Preparations for Santa Louisa’s annual spring rummage sale are thrown into chaos when organizer Mary McGill and her devoted cocker spaniel Millie come across a dead body on the premises. Still wearing her pink nightdress and slippers, what on earth was Miss Emilie Plym doing in a locked church hall in the dead of night? And who on earth would want to harm a sweet-natured but confused elderly lady who wouldn’t hurt a fly?
As Mary questions the victim’s nearest and dearest, she discovers that not everyone had Miss Plym’s best interests at heart, and that at least one of those who should have been caring for her is hiding a shocking secret.
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Curtains for Miss Plym
A Mary McGill Dog Mystery
By Kathleen Delaney
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Kathleen Delaney
All rights reserved.
Mary McGill stood in front of St Mark's community hall, staring at the black recess she knew held a door. Only, someone had turned off the outside light and, at this hour on an early spring morning, it was as dark as ink. How was she supposed to find the keyhole when she couldn't see the door?
'Blast.' Mary put down her overloaded tote bag, laid Millie's dog bed on top of it and pulled her phone out of her coat pocket. She'd downloaded the flashlight app but never used it. She hoped it worked. It did. 'See what a wonderful thing modern technology is,' she told the little black cocker spaniel who sat beside her. The dark had reduced Millie to a blurred outline, but she heard her whine.
'It will only be another second. I'll just ...' She thrust the key at the now-visible hole but the door swung open before she inserted it.
'What on earth ...' Mary stared at the door, along with the dog. 'I locked that door last night. I know I did. Remember? We were the last ones to leave, and I made sure it was locked. We left the light on, too.'
Suddenly the church hall, where she'd spent so many hours organizing all kinds of events, seemed very dark and not at all friendly. Had someone come back after she'd locked up last night? Who? She had no idea how many people had a key. Reverend Les McIntyre did, of course, and ... she couldn't think who else. Had she given a key to someone on St Mark's annual spring rummage sale committee? Pat Bennington, maybe? Pat was organizing the dog and cat adoption center they were holding for the first time in conjunction with the rummage sale. Half the sale proceeds were to go to the no-kill shelter the town had recently built. The hope was that, with the number of people who always turned out for the sale, they could find a few good homes for some of the animals in need of a new family. Had Pat already come? Of course she hadn't. She would hardly wait in the dark.
Mary pushed the door open a little more and let her cell phone light up the doorway. That's all it lit. The inside was as black as a bat cave.
'Pat?' Mary's voice echoed in what seemed to be an empty room. No one answered. Mary hadn't really expected anyone to, but it seemed prudent to try. She waited another minute. There wasn't a sound. She must have left the door open last night. How could she have been so forgetful? Disgusted with herself, she pushed the door open wider, reached in and felt for the light switch she knew was there. Light flooded the room. No one moved; no one called out. The hall was empty.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Mary stooped to pick up her tote bag, tightened Millie's leash and started into the room. 'I'll come back for your bed in a minute,' she told the dog, 'after I've put on the coffee.'
Millie's only answer was a low rumble in her throat. The hairs on the back of her shiny black head stood straight up as she surveyed the room.
Mary watched her for a second, amazed. Millie didn't growl. At people, at least. Occasionally she told another dog walking down her sidewalk not to consider stepping on her porch, but she contented herself with a warning and then only when the screen door was secure and she was behind it. Something had to be wrong for the dog to act like this, but what? The hairs on the back of Mary's neck started to tingle as she looked around the room from the safety of the doorway, but everything seemed just as she'd left it and no one was in sight. The long tables holding the sale items looked undisturbed. The jackets, coats, blouses and shirts that hung on the clothes racks she'd borrowed from Target hung neatly. The three baby cribs were still empty. The imitation maple chest of drawers still stood next to them, its five-dollar price tag prominently displayed. Holding Millie's leash, she set her tote bag down by the door and took another step into the room, surveying every corner, trying to see what was bothering the dog.
Large pieces of furniture were grouped along one side wall. Tables holding just about everything from old toasters to computer screens to piles of children's clothes stretched out down the middle. Breakables, lamps, dishes, vases and even a rather lovely white porcelain clock had been placed on tables pushed against the other side wall. The back wall held the door to the kitchen, right next to a serving pass-through, its roll-down cover in place. Farther down the wall was a short hallway that housed the bathrooms and a door into the side parking lot where the dog crates and pens would be set up. The cats would be indoors. Next to the hallway Mary had rigged up, with the help of several committee members who didn't mind climbing on ladders, a makeshift dressing area. Old curtains and a bedspread hung rather precariously on round curtain rods to provide two makeshift dressing areas for ladies who preferred to try on clothes with a little privacy. She had dragged a couple of chairs behind the curtains as well as a free-standing mirror that, while not perfect, would do.
'I have no idea what you're making a fuss about,' she told the dog, 'but there's no one here. No thanks to me. I could have sworn I locked that door last night and was positive I'd left the light on over it as well.' She sighed. 'You don't suppose that means I'm getting old, do you?'
With a snort of laughter at her little joke, she let go of Millie's leash and turned to pick up her tote. 'Better get the coffee going before anyone else gets here. I'll get your bed ... Where are you going?'
Millie headed through the tables toward the dressing area, but not with her usual brisk trot. She crouched down, almost slinking, the rumble in her throat audible as she dragged her leash. Mary watched her for a moment, the unease she'd felt before returning and building. She'd never seen Millie act like this. Where was she going? Toward the curtains. There was no uncertainty in the dog's destination. There was something behind those curtains she didn't like.
Mary set her tote down once more but held tightly onto her phone. She clicked off the flashlight and set her finger on the red button AARP had so thoughtfully provided for quick access to 911. Surely she wouldn't need it, but she didn't like the way Millie was acting. Was there really something behind those curtains? She slowly threaded her way through the tables, her eyes never leaving the dog.
Millie stopped in front of the faded green bedspread that closed off one end of the dressing area. She looked back over her shoulder at Mary then back at the bedspread, and the rumble in her throat got louder. Something stuck out from under the bedspread. Mary came to a halt and stared. Whatever it was hadn't been there last night. She stepped closer. Slippers. Pink furry slippers. Had someone come in here last night to try on slippers? Irritation wiped away the unease that had filled her. Of all the idiotic things to do. Why anyone would ... How anyone could have ... Puzzled, but no less irritated, Mary descended on the slippers, intent on putting them back on the correct table before everyone got here. She stopped.
The slippers had feet in them.
Her heart started to beat faster and her breath came out in little puffs. Holding her cell in one hand, she grabbed the bedspread with the other and pulled. They'd done a good job. It slid easily on the makeshift rod to expose the chair Mary had left in the dressing area. A chair that should have been empty but wasn't. A woman sat sprawled in it. An old woman with wispy gray hair, her feet encased in the pink slippers. The rest of her was covered with a long-sleeved pink nightdress. A blue corduroy robe had come loose from its tie and fell open on each side of her, covering the chair. The tie lay on the floor beside her.
Mary gasped loud and clear in the empty room. It couldn't be. It was impossible, only she was looking at her. Emilie Plym, poor little Miss Plym who wouldn't hurt a fly, who most of the time didn't know where she was or how she got there, but who never seemed to mind. Someone would gather her up and return her home, she was sure. Everyone was her friend, and she had a smile for them all. How had she gotten in here? Why had she? Mary made herself look closer. Miss Plym's face was an odd gray color, and her eyes were open and bloodshot. Her mouth was slightly open and her tongue ... Mary started to blink rapidly in an effort to clear her vision and then staggered a little. Whatever had happened, Miss Plym had not come in, sat down and quietly died.
Breathe deeply. Deep breaths, that's right. She looked at Millie, who no longer seemed to want to growl. She stared at Miss Plym as if she, too, couldn't believe what she saw.
Mary sighed and hit the red 911 button. 'Hazel? Is that you? Yes, it's Mary. No, I'm not all right. Hazel, I'm at Saint Mark's, in the church hall. No, no. It's not on fire. I'm afraid it's worse than that. Miss Plym is here. No, I can't take her home and neither can anyone else. Hazel, she's dead, and I don't think from natural causes. Can you get Dan over here right away? Thanks.'
Mary hung up and slipped the phone in her jacket pocket before she addressed the dog. 'I don't know what happened, but I do know there'll be no rummage sale today.'
Millie whined.CHAPTER 2
Mary McGill set her coffee mug on the church kitchen counter and stared at Dan Dunham, chief of Santa Louisa's small police force and her nephew-in-law. 'You can't mean that.'
'I'm afraid I do.' Dan had never looked so glum. 'Miss Emilie was strangled.'
'Oh.' Mary let her breath out slowly, trying to come to terms with what Dan said. She thought back to the sight of Miss Emilie, sprawled on the wooden chair, and shivered. 'I saw her bathrobe cord on the floor but I never thought someone might have ... I thought at first maybe she'd had a stroke, like her sister, Miss Eloise had. It wasn't until later I realized ... Why would someone deliberately ...' Mary's voice was faint and she knew it. She felt faint. Strangled. That harmless old lady. Who could have done such a thing? Why? Miss Emilie was no threat to anyone. 'Are you sure it wasn't a stroke or something?'
Dan looked uncomfortable. 'There are some other things that happen in strangulation.'
'You don't want to know. Just rest assured, she was old, didn't struggle and probably died very quickly.'
Mary stared at him. So did Millie, who sat as close to Mary's side as she could get. Finally Mary picked back up her coffee mug and, with hands that still trembled more than she liked, lifted the coffee to her lips, took a sip and once more let the sight of little old Miss Emilie float in front of her. She'd never seen anyone who'd died of strangulation, but she'd never seen anyone who'd died from a stroke, either. Dan was right. She probably didn't want to know how you could tell. 'I can't get my head around any of this. Why was she even here? How did she get in? She must have been with someone, but who? And who could possibly want to kill her?'
'Good questions. Let's start with how she got in.'
'I've been thinking about that. Dan, the door was unlocked when I got here this morning and the light over the door was off. I left it on when I left last night, I'm sure I did.'
'I assume that means you were the last one out of here. Did you lock the door?'
'Yes. When I found it unlocked, I thought maybe somehow I'd forgotten, but I didn't. Forget, I mean. I remember having a hard time getting the key in the lock because I had Millie's leash and she wanted to ... find a grassy spot. So we went over under that old oak before I got in the car. The light over the door was visible from there. I remember because I knew it would be dark when I got here this morning.'
'What time did you leave here?'
'It was a little after ten.'
'Who besides you has a key?'
'Les, of course. I don't know who else.'
'I'll ask him. Probably a lot more of them floating around than there should be.'
He walked over to the now-open counter window, leaned on the counter and looked out at the activity overflowing the church hall. Mary followed. The paramedics were trying to get Miss Plym onto a gurney, but she'd been on that chair awhile. Bending her was proving to be a bit difficult. Mary gulped, set her coffee down on the counter and turned to watch a couple of uniforms cordon off the room with crime-scene tape. A couple of people not in uniform, one a woman in jeans and a sweatshirt, were taking pictures of the chair Miss Plym had sat on, the old bedspread and the entire dressing area. Two uniformed officers, both members of the crime-scene team Dan had been training, set out what looked like miniature white cones with large black numbers on each one. The woman took pictures of each one as the officers scribbled something in a large notebook. One lone man stood in the doorway of the little hallway, seemingly staring toward the bathrooms. At what, Mary didn't know.
She didn't know what the police hoped to find, either. The hall had been full of people all day yesterday. It was a popular place to hold events, and the annual spring rummage sale was one of the most popular. It took a lot of volunteers a couple of days, all working in the hall, to put it together. Finding any useful forensic evidence wasn't going to be easy. She supposed they had to go through the motions. If this turned out like the CSI programs she sometimes watched, they'd come up with a vital clue.
'Dan. Dan Dunham. Mary. Will you please tell this young man we can come through?' Pat Bennington and her husband, Karl Bennington, the local small animal vet, and Dan's and Ellen's best friends. Pat was hailing him from the front door.
Dan waved at the young officer at the door and Pat walked into the room, closely followed by Joy Mitchell, Mary's most loyal and dependable volunteer. They had identical expressions of foreboding as they approached.
'What's going on?' Pat stopped in front of Dan, who leaned on his elbows on the counter. He started to answer Pat but was interrupted by a loud gasp. The activity around Miss Plym was hidden from most of the room by the makeshift curtains still pulled across much of the dressing-room area. The curtains near the kitchen pass-through were pulled back, giving a full view of the paramedics and Miss Plym. They had finally secured her onto a gurney, almost totally encased in a large black bag which they were trying to pull up over her shoulders. Her face was in full view.
'That can't be Emilie Plym. Can it?' Disbelief, horror and a small gagging sound replaced Joy's usual slightly disapproving but monotone voice.
It startled Pat enough that she wheeled around, almost losing her balance. She was just in time to catch a glimpse of Miss Plym's gray face and white hair before the black bag swallowed her body entirely.
'Oh, my God.' Her hands flew to her face, covering her mouth as if to smother the gasp that escaped. 'It is Miss Plym. What happened to her?'
Mary stared into her white coffee mug which she held tightly with both hands. Joy's reaction had brought her eyes back to the gurney and the body bag on it. 'Someone killed her. In here. Sometime last night.' She managed to make her hands stop trembling by clutching the mug tighter but couldn't quite clear the tremor out of her voice. 'Come in the kitchen. Half the town is going to start pouring in here in ...' she checked her watch, '... a little less than an hour, and we have to figure out how to stop them.'
Dan nodded. 'You're right. Half the town wandering through my crime scene isn't going to happen.' He pulled himself back from the pass-through and disappeared into the kitchen.
Mary picked up her mug and straightened. 'Coffee's ready. The kitchen doesn't seem involved, so Dan let me make it. That and it's early and he hadn't had any yet.'
'Coffee's essential at a crime scene,' he called out, his voice devoid of emotion.
Pat and Joy hurried through the doorway, firing questions at Mary and Dan as they went. 'You mean she was actually killed? On purpose? It wasn't an accident of some kind?'
The sight of poor old Miss Emilie leaving so ignominiously seemed to have shaken the usually unflappable Pat. Either that or she hadn't had her coffee, either.
Joy was more to the point. 'I'll bet she came back looking for her blasted dog.' She walked through the kitchen toward the large coffeemaker, pulled a white mug off the tray beside it, ladled sugar into the mug then filled it with coffee. She turned.
Excerpted from Curtains for Miss Plym by Kathleen Delaney. Copyright © 2016 Kathleen Delaney. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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