Historical Fiction Mystery Suspense

This story contains sensitive content

This story mentions violence and death.

May 1, 1902

In retrospect, it would have been safer for me not to investigate the case.

I was bold–perhaps too bold. Years of being nicknamed the Invincible Clementine Finch had softened my reserve, probably. Or perhaps I wasn’t born with any. 

The name didn’t come without reason–not that I’m one to boast. I fell off a train as a girl with hardly so much as a scratched knee. I chased down an armed robber once with nothing but a hat-pin as a weapon. 

No need to fret, of course; he was just fine. 

And then there was that gunshot wound to the calf. I’ll admit that was unfortunate. Nevertheless, dear reader, you see why some might call me invincible, and why I made a wonderful detective.

I was taught by the best. Police Detective Oscar L. Sterling led my first investigation. Madden and I trained together under his instruction, despite Chief Burgess’ obvious disdain for a woman in the field.

A tough man, Sterling was. His bushy brows, dark eyes, and prominent nose gave him an intimidating air.

Madden’s first investigation, only a year ago, they were trying to find some man who had drunkenly broken into a house. You wouldn’t think an intoxicated man would be hard to track, but he was adept, apparently. Madden figured out it was him based on some paint on the man’s shirt–he had bumped into a drying oil portrait in the poor woman’s home. They had a difficult time of it arresting him, especially after he pulled out a gun. Sterling wrestled it out of the man’s arms himself.

I still remember the look of shock on Calloway’s face when I told him about it.

Naturally, when Oscar L. Sterling was discovered dead in his home, I had to find the culprit.

Someone had laced a container of chocolates with a form of cyanide, and he ate nearly half of them–his taste buds were no good. The man could drink vinegar without batting an eye.

“The case is too personal for us,” Madden had said, as soon as he broke the news. “Don’t even think about it.”

Well, I thought about it. And I decided no matter how personal the case may be, we needed to be a part of it.

And that was how on the first of May, Detectives Madden, Calloway, and I ended up attending a dance at Miss Eunice Brown’s.

It was a marvelously large party. The dance hall was intricately painted, with cherubs dancing across the ceiling and vines growing up the wall panels. The guests’ light-hearted chatter echoed in the ballroom. 

Ladies garbed in luscious pastel skirts swished by, hair piled up on their heads in the latest fashion.

Overall, the experience was mind-numbing.

Madden, at least, seemed to be enjoying himself. He socialized as any polite gentleman would. I watched with mixed amusement as the gracious hostess–and number one suspect–introduced him to a pretty, round-faced girl, whose eyes reminded me of a doe. From across the room they looked like faeries, nimble and dainty as they swirled round and round in circles that made me feel a little ill.

Calloway sat across the hall, watching me in much the same way I was watching Madden. All of us had eyes on the others, communicating with simple glances.

I couldn’t make out what any of them were trying to say at the moment. They seemed quite blank. Distracted by the festivities, I suppose. Had they already forgotten the reason we were here?

It was Eunice I was focused on, most of the time. Her gold gown shimmered in the light and her inky curls were pulled up into an elegant pompadour. I had already talked with her that evening, and discovered nothing. 

“Miss Brown,” I had said, with one of my pleasantest smiles, “I must thank you for inviting me.”

“Of course, dear–ah–” she paused, looking me over quickly. “What is your name, darling?” 

“My friends call me Marie. I’ve come with Mr. Madden,” I said, with another charming smile. 

“Ah, yes, Howard. You two are sweethearts, no?”

The suggestion was hilarious. “Naturally.” Then, in a gossiping manner, I lowered my voice. “But you mustn’t tell anyone.”

Honored with the secret, Eunice nodded, wide-eyed. Her hair bobbed along with her head.

Here I gasped softly, as though remembering something. “And I’m quite sorry to hear about Mr. Sterling. My condolences.”

Her face fell, just slightly. “Yes, that was terrible.”

My voice fell even lower. “I heard tell you were sweethearts, too.” I could play the gossipy, air-headed act all night long.

She nodded. “Once upon a time.”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but–well, how did it come about? His passing?”

She pursed her lips. “Well, I’m afraid I don’t quite know. I’ve heard some contradicting stories. Heart failure and such.”

“But he was so young!” The words came out lightly, but there was a heaviness in my stomach as I said them. 

“Well . . . I did hear some talking of–poison.”

I gasped again, and she nodded gravely.

She was not cracking.

And since that conversation she had made no further discussion about Mr. Sterling. 

She seemed proportionally remorseful over Sterling’s death, and there was no hint of guilt in her manner. 

The second suspect, Mr. James Green, was off on the other side of the room, wine glass in hand, chatting with a grizzly-bearded man. His hat had been found at the scene of the crime, but the two had been friends. That wasn’t very strange, to my mind.

The lack of evidence unsettled me. Sterling had been a smart man. He would not have taken anything from anyone if he didn’t trust them.

I had my doubts about Mr. Green, but if I could find a way to talk to him at least I would have something to do besides rot in my chair.

Well, not just yet. Madden was sauntering over, without the doe-eyed girl. Perhaps he had heard something.

“What happened?” I said, swirling the wine in my glass nonchalantly. I didn’t drink. One of my many virtues. My alcoholic mother had taught me that particular merit.

“Why, nothing.” He sounded surprised, as though he had forgotten the entire reason we were here. His acting abilities always surprised me. “You weren’t going to dance?”

“I detest dances.”

He sat beside me, watching the wine slosh around the glass. “Dance with me? Perhaps we can find someone to introduce us to Mr. Green over there.”

Now that was a thought. Before I could open my mouth to reply, I was interrupted.


A footman had appeared at Madden’s shoulder, bearing a glass of the red beverage. I set my glass on the tablecloth.

“Ah. Yes.” Madden took it with a nod as the footman disappeared to another table. “Anyways, I’m sure Miss Brown could get you two acquainted. If only you were a spritely dancer,” he said, with a forlorn air. “Then you could have all the time you wished to interrogate him.”

“I don’t interrogate. I query.”

He nodded, then reached to stop my wrist. I had begun to swish the wine about again. “You don’t want that, it’s too warm,” he said, taking it from my hand and placing it at the other end of the table. “Have mine.”

I eyed the drink with skepticism before taking it from his hand. I remembered my mother, and the drunken break-in. 

“One glass,” I said, and perhaps he heard the doubt in my voice. “Don’t let me have more.”

He laughed as though I had said something funny. “I won’t.”

I caught eyes with Calloway from across the room. There was a steely look in his gaze.

“What’s eating Calloway?” I whispered, taking a long swig of the wine and making a face. I had not expected such a bitter flavor.

“Maybe he’s talked to Green?”


“For goodness’ sake, don’t make that face. That stuff’s expensive.”

“Can’t help it,” I said, and my tongue felt almost as though it had been burnt. “How can you drink this?”

“Well, you downed half the glass. You’re supposed to sip it. Have some water, and we’ll go see Calloway.”

I drank the water, hoping it would wash away that awful acrid taste, and followed Madden across the ballroom as the violin began a mournful solo.

My skirts swayed as I surveyed the room. “Where did he go?”

“Green or Calloway?”

“Either. Both.”

“I haven’t a clue.” 

They had disappeared. How very convenient.

“Well, what would you like to do now?” Madden asked, linking his elbow with mine. “Commence a search party, or join the dance?”

“I’ll elect for the search party,” I said, liberating myself from his arm. “But thank you kindly.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw the girl he had been dancing with earlier. “Look, doll-face is looking for you.”

He turned, and I skirted out along the edge of the hall to avoid the dancers, searching for familiar faces. 

I was observing a couple dance, wondering if that could possibly be the back of Mr. Green’s head, when a young, flaxen-haired man slipped out of the hall and into the nearby corridor. 


Well, this was perfect. I waited a moment before following, casting long looks over the ballroom before disappearing into the hallway.

I followed the vine-emblazoned wallpaper, past grand pictures and portraits of well-dressed family members. The carpet muffled my footsteps, for the most part.

Where would he be waiting for me?

He had caught my eye on purpose. Of that I was certain. He had seen something, and before the evening was over I had to know what it was.

In a moment I found it. A spare room, the door slightly open.

I was about to walk in when I heard the hushed voices, muffled like my steps.

“I saw it! I saw exactly what happened!”

“I didn’t mean it–I’m sorry–”

I shrank away from the doorframe, hardly daring to breathe for fear of missing the conversation.

“Sorry won’t do anything about it, you idiot.” It was Calloway’s smooth voice. “It won’t fix anything!”

“But what do we do?” I didn’t recognize the second voice. 

A silence, then the bang of a fist against furniture. “Shut the door, for one thing. Anyone could hear us.”

My heart pounded against my chest as the door clicked shut. As soon as it closed, I leapt against it, ear pressed against the wood.

“You’re sure the dosage was right?”

“Dosage?” I murmured. My stomach suddenly felt heavy.

The other voice rose in pitch frantically. “Yes! Yes, I did it exactly as you said!”

“Well, why’d you listen to me?” Calloway’s voice boomed, and I startled. “I’m ruined. She’s ruined! You couldn’t have got one thing right, Douglas? One thing? The one task I have you accomplish–and you fail it! You botched it! She’s as good as dead!”

I had to resist bursting inside. 

Calloway wasn’t talking about Eunice, was he? Had he discovered something I had not?

“Well, what do we do, sir?” I could picture the speaker, cowering in a corner. He sounded like a whimpering dog.

A silence. 

Then Calloway spoke. “I’m leaving. Getting the doctor.”

Was she sick? Perhaps the wrong dose of medicine–yes, that made some sense, perhaps–


“I don’t care! I don’t care, alright? They’ll never know about you. I’ll tell them it was only my doing–my doing, you hear me?” 

Footsteps, heavy footsteps, charging to the door. There was nowhere for me to hide. Scrambling, I jumped aside, hoping I could blend in with the shadows. 

Calloway stopped before the door.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid! What did I think this would do, bring my father back? Bring him back from prison? Madden, that schmuck.”

My mouth fell open. Dread crept into my limbs, and suddenly it felt difficult to breathe. 

“And Sterling gone. What was I thinking, bumping off Sterling? I’m ruined, I’m ruined!”

My hand flew to my mouth.

Calloway stood on the other side of the door. I could see the shadows of his shoes peeking underneath the wood.

“I’m ruined.” His voice was quiet. Despairing. “Clementine, I didn’t mean it.”

My skin crawled at the sound of my own name.

He wasn’t speaking for me to hear. He didn’t know I was there.

I didn’t wait for the door to open and light to flood the dim hall. I didn’t wait for Calloway to find me standing in the corridor, mouth agape at his confession.

“Madden!” I cried, and my own throat choked me as I went. “Madden!”

I had to remind myself to blend in, to calm down. Unfortunately the damage was done. A couple dancers had raised their eyebrows at me.

He heard me from across the room, over the lovely chorus of the band. He turned–thank goodness he wasn’t with that girl–and something made him run over to me.

“It was Calloway,” I said. “Calloway poisoned him–Sterling–”

“What? Why?” His eyes widened. “Clementine, you’re so pale–what’s wrong? What happened?”

“It was Calloway,” I sputtered again. “Poison–”

“I heard you the first time. Where were you?” He took my arm and led me over to a chair. The music pierced my ears.

“Followed him. Calloway. Madden, he poisoned me.” 


“Calloway poisoned me!”

“How? What are you talking about?”

“The wine–he meant it for you, for arresting his father–”

He shook his head, incredulous, a light of panic reflected in his eyes. “When?” he asked me, before calling to a footman for a glass of water.

“I don’t know which one. I don’t know who it was. But you did it, you arrested him and that’s why he wants you dead.”

The realization in his face was painful to witness. “How do you know this?”

I gasped. My lungs burned. “I heard him say it. You have to catch him, Madden. They have to know. Promise me? He had someone with him–the footman!” I blurted, though it was just a guess. “I think it was–was him.”

A small crowd of guests had gathered around, but their faces blurred in and out.

“Doctor!” someone shouted. “Get a doctor!”

“Get a priest,” I muttered, and Madden’s face fell. 

“No, no, you’ll be alright. Here, lay down,” he said, helping me to the sofa. 

My breath kept catching in my throat. Someone passed Madden a cold rag and he placed it on my head, though how that was supposed to help anything I had no clue. I took frequent sips of water, coughing it down.

The crowd was probably having fits of hysterics, but I could only hear a dim humming sound. Then a shriek went up. Someone had caught Calloway.

Very suddenly I realized it wasn’t dizziness that made me feel ill watching Madden dance with that girl. What would I have done if it had been him who drank that glass?

“You know, I always loved you,” I remarked to Madden.

“For goodness’ sake, don’t talk like that.”

“But it’s true.”

He smoothed my hair, kneeling beside me. “Hold on for me, then, alright?”

“I don’t think that’s how poison works.” 

“Sh,” he chided. “You’re the invincible Clementine Finch. You’ll be fine.”

I shook my head. “I'm not invincible anymore.”

May 17, 2024 18:48

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Alexis Araneta
16:42 May 18, 2024

Got to love how this story flowed. It kept me wondering what comes next. The description is amazing too !


Milly Orie
01:32 May 19, 2024

Thanks so much Alexis!


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Lauren Green
20:07 May 24, 2024

Great piece! I love the imagery. So descriptive 👏🏻


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Jim LaFleur
09:14 May 22, 2024

Your story was captivating from start to finish. The suspense was real, and the twist with Calloway was brilliantly executed. 😊👏


Milly Orie
13:34 May 22, 2024

Thanks Jim!


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Mary Bendickson
06:58 May 20, 2024

Now these are true spies.


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Beth Connor
00:37 May 19, 2024

Really great use of dialog and the prompt. I enjoyed reading this!


Milly Orie
01:32 May 19, 2024

I’m so glad you enjoyed the read, Beth! 😊


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