I still have copies available of Cold Midnight, a "YA crossover" mystery set in 1921 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and based on a real "cold case" that the town never closed. By special request, here's chapter 1; you can get the softcover book from me, or the ebook online.
by Beth Kanell
The new rope worked much better than the knotted strips of sheets. And it was more than twice as long.
In the darkness behind the tenement house, untying the knot required her fingers to dig and tug. Claire wished she’d brought a spike or even a nail. A nail – there should be some scattered around on the ground. Easing quietly toward the pool of light spilling from the downstairs parlor, Claire scuffed her shoes until she felt something roll under them, and coaxed it along to where she could see it and pick it up. She moved back against the wall and poked at the knot with the iron point. Done!
Claire was used to creeping down the back porches and only using her twisted line of sheeting to drop down the last ten feet to the ground. It could hang there until she returned. But the rope was different: she needed to take it with her so she could get where she needed to go.
The smell of tar hung thick in the warm night air. Main Street, just around the corner from the tenement house, gleamed under its new coat of paving. No sense stepping in the soft black ooze – Claire took the back route around the little green-sided Christian Science church to the alley next to Willis’s hardware. Carefully, she coiled the twenty feet of rope over her left shoulder. On tiptoes, she ran up the three flights of fire stairs, avoiding the windows. Now one long stretch, twenty feet high, separated her from the rooftop. She set her fingers and toes into the brickwork and edged upward.
After so many times crawling in darkness up the wall, with its fancy brick courses and false window frames extending out as perfect footholds, the climb came easily, up to the last bit where the roof hung over. Until now, the overhang had defeated her. But this time, with her rope, she formed a sling and looped it over a massive iron hook at the roof’s edge, built to grasp the snowload and prevent it from falling on unsuspecting pedestrians in winter. The hook and the rope sling would provide a way to let go of the wall and swing out.
She tugged at the sling to make sure the knot would hold. It ought to: a square knot, the way her father had shown her ages ago. Blue funk gripped her stomach for a moment. She twisted her left hand around the rope sling, then snatched at it with her right, flying loose from the wall. Four stories above the ground, she dangled from her rope loop. Keep moving, she told herself, and heaved with both arms, until she figured out how to launch her legs up. The scrape of her boots against the roof startled her.
Don’t stop now. It’s just like on the bars of the swing. Go!
Seconds later, Claire stood on the roof of the Willis Block for the first time. The size of it had always impressed her, as it stretched across five street-level businesses. Her left arm burned from the rope’s friction, and she rubbed it while she crouched and surveyed this new view of town. She peered down to be sure nobody had seen or heard her – but the coast was clear.
First she looked west, up the ridge, and oriented herself by the dark bulk of the ancient pines above the town. She could see the distant cliffs block the starry sky. The grand Bateman mansion spread solidly against the nearer slope, gas lamps twinkling in the upper windows. There were no lights in the long glassed greenhouse beside the mansion, but she saw small reflections of the bright stars of early September.
Slowly, Claire turned north, gazing past the short steeple of the Christian Science church to see the massive stone structure of the North Church, then the brick steeple of the Irish Catholic one. Beyond the handful of large homes at the north end of town, the land rose to Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. She bent to rub one knee, realizing she’d scraped that, too. Most likely her stockings would cover it tomorrow, but she would need to be careful that no signs of her adventures showed around her skirt and blouse, or her mother would grow suspicious.
Claire swiveled south, toward the dark courthouse with its clock tower, then the imposing halls of the Academy campus – the school halls that she already hated after a single week of classes. Claire frowned fiercely, wishing they’d disappear. For a moment she pondered what it would feel like to set them aflame, the crisp, snapping fire engulfing them in seconds. But she knew it was insane, a wild fantasy she’d never actually try. Her father had warned her about fire-setters and their madness, back before the war, when he still talked to her about real things.
Claire closed her eyes and made the final quarter turn to face east, down the slope to the downtown, the railroad, the river beyond. For a moment longer, she stood blind, eyelids clamped together. She stretched her arms and hands wide, feeling the cool night air between her fingers. She sniffed the breeze for river scent, but she couldn’t find it. At last, she lowered her arms and opened her eyes.
Ah! Cramped knuckles and scraped knees faded into insignificance. The town lay out before her as if Claire were its only audience. Golden lamplight and silver starlight splashed through and against windows. Halfway down the hill the French Catholic church interrupted with its dark stone steeple. Closer to her, someone pulled a curtain closed at an upper level. A late truck growled as it pulled up Eastern Avenue toward Main Street. A dog began to bark angrily, a second one yelped in conversation, and she caught a hint of a distant shouting voice.
They can’t hear me, she thought. They can’t see me. But they are mine, all mine.
The bells of North Church tolled the hour: ten o’clock. She resolved to explore her rooftops until midnight struck. Seven buildings linked together meant she could walk all the way from here to the edge of the last roof above Eastern Avenue itself. She twitched her rope to lay it flat on the first section of roof, then started walking.
A surprising number of objects rolled under her booted feet as she scuffed slowly along. Although a rounded wedge of moon showed itself above the eastern horizon, it didn’t light the roof. Claire could feel nails, and the snap of twigs, and something soft that might be the remains of a bird. She tried to avoid crushing whatever it was – the poor thing was most likely mangled enough. Plus, she didn’t want to step in anything that would reek of decay. Continuing to escape the house at night depended on not leaving traces that her mother would notice. Her father, of course, wouldn’t notice if she put her muddiest boots directly onto his lap.
Placing a hand on a chimney top, she realized someone in the building had lit a fire. Silly thing to do on such a warm night! But on second thought, perhaps it was still warm from cooking supper. At home, supper could take place any time between five and nine o’clock, depending on whether her mother felt exalted that evening. Sometimes Claire’s mother set a row of candles along the table and decorated it to resemble a feast, even when supper was only a reheated slice of Sunday’s pork pie. She’d tear the bread apart with her long slender fingers, instead of slicing it: “This was how his disciples recognized the Lord,” she’d explain. “The way He broke the bread. After He rose again, of course. Drink some wine, Claire. It’s not a sacrament like at church.”
“You’ve watered it down,” her father would complain if he happened to be there. And he’d take a draw from his flask instead, then forget to finish eating as he shuffled out of the kitchen to the parlor and its darkness. Her mother’s shoulders would slump, half from plain irritation, half from some deeper wound.
“Pray for your father tonight,” she’d instruct Claire. “Forty ‘Hail Marys’ and then the Our Father. He needs to go to confession.” Her voice louder, she’d repeat, “Robert, you need to go to confession. You can’t take Holy Communion until you’ve confessed to the priest.”
“Go there yourself, eh,” her father would mumble back, and mutter a curse in French just to annoy her, and drop heavily into his armchair without turning on a lamp.
The warm chimney also reminded Claire that she was walking above tenements where people lived, over the shops. She hoped their ceilings muffled her footfalls. Who lived in the rooms just beneath her? Mr. Willis, who owned the hardware? No, he lived lower down, right above his store. This place must be his brother’s, the one with all the small children.
The urge seized her to peer through their windows and catch a glimpse of their life. Could she reach the fire stairs behind this section of the store block? She edged eastward, to the back end of the roof, and squinted into the darkness below. She knew there was another set of stairs, but she had left her rope back by the first set. Besides, she didn’t know how far this set went. She’d have to inspect it by daylight before risking the drop.
Back to the center again, then south, across the roof of the ladies’ clothing store. Then the two sections joined together below into the grocery and what must be the little bakery. At last she knew she stood above the photographer’s studio. The rising moon lit a low wall in front of her, where the roofline rose to go across the bank at the corner, with a false row of windows along the front.
The wide, open space of Eastern Avenue yawned in the darkness below. Across the way was the park, and beyond that, the courthouse. A movement among the bushes caught her eye: a dog, scruffy and slow. She could barely hear its faint snuffling.
When the whistling started, she jerked in place, grabbing the chimney nearest to her to stop a wave of vertigo. Her head spun. The sweet pure whistle rose in a tune she knew: “Listen to the mockingbird,” it trilled. The strangeness of it in her hard-luck town, her town viewed from its high Main Street roofs, nearly blinded her. Then the whistle began to dance around the tune, ornamenting it, pouring it into the darkness as if night were shaped with a space that belonged to music and to joy.
Just before the tune ended, she realized a boy in dark clothing, with the bulk of a jacket slung over his shoulder, had emerged from the shadows of the park and was walking into the long alley behind the store buildings. By the time she thought to cross the roof and look directly down the side of the building, he had vanished into the darkness, along with his melody.
In the boy’s absence, the town laid itself out again, nearly silent. Claire walked the roof in the other direction, back to where her rope lay folded, getting the feel of it into her feet. The false windows rising above the front of the photographer’s building offered a good place to perch, so she circled back there. Where her hand rested on the brick wall, she felt lumps like chewing gum. Bird droppings. She scrubbed her hand against her sweater and stuffed it into a pocket, where her handkerchief sat in a ball.
Why would someone build a row of false window arches at the front of a building? Just to make it look taller? There was no glass, nothing behind them except the roof itself. Claire fingered the brick surface carefully before climbing inside an arch, to sit curled within the chilly but strong framework. Looking up the hillside to the west, with the Bateman mansion in the center of her view, she watched the upstairs lamps begin to go out, one after another in a line. The last one lingered a few minutes longer. Someone setting aside his or her clothes, no doubt. Would it be Mr. Bateman himself? No, that upper room must belong to a maid or the cook.
Below her, footsteps pattered along Main Street. Somebody was running there, keeping close to the block of buildings. She turned to hook an arm more firmly, then leaned cautiously from her position inside the arch, not wanting to make a sound.
The person in the darkness reached the corner of Eastern Avenue and Claire could see enough to be sure it was a man or a very tall, older boy. His arms were pumping and she could hear his breath, ragged and rapid. From above, the cap on his head looked like one of her father’s uniform caps. He stopped, reached out, and pulled the hammer of the fire alarm box. Then he ran.
Bells rang loudly in the firehouse down the road and in the Methodist church steeple. Lamps flared higher. Men shouted, and a truck engine roared to life. Claire pressed her back against the wall. Crouching behind the brick edging, she watched: one truck, the pumper; then the second one, its ladders hanging off the end; four men clutching the rails. A fifth man stood by the open doorway, staring down the road, then bolted back inside, shouting again.
A harsh charcoal smell filled the night, much stronger than chimney smoke. Not far from her, metal on metal screeched and more shouts echoed as the new fire trucks halted just beyond the courthouse. Hunched low, keeping her balance, she ran to the south end of the line of buildings and saw a red flicker of flame at the side of the boarding house beyond the courthouse park.
Her father would be there soon! The fire bells surely had summoned him by now. Any moment, he might wake her mother, too. Claire needed to return to her bed and be under the covers in case they looked into her room.
She fled back north along the roofs, fumbled for the loops of her rope, and swung wildly for the steps below.