When Hannah loses out on the cottage of her dreams because of an unscrupulous real estate agent, she and her husband, Paul, buy a fixer-upper instead. But contractors restoring the chimney soon make a tragic discovery: the mummified body of an infant.
Hannah, already researching the history of her home in the county archives, is searching for clues to the dead infant’s identity when more shocking events occur. Suddenly, her access to the courthouse is denied and the records she has been examining are slated for destruction. Someone with money, influence or both is trying to make sure incriminating information stays buried. Can Hannah solve the crimes before the evidence and over one hundred years of county history go up in smoke?
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About the Author
Marcia Talley is the Agatha and Anthony award-winning author of eleven previous crime novels featuring survivor and sleuth, Hannah Ives. Her short stories appear in more than a dozen collections and have been reprinted in several of The Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories anthologies. She is a past President of Sisters in Crime, Inc. Marcia lives in Annapolis, MD, but spends the winter months aboard an antique sailboat in the Bahamas.
Read an Excerpt
Daughter of Ashes
A Hannah Ives Mystery
By Marcia Talley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Marcia Talley
All rights reserved.
'Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.'
The Dalai Lama XIV
In all the years since my diagnosis, I've never played the cancer card. I confess to being tempted when Paul was waffling over an opportunity to spend his sabbatical in the Bahamas. Came close when his responsibilities as chair of the Naval Academy math department made him second guess our decision to revisit friends we'd met during his faculty exchange year with Britannia Royal Naval College. But after decades of marriage Paul was tuned into me – almost eerily so. I'd just been thinking I'd toss back my hair in a Scarlett O'Hara kind of way and drawl, 'Oh, dah'link, I hope ah can get back to England some day before ah die,' when he fixed me with those bottomless-cup-of-coffee eyes and sucked the thought clean out of my head.
'Of course we'll go to Dartmouth,' he said, brushing his lips against my cheek. 'Start packing.'
In recent years, I'd begun hinting about owning a retirement cottage on the water. Shamelessly. I'd left brochures out on the coffee table, circled waterfront homes advertised for sale in the back pages of Chesapeake Bay magazine, clicked through to virtual tours on online realtor listings and even dragged Paul along to Sunday open houses in order to 'familiarize ourselves with the market.'
'Dream on, Hannah,' he'd say, holding tight to his wallet, but agreeing to tag along on these outings simply to humor me.
On one such Sunday the previous winter, an agent from Barfield and Williams near Salisbury, Maryland had taken us to tour a three-bedroom, two-bath bungalow perched high on a bluff overlooking the Wicomico River, a property with a waterfront view that made both our hearts sing. Unfortunately, both the listing price and the state of the stock market at the time sang woefully out of tune.
I'd drooled over the open concept living room, dining room and kitchen area, waxed poetic about the screened-in porch and oohed and ahed over what the realtor's listing described as a charming colonial, thoughtfully updated throughout with crown moldings and windows affording a breathtaking sunset view.
'It's my dream house,' I'd gushed to Paul.
With a sideways glance at Caitlyn Dymond through a fringe of long lashes, he'd elbowed me in the ribs. 'Shhhh.' But it was too late. Caitlyn already knew she'd hooked a couple of live ones, so as time went on and the property didn't sell, the agent emailed us periodically:
'It's a buyer's market.'
'Make an offer – all they can do is refuse.'
Still, we'd balked.
The following spring, shortly after we'd sprung forward into Daylight Savings Time, I came home from an evening out with my grandkids at Chick-Fil-A and movies at the mall to find Paul sitting at our kitchen table with reams of paper spread out before him. As I closed the kitchen door, Paul looked up, a Cheshire Cat grin lighting his face. 'I think we can do this, Hannah.'
'Do what?' I asked, tossing the car keys on the counter.
'Buy that house on the Wicomico.'
I took a deep breath, considered what part the three Miller Lite empties lined up on the sideboard had played in his decision and said, 'You're serious?'
'How come we can afford to do it today when we couldn't afford to do it last week?'
Paul raised an index finger. 'Ah, well you may ask. Connie's been offering to buy me out and, as you know, I'd resisted. But while you were at the movies tonight I called my sister and took her up on her offer.'
Paul's sister raised rare breed cows and decorative gourds on the Ives family farm with her husband, Chesapeake County police lieutenant Dennis Rutherford. That Paul was willing to sell his half of the farm that he and his sister had inherited from their mother took me completely by surprise. I gaped, breathing slowly through my mouth.
'I was only holding on to it out of sentiment,' my husband explained. 'We haven't been down to south county for months.'
I pulled out a kitchen chair and plopped down next to him, trying to catch my breath. 'Are you sure?'
He reached for my hand and folded it into his own. His was ice cold and damp from the beer bottle he'd been holding. 'I hope the house will make you as happy as it will make me. It'll be a perfect place for the grandkids. Sailing, kayaking, swimming, fishing. And that long pier ...' He paused, his eyes unfocused, dreamy. 'Crabbing. Tie a chicken neck to a string, attach it to the dock and ease it into the water. Takes me back. I'd like them to experience that kind of carefree childhood, too.'
Lost in some childhood memories of my own that didn't involve creative use of poultry, I didn't answer right away. After a moment, Paul said, 'So, are you with me?'
I ruffled his tight salt-and-pepper curls and kissed his forehead. 'Is the Pope Catholic?'
Paul picked up the phone and made an offer that night: ten percent under the asking price. Caitlyn responded by showing up on our Annapolis doorstep the following morning, her abundant red hair tied up in a low ponytail, documents in hand. 'Good news,' she said as I invited her inside. 'They've accepted your offer.'
'I can't believe we're doing this,' I said ten minutes later as we sat down with the agent at our kitchen table. I signed my name at the bottom of the contract and added the date, then slid the document over to Paul.
'What's next?' Paul asked after he'd signed the contract himself and reached for his checkbook.
Caitlyn smiled. 'We wait for the check to clear, then set a closing date.'
Which explains why, a week later, I was sitting in our basement office, prowling the Internet, searching for curtains at bedbathandbeyond.com when the phone rang. I was busy comparing tabs to grommets so I cursed the interruption, but the phone cut off in mid-ring so I figured Paul had picked it up. 'If it's Ruth,' I yelled, 'tell her I've already got all the feng shui remedies I need.'
My sister, Ruth Gannon, owns Mother Earth, a New Age shop on Main Street in Annapolis. Our Prince George Street home already looked like an auxiliary showroom for Mother Earth with all the wind chimes, water features, mirrors and candles she'd brought over.
'Three baguas are two too many, if you know what I mean.'
I had selected a bright island floral for the guest bedroom windows when I felt Paul standing behind me. 'It wasn't Ruth,' he said quietly.
'Who, then?' I asked, clicking the mouse to select eighty-four inches.
'It was Caitlyn Dymond. The deal fell through.'
'What?' I swiveled in the chair to face him, looked up into his troubled eyes. 'How can that be?' I sputtered. 'They accepted our offer! We signed a contract! Paid the deposit!' I waved a hand at the computer screen. 'I'm even ordering curtains!' An awful thought occurred to me. 'Don't tell me the check bounced.'
'No, the money is all there. Apparently there was another, earlier contract, one that Caitlyn knew nothing about.'
'Offer them more money!' I said.
Paul shook his head. 'It won't work. Already tried. Apparently the other contract pre-dates ours.'
I glared at my husband, silently seething. 'I don't understand. Why didn't Caitlyn know about the prior contract? Isn't that what multiple listing databases are for?'
'Well, we'll find out in a few minutes. Caitlyn's on her way over to explain.'
'It had better be good,' I grumped, as I consigned the curtains sitting in my virtual shopping cart to oblivion and stomped up the stairs after my husband.
Fifteen minutes after her phone call, Caitlyn arrived, ashen-faced. We showed her into the living room. I was so pissed off I didn't offer her anything to drink.
'I'm so sorry,' she began as she settled into an armchair, dropping her oversized handbag on the carpet next to her feet. 'I'm as unhappy about this as you are.'
'Were we gazumped?' I asked, referring to a practice I'd learned about in England where buyers could be outbid, even after an offer has been accepted.
She shook her head. 'No.'
From his spot on the sofa, Paul leaned forward, forearms resting on his knees. 'Well, what, then?'
'As I explained to Paul on the phone, there was an earlier contract that I knew nothing about. The sellers decided to go with the earlier offer.'
'But, but ...' I stuttered, trying to collect my thoughts. 'Was that offer higher than ours?'
Caitlyn shook her head. 'No, the same amount.'
'Two contracts on the same property,' I mused. 'Is that legal?'
'It's not illegal.'
Paul made a time-out with his hands. 'Wait a minute. Wasn't the Wicomico house a Barfield and Williams listing?'
'It was,' Caitlyn said.
'The company you work for.' It was a statement, not a question.
She nodded miserably.
Paul pointed an accusatory finger. 'Then how come you didn't know about the earlier offer?'
'Kendall Barfield was the listing agent, not me,' Caitlyn said obliquely.
Paul flopped back in his chair. 'Ah, I see.'
'See what?' I asked.
'So, if we got the house rather than these other folks, whoever they are, Kendall would have to split the commission with you. Am I right?'
'But if she sells the house ...'
Light dawned and I finished the sentence for him. 'Kendall gets to bank the full six percent.'
'Right,' Caitlyn said.
Angry tears pricked my eyes. I'd never met Kendall Barfield, only seen her photograph – all fluffy white-blonde hair and toothy, demonic grin – staring out at me from an advertising placard attached to the shopping cart I was pushing through the Acme Supermarket. 'How bitchy.'
'I'm furious, too, Hannah,' Caitlyn confided. 'This is the third time Kendall's pulled a stunt like this. If she weren't the biggest realtor on the Eastern Shore, swear to God, I'd quit.' She bent over, picked up her handbag and set it in her lap. 'But, I have another listing here that I think will appeal to you and Paul. A waterfront home on Chiconnesick Creek, just outside of Elizabethtown.'
'I doubt it,' I said, swiping at my nose with the back of my hand. I'd never heard of Elizabethtown, so how good could it be?
Paul snatched a tissue out of the box on the end table and handed it to me. 'Give Caitlyn a chance, Hannah.'
I dabbed at my nose, thinking murderous thoughts as I watched Caitlyn rummage through her bag.
'This listing just came on the market, and it's my exclusive.' Caitlyn grinned. 'The owner's a friend of mine. No way Kendall can screw up this sale.' She handed me a printout.
As I studied the photographs on the listing, my spirits gradually lifted. 'I feel like I'm back in Dartmouth, Paul. The house looks like an English cottage, rose arbor and all. And the price is certainly right.'
'It's an estate sale,' Caitlyn explained. 'The widow is hoping the house will move quickly.'
I handed the printout to Paul who flipped through it, his eyes scanning it carefully. When he reached the bottom line, he glanced up at Caitlyn, his brow furrowed. 'Looks charming, but it's one hundred thousand less than the place on the Wicomico.'
'Well,' Caitlyn confided. 'It needs a bit of work.'
'How much work?' I wanted to know.
'You said it looked like an English cottage, Hannah. That's because it is an English cottage. The main part of the house was built in 1765. Maryland was still a British colony then. It's been added to over the years, of course, but with some sense of style and respect for the home's historic origins.'
'Sounds intriguing. When can we see it?' Paul asked.
Caitlyn pulled an iPhone out of a side pocket of her handbag and tapped a few keys. 'How about tomorrow after lunch?'
After we'd agreed, figured out where Chiconnesick Creek was – Tilghman County, just north of the border Maryland shares with Virginia – and Caitlyn had left, I fixed two glasses of iced tea and joined Paul on the back patio. I settled into a lounger, took a long sip of tea and said, 'I wish Naddie were still writing murder mysteries instead of dabbling in watercolors.'
Paul turned his head and studied me over the top of his sunglasses. 'Why?'
'Because I have a victim for her.'
Paul laughed, then closed his eyes as if deep in thought. 'Let me guess. For a novel called Final Closing?'
'I'm sure that title's already taken, but yes.' I stirred my tea with an index finger, then dried it on my shorts. 'Kendall Barfield slumped over her desk with a knife sticking out of her back. I would pay extra for that. It would totally ruin the cut of her Ralph Lauren blazer, of course.'
Paul snorted into his glass. 'You're a hard woman, Hannah Ives.'
'Well,' I said, sipping my tea, 'it'd be cheaper than a therapist.'CHAPTER 2
'Fortune is like the market, where many times, if you can stay a little, the price will fall.'
Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral, 'XXI: Of Delays,' 1909–1914
Following a relentlessly healthy breakfast of yogurt, granola and whole wheat toast, washed down with mugs of robust French roast coffee, Paul and I climbed into his elderly Volvo and set off for Maryland's eastern shore. Using the address Caitlyn had given me, I programmed the GPS, a Tom-Tom device that Paul had nicknamed 'Stella' because her voice reminded him of his high- school girlfriend. I tried not to be grumpy as I suction-cupped Stella to the windshield.
'According to Stella, the trip will take two hours and thirteen minutes,' I announced as Paul took the exit off Rowe Boulevard and merged with the heavy traffic on Route 50 heading for the Bay Bridge. 'We should be able to pick up a bite of lunch in Elizabethtown before it's time to meet Caitlyn, assuming they have restaurants in Elizabethtown, that is.'
'Several,' Paul said. 'I Googled around this morning. There's a bakery on High Street that sells designer coffee. Just across the street is a family-run café called the High Spot, kind of a local watering hole, I gather. Used to be a hardware store. There's a pub called the Crusty Crab and a more upscale restaurant on the town wharf we could investigate today, too, if you like. It's called the Boat House, as I recall.' He hiked a thumb, indicating the back seat. 'Printout's in the canvas bag.'
'Excellent,' I said, after reaching for the bag and shuffling through the pages Paul had printed, checking out the sample menus. 'The Boat House sounds perfect. According to this,' I said, waving the printout, 'they serve world-famous crab cakes.'
'Boat House it is, then.' After a moment, he said, 'I visited the Barfield and Williams website, too, and printed out the complete specs for the cottage. It's stapled at the back.'
But I'd already found the PDF describing the property and was reading through it. 'I regret to inform you that the cottage has a name.' I paused for effect. 'Legal Ease. Must have belonged to an attorney.'
Paul groaned. 'Ya think?'
I read on. 'Waterfront, two acres, so far so good.' I looked up. 'Boat dock, it says. I wonder if there's enough water for Connie and Dennis to tie up their sailboat?'
'The Chiconnesick is pretty shallow, two to three feet at mean low water. I doubt it could accommodate Sea Song, even at high tide. Her draft is four and a half feet.'
'Oh,' I said, disappointed.
'But if this all works out,' Paul continued brightly, 'we can certainly look into buying a small power boat for zipping around the Bay. And for fishing, too, of course.' He caught my eye and winked before turning to concentrate on merging into the EasyPass-only toll lane at the entrance to the bridge.
'Wish we could just toot over from Annapolis in a boat,' I said about ten miles further on, thinking about the long drive still ahead of us.
'Wouldn't save all that much time, sweetheart,' Paul pointed out as he eased to the right and took the exit where Routes 50 and 301 part ways at the Queenstown Outlet Mall. 'And it'd be a long, wet ride, particularly in a chop.'
'Or if it's raining,' I muttered. 'Wishful thinking, I guess.'
Excerpted from Daughter of Ashes by Marcia Talley. Copyright © 2015 Marcia Talley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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