A guest post from Claudia Riess, author of mystery novel To Kingdom Come
Amateur sleuths, Erika Shawn-Wheatley, art magazine editor, and Harrison Wheatley, art history professor, attend a Zoom meeting of individuals from around the globe whose common goal is to expedite the return of African art looted during the colonial era. Olivia Chatham, a math instructor at London University, has just begun speaking about her recent find, a journal penned by her great-granduncle, Andrew Barrett, active member of the Royal Army Medical Service during England’s 1897 “punitive expedition” launched against the Kingdom of Benin.
Olivia is about to disclose what she hopes the sleuthing duo will bring to light, when the proceedings are disrupted by an unusual movement in one of the squares on the grid. Frozen disbelief erupts into a frenzy of calls for help as the group, including the victim, watch in horror the enactment of a murder videotaped in real time.
It will not be the only murder or act of brutality Erika and Harrison encounter in their two-pronged effort to hunt down the source of violence and unearth a cache of African treasures alluded to in Barrett’s journal.
Much of the action takes place in London, scene of the crimes and quest for redemption
Excerpt from To Kingdom Come
“Dammit!” A mild curse barely audible, but loud enough to light up the frame around Timothy Thorpe’s image. “Sorry mates, bulb blew.” The overhead, it must have been, since the weaker source of light behind his computer was still there, softening his features and maybe for a millisecond the audience’s attentiveness as well, so that when the black line appeared just above his shirt collar it took another blip in time for brains to sort it out and reject the idea of a shadow cast by his desk lamp. Which would explain the silence before the first scream, coming from somewhere in the Zoom’s mosaic, a woman’s scream—mine, Erika realized. Likewise, a delayed reaction from Tim himself, gazing wide-eyed at the screen as if someone out there was experiencing the horror, not he himself, that is, before the black cord tightened around his neck and the impossible truth contorted his features like a funhouse mirror.
And then the silence turned into the Tower of Babel, witnesses reverting to their native tongues, as gloved hands—surely visible from the start!—tugged on the cord and disappeared behind Tim’s neck to knot or entwine or do whatever was planned or improvised to cut off Tim’s air, while Tim clawed at his neck in an attempt to free himself, mouth open in a parody of Munch’s The Scream, except in Tim’s version it was a cry for help mimed to the restless viewers filling his computer screen, twinkling with their useless babble like Christmas lights.
“Où est-il—where is he?” Monsieur Robert Labeque cried, his red cheeks deepening to scarlet, his returning to the group’s common tongue a sign that rational interchange was being restored.
“The museum—his office at the British Museum!” Ike yelled back, as if calling from across a football field. “He said they’re preparing an exhibit, staying late—I’ve got their unlisted number—seeing if I can rouse the damn security guards!” All the while fumbling with his cell phone. “They must seal off the exits. Museum doesn’t close for another half hour!”
“Bastard, we see you!” Harrison shouted at the nondescript torso, mostly hidden by Tim’s body, rigid against the chair-back while his hands flailed like a mad conductor’s. How many seconds had passed—ten, fifteen? A lifetime.
“Someone over there call 9-1-1—Olivia?”
“I’ve already put in the call—it’s 9-9-9 over here,” Olivia advised, her calmness, real or staged, a reminder that order was possible.
“I’m activating the recording option!” Ike bellowed. Shifting focus to his unresponsive phone, he shouted, “Hello? Hello?”
Harrison tapped on Thorpe’s name and spotlighted his square. Instantly it filled the screen. He dove for his cell phone. “Erika, take photos!”
His words sounded harsh, except she was thinking the same thing, already digging her cell phone out of her jeans pocket. “You video, I’ll take stills—oh God!” Outwardly, Tim had stopped struggling. But what was happening within? Her empathy was suddenly gripped by a primal curiosity, as if only by understanding Tim’s encounter with death could she prepare for her own.
“Go!” Harrison prompted.
The command cut off her connection to Tim like a dropped call, and she aimed her cell’s lens at his motionless figure in the more useful role as witness to a crime. As she prepared for the second shot, she realized that others were following Harrison’s and her lead.
On screen the assailant’s gloved finger pressed against Tim’s neck, feeling for a pulse. Apparently satisfied, he or she swiftly removed the cord from around the victim’s neck and made adjustments to the distribution of weight so that the body would not slump forward. Mission accomplished, the individual glided out of Tim’s camera range, leaving Tim, in jacket and neatly knotted tie, to stare blankly into space with only an angry red bruise above his shirt collar to suggest what had just happened to him.
Guest Post: A Challenging Murder Venue
Spoiler alert: In Chapter Two a murder takes place while a Zoom meeting is in progress. Writing it, there were factors I’d never had to consider. For one thing, the victim’s perspective is unique. He’s able to view the horror on screen, seeing his face contorted, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. The killer had to be visible, but only a small portion of him or her, in order to sustain the mystery. Then too, there’s the reaction of a diverse group of individuals looking on helplessly. No action possible akin to jumping into the pool to rescue the drowning victim or wrestling the offender to the ground. This is a new kind of witnessing; a new kind of frenzy in the seconds before the authorities are called. What has to be factored into every aspect of the scene is the frame within which the murder is taking place—as non-negotiable as the frame of a painting. No walking about to take in the surroundings; no zooming in to get an adequate view of the arriving emergency team.
The observer’s view in the movie “Rear Window” just now comes to mind. The experience of a Zoom attendee observing a murder may be similar—only one critical dimension removed.
About Claudia Riess
Claudia Riess is an award-winning author of seven novels, four of which form her art history mystery series published by Level Best Books. She has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker and Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and has edited several art history monographs. Stolen Light, the first book in her series, was chosen by Vassar’s Latin American history professor for distribution to the college’s people-to-people trips to Cuba. To Kingdom Come, the fourth and most recent, will be added to the syllabus of a survey course on West and Central African Art at a prominent Midwest university. Claudia has written a number of articles for Mystery Readers Journal, Women’s National Book Association, and Mystery Scene magazine. At present, she’s consulting with her protagonists about a questionable plot twist in Chapter 9 of the duo’s murder investigation unfolding in book 5; working title: Dreaming of Monet, scheduled for release winter 2024. For more about Riess and her work, visit www.claudiariessbooks.com.
Claudia Riess will be awarding a $25 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.
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