The Train to Skeleton Coast
A Tale of Murder and the Struggle for Freedom
Jean E. Cullander
Murder in Red
She woke up with the sun flowing through the two south-facing windows of her room. The light made flickering patterns across the flowered wallpaper as an apparent breeze moved through the late summer leaves on the trees outside her window. They weren’t really her windows, but she had claimed the space for the last three days. She had arrived at the Bed and Breakfast in the later afternoon on Friday. It was her first visit to Newport, Rhode Island, and she had been thrilled when she had received the invitation to her nephew’s wedding.
She hurriedly got dressed so she would not miss breakfast which was only served until 9:00 am. It had rained most of the weekend, only letting up a bit in time for the wedding Saturday late afternoon. But today appeared to be lovely and she was eager to do the sightseeing that had been difficult, to say the least, during all the rain. The atmosphere of the big houses, the tree-lined streets, and the history of American elites living such a lavish lifestyle in those boom days, gave her a sense of excitement and she wanted to dress properly to fit the mood she had created in her mind. That meant the long, ankle-length gray and lavender skirt with a modest, but lace trimmed, white cotton blouse. The shoes were pale lavender, open-toed with a two-inch heel, nothing too extravagant. She did have to walk, after all, and in her mind, the rich often under-dressed, but always with the best quality. She was pleased with her reflection in the mirror; her light brown hair was highlighted with a few blond streaks, just for fun, no gray yet. She thought she looked rather pretty today.
She grabbed her small handbag, opened the door to her room and stepped into the hall. She was on the second floor and descended the curved staircase to the landing below which then opened into a larger red-carpeted hallway and three steps down to the small lobby, also carpeted in a short-piled red. As she stepped to go down the three stairs, her quiet mood was suddenly broken by a small boy vigorously pushing a red scooter through the lobby and somehow shoving it up the three steps. As he went, he was murmuring, “vrooom, vroom, vroom.” He disappeared down the hallway, barely noticing her, his tightly curled dark hair bouncing as he jumped and peddled the scooter around the corner.
She called after him to say, “Good morning!” He seemed to give a slight move of the left hand, which she took to be a wave of acknowledgment. She smiled and laughed to herself.
The lobby was very quiet; a couple was leaving through the front door with their luggage to a taxi waiting in the street outside. Maggie went up to the dark mahogany antique desk that served as the check-in, and asked the woman behind the desk if breakfast was still being served.
“No ma’am, there is no breakfast on Mondays. It is the cook’s day off. In fact, the owner, Mrs. Waxman, has gone to do the weekly shopping and to see about some repairs. Can I help you with something?”
Maggie liked to think that she was good at recognizing accents. She had a kind of secret hobby of trying to figure out where people were from, what their life was like, and so forth. This woman’s accent was difficult. It sounded maybe Australian, judging from Australian accents she had heard, but not exactly. There was another lilt to it, but she wasn’t sure. The woman’s skin was dark brown, not black really, but definitely brown.
“Well,” Maggie answered, “I thought I might stay an extra day. The weather has been so poor; I thought I might walk around today and enjoy the sunshine. The name is Maggie Grayson. Might I keep my room for tonight and leave on tomorrow’s train?”
The woman opened up the ledger. “There is no one here for tonight and nobody expected until Wednesday, so I am sure the owner would be very happy to have you stay. Just sign here. Sorry about the breakfast.”
Maggie signed in the ledger below her name for the extra day, quite happy with herself. “Oh, don’t mind about the breakfast; it does seem pretty quiet this morning. I will just go down the hill and find a shop along the main street next to the water. It will be pleasant anyway."
The lobby facing the desk, which was nestled up against the wall by the stairway, expanded into a hexagon-shaped bay, with several windows facing a porch. The walls were a soft peach color and the drapes on the windows were flowered in an English chintz. The front door was divided into two panels, each with oval etched glass, again with flowers. Maggie thought it was all very charming. The doors opened onto a wide porch painted white with a blue ceiling overhead. An ample stairway went down to a short patch of grass, neatly mowed, and a concrete sidewalk. Curiously, there was a convertible-topped car with the top down, parked just at the end of the sidewalk next to the curb. It was curious because it seemed to be an antique car, maybe from the fifties or sixties, with a pale turquoise body and light tan upholstery. The car was quite wide for the narrow street and nestled in the far corner of the back seat sat a little girl, maybe around 8 years old, reading a book and mouthing the words as her eyes went down the page. Maggie wondered why she was sitting by herself, but imagined that she was waiting for someone.
Maggie proceeded down the sidewalk to town. The cement of the sidewalk was marked off into squares and there was the usual patch of grass between the sidewalk and the narrow lawns up to each of the Victorian era houses that lined the street. She wondered whether this was something very American, this layout of such sidewalks, or if this was done everywhere. Leafy, tree-lined streets and affluent suburban towns of individual houses seemed to be unique in many ways to the United States, so she decided it was American. She was so happy to be just walking down a sunny street, putting the past two years behind her. This was 1989, and she was glad that the past two years were over.
The divorce had been really nasty, much worse than she had thought it would be. All divorces are bad, but two years of constant court dates and depositions was exhausting and really frightening, as well, when you don’t know the outcome and your life depends on it. She and her two boys had survived. They were older now and had headed back to college a few weeks ago. She exhaled a deep sigh, a day to herself. This was a new era and she wanted to put everything bad behind her.
The wedding had been so beautiful. The young bride and groom were married at the bride’s preparatory high school, St. George’s, in Newport. The chapel was arranged in the British style with the pews in rows facing each other, so you could see almost everyone who was there. The men were in tuxedoes and the women in gowns, and of course, jewelry. It had been a feast for Maggie to examine each dress and try to figure out who everyone was. She had dieted for four months to lose enough weight to fit into her gown which she had worn several years ago to a cotillion in New York City. That was in her former life; now she did not have enough money to buy a new formal dress, so this one had to fit. The reception was at the home of the bride’s parents in an enormous white tent set up in the garden, a tent large enough for about 200 people. The band played jazz and blues and everyone danced to the rhythm of the music, somewhat of an awkward site in such formal attire.
Maggie herself had grown up in a very moderate, middle class family. They had enough money to live on, but were not wealthy by any means. They lived in a third-floor walkup apartment in an otherwise wealthy Midwestern suburb with pockets of modest homes. Her father had died when she and her sister were very young and their mother went to work to earn the meager amount they needed to live on. Everyone in the town went to one public high school so all the classes and races were mixed together. She was around a lot of wealth and some of her girlfriends were from very wealthy families. She and her sister were pretty and were well educated, so they all mingled. Like everyone else, she was fascinated by all the huge mansions in Newport and wanted to see the insides of as many as possible.
On Saturday morning, the day of the wedding, even in the heavy September downpour, she had been determined to ride the trolley that made regular stops around town and go inside a few of the huge houses before she had to get ready for the five o’clock ceremony. She had wanted to see one of the mansions where the tour guides dressed in period clothing and took you through the rooms, describing the history of the families that had lived there. When she jumped down from the trolley, she found that the water from the rain was up to her ankles, but she was intent on getting up the gravel driveway, even when the water was halfway up to her knees. When she arrived at the door to the house, there was a sign, saying it was closed for the day for a private party that was enacting a mystery, one of those events where a murder takes place and the guests have to solve it. It sounded quite thrilling, and she had always wanted to go to one of these mystery parties. But this one was private, so she had to go back down the driveway, which was now a river, and try to find the trolley again.
She flagged down the driver and he was nice enough to pick her up, even though it was not his regular stop. He suggested that she go to the Breakers, just down the street, where the Vanderbilts used to live. On the way to the Vanderbilt mansion, the trolley passed by a giant tent set up in one of the gardens, and she quite rightly imagined that it would be where the reception was going to take place that evening. The Breakers was an enormous palace built as a “cottage” to invite friends and guests of the Vanderbilts to visit them in Newport. Maggie remembered reading that the Vanderbilts were a railroad family that built much of the train system around the United States. The laborers who built the railroads were paid next to nothing and were treated not much better than slaves. One story she read had explained that the Vanderbilts were one of the families known in America as the “Robber Barons,” those who made their wealth on the backs of the poor and vulnerable. But, Maggie thought, “You have to say, they knew how to do it, and everyone seems to put that in the past.” Maggie loved trains, and while she appreciated the suffering the laborers had endured, perhaps they could look down from heaven now and be proud of their work.
Maggie took the tour and drank in the opulence along with all the other tourists. There were references to trains in the bas reliefs along the walls and in photos, but much of the decor was an imitation of French and Italian royalty.
When she realized how late it was getting, she had to dash back to her room and dress for the wedding. That was Saturday. Sunday was also filled with a family brunch and more parties. So, today, Monday, seemed quiet and relaxing by contrast.
When she arrived in the part of town where the shops and restaurants were, she looked for a coffee shop that might have outdoor seating so she could enjoy more of the sunshine. She spotted such a place and sat down at one of the tables. There were people milling about, planning their day with maps and brochures. From their accents, she could tell one couple was from Boston, another New York, probably Queens. She was even getting good at telling different Southern accents, Tennessee, South Carolina, and even Texas. When she got to know people at work or at school she would make a note in her head of their way of speech and where they came from. Then she would just use that as a reference.
A man was paying his bill at the cash register. She couldn’t see his face, just the back of his head which was also hidden under a large wool cap, like a golf cap, but of different fabric. His neck was dark skinned and his hand, the one she could see, his left hand, was also dark, almost black. He wore an unusual ring on his small finger. It appeared to hold three fairly large diamonds in a white gold band, simple but striking. Maggie thought, “This man might be a musician; they often wore such rings.” She remembered seeing a picture of Count Basie with a beautiful ring. Maybe this man had been in the band at the wedding. She had not looked closely at the members of the band, so that was probably it. She ordered her breakfast, just something light after the lavish spread of food from the last few days. A couple next to her was arguing over what to do that day, and she thought why don’t they just enjoy their time together? Many people began walking along, led by a tour guide and she decided to go back to her room and change her shoes. She had now made a plan to take the walk along the bluff and she really needed more sensible shoes for that.
She walked slowly up the short hill to her street and turned left onto the sidewalk between to two patches of perfect grass. The pale turquoise car was still parked in the same place, but now she thought she could hear the girl crying. Maggie’s back began to get that prickly feeling that she didn’t like. It often meant trouble. She was determined to ignore it. But the girl’s voice was getting louder as Maggie got closer to the car.
“Mannie, come out now. I need to get to school. Mannie, come now!!” She cried.
Now Maggie could see tears rolling down her cheeks. Her eyes were getting very red, against her otherwise very white skin.
Maggie went next to the car and asked the girl where her mommy might be. “I will go see if she is ready to take you to school.” The girl pointed to her Bed and Breakfast place, but Maggie thought all the guests and even the owner had all gone. Maggie had only seen the housekeeper at the desk. A neighbor next door poked her head out to see what the fuss was about, and stood there with her hand on the door, with a puzzled look.
Maggie went up the stairs to the double front door and opened it. As she began to step into the lobby, she froze and everything began to go gray. She fought back the dizziness and stepped all the way in. Before her lay the body of a woman, face down on the floor. She wore a dark red dress that came almost to her ankles and black shoes. On her head was a small red hat that was now pushed off to one side in a rumple. Her dark hair was tied in a bun off to one side of her neck. There was dark blood all around her head and neck, spilling into the red carpet. It was the housekeeper who had spoken to her only a short while ago, the one who had apologized about the breakfast.