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The Morgue The Merrier
By ROSEMARY LAUREY KAREN KELLEY DIANNE CASTELL
ZEBRA BOOKS Copyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ten years hadn't improved things, Annette James decided as she drove into Christmastown, VA. Ten years ago, the town had been rundown and shabby. Now it resembled a theme park on steroids.
Given a choice, she preferred the decayed look. She couldn't quite get the hang of a six-foot elf directing traffic. The illuminated reindeer on the roof of the Ebeneezer Baptist Church seemed a trifle out of place too. Yes, it was the season and all that but when the woman at the Sleigh Bells Inn mentioned the town was festive for the holiday season, Annette imagined a few strings of lights stretched across Main Street and a ten-foot cedar in the town square decorated with tinsel and twinkling lights. She hadn't imagined the twinkling lights would also be draped around the doorway of the public toilets.
Not that Christmastown had possessed public facilities back then, obviously an innovation to accommodate the tourists who jaywalked recklessly across Main Street and clustered, with rapt expressions, around the five-foot-tall mechanical Santa in the window of Barlowe's Drugstore. Admittedly, Santa's gyrating hips had distracted her as she waited for the light to change, but she was quitecontent to turn left and leave the sight of the grooving Santa Claus behind. She glanced at her directions to the Sleigh Bells Inn. A couple of turns and she was there. And stunned to realize it was the antebellum mansion that used to house the town hall, the library and the Police Department. Dear heaven! It had been in a building behind-the then town morgue-that her parents' bodies had lain after the accident.
Maybe it had been a big, big mistake to come back.
But what the hell? She was here now. All she had to do was sign the papers for the sale this afternoon at Jim Cullen's office, meet Juney Whyte-her one-and-only friend from her days here-for dinner and, first thing after breakfast tomorrow, she'd hightail it out of here and be back in Richmond in time for the Christmas Eve carol service.
She couldn't wait.
The parking attendant, or perhaps it was his red nose and reindeer antlers, yanked her back to the present.
"Welcome to the Sleigh Bells Inn, ma'am. Merry, merry Christmas."
"Thank you." She handed over her keys, to be confronted by a bellboy wearing a snowman suit.
"May I take your bags, ma'am? And a merry, merry Christmas to you."
"You certainly get into the spirit of the season."
"Yes, indeedy. We do!" He sounded positively ecstatic. "Christmastime in Christmastown ..." he began, to the tune of "'O Christmas tree."
"Business is obviously booming," Annette said, hoping to interrupt the choral interlude.
"It's the Christmas celebration, ma'am. People come from all over. We've even had visitors from as far away as Japan and Europe. Where are you from, ma'am?"
"Oh, I see. Here you are, ma'am. Mizz Charlaine will take care of you." He nodded to the teenager manning the reception desk. Obviously in-state didn't impress like Japan. He pocketed the tip and smiled under his mask. "Thank you, ma'am. Enjoy your stay with us and may you have a very merry Christmas."
The prospect of Christmas alone, apart from her cats and a couple of likewise single friends, seemed positively delightful.
At least Charlaine wasn't in costume, if you didn't count the holly wreath with little electric candles on her head, and there was a beautiful seven-foot cedar in the corner by the sweeping staircase that, if she remembered rightly, once led up to the mayor's office and the accounting department where her grandfather had worked.
"A beautiful tree," Annette said. She couldn't help smiling at the cascades of tinsel and the twinkling lights.
"Mom and I did it," Charlaine said, obviously warmed by praise of her efforts. "My dad fussed at us to get an artificial one as it was cheaper but Mom put her foot down and said she wanted the scent of a real tree, despite the fire risk. We have to be careful about that. Did you know they had a bad fire in the back of the building years and years ago?"
"Yes." She did. Her parents' bodies burned in the fire.
"You have a reservation, ma'am?"
Maybe not. Charlaine frowned at the computer screen, searching for Annette's reservation. "There has to be one. Jim Cullen made it for me some weeks back."
Dropping the name of the town's top-notch lawyer (and one-and-only lawyer, for that matter) did the trick. After frowning at the computer, Charlaine announced, "I can put you in the Ten Lords A-Leaping Suite."
Telling herself it was only one night and lords a leaping had the edge over geese a laying or drummers drumming, Annette followed the snowman bellboy as he led the way toward a wide door at the far end of the hall. As she turned, she glimpsed a man walking in the front door and did a double take. Jake Warren! Heaven help her! She was leaving first thing in the morning. Maybe before breakfast. According to local gossip, Jake left town after high school and had never been seen since.
What were the odds he'd end up here this one and only night in ten years? Jake had been her first, and most memorable, sexual mistake. A mistake she since put down to adolescent hormones and curiosity. He'd satisfied her curiosity all right, and shattered her adolescent soul by ignoring her the rest of their senior year. Her brief glimpse of him showed he'd done nicely for himself, considering....
"Here you are, ma'am. Let us know if there's anything we can do for you."
Refuse hospitality to the man now standing in the lobby? If that was too much to ask, how about a long-handled broom and duster to clear the plastic holly from the window frames and the wardrobe? Better not. "This will be fine." It was only after he left and she looked around the suite that Annette suspected where she was. A glimpse out the French doors that led onto the courtyard confirmed it: the Ten Lords A-Leaping and the next-door Nine Ladies Dancing suites were in what had been the old town morgue.
Annette sat down hard on the edge of the tester bed. Her first instinct was to reach for the phone and demand a different room but decided to go in person. She marched down the hallway and pushed open the door into the lobby, just in time to hear Jake Warren say, "You have to have a free room. I reserved one a month ago."
Poor Charlaine was not up to coping with a Jake Warren. "Yes sir, but ... Would you mind waiting until my mom gets back? She can sort this out for you. You could have a drink in the bar and lunch on us, while you're waiting," she added, seeing him hesitate.
"Okay," he said, "but the minute your mother returns, I want to see her." He turned toward the oak-paneled and greenery-bedecked bar and Annette did a quick reverse and shut the door hard behind her.
So, no other rooms. She was stuck with hers. At least Jake Warren hadn't seen her, that was one small mercy. Quite a massive one actually. Much as part of her longed to snub him in public and turn a dramatic heel, she really had far more important things on her mind.
'She's here, Bob. She's here. I never imagined it possible. She's really really here: Our little girl!'
'Yes,' Bob James replied. 'She's lovely. Looks just like you when I first met you.'
'Oh, honey.' Katy James couldn't sigh without living lungs but she felt the sadness all the same. 'She grew up and went away. I never thought she'd come back.'
'I bet she's come to sell the old house. She won't stay.'
'But what if, while she's here she could ...'
'Now, don't get your hopes up, Katy. Maybe we're meant to stay down here as spirits.'
'Piffle! I don't intend to spend eternity wafting back and forth over this tacky hotel. Annie's come back for us. You wait and see.'
'Katy, honey, she doesn't even know we're here.'
'And what do you mean by that? You're not haunting her, Katy, I won't have it. The girl needs a life.'
'And by the look of things, has a nice one. You commented on her car. Said she had to be successful to afford a Volvo.'
'This isn't about her car!'
'Of course it isn't! It's about our little girl and releasing us.'
She sounded wistful but Bob wasn't buying it. 'Whatever you have up your sleeve, Katy, forget it."
'Forget it? Robert E. Lee James, I cannot forget the last twenty years wandering. Your interfering old father anchored us down here, why shouldn't our daughter release us?'
'And how do you propose she does that?'
She couldn't snort without breath, but did her best. 'It's not going to be as hard as you think. All I have to do is convince Annette what to do.'
Bob shook his spectral head. Katy Willow had always been hard headed. Dying hadn't changed that one iota. 'Look here, Katy ...'
'Hush! She's coming back. She'll be here soon. I'm going to watch her.'
Annette seldom indulged in the overpriced goodies in a minibar but today the expense was justified. She reached for a tiny bottle of gin and another of tonic and stirred both with a green swizzle stick topped with the seemingly de rigueur holly sprig. She took a deep taste, settled herself into the poinsettia-covered sofa, inhaled the sweet perfume scent of gin and took an even deeper drink, letting the liquid rest on her tongue before slowly swallowing.
Running into Jake Warren, or rather not running into him, was enough to drive a teetotaler to drink. What was she going to do? Halfway down the glass, she knew. Simple, really. She was meeting Jim Cullen at four, having dinner with Juney at seven, staying out late to talk and catch up on news, getting up very early and heading home. Heck, if she left early enough, she might just make it to Richmond in time for a late lunch.
Good plan! She topped up the glass with the remaining gin.
'Annette?' a voice in her head whispered. 'Annette, honey? It's Mommy. Please listen.'
Annette set the glass on the side table with a clunk. This was what happened when she got maudlin and indulged in overpriced gin. She hallucinated. But, damn, it sounded like Mom's voice. Yeah! Right! She remembered so well after twenty years. Shaking her head to clear it, Annette stood, walked back into the bedroom and unzipped her case. She didn't have much to unpack: just night things, toiletries and clean undies and a sweater for tomorrow. She looked around; apart from the over-the-top decor, the suite was actually rather nice. The sitting room and bedrooms had separate doors to the hallway and French doors to the courtyard. Pocket doors, decorated with the inevitable Christmas trees and wreaths, closed off the two rooms, and the bathroom connecting them had a vast whirlpool tub and a spacious shower. The red and green tiling took a bit of getting used to and the plastic mistletoe suspended over the tub was quite beyond the pale.
She was tempted to try out the tub, but it was cold outside and she was due in the lawyer's office in twenty minutes. Might as well leave her car parked and walk. It would be nothing if not interesting. She changed her driving shoes for boots and reached for her coat.
'Annette,' the voice said. 'Please listen, honey. I need your help. We need your help. Daddy and I can't ...'
Yes! She needed a walk in the crisp air to clear her head. Either that or ... There was no 'or'. Annette grabbed her bag, pulled on gloves and marched out.
'I warned you, Katy, she won't listen. She's too rooted in her world.'
'She will, Bob, you wait and see. She will. Our little girl will set us free.'
It had been a well-seasoned hamburger, cooked to a perfect medium, the Bermuda onions and blue cheese a touch he'd never have credited to Christmastown, but Jake Warren hadn't come all this way to eat a hamburger in a plastic holly-decked bar. Having his food served by an elf didn't help his mood in the least. He wasn't about to snarl his frustration at a slip of a girl who was obviously doing the best she could but, dammit, he'd booked the room-or rather his PA had-weeks ago when they set the closing date. Once Charlaine's mother-who presumably ran the place-showed her face, he was getting a room for the three nights he'd booked, or know the reason why.
What wild impulse had given him the idea to come back here for Christmas, Jake would never know. But it was distinctly satisfying to drive a Porsche into the town he'd left on a Greyhound bus. And he rather looked forward to tomorrow morning when preppy Jim Cullen learned who was behind the Warren Corp. that was buying the old tool factory, the pumping house, and the old James place. The latter, he admitted, was sheer, sentimental indulgence. He'd loved Annette with a wild, adolescent passion that had never quite faded. And broken her heart. He'd once harbored dreams of finding her again but when a search some years back found her married, he shelved that fantasy. She wasn't meant to be his. Her old bear of a grandfather had been right there. Trouble was, every woman he met, and they were quite a few willing to snap up the owner of Warren Corp., didn't touch his heart the way Annette had.
Enough maundering. He was here for business, not sentimental indulgence.
It was a good hour later that Charlaine's mother, Melanie, returned, proffered abject and profuse apologies and frowned at her computer screen for a good ten minutes. But the upshot was he now had a room, or rather half a suite with a sofa bed, and the promise of free use of the minibar for his delay and inconvenience.
Once settled, he had time to review the contracts, spend a pleasantly sweaty hour in the Sleigh Bells gym aka the former sheriff's department garage, and enjoy dinner: onion soup, locally-raised lamb chops, parsnip puree and fresh asparagus. He declined a dessert menu-no point in putting back on what he'd just sweated off-and settled in for a quiet evening reading sheaves of legalese before treating himself to an early night.
Chapter Two 'Do you see that, Katy? A man sleeping in our Annie's bedroom! Oh, if I just had a body I'd have it out with him.'
'Hush! He's not in her bedroom. He's on a sofa bed next door.'
'And there is a difference, my dear?'
'Big difference. If he were in her room, she'd notice the minute she walks in.'
The meaning of that wasn't too hard to grasp. 'What in tarnation have you been doing, Katy? And how the hell did you manage it?' Katy Willow had stunned him when they first met in eighth grade geography and still made a habit of it, even dead.
'It's not too hard. A little distraction is all it takes. Did you know if you cause the electricity to flicker at the exact right moment, it takes things off the computer?'
'No, Katy, I did not and neither should you. We're not supposed to mess around with the living. And what in heaven were you thinking, luring a strange man into your daughter's room? Honestly, woman!'
'Don't 'honestly' me Bob James! Besides he's not a 'strange' man. You may not have eyes but you can still see. Take a good look at him.'
Bob wafted lower, looked at the sleeping man and almost dropped onto the bed in shock. 'It's that Jake Warren!'
'Yes, it is.' Katy smiled fondly, or rather did the nearest incorporeal equivalent of a benevolent maternal smile. 'He was a handsome boy and he's sure grown into one good-looking man.'
'He was a randy lout who couldn't keep his hands to himself! Have you forgotten how my father had to warn him off and threaten he'd be arrested if he as much as spoke to Annette again?'
'No! I most definitely have not forgotten. The old bigot broke Annette's heart in the process.'
'He was just looking out for her. Young Warren was far too hotheaded and nowhere near good enough for her.'
'Right, just like I wasn't good enough for you. I'll never forget what he said when we told him I was pregnant.'
Even after all this time, Bob James shuddered at the memory of his father's wrath. 'He was wrong there, and said as much later on. He loved Annette. Thought she'd hung the moon. Nothing was too good for her.'
'He meant things for the best, Bob, but he was wrong about you and me, just as he was wrong about Annette. She loved Jake.'
'She got over him and married that Philip what's-his-name.'
'And had her heart broken a second time. No, Bob, this time it's going to come out right.'
Excerpted from The Morgue The Merrier by ROSEMARY LAUREY KAREN KELLEY DIANNE CASTELL Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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