Illustrations by Elizabeth Whelan
It was, quite literally, a dark and stormy night, when MURDER ON C-DOCK, my latest mystery, was conceived. At the time I wrote it, I was living on a houseboat in Washington, D.C., only a short walk from the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, where I worked. Living on a houseboat had been a childhood fantasy of mine, so after my divorce, I bought a 44-foot houseboat and lived aboard for the following twelve years.
“What’s it like in the winter?” was one of the most common questions we liveaboards were asked.
“You want to be careful of your footing on the icy dock,” we’d respond. “The water is cold.”
But our boats were well insulated and warm, and on dark and stormy nights, dock people would gather on a neighbor’s boat with a jug or two of wine and talk river talk.
This particular night I recall clearly. It was February. The wind was whipping up whitecaps in the normally sheltered Washington Channel, where the Capital Yacht Club’s three docks, A, B, and C, were located. Boats strained against their lines, swaying and surging and rocking as the lines tightened and loosened. Each of the three docks was a floating dock with giant steel rings that moved up and down steel pilings as the water level rose and fell. Our boats were always level with the docks.
That night the steel rings clanged loudly against the pilings as the channel’s waves beat against the floating docks. It was snowing. Wind-blown sleet and spray rattled against the portholes and windshields.
I made my way slowly along the icy dock to my neighbor Evie’s boat, placing my feet with care so I wouldn’t slip. Light from her houseboat reflected off the ice on the dock. As I got close, I could hear voices of our neighbors, Sam and his wife, Marilyn, who lived aboard the big Connie on B-Dock.
“Permission to board?” The usual polite greeting. I timed my step from the dock onto the deck of Evie’s boat, Tender Trap, to make sure her boat had moved as close to the dock as the lines would allow, grasped the boat’s hand railing with the free hand that wasn’t holding the wine jug, and stepped aboard and into the warm, crowded saloon of her houseboat.
“Hell of a night,” said Sam, a short, stocky man with a waxed mustache that stuck out at least three inches on each side.
Marilyn tossed her long white hair over her shoulder. “I hear you and the commodore had a bit of a discussion.”
There were four others there besides Sam and Marilyn, Evie and me. Someone laughed.
“Don’t remind me,” I said.
“At least you’re not alone,” said Marilyn.
I handed the jug to Evie, who set it on the counter. She liked experimenting with her hair color, and tonight it was a glittery, metallic red.
I shucked off my dripping wet foul weather jacket and hung it on a peg along with other wet gear, and then sat down in an empty folding chair. “Can’t we vote him out?” I said, looking around at my neighbors. “Get rid of him somehow? ”
Evie had a high pitched giggle. “We could murder him,” she said, along with her giggle. She was trying to work off the jug’s cap.
Sam got unsteadily to his feet as a gust of wind hammered the side of Tender Trap. “Let me get that.” With a masterful twist, the cap was off. “There you go.” He handed the jug back to Evie and turned to me. “You could do it. No one would finger you.” He twirled the ends of his mustache like the villain in an old movie.
I pointed at myself. “Not me. I’m too chicken.”
The boat swayed and we swayed with it.
Rusty, who worked at the gas station on Seventh Street, was sitting on the step leading down to the galley. She steadied the plastic glass of wine she’d set down on the step beside her. “Someone oughta write a murder mystery. Kill the bastard off.”
“Great idea,” said Henry, who was sitting on the settee next to the console. “Sam, you’re a writer.” Henry, a tall, dignified black guy with white hair and a white mustache, taught economic theory at Howard University.
“Not me.” Sam shook his head.
“What about Cynthia?” said Marilyn, speaking, not to me, but to everyone else. “She’s good with words.”
“Yes!” A chorus from all.
“You wrote that article on Captain Kitty,” said Rob, who was sitting next to Henry. Captain Kitty was Evie’s boat cat. “It wasn’t bad.” Rob worked in one of the super-secret spy agencies on the other side of the river that no one was supposed to know about. We all knew he worked there. He explained to me once, in the hushed tone of voice he liked to use, how he could kill someone by filling the proposed victim’s cigarette with the non-stick lining scraped out of a frying pan.
At first, I hadn’t noticed Bud standing in the galley, drinking something, probably his usual single malt Scotch. “Go ahead, Cynthia. We’ll help.” Bud owned a yellow bi-plane and a glider. One day he invited a bunch of C-Dock people to go up in his glider, and we did. Bud took a swig of his Scotch. “Why not. You can do it.”
“Write about the fire,” said Marilyn, running her fingers through her hair.
One of the boats on C-Dock had caught fire about six weeks earlier, and collectively, we still shuddered at the close call. The D.C. fireboat and what seemed like the whole metropolitan fire department responded. The entire dock, with its boats, their gasoline tanks, and everyone nearby, could have gone up in flames. Ron, who’d been aboard, had narrowly escaped.
“Definitely the way to start the book,” said Bud.
“How’s Ron doing, by the way?” asked Henry. “Haven’t seen him around since the fire.”
“Rehab,” said Sam, pouring himself a fresh glass of wine. “Some lung damage, but mostly his hands.”
“You can put in some cool stuff,” said Rusty, shifting around in her seat on the stairs to address me. “Like how pretty it is when the cherry blossoms drop in the Tidal Basin and drift around our boats. And the ducks, you gotta have them in the book.”
“We can give you a lot good lines,” said Rob. “You remember that nut case who called the Washington Monument the ‘hooded Klansman with red eyes’?”
So that’s how it started. I got dragooned into it. I didn’t think I could turn out a book. Writing a book seemed a colossal task, like knitting a sweater or worse. But the pages piled up and the story evolved and I put in all the dock people I loved and the ones I didn’t love and killed off the ones I hated, including the commodore.
Like most first books, it was unpublishable. I did get an agent, but she couldn’t sell it. I revised it and revised it and revised it again.
The breakthrough came through the Wednesday Writers, the ones who got me together with Howie, the Love of My Life.
“You need to . . .” “Cut the part where. . .” “The characters aren’t distinct enough. . .” “Why not . . .” On and on, one Wednesday meeting after another.
I did as they said, and revised some more. I had never been comfortable with my original protagonist. For some reason, I didn’t understand her or her way of thinking. I didn’t feel as though I had enough respect for her.
One Wednesday evening as I listened to suggestions from Lisa, light dawned. I would base Persie Lee Butler, my main character, on her. I love Lisa. She’s got a daughter who will figure prominently in future books. Lisa is a marathon runner. I can have her run through some of Washington’s beautiful scenery.
And the book, MURDER ON C-DOCK, came to life. ♥
Susanna Sturgis wrote a press release for me:
For immediate release, 24 November 2014
For 12 years, Cynthia Riggs lived in a houseboat on the Washington, D.C., waterfront — and she’s put her nautical experience to nefarious use in her forthcoming mystery, Murder on C-Dock.
When Commodore Dunn is murdered, there’s no shortage of suspects: everyone on C-Dock had reason to wish him dead.
Persie Lee Butler’s sleuthing soon turns up a web of secrets that goes back 30 years — and puts her own life in danger. Murder on C-Dock features a stunning cover by Martha’s Vineyard artist Elizabeth R. Whelan, a sailor herself who knows her boats.
Pre-publication copies of Murder on C-Dock by Cynthia Riggs-Attebery will be available at the Artisans Fair on Thanksgiving weekend, Friday and Saturday, November 28th and 29th at the New Ag Hall in West Tisbury. Publication date is January 2015, Cleaveland House Books, trade paperback, $19.95