Clea Simon | Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey

Are our pets every really gone?

That's just one of the questions plaguing Dulcie Schwartz. A grad student at Harvard, Dulcie lives for research. Her discipline — the Gothic English novel of the late 18th Century — may seem minor to some. But for Dulcie, it's reason to dive into the library, into the ordered, reasoned world of books. At least, until her roommate is murdered, her mother starts calling with some strange psychic dreams. And the ghost of her late, great cat Mr. Grey appears to help her through it all ... or over the edge.

Welcome to the world of Shades of Grey! The British publisher Severn House will be publishing Shades of Grey in June in the UK and in September in the US. Be a real-life heroine and support an independent bookstore like Harvard Book Store, Brookline Booksmith, High Crimes, Mystery Lovers Bookshop or Kepler’s. Harvard Book Store and Brookline Booksmith even have signed copies in stock! (Yes, you can purchase Shades of Grey from Amazon, too.)

From the first Dulcie Schwartz mystery, Shades of Grey

Chapter 1.

“The carving knife was the last straw.”

Stomping along the steaming sidewalk, her mood matching the thunder clouds overhead, Dulcie knew that the sentence made no logical sense. How could a knife be a straw? She could hear herself asking her students that, her usual wry smile softening the criticism as she urged them back on the metaphorical track.

But as she trudged toward the apartment she shared, for the summer and increasingly unwillingly, with Tim, she couldn’t stop the grammatical train wreck of her thoughts.

She sighed and paused for a moment, looking around at the other drones on the street. How did they do it, day after day? A man in a suit passed by. At least he’d been able to shed his jacket, which now hung over his shoulder. No such relief for Dulcie. Pantyhose in July ought to be illegal. Had last summer been so muggy and dense?

Thirty minutes before, she’d been shivering, trapped in the recycled cold of the over-air conditioned Priority Insurance office, like a bug in some global version of “contrast and compare.” She shouldn’t be temping. Shouldn’t have been in that soulless place at all. Insurance. Bah! It was all numbers juggling. All about profits and odds; nothing that actually affected people. She should have been in the pleasingly cool depths of Widener Library, lost in the fogs of the northern moors. Or, perhaps, on a night voyage across the Carpathians in a horse-drawn carriage. At the very least, she should have her thesis topic by now. According to the terms of her biggest grant, she should be writing already. But right before the holiday break, she’d heard that summer school enrollment was down. Which meant that her teaching section was canceled. No “Nightmare Imagery in the Early British Novel,” and by then it was too late to even grab a section of the basic required survey course, English 10, the bane of freshmen and the salvation of starving grad students. It was too late to back out of the summer sublet that had let Tim into her home. And although she hadn’t known it at the time, it was too late for Mr. Grey.

Thoughts of her late, great cat made her stop again in the street. Mr. Grey had been a stray, full-grown and sleek, when she’d found him her freshman year. He’d been so skinny at the end, though, right after Memorial Day, the ribs obvious beneath his silky grey fur. Even before the vet told her, she knew it was the end of the line for the big cat. Still, she’d tried everything. And now, even though the vet was being supersweet about the bills, she was hundreds of dollars in debt, with no real job, and a roommate who teased her about her still-raw grief.

That was bad enough, but then Tim had taken her knife. One of her few good cooking utensils, along with a cast-iron pan and a two-quart pot that always cleaned up well, no matter how burned, that knife had been her mother’s second best. She’d found it, like she’d found her Wheeler Latin grammar, her new iPod earbuds, and most of her vintage soul collection in Suze’s room – Tim’s room as it would be until Labor Day. She’d gone in to close the window during one of the summer’s many thunderstorms and found it on the carpet, coated with some dried-on grime, its edge knicked and the point slightly bent. When he’d gotten in, hours after the rain had come and gone, Tim had given her some vague excuse. Something about the window screen getting stuck and how the insulation she and Suze had put in the winter before was really a health hazard, meaning the whole thing was her fault. It was after two by then, and Dulcie had been half asleep – and too distracted thinking about what use he’d put her Barry White CDs to listen to details. There’d been no point. Timothy S. Worthington was a walking entitlement – the “S” standing for yet another Harvard building funded by one of his ancestors – and she knew she’d never get a straight answer out of him. The knife was damaged, possibly ruined. It had been the last straw.

A car honked, swinging around the corner as if driven by demons, and Dulcie jumped back. How she missed Mr. Grey! He’d always seemed to understand her moods, coming up with a catnip mouse when she needed distraction. Sleeping quietly by her feet when she was reading or grading papers. She’d called Suze almost every night those last few weeks, and even though her friend was starting her internship with a hot-shot judge, Suze had listened. Only after the latest bill came, and her mother confided in her usual dithering way that she needed a loan to keep her own power on, had Dulcie cut back. Which left her stranded, alone, and temping in downtown insurance offices until September.

The knife, as Tim would never understand, was more than a utensil. When poor old Lucy Schwartz had packed up her daughter to send her back East, she’d been at a loss as to what practical things her daughter would need. Too many years on the commune, as Dulcie still thought of the arts colony, and too many psychedelic mind excursions as well, probably. But along with an oversized quilt, eight sweaters all hand-knitted into various shapes, and her own Riverside Shakespeare, the onetime hippie had pulled the second best of everything from her small kitchen. “Give me a penny for luck, dear,” she’d insisted as she’d wrapped the long knife in newspaper for packing. “If you don’t ‘buy’ it from me, it may end up hurting you.”

Well, Dulcie had given her a penny, and hadn’t looked back. Leaving the Oregon forests for the university-centered metropolis, she found she’d loved the city’s bustle and diversity. Everything was businesslike here. Even her reading now had order, strengthened by the discipline of academia. And when Dulcie had discovered Gothic literature, which set its wildest imaginings against the strict conventions of the 18th Century novel, she knew she’d found her niche. It wouldn’t hurt if her dissertation was on something that might actually get her a teaching gig, something hot like “Conventions of Morality in 19th Century Clerical Verse” or “Beyond the Metaphor: Physics and Metaphysics in Science Fiction’s Golden Age.” But she’d worry about the job market later. What she really needed – and soon – was a topic. That, and a few good friends, her cat, and some decent kitchenware.

Instead, she had Tim. Rounding the corner, at last, onto her block, she felt the first drop of rain. Great. But maybe if it really poured, the heat would break. Another drop. She sped up – increasing the pain of those godawful heels. Maybe she’d treat herself to a good cry. Tim was rarely home in the early evening; the habits that had him sleeping in while she got ready for work and out when she got home were her favorite of his traits. A third drop hit her face. Definitely a good cry. She knew she wasn’t up to any more teasing. One more “it’s just a cat” comment would lay her out. But if Tim were true to form, she would have the apartment to herself. She could collapse on her bed in her tiny room, at the back of the top floor, that she thought of as her garrett. The weather was certainly cooperating. But as she crossed the street, she was startled to see a cat on the front stoop leading up to her front door. A long-haired grey who looked startlingly like Mr. Grey.

I wouldn’t go in, if I were you. Dulcie spun around. The voice had seemed to be immediately behind her, calm and deep and right by her ear. But as she peered down the street, she couldn’t see anybody there.

I know it’s about to pour, but why don’t you hit that coffee place with the good muffins instead? There was nobody behind her. The street was deserted. Was she hearing voices now?

Just good advice. That’s all. The cat on the middle step was washing its face, carefully licking its left paw and then running it over each ear in turn.

“Mr. Grey?” It made no sense. The cat kept washing, straining sideways now to get its tongue into the thick grey ruff.

Dulcie closed her eyes. The heat, grief, and these damned pantyhose. She was losing it. When she dared to look again, the cat was gone. Undoubtedly, it was a neighborhood cat, a lovely grey she’d never noticed before. Undoubtedly, it had fled the rain. Climbing the stairs, she reached for the key and noticed that the white front door was ajar.

“Good work, Tim.” At least, she no longer had to worry about Mr. Grey getting out. She pushed the door further open and started up the steep stairs that led from the pint-sized entryway up to her second-floor living room. God, she was wiped. For a moment, she paused and thought again of Mr. Grey. He’d always met her at the front door, his plume of a tail leading the way in.

“Mr. Grey, I miss you.” She couldn’t resist saying out loud. Immediately, she regretted it. What would her jerk roommate say if he’d heard?

“Tim, are you there?” She hiked up the stairs, desperate to shed the pantyhose. If Suze had still lived with her, or any woman for that matter, Dulcie would have started to peel them off as soon as she’d walked in the door.

Over the top stair, she could see a large dark spot on the industrial tan rug, reaching from behind the sofa into the middle of the carpet. Great. Dulcie and Suze had lived in this apartment close to four years, but only in the last two months with Tim had the place begun to show its age. She closed her eyes. “Tim –” She was going to have to say something. Not that it would do any good. “Tim!”

With that yell, she made it up the last two stairs and looked around. The spot was huge, a wet-looking stain that seemed to be spreading still. And inside the dark spot was something white, like a fleshy spider. Something that looked very much like a hand. Taking two steps forward, she peeked behind the sofa’s raised and padded side, to see that the fleshy spider was indeed a hand, and that it was attached to an arm that extended out of a familiar “Beer Good!” T-shirt. Dulcie blinked, not believing what was before her. Cat or no cat, pantyhose or not, Tim was beyond teasing her now. Instead, he was lying on his back by the sofa on the living room rug, with her mother’s second-best carving knife in his chest.

Copyright © 2009 by Clea Simon