“The Seven Sorrows”
by Terence Faherty
EQMM March/April 2010
World War Two officially ended on September second, nineteen forty-five. So this September will be the fiftieth anniversary. Last summer we started to run newspaper ads asking residents of Middlesex County to donate or lend us World War Two memorabilia for an exhibit. The response was tremendous.”
That was putting it mildly. The Middlesex County Historical Society had been deluged with donations. Either there was a sincere desire in this corner of New Jersey to honor the generation that won the war or a lot of people wanted to remodel their attics. The society had been forced to rent warehouse space a few blocks from its New Brunswick offices. And to hire additional flunkies to sort through the largess. I was one of those, and my new supervisor, Rachel Terman, was giving me my orders and a pep talk.
“It’ll be fun, Owen. A lot more fun than sitting behind a desk. You’re like an archeologist. Or a detective.”
That last inducement was ill-chosen, though Rachel couldn’t have known it. I’d played at being a detective way too often during my forty-odd years, which was one of the reasons I found myself in this barely heated warehouse on a January morning, working for little better than minimum wage.
Rachel was a small woman made a little less so by the bulky winter coat she hadn’t even unbuttoned. Small but brimming with organization.
“What we need for you to do is prepare the rough draft of a catalog. We want you to assign each box and bag a lot number and list the contents. Then we can get it all on the computer.”
She pointed to the nearest object, a wooden trunk in olive drab. “Let’s do this one together. Got your pad ready? This’ll be lot number one. The tag says it’s a donation, not a loan. It was donated by Mrs. James Petrone. It must have been her husband’s footlocker. See, his name is stenciled on it: Sergeant James G. Petrone. Okay, now we open it up, if it will open.”
It certainly wasn’t locked. There was a heavy hasp on the lid, but no padlock to go with it. On either side of the hasp were rusty latches, like the ones I’d had on my grade-school lunchboxes only much larger. Despite their oxidation, these opened easily. I lifted the lid, and Rachel let out a little gasp. Coiled on top of some neatly folded uniforms was a belt of ammunition. Every sleeve of the long canvas strip contained what appeared to be an intact round.
“Don’t panic, Owen,” Rachel said, though I hadn’t even joined in the gasping. “There’s a protocol in place for this. We were afraid there might be some live ammunition or even a souvenir gun mixed in with the donations. Don’t touch anything like that. The bullets could be unstable after all these years.”
She dug in her coat pocket and produced a cell phone. “We’re supposed to call the police so they can come and take it away. They gave us a special number.”
By the time that special number produced results, I’d gone through three additional boxes without finding any mortar rounds or hand grenades. Rachel had kept watch with me, though she’d spent her time on the phone, talking with someone back at the society.
The responders, patrolmen named Ryan and Wisehart, were big men dressed, as policemen often seemed to be, in uniforms a half-size too small for them. They immediately violated our protocol on not touching old ammunition. In fact, Wisehart, after hefting the belt and scratching at one of the rounds with his thumb, tossed the whole thing to his partner, squeezing another gasp out of Rachel.
“False alarm, Ms. Terman, Mr. Keane,” Wisehart said to us. “That there is dummy ammunition. The shell casings are real, but the bullets are just painted wood.”
“Thirty-caliber wood,” his partner commented. “Machine-gun belt. Must have been used in training or something.”
“Or something,” Wisehart repeated. He looked around at the stacks of boxes and bags that filled the big room. “Maybe you shouldn’t be calling us every time you make a find. Maybe you should collect the stuff into a corner or someplace.”
“An ammunition dump,” Ryan said. “Or a woodpile.” He dropped the belt back into the footlocker and shut the lid. Then he said, “Huh.”
“What?” Wisehart asked.
“The name on this, James Petrone. Wasn’t that the rosary guy?”
“Sure was,” Wisehart said.
Rachel asked, “The rosary-murder guy? Of course. I knew I’d heard that name before.”
I hadn’t. “I’m new in town,” I said. “Somebody got killed with rosary beads?”
“No,” Ryan said. “Shot. Shot and robbed. But the perp left a rosary on Petrone’s body. He’d stolen the beads from a church. Left them right on the hole he’d drilled through the old guy’s pump.”
Wisehart’s equipment belt groaned as he bent to look at the tag on the trunk. “Donated by the widow. Not very sentimental of her. If we didn’t already have a guy for the shooting, we’d have to give Mrs. Petrone another look.”
“She had an alibi,” Ryan said. “And no motive. I’d be looking at Petrone’s mistress, if I was looking.”
I said, “He was cheating on his wife? Isn’t that a motive for killing him?”
“It would be for my wife,” Ryan said, “but not for Petrone’s. She knew all about the chickie on the side. She knew about the previous five. Guess the old guy was a hound from way back. But the other woman now, she had a motive. Petrone ran through some money of hers. Told her he was investing it. Turned out, he made all his investments at an off-track betting parlor.”
“Bad ones, too,” Wisehart said. “But the mistress also had an alibi. And she’s not suddenly donating her keepsakes.”
“As to that,” Rachel said, “the donation was set up last summer.”
Wisehart looked at the trunk’s tag for a date. It didn’t have one. Rachel held up her phone.
“While we were waiting for you, I spoke to my office. I wanted someone to check the files in case we had to call Mrs. Petrone about the ammunition. Carol, who checked for me, said that a Marie Petrone first wrote in August offering us the footlocker. That was before the murder, wasn’t it?”
“Sure was,” Ryan said. “Which is good, ’cause we don’t need any more suspects. We got the guy.”
“Got a guy, anyway,” Wisehart said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
The patrolmen’s radios produced what sounded like static to me and a call to duty to them.
“Whoops,” Ryan said. “Gotta go.”
“And why the rosary?” I asked.
“Think stockpile,” Wisehart said to Rachel. “We’ll catch you later.”
Rachel followed the policemen out, leaving me alone with my unanswered questions. And a definite feeling of dread. It was more than just the here-we-go-again sensation I experienced whenever I happened on a mystery, more than the certainty that I would poke it with a stick even though I should have learned by then to think twice. What bothered me was the timing of it. In the past few months, I’d investigated two mysteries, which was quite a caseload, considering that I didn’t average two a year. And here was a third. I couldn’t escape the feeling that events were building to something, something I wouldn’t like. Whether this rosary murder was that ominous something or just another step toward it, I couldn’t say.
I could have escaped the whole question by forgetting I’d ever heard of James Petrone, by adopting a protocol for murder similar to Rachel’s for live ammunition: Leave it to the police. Instead, I reopened the dead man’s footlocker and turned it inside out.
The carefully folded uniforms beneath the dummy ammunition were lying in a tray that lifted out of the locker, revealing the main compartment. Its contents, which filled a full page of my notepad, included Petrone’s mess kit, his corporal’s stripes—still fringed in the threads cut from his uniform when he’d made sergeant—curled photographs of the camps where he’d trained, and postcards from Paris and other places in France. There were also citations for two medals—the medals themselves were missing—and a small bundle of letters loosely tied with black ribbon. The letters weren’t in envelopes, so I could see a little of them without undoing the bundle. Each was written in pencil on a tiny piece of paper folded once. And each was signed by Petrone’s wife, Marie.
I thought, as Wisehart had, how odd it was that the widow had donated the locker, especially since it contained her wartime letters. But she might not have searched the locker first. It couldn’t have been that hanging on to mementos of a murdered husband was too painful for her, since she’d arranged for the donation before he’d been murdered. It was more likely that she was just unsentimental about the baggage of a serial philanderer. And more likely still that I was making too much of it. After all, I was sitting in a room full of other donations made by other, equally unsentimental families.
I turned to a new lot and worked away quietly until the time came for my lunch break. Then I headed for the Central Library on Livingston Avenue. I hadn’t been in New Brunswick long, but I was already on a first-name basis with one important contact, a reference librarian named Darryl Craddock. Darryl was another cog in the historical society’s World War II exhibit wheel. He and his library were to provide poster-size blowups of important wartime front pages, culled from the files of the Examiner, a defunct local newspaper.
I’d met Darryl during a meeting about the posters. And made a good impression on him, I hoped. If the rosary murder had happened sometime since last September, it was too recent to be in any newspaper’s index, and I didn’t feel like working my way through weeks of dailies. Darryl looked like a high-school junior, but in our meeting he had demonstrated a real knowledge of 1940s history. I was hoping he was at least as good at current events.
The young archivist was on duty in the library’s stacks, and he knew all about the Petrone murder. In fact, he saw it in a way the others hadn’t, as a cause célèbre.
“It’s a travesty of justice, Owen. He’s being railroaded.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Raymond Sleeth. He’s a homeless guy. And he’s gay. That’s two reasons for them to want him locked away.”
Some of Darryl’s extreme youthfulness came from his small size, some from the loop in his earlobe, and some from his fashionably shaved head. Three decades separated me from the sixties and my own extreme youthfulness, but it still made me cringe inwardly to see a young man wasting hair like that.
“You’re saying the police don’t have any evidence?”
“Sure they have evidence. When Sleeth was arrested, he was carrying the murder weapon and Petrone’s wallet.”
“Not exactly circumstantial,” I said.
“Sleeth explained it. He’d been Dumpster-diving behind a Shoprite a couple of blocks from where Petrone was shot and found the gun and the wallet.”
“The wallet was empty?”
“No, it had twenty or thirty bucks in it. The police made a big deal about that. But all it means is, the real killer panicked. He didn’t want any part of the money when he realized what he’d done. I think that’s why whoever did it left the rosary beads. They were a sign of remorse.”
“Didn’t the rosary come from a church Sleeth robbed?”
“Another conclusion the cops jumped to. Sleeth slept in some churches last winter when he could get away with it. He may have helped himself to some stuff in one of them.”
I risked a little of Darryl’s goodwill. “Helped himself?”
“Okay, he took some things. But I don’t think he really knew what he was doing. He’s not quite balanced mentally. That’s the third strike against him. He’s as good as in Rahway Prison right now.”
I said, “Maybe Sleeth happened across Petrone after he’d been shot and took whatever he found. He could have left the rosary in exchange.”
“No, Owen. That’s not how he tells it. He never saw Petrone. He didn’t leave anything with him or take anything away. He’s stuck to the same story through all of this, and I believe him.”
I tried another angle. “How did the police find Sleeth?”
“They got a tip from another homeless guy who shared a packing case with Sleeth one night down near the river. Sleeth showed him the gun and the wallet. This guy figured he deserved a share and Sleeth wouldn’t give him one, so he turned him in.
“The cops swarmed all over Sleeth. They found the gun and the wallet in his knapsack. They checked his record and found out he’d tried to pawn some stuff from St. Monica’s last year, which explained to them why he’d have a rosary. They figure they have an airtight case.”
It was looking that way to me, too. The other side of the balance contained only Wisehart’s subtle dissent. And Darryl’s unsubtle one.
“You can read all about it for yourself, Owen. I’ve kept every story the Star Ledger and the Specter ran.”
When Darryl spoke of saving “every story,” it led me to expect a thick file that would swallow the rest of my lunch hour whole. What he actually delivered to the one cubicle I found with a working reading light was a very thin folder. The biggest nearby daily, Newark’s Star Ledger, was represented by a total of three clippings. But from them I learned a few new facts. Petrone had been sixty-nine when he’d died. He’d been on his way from the New Brunswick apartment of Geneva Majo, fifty-seven, to his favorite watering hole, the Ten-Spot Tavern, when last seen alive. That had been by Majo herself, who had said goodnight to Petrone at about ten-thirty, a fact substantiated by one of her neighbors.
Majo’s testimony had helped to establish a time of death, an always imprecise process. Without her help, it would have been especially imprecise, since Petrone’s body hadn’t been found right away. He’d either been lured or forced into the alley next to the tavern or else he’d stumbled in there after he’d been shot. Either way, he’d gone unnoticed until early the next morning. But based on the time it took to drive from Majo’s to the Ten-Spot, the police had placed the attack at approximately ten-forty. No one inside the tavern had heard the single shot that killed Petrone, but a late basketball game had been showing on the bar’s televisions, which were kept loud to accommodate a graying clientele.
The Star Ledger’s second story announced the arrest of Raymond Sleeth, thirty-one, following a tip to the police. The piece mentioned the wallet and the unregistered gun found in Sleeth’s possession and elaborated on something that had been touched on in the first story: the rosary left on Petrone’s body. The beads hadn’t belonged to the victim, according to his wife, and had probably been placed on his chest just after the wound in its center had stopped pumping blood.
The third Star Ledger clipping was Petrone’s somewhat brief obituary. It listed his wartime service in France, his decorations, his thirty years as a tool- and-die maker in a Ford plant in Edison, and his sole survivor, his wife of fifty-two years, Marie.
The remaining clipping in the file was from the second paper Darryl had named, the Specter. I’d seen its racks outside the place where I bought my morning coffee and in a bookstore near my apartment. It was a counter-culture weekly, a more likely source of concert reviews and exotic personal ads than crime reporting. But it had run a lengthy story on what it had called “the Sleeth Scandal,” a report that echoed Darryl’s outrage and may have inspired it. The feature was certainly the source of much of the librarian’s inside information. It told of Sleeth’s past arrest for church robbing, the jealous “street person” who’d turned him in, and Sleeth’s story about finding the gun and wallet in a Dumpster.
The Specter article may also have been where Ryan and Wisehart had gotten the inside information they’d tossed around. It named the same two alternate suspects they’d mentioned, Marie Petrone and Geneva Majo, and discussed their alibis. Mrs. Petrone had reported for duty at ten-thirty at the hospital where she worked as a volunteer. Majo had invited a neighbor over to watch television as soon as Petrone left her. That had to be the same neighbor who’d backed her up on Petrone’s time of departure.
Like Patrolman Ryan, the Specter liked Majo for the crime. The article described the money Petrone had talked her out of as her “life savings.” It passed along the rumor about the off-track betting parlor and added a second one concerning a trip Petrone may have made to Las Vegas.
Petrone’s past affairs were mentioned, five of them, going back to 1955. According to the writer, they were known to the police because the long-suffering Marie Petrone had listed them by way of proving that this latest example was no big deal. She’d told the police that she worked the late shift at the hospital because she’d gotten tired of waiting for her husband to come home.
The reporter didn’t explain why Marie hadn’t gotten a divorce, except to say that she and Petrone were Catholics. That satisfied his inquiring mind, but not mine. A lapsed Catholic myself—I’d lapsed my way right out of a seminary—I’d known a number of divorced ones, one or two from Marie’s generation. I was also bothered by the rosary left on the chest of a Catholic man. That had to be a coincidence, if it had been done by Sleeth or some other stranger, and I had the amateur sleuth’s natural distrust of coincidence. It was true that in this corner of New Jersey you couldn’t swing a rosary without hitting a Catholic, but it still made me wonder.
It bothered me while I was returning the clippings and thanking Darryl and through the process of looking up the addresses of Marie Petrone and Geneva Majo in a city directory. It was still rankling when I returned to my Saturn, so much so that it knocked my earlier visions of burgers and fries clean out of my head.
I kicked myself for not bringing along the packet of letters I’d found in Petrone’s footlocker. They would have given me the perfect excuse for showing up at Marie Petrone’s house. I could have returned them on behalf of the historical society and, as long as I was there, asked her why on earth she’d stayed with a cheating husband. Also about possible accomplices. She’d have needed one, if she was behind the murder, since she couldn’t have reported for work at ten-thirty and killed her husband blocks away at ten-forty.
I considered tracking down the Specter’s all-knowing correspondent. Instead, I drove to the apartment of the correspondent’s number-one suspect, Geneva Majo. I didn’t go there hoping to break her alibi, though that would have been fine with me. I went there to ask her whether she’d ever seen a rosary on her late lover’s person.
The other woman lived in an older, well-kept building on Leyland Street. I was saved from having to negotiate with Majo via the front-door intercom by a deliveryman who happened to be leaving the building as I walked up. That only postponed the problem of explaining myself and my interest in the Petrone murder, but I was a man who’d take a postponement whenever I could get one.
That day I got two. When I rang the bell of Majo’s second-floor apartment, no one answered. Someone was home in the next apartment, though. I heard movement behind the door as I turned toward the elevator. On impulse, I knocked on that door, and it opened as far as the security chain would permit. A very short, very old woman peered out at me. Or rather, peered over my right shoulder.
“There’s no soliciting in this building,” she said.
“I’m not selling anything,” I told her. “I came by to ask Ms. Majo about James Petrone.” Which got me back to the challenge of explaining myself, or would have, if the old woman had asked for an explanation.
“I won’t undo the chain,” she said instead. “You have a nice voice. I’m sure you have a nice face, too, but I won’t undo the chain.”
“You can’t see my face?”
“Not very well. Macular degeneration, both eyes. I can’t see anything I look at straight on. I only see things at the edges. But I don’t complain about it.”
“You told the police that you’d seen James Petrone leave on the night he died. Did you really see him?”
“A little. Mostly I heard him. He and my neighbor Geneva were having words that night. I’d been dozing a little, and they woke me. I heard them in her apartment and then out in the hall. I think she knocked on my door so he would leave. It worked, too. As soon as I opened up, he went away.”
“What were they arguing about?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t hear that well either. Geneva said later it was over money. It usually is, isn’t it? She didn’t want to talk about it. Geneva is a good person and a good neighbor, but she picks bad men. She doesn’t like to be alone. I know all about that.”
“You’re sure it was ten-thirty when Petrone left? Can you still read a clock?”
“I’m not blind. I can see the buttons on your coat don’t match. And I’ve got a clock that reads out the time if you push a button. But I didn’t have to use it that night. I know what time it was because Geneva asked me over to watch Cheers. It had just started, and it comes on every evening at ten-thirty on Channel Eleven out of New York. We watch it a couple of times a week together, sometimes at her place, sometimes at mine. She has a bigger television set. If I sit real close and kind of look away, I can see a lot of what’s happening. They’re all reruns, of course. Even so, I almost called the station to complain about that night’s episode.”
“Cheers? No. It was just that they’d showed the same episode the week before. I’d watched it alone on my little set, and I’m sure it was the same one. Norm tries to save a restaurant he likes, the Hungry Heifer. They’re supposed to rotate them better than that. That was pure laziness. I wouldn’t have sat through it again, except that Geneva wanted the company. We were together for hours after the show, talking.”
“No, about New Brunswick and what it was like when I was a little girl. Geneva was full of questions. Not that she was really interested. She just didn’t want to be alone. I know how that is, believe me.”
My lunch hour was over and then some, so I headed for the warehouse with every intention of putting in a good afternoon’s work. Then, a few blocks from Majo’s apartment, I saw a church with a familiar name: St. Monica’s. It was the place robbed by Raymond Sleeth, according to Darryl and his press clippings. There was a parking space open at the curb in front of the church, a Romanesque building of once-white brick, and I pulled in.
The church was open and occupied. Two men on a scaffold were working on one of the elaborate hanging light fixtures, which looked like diving bells designed by Bernini. From the safety of a checkerboard center aisle, a little man in black was watching them.
I introduced myself to this supervisor and told him that I was concerned about a homeless man who’d been arrested for murder.
“Raymond Sleeth, of course,” the little man replied before leading me to the nearest pew. “I’m Father Macy. I’m the pastor here, and I’ve been praying over that very thing. I’m concerned about St. Monica’s role in all of this.”
Father Macy’s skin was peeling like a sunbather’s, though he wasn’t the least bit tanned. He scratched at the back of one hand as he answered.
“Oh yes. We’re major players in this drama. Mr. Sleeth did break into the church and did steal some things we had in our basement, but we didn’t have to prosecute him. I was persuaded to do it by the police, who told me it was the best way to get Mr. Sleeth some help. He’s not quite right in the head, you know, poor man. Nowadays, it’s hard to help a person like that unless he wants to be helped or he runs afoul of the law. But the law can’t have done very much for Mr. Sleeth, since he ended up on the street again and committed a far worse crime.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Of course. But however his case turns out, we bear a burden of responsibility. I was in New York recently and saw that musical they made of Les Misérables. Have you seen it? Oh, you should really go. There’s a scene that’s been haunting me. An old bishop gives an ex-convict some valuable silver candlesticks, and they change the convict’s life. I couldn’t help thinking of poor Mr. Sleeth and the pittance he took from us. We should have let him keep it. We should have given him more.”
“Was one of the things he took a rosary?”
The old priest sighed. “The police and I have gone round and around about that. In the end, they had to accept that I just don’t know. You see, what Mr. Sleeth broke into was a storage room where we keep odds and ends. One of the boxes he found contained the personal effects of a retired priest who’d passed away at our rectory. Father Gregory Carron was his name. He didn’t have any family, so we’d just stored his things away until we could make an inventory, which we never got around to doing.”
At that mention of a shirked inventory, it was all I could do to keep from looking at my watch. Father Macy missed the struggle.
“Mr. Sleeth was caught because some of the things he pawned had Father Carron’s name or initials on them. There was an engraved gold watch that his last parish had given him and some beautiful cufflinks that had been his father’s, I believe. Mr. Sleeth hadn’t tried to pawn a rosary—I doubt if you could these days—and that bothered me, too. Not that he’d kept it but where he’d kept it. I asked the police where a homeless man would have hidden away a rosary all the time he was in custody. I mean, they didn’t hold one for him and he doesn’t have a sock drawer to lose things in. They suggested he might have had a secret cache somewhere around town. It didn’t seem too likely to me.”
Or to me. I started to thank the priest for his time, but he cut me off by tapping his peeling forehead with a peeling hand.
“Listen to me,” he said, “calling those beads a rosary when I tried for an hour to get the police to stop doing it. I got mad every time I read ‘rosary murder’ in the paper, and here I’m near to saying it myself. Too catchy to resist, I guess.”
“The beads weren’t a rosary?”
“Not the ones the police brought to me to identify. They were a chaplet, of course, a circle of beads used for a religious devotion, but not a true rosary. The church has many devotions that feature repetitive prayers counted off on prayer beads. Over fifty devotions, I think. The Holy Rosary is only one of them.”
I suddenly remembered a long-lost lecture from my seminary days. “There’s one connected with the Sacred Heart, isn’t there? And another with St. Anthony.”
“Very good,” Father Macy said. “If you know that, I’m sure you’ve heard the Virgin Mary referred to as ‘Our Lady of Sorrows.’ ”
“It was the name of my high school.”
“A Trenton boy, eh? Well, the chaplet the police brought me was for a devotion connected to Our Lady called ‘The Seven Sorrows.’ It’s very like the rosary Catholic children used to grow up with, except instead of five groupings of ten beads there are seven groups of seven. You meditate on seven sorrows of the Blessed Virgin as you say the Hail Marys.
“The Seven Sorrows dates from the late Middle Ages. I believe it’s much better known in Europe than over here. I don’t recall Father Carron ever mentioning it, but he might have practiced the devotion. Or someone could have made him a gift of the chaplet at some time or other. You wouldn’t believe the number of Miraculous Medals I’ve been given, especially during flu season. People fall into the bad habit of thinking of those things as lucky charms.”
He walked me to the door. There he said, “I’m afraid it’s Mr. Sleeth who needs the lucky charm now. I trust our prayers will do instead.”
Rachel Terman wasn’t waiting for me back at the warehouse with a pink slip in her hand. By the time she showed up an hour later, I’d made enough progress to cover my wanderings. Not that Rachel seemed interested in my productivity. She’d come back to get in the last word in a conversation that had ended hours before. She wanted to address those words to a certain pair of policemen, but in their absence, she had to make do with me.
“I found Marie Petrone’s original letter to us, Owen. It supports what Carol told me over the phone. Mrs. Petrone offered us the footlocker before her husband was murdered.”
Rachel was almost indignant over something, the suspicion cast on Mrs. Petrone, I guessed. It was as though a slur against a benefactor of the historical society reflected on the society itself.
“Did you find anything else we need to show the police?” she asked.
“Too bad. I brought the letter with me. I wanted them to read it.”
She handed it to me instead. It had been typed very neatly on a manual machine. The first paragraph contained the offer of the footlocker and explained why its owner had been willing to give it up: “My husband isn’t as sentimental about the war as some veterans and most wartime brides, like myself.”
This particular war bride was extremely sentimental. Her closing paragraph was a prose hymn to the generation that had won World War II.
“The strengths and sacrifices of that pure time shaped the rest of our lives. And more than that. The courage and fidelity of those few short years justified and sanctified all the long decades since.”
“She writes beautifully, doesn’t she?” asked Rachel, who’d been reading along over my shoulder.
“Yes,” I said, agreeing to both possible interpretations of Rachel’s compliment. Mrs. Petrone’s writing was impressive and her penmanship, as displayed in her signature at the bottom of the page, was in perfect copybook style. Perfect and wrong. She’d signed herself “Marie Petrone” rather than “Mrs. James Petrone,” but that wasn’t what brought me up short. The first name of that signature was nothing like the “Marie” I’d seen on the letters in the footlocker. An adult’s handwriting changed over time, but it had never been my experience that it improved. Compared to this copperplate, the signature on the old letters was a scrawl.
I waited until my busy supervisor had bustled off before I opened the locker and retrieved the loosely bound packet. Loose or not, I’d respected the seal represented by its black ribbon when I’d first happened on the letters, but now I slipped the flimsy pages out and started reading.
I noted right away that more had changed than Marie’s signature. Her prose style had also improved greatly since 1944. In fact, the style of the letters was so awkward and simple it was as though their author had been writing in a second language.
That insight confirmed what the difference in signatures had led me to suspect. The coincidence of a common name popping up twice had caused me to make a hasty and incorrect assumption, perhaps the thousandth of my career. The wartime letters had not been written by the bride Petrone had left behind.
I read through the packet, finding references to “my village” and “our chance meeting” and “our night together” that seemed to back my latest hunch. There were many wishes for Petrone’s safety, one of which made the warehouse seem even colder: “You think it foolish, but keep my little gift close to your heart.”
When my shift ended, I returned to my apartment, which was stylishly decorated with the boxes from my recent move. There I placed a phone call to a television station in New York. The station’s staff transferred my call three times, keeping me on hold between each handoff. Even so, I was back on the road again by six.
I drove to a yellow-brick cottage on a winding street near Mayburg Park. The small front yard, a steep brown slope on either side of crumbling steps, was decorated with a concrete statue of the Virgin Mary. There were traces of blue paint in the deepest folds of her veil.
Marie Petrone answered the front door. She was a tall woman, nearly my height, with bright red hair. That it was her natural color or at least an accurate reproduction of it was suggested by her very pale complexion and by her eyes, which were a blue bordering on aquamarine.
I introduced myself and used the opening I’d thought of earlier, telling her I’d come to return the letters she’d mistakenly left in the footlocker. She didn’t look down at my empty hands or ask to see the letters, which I’d also left in the locker, though not mistakenly.
She just said, “I don’t want them back.”
She started to shut the door, so I quickly jumped to my real business. “Then maybe you can help me save a man named Sleeth. He’s been falsely accused of murdering your husband.”
If I hadn’t read Mrs. Petrone’s letter to the society, I would have considered a slammed door a likely reply. It was still an even-money bet, but something, the mismatched buttons on my coat or the January cold I was standing in, swung things my way.
“Come in,” she said.
By the time she’d settled me in her under-lit living room, which Rachel Terman would have taken intact if she’d been doing an exhibit on the 1960s, the widow had thought of things she should have said on the front porch.
“Raymond Sleeth hasn’t been convicted of anything, Mr. Keane. If he is, I would consider asking the judge for mercy, given the man’s mental problems.”
“You can do better than that,” I said. “You can get Sleeth out of jail tomorrow. All you have to do is admit that you shot your husband.”
Somewhere in the back of the house, a stereo was playing Glenn Miller. “String of Pearls” gave way to “American Patrol” without commercial interruption.
Mrs. Petrone was dressed in a velour sweat suit, and its material was tight at her knees. But she smoothed it absently now with her big hands as though it were a misbehaving skirt.
“Why would I do that, Mr. Keane?”
The question was ambiguous, and I took the easier path. “So an innocent man doesn’t suffer.”
“I meant, why would I have shot my husband? And how could I have done it? I was at work when it happened.”
“The how wasn’t hard to figure out. Geneva Majo lied to the police when she said your husband left her about ten-thirty. It was probably no later than ten past ten. The neighbor who seconded her story has vision problems. She based her testimony on an episode of Cheers that started as your husband left. It was a repeat of an episode the station had run the week before, which is unusual. So unusual, in fact, that it never actually happened. When Majo pretended to turn the program on, she actually started a tape she’d recorded earlier. Then she kept the neighbor talking for hours, so she wouldn’t notice a problem with the time when she got home. Your contribution—besides the murder—was to make sure the body wasn’t found right away.
“The police might have looked into the time business more closely if Majo’s alibi had depended on it. But hers didn’t. It was enough that she was never alone after Petrone left her. Your alibi was the one that rested on the timing of everything. I guess the cops couldn’t imagine you and Majo working together. And, of course, Sleeth distracted them by diving into the wrong Dumpster.”
Sometime during my long speech, Mrs. Petrone had turned her gaze from me to a spinet piano. And to the wedding portrait that sat atop it. The pictured groom was a young soldier with remarkably curly hair. The girl bride was beautiful, with a button nose and a chin held very high. Taking her cue from that artifact, Mrs. Petrone raised her chin now.
“Why would that Majo woman do anything for me? And why would I hurt Jimmy?”
“Jimmy wiped out Majo’s savings. She’d probably have shot him herself if you’d set it up that way. You pulled the trigger because your husband cheated on you.”
“He’d cheated on me many times. I told the police about five affairs I knew of before Miss Majo. I gave them the name of every one of Jimmy’s women.”
“Not every one. You didn’t tell the police about the only woman who mattered. Her name was the same as yours: Marie. Your husband met her in France in nineteen forty-four when you two were still newlyweds. All these years you’ve thought of your early days with Petrone as a pure time. All the things your husband did to you since you forgave for the sake of those newlyweds, for the sacrifices they’d made and for what they’d meant to one another.
“You didn’t find out about Marie until last fall, when you went through your husband’s old footlocker. You came across the letters she wrote him. Tied up with them was a lucky charm she’d given him, a religious chaplet. She’d told him to keep it by his heart, which is where you left it.”
Her only defense was a half-hearted one. “I didn’t open the locker. I didn’t find any letters.”
“Then your fingerprints won’t be on them.”
Since I’d dragged us down to the sordid level of clues and evidence, I asked, “Where did you get the gun?”
Her chin descended, slowly but steadily. “James always had one around.”
“It wasn’t registered to him.”
“He didn’t believe in that. He had principles in some things. Things that didn’t involve women. You must think I’m a terrible person, Mr. Keane. A silly person. I let my whole life be misshapen by a decision of a seventeen-year-old girl. I’ve let one mistake dictate my life.”
“You’re not silly, Mrs. Petrone. And you’re not unique.” I felt the abyss of autobiography looming before me and, drawing back from its edge, I nodded toward the girl in the photograph. “What would she tell you to do?”
“She’d say, ‘Tell the truth,’ ” the old woman replied. “Will you go with me, please, to the police?”