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Classic Round Robin

Chapter 8

by JoAnn Baca

 

 

While Devin was using his considerable charm to try to convince Nancy that he and Rebecca were not insane, that such a place as the tunnels did exist, and that the man who put the light in Catherine Chandler’s eyes lived there, their mutual friend was assisting the police in sorting out a new twist in the Hastings murder mystery.

 

Since interviewing the man calling himself John MacRonald, Catherine had felt niggling doubts. She kept trying to imagine how a patient in an asylum could have fooled her smart-cookie friend, Jenny, into thinking he was a famous writer from Scotland…or how he could have carried out extremely complicated plans that included contacting a major publishing house to promote his book and drafting legal documents to effect that promotion. The police, it seemed to Catherine, were too eager to close the case, too quick to satisfy themselves that the identification found on the man who called himself John MacRonald was legitimate.

 

She entered the visiting room with apprehension, knowing the man she was about to speak to had plotted against her life, and had shown a propensity for sudden violence. But she also knew there had to be more to the story the cocky charmer had almost too easily given up in their previous interview. She had believed him when he had told her of Stephen’s involvement – that seemed all too plausible. Stephen’s maniacal fascination with her had not diminished in the time he’d spent in the asylum. Even now, she sometimes got postcards from him, and once even a whispered threat had been left on her answering machine. There were obvious holes in the security of the asylum, ones which she could only hope had been patched since the embarrassment of Mr. MacRonald’s escape.

 

As she was pondering the possible circumstances of the escape, MacRonald was led, shackled, into the room and seated across from her at a heavy metal table. A guard stayed with them, standing alertly in the corner.

 

“I have some further questions for you,” she began.

 

He smirked and nodded. “Sure. But let me tell you first that your old friend Stephen says to say hello, and…he’ll catch you later.”

 

She ignored the threat, as sudden inspiration struck her, and instead of rising to his bait, she barked at him, “Why have you been impersonating John MacRonald?”

 

The shocked look on the man’s face proved her question had been inspired. “What…? How did…? I mean….” he sputtered.

 

“We know everything now,” she bluffed. “You might as well come clean.”

 

And, surprisingly, he did.

 

His story was remarkable. Since leaving Scotland several years earlier, he’d made a decent living by impersonating his more accomplished identical twin brother, the real John MacRonald, who was developing his career as a writer. Publication of his first books had led to modestly successful sales in the U.S., and Aaron MacRonald – his twin’s real name – had begun contacting small independent book sellers around the United States, identifying himself as John MacRonald and telling them he was embarking on a book tour. He had lined up a succession of such appearances and invitations to speak at book clubs and colleges, always for a small stipend, enough to provide a meager but fairly steady income. He made sure never to raise his profile too high, and to keep tabs on his brother’s whereabouts at all times so as not to “appear” someplace in the United Kingdom or on the Continent at the same time as Aaron’s “John” was appearing somewhere in the U.S. As his brother hadn’t made the jump across the Pond to do a book tour until the one recently planned, Aaron had had several good years impersonating him, even eventually getting identification “proving” he was John.

 

What Catherine had learned from police and hospital records compiled after his arrest was that, unfortunately, “John’s” mental state, never solid, had begun lurching precariously in the past year or so, and he had begun to display marked tendencies towards violence and depression. After a few encounters with the police, he had been committed involuntarily to the asylum. Now, as he spoke, she learned that, being a clever man despite his mental instability, Aaron had quickly discovered ways to get what he wanted there. And he had become very friendly with a man in a wheelchair with a fascinating story to tell about a lion-faced man and a beautiful woman. His wheelchair-bound friend had promised riches to him, and Aaron soon found an avenue to gain those riches: his brother finally was coming to America, and his publicist was a good friend of the beautiful woman’s.

 

Aaron had enlisted the aid of a man he had befriended while in New York, a man with whom he’d engaged in minor criminal activity to supplement his “book tour” income; and with his help, Aaron had slipped out of the asylum and gone into hiding. At first they had merely stalked Jenny and Catherine, trying to learn all they could about their habits and activities. It was a simple matter, later, to carry out his plan to surprise and overpower his brother in his hotel room and replace him. The first thing he’d done upon taking his brother’s place was to cancel his appointment with Jenny, who unfortunately had already met with and gotten to know the real John MacRonald; much as that had aggravated him, it wouldn’t do to slip up. And his plan involved keeping his brother alive and maintaining the ruse so that John could take the ultimate fall for him once he’d wreaked revenge upon Stephen’s nemesis and his erstwhile fiancé.

 

At that last, Catherine blinked. The real John MacRonald was still alive! She composed her face and suggested, “So, do yourself a favor and tell me where your brother is now.” At his wary scowl, she added a sweetener. “I can try to intervene for a lighter sentence if you do,” she promised, although silently she also promised this cold-blooded murderer that her intervention would be half-hearted at best.

She hadn’t truly expected him to acquiesce and had already mentally begun considering the steps she’d need to take to mobilize a search for the real John MacRonald, when Aaron leaned forward and asked, “Really? You’d do that?” He had turned on the celebrated MacRonald charm once more, snapping it on like a light despite having been surly and threatening minutes before.

 

“Absolutely,” she averred, trying her best to look like she’d been taken in by him. She contemplated how ridiculous her promise really was in the face of what he’d done. He couldn’t honestly expect any mercy, could he? But she hadn’t counted on his unbalanced mental state.

 

“You think I might get out soon?” he murmured, all smoldering eyes and suggestive tone.

 

“I’ll do all I can for you,” she responded, trying not to laugh and amazed at his gullibility, but immensely grateful for it.

 

“OK then!” he agreed, almost gaily. His mood swings were making her mind whirl. “I’ve got him stashed at a walk-up in Brooklyn; my girlfriend’s looking after him.”

 

Girlfriend. Catherine tried to imagine a woman desperate enough to accept this unbalanced man as her boyfriend, but she had to acknowledge that his good looks, his adorable brogue, and his ability to charm and convince hundreds of serious booklovers all mitigated for such a possibility. He was very good at pretending.

 

Some poor woman was about to get a serious wake-up call…and be arrested as an accessory to murder, kidnapping, and who knows how many other crimes. Catherine hoped that Aaron had been worth it.

 

***

 

“Please, don’t contact Cathy,” Devin pleaded to a wary Nancy.

 

She’d listened patiently, but with mounting disbelief, as his story had unfolded. He and this woman, Rebecca, seemed normal enough, sane, truthful…but their story! So when she said she’d happily follow them to parts unknown once she’d called her friend to ensure it was all true, Devin’s reply only aggravated her already aroused suspicions.

 

“I know you said this would be a surprise, but you have to admit, it’s not entirely wise for someone to take the word of two complete strangers about something as…unusual as this. I understand now why Cathy’s had to be secretive, and why she hasn’t talked about her Vincent in any but the vaguest terms, but….”

 

“If you can see all that,” Devin argued, “then can’t you take the next step and trust?”

 

“Why would we have come all the way here from the city, out of the blue, to tell you this if it weren’t true?” Rebecca added.

 

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out!” Nancy replied, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

 

 

***

 

“He what?” Jenny sat down with a thump on Catherine’s couch, having just been informed that her client, John MacRonald, was actually not a murderer, and in fact was a victim of kidnapping and impersonation. “The man I met.…” she began.

 

“He was the real John MacRonald,” Catherine answered.

 

“That gorgeous Scot with the charming-rogue personality is an upstanding citizen after all?”

 

Catherine nodded. “And his brother’s just like him…except for the upstanding citizen part. He’s more the crazed stalker-murderer type. But other than that…they’re exactly alike!”

 

“I’m so confused,” Jenny replied, shaking her head.

 

“I imagine you’re not alone! The police are having a time of it trying to unravel the paperwork, and the media’s caught wind of the whole twins angle and they’re about to go to town with the story.”

 

Jenny perked up. “No publicity is bad publicity. This’ll do wonders for book sales!” she chirped, and they both laughed.

 

Then Jenny turned serious. “Now, about that dream….”

   

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