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By Ron Benrey
Steeple HillCopyright © 2007 Ron Benrey
All right reserved.
"What's wrong with this picture?" Emma McCall muttered, as she plunged her hands into a mound of croissant dough. "It's pitch–black outside and I'm up to my elbows in flour."
Emma was the sole proprietor of The Scottish Captain, a bed–and–breakfast in Glory, North Carolina. Some days, though, the Captain seemed to own her. Today was a perfect example. She had risen at 4:00 a.m. because Calvin Constable, her breakfast chef, had taken a well–earned day off. That left Emma on her own to prepare this morning's breakfast, until Peggy Lyons, her housekeeper, arrived at six.
Emma glanced at the wall clock in the kitchen. Ten to six. If Peggy came on time—and if nothing went wrong—they would finish with ten minutes to spare. Just enough time to strip off her scruffy T–shirt and faded blue jeans and slip into one of her chic hostess outfits. Today she might go for the tailored suit in a shade of tan that went well with her dark brown hair.
The Captain had six guest rooms and could accommodate a maximum of eighteen guests in a pinch, although off–season bookings rarely exceeded half a dozen. On this, the first Wednesday in November, Emma had to prepare breakfast for five people.
The centerpiece dish would be Eggs Sardou, a classic New Orleans concoction of poached eggs served on artichokes withspinach and hollandaise sauce. She would also offer a selection of imported bacon and sausages, hot croissants, fresh–squeezed orange juice and her "signature" gingered fruit compote. And, of course, coffee and brewed tea.
Emma had decided to serve an elaborate breakfast because three of her guests were New England travel writers, part of a contingent on a pre–winter junket through North Carolina. Their favorable recommendations might bring flocks of northern "snowbirds" to The Scottish Captain as they traveled south. The other two guests—a couple who hailed from Maryland—also had influence. He was a prominent Washington attorney, she an evening news anchor on a Baltimore TV station.
Emma had just begun to shape croissants on a large buttered pan when Peggy Lyons burst into the kitchen and shouted, "There's a bug on the porch."
Emma willed herself not to scream at Peggy. She had seen this same panic–stricken look on her housekeeper's face many times before. Peggy was a fine worker but easily flustered by minor problems. Emma unstuck her fingers from the slick, buttery dough.
"Tromp on the bug, Peggy," she said, evenly. "Whap it with a newspaper, spray it with insecticide, or catch it in a jar. Pick one of the above, but do it quickly. I need your help."
"You don't understand, Emma. There's a Bug on the porch. A car! A silver Volkswagen Beetle convertible." * * *
Rafe Neilson fumbled for his cell phone in the dark. He knew without looking at the glowing Caller ID display that Angie Ringgold needed his advice. Angie–a newcomer to the department—was the only police officer on duty in Glory, North Carolina, that morning.
"Good morning, Angie," he said sleepily.
"I'm sorry to call so early, Rafe, but someone pulled a weird prank on Broad Street. There's a Volkswagen Beetle sitting on The Scottish Captain's front porch."
"A prank?" He cleared his throat. "When did it become a police matter?"
"The Captain's owner dialed 911. She wants the responsible party arrested and I don't know what to tell her. Is moving a car to a porch a crime? And, if so, what kind of crime? The curriculum at the Police Academy stopped short of practical jokes."
Rafe peered at his clock—6:20 a.m. "Do you know who did the deed?"
"Sort of—but not exactly."
"What does 'sort of' mean?"
"There was a note tucked under the windshield wiper. I'll read it to you. 'Dear Emma. Your lack of support for enhancing the contemporary service really bugs us. Please reconsider your position." The note is signed 'The Phantom Avenger."
Rafe thought about the message for a moment then groaned softly.
"See what I mean?" Angie said. "Sort of—but not exactly."
"I'll be there in three minutes."
Rafe slipped into his khaki trousers, tugged on a warm sweatshirt and grabbed his nylon windbreaker. he'd worry about his police uniform later.
Outside, he fired up his Corvette—taking a moment to enjoy its throaty exhaust growl. Rafe's 'Vette was a 1978 model, candy–apple–red, a classic that he had lovingly restored and now kept in perfect operating condition.
Rafe's house on Front Street was five blocks from The Scottish Captain. He kept the 'Vette in second gear for the short drive. He parked across the street and took a moment to contemplate the front of the Captain in the flattering light of an unclouded sunrise.
Rafe chuckled to himself. The silver new Beetle looked at home up on the porch; passersby on Broad Street might well conclude that the bed–and–breakfast was also an eccentric automobile dealership.
The Captain was a large, three story clapboard structure, with a deep front lawn and a charming antique brick walkway. Every tourist guide to Glory explained that the old pile was considered one of the town's historical buildings. It had been built toward the end of the nineteenth century as an elegant residence for affluent single women. It was a good–looking house, with large windows, double front doors made of oak and a front porch served by a flight of five deep steps nearly twenty feet wide. The porch could hold a dozen chairs and sliders; it was the perfect sort of porch to cradle a compact convertible.
Rafe knew that the Captain had been a bed–andbreakfast since 1982. Before that, the building had served as Glory's cheapest rooming house, catering mostly to retired pensioners. Rafe recalled that Emma McCall, the current owner, had bought the Captain from Carole and Duncan Frasier, a pair of expatriate New Englanders. The Frasiers had picked up the aging residence for a song in 1981, renovated it into a B and B, and chose the name "The Scottish Captain" on the theory that it communicated three virtues: thrift, competence and a touch of wanderlust.
Rafe had toured the Captain two Christmases ago during an "open house afternoon" to raise money for the Glory Regional Hospital. He remembered that the first floor had both front and rear parlors, a dining room that had become the B and B's breakfast room, a kitchen and an ornate staircase that began in a high–ceilinged entrance foyer. There were six bedrooms of equal size on the second floor—three on each side of the hallway, each equipped with an en suite bathroom, not a common feature in the nineteenth century.
The tour didn't include the top story, but the docent explained that the third floor was a self–contained apartment—the owner's residence—accessible by a private staircase.
Rafe foundAngie in her cruiser, writing in a notebook. "Hi, Angie. Any progress?"
She nodded. "I've tentatively labeled the offense a 'Trespass." Does that sound right to you?"
"Only if we want to consider a prank as a crime."
"The B and B owner is furious. As I told you, she wants to file a formal complaint."
"A natural first reaction. I'll try to change her mind." Angie looked up from her writing. "That's right–you know Emma McCall."
Rafe grinned. "Sort of, but not exactly." He went on, "Where is she?"
"Working in the kitchen, at the rear of the building. That's why she didn't see or hear the Beetle lifted onto the porch." "Do we know when it happened?"
"Well, I drove down Broad Street a few minutes after five and the car wasn't on the porch then."
"I'd better chat with the lady."
Rafe slapped the empty pockets of his windbreaker then offered an embarrassed smile. "I forgot my notebook. Can I borrow yours?"
"Sure. You can even keep my notes—if you promise to write up the official incident report."
"Consider it done. Can you also lend me a pen?"
"You need a wife to keep you organized," Angie said wryly.
"I'll take it under advisement."
Rafe walked along a narrow flagstone path to reach the back of The Scottish Captain. The top panes of the kitchen windows were open; the bottom were shuttered. He couldn't see inside, but whatever Emma McCall was cooking smelled wonderful.
He stopped to read Angie's notes.
Time of arrival on scene: 6:03 a.m.; Complainant: Emma McCall; female; Age: 37; Address: 18 Broad Street, Glory; Marital status: divorced; Hair: dark brown; Eyes: brown; Height: approx 5'9"; Occupation: innkeeper; Demeanor: angry; Weather: partly cloudy, cold; Nature of "trespass": vehicle moved from parking lot to porch of bed–and–breakfast; Estimated time of "trespass": between 5 and 6:00 a.m.; no apparent damage to B and B; no apparent damage to vehicle; Vehicle details: 2006 Volkswagen New Beetle convertible, silver, tan leather upholstery; Maryland registration: AM70RG3; Vehicle registered to Noelle R. Laurence, Catonsville, MD; Vehicle not listed in National Crime Computer System—presumably not stolen.
Rafe felt like laughing at the meticulous detail. Rookie cops followed procedure to the letter and wrote everything down.
One fact surprised him. He had guessed that Emma—tall, graceful, good looking—was in her early thirties. Because she was also a member of the Glory Community Church Choir, he stood a few feet away from her on most Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. She seemed an odd duck, a loner who relished her privacy. He had exchanged a few pleasantries with her, but they had never shared a real conversation.
The little he knew about Emma he'd picked up in brief conversations with other choir members. She'd moved to Glory about a year earlier from Seattle, Washington. Apparently, she'd held an important job at a fancy hotel in Seattle but then decided she'd rather run her own B and B.
Rafe knocked on the Captain's back door. "Who's there?" asked a voice deep inside the kitchen. "Rafe Neilson."
A hesitation. "Rafe Neilson from the choir?" "The same—but today I'm Rafe Neilson from the police."
Another hesitation. "Hang on."
Emma's face appeared at the window in the door. She peered at him for a moment then opened the door halfway.
"I didn't know you were a policeman."
"My identification card is at home with my badge and my wallet. You'll have to accept my word that I'm the deputy chief."
She opened the door fully. He stepped inside the kitchen.
"Let's say I believe you," she said. "Now what?"
"I need to talk with you about the report you made to Officer Ringgold."
She shook her head. "Sorry, I can't spare a moment right now. My guests expect to be served breakfast beginning at seven–thirty. It's twenty to seven and my housekeeper is setting up the dining room, which means that I have forty minutes to finish ten chores and change my clothes. Come back in two hours."
Rafe felt a twinge of sympathy for Emma. She was liberally dusted in flour that had settled beyond the borders of the large chef's apron she wore. She looked as frazzled as she sounded.
"What if I help you prepare breakfast?" he said. "We can talk while we work together."
"Do you know the difference between boysenberry conserve and boysenberry preserves?"
"I have to admit that I don't."
"Then come back in two hours. I don't let amateurs work in my kitchen."
Before Rafe could respond, the cell phone clipped to Emma's belt beeped.
"It's about time he returned my call," she murmured angrily as she flipped the phone open. "This is Emma."
Rafe listened intently to her half of the conversation. She didn't seem to object.
"Good morning, Mr. Yeager. Thanks for getting back to me so quickly….
"Yes, Peggy Lyons explained that she's your niece…. "I agree—she's a doll….
"That's precisely what I said to the police—not all practical jokes are funny….
"No—it weighs less than that. I looked up the weight of the Beetle on the Internet. The convertible is about three thousand pounds. Your whole team working together should have no problem….
"Uh–huh… That's why I contacted you. Peggy tells me that you coach twenty–five of the strongest young men in the county….
"Sure! The deal I propose is simple. I want that car off my porch as soon as possible. If your men help me this morning, I'll donate two couples' getaway weekends at the Captain that you can auction off to raise money for the team….
"I understand—it's a worthy cause. But three weekends represents an enormous sum….
"Very well—three weekends….
"We'll be ready when you are….
"Fine. I'll expect you in twenty minutes!"
Rafe swallowed a grin. Tom Yeager was a tough man to best in a bargain. Emma hooked the phone on her belt; she made no effort to hide her annoyance. "Do I have to explain the expensive negotiation you just overheard?" she asked.
"You rented our high school football team at a cost of three complimentary weekends."
"Whoever pulled this stunt cost me a small fortune. I'd sure love to see the perpetrators in handcuffs by the end of the day."
"You just hired the…ah…perpetrators to move the car off the porch."
Excerpted from Glory Be! by Ron Benrey Copyright © 2007 by Ron Benrey. Excerpted by permission.
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