"Ramsay skillfully weaves historical fact into his story, all the while blending brisk action with excellent characterization." Publishers Weekly
Elderly Jonathan Lydell III is proud of his lineage. He is related to the Virginia Lees and to the Custis family. For Lydell, family, status, and history are the only realitiesthat and his antebellum house.
Lydell's house has a very colorful history, and Lydell is committed to restoring it to its pre-Civil War configuration, complete with a "stranger room." In the 1800s, many family homes sported these attached rooms with separate entrances and locks that were kept ready for unknown travelers. The intent was to protect the family from unsavory guests.
Nearly 150 years ago, an inexplicable murder took place inside the Lydell's locked stranger room. The murderer was never caught. Lydell thinks this brutal history adds to the house's rich character. But when an identical murder is committed in the newly restored stranger room, even Sheriff Ike Schwartz and FBI agent Karl Hedrick can't explain it....
About the Author
Frederick Ramsay was raised on the east coast and attended graduate school in Chicago. He was a writer of mysteries set in Virginia, (the Ike Schwartz Mysteries) Botswana Mystery series, Jerusalem Mystery series and stand-alones (Impulse, Judas: The Gospel of Betrayal). He was a retired Episcopal Priest, Academic, and author.
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By Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2008 Frederick Ramsay
All rights reserved.
Though only an hour past dawn, the air was already hot and heavy with the aroma of wood smoke, frying fatback, and horses. Jonathan Lydell stepped through the front door onto his porch. He adjusted the brass buttons of his newly brushed and pressed gray uniform and took in the road below. Cato, the slave he rented by the day to Cartwright the innkeeper, had the coach horses in hand, leading them, snorting and stamping, from the barn at the rear of the inn across the road. The old man moved slowly, leading the wheel horses out first. The coachman held up his long coiled whip and saluted Lydell.
"Captain Lydell, your lodger up yet? We'll be pulling out 'soon's the boy gets us hitched up."
"I haven't heard a peep out of him all morning. I reckon he's a heavy sleeper."
"Well, pound on that door, if you please, sir. I'd hate to leave him behind. There's worrisome news on the wire."
"I'll see to it. And if that nigra doesn't move fast enough for you, why you just give him a touch with your coach whip. I reckon he'll jump to, then. You hear that, Cato?"
"Yessuh." The old man stepped a bit livelier at the threat. The coachman cracked his whip in Cato's general direction and laughed when it made him jump as predicted. Lydell turned and pounded on the door to the stranger room. "Say, you in there. Your coach is fixing to leave. You up?"
The wheel horses, now harnessed, stamped and snorted, tails flailing. August brings out the flies early. Cato held them close for a moment, cooing at them. The coachman set the long brake.
"Well, come along then, boy. Fetch out them other hosses."
The coach, stage to be precise, had a team of four. They were not well matched. In the old days, before the war, there would have been six, matched and fresh. But the war had taken all but the scrags. The stage line had to make do while its manager, Col. Michael Harman, fought the damyankees elsewhere. The two wheel horses, one gray and sway-backed, the other an ancient roan, its ribs clearly outlined through its shaggy, un-brushed pelt, stomped and nodded their massive heads impatiently.
Lydell pounded on the door again. "You there, your coach is about ready. It won't wait."
"You'd better open up that door," the coachman said, and fed a withered apple to each of the horses.
"Ain't you got a spare key?"
Lydell removed a key from his coat pocket and held it up for the coachman to see. He tried it in the lock.
"He's locked the door from the inside and left the key part the way turned. I can't turn her." He pounded on the door again.
"I've got that man's goods on the top here." The coachman pointed to the vehicle's roof. "I'll have to unload them." He didn't look happy. "Try that key again, if you would, sir."
Cato applied his shoulder to one of the wheel horse's rumps to straighten it out, adjusted its harness, and went for the leads.
Lydell wrenched the key back and forth. "No luck. Say, you don't suppose he's sick or something, do you? He seemed fine last evening when he retired."
"Can't say. Here, you boy, watch yourself, there." Cato led the lead horses to the coach. They'd drifted a bit turning the corner and pushed the coachman back a step. He laid the coiled whip on the old man's bent frame. Not hard, but still painful. Cato lowered his gaze.
"Yessuh. Sorry, Suh."
"Captain, there's no connection between your stranger room and the rest of your house ... no window?"
"No sir. Didn't see the need of a window for travelers and I surely don't cotton to them imposing on my hospitality. If they wish to avoid the others in the inn, they may rent my room. If they feel the need of a window, well, there's other rooms and houses. That's all. If I know them, they may stay as my guest. But in these times ... well, sir, there're deserters and Yankee spies aplenty. I don't take chances ... Cato!"
"You run fetch Big Henry and tell him to bring a log. I need this door broke down."
"Yes Suh, Captain Lydell."
"If he ain't dead or damned near it, that fellow is going to buy me a new door." Lydell applied his fist to the heavy pine door again.
Cato and an enormous black man, carrying a six foot log that had to weigh at least eighty pounds, climbed the steps from the road and shuffled on bare feet down the length of the porch. The slave handled the log with no more effort than if it had been a tooth pick.
"Henry, you just swing that there log at the lock and bust this door open."
Big Henry cradled the log and then took hold of its end. He took a deep breath, swung the length of it back and then forward at the door, which flew open with a crash and splintering of wood.
"Get in there and see what the fellow is up to," Lydell said to Cato.
A pair of legs, booted and still, were all they could see with the early morning light in the front portion of the room. The old man crept in the darkened room. "Oh Lordy, Lordy," he said and scurried back into the daylight. "That man, he dead, Cap'n Lydell."
"Dead? What do you mean, he's dead? He can't be dead. He's asleep or drunk, or both, you stupid nigger."
"No suh. He's a-lying there face up. They's blood everywhere, and his eyes ... they dead man's eyes."
Lydell aimed a kick at the old man, but Big Henry stepped between them and took the blow instead. The look he gave Lydell would freeze a man's soul. Lydell started to say something, saw the look, and turned away. The coachman had climbed the stairs by that time and peered into the room. Lydell lighted a lamp and they studied the dead man.
"Well, I don't reckon he'll be riding with us today. You, boy, get that travel trunk with the brass fittings on it down off the coach roof."
"Yes Suh." Cato shuffled off the porch and across the road.
"I'll leave it with you, Captain Lydell. I reckon you'll be fetching the locals and they can figure this out. Key was stuck in the lock on the inside, you say?"
"More'n I say. You can see for yourself. Turn that door around and have a look."
The coachman did as he was told. "She's still in there alright. I'll have to write that in my paper work. Well, Captain, it looks like you got yourself a mystery on your hands. Who was that man, anyway?" The two men entered the room and studied the corpse.
"Don't know and don't care. Wished I'd never laid eyes on him. Cost me a very fine pine door, he did. Now I have to get some witnesses in here and make a determination as to the how of it. Though, for the life of me, I can't figure how someone could get in here, shoot that man dead, and get out with the door being locked on the inside and no other way in or out."
"Only if our killer was thin as a snake. Franklin stove with a six inch flue."
"Maybe he killed himself."
"Doesn't seem likely. Appears he's been shot in the back, rolled over and maybe shot in the head to boot. I reckon there's easier ways to kill yourself than that."
"Well sir, as soon as that boy finishes harnessing them horses, I'm off. I'll be wishing you a good day, sir."
The coachman descended to the muddy thoroughfare, picked his way through the puddles that dappled the road, and began haranguing Cato. Thirty minutes later, one passenger short and a brass studded trunk lighter, the coach rattled south toward Roanoke. It would be the last trip on this coach road until after General Philip Sheridan had scorched the valley in "The Burning," after Appomattox, and after the venerable Robert E. Lee had taken up residency in Lexington.
* * *
THE STAUNTON SPECTATOR
August 23, 1864
Mysterious doings. We are in receipt of correspondence from Bolton Township to the south of us that a great mystery has been visited on that fair city. Captain Jonathan Lydell, Commander of the Home Guard, reports that a traveler resting for the night in his stranger room was found robbed and foully murdered. The method of the deed remains a mystery at this time. The room had no access to the rest of the house and the door was locked from the inside. The traveler is reported to have been a Mister Franklin Brian of undetermined address. He had no baggage and no apparent reason to be in the Valley in these perilous times.
* * *
Sad news.Reports from Richmond describe the massacre of a company of General Jubal Early's cavalry, under the command of Captain Lane Duckett, on the Covington road last week. Details are sketchy but early reports suggest that a spy revealed the troop's bivouac position to a detachment of Sheridan's cavalry operating in the valley. In a surprise attack at dawn, the entire company of fifty-six good and loyal men was set upon and all killed, except for one brave bugler, Harry Percival, aged 14, of Bristol, Tennessee. We sincerely hope the Yankees involved in this dastardly display of cowardice will soon suffer some of the same. Our brave General Early most recently viewed the sights of Washington in his last foray north. We await in anticipation his return to that dismal city and a proper lesson meted out.
* * *
A later bulletin from Bolton reports that a slave, Big Henry, a buck Negro known to be a hard case, was found with twenty Yankee greenback dollars and a map to Pennsylvania on his person shortly thereafter. The Home Guard took him into custody and promptly hung him for a traitor and an enemy collaborator. It should be a warning to any slave contemplating dealings with the Yankees. Slaves should be kept close at night and reminded that any contact with the enemy will not be tolerated.CHAPTER 2
Jonathan Lydell IV stood on his front porch and watched as the sun lumbered upward into the eastern sky, red and blurred. He gathered his coat around his shoulders against the early morning chill. He rubbed his eyes and extricated his glasses from his waistcoat pocket. A gold, and obviously new, Cadillac with Michigan license plates pulled around from the parking lot at the rear of the building across the street. Someone had been calling his name. The car turned north toward Brownsburg. He peered across the street. Mrs. Antonelli waved to him. Antonelli, now there was a name that resonated oddly in the depths of Old Virginia. She and her husband had moved to Bolton two years previously from New Jersey, or some such place, and started a bed and breakfast in the old Cartwright House. That building began its life in the late eighteenth century as an inn on the coach road and now, after more than two centuries, had returned to that usage.
"Jonathan? Can you hear me?"
He did not like being addressed by his Christian name. He considered informality an unwelcome intrusion into the culture, but something to which the valley's newcomers seemed addicted. There were forms of address that were correct, he believed, and modern casualness irritated him immensely. At least Mrs. Antonelli refrained from calling him Jon like that odious Wilson woman down the street.
"Yes, Mrs. Antonelli, I can hear you."
"Well, you might try to wake your lodger. He asked me specifically to call him before six. His breakfast is ready."
"I will knock on his door, Mrs. Antonelli." Lydell tapped on the door. No response. He knocked harder. "You awake in there?" Still no response. "I'm afraid I cannot rouse him, Mrs. Antonelli. Perhaps you should defer his breakfast until later."
Rose Antonelli frowned, and sighed. "I will see to my other guests. Will you try again, soon, Jonathan?"
Lydell nodded, and reentered his house.
* * *
By ten, at Rose Antonelli's worried insistence, Jonathan Lydell had tried several times to rouse Anton Grotz. She began to pound on the door as well.
"Jonathan, I think we should open this door and see what the trouble is."
"Door's locked, Mrs. Antonelli."
"Call me Rose. Don't you have a spare key?"
"I do." He went into the house and returned with a large iron key that had to be at least two hundred years old.
"My word, that must be the original."
"When I restored the house and the stranger room, I retrieved many of the original locks and keys." He attempted to insert the key in the lock. "It's locked from the inside and that key's still in there. I cannot unlock the door."
"There's no access to the room from your house?"
"No. When I set out to restore the house, I sealed this room off from the remainder — part of the whole project to qualify for my historical plaque." He nodded toward the signage on the front of the house.
Rose pounded on the door with her fist. "Mr. Grotz, are you all right? Mr. Grotz?"
Lydell stood back and scratched his head. "You know, this is very odd."
"Mr. Grotz, are you in there?"
"Of course he's in there. The key is in the lock on the inside. I'll have to have this door broken down." He walked to the end of the porch and leaned over the rail. "Henry? You there?"
A wiry twenty-something with a long, spiked Mohawk haircut and goatee, both dyed scarlet, strolled to the street. "Yo. Wassup?"
"Henry, get a log or something and come on up here. We have to break into the stranger room."
Henry climbed the steps with what appeared to be a log, a leftover from a cabin.
"How do you want me to do this?"
"Henry, I don't want to splinter that door so just aim at the lock, there, and bang it open."
"What? At the lock, not the panel?"
"Yes, yes. That lock isn't mortised in and the receiver — the place where the bolt goes isn't either so ..."
"I got it. Step back, Mrs. Antonelli."
Henry swung the log back and then forward. On the second try the door smacked open.
Rose pushed into the room. "Oh, my God, Jonathan, call 9-1-1. This man is hurt." Anton Grotz lay face down on a frayed prayer rug, the back of his head a bloody mess. Henry knelt next to the body and felt for a pulse.
"You need to call the sheriff, Mister Lydell. This dude's dead.
He's been shot."
"Suicide?" Rose asked. Her knees began to buckle. "Oh my God."
"That's for the sheriff to say, but he's been shot in the back three times, it appears, and it don't seem likely he'd practice on his back before putting the gun to his head." Henry, bright red hair notwithstanding, seemed to have a fundamental grasp of forensics.
Rose Antonelli collapsed onto a damask settee.
* * *
"Where're we headed?" Karl Hedrick held the wheel of the cruiser lightly and kept his eyes on the road.
"Turn here," Ike directed. "This is Old Coach Road. It used to be the main drag north and south for commercial travelers. The valley was connected by stage coaches up through the War Between the States. We didn't get a railroad in these parts until about 1870. Col. Harmon assembled the financing to build the Valley Railroad. When it came, it ran closer to the valley pike — that's old route 11 — and through Picketsville, not Bolton. The coach stop fell into disuse then. Picketsville gained enough prominence to outrank it and finally incorporate Bolton as a suburb."
"Suburb?" Karl said with a smile. "Ike, with respect, Picketsville is hardly an 'urb.' Having a suburb is a stretch."
"Nevertheless. Bolton is an old section, with homes dating to the early nineteenth century, and the house we are going to belongs to Jonathan Lydell. He is Old Valley."
"His family has been in the valley for God only knows how many generations, living in the same house, even. He is FFV, DAR, the Society of the Cincinnati, and on and on."
"FFV means what, exactly?"
"Where do you come from, Karl?"
"Originally or lately?"
"Chicago, south side, down near the University."
"Okay. Well, FFV means First Families of Virginia. That is, people who can claim descent from the earliest settlers, colonial families at least."
"Are you FFV, Ike?"
"You're kidding, right? With a name like Schwartz, what's the likelihood?"
"No Jewish tailors on the ... what was the name of the boat?
Not the Mayflower."
"Not one. Three at first, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery," Ike recited drawing from his sixth grade memory bank. "And then a succession of others. And no, they had enough trouble without that."
"My grandma used to say our family was related to Thomas Jefferson. Could I be an FFV?"
"A word of advice. I wouldn't bring that up, especially around Mr. Lydell. He's among those who find the concept of Sally Hemings and her offline Jeffersonian descendents extremely upsetting. As I said, he's Old Valley."
"I take it he's going to have a problem when he sees the two of us — the Jewish sheriff and his African-American sidekick. Kosher Salt and Peppah, that's us."
Ike smiled. "How long are you going to be with us, Karl? I don't mean to push, but you've been on loan from the Bureau for months now."
"Can't say, Ike. My hearing was set for January. Then my boss went one step too far and now he's under review, and that leaves me in limbo, you might say."
Karl had crossed his boss once too often the previous winter and had been put on suspension. As a face saving device, that designation had been changed to inactive duty and finally to Agent in Place for Picketsville, even though there was no perceived need to have someone stationed there. So, Karl, like a latter-day McCloud, worked as a deputy sheriff in Picketsville while he waited for the wonks in Washington to work out his status with the Bureau.
Ike pointed to the house in the middle of a cluster of brick two-story buildings lining the road. "Pull up here. That's it. The one with what looks like a porch on the second floor."
Excerpted from Stranger Room by Frederick Ramsay. Copyright © 2008 Frederick Ramsay. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1864, The Staunton Spectator newspaper reported that a traveler Mister Franklin Brian was found murdered in the stranger room attached to the Bolton home of Captain Jonathan Lydell, Now a century and half later, elderly Jonathan Lydell IV informs the local sheriff department that someone murdered guest Anton Grotz in his restored antebellum mansion¿s stranger room with the key inside sealing shut the room. --- Picketsville, Virginia Sheriff Ike Schwartz with the able help of FBI loaner acting deputy Karl Hendrick investigates the apparent modern day locked room homicide they find a connection to the cold case Civil War era killing and eerily Poe. As they dig deeper while working other crimes, Jonathan displays his outrage that the cops are turning his estate into a crime scene as he overtly displays his racism and his superiority, but fails to deter Ike or Karl from performing their job. --- Using the STRANGER ROOM historical concept of a place attached yet totally separated from a house as the basis for a contemporary locked room police procedural, Frederick Ramsay provides a fabulous investigative tale. The story line is fast-paced from the moment Jonathan and his bed and breakfast employee Mrs. Antonelli fail to rouse the guest and never slows down. The cast is solid especially the ¿Old Virginian¿ Jonathan with his don¿t call me Jon instead call me Mr. attitude. Fans will appreciate this strong regional police procedural (see SECRETS and BUFFALO MOUNTAIN for Ike¿s previous Virginia cases). --- Harriet Klausner