Meet globetrotting psychologist and sleuth Cait Morgan.
Cathy Ace had the great good fortune to travel the world during her corporate career. Which is lucky for us because her Cait Morgan mysteries are each set in a different location that Cathy has lived in or spent time in.
The Corpse with the Crystal Skull is set in Jamaica and as we’re all mostly confined to barracks these days, it’s great to hear about sunny places far away, and vacationing with friends.
In my interview with Cathy she mentions two mystery sites that she blogs for. 7CriminalMinds.blogspot.com features authors, including Cathy and two previous It’s a Mystery podcast guests (Frank Zafiro and Terry Shames), answering questions about crime fiction, writing, publishing, and life. And KillerCharacters.com has a focus on cozy mysteries with a different author writing a post each day. Cathy posts on the 22nd of each month.
This week’s mystery author
Cathy Ace’s Welsh-Canadian criminal psychologist sleuth Cait Morgan has encountered traditional, closed-circle puzzle plot whodunits in eight books, with a ninth being published in June 2020. This series of books has now been optioned for television by Free@Last TV, a UK production company. The plan is to present each book as a 90 minute made-for-TV movie, the same format used for the international hit ACORN series featuring MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, which is made my Free@Last TV.
Cathy’s other series of books – The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries – feature a quartet of softly-boiled female PIs who solve quintessentially British cases from their stately home-based office in rural Wales. Her standalone novel of psychological suspense, The Wrong Boy, is set in Wales, and became a #1 amazon bestseller. Shortlisted for the Bony Blithe Award three times in four years, winning in 2015, she’s also been shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story.
Cathy was born and raised in Wales, though she now lives in Canada.
To learn more about Cathy and all her books visit CathyAce.com
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Excerpt from The Corpse with the Crystal Skull
Breakfast and a Body
The conversation around the breakfast table was understandably muted; we’d all had a late night, and I, for one, was feeling the effects of a few too many G and Ts. My darling husband, Bud, surveyed the food arranged on the mahogany sideboard with bleary eyes. His more-salt-than-pepper hair was still damp from the shower, but he was already sweating through his shirt; May in Jamaica can be exhaustingly humid.
“Anybody want another mango? Or this last piece of banana bread?” Bud’s tone lacked enthusiasm.
John Silver shook his head above his coffee cup, then scrunched his eyes, suggesting he wished he hadn’t made such a rash move. “Thanks, no,” he croaked, with a polite smile I read as a grimace.
He looked tired; wiped out, in fact. I’d first met him when he’d helped out with a family matter in Amsterdam that Bud and I had been looking into, less than a year earlier; back then he’d looked vigorous, and in his prime. Now? He’d aged. A lot. I wondered why. Maybe it was work-related; I’m still not entirely sure what he does – he somehow provides coordination between a number of secret service operations around the world…lots of opportunities there for stress, I’d have thought. He looked as though he needed the week-long break he was just beginning with us.
“Anyone fancy a Caesar?” Bud’s other ex-colleague, Jack White, forced a smile; they’d served together in the Vancouver Police Department for years, forging a friendship that had endured beyond their respective retirements. Jack glanced at his wife with a wink, rubbed a hand through his rapidly thinning hair, and groaned.
Sheila tutted and wagged a friendly finger at her husband. “No alcohol for you for a while, I think, dear.”
I sighed. “I might never drink again.”
A subdued chorus echoed my sentiment.
I gulped some juice. Sadly, it was far from cold; even at nine in the morning the dining room was already stifling, and the ice in my glass had melted quickly. Overall, I was enjoying the faded grandeur of the big house at the heart of the private estate we’d rented; the colonial style building was a symphony of white walls, dark hardwood floors and beams, and furnishings upholstered in scrambled egg-hued chintz patterned with bottle-green palm fronds.
Occasionally, breezes wafted through the openings in the walls which housed dark-wood jalousies with slats that could be shuttered against the weather. However, I yearned for the luxury of air conditioning; the two large ceiling fans above the dining table were turning as fast as they could, but the result was about as refreshing as using a hairdryer in a sauna. Each of we couples had our own little bungalow on the estate and, while none of them had air conditioning either, their compact dimensions allowed for cooling through-draughts.
Bud came to sit at the end of the gleaming mahogany table beside me. I closed my eyes as his chair scraped across the floor. It didn’t help.
“Will Lottie be joining us?” Bud sounded almost cheery.
Every bloodshot eye in the room turned, slowly, toward John Silver, who replied, “She was taking a shower when I left.” He checked his watch. “A long shower, by the looks of it. I dare say she’ll be along in a bit.”
“I suspect she’ll be in better shape than any of us,” I ventured.
“Good morning all. What a beautiful day. It looks as though it’s going to be sunny, at last.” Charlotte Fortescue – Lottie to her friends – waltzed into the dining room in a swirl of periwinkle silk chiffon, bouncing blonde curls, and a waft of fruity perfume. She looked irritatingly fresh, which I put down to her being about thirty, whereas I’d turned fifty a couple of weeks earlier – hence the festivities the previous night.
Of course, that hadn’t been the original plan at all. Initially, Bud and I were supposed to be alone at the Captain’s Lookout Estate, on the northern coast of Jamaica, for an entire month. Then Bud had somehow managed to invite Jack and Sheila to join us for a fortnight, then he’d also gone and asked John and his “plus one” to come along for our final week.
Fortunately, I’d been alone with my husband for My Big Day; that had been my choice, and Bud had understood. At least, he’d said he understood. The fact that one specific day or date makes a difference to a person’s life is something I’m happy to acknowledge to myself, and even to Bud. But to have to party to order? No. Not for me. Really. Besides, I knew that fifty was a significant age, and I hadn’t been looking forward to becoming it at all; once you hit fifty it’s almost impossible to convince yourself there’s more of your life ahead of you than behind, and that’s a difficult pill to swallow.
Jack and Sheila White had arrived about a week ago, and they’d busied themselves with all the standard tourist trips: marvelling at the sandy beaches; ogling magnificent waterfalls; being punted along a winding river, and wondering at all the watersports that seem to enthrall so many. I have no idea what’s so inviting about being bounced across the ocean on a giant banana, but – apparently – it’s all the rage.
It had been agreed that we’d wait until John and Lottie had completed our party to…well, party. Last night’s belated birthday celebration had left me feeling crumpled and haggard, bleakly realizing that the passing years make a heck of a difference when it comes to recovering from a long night of over-indulgence.
A feeble chorus of “Good mornings” acknowledged Lottie’s arrival; she kissed John on the top of his slightly balding head, then all-but skipped to the buffet dishes. I focused on my juice, so I didn’t have to see her gratingly lithe back wriggling about beside the fruit plates.
When the wailing reached our ears, we all turned toward the French doors. Amelia LaBadie rushed into the dining room from the lush tropical garden beyond. She held onto the door frame to support herself as she caught her breath. Usually smiling above her immaculate, cobalt-and-white striped dress, the woman who had been our cook, cleaner, and server during our stay was surprisingly dishevelled; sweat was trickling down her face, and her braided hair had tumbled from its topknot.
Bud, Jack, and John were all out of their seats in seconds. I put down the last bit of my banana bread, and felt the energy in the room shift. Seismically.
“What’s wrong, Amelia?” asked Bud.
“Mr. Freddie. Him on the floor, up in the tower. I see him through the keyhole. There be a lot of blood. I think him…him…”
She collapsed into John’s arms.
“Oh, I say!” was all Lottie Fortescue could manage.
Sheila White’s “Damn it!” was more succinct.
A Tower Full of Trouble
Following a moment of stunned silence, Bud and John managed to get Amelia to a chair. I rushed to her side with a glass of juice, which the poor woman took from me with a shaking hand; she spilled a fair bit, but managed to get some of it down.
Sheila arrived with a napkin to wipe Amelia’s eyes, and Lottie hovered with Jack, neither of them seeming to know how to help. When the housekeeper had finally managed to compose herself a little, Bud, Jack, and John exchanged a glance. Bud spoke.
“Now, tell us again, Amelia. What did you see, exactly?”
Amelia wiped a fat tear from her cheek. Her chin puckered. “Mr. Freddie. On the floor. There was…so much blood.” She sobbed into the napkin, shuddering. The poor woman looked completely traumatized.
“And this was where, precisely?” pressed John.
Amelia waved an arm. “Top floor of him tower. Lookout room.”
Bud’s jaw flinched. “I tell you what, Amelia, you stay here – Sheila, Cait, and Lottie will look after you – while we go take a look.”
I glared at Bud. He returned my glance with a sheepish smile; he’s well aware of how I view assumptions about traditional male and female roles.
“You can’t get into him room. It be locked. Mr. Freddie, him have the only key,” sobbed Amelia.
Bud glanced at his two ex-colleagues again. “Maybe, between us, we could break down the door?”
He looked as uncertain as I felt. Bud was the only one of the three under sixty – just – and none of the men were at what one might call “peak fitness” levels.
“I’m going. Who’s coming?” I snapped. “Freddie might not be dead at the moment – but he could be by the time you lot faff about.”
I strode out into the garden and along the winding, crushed-shell pathway that led from the shared house and pool area, past our private bungalows, toward the tower atop which was our host, Freddie Burkinshaw’s, favored eyrie. I could hear footsteps crunching behind me and saw that everyone, except Lottie, was following. Of course someone had to stay with Amelia, and I was glad it was Lottie; she could flutter her eyelashes at someone other than my husband, or Sheila’s, for a while, and do something more useful than being merely decorative.
I sighed away my annoyance at Lottie as I focused on the matter in hand. The door to the stumpy, square building that formed the base of the round, castellated structure was wide open – left that way by Amelia, I assumed. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the gloomy interior – all the jalousie window shutters were closed. I began to walk up a stone staircase, which wound around inside the tower to a room on the first upper level. This room was brighter, because all the shutters were open, and was set up as a sitting room. Everything looked undisturbed to my eyes, though I’d never been in the place before, so had nothing to go on by way of a comparison. The stairs led up again, and once more opened into another room, this time slightly smaller, because the tower diminished in size as it rose. The fact that there was a massive four-poster bed in the middle of the room told me this was Freddie’s bedchamber. I took a breath or two and waited for Bud to catch up, then allowed him to mount the final set of steps ahead of me.
After we’d climbed for what I judged to be almost the full circumference of the building, we encountered a door blocking our path. It was set into the stone walls in a wide wooden frame; both it and its frame looked ancient – maybe even original to the tower, which had been built around 1680 by Sir Henry Morgan, allegedly for a mistress, so Freddie had told us.
Bud hammered on the door, with no response, then waggled the large iron handle, but the door wouldn’t open.
“Amelia said she saw him through the keyhole,” I offered.
“Peep through the keyhole, go on,” urged John, who’d just joined us on the topmost steps.
Bud kneeled and pressed his face against the elaborate blacked-iron plate which housed the massive lock. Jack joined us, and I heard Sheila behind him, panting even more loudly than me. We must have looked quite the sight – all sweaty, pink in the face, still hungover, and listening for the slightest sound.
“He’s down alright,” announced Bud, “and there’s blood. And a gun. I can see his eyes. He’s…there’s no need for urgency. His eyes are open. Fixed. He’s definitely deceased.” Bud’s use of the formal term told me he’d automatically clicked back into cop-mode; he does that when there’s any sort of critical situation to deal with. I find it incredibly comforting.
“He might be looking over at the door, unable to speak, but hoping for help,” said Sheila quietly.
Bud stood, shaking his head. “I’m afraid not, Sheila. If he were alive, he’d be blinking away the flies.”
That seemed to settle everything, other than my stomach. I swallowed hard. “We’d better phone the police. You can apologize to them for messing up their scene, Bud, flapping your hands about all over the handle,” I quipped as I turned.
Sometimes people find my levity inappropriate, but I knew that none of us huddled there on the staircase was a stranger to sudden death – well, with the exception of Sheila, who’s been spared that sort of encounter on a regular basis. Bud, Jack, and John have all put in decades of service in law enforcement, and I seem to trip over dead bodies wherever I go. But Sheila? Lovely, unassuming, homebody Sheila would probably be more upset by this discovery than the rest of us.
I waited for everyone to turn so we could all make our way downstairs, and they did, shoulders drooping. A sudden death impacts even those who’ve experienced many such incidents in ways that differ for each individual. For Bud? He was back in cop-mode already, so he reacted within that role.
“I don’t think it’s a crime scene, Cait,” he said a bit snappishly.
“I said scene, not crime scene,” I replied coolly. Bud nodded, and we all finally began our descent. I lowered my voice so only Bud could hear, “Shot in the head?”
Bud shrugged. “Not as far as I could see,” he whispered back, “though there could have been trauma hidden at the back of the skull, or on the right side of his face. Maybe through the mouth? I couldn’t see everything. The blood seemed to be more around his midsection than at his head.”
I couldn’t resist. “Oh, come off it, Bud, who kills themselves by shooting themselves in the stomach? That’s just bonkers.” As I spoke, I realized I couldn’t not take a look at the scene for myself, so I pushed past Bud and rushed up the few steps we’d already descended to peep through the keyhole, even though Bud tried to stop me.
Everything Bud had described was accurate; Freddie Burkinshaw was on his side, his dead eyes looking toward the door, his arms outstretched, with his entire body lying at a forty-five-degree angle to the entryway. Beyond him was a massive dark-wood desk, and beyond that was a set of doors, wide open. I knew from the exterior view of the building – with which I was familiar – that this door led to a walkway that encircled the tower around which Freddie would march every morning at sunrise, and every evening at sunset, singing “God Save the Queen” through an antique megaphone.
When he’d welcomed Bud and me to his private estate a few weeks earlier, he’d told us how proud he was to have performed this ritual every day since he’d moved into the property in 1962. His little routine had provided a bit of a rude awakening each morning of our visit, and it was only then I realized I hadn’t heard his horribly tuneless rendition that morning.
“He’s been dead for some hours,” I observed as Bud joined me at the impressive door. He helped me to rise from my uncomfortable kneeling position.
Bud smiled. “And why do you say that? Is that your non-existent set of medical qualifications kicking in?”
We started down the stairs again. “What time was sunrise this morning?” I asked. Bud shrugged. “Never mind, we’ll Google it later. I reckon it was about half five. My point is, if Freddie had been alive at dawn he’d have sung, and I don’t think any of us could have slept through that. We certainly haven’t managed to miss it even once since we arrived here.”
Bud glanced up at me over his shoulder as he descended below me. “Oh, come on, Cait, we were probably all still comatose at dawn. I reckon I could have slept through an entire performance of the 1812 overture, canons and all, and not heard a thing. Besides, the local coroner, or ME, or whatever they have here, will determine time of death when the local PD shows up. It’s not going to make any difference when he died, is it? The poor guy’s gone, and that’s that.”
“But what if it does matter, Bud? What if he didn’t shoot himself – in the stomach?” I put a fair bit of emphasis on that last point.
We were in the sitting room of the late, and probably soon-to-be-lamented, Freddie Burkinshaw’s tower when Bud turned to face me, his expression serious. “Cait, stop it. This is some poor guy who chose to take his own life. It just so happens he chose to do it when we were renting the bungalows on his estate. You heard what Amelia said – there was only one key to that tower room, and he had it. He’s obviously locked himself in there and shot himself. We both saw the gun. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense of the facts.”
I allowed my mind to wander, then focus. I stepped closer to the window and managed to catch a slight breeze, which was a relief. The view was fabulous – the never-ending turquoise sea peeping through the palm trees, with a sideways view to the estate’s lush gardens, and the glorious beaches beyond. It was the sort of view that would make a person happy.
I didn’t turn around as I spoke. “Well, for one thing we don’t know for certain that Freddie had the key with him, in that room. It’s equally plausible that he was up there with someone else, they killed him, took the key and locked the door behind them, taking the key when they left.”
Bud’s chin rested on my shoulder, and he snuggled my back as he replied, “But why on earth would anyone want to kill Freddie Burkinshaw? I mean, I know the guy was more than a little eccentric, but he’s – what – eighty-ish, perfectly harmless, and the way he told it he’s never left the island since he arrived in the 1960s. So why on earth would anyone want to kill him?”
I turned and looked into the piercing blue eyes of the man I so enjoy calling Husband. Despite the fact we’d slathered ourselves with SPF 50 for the better part of a month we’d both developed quite a tan – his deeper than mine. That, combined with his sun-bleached silvery hair – which had grown quite a bit longer than usual in the past few weeks – and his increasingly silvered eyebrows, made him look even more heart-meltingly handsome than usual, in my book. He was making what I knew he believed to be his “appealing little boy” face, which doesn’t wash with me, except when I want it to.
I kissed him gently. “Bud, it’s all wrong. Can you honestly say, with your hand on your heart – not to mention using the experience from all your years in law enforcement and detection – that the man with whom we sat dining then drinking until just before midnight last night, who hugged us all goodnight, then left our jolly soirée with a big smile on his face…that that man decided to do himself in just a few hours later? The psychology of it isn’t right. He wasn’t a man on the edge of a cliff of despair – he was thoroughly enjoying himself, dancing, chatting, and telling tall tales, as usual. Yet you want me to believe that maybe five or six hours later he shot himself to death? No. I don’t buy it. This wasn’t a suicide. It couldn’t have been.”
Bud held me tight and sighed. “Oh Cait, whatever am I going to do with you?”