Opening Chapter of Death Goes Postal, A Rivka and Dan Sherman Mystery by Larry and Rosemary Mild
Chapter 1
Bath, England

The man in the tan mackintosh, slogging through the driving rain, believed himself neither evil nor cruel. Ambitious, impulsive, greedy, and sometimes excessive. . . yes. The prospect of splitting two million sterling and a share of academia's limelight had propelled him into this night's quest. Only Abner Fraume stood in his way. Their confrontation might call for extreme measures. He acknowledged that brute force would be unacceptable. But anger sometimes overtook him. Temper! Temper! He reminded himself, I must control my emotional swings.

Head down, he made his way across the wet cobblestones of Upper Parke Crescent. A sudden gust heaved him sideways. Holding the upturned coat collar he pushed through the storm. A row of attached brick homes followed the arc of the street--identical except for the wooden trim arround their doors. Wrought-iron fences separated the stone stoops from the curving sidewalk. The gate at number nineteen stood ajar. An invitation? the visitor mused. Perhaps, but not if the old mule knew who was calling.

Professor Emil Kravitz climbed the granite steps to shelter under a small peaked roof. He rapped the tarnished brass knocker on the oak door. No reply. He tried twice more, then peered through the octagonal stained-glass window. A dim light partially illuminated the far end of a long hall. He brushed away the rain from his patchwork gray-black beard and mustache as he waited. Damn it! Emil thought, the old mule's in there, and he's ignoring me.

Merely lusting after life's finer things, Emil hadn't broken any laws yet. He wanted to be known as a historian of note and a collector of dated artifacts, but lacked the diligence and finances to pursue these passions honestly. He was sick and tired of drilling endless crops of young brats who could care less about a real education. But teaching put food in his mouth, gave him a place to call his own, and left plenty of time for private historical research. Except--his precious research and timing were never quite on the money. Fraume always got there first.

But what's wrong with wanting more? He thought. Coercing Fraume into a profitable partnership has got to be the way. That old geezer's pretty frail, so I had better not be too rough on him. He'll come around, but I've got to get inside to see him.

Emil checked the street once more for possible witnesses--no one. Having extracted a bi-fold case from inside his coat pocket, he withdrew several tools. The case and tools he'd rescued from a pawn shop. The lock-picking technique he'd acquired from one of his more enterprising students. Emil hesitated for a moment as a chill, a tinge of guilt, rushed through his spine--he was actually breaking the law.

Inserting two slim tools, a shearing probe and a lifting pick, into the keyway, Emil set back each of the locking pins until the lock yielded. Pressure on the knob allowed the door to swing inward. He put away the tools and removed a Maglite torch from a deep coat pocket. Stepping inside the dark front room, the intruder listened for any response to his break-in, but he heard none. Emil shed the dripping overcoat, leaving it in a heap on the carpet by the door.

The pale light he'd seen from the stoop emanated from the farthest room, four dark doorways from where he stood. A quick glance followed the beam of his torch into each room as he swept past the smell of tobacco in a sitting room, the clutter of an unmade bedroom, the garlicky aroma of a small kitchen, and a loo that reeked of unlaundered towels. Approaching the final doorway, a floorboard creaked. Emil swallowed hard and found himself flattened against the wall, unsure why stealth mattered--confrontation was inevitable.

Convinced he remained undetected, Emil put away the torch and pulled on a pair of thin leather gloves before sidling into an office. A bookish fog of stale air irritated his nose, and he suppressed a sneeze. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined four walls. A single shaded window faced the rear of the house. Dusty tomes, hand-scribbled notes, and cartons of books lay scattered in disarray across the floor, leaving only a narrow path for walking. A brass base lamp with a green glass shade lit a desk in the far corner.

A noise made him stop short. Then he recognized snoring, explosive snorts and a few murmurs. Emil inched farther into the room and saw the 88-year-old Fraume asleep, his head pillowed over crossed arms on the desk. Thick-lensed glasses lay beside the shiny, balding pate of Professor Abner Fraume. A generous helping of liver spots on Abner's scalp stood out amid the scant wisps of soft white hair.

Friendly persuasion should be enough, the intruder thought. At most, a little arm twisting. After all, the good Professor Fraume stands to gain as well, and I'll be doing all the legwork. Selling everything will mean certain wealth, and our combined scholarly papers will bring us academic acclaim. I've got that wealthy private collector who wants to purchase the lot already. AhÖ perhaps I might improve my bargaining position with this stubborn old mule if I find either the artifacts or his manuscript first. How can he resist my offer then?

Emil reached under Abner's left elbow and tried to dislodge a large volume. The old man snorted and stirred. Emil pulled back, then tried again. Gently lifting the elbow, he studied the title: A History of Sixteenth-Century Medicine, edited by one of Fraume's colleagues. Not the manuscript Emil sought. The intruder scanned the room for the next place to search, but something stopped him--the snoring and snorting had ceased. He turned toward the desk once more. Two gray eyes squinted back at him.

"Who's there? What're you doing in my home?" Fraume fumbled for his glasses. He slid one wire temple over each ear and pushed the bridge up his pock-marked nose. Slowly focusing on the intruder, Abner suddenly recognized the familiar patchwork beard and mustache. "Emil Kravitz, how the devil did you get in here? And why?"

"Yes, it's me, Abner. And you know full well what I've come for. Herr Koenig's matrix molds, his chase, and your research manuscripts. I mean to have them. You should agree to my generous terms. It can be a profitable collaboration for us. It's still not too late, my dear Abner."

"Don't 'dear Abner' me, you gonif. You'll never lay hands on either the block molds or my research. They're my life's work, more than fifty years' worth."

"You're wrong, Abner. I'm not leaving without them."

"You can go straight to hell. The items you want are no longer here, I assure you. I've sent them elsewhere for safekeeping."

"Why would you do that, Professor?"

"You bloody well know why, Kravitz--your nasty threats, that's why. There are some things in this world more important than money. And I'm not afraid of any bodily harm. There's nothing you can do to me that hasn't been done before." A tremor raced through his body, trembling his hunched shoulders. "Remember, I've been through the Holocaust."

"These are not idle threats, Herr Fraume. I grew up on Chicago's South Side. Learned a few nasty tricks along the way. They're not very nice, Professor." Emil's words fed his own fury.

"Get out of my house before I call the police." Abner reached for his telephone.

But Emil got there first. His left hand pressed down on the disconnect while his right hand tore the cord from the phone's base and then the wall socket. Abner pushed away from the desk and tried to stand, but Emil slammed the frail body back into the chair. He folded the phone cord and snapped it on the desk twice to get the old man's attention.

Abner Fraume froze. Emil wrapped the phone cord around Abner's neck and pulled tight. The old man's arthritic fingers tugged at the cord as his weakened lungs struggled for precious air.

Emil loosened the cord. "Where are they, Herr Professor? I've no patience for your child's play. Are they over there?" He gestured toward the maze of cartons cluttering the room. "What did you do with them?" No answer--the victim revealed only fear in an otherwise clueless face. Emil tightened the cord, his pulse racing as his anger grew to manic.

Abner reached for a reservoir of strength. His fists pounded Emil's forearms. Then Abner's feeble hands groped at the sleeves of Emil's tweed sport jacket, tugging them inward to loosen the choking garrote. The victim's glasses fell off, revealing red-veined, protruding eyes. Abner's feet, in carpet-slippers, pushed back against Emil. The kicking and flailing continued until Fraume's whole body sagged. The facial muscles slowly relaxed while death bled the remaining fear and rage from Abner's desperate expression.

The intruder wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. Emil hadn't meant to kill Abner. Why'd the rotter have to be so obstinate? Why couldn't he have just taken the money and shared in the academic kudos? The taiko drum inside his chest slowly subsided, and a fresh sensation, euphoria, took its place.

Emil propped the body up in the chair and rolled it back under the desk. Then he began his search in earnest for three items: the sixteenth-century typeface matrices, an engraved and hallmarked antique metal chase, and Fraume's manuscript documenting the elaborate history of these treasures. The matrices were pouring molds used to manufacture large decorative typeface that could print the initial illuminated character of chapter text. The chase was a rigid metal frame used to hold moveable type in place while printing.

Three hours later, a frustrated Emil Kravitz sat on a corner of Abner's desk, scrutinizing the office one last time. He'd examined every room in the house, but hadn't found a single trace of Herr Koenig's artifacts or Abner's manuscript. Scattered notes and an arbitrary reference here and there, but nothing worthy of his efforts. He wanted to be done with this mess. The first light of morning squeezed through the Venetian blinds. He knew the time had come. Soon neighbors would be taking in newspapers or heading off to work.

While donning his overcoat and cap, he noticed a sealed and stamped letter ready to be posted, sitting on the half-round table next to the front door. The address read:

Mrs. Edythe Bender
The Olde Victorian Bookstore
123 East Franklyn Lane
Annapolis, Maryland 21401 U.S.A.

Emil slid the letter into his pocket, reset the latch, and left.

* * * *

"Who's in charge here?" bellowed the newcomer, a large man with a round pink face and curly gray hair. His trench coat lay open. The buttons on his inexpensive blue suit jacket pulled at the waist.

"Some constable sergeant from Homicide, sir," the uniformed local constable replied. "'E's in the back room. Kind of an office, I'd call it."

"And you are?"

"Constable Smythe, sir. Andrew Smythe from Traffic branch. I was the first on the scene."

"Would you inform the sergeant that Chief Inspector E. Howard Winston is here to take charge? Oh, never mind. I'll do it myself. By-the-bye, who called this one in?"

"The cleaning lady, sir. Came at 'af past eight this morning like she does on Mondays every fortnit. Poor woman was so shaken she ran out leaving the door wide open. Called us from the Boar's Whistle Pub down the crescent, she did." He led Winston down the hall and into Abner's office. "This is the way we found 'im." said the constable. "Looks pretty professional to me."

"And you know that for a fact. How?" asked the Chief Inspector. Winston's patience ran short as he'd been at another crime scene most of the morning and nearly half the afternoon.

The constable flushed with embarrassment, yet made no response. They picked their way carefully among the books and cartons to the body.

"Where's this sergeant?" asked Winston.

"Must be in the loo, sir."

"Are they done dusting for prints yet? I wonder if they'll get lucky this time?"

"Oh, a bundle, sir, but like as not they'll belong to the deceased. That's wha' the crime scene blokes said anyway. Must ha' been a loner, that one. Some kind o' writer or researcher wi' all them reference books and the like."

Winston pulled a handkerchief out of his trench coat pocket and covered his nose. "Whew! Are the photographers done yet? My people want to get him out of here."

"Yes, sir, just finished. They can have 'im. The bloke's bloody ripe, 'e is."

"After a week, what did you expect, Constable?"

A clean-shaven, thirty-something man in a loud sports jacket stepped into the office. "Ah, Chief Inspector. Glad to be working with you again."

"Again? Ah, I remember you now, Sergeant Thorwal. The Boxley murder, wasn't it?"

"Yes, sir, you've got a good memory."

Chief Inspector Winston's eyes scanned about the room taking in the essence of it. "Who'd you say the victim was?"

The sergeant glanced down at his memo pad. "Fraume sir, Abner Fraume. Heís a retired professor of archaeology from the University of Bath. Thereís a pile of his published books over there on the shelves. Must have been quite an authority on the subject, according to the endorsements in the front of the first book I picked up."

"Any family?"

"No evidence of any on this side of the pond, sir. There's a bunch of open letters from a sister, Edythe Bender, in America, though. That's Annapolis in the middle of the East Coast."

"I know bloody well where Annapolis is, Sergeant. Anybody notify her yet?"

"Not that I know of... Iíll get to it this evening, Chief Inspector."

"Never you mind, Sergeant, Iíll handle it myself."

"íScuse me, gents. Comin' through," said a coarse voice from behind them.

The two police officers stood to one side while the coroner's team laid out the corpse, bagged it, and removed it from the premises. Other forensics technicians continued about the room, collecting evidence, until one made a discovery. "Chief Inspector! You might want to see this."

The lone name "Kravits" had been scrawled in pen on the desk blotter.

"Do you think it's the killer?" asked the sergeant.

"Very likely," Winston said. "The handwriting is crooked, uneven, written in haste. The man wasn't accustomed to writing notes on his blotter. See how the ink has blurred into it? The blotter has other ink stains, but no other words or names. I believe the victim is naming his killer." Winston's gaze roamed the room. "Anything appear to be missing?"

"Nothing obvious, sir," said the sergeant. "The blighter wasn't after money or valuables. Wallet, keys, watch, and the like--all still on his dresser top. Maybe revenge? Our victim was too old to be a lover."

"Don't count on it. Might be an old feud," Winston surmised. "Or the research. Find out more about Fraume's work. Then check the name Kravits in major city directories. Try to cross it with fences, dealers, book experts, and universities. What did the two men have in common?"

"Maybe nothing, sir, but I'll get right on it."

"And Sergeant, check the planes, trains, and buses thing while you're at it. Get some help, too--someone to monitor the incoming post."

"Yes, sir!"

End of Chapter
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