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Case of Crooked Letters

Ever notice that everyone is trying to accomplish something big, not realizing that life is made up of little things? Somebody other than me said that, but the older I get, the more I realize it's the truth.

My name is Maude Diamond, and I'm struggling with a lot of little things in my life. I look back on the last eighteen months and thank God for a strong heart, because otherwise I'd have never survived life's upheavals: my husband's unexpected death, my eighty-seven-year-old mother-in-law's moving in with me, my only daughter coming home after her philandering husband's demise. I don't recall who said it—I only know that I agree: Life is a test, and I didn't take very good notes.

Gunshots coming from the living room deafened me. Stella had the TV jacked up to sonic blast. Outside my office window, fall trees put on a splendid display, temperatures in the low seventies—much too nice a day to sit in the house and work. But work I must, because suddenly I hit sixty and I find myself with a full house, a bushel of bills, and a wagonload of responsibility.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Looking out my office door I could see that Cee's—that's my thirty-one-year-old, recently widowed daughter—poodles had each other in a canine death lock in the middle of the front-room floor. Captain, our newly acquired cat, sunned himself in the bay window, his tail switching calmly back and forth. But I know the temperamental feline's mood, like those of the three women in this house, can change in a heartbeat.

I've decided that God is still teaching me after all these years. After Herb's death I believe He tried to impress on me the importance of love. Shamefully I admit maybe I didn't give that one commandment a lot of thought. Oh, I loved Herb, and I love our daughter, but I've had to work on loving other people, opening up the doors of my home, my personal domain—and my heart—without resentment.

I'm still working on the lesson.

I tried to focus on the last paragraph I'd written. Concentrate, Maude. Monthly bills weighed heavily on my mind. My agent, my publisher, and popular television evangelist Jack Hamel had been so fired up to hire me to ghostwrite Jack's newest book that I thought they would move heaven and earth to hand-deliver the contract and advance royalties check. But twenty years in the writing business had convinced me literary agents and the publishing world worked on their time, not my time.

Hitting Control S, I leaned back in my chair, giving the top of my graying head a good scratch. Why do brainy things make your head itch? or throb? or at times feel like it's going to explode—blow up and scatter nasty-looking particles all over the desk? I grinned, proud of the fact that as bad as it was, I could still smile.

"Stella!" I yelled. "Can you turn it down a notch?" Like my mother-in-law could hear anything over the car chase and rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns going off in the living room. I often wondered why she didn't like chick flicks—quiet movies with quiet people.

I knew the moment I heard Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice that I was in trouble. My mother-in-law hadn't heard a word I said.

Sighing, I got up and walked into the living room, tying the sash on my corduroy robe. Why did I even bother to try to concentrate? If I'd ever had flashes of muse, they had flown out the window years ago. Now I wrote out of obedience. Writing is hard, lonely work, and don't let anyone ever tell you different. Baring your heart and soul on paper for others to criticize and pick apart is not easy.

I know I sound harsh and ungrateful; it's a phase I go through periodically. I whine and complain and feel completely out of control when a deadline looms, like now, but writing is what I do. I'll be all right once I get over "deadline fever." Jack Hamel's book had to be on the publisher's desk by February 1. One glance at the calendar and I knew I had a little over three months to complete the project, then get back to my own work.

Often I worry that Maude Diamond's stuff isn't worthy of a single tree that it takes to make paper. But God must have thought I could help or that my work would speak to someone, so when anyone asks if I'm passionate about writing, my answer is "I'm passionate to have written."

That's the difference.

"Stella!" The stench of roast boiling dry came to me. "Can you check the roast? I think it needs water!"

"Okay!" My mother-in-law roused herself out of the recliner and shuffled into the kitchen.

The poodles split apart and broke into a lope, chasing each other around the coffee table. A potted philodendron toppled to its side, and the animals tramped dirt into the carpet. And it was only 9 a.m. I turned and went back to my office.

Stella returned from the kitchen and sat down.

When she wasn't involved in amateur town sleuthing—which, at the moment, she wasn't—Stella seemed without purpose. A fish out of water. A squirrel looking for a nut to crack. Reaching for the crocheted afghan on the back of the chair, she swathed herself in the yard of red yarn and lay back, her upper plate resting lopsidedly across her chest.

What a picture that made.

She and Morning Shade's self-appointed law official, Hargus Conley, had cracked the furniture-moving-bandit case three weeks ago. Now Stella was back to waiting for death and gossiping over coffee at the local Citgo every morning.

This small Arkansas town isn't a hotbed of crime, so cases for an elderly woman come few and far between. Actually, there's only been one of any consequence since I've been here—the night Mildred Fasco's grandfather set fire to the gas station to protest inflated pump prices. My. Was that thirty years ago? Herb and I had been newlyweds. How much could regular have been back then? Sixteen—eighteen cents a gallon?

But there was the furniture-moving-bandit case last summer. That turned out to be Simon Bench, who has a case of terminal neatness. He'd gone into neighbors' houses and rearranged furniture, replaced knickknacks, and even hung new drapes at one place.

Tired of trying to write, I reached for the morning paper. I had carried it to my office to keep Stella from making off with it. After she had finished reading the obituary column, she felt she had wrung all the juice out of the news, so to speak. If I wanted to read it I had to grab it before it hit the trash.

The front-page lead article was about a chain letter that apparently everyone in town had received—everyone but me. A chain letter? These days? I wondered how I had missed out on that. Why would anyone mess with a chain letter anyway? They were nothing more than a pyramid scheme, and illegal to boot. I suppose some chain letters are harmless, like the ones that ask for an apron or a handkerchief, although who in this modern age wore an apron or used a handkerchief?

I read the article carefully, learning that it was your typical chain letter. The person who received it was supposed to send five dollars to the top name. Five dollars they might as well burn—and a lot of money, considering how broke I was at the moment.

I took a little time to multiply five dollars by Morning Shade's population—ninety families—and the amount was hefty. I could sure use that much cash, but I quickly scuttled the thought. I didn't think I could come up with an excuse for the windfall that God would find acceptable.

But it was a nice thought while it lasted.

Propping my chin in the palm of my hand, I stared at the blank computer screen, trying to figure out how I was going to write Jack Hamel a best-seller when I couldn't buy one for myself.

Whoever said when a person gets older the best years of life are still ahead couldn't have been serious.

Either that—or I'd missed the point completely.

Excerpted from CASE OF CROOKED LETTERS © Copyright 2004 by Lori Copeland. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.

Case of Crooked Letters
by by Lori Copeland

  • Genres: Christian
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
  • ISBN-10: 0842371168
  • ISBN-13: 9780842371162