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I was running late. Wednesday morning was our weekly real estate office meeting and attendance was required. And we were expected to be on time. So, of course, it was this morning my alarm decided not to function.
I stood at the sink, swallowing coffee and stuffing papers into my briefcase. My devoted husband Dan Dunham, chief of police of our little Central California town of Santa Louisa, sat at the kitchen table calmly spooning cornflakes into his mouth, watching me.
"I like that dress. It's the same one you wore the day you came back to town, isn't it?"
I nodded, put my cup in the sink and smiled. "You remembered."
Dan smiled back. The smile I loved so well was framed by a neatly trimmed salt and pepper mustache, and his blue eyes were sparkling. "I'm a policeman. I'm trained to notice things."
Maybe so, but the way he looked at me had nothing to do with police work. It was the reason I was drinking coffee with no cream or sugar — one of them, anyway. I counted calories for both of us. Once you left forty behind, pounds seemed to accumulate overnight. I wanted Dan to keep looking at me just as he was doing now. I wanted to enjoy my view of him as well. Which wasn't hard. Tall, light brown hair dusted with just enough gray to make him look distinguished, short, straight nose and a mouth made for smiling; he was a sight to make any woman smile back. Especially in his navy blue boxers.
I thought, briefly, of the difference between him and my not in the least lamented ex-husband, Dr. Brian McKenzie. Brian would never have remembered a dress I wore unless he had been complimented on his wife's good taste. Then he would have assured the compliment giver that he'd picked it out, implying I didn't have much taste. His idea of a compliment was to tell me the gray in my dark brown hair didn't show. Much. Or that the pants I thought fell so nicely over my still size ten hips bunched a bit around the waist and had I thought about going on a diet. I'd wondered, more than once, what he said to his many little "friends."
I snapped my briefcase shut, put my cup in the sink and, car keys in hand, started for the door.
"Oh, Susannah called," Dan said, maddeningly calm.
I skidded to a stop. "Is she all right?"
Susannah, my daughter from my first marriage, had decided to follow me up north and was now going to college only a couple of hours from our small town. I was, of course, delighted. I was even more delighted when she and Dan became good friends, but I worried. She was a grown woman — I knew that — but somehow, to me, she was still the little girl who had needed a lot of mothering. That she'd matured into a beautiful and self-sufficient woman was hard to accept. However, I felt blessed by her easy acceptance of her, and my, new life. Her father, who despised small towns and sneered at those who lived in them, seemed surprised she would choose to live in such a backwater instead of Newport Beach, in the huge house he still kept there, but if he was disappointed he got over it quickly. Or perhaps he didn't want her around when he brought home those little "friends."
Life here suited me fine. I'd grown up in this town with Dan next door. After high school we'd gone different directions — me to UCLA, where I met Brian, and Dan up north, where he became a policeman. Now we were both back, living in the house where I grew up and loving it. Susannah seemed equally happy with the arrangement, coming home frequently. I would have loved to think it was because she missed me but my washing machine and her boyfriend, Neil Bennington, were probably the main attractions. I didn't care what her reasons were, as long as she kept coming back.
"Is she visiting this weekend?"
"No. Midterm exams are starting and she won't be back up for a couple of weeks," Dan said. He put down his spoon and grinned. "Oh, I almost forgot. Could you put some money in her account? Seems she needs supplies." The grin got broader.
"I'll call her after my meeting," I said. Before I could exit, the door opened and my Aunt Mary burst in. She is one of my mother's four sisters, and the only one still residing in Santa Louisa. I'd practically lived at her house growing up and since I moved back to Santa Louisa, we'd grown even closer. She is a ball of energy for a woman in her seventies even if she is growing rounder every year thanks to her love of cooking.
"You'll never believe what happened," she said, breathless and holding onto the kitchen island for support.
I was too surprised to answer. I couldn't help but notice that Aunt Mary's white hair stuck out in little tufts as if she'd just climbed out of bed. Maybe she had. Those had to be pajama bottoms that hung below the cuffs of her sweatpants and the collar that curled crookedly over the top of her lipstick-red sweatshirt was surely her PJ top. Her feet were encased in lamb's wool lined moccasins and she wasn't wearing socks. My aunt Mary came up with some pretty bizarre outfits sometimes, but she'd never appeared with uncombed hair and in her nightclothes before. At least, I didn't think she had.
Dan also dropped his newspaper and stared, but he managed to recover more quickly than I did. Probably his police training. "What's happened? Is anyone hurt?"
"Not yet." She walked over to the hutch, took down a coffee mug and proceeded to fill it, leaving Dan and me to stare at each other. She pointed at the coffeemaker. "You'll need to make another pot, Ellen," she said.
She carried her mug over to the table, pulled out a chair and sank into it. "I'm going to Virginia."
Briefcase and office meeting forgotten, I carried my cup over to the table and took my regular seat, opposite Dan. "Say what?" Aunt Mary never went anywhere.
"My friend, Elizabeth Smithwood, is in some kind of trouble and I'm going to Virginia to help her."
Dan blinked then almost smiled. "In your pajamas?"
"Of course not. Whatever gave you — oh." She glanced at the cuff of her pajama top, which had slipped out from under her sweatshirt arm, but ignored it. "Elizabeth is going to send me an airplane ticket and wants my email address. I don't have one, but you do, don't you?"
Of course she didn't have an email address. She didn't have a computer. "Yes. We both do. But before I give it to you, will you please tell me what's going on?"
She poured cream into her coffee then ladled in sugar, taking her time as she stirred. It looked as if she was trying to figure out how to frame what she was about to tell us. "You remember my friend, Elizabeth, don't you? My old college roommate?"
Dan shook his head.
I did. I'd never actually met Elizabeth but had grown up on stories about her. Elizabeth, the activist. She'd gone on to get her PhD after she and Aunt Mary graduated. Aunt Mary came home to teach Home Economics in our local middle school and marry my uncle Samuel, a pillar of the community and president of Rotary Club. Elizabeth had gotten a job teaching history in a small college in Wisconsin and spent her summers saving old-growth redwoods, painting baby seals green so they couldn't be slaughtered for their pelts and registering voters in the south during the civil rights movement. Aunt Mary and Uncle Samuel had bailed her out of jail for that one. She'd lived with William Smithwood, a mathematics professor at the same college, for years without benefit of holy matrimony. Until last Christmas. They'd been married only a couple of weeks when he died, leaving her an old plantation in Virginia. What kind of trouble could she have gotten herself into now? I was pretty sure I was about to find out.
"Elizabeth says strange things have been happening at Smithwood ever since William died and now she thinks she has a ghost. He appears in Colonial dress, and last night he tried to kill her."
Dan's coffee cup hit the saucer but my eyes were glued on Aunt Mary.
Had I heard correctly? "Say again? A ghost? A colonial ghost? Where? What happened to make her think he-it tried to kill her?"
"He pushed a crate over and it just missed her."
"A crate. What crate? How could a ghost push a crate?"
I gave Dan my most disdainful look. There was no ghost. I had no idea what Elizabeth saw, but it wasn't a ghost. "Where was she when this happened?"
"I'm not sure. She wasn't very clear. She sounded scared, though. She said she needs someone she can trust and who has a clear head. So, I'm going."
I looked at the determined set of her chin and the steel in her eyes and knew there was no arguing. I turned toward Dan and raised my eyebrows.
He sighed. "Mary, I don't know what's going on out there, but it doesn't sound good. As a matter of fact, it sounds bizarre. Exactly what does Elizabeth want you to do? Capture a prowler? That's most likely who it is. Why doesn't she call the police? They're a whole lot better equipped to handle something like this than two ladies in their seventies."
"I don't know. I only know she's scared and that's not one bit like Elizabeth. I couldn't go help her when William died, but I can go now, and I will. Now, can I have that email address?"
Aunt Mary had missed William's funeral because she was helping with Dan's and my wedding. We're both on our second marriages. His ended because his wife and two-year-old son were killed by a drunk driver, and mine, because my ex wanted different things from life, and at some point I had stopped being one of them. Dan and I saw eye to eye, and it was wonderful to be appreciated again. Guilt sat on my shoulders. I had no reason to heed it. After all, it wasn't my fault William had died right before my wedding day, but I knew that made her doubly determined to help Elizabeth now.
What should I do? Go with her, of course.
"You're not going out there alone."
She gave me a scornful look. "I don't need a babysitter, you know. I can take care of myself just fine."
"You never go anywhere. Suddenly you want to fly from California to Virginia all by yourself, changing planes I don't know how many times, so you can help your friend chase a ghost, who's probably a common burglar, out of her house? The whole thing is idiotic, but if you're determined, well, I'll go too."
"You'll do no such thing. You have a real estate business to run, a husband and a daughter to take care of and a cat to feed. You can't come."
I opened my mouth to say something, but Dan got there first. "Mary, Susannah is at the university studying for finals. At least, we hope she's studying. I managed to eat just fine before Ellen and I got married and the cat doesn't care who opens the cat food as long as it gets in his dish. As for the real estate, let's ask Ellen." He looked at me expectantly.
"I took care of Donna's business last summer while they went to Hawaii. She owes me. Besides, we won't be gone too long. I don't know what your friend saw, but it shouldn't take long to straighten it all out. You two can have a nice visit while I —" the look on her face said I'd better change pronouns and fast — "we work it all out. We'll be back here before you know it."
She gave a loud "humph," but I thought there was a little relief in her eyes.
"I'll email Elizabeth right now and we'll see what travel arrangements she had in mind."
"Better call the airlines yourself." Dan picked up his paper then put it right back down. "I'm not sure I like this. Maybe I'd better come along. It's not a good time, though. I'm hosting the California Sheriffs' conference next week. I could get Kent Walker from Sonoma County to sit in."
"No," Aunt Mary and I said in unison.
"I'm sure this will prove to be nothing, and you've been planning this conference for months." I smiled.
Aunt Mary didn't look so sure. "Elizabeth doesn't panic, but I can't imagine a ghost prowling around her hallways, and I've never heard of one tipping over crates. Ellen's right. It's bound to be someone playing a silly prank. We'll get it all cleared up in no time."
"Hmmm. All right, but if this turns out to be anything serious, I'll be on the next plane."
I got up, took the slip of paper she handed me with Elizabeth's email address and headed for the computer. "Let's see what she has in mind."
"She wants me to come Saturday."
"Saturday?" I wheeled around to stare at her.
"Saturday!" Dan almost spat out the word. "What's the damn rush?"
"She doesn't want to be there alone if the ghost comes back."
I thought Dan was going to fall out of his chair. "This is the most ridiculous ... Ellen, you tell her to call her local police right now."
"I'm not sure I can get everything arranged by Saturday." I might as well have been talking to a wall.
Aunt Mary got up and headed for the coffeepot. "Do you think it's too soon to start packing?"CHAPTER 2
The airport was small, even smaller than San Luis Obispo's, and filled with people, almost all in uniform. They seemed cheerful enough as they crowded around the luggage carousel. More cheerful than I felt. We'd caught the first flight out of San Luis Obispo, waited in L.A. an hour for our next flight to Philadelphia and almost missed our connection to Newport News. A light flashed and the conveyor belt started to move. Luggage came out of a chute and fell onto the moving belt. My eyes were glued on it. We'd made our connection. I wasn't sure our luggage had.
Aunt Mary paid no attention. She kept looking around the terminal. "Elizabeth's not here." She tugged at the hem of her cranberry wool jacket, trying to pull it down farther over her best — actually her only — pair of gray pants. She'd bought that jacket at St. Mark's fall rummage sale, definitely one of her better buys. She'd called me up after the event, riddled with guilt because as the organizer, she felt she shouldn't buy anything until the very end, after all the best items were gone. But the jacket was to her liking, her size and only two dollars. Did I think she should put it back for the next rummage sale? No. So, she kept it and it looked nice.
"What if something happened and Elizabeth doesn't come? What will we do?"
Never forgive her. I wasn't about to say that aloud. "You have her cell number. We'll call if she doesn't appear soon. Is that your suitcase?"
Her suitcase came sliding down the chute, much to my relief. I'd advised her to tie a ribbon to the handle so she could find it easily. She had followed my suggestion, choosing a bright blue plaid ribbon. Before I could get there, she leaned forward and grabbed it, heaving it up and stepping backward. I could only watch as her heel landed on someone's foot.
"Oh. I'm so sorry." She turned to look into the face of the silent man who had sat beside her from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.
"No problem." He winced a little and stared down at the toe of his once immaculate black loafer. "That your bag?"
She nodded. He took hold of it and set it upright, facing away from him. "You might want to get a cart."
She looked over at me, a little lost. "It has those little wheels."
He nodded and looked toward me as well. "Yes. Are you with someone or is someone meeting you?"
Was he afraid he'd get stuck with the old girl? I started toward her but my own case slid down the ramp and I hurried forward to grab it. I turned just in time to catch her reply.
"My friend, Elizabeth Smithwood. I don't see her, but I'm sure she'll be here soon." She took another look around the terminal, which was emptying rapidly.
"Smithwood?" For a moment his expression lost its neutrality, but not long enough to be read. What had I seen, surprise, annoyance? Impatience, definitely.
"Yes. Do you know her?"
The man's eyes darted around the terminal then settled back on Aunt Mary. "I hope you enjoy your stay," he said. Suitcase trailing behind him, he headed for the terminal door, paused and headed for a side door. A sign above it proclaimed, "Rental Cars."
"Friendly sort." I parked my suitcase next to hers and gave the place a once-over. I was beginning to feel concerned. The terminal was almost empty. The fading light said it was getting late and so did my growling stomach. What would we do if Elizabeth didn't show up?
A tall, angular-looking woman rushed into the building, clutching a straw hat onto her head. A long gray braid hung down her back and a full denim skirt swirled around her legs, which were covered with bright red stockings. Her face had a sculptured look — high cheekbones, straight, strong nose, large gray eyes that seemed to take in the whole room, and a very determined chin. Elizabeth.
She came toward Aunt Mary at a gallop. "Mary."
Aunt Mary beamed. "We made it." She gave Elizabeth a hug then held her at arm's length. "You look great."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder by Syllabub"
Copyright © 2013 Kathie Deviny.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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