#b#I: A Murder in the Cape of Storms#/b#

From ground level, I watched my mother gruesomely tumble down the stairs in seemingly slow motion. With each successive step, sharp pains pierced through my stomach and a trail of shivers slithered from my skin and up my spine. Her shoes arrived near my feet ahead of the avalanche of twisted torso and flailing limbs, resembling a shipwreck in search of the ocean floor. As the distance between us shortened along with my breath, my knees quivered in unison with the numbing of my tiny fingertips. Her fall ended with her skull crashing onto the floor, and I looked up and saw my father, face and hands bludgeoned, at the top of the steps. My knees then buckled to the gravity and everything went black.

* * *

She survived that fall. I’m not sure if I ever did, though. After a long trial, my father, a former cop and veteran with a nasty case of PTSD, was sent to jail to serve time with the same crooks he sacrificed a lifetime to imprison. About a year later, I woke up and my mother was gone, too. No notice, no note. Some time after, her boyfriend wrote me an apology note postmarked from Argentina.

I’m not traumatized, though. I’m just angry, because people are not truly gone if you can still feel and remember them. And there’s a subtle cruelty about the whole damn thing. The least they can do is take their memories with them if they choose to leave. After she left, I was shipped off into the system of discarded children, as I call it, jumping from home to home and eventually to none at all. That’s right, I was homeless before it became popular. Perversely, and quite regrettably, I feel like these experiences enabled me to view the world with an amused detachment, now wearing thin.

“The first time it happened was when I was 7 years old,” I answered, listening to the scratchy, wispy tone of the ink flow as the doctor quickly etched his pen across the note pad. I fumed, “Is that a fountain pen?”

“Why, yes it is. Remarkable. How did you —”

“Heightened sense of hearing and smell. Let’s just call it a positive side effect of my noteworthy condition,” I interrupted, slowly removing the final layer of the bindings wrapped around my eyes.

Those damn wrappings — a plague shadowing my entire life. I’m just — tired. You see, for me, tired is more of a personality trait than a feeling. My continual search for something meaningful in this dark world has left me emotionally drained as I near my third decade of life. Why, you ask? Quite simply, that little boy at the bottom of the stairs grew up to be a failure. Penniless. Broke. It’s enough to make a person want to break himself apart, just to see if anything lives inside.

“I’d like to know more about the first time it happened. Can you tell me more about the particular incident that you witnessed as a child before losing your sight?” inquired the disembodied, adenoidal voice of Doctor Emerson.

“It was just an accident. Not important,” I replied.

“Well, as you know, Stanton, you suffer from a somatoform disorder, sometimes called hysterical blindness. The physical manifestation of your condition is quite rare, but not untreatable.”

I sneered, “Isn’t hysterical a little dramatic?”

With what I sensed was a smirk, he continued, “How long has this last stint of blindness lasted?”

“About a month,” I groaned, as my eyes cowered from the torrent of luminosity cascading from the sky. The light intensified the twinge ringing in my skull, exaggerated further from the incessant, shallow resonance of the scratchy fountain pen. “I called you as soon as I woke up and realized the darkness was a little brighter than usual. This was probably the 20th time it has happened to me since I was 7. Sometimes it lasts a week — and other times several months.”

As my eyes adjusted, the image of the doctor’s bald, shiny head became crisp, along with the hideous, gunmetal blue bifocals framed around his black, heavy-lidded eyes. “Indeed,” he acknowledged with a lifeless tone. “As we’ve discussed, the only cure is psychological therapy, and I hear you have not once attended a session with the doctor I recommended.”

I largely ignored the rest of the conversation, and as he drove away, my mindfulness refocused to my surrounding environment. Rotating my wheelchair atop the decadent stone patio, I gazed across the breathtaking courtyard of the immaculate Harding Estate. An opulent mansion, built upon a flat, coastal plain in the obscure countryside of Richards Bay, located in the province of Kwazulu Natal of South Africa. The air was incredibly moist, indicative of the proximity to the dune forest near the coast. A wooden fence surrounded it, completed by a distinctive tapsel gate, mounted on a central, metal pivot that rotated an opening through 90 degrees.

At that exact moment, the gate rotated open and a lime-green ‘81 hatchback drove into the compound up the long, curvy driveway. A pair of cinnamon brown heels emerged, attached to slender legs wrapped in a radiant, sapphire blue silk dress. Thisbe Harding — she was always my favorite unexpected moment. A moment no man, with the luck to have seen the taste of sunlight on her lips, can ever walk away from. A selfless heiress to the precarious Cliff Harding, she is beloved throughout Richards Bay, and several towns over.

A voice of a faint English accent broke my stream of consciousness, “Ah, Stanton, your sight is back!” delivered Cliff Harding, in echoing bellow. His broad-shouldered, burly frame was forced to duck as he exited the glass doorway onto the patio. A towering, intimidating figure, he made a man almost wish to be blind once more.

I responded, “Yes, sir, I’m very excited —”

Bending over, he gestured a finger over my mouth derisively, and grunted, “It’s time you get out of here. I hired you, out of pity, and quite frankly you’re costing me more than your value.”

He was having a bad day. No, that’s not true. He’s just an asshole. I hate him with the passion of a thousand suns. Everyone does. And, no, he’s not misunderstood. As a matter of fact, the kindest thing he has ever done was probably when he gave me this job. Pity, or not, it was kind.

I met Cliff seven years ago, 1986, at an institution in Sussex, England. Homeless for several years prior, and blind for a hellish six months, I was granted admission (yes, free housing) seeking a rehabilitation of my eyesight. Cliff, a legendary oil mogul, purchased the institution and introduced a new revenue model to the formerly humble non-profit. Non-paying residents were forced to evacuate, and on my last day I was paid a visit by the gigantic brute. I didn’t see his size — I felt it. He saw my name on the door and repeated, “Stanton Pierce,” a hundred times, searching his memories.

“I knew your mother,” he muttered, “What are you doing here?”

I was delighted to have the opportunity to share the story of my wretched existence with a wildly successful man. That was sarcasm, folks. I hate telling my story to anyone, let alone the likes of a Cliff Harding. After I spilled my guts, I heard nothing for almost a minute. A few seconds is awkward — a minute is downright nauseating. Trust me, you don’t need sight to feel intimidated.

The next words out of his mouth changed my life. “If you regain your sight, we are in need of a live-in groundskeeper. You can learn as you go. Pay is very minimal and expenses shall be covered.” I’d rather not sound ungrateful, but he didn’t even wait for a response. This was a command. His arrogance did not even leave room for providing contact information. He simply left my room and I heard his steps slowly wander down the hallway.

That night, to my astonishment, my sight returned. I grabbed my belongings and took a cab to his estate, adorned by a wooden, tapsel gate, hoping to secure the job offer faithfully promised to me earlier that day. He remembered, and I have been under his employ ever since. By 1988, Cliff and his wife, Bettina, decided to move the entire family and staff to South Africa — or as some call it, the Cape of Storms. I thought the move had something to do with seeking more privacy. The estate at Richards Bay was built from scratch, and took two years to complete.

Jennifer Collins, the newest maid at the house, stepped outside and placed a pitcher of lemonade on the table. Cliff redirected his eyes away from me, turning his head to leer at her skintight, black skirt, several notches above knee length. Jennifer, a petite young woman of 24, brushed her fiery red hair behind her ears and blushed a glance over her shoulder in his direction. Thisbe, in full view of this silent exchange, approached the patio from the driveway and walked over to pour a glass of lemonade. She smelled of delightful wild lavender and sweet jasmine. Her daffodil blond hair flowed down past her shoulders, several inches above the crown of the vertically impaired Ms. Collins. Thisbe said nothing. She simply poured her glass and walked into the house, ignoring everybody on the patio.

The father and daughter rarely spoke after the nasty divorce when Mrs. Harding tired of Cliff’s curiosity for the opposite sex. Though their relationship strained, he never lost a pint of love for his daughter. “Love doesn’t require perfection,” Cliff would always say to Thisbe, and that was certainly the case with their relationship. A paranoid, overprotective relationship more appropriately reserved for a father and his teenage girl — not a 27-year-old adult. It drove many of his girlfriends mad with jealousy, and hordes of potential bachelors stayed far away from the most beautiful girl in the region.

“I’ll get to work — I’ll work hard,” I said, regaining his attention.

“You have two weeks to find a new place to live,” he replied. Raising his voice, he continued, “The same goes for most of the staff! You all need to start proving your worth around here.” Jennifer’s eyes dropped to the ground, visibly taken aback. As Jennifer and Cliff walked away, my heart sank to the ground. I can’t say I was too surprised. I always knew this golden ticket would expire.

I had a few dimes to my name, and I do believe that it takes money to move anywhere. Defeated, I hopelessly scoured the morning paper for a glimpse of hope. I found it as I came across the following advertisement:

“WANTED: SUBJECTS FOR 3-DAY EXPLORATORY EXPERIMENT. PARTICIPANTS WILL BE INVOLVED IN COLLECTION OF QUANTITATIVE SENSORY DATA. PAYS 1,000 ZAR PER DAY. REGARDS, THELONIOUS TIPPETT.”

* * *

I awakened on the final morning of the experiments alongside several other volunteers at the laboratory. It has been a wearisome experience, particularly for my tongue, which has been subjected to flavor testing of an endless barrage of chemically derived compounds. The lab assistants described it as some kind of massive flavor experiment, with the lead scientist nowhere to be found. They dragged us through the final modules that morning but, luckily, my heightened sense of taste allowed me to finish several hours before the others.

Intense flavors of great piquancy hung in the dampish air as I picked up the morning paper and read the disheartening headline:

“POLICE SEARCH CONTINUES FOR THISBE HARDING, DARLING OF RICHARDS BAY, MISSING FOR THIRD DAY.”

Suddenly a low, penetrating voice spoke, “A scandal in Richards Bay, I see.” A lanky, middle-aged man with a long, full beard walked by me from behind, gesturing towards the headline.

“Who are you?” I asked in a wobbly tone.

He ignored me and strolled around the laboratory adjusting scales and examining beakers.

A volunteer whispered in my ear, “That’s Thelonious Tippett — a world-renown flavorist. He creates new flavors and sells them for big bucks to processing companies. Heard he just moved here from the States.” Tippett then threw a rucksack of money near my feet, and seemingly dismissed my presence with a motion of his hand. Given the circumstances, I didn’t have the mental capacity to ponder on this display of disrespect, so I gathered my belongings and hit the road for the five-hour journey back to the bay.

I was questioned over the next several days, as was the entire crew of the estate. We were all placed under house arrest to ensure all elements of the case were in one place, and near the house phone in anticipation of a ransom call. The story received national publicity and overwhelming participation from the community in support of the search effort. The lead detective on the case, Tristan Duval, peered at me ceaselessly with obvious accusatory glances, while Mr. Harding impatiently barked commands and obscenities day and night.

“It has been too many days and I’m afraid we may never find her,” stated the fatigued detective in a crinkly dress shirt and wrinkled suspenders. “What are you looking for?” he asked Joseph Dorsey, the butler, as Dorsey searched around the room.

“Sorry, my glasses have been lost for several days,” Joseph said, bumping into objects. Duval simply stared away studying his notes.

Mr. Harding, with hands over his eyes, lay horizontally on the white upholstery salon sofa adorned with silk tassels upon the kiln-dried wooden frame. The detective stretched as he walked around the circular living room, past the tiled hearth and custom stone fireplace. There were at least 10 people in the room — all of whom stared curiously at the detective as he continued, “I’ve called an old friend who I heard was in the area. He may be able to help us.”

At that moment, a ghastly image appeared on the television. Cliff scrambled for the remote and increased the volume. The newscaster stated:

“BREAKING NEWS: At 10 a.m. this morning, a pair of mountain climbers ventured near the Tammelnek Peak of the Kleinveld Mountains in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The dead body of a half-naked young woman was discovered on a ledge near the summit frozen in a fetal position. Her face was severely bruised, with a black eye. The woman has not yet been identified, but is rumored to possibly be the missing body of socialite Thisbe Harding.”

#b#II: The Peculiar Flavorist#/b#

Cliff Harding grabbed a vase and hurled it at the front door, smashing it into pieces. Seconds later a familiar lanky figure barged in the front door with an arrogance matched only by the aforementioned brute. The man’s copper tan beard extended down to his chest.

“Tippett! Long-time, old friend!” exclaimed Duval, stepping over fragments of porcelain on the floor to give him a hug. “Everybody, this is Thelonious Tippett.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. Why would he be here? How is he useful to this investigation?

“Thelonious is a former — consultant — to several agencies, and regarded by most to be the greatest living detective on the planet. Theo, feel free to stop me if I’m embellishing,” continued Duval.

“I’ll let you know when you do,” Tippett replied, with his eyes circling the room. “Greetings to all. I do not wish to be here, but I owe a very old favor to my dear friend, Tristan. Quite frankly, I have many important experiments I wish to return to. So, I ask for your full cooperation and for you to stay out of my way.”

With that, he left the front doorway and began circling the outside of the house, leaving all of us in disbelief. I peeked at Mr. Harding and surprisingly he hadn’t yet had a brain aneurysm. His face was as inflamed as I have ever seen — a light lacquer red with steam seemingly shooting out of his ears.

Four hours passed and Mr. Tippett returned to the house. He proclaimed, “I have examined the premises and read the facts of the case. In chronological order, they are as follows:

“On the night of Wednesday, June 16, at 6 p.m., the maid, Jennifer Collins, reported seeing Thisbe leaving the compound in her lime-green hatchback. She also recalled seeing both Bettina and Thisbe Harding’s cars in the driveway at around 8.35 p.m.

“At around 8:45 p.m., the butler, Joseph Dorsey, reported hearing an argument between Cliff Harding and the maid. At 9:10, during his nightly cleanup of the sitting rooms, Joseph remembers seeing an exchange between Cliff Harding and a blond woman through the window across the courtyard

“At 9:15, Jennifer Collins recalled seeing Thisbe standing outside of her car smoking a cigarette

“Cliff Harding stated he remembered seeing only Bettina’s car in the driveway at about 9:30 p.m.

“At 1:30 a.m., Joseph Dorsey, a late sleeper, reported seeing Cliff Harding with Thisbe Harding standing in the driveway near Bettina’s car

“At 3 p.m. on Friday, June 18, Cliff Harding reported his daughter, Thisbe Harding, to be missing. He stated he had not seen her since the night of Wednesday, June 16.”

Tippett continued, “Everybody in this room is a suspect, and nobody leaves until I say so. I wish to interview the following people individually, in this order, in the kitchen area: Cliff Harding, Joseph Dorsey, Jennifer Collins, and Stanton Pierce.”

When it was my turn, Tippett stared into my eyes, holding the bottom of his beard in deep thought. “Stanton, I’d like you to know that you are not under suspicion.”

With a sigh of relief, I exclaimed, “Obviously — I was in your experiment the whole weekend!”

“That is not reason why you are not under suspicion. In fact, if I were any less of a detective, I would assume the alibi to be too good and fraudulent. There was plenty of time for you to grab the girl and take her to the mountain range, located no less than one hour from my home in Sutherland.”

“Well,” I stuttered, “then why?”

“Quite simply, you had the means and opportunity, but no motive. At least not a good one. With any suspect, you can always find a motive, but I’d rather focus on the other pieces of this puzzle. At least for now,” he said cautiously, almost rethinking his stance.

“So, I guess we’re done here?”

“Not quite,” he replied, “tell me more about your sensory abilities. Your speed and accuracy from the flavor experiments were quite extraordinary.”

“Well, not much to tell. I’ve had psychological blindness in-and-out since I was a child, and during the long periods of blindness I trained myself to depend on my other senses.”

“Ah, yes — the other senses naturally heighten to account for the void from the sightlessness. Are you more attuned to particular scents or sounds?” he asked inquisitively.

“Not really. However, during my most recent episode, which lasted about a month, I spent the first half at one of the rehab institutions owned by Mr. Harding in Richards Bay. I distinctively remember the sweet smell of jasmine in the hallways. It’s one of my favorite scents.”

Tippett then grabbed my hand impulsively, and screamed, “With crime, the more that you know, the more you know that you don’t know. I must go to the institution, immediately.”

One hour later, Tippett and the detective arrived back at the house. Trailing them, a tattered, scarred young woman in a white gown.

“Thisbe! My poor baby” screamed Bettina Harding, who had arrived a short time ago. Bettina’s blond hair matched Thisbe’s perfectly. She was a stunningly aged mirror image of her daughter. Cliff, solemn for the first time in recent memory, walked up and joined the embrace of the two women at the front door.

“Apparently, the jasmine scent, gave a clue to Theo that Thisbe was checked into a room at the institution,” explained detective Duval.

“Jasmine is a unique smell, especially in this area. I smelled it distinctly throughout this house the minute I entered, so I knew that she was the common denominator of both occurrences of the scent,” added Tippett.

“And that’s not all. We were waiting in the lobby while the nurse went to the back to retrieve Thisbe, and a short-haired man in a leather jacket — whose name we determined to be Allan Finney — walked in and asked to see Thisbe, by name. Needless to say, he is currently sitting in a jail cell.”

As Duval spoke, the whole thing did not seem to add up to me at all. I then noticed Mr. Tippett looking in my direction with anxious eyes.

“Speak, Stanton,” commanded Tippett, “What do you think?” It was the first time somebody actually asked for my opinion. Ever.

Nervously, I stuttered, “Then who is the dead woman? The only way to be checked in at the institution is voluntarily — so how did Thisbe end up there? Sorry, there are still so many open questions.”

“Well,” the detective interrupted, saving face, “nobody ever said it was all over. Still plenty of work to do, I expect. Theo, shall we visit the mountain tomorrow? Five hour drive.”

“Yes,” answered Mr. Tippett with a rare smile, “and I would like Stanton to accompany us — he might prove useful after all.”

* * *

The next day, we arrived at the coroner’s and stood over the body, still curled in a fetal position. I muttered doubtfully, “Did you say this is the body of Courtney Black?”

“Yes,” repeated Duval. “Does that mean something to you?”

I explained, “She was the maid before Jennifer Collins. Cliff Harding fired her a few weeks before he hired Jennifer.”

“And the pieces fall into place,” murmured Tippett, “the simple truth is always an insanity.”

“You know something we don’t, Theo?” asked the detective. Tippett simply stared at the body in silence, with a smirk. As I observed him, I could see a fire in his mind. You could feel his thoughts bloom to the point where you could almost inhale them.

The detective inquired about the evidence around the potential rape, given that her body was found naked.

The coroner’s assistant answered, “The tests came back inconclusive for sexual abuse, however a trace of Allan Finney’s DNA was found inside her cervix. Because of the amount of time her body froze on top of that mountain, we need to run more tests. However, a large amount of rattlesnake venom was found in her stomach and in the water bottle near her body.”

“We got him — we got that bastard. Allan Finney raped and murdered her with snake venom. Clear as day. This case is closed.”

Tippett, removing his gloves, summarized the visual.

“Well, Duval, given the lack of blood stains on her body we can assume it was not a violent death. The fetal position indicates a degree of pain, but certainly not a struggle. Let us first visit the site before we jump to any conclusions.”

“Theo, you have always been somewhat of a nut-job, and I respect your methods. But, you know that I’m right. I just want to hear you say it.”

Tippett responded, “I’ve always admired your love of fantasy, Duval. Let’s go.”

* * *

By car, we approached the summit of Tammelnek Peak, the largest mountain range south of Sutherland. It towers at 10,750 feet in elevation, and is known to have many indigenous species, including several types of snakes.

As Tippett drove I asked, “Do you think Cliff Harding had anything to do with this? I hate the guy, but maybe his anger is just rooted in some kind of past tragedy of his.”

Tippett replied, “Cliff’s emotional pain stems from not getting what he wants. We all simply need to understand our pain, which helps put it in its true perspective. Do you see what happens then?”

I answered, “Then it loses its power.”

“Precisely. Crime is very similar. It’s like a wave. You must flow with the current, not against it. Everything has an ending. We can dread it or we can embrace it and be liberated.”

His words resonated within me. The more time I spent with this bearded fellow, the more I realized that it might not be enough to simply exist.

We arrived at the summit. Before we stepped out of the car, I asked him, “Do you think we’ll ever solve this case?”

He replied, “I already have. You’ll notice the detective is not with us — I have asked him to gather all of our people of interest at the Harding Estate. 7 p.m. tonight.”

Shocked, I looked at him, and asked, “So why are we up here?”

He answered, nonchalantly, “I just wanted to take the scenic drive.”

#b#III: The Whole Truth: Tippett’s Little Reunion#/b#

After examining the site on Tammelnek Peak, we arrived back at the house by 8:15 p.m. Everyone was assembled. Bettina Harding sat near Thisbe on one corner of the sofa. Cliff Harding stood near the window, glass of whiskey in hand. Joseph Dorsey sat near Jennifer Collins on the other side of the sofa, anchored by me on a nearby stool. We all sat facing Thelonious Tippett and Tristan Duval.

Tippett grabbed a fragment of porcelain from the floor, and gazed at it for a few seconds before he began speaking.

“Thank you for gathering here tonight. It has been quite an emotional rollercoaster for us all. There is one person missing from this group. Detective, please bring him in.”

At that moment Duval brought in Allan Finney. “Allan, please take a seat. There is some room on the sofa,” continued Tippett. As Allan sat on the sofa, Thisbe’s face immediately began to brighten. “I share in your happiness, Thisbe. For the rest of you, let me update you on what’s going on.”

The room crackled with nervousness and anxiety. “First, I’d like to say that the kidnapping of Thisbe Harding and the death of Courtney Black are not two distinct events, but are part of the same crime,” Tippett thundered, and the room erupted in protest.

“I’d like to begin by telling you a story. A story of a man named Cliff Harding. Several years ago, Cliff dominated the business world, gobbling up English companies and creating an empire of wealth for his family. He married the beautiful Bettina and their sole child, Thisbe, grew up to be the adoration of all who came to know her. But, Cliff was an ill-tempered and arrogant man, with a thirst for domination inside and outside the home. He began exacting his influence over women and Bettina was distraught. Soon, the whole town knew of all of Cliff’s mistresses, and they all knew each other.

“Bettina devised a plan to move the family away to South Africa in hopes of starting a newer, purer life with Cliff, the man she still loved. She hired a construction company, owned by our very own Allan Finney, to complete the job in one year. It would have been a great plan if she had realized that some people do not change. I notice at the entrance of this beautiful estate there is a wooden tapsel gate. I thought it quite peculiar, as this type of gate is unique to the area of Sussex, England, where Harding is from. A man who would create the same gate an entire continent away is not a man who loves change. A dog is a dog no matter where it lives. Bettina’s plan soon backfired, as the new, luxurious house — completed one year late — required a significant amount of upkeep. Cliff began hiring attractive maids, and they all shared his bed.”

Bettina, in a solemn voice, and empty eyes, said, “The worst thing about being lied to is realizing they don’t think you were worth the truth.”

Tippett continued, “Bettina largely ignored these activities for a long time, firing several maids over the years. But there was one maid that was just too hard for Cliff to let go. Her name was Courtney Black. Bettina did everything in her power to get rid of her, but it didn’t work. Bettina eventually reached her limit and left Cliff. But later Cliff did fire Courtney for a younger, more vivacious Jennifer Collins. Courtney did not take this rejection very well. She returned the night of June 16, around 8 p.m. by cab, to the Harding house, to see if she could win back her place in Cliff’s heart. Her visit was ill fated, however, as Bettina Harding arrived shortly after her. Bettina, seeing the woman who caused the breakdown of her marriage, attacked Courtney, leaving her with several cuts and a black eye. Courtney ran away and found Cliff, and the two were seen arguing around 8:45 p.m. by the butler, Joseph Dorsey. Cliff must have defended his wife, because Courtney then left the house in a frantic state, running into Thisbe smoking a cigarette by her car around 9:15 p.m.

“Around the same time, Cliff was then seen talking with a blond woman — whom I shall now identify as Bettina Harding. That conversation must have gone well, because Bettina did not leave the premises until 1:30 a.m. that night.

“Joseph, you stated that you saw Cliff with Thisbe outside the window at 1:30 a.m., but detective Duval recalled you telling him that your glasses have been lost for some time. The blond woman you claim to be Thisbe, must have been her doppelganger mother, Bettina, because several points of accounts do not place Thisbe anywhere at the house after 9.15 p.m.”

The tension in the uneasy room intensified as Tippett continued.

“So what happened to Thisbe? Well, she saw a beaten, saddened Courtney Black and, unaware that Courtney was the cause of her split household, drove her five hours to Courtney’s hometown of Namakran. For any of you that don’t know, Namakran is located 15 minutes away from Tammelnek Peak. Courtney and Thisbe went to a bar in the mountain town at the bottom of the peak. Courtney ran into Allan Finney there and they rendezvoused, in private, on their mutual hatred of the Harding family. You see, Allan was never paid his fee for the work he did on building the Harding Estate in Richards Bay, and has been in nasty rounds of litigation against Cliff for many years.”

Cliff chimed in, “The bastard finished it one year late. I’d rather die than give him a penny!”

Tippett continued, “So Courtney and Allan concocted a plan to settle all wrongs. They somehow drugged Thisbe, and brought her to a climber’s hut near the top of the peak, a seldom-visited area, except for some snakes and other animals. We shall verify the drug used once we get Thisbe’s blood results back. Poorly covered tracks were found all along the trail, and signal that more than two people went up and down that trail. The soles of your shoes will undoubtedly place both of you at the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, Allan, only one of you is alive to take the fall.

“So, how did Courtney really die? Rape? Venom? Neither. The woman was not raped, nor did she die by ingesting venom. I hold here a cup of the venom, Crotalus adamanteus, the diamond-backed rattlesnake.”

Suddenly, Tippett gulped the entire cup of venom, to the awe of the group.

“That was a very real cup of venom. But, besides it being quite disgusting, I stand here in front of you. Alive. How? Well, rattlesnake venom is very potent and hemotoxic, destroying tissue and organs. But rattlesnakes are not poisonous. They are venomous. Venom must be injected through the bloodstream, and poison is ingested through the mouth. Drinking the venom will have no consequence. The venom in question was found in Courtney’s stomach, presumably ingested through her water bottle. But, as you have just seen, that was not the cause of her death.”

Detective Duval, interrupted, “So what the hell was it?”

Tippett answered, “She froze to death. There must have been a struggle between her and Thisbe, leading to Thisbe’s escape, and trapping Courtney at the top. Once she was trapped on that ledge, all she had to drink was her water bottle, tainted with venom, and the freezing process didn’t take long. Temperatures at those elevations can reach several degrees below freezing, amplified by 80 mph winds and nasty snowstorms. Right before freezing to death, constricted blood vessels dilate, producing a sensation of extreme heat, prompting her to strip down. It is a rare case of a phenomenon called paradoxical undressing. Her death was either self-defense or accidental — but certainly not murder!”

There was silence in the room. Deep silence. The kind of silence that awakens a person living in a deep sleep of noise.

“There is one more piece of this puzzle — a story untold, if you will. I would like Thisbe to tell the rest of this story,” Tippett remarked, as the entire room shifted focus to Thisbe.

Extending her arm, she locked hands with Allan on the white sofa. Tears streaming from her eyes, she began to speak.

“Allan and I are in love. After I was taken up to the summit, I was tied up in the hut. Allan and Courtney called my father an hour later, asking for a $2 million ransom and the bastard refused to pay. I think his exact words were ‘She’s not worth $2 million — call me back with a more reasonable offer.’”

Cliff began to deny, until Tippett pulled out documents from his briefcase. He stated, “Phone records show that a ransom call was indeed made at 5 a.m. June 17, lasting for 5 minutes.”

Thisbe continued, “After that, my heart was broken and Allan was there to mend it back together. We grew closer with each hour and day I was held captive. He would bring me warm tea and food. I think Courtney had became jealous because she would sometimes knock the food away from me when Allan wasn’t around.

“One night, when Courtney wasn’t there, Allan and I talked about our dreams, wishes, and hopes. He apologized for my circumstances and revealed their plan was ruined. He mentioned that he had planned to release me earlier, but Courtney was against it, and told me that he had a plan to poison her with snake venom he poured in her water bottle. So that he could create an alibi that would make it look like Courtney alone was responsible for the kidnapping, he could not free me himself. But he slipped me a pair of scissors. He then told me that he’d rather see me free and happy than himself for what he had done.

“He left the summit and drove down to the bar, and I attempted to free myself. Once I was free I began running down the mountain and encountered Courtney on her way back. We had a struggle that ended with me pushing her off the top and leaving her trapped on a ledge. I ran into Allan at the bottom of the mountain and he drove me back into Richards Bay to the institution where I checked myself in. After my father abandoned me, I would rather live there than this wretched house. Allan is the fire of all my nights, and sun of all my mornings. I will never testify against him. Love doesn’t require perfection.”

* * *

And thus ended the affair at the Harding Estate.

Allan was eventually released, and left town with Thisbe. Tippett offered me a vacant room in his house, and a job in his laboratory. And I began to start living on purpose. Some years later, I received a letter from my father explaining why he pushed my mother down those stairs. He said it was out of anger because earlier that day she attempted to abandon me at a gas station 40 miles out of town. I realized that what I saw was a split second of weakness from a man who tried too hard to be strong for too long.

I have learned that the most beautiful things in life are not seen, but felt by the heart. Life is a beautiful reverberation of precious scars that may record your past, but don’t dictate your future. I never had another blind spell again.

#b#The writer’s statement:#/b# Although I consider myself to be a serial hobbyist, writing has been the one hobby that has grown into an obsessive passion. It is a needed release of artistic expression, given my day job in the strategy department of a major Route 1 pharmaceutical company.

In addition to objective criticism and mutual peer recognition, what motivates me most is the writing process itself. I am drawn to the art of developing and revising a plot towards a sense of perfection that is well-known to be unattainable. The art of interlacing vivid imagery, planting literary seeds, and devising effective prose puts me in a state of serenity. My sole objective is simply to write someone’s favorite book or story — just one person’s. And if it takes my entire life to accomplish this, then I have some long nights to look forward to.

I wrote my first book when I was 10 years old. It was titled “Ghosts.” It was a 10-page tale about a family on vacation who stayed at a haunted house. The “book” was both an object of profound embarrassment and a treasured artifact of my early interests in writing. It was my most prized possession until I lost it sometime in high school. Interestingly, when I lost that book, I also lost my interest in writing for several years.

It wasn’t until a creative writing course during my study at Rutgers University (where I earned a bachelors in psychology and biological sciences and an MBA in finance and marketing) that the writing spark re-ignited.

In 2013 I decided to write a historical fiction piece, titled “Iniquity,” about the private trials and tribulations of a man living through a segregated Memphis around the period of time leading up to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. I was excited that it was published in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue that year and I was motivated to keep going. Since then, I have subsequently published more stories, and I have begun plotting a couple of novels.

“Reverb” was originally meant to be the basis for my first novel. I chose to re-purpose the idea into a short story because I felt that it would be a better medium to introduce Thelonious Tippett, our sleuth, and Stanton Pierce, an individualistic outcast in search of a state of self. It is my first mystery, and I hope it has enough twists and turns to leave nobody beyond suspicion.

I do plan on developing an entire series around Tippett. I do not have commercial ambitions for my projects, so I am grateful for the opportunity to distribute my stories through Genesis and other publications.

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