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Jessica Fletcher is a bestselling mystery writer who has a knack for stumbling upon real-life mysteries in her various travels.
Donald Bain, Jessica Fletcher’s longtime collaborator, is the writer of over eighty books, many of them bestsellers.
“The only thing that this so-called women’s shelter does is to foster disharmony in otherwise harmonious households here in Cabot Cove. For the Cabot Cove town government to be providing financial support to it is a travesty, a prime example of the misuse of taxpayer funds.”
The speaker was Richard Mauser, owner of a metal-fabricating factory in an industrial park alongside the Cabot Cove River, and an elected member of the town council. Mauser, age sixty, was a bombastic naysayer whose fiery speeches during council meetings were often the butt of jokes for those in attendance, but this didn’t deter him from offering his opinion on anything and everything. He was a large man with a shock of copper-colored hair fringed with gray, and whose suits—he always wore a suit and tie to meetings—tended to be a size too small for his bulky frame. His white dress shirts pressed into the folds of his neck, and his face reddened whenever he took the floor and railed against whatever was being considered, shouting down those who disagreed with his positions and disparaging anyone who dared challenge him.
This night was no different.
I’d had a previous engagement and hadn’t planned on attending the meeting, but when I heard that renewing funding for the women’s shelter would be on the agenda, I canceled my plans. Now I sat in the front row along with Edwina Wilkerson, a former social worker at the hospital and a friend of many years, who’d spearheaded the establishment of the shelter two years earlier. Edwina was one of those women who seemed to be in perpetual motion, and her wiry frame attested to her active life. She was coiled like a snake as Mauser spoke; I was ready to grab her should she leap up and attack the man.
“We’ve been sold a bill of goods,” Mauser shouted, “told by the usual do-gooders in town that we evenneeda shelter for”—he paused and smirked—“for the fair sex. Well, let me tell you the facts. Let me differentiate between reality and fancy. The only thing the women’s shelter accomplishes is to give women an excuse for leaving their hardworking husbands and adding to the divorce statistics. You want to talk about family values? I’ll tell you about family values, and this shelter isn’t it. Now, frankly, I don’t give a damn whether these do-gooders want to run a shelter and pay for it out of their own pockets or collect donations from anyone they can hoodwink, but Cabot Cove has no business allocating funds to help sustain this travesty of morality.” He glared at our mayor, Jim Shevlin, who sat with a small smile on his lips. Jim had had to put up with Mauser’s mad rants for the years that he’d been mayor, and I admired him for his calm patience.
Mauser ran out of steam and sat heavily in his chair.
“That man is a heart attack waiting to happen,” Dr. Seth Hazlitt, who sat on the other side of me, muttered.
“The man is despicable” was Edwina’s whispered editorial comment in my ear.
“We’ve heard from Mr. Mauser,” Mayor Shevlin said. “Let’s open the discussion and hear other viewpoints.”
Edwina quickly got to her feet. “First of all,” she said, “I deeply resent the way Dick Mauser has characterized me and others associated with the shelter as do-gooders who are out to hoodwink donors. The fact is that the shelter provides a much-needed haven for women and their children who have been subjected to domestic abuse. Whatever funds the town contributes to the shelter each year help save lives, something that can’t be said for Mr. Mauser’s plant, which pollutes our river andthreatenslives.”
Mauser stood and shook a finger at Edwina as he boomed, “I won’t allow this meeting to turn into a forum for the dissemination of lies and character slurs.”
“Sit down, Dick,” Mayor Shevlin said. “You’ve had your say. Now it’s Ms. Wilkerson’s turn to have hers. Ms. Wilkerson, please confine your comments to the subject at hand.”
Edwina gave an impassioned defense of the shelter and the need for it. When she was finished, the mayor asked whether anyone else wished to address the subject. I was about to stand, but Seth Hazlitt was on his feet and facing the forty or so people who’d attended the hearing. The room was silent as one of our town’s leading citizens took the floor.
“First of all,” he said, “I’ve been one of those people who, some say, have been ‘hoodwinked’ into donating money to the shelter—and I’ve done so with pride, and intend to donate more. Now, I know where people who oppose the shelter are coming from. There are folks, and well-meanin’ ones, I might add, who view having a women’s shelter as sayin’ something negative about the town they’ve grown up in. But let’s face the facts. Cabot Cove is no longer a sleepy little town bypassed by the problems larger cities have. Sure, we’re still blessed compared to lots of other places. Our problems are relatively minimal. But that doesn’t mean we can sweep ’em under the rug. And unfortunately domestic abuse is one of these problems. I’m not sayin’ it’s an epidemic, but it exists, and anyone who denies it has blinders on. Mayor Shevlin and the council are doin’ the right thing by supporting the shelter despite Mr. Mauser’s protests.”
There was a smattering of applause as Seth sat. I patted his arm. Although doctor-patient confidentiality prohibited Seth from naming names, he had confided in me that a few of his patients were women who’d been abused, and said that he’d even treated a man whose wife had the habit of striking out at him physically, causing bruises as well as humiliation. Seth said the man was grappling with intense shame at having been hit by a woman, even though he hadn’t provoked her attacks, nor had he responded in kind.
The mayor called for a vote on whether to provide funding for the shelter for the upcoming year. The measure passed with Richard Mauser the lone “nay” on the council. He grabbed the briefcase that sat next to him and stormed from the room, muttering under his breath.
“That man!” Edwina exclaimed.
“Just your typical, run-of-the-mill blowhard” was Seth’s evaluation. “Coffee, anyone?”
The three of us went to Mara’s, on the dock, where Edwina and I asked for decaf lattes, a new offering by the town’s favorite eating establishment. Seth specified a cup of regular coffee—“I never did understand this latte business,” he said—and added a slice of lemon meringue pie to his order.
“Well,” I said to Edwina, raising my cup to her, “we have something to celebrate: another year of funding for the shelter.”
“No thanks to our favorite council member,” she said.
“Forget him,” said Seth. “Likes to hear himself talk.”
“He’s so self-righteous.”
“The pie is delicious,” Seth said. “Anyone like a taste?”
I deliberately shifted the topic of conversation from the shelter to less contentious subjects, and Edwina calmed down. As we stepped out into the cold, humid March night air, she thanked Seth and me for our support. “I’ll see you tomorrow night?” she asked me.
“I’ll be there,” I said. As a member of the shelter’s board, I’d volunteered to be on hand one evening a week in case anyone walked in seeking services.
Later that night, as the final scenes of the original black-and-white version ofBrief Encounter—the Technicolor remake for television starring Sophia Loren and Richard Burton was, in my humble opinion, dreadful—faded out and THE END came up on the screen, I reflected on the events of that evening and my involvement in them.
The Cabot Cove women’s shelter had been founded two years earlier. While Edwina was the public face of the committee formed to establish the refuge for abused women, it had been Seth Hazlitt’s brainchild. The genesis of the idea had surfaced at a dinner party at my house attended by Seth; Edwina; our sheriff, Mort Metzger; his wife, Maureen; and a few other friends. Seth had cited statistics he’d recently read—twenty-five million American women are the victims of domestic violence each year, resulting in more than two thousand homicides. Mort reminded us of a murder that had taken place only one year earlier in the next town down the coast: A drunken husband had killed his wife in the midst of a violent argument.
“I heard that their cops knew something was going on,” Mort said.
“Well, couldn’t they do anything?” his wife asked.
“They answered a couple of calls, but the wife, she always refused to press charges. Their hands were tied.”
“How awful,” Maureen said.
“The point is,” said Seth, “Cabot Cove isn’t immune from domestic violence. Seems to me that it might be time for setting up a place here where women can come if they need to escape trouble at home.”
“Unfortunately, I know someone who would benefit from such a place,” Edwina said. “Her husband treats her like chattel. He’s always putting her down in front of others, and I’m certain that he’s hurt her more than once when she stood up for herself. I won’t mention any names, but some of you certainly know her. Of course, she’s too proud or ashamed or scared to allow the truth to come out, stays at home so her friends won’t see the marks he left on her.”
The topic had been bounced around for another hour, until it was time for my guests to leave. As Edwina was on her way out, she’d turned to me and asked, “Would you be interested in joining a committee I’m going to form to get us a women’s shelter right here in Cabot Cove?”
“Count me in,” I’d said.
And so I became part of Edwina’s tenacious drive to raise private funding and to persuade the town council to back the plan financially. She was successful. The Cabot Cove women’s shelter became reality. Edwina immersed herself in domestic violence counseling courses, and an anonymous donor put up enough money to purchase a small house in an area zoned for commercial use—even I didn’t know where it was. The location was kept secret, or as secret as possible, to avoid having an irate husband arrive on its doorstep in search of a wife who’d run from his abuse. I did know that three women and their children were currently residing there until they could move on to something more permanent. Two were from Cabot Cove, but the third had come from a village down the coast, having been reluctant to involve her friends in her troubles, and fearing that her husband would be able to track her down too easily if she remained in her hometown. An office was leased in town as the public face of the shelter, where women could drop in for an initial consultation, solace, and advice. The office was staffed by a cadre of volunteers, yours truly included. Private donations coupled with a yearly sum from the town’s operating budget kept things afloat, along with funds allocated by the state legislature, a federal stipend dispensed under the Congressional Victims of Crime Act, and, later, increased funding when the federal Violence Against Women Act was passed in Congress.
Cabot Cove was late in joining the statewide network of shelter programs for those who are abused, primarily because people were hesitant to acknowledge that such things existed in our tranquil small town. But Maine had recognized it as a serious problem as far back as 1973, and the movement to address domestic violence really picked up momentum in 2000 when then governor Angus King declared violence against women and children “Maine’s Public Enemy Number One” in his State of the State Address. He dramatized his remarks by pointing to seats in the hall that had deliberately been left empty to represent those who’d been killed by domestic abusers.
I turned off the TV and climbed into bed. A feeling of well-being swept over me. As I often do, I thought about how fortunate I was to live in a place like Cabot Cove and to have so many wonderful friends. The town’s strong sense of community has always been alive and well, and the establishment of the shelter is but one example of that spirit of reaching out to the less fortunate and more vulnerable.
My final thought as I closed my eyes and allowed sleep to wash over me was that life was good in Cabot Cove. I had no reason to think otherwise.