The knock, or I should say pounding, on my door startled me out of the rainy Saturday morning HGTV home renovation coma I’d slipped into. The clock read half past ten, and I realized I’d been watching back-to-back shows for over three hours. I picked up my coffee to finish it, but the half inch at the bottom of the mug had gone cold and skimmed over.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
I clicked off the show. “I’m coming! Keep your pants on!”
The knocking likely came from one of my fellow condo neighbors. Winding my auburn hair into a bun and tightening the knot on my chenille robe, I shuffled to the foyer.
“Who is it?” I asked, peeking through the peephole.
The man on the other side wore a long overcoat opened to reveal a barrel chest in a dark suit, white shirt, and striped tie. He had gray-brown hair and a bulbous nose. Not a neighbor.
“If you’re peddling your religion, you can move along. I’m quite happy with my own beliefs. Thank you!” I hollered.
“FBI. Open the door, Ms. Cardinal. I have a warrant to search the premises.” He held his badge in front of the peephole. It read “Gerald Newcomb”.
Warrant? I turned off the security system, unlocked the deadbolt and the floor bolt, and pulled it open. “May I see the warrant, please?”
The agent, a little shorter than my five-foot-nine height, invaded my personal space as he laid the piece of paper onto my open palm. “We’re looking for Michael Finnegan.”
“Mike?” I glanced over the sheet. “Your information is out-of-date. We broke up a few months ago, but feel free to search away.” I pulled the door wide, and two other agents wearing Men’s Warehouse suits followed Newcomb into my tiny foyer. The first guy was in his late twenties, with freckles and reddish blond hair. I held out a hand to stop him. “Your ID, please.”
“He’s with me,” Newcomb snapped.
My mouth flattened and I delivered him a side-eye. “It wasn’t a request. Identification, please.”
“Brandon Keller, IRS, fraud division.” The freckled fellow held out his card.
The olive-skinned, black-haired man following Agent Keller held up his badge as he entered, but he needn’t have. I recognized Amir from the last time he’d been in my home more than a year ago. “What?” I mouthed. Ever so slightly, Amir shook his head. Something slammed in my kitchen. Newcomb and Keller had already begun their search of my two bedroom, two bath condo. Abandoning Amir, my fluffy pink slippers and I shambled over to investigate.
My kitchen was U-shaped with an island in the center. Newcomb opened and closed each cabinet, needlessly slamming them shut with a bang. However, he had no such luck with the soft-close drawers that were put in when I updated my fifty-year-old condo a few years ago.
“Wow, it’s ten thirty on a Saturday. Judge-let’s see . . .” I scanned the paper in my hand. “Here it is-Judge Robinson must really love you.”
The agent didn’t respond and started with the lower cabinets along the back wall.
I leaned against the island and drawled, “Mike is six foot tall and a solid 185 pounds. Do you really think he’s going to fit in the cabinetry?”
“Please stand back, Ms. Cardinal, and let us do our job,” Newcomb stated.
Crossing my arms, I moved aside to allow him to check out the island cabinet behind me. “I’m telling you-you’re barking up the wrong tree. We broke up over two months ago.” My volley didn’t receive a response. “Agent Newcomb, what division of the FBI did you say you worked in?”
“White Collar,” Newcomb replied in a clipped tone as he pulled open the cabinets beneath the sink.
White Collar? Hm, did I just fall down a rabbit hole with Alice? Mike worked in the Cybercrime division.
Newcomb opened the tiny microwave above my stove, and I rolled my eyes.
“You know, Mike once told me that they found an entire safe inside the dishwasher. Maybe I’ve stuffed him in there.” I pulled it open and whipped out the racks. Dirty dishes rattled and clanked. Newcomb jerked upright, putting a hand to his hip in an action I’d seen from Mike. Amir hustled in from the other room.
“Nope, not in there. Don’t forget to check the fridge. Oh, and there’s a washer and dryer in the pantry.” I pointed. “Maybe he’s hiding in there.”
Newcomb was not amused. “Ms. Cardinal, I can arrest you for interfering in an investigation, or you can go sit down and wait until we’re finished,” he said in a menacing voice.
“Interfering? Why, darlin’, I’m just tryin’ to help,” I explained in my sweetest southern debutant accent.
Amir cleared his throat and caught my eye. His silent message was clear: “Don’t.”
“Okay, fine.” I threw up my hands. “I’ll leave you to it. Let’s see what the tax man is up to.”
I discovered that Keller had moved from the living room on to my bedroom, and he was searching my dresser drawers.
“Is fingering my lingerie part of the warrant, Mr. Keller?”
His freckled face bloomed like the red tide.
“Then I suggest you get your mitts out of my panty drawers and check places where an adult male might hide. Under the bed, closet, bathroom. You get the picture,” I snapped.
He slammed the drawer shut.
“Leave my shoeboxes alone, too. He’s not hiding in them, either!” I delivered the parting shot and strolled across the living room and down the hall to my guest room, where I found Amir searching the walk-in closet.
“Amir,” I whispered, “what the hell is going on? Is Mike in trouble? What are you doing with White Collar? I thought you worked in Cybercrime.”
Amir put a finger to his lips to shush me. “Ms. Cardinal, I believe Agent Newcomb asked you to take a seat while we finish the search,” he said in a normal tone. Then he took my hand and placed a tiny, folded piece of paper in my palm.
Shoving the paper deep into my robe pocket, I harrumphed, “Fine. I’ll go wait in the living room.” I stomped to the living room, plopped down onto the sofa, and flicked the TV back on to the home renovation show.
A few minutes later, Newcomb came into the living room. I turned up the volume.
Keller also joined us in the living room. “The bedroom is clean.”
“Did you check under the dining table?” I snarked, then caught Newcomb staring at the sofa. “Oh, for the love of Pete!” I muted my show, stood, and picked up the cushions one at a time. “He is not in my velvet couch. And if he did dare to try and crawl in there, you would be the least of his worries!”
Newcomb didn’t seem convinced and continued to stare.
“What? Do you need to check behind the couch?” I yanked the armrest and it moved about six inches.
Keller trotted over to give the backside a gander. He pulled it out farther and shook his head. “Nothing back here.”
Shoving my favorite piece of furniture back in place, I collapsed down and put my fluffy feet on the coffee table.
Newcomb pulled up the safety bar and unlocked the slider.
I sighed as he spotted the door on the far-right side of the deck. “You’ll need the key for the utility closet.”
“Please open the closet, Ms. Cardinal,” Newcomb requested in a very nice way.
Amir joined us in the living room. “All clear in the guest bedroom and bath.”
“Agent Amir, would you please retrieve my car keys from the glass bowl by the front door?” I asked sweetly, copying Newcomb’s tone.
When Amir returned, Newcomb indicated I should open the door for them. Instead, I plucked out the key to the closet and held it between two fingers. “I prefer to keep my distance from the creepy closet. Last fall, a copperhead slithered in there while I was replacing the furnace filter. I locked that sucker tight and haven’t been in since.” I wiggled the key. “It’s all you.”
With interest, Newcomb took the key. All three men piled onto my tiny deck, standing tense and at the ready, as if waiting for Mike to jump out of the closet like a jack-in-the-box.
“Be careful. That deck gets slippery when wet!” I hollered from the comfort of my couch. I considered shouting “boo!” when they opened the door, but I decided I might get shot.
The agents were doomed to disappointment. The door swung open, revealing my furnace and rusted water heater. Newcomb said something to Keller. The poor guy pulled a small flashlight out and dove into the depths of the three-by-five-foot snake- and spider-infested room. I hated that closet and shivered in disgust just watching him. He returned dusty and holding a dried-up snake carcass.
Jumping to my feet, I cried, “See! I told you there was a copperhead.”
“Ma’am, it’s just a rat snake. They’re good snakes. They eat rodents and vermin.”
“There is no such thing as a good snake if it’s in my home,” I replied to Keller’s misconceptions. “There’s a dumpster out back where you can dispose of it, please.” I added the please in a particularly wheedling tone, because there was no way I wanted that snake to be dropped in my kitchen trash.
I guess the show was over, because after closing and locking the closet, Keller and Amir filed through my apartment and out the front door.
Newcomb returned my keys. “Your boyfriend-”
“Ex-boyfriend,” I clarified.
“-is in big trouble. He’s wanted for questioning. If he contacts you, please give me a call.” He passed me his business card.
Following Newcomb to the door, I said, “Pardon me, but I’m having a difficult time believing my Boy Scout ex did anything illegal. What exactly is he accused of?”
No one responded.
Newcomb paused, with his hand on the halfway closed door. “It seems he’s scarpered off with one point two million dollars. We need to find out why.” The agent shut the door in my mouth-bobbing shocked face.
Exciting news! All of the Karina Cardinal mysteries are now going to be available on the new Scream app. Scream curates a list of the best voices in speculative and suspense fiction, delivering on chills & thrills. Isabella’s Painting will be the first one released with the rest of the series to soon follow reaching new readers, and providing all readers another place to obtain the series. The app is free to download onto your phone, tablet, or computer. All books on Scream have a free preview, if you like it, you can purchase the rest of the novel. If you don’t move on and find that page-turner that will make you scream! You can find the app through Google PlayStore, or the Apple app store – Scream by Crazy Maple Studios.
For those who have read Isabella’s Painting, you know that I incorporated the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, one of the world’s largest art heists in history, into the novel. A number of readers have been asking me about the new documentary, This Is a Robbery on Netflix.
First, yes, I have watched the miniseries. Second, from my own research done in 2016-2017, sadly, there is nothing new introduced into the documentary that I had not already discovered during my own research. Much of the material was available through old Boston Globe and other newspaper articles, previous documentaries, and material found on the FBI website or Gardner site. That being said, this documentary has done an excellent job coalescing the information and presenting it to the viewer in both an entertaining and interesting manner. The documentary focuses on the mafia connection theories. I suspect, one of the reasons the Gardner Museum was so helpful to the documentarians, was in hopes that it will shed new light on the case, and someone who knows or has seen the art will come forward. With a $10 million reward on the line, it’s possible this new documentary will encourage just that.
One possible suspect the documentary focuses on during the second episode is Richard Abath, the guard who buzzed the robbers into the building the night of the heist. During my own research, I was able to interview retired FBI agent, Robert Wittman, who worked the Art Crimes division over the years of the Gardner investigation. When I asked him why Richard Abath was never arrested, he told me Abath had undergone numerous polygraph tests, over years, and the results were either negative or inconclusive. They could not link Abath to the stolen artwork, even though the security system recorded Abath as the last person to enter the Blue Room, from where the painting Chez Tortoni was taken.
I imagine if any of the artwork is ever found it will only be pieces of it. At that time, artwork could have flowed easily and quickly out of the country. If it still exists, it is likely spread throughout the world. However, there is always hope the paintings will turn up, like the over 1200 Nazi looted artworks found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment, 70 years after the war ended. Perhaps a grand daughter of a dead mafia capo will stumble across a storage locker, or hidden room filled with paintings. After all, stranger things have happened.
MARCH 26, 2021-For the end of my Women in History series, I look to a woman who is considered the best-selling fiction writer of all time, Agatha Christie. Guinness World Records lists Christie as having sold more than 2 billion books worldwide. My first introduction to Agatha Christie was not one of her books, but rather a movie that I happened to stumble upon while channel surfing. It was the 1965 version of Ten Little Indians. When I realized the movie was based on Christie’s book, And Then There Were None, I borrowed it from the library and was soon caught up in the midst of an exciting ride.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born in Torquay, Devon in Southwest England, in September 1890. Her childhood education was erratic. At the age of 5 she taught herself to read. Her father homeschooled Christie until he fell too ill, then she spent time at a day school where she struggled with the discipline and strict schedules. A talented pianist, at the age of 15 her mother sent her to school in Paris to study piano and opera singing. However, two years later Christie determined she lacked the talent to become a concert pianist or opera singer; she ended her education and returned home. In 1912 she met Archibald Christie, and they were married in 1913. After WWI broke out, Christie trained and qualified to work as an assistant at a dispensary. Her new education in pharmacology and poisons helped develop her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, where the world was introduced to Hercule Poirot. Christie bore only one child, Rosalind. Eventually her marriage to Archibald fell apart and they divorced in 1928. In 1930, Christie met archeologist, Max Mallowen, whom she married later that year. They remained married until her death in 1976. Throughout her lifetime, Christie wrote 75 novels-66 of them detective novels-and 14 short story collections.
Christie enjoyed travel and her train trip on the Orient Express in 1928 led to my favorite novel of hers, Murder on the Orient Express, another tricky case unraveled by detective Hercule Poirot. One of the things I enjoy about reading Christie is her heavy reliance on dialog to develop the plot and set up the murderer. There are times in Christie’s novel when the reader might find the pacing a bit slow, however if you skim over these points, you are likely to miss an important clue that will help lead you to the perpetrator. I admit that my own novels have very little resemblance to Christie’s style. While her story lines are quite methodical and deliberate puzzles to solve, my own mysteries are rather fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants style with a good bit of action, adventure, and dumb luck for my heroine, who is not a trained detective. However, I do try to use dialog to a similar advantage that Christie used hers, by explaining plot points and dropping clues.
One thing is for sure, Christie’s influence on the detective mystery genre cannot be overstated. She is credited with establishing the modern “murder mystery” rules. Christie enticed readers by trapping all of her suspects in one location-e.g., on a train, ship, or mansion-rather than running helter-skelter around town interrogating suspects. By bringing her colorful characters to a central location, and giving them all reasons for being the murderer, her detective slowly solves the puzzle and narrows the list until the murder is revealed. Even though the reader is not taken to a variety of locations, Christie’s dialog, scenes, and character development keep us captivated and willing to spend the entire book in that single location. Her mysteries were smart, clever, and suspenseful, and they still remain popular today.
MARCH 19, 2021-I was introduced to Mary Stewart through my mother. One summer, during high school, she gave me her tattered copy of Nine Coaches Waiting, and I was hooked. Stewart’s Wikipedia page describes her as, “a British novelist who developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations.” I could not have written a better description of her writing style, and, as a reader who dislikes wall flower characters, Stewart’s strong female leads were right up my alley.
Stewart was born Mary Florence Rainbow, in Sunderland, England in 1916. She graduated from Durham University in 1938 with a Teaching Diploma in English and attained a graduate degree in 1941. During WWII she was a lecturer at her alma mater and met her husband Frederick Stewart, a professor of geology, at a costume party. They were married a few months later in 1945. They enjoyed traveling abroad, and the locales often made it into her novels. Her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk, was published in 1955, and became a bestseller. She went on to write 15 stand-alone, romantic mystery novels, a series of Arthurian legend stories, four children’s books, and a book of poetry. She passed away in 2014, a few months before her 98th birthday.
I remember the first time I read Nine Coaches Waiting (yes, I’ve read it many times since.) It reminded me of the dark suspense created by Daphne du Maurier’s, Rebecca. However, whereas du Maurier’s purposely unnamed protagonist spends much of her time wringing her hands and behaving foolishly, Stewart’s Linda Martin takes an active hand in mitigating the unknown threat that lurks in the shadows. While I enjoy both authors’ abilities to create suspense, it is Stewart who takes me on an escapade filled with action. It is one of the reasons, my character, Karina Cardinal, goes down the rabbit hole of adventure, even when friends warn her not to do so. It is a rarity that Stewart’s ladies come out of their escapades uninjured, unfortunately for Karina she also rarely comes out of her exploits unscathed, either physically or mentally.
Both Stewart and I write in the first person which gives the reader insight into our characters’ psyche. It can also amp up the suspense because the protagonist and the reader don’t know what their adversaries are doing behind the scenes. This style of writing plays out well in Stewart’s novel This Rough Magic, where the reader spends the first half of the novel questioning which man is the suspect. One of my favorite aspects about Stewart’s early novels is, even though they were written in her modern day, some of them are now over sixty years old. Because I enjoy that historical fiction facet, I’ve decided to write a short story mystery that takes place in the 50s or 60s-when ladies always wore dresses, and conservative conformity was at odds with the younger generation’s liberal rebellions.
For those who’ve never had the pleasure of reading Mary Stewart, I’ll end with my top 5 favorite picks so you can get started. Enjoy!
BARBARA MERTZ a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters or Barbara Michaels
MARCH 12, 2021-I was a teenager when I was introduced to Barbara Mertz through the novel The Master of Blacktower, written under her pseudonym, Barbara Michaels. The tortured and cruel Gavin Hamilton hires poor, penniless, orphan Damaris Gordon as his secretary. The reader, along with Damaris, is drawn into a world of dark secrets that include crippling injuries and disturbing accusations. When I look up Mertz’s pseudonym’s online, her novels are labeled as suspense/thriller/mystery, but when I grew up reading them, the library and bookstores placed them under the “gothic” genre. In reality, her novels included romance, history, suspense, and supernatural elements centralized on highly curious, smart, and strong-willed women. Whether gothic or suspense, I remember staying up far too late, on a school night, to finish reading Damaris’s enthralling story.
Mertz was born Barbara Gross in September 1927, in Canton, Illinois and later married Richard Mertz in 1950. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and finally, in 1952, with her PhD in Egyptology. Her initial publications were nonfiction books on ancient Egypt, and her first fiction novel, The Master of Blacktower, released in 1966.
It was through Barbara’s nom de plume, Elizabeth Peters, that I discovered my own fascination with archeology, artifacts, and art crimes. Her three intrepid amateur sleuth series’ featuring Amelia Peabody, Vicky Bliss, and Jacqueline Kirby draws readers into such fantastical locations as the pyramids of ancient Egypt, crumbling Roman temples, or medieval German castles. Every story is woven with a witty and daring protagonist who jumps into each adventure with both feet.
Amelia Peabody’s trips to Egypt inspired me to incorporate an Egyptian artifact into my own Karina Cardinal mystery, Pharaoh’s Forgery. Her novels challenged me to take Karina on a trip of her own, down to sunny Mexico where her relaxing vacation goes awry, much like that of Jacqueline Kirby in The Murders of Richard III. Mertz’s mysteries also stirred the juices of my first Karina Cardinal novel, Isabella’s Painting, where I incorporated one of the highest valued art thefts in history. I also learned, through her Vicky Bliss series, that mystery does not necessarily have to begin with a dead body. Thieves, stolen artifacts, forged talismans, and grainy photographs can lead an amateur sleuth down perilous paths with just as much fun and entertainment as a dead body.
Sadly, Mertz passed away in 2013 at the age of 85, having written over fifty fun-filled, and thrilling masterpieces of mystery, romance, and suspense. Though she lived not far from me, her passing came just as I was launching my own writing career, and I never got a chance to meet her-a great regret of mine. However, I have many tattered copies of her novels, and I will enjoy rereading them for years to come.
MARCH 5, 2021-As you may know, Carolyn Keene is a pseudonym for over a dozen authors who have written for the Nancy Drew mystery series. Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher, and writer of children’s books had the original idea for Nancy Drew. Too busy to write the series himself, he hired ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson, and gave the series the penname, Carolyn Keene.
Benson grew up in Iowa. She enjoyed adventure, playing sports with the neighborhood boys, and was an avid reader. As a child she would write short stories and submit them to children’s magazines. Her first story was published at age 13. After high school, Benson went on to earn an English degree in college, and she was the first woman to graduate with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. It was during her graduate program Stratemeyer hired Benson to write the first Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock, published in 1930. Benson went on to write 23 more Nancy Drew mysteries for Stratemeyer.
Much like Benson, I was a tomboy. As a young child, my friend, Tommy, and I would tear up the neighborhood racing around on our Big Wheel bikes. I was also a dab hand at making mudpies with him in the garden. By the end of the day, I’d arrive home filthy and my poor mother would hose me off before allowing me to enter the house.
In addition, like Benson, I became an ardent reader, and Nancy Drew was the first series to hook me. I couldn’t get enough of Nancy’s adventures driving around River Heights in her snappy, blue roadster, with her best friends Bess and George solving crimes. I would challenge myself to figure out who the bad guy was before Nancy unfolded it for us at the end of the book. I own about twenty of the original, yellow-spined, hard back books, and borrowed many more from the library. Of the first 79 stories written, I would venture to guess, I have read 90% of them.
I, of course, wanted to grow up to become Nancy Drew, or any female crime fighting detective for that matter. The TV show, â€˜Charlie’s Angels’ was also popular at the time. During sleepovers at my girlfriends’, we would run around the house chasing invisible bad guys and karate kicking them into submission. I always played Sabrina Duncan, one of the smart, tough talking, original Angels. Clearly, by the age of 10, I knew solving crimes was in my blood.
In case you’re wondering, no, I did not go into crime fighting. Again, like Benson, I was a young writer. My first books were the gripping page turners, Micki Mouse Goes to Mexico, and Banana Bonkers, written during elementary school in third and fifth grades, respectively.
However, in high school and college, my writing turned away from fiction. I focused on windy public administration journal articles, grant proposals, and heavy duty political white papers on things like constitutional law. While I continued reading mystery fiction, my serious-minded degrees took me away from story writing. It wasn’t until I quit my job to stay home with my new babies, that I allowed myself to explore fiction writing. My early love of Nancy Drew is surely one of the reasons I’ve gone down the path of crime fiction writing.
While we can’t get together in-person, this year the Suffolk Mystery Author Festival has gone virtual and FREE! Saturday, March 6, from 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. there will be panel sessions running each hour. I will be on the Writing Strong Women panel from 6:00-7:00 p.m. Register to join: https://www.suffolkmysteryauthorsfestival.com/2021-registration.html