Widow's Tears (China Bayles Series #21)by Susan Wittig Albert
Herbalist and ex-lawyer China Bayles is “in a class with lady sleuths V. I. Warshawski and Stephanie Plum.”* In Widow’s Tears, a haunted house may hold the key to solving the murder of one of China’s friends…
After losing her husband, five children, housekeeper, and beautiful home in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900,/b>/i>… See more details below
Herbalist and ex-lawyer China Bayles is “in a class with lady sleuths V. I. Warshawski and Stephanie Plum.”* In Widow’s Tears, a haunted house may hold the key to solving the murder of one of China’s friends…
After losing her husband, five children, housekeeper, and beautiful home in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Rachel Blackwood rebuilt her home, and later died there, having been driven mad with grief.
In present-day Texas, Claire, the grand niece of Rachel’s caretaker, has inherited the house and wants to turn it into a bed and breakfast. But she is concerned that it’s haunted, so she calls in her friend Ruby—who has the gift of extrasensory perception—to check it out.
While Ruby is ghost-hunting, China Bayles walks into a storm of trouble in nearby Pecan Springs. A half hour before she is to make her nightly deposit, the Pecan Springs bank is robbed and a teller is shot and killed.
Before she can discover the identity of the killers, China follows Ruby to the Blackwood house to discuss urgent business. As she is drawn into the mystery of the haunted house, China opens the door on some very real danger…
"One of the most endearing and personable amateur sleuths."-Midwest Book Review
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Table of Contents
Note to the Reader
Flo-rig’-ra-phy (fl–o-rig’-ra-f–e), n. [L. flos, floris, flower + -graphy.] The language or symbolism of flowering plants, as expressed in historical literature.
Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language
People often ask me the question “What exactly is an herb?”
I’ve never liked questions that have to be answered “exactly,” because I appreciate a little ambiguity and mystery in my life—it makes things much more interesting. That’s why I like the Herb Society of America’s definition of an herb: “a plant for use and delight.” It’s an impossibly broad definition, yes. But it’s a definition that invites us to explore the widest possible uses of plants to provide taste, scent, medicine, fiber, dye, tools, artifacts, and symbols, from the distant beginnings of human culture to the present time.
Almost all societies have assigned symbolic meanings to plants. In China, for example, bamboo (which provides medicine, food, building materials, paper, and textiles) represents longevity, strength, and grace. In Hindu cultures, jasmine (used as a medicine, a flavoring, and a fragrance) symbolizes love, while once upon a time in the British Isles, green willow symbolized untrue or immature love.
Throughout human history, these symbolic meanings have been elaborated in art, poetry, and literature. During the early Victorian period, for instance, wealthy and leisured ladies and gentlemen frequently exchanged floral gifts in which a fanciful “language of flowers” was encoded. As Kathleen Gips puts it in her introduction to Flora’s Dictionary: The Victorian Language of Herbs and Flowers, “people expressed flowery thoughts by exchanging bouquets composed of carefully chosen plant words.”
The definitions of these encoded “plant words” or floral symbols—collectively, a florigraphy—were published in Europe and America in an enduring and highly popular literary tradition made up of dozens of elaborate manuals that appeared in multiple editions. At their best, these were attractive, leather-bound volumes with gilt-edged pages and engraved illuminations, occasionally hand-colored. At the end of this book, you’ll find some suggestions for further reading that will lead you deeper into the study of florigraphy and its many historical transformations. It’s a subject that many garden and literary study groups might find interesting.
Of course, while herbs and plants are an important thematic and plot element in the books in the series (it’s amazing how many mysteries there are in the lives of plants!), you’re probably even more interested in the characters. China Bayles, of course, has always been front and center, with her herb shop, her lawyerly logic, and her tendency to be drawn into…well, murder. And, of course, Ruby Wilcox has never been far behind, playing the role of an intuitive Dr. Watson to China’s logical Sherlock.
But now it’s Ruby’s turn to play Sherlock. Widow’s Tears is her story—and it’s about time, don’t you think? We’ve already learned about her shop, her family (the daughter she gave up for adoption and who reappeared in Hangman’s Root; the mom who has Alzheimer’s), and her everyday life. We know about her bout with breast cancer (in Mistletoe Man) and her adventures with the Ouija board (Rosemary Remembered and Bleeding Hearts). In Widow’s Tears, Ruby shows us just how good she is at looking deeply into mysteries that are hidden from everyone else—even from China. To help while Ruby is doing this, Dawn Zudel of Columbia, Tennessee, (the winner of Story Circle’s character raffle) has volunteered to tend her shop. Thanks, Dawn!
Widow’s Tears is also the story of the Great Galveston Hurricane, which forms the historical backdrop against which Ruby’s story unfolds. The hurricane—to this day, the deadliest natural disaster to hit the United States—struck Galveston Island on September 8, 1900. It killed some eight to twelve thousand people (nobody really knows how many), wiped out whole families, and changed the destiny of the city of Galveston, which at the time rivaled Houston for the position of the most important city in Texas, indeed, on the entire Gulf Coast. I have created a fictional character, Rachel Blackwood, through whom to tell the story of the hurricane. But Rachel’s story is based on the real stories of hurricane survivors recorded in many documents of the period. I’ve listed my sources in the resource section at the end of this book.
An important reminder: throughout the China Bayles series, you will read many descriptions of the therapeutic uses of plants, both modern and historic. China and I fervently hope that you will seek informed, reliable advice before you decide to use any of these herbs to treat whatever ails you. Medicinal plants are “natural,” yes, but plant chemistry is not always well understood—and the more we understand, the more cautious we are likely to be. Many herbs have potent side effects, especially when combined with over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Do your own careful homework and use all medicines, plant-based or otherwise, with mindful attention. China and I would not like to lose any of our readers—especially you.
Susan Wittig Albert
Galveston, Texas: The Oleander City
Saturday, September 8, 1900
The coast of Texas is according to the general laws of the motion of the atmosphere exempt from West India hurricanes and the two which have reached it followed an abnormal path which can only be attributed to causes known in meteorology as accidental…. It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city [of Galveston].
“West India Hurricanes”
by Isaac M. Cline, Chief Meteorologist
Texas Section, U.S. Weather Bureau
Galveston Daily News, July 16, 1891
Rachel Blackwood got up early that morning. She had not slept well: her youngest daughter, three-year-old Angela, was suffering from a sore throat and had cried often for her mother in the night, needing to be soothed.
But it wasn’t just Angela’s whimpers that had disturbed her mother. It was the thunder of the waves on the beach that had kept her awake—and the heat, the unspeakable, unbearable heat. According to the daily newspaper, the Galveston News, sultry weather had smothered almost the whole of the country that summer, from the Rockies east to Pennsylvania, from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty people in New York City had died one awful August Saturday. Dozens of others had succumbed in Chicago and Memphis, and at the St. Louis zoo, two bears and a leopard had been felled by the heat.
On Galveston Island, summers were usually cooled by ocean breezes, and the miles of shining white-sand beaches, groves of palm trees, and extravagant flower gardens made the city seem a paradise. But this year, summer in paradise had been marred by both sultry heat and unusual rains. During July and August, tropical storms had drenched the city—sixteen inches of rain in one downpour, nine inches in another. Boys sailed the flooded downtown streets in wooden tubs, fish flopped across lawns, mothers despaired of ever getting the laundry dried in the damp air. And there were the morning fogs, and the foghorn in the lighthouse on the Bolivar Peninsula, a forlorn ghost calling, calling, calling through the dim gray mist.
The Blackwood household—Rachel; her husband, Augustus (the newly appointed vice president of the Galveston National Bank); the five Blackwood children and their fifteen-year-old nurse, Patsy; and Mrs. O’Reilly, the family’s longtime cook-housekeeper—seemed to be moving in a languid and stuporous dream that summer, half-asleep under a sweltering blanket of humidity and heat. The thermometer on the back porch had registered 90 on Thursday and 91 on Friday, and when Rachel had taken the children the four blocks to the beach, they had complained that the Gulf was as warm as bathwater.
The morning air was cooler, though, and for the first time in weeks, Rachel could draw a deep breath as she slipped out of bed and dressed. But she had awakened to the strange, unsettled sense that something was different, something was…menacing. She went down to the kitchen to oversee Mrs. O’Reilly’s breakfast preparations and review the plans for Matthew’s birthday supper that evening. Then out to the garden to pick an armful of dewy white roses and rosemary sprigs and the last few pink oleander blooms for the bowl on the table in the morning room. But all the while, she could not shake the feeling of apprehension. And even as she arranged the flowers in a crystal bowl, wondering once again why white roses were supposed to signify sadness when the rich scent of their silvery petals gave her so much pleasure, she was uneasy. Perhaps it was Angela’s worrisome illness, or the rising north wind, unusual for September, that made a peculiar whistling in the eaves. Or the pounding of the surf that seemed much louder now than when she’d gotten up, and the tremors of the wooden floor under her feet.
Rachel had occasionally felt the floor trembling during Gulf storms, although it had never been quite so pronounced as now. The Blackwood house was located on Q Avenue, just off Bath Avenue, only three blocks from the white-sand beach. The highest ground in the island city, on Broadway, rose only 8.7 feet above the Gulf, and some (perhaps remembering that Cabeza de Vaca had named the island Malhado, “misfortune”) had cautioned that a strong storm would flood the entire city. A seawall had been proposed as early as 1874 and several times since, but was considered to be too expensive and unnecessary. Isaac Cline, a noted meteorologist and chief of the Weather Bureau’s Texas Section (and the Blackwoods’ neighbor on Q Avenue), had written in the News that it was “simply an absurd delusion” to believe that Galveston could be seriously damaged by a tropical storm. The city was protected by “the general laws of the motion of the atmosphere.”
Nevertheless, many prudent Galvestonians built their houses on pilings, and Rachel’s husband, Augustus, was one of these. He had ordered his house to be constructed atop wooden piers driven deep into the island’s sandy soil, ensuring that it would stand well above the highest of storm tides, locally called “overflows.” As he explained to Rachel, it was the piers, standing eight feet above the surface, which transmitted the shudder of the waves against the beach to the floors of the house. The trembling, he said with a confident smile, was in fact a token of the strength and security of its anchorage to the earth.
Indeed, it was not just a secure and solid house but a splendid house, as befitted a man of Mr. Blackwood’s rank among Galveston’s men of finance. It was a large, three-story towered and turreted Victorian, with a drawing room where Rachel served tea to the ladies who called every afternoon and a library filled with Augustus’ fine collection of books and a music room fitted out with a Steinway grand piano. There was a magnificent oak staircase, fireplaces with gleaming marble mantels, and glorious stained glass windows in the dining and drawing rooms, commissioned from the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. The opulent furnishings and draperies, all in exquisite taste, had been brought from as far away as Paris and New York.
Painted a sober brown with red trim, this fine house was set back from the street behind a wrought iron fence, a border of oleanders and hollies, and a row of date palms, which in the late summer produced an abundance of fruit. The steps up to its wide front gallery were guarded by twin stone lions, each head turned to gaze thoughtfully at the other. The heavy bronze knocker on the oak front door wore the enigmatic face of Neptune, the god of the deep. And the steep slate roof was crowned with a wooden-railed widow’s walk that offered a panoramic view of the island paradise and the vast blue-green Gulf stretching to the eastern horizon.
But while Mr. Blackwood prized his house for its solidity, its splendor, the beauty of its furnishings, and the view from its roof, Rachel prized it for far more. It was the home of her heart. It held all that was dear to her—Augustus and her children: stalwart Matthew, ten years old this very day; sweet in-between Ida; the five-year-old mischievous twins, Peter and Paul; and dear baby Angela. To Rachel’s great delight, the children were all very musical. Just the night before, they had all gathered in the music room. Matthew, a gifted young pianist, played the “Maple Leaf Rag” on the Steinway—Scott Joplin’s song was wildly popular everywhere. Then Rachel accompanied the children in one of the family’s favorite songs, “Sweet and Low,” while Matthew played his flute, Ida played her harp, and Peter and Paul sang sweetly. Baby Angela, in her little red-painted rocking chair, laughed and clapped her hands. On the sofa, Augustus read his newspaper, smoking his favorite cherry tobacco. Rachel thought then that she had never been so happy. She could not know that she would never be happy again.
Since the house had been recently built, it made all sorts of interesting new-house noises, murmurs and sighs and groans as the pilings and joists and beams and rafters settled into place. All five of the children insisted that the house talked to them. Rachel often made an amusing little game of it with them, asking what the house was whispering today, what secrets it had to tell, what stories it wanted to hear. With giggles and great delight, they would tell her what the house had to say—oh, such miraculous tales of intrigue and mystery! And then they would run to whisper their stories into the waiting ears of the stone lions that guarded the steps, for the lions were their dear friends and would keep them safe always, just as the house kept them safe.
At the morning breakfast table, Mr. Blackwood always read aloud items of interest from the Galveston News, believing that the children should know what kind of world they were going to inherit. The front page story concerned the Boxer Rebellion in China, where an eight-nation alliance was fielding an army of twenty thousand men to take Beijing and release the Americans and others held captive there. On page two, the latest census dominated the local news. Since 1890, Galveston’s population had grown by nearly 30 percent, a rate much higher than rival port city Houston. (This news cheered Mr. Blackwood greatly, for he was a Galveston booster.) On page ten, Weather Bureau officials reported that they were monitoring a storm that appeared to be passing the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, and while they felt it would probably go ashore somewhere in eastern Texas, they did not anticipate a “dangerous disturbance.” On the back page, the Galveston forecast was reassuringly routine: “For eastern Texas: Rain Saturday, with high northerly winds; Sunday rain, followed by clearing.”
Mr. Blackwood put down the News with a smile. They must all be grateful, he remarked genially, for the good north wind, which would push the heat and humidity out into the Gulf and make for a cooler, pleasant weekend. An afternoon picnic at the beach tomorrow would be in order, he suggested with a glance at his wife. Rachel smiled and nodded as the children shouted gleefully. And of course, there was Matthew’s birthday to celebrate that afternoon, with the chocolate cake that Mrs. O’Reilly was this minute baking in the kitchen. Rachel had invited two of the neighborhood families—enough to fill all eighteen chairs at the dining room table.
Most Galvestonians worked a six-day week, so when breakfast was over, Mr. Blackwood set off as usual for his downtown bank. Rachel sent the children out to play with their friends—all but little Angela, of course—but she had become increasingly uneasy. She could feel even more strongly now the trembling of the house under her feet and hear its sighings and moanings. If she could only have understood its language, she might have heard the house whispering to her of a powerful storm, even now churning and turning in its unstoppable journey across the Gulf. She might even have heard its insistent whisper, as plain as words, as urgent as a shout: “Run, Rachel! Take your children and go, now, while there’s still time to leave the island!”
Rachel did not speak the language of the house and could not understand its warning. Still, she felt the tremors and thought apprehensively that the floor was beginning to vibrate in a subtle and unusual way, a drum thrumming in tune with the thudding waves, accompanied by the eerie, high-pitched whistle of the wind in the eaves. She finished consulting with Mrs. O’Reilly about the menus for next week—now written on the menu board in the kitchen—then lifted her skirts and went quickly up the wide, curving stairs.
Three flights and a few moments later, she was opening the door to the widow’s walk at the top of the house. As she stepped outside, she pulled in her breath, startled. When she had glanced out the bedroom window at first light, the sky over the Gulf had seemed to be made of iridescent mother-of-pearl, tinted in glorious pinks and lavenders. Now, it was a flat, ominous slate gray, with heavy-bellied clouds, flushed smoky-orange by the sun, sulking along the eastern horizon. To the north and downtown, atop the Levy Building at Twenty-third and Market, the storm flag fluttered, a crimson square with a black square at its center, topped with a white pennant, both hoisted yesterday morning by their neighbor, Isaac Cline, who was in charge of the island’s weather bureau. The red-and-black storm flag meant that heavy weather was rolling in; the pennant meant that the winds would come from the northwest. But to anyone who knew his weather, the flags were reassuring, for together they predicted that the storm would come ashore to the east of the city. Galveston was not likely to see much of a blow.
But it was the sight of the Gulf that most startled Rachel, for the normally blue-green waves were a thick, chocolate-pudding brown, laden with sand and laced with ropes of seaweed. And they weren’t waves at all, not in the usual dancing way. These were slow-moving swells, heavy, mud-brown hills of water that crashed with a roar higher and higher upon the beach, the sound shuddering through the earth, through the wooden pilings and floors and frame of the house, so that even at the highest point, on the widow’s walk, Rachel could feel the whole weight of each wave almost as if it were crashing directly against her feet.
She could not know what was to come. No one in Galveston could know, or even imagine, that by midnight, over eight thousand of their fellow citizens would be swept away by the hurricane and drowned.
But she could feel it coming and was afraid.
Mugwort. Artemisia vulgaris. “By-foot,” one of the many folk names of A. vulgaris, is derived from the belief that a poultice of mugwort leaves bound to the legs and ankles can reduce a walker’s weariness. Roman soldiers placed mugwort leaves in their sandals to ease the pain of marching. Mongols massaged mugwort oil on their thighs to lessen the fatigue of riding, and into their horses’ legs to promote endurance. In traditional Japanese and Chinese medicine, cones made of powdered mugwort (or “moxa”) are burned on the body to stimulate circulation in a practice called “moxibustion” (moxa + combustion). By extension, it was thought that burning moxa in the footprint of a thief would cause him to get a “hot foot” and that his uncontrollable dancing would reveal his criminal activity.
In the language of flowers, mugwort represents the hope that the traveler will enjoy a pleasant, unwearied journey and a safe arrival.
“Herbs and Flowers That Tell a Story”
Pecan Springs Enterprise
“I’m outta here,” Ruby said, coming through the connecting door between her shop and Thyme and Seasons. It was warm for early May (the high was forecast to be in the 80s) and she was wearing a full-skirted lemon yellow sundress that bared her freckled arms. Her carroty red hair was snugged into a ponytail and fastened with a hank of yellow yarn, and her yellow sandals displayed red-painted toes. She looked bright and perky, like a retro 1960s sunbeam—a six-foot, red-haired sunbeam, sure to attract attention. But Ruby is magnetic. She attracts attention, whatever she’s wearing. She can’t help it. She’s a sight for sore eyes.
“How long will you be gone?” I asked, looking up from the books I was inventorying. “Is Dawn Zudel coming in this morning?” Dawn is Ruby’s current shop helper, and a dynamo, with merry green eyes and copper-brown hair cut into a chin-length bob. She worked in a law office for eight years, then “retired” to several years as a full-time mom. Now, she comes in when we need extra help and takes care of the Crystal Cave whenever Ruby takes a few hours off, which isn’t very often. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time Ruby planned to be gone for more than a day.
Ruby hooked her bag over her shoulder. “Yes, Dawn is opening this morning. She’ll be working for me in the tearoom, too. You know how good she is with people.” She frowned worriedly. “I told Claire I’d stay for a week. But maybe that’s too long. Is that too long, China? You’re sure you and Cass and Dawn can manage without me?”
“Good, no, and yes, in that order.” I patted her bare shoulder reassuringly. “A week is a long time, and we will definitely miss you. It will be next to impossible to manage in your absence, even with Dawn on the job, but we’ll do it. Don’t worry about us, Ruby. You’ve been working so hard—you deserve to take some time off.” It was true. I’d been worrying about her. She had been burying herself in her work lately, scarcely coming up for air. “It looks like you’ll have good weather, too, at least for another day or two,” I added.
Ruby looked doubtful. “Didn’t I hear that there’s a tropical wave or something out there in the Gulf somewhere, heading toward South Texas?”
“Not to worry,” I said comfortingly. “It’s only a baby—doesn’t even have a name. It’s way too early in the season for serious hurricanes. And where you’re going, you’ll be a hundred and twenty miles inland. Think sunshine, and lots of it.”
Before Ruby gets out the door, though, maybe we’d better pause for introductions. If you’ve visited Thyme and Seasons before, we’ve probably met, and you can skip the next few paragraphs. If not, this might help. Here goes.
My name is China Bayles. I am a former criminal defense attorney who once worked for a big Houston law firm that represented big bad guys with enough dinero to pay for a pass out of the justice system. I left my law career and the city in search of a gentler, less sadistic way of life and ended up as the proprietor of an herb shop in Pecan Springs, a friendly Texas town just off I-35, halfway between Austin and San Antonio, at the eastern edge of the Hill Country. I’m married to Mike McQuaid, a former Houston homicide detective, currently a part-time faculty member in the Criminal Justice department at Central Texas State University and a more or less full-time private investigator with his own firm. McQuaid and I are the parents of two great kids: his son Brian, who just graduated high school and is headed for University of Texas at Austin in the fall; and twelve-year-old Caitlin, my niece and our adopted daughter.
Now for that six-foot sunbeam. Ruby Wilcox and I aren’t just best friends but longtime business partners. Ruby owns the Crystal Cave, in the same building as Thyme and Seasons. The Cave is the only New Age shop in Pecan Springs—which isn’t surprising, I suppose, since most good ol’ Texans are brought up to be fidgety about things like astrology, tarot, and the Ouija board. But the shop is a perfect fit for Ruby, who is so perceptive that she sometimes scares me. It scares her, too. She doesn’t like to go too deep into otherworldly stuff, but she can tell you things about yourself that you haven’t yet discovered, and she can coax the Ouija board (as our friend Sheila Dawson puts it) to tell more tales than the gossips at Bobbi Rae’s House of Beauty. The idea that Ruby Wilcox might encourage their womenfolk to tune into something more soul-satisfying than The Young and the Restless tends to make male Pecan Springers…well, restless.
Wait—there’s more. A couple of years ago, Ruby (who has the soul of a psychic but the planning skills of an entrepreneur) proposed that we open Thyme for Tea in the space at the back of our building, a two-story limestone structure a few blocks east of the courthouse square in Pecan Springs. We signed a partnership agreement (a good thing to have when people decide to pool their time, money, and resources on a long-term business project), rolled up our sleeves, and got busy remodeling—a lot of work, especially the kitchen, which had to meet state licensing requirements—but a big payoff. Even when the shop traffic slows down, our tearoom usually shows a profit.
And then two more things happened. Ruby came up with the idea for Party Thyme, our catering service, and Cassandra Wilde came along with a proposal for the Thymely Gourmet. Cass uses the tearoom kitchen not only for tearoom meals, but to prepare both our catering menus and the meals she schleps to well-heeled clients who can afford to pick up the tab for their own personal chef. The business is a natural for her: Cass spent nearly fifteen years in the food service industry and is certified as a personal chef by the American Culinary Federation.
In Cass’ words, this menagerie keeps us on our toes and moving fast, like a trio of lady lion tamers with a pride of lions at the tips of our whips. But we’re a great team, working well together, in synch like choreographed dancers. And even though we are really too busy, we always remind one another that it’s better to be busy than otherwise. Busy is what counts when it comes to the bottom line. And the bottom line (black, not red) is what counts when it comes to the bank.
So that’s us. Where our businesses are concerned, Ruby, Cass, and I are your basic, no-nonsense, hard-working, go-for-it-now-and-don’t-stop girls. Still, every now and then even the most committed capitalist has to stop and smell the daisies. Cass took off for a few days in March to go camping with a friend. McQuaid and the kids and I stayed at my mother’s ranch near Kerrville during spring break—maybe the last time Brian will be content to spend spring break with the family.
Now it’s Ruby’s turn, and yes, she definitely needs some time off. Spring is a difficult time for her, and the last few weeks have been especially hard. Colin Fowler, the love of her life, was killed—murdered—in late April two years ago, so this is an anniversary of sorts. She was madly in love with him, and when Ruby is in love, it is total, no-doubts-no-worries free-fall. She takes a deep breath, opens her heart, and flings herself into the void, doing double somersaults all the way down, with no bungee cord to brake her fall at the bottom, while her friends stand at the precipice, cover their eyes, and cry “Ruby, wait! What are you thinking?” With Ruby, love is either a passionate, whole-hearted, hang-onto-your-hat affair, or it isn’t. Isn’t love, that is.
Their affair was fatally flawed from the very beginning, because Colin wasn’t who he said he was. He was Dan Reid, an undercover Dallas narcotics agent who was assigned to get the goods on a Pecan Springs businessman in cahoots with a Mexican drug cartel. Ruby loves mysteries (Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, and Carolyn Keene are among her favorite authors), but she didn’t have a clue about Colin’s secret backstory. Her quite remarkable intuitive abilities seem to click into the “off” position when love (and/or lust) switches on.
Ruby was devastated by Colin’s murder. She was more devastated when she learned the complicated truth about his life and still more when she discovered that she was the beneficiary of his substantial insurance policy, which she has set aside for Grace’s college fund. She’s never gotten over him, in spite of the persistent attentions of Hark Hibler, the editor of the Pecan Springs Enterprise. Hark is a man of gentle and generous spirit who truly cares for Ruby and can provide the kind of stability she needs and wants. But in every relationship I’ve known about, Ruby has adored the significant other more than he has cared for her. As long as something inside her continues to believe that love isn’t love unless it’s a one-way affair, she and Hark are not going to make it. And really—isn’t it time she got over Colin? It’s been two years, for crying out loud. And they weren’t married. She’s not a widow.
But there’s no room for anyone else in Ruby’s heart, which is why April and May are such difficult months. And it’s why I’ve encouraged her to take some time off to visit her friend—although I’m not entirely sure she wants to go.
Ruby began ticking off items on her fingers. “Okay. Mrs. Wauer will come over to the house to water the plants and feed the cats. Ramona will keep tabs on Mom at the nursing home. Dawn will be in every day to manage the shop—she knows a lot about everything that goes on there, but if she can’t find something, she’ll ask. I’m worried about Grace, though. Amy says she has another nasty sore throat. I really hate to go away when Grace is sick. Could you check on her every so often?”
Mrs. Wauer is Ruby’s next-door neighbor, the one with the yappy little poodle. Ramona is Ruby’s sister, who recently moved out of Ruby’s house and got a place of her own—and a good thing, too, since they’re not the most compatible siblings in the world. Dawn Zudel is an indispensable helper in the Crystal Cave, now that she has gotten her kids—all five of them!—raised and on their own. Amy is Ruby’s wild-child daughter, partnered with Kate Rodriguez for over three years now, which is longer than some marriages last. And Grace, nearly three years old, is Ruby’s granddaughter—although Ruby definitely does not look like your average granny.
I put down my list of books. “I’ll be glad to. But how come you can’t call and check on Grace yourself?”
“No phone. The previous owners of Claire’s house never had a phone put in.”
“You’re kidding,” I said incredulously.
Ruby shook her head. “Nope. It’s the truth. And the phone company wants to charge Claire a fortune for the installation, since hers is the only house on the road.”
“Can’t you use your cell phone?”
“Maybe, but Claire says not to count on getting a signal. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” She paused, looking a little apprehensive, I thought. “The house is out in the middle of nowhere, you know, seven or eight miles past Round Top, at the end of a private lane off a county road. It’s isolated. I mean, really.” She caught her lower lip in her teeth. “To tell the truth, I sort of wish I…That is, maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to—”
“Agreed to what?” I prodded, watching her closely. “Take some time off, you mean? Or go visit with Claire?”
“Visit with Claire.” Ruby gave me a slantwise look. “She’s one of my oldest friends, but I haven’t seen her in quite a while. I don’t really know why she—” She gestured. “Couldn’t you maybe…you know, like, text her? She said she gets text messages better than voice. You could tell her we got an unexpected catering job and you can’t spare me to—”
“Ruby,” I said firmly, “I refuse to take you off the hook. If you don’t want to go, text Claire yourself.”
Claire Conway is a girlhood friend of Ruby’s. She worked as an editor of a magazine in San Antonio until she inherited a large old Victorian mansion in the wilds of Fayette County, off Highway 290 between Austin and Houston. She’s trying to decide what to do with the house—not an easy decision, I guess. She asked Ruby to come for a week and help her figure it out.
Ruby sighed. After a moment, she shook her head. “I guess it’s too late to back out now. Claire’s counting on me. I just wish the Blackwood house weren’t so remote. I’d like to be able to call if I need help…or something,” she added lamely.
I frowned. Need help? Why should she need help? “You wouldn’t back out just because of a problem with your cell phone, would you?” I pressed. “It sounds like a great adventure. Anyway, surely there’s no place so remote these days that it isn’t serviced by one carrier or another.” I paused, then added teasingly, “Or maybe it’s Claire’s ghosts that are jamming up the signal. Maybe they don’t want anybody messing with their haunted house.”
Ruby hadn’t told me the whole story, only a few tantalizing bits and pieces. The gist of it seemed to be that her friend Claire would like to get the Blackwood mansion (the place she had just inherited) named to the National Register of Historic Places. Then she would turn it into a bed-and-breakfast and cash in on the tourists who visit the area. Round Top itself may be a tiny town, but it plays host to a large, twice-a-year antique fair; to the Round Top Festival Institute, which provides summer educational programs for young musicians (Caitlin is signed up for a violin clinic in July); and to Shakespeare at Winedale, a performance study program sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin.
But the old Blackwood mansion has something quite different going for it: an odd history and a persistent local reputation for being haunted. And although Ruby hasn’t confided the details—in fact, she has been uncharacteristically tight-lipped about it—I’ve gathered that she has some sort of personal association with the place. She and Claire apparently visited there when they were girls. Ruby hasn’t said it in so many words, but I suspect that she might have been invited for a reason: to persuade the spirits to pack up and go somewhere else so Claire can live in the house without fear of…whatever it is she’s afraid of.
Now, if you’re acquainted with Ruby, you’re likely thinking that this is a natural mission for her, since she is adept at communicating with the Beyond. You’re imagining that she should be looking forward to the visit, like an eager-beaver bargain hunter suiting up for Black Friday. But I know Ruby pretty well, and I could read the signs. Whatever her reasons, she was not thrilled down to the tips of her red-painted toes at the idea of a ghost-busting holiday. Did she think there was something going on in that house that she should be afraid of?
“Jamming up the signal?” Nervously, Ruby fished in her bag for her sunglasses. “Don’t make fun, China. It’s not a good idea to laugh at things you don’t understand. You might antagonize…whatever’s in that house.”
“I’m not laughing,” I protested. “I would be the last one to aggravate the spirits.” That’s not true, of course. I was laughing because I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in haunted houses, either. But Ruby does, so I keep my heresies to myself. Still, it sounded to me as if Ruby was looking for a reason not to go. I could help with that.
“You know, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” I remarked judiciously. “Claire is a big girl. Since it’s her house, she has a certain responsibility in the matter that you don’t have. And didn’t you say there was somebody else living there?”
Ruby nodded. “On the property, but not in the house. A man and his wife, I think. Caretakers. The woman told Claire they’d be glad to help if—” She broke off.
“Well, there, you see?” I replied brightly. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to. Claire and these people who live on the premises ought to be able to arm wrestle any ghosts who get out of line.”
Ruby gave me an oblique glance. “It’s not as simple as that, China. This thing with the house—it goes back a long way with me. Back to when I first began to understand that I could…that I wasn’t…” She gave me a smidgeon of a smile. “Wasn’t like other people. I didn’t know how to deal with it then. To be honest, I’m not sure I can handle it now.”
“Ah.” So that was it. It wasn’t just somebody’s haunted house, it was Ruby’s haunted house. And it wasn’t just one or two abstract ghosts lurking at the bottom of this, it was her very own personal dragon.
I’ve known for a long time that Ruby isn’t always comfortable with her psychic talents. She prefers to use her intuition to fool around with the easy stuff, like the readings she offers with her Ouija board or the I Ching. She’ll tackle the more intense stuff if she has to, but she’d really rather not—unless she feels absolutely compelled. Which she doesn’t, very often. In fact, she goes out of her way to avoid it. She deliberately tries not to intrude into people’s thoughts. (If she looked into mine, for instance, she’d see that while I sometimes think of her as a flake, I secretly admire her intuitive abilities, especially her skill at reading people’s fears and motivations.) And she doesn’t like to be pulled into scary events or places. I remembered once, when her intuition—or her gift or her sixth sense or whatever it is—led the two of us to a dead body stashed in the basement of an abandoned school in the little town of Indigo. After that, she swore off psychic stuff for months.
Now, I’m not psychic myself, not by a long shot, and I don’t pretend to understand how Ruby’s intuition operates. She doesn’t talk about it, and I don’t like to pry. But I’ve seen her in action often enough to know that she has an impressive talent. Whenever she uses it in a serious way, to deal with a serious matter, it’s a huge drain on her energy resources. It’s like she’s suddenly powered up by a massive electrical charge, and when it’s turned off, she’s limp and listless. Nobody wants to go through life like that: pumped up by something you can barely control, debilitated when the energy abandons you.
“Listen, Ruby, maybe you shouldn’t go,” I said. “If you’re at all apprehensive about this—”
She looked as if she were glad for my support. “You’re probably right. I think I shouldn’t. But Claire needs me. And if I don’t go, I’ll never know—” She pressed her lips together.
“Never know what?”
Her glance slid away. “Nothing.”
Never know what really happened in that house? Never know whether what she saw was actual or imaginary? Never free herself from this particular dragon? Never what?
But Ruby wasn’t going to tell me. “Just…nothing,” she said again. Her voice was thin.
I gave her a compassionate hug. “Stay here, Ruby. There’s always plenty to do.” This is true. If we aren’t waiting on customers or working in the tearoom or catering a party, there’s the bookkeeping, the inventory, the herb gardens, the classes. Being a small business owner is a full-time job and then some, with no overtime pay for nights and weekends.
She squared her shoulders with her Ruby-the-Brave smile. “I’m going,” she said, putting on her sunglasses. The yellow plastic rims added to her retro look.
“Okay, then go,” I said agreeably. “Have fun. Bust those ghosts. Purge those poltergeists. Get rid of those ghouls.” I was beginning to giggle. “Banish those banshees.”
“I’m gone,” she said, heading for the door.
“Exterminate those entities,” I chuckled. “Spook those specters.”
BANG. She slammed the door in my face.
I pulled it open and went after her. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Really, Ruby, I apologize.” I bent over to pick up a pot of mugwort and plucked a couple of gray-green leaves. “Here,” I said contritely, catching up to her and holding out the leaves. “Put these in your sandals. And when you get where you’re going, stick them under your pillow.”
Ruby pushed up her sunglasses and frowned down at the leaves. “Put them in my sandals? What in the world for?”
“Don’t you remember what Kathleen said at the workshop? About mugwort, I mean. It was one of the plants she talked about.”
The previous Saturday, Kathleen Gips had led a workshop for us on plant symbolism. Kathleen owns the Village Herb Shop on East Orange Street in Chagrin Falls, Ohio—and if you haven’t visited there, you really must. She is the leading American authority on florigraphy, the traditional vocabulary of herbs and flowers, and she speaks and lectures all over the country. She has done a couple of workshops here before, and it’s always standing room only for her program.
“Mugwort.” Ruby thought for a moment, then rolled her eyes. “Okay, China, I give up. Maybe I skipped out to help Cass with the sandwiches when Kathleen was talking about mugwort. What did she say?”
“She said it symbolizes safe travel,” I replied. “During the Middle Ages, no traveler would ever start off on a hike without mugwort in both sandals and a poultice of mugwort leaves wrapped around his legs. It protected him from wild animals, sunstroke, and goblins.”
“I don’t know about wild animals, but where I’m going, goblins might be an issue.” Ruby took the leaves, pulled off her sandals, and inserted one leaf in each. She straightened, frowning. “What’s the deal with the pillow?”
I raised my eyebrows. “I’m surprised at you, Ruby. With all your witchy research, I thought you’d know about that. It has to do with astral travel, out-of-body experiences, that sort of thing. Mugwort under your pillow is like mugwort in your sandals, except for the psyche instead of the physical body. It’s supposed to protect you while it enhances your receptivity. Something like turning up the volume on your dream receiver, with a surge protector in case of lightning strikes.”
Chuckling, I held out the pot. “In fact, maybe you should just take the whole plant. If Claire’s ghosts are sending signals from the astral plane—”
Ruby snatched the pot. “Good-bye,” she said firmly, and started for her car, a yellow Chevy Cobalt parked at the curb. The gangly mugwort nodded over her shoulder.
“Good hunting!” I called, laughing as I waved. “Extinguish that ectoplasm!”
Had I but known, I would not have laughed.
Had I but known…
Oleander. Nerium oleander. Oleander is considered to be one of the most toxic of commonly grown garden plants, its cardiac glycosides making it dangerous for both humans and animals. Despite its toxicity, however, ancient Mediterranean and Asian medical texts describe a variety of medicinal uses. It served as a folk remedy for skin diseases, asthma, epilepsy, and malaria, and was employed as an abortifacient, a heart tonic, and a treatment to shrink tumors and hemorrhoids. In China, the same cardiac glycosides that render N. oleander toxic also made it an important traditional treatment for congestive heart failure. A non-FDA-approved extract of the plant is currently being used as an experimental cancer treatment, with reported success.
Galveston, Texas, is known as the “Oleander City.” The first plants were brought from Jamaica by Joseph Osterman in 1841 as a gift to his wife. They flourished in the subtropical climate, the alkaline soil, and the salt spray of the Gulf of Mexico. The city is home to one of the most extensive collections of N. oleander to be found anywhere in the world
In the language of flowers, oleander signifies warning: “Act with caution. Be careful. Beware.”
“Herbs and Flowers That Tell a Story”
Pecan Springs Enterprise
Ruby turned up the car’s air-conditioning another notch and settled back in her seat. It was nearly eleven, and the morning traffic on Highway 290 had all but disappeared. The drive from Pecan Springs to Round Top took only two hours, and the day was glorious. The grass and trees were warmed by the bright spring sun in a clear, blue sky, with only a few storm clouds piled up along the eastern horizon. The bluebonnets had already bloomed and faded, but the roadsides were decorated with cheerfully variegated blankets of blue widow’s tears, purple verbena, burgundy winecups, bright yellow wild mustard, pink phlox, white prickly poppy, yellow-orange coreopsis, and the blossom-cloaked towers of Spanish dagger. Along the grassy median between the eastbound and westbound lanes, clumps of blooming oleander shrubs were shrouded in translucent clouds of pastel pink, red, and white. The radio was playing an old Frank Sinatra song, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and Ruby hummed along.
As she drove, Ruby thought of what China had said—and what she hadn’t. Ruby knew, of course, what China had been thinking: that it was time she buckled up and stopped mourning for Colin. They hadn’t been married, for crying out loud—she wasn’t a widow. She should learn to love Hark the way Hark loved her. She should get on with her life. And all of it made perfect sense. China was right, as usual, her logic perfectly indisputable.
Like nobody’s loved you
Ruby sighed. Except that it didn’t work that way. Her grief for Colin (it didn’t matter that his name was Dan—she would always think of him as Colin) couldn’t be turned on and off like a stupid faucet. Most of the time, she managed to keep it hidden from everyone except China, but it was always there, come rain, come sun, a permanent sadness shadowing her heart. She valued Hark’s affection, and she appreciated his intelligence and his quiet kindness. She even enjoyed the occasional cowboy who found her attractive and sexy and with whom she had a brief and gratifying fling.
But Colin, dead, was as unrelenting as he had been in life. He haunted her still, just as if they had been married. Cloudy days, sunny days, he was always in her thoughts, a spirit who refused to be exorcised. And until he was gone, there was no room for Hark. Oh, she could pretend, but that’s all it was—just an act.
A slat-sided cattle truck passed her, an eighteen-wheeler loaded with a half dozen forlorn steers on their way to market, and Ruby slowed to let it move into the right-hand lane ahead of her. There was something else on her mind, something that China had not managed to guess—not yet, anyway. She was wondering whether it might be time to sell the Crystal Cave and her interest in their partnership. She had rejected the idea when it had first tiptoed into her mind, but it had returned, then hung around, and now seemed to be making an attractive nuisance of itself. Maybe, if she moved on to somewhere else, did something else, she could leave Colin’s ghost behind.
What People are saying about this
Praise for Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles Series:
“Albert’s dialogue and characterizations put her in a class with lady sleuths V.I. Warshawski and Stephanie Plum.”—Publishers Weekly
“Display[s] a deep sense of the Texas hill country and [makes] good use of the strong, likable cast. Details of herbs and herbal remedies continue to flavor the always intriguing plots.”—Booklist
“One of the best-written and well-plotted mysteries I’ve read in a long time.”—Los Angeles Times
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