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May 1, Present-Day—Southeastern Pennsylvania
Against mauve cubicle walls, Herb's bald spot gleamed pale, almost jaundiced, like an old softball left up in the attic too long.
His phone was ringing. We all knew it was his, the ringer set louder than anyone else's. If you didn't know him, you'd assume he wanted to be able to hear it when away from his desk, say, at the copier. But Herb never used the copier, never left his seat except for two daily sojourns to the little boy's room. Yet he'd always let his phone ring three and a half times. Sat there watching it like a starved raptor, chubby forefinger poised over the speaker button. A nanosecond before voice mail could snatch the call away, he'd jab his talon at his prey, intoning, "Dawkins-Greenway Corporation. Herbert J. Kruminski speaking. How may I help you?" Every time. Even on in-house calls. Like he was CEO or something. And because he always used his speaker, always cranked up as loud as it would go, the rest of us got the special treat of having to listen to both sides of every blessed conversation.
This call was from Shipping. Herb had left a bunch of blank spaces on a customer's order change. Again.
I rested my hand on the rim of the bust-high cubicle, palm down, thumb lined up with Herb's off-white dome of brain wrap. Slipping one of those thick, paper-ream-sized rubber bands over the thumbnail, I slowly eased it back, feeling the tension increase until I had to bend my thumb knuckle against it.
"What the hell are you doing, Pat?"
The band snapped back at me, whacking the tiny quasi-funny-bone in the soft spot below my forefinger. "Madonne!" I jiggled my hand to relieve the pain as I turned to my cube mate, Denise-of-the-Oh-So-Perfect-Timing. "What's it look like I'm doing? I'm wishing I had a gun."
Her attention had been fixed on an e-mail message on her computer monitor up to that point. Now she gazed at me over her glasses like some wise old woman. With her twenty-five-year-old baby face and body I would have killed for a decade earlier, the look wasn't convincing. "For Herb or me?"
"Does it matter?"
"If it's Herb, I'll dig my dad's old starter pistol out of the basement for you."
"No thanks. If I'm going to do this disgruntled employee thing up right, I should have an assault rifle. And I wouldn't start with peons like you and Herb. I'd open up on Burt first. Use up a whole ammo cartridge on him and his fancy office." Want to hear the scary part? I wasn't kidding, folks. My imagination spent the better part of each workday ironing out the details.
"Do me a favor," Denise said, swivelling back to her e-mail. "The morning you reach into your closet and pull out jungle fatigues instead of a business suit, call me so I can take a sick day."
"Can't. They'd make you an accessory."
"In that case, I want matching fatigues. Designer. Something showing cleavage and leg, you know?"
"We'd look like Charlie's Angels."
She was serious. I'd always expected a generation gap when and if I ever had kids, but it gets you in the gut when it happens with a co-worker. For Denise, Jaclyn Smith was simply a name on K-Mart clothes. "Sorry. Before you were born."
"What was it like back then, living in caves? Eating dinosaur McNuggets?"
The rubber band soared straight and true this time, halving the four inches between Denise's screen and nose.
She didn't even flinch. "Call me crazy, but something tells me it's a good thing it's Friday and you're on vacation next week. Where'd you say you're going?"
"What's there? A beach or something?"
Beaches are where people in our office go on vacation: the Jersey Shore, or if you managed to save a few bucks, a coast with white sand and water sans hospital waste. Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean. If you had kids, you did Disney World. California and Hawaii were also acceptable. Any other state drew frowns of puzzlement unless it had a beach, famous golf course, or relatives you couldn't get out of visiting.
I hate travelling alone, so on my off-time, I usually hole up in my apartment with take-out food and a stack of videos. The only reason I was headed for Virginia this time was that I'd received a bizarre letter from one Joel Peyton, Attorney-at-Law, saying a ninety-one-year-old woman named Magnolia Shelby was leaving me her land. The catch was, I had to go stay with her during the last week of April and first week of May.
Since I didn't know anyone named Shelby, nor had ever heard my parents mention the name or anyone else in Virginia, I'd checked the letter out, phoning Mr. Peyton to ascertain the size, situation, and certainty of the bequest. A couple hundred acres. Nonswampland, in fact prime real estate, already surrounded by development. Peyton assured me old Magnolia wasn't loony, either in the senile or psycho sense. She'd written the will thirty years earlier, and it'd taken that long to track me down. He refused to discuss the "Why Me?" aspect of it, but he did say this Shelby woman had no relations who'd contest her will and no intention of changing her mind. Neither was she anywhere near her deathbed.
Still, I could put up with even this job another ten years if the sale of two hundred acres could mean early retirement.
All I had to do, apparently, was go suck up to the woman. What the hell?
So I'd put in for the vacation time. Burt, control-bastard that he is, refused to let me have both weeks off. Having foreseen this possible snag, I'd asked Mr. Peyton which days were most crucial. I put in again, this time for April twenty-ninth through May fifth. Burt, on one of his worst omnipotent-being jags yet, insisted he had a critical project due the first of May, but he'd let me take the week of the fourth, out of the decency of his heart. The project, I'd discovered yesterday, turned out to be a simple client list. I could have run it Tuesday afternoon. Or in the extreme unlikelihood that we signed on another client in two days, Denise could have run the list without me.
More incentive for early retirement. Or the jungle fatigue option. Whichever.
Luckily, Mr. Peyton had been very understanding.
But, for obvious reasons, I hadn't told Denise or anyone else about this deal. It could still fall through, making me look gullibly stupid.
"Sure it's got a beach," I said. "Virginia Beach."
Denise nodded her approval. "Send me a postcard. You know the kind. Guys in bathing suits. Lots of tush."
I hate driving. Twelve years of rush hour has pretty much sapped the fight out of me. You'll notice, people with kids can drive anywhere. They become experts in the fine arts of impatience and intolerance. Me? One hour on an interstate and the temptation to close my eyes and whimper is overpowering. So one of my stipulations was for someone to meet me at the nearest Amtrak station. Peyton had put a round-trip ticket to Fredericksburg in the next day's mail.
So, on the morning of May fourth, as I exited Fredericksburg station, I expected to see someone holding a card with my name on it. What I didn't expect was the someone himself. Build-wise, he could have been the Incredible Hulk's stunt double, except with red hair, matching mustache, and no green skin. His expression was more stoic than the Hulk's, but his body language, as he leaned against an old white Ford Escort, said he'd rather be swimming in shark-infested waters—after slitting his wrists.
When I dropped my suitcase before him, the look changed to disbelief. "You're Patricia M—"
"Montella." I couldn't handle a Southern accent mangling it this early on.
"Mun-del-la?" he aped in a fair imitation of the dialect, though he still looked skeptical.
"What? Do I have to show ID?"
"No, I just didn't think you'd look so ... so ..."
Had he been rooting around for a compliment, I would have let him take his time. After all, he wasn't hard to look at, in a raw physical-power kind of way. Admittedly, I was basing this solely on his arm and neck muscles. He might have been all flab under the loose, double-extra-large polo he wore. I wasn't about to ask him to take it off so I could check. Not when the tone of his voice, on searching for words to describe me, made it obvious that "beautiful" and "alluring" weren't even remote likelihoods. "Didn't think I'd look so what?"
He shrugged. "Italian, I guess."
"The last name didn't give you a clue?" Was this some antebellum prejudice against short, dark people? I hoped it was, for his own good, because if he was being personal, referring to, say, my hips, I intended to make him regret it. "I take it you're not Mr. Peyton?"
"Joel?" A smug grin crept onto his face and a ounce of sarcasm into his voice. "Why, I'm nothing but your chauffeur, Miss Mun-del-la. Fitzhugh Lee, ma'am, at your service."
Fine one to make fun of my name. His was backwards. Tempted as I was to point that out, I didn't want to be stranded, so I kept my mouth shut and let him take my luggage. As he moved away from the car door, I noticed the insignia he'd been obstructing. "U.S. Mail?"
"When I'm not driving around important visitors such as yourself, they let me work at the post office."
"Really?" For a moment, a very brief moment, I wondered if he might be a kindred soul. "Is it true what you hear about postal workers?"
He tossed my suitcase carelessly into the hatchback. "What would that be?"
"Ever feel like bringing a gun into work and shooting everyone?" I enjoyed the color that brought into his face.
"Since I'm the only one manning the little satellite office at Bell Run, I can honestly say no, that particular urge has never come over me." He glanced warily down at my bag as if he now suspected a bomb, but he slammed the hatch shut and motioned me into the passenger seat.
On first impression, Route 3 west of Fredericksburg seemed a clone of my daily commute through King of Prussia: shopping malls, motels, restaurants of the fast and slow ilks, badly timed stoplights, and way too much traffic. Virginia drivers, however, actually knew how to use turn signals, and more than one politely made room when the Escort changed lanes. Very little predatory fervor whatsoever, though they seemed to have a regular lust for vanity plates.
My driver, looking cramped like big men do in small cars, at first resisted all my attempts to get him talking and spill his guts about why I was here. So I was surprised when he suddenly asked, in a tone of near friendliness, even genuine interest, "What exactly do you do, Miss Montella?"
"I'm a business analyst." My standard, glib reply. True, this was my official title, but it meant absolutely nothing. I did mindless office work for mindless people. The only thing I analyzed each day was my motivation for not quitting. Minimal health-care benefits and a minimal salary, to be specific.
"Dawkins-Greenway. You've probably never heard of them."
"They make office furniture, don't they?" It wasn't a question. He could have easily said "They make toxic waste" in the same tone of voice.
"Right. That's them."
"Executive furniture. Big, fancy, polished-wood desks, tables, credenzas. High-back chairs wide enough for two people. Cutting down trees to build up egos."
During my employee orientation, while watching a propaganda video about D-G's exclusive product line, that same thought had occurred to me, in almost the same words. After I made the first payment on my student loan with my first paycheck, my conscience had shut up. It snickered now, piping in with a muffled "told you so." Time to change the subject. "Do you know Magnolia Shelby?"
"Everyone in this part of Virginia knows Miss Maggie." Said as if I should know her too.
Evidently a notorious oddball. Swell. "What's she like?"
"If you're looking to prepare yourself, you're probably too late." He chuckled to himself, as if they were all playing some elaborate joke which I was falling for completely.
Not that I was paranoid or anything. "Too late?"
"Joel should have told you to get plenty of rest. Miss Maggie'll keep you hopping."
I conjured up a bedridden hypochondriac, making me her slave. Well, I'd come to suck up. If that meant waiting hand and foot on the woman for a week, so be it. "I don't mind helping her around the house. At her age—"
More laughter, louder, not unpleasant, but it made the car shake a little. "Don't mention the word `age' to her, whatever you do. What do you know about the Civil War?"
I could tell he didn't want the recitation of the Gettysburg Address I'd memorized in fourth grade. Not that I could have spit out more than ten words now anyway. "Like what?"
"Ever been to a battlefield?"
"Gettysburg." A field trip as part of that same fourth-grade unit. I recalled seeing a gigantic map with little lights all over it, then riding around on a bus all afternoon, accompanied by the deadly dull drone of a pre-recorded tour guide. My most vivid memory was the stone monuments—what had seemed like thousands of them, every size and shape—dotting the landscape helter-skelter all along the route. On the test, I'd said that Gettysburg was a big cemetery. My teacher had thought I meant the National Cemetery, where Lincoln made his famous speech, but I'd meant the whole battlefield. That's what the place had looked like.
"You realize you're on a battlefield now?"
I'd tuned out the scenery. Swiftly blinking it back into focus, I expected to see cannon lining the road. All I spotted were real-estate offices. Doing a quick brain scan, I tried to wring out any bit of data leftover from the North and South miniseries I'd seen years ago. Guess I'd been too busy salivating over Patrick Swayze to absorb much history.
"I'll give you a hint. Salem Church is coming up on our left. A shame you missed the reenactment yesterday. They do it Saturdays and Sundays now, regardless of when the battle really was. Too many of the volunteers have regular jobs."
If the name or building had been featured in the miniseries, I must have been in the kitchen getting a snack at the time. Didn't look like a church at all. No steeple. More like a big brick schoolhouse, or like the Quaker meetinghouses back home. Thinking I could sneak another hint, I asked, "When exactly was the battle?"
"Salem Church was May 3 and 4—1863." This last was added to show he knew I was totally ignorant. "But this skirmish was only a small part of the Chancellorsville campaign—April 27 through May 6."
"So that's why Miss Shelby wanted me here last week?"
"She did? I didn't know that." He chuckled again but seemed to think better of it mid-snicker. His brow creased in thought. "Likely. Chancellorsville or—ever heard of The Wilderness?"
Could you resist a straight line like that? "Where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play?"
The only reward for my wit was a patronizing smile. "That's where you're headed."
"Oh, the name of a town." A religious name, no doubt, like some of the Amish towns back in Pennsylvania: Paradise, Lebanon, Mount Joy. Or maybe a literal description. This part of the country had to have been wilderness at one time, back when John Smith was making eyes at Pocahontas.
"No, not a town," he said, crushing what I thought were brilliant deductions. "Not yet, anyway. I mean the battle."
I revised my conception of Magnolia Shelby. A matron of the Old South, straight out of Gone with the Wind. Black high-necked gown à la Queen Victoria. Confederate Battle Flag over fireplace. "Dixie" playing interminably on an antique, wind-up music box. Probably still hadn't heard who won.
But hey, if the old bat wanted to relive her favorite battles, I'd hold her hand on the sidelines and cheer on the Rebels.
As the roadside became less commercial with each mile, my driver returned to his persona of the strong, silently rude type. He roused himself just once, lifting a forefinger from the steering wheel to point out a grassy lot behind a zigzag rail fence on our right. Low stacks of bricks were visible between two trees.
"That's where Chancellorsville Inn used to stand."
I opted for a polite, generic, "Oh, yeah?"
He might have been offended by my indifference because he didn't speak again until I asked him a question. We'd turned off the main road, passing under a canopy of tall trees. The grove continued along on the left while the right side boasted one of those new upscale housing developments, complete with impressive monolithic entrance. Brass letters on black stone spelled out BELL RUN.
Hence my question. "This where your post office is?"
"Not inside." The snide utterance of a servant not permitted to eat in the dining room, who'd rather barf than do so anyway. "Let me show you the real Bell Run."
He made an abrupt left down a bank. Three full, frantic heartbeats later I realized we weren't careening out of control but were actually on a road. A very narrow road, one car wide. I could have reached out and touched the tree trunks in passing. A wild jungle of vines wove itself between trees and undergrowth, seeming as ominous and animate as any evil Star Trek alien. I visualized the vines twisting about the car, choking the life from us, digesting us slowly, burping up only the oil filter before settling down to await another victim.
The greenery parted slightly and, with a hollow-sounding thump followed by an agonizing groan, the Escort came to a stop. Both sounds had been produced by an unsafe-looking wooden bridge, now directly beneath us. Three feet beneath that was a shallow, gurgling, swirling creek.
"Bell Run." He put the car in park and yanked on the brake. "Not much now, but I've known her to surge up over this bridge in a good downpour."
My increasing claustrophobia from the trees, his talk of flash floods, the chronic groaning of the planks, and a new realization—that this was a very lonely spot to be marooned with a complete, not to mention very large, stranger—were all playing havoc with my panic button. I couldn't suppress the tell-tale squeak in my voice when I asked, "How much further to Miss Shelby's?"
"Here?" Not being a Stephen King fan, I didn't have a field of reference, but I was sure this was where the villain switches personalities as he takes a meat cleaver from under the car seat.
"On her property. Everything this side of the road." He was eyeing me with speculation, probably deciding whether to rape me or kill me, or in which order to do both. "So, what do you think?"
I was thinking there was nothing outside my door but a three-foot drop into shin-deep water. I was cursing myself for wearing heels instead of sneakers. I was wondering how I could go so totally blank on the words to the Hail Mary when the nuns in catechism class had made me repeat it ad nauseam for four years straight. "I think we shouldn't keep Miss Shelby waiting."
Having seen once on the news how you shouldn't look an attacker in the eye, my own were focused straight ahead, so I only heard his reaction: half grunt, half snort, conveying the sentiment that I'd lived up to every one of his predictions.
I hoped that was good.
He released the parking brake as I released the breath I was holding. "It'll be rough going from here on."
The road became gravel just beyond the bridge, actually seeming to narrow as we bumped and skidded our way up the incline. The undergrowth, now uninhibited by macadam, had sent long tentacles of green snaking across the path. Wouldn't have surprised me to hear screams as we ran over them.
That we were headed deeper into this forest concerned me no small amount, though, after sneaking a glance at my companion, I relaxed a little. His demeanor was more that of a mailman delivering a gift package of Washington apples rerouted via South America and a month past ripe. I almost wanted to apologize. For what, I had no idea.
Around the next bend, the woods seemed to have taken a giant step back, letting blissful sunlight radiate all the way down to the road. Optimistically it could be called a clearing. We turned onto a dirt pull-off, stopping under a tall shade tree saturated with pale greenish-yellow flowers as big as grapefruits.
"This is it." He cut the ignition and got out before I could ask, What was it?
I saw the house then, peeking out from behind the tree. Not the Tara I'd envisioned. More like John-Boy Walton's farmhouse, except smaller, or it seemed smaller within this setting. An H.O. house in a Lionel-scale forest.
What drew my attention to the house was the woman who banged through the porch screen door. Her T-shirt and sweatpants matched the tree's blossoms. She was elderly, yes, but not feeble or doddering or any of the other adjectives that came to mind on hearing her age. She moved stiffly, a little bent over, taking each of the three porch steps right-foot first, clutching the railing, but none of that slowed her down. Before I could close my car door, she'd grabbed my shoulders and spun me around.
We were about the same height, though I was willing to bet she'd been a good head taller in her youth. The hands that held my arms were gnarled with arthritis but felt incredibly strong. Her eyes, sunken deep into her skull, glowed with green fire as they traveled over every inch of me.
"Not what you expected, Miss Maggie?" Fitzhugh Lee came up beside me, toting my suitcase, a cynical grin stretching his mouth wide.
"I'm not so much a fool as you think, Hugh." Her voice matched the rest of her, sharp, raspy, full of energy, but her mild accent stole away the edge, leaving the possibility—remote as it seemed—of humor.
Her grip eased as her gaze ran one final audit of me. "Joel was supposed to tell you to bring comfortable clothes."
"I did," I said hastily. "In the suitcase." I'd worn my navy-blue suit and ruffly ivory blouse to make a good first impression. The standard job interview outfit, recommended by Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. Then again, though I'd worn the suit to eight interviews in the past half year, I was still doing time at Dawkins-Greenway.
"Bring her luggage up to the back bedroom, Hugh. She has to change before we can get started."
"I'll take it myself." I was afraid he'd spout off some b.s. about Southern chivalry, but he surrendered the bag almost gratefully. Anxious to get away from me, I supposed.
My host called after me as I walked toward the house. "Wear long pants, a light color if you have 'em. Helps keep the ticks off you."
Posted November 14, 2012
I loved this book! I fell madly in love with Miss Maggie and Pat and loved the combination of mystery, ghosts and good cooking. I went on to read every book Elena Santangelo has written so far and can't wait for her next one to come out.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.