A Death on Demand Mystery
(read or print)
Loretta Campbell tugged at the twisted sheet. She was so uncomfortable. And so cold. If she pushed the bell, no one would come. Or it would be that impatient nurse's aid. Never saw a real nurse anymore. It wasn't the way it had been when Robert was a young doctor and she was a nurse. She was so sick. Too bad about knowing so much. Everyone pretended she was going to be all right. But she knew better.
Loretta wished she'd changed her will. It still made her mad. How could Gary ignore the truth, treating Sam and Kate the same? It wasn't right. All these years she'd not said anything. Aloud. Oh yes, Marie knew how she felt. One Christmas Eve, Marie had come up to her bedroom, stepped inside, closed the door and leaned against it. She was small, but that night she'd been formidable. Marie made it clear: Not a word, not a gesture, not a hint of difference or she'd make sure Loretta never saw Sam. Never.
"Not right." She pushed the words out of her tight
throat. The old resentment boiled inside her, blotting out the pain.
"Of course it wasn't right." The voice was calm, soothing as ointment on a burn.
Loretta blinked but she couldn't see, not really, just a dark shape at the bedside. That woman. One of the hospital volunteers. She'd come before. Always so quiet. A listener.
A soft hand gently held Loretta's cold fingers. "Tell me all about it." The voice was as soothing as honey to a parched throat. "Don't hold anything back. No one will ever know but me. It will make you feel so much better. . . ."
Kathryn Girard's hands moved swiftly, competently. She loved the steady, pulsing click of the knitting needles. She sat quietly, as comfortable as a cat in her cushiony easy chair behind the low Queen Anne table that served as her cash desk. She always smiled when customers commented on the lack of a cash register-a cash box served her needs-and the absence of computers or credit card paraphernalia. "I enjoy the simple life," she always said with a slow, satisfied smile. "No credit cards. Not even a car." People were accustomed to seeing her on her sturdy bicycle. Some even went so far as to praise her commitment to a slow pace. As for the store, "Cash or a check," she always said, her lips curving.
When the bell tinkled at the door of her narrow, dimly lit shop on a steamy Tuesday in September, she looked up without much interest. Then her eyes widened. For an instant, her hands were motionless. But the needles were clicking softly as the woman neared the desk, sharp gray eyes scanning the display of Delft china. A careful observer would note that most of the pieces were chipped.
The woman approaching was a very careful observer.
Kathryn looked down at her knitting, ignored the woman. After all, the lighting was dim. Perhaps Frances wouldn't even notice.
The woman was tall and thin, with a jutting-out face and
uncompromising wire glasses; she came to an abrupt stop in front of the table.
Kathryn continued to knit, her eyes downcast.
"Frieda!" The sharp voice rose in surprise. "Frieda! Whatever are you doing here? Why, the police are still looking for you. Someone at church told me the other day that they never close a missing person case. It was a seven-day wonder when you disappeared."
Kathryn looked up slowly. "I beg your pardon?" Her eyes widened. A slight frown marred her heart-shaped face.
Frances Wilson clapped her hands on her bony hips, poked her face forward like a questing turtle. "Frieda March. I'd know you anywhere."
"I'm sorry." Kathryn's voice was slightly amused with just the right dash of kindly condescension. "Actually, you don't know me. I'm Kathryn Girard. I suppose your friend must resemble me. But I assure you, I'm not-who did you say--"
"Frieda March," Frances snapped.
"No." Kathryn was firm. "And where are you from?"
Kathryn gave a slight shrug. "Where is that?"
"Winnetka, Illinois." Suspicious gray eyes scoured Kathryn's face.
"I've never been there." Kathryn put her knitting on the table. "I hope you are enjoying your holiday." That was the trouble with resorts. People came from everywhere. "Are you looking for anything special? I have a nice selection of sandwich glass. And some pewter candlesticks from Boston."
"No. No, thanks." Frances was backing toward the door.
As soon as the bell tinkled, Kathryn rose from her chair. She was thinking fast. No matter who Frances contacted, nothing would likely happen for a few days. Today was Tuesday. Kathryn nodded. Thursday would be time enough. She needed a car. Usually her customers came to her. She thought longingly of her sleek black Porsche garaged at her hacienda in San Miguel de Allende. How could she- Oh,
of course. She laughed aloud. What fun. What a clever way to make one last run.
Vince Ellis clicked off his computer. He looked at the yellow legal pad next to his keyboard. He was on to a hell of a story. But there was no spring in his step as he moved away from his study, walked softly up the stairs and stopped by the first bedroom. He opened the door gently. In the shaft of light from the hall, Meg's long blond hair splayed on the pillow. But even in a deep sleep, Piggy, the old ragged cloth animal, was tightly clutched to her side. Piggy was all she'd brought from her old life. Meg was doing well now, although perhaps too often silent for a seven-year-old. And she still had nightmares. Doing well, but still oh so vulnerable.
Vince Ellis closed Meg's door. Desperate danger called for desperate measures. He would do what he had to do.
Ruth Yates heard the slam of Brian's car door. He was home early. She'd thought he would go by the church, check to make sure the east room of the basement wasn't flooding. It so often did in hard rains. Quickly, she returned the gun to the dusty cardboard box. She stood, swiping her hands against her navy slacks. Hurrying, she reached the attic door, was out and down the stairs to the second floor as the front door opened.
"Ruth? I'm home."
The sound of his deep, quiet voice, full of warmth and caring, stabbed at her heart. She couldn't bear for him to turn away from her. And he would if he ever knew.
Forcing a smile to her face though her skin felt like leather, she moved to the top of the stairs. "I'm here, Brian. I'll be right down."
Janet Pierce knew the eggshell white of the drawing room flattered her. She could see her reflection in the massive ormolu framed mirror on the opposite wall, ash-blond
hair drawn back in a severe chignon, finely boned face, sapphire-blue eyes, pale pink lips now curved in an appreciative smile. She managed to invest every conversation with a breathy attentiveness. She could hear her voice, so well bred, saying, ". . . you don't mean it? Bridget, that's simply shocking! I can't believe a bracelet could disappear without . . ."
Neither her words nor her demeanor reflected the panic fluttering inside. She'd looked forward to this moment for months. She, Janet Pierce, was serving tea at the Thursday Book Club's annual tea, an honor accorded every year to the Most Outstanding Volunteer of Broward's Rock, a pinnacle of social achievement in the small and exceedingly exclusive group of women who ran island society, women who often were only minimally polite to second wives and so assured of their own social eminence that they didn't care how powerful the husband might be. Janet had worked hard, curried favor from old buddies with poisonous tongues and fat purses. This was her moment of triumph and instead of enjoying it, she teetered on the edge of ruin.
"Sugar or cream, Adelaide?" What a supreme moment. She, Janet Pierce, easily using the given name of the island's wealthiest and most prominent resident. "It's just marvelous the way you've lifted the Art Center out of obscurity by bringing . . ."
But inside thoughts ricocheted in her mind: What choice did she have? None, none, none. This afternoon she had to provide a written assurance that would be returned Saturday morning in exchange for the desired package. It would be madness to make the attempt. But what else could she do?
The jagged bolt of lightning split the sky, the harsh light emphasizing the huge lumps of coal-black clouds. Dave Pierce's hands closed tightly on the steering wheel, his grip so hard his fingers ached. But nothing moved in his smooth face. His dark eyes stared through the heavy wash of rain
on the windshield. He used to love these storms. They'd always reminded him of Tahiti and Lynn. He pushed memories away. He didn't permit memories anymore.
Henny Brawley pushed open the shiny white front door, peered through the sheeting rain. The weeping willows that masked the parking lot were scarcely visible through the gusts. But it was pointless to look. If the van was there, Kathryn Girard would have struggled through the rain to the Women's Club Building. Or she could have used her cell phone to call Henny, who was the only person in the building at the moment. Only one car waited in the crushed oyster-shell lot and that was Henny's black 1982 Dodge. Besides, Kathryn's bicycle was still in the green metal stand to the left of the entrance. Where could Kathryn be? Henny checked her watch. Almost six. Kathryn had left two hours ago, insisting the imminent storm was no problem. She'd smiled that ostensibly pleasant, infuriatingly obdurate Mona Lisa smile and said in the patronizing tone that always offended Henny, "We can't let a little rain keep us from our duty."
Henny sighed and turned back to the graceful room, now a repository for boxes, bags and stacks of discarded items that would be offered, once they were arranged and priced, at the Womens Club's annual White Elephant Sale, opening at nine A.M. Saturday. The volunteers would arrive tomorrow to begin the pricing. Henny grinned. This year's sale, as always, would be great fun. How much did you ask for a necklace of shark's teeth? Or a basket from India with the dubious claim that it once housed a cobra? Or an Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter? Henny strode to the bulletin board on an easel. A banner across the top read: THE WOMEN'S CLUB ANNUAL WHITE ELEPHANT SALE, "MORE MARVELS THAN THE BIG Top."' Henny was charmingly modest about her authorship of the slogan. Usually even a fleeting thought of it elevated her to high good humor. But right now, thanks to Kathryn Girard, she was too irritated to take pleasure. Damn Kath
ryn. If she weren't the most stubborn woman in the worldand a master of passive aggression--she'd have waited until tomorrow to make the collections. It wouldn't have taken a moment to call the scheduled pick-ups and change the time. What was sacrosanct about Thursday afternoon?
Now Henny's own plans were askew because of Kathryn's stubbornness. It would serve Kathryn right if Henny simply locked up and left. See how Kathryn would enjoy riding her bicycle in this downpour!
Henny was tempted. Then she sighed. The Women's Club van was her responsibility. She'd checked it out to Kathryn Girard, and she damn well was going to check it in.
"Four o'clock . . ." she muttered aloud. Now it was almost six. Surely Kathryn would have called if she was stalled somewhere. Reluctantly, Henny pictured the island, the beautiful South Carolina barrier island of Broward's Rock, with its pristine beaches-when not being pounded by a stormy high tide--and miles of wilderness slashed through by only a few roads.
Finding Kathryn should be easy enough however. Emma Clyde, the island's claim to literary fame, author of the fabulously best-selling Marigold Rembrandt mysteries, was chair of the sale. Henny thoroughly enjoyed the Marigold Rembrandt books and was always more than a little surprised at the contrast between the charming, fluffy sleuth and her cold-eyed, tart-tongued, totally unfluffy creator. Emma Clyde, in fact, was as far from fluffy as a Doberman from a toy poodle. Actually, Henny would never admit itit would tarnish her own reputation as an intrepid sleuthbut she found Emma Clyde downright intimidating. But so did everyone else, including sloe-eyed, mealy-mouthed twofaced Kathryn Girard. Emma Clyde had used her computer to create the pick-up schedules and had posted them on the bulletin board with directives to sale volunteers. Therefore, finding Kathryn should be easy enough
Henny paused on her way to the bulletin board, grabbed up a phone and dialed a long-memorized number.
A familiar cheery voice answered obligingly, "Death on Demand, the finest mystery bookstore east of Atlanta."
"Annie, Henny. I'm at the Women's Club and running a little late. Kathryn Girard hasn't turned in the van." She didn't try to keep the irritation out of her voice. "I've got to track her down, then I'll come by for the books. Do you mind staying open for me?" In the summers the store stayed open until eight, but after Labor Day, Annie closed up at six.
Annie Laurance Darling had long ago embraced the shopkeeper's dictum-the customer is (usually) right-and said agreeably, "Sure. I've got
Henny was smiling as she hurried to the bulletin board. She scanned the pick-up cards. Hmm. That was odd. The addresses on Kathryn's card were scratched out. Written below the original list in a bold black-slanting script were four addresses: 31 Mockingbird Lane, 17 Ship's Caney Road, 8 Porpoise Place, and 22 Sea Oats Circle.
Henny yanked the card from the bulletin board. What would Emma Clyde think if she saw the changes? Emma didn't encourage improvisation. Tucking the card in the pocket of her slacks, Henny hurried toward the door, pausing only long enough to retrieve her purse and her gray poncho. The sooner she found the van, the sooner she could go to Death on Demand and pick up her wonderful box of books.
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