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Oh, I wish I were a little bar of soap! I wish I were a little bar of soap! I'd slippy and I'd slidy over everybody's hidey. Oh, I wish I were a little bar of soap . . ."
Sighing, I flipped over in bed for the umpteenth time and buried my head under the pillow. Teddy, my six-year-old grandson, had plagued me with that ridiculous ditty all afternoon and now I couldn't get the silly song out of my head, so when thunder rattled the windows and lightning exploded like a flashbulb just outside my bedroom, I welcomed the diversion.
Clementine, however, did not. My dog awoke from her favorite sleeping spot on the kitchen rug and began to bark frantically, toenails scratching as she dashed back and forth on the hardwood floors. I was reaching for my robe to go and calm her when I heard her enormous paws pounding up the stairs to Augusta, her guardian angel. And mine.
It had been Augusta who had taken the puppy under her wing, so to speak, the year before, and now Clementine not only claimed what had been my grandmother's rag rug in the kitchen, but my favorite chair, the run of the houseand my heart.
"Hush now, it's all right." Augusta spoke from the top of the stairs and the dog immediately stopped barking to huddle at the angel's feet. "I think this calls for some spiced cider," she said, gathering a voluminous cloudlike shawl about her trembling shoulders. Augusta has suffered from bouts of the shivers since that long-ago Christmas at Valley Forge, she tells me. She sat on the stairs and took the big dog's head into her lap, drawing the animal closer until they both stopped trembling, then followed me into the sitting room, where I poked futilely at the embers in the fireplace.
With an inconspicuous wave of her hand, Augusta soon had amber flames licking what had once been a limb from a black-walnut tree that had come close to crashing into the house during a late-August storm.
"Do-law! Another two inches and that thing would've slammed right into your roof," my next-door neighbor, Nettie McGinnis, had announced, observing the sodden debris. "I'll swear, Lucy Nan, you must have a guardian angel!"
I smiled and agreed. She was right, of course, but except for me, no one was aware of Augusta's presence but my friend Ellis Saxon. A year ago, when she came to my door in response to my advertisement for a room to rent, Augusta had announced that during that particular period in her life Ellis needed a bit of divine intervention as well, and it wasn't long before her prediction proved to be true.
Warmth from the fire had taken the chill from the room when I returned from the kitchen with two steaming mugs of cider and a doggie treat for Clementine, whom I rudely dislodged from my chair. Augusta curled up with a lap robe on a corner of the sofa and the two of us sipped in companionable silence, listening to rain pounding against the house and the rhythmic thump of Clementine's tail. Another peaceful evening in Stone's Throw, South Carolina, I thought.
Of course it didn't last.
"I'm kind of worried about Claudia," my neighbor Nettie said the next day as we attempted to clear a pathway through soggy leaves and twigs from the sidewalk out front.
Acorns crunched underfoot as I sidestepped a puddle. "What's the matter with Claudia?" I asked. Claudia Pharr was the youngest and most recent member of Stone Throw's oldest book club, the Thursday Morning Literary Society (commonly referred to as The Thursdays), which now meets on Monday afternoons.
"Moneyor the lack of itwould be my guess. Seems depressed. You knew her husband had to take a cut in pay when they downsized his company last year, and their oldest boy's just about ready for college." Nettie attacked the sidewalk with accelerated strokes of her broom as she neared the end of her stretch. "Plus, I think she's bored. Needs something to do."
"She has been unusually quiet," I said. "But then Claudia was never much of a talker."
My neighbor laughed. "Never had a chance with the rest of us yakkety-yakking all the time!"
"I knew she was looking for a job," I said. "Worked for some big corporation in Charlotte before she decided to stay at home with the boys. Remember? Claudia has great organizational skillsthink of all her volunteer work. Why, half the groups in town would fall apart without her."
"That's all well and good, but it doesn't put food on the table." Nettie pushed up the sleeves of her baggy brown cardigan and paused to survey the results of our efforts. "Enough of this. I made some pumpkin muffins this morning. Come on in and I'll give you a cup of coffee. We've earned a break."
She shaded her eyes and squinted through foggy bifocals at the lanky figure crossing the lawn on the other side of the street, mailbag strapped to his sloping shoulder. "I'll swear, Bun gets later every day. Must be after three."
"Probably takes him that long to feel his way around town," I said. "Blind as a bat! I don't see how he reads the addresses."
"Sometimes he doesn't." Nettie rested on her broom. "Look at himsee how he bends the envelope to try and make out the name. Just about every piece of mail I get is delivered in a permanent curl, and you know how he's always mixing ours up."
I propped my broom against the low stone wall that borders our lawns as I watched the tall figure shuffling across the street at the corner. "Poor Bun. If he held those letters any closer they'd be at the back of his head."
"Well, he never says no to a mid-afternoon snack. Tell him to wait up and I'll grab him a couple of muffins," Nettie said, hurrying inside.
She was back with two napkin-wrapped muffins on a paper plate by the time Bun Varnadore turned in at the walk. "Thought you might like a little something for your sweet tooth," Nettie called, meeting the letter carrier at the foot of the steps. "And you might as well give Lucy Nan her mail, too. Spare yourself another stop."
I joined her and greeted him, holding out my hand for the letters. It wasn't until Bun had continued on his way that I noticed one of the dog-eared envelopes hand-delivered to me was addressed to the neighbors who live two houses down. Nettie smiled when she saw it. "Wait until Bun's out of sight and then drop it in their mailbox," she whispered, and I agreed. We wouldn't hurt his feelings for the world.
"Nettie thinks Claudia might be having financial problems," I confided to Ellis when she dropped by later that day. Like Nettie, Claudia, and me, along with several others, Ellis Saxon is a member of The Thursdays, and what concerns one of us, usually concerns us all.
My friend nodded. "I think she's right. Unfortunately, there's not much opportunity for employment here in Stone's Throw."
"What about the college, Lucy Nan?" Augusta asked. "Since you'll be teaching a course at Sarah Bedford this quarter, you might be in a position to hear if something becomes available."
"I'll keep my eyes and ears open," I said, "but I'm only there a few days a week and it's just the one course."
"We might ask Jo Nell's friend if she knows of any opportunities," Ellis suggested. "What's her name, Lucy Nan? You knowthat mousy little woman who's in charge of food services at the college."
"Willene Benson? She's a nutritionist, I thinkoversees the cafeteria." I shrugged. "It won't hurt to ask her."
Augusta and I sat at the kitchen table wrapping cheese dough around pimento-stuffed olives. "Wash your hands, pull up a chair, and throw in," she said to Ellis, who grinned and raised a brow at me, knowing the angel meant "pitch" in.
"At least you didn't ask me to throw up!" Ellis said, dutifully following Augusta's instructions. "And why, might I ask, are we making all these olive-cheese balls?"
"Jo Nell's hosting The Thursdays next week and I promised I'd help with refreshments since her arthritis is acting up again," I explained. It was peculiar how my cousin's ailments seemed to worsen when there was work to be done, but she'd always been there for me during life's darker days, so I didn't mind lending a hand. Besides, with Augusta's help, making them really wasn't that much of a chore.
Now Ellis examined the rows of unbaked pastries lining the cookie sheet. After they were frozen they would be transferred to a freezer bag and later baked by my cousin just before her guests arrived. A Stone's Throw favorite, the appetizers were delicious at any temperature, but when served warm they were, as my daddy used to say, "just too blamed good for most folks!"
"Would you look at that!" Ellis pointed out. "Augusta's olive-cheese balls are all exactly the same size! And how do you make them so fast?"
Augusta smiled. Today, I noticed, her eyes were exactly the same aquamarine as the dazzling necklace she wore. "You forget I have a few hundred years' experience on you," she reminded us.
"Tell us, what's it like to be a professor?" Ellis asked me as she pinched off a wad of golden dough.
I laughed. "Professor! I don't think so! Teaching one class a few days a week hardly qualifies me for that titleand I had to bargain with Bellawood's board of directors to get them to agree with that arrangement."
In my part-time position as public relations director at the restored plantation of Pentecost Pitts, one of South Carolina's early governors, I edited the monthly newsletter, Past Times, sent out news releases about upcoming events, and was often called upon to speak to organizations about the facilities there, stressing the benefits, of course, of membership and financial support. When I was approached by the local college to teach a hands-on history class on the skills of daily pioneer living, I snatched at the opportunity to spread the word. The board at Bellawood, however, had reservations.
"I should think it would be in their interest," Augusta said.
"You'd think," I said, "but they had a picky little point."
"Like what?" Ellis asked.
"Like I don't know how to do all that stuff," I told them.
Ellis made a face. "I did wonder about that, but I wasn't going to say anything."
"Well, that's a first!" I said. Ellis Saxon and I had been best friends since we ate out of the same paste jar in Miss Jan Smith's nursery school class at Stone's Throw Presbyterian and we rarely hold anything back.
"So how do you plan to get around that little hitch?" she asked.
"By bringing in experts, naturally. The class and I will learn at the same time." I fished the last olive from the jar and ate it. "I already have them all lined up, and I met with Joy Ellen Harper yesterday. She's the history professor I'll be working with."
"And?" Ellis slid the sheet of pastries into the freezer.
I shrugged. "And I got the distinct impression my course had been thrust upon her." A small-framed woman who looked to be in her mid-forties, Joy Ellen dressed in sort of a threadbare elegance and had very little to say to me.
"She'll get over it," Ellis assured me. "When's your first class?"
"Monday, and I'll be getting a little help with my lesson plans over the weekend." I smiled at Augusta, who raised her coffee cup to me in acknowledgment.
"Good. You can tell us all about it at The Thursdays that afternoon," Ellis said, slinging a sweater about her shoulders. "And don't forget to put out the word for Claudia."
"I won't," I promised.
But when I arrived at the campus the following Monday, all thoughts of Claudia Pharr vanished from my mind.
The knot of girls whispering in the hallway outside my classroom fell silent as I approached. I recognized one of them as Celeste Mungo, the younger sister of Weigelia Jones, whom I had tutored in the literacy program a few years before. "What's up?" I asked, unlocking the classroom door.
"It's D.C.," Celeste explained. "She's disappeared, and nobody seems to know where she is."
"D.C. who?" The room smelled of chalk and of more than a century's accumulation of dust and grime, in spite of the freshly painted walls, and I sniffed as I dumped an armload of reference books on the desk at the front of the room and wrote my name on the board behind it.
"D. C. Hunter," another girl explained. "Nobody's seen her all weekend."
"Oh, she'll come dragging in when she's good and ready," someone muttered from the back of the room. "It's just like her to make everybody worry over nothing!"
"Who's worried?" Celeste's comment made everybody giggle.
When everyone was seated I handed out the syllabus and explained the course of study, and the whereabouts of D. C. Hunter took a backseat for a while to the practical basics of what we were about to undertake. "You might want to put your nice clothing in the back of the closet when you come to the class from now on," I warned them, "because we're going to get down and dirty!" I explained we would be sharing a firsthand experience in cooking over an open fireplace, soap-making, creating natural dyes and other handicrafts our ancestors practiced out of necessity. When Joy Ellen Harper quietly entered the room at the end of the period, I was relieved that she found the class in an enthusiastic discussion on the pros and cons of herbal remedies.
"Ms. Harper, have they heard anything from D.C. yet?" a student asked her as the class filed out.
She shook her head. "I don't believe so, Paula. If they have, I haven't heard anything about it.
"I'm sorry I missed your class today," she said, addressing me. "I had a conference with one of my students, but I do plan to sit in as often as I can from now on."
I told her I would look forward to that, although to tell the truth, she made me feel a little uneasy. I was gathering up my teaching materials prior to leaving when I remembered to ask about a possible job opening for Claudia.
"I haven't heard of one, but you might check with administration." The professor paused. "And about this girl who's supposedly missing . . . I hope you won't mention it off campus. Sometimes it doesn't take much for these students to get all worked up, and I'm sure the Hunter girl will show up soon if she isn't back already." She gave me a stiff attempt at a smile. "I imagine the college would prefer this not to be spread all over town."
I gave her an even stiffer smile in return. "Believe me, I have no intention of spreading unfounded rumors," I said.
But of course, it was too late. Apparently, Joy Ellen Harper wasn't acquainted with The Thursdays.
"Well, it's happening again," Idonia Mae Culpepper said, looking around to see if anybody was listening.
"What's happening again?" Nettie McGinnis leaned forward to set aside her coffee cup and the rustic porch chair creaked under the strain.
Members of the Thursday Morning Literary Society (which now meets on Monday afternoons) were taking advantage of the mild October weather by holding their meeting on my cousin Jo Nell's large screened porch, where a ceiling fan circled lazily, stirring the open leaves of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, our current undertaking.
"Something's not right over at the college. Sounds like another girl's disappeared." Idonia scraped the last smidgen of damson pie from her plate and blotted bright pink lipstick on Jo Nell's monogrammed tea napkin.
My cousin pretended not to notice, but the vein in her temple throbbed double-time. "What do you mean, disappeared?" She turned to me. "Lucy Nan, you're teaching a course over at the college this quarter, aren't you? Do you know anything about this?"
I shrugged. "No more than you do, but I'm sure it's just a rumor."
"Are you certain about this?" Ellis asked Idonia, who was sometimes known to exaggerate. "I haven't heard anything about it."
"No, and you won't if the college has its way," Idonia said. "I found out from Kim this morning when I had my hair done." She gave one flaming curl a twist. "I have a standing appointment on Mondays, you know."
Several of the ladies nodded impatiently. A few of them had their hair washed and set on a weekly basis at the Total Perfection Beauty Salon across from the Stone's Throw Post Office, and they shared a similar style. Kim knew a good thing when she saw it.
"Maybe she just took a long weekend," Zee St. Clair suggested. "Went off somewhere with her boyfriend. They don't think a thing in the world about doing that now, you know."
"Hasn't anyone contacted the girl's parents?" Ellis asked.
"Kim says her grandparents are the ones who raised her. They live up in Virginia somewhere and haven't the least idea where she is," Idonia chimed in. "And she didn't say anything to her roommate about it, either."
Zee groaned. "Well, for heaven's sake, who is this girl? Doesn't anybody know her name?"
Willene Benson spoke up. "D. C. Hunter. And I think you're all hard up for something to worry about."
The college nutritionist had come as a guest of the hostess, and she now screwed up her pale thin lips as if she struggled to stanch her opinions. It didn't work. "I know this girl," she said, "and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if she weren't just staying out of sight to create a sensation."
"Why would she do that?" Jo Nell asked.
Willene rolled her eyes. "Drama majorwent to school in England a couple of years and used to doing pretty much as she pleases. Reckon she must have a first name, but everybody just calls her D.C."
I passed around what was left of the olive-cheese balls. "How did she end up at Sarah Bedford?" I asked.
"I wondered about that, too," Willene said, taking two. "Somebody told me her grandparents wanted her closer to home and thought a small school might be good for her. A relative went here once, I believe."
"Sarah Bedford always had a good drama department," Zee said, "and from what I hear, everyone seems to like the new head."
"We try to see all their productions," Jo Nell said, "as long as they don't run around naked onstage!"
"Really?" Zee cocked her head and laughed. "I try not to miss it when they do."
"I think they're doing Dracula this month," Willene said. "Fully clothed, I assume. Opens the week before Halloween. The Hunter girl's supposed to play one of the leads, but I hear she's missed two rehearsals already."
"Now that doesn't sound right to me. And it hasn't been long since that Isaacs girl drowned in the Old Lake." Jo Nell leaned down to feed a crumb of pastry to her obnoxious terrier, Bojo, and I cringed as the moth-eaten little animal wormed underneath my chair and slobbered on my shoe. He had nipped me twice and I held my fork like a bayonet, waiting for revenge.
"It's been four years this month," Zee reminded her. "And she didn't just drown, she was murdered."
"Never came close to finding out who did it, either," Nettie said. "Or why." She looked down at the small dog with distaste and prodded him ever so slightly with the toe of her shoe. "Just think of that poor girl's parentsnot ever knowing . . ."
"I wonder if it's the same person this time." Idonia folded her napkin and gave her mouth another swipe. "No telling who could be next!"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Idonia!" Ellis said. "We don't even know if the girl's dead. She's probably off partying somewhere."
"If anything has happened to her, it's going to hurt the college," Jo Nell said as she stacked dishes on a tray.
"Can't help the town, either," Zee said. "That college is about all there is to Stone's Throw. If Sarah Bedford goes, there won't be anything left."
It grew cool in the shade of the wisteria vine that crisscrossed my cousin's wide porch, and spoons rattled against fragile china cups as the group came to terms with that last comment.
"Claudia was supposed to lead the discussion today," Zee announced, flipping through the pages of her book, "but she had a job interview in Columbia, so I guess you're stuck with me."
"Columbia? Isn't that a little far?" Ellis asked.
"She'd prefer something closerespecially with her younger son still in middle school," Zee said, "but Claudia thought it worth looking into. I do wish she could find something at the college."
Willene nodded. "Told me she applied there. If you ask me, it's past time some of those people retired!"
Although it's usually warm in the piedmont of South Carolina in early October, I was glad I wore a lightweight blazer as shadows crept across the lawn. A brief gust of wind rustled burgundy leaves that clung to the oak by the front walk, and a few houses away a dog yapped as if the whole world depended on its frantic warning. Bojo, hearing the summons, joined in.
"Do you think there's anything to all that talk about a missing girl?" I asked Ellis as we walked home together.
She frowned. "I hope not. Sounds to me like this D.C. person just likes to do her own thing."
"What about the girl who drowned in the Old Lakethe Isaacs girlhow do they know that wasn't an accident?" I asked.
Ellis frowned. "Don't you remember? It was in all the papers. They said she'd been hit over the head, but they never found the weapon, and she was fully dressed. She certainly wouldn't have been going for a swim."
"I hope this girl turns up soon," I said. "Did you notice that Nettie was unusually quiet this afternoon? Her niece's daughter, Leslie, started as a freshman at Sarah Bedford this year."
"That little girl who used to visit here in the summers? The one with the freckles and bangs? You've gotta be kidding. She can't be more than ten!"
"She spoke to me in the quad today. Had to tell me who she was. Must've grown a foot since I last saw her. And you remember Weigelia Jones? Her sister Celeste is a sophomore there, and she'll be taking my class. Both girls live on campus."
"Well, I wouldn't worry too much about what Idonia said," Ellis assured me as we parted at the corner. "You know how she carries on."
I hoped she was right.
Across the broad oak-lined street a neighbor waved as he raked leaves into crisp brown hills, and a bright orange pumpkin sat on the steps of the house next door. I inhaled the tingling smell of dry leaves; somewhere nearby somebody was baking a ham for supper.
In spite of the chill in the air a warm, snug feeling crept over me, beginning somewhere in my middle. It was a familiar sensation I often experienced while walking the streets of Stone's Throw. I was born here, belonged here. The town had nurtured me through good times and bad, and until recently it had been a quiet town. I wanted to keep it that way. Idonia's grim announcement, I thought, was nothing but idle beauty-parlor chatter, and wouldn't her face be as red as her hair when the missing girl turned up safe and sound tomorrow?
Yet something . . . something small and pesky nagged and nipped at the back of my mind. Something Augusta had said when she decided to stay in Stone's Throw after helping The Thursdays clear up a nasty chain of murders the year before. There were other secrets here, she had confided, that could use her attention as well.
But what other secrets? I hurried up our worn brick walkway, shaded now by a large magnolia on one side of the yard and a towering spruce on the other, loving the way the gentle yellow light from the fan-shaped window above the door made a pattern on the porch. Inside I could hear an authoritative voice barking, "Stretch! Right! Left! Reach higher! Higher! Step . . . step . . . step!" Augusta Goodnight, my resident guardian angel, was working out with her aerobics video, and I knew better than to interrupt.
The savory aroma of vegetable soup greeted me in the hallway, along with Clementine, our lovable dog with the world's largest feet. Whatever I had to ask Augusta, I decided, could wait until after supper.
Copyright © 2006 by Mignon F. Ballard. All rights reserved.