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  • Susan Russo Anderson

Characters in Distress

Cassandra Thatchley is a main character in Dorset in the Dark, the sixth Fina Fitzgibbons Brooklyn mystery. Like all Fina’s books, it’s a standalone.

Cassandra is one of those characters we often come across in books—a character in distress. I can identify with them because I’ve been there at one time or another, although my agonies have been minor compared to hers. I keep thinking about Cassandra and her suffering which, I know, continues beyond the end of the book, a sure sign that one day, I’ll write more of her story.

Cassandra is a widow twice over. She lost her first husband with the collapse of the twin towers and has two adult children by him. At the time of the story, her second husband has recently died, and her youngest daughter, Dorset, ten, is missing. When Fina meets her, Cassandra is slumped over on a park bench.

Here’s Fina telling the tale:

Outside, a cold March wind hit me full in the face. We’d been lucky so far this month—no frost to spoil the magnolias that bloomed in the backyard and the grass was doing a good job with green although the air that morning had a distinctive dampness to it, as if it were longing for the white stuff. I noticed a few new leaves on the ornamental pear tree in the front yard as I wrapped my arms around me and thought of warmer days soon to come. In the distance, the lights lining the Brooklyn Bridge gleamed and I quickened my pace. No sounds except for distant trucks rattling across metal, although in the early morning light, long shadows began spooking me, so I jogged the rest of the way to the park a few feet from the Promenade. That was when I saw her, a woman in a dark coat sitting on a bench in front of the swings.

“You’re out early,” I said, running in place to keep the blood flowing. She didn’t answer. She’d probably come here to be alone and think, just like me, and I was disturbing her.

I walked to the fence separating the playground from the Promenade and gazed across New York Harbor to the Statue of Liberty. I tried to focus on work, but my brain was fizzing with last night’s pandemonium, what with the babies crying and Denny moaning about the high cost of living in Brooklyn and swearing we had to move and the phone buzzing with a crazed neighbor’s call asking me to investigate another robbery in his drugstore on Montague Street.

While I stared out over the slow-moving water, the past intruded. I thought of Mom and the many times we’d stood on this very spot together. And in my mind I was back in high school and sitting next to her on the subway as she went for her umpteenth job interview shortly after she’d been fired from Heights Federal. Waiting for her outside the office into which she’d disappeared, I prayed for her just to be calm and impressive, not that frenetic, insistent Mom I’d known of late. I leaned against a wall, watching the traffic on Canal Street, wishing I understood Chinese while two men quarreled outside a hardware store and a shard of late afternoon light slashed pedestrians standing on silent corners. I could still see the slump of her shoulders when she returned. “Not this time,” she’d said. It was the lowest we’d ever gotten, and I knew I had to do something or we’d lose the house, so I began taking out the garbage for old Mrs. Adams across the street, then graduated to scrubbing her floors and throwing out old newspapers. Soon she recommended me to two of her neighbors, and before I knew it, Lucy’s Cleaning Service was born, a business that kept us off the streets. I can still remember the day I came home with a check to cover half the mortgage, waving it in front of Mom’s shocked face. It was enough so that our lawyer could plead our case with the bank. And after that, we’d never missed a payment. But cleaning homes and offices every night after class and on weekends meant I barely squeaked through the last two years of high school.

The wind picked up and seagulls squawked overhead. “You’d like your grandchildren,” I whispered as the sky lightened, rosy and cloud-ladened, and I let the clean smell of the ocean dispel the ache in me. “Carmella has your eyes and Robbie, your temperament—thank God.” I heard the breeze laugh, and before I got too far down maudlin lane, reminded myself how lucky I was to have a husband who loved me; to have two healthy, happy toddlers; to have a mother-in-law who didn’t meddle and helped with my business; to live close to my best friend since kindergarten, Cookie, who also helped me in my detective agency. I needed to get her involved in the drugstore robberies.

Watching the sun glint on the windows of a passing tug, I gave up on planning and turned back to the woman on the bench, who by now was pitching over, about to fall off her perch. Was she sleeping? In an alcoholic stupor? My heart skipped a beat. I walked over and, putting a hand on her shoulder, tried to steady her. “Ma’am?”

No response. I noticed a slight film of perspiration on her forehead as I removed her gloves and felt for a pulse. She was alive. I lifted an eyelid. Her pupils were dilated, it seemed to me, but I was no doctor.

“Are you okay?” I tried to ask, but my voice wouldn’t cooperate. In the distance, I heard the moan of a foghorn and sounds of runners on the Promenade, indistinct words, the beat of happy feet pounding the asphalt.

No answer from the woman.

She was thin, about five six or eight, much taller than me, with a high forehead, long dark wiry hair beginning to fleck with white, and a jutting nose. She wore jeans and, underneath a long coat, a polo shirt with a collar beginning to fray. Uggs on her feet. Observing the fine lines surrounding her mouth and eyelids, I pegged her as being middle-aged. On her left hand, she wore a wedding band with a hefty diamond. Her nails were long and painted with sky-blue polish. Not one chip. She was old enough and fit enough and well-put-together, so what was she doing here?

I shook her gently on the shoulder. Still no movement. I called 9-1-1.

It’s been several years since I created Cassandra, but she still haunts me, one of the characters who shares my life. I wonder how she is, what kind of decisions she’s been able to make. Is she still teaching? Maybe writing. Writing, I remind her, is good for the soul. I can see her, struggling for composure, always in motion—as are most characters in distress. Poor Cassandra. I can’t give away her whole story, but some would say she has achieved a peace of sorts.

Photo: cover, Dorset in the Dark. Design, Avalon Graphics


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