Read an Excerpt
Ginger Salinski gripped her box of garage sale treasures a little tighter. She slowed her pace up the stairs to Mary Margret’s house. The door hung slightly open. Odd. Her friend was one of those tidy people who closed doors even if she was just running out to the mailbox.
“Hello…Mary Margret?” She shifted the bulky box in her arms and pushed the door open the rest of the way with her foot.
Sunlight flooded through the kitchen and splashed across a counter that separated the kitchen from the small living room.
A broken drinking glass glistened on the linoleum.
Ginger bent over and placed her box on the floor. Her hand fluttered to her neck. Alarm corseted her rib cage. So Mary Margret, the compulsive cleaner, had left a broken glass on the floor. No big deal.
The kitchen clock said it was exactly noon. The other bargain hunters, Suzanne Thomas and Kindra Hall, would be here any minute. Mary Margret should have been sitting with a tray of cookies and iced tea waiting for them. They always met at her house because it was centrally located to the good garage sale territories in Three Horses.
Ginger stepped toward the counter, pushing aside a gift basket that blocked her view to the living room. Folded clothes had been knocked off the coffee table to the floor.
Something was not right.
Mary Margret wouldn’t leave clothes out. She certainly wouldn’t leave them on the floor. Ginger gathered up the clothes, tossed them in the laundry basket, and trotted down the hall. “Mary Margret? It’s me, Ginger.”
Her friend was eight years older than her, but in good health. She pushed open the bedroom door and held her breath, expecting to see Mary on the floor unconscious or gasping for breath–or worse.
Her heartbeat increased. Broken glass and knocked-over clothes suggested some sort of struggle or a person in a hurry. But there was no blood, no reason to think…
She slammed her palm against her chest. Why couldn’t she get a deep breath?
She ran to the attached garage. Mary’s little blue Jetta was gone. She raced back to the kitchen. If her friend had run an unexpected errand, she would have left a note. Mary Margret always left a note.
She scanned the refrigerator and the bulletin board. No note. No note anywhere. When she raced outside to check for the blue Jetta, Kindra and Suzanne were coming up the sidewalk, holding their boxes of treasures. Suzanne’s box rested on her bulging stomach. Kindra had a way of lilting up and down as she walked.
Their smiles, the sight of them, calmed her. She’d been alone, and she had allowed her imagination to run wild like a contestant on The Price Is Right. This was supposed to be a happy afternoon. Any moment now, Mary Margret would pull up and explain where she had gone off to in such a hurry.
Ginger took a deep breath and managed to smile back. Her friends were here. Together, they would decide what to do about the missing fourth member of the Bargain Hunters Network.
Half an hour later, no amount of deep breathing could loosen the tension in Ginger’s chest. The consensus had been to share the treasures and to wait for Mary Margret.
Ginger focused on the polka-dot skirt Kindra held up. “It’s nice, kiddo.” She massaged the tight spot in the middle of her chest. “You can wear it to classes in the fall.”
The sight of the broken glass in the garbage had made the hairs on the back of Ginger’s neck come to attention. Suzanne and Kindra weren’t as worried as she was. Why couldn’t she just follow their lead and relax? Because they hadn’t spent five minutes calling Mary Margret’s name in the empty house. Because they hadn’t seen the messed-up laundry. Because they hadn’t looked for the note that wasn’t there.
Kindra’s blond ponytail bobbed as she bounced three times. The kid’s cheerleader syndrome was acting up again. She could not do anything important without bouncing three times first.
Kindra twirled with the skirt held up to her waist. “And I can wear it for work at the restaurant this summer. Isn’t it just breezy and fresh? It’s a LizSport. Fifty cents, ladies, fifty cents! And I don’t think it’s even been worn.”
“I like it.” Suzanne lowered herself onto the couch beside her box of garage sale finds. She rested one hand on her huge belly. Sweat glistened on her forehead. “I can’t wait until I can wear cute stuff like that. I’ve worn this jumper through four pregnancies. I’m so sick of it I think I’ll have a ceremonial burning after this one is born. Is that how you felt about your four pregnancies, Ginger? Ginger?”
Ginger shook her head. “Mary would have left a note if she had run out for some reason.”
Kindra followed Ginger into the kitchen. “Maybe she saw a last-minute sale she couldn’t pass up on the way home.”
“The garage sale section of the newspaper is right here. So is her city map.” After checking a city map, Mary had put numbers beside the garage sales to show the order she would hit each sale so she wouldn’t backtrack and lose valuable time. Ginger fingered the map. God bless her, just like I taught her. “Did any of you see her while you were on your circuit?”
Both women shook their heads. “I worked the south side of town.” Suzanne readjusted herself on the couch.
“Me, too,” said Kindra.
Ginger glanced down at the torn newspaper listing the garage sales. Mary Margret had worked the north side.
“What say we give her another fifteen minutes?” Kindra adjusted her shirt collar. The diminutive nineteen-year-old looked smart in her navy shorts and sleeveless cotton blouse.
Ginger planted her hands on the countertop. “You’re right. I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation.” Short of Mary Margret being abducted by a UFO, she couldn’t think of what that explanation would be. “Let’s share what we bought. I promise I’ll pay attention.”
Think happy thoughts. Don’t let your mind scurry to those anxious places.
“Suzanne, it’s your turn to share.” Kindra folded her skirt and wandered back into the living room.
Suzanne half bent and half rolled toward her own box. “I’ve got to show you this cute little toy I picked up for Allie. Got it in that subdivision off of Fourth Street. The lady wanted two dollars, but I talked her down to one.”
Kindra sat in the leather easy chair kitty-corner from Suzanne. “I love that subdivision. There’s like a bunch of skinny women who are shopaholics. Their husbands must make them garage sale stuff when the closets get too full. I find clothing with tags still on them.”
Suzanne nodded. “I pick up lots of almost-new things for the kids there all the time.” She pulled out a plastic multicolored box with stars, ovals, and circles cut into it. “It plays music and comes with little rubber toys you can put through the holes and…”
Suzanne’s words faded as Ginger’s thoughts spider-webbed in a thousand worried directions. Where on earth could Mary Margret have gone? She hadn’t dashed out to help a neighbor. Her car was not in the garage or on the street. She’d gone somewhere in her car…or been taken.
A crashing noise jerked Ginger out of her worry-fest.
Suzanne had tossed the toy back in her box. “Oh, forget it. Ginger, you’re not listening to me.”
Ginger gripped the countertop. She’d done it again. “Ladies, I’m sorry. I know we’re supposed to be having fun, but something is wrong here.” Her eyes traveled to the gift basket Mary Margret had left on the counter. The little envelope read To Ginger. She removed the card from the envelope and read:
Ginger, everything in this basket I got on clearance or at garage sales. Just like you taught me. And it is everything you love. Thank you for all your help in teaching me to balance my budget. MM.
Ginger touched her friend’s precisely formed letters. They’d been acquaintances at church for years. But a year ago, they’d met at the clearance rack in JCPenney. Mary was newly widowed and learning the meaning of the term budget. Ginger’s picture was in the dictionary beside the word budget. She and Earl had raised four kids on his phone company salary and done just fine, thank you very much. You meet the nicest people at clearance racks.
Mary had lined the basket in pink gingham. There were candles, tea, soap, bundles of fabric wrapped in ribbons, and seed packets. The scratched fishing pole, with its oversized reel that featured Mickey Mouse dancing, looked out of place. Ginger didn’t fish and it was old and icky, not new like the other stuff. Maybe Mary had intended it for Earl as an afterthought.
“Earth to Ginger.” Kindra’s voice caused Ginger to jerk her hand away from the basket.
“Join us on this planet,” Suzanne said. “You usually jump up and down when I show you stuff still in the box it came in. You didn’t so much as bat an eyelash.” Placing a fist on her hip, she scooted to the edge of the couch and narrowed her eyes. “Are you feeling okay?”
Ginger tugged at one of her brassy brown curls. She was closer to Mary than the other two were. That’s why she was feeling this way. “Mary Margret would call if she was going to be late.” She let go of the strand of hair. It sprang back to her head, resuming its sausage shape. “Have you ever known her not to leave a note about where she would be?”
Both women shook their heads.
“When I came in here, the door was unlocked. You saw me clean up the broken glass on the kitchen floor, and I refolded and put away the laundry that had fallen off the coffee table. You know what a neatnik Mary Margret is. If she had gone anywhere, she would have cleaned up first unless she had to leave in a hurry.”
Both women nodded.
Suzanne performed her version of leaning forward to show interest, which involved bending her neck about ten degrees. “And her car is gone?”
Ginger nodded. Now they were tracking with her.
“I know.” Kindra sprang to her feet and bounced three times. “What is the one thing that makes you change your habits and behave unpredictably?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Being in love. Mary Margret met a really hot guy, and she’s taken off on a whirlwind romance.”
Suzanne rolled her eyes. “Kindra dear, after age thirty, the word hot only comes into your vocabulary when you’re talking about oven temperatures.”
Sometimes Ginger had a hard time believing Kindra was a physics major. “Mary hasn’t dated since her husband died. Her whole life is church, work, and learning how to spot a bargain. Besides, how many men do you see on the garage sale circuit, let alone hot ones?”
Kindra tossed her skirt into her box of garage sale treasures. “It was just a theory.” The younger woman’s shoulders drooped.
Ginger edged past the kitchen counter and wrapped an arm around Kindra, giving her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. “Theories are good, kiddo. They get you to thinking and coming up with ideas, right, Suzanne?”
“Maybe she got into a fender bender or something.” Suzanne wiped sweat trickling past her temple. “We are obviously not going to have any fun today until we find Mary Margret.”
“I don’t have to work until tonight.” Kindra pulled her scrunchie out of her hair and combed through the long blond strands with her fingers. “I can stay here in case she comes back.”
“I’ll stop at the real estate office where she works on the way home.” The tightness in Ginger’s chest subsided. Doing something to solve a problem always took care of her tension. Now the others understood the urgency she felt.
“I can swing by the church.” Suzanne planted her palms behind her and pushed as if to get up.
Ginger and Kindra darted to the couch and held out hands for Suzanne to grasp. The pregnant woman only wobbled slightly when she straightened her knees. They stood holding hands.
Ginger uttered, “Lord, help us to find our friend. We’re worried.”
The other two women said “amen.”
Kindra lifted Suzanne’s box of garage sale stuff and placed it in her hands. “I’m sure she’ll show up within the hour. Maybe we can all get together tomorrow after church to share what we bought.”
“I can’t after church.” Suzanne waddled toward the door, breathing heavily, as if she had just run a marathon. “Ben has a baseball game.”
Kindra tilted her head. “This is my favorite part of the week, sharing the good deals I found with you guys.”
Ginger tucked a stray strand of Kindra’s hair behind her ear. “We’ll figure something out.” She walked over to the counter and hooked her arm through the gift basket, then gathered her own box of stuff. “Whoever sees Mary first calls the other two.” Ginger pointed to the cell phone pocket on her purse. “I’ll keep checking messages.”
“Deal,” said Kindra.
Outside, Suzanne squeezed into the driver’s seat of her little Honda and drove away. Ginger unlocked the trunk of her car, put the basket and the box in, then shut it.
The invisible press of a gaze caused her to turn suddenly. The only movement in the neighborhood was a child riding a tricycle down the sidewalk.
Shading her eyes from the noonday sun, Ginger looked at each parked car–a blue SUV, a beige compact, a white truck, two red cars, and a brown older-model something or other parked where the street curved.
She studied each empty green lawn. A bald, potbellied man two houses down from Mary Margret’s came around the side of his house holding a hose connected to an outdoor spigot. After flipping up his sunglasses, he leaned over to turn on the water and sprayed his flower bed, not even glancing at Ginger.
Nothing suspicious. Just a beautiful Montana summer day in a nice neighborhood. Mary Margret’s neighborhood.
Ginger placed a flat hand on her chest and took a deep breath. Where on earth could that woman be?
Kindra came to the door waving her microscopic phone in the air. “Remember, message on the cell.”
Ginger waved back. They were doing all they could. She got into her Pontiac and turned the ignition key. Her car started with a smooth hum. She said a prayer of thanks that Earl always kept the cars running so nice.
Almost as quickly as she had a clear positive thought, her head filled with cotton balls–tangled, anxious thoughts she could not shake. She pulled out onto the street, revved up the hill, came to a stop, and clicked on her blinker to pull out onto the main road.
The real estate office where Mary Margret worked was next to a convenience store and attached to doctor’s and dentist’s offices. Business was slow on Saturday, only five cars in the lot and none of them were Mary Margret’s blue Volkswagen Jetta. She stopped in front of the glass door that said Jackson-Wheeler Real Estate. Inside, a heavyset woman pushed a vacuum across the carpet.
When Ginger pulled on the metal handle, the door didn’t budge. She rapped on the glass. Her knuckles were hurting by the time the cleaning lady noticed her, clicked off her vacuum, and trudged to the door.
“Yes.” The woman groaned rather than spoke her words, then pulled back her sleeve to check her watch.
Ginger recognized the crocheted sweater the woman was wearing as one that had been on the two-dollar table at Wal-Mart a week ago. The cleaning lady had close-set eyes, and the only makeup she wore was bright orange lipstick.
“I’m looking for someone who works here, Mary Margret Parker.”
“I just clean the place on Saturday. I don’t know anybody but the man who hired me, Mr. Jackson; he’s a big fella.”
“You haven’t seen anybody, say in the last hour or so?”
“Only been here fifteen minutes. Place was locked when I got here.”
“Can I look around?”
The woman rubbed the middle of her back and squinted. “You work here?”
“No, my friend does. If you’re concerned about me taking anything, you can watch me.”
The woman half nodded and then stepped to one side. “I guess that would be okay.” She wandered back to her vacuum. “Long as you stay where I can see you.” The vacuum clicked on with a shrill buzz.
The bulletin board just inside the door featured the top salespeople for the month. Mary Margret’s bright face was noticeably absent. All the others on the board probably hadn’t seen the far side of thirty yet.
Beside the board was a computer-generated list, complete with pictures, of the properties that had been sold that month and who had closed the deal. Jackson-Wheeler Real Estate sure sold a lot of houses, half of them vacation homes. Three Horses, Montana, had a fluctuating population of about thirty thousand. The town’s main draw was a lake surrounded by mountains. Many of the citizens were parttimers who left when the white stuff fell out of the sky. In five months, the town would decrease by about five thousand, and the permanent residents would hunker down for winter, extending hospitality to the occasional out-of-state hunter.
She studied the sales board. None of the properties had Mary Margret’s name by them.
With the shrill hum of the vacuum pressing on her ears, Ginger wandered to the back of the narrow office, where she found Mary Margret’s desk. A snapshot of Jonathan, Mary’s two-year-old grandson who lived in California, and a photo of Mary standing with Ginger, Kindra, and a much thinner Suzanne were the only personal items on the desk.
She picked up the picture of the Bargain Hunters Network, called BHN by the four members, that had been taken at their barbecue last summer at Ginger’s house. Mary had her arms around Ginger and Kindra. Glints of sunlight shone in her silver-white hair. She beamed at the camera with that easy smile she had.
Still clutching the photo, Ginger turned a half circle in the office. That was that. Unless she was hiding in the paper clip drawer, Mary Margret was not here. After placing the photograph back on the desk, Ginger wandered past the cleaning woman’s cart and pretended like her chest wasn’t getting all tight again. One of the bottles on the cleaning cart caught her eye.
The woman shut off her vacuum, straightened her spine, and placed her hand on her ample hip. “Can I help you,” she barked.
Ginger held up the bottle. “This will be on sale next week at the House of Spic and Span. I have a friend who works there. She always gives me the heads-up when a sale is coming.”
For the first time, the cleaning woman smiled. “Thank you. I’ll have to get down there.”
A kind word turned away much wrath, and if the kind word mentioned a good deal, it worked even better. “Glad to be of help.”
Helping people save money usually made her warm all over. But right now she was too worried about Mary Margret. Ginger left the office and got into her car. She checked her cell for messages. Suzanne had already phoned in to say that Mary was not at the church. After starting her car, Ginger shifted into reverse, turned around, shifted into first, then headed back to the main road.
She came to the edge of town where the mall, now twenty years old, buzzed with Saturday activity. She passed a boundary of the town, which was marked with a Welcome to Three Horses sign, a sculpture of three metal horses, and a man in a military uniform. The town had been settled over a hundred years ago as a fort and trading center with the local tribes. The town name was a reference to a good trade a military man had gotten. What the Native American had received out of the transaction never came up in the history books.
Main Street turned into the highway, and she pressed on the accelerator. After ten minutes, Ginger pulled onto the country road that led to her and Earl’s house. She checked her rearview mirror.
A brown car was riding her bumper.
From the Trade Paperback edition.