Story Excerpt

The Witches of Endor

by Janice Law

excerpt1_Witches-of-Endor_TimFoleyArt by Tim Foley

The two women bent over their worktable. One held a strip of plywood, built out and decorated to depict the facades of several battered looking brick buildings, while the other screwed a cleat to the base of the diorama.

“Have we ever done both inside and out before?” Edie asked. Her long thick hair, streaked gray and brown, was pulled back and tied with a ribbon. Just like George Washington, her sister always said. Edie had strong arms and hands and did most of the carpentry.

Cynthia was two years younger. She still had her dark hair and she wore large glasses that magnified intense, dark eyes. They shared noses of character and square, determined chins. Both sisters were older than they looked and a good deal sharper too.

The facade secured, they stepped back and studied the effect. A narrow street had acquired a row of seedy-looking shops, broken by an external stair to rented rooms above. Edie selected a second component, the floor and walls of one of those apartments. Although still empty of furniture, the room had working windows, one at the front partly raised, and two doors, one leading out to the stair. The room had cream-painted trim and a brown-and-gold striped wallpaper. The floor was linoleum with a dusty pinkish area rug.

“What do you think?”

Cynthia took her time. She did the designs and soft furnishings and she had an eye for duplicating colors and original materials. After a minute, she nodded. “I think that will do once we add the furniture, though I’d feel better if the victim were a man. There are so many female victims.”

“Absolutely, but consider our audience. Men prefer a woman, preferably attractive.”

Cynthia sniffed. It was true that their usual audience, the annual regional forensics conference, still skewed heavily male, but she couldn’t help adding, “Though how attractive is any murder victim?”

Edie shrugged and concentrated on fitting the prefabricated room to the supports and the facade.

“Their clothes are always a bit skimpy for my taste,” Cynthia continued, for she was obsessive about details. Without her sister’s compulsions, Edie knew that their crime scene miniatures would never be as successful; at the same time, without her own ability to push through a project, none of them would ever be completed.

Fortunately, the annual forensics conference provided an unalterable deadline, and Cynthia was forced to stop fussing a day or so before the year’s project was due to be delivered. The present commission was a different story, and she had used the extra time to be even more meticulous than usual.

That had been a foreseeable nuisance, but Edie’s reservations about the project went beyond the flexible time frame. Their usual constructions provided “crime scenes” for forensic training purposes. Depending on requirements, they researched an actual case or devised a puzzle of their own. With her obsession for detail, Cynthia constructed really fiendish clues, while Edie was good at interpreting old crime scene photos and turning them into three dimensional sets.

Archibald’s commission was an oddity twice over because it was a private commission and because the decade-old Malvern murder remained unsolved. Beth Malvern had left her rented rooms shortly before midnight. She descended the external stair to the street where she had gone no more than a dozen steps before she was stabbed, killed with a single blow. Her body lay unnoticed for several hours in light snow until a neighbor, returning from a local bar, stumbled over the body and raised the alarm. Because Malvern had not been carrying a wallet, it was morning before she was identified. The residents of the block were questioned carefully, but there were no witnesses, nor any credible suspects. Clues were few and the motive remained unknown.

As a diorama subject, the only outstanding feature of the Malvern murder was that it had remained unsolved. Edie found this so unsatisfactory that she’d been tempted to refuse. Then Saul Archibald offered them a big contract with a handsome deposit. Their old house badly needed a new roof and she had put aside her doubts and agreed.

“Time for the ice?” asked Cynthia.

“I think you can do that now.”

Cynthia dipped a brush in the acrylic glaze that would cast a sheen along the sidewalk and develop the frozen puddles along the way. While the glaze dried, they placed the apartment furniture, a bed with its legs attached to a box spring, a wicker chair, a small bureau topped with a stack of tiny sketchbooks. They pinned small concert posters to the walls, set up the easel—Malvern had been a freelance illustrator and an aspiring painter—and hung a coat on the back of the door, creating a shabby but obsessively detailed miniature room, a venue that would only make complete sense with the pièce de résistance, the victim.

After creating their figures, suggesting their features, and replicating their clothing, Cynthia often felt acquainted with their subjects. Now she gave a last-minute touch to the hair, long and brown, and straightened the fawn pullover, stained dark between the shoulder blades. She removed one shoe and twisted the arms and legs until she was satisfied their positions were just right. After Edie measured off the exact distance, Cynthia placed the doll, and the sisters stood back and looked at their creation.

“It has bothered me all along,” Cynthia said, “that she went out in house shoes without a coat.”

“When her jacket was hanging right at the door,” her sister agreed.

“The suggestion was that she fled the apartment with her killer in pursuit.”

Edie shook her head. “There was no evidence of a visitor. No prints, no extra plates or glasses.”

“There was the wine bottle,” Cynthia said. “There was that unopened wine bottle,” and she checked to be sure that a diminutive bottle of Chianti had been placed on the bookshelf. “She apparently did not drink. Remember, some condition she had?”

Edie nodded. “That’s right. So probably for someone else—unless it was for an illustration she was doing.”

“A visitor, then? Were the police right? Someone she was expecting?”

“Maybe,” Edie said slowly, “but perhaps it happened the other way around. It was cold that night but one of the front windows was partly open. Perhaps she ran out to someone. She’d been watching at the window, caught a glimpse, called, and ran out.”

Somehow that was worse, that eagerness, Cynthia thought, and she put her finger on the prone figurine as if it would tell her the truth. “Possible,” she said, “but does that get us any further?”

“A visitor inside,” said Edie, “suggests strongly someone she knew, probably trusted. Someone glimpsed on the street could be anyone: lover, friend, acquaintance, enemy. There could be a completely different explanation if she went out to see someone.”

Cynthia was not convinced. “Everything indicates the attack happened quickly. If she went out as you suggest, she would have been behind whomever she saw from the window, yet she was apparently caught by surprise and struck in the back.”

Her sister was silent for a moment. There was no doubt about the correct position of the body and that presented a difficulty, yet she was sure that Beth Malvern had not had a visitor. In addition to the lack of physical evidence, there was abundant testimony to Malvern’s isolation, her oddity, and her painful lack of social skills.

Edie ran her hand over the facade thoughtfully, and tapped the glass and iron display window of a down-market antique shop. The window projected at least two feet from the line of the other stores, and she had copied the feature faithfully. “Try this,” she said after a moment. “Malvern saw someone passing from the window, someone headed on an important errand.”

“Secret too?”

“Most likely. She opens the window and calls out. When the person does not stop, she runs down the stair to the sidewalk. But the person has not continued along the sidewalk, he—can we agree it’s he, given the force of the blow?”

Cynthia nodded. Edie went to their materials cabinet and returned with a male figure that she placed behind the projecting window. As all their models and figurines were to scale, it was easy for them to see that a man of average size would have been concealed.

“She passes him and is killed before she realizes that he is not farther up the street,” Edie said.

“If you’re right, they knew each other.”

“That’s not certain, but she recognized him at night on a poorly lit street.”

“Let’s see how poorly.” Cynthia put off all the lights in their workshop, and Edie switched on the battery operated streetlight and the reading lamp in the upstairs apartment. There were terrific shadows, big dramatic diagonals, an orangey smear from the streetlight across the icy sidewalk, and a glimmer of Beth Malvern’s reading lamp in the upstairs window. The sisters couldn’t help a sense of satisfaction as they moved around the construction to look through the windows to the sidewalk below.

“She knew the person, she had to,” said Edie. “If she recognized him in this light with those shadows.”

Cynthia did not respond for a moment. It was an article of faith with her that a really complete reconstruction held the solution. Total completeness was never possible, but one item that Edie had rather dismissed might have been vital. “Beth Malvern was an illustrator and a compulsive sketcher. Apparently drawing was her real connection to the world, and all her professional colleagues agreed that she had a wonderful visual memory. She might have sketched someone completely unknown to her.”

“Surely the police considered that.” But when Edie remembered the stack of notebooks, filled with people captured on the bus, on the street, or in the parks, she felt a nervous twinge.

Cynthia did not answer for a moment. “Why do you think Mr. Archibald commissioned this piece? An obscure case, an unglamorous setting, a sordid crime. He’s not in law enforcement, I don’t think.”

Edie shook her head. “Plenty of money, though.”

“Do you suppose he knew her? Or did she know him in some way?” Cynthia asked, and both sisters lapsed into silence. With the project due to be collected soon, this was something they very much wanted to find out. “The sketchbooks,” she said at last. “I think we must look at them again.”

“There’s at least a dozen,” Edie protested.

“But this time we are only looking for one face. . . .”

 

 

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Copyright © 2021. The Witches of Endor by Janice Law

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