Broughton J. "Bruff" 'Brannon, IV has no experience as a private investigator when his namesake uncle dies and leaves him the Fan Detective Agency in Richmond, Virginia. The offers he receives to sell the business tempt him to cash in his inheritance and join the business of his friend, Hobie Pickett. But curiosity gets the better of Brannon and he speaks to the Mizelles, an elderly couple his uncle was enroute to visit when a truck rammed the car, killing him. Betty Ann Mizelle, the couple's daughter, also died in a car wreck. Twenty years in the past, she drowned in Chesapeake Bay while a passenger in Virginia Senator Mike Fitzhugh's car. The Mizelles want Brannon to pursue new information from their neighbor, Hank Sauer. Despite doubting his abilities, Brannon reopens the notorious case.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Richard W. Browne lives outside Richmond, Virginia, the setting of much of BRANNON'S CHOICE. He has worked as a commercial writer, specializing in finance and employee benefits. His fiction has appeared in mystery magazines such as Red Herring Mystery Magazine. BRANNON'S CHOICE is his first published novel. Another work, A CORPSE IS A CORPSE, was a finalist in the 1998 Malice Domestic contest, and is represented by a literary agent.
"This is a very good novel with an interesting set of characters. Clearly this is a debut novel of a series and as such, sets the background of a number of characters. Bruff is an extremely familiar figure by the end of the work, plagued with plenty of human frailties and strengths that bring the character alive. At the same time, most of the minor characters are equally complex and one hopes that someone is actively working on the 'Hushboy' situation depicted in the novel. Plenty of humor and a fine puzzle with twists and turns round out this very good novel. This one was a real treat."Kevin Tipple -- Amazon reviews
A YELLOW porch light winked on, cutting through the night. Locks snapped open, the door popped free of the jamb.
"Mr. Mizelle?" said the visitor in a timid voice.
"Yes. And you must be Mr. Brannon." The man behind the door started to smile.
"Ahh... No." The heavyset visitor shuffled his feet and ran fingers through his wet red hair. He tried to wipe his hand dry on his pants.
The man outside forced a smile. "Ahh... Yes. No. That is..."
One eyebrow arching and hands turning palms up said "which is it?" for Mizelle. "Yes... and no..., I am, uh, Brannon, it's just..."
The potential Brannon opened his wet raincoat and pulled a business card from the tweed jacket he wore underneath. The card said "The Fan Detective Agency" in big blue, Old English letters, and "Broughton J. Brannon IV, Principal" in smaller, Courier type in the lower right corner. The "IV" had been inked over the "III."
Mizelle took the card. He coughed. "So you are Brannon?"
Brannon nodded with enough vigor to spray some of the night's rain onto Mizelle's feet. "I thought you might be expecting my uncle."
Mizelle moved back a step. "Your uncle is dead. Miss Graham explained that on the phone. She said you're the detective now."
Brannon thrust his hands back in his pockets. "Yeah." He waited.
"Well, you're here. C'mon in. Better late than never, I suppose."
Brannon entered and didn't offer his wet hand. "I'm sorry about the mix up on the dates -- and about being late tonight," said Brannon in a quavering voice. He held his head low, reinforcing the contrition and stood on the rubber mat inside Mizelle's front door. He dripped less.
"Oh, I'm not complaining, Mr. Brannon. I'm glad you're here safe and sound," Mizelle held up his hand. "Me and the Missus are just grateful you came all this way, especially after your uncle died." Mizelle expressed his condolences.
"Take your coat?"
"Thanks." Brannon shrugged off the tan raincoat he'd owned since college. After handing it to Mizelle, he tugged at the belt on his brown gabardine pants, trying to tuck his white shirt down. He tugged the loosened tie at his open collar.
Mizelle hung the garment on a wire hanger that still had the strip of cardboard used to protect pants. The draft from the closing closet door brought a refreshing whiff to Brannon's nose.
"Yup. Don't make 'em like that anymore," said Mizelle. He sighed and rubbed his hands together.
"Come this way, Mr. Brannon. My wife is in the den. We're having hot tea. I assume you would appreciate some yourself after such a long journey." Mizelle headed for the living room.
"Thanks. I would." Brannon's usual tenor voice returned.
Not knowing what he should do next, Brannon decided he'd better observe his client. An older man, Mizelle stood taller than Brannon's nearly six feet by several inches although Brannon outweighed his host by thirty pounds. Coal black hair emphasized the bald patch at the top of Mizelle's skull. Wire rim glasses worn low on the nose indicated vision whose powers had not completely waned. A worn but neat gray cardigan sweater, two buttons fastened, plaid shirt and navy blue slacks completed the retiree appearance. Brannon first assumed the sadness etched on Mizelle's face came from its obloid shape and droopy jowls, until he saw the man's eyes. Two dark tunnels sunk deep in the skull led to a soul of profound weariness.
Brannon shuddered, the chill not off him yet. A rumbling in his stomach told him to run. He burped. "Pardon me."
Mizelle didn't look back. Brannon wondered if the man were hard of hearing.
Brannon took a roll of chalky white disks from his pants and popped two in his mouth. The mint taste brought saliva back to his mouth. He thumbed his shirt into his pants again as he took in an interior that was bigger than he expected: a large hall with a well-lit stairway leading to a second floor. Several archways led to other rooms. The odors of dinners past permeated the house; not sharp odors, but soft pleasant ones. The Mizelles rarely ate out, Brannon would bet.
In the living room, doilies covered an oversized sofa and the arm rests of big soft chairs, the kind for naps. Brannon yawned, thought of the long drive he'd made. The couch beckoned, but he ignored its call. Next to it were lamp stands with little bits of glass blown to the shapes of birds and animals. Porcelain owls adorned dark pine cabinets. Off-white walls displayed counted cross-stitch scenes of Colonial Williamsburg. Brass fireplace tools guarded the small firebox. No TV, no photographs. He looked for a big, arching Philco, didn't see that, either. Brannon stifled another yawn, started to pat the natty couch material. Mizelle pressed on, though, and went through a door into what he called the den.
A converted porch, actually; what had been an airy addition to the house back when it allowed people to osmose to the outdoors through screens, now dark and stuffy. Brannon sniffed, detected an open flame.
"This is my wife, Mr. Brannon," said Mizelle. He motioned Brannon closer.
Brannon couldn't tell where her flower print dress ended and the chair material began. A white shawl across her shoulders blended with her fluffy hair and kept off the April chill. Brannon shivered.
"Welcome, Mr. Brannon." As she weakly clasped Brannon's hand with fingers colder than the rain-chilled air, her pale green eyes grabbed him with an appraiser's intensity.
"Pleased to meet you," Brannon said, adding an awkward smile.
She released his hand, then wiped it with a tissue drawn from her bosom.
"Sorry, it's raining out."
"I know." She folded her hands in her lap.
Brannon didn't think he'd passed muster.
"Please have a seat," said Mizelle, indicating a straight back chair.
Brannon tried to get comfortable while Mizelle poured tea from a cracked pot shaped like an English cottage. "Sugar?"
"No, thank you." Brannon scanned the room, the way he thought he should. Windows lined the three exterior walls while the interior wall to his left was covered with black and white photographs of young women, doubtless the Mizelle daughters. Grandparents by now. Why weren't there any color photographs of grandchildren?
"Yes, Mr. Brannon," said Mizelle as he handed over a white cup of steaming amber liquid. "Those are all pictures of our Betty Ann. It's been over twenty years now."
Brannon stopped the cup just before his lips. The dark, fuzzy frames of the pictures clarified into crepe drapery. Candles flickered in the far corner around a large, graduation portrait of a young woman in a Sixties' hairstyle. The pictures loomed on the wall next to certificates for academic achievements. Other mementos and trophies stood on tables and cabinets, a shrine to the departed daughter. The walls of the room pressed in on him, like a Christian in a catacomb.
One of the names from the multitude he'd passed on Route 13 rushed to the front of his memory. Chappateague Island. Betty Ann Mizelle and Chappateague Island. Brannon exhaled audibly. He set down the tea, cup rattling in the saucer.
Mizelle coughed and excused himself.
"I -- I'm sorry, folks," Brannon said. "I didn't know when I came here. I'm sorry. No one said anything. I really didn't know. I'm... sorry."
* * *
"I'M SORRY," Brannon said in an irritated tone, his embarrassment long since mutated into annoyance. "I can't help you. The whole world knows Mike Fitzhugh drove your daughter off the bridge to Chappateague Island. I'm sorry she drowned -- sorrier he lived. He was driving with an expired license and probably drunk, too. If you or I had done it, we'd just be finishing a twenty-year stretch. But Mike Fitzhugh was -- and is -- a U. S. Senator from a powerful family and he walked away with a slap on the wrist. You don't need me to prove that happened. That's all my unc... I do, Mr. Mizelle. The Fan Detective Agency investigates accidents to find who was at fault. We don't get into punishment. The courts do that." Brannon paused. "Folks, there's no mystery here, no unanswered questions."
Mrs. Mizelle cleared her throat, apologized, then fixed Brannon to the chair with her pale green eyes. "I've made myself realize that Mike Fitzhugh is going to go unpunished in this life. Many people believe this a country where tyranny and privilege have been banished. I know better. I do not hope to bring Mike Fitzhugh before a tribunal to answer for his crimes -- either in this world or the next." She glared at her husband in a way that said there was a disagreement in the Mizelle household over the latter source of retribution. "We have a different goal." She nodded to her husband to continue.
Mr. Mizelle clasped his wife's hands, then took up the thread. "What we want you to accomplish is a simpler task. We want you to clear our daughter's good name." The two smiled as if they had asked Brannon to carry their grocery bag out to the car. He grinned awkwardly. They took it for encouragement.
Mizelle continued. "You see, many people have the impression that there was a lot of drinking that night; a wild party. They said Betty Ann and Fitzhugh were heading to the shore for -- um, ah..." He groped for a word he could utter. "He was married then, you know. Betty Ann would never have acted like that with someone her own age, let alone a married Senator." "Betty Anne went there on business, Mr. Brannon," said Mrs. Mizelle. "She had worked for Mike Fitzhugh for several years -- since she graduated from Longwood. At first, she really enjoyed herself. She made lots of friends and enjoyed her work. She felt it was important and that she was making a difference; that she could change the world. Betty Anne used to bubble with excitement when she'd come home; it made her poor mother joyous to hear her daughter so happy. Then something happened. Betty Anne wouldn't tell me what it was, but I knew it troubled her deeply. She told me she was afraid to go to Fitzhugh with it, so I urged her to consult Pastor Itensohn about it, but you know how young people are." she trailed off, her intimate knowledge of the ways of young people having ended twenty years ago.
Brannon picked up his tea. The cold, bitter liquid jarred him. He wanted to put it down, but his hands squeezed tightly on the saucer.
"The week before it happened, Betty Anne said she was going to speak to Senator Fitzhugh," said Mrs. Mizelle.
"No, her boss put her off, said Fitzhugh was too busy with his presidential campaign."
"He was running for President back then?" Brannon could tell you exactly how many games in front of the Yankees the Orioles had been that year, but drew a blank on the political details.
"Wanted to," said Mizelle. He looked at the biggest portrait of Betty Anne, the one where she held a spray of cornflowers, and looked back over her shoulder at the camera. "Fitzhugh had a lot on his mind back then: President, Senator, the War...." He paused and turned to face his wife. "And the terrible tragedies of his brothers. We can't forget the personal tragedies of others, can we, Florence?" He looked at his wife. She glared back at him, lips tight, muscles twitching in her jaw.
Brannon rose. He needed to flee the shrine room, get away from the Mizelles. "It's getting late. I don't want to keep you folks up. I'd better be going."
Mizelle turned his weary eyes to Brannon. He mumbled about inconvenience, then said, "I'll see you to the door." He patted his wife's hands and then leaned over and kissed her wispy white forehead.
Mizelle led Brannon to the front door, fetched his raincoat and said, "It's not raining any more and I could use a smoke. Mind if I walk you to your car?"
Mizelle flipped on an outside light and opened the door. He grabbed a thin jacket from the closet and put it on. Taking a crushed packet of Marlboros out of the jacket, Mizelle tapped the bottom, then offered it to Brannon.
"No thanks. I don't smoke."
Mizelle nodded. "Nasty habit, my wife says." He lit up as soon as they left the porch. There weren't any traces of tobacco in the house, not a smell or burn. Mizelle's fingers tips were yellowed and Brannon remembered the cough. The man must take a lot of evening walks, he thought
The cold wind that pushed away the storm drove more chill into Brannon. He thrust his hands into the raincoat pockets. Frogs croaked in the distance and a dog barked once. He looked at the flower beds bordering the house that displayed the care only the recently retired could provide. Brannon inhaled the cool smell of wet pavement. In the dark street, only a few neighbors' windows shone yellow through muting shades.
They strolled to Brannon's white Plymouth in silence.
"Sorry I can't help you, Mr. Mizelle," said Brannon, sticking out a dry hand.
Mizelle took two last drags into his lungs and out his nose. He dropped the cigarette, crushed the red glow into the grass and looked up at the sky. "Clearing up."
Dropping his hand to his side, Brannon looked up at the moonless gloom. If Mizelle meant his daughter's death, he'd have been exaggerating about that, too.
"I don't see how I can help, Mr. Mizelle. The newspapers have been all over this case. Dozens of books have been written; several TV shows. They've all come to the same conclusion -- the conclusion you don't like. What makes you think I can turn up something new?"
Mizelle nodded and admitted he couldn't realistically expect Brannon to do that. He walked to Brannon's side and threw an arm on his shoulder. Mizelle spoke softly, barely audible over the night noises.
"You don't have to because I've got something new," He dropped his hand from Brannon's shoulder and peered directly at him. The weary sorrow in the old man's eyes contained a glimmer of hope, a flash from a sword of retribution. "I'd like you to talk to a man named Hank Sauer."