Queensville has great expectations for their Dickens Days festival. A tourist-trade boon boom means a big turnout for the opening of Queensville Historic Manor and for Jaymie Leighton, food columnist and vintage cookware collector, a chance to promote the manor and give away homemade goodies. At the end of a long day of festival fun, Jaymie discovers the battered body of local woman Shelby Fretter.
Shelby predicted her own murder in journal entries—and all clues point to Cody Wainwright, the troubled son of Jaymie’s beleaguered newspaper editor. But considering the entire Fretter family had its share of dirty secrets, Jaymie’s not convinced by the case against Cody. With twists all over, she’s going to have to work like the Dickens to wrap up this investigation before Christmas—especially with the real killer ready to kill again.
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BARE FINGERS NUMB from the cold, Jaymie Leighton snipped one last branch from the holly bushes that lined one edge of her backyard, dropped it into the wicker basket and clambered to her feet. December in Michigan: sleety, snowy, frosty, foggy, damp. In turn, but sometimes all at once. At least there was no snow yet, though she was always torn between the joy of watching the first flakes of snow drifting lazily down in spiral paths, and the horror of driving in whiteout conditions and shoveling her walkway and part of the yard so little Hoppy, her three-legged Yorkie-Poo, would have a spot to do his business.
The gallant little fellow was shivering in the open door on the summer porch off the back of the house, vigilantly watching Denver, her crabby tabby, slip through the wrought-iron fence dividing her backyard from the lane that gave her access to parking in her garage. The cat ambled up the flagstone walk. Jaymie carried the basket into the house, made sure Hoppy and Denver were both in, then securely locked up. She set the basket on the long trestle table that was centered in her very vintage kitchen and grabbed an old white enamel colander rimmed in red. She stuck a square of floral oasis in the center with a dab of hot glue, unplugged the hot glue gun and eyed it thoughtfully.
She was making a festive holiday decoration for the Hoosier cabinet that was the focal point—along with the new gas stove—of the kitchen in Queensville Historic Manor, now open and doing nicely in the weeks before the Christmas holiday. Dickens Days in the village had begun, a time when strolling carolers and folks selling packaged homemade goodies made money for the heritage society. This year was especially exciting, with the opening of the heritage manor that would eventually act as a Queensville museum, of sorts. The plan was for artwork and displays that would show the history of their town and its maritime heritage—the St. Clair River was a part of the major shipping route into the heart of North America, the Great Lakes—as well as its connection to Canada. Queensville was named for Queen Victoria, just as Johnsonville on the other side of the river, in Canada, was named for President Andrew Johnson.
Holding her breath, she plunged the end of the first holly branch into the oasis and worked from there. She was not the craftiest of women; her bailiwick was cooking, especially using vintage utensils and old recipes. But sometimes one needed to be a Jill of all trades. She worked steadily with the fresh holly and ribbons.
“What do you think, Hoppy?” she asked her inquisitive little Yorkie-Poo as she pushed the last beribboned bundle of cinnamon sticks in place. She had adorned the holly branches with tiny cookie cutters in the shape of stars and gingerbread men, embellishing her masterpiece with fragrant cinnamon sticks, then finishing it with a rustic plaid bow.
Her little three-legged dog yipped and danced, and she smiled. She could always count on Hoppy to approve. Denver grumbled, sighed and turned around in his wicker basket by her old gas stove, the warmest spot in the kitchen.
“And now to cook!” she said.
She needed some sweet treats to sell to make money for the Queensville Heritage Society’s ongoing projects. Thanks to her ingenuity in finding a treasure and solving a murder last spring, they had received a sizable donation in the form of a historic letter that sold at auction for over a million dollars. With that money the society had bought the manor and were refurbishing it back to its mid-nineteenth-century glory, with a few rooms done to turn-of-the-century and Depression-era standards. Much of the windfall money had been prudently invested. The fiscally responsible in the heritage society wanted to run the manor with money from donations and entry fees, as well as whatever society members could make. Dickens Days was the second moneymaker of the year, with the May “Tea with the Queen” event as the first.
So Jaymie was making treats for Dickens Days attendees, some to give away and more to sell. She had investigated nineteenth-century desserts and was overjoyed to find out that brownies were a thoroughly American treat. They were invented by a chef at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago for Mrs. Bertha Palmer, who wanted a lunchbox treat for ladies who came to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. “Well, Mrs. Palmer,” Jaymie said, as she melted chocolate and beat eggs, “your chef hit it out of the park. What does a lady need other than tea and brownies?”
Hoppy yipped in answer, and Jaymie chuckled. “You, sir, are neither a lady nor are you allowed to have chocolate!”
She had been chuckling a lot in the last weeks, and contentment swirled through her. She should be heartbroken because Daniel Collins, her boyfriend of several months, had unceremoniously dumped her for his old flame, Trish. In fact they were already married. Jaymie had gotten an email from him just a week ago, and had sent him a card of congratulations. Jaymie wished them nothing but happiness. She felt the same about Detective Zack, who had also found love after his move from the local police force to a more challenging position with the Detroit police. She seemed to be good luck to the men in her life, as they all found their proper partner after being involved with her.
Her present level of comfort and joy was due to a man she had recently met, Jakob Müller: a lover of antiques, junk store owner, proprietor of a Christmas tree cut-it-yourself lot with his parents and father of an adorable little girl named Jocelyn. She sighed. He was the man she had never thought she’d meet, someone who loved where he lived and enjoyed being surrounded by “junk,” as her mom and sister, Becca, named all the stuff from bygone eras with which she surrounded herself. In fact, his huge store, formerly a factory, was called The Junk Stops Here; how perfect was that? He owned a piece of land, too, once part of his parents’ farm, and had built a log-cabin-style home.
And here she was, sitting and mooning about Jakob instead of working. She would not get ahead of herself, she thought, smiling and shaking her head. She had begun to think she needed to just relax and not worry about romance, but that was before she banged on Jakob Müller’s front door in a moment of panic, and practically fell into his arms.
She tuned the radio to a station playing Christmas music nonstop and hummed as she made brownies, a double batch since she was going to Jakob’s log cabin for a late dinner with just him and Jocelyn and wanted to take some along. It was something to look forward to. With Daniel there had been doubt, with Zack nervousness, but with Jakob there was peace, like a light switch had been flipped on in her soul.
After lunch she was on her way to Wolverhampton, the closest big town, to pick up pamphlets with full-color photos of Queensville Historic Manor. Those of the heritage committee members with harmonious voices would be carol singing through town starting the very next night. Jaymie didn’t sing, but garbed in Victorian cloak she would hand out treats and historic home pamphlets.
Tourists would flock to Queensville this weekend for the Christmas sailboat regatta and other Dickens Days festivities. The pamphlet she gave them would encourage them to also visit the Queensville Historic manor just outside of town. The manor was almost ready, dressed up for a real old-fashioned Christmas. There would be carol singing at the candle-topped spinet, and a fire would be blazing cheerily in the hearth as historical interpreters went about their business. Jaymie, when she could, would be in the manor kitchen baking gingerbread men and sugar cookies.
Since she wrote a food column called Vintage Eats for the Wolverhampton Weekly Howler and was on good terms with the owner and his wife, Nan Goodenough, she had struck a bargain with them. They had printed, at cost, the glossy color pamphlets, which she had written, and for which Bill Waterman, local jack-of-all-trades, had provided photos, and Jaymie was picking them up. She drove through town past the Queensville Emporium where Valetta, her best friend and the village’s pharmacist, stood on the porch, her hands wrapped around a steaming mug of tea. Jaymie waved, and Valetta waved back. Jaymie was scheduled at the Emporium the next morning so the Klausners could go Christmas shopping and visit one set of great-grandkids in Mount Clemons.
She arrived at the Howler in Wolverhampton in fifteen minutes. The paper published from a long, low old factory building, constructed of red brick in the thirties to house an appliance manufacturing firm and converted to a printing company in the sixties. That went out of business in the nineties as the electronic age began to take over. Joe Goodenough, a newspaperman, was crazy enough to buy it and convert it to a small town weekly early in the two thousands as a retirement hobby with his second wife, Nan.
Jaymie parked next to her editor’s little blue sports car and circled the building, entering through the glass front door, the buzzer indicating her admission. The receptionist who was usually seated behind the front counter was absent, so Jaymie lifted the pass-through and strolled through the door to the carpeted offices beyond the public area. She turned in the direction of Nan’s brash New York voice engaged in a heated conversation.
A young man hollered, “You don’t know her, Mom. Give her a freaking break, will you?”
“I know who and what that girl is,” Nan yelled back. “As if you don’t have enough trouble in your life, you have to pick up on a sleazy little piece of trash like that?”
Jaymie hesitated, one turn away from seeing the two, evidently Nan and her son in an argument.
“Screw you!” he yelled back.
There was the sound of a scuffle, ending with a dull thud, and Nan screamed. Jaymie bolted around the corner in time to see the two separated but glaring at each other. Nan’s suit jacket was mussed, the shoulder hitched up as if her son had grabbed her. She leaned against the wall and stared up at him. The fellow was tall and lanky, with light brown hair worn collar length. He was disheveled, but Jaymie immediately recognized him; she had seen him around town more than once, and not in good circumstances. He whirled when he heard Jaymie and stared at her as if he didn’t see her.
“Are you okay, Nan?” Jaymie asked, slowly approaching, eyeing the son.
The editor straightened, smoothed her reddish hair, coming out gray at the roots, off her forehead, and settled her jacket on her slim shoulders. “I’m fine. It’s nothing, just a disagreement. Jaymie, this is my son Cody Wainwright. Cody, this is one of my writers, Jaymie Leighton.”
He turned back toward his mother. “I can’t believe after everything I’ve been through you’re not cutting me some slack,” he growled, his voice shaking with emotion. “I’m happy for once in my crappy life. But you don’t want that, do you?”
“For once in your crappy life? Do you know how easy you’ve had it, how—” She broke off and shook her head, with a side glance at Jaymie. She turned back to her son and in a deliberately calm voice said, “Cody, I want you to be happy. But Shelby Fretter is not good for you. If you knew what her family was like, how often that name pops up in my newspaper and on the police blotters—”
“Just like me, don’t you get it? She’s told me how you’ve hounded her family. I know all about your vendetta against the Fretters. No one ever gave Shelby a break, just like me!” He whirled and stormed past Jaymie, but stopped and turned back and pointed at his mother. “You’ve never been there for me, but I didn’t think you’d sabotage the only good thing in my life!” He disappeared around the corner and the door buzzer sounded as he left the building.
Jaymie turned to Nan. The older woman’s face was blotchy and tears welled in her eyes. She forced a trembling smile and said, “You did come at a good time, didn’t you? Sorry about that little display. We’re a family of shouters.”
Jaymie considered Nan a friend as well as a boss, and reached out, touching her shoulder. “Don’t think twice about it. You look like you could use a cup of tea. Can you take a break?”
She shook her head. “Everyone’s celebrating one of the printers’ birthday in the break room with cake. I said I’d cover the front office. Come on out there and have a coffee with me. I’ll have the guys get you your pamphlets and we can settle up.” Sighing, she tried again to tame her wiry hair. “That boy will be the death of me some day!”
Several minutes later, sitting in an office chair behind the reception desk, a cup of stale coffee in front of her, Jaymie watched Nan work on the reception computer, scrolling through news stories of the day, making note of important political news as well as world events as she spoke to Jaymie. She clicked on a Missing poster on a social media site. “That poor girl still hasn’t been found,” she said, pointing to the screen, which showed a photo of a beautiful young woman along with the day she disappeared and her personal data.
“We put up Natalie Roth posters at the Emporium a couple of weeks ago. Any news?”
Nan shook her head. “She just disappeared, no leads. I spoke to Detective Vestry about it, and all she’ll tell me is that there are no signs of a struggle in her apartment.”
Jaymie shook her head. “The family must be frantic by now.”
“I can’t imagine. You know, speaking of kids, Cody has had a rough go of it,” she said, scrolling down the page, returning to the subject foremost in her mind. “I downplay it because he never missed anything tangible, not like I did. I grew up dirt poor, but Cody and Mandy, my daughter, went to private schools, had the best of everything. But he’s the youngest, my baby. By the time he was a teenager my marriage was beyond rocky. His dad and I fought all the time. I was angry, impetuous, moody. Cody takes after me, believe it or not. He just came to live here in the summer after some trouble out of state, but he can’t seem to get it together. I was hoping he had, but this Shelby girl . . .” Nan sighed and shook her head. “Her whole family is trouble.”
“Does that necessarily mean she is?”
“I guess not, but with so many nice girls out there, why did he have to choose a Fretter?”
Jaymie understood what she meant. The name, locally, was synonymous with lawbreaking and fighting authority, because the children—there were four of them that Jaymie knew of—were always getting into trouble. Parents whispered that anything was better than their kid “going Fretter.” It didn’t mean that Shelby was a lost cause, but though Jaymie was playing devil’s advocate, she had her own qualms about the relationship. She knew what perhaps his mother didn’t, that he was already in deep. Just days before, Jaymie had seen the couple arguing. Cody had lashed out, striking Shelby hard.
JAYMIE CHOSE NOT to tell Nan what she had seen of Cody’s behavior. Her editor was already worried enough. Twenty minutes later, with the box of pamphlets on the passenger seat, Jaymie headed back to Queensville, troubled by Nan’s worried expression. But the editor was a strong woman, and her son’s life was his own, to screw up or fix, whichever worked out. She just hoped for everyone concerned that Shelby Fretter and Cody Wainwright broke up; from the outside it looked like a toxic relationship.
At home she spent the afternoon researching recipes for her last Vintage Eats column before Christmas. She wanted it to be festive, but it had to be vintage, too. Her grandmother’s handwritten recipe book, a small three-ring binder with a well-worn black leather cover, was on the trestle table and she carefully leafed through it. It was old, from the late forties, fifties and into the early sixties. Some of it was actually falling apart, but turning the pages was like stepping back into her grandmother’s life in this very house, in the Queensville of that time period. Young Lucy Armitage Leighton, newly married, cut out recipes and wrote others down in long hand, earnestly planning meals for her small family. Jaymie’s dad, Alan, was grandma’s only child, but he had clearly been the light of her life, and still was!
The handwritten recipes were most interesting; she wrote in an elegant sloping cursive, and labeled the recipes, some as “family gems” that Jaymie assumed were passed down to her by someone else, perhaps her mother-in-law, the great-grandmother Jaymie had never met. The old binder contained magazine clippings of dresses, too, and crafts. It was a Leighton treasure, and Jaymie felt fortunate that her grandmother had entrusted it to her.
One recipe clipping in particular interested her. Advertised as “no-bake fruitcake,” it combined evaporated milk with candied fruits, marshmallows, crushed vanilla wafers and gingersnaps. What woman getting close to Christmas wouldn’t want to be able to whip up a no-bake fruitcake? Jaymie had heard it said that family was like fruitcake; it wasn’t the same without a few nuts. She smiled and set the recipe aside with her grocery list to try it out on the weekend. It would become her next column for the Wolverhampton Weekly Howler.
Her smile died, though, as she tried to erase Nan’s anxious expression from her memory. Jaymie felt like she was a late bloomer. Other women seemed to have it all together, while she was still figuring it out. One of those who had it all together, in her opinion, was Nan Goodenough, a tough New York editor who had started, Jaymie knew, as a newsroom intern straight out of high school in the sixties and went on to move up through the ranks until she was managing editor of New York Metro Life magazine before retiring and entering into a second marriage with Joe Goodenough. Until this morning, Jaymie had thought Nan invincible, tough as nails and unshakably confident, but now she had seen the editor’s vulnerability. It left her wondering, how much of what she took for granted about those she knew was just veneer? What happened when that surface was scratched?
Her cell phone rang and she picked it up, glancing at the call display. “What’s up?”
Heidi Lockland, fiancée of Jaymie’s former boyfriend Joel, often called for advice, saying there was no one she could trust more than Jaymie. She babbled for a moment about something Joel had done to anger her, then got down to business. “You know the Dickens Days stuff going on?”
“Of course. I’m on the planning committee.”
“I was thinking of wearing the gown I had made for the Tea with the Queen event in the spring,” she said. “But it’s way too summery. Should I wear it? What can I do?”
Jaymie held the phone away and looked at it, then brought it back up to her ear. “Heidi, what are you talking about?”
“I’m going to be strolling with the singers tomorrow night and I want to wear a costume, but the ones the heritage society has given us are just plain awful. I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those hideous woolen coats, so I was thinking of wearing my dress, but it’s December and pretty cold.”
Jaymie bit her lip. Just when she needed a lift from fretfulness, there came Heidi! “Stop worrying. Even one of those woolen coats couldn’t make you look anything less than ravishing. And the whole idea is that the carol singers look similar, you know? Like something out of a Dickens novel.” Silence. This was not going over well. “Heidi, it’s December. In Michigan. And you’re always cold!”
Jaymie stifled a sigh and thought for a moment. “How about this: wear the dress. But go out to the manor. In the attic there’s a trunk with some red velvet cloaks trimmed in white fur. Wear one of those with some boots and you’ll be warm enough. Instead of singing, we’ll get you to hand out samples of the food we’re selling at the manor and the band shell.” Heidi was charming and pretty, sure to be a hit. She was also a truly lovely person on the inside, and kids seemed to adore her. It was actually a great idea. “That way you’ll be on your own, and the star attraction! Everyone loves free food.”
“I could carry an adorable basket filled with goodies!” she exclaimed. “Jaymsie, I just knew you would have an answer!”
“Glad I could help.” Jaymie had no sooner signed off than the phone rang again. It was Valetta.
“You do remember that you’re working tomorrow at the Emporium, right?”
“Val, seriously, when have I ever forgotten to come to work?” Valetta wasn’t as bad as Becca in the nagging department, but on rare occasions she did “mother” Jaymie. Valetta, Becca and another friend, Dee Stubbs, all fifteen years Jaymie’s senior, had gone to high school together and hung out as teenagers. Jaymie and Valetta were now true friends, bound by common interests, a shared work space in the Emporium and a love of Queensville, but every once in a while the older-sibling vibe came out in her tone.
“Okay, so you’ve never forgotten to come to work or one of your volunteer duties. But you sure are walking on clouds lately, and I thought you might develop love-amnesia.”
Jaymie felt her cheeks burn. That served her right for gushing about Jakob after going out with him on the weekend. Valetta was never going to let her live it down. “I’m not in love,” she said severely. “I just like him a whole lot.”
“Like, love, whatever. You’re in deep, kiddo, I can tell. Can’t say I blame you. If I had looked over the whole world, I don’t think I could have planned a guy better for you than Jakob Müller.”
Jaymie was silent. She had a sudden jolt of fear. Love had never come easy for her, and as Val had noticed, she felt far too much already. Should she pull back? Was she letting her emotions run away with her? Everyone warned her that her fondness for romance novels meant that she was impractical and expected too much from real-life relationships. But she believed she had a levelheaded outlook on real-life romance. She had lost at love and lived to tell the story. And yet . . . if something came between her and Jakob, it would cut much more deeply than her previous disappointments.
Taking a deep breath, she settled herself. “Thanks, Valetta, but so far we’re just friends. Please don’t get ahead of me.”
“I won’t push, I promise.”
“And don’t tell Becca anything yet! I’ve only just met the guy. I don’t want anyone running off and planning a wedding for me. I’m taking this as it comes.”
Valetta was silent for a moment, then said, “Jaymie, honestly, do you think I’d blab to Becca? I thought you knew me better than that!”
“I’m sorry, Val. I do know you better than to think you’d discuss this with her or anyone else, for that matter!” Because Valetta was a bit of a gossip, everyone thought she spilled every bit of news she heard, but the opposite was true. As the town’s pharmacist, she kept close to her vest most information and could be trusted not to leak anything important. Her gossip was confined to what was already known, or what had been publicly witnessed, and she heard far more than she spread.
“All right, then. See you tomorrow morning!”
Jaymie wrote out the no-bake fruitcake recipe, cut and packaged the cooled brownies, popped some in a tub to take to Jakob’s and raced up the creaky stairs, followed by a wobbly, chipper Hoppy, who yapped excitedly. What was she going to wear over to his house this evening? She wanted to look nice, but not like she was trying too hard. She’d need to be able to get down onto the floor if she ended up playing with Jocelyn. The child was adorable, but eerily mature. Maybe it seemed even more so because a form of dwarfism kept her tiny, more like a three-year-old in height than an eight-year-old. But Jakob did not baby her. Calm self-possession seemed her normal demeanor even in a moment of crisis like the one that had sent Jaymie to Jakob’s doorstep on a cold, black November evening just weeks before.
Jaymie tried on leggings and a long burgundy sweater, then changed into a long skirt and blouse, then changed back into the leggings and sweater. She regarded herself in her mirror and sighed. Her bottom was starting to widen again, something she was self-conscious about. She couldn’t decide if the leggings and long sweater made it better or worse.
Denver had climbed the stairs and sat in the middle of her crazy quilt glaring at her, his expression as annoyed as always. Though she wasn’t completely sold on having the animals sleep with her—Denver sprawled, taking up more than his fair share of the bed, and Hoppy snuffled and snored, lone front paw jerking with excited doggie dreams—Jaymie had finally caved and had Bill Waterman build a set of custom doggie stairs carpeted in pale blue for Hoppy. Now he could wobble up the stairs onto the bed and try to cuddle up to Denver, who grumpily put up with the little dog’s affectionate nature.
“You’ll have the house to yourself this evening, Denver,” she said over her shoulder. Hoppy was coming out to the log cabin with Jaymie, since she wanted to introduce Jocelyn to her little dog.
But right at that moment she still had more work to do. She threw on a pair of jeans and a sweater, trotted downstairs and grabbed her keys and the colander centerpiece she had crafted. She was going to take the box of pamphlets over to where they would be stored, at Bill Waterman’s spacious workshop-slash-tool museum behind Jewel Dandridge’s repurposed vintage shop on the main street. The sharp bite of frosty air made her rethink her sweater and jacket, but as she locked the back door of the summer porch behind her, she decided if she just hustled, she’d warm up. She hastened down the flagstone path, closed the wrought-iron gate behind her, revved her rattletrap van, turned up the wheezy heater and pulled out of her parking space, down the lane and into the heart of town, just moments away.
Queensville was swiftly earning a reputation as a vintage and antique mecca. There was Jewel’s Junk, which featured funky finds and repurposed stuff. Jewel also created pieces out of “hurt” vintage items, thus there were kitchen utensil wind chimes and teacup bird feeders, among other rebuilt and made-over items. Just down from Jewel was another vintage furniture store, Cynthia Turbridge’s Cottage Shoppe, which sold shabby-chic furnishings and décor suited to the cottages that lined the banks of the St. Clair River on both sides of the border, as well as Lake St. Clair and beyond.
There was a rumor going around town that a mystery woman had bought a small cottage opposite those two shops and would fill it with more elegant antiques, including china, crystal, silver and jewelry. Only Jaymie and Valetta knew that the mystery woman was actually her sister, Becca, who was planning a store to hold much of her stock, as well as the gorgeous and stately antique furniture that would grace a more elegant home, like the Queen Anne they jointly owned. She ran a china-matching service out of her home in London, Ontario, a few miles inland from the lakes, but thought retail in Queensville would be a good extension and allow her to buy and sell even more. Her husband-to-be was another antique aficionado and loved old electronics, like Bakelite radios and vintage televisions, so the shop might sell those, too.
Jaymie parked along the curb, set aside a stack of pamphlets to take on to the manor house and give to other vendors, and grabbed the heavy box, toting it awkwardly up the walk, past Jewel’s shop and back to Bill Waterman’s workshop, the size of a small barn, with a high rusty corrugated tin roof and barn wood walls. He had the big double sliding barn doors open as ventilation, and was bent over a paneled door on a sawhorse, painting pungent liquid stripper over it, the surface bubbling and crackling. He glanced up, saw her, and laid a sheet of plastic wrap over it, then grabbed a rag, wiping his hands swiftly.
“Jaymie, let me get that!” He was a big fellow, tall but slightly stooped, and with graying whiskers sprouting along his jaw and out of his ears. He usually wore overalls, but in deference to the frigidity of the weather, today wore a one-piece long-sleeved work coverall in dark blue over a thick sweater that peeked out of the top. His eyes were shrouded in wrinkles, but they were a bright winter-sky blue, and twinkled in the right light. He insisted on carrying the box for her and led her to an enclosed room, the warmest, driest part of his shop, where he stored his most valuable tools. Once inside, he set the box of pamphlets on a shelf, where it would stay for the duration of the Dickens Days festivities. He grabbed a spare key from a hook and handed it to her, saying, “I set this aside for you. Keep it safe. And don’t lose it! Only me, you and Jewel have a key, besides the spare. That way you can come get more pamphlets whenever you need them. You ordered more than this, I hope?”
As she added the key to her key chain, she followed him back out and waited while he locked the big padlock on the inner door. “Actually, I didn’t. I guess if things go as well as we plan, we’ll need more. A thousand seemed like a lot at the time.”
They moved to the front of the shed again, and then he carefully peeled the plastic off the door and began scraping the old dirty paint from the oak wood underneath. As toxic as the chemicals were, he didn’t don gloves. “I’d say we’ll need another five thousand. Don’t forget, the inn wants some, and every shop on Main Street, the Emporium, as well as ones to hand out. And a few places in Wolverhampton might take ’em, too.”
“You’re right,” she said, making a quick decision. “Better too many than not enough.” She pulled her cell phone, a gift Daniel gave her during their romance, out of her pocket and brought up Nan’s contact information. “It’s pricey, but if we want more we’ll have to order them now. Do you think five thousand?”
“That’ll do,” he said, grunting with the effort of scraping. “I’ll support you if Haskell gets tetchy,” he said, referring to Haskell Lockland, the heritage society president.
She concentrated as she texted Nan, asked for confirmation, then clicked the phone off. She looked out at the village from his shop, a great vantage point on a slight rise. It had been transformed in the last week. The cottage shops were decked with cedar garlands and wreaths, wound with red-and-green plaid ribbon. At night twinkle lights winked and blinked from the garland depths and the branches of the small fir trees around the shops. The Queensville Emporium had been swathed in festive trim, too. There were long evergreen garlands strung across the street at the main intersection and to the small village green where the information booth for Dickens Days was going to be set up.
All they needed was snow to make the Dickens Days festivities perfect. She sighed. “I guess I’d better get moving.”
“You let me know when you get the rest of the pamphlets. Or do you want me to pick them up in Wolverhampton when they’re ready? Seems you do a whole lot of driving with no one paying your mileage.”
“I don’t mind.” She hesitated, but then asked, “Did you know Nan Goodenough had a son who’s staying with her right now?”
His head snapped up and he stared at her, his mouth turned down. “I know him. He come around here asking for a job. Told him I got no use for those who don’t treat women right.”
She sighed. “You saw it, too? The way he treated his girlfriend?”
He nodded, tight-lipped. “Whacked her upside of the head.”
“Sounds like the same incident I saw. Don’t say anything to anyone, but I think he shoved his mom this morning.” She explained what she had heard at the newspaper office.
He shook his head. “Don’t like him. Don’t like any man treats a woman with less than respect.” He finished scraping the last bit of paint and grabbed a dirty rag, wiping some of the chemical off the oak door with a splash of mineral spirits, the pungent scent wafting on the fresh December breeze. But his dour look lightened and he winked at her. “There are some fellows out there who know a good woman when he’s found her. Like the Müller’s youngest, Jakob. Heard he’s sweet on a real nice girl.”
She felt her color heighten and she buffeted him on the arm. “You stop! Enough of that. We’re just friends.”
“Sure you are. You say hello to him for me, and that I’ll be out to The Junk Stops Here tomorrow to pick up that antique sleigh we talked about. I’m thinking about fixing it up and giving sleigh rides through the village.”
She was enchanted, and clapped, jumping up and down. “Could we maybe plan that for next year’s Dickens Days? Maybe we could even do rides out to the manor house.”
“One step at a time, Jaymie. There isn’t always snow this time of year, like now. You go on. I’ve got to finish this door for a very particular customer.”
She knew he meant Becca and chuckled. Light-headed with hope and relief—it was good to share her worries about Nan and Cody with someone who understood, someone as steady and trustworthy as Bill—she drove her rickety white van out to Queensville Historic Manor, where she would deliver a stack of pamphlets, place her centerpiece creation on the Hoosier and make sure her kitchen had survived the ins and outs of the various heritage committee members, some of whom preferred to enter though the kitchen door rather than circle all the way to the front.
In the slanting late afternoon light, she drove up the lane and around behind the garage, where some parking spaces had been delineated for committee volunteers, grabbed her white colander centerpiece and stack of pamphlets, locked the van and circled the house to the front to get the full view. The former Dumpe Manor, now Queensville Historic Manor, looked wonderful. A massive Queen Anne–style home, with copious gingerbread and clapboard siding, bound on two sides with forest and the other with open fields, the house had been painted a lovely soft blue and the gingerbread a sparkling white. The broad porch and steps had been repaired by Bill and were now safe to mount. The whole was fronted by a lighted sign announcing the name and hours.
She stood near the road and gazed at it, biting her lip and grimacing at the huge blow-up gingerbread man cookie that waved and waggled in the wind, the generator groaning and puttering. Most of the older committee members had been horrified when some of the younger ones had suggested renting a blow-up decoration to draw attention to the historic manor’s Christmas opening, but Jaymie had agreed that however you got feet through the door didn’t matter. And folks with kids wanted kid-friendly things to look at. The gingerbread man cookie was the best of a bad lot, she thought, better than the Santa on an airplane or sock monkeys on a scooter that were other possible rental choices. But it sure did look tacky in front of the elegant manse! Oh well, it would come down just after the New Year.
She mounted the steps and entered, pausing as she removed her boots to appreciate the beauty of the old house. It never failed to awe her, the lovely old pendant lights, the elegant wood baseboards and beautiful finishing they had all strived to perfect over the last couple of months. An amazing amount had been done in a short time, mostly due to the organizational skills of Haskell Lockland and the handyman ability of Bill Waterman, as well as the dedication of the volunteers, like her, each with their own specialty.
In the main hall they had placed a long, low Chippendale-style table topped by a big mirror, and on the table were pamphlets and what little literature they had pertaining to the Dumpe family and Queensville’s history, postcards to buy and one Lucite pamphlet stand just waiting for the literature she had in hand. She filled it with the pamphlets, stacking the rest on the table behind the stand, and then, carrying her boots, strode through the hall to the back of the house where her precious kitchen seemed like an afterthought, when it was the heart of the whole manor house project, if you asked her.
But the kitchen wasn’t empty. A fiftyish woman in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, bleached hair pulled back tight in a frizzy ponytail, was on her hands and knees scouring the oven of Jaymie’s precious antique gas stove, which was sans knobs, sans burner drip pans, sans grates, sans . . . everything!
“WHAT ARE YOU doing?” cried Jaymie, dropping her boots.
The woman jolted, whacked her head on the top of the oven and scrambled out, leaping to her feet and whirling. “What the . . . ? Who are you?”
“Never mind that, who are you? And what are you doing to my stove?” Shaking, Jaymie carefully set the decorative colander down on the porcelain top of the green-and-white vintage Hoosier and stood, staring forlornly at her disassembled stove. The same stove she had just thoroughly cleaned according to instructions from a website on antique and vintage stoves, and which she had just got working right with a lot of trial, error and burned cookies.
The woman peeled her rubber gloves off, the smell of harsh modern chemicals wafting out of the oven, from which the door had been removed. “I was hired to clean, so I’m cleaning.”
Controlling her breathing and carefully inflecting her tone to somewhat close to politeness, Jaymie said, “My name is Jaymie Leighton, and this is the kitchen I designed and furnished. You must be Lori Wozny. I was on the committee that looked at everyone’s references and we were so pleased to hire you. However, I’m sorry if it wasn’t clear, but no one meant for you to clean the vintage appliances.” She glanced around, noting the knobs laid out on newspaper with some kind of cleaning solution on them. Argh! It was almost physically painful to consider the damage that may have been done to them. “Besides, I’ve already cleaned the stove.”
“Not very well,” the woman said, her tone huffy, as she tossed the rubber gloves down onto newspaper that was protecting every surface. “It’s still dirty. And under the knobs was all this grease! Took me half an hour just to get it off.”
Jaymie closed her eyes and swayed. “The grease is there on purpose, just a small amount to make the action smooth. And the knobs are Bakelite. Bakelite!” It had taken her some time to establish that it was indeed Bakelite and not another compound. Becca’s fiancé had visited and given her the final verdict with some tests involving hot water and a lot of sniffing. After that she had bought the proper cleaning solution, liquid metal polish, and spent hours properly restoring them. And now . . . She took in a deep breath and released it, slowly. It wasn’t helping. The woman didn’t know, she said to herself. Stay calm. “Bakelite is a special material and you never ever want to use harsh chemicals on it. Ever!”
When she opened her eyes again and looked at Lori she realized she had offended the woman gravely, but she didn’t care at this point. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to just stop,” she said, moving toward the stove and touching the surface lightly. “This is an antique and it’s precious to me. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but harsh chemicals should never be used on antique or vintage anything. That goes for almost everything in this house.”
Lori skittered around, packing up her stuff, throwing things in a blue plastic pail. “Fine, then. I was trying to do my job, and all I get is crap. Typical. If you all want to live in filth, or let the public think that’s how old people lived, then have at it!”
In Jaymie’s experience, anyone who talked in italics was seriously angry. “Lori, please, don’t get offended. We value your work.” It had been difficult to find someone dependable, and the woman had a wonderful reference from Delaney Meadows, the owner of a local job placement company. Lori was the mother of one of his employees, a hard worker, apparently.
But at this moment she was in a full-on snit. Jaymie considered her options and decided silence for the moment was best, and a word to Haskell about her confrontation with the cleaner. Lori stomped out of the kitchen and Jaymie spent the next hour repairing the damage the woman had done. There were scratches on the chrome from the abrasive steel wool soap pad she had used, and it would take some time to tell if the Bakelite knobs had been damaged.
She folded up the newspapers, stuffed them in a garbage bag and turned in a circle, hoping the room was ready for viewing. Some people had already been through the house, but this weekend she was going to start kitchen demonstrations with recipes she had prepared and a costume she had put together with some vintage clothes Jewel had sourced for her. She would wear a longish dress with a patterned pinafore apron over it, her hair done in a twenties or thirties style—a local hairdresser who had recently joined the heritage society showed her how—and black oxford shoes.
The kitchen was now almost perfect, at least for the time being, painted a mellow green, with the green-and-white gas stove that Bill Waterman had found at Jakob’s store. There was also a venerable green-and-cream Hoosier, the paint all original, that she had bought at auction, and next to it an antique ice chest donated by the Redmonds, owners of the Ice House restaurant. Vintage and antique egg beaters, cookie cutters, whisks, mallets, muddles and various other implements—most of which had green or red and cream painted handles—were on display, and she had worked up a routine to demonstrate their uses. Her colander with the greenery in it added a cheery and festive note.
She finished up and washed her hands. As usual after she chastised someone, she now felt awful. Lori had only wanted to make the room the best it could be. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know how to care for vintage appliances, nor did she know it was not part of her job. She was one of those who is almost too thorough. Jaymie grabbed her jacket from the kitchen chair, where she had slung it after finding her kitchen in disarray, picked up her boots, strode from the kitchen and passed through the parlor to the dining room. Mabel Bloombury was polishing a silver epergne and centered it on the tiger oak pedestal dining table.
“This looks wonderful!” Jaymie exclaimed. She had expected Christmassy red and green, but the table was set with a blue tablecloth, and adorned with all blue and silver.
Mabel stood back and clasped her hands in front of her generous bosom. “Do you like it? The china is one your sister suggested, Sevron Blue Lace, from the nineteen fifties. And the glassware is Libbey Silver Leaf. I thought we’d do it up this weekend for Hanukkah, and then go to the red-and-white transferware patterned china your sister loaned us the next weekend.”
“What a great idea!” Jaymie said, eyeing Mabel with respect. She hadn’t thought the older woman would show so much innovation with the table décor.
Mabel shot her a side glance. “My husband’s people started in this country as Blumbergs,” she said. “I wanted to honor the celebration of lights, you know.” She touched the elaborate silver candelabra in the center of the table and waggled her fingers at the silver and crystal epergne that gleamed softly in the chandelier’s illumination.
“I think it’s lovely. Say, Mabel, did you see Lori Wozny in the last little while? Is she still here?”
“I think she’s upstairs. She stomped through here mumbling under her breath; she seemed in a dreadful mood.”
“That’s my fault, I’m afraid,” Jaymie said, and relayed what happened.
Mabel touched her arm, her fingers icy. “Don’t worry too much about it, dear. That young woman seems to be a touch flighty. It runs in the family.”
“Runs in the family?”
“She’s a Fretter, you know, despite her married name.”
Jaymie started and stared at Mabel. There was that synchronicity thing happening. She’d always noticed that once you heard about something or someone, they just kept popping up everywhere. Of course, if she hadn’t just heard about Shelby Fretter, it wouldn’t have meant anything to her other than a brief acknowledgment that they were known locally as the family whose name was most often seen in the Police Blotter column of the Howler. “Is she, by any chance, Shelby Fretter’s mother?”
Mabel nodded. “I always felt sorry for those kids. Lori went from man to man to man. The oldest kids’ dad—Shelby and her brother are twins—is long gone, didn’t even stick around long enough to give them his last name.”
“So that must mean Shelby is the one who works for Delaney Meadows, the one who gave Lori her reference? Or is it another of her kids?”
“No, that’s right, that’s Shelby. She’s great friends with my daughter, Lynnsey; they went through school together. Shelby has worked for Meadows for almost a year at his business, some kind of white-collar placement agency. It’s in one of those big houses on the north end of town that has been converted into office space.”
And now she was going out with Nan’s son. Small world. Jaymie made a quick decision. “In the interests of harmony, if Lori’s going to keep working here I ought to apologize. I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.”
Mabel shook her head, a doubtful expression on her face. “She’s one of those who the more you apologize, the more she’ll misunderstand. You probably didn’t say anything wrong. Some folks just go through life intent on being wounded and seeing insults where none were intended. I’d let it go if I were you.”
“But I was kind of abrupt. I feel like I should try.” She heard a vacuum cleaner upstairs, and decided to give an apology a whirl. She went through the parlor to the hallway, left her boots by the front door and climbed the front stairs, which ascended to a landing, then made a right-angle turn. She climbed to the second floor and saw Lori Wozny at the end of the dim hall, just finishing. The cleaner turned the vacuum off, yanked the cord out of the plug, and began to wind it up. “Lori?” Jaymie said, as she pulled on her jacket and zipped it up.
The woman started again and whirled, one hand to her chest. “You do love to scare people, don’t you!” she said.
“I’m sorry.” Was she always going to be apologizing as long as the woman worked for the society? “I just wanted to say I didn’t mean to offend you and hope we can be friends.”
“If you heard the way you sounded!” she said, jerkily finishing winding the cord and pushing the machine down the hall past Jaymie to the broom closet where it was kept. Over her shoulder, she groused, “You’d think I was breaking something, the way you behaved.”
Jaymie held her tongue. She knew that she did no such thing and that Lori was overreacting, but there was no way to backtrack now, or it would become a she said/she said argument. “I suppose I’d better get going now.”
Lori turned around and glared, hands on her hips. “You oughta be careful, you know. Some folks aren’t as easygoing as me.”
“I have to go. I have a column due at the Wolverhampton Weekly Howler,” Jaymie said, looking for any excuse to break off this conversation as she headed toward the stairs.
“You work for that Nan woman, with the evil son? She spawned an abuser, and do you think she cares? Not one little bit!”
Jaymie halted and turned around slowly. She couldn’t pretend not to know what the woman was talking about. “Are you talking about the relationship between your daughter Shelby and Cody Wainwright?”
Lori almost smiled—Jaymie thought she enjoyed getting a reaction—but darkened her expression and grimaced. “You bet. That jerk hit my daughter, and she’s dumb enough to let him. He tries it again I’ll give it to him good, I promise you,” she said, balling her hand into a fist. “You tell that to that Goodenough woman.”
Torn between silence and defending her friend and editor, Jaymie asked, “Is your daughter going to end the relationship? That would be best all round.”
“As if you have a clue about it. I’ve heard all about you.” She retreated into the volunteer’s lounge and came back out with a red-plaid wool coat that she shrugged into. “You act like you’re some kind of detective or something.”
Bewildered by the quick shift into a personal attack, Jaymie mumbled a reply, turned toward the stairs and started down. Jaymie pulled on her boots and they both exited at the same time onto the wide-board porch, the crisp December air a bracing wake-up. A beat-up Ford backed up the lane and Lori headed toward it. Hand on the car door, she turned and hollered, “You tell that Nan woman to make Cody Wainwright behave, you hear me?”
Excerpted from "White Colander Crime"
Copyright © 2015 Victoria Hamilton.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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