They say one’s home is one’s castle, but when it comes to Wynter Castle, Merry would like it to belong to someone else. But until a buyer bites, she could use some extra dough, so she decides to take in renters. The idea pans out, and Merry’s able to find a handful of tenants eager to live in a real castle. The only problem is most of them are crumby, tea-swilling old biddies.
The Legion of Horrible Ladies, as Merry calls them, is led by the terribly nasty—and fabulously wealthy—Cleta Sanson. The abrasive Englishwoman keeps everyone whipped into a frenzy—until she meets an embarrassing end behind a locked door. Evidence reveals that Cleta was murdered, yet no one is privy to how the deed was done. Merry knows she must quickly find the killer before another of her guests gets greased…
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IF A WOMAN screams in the forest and no one hears her, does she feel any better?
I had retreated to a distant section of the Wynter Woods where I could be quite sure I was alone. Once there, I screamed, then picked up a dead branch and beat the ground. I wailed and gnashed my teeth, invoking the heavens to bring down some kind of wrath on the bedevilment that was Cleta Sanson.
And yet I didn’t feel one bit better.
“What is your problem, Merry?”
The voice behind me made me jump. I whirled and screamed a more ladylike shriek, but it was just Lizzie with her wispy friend Alcina. The two girls, teens of my acquaintance, were appropriately shod in galoshes. In the spring, even as late as the end of April, the woods are marshy, as I found out a week before by ruining a pair of Cole Haan oxfords. I got stuck in mud while out for what I thought was going to be a stroll, not a three-mile slog through marshy, boggy muck. Thirteen-year-old Alcina had creatively paired her footgear with an old wedding gown and tiara, while frizzy-haired fifteen-year-old Lizzie wore a camo jacket over a sweatshirt and jeans, with her professional-grade DSLR camera slung around her neck.
Lizzie’s attitude was demonstrated by her stance, hands on her hips and thick brows drawn down in defiance. Alcina was her usual elusive self, drifting off to explore, her long, silky blonde hair floating behind her as she moved. Really, the child was positively elfin, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. She fascinated me in the same way Shilo, my best female friend, does. Shilo is more dark gypsy, though, than pale elf.
I stared at Lizzie for a moment, then sighed, deeply. “It’s Miss Sanson.”
She nodded in instant understanding. “She makes me scream, too, but I don’t go out into the woods to do it.”
That explained the echoing shrieks I’d been hearing around the castle. I was on the verge of calling in paranormal investigators, but it was good to know the place wasn’t haunted. That I knew of, anyway.
I guess I should explain about the castle. My name is Merry Wynter and I am an almost-forty-year-old widow. Just over a year ago the sudden death of my great-uncle Melvyn Wynter—a man I barely remembered meeting once, when I was five—left me the family castle near the village of Autumn Vale, New York, a spot about equidistant between Buffalo and Rochester, south of I-90. Wynter Castle is one of those gorgeous monstrosities built by the mill barons of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, in this case my ancestor Jacob Lazarus Wynter, who made his fortune from lumber mills.
I learned about my inheritance shortly after Melvyn’s death. However, I was caught up in a drama between myself and a pill-addicted, mentally unstable model (Leatrice Pugeot, born plain old Lynn Pugmire) for whom I worked as an assistant. She thought I was sabotaging her by baking my fabulous muffins, which she snitched and ate, causing her to gain a few critical ounces. She then accused me of stealing a Tiffany necklace worth tens of thousands. I didn’t do that, and still think she either lost it or pawned it.
She fired me or I quit, depending on who you listened to, and I spent months trying to repair my reputation and find work doing what I once was, a fashion stylist. It finally occurred to me that leaving New York City and letting the dust settle was my best option, so I rented a car and headed to my ancestral home.
Wynter Castle is beautiful, built of gold limestone that glows in the sunset like a fire has lit it from within. It has Gothic arched windows, mammoth oak double doors, a stained glass rose window, and turret rooms. You’d think it would make a good first impression, but when I arrived the property was pocked with holes, the result of someone thinking the place had buried treasure, and we had since seen two murders on the property—not the most auspicious of starts.
But that was last fall and now it was spring, a time of new beginnings. Since then the castle and the people of Autumn Vale had wormed their way into my heart, and I knew it was going to be a wrench to sell and leave, but what choice did I have? It was too expensive to keep, so I was fixing it up room by room to make it saleable.
None of that explains my screams, or introduces you to Miss Cleta Sanson, the reason for my woodsy wailing, but I’m getting there.
Lizzie was chattering to Alcina about the light filtering through the tree canopy, but I didn’t think the other girl was listening. She was crouched over a bug on a dead branch, watching it with fierce intensity. Lizzie took some photos and I wandered farther into the woods, following the ghost of a trail. Becket, the handsome orange cat that I inherited with the castle, had followed me and wound around Lizzie’s feet, tripping her up and making her laugh.
In my head I had been hearing Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” a soaring American melody that threaded through my mind and haunted me until I came out walking. I was grateful I had heeded the call of the woods. I breathed in deeply, seeking the inner peace I had surprisingly begun to find in the great outdoors since moving to Wynter Castle, even though I am a city girl born and bred. The forest was coming alive with brilliant green shoots poking up through the blanket of dead leaves and trees were showing a shimmering burst of radiant green. I shivered as a chill wind sprang up, making the budding leaves on the trees tremble. My feet squished into the bog. It was still too wet to do much outside and I was about to turn around and head home when I spotted some kind of structure ahead, through the brush.
“What is that?” I asked Lizzie, pointing through the trees. Since she and Alcina spent a lot of time in the woods messing around and constructing Alcina’s fairy rings and gnome homes I thought she might know.
She squinted, sweeping back a mass of her frizzy hair. “I don’t know. I’ve never been this far into these woods.” She lifted her camera and took some shots, then peered at the camera screen, doing something to make it show a close-up. The kid was a whiz with the camera.
I looked over her shoulder at what appeared to be a tower of sorts. Intrigued, I headed toward it, the teens following. It was slow going, since I had to climb over mossy fallen logs and push through the occasional tangle of brush, but we reached a more open area and found the object I had spied.
It was a lopsided medieval-looking structure built of cobblestones with a conical roof of cedar shakes. It looked like something out of a fairy tale but on a minor scale, kind of a Rapunzel tower but only ten or twelve feet tall. And it wasn’t alone. To the left of it, a little farther down a path layered in pine needles and littered with dead branches, was a shed-size structure that, though worn by years of rain and neglect, was clearly meant to be a little gingerbread house. There were candy cane eaves in faded, peeling red and white, and the slab doors looked like they had been painted to resemble graham cracker wafers. Hansel and Gretel sprang to mind. Beyond the tower to the right was a little house that appeared to be set into the side of the hill, like a gnome home! Becket rushed up the hillock and hung over the edge, like a tiny marmalade tiger awaiting prey.
Faintly, I said, “Lizzie, can you take pictures of all of this for me?”
She was already snapping and ignored me completely, caught up in her passion, photography. I like the kid a lot. Lizzie is stubborn, occasionally rude, irascible, and funny. Her pithy observations on life are sometimes hilarious, and often uncomfortably truthful.
I turned around slowly, spying more buildings through the woods. My uncle—every time I thought I’d gotten to the end of his wonderful weirdness I found something new. This had his crafty but incapable fingerprints all over it. Maybe I had stumbled across one of his mad never-quite-successful schemes to make Wynter Castle pay, a fairy-tale park of some sort?
It was too much to take in and I knew I’d have to leave it alone, since I had a full, busy day ahead of me yet. As the peace of the forest seeped into me I took a deep breath and accepted the dreadful truth. I had to return to the castle and face the Legion of Horrible Ladies. I called out to Lizzie, “Don’t be too long! You’re supposed to help pour tea this afternoon, and I want you halfway respectable looking.” I then trudged back alone, leaving Becket, Lizzie, and Alcina to explore and take photos. Robert Frost would have loved my forests. The woods were lovely, dark, and deep, but I had promises to keep.
I’ve mentioned the Legion of Horrible Ladies, but how to explain them? It all started with Pish, one of my two best friends and my financial mentor, who had an idea that would make me enough money to stay in the castle long enough to fix it up. Shilo Dinnegan, my other best friend—both Pish and Shilo had followed me to Wynter Castle and stayed—had married local real estate agent Jack McGill just four months after meeting him. At Shilo’s December wedding Pish suggested that since I needed money in order to live in Wynter Castle long enough to complete the renovations, I should invite select folks to come rent rooms, wealthy people who would pay handsomely to stay in an honest-to-goodness castle.
He knew one such person, his darling, dotty aunt Lush. She had been pining over Wynter Castle ever since Pish took some photos home on one of his monthly visits to his mother. Lush would pay a generous fee to temporarily call Wynter Castle home, and might even know another select wealthy widow or two who would do the same. I said yes. Between that and the money from a film company who used Wynter Castle for some external shots, I could afford to stay and fix the place up, making it more attractive to a future buyer.
So Pish’s dotty aunt had come to stay and she was a chubby, cheerful, sweet-natured doll. She told the best stories, and we had a lovely month with her alone. She went back to the city for a doctor’s appointment, and I told her, If you have a friend who would like to rent a room, let me know.
Two weeks later she came back with four friends in tow: her bridge club, who she had been meeting every week for cards for fifty years or more. They all wanted to stay, she said with a charming twinkle, as they milled about the great hall critiquing the décor and asking when dinner was served. I wanted to throttle her.
My first panicked thought was to put them up for the night and send them packing back to the city, but it rapidly became clear that it was not so simple. One had actually sublet her apartment on the strength of Lush’s swooning appraisal of the castle, so she had nowhere to go for six months! Also, my greedy brain had begun to tote up the rent I could command, and it was staggering. It was going to be a lot more work, but maybe it would be worth it. I can stand anything for a few months, I thought.
As often happens, I was wrong. I was slowly going mad from the awfulness of their combined force: the bickering and demands, the whining and quarrels, the endless sheer bloody-mindedness of a couple of them, in particular Cleta Sanson, the Queen B—B standing for witch with a b—of the Legion of Horrible Ladies, as I had come to call them after one particularly bad day.
To keep them busy I had, with Gogi Grace, the owner and operator of the local home for the elderly and my new friend, planned a series of luncheon and afternoon events. Some days we would have lunch, and other days we would offer afternoon tea—cookies, muffins, and cards in the elegant castle dining room with some of Gogi’s selected residents—all designed to keep the Legion ladies busy and interested. The first one, a couple of weeks before, was a disaster. Today we were attempting a second, hopefully better-planned event, a musical afternoon, which was why I had to hustle back to the castle.
I entered through the butler’s pantry door, which opened on a long hallway holding the only ground-floor bathroom, a series of storage cabinets, and a wet sink area once used by an actual butler. I strolled into my kitchen. It is enormous, long and fairly wide, with a sitting area at the far end that has a huge hearth topped by a sturdy mantel, and some wing chairs pulled up to it. The working heart of the impressive commercial kitchen was immediately before me. My uncle had poured a lot of money and effort into the space during what seemed to have been a rare moment of clarity. It is perfectly suited to be the kitchen for an inn or small hotel, with two stainless steel deep sinks and countertops on either side, a six-burner stove, and a commercial refrigerator. Centered in the room is a long worktable that I use as a breakfast bar and prep area.
Emerald, who now worked for me looking after the Legion and cooking, among other things, turned away from her task of polishing silver at the long table, and smiled. “You look exhausted and we haven’t even started,” she commented, blowing some of her brown bangs out of her eyes and giving a toss to her ponytail.
I smiled back. From a hard-ass cocktail waitress Emerald had transformed into a neat and efficient jill-of-all-trades, adept at cooking, cleaning, and even the odd turn at fixing small appliances and installing safety bars in the upstairs washrooms. At first I hadn’t been sure of how she was going to fare at the castle, but she joined some kind of group, Consciousness Calling, and since then had become much more focused and diligent. I wasn’t quite sure what the group was all about, but she went there several times a week, studying acupressure or some such deal that she said would lead to a career helping people. I told her about meeting Lizzie and Alcina in the woods.
“I hope Lizzie doesn’t lose track and gets back here in time to help,” she said, continuing her polishing. “I don’t know what to do with her sometimes. She gets in a funk and it’s hard to pry her out of it. I feel like I’ve let her down so many times.”
Juniper Jones, my most recent acquisition as live-in employee, was in the kitchen, too, morosely scouring the sink, almost disappearing in the deep stainless well, the smell of cleanser drifting up and through the kitchen. I knew Juniper’s routine enough to know that once she had scrubbed completely and rinsed, she would bleach the crap out of it. Her fondness for chemical cleaners was a little alarming, but her hard work made it worth putting up with it.
“Em, you had a lot on your plate,” I said, referring obliquely to her fight with her mother over where Lizzie was living, and her evening job at the bar in Ridley Ridge—both now things of the past—and the murder of Lizzie’s father, Tom Turner, whose body I discovered on my own property as he tore up the land looking for the mythical Wynter fortune. I had been wary of Emerald at first because she came off as a tough chickie, and I’ve never been quite sure how to deal with women like that. But her new life, Consciousness Calling, her friendship with the late Tom Turner’s half sister, Binny, and Tom’s dad, Rusty, and a better relationship with her daughter had softened her.
“It’s getting better,” she said. “Having stuff to do is good for both of us. My CC team leader says, if worry comes calling, make sure it gets a busy signal!”
I took a deep breath and blew the air out in a long sigh. Another aphorism courtesy of Consciousness Calling. But I wouldn’t complain! The group had set her on the right track, and I was grateful. Emerald kept asking me to join her at a meeting, but I hadn’t made it yet. “I’m going upstairs to change, and then I’ll get down to making stuff for tea this afternoon.”
“Don’t sound so enthusiastic,” Emerald said, holding a fork, part of a complete set of family silver I had discovered, up to the light. It glinted and she smiled.
“Cleta insulting Hannah at the last one was almost the final straw.” Hannah, a very special friend to me, has the biggest heart and most luminous soul of anyone I know. How Cleta could insult someone so special in every way is beyond me. “If it happens again, I’ll demand a public apology from Cleta. Or I’ll submit to a pillory in the town square. Stock up on rotten fruits and vegetables, folks.”
Juniper snorted at my crack, but didn’t say anything else. I’ve suspected the girl of a dirty-tricks campaign on Miss Sanson over the weeks since the affair at the tea. Juniper does not get mad, she gets even, so Cleta’s salty tea and temporarily missing brassieres (Juniper did most of the laundry) were probably the result of that “getting even.”
It’s not surprising that she would avenge Hannah, who is beloved by everyone. A petite young lady in a wheelchair, Hannah is the town’s only librarian and was the creator of the Autumn Vale Public Library. She had fashioned a welcoming space out of a dungeon-like cinder-block building on a side street in the heart of town. As fragile as a fairy, with fine wispy hair and huge gray eyes that are illumined with inner light, she is in her late twenties but appears ageless and almost otherworldly. She’s the sweetest person I’ve ever met in my life, but as smart as a whip and surprisingly practical from years of going through grant programs to get her library funded.
At that last tea Hannah was at Cleta’s table; the woman asked a series of rude questions about Hannah’s congenital condition. She then made a remark about modern prenatal testing and how it was preventing “accidents” of birth. I wasn’t in the dining room at that moment and only heard about it from an infuriated Gogi afterward.
It made me nauseous. Hannah didn’t pretend she wasn’t hurt, but she knew better than to let it get further than that. When I apologized for my guest’s despicable behavior, Hannah said she wondered what had happened to Cleta that made her so bitter. I thought she was giving the woman too much credit. There are some folks who make statements like that and pretend surprise that anyone was offended. They are just stating the facts, they claim, so why are folks upset? It’s bullying, and the “facts” are rarely that at all, but malice concealed by a pretense of frankness.
I was going to evict Miss Sanson but Lush begged me to reconsider and said she’d have a talk with Cleta. No talk would suffice, I said, but Cleta did write a note of apology to my friend, and she made a substantial donation to the library. Hannah said she felt sure the apology was sincere and hoped it would be a learning experience for Miss Sanson. As much as I love Hannah, sometimes I think she has too much faith in humanity. I couldn’t even look at the woman for a week or more, but at Hannah’s urging I decided she could have a second chance.
And this was it.
IT WAS ALMOST time for the van from Golden Acres, Gogi’s senior retirement residence, to arrive, so I surveyed the dining room once more. We were having afternoon tea and music. Everything seemed to be in order. Through the window I saw a glint of sunlight on a vehicle. That must be the new van from Golden Acres, piloted by Gordy, Zeke’s best friend and roommate.
The next while was chaos, albeit organized, because we had a woman like Gogi Grace in charge of her flock, and myself, a lesser tyrant but still bossy, in charge of mine. We finally had everyone inside and seated. When I made the fateful decision to host the Legion ladies and have luncheons and teas I took the long oak table out of the dining room in favor of smaller round tables, so I could seat compatible people together. What I failed to realize was that there are some folks with whom no one is compatible—in particular, Cleta Sanson.
The dining room, on the same side of the castle as the parlor and library, is across the great hall from the ballroom. It overlooks the lane on an angle. Where the ballroom is lined with large French doors, the dining room—only half as long or less—has three Gothic arched windows that almost reach the floor. They are diamond paned with beveled glass and flood the room with light, a good thing because the dining room is paneled in dark wood. The room is anchored with a huge fireplace on one end.
We had about twenty people at four tables, so five or so at each, with one rectangular table set between two of the arched windows as a servery for those of us making tea and coffee and another between the next set of windows for the trays of food. I used a tool I had seen event planners use: a chart that had little cutout chairs with attendee’s names on them to plan the seating. Many folks use a computer program for the same purpose now, but I prefer the actual physical layout and chair cutouts; that way I can set it on a table in the dining room, and see the space as I plan. For that purpose, I keep it in a drawer in the big Eastlake sideboard in the dining room.
I consulted with Gogi about who to seat with Cleta and so put one of her residents, Doc English—he knew my uncle and had told me hilarious stories about their youth—on Cleta’s left. On her right we put Elwood Fitzhugh, who was not a resident of Golden Acres, but was a charming ladies’ man of uncertain years. She was getting the cream of the crop as far as older gentlemen, so she had better not complain. Also at her table was Lush Lincoln, who I still blamed for bringing the plague down upon us, and rounding out the five my fiery friend Gogi, who I trusted to keep Cleta in her place in more ways than one.
A word about Gogi Grace: she, at sixty-four, is everything I want to be someday—smart, compassionate, giving, and a great listener. I’ve “adopted” her, I joke when I cry on her shoulder a little too much. She is the mother I never really had because my own mother was too busy marching on Washington to do much mothering. I respected and loved my mom. She was passionate about women’s rights, reproductive and otherwise. She cared deeply about famines in other countries. The plight of those suffering from apartheid concerned her. But from me she was detached in so many ways.
She was a good woman who worked hard to support us after my dad died when I was about five, and I know she loved me, but I had recently found out that her social principles had kept her from accepting my great-uncle Melvyn’s offer to move to Wynter Castle. She disliked his politics, from what I understand. I’m not really sad about it because I grew up with my maternal grandmother—we moved in with her in New York to save money—and she was wise and warm and wonderful. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But I missed completely knowing my father’s side of the family, the little there was of it. It would have been nice if she had let me come to my Uncle Melvyn’s on school holidays so he could have told me about my father and grandfather.
They were all gone now, so I was making up for lost time by engaging my uncle’s best friend and wartime buddy Doc English as an informant. I was also becoming increasingly attached to Wynter Castle, more beautiful to me every day, and the weird citizens of Autumn Vale, an eccentric little town set in a valley in upstate New York. Hannah, Gogi, Binny Turner, Doc, Emerald, Zeke, Gordy . . . oh, and not to forget Gogi’s son Virgil, the strapping, dark-eyed, dark-browed, broodingly handsome sheriff.
Sigh. Yes, he’s that handsome, to me anyway. I’m not above enjoying man candy, though Virgil is much more than that. I’m a widow of eight years and I still miss my Miguel, a fashion photographer who died in a car accident on his way to a shoot. Too many people have told me just to get over it, but every heart has its own timetable to recover from grief, and I won’t be criticized by anyone. There is just something about Virgil, though; but enough about that for now.
Everyone was seated, so I stood by the fireplace and clapped my hands. “Hello, everyone!” I said, with my best cheery mistress-of-the-castle manner. “Today we are having tea and treats, then an afternoon of music. My dear friend Pish Lincoln will be serenading us on the piano!” I waved to the far side of the hearth at the Conover upright grand piano I had bought from Janice Grover, of Crazy Lady Antiques and Collectibles, for a song, so to speak. It was enormous but beautiful, and Pish paid to have a professional tuner come down from Buffalo. My friend was using it to practice The Magic Flute operatic pieces. He and Janice had formed the Autumn Vale Community Players and would be performing an abbreviated version of the opera in a few weeks.
On my cue Shilo and Emerald, stationed by the table, picked up their trays and began circulating among the tables, offering treats, while Lizzie poured tea—I had found a use for some of my sturdier teapots, a collection I’ve gathered over many years—and took it around to the ladies and gents. The first time I met Lizzie that is exactly what she was doing as community service: serving tea and coffee to Gogi’s seniors at Golden Acres. I watched, surveying the group and monitoring the situation.
I shifted from foot to foot. I was wearing a floral chiffon dress I had bought at the Lane Bryant store in Henrietta, a town just south of Rochester, and some new cerise peep-toe pumps. Gogi had taken Shilo and me shopping in the winter. As I had been suffering retail withdrawal after a few months in Autumn Vale, it was a memorable day. Of course, Shilo hadn’t been able to shop in Lane Bryant—she is sylphlike, while I am what she terms plush-size—but we found a couple of other shops and had a lovely day. But shoes . . . I should have stuck to old faithful, my favorite black pumps.
It seemed to be going well. Elwood was chatting to Cleta, as I had hoped he would. He is inevitably charming, an attribute that aided him in his profession as zoning commissioner for Autumn Vale and the surrounding area. He had recently taken the job back, though he was past seventy, because the last fellow, Junior Bradley, had lied about his credentials and screwed things up so badly the situation needed expert detangling. Elwood and I were working together to clean up the zoning confusion for Wynter Castle. He is, to put it mildly, a peach.
Since I have been talking about them so much in a roundabout way, I suppose I should describe the Legion of Horrible Ladies. Let’s move around the room, shall we?
I’ll start with Cleta, also known as the thorn in my side, a perpetual grim reminder of how someone you find irritating can become, through constant exposure, the Reason You No Longer Enjoy Living. Cleta Sanson, eighty-something, is English. I don’t mean that as a strike against her; I’ve known many English folks and loved most of them. But she is English in the worst way: autocratic, snippy, condescending, and rude. She is superior and snobbish. Insulting but cloaking it in the costume of blunt honesty. I could forgive much of this if she were dumb, but she is fearfully intelligent and should know better.
Physically she appears frail and stooped, but can straighten up and move quickly when the mood strikes her. Her thin white hair is pulled tightly back and coiled into a French roll, emphasizing her gaunt cheekbones, high and harsh. She wears thick glasses that often dangle on a jeweled string. Her clothing is expensive but very old with padded shoulders and gaudy floral patterns, as if Laura Ashley and Giorgio Armani had a love child, and it was a 1980s skirt suit. She wears pearls, which I suspect are real, old, and very valuable. Her expression is perpetually sour, like she just sucked a lemon, and behind the glasses her dark eyes dart, always looking for something—or someone—to pick on.
Pish’s aunt Lush, real name Lucinda, is a little sweetie pie. I failed to realize that anyone as adorable as Lush would inevitably think all her friends were equally as adorable. She is the shortest of the bunch, probably five foot even. Everything about her is round: her white hair is like a nimbus around her round face, and her body is round, too, since she likes her sweets more than she probably should. Her voice is twittery, her gaze unfocused, and her reasoning abstruse and meandering. She can go from talking about something profound, like the creation of the cosmos (which she knows a surprising amount about) to the delights of caramel pudding, in two seconds flat. More than once I’ve wondered how the Big Bang theory and butterscotch got put together in a sentence.
Shilo brought a tray of Binny’s mini-éclairs and napoleons to the table. Elwood Fitzhugh politely offered the ladies some of the treats while Doc English winked at me, the light catching in his smudgy glasses. Doc English is ninety, give or take, and full of spit and vinegar, as my grandmother used to say.
“What’s in these?” Cleta asked, staring at the mille-feuille. Shilo, her hand shaking just a little, didn’t answer. “What’s wrong, girl?” the woman asked, glaring up at my friend. “Are you deaf as well as sloppy?”
I was about to step in, but Gogi held up her hand, holding me off. “Miss Sanson, is there a problem?” she asked, her tone cold.
“This girl looks after my room, but she never remembers to keep the towels lined up correctly,” the woman complained, her beady eyes glaring up at Shilo through thick glasses. “Sloppiness is something I cannot abide.”
Tears welled in Shilo’s eyes, and that surprised me. My friend is not usually that sensitive. Emerald moved toward them and guided Shilo away to her table, taking over serving their table.
Doc, his eyes glittering behind his thick glasses, said, “Ever think you should just straighten the damn towels yourself? Or mebbe move along to the Ritz?”
Lush, a worried look in her eyes, glanced between Doc and Cleta. “Now, everyone, don’t let’s spoil this lovely day with disagreements. I’ll take two of each, please, Emerald.”
Gogi determinedly raised the topic of the opera Pish was putting on and asked if any of the folks at her table enjoyed the opera, which got Lush talking, since, accompanied by her friends Vanessa and Barbara, she used to take “darling little Pishie” to the opera in New York when he was a child. Doc snorted in laughter at “darling little Pishie,” but the crisis was averted. I caught Gogi’s eye and mouthed a thank-you, and then began to circulate among the other tables while I kept my eye on Shilo, who appeared to recover and even smiled as Pish touched her arm and talked to her in a low tone.
The table near the piano held Pish, one of the Legion named Patsy Schwartz—she was a beer heiress who rarely talked about her family background—and that inveterate storyteller, Hubert Dread, he of the Elvis sightings, UFO misinformation, and wild tales of his youthful adventures. I had recently found out he was Gordy’s great-uncle, which explained a lot about my handyman’s weird obsession with the woo-woo stuff: conspiracy theories, the Illuminati, Masonic mastery, and the like. Though Hubert talked about it all with a wink and a nod, Gordy was too impressionable to sort out the truth from the over-the-top fiction. He lacked the skepticism bone, I finally decided when he started telling me that “chemtrails” were a deliberate conspiracy of the Illuminati to sedate the populace.
Patsy was slight, a birdlike woman, with sagging breasts and a round little tummy, but she was much stronger than she looked. I had seen her lift her own luggage and tote it up the stairs, even as I tried to help. She was capable of being a good conversationalist at times, but there was a hint of worry in her eyes. I didn’t know her well enough to know what that was about, but I did know that she had married and had at least one daughter of whom she often spoke. She always dressed exquisitely and never left her room without full makeup. Her fingers were loaded with sparkly rings, and her dyed blonde hair was cut short and styled in a modern way for so elderly a woman.
A couple of other townies, Helen Johnson, a church lady, and a bright-eyed woman named Eleanor, rounded out the number at her table.
Vanessa LaDuchesse, one of the Legion that I actually liked, held court at the next table, with four more townsfolk with whom I had come in contact at various times over the winter and promised a tour of the castle. Vanessa had fabulous stories to tell, since she was an actress renowned for her B-movie career in noir films of the fifties, so the townsfolk, two senior couples, were enthralled and scandalized in equal measure, a pleasant state for them all. She had a long memory of the Studio 54 days, and her “mingling” with young Hollywood studs.
I had seen studio stills of her from the fifties and she was gorgeous. Even at eighty-something, Vanessa was striking. She kept her hair dyed jet-black and in an elaborate twined bun. She still wore her trademark red lipstick, black eyeliner, and her penciled brows arched over green eyes, very much in the Joan Crawford manner. She was slim and elegant, with long fingers bare except for one large ruby ring on her middle finger, left hand, and wore well-fitted skirt suits, plain in color, letting her magnetic personality attract all the attention.
Her manner was one of cool amusement at almost everything, even her fellow Legion members’ foibles. She was wry about getting older, refusing to divulge her real age, though I couldn’t figure out why it mattered if she was eighty-one or eighty-five. I had a feeling she had had plastic surgery; when she turned her head in good light, you could see faint scars along her hairline. I had seen that same taut skin and those catlike eyes on many an older lady at fashion shows.
The last table held Barbara Beakman, the fourth Legion member. Her features were plain and large, a bulbous nose, thick lips, and her high domed head was adorned with short hair that sprayed over her scalp in a thin scattering of dark gray and white. She was extremely overweight and often short of breath, her double chins melting into her neck with no visible beginning or end. She rarely wore dresses, preferring pantsuits.
I worried about her breathing and held my own breath every time she mounted the stairs, terrified she was going to either tumble down or have a heart attack. Barbara could be tolerable at times, but her own brand of horribleness was being a wet blanket. If you said it was a beautiful day and the sun was shining, she implied, with a groan, that we were in for a drought. If it was raining, we’d flood. If she had a stomachache, it was food poisoning. Even after a month I didn’t know much about her family, whether she had ever married or had kids, but I did know every inch of her digestive tract and several other canals in her body. She had a habit of announcing what hurt that day at breakfast, like a weather report.
At her table was Pish’s federal agent friend, Stoddart Harkner, a suave, sophisticated, and handsome older man who had an ineffable charm I suspected of cloaking a cynical and calculating disposition. Also at the table was Rusty Turner, a remarkable fellow who’d survived almost a year living in the wild, convinced Russian mobsters were after him. He still looked a little rough, but he had gained weight and his craggy face had fleshed out a little. He was subdued in company; I had a feeling he was suffering a little post-traumatic stress from his awful experience.
His daughter, Binny, was a talented local baker. In fact, the napoleons and mini-éclairs I was offering my guests came straight from her Main Street bakery. Lizzie was Rusty’s newly discovered granddaughter and Binny’s niece. She was a visible reminder of the son he had lost to murder, and he watched her with love and yearning in his squinty eyes. Their relationship was advancing, but slowly. I hoped they worked it out. If Binny had anything to say about it, they would.
Hannah’s parents, a quiet little couple, were also at the table, but would leave early to pick up their daughter at Golden Acres, where she was holding one of her book days. Once or twice a week she would take coffee-table books to the senior home and share them with the folks.
Tea proceeded. I drifted from table to table, joining conversations that were lagging, and clearing dirty plates as needed. Emerald was brilliant as a hostess. I could have left the whole thing to her, as a matter of fact, and I appreciated her swift but calm service and sharp gaze. A plate that was about to be overturned, a cup that was close to falling off a table, Hubert Dread needing a hand up and guidance to the washroom: nothing got past her. Consciousness Calling must be a wonderful organization, I thought, as I watched her smiling, circulating, helping, and chatting, the way she had blossomed from their teachings evident. She filled in for Shilo, who was not paying attention, and for Lizzie, who had come to help but instead hung around listening to Hubert Dread’s stories and taking photos, or talking to her grandfather, who held on to her hand at every opportunity.
Eventually Lizzie’s attention shifted to Vanessa LaDuchesse, and I hoped that the woman wasn’t telling some of her more scandalous tales of life in Hollywood in the fifties and sixties, because most of it was inappropriate for young teenage ears. I don’t know why I worried; little seemed to shock Lizzie, who had been with me when I found a dead body once and had to help me out of the woods. She appeared fascinated by the actress and took dozens of photos. Vanessa loved it, I could tell, and preened, presenting her striking profile in the light from the arched windows.
Barbara was complaining to her tablemates about Cleta, who wasn’t in her spot. Probably had gone to the bathroom, I figured. She complained how rude her friend was, and how unsympathetic, mostly to Barbara’s gastric woes, to hear her tell it. “I don’t know how Cleta Sanson ended up coming here to stay with us. She certainly wasn’t invited by me! If I were Merry, I would have told her to turn right around and march out that door.”
I sighed, wondering whether to intervene. Rusty looked bored and Hannah’s parents were clearly mystified, while Stoddart looked amused in a not-quite-nice way. I drifted closer. “How are you today?” I asked of Hannah’s mother. “Your dress is lovely.” She wore a taupe dress with a teal and sage floral pattern in a style that suited her petite figure perfectly.
She lit up, turning her small, round, lightly lined face toward me. “I sewed it myself,” she said, jumping to her feet and twirling.
“It’s so well made!” I exclaimed, examining it closely. It was a retro fifties style with a fitted waist and bell-shaped skirt.
“I started sewing when Hannah was young because it was so hard to find clothes to fit her.”
Hannah had extremely frail limbs and a narrow frame, but she wore the loveliest clothes, mostly dresses in light gauzy fabrics with pretty, fanciful prints. Now I understood why her clothes always fit her so perfectly and suited her whimsical personality. “You have a special talent,” I said, then turned to Barbara, who appeared miffed at the interruption of her diatribe. “Mrs. Beakman, why don’t you tell the others about your work with the youth theater in Harlem?”
I had been fascinated to learn from Pish that once upon a time whiny, sickly Barbara had created a group to teach acting to kids in Harlem, back in the sixties. It was revolutionary then, to teach the arts to kids who often didn’t even have the basics of life, and maybe it seemed frivolous. Shouldn’t she have been giving them food and educational supplies and clothes so they could go to school in the bitter winter cold? Perhaps, but at least she did something. Pish fondly remembered the Barbara of that time as someone who took him to the theater, explaining the subtleties of Shakespeare and Ibsen in equal measure.
She spoke; as I lingered nearby, I forgot what a complainer Barbara was as she told the tale of a family of kids who came to her theater group because she offered a free lunch, and stayed to get lost in her world of make-believe. I reminded myself to never judge someone based on minor flaws.
I turned and noticed how the afternoon sunlight streamed in one of the arched windows, touching Shilo’s lovely face with such ethereal beauty. Since she had gotten married we had drifted ever so slightly apart—inevitable, I suppose, but I missed her. I strolled to another table when Stoddart, interested, joined the conversation as Barbara spoke of one child from the family who grew up to be a famous actor.
Cleta shuffled into the dining room and made her way back to her seat, her huge pocketbook over her arm. One thing from Barbara Beakman’s earlier complaint came back to me; I could get no one to admit who had spilled the beans to Cleta Sanson about their move to my castle. It was a dumb detail to fuss about, I suppose, but it rankled. Lush said Cleta already knew about their temporary relocation to Wynter Castle and raised a stink; Lush being a sweetie, felt bad and invited her. They all claimed they were trying to keep Cleta from finding out so they could sneak off into the night. Not one would ’fess up to being the first to tell her their plans, saying they only discussed it with her because she already knew.
The tea and snacks portion of the afternoon finished, Pish moved to the piano as Hannah’s parents departed to pick up their daughter. He started with a medley of Broadway tunes. To my surprise and delight, some folks sang along, especially Elwood Fitzhugh, who had a lovely tenor voice. He stood while he sang and gestured grandly, belting out “Hello, Dolly!” to the world. If Pish and his troupe had been putting on Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein, Elwood would have been a grand addition.
But Pish then switched to some light opera. After that Stoddart, silvery hair glinting in the sunlight that streamed in the window, joined him at the piano and they sang a duet, “Lily’s Eyes” from The Secret Garden, taken down a bit for Stoddart’s lower range. It was lovely, and I felt like the audience held its collective breath. The best part, for me, was when Pish met my gaze and sang just to me. I love him so; he was one of the few who I felt understood and valued Miguel as much as I. He has told me I am the daughter he never could have, and he is more than a father for me; he is friend and brother and father all in one.
Stoddart, Pish’s friend, is a federal agent who was sent to Autumn Vale to consult about the illegal goings-on at the Autumn Vale Community Bank. He is handsome, fit, perfectly tailored, exquisitely groomed, and he was riveting as he went on to sing Lancelot’s song “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot. As the applause died down, he bowed, but remained standing, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you will come to the castle for our performance of The Magic Flute, in which I have a small part. My friend, Pish Lincoln, myself, and various other folk will be doing our best to perform one of the greatest pieces of opera ever written.” He again bowed.
“I cannot bear to wait,” Cleta Sanson said loudly. “What a pleasure it will be to sit in the audience while amateurs wail and yowl over each other in German.”
I THOUGHT IT was a little ambitious for the players to take on The Magic Flute, but Pish never does anything by half measures. He had enlisted Stoddart, Janice Grover, Sonora Silva—she was the estate lawyer’s wife—and a few others, and had ruthlessly harassed them into learning their parts phonetically. Even Lizzie, Alcina, and Hannah had been corralled to perform.
But Cleta Sanson had no business making fun of them like that.
Pish, accustomed to Cleta’s behavior from long familiarity with all his aunt’s friends, just grinned and chuckled. He stood, bowing toward her. “It is possible we will live down to your worst fears, Cleta, but in that case,” he said, his gaze sweeping over the others, “don’t you all want to come and laugh at us?”
That is the best part of my friend, his ability to make light of himself and his considerable talents. Stoddart appeared miffed, but Pish, unfazed, sat back down at the piano and played a selection of oldies that gave my dining room the atmosphere of a jazz nightclub in New York. He played some Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and it took me back to parties in his Manhattan condo before his mother moved in with him. Pish would play the piano and I’d pop the cork on a bottle of bubbly, and we’d have a wonderful time with friends from the fashion and financial industries, both our milieus. Pish and Shilo were what kept me alive in the days and weeks and months after Miguel died. My eyes filled with tears at the unexpected wash of memories, but I dashed them away and circulated, trying to ignore how badly my shoes pinched.
Barbara Beakman, her voice as loud as a trumpet, said, “Cleta may gripe about the opera, but at least it will be something to while away the hours in this monstrosity. When I heard castle, I thought luxury, you know, like the great castle hotels of Europe.”
She could just take herself back to the city if she was going to such a wet blanket.
“Cleta can’t help but criticize,” Vanessa said, with an arch look around at her tablemates. “It’s like expecting a python not to bite.”
Her clear tone carried nicely over the music, and Elwood, nearby, snickered, slipped from his chair, and took the elderly actress’s hand, pulling her to her feet. “Madam LaDuchesse, celestial being that you are, dance with me! Our friend is playing a lovely old tune.” He led her to an open part of the dining room and slow danced with her while Pish played “As Time Goes By.”
I had a moment of worry that his flattery would be grating to Vanessa, but I needn’t have been concerned. She appeared completely happy with the charmer’s attentions and flirted back outrageously. I made a mental note to invite Elwood to every single event I had at the castle. He is flighty as a butterfly in his attentions and has a new “lady friend” every week, but for my purposes that was his charm. After Vanessa he swept up Patsy, who looked tearfully delighted, and then hefty Barbara. They circled ponderously around the tables while I fretted about her health. Finally he stood before Cleta, hand out, asking if she’d care to take a turn around the floor.
She looked up and, in her perfectly modulated voice, said, “I’d rather die than dance with a small-town hick, thank you for asking.”
Emerald, who was nearby, looked down at her and then turned to Shilo, who stood nearby. “See, Shi? That’s why you don’t have to worry about anything Miss Sanson says. She’s miserable to everybody.” Everyone laughed and even Shilo smiled as Cleta bridled, stiffening with rage, then gave a sniff of disgust and turned away.
Gogi slipped over to me as she was making the rounds ensuring that her people behaved, and whispered, “I’m happy that Emerald gave the woman that set-down.”
“Me, too. I thought people got over that kind of crap—being a mean girl—when they got older.”
“My dear, the tales I could tell you after years of running an old-age home,” she said, linking her arm through mine and hugging it to her. “Mean girls and bully boys get older, but they don’t usually get better.”
“Well that’s depressing.”
I heard a commotion in the great hall and Zeke burst through the dining room door. “Merry, you gotta help!” he yelped, his prominent Adam’s apple galloping up and down his throat.
Pish’s piano playing tinkled to a stop. A heavyset middle-aged woman in an ankle-length mud-colored dress and with frizzy hair sticking out in fluffy hunks galloped into the room after Zeke. Her gaze swept over the gathering, a belligerent expression on her plain, doughy face, her protruding eyes wide. “Where is she? Where’s my aunt?”
I wove through the tables toward her as Gordy, hunched and hustling, followed into the room. He caught my eye, grimaced, and shrugged. The woman bolted toward me but then elbowed past, chugging along like a steam engine, huffing and puffing.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Merry Muffin Mysteries
“Start with a spunky protagonist named Merry, mix in some delicious muffins, add a mysterious castle in upstate New York, and you’ve got the ingredients for a wonderful cozy mystery series.”—Paige Shelton, national bestselling author of If Catfish Had Nine Lives
“Merry is an interesting, strong character… [An] intriguing mystery that keeps you guessing until the end.”—Socrates’ Book Reviews
“A great cozy with varied and interesting characters, a nice plot with a few twists, and a good main character who has some baggage to work through…Excellent—Loved it! Buy it now and put this author on your watch list.”—Mysteries and My Musings