After traveling to Bethesda for a mystery writers’ conference, Jessica Fletcher decides she’s earned a vacation and takes a train to Columbia, South Carolina, to visit her old college friend Dolores, who has recently married her third husband, Willis Nickens, a wealthy and cutthroat businessman. They’ve moved into an opulent historic home with plenty of space for guests, and Jessica is ready for a week of shopping, gossiping, and relaxing at the grand estate.
But the morning after she arrives, Jessica discovers Willis facedown in the koi pond, and despite what the police think, she’s sure foul play is involved. She hadn’t known Willis long, but it’s clear to her that he didn’t concern himself with making friends. The question isn’t if her friend’s husband was murdered but by whom.
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As I carefully made my way down the steps from the business class car at the rear of the Amtrak train, Dolores Nickens stood on the station platform waving both arms, her gold bracelets flashing in the bright South Carolina sun. The instant I stepped onto the platform she grabbed me in a crushing hug. I'm sure she pressed out a few of the wrinkles my tan linen suit had collected on the long ride south from Washington, DC.
"Jessica Fletcher! It's been far too long." She held me at arm's length and eyed me critically from the top of my head to the soles of my beige pumps. "My goodness, you never age!"
When Dolores started to lean in again, I took two quick steps backward to save myself from another colossal squeeze and said, "I can't tell you how sorry I am to have missed your wedding. By the time I received my invitation, my nephew Grady had already asked me to babysit while he and Donna went on an anniversary cruise, although their son, Frank, objects strenuously to the term 'babysitting.' He claims to be quite grown up."
"Ah, the young ones-if only they knew how fast the years go." Dolores tucked her hand into the crook of my arm.
"He's like the proverbial weed, already as tall as my shoulder. Anyway, no matter what his parents call it, he and I have agreed that my official title is 'the adult in the house' whenever Grady and Donna are away."
Dolores laughed. "That's so like you. Always quick with a diplomatic solution. Do you remember sophomore year when I roomed with Lila Huggins, that redhead who always just knew she would be a famous artist one day? When she announced she'd decided to paint a jungle mural complete with lush green trees and assorted wild animals on every wall in our tiny room, you, my dear Jess, saved the day and probably prevented me from lifelong recurring nightmares of cheetahs and panthers and what all."
"I merely told her that since she was going to be so famous in a few short years, she surely didn't want to waste her time and effort painting murals since they aren't portable. How could she leave her masterpieces behind once we graduated? I suggested that she paint her vision of the jungle on those superlarge canvases that were stored in the basement of the arts building. When fame hit she could have them shipped to galleries anywhere in the world."
"And three months later she changed her major from fine arts to psychology. Today she is a well-known Hollywood shrink, appearing on television talk shows all the time. Who knew?" Dolores chuckled.
A porter carried my luggage off the train and, without missing a beat in her nonstop reminiscences, Dolores led us to the parking lot.
She stopped in front of a snazzy red convertible and swept her arm across the hood. "Voilˆ! A Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. What do you think?"
I hadn't seen many like it. "Very fancy."
"A gift from Willis. I can't wait for you to meet my new husband. Do you remember all the bad boys I dated in college, not to mention the two charming but wicked men I ultimately married?" Dolores raised her eyes skyward and sighed at memories of the past. "Willis is so different. He may seem a little gruff at first, but once you get to know him he is a sweetie pie. It may have taken me longer than most, but I have found the perfect husband."
She popped the trunk, which, surprisingly, was in the front of the car. It barely held my carry-on, so the porter loaded the rest of my luggage in the backseat. I slipped a few bills into his hand and he tipped his cap jauntily. "Enjoy your visit, ladies."
"Elegant, isn't it?" Dolores said as she unlocked the car doors.
"Oh my, it certainly is." I burrowed into the passenger seat. "And so comfortable. Sometimes these fancy cars look a lot better than they feel."
"Willis constantly says there is nothing too good for his doll. That's me. I'm his doll. Seat belt on?"
I gave my seat belt a reassuring tug. "On and secure."
Dolores glided the car out of the parking space and headed toward the exit. "I always say there is nothing like a decent man and a flashy car to keep a lady smiling. So, what do you think, Jess?"
"I think you seem bubbly, energized. Happier than I have seen you in years. You are a totally different woman than you were at our last reunion. When was that, four years ago?"
"Just about. Right after husband number two emptied our bank accounts and ran off with mistress number ninety-eight or ninety-nine, whichever she was. Not a problem I will ever face again. Like any man, Willis has his quirks, but philandering isn't one of them. I can work around the silly quirks he does have. . . . Most of the time he treats me like a queen."
Most of the time? I didn't like the sound of that. I wondered what went on in the spaces in between.
Dolores chattered along. "Instead of taking Main Street to Route 321, I am going to wander off our path just a smidge and drive along Taylor Street. I can't wait to show you all the marvelous things Columbia has to offer. The art museum is exceptionally noteworthy-the children's room is really a treat. Then there's the Mills House and Gardens. And of course we must tour the State House. So much history. It wouldn't hurt us a bit to do some shopping in the lovely boutiques that are popping up all over downtown."
I was already tired from my long train ride, and Dolores's enthusiasm began to drain what little energy I had left.
"We can do all our girl talk and catching up while we wander around the city," she continued, "but all that is for another day. Here is our first and only stop. Look."
Look? Oh my, I couldn't miss it. Looming ahead of us: a gleaming silver fire hydrant standing taller than most of the surrounding buildings.
I gaped. "What on earth?"
"Welcome to Busted Plug Plaza," Dolores crowed. "I bet this is a first even for the well-traveled mystery writer J. B. Fletcher."
"It certainly is. I'm at a loss for words."
Dolores turned off the engine. "Dazzling, isn't it? Local artist and sculptor Blue Sky designed it. Jump out and I'll take a quick snap of you in front of the world's tallest fire hydrant. A picture will be all the evidence you need to prove to those Mainers in Cabot Cove that we Carolinians have a thing or two they can't match."
The size of the hydrant was hard to take in and I stopped a few feet in front of it. Dolores waved her hand, signaling me to move backward. "You have plenty of room. Plenty. I promise, even if you stand right underneath the lowest outlet cap with the thick chains hanging down, it would still be way above your head."
Dolores held her cell phone high. "Oh, too much sun. I'm going to move left. Can you turn to your right? Great. Stay there. Don't move."
For the moment I felt awkward, as I always do when asked to pose for a picture, but then I relaxed and smiled gamely. In a minute Dolores pronounced us done and hustled me back into the Porsche.
"Now, no more touring for you, young lady. I'll hit Main Street, which will lead us right onto Route 321 and out into the countryside."
"I must say, the last thing I expected was a gigantic hydrant. Who did you say designed it?" I asked.
"Blue Sky. Oh, he has another name, but around here he is Blue Sky, famous local artist. And the hydrant is forty feet high and weighs over six hundred thousand pounds. Can you imagine the work that went into designing and building it?"
I admitted I couldn't fathom it.
Dolores continued. "But now the treasure I want to show off is my home. Wait until you see Manning Hall. Built in the late 1890s, it is a replica of the old plantation that preceded it but was burned to the ground during the Civil War. The Ribault family owned it for generations but they fell on hard times, and luckily, Willis's star was in the ascendant. I never dreamed I would live in such a house. Why, it's almost a castle."
I leaned back on the headrest and smiled. Dolores had been through a lot of ups and downs in her life. More downs than ups, to be honest, so I was doubly delighted to see her so happy.
"And I have a grandchild." Dolores's voice softened. "Oh, Jess, wait until you meet her. Abigail is nine years old. Everyone calls her Abby. Such a sweet girl. And smart! She loves to wear her hair in braids, just as I did at her age. So we have that in common. Of course, she never got to meet her real grandmother. Willis's first wife died nearly twenty years ago, so I think she might have been longing for a granny. That's what she calls me-Granny Dolores. It's such a thrilling experience."
"And what about her parents?" I wondered out loud. "How is your relationship with them?"
Her excitement dropped a few levels. "Oh, that is a very sad situation. Abby's mother was Willis's only child, his daughter, Emily. She died from an aggressive brain tumor a few years ago. Very sudden. Very swift."
A worried note crept into her voice. "Emily's widower, Clancy Travers, has sole custody of Abby, of course, but he doesn't have Willis's resources . . ." She hesitated and then went on. "I sometimes think Willis's generosity is the only thing that keeps Clancy bringing Abby around to visit. It's . . . it's almost as if Willis is buying access to his only granddaughter."
"Well, however the access is granted, don't you think it's important for the child to have a relationship with her grandfather? Not to have one would be the real sadness," I said.
"I guess you're right." Dolores stopped to let a car pass before she made a left turn. "In any event, I can't wait for you to meet my new family. Would you mind opening the glove box and taking out the black and silver clicker?"
As I retrieved the clicker, Dolores made a sharp turn and stopped in front of an iron gate anchored by two decorative stone columns, replicas of ancient Roman pillars.
"Give the red button a push," Dolores said.
I did, and the two doors of the gate slid quietly apart.
The driveway curved immediately to the left. After a few yards, we turned to the right and Dolores idled the engine. "Manning Hall. Isn't it something?"
A quarter of a mile or so in front of us, a broad three-story brick house surrounded by a sandstone veranda rose majestically in a clearing bordered by trees flowering with pink and purple bonnets.
"It is indeed. And the trees! What are they?"
"Crepe myrtle. They are very common in South Carolina. I'm glad they bloomed a little early this year so you could see them. And we have a lovely sitting garden with lots of benches, and each section of plants is set off by those large white river rocks that sunshine seems to brighten over time. I know you enjoy a nice garden."
I smiled. "Yes, I do like to putter in my garden at home. Of course, in Maine we don't have as much gardening time as you do down here."
"That's true, I'm sure." Dolores switched back to talking about Manning Hall. "Willis said that the moment he saw the house, he knew he wanted it to be our home. So he made an offer on the house and asked me to marry him all on the same day. That's the kind of man he is. Some would say brash, but I think he's a hardworking go-getter. That's how he has managed to be so successful in business and in life."
Dolores accelerated slowly and again came to a full stop. "Let's get out here. I want to show you my one contribution to the landscape."
As I opened the car door, I heard small splashes.
Dolores hurried around the front of the car to show me a square pond edged by broad timber beams and surrounded by low-lying bushes. "This is my koi pond. All the gardens on the property are so formal and still. I wanted something happy, lively."
We stood side by side and watched dozens of multicolored fish swim around, sometimes circling one another, sometimes going off on their own. One chubby orange-striped koi stopped midpond and seemed to stare at us for a few seconds before continuing on its way.
"Why, this is lovely, Dolores. What made you think of it?"
"When Willis bought the property, the driveway was way over there." She waved her arm vaguely to the left. "He thought that a driveway coming from this angle would be, I don't know, more attractive and would enhance the value of the property. I always wanted some sort of fishpond, and since they were digging up this whole area anyway . . . I met with the landscape architect and he advised a koi pond. Willis agreed, and here are my sweet beauties. Just watching them gives me such a peaceful feeling."
The fish were mesmerizing. I had to agree that watching them was extremely relaxing.
After a few moments Dolores said, "We'll have plenty of time for quiet contemplation by the koi pond over the next few days. And as you can see, the sitting garden is right along here, leading from the pond to Manning Hall. But now let's get you up to the house and settled in your room."
That sounded perfect to me.
We drove the short distance to Manning Hall, and before Dolores finished parking the car, the wood-and-glass French doors of the house opened and a slim young woman wearing light blue jeans and an oversized pink T-shirt bounced down the front steps to greet us.
Dolores popped the trunk. "Marla Mae, this is my dear friend Jessica Fletcher, who'll be staying with us for a while. Would you please see to her luggage?"
Marla Mae gave me a big, toothy grin. "Welcome to Manning Hall, Miss Jessica. So nice to see Miss Dolores entertaining a longtime friend." Then she hoisted my suitcase and travel bag and started up the steps to the house.
I went to reach for the travel bag, but Dolores put her hand on my arm. "It's fine. It's her job."