To Kingdom Come
by Claudia Riess
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
“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.
A Word With the Author
1. Did you always want to be an author?
When I was very young, at bedtime my father used to read me such books as The House at Pooh Corner and improvise hilarious adventures about a girl named Jeanie and her father—clearly with the two of us in mind. The captivating styles of both A.A. Milne and my father inspired me to tell stories. In First Grade, I was occasionally invited to entertain the Kindergarteners. I’d wing it until the bell rang. Most of the time the stories ended in midair, but no one complained, at least not while I was still in the room. I didn’t think about becoming an author until much later, but I’m sure these early experiences influenced the decision
2. Tell us about the publication of your first book.
My first book was Reclining Nude. The subject was a woman's psycho-sexual odyssey and was designed to test my ability to create a direct line to my imagination and allow a raw freedom of expression concerning a subject I otherwise felt rather prudish about. The book was published by Stein and Day and subsequently by houses in the UK and Germany. Although the books that followed are themed on different subject matter, the ability to enter, without restraints, diverse characters’ minds—male and female, cops and criminals—has been at least in part gained by that initial venture in suspending my internal censor.
3. Besides yourself, who is your favorite author in the genre you write in?
Do I have to decide between Agatha Christie and Elmore Leonard? Agatha Christie because there is never a lull in engagement—through plot twists, character quirks, the sustained aura of suspense. Elmore Leonard, for his ability to create a world and the diverse characters in it, with a wonderful spareness. One of my favorite quotes of his: “When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip."
4. What’s the best part of being an author? The worst?
It’s a great feeling of satisfaction to breathe life into a fictional character, one that can at times resist your impulse to push him or her in one direction and compels you to take another. On a more particular note, to strip a sentence down to its essentials is a great feeling, too. Oddly enough, those additional adjectives and clauses you think will further define the point you’re trying to make will usually serve to diffuse it. (In fact, that sentence could probably use some pruning!)
5. What are you working on now?
I’m about two-thirds of the way through the fifth book in my art history mystery series published by Level Best Books. (Working title: Dreaming of Monet, scheduled for release winter 2024.) It’s a multiple-murder mystery involving the disappearance of a group of Impressionist paintings. The action takes place in Manhattan and London, and amateur sleuths, Erika and Harrison, are once again in the thick of things. (Apropos of question 4, Stephen King advises you let the first draft of your novel sit a few days, then cut out the unnecessary words and details, about 10% of it. As I’m writing the first draft, I check for superfluous matter every fifty pages or so.)
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
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.
All four books in the art history mystery series are available through Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com,IndieBound.org and at independent book stores. For bulk discount purchases, contact https://levelbestbooks.wordpress.com.
Claudia Riess will be awarding a $25 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.
a Rafflecopter giveaway