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Magnolias, Moonlight, And Murder
By Sara Rosett
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One One hour. Just give it one hour, I told myself. That's the advice I give my organizing clients when clutter overwhelms them. Break up the large jobs into smaller tasks. It's what I told Livvy when her attempts to write her name nearly drove her to tears. One letter at a time. One chunk of clutter at a time.
Of course it's easier to give advice than to follow it yourself, I decided as I folded the flaps back on a box that contained our tax returns from the last five years. It was the same box I'd opened almost an hour ago, but life, in the form of dirty diapers, lost socks, and a spider in the bathroom sink had whittled away at my time.
Mitch stuck his head around the door frame of the spare bedroom and said, "Wow, doesn't look like you've gotten much done."
His tone was matter-of-fact, but I was aggravated. "That's because I haven't." I surveyed the room and decided we were in denial. The bed frame and mattresses were propped against the wall so we could fit stacks of boxes into the rest of the space. "This isn't a spare bedroom. This is a storage room."
"There's nothing wrong with having a storage room," Mitch said in the same reasonable tone.
"There is if you're a professional organizer. I should have had these boxes unpacked months ago. We've lived here for ten months. I always unpack all our boxes right away."
"It's a well-known fact that professional organizers who have a three-year-old and a toddler get an exemption from perfection. Let's tackle it this weekend. I'll help."
"No. That's okay," I said quickly. "I'll try to get in another hour tomorrow." It was sweet of him to offer, but if I let Mitch unpack these boxes I'd probably never find the tax records again. He'd put them anywhere there was an open space. They could end up under a bed or in the laundry room. I clambered over two boxes to get to the door. "Sorry I'm so crabby, but knowing we have all this stuff crammed in here is like an annoying gnat that keeps buzzing around my head."
"You'll get it done," Mitch said, and rubbed the back of my neck as we walked down the hall. "How about a relaxing game of Galaga after we get the kids in bed?"
I'd found a game system with Mitch's favorite classic arcade games for his birthday. "Yeah, that'll help," I said dryly. I had to be the worst player ever. "Let me get in a walk first before it gets dark."
"Great idea. I'll get the stroller." Mitch had already gone for his run, but he was always up for any type of workout.
"No, I meant a walk by myself." The words popped out before I had time to check them.
"Oh." I could tell from his subdued tone that I'd hurt his feelings.
"Mitch, I'm sorry, but I need some time alone."
He leaned back on his side of the hall and crossed his arms. "Why don't you want to spend time together, just us? Every night, it's like you can't wait to sprint out the door for your walk. You're already by yourself all day."
I gaped at him. "How can you say that?" I usually get tongue-tied when I'm in a heated discussion, but not this time. "No, I'm not. I have two kids and a dog with me all the time. That's not being alone." I braced myself on the other side of the hall. "While you're talking to adults, going to lunch with the guys, and working out, I'm making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and changing dirty diapers. I load and unload that dishwasher so much I feel like I run a restaurant and I know every word to 'There's a Hole in My Bucket,' which has to be the most annoying song in the world."
I blew out a breath, trying to calm down. I hated it when we argued. "Look, I want some couple time for us, too, but I feel like I'm being pulled in a million directions. The kids are so ... labor-intensive right now. A twenty-minute walk is a sanity break."
"My job isn't all fun and games either," he said quietly. Mitch never raised his voice. He just got quieter and more still.
"I know that. I know being in the squadron is stressful, too." How could I explain? "Imagine if you never left the squadron. You were always at work. That's how it is for me."
Arms extended straight in front of her, Livvy "flew" between us, the pillowcase I'd pinned to her shoulders flapping out behind her. "I'm Super Livvy," she shouted. Nathan "cruised" behind her, stumbling along on his pudgy legs as he transferred his grip from one piece of furniture to another to help him keep his balance. He gripped my knees for a second as he passed, then inched his way down the hall with one hand on the wall.
We stared at each other for a few seconds; then Mitch cracked a small smile. "Reminds me of my office. 'There's a Hole in My Bucket,' huh?"
My shoulders relaxed and I smiled, too. "As sung by Goofy, but don't say it too loud or Livvy will break into song."
Mitch stepped away from the wall. "You go on. I'll get Super Livvy and her sidekick in their pajamas."
I slid my arm around his waist and kissed him. "Thanks."
A few minutes later, I punched in the remote code to close the garage door and then let out the leash as Rex ran down our long driveway. He'd been waiting for me at the door, ears perked and an air of barely suppressed expectation nearly vibrating off him. With two weeks of almost constant rain, his walks had been severely curtailed. I rotated my shoulders and tried to put our spat out of my mind and enjoy being outdoors.
It was still slightly muggy, but the humidity was so much lower than it had been during the summer. After our move to Georgia in January, we'd enjoyed two months of ideal weather and I now understood snowbirds. A winter without snow tires was such a welcome break after our last assignment in Washington State, where it would already be cold by now and there might possibly be snow. Here in middle Georgia, the only signs of fall were pumpkins dotting the wide porches. Even though we were barely halfway down the block, a fine layer of sweat beaded my hairline and my shirt plastered itself to my shoulder blades.
I wondered what my old neighbors, Mabel and Ed Parsons, would think of our new neighborhood. We'd gone from an arts and crafts bungalow that could verifiably be called an antique to a house built three years ago. Only one occupant before us. We had all the bells and whistles now: remote garage door opener, garbage disposal, security system, and those clever windows that fold down inside so you can clean the outside of them without leaving the house. Although I didn't see much window cleaning in my immediate future. In fact, my days seem to consist only of keeping the basic necessities of our life clean: the clothes, the dishes, and (sometimes) the house.
Our new subdivision, Magnolia Estates, certainly lived up to its name with magnolia trees dotting almost every yard. Tonight, the scent of jasmine hung in the still air. Set back from the road, new brick houses in a traditional style kept up the southern theme: rooflines soared above Palladian windows and wraparound porches. A few homes had white rocking chairs on their porches.
I paced down the street as it curved around the edge of a large drainage pond to the end of the street. A silver Cadillac coasted to a stop at the curb behind me and Coleman May leveraged himself out of the car. As always, he wore a golf shirt-today's was yellow-and khaki pants. A visor shaded his eyes, but left his mostly bald head bare to the sun. Surely his few stands of comb-over hair didn't protect his head from sunburn during all the hours he spent on the course?
He popped the trunk and pulled out a black garbage bag. "Evenin'," he said as he tore a garage sale sign from the corner light post and crumpled it, then picked up some litter.
"Mr. May," I said, and reeled the leash in, then bent to help him with the bright flyers and posters that clogged near the drain. The rains had softened the paper and made the ink a runny mess.
"Can you see this light post from your house?" he asked.
"I suppose so."
"If you see anyone putting up signs, flyers, or posters, give me a call. I'll come down and take care of it. The only one who's authorized to put anything up is Gerald Lockworth," Coleman said as I picked up a flimsy water-soaked paper. "He's filled out the permit with the homeowners' association." Even though it was smeared, I recognized the flyer.
It looked like hundreds of other flyers taped in business windows all over North Dawkins. FIND JODI read the bold letters above the picture of a smiling young woman in her twenties. Straight blond hair framed a pretty face. Her smile was wide and showed her even, white teeth. It was hard to reconcile the open face with the word below the picture, MISSING.
I wasn't about to become the neighborhood tattletale, so I said, "You know, I don't really notice things like that. Too busy with my kids."
"You should notice. It's everyone's responsibility to maintain the standards of Magnolia Estates."
It sounded like a line from the monthly homeowners' association newsletter that Coleman wrote and delivered each month in his role as HOA president. It probably was a line from the newsletter, but I couldn't really say for sure, since I never read the thing. For all I knew, Mitch and I were in violation of several obscure HOA regulations.
Coleman said, "I've made a special exception for Gerald because Jodi lived here."
I looked at the blurry photograph again before I put it in the trash bag. "Really?"
"You didn't know that?" He yanked the ties on the trash bag closed, then held it against the bulge of his potbelly. His gaze flickered to my house again and I had the feeling he was about to say more, but stopped himself.
"How long has she been missing?" I asked.
He put the trash bag in his trunk and walked around to the driver's door. "Let's see, it was right about the first of the year, so that would be around ten months. Keep an eye out for those illegal flyers," he called before he shut his door and drove away.
Rex pulled on the leash. I turned and followed the street's blacktop, which extended a few feet. Then the road switched to a gravel track that had been an entrance for the construction crews during the building of the first phase of Magnolia Estates. It would eventually be paved and lined with homes, but now between building phases the road was quiet and used mostly as a jogging and walking path.
I let Rex off the leash and he hurtled down the path. The missing woman, Jodi, had lived in Magnolia Estates. How weird was that? I'd seen her picture around town, but knowing that she lived here, drove the same streets, might have even walked this same path gave me a strange, eerie feeling. I picked up my pace.
A few scraggly rays of sun angled through the dense growth of trees, bushes, and vines. The path was the only swath of openness. The thick foliage made me feel like I was miles from civilization, but I reminded myself that the path curved around the far side of the pond, then ran parallel to our street, creating a perfect walking loop.
I looked up. Directly overhead, a strip of sky was still light blue with one tiny paisley-shaped cloud tinged pink. I took a deep breath and drank in the beauty of the blush-colored cloud.
I noticed Rex hadn't trotted back to me in a while. I called him, but the gloomy path was empty. I jogged to the bend in the path and called again. I saw a flicker of dark movement up on the left. I hurried over. "Rex, come down." He was nosing around the small cemetery plot that was set back off the path at a slightly higher elevation.
"Rex," I said in my firmest voice, and his head swung toward me. "Come."
Reluctantly, he trotted to me and I clipped the leash back on him. I glanced back up at the cemetery, thinking that it was slightly odd that the place didn't creep me out. I'd walked past it for weeks without seeing it since it was higher than the path and the black wrought-iron that had once enclosed the rectangle of land now tilted at a crazy angle and trailed a skirt of kudzu that camouflaged it.
I had noticed it one day when I spotted a pale yellow stone marker, an obelisk, poking through the curtain of leaves and bushes. I'd taken a few steps up the embankment and stopped there to study the worn markers. No poison ivy for me, thank you. It hadn't made me feel the least bit scared, only a little sad to see the graves so abandoned.
Rex pulled on the leash, ready to move on, but I paused, frowning. "Now, that's not right," I said. In the fading light, I saw a white Halloween mask, a skull. It sat under a bush outside the kudzu-draped fence, contrasting sharply against the dirt and dark leaves.
"Kids," I muttered as I climbed two steps up the embankment and angled my foot to kick the mask clear of the greenery. It looked like the Halloween pranks were starting early this year.
I hesitated and leaned down. It looked so realistic.
Correction. Not realistic. Real.
Chapter Two Even though I've watched those TV forensic shows and seen bones and human remains in all their grisliness recreated on the small screen, nothing had prepared me for the real thing. I think that was what freaked me out the most. I knew the skull was real. I didn't have to touch it or move it to understand that. I just knew.
I stepped back and slipped. My arm splatted down into the soft mud. Thankfully, I didn't land on the skull, since I'd stepped back, but I didn't want to be on eye-level with it either. I righted myself, holding my left arm away from my body.
All I could think of was the bleary picture of the missing woman. I swallowed and looked at the skull. Was that Jodi? My heartbeat ramped up.
I wanted to sprint away, but my jerky movements made my feet skid again. I hadn't noticed on my quick climb up the embankment that the earth was still soaked from the rain, but now, as I took a few deep breaths to calm down, my feet shifted slightly in the sludgy earth. My heart hammered like it did when I actually got around to doing my kickboxing video.
My gaze followed the trail of mud that had cascaded down from the cemetery. Rex's paw prints dotted the mud slide. At the top, I could see a piece of the kudzu-covered wrought-iron fence that had surrounded the plot of land, broken away and dangling. A few kudzu vines threaded through the piece of fence and were stretched taut, which had kept it from slipping down with the rest of the mud.
The back corner of the cemetery plot had sheered away, leaving a casket exposed. Its sides had collapsed, creating a gaping darkness under the lid that had tumbled sideways and was wedged in the earth, half covering the other pieces of the casket.
I thought I saw another skull-like shape.
Surely not. In the fading light it was hard to make out the details in the mix of dark mud and shadows, but it did look like another one, another skull. I squinted, then forced myself to take one more step up the embankment. As much as I didn't want to believe what I was seeing, I had to admit that even to my untrained eye, it was another skull. It was half buried in the mud near the splayed casket, but the curved dome of the skull and the empty eye sockets were impossible to mistake.
I stayed as clear of the mud slide as I could and picked my way directly up the rise of land and circled around to the back of the cemetery. I didn't realize that Rex had been trotting along beside me until he rubbed against my leg. I transferred the leash to my muddy left hand and rubbed his head as I studied the cemetery. The rest of it was intact and undamaged. Well, undamaged was probably not a good word choice. The rest of the cemetery looked the same as it always did, abandoned and disheveled. There were no more exposed graves. I looked back at the two skulls and got that ice-cube-down-the-spine feeling. One of them could be her. I stood on the rise, considering what I should do. Call 911 was the obvious answer, but I didn't have my phone with me.
I looked up and down the path. I couldn't see back around the bend, the direction I'd come, but I could see several feet down the path in the direction I'd been walking. Not a soul in sight. It was late. The color was draining from the sky, leaving it icy blue. The cloud was now tangerine and the darkness around the trees was thicker. I doubted anyone else would walk this path again until tomorrow morning. I did my best to shake the uneasy feeling.
I carefully sidestepped down the embankment, going out of my way to avoid going too near the washed-out portion of earth. I went slower on the way down. I didn't want to get any muddier than I already was. Once back on the path, I thought about cutting through the trees. It would be the quickest way since I was past the pond. The path mirrored our street, and our house was directly above the curve in the road. I could cut through and go in our back gate.
Excerpted from Magnolias, Moonlight, And Murder by Sara Rosett Copyright © 2009 by Sara Rosett. Excerpted by permission.
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