If you lived in Harrow, Ontario, you would probably kill to be in the Writer’s Circle. If you’ve never lived or experienced small town life, you may not understand. However I’m hoping to assist with that. Picture a town with one main street. Sure, there is more than one coffee shop (two), and sure there is even a variety of recreation to be had: the county fair, the lavender festival, and other farm-based activities. But imagine the esteem reserved for someone with culture in a town of such monotony.
The writers within the Harrow County Writer’s Circle wore bespoke tweed vests, replete with a pocket of golden pens, curvy, crimson lettering spelling out “HCWC,” and a completely unnecessary golden pocket watch angling from a golden chain.
Mary had displayed more silk scarves than any member of history and liked to wear her vest with a melodramatic rose tucked next to her pens.
“A rose is the most classic symbol of romance, even more so than a heart because it can be smelled, embraced, tasted,” she would remind her colleagues whenever she thought it necessary, which was far too often.
Jerry had a less regimented look. It was usually a metal band t-shirt and dingy jeans that he wore with the vest. Sometimes even a dark cloak if he was headed to or from his live action role playing group. He had to drive to the big city for that type of activity. Some in Harrow could differentiate a dwarf from an elf but when you started adding hobbits and gnomes, the discussion was soon over their head.
You wouldn’t normally see Jerry and Mary in the same room for any length of time by choice, but that was the beauty of the Writer’s Circle. It wasn’t what you wrote or who you knew. It was all decided by the luck of the draw. Each year the Harrow County Fair collected ballots from all attendees who voted on winners of the writing contests. At the end of the event, five winners were drawn from a hat, and as part of their prize, they received entry to the much-coveted writer’s circle for the following year - along with a shiny ribbon and the tweed vest.
Before he was found murdered, Kevin appreciated that he could fit his binoculars in the side pocket of the vest since his second most prized accomplishment of late was spotting a semipalmated piper, and having it confirmed and accepted to the Ontario Rare Bird Alert epublication. The white-rumped sandpiper had really been his goal, and it’s a shame he was killed before seeing it. They had found his body unceremoniously shoved in the employee storeroom in the local Tim Horton’s. Some thought that meant it was an inside job, however before Kevin’s unfortunate arrival, the employees had never seen the point of keeping the room locked, so it could have truly been anyone.
Anton was the murder-mystery author of the group. So naturally, he had many theories on Kevin’s murderer; A poisoned double-double, an estranged evil twin, or perhaps even a lover driven to violence and madness all from dark jealousy at his love of birds. Mary was appalled at his theories. She was more upset by the lack of precedent - never had a member of the circle ever left before their one year term was completed. Now were they to be stuck with a substitute? Or even worse, were they to continue the group with only four members?
So that leaves Darla. The self-published children’s author of the group. Jerry made the mistake only once of asking if self-publishing actually counted.
“It is far more valid if you’ve done any research at all,” Darla had answered. “The big corporations, big pharma, they want you to buy their message. They want to control you, the narrative. It’s a false narrative and they have you buying fake news. Why do you think you get the flu. Have you ever stopped to think of it? And do you really think the world is round. Why would maps be flat then? Children need to read something educational, not communist propaganda!”
She continued to lecture for a straight hour after that too. Her vest was practically covered in badges with catchy but bizarre phrases. Her body was found pierced a thousand times with tiny little pinpricks from one of her many badges.
Mary was hysterical. She called a meeting for the remaining members.
“We must consult the handbook at once. This is an unprecedented disaster. We cannot continue without a complete circle. There must be a protocol!”
They had met at the other coffee spot besides Tim Horton’s since it was still an active crime scene. Darla had been found in the alleyway just around the corner from the Tim Horton’s and from their current position they could see the happenings of both crime scenes. Jerry had brought an arrangement of New Age artifacts to help with decision making, and Anton was scrambling through the handbook as Mary continued her diatribe.
“This will set us back weeks. Shall we postpone the workshop? We might even have to cancel it. It’s not like publishers have all the time and interest in the world to travel to such an out of the way town.”
She paused briefly while she tried to determine what on earth Jerry was doing. His eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply and audibly. He was holding a pendulum out over the table and it was vibrating erratically. He seemed to be getting increasingly excited.
It stopped and he yelled, “AHA! I knew it! There is a discombobulation of negative energies coinciding with Mercury Retrograde and the full moon. Onyx, Obsidian, Hematite can all be helpful for grounding - lavender and frankincense for calming. New acquaintances shall enter once old ones have been released.”
Anton started cackling and Mary just stared.
“Will you shut up!” she screamed. “We have work to do and there is no time for woo woo nonsense.”
Jerry stood up and his large frame toppled his chair.
“But it’s clear now what must be done.”
He scurried out of the shop and they didn’t see him alive again. Apparently pendulums had many uses indeed. Jerry had been strangled and found not far from Darla’s body. There were donut crumbs everywhere.
Once she heard the news of Jerry’s death, Mary was resolved. Something had to be done and quickly. She tightened her coral silk scarf and smoothed her hands over her vest. It was time to make a plan. There was a lesser known circle in Harrow. It wasn’t a writer’s circle, it was an artist’s circle. They didn’t have the prestige or level or organization as the HCWC. They definitely didn’t have vests. But they were fellow creatives and Mary knew they could be relied upon.
Mary called the leader of the artist’s circle. Her name was Agnes and although she would never admit it, she was quite hard of hearing.
Mary mostly shouted into the phone, “Agnes, dear, it has been ages, I know. Do you think you and the girls could help with something? Oh, you’ve heard then. Well - yes let’s meet at Tim Horton’s then. Splendid.”
The artist’s circle had assembled. It looked more disassembled though, as they were spread out through the coffee shop, colourful hats and scarves flying in every direction. These were the ladies of the community that put on the events: the bazaars, art in the park, summer concerts, the annual dog show. They were getting on in years, yes. But that meant they had the time to devote to important causes - no work and very few husbands remained to get in the way.
Mary called their attention, clearing her throat and standing up a little straighter.
“Ladies, I thank you all for coming. I know we are truly getting the best help we could ask for. It is a tragedy that we have lost three members. We must get to the bottom of this and stop it before the HCWC is completely destroyed. And now we must embark on our first stage of the plan - Canvassing.”
Mary and Agnes quickly divided the woman into groups of two and handed out maps designating areas of the town for each pair. They also had lists of suggested questions for the women: Have you seen any strangers lately? Do you harbour any ill feelings towards authors? Have you seen any violent murders take place? et cetera.
Once the ladies had received their various orders of timbits and tea or coffee, they were off, devoted to their task.
Mary hadn’t been sure if she should include Anton in the process at first, so she had contacted him and asked him to meet her around the time most of the ladies would already be on their way. They could pair up, and simultaneously discuss what they would do about the drop in membership. He walked into the shop just as the last colourful pair of ladies left, giggling. She hadn’t noticed much about Anton before but now she took in his greasy hair, large muscled frame, and dark eyes. He was wearing leather gloves and had a matching leather satchel that both looked smart with his vest. She wasn’t sure what she expected a mystery author to look like, but she also wasn’t sure Anton met the criteria.
He watched the ladies exit with a bemused expression and then shrugged and waited for Mary to speak.
“So,” she began, “I decided we needed some assistance and called in the ladies. We are canvassing the area. I thought you and I could pair up and at the same time decide what to do.”
Anton paused, considering this.
“Sure, anything to help. Although I don’t have as many ideas about what to do about the circle as I do about the possible murderer.”
Mary gestured to him to follow her through the door. She showed him one of the maps.
“We’re responsible for covering this area here. As for the circle, I’ve been thinking. Perhaps we should hold auditions? And interviews. It could be a much more thorough process than the draw even.”
They walked together, away from the diner and alleyway where their colleagues had met their demise. It wasn’t clear exactly when Mary started feeling endangered, perhaps when the sun became blocked by a particularly large cloud. Or it could have been when she saw Anton take out the knife. She stayed silent and tried to collect herself. Anton took a step forward, staring at her.
“You may be jumping to conclusions. But you should have known that as a mystery author I would’ve read Agatha Christie. There’s no way I’d let you get away with this.”
That surprised Mary.
“Away with what? What on earth am I trying to get away with?”
Her confusion mostly overshadowed her concern.
“I won’t fall for any tricks now. I have a strong survival instinct you know. Most of us who write and think about death so much do.”
Mary attempted to understand what his twisted mind might be accusing her of. Agatha Christie. . .oh.
“Why you can’t possibly think that I’m the one.”
She felt indignant. But if he thought she was the murderer, then perhaps he wasn’t the murderer. She scoffed. No it didn’t make the most sense to think that a concerning man holding a knife and threatening her wasn’t the murderer. The situation was certainly tense, and not part of the canvassing plan whatsoever. Anton took another step forward and Mary considered her options frantically. She had studied some Tai Chi in her day, but it hadn’t included any moves for fending off a knife-wielding assailant. She scrambled in her purse for something, anything weapon-like.
Anton yelled, “Stop that!” just as Mary became aware of several shouts from various directions. There were several colourful entities charging them from multiple directions. The knife was knocked from Anton’s hand and a look of shock claimed him as the ladies from the artist’s circle converged. Agnes harrumphed.
“Mary I’m not sure what is going on exactly. Were you two acting out scenarios? I didn’t know anyone had been killed with a knife. Anyway, we found the killer!”
Anton appeared shocked.
Mary was desperate to know, “Well how? Was it the canvassing? Who is it?”
“It was the manager of Tim Horton’s! Did you know he is an aspiring author? He has been jealous for years. Plotting and jealously watching all the HCWC meetings and all the time desperately wishing for one of those tweed vests.”
It was shocking. But an understandable perspective. People just didn’t respect the natural order of things these days. They thought they could take things like ballots and draws into their own hands. Be whatever they wanted to be regardless of merit, or luck of the draw. Mary sighed. It was sad really. This manager would now be imprisoned for life, there was truly no making up for what he’d done, and even after all he’s sacrificed he still wouldn’t be part of the HCWC.
Mary and Anton locked eyes and came to a silent agreement. They took off their vests. Anton handed his vest to Agnes.
“Perhaps this can be useful. I’d like you to give this to the police handling the arrest. Perhaps the manager will give a full confession in exchange for it. Get things over with.”
Agnes looked to Mary.
“And Mary what about your vest?”
“Well I think it’s time to change circles. Perhaps try a new medium. I’ve got the scarves for it. I’ll just need to find a hat.”
Agnes nodded solemnly.
“We’d love to have you.”
“Well anyone group that can complete a plan so successfully is a good group for me.”
She laid her vest down in the grass and placed the rose from her pocket carefully on top of it. The pocket watch ticked away steadily.
“Some good things come to an end but time sure keeps ticking away. Here’s to new creative endeavors, and moving on from the past.”
Agnes put a hand on Mary’s shoulder and they walked off together, admiring the wonderful palette of a setting sun in a small town of more culture and ingenuity than it ever gets credit for.