2024 Writing Award Sub-Category
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
In 1943, near Brussels, a Belgian businessman is found dead inside his locked office. When suspicion is cast on a well-connected German officer, Captain Josef Nehring is assigned to look into the death. Without experience in crime investigation, he must lead the inquiry into an impossible crime.
First 10 Pages



There is no security in life, only opportunity. – Douglas MacArthur


At the sound of a thunderclap Isabelle Hervil turned her head and looked over her shoulder. Through the tall glass‑paned window at the corner she saw the sky, slate under the stacks of black cloud banks. Beyond a row of elms lay Brussels, battened down waiting for the forecasted onslaught of cold wind-driven rain.

Isabelle sat at a console piano in the Bay Room on the second floor of the Mercier mansion. She was a slender woman of twenty-two, with clear green eyes and shiny auburn hair pulled away from her face and gathered at the back of her head in a ponytail. The rose color of her fair skin owed little to makeup. She wore a simple blue dress. With a sigh, she returned her glance to a thin stack of sheet music, her eyes sweeping past the mirrored wall to her left and the two soldiers sitting at the small round table directly ahead.

Lazy German poachers, she thought. All they did was sleep, play cards, and drink her uncle’s best wine. For a moment, the sharp line of her jaw tightened, hinting at certain qualities of pride and temper. She leaned forward and thumbed through the sheets, looking for a piece that she had borrowed from her friend Colette Baeten.

Leutnant Lutz was the younger of the two soldiers—a tall, husky young man from Bavaria who had seen action only once, in 1940, during the capture of a French bridge near Neufchatel. He had sallow skin and a touch of acne. His reddish-blond hair was carelessly combed back. Lutz was a careful but unimaginative card player. His opponent at Klaberjass, Leutnant Stubmann, had been a law student before being conscripted into the Wehrmacht in 1940. Like Lutz, he had participated in the invasion of France and had later been assigned to occupation duty in Belgium. Unlike his comrade‑at‑arms, Stubmann trusted his intuition when playing cards. He was of average height, slim, with short black hair and aqueous hazel eyes. A glance at his cards hinted that he had a winning hand. He repressed a smile and instead tightened his brow. “A small bet, Erich?” he asked.

A tall‑case clock on the wall behind the Germans struck three o’clock, just as Isabelle started to play an airy melody. Her slender fingers skipped over the keyboard, and the strains of a romantic waltz filled the room.

The two officers played their cards, Lutz cautiously and Stubmann desultorily, occasionally glancing at the pretty Belgian girl. She ignored them, her eyes intent on the sheet music.

Then, suddenly, Isabelle and the two soldiers heard a sharp report. Their heads went up. Isabelle stopped playing and Lutz and Stubmann put down their cards.

“A gunshot?” asked Lieutenant Lutz. He stood up.

“Perhaps a car backfire,” said Stubmann.

Lutz shook his head. “From our room?” He pointed to a half‑open door at the corner formed by the two hallways that led to the Bay Room.

Stubmann stood away from the table. “Let’s look.”

They spoke in German, which Isabelle understood perfectly. “Oui,” she said, preferring to use French. She stood also, and thought she heard a voice down the South Hallway. Her glance crossed those of the two German lieutenants and a moment later the three of them hurried across the Bay Room and pushed their way into the room across the hall.

Bunk beds and military footlockers gave the room a rough look accentuated by Wehrmacht posters on the wall. A disheveled young man in a half‑buttoned field gray Army uniform stood by a closed door across the room. “The sound came from there,” he said, indicating the next room. He closed his hand on the door handle and tried to turn it as the others approached. “It’s locked.”

Isabelle pushed by Stubmann and Lutz and ran to the door. “Uncle Leopold?” she cried. The disheveled soldier, Oberleutnant Dieter Wendel, stepped back and Isabelle rapped sharply with her knuckles on the door. There was no reply. She tried the door handle repeatedly, but it would not turn. The door, which connected to her uncle’s studio, was locked fast.

Wendel knocked on the door, lightly at first, and then more determinedly. “Herr Mercier?” he called out. “Are you alright?”

There was no response.

“I’ll go around to the other entrance,” said Stubmann. He ran out of the room.

Wendel banged on the door with his fist. His face was drawn.

“We must open the door,” said Isabelle. “Something may have happened to my uncle.”

Wendel nodded. “Get ready, Erich,” he said. The two soldiers, both tall and powerfully built, squared their shoulders and prepared to bring down the door.

“Wait, you two,” said a slender red‑haired woman, hurriedly entering the room. “There’s no need to go tearing doors down. I have the key.”

“Oh, Maria,” Isabelle said, clutching the housekeeper’s arm. “We heard—it sounded like a shot. Is Uncle Leopold in the studio? Do you know?”

The housekeeper threw a troubled glance at Isabelle and withdrew a set of keys from a pocket of her drab gray dress. She quickly selected a golden key and inserted it in the door lock.

A moment later the door swung inwards, and they stood still, looking at the scene inside. The room appeared to be unoccupied. The lights were off, except for a desk lamp, but ample light came from a glass‑paned window. Maria reached inside and switched the overhead light on. Then she and Isabelle rushed inside the room. The others quickly followed. There was an uncluttered desk to the left, and behind it wooden shelves, the window, and a fireplace. A floor‑to‑ceiling bookcase covered most of the opposite wall.

Lightning flashed in the patch of gloomy sky visible through the window. A moment later someone banged on the door on the wall to the right, where a small sideboard was wedged between a large map of Brussels, an oil painting, and a calendar showing March 1943. Lutz tried to open the door, but found it locked.

The rumble of thunder accompanied a gust of wind that pushed the window ajar and scattered raindrops on the glass. Out of habit, Maria walked behind the desk to close the partly open window. A moment later she screamed. She staggered and seemed about to fall, but managed to prop herself up against the wall. Slumped on the floor behind the massive mahogany desk was a heavily built older man. He was quite still, and blood had trickled onto the carpet under him. A pistol lay by his side, near his outstretched arm.

Isabelle hurried over. She looked at her uncle’s body and uttered a long, quavering moan. His eyes were fixed open and there was a grimace of astonished fright on his face.

Stubmann’s shouts had now joined those of others in the hall outside. They had heard Maria scream.

Wendel walked behind the desk, saw the body, and took the key ring from Maria’s hand. The housekeeper stood transfixed by the window and offered no resistance. Wendel walked across the room and used the golden key to unlock the door. Stubmann and two other men rushed into the now‑crowded room. One of the men, elegantly dressed, with dark brown hair traced with gray, was Isabelle’s father, Victor Hervil. The other, short, portly, and sporting a large black mustache, was Jan Audry, a lodger in Mercier’s house.

“Father, it’s Uncle Leopold,” cried Isabelle.

Victor Hervil walked to the side of the desk and took a long look at Mercier’s body. Visibly distressed, he received Isabelle, sobbing, into his arms.

A moment later a bearded man approached from the hallway, wearing a white medical jacket. He stood at the door and looked inquisitively at the group inside.

“Come in, Dr. Jourdaens,” Hervil said, turning to face the man. “Something has happened to Leopold.”

With a decisive manner, Dr. Jourdaens skirted the others and walked behind the desk. After a glance at the body, he knelt and examined the head closely, then felt the carotid artery. Calmly, he reached into his shirt pocket and produced a chromed penlight. He shined the light into Mercier’s sightless eyes, moving the narrow beam from eye to eye. Slowly, the others crowded around him.

“Monsieur Mercier is dead,” stated Dr. Jourdaens. “There’s a gunshot wound...”

For a moment they all stared at the tragic tableau. It seemed that Leopold Mercier had shot himself.

Dr. Jourdaens looked at his watch. “It is five minutes past three o’clock,” he said.

Suddenly from the hallway came a tremulous woman’s voice, “What is it? What has happened?”

Victor Hervil glanced through the open doorway and looked the woman in the eye, a muscle on his cheek twitching. “There’s been an accident,” he said. “The Police must be informed. I will call them from here.” He indicated the telephone set on the desk, then stepped back and talked softly to Isabelle. “Please take care of Margaret, dear. Take her away. She need not see this.”

Isabelle’s hand went reflexively to her mouth, then she steeled herself. She must now tell Margaret Mercier that her husband was dead.


Isabelle felt numb, felt tears slide down her cheeks. She took a deep breath and set herself to attend to the task her father had given her. She glanced at Margaret, standing with eyes wide open at the hallway door, a look of incredulity growing on her face. “We have just discovered that Leopold has passed,” she told her aunt, then took her arm and led her away from the room that was now a place of tragic death.

Behind her she heard Victor’s voice. “Maria, cancel dinner for now. Tell Anna to prepare something, sandwiches perhaps, later.”

“Yes, sir,” responded Maria, sniffling, her voice weak. “I will tell the staff no one is to leave.”

Margaret cleared her throat and said, weakly, “I don’t understand…”

Isabelle met a small group standing nervously on the hallway, two of the lodgers, Cesare and Emile, and one of the maids, Paula.

“Come with me,” she told the girl, and had her help walk a quivering Margaret to the Bay Room.


The police arrived within ten minutes. Two uniformed policemen from Waterloo, a plain-clothed one from Brussels, and two German detectives. Maria brought them to the Main Hall, where the family and other residents had assembled. They started asking questions right away and directed that no one enter Leopold’s office until the investigation was complete. Soon after, three more men arrived: two German soldiers wearing the metal gorgets that identified them as military police, and a middle-aged man in a black suit, carrying a medical bag, who turned out to be a coroner.

Several policemen and the coroner went upstairs and remained there alone until they were joined by three other men, a photographer and two attendants that later used the house elevator to take Mercier’s body away.

Victor had talked to one of the military policemen about how best to reach Margaret’s son, Andre, who was an officer with the Legion Wallonie somewhere in the Eastern front. Margaret’s usual way of communicating with him, via military mail, would take days, and she wanted him to know what had happened. The man, a young sergeant, had agreed to arrange a telephone call to Andre’s commanding officer if possible. It was nightime when, their preliminary investigation complete, the last of the policemen left the house.

Supper was served for the family at eight o’clock in the small dining room by the kitchen. The German boarders and the lodgers had been served earlier in the main dining room. Leopold’s manservant, Aloys, and the kitchen maid, Fenna, laid out sandwiches and an assortment of fruits and cheese cuts. Isabelle’s aunt, Femke, had arrived at the house two hours earlier from her teaching job at Beersel and was only beginning to absorb the day’s troubling events. Victor took it upon himself to coax Margaret, who looked very pale and at times sobbed, to eat something.

Isabelle nibbled at the cheese and sandwiches and reflected painfully at the loss of a lifelong relationship. She loved Uncle Leopold so much! He had always been there, caring, funny and generous. A man with great responsibilities, who always found time to share with her and make her feel better. How was she going to cope with such an unbearable loss?

Conversation had been minimal. Everyone was concerned with their own grief, with the tragic consequences of the sudden inexplicable death of a loved one. But Isabelle, and she imagined also the others, began to consider questions about Leopold’s manner of death.


Isabelle woke the next day after a dreamless sleep. At first the characteristics of her bedroom seemed as usual, but then the memories of the day before returned. Uncle Leopold was dead. She would never see him again alive. He was not a young man anymore but had been full of life. There was no reason to anticipate his loss, and his passing was unbearably harsh. He was such a careful man; what had caused him to choose that afternoon to clean or examine his gun, and to do it so carelessly? Perhaps something distracted him, caused him to accidentally press the trigger on a loaded pistol. It had to have been an accident, for the room was locked, and her uncle’s character made any other eventuality unthinkable.

She took a deep breath and got up from her bed. It was time to face the day – there was no alternative.

Breakfast was dreary. Margaret looked much more composed, but dispirited. She wore a simple but exquisitively cut black dress and no jewelry except her wedding band. Isabelle had always envied Margaret’s sense of style. In what must be one of the worst days of her life, the new widow had made appropriate but elegant choices of attire. Isabelle wore a black knee length wool skirt and a navy sweater.

“I have been able,” Margaret, announced, “to send a radiogram informing Andre of his father’s death, in care of his regiment, which apparently is somewhere in the East. I have not yet heard back from him, but I received an acknowledgement of receipt from a communications officer.”

Victor kept his thoughts and worries to himself. Aunt Femke seemed her normal self, except she fretted about being late for her classes. Conversation was sparse, and everyone ate without enthusiasm from the selection of baguettes, jam, butter, cheese, and croquettes that Aloys and Fenna silently served. Paula offered coffee and grapefruit juice. The German officers usually left early to join their regiment but had been told to remain at the house so the authorities could question them along with the others. Dr. Jourdaens and Jan Audry talked about the development of antibiotics, and Cesare and Emile bickered more quietly than usual about Flemish and Walloon issues.

The police arrived just as breakfast dishes were being cleared. They were the same as the day before: two policemen from Waterloo, a police detective from Brussels, and two Kriminalpolizei detectives. Maria was summoned and the two Waterloo policemen and one of the German detectives left with her to interview the staff. Moments later a military police sergeant arrived and took the three lieutenants to a corner of the dining room to question them.

The two detectives assembled the family members and the lodgers together for questioning. They all agreed to move to the Main Hall when Margaret suggested it.

The questions focused on identifying the individual residents, determining their relationships to Leopold Mercier and the others, and accounting for their whereabouts the day before. Femke was allowed to leave early when she established that she had left the Moretushuis in the early morning to go to work and had not returned until six o’clock in the afternoon. Isabelle’s account was the most involved, since she had been, in the company of Maria, Lutz and Wendel, among the first to enter Leopold’s study and find his lifeless body.

It was afternoon when the police and the detectives, having exhausted the questions that came to their minds, left for the day, saying as they departed that some of them would be back on a later day. Everyone in the household had cooperated with the investigators, even though some of the inquiries seemed excessively intrusive. They all wanted the matter to be over, to free their minds from the burden of recalling the awful events of the day before.


That night they were part way through a somber dinner when Maria walked into the dining room to tell Margaret that there was a telephone call for her. Margaret had only begun to decline taking the call when Maria interrupted her. “It is a long distance call, Madam, I think placed by a military operator.”

Margaret put down her fork. “It could be from Andre’s commanding officer,” she said.

“The operator and the caller spoke German,” said Maria, “but the operator asked for Madame Mercier instead of Frau Mercier.”

Margaret slowly rose from the table.

Aloys, in the process of filling Emile’s cup of wine, stood still when he noticed Maria’s glance at him. “Take Madam Mercier to the telephone in the drawing room,” she told him, taking the wine carafe from his hands. “Stay with her in case she needs you.”

Isabelle thought she saw a glint of coldness in Margaret’s grey eyes as she walked past Maria on her way to the drawing room, Aloys following a pace behind her. It was not something she had noticed before, a tenseness between the mistress of the house and the housekeeper, two women she had known all her life.

Several minutes went by. Then Aloys returned, telling Maria that Margaret had almost finished her call and no longer needed his assistance. Maria left the dining room and sent Paula to help Aloys take care of the diners.

When Margaret returned she did not sit down at the table. It was written on her face that something had disturbed her. “It was Andre,” she said to no one in particular. “He was of course distraught about Leopold’s passing and wanted to hear everything I could tell him. He became increasingly upset when he learned his father was alone in his study when the accident occurred.” Margaret’s voice caught and her gaze drifted to Victor and then to Isabelle. “Andre does not think Leopold could have shot himself.”

“But he had to, Margaret,” Isabelle reminded her. “There was no one else in the room.”

“Yes, so you all say. But Andre does not believe that his father could have made such a mistake, not by accident or”—her voice caught again— “in any other way.”

Although Margaret’s voice was not loud, it acquired an intense quality, a sense of great seriousness that caused all at the table to watch her intently. She addressed Isabelle directly. “You said you saw a pistol by Leopold’s hand.”

“Not in his hand, but near his body,” said Isabelle. “Less that a foot away.”

“A pistol,” repeated Margaret. “But Andre says that his father only owned a revolver. Is that what you meant by pistol?”

Isabelle wondered if they were about to have a semantic argument. “I may not have chosen the most correct term,” she explained, “but as I recall, the gun we found was not a revolver.”

Victor intervened. “I do not recall actually seeing the handgun found in the study. I heard a policeman refer to it as a pistol this morning.”

Dr. Jourdaens leaned forward and sideways on his chair to look at Margaret directly and say with an air of certainty, “The handgun was an automatic pistol of medium caliber. It lay on the floor, close to Monsieur Mercier’s right arm.”

“My son just told me Leopold owned a revolver,” said Margaret. She took a crumpled notepaper she held in her hand and held it out to read from it. “A Nagant Model 1893 revolver.”

“I remember now,” said Femke, sitting at the table next to Isabelle. “That pistol, that revolver. I think it was my husband’s present to Leopold. It must have been in ’27, when Jasper came home from a trip to Norway. He won the gun playing cards with a sailor and some others he was in business with. Leopold had bought some ammunition for it, and he took us all out on the woods outside this house. I remember it clearly; we used an earthen mound among a stand of spruce and birch as a backstop. Leopold, my husband, your mother, Julia, and you, Isabelle, you were there too, about six tears old then. Don’t you remember?”

Isabelle thought back. Yes, she vaguely remembered watching her mother and the others shoot at tomatoes her uncle had placed in rows. She nodded. “Yes, Aunt, I recall that now. And it was a revolver. I think I held it, although I was not allowed to shoot it. I remember most vividly that Roland was livid when he later found out that Uncle Leopold had used his prized tomatoes for target practice.”

“It’s not something to really worry about; this gun,” said Cesare. “Leopold can easily have bought the automatic pistol at any time prior to yesterday. He may even have traded the Nagant revolver for it.”

“Yes, of course,” said Jan Audry, sitting next to Cesare. “The thing is, though, Andre is taking Leopold’s death very hard. It is terrible to lose a father. We must all hold him in our prayers.”

Margaret grew teary-eyed. “We will mention this to the police when they return. They will figure it out.” She turned toward Paula, who had joined Aloys in serving dessert. “Tell Anna to make me a snack and bring it to me and some brandy in half an hour.” She addressed the others, “I will be in my room.”

Turning on her heel, Margaret headed upstairs.