Mattie turned the corner into her street, huffing as she entered the final stretch of her three-mile morning power-walk. She immediately noticed a man lolling against one of the stone pillars bracketing the Moskovitzs’ gate across from her house, arms folded, ankles crossed. By the angle of his head, he seemed to be studying her second-story window--her office. As if sensing she was staring at him, he turned and caught her gaze. She felt a jolt. It was the guy from the fish and chips takeout place last night. He’d pivoted from the counter, bundle wrapped in butcher’s paper in hand, and smiled at her as she shuffled forward in the line. Was it the same man? She slowed her pace as her heartbeat quickened. Mattie considered herself a student of detail. She didn’t miss much, at least she didn’t like to think she did. The guy at the fish and chips place had a black leather jacket. This guy was wearing a black leather jacket. Of course, many men wear black leather jackets. The fish and chips guy had a pasty complexion framed by collar-length chestnut brown hair. Like this man. But it was a description that could fit a million youngish men in Queens, let alone the whole of New York City. She was overreacting. Mattie arrived at the turnoff to her front path. Should she walk on so as not to reveal where she lived? It seemed a bit paranoid. He was now scrolling through his phone. She took advantage of the moment to wheel into the house and throw the deadbolt on the front door. Kew Gardens was a safe neighborhood, but it was still New York. She climbed the stairs to her office. It was an odd coincidence, but likely a random brushing of elbows. Even in a city of eight million, it happened occasionally. She was reminded of Hercule Poirot’s theory of happenstance: "One coincidence is just a coincidence, two coincidences are a clue, three coincidences are proof." She sat at her desk and started sifting through her inbox. Monday morning brought a barrage of emails, most from weekend internet surfers who’d run across an invitation on Agatha Christie’s official website to “ask anything Agatha of our resident Christie expert Prunella Fernsby.” Mattie had adopted the very English pseudonym thinking it was more à propos for the job than her very Greek name of Amaltheia Zafeirakis. She clicked on the first email. “How many times did Agatha Christie use arsenic in her plots?” A common query. Mattie opened her “Poisons” file and copied and pasted her stock answer. “Agatha Christie used poison as her murder method in fourteen novels, more than any other mystery writer. She gained her knowledge from working as a nurse and pharmacy dispenser during both world wars, using a wide variety of lethal substances to off characters, cyanide being her favourite. Arsenic was used in one novel, 4:50 from Paddington.” Next. “Is Chris Christie related to Agatha Christie?” The former New Jersey governor must’ve appeared on a Sunday morning news show. At least one of those inquiries came in after he guested on a program somewhere. She again copied and pasted her answer. “Christie was the surname of Agatha’s first husband Archibald. There is no known relation between Archibald Christie and Chris Christie.” Then a Hollywood producer wanted to know: “Are film/TV rights available for any Agatha Christie properties?” He’d sent it using a gmail address. If he couldn’t afford a company domain and sent a rights query to the trivia inbox, he was unlikely to be a serious producer. “Not at this time. Thank you for your interest,” she replied in accordance with the licensing department’s instructions. The toot of a car horn in the street pricked her ears. She pushed herself off the desk to propel her wheeled chair to the window. Black Jacket was getting into a Mini Cooper that had the Union Jack on the back of its sideview mirrors. The Mini zoomed off. Mattie walked her chair back to her desk lost in thought. A British car with the British flag. Stands to reason he was British, which provided a logical explanation for why he was buying fish and chips. An email sliding into her inbox truncated her train of thought. It was from her boss Penelope, who managed her famous great-aunt’s lucrative literary estate. Penelope checked in at this time every Monday morning, late afternoon in the U.K., with her assignments for the week. “Two scripts have arrived for the first two episodes of the latest ITV Marple adaptation. Please look over by end of week. Several instances of copyright infringement were detected over the weekend from the usual suspects in Eastern Europe. Please review ASAP and we’ll send them to Dunbarton if needed. By the way, I’ll be popping across the pond for studio meetings in LA soon. I’ll stop off in New York so we can finally meet and discuss marketing the first official Agatha Christie tour to Americans. Brilliant idea! Cheers, Plpe.” Mattie felt a boost in spirits. She’d suggested the tour, with herself as chief guide of course, last month and never received a response. Now it merited an in-person meeting with “Plpe,” whom she’d never actually met. She’d interviewed for the job via Skype after Penelope read a story about author superfans, which quoted Mattie, in the New York Times’ book section five years ago. A month later Penelope had contacted her asking if she wanted a job handling the flood of trivia questions the Christie estate received. She’d jumped at the chance, creating the character of Prunella Fernsby, who certainly had never stepped foot in Queens, where Mattie had lived her whole life, except for the first two years in Thessaly, Greece. Mattie made sure her Prunella guise was complete by setting her computer to British English to catch spelling differences. It occurred to her that if Prunella Fernsby were to be the tour guide, she’d have to adopt an English accent. It was doable. Mattie opened the link to the first copyright infringement. It was from Romania. She clicked on Google translate. She’d done so well at answering trivia that Penelope had expanded her duties to include reviewing scripts to ensure they rang true to Agatha’s beloved characters. No sex, nudity or the like. After Mattie proved her mettle at that task, Penelope assigned her copyright research. But after compiling a comprehensive library of Agatha facts and reading reams of others’ work, Mattie was bored. What she really wanted to do was write a new Miss Marple novel. In fact, she’d already started outlining it. She wondered if she should bring this up during the meeting with “Plpe” as the tour idea had gone over so well. Mattie plucked a Golden Delicious from the bowl of different types of apples on her desk. Its sweetness seemed a just reward for the tour news, and after taking a satisfyingly juicy bite, she settled in to review the latest IP theft. At 5:30 p.m., Mattie turned off her computer and headed through pelting rain to the George & Dragon, an English pub that featured dark wood panelling, a red phone box, and dart board. She hung her raincoat and umbrella on a row of hooks inside the door and greeted the owner, who was standing on a stepstool and draping bunting over the wall lamps. “’ow’s it goin, ducks? The usual, is i’?” Alf had lived for thirty years in New York, but his speech was still larded with the East End’s dropped h’s and glottal stops. “How’d you ever guess?” she said. It was early still. Only one other customer (punter, as Alf would say) was there, a man hunched over the bar, where he was watching the news on the TV on the wall above the liquor shelves. Alf climbed down from the stepstool and a minute later, brought a sudsy pint of lager to her table where she’d opened her notebook to her plot outline. Alf continued hanging the string of triangular flags. “What’s that for, Alf?” Mattie flicked off the foam mustache the beer left with her tongue. “Friday’s the twenty-third of April, St. George’s Day, so we’re ‘avin’ a bit of a knees-up. You’ll come, won’t yer, love?” The flags were white with a red cross, the cross of St. George, England’s patron saint who slayed a dragon, as legend had it. “Wouldn’t miss it,” she said. “Good girl. ‘ow’s the wri’in?” She was about to answer when the door’s hinges squealed, and a customer entered. The new punter beelined to the guy at the bar and slapped him on the shoulder, causing him to swivel forty-five degrees on the stool. Mattie stared. Holy shit! It was him, the guy from her street this morning. The fish and chips guy. Alf was already lifting the bridge to get behind the bar. “Wot can I get yer, old son?” His chitchat dropped away as Mattie focused on the man, who had a pen in his hand. Again as if sensing Mattie’s gaze, he appeared startled at seeing her. She dropped her head and pretended to be absorbed in her notebook as the heat of embarrassment flushed through her chest. Raising her head just enough to eye the bar, Mattie observed the two men. The new customer drained his beer in a couple long gulps then stood, grabbing a fistful of salted peanuts from a bowl on the bar. The other stood as well. They walked to the door, the guy grabbing a black leather jacket from the wall hooks. It was him, but she hadn’t noticed the jacket because it’d been hanging on the wall opposite her raincoat. If the fish and chips place was the baseline, seeing him in the street was the first coincidence. This, then, was the second, and according to Poirot, a clue. She shoved her notebook in her purse. She was going to follow where the clue led her. Rain had given way to dense fog while she’d been inside the pub. Turning up the large collar of her raincoat, she looked up and down the sidewalk, but could see no one in the filmy air so she turned into the small parking lot on the right. Two headlights burst through the mist like flares. They were coming straight at her. She jumped out of the way as red and blue stripes flashed by. It was the Mini from this morning. It took Mattie half a second to recover then she ran to the sidewalk, but the fog had already swallowed the car. She returned to the pub and leaned over the bar where Alf was drying the used glasses. “That guy who was just in here, have you ever seen him before?” Alf slapped the dish towel over his shoulder. “The Irishman? Can’t say I ‘ave, ducks.” Mattie frowned. “Irish?” “Told me ‘e’s from Derry. Another pint for yer?” “Not right now, thanks.” Mattie wandered back to her table. After she sat, she noticed something on the floor under the stool the guy had occupied. She crossed the room and picked it up. Just a brewery’s cardboard coaster that Alf always used with drinks. As she went to put it back on the bar, she caught sight of its back side. There were two small drawings on it in blue pen. One was a constellation of eight arrows arranged so their points made a square shape. The other was a cross with two horizontal bars with the center line ending in a sideways eight. They seemed too specific for random doodles. She sat at her table and took out her phone, typing a description of the arrow drawing into the search field. Results popped right up. A symbol meaning chaos. She tried the other. It was a Leviathan cross, also known as the Church of Satan’s cross. Her arms pricked with gooseflesh. Was Black Jacket a devil-worshipper? He looked overwhelmingly normal, but perhaps that was on purpose. She felt the sudden urge for the safety and comfort of home. “Gotta go, Alf.” “Righto then, love.” Holding her keys between her fingers as a weapon, she raced home, her eyes scanning the street for a Mini Cooper. She locked her front door with all three locks and ran upstairs. She grabbed a Granny Smith from the bowl and bit into it, sucking the mouth-puckering tartness onto her tongue. Gradually, she felt the hummingbird wings of her nerves settling. After taking another bite, she put the apple aside as she remembered what Alf had told her and googled Derry. The second largest city in Northern Ireland, called Derry by Catholics and Londonderry by Protestants. If he’d said “Derry,” he must be a Catholic, which seemed at odds with patronizing an English pub or driving a car with the Union Jack emblazoned on it. Unless … he was visiting English sites and mulling chaos for a reason. Could he be a member of some Irish republican group? Realization crashed into Mattie’s brain. St. George’s Day. It would be the perfect day to wreak havoc on English symbols. No one would ever suspect targets in Queens, of all places. She gasped as she felt a second clang. Queens! It was of all places. And of course, Kew Gardens, named for the royal botanic garden in London and boasting faux Tudor buildings on its main street. Mattie could scarcely breathe. It made perfect sense. And it was logical that she, an avid anglophile, had stumbled upon it, because she frequented English places. That’s why Black Jacket reeled at seeing her. Did he suspect she was onto him? Could she be in danger? She took a huge bite of the Granny Smith and crunched her way to calm. She should call the police. She picked up her phone then paused. She’d had a dim view of the New York Police Department since she’d double-parked outside a bookstore once so she could run in to pick up a pre-ordered Christie biography. She was back in her car and about to leave when a cop knocked on her window saying, “Move the fucking car, lady,” like a line out of a bad movie. She could just imagine some cop telling her now, “You’re fucking crazy, lady.” Forget the police. Who handled domestic terrorism? The FBI. She found a 24-hour number for the New York office online and called. “FBI. Special Agent Colmenares. How may I help you?” Mattie froze. Could this really be a plot or was she seeing connections that weren’t there like some conspiracy nut? “Hello?” the agent said. Poirot, she reminded herself, and plunged in, striking a suitably dubious tone so as not to come across like a fringe lunatic. “Yes, hi. I think I might’ve come across some type of IRA plan in Queens.” Agent Colmenares listened to her story. “Do you have a name or location of this suspect?” he asked when she’d finished. “Well, no.” “Ma’am, I’m not saying there’s nothing to this, but we need solid information in order to investigate.” “I have the coaster. It probably has his fingerprints,” she offered. “I’m just the after-hours duty agent but all calls are recorded and reviewed, and if further investigation is warranted, the material is forwarded to the appropriate agent. Do you want to leave your contact information?” It seemed the proper thing to do. After giving her name, address and phone number, Mattie hung up and peered through the curtains at the street. Stanley Moskowitz was ambling along the sidewalk with his French bulldog Brigitte, named for Brigitte Bardot. She hurried downstairs to the street. “Mr. Moskowitz! Sorry to bother you, but there was a man hanging around in front of your house this morning. He seemed a little suspicious.” “Nah, that was probably the fellow who came to look at the apartment in the back.” “Oh.” She’d forgotten that Stanley had a small studio setup he rented out. “Is he taking it, the apartment?” “He said he’d get back to me in a few days. Seemed a nice enough young man. Quiet, the type who’d keep to himself. Believe me, I wouldn’t rent to a bad character. I haven’t been on this earth for almost nine decades for nothing.” Alarm streaked through her. Quiet, kept to himself. That’s what neighbors always said about serial killers! Her heart hammered. “Did he leave a name or phone number?” Stanley scratched his whiskered chin. “I don’t recall. At my age, it’s a wonder I remember how to get dressed every day. I really don’t think he’s anything to worry about.” If only he knew! After saying goodbye, she returned inside and ate the rest of the Granny Smith. Over the following days, Mattie kept a sharp eye out for Black Jacket and the Mini. She returned to the fish and chips shop and the pub, and even sought out other English-related places, such as a tearoom with an adjoining store that stocked British groceries. She didn’t see him, nor did she hear from the FBI. She concluded it was all a product of her overactive imagination stimulated by her immersion in the Christie canon. She was certainly glad she hadn’t told anyone, especially her family who thought her passion for Agatha Christie was a form of OCD. They’d been urging her to take a “real job” in the family’s growing diner chain since she was a teenager and blamed her obsession as the reason she was still single at forty. They were probably right. Once potential suitors discovered she was into murder mysteries, they seemed to think she was a budding black widow. She’d often thought that if she’d never discovered Agatha Christie books that snowy Saturday afternoon in the library, she’d be happily ensconced in the suburbs with a husband, two kids and a dog. Instead, she had Miss Marple and Poirot as perpetual companions. Thursday started as any other day. A walk followed by an apple, a Braeburn, whose sweet-tempered tartness reflected her mood. Her doorbell chimed as she was combing through the trivia query inbox. Looking out the window, she saw a White man and a Black woman dressed in suits. They didn’t look like Jehovah’s witnesses. Curious, she went down and opened the door. “Ms. Zafeirakis? I’m Special Agent Veronica Deveraux from the FBI and this is Special Agent David Kovach. We’re responding to your call about possible UK targets in New York City.” Mattie was taken aback. “Yes,” was all she managed to say. “We’re going to put the George & Dragon under surveillance tomorrow evening. We would like you to be there and signal us if the suspect you observed earlier in the week is present. We haven’t been able to locate him.” “Oh. Of course. I was going to go anyway. What … I mean, have you found … evidence or something?” “We can’t divulge that since it’s an ongoing investigation. When you see the suspect, don’t engage. Move close then drop your purse next to him, then pick it up like it’s an accident. We also have your general description from the phone call.” She closed the door, feeling vindicated. She’d been right! This called for a super-celebratory apple. She bounded up the stairs and ordered a box of purple-colored Black Diamond apples from Tibet online. In the meantime, she’d make do with a Gala from New Zealand, her favorite variety. The rest of Thursday and Friday passed with agonizing slowness. Late Friday afternoon, she was looking forward to getting to the George & Dragon early when Penelope sent a particularly egregious copyright infringement by a film school student in Australia. She wanted it researched immediately so the lawyers could email the cease-and-desist on Sunday, which would be Monday morning Sydney time. Sighing, Mattie opened the file. By the time, she got to the pub, it was packed, thanks to Alf’s two-for-one special proclaimed on a sandwich board on the sidewalk. She spotted Agent Deveraux sitting in a corner and walked past her. Deveraux subtly nodded toward the far end of the bar. Mattie followed the signal with her eyes and saw Kovach perched on a stool. He rubbed his upper lip in acknowledgement. Mattie felt galvanized. She was in a real-life espionage thriller! She jostled her way through the jam at the bar and waved to Alf. He barrelled down the bar. “’ere she is—the famous Prunella Fernsby,” he bellowed. His cheeks were flushed and his voice louder than usual. He’d obviously been doing a little celebrating himself. He leaned over the bar and said in a low voice, “The twofer ends in five minutes, but I’ll give it you all night seeing as you’re a regular. Just keep it shtum.” He tapped the side of his nose and gave her a knowing nod. She smiled. “Right.” Alf pulled the pint and slipped the beer in front of her with a sloppy hand as he trundled off, hitching his pants, to attend an impatient customer. “Keep yer britches on!” Mattie dabbed the dribbles of foam from the glass with a napkin and took a sip, wondering how she was going to circulate in this crowd. “Pardon me, but did I hear correctly that you’re Prunella Fernsby?” The voice was male with the crisp enunciation of Etonian English. Mattie looked at the speaker and spluttered her mouthful of beer. “So sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you,” Black Jacket said. “I’m fine.” She wiped her chin with the already soaked napkin. She looked up to find him smiling into her eyes. Mattie felt a pleasant frisson ripple through her. “I’ve written to you.” He bobbed his head to talk around a large man shoving his way between them. “Twice actually.” Mattie craned her neck to talk around the interloper sandwiched in the middle of them. “You have?” “I’m Colin McTavidge.” The name seemed familiar, but she couldn’t pigeonhole it. “You don’t sound Irish.” The interloper hiked his eyebrows at her as if to say, “not on your bloody life.” “Not you,” she said. She peered around him and repeated her statement. Colin laughed. “That’s my friend Liam. I do trivia for the official Sherlock Holmes website, like you do for Agatha Christie,” he said. Shit. Alf must’ve thought she was asking about the second man in the bar Monday. “Ohmygod, you’re that Colin McTavidge. I’ve always wanted to meet you.” A loud groan went up from the crowd. The two-fer special had ended. Colin pointed over the pool of heads, indicating they should move to a quieter area. She gave him a thumbs-up and followed him as he cut a crooked path through the throng to the far side of the room, where there were fewer people. “Ah, that’s better.” Colin drilled her eyes with his. “I’ve always wanted to meet you. We’re peas of the same pod, you might say, but I imagined you lived in a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds and spent your evenings knitting babies’ bonnets with a cat curled on your lap.” It was Mattie’s turn to laugh. “I guess my alter ego works then. My real name’s Almatheia Zafeirakis, everyone calls me Mattie. I’ve lived in Queens basically my whole life.” She felt a click in her brain. “I remember now. You asked me about similarities between Agatha and Conan Doyle, or if Agatha had been influenced by Conan Doyle, something like that.” “Both actually. I thought I’d save myself some research and go straight to the expert.” “You live here?” “Manhattan.” “You’re forgiven. Don’t tell me you live on Baker Street.” “No, but—don’t roll your eyes—I did convince the landlord to let me change my apartment number to 221B.” Mattie smiled. “I named my house ‘Styles,’ for ...” He held up a finger. “Agatha’s first published book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” She stared at him, feeling sparkles course through her body. She’d never met anyone like herself. “What brings you to the lesser world of Queens?” “I’m sussing out places for a Sherlock Holmes scavenger hunt. We give people clues to Britishy sorts of places, then people have to figure out where to go, find the clues at the places and then solve the puzzle at the end. The winner gets a complete set of Conan Doyle. I think we’re going to base the next one around Kew Gardens and Queens.” “That explains why I saw you at the fish and chips place and here. But why were you at Stanley Moskowitz’s? I live across the street from him.” “Hang on. You saw me at the chippie and the pub and Stanley’s, and you remember me? You’re quite the sleuth. I thought a woman was staring at me here the other day. Anyway, I’m looking for cheap digs to rent here while I set everything up to avoid the long subway journey. I saw Stanley’s advert.” “Sorry for staring. What about the coaster with the drawings? I found it on the floor here after you almost ran me over in the Mini.” “That was you in the fog too? Oh god. Sorry. I was glad I didn’t run you over then, but now I’m really glad. The symbols are possible clues for the hunt. People love symbology.” He cocked his head. “Why don’t we do the hunt together? People would love a Poirot-Sherlock teamup or maybe teams—Poirot fans versus Sherlock fans.” “That would be brilliant.” Mattie’s eyes shone. “An American who says ‘brilliant’! That’s brilliant. I’m famished, by the way. Have you eaten dinner?” “Fish and chips, perhaps?” She sensed movement around them and suddenly realized Deveraux stood on one side of them and Kovach on the other. Shit. She’d forgotten all about them. Deveraux held up her ID. “Mr. McTavidge? FBI. We need to ask you some questions about Liam Dougherty,” she said, pursing her lips in disapproval at Mattie. “Wait, no. I got it all wrong,” Mattie said. Colin gave her a puzzled look. “I’m so sorry I thought you were planting a bomb and I called the FBI I’m totally embarrassed I’m really sorry.” Her words tumbled together like falling rocks. “Mr. McTavidge?” Deveraux said. “Yes, of course.” He accompanied the agents outside. As the door shut behind them, Mattie felt an overwhelming wash of desolation. Colin must think her a total fool. She’d finally found a kindred spirit, a soul twin, and she’d ruined it. She’d completely misread the situation. Why the hell had she called the FBI? Poirot and his little grey cells had betrayed her. She collected her coat and trudged home, feeling an urgent hankering for a Red Delicious. Mattie spent Saturday eating apples in front of the television. She started to watch a modern adaptation of And Then There Were None, but the plot seemed trite and transparent. She switched to another channel. An old black-and-white of The Hounds of the Baskervilles was airing, but that only reminded her of her massive faux pas. She couldn’t help but feel that her parents, sisters and cousins had been right all along. Something was wrong with her. She needed help. Despite waking up with a griping stomach on Sunday, she got herself to the farmers’ market to restock her apple supply. Her email pinged just as she was leaving. It was Penelope. “Fantastic news! I’ve found the perfect Prunella Fernsby to lead the tour! She’s the embodiment of Miss Marple! More later, Plpe.” If Mattie’s spirits had sunk to sea level, they were now below sea level. She should’ve known she’d never be allowed to lead the tour. She did an aboutface and bought three pounds of Granny Smiths, which she started eating on the way home and spent the rest of the day nursing her stomach. She resolved to call her father that week and ask what she could do at the diner. The following morning, she couldn’t motivate herself to go for her walk. She sat at her desk in her pilled flannel pajamas. She was just about to check the trivia inbox when she heard a thud on the front porch. She went downstairs and opened the door. It was the Tibetan apples she’d splurged on. Total waste of money. As she bent to pick up the box, she heard her name. She was surprised to see Colin bearing down her garden path with an air of determination. He was coming to chew her out. Well, she deserved it. She braced herself. “I was hoping to catch you on your walk,” he said. “I’m not feeling so great.” “This will make you feel better. Have you seen the news?” She shook her head, wondering what the news had to do with anything. He held up his phone screen. She peered at the headline. “Bomb Plot Disguised as Sherlock Holmes Hunt Busted.” She looked at him, baffled. “The FBI arrested Liam an hour ago. He’s an Irish republican operative and was planning a trail of bombs on the scavenger hunt sites. You’re bloody brilliant, Mattie!” Stunned, all she could do was blink. “I spent the weekend convincing the FBI that I had nothing to do with any of it. They finally believed me and then they told me not to say anything until they arrested Liam. They already had him on their terrorist list and had heard rumors of a possible operation in New York but didn’t connect the two until they looked into your call.” “Poirot’s theory worked,” Mattie said, feeling the pieces fall into place. “One coincidence is a coincidence, two are a clue, three are proof.” “By the way, are those Black Diamonds you’re holding?” Mattie’s eyes widened. “You know about Tibetan purple apples?” “I adore apples.” He took the box from her and they stepped inside. “You know what Sherlock Holmes said about coincidence? ‘The universe is rarely so lazy’.”
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Christina Hoag is the author of novels Girl on the Brink and Skin of Tattoos. A former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press, she also reported from Latin America for Time, Business Week, Financial Times, New York Times and others. In 2020, she won prizes for essay and fiction in the International Human Rights Arts Festival Literary Awards and the Soul-Making Keats Writing Competition. www.christinahoag.com. https://twitter.com/ChristinaHoag. https://www.instagram.com/ChristinaHoagAuthor.