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"Before we go in"-I raised my voice to be heard over the thunderous wind-"I think we should say a few words. It's an important day. Wouldn't it be nice to mark the occasion with a little ceremony?"
Four of us huddled in the doorway of the former Granite Building. My roommates, Bruce and Scott, positioned closest to the front door, turned to me with bemused expressions. Scott pointed out toward the street. "It'll pour buckets any minute and you want to conduct a ceremony?"
Anton Holcroft-the fourth member of our small party-nodded vigorously. My roommates and I had only recently come to know this sturdy, elderly man, but his vast experience in the hospitality industry had earned him a key position in our new venture.
"Our Grace is correct," Anton said, also raising his voice. "Today marks the beginning of a new life for this building and a new adventure for us all. Regardless of the elements, before we cross that threshold, it is fitting for us to say a few words."
Bruce jangled the building's keys. "Then I hereby call this meeting of Amethyst Cellars's board together. Do we have a quorum?" He glanced around, grinning. "Looks like all are present and accounted for. Grace, you have the floor. Make it quick."
With all eyes on me, I hesitated. I'd made the spontaneous suggestion without expecting to be called upon to deliver. Filled with the spirit of camaraderie, however, I spoke from the heart. "As Anton said, we're embarking on an exciting adventure. This is new for all of us. No doubt it will be challenging, but I hope we always remember to have fun. And as long as we work together, I'm sure we will." Wrapping a hand around Bruce's, I dragged the keys up high between us.
Scott and Anton raised their hands to join ours.
"Together?" I asked as we stood with our hands clamped above our heads.
"Together," they chorused.
A hard burst of thunder accompanied our declaration, shooting rumbling reverberations beneath our feet and encouraging a hasty retreat. Bruce pulled the keys back down and, fumbling, tried fitting one into the scuffed lock. He tried a second, then a third key, before one slid home.
"Whuh-oh," Scott said as the sky opened up and the predicted buckets came sluicing down.
Bruce turned the key, grasped the knob, and yanked open the antique door.
"Woof!" I said as we scurried in. Two seconds longer and we would have been drenched.
Anton closed the door behind us, shutting out the noisy storm. Rubbing his hands, he ran his gaze up and down the massive foyer. "Well, here we are," he said, his words bouncing hollowly against blank walls.
Dark and dank, the entryway featured an elongated oval interior that narrowed at the far end. Like a teardrop without the sharp point. Our footsteps echoed as they scuffed along the fifties-era mosaic tile floor. The space smelled of damp metal and old dust. I shivered as a chill seeped in through my shoes.
"Wow." As my eyes adjusted, I reached out to run a gloved finger along the tiled wall. "The place that time forgot, isn't it? What color is this? Avocado?"
Bruce skirted past us. "Let me get the lights." He disappeared around the far corner.
"Midcentury at its finest," Scott said. "It's actually closer to sage, thank goodness. We can work with that if we have to."
The entryway flooded with light. Bruce called out to us, "Did I get it?"
"Yep. They're on," I called back.
Anton cupped a hand against the side of his face. "See if you can kick on the heat, too, while you're there," he shouted to Bruce. Turning to me and Scott, he added, "Who would expect such brisk temperatures this time of year?"
He was right. Emberstowne, and indeed most of the state, shivered in the midst of a prolonged cold spell. It was April, for goodness' sake. After teasing us with a few weeks of spring, Mother Nature had decided to shoot rainy, chilly weather our way. I'd lived through much worse growing up in Chicago, but here, April temperatures were expected to be mild, bordering on warm.
"This is your first visit to the building?" Anton asked me as I made a small tour of the sage-tiled teardrop. "I'm surprised."
"I had every intention of touring the place before we took possession," I said, continuing to examine the area. Scott was right. The glass tiles lining the walls from floor to ceiling were a good color to work with, given Amethyst Cellars's established color palette. The sage would serve as a lovely counterpoint to the cherrywood furniture and violet crystal accents. "Unfortunately, however, family matters ate up a good deal of my free time these past couple of weeks."
I didn't explain further. If Anton had heard anything about my sister's crimes and federal conviction, he'd been supremely tight-lipped. If he hadn't heard, I'd be obliged to tell him the unpleasant truth about Liza at some point.
More pressing, perhaps, was how I planned to deal with her going forward. I'd recently gotten word that she'd be released within thirty days. That call had come in almost a month ago and I still hadn't tied up all my loose ends. But I refused to allow any negativity to intrude on today's celebratory mood.
Bruce rejoined us. "What do you think, Grace?"
At the center of the teardrop, high above our heads, hung a multitiered chandelier so blanketed with dust it would have looked at home in Disney's Haunted Mansion. Although it practically begged for a good scrubbing, the place gave off a cool, kitschy vibe. Lots of potential here.
"I love it already, and I've only taken ten steps in," I said. "I can't wait to see the rest."
There were three doorways leading deeper into the building from the wide foyer. The ones to the right and left opened to identical musty rooms about fifteen feet square.
"We think this is where they invited guests and visitors to wait. Salespeople and the like," Scott said.
I poked my head into each one in turn. "Big rooms."
"Everything was bigger back then," Anton said. "Architecturally speaking, that is."
Opposite the front door, at the teardrop's narrow end, a tiny reception area boasted a dusty, waist-high countertop.
"Check this out," Scott said as he took up a position behind it. "Is this a perfect place for our host stand, or what?"
"Perfect," I said with a smile.
"We'll have to spruce it up a little, of course," he said. "Make a few changes."
"A little?" Bruce cough-laughed. "How about a complete redo?"
"True." Scott didn't stop beaming. "And eliminate the crud, of course," he added as he ran the tips of two fingers along the countertop, then promptly sneezed from a kicked-up cloud of dust. "Too bad there wasn't a dirt discount."
I ran my fingers along the wall again, then glanced at my grimy glove. "If there was, the bank would have had to pay you to take this place off their hands. I've never seen dust this thick." I made a so-so motion. "On second thought, maybe I have in a few of Marshfield's forgotten rooms. But this really is something."
"How long has the building been abandoned?" Anton asked as we made our way, single file, past the reception area into the heart of the structure.
"Fifteen years, at least," Bruce said. "When the glass factory closed up shop."
"Wow." I cleared the threshold to find myself in an expansive industrial space that stretched the entire width of the building. "This place is huge."
Bruce stretched out both arms, walking backward. "Can you believe it?" he asked. Exposed brick walls, concrete floors, and high ceilings combined to soften the acoustics. "With a basement." Broadening his arms, he pointed toward two open stairways at the building's far ends.
"You'll change the lighting, I assume," I said, looking up.
Bruce frowned at the fluorescent fixtures. "Ya think?" He glanced around. "At least we have some natural light."
In addition to the multipaned windows that lined the three brick walls, four oversized, cobwebbed skylights dotted the beamed ceiling. I could imagine how lovely they'd be on a sunny day. Once they were clean, that is. "They seem to be watertight," I said as thunder shook the building again.
"They are," Bruce said. "According to the building inspector."
Scott and Anton had meandered away, heading toward the building's north end. They were too far for me to hear their conversation, but I could tell from their body language-pointing and nodding-that the two men were enjoying themselves.
"This is wonderful," I said to Bruce. "Have you decided where you'll locate the wine-tasting area, and where you want the restaurant?"
He shook his head. "We hope Anton will give us guidance there. He's managed so many successful venues, I know he'll have great suggestions to maximize space, efficiency, and atmosphere."
I tucked my hands into my hips. "This is even better than I imagined."
"I take it that you're not regretting investing with us?" Bruce asked.
"Not for a moment." Now that I was beginning to warm up, I tugged at my gloves to remove them. "Can I see the rest of the place?"
"Of course," Bruce said. "Wait for us," he called to Scott and Anton, who had stopped dead at the top of the stairs. Something in their body language sent a jolt of panic to my gut.
The two men didn't answer. There was no chance they hadn't heard Bruce's shout. A second later, still ignoring us, Scott rushed down the stairs. Anton held a hand over his mouth and quickly followed behind.
Bruce and I looked at each other, then hurried to join them.
A woman lay at the basement landing. Face up, her arms were spread high and wide, looking as though she tried to signal a touchdown. With softly coiffed, thinning white hair, she appeared to be in her mid-sixties, perhaps older. Her eyes were closed, her expression mild, her lips faintly blue.
Bruce gasped, "It's Virginia," as he brushed past me.
She wore a red blazer with a mandarin collar. Scott reached in to feel for a pulse, but even from three steps up, I knew.
He sat back, shaking his head, and covering his mouth. When Bruce crouched next to him, Scott's eyes were wide. "She's dead," he said.
Anton, looking shocked, turned to me. "Who is Virginia?"
Though I'd never met the woman in person, my roommates had talked about her often enough. "Virginia Frisbie," I said. "She works at the bank."
The older man frowned. "A terrible accident."
I'd already pulled out my phone. "I'll call Rodriguez." I had the detective's number on speed dial.
"Rodriguez?" Bruce asked as I started up the stairs to get a better signal. "But he's homicide."
Anton, glancing between us, chimed in. "You can't believe someone killed her," he said. "It is obvious she fell down the stairs."
"I'm sure you're right." I pressed the phone to my ear. "But I'd rather have Rodriguez make that determination."
Rodriguez snapped photos of the scene while we waited for Flynn, his partner, and the police forensic team to arrive. Rodriguez had stationed two uniformed officers at the Granite Building's front door and had asked Bruce, Scott, Anton, and me to step back from the immediate area while he took pictures and scribbled notes. Anton kept the farthest distance.
While we watched, Rodriguez peppered us with questions. He jotted down specifics about the time we'd arrived and how long we'd been in the building before we'd found her. "And you're certain of her identity?" he asked.
Bruce and Scott said that they were.
"We will confirm, of course, but for now, I'd like to know as much about her as you can tell me. Any idea how long Ms. Frisbie worked at the bank?" he asked.
Bruce turned to Scott. "What did she say? Thirty years? Thirty-five? I can't remember."
"Thirty-eight, poor thing." Scott tilted his head to look at her. "She was about to retire, too. At the end of the month." Facing Bruce, he said, "She was twenty-seven when she started work there as a teller. She was very excited to have finally turned sixty-five."
Bruce nodded. "That's right. One afternoon while we were stuck waiting for her boss to get out of a meeting, she told us her entire life history. Didn't she plan to move to Oklahoma to be with her daughter and new grandchild?"
"Grandchildren," Scott corrected. "There's another one on the way."
"Virginia married?" Rodriguez asked.
"She's widowed," the guys answered together.
Anton withdrew deeper into the basement even though we'd widened our perimeter around the base of the stairs to give Rodriguez room to move. The detective didn't seem to mind us sticking around as long as we didn't interfere.
This lower level stretched the full length and width of the building, but lacked the high ceilings and industrial panache the main floor offered. This was a stout, damp-smelling space chock-full of heavy equipment. Aisles of piles. Like a grocery store of junk. All covered in thick dust.
I tried to imagine how Virginia had fallen and landed face up. Perhaps she twisted in a vain attempt to right herself as she tumbled. Sixty-five years old seemed about right. She had on a silky blouse beneath her red jacket. Wandering a little closer, I noticed that her sleeve cuffs were slightly frayed. Her black polyester pants looked as though she'd hemmed them herself. Both of her soft-soled, sensible shoes were still on her feet.
Behind me, in the shadows, Anton dragged a wooden crate out from beneath a cluttered table. He offered a seat.
"I'm fine," I said. "I'd rather watch."
He sat down and mopped his head with a plaid handkerchief.
Scott shot me a worried look before sitting next to the elderly man. "Are you okay?" he asked.
Anton offered a weak smile. "I am what you call squeamish." He held the patterned cloth near his eyes as though to block his view. "I prefer not to see."
"Maybe it would be better for you to wait upstairs," I said, pointing to the second stairway at the basement's south end. "Would that be all right, Detective?"
Rodriguez was crouched near Virginia's head, one hand gripping his phone, the other hanging limp by his knee. There would have been a time when the middle-aged detective wouldn't have been able to lower himself to the floor without risking injury. After a near-fatal heart attack, the once-portly cop-though he would never be slim-had lost at least half his weight.
"Go ahead," he said without looking up. "I may have questions for you later, though, so don't leave."