Mary Anne still considers herself a novice when it comes to writing. Her first venture into this world came in the form of short, humorous vignettes about her life. She was challenged to up her game after she joined the writing group sponsored by the Friends of the Buda Library. To that end, she tried her hand at writing short stories over the last four years.
Though originally from Mississippi, Mary Anne has lived in Texas for over forty years. She is grateful for the encouragement and the guidance from her writing coach, and the inspiration and support from her wonderful husband and son. She is especially grateful to her two sisters who first nudged her into putting her stories on paper.
When not typing away at a keyboard, Mary Anne spends her days at a different kind of keyboard, teaching private piano lessons.
The Last Letter by Mary Anne Howard
It was still drizzling when Amanda ran from the car to her mailbox. She was grateful the bank of mailboxes was housed under a covered awning. She retrieved her mail and fingered through the stack. Bill, bill, junk mail. “What’s this?” referring to a plain, legal-sized envelope, with no return address. She opened it and removed a white sheet of paper containing one typed line.
‘STOP WRITING THIS STORY, OR ELSE’
Amanda’s hands began to shake as she re-read the bold print. She quickly scanned the area before running back to her car. Once she entered her apartment, she locked the door and hurried to her bedroom. Who would send this to me? She was as perplexed as she was upset. Amanda took several deep breaths to calm her nerves, and then called her best friend.
“Are you kidding me?” exclaimed her friend Missy. “Do you have any idea what story they’re talking about?”
Amanda hesitated. “Maybe,” she said.
“Maybe?” exclaimed Missy, her voice rising. “You’d better start talking to me. From the beginning.”
Amanda began telling Missy about the writers group and their latest project. The group had been meeting for just over a year, and Amanda thought it was time to shake things up. To Amanda, the project was personal; her way of paying tribute to one of her favorite authors.
Forming a writing group had been Amanda’s dream. Though her job as librarian and acquisitions officer for the local library kept her busy, she was keen to organize a group of other wannabe writers like herself. She was thrilled when she received a favorable response from six citizens in their small town.
Amanda looked around the table at the stunned faces of the writing group, after announcing their next assignment.
“What?” she said with raised shoulders and palms. “You all look like you just saw a scorpion walk across this table!”
“Let me explain. My favorite mystery writer, Sue Grafton, died a few months ago. She wrote the alphabet mysteries.”
“Who?” asked Robert. “Never heard of her,” he retorted. Robert, a late fortyish spy novel enthusiast, was a technical writer for a plumbing manufacturer.
“As I was saying, Sue Grafton wrote a series of books, referred to as the alphabet mysteries; ‘A is for Alibi’, ‘B is for Burglar’, and so on. Unfortunately she died before she could write the last one, ‘Z is for---- ’.
Amanda stood and gestured toward the group. “It occurred to me that our little group could collaborate on writing a short mystery in the style of Ms. Grafton.”
“Wait,” interrupted Carolyn, a young stay-at-home-mom. “Are you suggesting we write a mystery story, call it ‘Z is for whatever’ and pass it off as a Grafton story? As a former paralegal, I can tell you that idea is totally illegal.”
“No, no, no,” answered Amanda. “I’m asking you to participate in a writing exercise.”
“I’m just not into mysteries,” said Marge, a retired teacher in her mid-sixties. “I prefer to write about something I care about.”
“Think of all the real mystery writers who would lick their chops to ghostwrite that last book,” said Susanna, a professional editor for a travel magazine.
“Whoa,” said Amanda, “we are not ghostwriting anything. We are strictly participating in a fun exercise meant to spread our writing wings by including a mystery story.” Her thoughts began racing. If it’s really good, we could submit it for publication under a pseudonym; or make a serialized version and publish it in monthly installments.
“Two minutes ago, I’d never heard of Sue Grafton. How am I supposed to know about her writing style?” asked Robert. “Are you expecting us to read all--”
Amanda interrupted. “You don’t have to read any of her books, unless you want to. I’ve read them and can guide you on her style.”
Robert muttered under his breath, “Of course you’ve read them all.”
“I bet you ran for president of her fan club,” he added sarcastically.
“Uh, no,” replied Amanda. “I attended one of those fan club meetings last year. You think I’m a Grafton buff? Those folks border on obsession.”
“So, are you interested?” asked Amanda.
Everyone began speaking at the same time. Finally, Chris, a retired policeman and oldest member of the group held up his hand to interrupt the racket. “Now hold on everyone. Amanda has brought us an interesting challenge. I say we hear her out and then vote. I don’t know anything about Ms. Grafton either, but I’m willing to learn.”
“Thanks Chris,” said Amanda. “The idea is we pool our collective work, life and reading experiences and collaborate on our own amazing mystery. I suggest we divide into two groups. The First Group will write a draft setting up the crime, the victim, the murder weapon, and the client who hires our P.I.”
“At the same time, Group Two will research real private investigators and construct a typical day for our P.I., including the way she’ll organize the investigation. You will have an extra week to decide on the killer’s motive after you’ve read Group One’s draft.”
“For my part, I’ll write the introduction of the main character, Kinsey Millhone, P.I., our crime solver.
Chris addressed the group again. “I say we vote.” With a show of hands, it was four votes in favor and two tepid votes against. After some good-natured ribbing, everyone eventually got on board.
Amanda stood and removed some papers from a folder. “Now that’s settled, I guess I can hand out these assignments and deadlines I prepared…just in case,” she said sheepishly.
“As you can see, both groups have three weeks to complete your writing assignments. I’ll have my main character draft to you by Sunday, to give you a starting place. We’ll edit all three drafts at a later date.” Nodding at Susanna, she said,
“Hopefully we can enlist your editing expertise.”
“Oh, I almost forgot,” she added. “The alphabet books are set in the late 1980s. Remember, not everyone owned a cell phone or a personal computer during that time period. Our P.I. is old-school; she writes her notes on 3 x 5 note cards and types her reports using a typewriter. Anyone remember the typewriter?”
At 6:10 p.m., Friday, Amanda stepped over the threshold of her efficiency apartment. At 6:10 and 4 seconds, off came the shoes, the earrings and the bracelet. She tossed the jewelry and her keys into a bowl that she kept on top of the bookcase located just inside the door. It was the weekend and she was grateful to have some alone time to think and to write.
After taking a few sips of wine from her generously filled glass, she plopped down on her oversized recliner. Amanda removed a copy of the Grafton mystery, entitled ‘W is for Wasted’ from the nearby bookshelf. She turned to the pages containing the introduction of the main character and re-read them. She closed her eyes to plan her own version.
Three hours later, a bleary-eyed Amanda awoke in a fog. She realized it was too late to do justice to any type of creative writing, but she promised the group she’d have her draft ready by Sunday. She yawned, opened her laptop and began to type…
Z is for Zero
June 5, 1989
‘Change in one’s routine is good. Instead of my usual morning run along the beach, I decided to try the tree-lined streets of the historic district. But I wasn’t sightseeing. I was working; doing recon for a new client. Figured no one would notice just one more runner. You can learn a lot from inconspicuous observation. My name is Kinsey Millhone. Some folks call me a gumshoe, but I prefer Private Investigator.
Research told me the occupants of these grand, historic homes, circa 1900, came from the old, established families of Santa Teresa, California. Old money, as they say. These were the kind of homes that had historic markers on them; the kind of homes you passed on to your children and grandchildren.
As for me, I live in a converted garage apartment in a modest neighborhood of Santa Teresa. After two messy divorces, I’m happy to say I now live alone. It’s a quiet life, interrupted by my work, for which I’m grateful and the occasional date, for which I may or may not be grateful.
I stay pretty much to myself, except for frequent visits to my neighbor and landlord, Henry, who lives in the home adjacent to my apartment. Henry is the closest thing I have to a best friend. He’s always available to be my sounding board, especially when I need to sort out my thoughts on a case. Living next door to him has other perks too. He’s a baker, by trade, who loves to try out new recipes. Lucky for me, I’m his designated taster. Henry is the type of gentleman who could make a gal like me consider trip #3 down the aisle. But that’s not likely to happen, because I cherish his friendship; not to mention, he’s forty years my senior.’
* * *
Early Sunday morning, after rewriting her draft five times, Amanda prepared the final version to send to the group with the following note:
“Okay gang. Attached is the introduction of our intrepid P.I. I chose an historic district as the scene of the crime, but that’s negotiable. Feel free to ask about any part of it. By the way, how do you like the title: ‘Z is for Zero’?” She yawned and hit SEND.
Three weeks later, right on schedule, drafts from both groups appeared on her computer as attachments. She anxiously perused both documents. Not bad, for first drafts, she thought. Group One had clearly laid out the crime, the victim, and the graphic details of the crime scene. Amanda was impressed with the way they described the client and his involvement. Group Two’s draft was well researched and well written. All they had left was to decide on the motive.
There was no shortage of opinions expressed during the lively editing meeting. But by the end of the evening, with the help of Susanna’s editing skills, they’d hammered out an outline, and written a rough draft of the first two pages of the short story. Amanda smiled all the way home. That’s the evening she found the letter in her mailbox.
“Am I missing something?” asked Missy. “What does a tribute to Sue Grafton have to do with your receiving that letter? Wait. Do you think a member of your group could have sent that threat?”
“No way,” said Amanda emphatically. “I truly believe—“
Missy interrupted her. “Who would care enough about a writing exercise to threaten you over it?”
Amanda let the question hang in the air. It bothered her not knowing who’d sent the letter or why, but she knew she couldn’t let it take over her life. I have to put this behind me and focus on work, she thought.
“Amanda? You still there?” asked Missy.
“Oh, yes, sorry. Thanks for being a good friend and listener. I’ll talk to you soon,” said Amanda.
Ten minutes after the library closed the following Thursday evening, Amanda locked up and headed home. She was tired, but stopped to check her mail. She mindlessly looked through the stack until she saw the plain, white envelope. A shiver went through her body. It was identical to the first one; no return address and the same Santa Barbara postmark. She got back in her car, hesitated, and then opened the envelope to reveal a sheet of paper with one line:
‘SECOND WARNING. STOP WRITING THIS STORY OR ELSE.’
A small insert fell onto the car seat. It was a long, thin piece of paper with uneven edges, like it had been torn from a publication, like a newsletter. Amanda picked it up and read:
‘It appears that the librarian in a neighboring
town has decided to finish what long-time Santa
Barbara resident, Sue Grafton, began over
thirty years ago. Apparently, this librarian
has taken it upon herself to conjure up the spirit
of the recently deceased Ms. Grafton, so as to
ghostwrite the last book in the alphabet mysteries.
Below is an excerpt from ‘Z is for Zero’.
Amanda’s eyes widened as she realized she was looking at a copy of her draft printed word for word, except for the last line:
‘None of the Grafton family members could be reached for comment.’
The article, which was completely bogus and full of innuendo, had hit its target. Amanda was shaken. And she was angry. She parked her car, hurried upstairs and inserted her key in the door. She deposited her shoes inside the front door and flicked the light switch. Nothing happened. She padded her way, in the dark, to the light switch in the bathroom. Nothing. She felt around the walls until she found the window in her bedroom and was surprised to see that other units had their lights blazing. Amanda retrieved her flashlight from the nightstand and carefully checked every inch of her small apartment. Only mildly relieved, she grabbed her purse and ran to her car. She dug around in her purse until she found her phone, saying a silent prayer that it was charged. Her friend didn’t answer until the fifth ring.
“Missy, thank God, you’re home!”
“Amanda? What’s wrong?”
“It happened again. I received another warning letter.”
Amanda told her about the letter, the article, and the power outage.
“Mind if I stay at your place tonight?” asked Amanda.
“Course not,” said Missy, who urged her friend to call the police. Amanda insisted she needed more time to process everything.
After a restless night, Amanda awoke the next morning groggy, but still angry. She left a note for Missy and then drove back to her apartment. She checked her breaker box to discover every switch in the off position. After fixing the switches, she slowly climbed the stairs to her apartment. She’d just locked the door when her phone rang. Startled by the sound, she answered hesitantly, “Yes?”
“Amanda? Are you okay?” It was Sandy, her co-worker from the library. She sounded upset. “Sorry to trouble you at home, but I just inadvertently opened a letter addressed to you, and I think it’s something you need to see.”
“On my way,” said Amanda.
As soon as Amanda entered the library, Sandy practically shoved the letter into her hands. It was identical to the one she’d received at home.
“I see they’re covering all their bases,” said Amanda, through clenched teeth. “I don’t understand. What’s going on?” asked Sandy.
“I wish I knew,” said Amanda. “I can’t talk now, but I promise to fill you in later on what little I do know. Right now, I need some uninterrupted time in my office.”
Amanda called each member of the writing group. She apologized for the short notice but told them she needed to convene an emergency meeting that evening. One of the members offered her home as a meeting place.
Everyone was seated in Susanna’s living room by 7 p.m. waiting for Amanda to assuage their curiosity. Amanda told them about the threatening letters and the article. They reacted immediately.
“Are you okay?” asked Phyllis, the physical therapist in her late twenties.
“Why haven’t you said something before now?” chided Chris, the retired policeman.
“You don’t think it could be someone from the Grafton family, do you?” asked Marge, the retired teacher.
“I don’t think so,” answered Carolyn, the stay-at-home-mom. “Trust me, if they had a problem with us, they’d have their legal team deal with it. They wouldn’t stoop to sending anonymous letters.”
“We weren’t going to publish anything,” interjected Marge.
“Yes, but whoever wrote that article didn’t know that,” added Carolyn.
“Could it be someone who has a personal grudge against you Amanda?” asked Robert.
“It’s probably one of the library Board members,” said Marge. “I heard they’re still ticked about the library’s expenditures on more computers.”
“What about the grumpy cleaning guy who’s always trying to chase us out of our meeting room early?” asked Susanna, the magazine editor.
“You think he’d harass Amanda over that?” asked Phyllis.
Amanda signed. “It could be anyone. The thing that really bugs me is how they got their hands on my draft,” said Amanda. “It gives me the creeps that someone stole it, published it and knows where I live.”
She was remembering during the initial phase of the writing project, they primarily used email to share ideas and drafts. During subsequent meetings, members made notes or comments on their laptops or on paper copies. Sometimes Amanda brought extra paper copies for anyone who needed one.
Phyllis spoke next. “I really don’t know what to make of all this, but I hope you know that none of us would intentionally share your draft with anyone outside the writing group.”
“Oh, of course, I know that,” said Amanda. She paused. “You can put it to a vote if you like, but I recommend that we abandon the writing project, before anything else happens.”
“I think Amanda’s right about this,” said Chris, addressing the group.
The room went quiet.
Carolyn finally interrupted the silence. “I know it’s you they’re threatening, Amanda, but this makes me angry enough to fight back and find this coward. This is the mystery our group needs to solve. Amanda, are you okay with our getting involved?”
“It’s just we have no idea what we’re getting into,” responded Amanda. “Are you all sure you want to take this on?” she asked.
“We’re sure,” they answered in unison.
That evening they made a plan to identify the offender. Each member was to contact friends and associates for any information. They’d meet again in a week to compare notes. Chris said he’d talk to some of his law enforcement buddies. Susanna offered to contact a friend of a friend who knows the Grafton family. Carolyn said she could compile a list of groups and associations in the area who might publish a newsletter and commercial printing companies they might have used.
A week later, they met in their usual windowless, storage room in city hall. Chris said his buddies thought Amanda should report the threats to the police. Amanda wasn’t sure there was anything they could do and was uneasy about talking to them. Susanna said her source told her the Grafton family and estate had not given permission to any writer, ghost or otherwise, to write the Z book. “He quoted the family as saying, ‘out of love and respect for Ms. Grafton, we want the alphabet books to end with the letter ‘Y’.”
“I’m glad we know their official stance,” said Marge
“I’m afraid I struck out,” said Carolyn. “There were too many associations to contact, so I started calling commercial printers. One representative confirmed their company printed newsletters for several groups, but their policy prohibited them from giving out clients’ names.”
“Anyone contact the grumpy guy?” asked Robert. Everyone glared at him. “I was just trying to--” He was interrupted by a knock at the door.
Amanda cautiously opened the door to a police officer.
“I’m looking for Amanda Pearson,” he said.
“I’m Amanda Pearson.”
“Would you please step outside for a moment?” the officer asked. She followed him into the hallway, leaving the door ajar.
Phyllis moved closer to the door. Because Amanda and the police officer were speaking in hushed voices, Phyllis could only report what she was seeing.
“The officer is talking. Amanda is nodding. Still nodding. The officer is gesturing with his hands, like this.” Phyllis demonstrates. “Amanda is still nodding. They’re shaking hands. He’s walking away. Wait. Amanda calls him back. Looks like she’s asking a question. The officer is talking. Amanda nods again. Uh oh, here she comes.” Phyllis hurried back to her seat at the table.
Amanda returned to the room looking quite serious.
“Well?” asked Chris.
“I’m afraid our mystery solving mission is over,” answered Amanda.
“What do you mean? Why?” asked Marge.
“The case has been solved,” replied Amanda. “The police know the identity of the person who sent the letters.”
There was a brief hush, and then the barrage of questions and comments started flying.
“Who got the police involved?” asked Robert.
“How did they find out about the anonymous letters?” queried Phyllis.
“I’m pretty disappointed we didn’t get to solve anything.” said Carolyn.
“I’m sure we could’ve flushed out the perp, eventually,” added Marge.
“So, who is it?” asked Susanna excitedly.
When Amanda could get a word in, she told them.
“Seriously?” said Robert incredulously. “It’s the President of the Sue Grafton Fan Club?”
“Former president,” corrected Amanda. “The officer told me this lady has a serious psychiatric condition. Apparently, the death of Ms. Grafton and the disbanding of the fan club sent her over the edge. She stopped taking her meds and paranoia set in.”
“How did she get a copy of your draft?” asked Carolyn.
“The police have a theory, but no evidence to back it up yet. “It seems our grumpy guy might have played a role, after all.”
Robert and Susanna exchanged surprised looks.
“According to their theory, a former fan club member, who works in this building, happened upon a marked-up copy of my draft in grumpy’s large trash bin. She fished it out and later showed it to the president, who became totally unhinged.”
Amanda continued. “The president continued to write and distribute the newsletter, over the objections of many former fan club members. One member, increasingly concerned over this lady’s erratic behavior, contacted the local police. They paid the lady a courtesy call. She was quite agitated by their presence and reluctant to talk at first. Eventually, she broke down sobbing and told them about everything, including the threatening letters. She accompanied them to the station to put her statement in writing. She was held in custody for a few hours until she could be evaluated by her psychiatrist. Her doctor convinced her to voluntarily commit herself, for a short period of time, so she could have her medication monitored and recover fully.”
“The officer told me I could lodge a formal complaint against her, if I chose to. She didn’t follow through on her threat, but what do you think?”
“As long as she’s getting help, I don’t think you should file a complaint,” said Phyllis. The rest of the group nodded in agreement.
“I almost feel sorry for her,” said Chris, “until I remember what she put you through, Amanda.”
They continued talking for another hour. No one wanted to leave. However, after the yawning started, Amanda thought it was time to send everyone home.
The next morning, Amanda found a plain, white envelope on her doorstep. It had no postmark and no return address. The address label made it look eerily similar to the ones containing the threatening letters. She briefly looked around outside, and then stepped back in her apartment to open it. On a single sheet of white paper was one typed line in large letters:
R.I.P. KINSEY MILLHONE
At the bottom of the page, in small print, was the word ‘over’. The note on the other side read, “We love you Amanda, but you need to come up with a different writing assignment next time. Let’s leave the sleuthing to the professionals. Zee end.” It was signed Chris, Robert, Phyllis, Susanna, Carolyn, and Marge.
Amanda folded the letter and smiled.