The Deadliest Blessing
Provincetown Mystery Series #3
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Now Sydney is again balancing her work at the Race Point Inn with an unexpected adventure that will eventually involve fishermen, gunrunners, a mummified cat, a family fortune, misplaced heirs, a girl with a mysterious past, and lots and lots of Portuguese food. The Blessing of the Fleet is coming up, and unless Sydney can find the key to a decades-old murder, it might yet come back to haunt everyone in this otherwise-peaceful fishing village.
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I’d parked my Civic—known affectionately as the Little Green Car—in the row of vehicles facing Herring Cove Beach, one of the few places on the East Coast where the sun appears to set into the water. As usual, the light was spectacular. It’s the light that made Provincetown what it is, the oldest continuously operating art colony in the United States: the light here, apparently, is like nowhere else.
Or so my friend Mirela tells me. She’s a painter, and is constantly talking about the light, though when it really comes down to it, she can’t explain exactly what it is they all see, the artists who live and work here. I know; I’ve asked.
It was late spring, and I didn’t yet have too many weddings crowding my daily calendar, so I was taking advantage of the calm before the storm of the summer tourist season really hitting when my spare time, like everybody’s else’s, would disappear altogether. I’m the wedding coordinator for the Race Point Inn, and while we do tasteful winter weddings inside the building, the bulk of my work is in the summertime, as Provincetown is pretty much Destination Wedding Central, mostly for same-sex couples but really for anyone who wants this kind of light. The sun was carving a path of gold right up to the beach, glittering and gilded, and I knew I was smiling, settling back into my seat with a sigh.
My phone rang.
Cell coverage is spotty out here in the Cape Cod National Seashore, and my experience is that it’s when you really need to reach someone that it’s not going to happen; on the other hand, when it’s something you don’t want to deal with, the signal comes through loud and clear. Murphy’s Law, or something along those lines. I sighed and swiped, my eyes still on the sunset. “Sydney Riley.”
“Sydney, hey, hi, it’s Zack.”
My landlord. This couldn’t be good. I mentally checked the date. Um, I’d paid my rent this month, right? “Hi, Reg.”
“Hey, hi. Listen, Sydney, I’ve got Mrs. Mattos here and she’s looking for you.”
Of course she was. I live above a nightclub, which makes for reasonable rent with free Lady Gaga thrown in at one o’clock in the morning; Mrs. Mattos is the eighty-something widow who owns the very large house directly across the street. Property developers are probably checking on her health daily as they wait for her demise; I can’t imagine how many million-dollar condos they could create in that space.
I take her grocery shopping to the Stop & Shop once a week and I’ve noticed, lately, that she’s finding more and more excuses to come over and buzz my doorbell. She’s lonely and probably a little scared and most of the time I try to help, but the silly season was already upon us and there was a lot less of my time available. Generally I try to wean her off daily visits by May, but we were already into the beginning of June now, and she was crossing the street rather than calling, a sure sign of distress.
Mrs. Mattos is frequently distressed.
Still, it must have been something out of the ordinary for her to have buzzed Zack, who owns the nightclub as well as the building and was probably peeled away from his never-ending paperwork to talk to her. Mrs. Mattos is usually a little nonplussed around Zack, who regularly paints his fingernails chartreuse or purple, and owns an extensive assortment of wigs. “She’s there with you now?”
A murmur of conversation, then Mrs. Mattos’ quavering voice on the line. “I just need you to come over, Sydney,” she said.
The sun was dipping into the water now; the show would soon be finished. Above it, scarlet and pink streaked across the sky. Some day, I told myself, I was going to be old and quavering, too. “Okay, you go back home,” I said. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Her name is Emilia Mattos, she stands about five-feet nothing and might weigh a hundred pounds. But every bit of her, like most of the Portuguese women in town, is muscle and sinew. I know her first name, but I’ve never used it; there’s a certain distance, a certain decorum the elderly Provincetown widows observe, and I respect that. Out on Fisherman’s Wharf there’s a collection of large-scale photographs of elderly Portuguese wives and mothers, an art installation called They Also Face The Sea; Mrs. Mattos isn’t one of them, but she could well be.
Back when Provincetown was one of the major whaling ports, ships stopped off in the Azores to take on additional crew, and a lot of those people settled back in town and sent for their families; by the end of the 1800s they were as numerous as the original English settlers. Nowadays there are fewer and fewer Portuguese enclaves, as gentrification switches into high gear and Provincetown’s fishing fleet dwindles; but the names are still here: Mattos, Avellar, Cabral, Gouveia, Silva, Amaral, Rego, Del Deo.
Up until about ten years go, a prominent advertisement in the booklet for the Portuguese Festival was for the small Azores Express airline, when there was still a generation in town that was from Portugal itself; you don’t see that anymore.
She was standing in her doorway when I found a parking place for the Little Green Car and got to our street. I’ve read in books about people twisting their hands; I’d never actually seen it until then. “Mrs. Mattos! Are you all right? What’s wrong?”
“Probably nothing,” she said, on that same quavering note. “Oh, I’m probably disturbing you for nothing, Sydney.”
“Not at all,” I said firmly, taking hold of her elbow and turning her around. “Let’s go in, and you can tell me all about it.”
She was docile, letting me steer her back in the house and into the big kitchen where most of her life seems to take place. She has a home health aide who comes in to help her with bathing and laundry, but she doesn’t let anyone touch her stove: not to cook, not to clean. And when I say clean, I mean clean within an inch of its life: everything in Mrs. Mattos’ kitchen gleams. Not for the first time, I lamented that she couldn’t make it up my stairs: if she expended about an eighth of her usual zeal, my apartment would be cleaner than it had ever been.
She sat down, still fussing with her hands. “I’m having construction work done,” she said, and stood up again. “I should show you.”
“What kind of work?”
“Insulation.” Her voice was repressive, as if she were delivering censure of something. We’d just come off an amazingly, spectacularly cold winter, with single-digit temperatures and a nor-easter that brought the highest tides ever recorded, so I suspected she wasn’t the only one thinking about making changes. “In the walls. Them people at the Cape Cod Energy said I should.”
“Okay.” I still wasn’t getting what was wrong here. “Do you want to show me?”
She turned and led me into the front parlor (in Mrs. Mattos’ house, you don’t call it a living room); I had to duck to get through the heavy framed doorway, and the ceiling here was about an inch or so over my head. She, of course, had no such problems. A loveseat had been pulled away from one of the exterior walls and a significant hole made. She didn’t have drywall, but rather plaster and lathing, as older houses tended to. “There wasn’t nothing wrong with it. The insulation before was just fine,” she said, resentful. “Seaweed.”
She nodded vigorously. “Dried out. It’s what they used.” No need for anything else, her tone suggested.
“Okay,” I said again. “What is—“
“Go look,” she said, flapping her hands at me. “Just look.”
I looked. I pulled my smartphone out of my pocket and used the built-in flashlight. Wedged between strips of lathing was a box. “Is this it?”
Mrs. Mattos blessed herself. “Holy Mother of God,” she said, which I took for assent.
“Can I take it out?” I asked, eyeing the box. It looked as innocuous as last year’s Christmas present. Well, maybe not last year’s. Maybe from sometime around 1950.
Another quick sign of the cross. “Just don’t make me look. I can’t look again.”
I put my smartphone in my pocket and reached gingerly into the opening. Didn’t Poe write a story about a cat getting walled up somewhere? “Who’s doing your work for you, Mrs. Mattos?” It didn’t look as though they’d gotten very far in opening up the wall.
She was back to twisting her hands again. “The company wanted so much,” she began, and I nodded. Rather than getting a contractor, pulling a permit, having a bunch of workmen in her house and paying reasonable rates, she’d found someone to do it on the side. Someone’s unemployed cousin or nephew, probably. That sort of thing happens a lot in P’town, especially among the thrifty Portuguese. It explained the size of the hole, anyway: this was someone without a whole range of tools.
I pulled the box out—it was about the size of a shoebox, only square—and set it down carefully on the coffee table. Mrs. Mattos was looking at it as though something were about to pop out and bite her, like the creatures in Alien; she actually took a physical step back. This wasn’t just Mrs. Mattos being Mrs. Mattos; this thing was really spooking her.
I sat down beside the table and gingerly—you can’t say that I don’t pick up on a mood—lifted the top off the box. Sudden thoughts of Pandora blew by like an errant wind and I shook them off and looked inside.
Shoes; small shoes. Children’s shoes. Three of them, and none matching the others. It was wildly anticlimactic. “Shoes?” I said, doubt—and no doubt disappointment—in my voice.
“It’s not the shoes,” she said. “It’s that we shouldn’t never have moved them.”
I looked at them again. Old leather, dry and curling and peeling. But shoes? She was clearly seeing something I wasn’t. Had these children died some horrible death? Were these memories of lives that hadn’t been lived to their fullest? Something haunting, a song or an echo of laughter, moved through my mind as though on a whisper of summer air. I didn’t recognize the tune. “Mrs. Mattos?”
“It’s to keep them witches out,” she said, grimly.
She nodded. “An’ now there’s nothing to keep ’em from coming in. And nothing we can do about it, neither.”
The author of a number of mystery and historical novels (some of which you can see on Amazon, Goodreads, Criminal Element, HomePort Press, and her author website), de Beauvoir's work has appeared in 15 countries and has been translated into 12 languages. Midwest Review called her Martine LeDuc Montréal series “riveting (…) demonstrating her total mastery of the mystery/suspense genre.” She is currently writing a Provincetown Theme Week cozy mystery series featuring female sleuth Sydney Riley.
De Beauvoir’s academic background is in history and religion, and the politics and intrigue of the medieval period have always fascinated her (and provided her with great storylines!). She coaches and edits individual writers, teaches writing online and on Cape Cod, and thinks Aaron Sorkin is a god. Her cat, Beckett, totally disagrees.
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Jeannette de Beauvoir
My mother was a voracious mystery reader, the kind of person who walks around the house bumping into things because they just have to finish this one chapter. (Sound familiar?) And I owe her so much: it’s completely thanks to her that I “met” many of the authors who are still among my favorites: Dorothy L. Sayers, Mary Stewart, Josephine Tey, Mignon G. Eberhart, Rex Stout, Michael Innes, and many, many more. Her side of my parents’ bedroom was always heaped up with books: books sliding onto the floor, books placed in precarious and untidy piles, books tucked under tissue boxes and bedside lamps.
And a few of those books, I have to point out, had some pretty lurid covers. This was the late 1960s, and it was a time of realism in illustrations. There were women in tight sheath dresses being menaced by suit-wearing gunmen. There was blood spilling out across a bright book jacket. You could see a frightened figure running through the woods.
And I can remember, too, visiting her bedroom (secretly and in her absence, of course!) and being just a little distressed that she seemed to welcome so much violence into her world. It was in some odd way unseemly, almost embarrassing.
I was reminded of that recently when I was watching a TV program with a friend—one of the death-porn shows like Criminal Minds, I think—and there was a moment of particular gruesomeness. My friend turned to me and said, “Tell me again, what it is you like about this show?”
Right. There it is. Death as entertainment. On the surface of it, we mystery readers really, really like to read about death. Suspicious deaths, orchestrated deaths, clever deaths, carefully planned deaths. What is up with that? My strong suspicion is that if faced with the real thing, we’d be every bit as terrified and disgusted as everyone else. So why do we read (and, in my case, write) these things?
I think that at least part of the answer is that murder ups the ante. Sure, there are mysteries that are about embezzlement, stolen treasures, and missing pets; but nothing holds our attention the way a murder mystery does. It makes the story literally a matter of life and death.
Someone else’s life and death.
And that’s where the escapism comes in. After all, stolen items and runaway pets are part of our normal lives; they’re things we think about. They could conceivably happen to us. You read about someone embezzling retirement funds, and you start worrying about your own. You read about someone not clicking the lock so the dog got out, and you find yourself checking your own door. But the reality is that even when someone is killed and we read about it in the papers, it’s quite different from something investigated by Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey. Most murders—at least the ones we know about—are shabby affairs, not particularly clever and not particularly interesting: they have more to do with drug deals, turf wars, or robberies gone bad than they do with intricate planning and hidden drawing-room motives.
So to read about diabolical motives and careful plotting takes us somewhere we’re not likely to ever go in Real Life. And that’s one of the functions of fiction, isn’t it? To transport readers to a different world?
But there’s more to it than simple escapism: other popular genres, like science fiction and romance, do the same thing. No; I think I need to go back to my original thought, which was that murder ups the ante. It’s the one thing that we have in common, after all: the certainty of death—and our fear of it.
Psychologists tell us that being exposed in a benign way to something we fear allows us to vicariously experience—and deal with our terror of—things that go bump in the night. It explains the popularity of horror flicks, and it contributes to our love of murder mysteries. They provide an intellectual exercise as well as giving us that frisson, that ability to dip our toes into the cold water and squeal and then go back to Real Life... even as we confront our fear of death eventually happening to us.
Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps reading—and writing!—murder mysteries is simply a more genteel way of tapping into humanity’s violent streak: a kinder, gentler Roman Coliseum. It’s possible, but I don’t think so; our violence comes to us wrapped in velvet shawls and locked rooms, in perfume wafting on the air and clever flippant protagonists outsmarting the police. We’re intellectual voyeurs rather than sadists.
And now, as my own side of the bed has come very much to look like my mother’s used to, I too pick up tales of death on the high seas, death in discreet sitting-rooms, death hidden in a poison cup, and these stories lull me to sleep just as they did her.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is the author of the Sydney Riley mysteries and other mystery and historical fiction. Read more about her at jeannettedebeauvoir.com.
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