Cancelled By Murder



August—the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. The Monday morning sky above the post office in my hometown of North Ashcot was heavy, and becoming darker by the minute. Or maybe my perception was influenced by the news, dominated by warnings of a severe storm heading our way. This was nothing new. Here in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, serious flooding and wind damage were a major threat all year long.

I had a decision to make. The flagpole in front of my building stood waiting. One of my favorite duties was the morning ritual of raising the flag, but I didn't want to hoist Old Glory at eight a.m., only to have to pull her down before noon.

I pinned my badge—CASSIE MILLER, and under it, POSTMASTER— to my regulation blue-striped shirt, and stepped out through the side door of the post office, an old redbrick Colonial, the folded flag under my right arm. No gusts, and not a drop of rain. Yet.

Current predictions varied from a low category hurricane heading straight toward us, to a storm that might turn south, or north, and produce only heavy rain, or none. In other words, it was New England, so anything could happen weatherwise. It wasn't unusual, at any time of the year, to have a sudden downpour with no warning. Dry sidewalks one minute, and a curtain of water the next. ETAs today ran the gamut from late morning to early evening. The common wisdom: batten down the hatches, just in case.

More often than not, my experience as a lifetime resident of New England was that the more news there was about the pending arrival of bad weather, the more likely it was that we'd never see it. Especially so now that we were treated to a twenty-four-hour news cycle. As my predecessor and mentor, former Postmaster Ben Gentry, would put it, "The news of the storm lasts longer than the storm itself these days."

I attached our flag to the rope and, hand over hand, ran it up the pole.

An hour into a busy retail morning, most of the muffins I'd brought in were gone. I'd begun the custom of feeding my customers once a week a year ago when I was feeling my way as a prodigal daughter. I'd left North Ashcot after high school and stayed away until my only living relative needed my help in her last days. Baked goods from our local bakery, A Hole in the Wall, originally a donut shop, were my way of pandering for acceptance by those who'd never strayed from home. Whether the pastries helped or not was anyone's guess, but it was clear that there was no way to end the tasty custom now.

After a year back in my hometown, I finally had my footing as sole operator of the North Ashcot Post Office. I also had a new BFF in Sunni Smargon, the chief of police; and a new boyfriend in antiques dealer Quinn Martindale. I even had a hobby—Sunni had talked me into taking a quilting class and joining her group on Tuesday evenings. Things were looking good.

The weather held out longer than the muffins and the morning passed quickly. My usual pet-lovers Carolyn and George Raley came to the counter around eleven thirty, each holding an infant African genet wrapped in a swaddling cloth. The old couple were volunteer wet nurses of a sort, raising small exotic animals to the point where they would be comfortable in venues like petting zoos or school programs. Assigning the label "service animals" to accommodate post office rules for pets worked for me.

"We have twins today," Carolyn said, as she stroked the spotted gray fur of a large-eyed cat-like animal barely filling the palm of her hand. Its ears were too big for its tiny head, but I knew from past experience that all parts of its anatomy would soon be in proportion.

"Morning, Cassie. Say 'Hello' to Abby and Tabby," George said, his unruly gray hair in need of attention. I might have been more sensitive to George's locks since I'd just had my own long, untamed mop cut and styled appropriately for a professional woman halfway through her thirties.

I weighed each animal and Carolyn entered the numbers into her log book while George told me once again how grateful they were that I was willing to let them take advantage of the most accurate scale in town. 

I'd just passed the animals back to their keepers when a loud noise resounded through the lobby, shaking us all into a state of alert. A gust of wind had blown a tub of mail from the hands of a customer entering the front door. The white plastic container hit the glass door, dozens of pieces of mail spilling over the entrance. Anyone within three feet of the door was treated to a shower as heavy rain came on the tail of the wind.

"Maybe there's something to those storm warnings after all," George said.

"Let's move," Carolyn said, and, in fact, I'd never seen her move so fast, as she and George rushed out with Abby and Tabby tucked under their arms.

What had started as a smattering of rain a few minutes ago now appeared as a sheet of water slamming down on the trees and cars in the parking lot. Customers inside moved closer to each other as if seeking protection from the sudden (except for the newscasters warnings, but who believed them?) cloudburst.

Weather words flew among the people gathered.

"I hope I can find my hurricane kit," from an older woman as she abandoned her place in line and headed for the door.

"I'm right behind you," from a woman in a business suit and stilettos, whom I recognized as one of the financial officers at the bank in town. "I think this downpour is payback from my boss. He didn't like that I was taking an early lunch."

"Yeah, you never know who might be in charge of climate around here." Sarcasm, from a young guy in a Red Sox cap. Even here, one hundred and fifty miles from Boston, where I'd spent the first decade or so of my career, there was no shortage of red and blue Sox apparel.

Our high school science teacher tried to take advantage of the situation to give us an impromptu (and unsolicited) lecture on wind speed and high and low pressure areas.

 "Which are red and which are yellow?" a young woman asked him, scrolling through satellite pictures on her smartphone.

"And don't forget the storm now raging on Saturn," the teacher continued, ignoring the weather map question. "It's big enough to swallow four Earths," he reminded us.

At that, several people snapped to attention and looked up at the sky. Three more people turned and left the building, toting their unprocessed packages with them. I pulled my regulation blue cardigan closer around me and took care of mail from Harvey Stone, the second oldest man in the Berkshires, or so he claimed.

Harvey had been laughing through it all. "This is nothin'," he said. "I've seen worse storms before breakfast many a time." Harvey stood his ground now, and very quickly became the only person in the lobby once the teller, the science teacher, and all the other North Ashcot natives left the scene.

Harvey was on his usual errand, with a package to his youngest "boy" in Michigan who was probably only in his seventies. I knew I'd be treated to a few storm stories while I weighed and labeled the box.

I'd already heard the one about the huge maple that fell on his station wagon during a microburst in the nineties, and about the time in the eighties when downed utility lines left the town without power for ten days. Harvey's most dramatic tale, told many times, included the Great Hurricane in September of 1938, when his family's home had been destroyed.

"That was before they named hurricanes," he reminded us every time. "But I was a hellion of a small boy, and my daddy used to say they should have named the storm Hurricane Harvey." He laughed, and ended his visit with another word of wisdom from his daddy. "No matter what you do, the storm is going to win."

As if in response, a woman seemed to be blown into the lobby when she opened the door from the outside, also serving up another torrent of rain.

It was time to take the flag down.

I looked out the front door and saw that Ben, my pseudo-retired predecessor, was way ahead of me, already taking down the flag. For once we were of the same mind.

Ben was kind and generous on the one hand, and a first class curmudgeon on the other. He'd opposed every ounce of modernization I'd brought to the office, from updated equipment to broader customer service, such as accommodating the Raleys' young four-legged charges. But when it came to pitching in when I needed a hand, Ben was on the job, often unsolicited as now, even though he'd long since stopped receiving a paycheck.

With the rattling of windows in the background and a brief respite from customers, I answered quick texts from Quinn, who was off on a treasure hunt through New England, scouting for antique treasures for his shop, and from my friend, Linda Daniels in Boston. I knew both of them would be watching the weather map. 

The weather could be vastly different from north to south, east to west across our state even though Massachusetts ranked forty-fifth out of fifty in size, only a little more than eight thousand square miles. ("You can fit twenty of them inside California," Quinn bragged, comparing our native states.)

Today Linda reported only scattered showers in the state's capital, while Quinn's return message to me from the far suburbs was

cruising around Taunton today. wild winds starting up here. good bargains. miss u.

I smiled and immediately acknowledged

miss u 2.

A few brave stragglers ventured in before I could hang the CLOSED sign, which would usually be for the lunch hour, but today was until further notice. I took care of an express mail envelope headed for the Florida Keys and a media mail package on the way to New York, then Ben and I struggled together with the shutters.

"Reminds me of the summer of o-four," he said, his rain soaked hair and bedraggled face leaving me to wonder which century he was referring to. "I was on vacation in Nantucket when Jeannie hit."

"Do you think this storm will get a name?"

Ben looked at the sky with a practiced eye. "I doubt it."

We admitted one last customer, Olivia "Liv" Patterson, an expert quilter and a member of the circle I'd joined. I felt my face flush since, for a variety of reasons, I hadn't done my sewing homework for the week.

When I first returned to town and met Liv, I'd foolishly admitted to her that I needed a hobby. She'd been delighted, smoothing the way for me to join her group, reminding me that my new best friend, the chief of police, was also in the group.

"I don't have a sewing machine," I'd said.

"You can borrow one of mine."

"One of yours? How many do you have?"

She'd smiled. "Don't ask."

With Liv now stepping up to the counter with a stack of mail from her card shop, I preempted her potential query about my progress by asking about the enormous quilt she'd been working on for her daughter who was headed for a college in the Northwest. She'd been collecting fabric with a western theme. Usually Liv would have no shorter than a five-minute answer to any question related to her quilts. Not today.

"It's fine," she said.

"I'll bet you have a hundred hours invested in it."

"Right," she said.

I made one more attempt. "Did you ever find that fabric you were looking for, with a stage coach?"

She shrugged, a deep frown creasing her brow. "Yeah, well, let's not talk about fabric, okay?" She waved her hand at my counter, pointed to her pieces of mail, which I'd been working on as we talked. "I'd like to be done with this, please."

"Okay," I said. I wondered what had upset Liv enough to produce this mood, but it was none of my business. She was probably nervous about the storm, and besides, I had shutters to put up and howling wind to battle.

While Liv walked away, Ben, who'd crept up behind me, whispered, "Even the grouchiest customer is always right."

It was always nice when Ben and I agreed on something.

We set to the next task, complying with the request of one of our town selectmen that we check the emergency supplies in the community room adjoining the post office. The all-purpose room ran the whole width of the building, with a connecting door to the retail floor. The closets were always in a ready state for emergencies, with necessities like blankets, flashlights, bottled water, packaged goods, and first aid kits.

Quinn said the stash reminded him of growing up in San Francisco, where they learned at an early age to be prepared for when the Big One might hit. Not a hurricane or a blizzard, but an earthquake.

"At least there's warning with our storms," I'd boasted.

"But earthquakes last only a matter of seconds, not days," he'd countered.

Thus had begun a short back-and-forth on hurricane damage versus earthquake damage and finally we agreed that whatever the detailed statistics, when it came to natural disasters, it was lose-lose for humans.

Now, with the supplies checked, and the shuttering of the front doors complete, Ben and I packed up our things and went our separate ways to take care of our own homes. All we had to do first was wade through the enormous pond that was the parking lot, to our cars.