The Gilded Age in America...

Stephen always said: "Ellen Fallon, you have an undeniable appetite for fruit."

Her secret sweetheart knew her only too well; she absolutely did adore fruit, the fresher the pick the better.

Plums, especially. Their look, smell, taste, and texture. How their meaty flesh yielded to her cupped hand, to the bite of her teeth. How sweet juice trickled ever-so slowly down her throat when she nibbled on one, savoring every swallow.

Ellen clutched at her bosom. In the middle of the crowded farmer's market, she had all to do not to gasp out a lusty yesss.

This small coastal town in Maine boasted so many plum varieties! Any of those on display here at the market would have made her an excellent prop in a still life composition. The artist in her bemoaned their present fate, wasting away in rustic wicker baskets, their worth unappreciated.

Save by her.

Ellen was reaching for a succulent branch-ripened specimen - resplendently purple, almost the pigment of Manganese violet - when over to the right, well within earshot, two biddies started talking, their every word mean-spirited and laced with spite. The gossip they swapped was as nasty as can be.

After ducking behind a farmer's stall, Ellen cocked an ear - better for eavesdropping - and settled in for a good long listen:

"Did you know, Miss Perch, that Mr. Vincent Brandt takes his daily constitutional every morn at dawn?"

Miss Perch sniffed, the nostrils of her thin nose quivering with disapproval. "Miss Sounder - are you speaking of that highfalutin Manhattan art dealer, the flatlander widower who rusticates up here in Maine every year? That Mr. Vincent Brandt? "

"One and the same, my dear." Miss Sounder vigorously shook her salt-and-pepper head, which sent the seagull plumage on her gaudy blue bonnet bobbing. "I have it on sound authority that Mr. Brandt walks every day just as the sun comes up."

Miss Perch's face relaxed into the familiar lines of a frown. "And who is this sound authority?"

"The Reverend Gordon. The good minister mumbles a prayer at half-past six every morning at the rectory window. Coincidently, the rectory window overlooks the graveyard's east gate, the one located at the rear of the chapel. It is through this east gate that Mr. Brandt passes en route to his estate."

At this tasty tidbit, the disapproving Miss Perch gasped. "But the west gate is ever so more direct to the cliffs where Mr. Brandt resides. How extremely peculiar! Why would the art dealer take the east gate?"

"Exactly! Why?"

"And the Reverend Gordon told you this?"

"No." Miss Sounder's hat feathers flapped again. "The good minister reported this odd habit of Mr. Brandt to his housekeeper in passing, and she in turn brought up the subject to the day maid, who shared the detail with my sister at their weekly sewing circle. So you see - there can be no mistake."

"Certainly not! No mistake at all," Miss Perch agreed. "I would never accuse you of such a thing."

"As to Reverend Gordon - he could not help but notice Mr. Brandt's odd habit. That rusted east gate squeaks something terrible."

"Yes, most odd," Miss Perch whispered so low Ellen had to strain to hear. "Not the gate - although we church ladies must take a can of oil to that squeak - but how Mr. Brandt never fails to pass through the graveyard on his way back to his estate on the cliffs."

"And why do suppose he does that, walks through the graveyard, that is, when there is a perfectly respectable dirt road he can take that circumvents the tombstones, altogether?"

"Guilty conscience, I 'spect," Miss Perch answered. "And, as I hear tell, he has good cause."

"My thoughts too. The art dealer is a notorious letch. Waits until a girl's eighteenth birthday, to keep things all decent-like, before moving in on her. Turns her head with gifts and such. No doubt, he seduces them. Likes 'em young and he likes 'em virgin."

Behind the farmer's stall, Ellen smiled with glee. How very illuminating!

"And what of that poor, unfortunate young woman? You know the one," prompted Miss Sounder, talking out of the side of her mouth. "New to town, only as good as she need be, and got herself killed because of it."

"It is my understanding - being a teetotaler, myself, and so not a frequenter of such places - that the individual under discussion served ale at the tavern. They found her on the beach two days since, her neck broken. A fair-haired girl, by all reckonings."

Behind the farmer's stall, Ellen touched a strand of her own pale hair.

"And that was not all the serving wench had that was broken," Miss Sounder said with a smirk.

The insinuation sailed straight over Ellen's head...until Miss Perch spelled out the details. "A virgin - so I did hear. Just turned eighteen and tampered with, deflowered by some man right before her death. Had to be. A fall from the cliffs could not have broken her maidenhead."

"Or stripped off her gown, tavern apron, and small clothes," Miss Sounder smugly replied.

"My thoughts, as well. Although, to be even-handed - and I pride myself on being so - the idiot gal might have met up with the customer at the cliffs, tripping on a rock and falling to her death below...after...the tryst. An accident, in other words. Not murder."

"The killer would like the townspeople to think so. I am not so easily duped," said Miss Sounder. "I am of the opinion that the serving maid was raped up on the high rocks and then purposefully pushed over the edge, the assignation done deliberately there to make her death look like the result of lust-inspired carelessness. If you ask me, Mr. Vincent Brandt did the deed."

Ellen had heard enough. After snatching a choice plum from a basket and then dropping her booty for safekeeping into the deep pocket of her full skirt - where the eagle-eyed proprietress waiting to get paid her damn penny would hopefully fail to spy the suspicious bulge of stolen fruit - Ellen left the farmer's market, her thoughts in a turmoil.

That poor serving wench! Only looking for love, as any woman does, and for her troubles, finding a deadly end to her romantic dreams instead.

That would not be her, Ellen reassured herself as she made her way back to the inn. She was too smart to get caught. And besides:

Forewarned was forearmed.

Thanks to those two gossipy biddies, Ellen had more information to go on now than she had before on Vincent Brandt. If it were the last thing she ever did, she would bring down that suspected murderer of young fair-haired virgins.

That poor tavern wench deserved retribution.

And so did Ellen's father.