Today's Reading

I noticed Agatha rarely gave Poirot or Miss Marple a regular sidekick in the police force, apart from the ferret-faced Japp. Maybe she found it easier to make up new characters rather than be called out by eagle-eyed readers noticing changes from book to book. (I really am sorry about the Dordogne slip-up.) I wanted a sidekick who would stick around, in case the first book turned into a series. Series were what sold, said the gospel according to Publishers Weekly; series were sometimes made into TV shows.

So. Sidekick. I wanted it to be someone of low rank, a sort of junior detective, and I needed to decide whether the sidekick would be smarter than the boss. This is where the Caroline Bernard figure came into being. She was miles smarter than her supervisor, but so old-school she kept the fact hidden from him as best she could, feeding him clues and making discoveries he could claim as his own. This was getting harder and harder for me to pull off as the series progressed - most women at some point would have told Claude to go to hell. So I gave her a strict Catholic background, having her grow up in the sort of household where the man rules, or thinks he does, while the mother rules in fact.

Caroline would be approaching middle age, and while sharp-featured she would be attractive in the way of most Frenchwomen, who can turn a hazmat suit into a fashion statement with a scarf tied just so. She solved every single crime in the series - eighteen books and counting - and never once did Claude give her credit, although here and there someone in the department noticed and made sure she got mentioned in dispatches. Loyal to her clueless boss and to her husband, who was a ninny, this was how Caroline got by in life. Halfway through the series, she began having an affair with the man who owned the local boulangerie.

To be honest, I never saw it coming. Somewhere along the line, the fictional Caroline had taken on a life of her own and had gone from being a minor player in the series to sharing the spotlight with Claude, if not outshining him altogether. Reviewers and readers seemed to believe she was real. More than one fan letter carried a marriage proposal - for her, not for me.

I was writing book nineteen in the series when I was interrupted by a real-life crime in my neighborhood. My writing had stalled, anyway, so I was easily distractible.

Before long, happenings in the real world had eclipsed anything I could make up.


CHAPTER TWO 

My true-crime story begins in Old Town, a place miles from the Dordogne, in spirit as well as geographically.

I've lived here twenty-two years, ever since I landed the one-note job in DC, although the success of the series allowed me to move from a one-bedroom apartment near the power plant to a four-story townhouse in the southeast quadrant.

I don't need four floors, especially with Marcus gone, and one day the stairs may be the literal death of me, but for now, living in lonely splendor in a well-preserved historic town is very pleasant indeed. Old Town is in northern Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington, and while it may be a veritable hotbed of political intrigue, sophisticated spycraft, and fine dining, it is also a quaint village - like St Mary Mead, like Villeneuve-Sainte-Marie - and in villages some people (people like me) are congenitally unable to mind their own business.

My neighbors may be busy, busy and often traveling out of town, or rather pointlessly going to and from their weekend homes, but there is little about the surface of their lives I don't know. What cars they drive, how many Amazon packages they have delivered, how often they have pizza delivered, which desperate housewife is having an affair. (I don't know whom Bettina thinks she's kidding. Why would the leaf-blower guy show up several times a week?)

I'm not particularly nosy. Honest. I just notice things because I'm home a lot staring out the windows and hoping for inspiration and trying to avoid the siren call of a bag of peanut M&Ms.

Which is why I knew before my neighbors vanished that their marriage was in a spot of trouble. I also knew (from watching Investigation ID) that Zora's husband would be blamed if anything bad had happened to her. Personally, I believed Niko Norman was not the kind of guy to snap out. That's not to say I particularly liked him, but I didn't see him as the type to kill his wife, abandon his child, and flee the country. If that was what had happened.

At first, no one was quite sure how long they'd been missing. What lent urgency to their disappearance was the child, basically a newborn at one year old. That was what got the police's attention, not two adults possibly going on holiday and forgetting to ask anyone to water the plants.

My townhouse is part of a row of four connected homes on Fendall Street, each made to blend in with their historic surroundings, even though they're less than forty years old. My place is next to the big corner unit at Federal, the cross street. These four homes are part of a homeowners' association or HOA called Kildare Place - we call the HOA board the Tribe of Kildare - but they look like any of the other homes on Fendall erected in the 1800s.
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