As I mentioned, the book is called Where All the Ladders Start. Those of you who have read its predecessors, Dover Beach and The Distance Beacons, will notice that I use a standard private-eye opening in all of them. Except, of course, life is different in this fictional universe.
The remaining 35 or so chapters are coming soon to your local ebook store . . .
I got off my bike and stared at the guy in the brown robe. The guy in the brown robe stared at me. He was sitting at the front of a cart piled high with apples, pumpkins, squash, and other fall produce; half a dozen dead turkeys hung from hooks at the back of the cart. He was big and broad and scary, with small black eyes, long stringy hair, and a scraggly beard that was interrupted by a deep scar on his left cheek.
“Hiya,” I said, trying to break the ice.
He stared at me for a second, and then his eyes moved to the horse, who ignored him.
“Looking for me?” I asked. “Walter Sands? Got a bit of a late start today. Sorry if I kept you waiting.”
The guy didn’t respond. I hadn’t really expected him to be looking for me. But Lower Washington Street was an odd place to park a cart filled with food.
“The Food Market is a few blocks over,” I tried. “They’ll love your stuff.”
“Well, have a nice day.”
He didn’t look like he was interested in nice days. Fine. The world was filled with strange people, and he was just one more of them. I walked around the cart and entered the building that housed my spacious, well-appointed office.
Okay, those adjectives aren’t entirely accurate, but the place fits my needs, which mainly consist of a stove to keep me warm and shelves to hold the books I read to pass the time while I wait for clients to show up. Also, a desk and a couple of chairs in case a client actually does show up. Not that this had been happening much lately. Or, well, ever.
I carried my bike inside and walked upstairs.
From the hallway, I noticed that the door to my office was open. I always close the door to my office when I leave at night. Of course, the door doesn’t lock, but that doesn’t really matter. Nothing worth stealing in my office.
I took out my gun. I wasn’t especially worried, but it pays to be careful. “Please don’t do anything stupid,” I announced, and then I went inside.
And there, sitting by my desk, was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was wearing a powder-blue robe, and she was staring at me.
“Mr. Sands,” she said calmly, ignoring the gun. “Do you remember me?”
It was impossible to forget her. “Of course,” I said. “Sister Marva. How are you? And please, call me Walter.” We had met during one of the many disastrous episodes in my previous case. She was a disciple in the Church of the New Beginning up in Concord. Long black hair, creamy white skin, deep blue eyes. I found it hard to break my gaze away from those eyes.
I sat down behind my desk, and that’s when I noticed that she was pregnant. Well, that was interesting. Beautiful pregnant woman shows up in the private eye’s office, needing his help. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen.
“So, um, what can I do for you, Sister? The last time we met—”
“You almost killed Brother Flynn,” she reminded me.
“Yes. I’m very sorry about that.” Flynn Dobler was the leader of Sister Marva’s Church. A very smart, charismatic fellow. I snuck into the Church in the middle of the night and pointed a gun at him while he lay in bed. I remembered Marva coming in and leaping on top of him, desperate to protect her master from the intruder. All because of a really stupid theory I’d come up with about a kidnapping I was investigating. This had not been my finest moment as a private eye.
“It’s all right,” she said with a sympathetic smile. “Everyone makes mistakes. But now we need your help.”
“We? The Church?”
“Brother Flynn has disappeared,” she said, and the smile faded, and her beautiful blue eyes filled with tears.
“Disappeared?” I repeated. “How? When?”
“A week ago. He was there one night in his room, and then—in the morning—he was gone.” The tears started falling down her cheeks.
This was the way it always happened in the novels I’d read. And now it was happening to me. But this didn’t feel like a novel—this was a real human being, shedding real tears. I wanted to comfort her, but I also needed to do my job.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Was there a note? Were there witnesses?”
She shook her head. She wiped her cheeks with the sleeve of her robe. I wished I had a handkerchief to offer her. In my novels, the private eye always had a handkerchief.
“You’ve checked around the farm, I suppose? There are plenty of wild animals, especially once you get outside the city. Wolves. Wildcats. Feral dogs. Probably some crazies, too.”
“Yes, of course. We’ve looked everywhere.”
“Well, um, any theories? Do you suspect foul play?”
Sister Marva lowered her eyes. “Brother Joseph does,” she murmured.
“Well, he’s the disciple—who, who runs things. Brother Flynn’s second-in-command, I suppose.”
“Who does he suspect?”
“You should ask Brother Joseph, I think. He asked me to come here and talk to you. Because I go to the Food Market every day, with Brother Reggie. He’d like you to come up to Concord and investigate.”
Brother Reggie was presumably the giant in the cart. “You said Brother Joseph suspected foul play,” I said. “What do you suspect, Sister Marva?”
She blushed. “I think that perhaps God took him from us.”
I struggled to figure out what she meant. “You mean, like, he died of natural causes?”
She shook her head. “I mean—God brought him up to heaven. While he was still alive. Because He loved Brother Flynn so much.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because Sister Lucy saw it happen.”
“Sister Lucy saw Brother Flynn get taken up to heaven,” I said, making sure I had this straight.
“Yes. You should talk to her too, I think.”
“I think you’re right.” Maybe a more experienced private eye would have decided right there that this case wasn’t going to be worth the trouble. But I’m not very experienced. And, frankly, I had nothing better to do. I decided to change the subject. “By the way, congratulations on your pregnancy, Sister Marva.”
She smiled and inclined her head. “It’s a blessing.” Her smile made you happy to be alive.
“Do you mind my asking: is Brother Flynn the father?”
Her face clouded and she looked down at her belly. “I don’t think—I don’t think that has anything to do with Brother Flynn’s disappearance, Walter.” she replied. And then she fell silent.
OK, one more mystery. I considered. My friend and occasional employer Bobby Gallagher had a van, but it was out of commission while his driver/mechanic Mickey tried to scrounge or repair or manufacture a gasket or a flange or a defibrillator or some-such item; I don’t know much about vans. “I’ll take the case,” I said. “But if you want me to go up there today, I’m afraid I don’t have—”
“You can ride with us in our cart,” Marva suggested. “We return to the Church after we finish selling our food. We should be at the Market now, actually. I’m sure Brother Reggie is tired of waiting.”
I considered some more. “That means I’d have to stay the night at the Church,” I pointed out. “I need to be back in Boston tomorrow.”
“We come to the Food Market every day. You can come back with us in the morning.”
That was that, then. I had a case. “All right,” I said. “I get two new dollars a day. Ten dollars in advance.”
Sister Marva gave me another smile. She looked relieved and grateful. “That would be wonderful. But would you prefer to be paid in food instead?”
That wasn’t a bad idea. Inflation was getting to be a problem. Who knew what the money would buy when I got around to spending it? “Food would be fine,” I replied.
We went back down to the street, where Brother Reggie did not in fact seem to be tired of waiting. It wasn’t clear that he had even moved since the last time I set eyes on him. But his face lit up when he saw Sister Marva, like a dog greeting his master. Marva and I agreed to meet at the Food Market later. I filled a bag with produce from the cart and grabbed one of the turkeys. Looked like ten dollars’ worth to me, and Marva didn’t haggle. Then Brother Reggie helped her up onto the cart, and they headed off.
I watched them go. The Church of the New Beginning. Leave the past behind, it preached. Start fresh—no technology, no government, none of the baggage that still weighed so many of us down. Look at where all that stuff had led us. Reasonable enough, I supposed. The past had certainly ended up badly.
But now, strangely, the Church had a missing-person case on its hands, and it had decided to call on that useless relic of the past, a private eye. Well, I had already seen some strange things in my brief career; no reason for this case to be any different.
I brought my bike out of the building and arranged the sack of food over the handlebars; I held onto the turkey. Then I pedaled home to the townhouse in Louisburg Square where I lived with Gwen, the most wonderful woman in this godforsaken world, and Stretch, the most wonderful dwarf in the world. Both of them were at work—Gwen at the Boston Globe and Stretch in the governor’s office. I put the turkey in the icebox and the produce on the kitchen table, and I wrote them a brief note:
Off on a case! Won’t be back today, but I will be back tomorrow.
Enjoy the food.
There, that would intrigue them. I left the note beside the produce, and I headed off to the Food Market, munching one of Marva’s apples.