The Counterfeit Clue
A gargoyle’s stony-eyed glare could not have been more intimidating than the gaze of the woman across from her, but Gemma would not let on that she was anything but poised and professional. Even as her palms grew damp within her prim white gloves, she was careful to keep her smile cemented in place.
At last the older woman spoke. “I am very protective of our girl sleuth. There was a time when I thought she might be too flippant, but through the years she has become like my own daughter. And she has a legacy now—women who read her stories as young girls now give them to their own daughters.”
Gemma found herself nodding in agreement. Enthusiasm overtook her attempt at businesslike distance. “I was part of one of her fan clubs when I was a girl. Come to think of it, I may still be a member in good standing. Those girls are some of my best friends.”
Mrs. Adams carried on as if Gemma hadn’t spoken. “However, your work impressed me.” She tapped the cover of Gemma’s portfolio with a finger gnarled by arthritis then cocked her head in appraisal. “You actually remind me of her in a way.”
Gemma glanced down at her neat, navy blue, three-quarter sleeved jacket and pencil skirt. But she knew the resemblance was probably in her cinnamon colored hair, just a couple of shades darker than the girl detective’s famous Titian-colored locks.
Mrs. Adams seemed to read her mind. “Not only the hair, but in the way you carry yourself. There is a certain... something.” She pursed her lips and regarded Gemma. “Maybe it’s the essence of the All-American girl.” Mrs. Adams smiled, and for the first time Gemma saw something other than the stern businesswoman exterior.
Pushing through her awe, Gemma summoned her voice. “I would be thrilled to write for you. I’ve loved these stories since I was young.” She thought again of The Olentangy Heights Girls’ Detective Society and it made her smile. When they heard she’d had so much as an interview for this opportunity she was certain their squeals would echo all the way from Ohio.
The creak of the chair as Mrs. Adams sat back in her seat plopped Gemma back into the present. “She is the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s top performer. I hesitate to risk her on someone untested. Unfortunately, we really are in a bind.”
Throat suddenly very dry, Gemma nodded. “It’s no problem. I assure you this story will have my full attention.”
Mrs. Adams tapped her lower lip, crimson lacquer shiny and flawless on her fingernails. "Some of our established authors have begun to disagree with me about how she should be portrayed.”
Gemma perked up and met the older woman’s gaze. What precisely was she getting at?
“I propose a trial. I will provide you with the latest outline. If you can produce a satisfactory manuscript in two weeks, I will assign you more work.”
A small gilt clock on the bookcase behind Mrs. Adams warbled an odd little chime as if it were underwater. The editor glanced back at it, grimaced and then shifted in her seat. Her body language screaming that she was short on time, she spoke more hurriedly. “I recognize that this will require a good deal of effort on your part, but since this is a trial, I will offer only $75 for the completed work. Should the work be satisfactory the remuneration you receive will be properly adjusted. You will, of course, be required to sign the usual contract including the confidentiality clause.”
Gemma nodded. Every one of the girl sleuth's adventures was published under the same pen name regardless of who did the writing. She was willing to agree to just about anything if it meant getting her foot in the door of the publishing world.
She stood and thrust her hand boldly toward the editor before the woman could change her mind or hurry off to some other appointment. "Deal."
Gemma gave in to temptation and ordered a slice of cherry pie to go with her mug of coffee. It wasn’t every day a girl got to celebrate signing the contract for her first novel. Irrepressible, a grin bubbled up in her and burst into a smile. She wasn’t even aggravated that she’d been waiting for Carol for twenty minutes and her friend hadn’t appeared. Nothing could ruin her elation today. Carol had probably been delayed at work or something. She’d be here soon, and if not, this cheerful diner was as good a place as any to await the train back into the city.
Her pie arrived, glistening red and topped with fluffy whipped cream. She was just taking her first bite of sweet-tart cherry and tender crust when a slim figure in a sunny-yellow circle skirt, cute little straw hat, and horn-rimmed glasses entered the diner.
“Carol!” Gemma bounced up from the aquamarine leatherette bench to give her friend a hug. “I haven’t seen you in so long. You look great.” She crossed her fingers at the fib. Carol’s eyes were red-rimmed and deeply shadowed, and her skin so wan it looked almost waxy.
“Oh, Gemma.” Carol stepped back and looked at her for a second still hanging on to one of her hands. A bright sheen of unshed tears glistened in her eyes. “It’s good to see a face from home.”
Gemma frowned. They settled into the comfortable booth as the waitress in her worn pink dress and grimy white apron approached with a pot of coffee. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m all right.” Blinking rapidly, Carol dabbed at her nose then made a bid for normalcy. “I was thrilled to hear you were going to be in East Orange. But what brought you out of New York City?”
“You’re sure everything is okay?” Gemma leaned in and covered Carol’s hand with her own. Her silence allowed the rattle of silverware and rumble of other conversations to press into the space between them while the diner's aromas—one part coffee, one part grease, and one part over-cooked chili, also seemed more prominent.
For a second Gemma thought Carol was going to say something. Instead, she gave a little shake of her head and offered a tremulous smile. “I have a terrific job, and a nice apartment, and a beau.” Carol seemed to run out of steam and pulled her hand away, plucking off her gloves and laying them with her handbag.
“What more could a girl need?”
Gemma sat back and picked up her coffee. She was still concerned, but Carol had always proceeded at her own pace. She would talk when she was ready. At least she looked steadier now.
Their waitress reappeared and took Carol’s order. When she had gone, Carol seemed her old self. “So, what did bring you all the way out to the wilds of New Jersey when you have a job and an apartment in New York?”
“A writing opportunity.” Glancing about, Gemma moved closer to Carol. “Can you keep a secret?”
A small grimace quirked her friend’s lips. “If anyone can keep a secret, I can.”
Gemma’s percolating enthusiasm boiled over and she launched into a recital of her meeting with Mrs. Adams. Carol absorbed the tale with gratifying enthusiasm.
“And now I finally have my foot in the door.” Gemma shrugged as she wound up the story. “I know I won’t be writing the Great American Novel, but I will be earning my living as a writer.”
“That was always your dream, wasn’t it? Even when we were in club meetings, all determined to be daring detectives, writing always came first for you.” Carol held up a forkful of chocolate cake. “Here’s to you. I always knew you’d do the Olentangy Heights Girls’ Detective Society proud.”
Gemma couldn’t help the tears that dampened her lashes. She grabbed a paper napkin from the dispenser and dabbed them away. “It still feels completely unreal. But you better believe I’m going to do everything I can to make my story the best darn manuscript the syndicate’s ever seen.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Gemma caught sight of a clock on the wall near the door. “Is it really so late? I’ve monopolized the whole conversation. You have to tell me why you were so upset.”
“It’s nothing important. I’m hoping to have everything sorted out in a day or two. Maybe next time I see you, I’ll be able to tell you a story that could rival even one of the fabulous girl sleuth’s.” Carol stood and took up the check. “Come on, I’ll walk you back to the train station.”
Gemma hesitated. “Carol, are you involved in some sort of mystery?”
The drawn look returned to her friend’s face. “More of a... complication.” She looped her arm through Gemma’s. “Thinking about something else for a little bit has done me a world of good. No, don’t give me that look. I promise I’ll tell you all about it next time we talk. It’s too close to the surface right now, but I’m hoping that everything will be resolved in a couple of days.”
“OK, but I’m going to hold you to that.”
Arm in arm they swung out of the cozy diner and onto the sidewalk.
The train platform was blessedly uncrowded. A few businessmen in suits and fedoras studiously ignored one another, each pretending to be absorbed in a newspaper. An elderly lady engrossed in her knitting occupied the sole bench at the top of the stairs from the parking lot, and a gaggle of rowdy high school boys with rolled up jeans and letterman jackets were obviously planning an exciting afternoon of playing hooky in the big city. One of them winked and waggled his eyebrows, beckoning to Gemma. She rolled her eyes.
She and Carol lingered together at the far end of the platform, swapping reminiscences about the Olentangy Heights Girls’ Detective Society. The old stories and revived camaraderie warmed Gemma, and she regarded Carol fondly. Her friend’s color was better than it had been and some of the sparkle had returned to her gentle brown eyes. But even as she watched, Carol’s giggle trailed away and an almost wild look entered her eyes.
Gemma looked over her shoulder to see what had drained the joy from her friend’s features, but she saw nothing out of the ordinary. A few more people had filtered onto the platform, but no one paid them any special attention. She turned back to find that Carol’s expression had shuttered tightly closed as if in preparation for a tempest.
“Carol, what is it?”
A smile traced a sketchy path over Carol’s palpable anxiety. “Would you believe it, Gemma, I forgot about a very important meeting. I have to run.” Opening her arms wide, Carol leaned in and embraced her. “I’ve missed you. We’ll have to get together again soon.”
“I’d love to have you come visit me in the city for a whole weekend.” Gemma felt a tug and grabbed for her bag, but then figured it had just shifted and and was sliding off her shoulder. “Whoops, I can’t lose that. I’ve got that precious outline from Mrs. Adams.”
Carol gave her hand a final squeeze then turned on her heel so quickly that her wide skirt swirled as if she was at a dance.
Gemma wasn’t sure what to do. She didn’t want to shove her way in where she wasn’t wanted, but Carol’s behavior was so strange that she was worried. She bit her lip and then raised a hand and followed. “Let me
at least walk you out of the station.”
Carol shook her head but didn’t slow her pace, leaving Gemma behind. The tension her friend had carried when she first arrived at the diner was back in full measure.
Gemma hurried to catch up with her anyway. “Carol, I know something’s wrong. Please tell me what it is. A problem shared is a problem halved.”
Carol paused at the top of the steps. “I told you, I can’t talk about it right now. When I’m able to tell you more, I promise I will.” She darted down the stairs, past a couple of grandmotherly looking ladies, and took a sharp left along the edge of the parking lot, disappearing behind a row of tall hedges.
Gemma stared after her. She would write Carol first thing in the morning and find out what on earth was going on. But for now, Carol had made it clear she didn’t want to talk about whatever the problem was. She should respect her wishes. Reluctantly, Gemma turned back to the platform.
Somewhere out in the street car tires squealed. Gemma whipped around toward the lot. From the corner of her eye she caught a maroon blur. There was a bang and a sickening, crunching, thud. For an instant, the air caught in her lungs and she couldn’t see anything. Then she was sprinting back for the exit, a scream echoing in her head. She wasn’t sure if it was she who had screamed or someone else.
A crying woman barreled into her, driving the breath from Gemma’s chest.
“It’s awful. Terrible.” The woman choked on a sob and pointed a trembling finger toward the parking lot.
Gemma passed the distraught woman off to the lady who had been knitting on the bench at the top of the stairs and saw her drawn into a motherly embrace. Heart pounding in her throat, Gemma dashed down the ramp and around the row of hedges and found a gathering crowd hovering around a crumpled form. She shoved her way through the circle.
Carol’s yellow dress and jaunty straw hat were instantly recognizable, and the dread she’d been fighting billowed up, overwhelming her senses. At that moment, there was no room in her world for anything but her friend’s too-still form. Crouching down, she reached out and felt for a pulse. Her own hand appeared oddly disconnected, as if it wasn’t really part of her. Tears pricked her eyes and her nose began to run. She shook her head.
It wasn’t possible. They had just been speaking. She continued searching for a pulse, lifting a limp wrist that felt surprisingly heavy. Forcing herself to breathe, she mentally went through the steps of her Girl Scouts Red Cross training. Maybe Gemma could resuscitate her.
Someone leaned closer. “She’s a goner, miss.” A hand rested on her shoulder.
She smoothed the hair back from Carol’s face and her gloved fingers came away stained by blood. The gash she revealed was thick and deep, exposing shattered bone beneath.
The man was right. He was right. Oh, God, be merciful.
Heedless of her pencil-slim skirt and last pair of silk stockings, she slumped to the damp pavement, still clutching Carol’s hand. Who could have done this?