When he comes to the aid of a woman at the grocery store, Luke is fascinated to learn she is Estelle Pillow, the cheery sister to his prickly housekeeper, Connie. Estelle wants to open a bakery in town—and Connie’s disapproval of the venture stirs up a whirlwind of emotions between the siblings. But Luke’s attention is soon diverted when he learns about a long-ago double murder.…
During World War II, an unknown traveler arrived in town, and before the day was over, he and the local baker lay dead near the bandstand at the local lake. The incident has since been exaggerated into Watervalley lore—with the newcomer rumored to have been a German spy. As Luke pieces together exactly what happened, he realizes that the consequences of this event have rippled painfully into the lives of townsfolk he has come to know.
As winter gives way to spring, Luke keeps busy at the medical clinic and enters a tentative, exhilarating romance. And when his support of Estelle’s bakery collides with new revelations about the old murder, Luke witnesses the true power of reconciliation working in the hearts of those he holds dear—a revelation that will change his life.
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April 28, 1944
The grass was taller here, moist and cool in the dark April night, only a few sloping steps away from the road. He would rest for a while, keeping his hand pressed firmly over the small bullet hole above his right hip. But the handkerchief . . . the handkerchief was getting soaked.
“It must have been a low-caliber pistol,” he whispered. “Perhaps a twenty-two.” It was only a small wound, barely penetrating the soft tissue.
He had been running. His suit was drenched with sweat. As he lay in the fresh, delicate grass, steam rose from him and drifted elusively into the soft air. He breathed in great heaving gasps, staring up into the vast, silent sky, an eternal canopy pulsing with a million radiant stars.
It was the telegram. He had come back for the telegram. He’d thought it was with everything else. But when he’d buried the box, he hadn’t found it.
In his agony, he whispered softly: “Oh Elise; dear, precious Elise.” He would tell her everything. Explain everything. His mind drifted. His eyes wanted to close. Then, down the far reaches of the road toward town, he heard the long, slow wail of a police siren. He stiffened. His thoughts raced. They were coming. Someone at one of the farmhouses must have heard the gunshot. He flattened himself deeper into the tall grass.
The car blew past, flying headlong toward the lake and stopping in the distance, the headlights pouring across the bandstand. No one had seen him. He would have to wait before moving again.
Once more he stared briefly into the infinite heavens. But now the stars were fading. “Elise; darling, beloved Elise. I will . . . I will tell you . . .” His breathing slowed. His eyes were surrendering. They grew tired, heavy, and in his delirium, he spoke tenderly, sliding into the distant language of his childhood. “I will tell you . . . über die Diamanten.”
I will tell you about the diamonds.
As I approached, I could see that getting past her was going to be difficult. The woman, bless her heart, was large, blocking part of the grocery aisle. Her askew and drifting cart was barricading the rest of it.
She seemed lost to another world, intensely focused on a midshelf item. And there was something about the red spandex covering her lower half that was difficult to ignore. Even though her vibrant and oversized Christmas-themed sweater hung sloppily past her considerable hips, the spandex was clearly not the most complementary fashion choice, like memory foam that had lost its memory. For anywhere in the South, and especially for here in Watervalley, Tennessee, the outfit took unabashed flamboyance to a new level. Moreover, although the scent was pleasant, she had apparently chosen to marinate herself in perfume.
Absorbed in the moment, she was oblivious to my presence. I was about to utter a simple “excuse me” when suddenly the woman bolted upright. She jerked violently with a convulsion that seemed to start at her ankles and rippled viciously up through her entire body, ending with a fierce shuddering of her head and hands.
“Sweet Jesus,” she exhorted, “that was a big one!” She took a deep breath, regaining herself. After a stunned moment, my doctor instincts kicked in.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
I had startled her, if that was possible given what I had just witnessed, and she gasped lightly. Then just as quickly she responded with radiant animation.
“Oh, hi, sugar! I did not see you standing there.”
“Ma’am, do you need to sit down?”
She smiled broadly and flipped her hand airily toward me. “No, no, no, I’m fine, sweetie. I was just having one of my moments.” I gauged her to be about fifty and despite her robust size she had a lively, pretty face with near perfect chocolate brown skin. She wore no shortage of holiday-colored bracelets and beads and ornate earrings, all of which were adventurous by Watervalley standards but just short of gaudy. And despite her gushy delivery she spoke with a subtle articulation that wasn’t the norm for around here. It had definitely been molded in an urban setting.
She reclaimed her wandering shopping cart and smiled warmly at me again, speaking with another quick gesture of her hand. “You have a nice day!” Then with an emphatic, cheery nod she proclaimed, “Happy holidays,” and was off.
I returned the smile and nodded cautiously. “And you as well.”
She continued at a leisurely pace down the aisle. I paused for a few moments to give her some distance. But after five or so steps, she once again halted and stood straight up at rigid attention with her entire body quaking and shuddering so violently that she rattled her grocery cart.
“Sweet heavens!” she announced in a loud voice.
I immediately left my own cart and dashed to her side. “Ma’am, something’s definitely not right here. I’m a doctor. Are you having some kind of seizure?”
She regained possession of herself, and regarded me with the same engaged, bright face. “Goodness, sugar, are you Dr. Bradford? I have heard just so many wonderful things about you.”
“Well, yes, I am Luke Bradford, but right now, ma’am, I’m more concerned about you. You seem to be having some kind of neurologic episode. By chance are you epileptic?”
She dipped her head, pursing her lips in an adoring smile. “Listen to you. Aren’t you just the sweetest? No, honey, I’m not epileptic. It’s just my silly pacemaker. Sometimes it gets a mind of its own and shocks me for no reason. It usually quits after two or three times. So I’m fine, just fine.”
“Ma’am, if the ICD on your pacemaker is shocking you, it may mean that your heart is in a lethal rhythm. I think we need to get you over to the clinic.” Numerous times in my brief medical career I had had to deal with patients in cardiac arrest. But the heroics needed to care for someone in remote Watervalley made this situation an absolute adrenaline shot. This lady needed critical medical attention, and fast.
“Oh, that’s not necessary. I can tell when I’m tachycardic because my hair tingles.” She gave a light pat to her head and increased the wattage of her smile.
“Well, you may be right, but I still think it best to get you over to the clinic immediately. We have a pacemaker programmer and I can analyze yours in a matter of minutes.”
She studied me for a brief moment with no break in her effervescent smile. Then she shrugged her shoulders. “Dr. Bradford, it’s really not necessary. But something tells me you’re not giving up on this, are you?”
I grinned, shaking my head.
She exhaled in resignation. “Well, okay. If you insist. So look, I’ve got four more things on my list. Let me just grab those and I can follow you over there.”
I stood dumbfounded. Given the gravity of what was happening to her, this suggestion left me incredulous. “Ma’am, I was actually considering calling the EMTs and having you taken to the clinic right away.”
Once again she flipped her hand at me in dismissal. “Oh, sugar, it is not worth that much trouble. Just let me grab these few items and I’ll meet you in the parking lot.”
Despite what I considered to be a potential disaster, it was clear that I was not going to win this part of the argument. I sought compromise. “Okay, I’ll help you round up what’s left on your list and then you can ride with me over to the clinic.”
She folded her arms, giving me a look of complete adoration. Her words began in a high pitch of inquiry and then descended lower. “Really? You’re willing to do that? Well, darling, if that’s the case, then you may need to pucker up ’cause I might be laying a little bit of heaven on you.”
I paused, slightly taken aback. “Well, thanks. But I’m sure that won’t be necessary.” I wasn’t certain what to make of that comment or of this incredibly colorful, unreserved woman. She was patently unconcerned and, admittedly, was showing no symptoms of cardiac distress. “So, tell me what things you need,” I said.
I collected the last few items on her list and met up with her in the checkout line. Wanting to move quickly, I grabbed her bags and headed for the door. But the woman had other ideas. Her top pace was more of a saunter and her jovial manner was a clear indicator that she saw no urgency in the situation. With pained effort I bridled my steps to keep even with her. Meanwhile, she was talking nonstop about how happy she was to be back in Watervalley, and about the warm day, and about starting a new business, and occasionally injecting some adoring commentary about how kind I was being. Truthfully, I felt more duty-bound than kind. As the only doctor in Watervalley, I knew full well that this woman’s ill health was mine to deal with, either now or later.
Impatiently I walked toward my old Corolla. But as we neared, she spoke up. “Oh, that’s my car next to yours. Do you want to just take it?” Beside my shabby Corolla was parked a late-model BMW with a license plate that read “Bonbon1.”
Driving her car threw too many variables in the mix, so I insisted that we take mine. I tossed her few bags of groceries into the backseat and opened the passenger door, only now realizing that my pocket-sized car might be an uncommonly awkward fit for a woman of her heft. To ease the process, I took her hand and arm to help her squeeze in. With some effort she maneuvered into the front seat and swung both feet inside.
I was just about to release her when a lightning bolt jolted me to attention and zipped up my arm. The world went black.
When I awoke, I was seeing double, lying with my back on the pavement and my face pointed skyward. The large woman was peering over me, but she had two faces. One was leering at me with scornful disdain while the other regarded me with a wide-eyed look of innocent anticipation. Then I realized I wasn’t seeing double. Standing above me were none other than Connie Thompson, my devoted, critical, and—ironically—wealthy housekeeper, and beside her, the walking Christmas ornament lady from the grocery store. Against the clear blue midday December sky, they looked like twins.
I pushed myself to a sitting position and rubbed the back of my head where a considerable knot was rising.
Christmas ornament lady bent over and held my cheeks between her plump, fragrant hands. “Oh, sweetie, I am so sorry. My silly pacemaker went off while you were holding my arm. The car tires insulated me, but the jolt must have grounded through you. You fell back and bumped your head on my Beemer.”
Connie, on the other hand, peered at me sternly through her gold inlay glasses. She spoke in her typical expressionless, no-nonsense manner. “Dr. Bradford, do you need medical attention?”
I sat there for a moment with my arms crossed over my knees and eventually looked up again at the two women, one with the face of an eager puppy, the other with that of a disapproving schoolteacher. I pondered Connie’s question and responded impassively, “Yeah, looks like I have a lump on my head. What say you kiss it and make it better?”
Connie rolled her eyes and regarded me with placid disdain. Her voice was absolute deadpan. “Why am I not surprised that you would use even this situation to exhibit some foolishness?”
I rose to my feet, rubbing the tender bump. “How long was I out?”
Christmas ornament lady responded, “Only a couple of minutes. I called Connie immediately. Fortunately she was only a block away.”
I stood for a moment, gazing back and forth at the two women. They were complete opposites in both manner and dress, but strangely, they looked similar.
“So, you two know each other?” I inquired.
This brought a shrug and giggle from the colorful one, while Connie tilted her head and regarded me with disbelief. “Dr. Bradford, have you two not met?” She exhaled with a tiresome frown. “Then by all means, let me introduce you. Dr. Bradford, this is my younger sister, Estelle Pillow. You two have something in common. She got her doctorate from Vanderbilt also.”
Connie drove her sister over to the clinic while I followed close behind in my Corolla. It probably wasn’t the brightest idea for me to drive after receiving the bump to my head, but then again, it was only four blocks.
Set in the remote hills of Middle Tennessee, Watervalley was a quiet farming community that seemed to breathe the air of a different century . . . a slower, more accommodating, more charitable time. I had arrived only six months earlier to serve as the town’s new and only doctor. In return, Watervalley was paying off my med school debts, provided I set up practice for three years. Having grown up in Atlanta, I found that life here brought a whole new meaning to the concept of social adjustment. It had been a bumpy start, but the place had grown on me. And in return, well, I had grown on them. Watervalley had become home.
It was Thursday morning, two days after Christmas. Since the clinic staff was officially off for the holiday week, Connie unceremoniously offered assistance, speaking in a motherly blend of irritation and worry directed squarely at her sister. Seeing little harm in this, I had her follow along into the exam room in case help was needed. Besides, in the odd chance of an emergency, Clarence and Leonard, the Watervalley EMTs, were only a phone call away at the fire station. That is, if they hadn’t become bored and slipped out to Fire Chief Ed Caswell’s house to watch the Bowl games. Ed had a big screen.
With Estelle seated safely on the exam table I went about the methodic business of placing the leads and performing the pacemaker analysis. Connie hovered nearby, providing sharp-tongued commentary that escalated into a rapid-fire exchange between the two sisters, each strangely oblivious to the urgent medical matter at hand. Furthermore, they talked to each other in the third person, as if the other one was offstage in a soundproof booth.
“Dr. Bradford, I’m truly sorry about my sister. She ought to have better sense than to be out shopping in her condition.” Connie spoke with great authority, clearly treating this as an opportunity for a teachable moment.
“Oh, pay no attention to my sister, Dr. Bradford. I was actually surprised that she was out and about. Usually she turns to stone if sunlight hits her.”
Connie was unfazed. “You know, Dr. Bradford, I can’t imagine anything sillier than someone coming to Watervalley to try to start a catering business, as if people can’t cook for themselves.”
“It’s a bakery and catering business, Dr. Bradford. Everybody has a sweet tooth, including my sourpuss sister. Of course with her, it’s just a working theory.” Estelle was now wearing a subtle but superior smile.
Not missing a beat, Connie responded in a lilting, breezy voice, “Well, when we’re done here, Dr. Bradford, I’ll need to take my sister to the Dollar Store to buy her some marbles because it’s clear she’s lost all of hers.”
“Dr. Bradford, my sister forgets that I have plenty of experience at running a business.”
“Mmm-hmm. If I remember correctly, Dr. Bradford, the only business my sister ever started involved painting happy faces on people’s toenails.”
Despite the broadsides they were firing back and forth, there was no actual tension between the two. The conversation lacked any real sting of hostility. It seemed that such banter was the norm for them. Even still, all their comments were being directed at me, begging my engagement. I offered only some casual nods of understanding, doing my best to assert neutrality, and remained appropriately focused on the pacemaker analysis.
Connie finally forced my hand, speaking to me with a direct challenge. “So, Dr. Bradford. Are you going to sit there and playact you don’t hear any of this conversation?”
I kept my eyes centered on the monitor screen and responded in a low, undistracted voice, “That was my plan.”
Estelle saw this comment as a small victory and her face lit up with smug and impish glee. She pressed her case.
“Dr. Bradford, you came from Nashville, where they had all those great shops and eateries down in the Village. I’d bet you’d love to have a bakery of that caliber right here in Watervalley.”
Actually she had struck a nerve. I had just spent several years in Nashville doing my residency at Vanderbilt, and I’d grown up in urban Buckhead, north of Atlanta. I was no connoisseur, but the idea of fresh pastries and maybe even barista coffee sounded like a slice of heaven. The closest thing isolated Watervalley had to offer was the commercial-grade coffee and packaged fruit pies at Eddie’s Quick Mart. Still, despite her stern exterior, Connie was a dear and beloved friend as well as my housekeeper. It would be unwise to take sides. I opted for evasive action.
“So, this bakery, or rather, this theoretical bakery. What are you wanting to call it?”
Estelle’s face lit with delight and animation. “That’s a good question! I’ve considered several possibilities: Scone Love, Nick of Thyme, the Pig and Pie, or maybe even Hot Buns Bakery.”
She squinted her eyes in thoughtful, deep assessment and turned toward me. “Then again, this is Watervalley and you know, sugar, that last one might give people the wrong impression.”
Connie responded immediately. “Dr. Bradford, given this foolishness, I think you should advise my sister to call it Half Baked. Or maybe since she’ll have absolutely no business to speak of, she should call it Roll Over.”
Estelle listened sourly to her sister’s remark. Turning back toward me, she whispered in confidence, “Don’t mind my older sister, Dr. Bradford. Bless her soul, she’s always been a little jealous of my culinary skills.”
This brought a prompt “humph” from Connie, who again spoke in a cadenced voice. “My, my, my, Dr. Bradford. Just know that if you’re ever in the kitchen when my sister is frying anything, you might consider wearing a hazmat suit.”
Fortunately Estelle’s pacemaker analysis was now complete and I was able to exact an easy solution. The heart rate threshold on the implantable cardiac defibrillator, the ICD part of her pacemaker, was set too low and was shocking her at the slightest acceleration of her heartbeat. I adjusted it to an appropriate level, explained the problem to her, and just that quickly, I was done.
With her large, expressive brown eyes and an endearing smile, Estelle thanked me profusely, well past the point of making me feel awkward. I squeezed her outstretched hand as a gesture of acceptance, but she yanked me forward and wrapped me up in a lock-tight bear hug. After several embarrassingly long, self-conscious seconds I managed to disconnect gracefully and made immediate gestures of needing to do some work in my office. Connie seemed to sense my desire to retreat and spoke to Estelle with affectionate resignation.
“Come on, darlin’. Let’s get you to your car.” It was the first time she had addressed her sister directly.
As they were leaving, Connie turned back to me. “Dr. Bradford, I hope it’s okay, but Estelle is joining us for dinner tonight.”
“Sure. Fine by me. Should I bring a referee whistle?”
Connie lowered her head with a look of quiet reprimand. “Just bring an appetite, and leave your foolishness elsewhere. And don’t worry about the groceries. We’ll take care of that.”
I folded my arms and leaned against the doorframe. “I shall look forward to every bite.” Pausing for effect, I quickly added, “And snippet.”
I watched them exit via the large front entry, arm in arm, talking in low but lively tones.
I adored Connie Thompson. She was a remarkable, brilliant woman. Sometimes I believed she still knew every fact from every book she had ever read and even a few she had only walked by. After her husband had passed away seven years ago, she’d taken his pension and focused her incredible intellect on the stock market. Now she was quite wealthy.
Soon after I had arrived in Watervalley the previous July, she had volunteered to come serve as my housekeeper and help me get started in my new life. Her deeply held convictions of faith and service had governed her offer when clearly she didn’t need the money. She was not one to be swayed by fortune.
Yet in the previous months that I had known Connie, I had never seen anyone affect her so pointedly as her sister. I was not convinced that her opposition to the proposed bakery was as light as their banter suggested. It seemed, instead, to be rooted in something deeper. I shrugged. The sisters shared a strange bond of contention and connection.
Having a few hours to kill, I decided to tackle a project that had been nagging at me for several months. That was when I discovered the first incredible piece of paper.
In the 1930s, the town had purchased this stately antebellum home and converted it into the county medical clinic. The physician’s office had previously been the mansion’s library. With its high ceilings and wall-to-wall mahogany bookshelves, it was opulent almost to the point of embarrassment.
Except for the excitement of the last couple of hours with Estelle, the two days since Christmas had brought time to a standstill. Life in the town and surrounding hills had slumbered. Within their modest homes and farmhouses, the families of Watervalley had drawn inward, lazily embracing the small joys of the season. The clinic, courthouse, and downtown shops were all closed with only the drugstore, the bank, and the grocery store keeping regular hours. Seemingly, the people of Watervalley were the descendants of bears and had gone into hibernation.
So after Connie and Estelle left, I decided to begin the task of cleaning out the vast stacks of old journals and patient files left untouched for decades in the solemn confines of my office. It seemed that the staff had for years regarded this room as a kind of sanctuary, a holy of holies to be left undisturbed, in keeping with the reverence the small town placed on my profession. The languid pace of Watervalley life had so permeated me that this mundane endeavor filled me with a sense of anticipation and discovery. My threshold of thrill had dropped off the charts.
Normally a cacophony of life and sound, the clinic felt strangely asleep, a quiet stage of orderly rooms, sparse daylight, empty halls. It was an edgy, unfamiliar silence. And yet suddenly I felt an echoing presence, not of a chilling or ominous nature, but rather one of a sublime distant conversation. As I pushed open the door to my office, it seemed I was moving deeper into the curious and spellbound air of ancient whispers.
Three aged wooden filing cabinets filled the far corner of the imposing room. Having cautiously glanced into them a few months earlier, I knew that they contained patient medical records dating as far back as the 1930s.
To my delight, what I found was mesmerizing.
I discovered documents with familiar names, the ancestors of people I had come to know. Carefully handwritten narratives of visits, illnesses, and assessments were meticulously detailed on the faded paper: lists of medications, billing charges, summaries of small surgeries.
I had intended to place these ancient files in boxes for storage elsewhere. But I was captivated, engrossed in reading about these distant, forgotten lives, these ghosts of persons long past and buried in the numerous lowly cemeteries that dotted the community’s frozen farms and fields.
And somehow, knowing the people of today’s Watervalley, their voices, their faces, and their stories, made their ancestors in these dusty records come alive. Oddly, I found a subtle contentment in this exploration, a rich feeling of connection with the charitable, uncomplicated people in my small world.
Then, while working through the drawer labeled “1940,” I came across a most unusual find. It was an oddly titled folder containing a single piece of yellowed paper, and it told a fascinating story—one that didn’t fit this sleepy and isolated community. The file tab read simply: “Autopsy Report, Murdered German.”
The document described a man in his midthirties who had died from blood loss sustained from multiple stab wounds. His body had been discovered near the old bandstand on the edge of Watervalley Lake. No wallet or identification had been found on him. While performing the autopsy, the doctor accidentally uncovered the only hint of who he was.
I read the words aloud, slowly. “Telegram written in German found in victim’s suit lining believed to be indication of nationality.” An inscription on the inside of his ring was also in German. Dr. Haslem Hinson, the county physician during the forties whose distinguished picture now hung in the long row down the main hallway, had signed the report.
I spoke in a low whisper. “Murder in Watervalley?” The words were at polar ends. The town was a quaint collection of homes, shops, and churches, a small island of life and commerce set inconspicuously in the middle of a broad, fertile plain of endless farms. The people here lived peaceful lives driven by the simple traditions of work and crops and family and faith. Threads of common values wove their world together and daily life was simple, routine, safe. Violent, grisly murder happened in faraway places, not here.
The minutes began to merge together. This fragile piece of paper pulled me deeper into a lost trance, prying at me with infinite questions. I read and reread the autopsy report several times, absorbing each word, hoping to satisfy my scant understanding of what had happened. But there were too many unanswered questions. What did the telegraph say? Who was this man? Who had stabbed him? Why? Most of all, how did this crime happen to occur here?
I stared vacantly, hypnotized. Steadily, the faint chatter from earlier became more pronounced. Low voices were humming in a muted overture from decades past. In a curious and enchanted way these forgotten files were brimming with the murmurings of long-ago lives, passions, hopes—with the unadorned chronicles of generations. The voices echoed with the hearty laughter, the robust energy, the symphony of rural life. And yet now, so it seemed, a singular tone of discord had blended in, hissing slyly of the gruesome business of murder.
In time I emerged from the spell of this peculiar discovery and looked at my watch. Two hours had drifted by and only part of one filing cabinet had been cleaned out. It was a poor showing. But the remaining drawers would have to wait until another day. I stared blankly at the folder for a few moments and decided to take it with me. I wanted to find answers, to know more, and immediately thought of one person who might be able to shed some light.
I grabbed my coat, locked up, and fired up the old Corolla. I was headed up to the high woods to see John Harris.
Turning off Fleming Street, I passed a multitude of downtown shops. Stacked side by side in something of a cereal box architecture, the decades-old buildings varied in style and color. Despite its years, Watervalley’s downtown had a confidence, a sense of sureness about itself, a presence that was fresh and vibrant and welcoming. In the center square, the courthouse was framed by a broad lawn and tall maples that in summer would be lush with foliage. On this cool, bright December day the trees were bare and silent, serving as dormant sentries around the wide steps and limestone columns.
Despite the sleepy pace of the holidays, there was a delicate energy in the air of the idle downtown shops, a charming sense that life was still close at hand. Even when the townspeople were absent, their laughter and engaging kindness, which I had come to know, permeated my day. I was in high spirits.
After driving several miles deep into the hills, I pulled the old Corolla onto John’s long brick driveway. The sweeping beauty of his incredible stone-, glass-, and wood-sided house never failed to impress. An architectural wonder with a breathtaking view of the entire valley, it enjoyed a splendor far beyond the simple frame houses that dotted the landscape below.
John Harris could be the most intimidating man I had ever met. Wealthy, retired, and in his late fifties, he held a doctorate in chemical engineering. He was tall, muscular for his age, and had a ruddy handsomeness that radiated sheer presence. In decades past he had been an icon of quiet strength and selfless leadership in town, but the tragic loss of his wife, Molly, to cancer two years earlier had left him a brooding and temperamental recluse.
In the months since my arrival we had struck up a tenuous but enjoyable friendship, full of shrewd exchanges and friendly banter. Although John was a master of wit and sarcasm, in the past weeks I had seen a softening of his hard facade. Even still, he was a man of little vulnerability.
Despite the cool of the mild December afternoon, I found John in his usual haunt, bundled in one of the Adirondack chairs around the back of the house.
I called out upon my approach and he stood and greeted me warmly with a mischievous, engaging smile and the usual glass in his hand.
“Hey, sawbones. What brings you up here?”
“Afternoon, John. Looks like you’re in good spirits.”
“Good spirits indeed. The fifteen-year-Scotch kind of spirits. Care for a shot?”
“I’ll pass for now.”
“Give it a try. It’ll warm you up a little.”
“You know, John, it seems I read somewhere that heavy consumption of alcohol is bad for your health.”
John responded with a wry grin. “Humph. And what would you know about it?”
“Oh, it’s not like I am a doctor or anything. Hold it. I just remembered. I am a doctor.”
“Yeah, yeah. Suit yourself, smart-ass. Just remember, the odds are in my favor.”
“There are more old drunks than there are old doctors.”
I shook my head. “Clever.”
John laughed, extending his arm. “Come on, have a seat.”
I eased into the twin Adirondack chair. The sun offered little warmth and I shuffled my back briskly against the frame to brush away the cold.
“Sawbones, you look like you have an agenda. What’s on your mind?”
“Well, since you asked, here’s the thing. I was cleaning out some old files in the office and came across something interesting. What do you know about the murder of some German that took place back in the forties?”
John thought for a moment. “You’re talking about the old bandstand murder, during the war, Watervalley’s only homicide. Most people don’t remember it and hardly anyone talks about it anymore. Pretty interesting old story, though.”
He gazed into the distance, searching his memory. “A man came to town on the train carrying nothing but a briefcase. He went around to some of the shops and the bank showing a picture of a guy, wanting to know if anyone knew him, saying he was some lost cousin. The name didn’t match up, but eventually someone noticed that the photo looked like the local bakeshop owner.”
“Well, this was a little before my time. But if I remember correctly, this mystery fellow went to the baker’s shop and then to his house, but couldn’t find him. That night there was a big dance down at the bandstand out on the lake to sell war bonds. The baker ran the concession, so this mystery guy caught up with him there. Apparently after everyone left, the two stayed behind to talk. But something went sour, because that’s when the gunshot was heard.”
“No, that can’t be right. The autopsy indicated that the guy was killed by knife wounds.”
“That’s right, sawbones. Apparently, the baker stabbed the German multiple times and the stranger shot him in self-defense. After the police showed up, they found the German dead at the bandstand and later they discovered the baker by the road a couple of hundred feet away. Apparently he was trying to make it home. Odd thing was, they never found the gun, or the knife, or the German guy’s wallet or briefcase. There was always a rumor that a third person was involved.”
“So who was this baker?”
“His name was Oscar Fox. He was the great-grandfather of the little bandit whiz kid who lives next door to you on Fleming Street. In fact, Oscar lived in the same house.”
“You’re talking about Will Fox, my twelve-year-old neighbor?”
“That would be the one.” John took another swallow of Scotch. His eyes grew sharp, penetrating. “You know, my father used to talk about all that. . . .” He hesitated.
I sensed that something was rolling through his memory. Some long-ago voice was whispering to John in the low breath of ancient rumor. In time he exhaled into the frigid air and turned toward me.
“Anyway, people always wondered if ‘Oscar Fox’ was an alias and he was actually German also. I think he came to town from North Carolina right after the start of the war. He had some kind of medical disability, although what I don’t know. Anyway, he ended up marrying a local girl and started the bakery. If she knew anything more, she took it to her grave.”
“Was his wife a suspect in all this?”
“No, if memory serves, she left the dance hours before the incident. She had taken the car. Oscar was trying to walk home.”
“What became of her?”
“She stayed in Watervalley and ran the bakery. They had one son, who was just an infant at the time. His name was Wilhelm, not exactly a stout Southern name and another reason why people speculated about the German connection. The widow continued to run the bakery for years after that. We got fresh bread and baked goods there when I was a kid. I remember her as a small, pretty woman, always had a girlish face. Everybody called her Miss Elise.”
He rubbed his chin. “You’ve probably seen the place. It’s on the square, a corner storefront in part of the old Hatcher Building. I think the name Oscar’s Bakery is still embedded in the sidewalk tile outside the front door.”
“What’s in the space now?”
“It’s empty. Been closed up for years. Seems like the bank may own it.”
“The bank? That’s odd. Why wouldn’t they have rented it out, put some kind of business in it?”
“Got me on that one, sport. You’ll have to talk to Randall Simmons, the illustrious president of the Farmers Bank, to get that answer. Just be sure to wash your hands afterward.”
“And why is that?”
“He’s kind of a stuffed shirt. Randall could use a little less starch.”
“I take it you don’t like the guy?”
John’s face thawed into a subtle, contented grin. Some memory of the banker was giving him great satisfaction. “Ahh, we go way back. It’s a story for another time.”
I left it at that. I was much more intrigued with this news of the bakery and Oscar Fox. What had begun as a one-sheet autopsy report had turned into a double murder. I sat for a moment absorbing everything that John had told me.
“Murder in Watervalley. That’s quite a tale,” I said.
“When I was a kid, the name Oscar Fox was synonymous with the boogeyman. We’d make up stories about Oscar’s ghost roaming the night, looking for his next victim to slash. He kind of grew into local legend as a notorious killer. I think what really scared people about him was that before the murder, he was just a quiet, unassuming guy.”
“And you say Oscar was Will Fox’s great-grandfather?”
“Yeah. There’s kind of a dark star over that bunch. Each of the men has died early, in their thirties or forties. People don’t talk about it as much as they used to, but a lot of the old folks around here act skittish and superstitious if you bring Oscar Fox’s name up. They’ll tell you there’s something dark and evil about that bloodline. It was a pretty horrific event and shocked everyone in the community for quite some time.”
I knew that Will’s father had been killed in a motorcycle accident about a year ago, several months before my arrival.
“Well, the whole business is intriguing,” I said. “I’m thinking about visiting Sheriff Thurman and asking if he’ll let me dig through the old police reports. They’re bound to be tucked away somewhere.”
“That may not be possible.”
“Why is that?”
“There was a big fire at the jail in 1964. Pretty much burnt to the ground, long before anybody had computers. All the old records were destroyed. So, there’s probably not much to go on.”
I sank into my chair, deflated. This news put a damper on any real opportunity of pursuing the facts of this long-ago event. Still, the story captivated me.
John saw my obvious disappointment and spoke with characteristic resignation.
“The old bandstand murder is like most stories in Watervalley. It’s gotten richer with age. There’s a whole mythology around it about German spies and espionage, and even some wild rumors about lost diamonds. Not sure how that got into the mix. But it’s Watervalley, sport. No need to let the facts get in the way of a good story. It’s likely all bunk.”
The sun was falling behind the distant horizon and suddenly the air had a biting chill. Far below, the wide valley plain spread to the faraway frozen hills. In the middle lay the small town, discernible by the small dots of white houses, the stalwart rise of church steeples, and the first frail glow of streetlights.
The people of Watervalley were huddled in the warmth of their homes, living out the peaceful routines and rituals of their daily lives. Yet buried in the distant past of this tranquil place was a raw chapter of violent murder, shrouded in obscurity and rumor. For me, it just didn’t fit.
It was time to head back. But as I rose to leave, John stopped me. “Stick around, Doc. I’ll fix some dinner. We can drink a little grog and get groggy.”
“Rain check on that. Connie’s expecting me.”
John nodded. “Understood. You don’t want to get on her icky list.”
He walked with me up the short rise of yard to where my car was parked out front. All the while John was rubbing his chin, deep in thought with a face framed in curious inquiry. I guessed he was trying to recall more facts about the murder. To my surprise, he spoke of something quite unexpected.
John leaned against my car and folded his arms. “Well, sport, you were quite the celebrity the other night. Still warming in the afterglow?”
He was teasing me about my recent recognition at the community Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal church. Every year during this annual event, the town recognized someone who had given of themselves to the community. To my surprise and delight, I had been awarded the honor, despite what I believed had been a rather rocky start in my new job. It was a gratifying, humbling experience and had galvanized my determination to call Watervalley home and serve out my contract.
“Poke fun all you want, big guy,” I said. “It won’t change the fact that it was a wonderful moment.” The earnestness of my response took some of the sting out of John’s tone. He nodded diplomatically.
“And so it was. And I guess I would have to admit that it was well deserved.”
“Thanks, John. Saying that had to be painful. Quick, drink some more Scotch.”
John leered at me sharply, suppressing a grin.
“Besides, John, it wasn’t such a bad thing that the two of us made an appearance in church. Might be a good idea to try it more often.”
“Humph. You’re probably right, Doc. The only problem with church is that it doesn’t keep you from sinning—it just keeps you from enjoying it.”
I, too, leaned against the Corolla. John continued to rub his chin, pondering another question.
“So, Doctor, now that you’ve had your lionization, your moment in the sun, as it were, I hear you’ve decided to stay here among us mere mortals. You sure you’re not just going through a phase? You know, slumming to see what life in the sticks is like?”
“Wow, talk about cutting to the chase. You know, your veneer of Southern graciousness could stand a little polish, don’t you think?”
“Huh! Don’t try to outfox me by answering a question with a question. The last few weeks you had leaving written all over you. I could damn near smell it. Don’t tell me a little bit of celebrity changed all that?”
“You sound like you’re disappointed I’m staying.”
“Nah, good to have you here, sawbones. On the odd chance I get sick again, you can throw some pills at me. I was just wondering, what changed your mind?”
“You do know I signed a three-year commitment with the town so it would pay off my college loans? Only six months have passed.”
“Yeah, that’s all noble sounding, but I’m not buying it. We both know you’ve got inheritance money out there. I’m guessing something else lies behind your decision to stick around.”
John was referring to a modest trust fund left to me by my guardian after my parents were killed in an accident when I was twelve. “The money from Aunt Grace does not come into play for several years and I’d like to eat between now and then.”
“And what about the grants and research plans? You decided to give up those as well?”
I shrugged. “Sure, I still want to do medical research, but it doesn’t look like that’s in the cards right now.” In truth, John was right. My tumultuous first six months had brought me to the brink of leaving Watervalley. But for multiple reasons I had decided to stay. Still, John’s pushiness was odd.
“All right, Sherlock,” I said. “You’re just full of questions. What’s this cross-examination all about?”
John persisted with this line of interrogation, but something was off-balance. Although his words had the sharp air of inquiry, he seemed hesitant to press for information about my personal affairs. This wasn’t John. He was a man of wit and sarcasm who was normally blunt to the point of rudeness. Then it hit me.
“Oh. I think I get it. This inquisition wouldn’t have anything to do with your niece, would it, Professor Harris?”
John’s response was almost sheepish.
“Well, it might.” He knew I had read his mind. His awkward mix of apprehension and obstinacy revealed that he had found this inquiry difficult, that it had cost him to pursue these questions.
An elementary school teacher, Christine Chambers was smart, athletic, and had cast something of a spell over me. After living in Atlanta for the past eight years, she had recently returned home to Watervalley. She was a beautiful brunette and I’d been attracted to her the instant we first met. But I had nicely botched our early encounters. So, although we had known each other for months, the dance of initial courtship had moved at a glacial pace. More than I wanted to admit to either John or myself, Christine probably had much to do with my newfound desire to stay in Watervalley. I responded evasively.
“John, I’m surprised you’re asking,” I said. “A few months ago you wouldn’t even admit to me she was your niece.”
“Let’s just say the family and I have recently reconciled some past differences.”
“That’s good. So, are you the date police now?”
“Hardly, sport. Just curious, I guess.”
I shrugged. “At this point there’s not much to tell. We haven’t even gone out, not that I haven’t asked a time or two.”
I paused. John offered no response.
“But, yeah, that could be changing. After the Christmas Eve service she mentioned I should call her sometime.”
“So, what do you think?”
“About calling her, of course.”
“John, pardon me for sounding like Obi-Wan Kenobi, but I just felt a great disturbance in the Force. Are you seriously asking me about my dating life?”
John held up his hand in resignation. “You’re right, you’re right. It’s not my business. Must be the Scotch. I wasn’t trying to pry.”
“Ha! You’d need a crowbar to pry any harder. Look, I know that with her dad gone you’re the closest thing to a father she has. So, I take it you don’t object?”
“Object? To what? You going out with my niece?” John shrugged. “Don’t misread me, sport. It’s you I’m worried about. You’re the one who’s in over his head.”
I was taken aback. “Oh, you think so, huh? Seems unlikely I can be in over my head when I haven’t even jumped in the water yet.”
He nodded and folded his arms. “Give it time. You’ll see.”
“So I’m guessing she’s had a few callers in the past?”
John nodded. “Many have called. None have been chosen.”
I shrugged. “Well, pretty girl like her, it’s no surprise she’s had a few suitors along the way.”
“She has.” John paused for a moment. “And none of them suited.”
I grinned and we both stood silently. The odd conversation had played itself out. “Well, John, I’d love to stay here and listen to more of your clever responses, but I need to head back. As always, though, thanks for the heartwarming advice. I’m sure we’ll both be fine.”
John studied me for a moment, trying to read something deeper in my face, my words. “Just keep telling yourself that, Doc. I know you’re a grown man and all, but that one will have you all heartbroken and crying like a little girl.”
“Wow, John. You actually sound concerned. I’m not sure how to take this kinder, gentler you. I was just getting to like the crabby jackass version.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. Kinda makes me sick to my stomach too.”
I climbed in the car, shut the door, and rolled down the window. While starting the engine, I deliberated over John’s unexpected advice. He had leaned forward with both hands on the frame of the open window, almost as if he wanted to hold on, to keep me around to continue the conversation. I put the car in gear and turned to him.
“Good to see you, John. And don’t worry. I doubt love is in the air. But if it is, I’ll be sure to keep my windows shut.”
He grinned and stepped back, shaking his head as I drove away. As the car wound down the deep and desolate hills back to Fleming Street, my attention was drawn elsewhere. There beside me in the passenger seat sat the autopsy file, visible in the low glint of the dashboard lights.
Oddly, I had the sensation it was whispering to me, delicately casting its fragile voice into the air, pleading for me to draw closer and listen. Swelling curiosity was compelling me to know more, especially since the case involved my neighbor, the mischievous Will Fox.
I glanced at the file folder again, consumed with an unexplained desire to unravel this mystery, to bring light and understanding to the events of the past. I wanted to know more.
Will Fox filled my thoughts as I worked my way toward Fleming Street. Over the past months I had grown to like the little twelve-year-old boy who lived next door, despite his rather odd demeanor. He never seemed to play with any friends. He also had the unnerving habit of sitting on the metal fire escape attached to the side of his house and watching me anytime I was in my backyard. Still, my heart went out to him. I had lost my parents to a drunk driver at his age, so I understood something of his confusion and pain.
His father’s death had left Will and his mother, Louise, in lean financial circumstances. But Will, with his brilliant mind, had figured out a way to hack into the computers of several Watervalley merchants and credit his mother’s accounts as paid. In her grief over the loss of her husband, Louise Fox had spiraled into alcoholism and remained unaware of Will’s clandestine activities.
Events in the weeks before Christmas had brought the family’s problems and Will’s thievery to light. I had taken a late-night soul-searching walk downtown and had accidentally witnessed Will sneaking out of the alley next to the local drugstore. Earlier, Louise had apparently discovered him missing and, in her drunken state, had wandered into the backyard looking for him before passing out in the mud. Will had found her there and come pounding on my door for help. Later that night, through a flood of tears, he had confessed to the desperate measures he had secretly taken to help his grieving mother. From that moment forward, I was determined to do what I could to help them.
Now it seemed that Will was the last descendant of the man involved in Watervalley’s most infamous crime. On top of all their other troubles, Will and his mother had to live with the stain of this terrible legacy. Perhaps John was right. It appeared that much about the Fox family tended to exist under a shadow of misfortune, as if for some families the universe could never quite find a happy ending.
I existed in a world of modest financial ease with all expectations for a prosperous future. Yet across the low rock wall of my side yard and in full view of my everyday life were an unemployed mother and her son living with the crippling daily worry about where they would get money for food, and gasoline, and heat.
As I pulled into my driveway, I noticed that next door Will was sitting on the steps to his front porch. In the thick darkness, the porch light weakly illuminated his small form against the night shadows. He sat with his chin in his hands, wearing a heavy coat, and his bike helmet . . . a true oddity given that Will didn’t own a bike. I walked over to him.
“Hey, Willster, whatcha doing?”
“Um-hmm. A little cold to be sitting outside, don’t you think?”
Will smiled. “Yeah, I guess so.” He leaned forward and looked over at my driveway. “I see you’re still driving that crappy car.”
“Thanks for the reminder, I had almost forgotten.” It wasn’t the first time Will had taken delight in chiding me about my dilapidated Corolla.
“If you’d listened to me months ago, you’d have a girlfriend by now.”
I nodded. “Solid dating advice, I’m sure. Even if it is coming from a twelve-year-old.”
“The women in Watervalley aren’t dumb, you know. They take one look at your car and think, ‘Loser.’” He emphasized the last word by using his fingers to make an exclamation point.
“Okay, I get your drift.”
“Hey, just trying to be a friend here, Dr. Bradford.”
I had to laugh. Despite the weight placed on his small shoulders, Will was still a funny, fearless, and precocious boy. He had taken on the burden of protecting his despondent mother and remedying their bitter situation. I couldn’t help warming to him.
“Hey, listen. I’ve got to get going. Don’t stay out here too long. Otherwise, you know . . . cold, sniffles, frostbite, pneumonia . . . you get the idea.”
Pausing on my porch steps, I gazed back over at him. He sat alone, brooding, and lost, I suspected, to an imaginary world. I exhaled into the cold air and went inside. Connie and Estelle were waiting.
The two sisters were in a flurry of activity in the kitchen, laughing and bickering and talking nonstop. As we sat down to dinner, I asked what they knew of the Oscar Fox murder story. They could shed little light beyond what John had already told me. Our conversation progressed to a discussion about Louise’s predicament. Connie launched into an impassioned discourse.
“Her fool husband didn’t have the sense God gave geese. Estelle, honey, pass the limas.”
“Connie, dear, you know it’s not right to talk of the dead that way. Besides, geese aren’t so bad. Did you know they’re monogamous for life?”
Connie offered a tired sideways glance, ignoring her sister’s inquiry, and stayed on the attack. “I’d say it louder if I thought he could hear me. He always rode that motorcycle way too fast, and him a man in his forties. I know it was an accident, but he left Louise and that young boy without two nickels to press together. It’s no wonder Will turned to thieving to make ends meet.”
Estelle suspended her loaded fork in midair and turned to her sister. “Thieving? Will Fox? The little boy next door? What was he doing, pinching apples?”
“Hardly,” Connie responded flatly. Using her knife for emphasis, she directed her gaze toward me. “You need to let the good doctor explain that one.”
Barely paying attention, all I heard was the word “doctor.” I was in casserole nirvana, floating in an ecstatic calorie coma brought on by all the dishes prepared by the two sisters. This wasn’t just food; it was a love affair. I had become more emotionally involved with every bite. Connie’s bayonet maneuver with her knife refocused me. I gulped and spoke.
“Estelle,” I said, “it seems that Will kept the family finances afloat by hacking into the computer systems of local merchants and zeroing out his mother’s accounts each month. I don’t think she had the slightest notion what he was doing.”
“My, my. That’s just terrible, stealing like that. Think he could show me how to do it?”
“Estelle, girl, what are you thinking? You don’t have any business hacking into people’s computers.” Connie leaned to one side, attempting to look into Estelle’s ear, speaking sternly. “How many people are in there with you?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. I want to make sure no one hacks into my little business.”
Connie shrugged, returning to her food. “Emphasis on little.”
“Constance, don’t start all that again.” Estelle turned to me. “So, is the boy going to have to do hard time in the big house?”
At first I thought Estelle was kidding, asking such a naive question. I hesitated, glancing briefly at Connie, who had closed her eyes and was shaking her head. “Well, no. I, um, I worked out a deal with Sheriff Thurman for Will to make compensation for what he stole.”
“What Dr. Bradford means is that he paid off all the Foxes’ bad debts,” Connie injected.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Each Shining Hour
“Heart-warming, refreshing, and often amusing, this touching novel about a likable yet conflicted new doctor sent to a rural Tennessee town is a rare gem.”—New York Times bestselling author Karen White
“A young doctor, marking time until he can leave a somnolent farm town for the bustle of a big city, finds more excitement in Watervalley than he bargained for…Each Shining Hour kept me reading far into the night hours!”—New York Times bestselling author Ann B. Ross
“Heartwarming and tender, Each Shining Hour is a bright and lovely story.”—Lynne Branard, author of The Art of Arranging Flowers
Praise for More Things in Heaven and Earth, the first Watervalley novel
“[Jeff High’s] love of his native Tennessee and the human race shines from every page.” —Patrick Taylor, MD, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Irish Country Novels
“The best of small-town Americana…this story warmed me, made me laugh, and then kept a smile on my face.” —Charles Martin, New York Times Bestselling Author of Unwritten and When Crickets Cry
“One of the best books I’ve read in years…High has a gift for capturing the humor of small town life… [of] the joy and richness of living where your family has sunk roots deep into the soil. As I read this novel, I fell in love with Watervalley and its citizens.” —Southern Literary Review