One question that lingers through the three Frank Nagler mysteries, is who is his wife Martha. She is described as his great love. But what did that mean? As I write the prequel to the series, called JUST COME HOME, this scene presents one answer:
“The river flowed in golden setting sunset below the bluff; to the east the water darkened to orange, then purple and the shoreline slipped to darkness.
The park above was silent, save for the separate calls of a pair of jays rattling the treed edges.
Nagler welcomed the silence, soaked it in to purge the clamor of the past ten days; welcomed the darkness to cover the flashing lights, the pale face of the latest victim; welcomed the drifting aroma of the wild roses that draped the wooden fence along the bluff.
The discovery of second victim, another older woman, was more disturbing than the first, found a week before. More damage was done to the body, and more effort was made to overturn the house. But at least we had a victim, Nagler thought. The first, Marion Feldman, had not yet been found.
The chief had sent Nagler home for a night after finding him at his desk sifting through drawings of the homes, making pages of notes and then scratching his head in worried confusion.
“Frank, she’ll still be dead tomorrow,” the chief said. “Take your wife out for a night.”
Martha picked a spent rose from a bush and pulled off the remaining petals one by one. “He loves me; he loves me not. He loves me…uh-oh, you’re in trouble Frank. There’s only one more petal and it’s a ‘loves me not.” What are you gonna do about that, huh. buddy?”
Nagler snatched the flower from her hand and tossed it over the bank. “Guess we’ll never know,” he said as he kissed her neck.
“Do you remember the first time we came here?” she asked as she picked another, fully petaled rose and inhaled its soft scent. Then she offered it to him, and he buried his nose in the flower before kissing her hand.
“It was seventh grade, after you played Juliet, opposite, what was his name?”
“Bennie Garza,” she smiled. “Bennie, Bennie, where for art thou, Bennie? He was always trying to tongue me when we kissed. But I had braces, and he’d jam his tongue against them. I almost laughed in the death scene.”
She leaned against the fence and shook her long hair away from her shoulders. “I pointed at you in the front row when I said, ‘where for art thou, Romeo.’”
“I remember. I felt there wasn’t anyone else in that auditorium but you and me.”
He leaned over to kiss her, but stopped and pulled down her lower lip. “Nope. No braces.”
She turned to face the river and pulled her hair to one side. “Zipper,” she whispered.
Martha shivered when she rolled her bare back on the wet lawn; her hair stuck to her shoulders and legs and strands were glued to her sweaty breasts.
“How many times have we been here?” she asked smiling, an arm draped across her head.
Nagler laughed. “Enough times to remember to bring a blanket,” he laughed.
He rolled her over and softly bushed grass clippings from her back and legs.
“I liked acting a lot,” she said. “I wish I hadn’t gotten sick when I did. I would have loved the chance to act in college.”
Nagler laid down on his back beside her. That had been the shock and the great test, he knew. Leukemia at seventeen. And two years of treatment, then two more of recovering her strength and watching her parents’ worried faces sag, the voices crack; the distant stares.
“I would have been a better Juliet in college, you know,” Martha said to the sky after she had rolled onto her back. “I knew about the loss, the pain, had already experienced the great love and felt the poetry flow through me, the words of a soul’s awakening coursing in my blood, bursting through the brain’s barrier, throwing open the world.”
She rolled to her side and faced Nagler, gently touching his face with a single finger, and kissing his eyes, cheeks, and mouth.
“You were my Romeo, dear Frank. “And for a moment I thought I would lose you.”
“No.” Words were trapped in his throat, unable to move. “Never,” he coughed.
She kissed him, holding his damp face in both hands.
“I had already lived the death scene,” she said. “Had already known the poison in my veins, felt the dragging pain of disease and how it felt to fade away, to feel limbs stiffen, breath slow, colors fade, to see a descending haze and have no way to cry out. Acting that out on a stage would have been easy. To die and then recover. The tears on my face at that moment would have been real.”
Nagler rose to an elbow, alarmed. “That’s past, right?”
She touched his face. “They think so, the doctors. There has been no sign of it returning.” She sat up and faced him. “But is it called remission for a reason.”
“Are you not telling me something, Martha. Is it back?”
“No, Frank. No, no.” She shrugged. “Still they test. As long as they’re testing, we are okay.”
She stood. “Got a shirt there, buddy? You got a naked woman covered in grass clippings here. What would my mother say?”
As they left the park, his pager sounded with a short message: “New victim.”
The Frank Nagler mysteries are: THE SWAMPS OF JERSEY; A GAME CALLED DEAD; and THE WEIGHT OF LIVING.
The Frank Nagler mysteries are available online at:
The Frank Nagler books are also available at the following New Jersey libraries:
Mountainside; Morris County Library; Somerset County Library System; Bernardsville Public Library; Hunterdon County Public Library; Mount Olive Public Library; Phillipsburg; Warren County, Franklin branch; Mount Arlington; Wharton; Dover; Hackettstown; Clark, Parsippany and the Ramsey library, as part of the Bergen County Cooperative Library System; The Palmer (Pa.) Branch of the Easton Public Library; Deptford Free Public Library and Franklin Township Library (Gloucester Co.), New Providence Memorial Library.