With the first annual antique car show cruising into the tranquil bayside oasis of Fairhope, Alabama, there are bumpy roads ahead for Harbor Village director Cleo Mack. As an automobile-themed lecture series gets off to a rough start, she finds herself balancing one too many responsibilities-and dodging advances from a shady event sponsor. It's enough to make Cleo feel twice her age. But the festivities reach a real dead end when she discovers a body at the Royale Court shopping center...
When an innocent man lands in the hot seat for murder, Harbor Village residents look to Cleo to crack the case. Aided by an eclectic group of energetic seniors, Cleo races to identify the true culprit from a growing list of harmless Sunday drivers-before a killer revs up for another hit and run!
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.52(d)|
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I had been at the office of the Henry George Utopian Tax Colony in downtown Fairhope for ninety minutes, and my head was spinning with terms like leases and flow-throughs and demonstration fees. All my questions were answered and I was ready to get out of there and back to the Harbor Village office a few blocks away, but Terry Wozniak, acting president of the Colony, as it was known, was still talking and I didn't want to be rude.
"You should take our class, Ms. Mack. Great opportunity to learn about our little town." Wozniak sat behind a battered desk, shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow, a gray wool vest unbuttoned. His short, dark hair looked freshly cut. "Henry George thought we would fail, you know. Never even came here."
He bent toward me as if he were about to tell a dirty secret. "Too busy running for mayor of New York. Beat out Teddy Roosevelt but still lost." He leaned back again and adopted a smug expression.
"What would he think if he could see little Fairhope today?"
I leaped into the opening.
"That is an interesting question, isn't it?" I hopped out of my chair before he could start a new sentence, gave him a big smile, and stuck out my hand.
"I must let you get back to work, Mr. Wozniak. Thanks so much for taking time to explain the tax procedures to me."
Wozniak tried to delay me but I sensed freedom and kept moving. He followed me, a big man but moving nimbly through the tight space. We wound around the glass partition and into the sparsely furnished front office, where he stopped at the old beadboard counter.
"Always glad to meet newcomers, Cleo. Now, you'll want to take our class. You'll meet lots of Fairhopers. Eight weeks, one night a week. I can sign you up right now and save you a phone call later." He rolled a pencil between big, fleshy fingers, just itching to add my name to the list on his clipboard.
I shook my head and smiled as I folded my notes and pushed them into the outside pocket of my shoulder bag.
I had no intention of signing up for any class. The history angle might be interesting but I was still learning a new job and, anyway, single tax theory? That was economics, I was pretty sure. Turn of the century economics at that, and I meant the nineteenth century.
"Let me think about it." Trying to be polite was my first mistake.
The second mistake came as I turned toward the exit. I paused to look at the photographs. The walls and partitions and windows were covered with big, bright posters announcing Fairhope's first Grand Concours, the antique automobile show only days away.
Behind me, Wozniak made a grunt of annoyance. "You sound like a student."
That didn't seem fair! "Well, I just learned about it a minute ago, Mr. Wozniak. I'll have to go back to the office and check my calendar."
He rested his elbows on the counter, leaned so that his face came close to mine, and gave me an evil grin. "And what day you gonna check, hon? What month?"
"Oh. Well." I smiled, embarrassed. "You're right. I did sound like some students I've known. Sorry. I'm going to check the day you're about to tell me."
He was an okay guy, in a curmudgeonly way, just bored to death here, all by himself. Eager to talk and flirt with anybody who stopped by, and today that happened to be me.
Curmudgeons were my specialty these days, but in my former life, as a professor of social work, I'd known lots of students, too. It'd been just four months since I took early retirement and moved to Fairhope, Alabama, the most charming little village on the Gulf Coast. I'd planned to enjoy life, travel a little, take up a new hobby like painting or quilting, maybe find a part-time job. But things had worked out differently and here I was, Executive Director of Harbor Village, a sprawling community for active retirees that happened to be built on property belonging to the Henry George Utopian Tax Colony, which explained why I came to be in this office in the first place. 'Twas the season for property tax, and the Harbor Village tax bill — or rent bill, as it happened — had arrived with a bang.
"Monday nights." Terry Wozniak plunked a bright yellow flyer on the linoleum countertop and slid it toward me. "Seven until nine, beginning the second week in January. The exam's in March."
"There's an exam?" Ugh. I picked up the flyer and glanced over the course description.
"Yes, ma'am, there's an exam. And you have to make at least seventy. Most people don't. Not the first time."
My heart sank with a crash. "Sounds fascinating." By which I meant a step above horrid. I tried not to grimace.
But Wozniak pressed on. "Why don't you invite me out to do a little talk for the Harbor Village folks? Like you're doing for this car show. You've got a lot of newcomers out there. Surely some of them want to learn about Fairhope history."
I was glad to hear something I could agree with. "Great idea. We try to have some type of educational program every week or two."
Visiting lecturers were a new project, one I got credit for even though Charlie Levine and the kitchen staff did all the work. I took another step toward the posters on the wall. One showed a gigantic black-and-gray automobile, with a uniformed driver standing beside the open-air chauffeur's compartment. I wondered if it would even fit into my garage. Another poster focused in on a voluptuous white fender with a single headlight recessed behind a curved chrome grille.
"Fifty-three Corvette." Wozniak was staring at the poster, a wistful expression on his face. "First year of production. Always wanted one of those."
He gave me a flirty smile, his dark eyes sparkling and busy. "I guess every kid did. What do you drive, Cleo?"
I laughed. "Nothing interesting, I'm afraid. A four-year-old Prius, inherited from my husband."
"He moved up to an SUV, I bet. Men don't like those little cars."
"I'm afraid he's no longer with us. The Prius was almost new when he died, and he liked it very much."
Wozniak smiled at me in a way that made me regret my candor.
"Sorry to hear that." He moved a step closer. "When does your lecture series begin?"
"Tomorrow night. Why don't you come?"
That wasn't going to help things. What was I thinking? I needed to get out of there without encouraging him. I tried again:
"Everyone's invited. And while you're there, you can talk with Mr. Levine about giving a lecture. His committee arranges for our speakers."
He took a business card off the counter and looked at it before passing it to me.
"You tell him we need to get it scheduled before the holidays. The class begins in January." He paused. "We could talk about it at dinner tomorrow, before the lecture. If you're not already spoken for." His brows went up in query.
I shook my head immediately. "No, not available. Sorry." Was that clear enough? I slid the card and the canary yellow flyer into my bag, alongside the notes from our discussion, and wiggled my fingers in good-bye. "I'd better run." That was the truth.
"I'll be looking for you in class," Wozniak called after me. "Come early, so you get a good seat."
A bell on the door tinkled as I let myself out. Whew!
The day was sunny, the temperature almost seventy, even though we were a week into November, and Fairhope Avenue was rumbling with activity. City crews had taken over the block, setting up barricades around their work trucks. One man in a cherry picker leaned out into the branches, coordinating with men on the ground to wrap strings of lights into a street tree. An engine whined as he maneuvered the bucket up and down.
On the ground nearby, a man in an orange jumpsuit took big red poinsettias off a truck and passed them to a coworker, who plunged them, pot and all, into the flower bed beside the crosswalk. Charming little towns didn't come easy.
I looked in each direction and jaywalked to the Prius, tossed my bag into the passenger seat, and drove down the hill for a quick peek at Mobile Bay before I headed back to the office. With the sun setting earlier now, I'd been missing my walks on the pier at sunset.
I circled around the fountain and rose garden and pulled into one of several vacant parking spaces. The bay was bright blue today, with just enough wind to set the surface sparkling in the midday sun. Lots of people were out walking, but there were no sailboats on the bay and no ships in the channel, so far as I could see. The bird condos looked forlorn with the purple martins gone south, but farther out, gulls and brown pelicans looked like lamp finials, standing atop every channel marker. The city of Mobile was just a pale bump on the horizon.
I sat there a couple of minutes, letting the serenity seep in the way it always did. Then I backed out and drove up the hill.
The town clock indicated lunchtime. I might've stopped at Andree's, my favorite of several little cafes and delis, but there was another bucket truck out front, bracketed by orange traffic cones, and the line of cars looking for a parking space wound back through the intersection. I drove on. If I went straight to the dining room at Harbor Village, I might still get some lunch.
A few more blocks and I turned onto Harbor Boulevard, its median dotted with flowers and palm trees. With the administration building looming ahead, I took in the pastel apartments, the five-globe lamps, and heard the gulls laughing in the parking lot. A soft glow of happiness spread over me as I swung into my assigned space in one of two community garages. From there it was a short walk back to the dining room, where Carla and Lizzie served just one meal a day, Monday through Friday. As I walked, I congratulated myself for coming here.
Charlie Levine's voice echoed down the hallway. I turned into the dining room and saw a dozen residents sitting around the long table.
"Most of these show cars are better than new," Levine droned, his back to the entrance. "Polished under the hood, slick leather upholstery. The judges go over them with white gloves, even use mirrors on poles to inspect the bottom side. Reg will tell us all about it."
Reg would be the visiting lecturer, I assumed. Nita Bergen, my first Fairhope friend, caught my eye and smiled. She sat beside Levine and across the table from her husband, the security-conscious naval officer who always sat facing the door.
"Cleo!" Jim boomed when he looked my way. "You're late!"
The Bergens were past eighty, Nita tiny and birdlike while Jim was well over six feet and rigidly erect. Both still had an abundance of silvery white hair, which Nita wore in a smooth, pageboy style. She indicated the vacant chair beside her and I nodded, walking on toward the steam table, greeting other diners along the way with smiles or comments or a pat on the back.
Dolly Webb was a retired mathematician from DC who'd known my husband Robert — technically, my second husband — professionally. That little connection, plus her friendship with the Bergens, had formed an immediate bond between us. At the moment, Dolly was boxing up the remains of her lunch.
I patted her shoulder and she gave me a little wave. "Delicious soup, Carla. What did you call it?"
"Minestrone." Carla, Harbor Village's young cook, ran a slotted spoon around the green beans and shook out some liquid before reaching for the empty plate I held out. Pendant lights above the steam table reflected off her small butterfly nose pin. "It's basically vegetable soup with pasta added."
She plopped the last of the green beans onto my plate, dropped the spoon into the pan, and passed it to Lizzie, her helper, who scurried off to the kitchen.
My neighbor Ann, in the seat next to Dolly, pushed back her chair, stood, and laid her knitting project on the seat. "Come sit down, Cleo. I'll scrape the food trays and serve you the dregs. Carla can get us drinks. Who else wants a refill?"
Carla took a quick inventory and darted away, and Ann continued the minestrone conversation while she served my plate. "It has to have some kind of beans. They give soup a nice body."
I'd never know. The soup pot was already empty. Lizzie unplugged it and took it to the kitchen.
"I could give you this." Dolly looked at me and tapped her to-go container. "I've eaten out of it, but I don't think I have any bugs."
I held up a hand and shook my head as I passed by.
Ann Slump, one of the few Fairhope natives living at Harbor Village, was small and thin and quick, with short, red hair. Not only did she teach knitting and crochet at our art and craft room, but she also went into town regularly to work at the knit shop she'd turned over to her niece a couple of years ago.
In addition to her other projects, Ann had adopted the Harbor Village dining room, earning the gratitude of all residents. It looked as if she might succeed in turning Carla into a good cook. I saw them together every day, hosting an endless kitchen party where they tested recipes, devised menus, and baked, always in a cloud of laughter. Even Jim Bergen dropped by occasionally, but only as a taster, I was sure.
I pulled out the chair beside Nita and she leaned toward me. "The dressing was delicious."
Jim, sitting across the table, scraped his chair back and got up clumsily. "You're right, Nita, it was. I think I'll get seconds."
"Too late," Ann crowed. "It's gone."
"Oh, divide it with Jim," I told her.
She grumbled, but when she delivered my plate she had a second one for him. There was cornbread dressing with gravy and roasted chicken, green beans, and a thick maroon sauce containing cranberries and little orange-colored wedges.
"The kumquats came from that bush by your porch," Ann told me. "Maybe you saw me picking them yesterday."
"No!" Nita barked abruptly.
I jumped and looked at her.
She sat rigid, staring across the table. "Jim! Cleo hasn't eaten. You had a big lunch already."
Jim gave her an embarrassed grin but hovered over the little plate and picked up his fork.
"It's fine," I assured Nita. "I'm not very hungry."
She shook her head, still glaring at her husband.
I whispered, "You're going to give him indigestion."
She relaxed and laughed a little. "Myself, maybe. Not Jim." She patted my knee. "Busy day?"
"You're not working Saturday, are you?"
I shook my head. "I hope not. Why?"
"I'll tell you later," she whispered back.
Mr. Levine was watching me, waiting to regain the attention of his audience. "I've been telling people about our speaker, Reg Handleman. We grew up together. He worked in automobiles his whole career. Still edits books and consults with museums, all over the country, I understand."
"And gives lectures," Jim said between bites.
I wasn't too excited about the upcoming automobile show, but I didn't broadcast the fact. I told Charlie, "I'm looking forward to his talks." And I was, in fact. I'd enjoyed every speaker we'd had so far. Maybe this one would measure up, too.
Carla handed me a glass of iced tea and waited until I took a sip. I nodded to her. Some days the unsweet got contaminated with sweet, but not today. Carla went back to work and I asked Charlie Levine, "The first lecture is tomorrow?"
He gave a series of slow nods. "Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Seven o'clock in the ballroom."
That reminded me of Terry Wozniak's business card. I got my bag off the chair back, fished the card out of the side pocket, and passed it down the table to Charlie. "He wants to give a talk about Fairhope history. Sometime soon."
Levine read the card, nodded, stuck it in his shirt pocket, and went back to cars. "This year's a trial run. The plan is to rival Amelia Island in five years and Pebble Beach in ten. Personally, I think we'll make it before that."
He was referring to the country's two big automobile shows.
It seemed that all of Fairhope was suddenly obsessed with automobiles, even the residents of Harbor Village. People were dragging out old photograph albums, telling stories about suicide doors, or describing how they'd learned to drive with a floor shift. Jim Bergen had made up a list of every car he'd owned. Buicks and Cadillacs tied for first place. Charlie Levine had told us how his father couldn't tell the front from the back of Studebakers in the late forties. And inspired by all the car talk, Dolly Webb had gone out and purchased a sporty little lime-green convertible.
"I've been at the Henry George Colony this morning," I said at the next lull in conversation. "I see they're sponsoring the show."
Mr. Levine scowled, which made him look like Alfred Hitchcock. "Along with the Grand Hotel and Airbus. And the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa. Plus a few others I'm forgetting. This is a really big deal, you know. Really big."
"Don't forget the polo club." Jim leaned back, his plate empty. "Out there manicuring their grounds right now, I suppose."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder at Royal Court"
Copyright © 2019 Gail Gardner.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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