for some dust bunnies, there was nothing but empty space under the chairs. I wandered toward the kitchen while Daryl poked around the bedroom.

"Found it!" I quickly joined him. The bedroom looked more "city" than the main room. She had a quilt on the bed, but she also had a modern desk with a computer on it. (I tried not to look at the Toadee Towers posters – I wanted to forget about missing the game!) While Daryl turned on the computer, I opened the drawer and found an address book.

I opened it up and was thoroughly annoyed. "M/E" and a phone number. "SMF" and a street address – but no city or postal code. "Bookluvr" and a couple of book titles – I think. Why can't people just fill in the little spaces exactly the way they're written? Imagine how much easier my job would be? But no, just this cryptic stuff. I kept flipping until I came across "Dad;" that was at least more useful! I put the address book in the bag to take back with me. In the meantime, Daryl did his thing with the computer.

She had a ton of sites bookmarked; this could turn out to be a real pain! But Daryl typed in the address on the label inside the book. We looked at the home page and each other. Register? Release? (We understood the Read part.) He printed the page out and put it with the other evidence.

"We're gonna have to take the whole computer in, ya know." Yeah, what a surprise. Daryl was practically drooling at the chance to traipse through someone else's data.

"Fine. You take care of that; I'll go over to the school."

I drove over to Hayden Carruth Elementary. Kids in uniforms solemnly walked down the hall from one room to another. "I'm Sr. Rose David." The principal had materialized out of nowhere.

"Oh, no, it's not what you think. Last night was parent-teacher conferences, so they're a little subdued. By tomorrow they'll be back to normal." I accidentally let out a sigh of relief, which she had the good grace to pretend not to notice.

Once we were in her office, she shut the door. "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you, Sister. When we went to the house to investigate, we discovered that EmmaLeigh Cook had died. Was she at school yesterday?"

"Oh, yes. Even if she hadn't been feeling well, she would've been here for the conferences. This is the end of the first marking period, so she would need to explain the first report card to the parents and let them know what is normal for this age, nip any problems in the bud, etc."

"That would explain why she had no school papers at home?"

"Yes."

"Did she have any, um, problem conferences? Parents who were mad? Children who might retaliate and go overboard maybe?"

"No, I don't think so. I saw her before she left, although I was with a parent myself. She didn't look like there was anything out of the ordinary. Besides, these are good families." I probably would've believed her except that I had been to schools where a "good family" was one that paid its tuition on time.

"I'll need a list of her students and their parents."

She dialed the office phone. "Mrs. Wagner, can you get me a parent list for Miss Cook's class? Thanks." She hung up and looked at me. "I can assure you that none of our families did this."
"I would like to see her classroom."

"Third grade goes to lunch in a few minutes. Mrs. Wagner will take you to it." A woman about my age handed a paper to Sr. Rose David, who then handed it to me. I shook hands with the principal and thanked her. Mrs. Wagner had a practice smile on, unsure of who I was and what I wanted, but she took me to the room and left me alone there.

There was a colorful wall with word cards on it, shoe boxes on their sides with little forests and animals in them, and a couple of chess sets with games in progress … and shelves full of books. I picked up a couple, but none had labels in them other than the name of the school or "Miss Cook's Book" neatly written on the inside cover.

I went over to the desk and opened the center drawer, expecting to find an orderly "teacher desk;" instead, there were pens and rubber bands in the same place, along with paper clips and a toy car. Pads of scratch paper and boxes of thank you notes were placed neatly in a side drawer, but buried under subtraction answer sheets, a book order form, and a memo about not overusing the copy machine.

There was a large calendar on her desk, with days crossed off. She had written for today "mail out ring." I didn't remember seeing a package to be mailed, but I had have to check with Daryl later to see if he came across any jewelry in the bedroom. Suddenly the door burst open, and two girls ran toward the coat cubbies.

"I forgot my lunch!" the smaller one declared as she grabbed for it. Her friend watched me and narrowed her eyes.

"Who are you?" None of that open childhood innocence for this one!

"I'm Officer Boucli. I'm from the police department."

"Oh. Well, she lied. I didn't steal the markers, I just borrowed them. Anyway, I put them back right before we went to lunch. C'mon, Micah! Let's go already!" And they were out the door, Micah practically being dragged by her friend.

Nothing in the desk screamed "motive" exactly. And aside from Micah's friend, there didn't seem to be a lot of intrigue in third grade. Still, I had to call the parents and find out about the conferences, maybe talk to the kids. Some teachers were chatty and some were aloof. Maybe Miss Cook was the chatty sort.

I drove back over to the house to see if the inventory crew was finished yet. Daryl and the computer were already gone, but Jace was there. "Did you find any jewelry? Especially a ring?"

"Lots of pierced earrings, including nine that had no mate. She had one hole in each ear, but it looks like it's been a while since she actually wore any of the earrings. She had a couple necklaces that matched earrings. She also had a couple rings, but nothing expensive."

"I found a note on her calendar about mailing a ring today. Find anything that might fit?"

"Nah. The rings were in the same box as the rest of the jewelry, and the box had dust on top, so it's not like she even opened it recently. Sorry."

I talked to the other technicians there. There were not any signs of forced entry, but there was also nothing to indicate that she was expecting company. Then again, she wasn't in her bed clothes, so there was no reason to think she wasn't, either. I decided to go see if Daryl found anything interesting on the computer yet.

"Her e-mail account was bookmarked. I'm still trying to figure out what her password was, though. It would help if it were something obvious, like a pet name or if she had kids. Oh, I put her address book on your desk. Good luck!"

Great. We were both going to be at it a while! I decided to see if the address for SMF was local, and if I could get an address to match the phone number for M/E. Turns out that a lot of people had that phone number somewhere in the country. However, a phone in the Province of Quantez looked like a winner: Mark Cook. A cross-reference showed the same number belonged to Evan Birkhoff. M/E. They lived in Beritela. Daryl would be stuck on the computer for quite a while, and I didn't really know my way around Beritela, so Galina would be going with me.

"We'll have to stop in Reddell City. If we get an investigation permit from the police department in the capitol, it will make our job a lot easier. This is the Downlands." Of course, she said this just as we approached the river. Crossing the border rivers always gave me the creeps. Whether crossing the Ajo into the Province of Knox or the Tanque Verde into the Province of Quantez, the process was the same to me – like leaving for a foreign country, but not necessarily a friendly one. I always held my breath until I returned. Needless to say, I didn't travel much outside Schifanella unless I had to!

"Um, just how Downland is Beritela?"

"Oh, it's not that bad. It's not like Milton and Thressa. I mean it's possible that these two guys are more than just roommates. That would never happen if their town were majorly Downland in its thinking!"

"So these guys could be freemates?" This was a concept I could understand, at least in theory. Galina looked at me like I was a moron.

"You will not find freemates anywhere in Quantez. I'm not sure it's even legal there. Only permanent civil unions. Freemates can split up without a bunch of legal hassles and paperwork. You are not likely to find freemates outside of Knox."

"Then…?"

"That doesn't mean they can't be a couple – they just don't have a lot of rights as a couple. It's tricky. They can register as a couple and apply for a permanent civil union, which gives them the legal benefits of couples but could also keep them from getting jobs and housing. Or, they can just be a couple without the paperwork and without the benefits, but living in the right place they can at least live in peace. There are parts of Beritela that would count as the right place, but not in most of the other Downland towns." She stared out the window and we were both silent as we crossed the river. Really, it just gives me the creeps. I was glad Galina felt the same way.

I had never been to this province, and had been OK with that. Now I didn't know what to expect. Really, I would not have been surprised if we came over a hill and saw the Shire, with a bunch of barefoot hobbits running around. That is about how people from Schifanella saw Quantez. It turned out to look pretty ordinary, though. I mean, real paved streets, buildings that were identifiable by anyone in Knigi as being a post office, grocer, library, etc. Still, it wasn't home.

Getting our investigation permit in Reddell City wasn't totally awful, but it wasn't a heartwarming bonding moment either. The capitol is physically in the Downlands, and so is some of their thinking. For one thing, they don't trust anyone in the other three provinces. But once we reassured them that the murder took place in our jurisdiction and we were just looking for information on the victim, they were more tolerable. OK, not we. Galina never said a word, and stood behind me and to my left -- the whole time we were outside the car. There is absolutely nothing that would possess my wife to act that way! But this was like a different planet culturally, and Galina knew her stuff. We got back in the car as quickly as possible and headed out to Beritela.

We didn't have any problems finding the address. The man who answered the door wore a Cuppa Café uniform and a manager's badge. "I'm Officer Tobias Boucli, and this is my partner, Galina Petrov. We're from the Martynotte Police Department. May we come in?" He looked at each of us for about thirty seconds, and then glanced around before letting us in.

Mark Cook's house was set up in typical Downlander style: you entered into a hallway, with the bedroom off to the left, the main room off to the right, and the kitchen straight ahead – all of which had closed doors. The only real variations in these houses involved the number of bedrooms and if there were bathrooms off the main room or just off the bedrooms. The houses mirrored their style of hospitality – you only saw whatever they wanted to show you; the rest was hidden. Mark led us to the back of the house, to the kitchen, where we could see the sun setting out the window.

"Is this about my sister?" He didn't sound worried or even remotely concerned; it was just a guessing game question.

"Perhaps. This morning we were called to an apartment in Martynotte because a woman named EmmaLeigh Cook didn't show up at work this morning. Is that your sister?"

"Yes. But it's pronounced like Emily, not Emma Lee."

"Sorry."

"No problem. She's used to it. I take it she's not OK?" It still sounded like a guessing game.

"Um, no. I'm sorry to inform you that your sister has died, probably last night. We're wondering if you can tell us anything about your sister's life away from school. Friends, boyfriends or girlfriends, interests, stuff like that." We heard the front door open, and a man's footsteps on the concrete hall floor. Our host got up right away and walked toward the kitchen door to intercept him. We heard Cook and another man mumbling to each other on the other side of the closed door, and then Evan Birkhoff entered the room with his, um, partner.

Evan prepared a hot malt drink for us while Mark answered our questions. "EmmaLeigh had a couple friends at work, Chelsea and Kami. Don't know their last names. She mentioned them at the last family gathering, during the usual grilling. I think they were real, though." He paused. "My parents live in Thressa." He said this last part looking at Evan. I imagine Mark made up a lot of imaginary female dates over the years, just from the little bit Galina told me in the car on the way over.

"Was she dating anyone that you know of? Engaged?" I was still wondering about the ring.

"Not lately. Her last boyfriend died. He had a freak heart attack or something. That is how she ended up moving to Martynotte – to start over somewhere. Fresh start and all."

"Totally fresh," Evan threw in. "She was living in Komie at the time, in the mountains. Luckily for her, school was almost out. She just had to endure the last month or so, but it gave her time to get her teaching paperwork in order. She had a job and a place to live before she ever told her parents that he died."

"Any chance she was engaged to this guy?"

"Not that I know of, but you'd have to ask Kathrinn. She might know."

"And she is …?"

"My other sister. I'll get her address for you." Rather than a phone book, he pulled a list of names and addresses from his wallet. Kathrinn's address matched "SMF." Maybe she had a roommate, too.

"And her last name is?"

"Cook." So neither sister had married yet.

"Did this boyfriend have any family? Anything else you can tell us about him?"

"You want to know the truth? I don't even know the guy's name. I'm not sure Kathrinn does either. All I know is that when he died, she didn't know what to do because she didn't know much about his family, like how to contact them even." He looked at Evan again. "Are you going to go talk to my parents?"

"Only about EmmaLeigh. If you want to call them first, though, that would be really helpful." He gave us the parents' address and phone number, and we headed out to Thressa. Galina had been silent the whole time; now she babbled non-stop in the car, but I'm not sure what about. I was trying to sort out what I learned so far, and it didn't create a pretty picture of the couple we were about to visit.

The woman who answered the door was shorter than Galina, but the minute she spoke you could tell she towered over her children – and almost everyone else. I decided to leave this one to Galina.

Like her son before her, Mrs. Cook led us down the hall, past closed doors, to the kitchen. We could smell the remnants of supper; we would have to stop and eat on the way home. Mr. Cook wasn't visible; perhaps he was in the main room. "I suppose we'll have to go out there and get her stuff and bring it back. Do they even have trucks for hire in that town? I heard about those northern Schifanella towns – they roll up the streets at night." Actually, that is what I was thinking about this town of Thressa – and I wanted to get out of here before the rolling started!

Galina tried to soothe her enough to get information, but there really was very little to get. Mrs. Cook didn't know that much about her daughter's personal life, dismissing the dead boyfriend as a passing fancy that had conveniently become a moot point. "She should have been a model, you know. But instead, she refused to cover up that hideous scar over her eye. She could have been wearing nice clothes, had nice things…" The woman got up and grabbed a rag. She began washing the spotless table; the interview was over.

I drove back to the coffee shop in Beritela where Mark Cook worked, and Galina and I ate a quick supper. "It could be worse," Galina pointed out helpfully.

"How?"

"At least this family had English names, and spoke English. You could understand them!"

"What do you mean?"

"Plenty of Downland families don't bother. They speak the local language only. Some even refuse to give their kids English name, refuse to speak the language, and change their surnames back to the local version."

"You are kidding, right? What happened to taking our place among modern nations and all that? And what about the schools?"

"Lots of families here home school. Others send their kids to a hidden school, one in someone's house. They only speak their own language there."

I looked at Galina again, closer. "And you grew up somewhere around here?" She looked me in the eye but said nothing. Then she put the money for her meal on the table and excused herself. I went to pay the bill and waited for her. I couldn't imagine living here at all, let alone as a woman.

We were fairly silent in the car; we didn't relax until we crossed the bridge back into Schifanella. Back at the station, there was no note from Daryl and nothing else that couldn't wait. Tomorrow was another day.

e-versions of Rolled-Up Streets

paperback version of Rolled-Up Streets

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