A Crossworder's Holiday

BOOK: A Crossworder's Holiday
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PRAISE FOR THE WRITING OF NERO BLANC

“At last puzzle fans have their revenge … super sleuthing and solving for puzzle lovers and mystery fans.” —Charles Preston, puzzle editor,
USA Today

“Addicts of crossword puzzles will relish
The Crossword Murder
.” —
Chicago Sun-Times

“A puzzle lover's delight … A touch of suspense, a pinch of romance, and a whole lot of clever word clues … Blanc has concocted a story sure to appeal to crossword addicts and mystery lovers alike. What's a three-letter word for this book? F-U-N.” —Earlene Fowler on
The Crossword Murder

“Snappy, well-plotted … an homage to Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh … The solid plot never strays from its course and features a surprising yet plausible ending.” —
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
on
Two Down

“Another neat whodunit, along with some clever crosswords … Blanc builds the suspense slowly and surely, challenging the reader with a dandy puzzler.” —
Publishers Weekly
on
The Crossword Connection

“A great investigative team in the tradition of Nick and Nora … Nero Blanc is a master.” —Book Browser

A Crossworder's Holiday

Five Short Tales

Nero Blanc

A L
ETTER FROM
N
ERO
B
LANC

Dear Reader,

Curling up with a good mystery story is one of our favorite pastimes during the holidays. There's something about the dark days of winter that inspires the sleuth in all of us.

In this collection, we've created not just one but five tales. Each has a crossword that helps reveal the riddle; each features our fictional friends Rosco and Belle; and each comes with our very best wishes for a joyous holiday season.

We love getting letters from our fans and invite you to send your messages through our website:
www.crosswordmysteries.com
where you'll find information about other Nero Blanc books—as well as how we devised our nom de plume.

Super sleuthing and puzzle solving! We look forward to hearing from you.

Steve and Cordelia

AKA

Nero Blanc

A Crossworder's Holiday

P
LEASE
, you must help me. I fear this day bodes extreme ill … Please … You're the only person to whom I can turn …”

Seated in the evergreen-draped dining room of a Nantucket inn while luxuriating over a second cup of coffee and an ever-present copy of
Moby Dick
, Belle Graham glanced up in surprise—mingled with a measure of annoyance. This was her vacation, after all, and she and her husband, Rosco, had come to the quaint Massachusetts island in order to escape just such interruptions. They'd intended this year's Christmas holiday to be a quiet getaway. No extended family. No scheduling conflicts. No beepers or cell phones or work piling up on the desk. Nothing, in fact, except sleigh bells, snow-laden lanes, houses bedecked for the season, and the broad, blue sea that gave the island its singular light.

“You
are
Annabella Graham, are you not? The crossword editor of the Newcastle
Evening Crier
?”

“Yes. I am.” Belle executed a polite smile despite her irritation.

Her unwelcome visitor glanced apprehensively around the room. He was a tall, willowy-looking gentlemen, meticulously manicured but highly agitated—in fact, he seemed almost to quiver with fright. Belle guessed him to be about twice her age, probably in his late sixties. His accent and deportment were British and very much old school. Tweeds, a cherry-colored scarf, a soft woolen hat tossed nervously from hand to hand, and walking boots fresh out of the box completed the picture.

She toyed with her book, wiggling a finger into the pages to mark her place. “And you are?”

The question seemed to take him by surprise; his tone turned to one verging on desperation. “Oh, that's not … Well, of course, I should …” Again, the rapid perusal of the room's inhabitants. “Perhaps we could converse elsewhere … Mrs. … Miss …? Or may I be so bold as to call you Annabella …?”

“Belle,” was her automatic reply. Although Annabella was her given name, its combination with Graham had early on inspired the nickname “Anagram”—a hybrid she avoided whenever possible. She cast a longing glance at her book, then swept her pale blond hair from her face. It was a habitual gesture, the act of an attractive young woman who views beauty as a poor second to brains. “I don't use Annabella. It seems to inspire too many ‘Graham Bell' jests …”

The man stared in confusion.

“The inventor … Alexander …” Belle shook her head, realizing the quip was lost on the anxious Englishman. “And you are?”

He cleared his throat, appeared to make a quick decision, then lifted his chin in a motion that made him look as if he were seeking to escape from the starched collar that peeped out from beneath his scarf. “Sir Brandon Drake.” The name was murmured in a swift,
sotto voce
rush. “Of Drake Antiquarians, Boston?” This latter piece of information was added questioningly as if the speaker hoped Belle would recognize the name. She did, of course; Brandon Drake was world-renowned as a purveyor of priceless Americana. “And you're reading
Moby Dick
, I see,” he continued in an equally breathless fashion. “Very appropriate for Nantucket …
The White Whale
… Inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne, you know, another literary genius of the young United States. ‘In token of My Admiration for His Genius'—”

Belle stifled a sigh. “Is that what you wish to discuss with me, Sir Brandon? My choice in vacation novels?”

In answer, Drake rocked forward on his toes. “I'm not here alone,” he murmured obliquely. “We arrived yesterday afternoon … all five of us …”

Belle suppressed a second sigh while cursing herself for a genetic inability to be rude to her elders. She stared at her congealing cup of coffee. “Would you care to sit down? I'm expecting my husband to join me shortly, and—”

Again, Drake leapt as though electrocuted. “Ah, yes, Rosco Polycrates … the private investigator … I've read about your dual exploits, which is why I …” Then the speaker's tone again dropped to a whisper. “I can't be seen here, and with five of us, there are bound to be, well … You and I are certain to be spotted …”

The reply did nothing to enlighten her, although Belle recalled that she and Rosco had noticed an unusual group of revelers clambering into the inn's reception rooms the previous evening: two women and three men. One woman had worn a wildly dramatic hat swathed in mauve and purple veiling; the other had literally jangled within a vivid array of Native American jewelry. The men had been equally noteworthy: one pale and bottom-heavy as a pear, one square and noisily robust, and Sir Brandon, the quintessential British country gentleman—replete with an “Oxbridge” accent.

Drake bent toward Belle's table. “I don't want them to notice us talking, you see.” He cast a wary eye toward the inn's reception area, then surreptitiously displayed a slim, half-morocco slipcase, an object she recognized as designed to contain a rare book or valuable autograph. From within its interior, he withdrew a hand-drawn crossword puzzle. The paper was new, the answers blank. This was obviously not the article for which the slipcase had been constructed.

“I realize word games have many devotees—and techniques and rules of which I am sadly unaware,” Drake continued as he concealed the crossword again. “Time is of the essence, as I will explain. I beg you to help me.”

“But—” Belle began, intending to object that she and Rosco had every intention of keeping their vacation both private and puzzle-free, but Drake overrode her attempt at protest with a more stringent:

“I beg of you … of you and your husband, actually … I'm well aware of your reputation at solving—”

“We're here on vacation—”

“Please. Just this one small word game.”

Belle silenced a private growl.
What I need
, she decided,
is to learn how to say no
. But then that resolution inspired a fleeting image of a bumper sticker replete with a crossword grid and a red banner slashing across it.
CRAZY FOR CRYPTICS
?
WE CAN HELP
…

“Okay … just this one. But my husband—”

“Of course,” was Sir Brandon's conciliatory response. “I do not
remotely
intend to infringe upon your solitude.”

Belle raised an eyebrow, but didn't otherwise respond.

C
LIMBING
the staircase to her bedroom, she found Rosco returning from his morning run, his face ruddy with cold and good health.

“Don't tell me you had breakfast without me?” A shocked smile lit up his dark eyes.

“I couldn't help myself.” Belle grinned as she spoke.

“Let me guess … Cholesterol-hell … Pancakes, sausages, maple syrup—”

“Belgian waffles … But you're right about everything else … and blueberry jam
with
the syrup … and cocoa—not coffee—with
cream.
” Belle hefted her book in her hands while Rosco's questioning glance grew.

“And now you're going to say that you intend to sit up here reading Melville while I wolf down my share of culinary no-nos?”

“Not exactly …”

Rosco stared at her, comprehension finally dawning. “Someone found out you were here.”

“Someone found out we're
both
here,” was her hurried reply. She was about to add a facetious:
That's the price of fame
, but thought better of it. Sometimes that fame had unpleasant side effects—as the husband-and-wife team of private investigator and crossword editor had unwittingly discovered.

“I'm off-duty, Belle. So are you—”

“It's just one puzzle, Rosco—”

“I think I've heard that one before—”

“I promise.”

“Mmmm … hmmm … and no murder victims this time? No corpse under the bed?”

“Absolutely not! At least, I don't think so …”

“Why doesn't that make me feel remotely comfortable?”

“Because you're of Greek descent, and therefore naturally given to high drama?”

“Because I'm reasonable.”

“Well, I am, too … sometimes.”

“It's not the
sometimes
that worry me.”

Belle laughed as she reached for her coat. “I'm off to the Athenaeum, but I'll be back by the time you finish your buckwheat flapjacks.”

“What makes you think I'm going to order flapjacks?”

She raised an eyebrow. “My
un
reasonable feminine intuition.”

“And what, may I ask, is at the Athenaeum?”

“That's for me to know and you to find out.”

T
HE
sky was a brilliant, icy blue as Belle hurried down Centre Street, the sun's rays sliding across the houses' weathered shingles, making every doorway, every shutter, every bow-trimmed holly wreath appear in stark relief as if carved by the island's sea-washed light. Seagulls wheeled high overhead, and she could smell the sharp, salt tang of the ocean. In the midst of the bustling, winter town, she almost thought she could hear waves breaking upon the shore.

Then this mood of reverie carried her into the island's past. She imagined the rhythms of the seasons before the advent of automobiles and electricity: the ripening cranberry bogs resplendent with autumn's vibrant reds, the winters encrusted in whorls of ice, April finally bringing a thaw to the harbor, whose whaling ships would then depart for months or years at a time. And finally, the wives who waited, holding together family and village. A special kind of person had been spawned and inspired by this demanding climate: Benjamin Franklin's mother, Abiah, the reformist Lucretia Mott, and Herman Melville himself, with his discourse on whaling, lost innocence, and hellish revenge.

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