I PURCHASED AN ADORABLE LITTLE TERRY CLOTH jump suit for Janet Margolies's baby and some wrapping supplies in the hospital gift shop just as the volunteer was closing up, then wrapped the present while sitting in the front seat of my car. That's when I noticed the pink and blue paper I'd selected had small gold writing all over it that said Get well soon. Too late to do anything about it now, I thought, and secured the paper with Scotch tape. If I didn't get to the elevator in Mountain View soon, I'd miss the event. I'd forgotten a card, so I tore a sheet of paper from my notebook and wrote, To Baby Margo-lies, with love from Tori, because I couldn't remember whether Janet's baby was a girl or a boy. I attached the note to the package top with a sticky-backed silver bow. A clumsy five-year-old could have done a better job, but I hoped Janet would be so thrilled with the gift that she'd overlook the messy covering.
T o find Mountain View, I followed the map Cassie had drawn for me, which had me driving on mountain roads so twisty and narrow, I felt sure I would plunge to my death at any moment. Every now and then I'd come to a wide spot in the road where there would be a small outpost of civilization, usually a couple of trailers, a barn or two, a general store with an antique gas pump, and a hand-painted sign offering deer processing. And there was always a church, with a bulletin board out front. Although twilight was rapidly changing to nightfall, I could still see they carried homey messages like THE HARVEST IS RIPE, ARE YOU READY FOR THE PICKIN’? and ARE YOU READY FOR HEAVEN OR FOR HELL? My favorite was IF YOU GIVE THE DEVIL A RIDE, HE'LL SOON BE DRIVING. The many dire warnings about eternal damnation led me to believe that truly cheerless people must live in these desolate hamlets.
Shortly after I passed a log cabin decorated with a banner that read GET US OUT OF THE U.N. NOW, I came to a sign that announced I was in the Village of Mountain View. The village was a metropolis compared to the places I'd just passed through. Large, well-maintained homes with wide porches faced each other across the road. The post office was in a lean-to attached to one of the houses, and I noticed a FOR SALE sign out front. Was the position of postmaster for sale along with the building?
A large steel building at the crossroads in the center of the village housed the recreation center and municipal offices. Directly across from it was Foster's Elevator, Inc., a complex of buildings that was nearly a town in itself. Most of them were white and of the Victorian era. Behind these were huge towers, silos, I guessed, and ladders that seemed to reach to the sky. Some buildings were obviously barns and garages. The paved parking lot was large enough for a hundred cars and trucks. Tonight, it was nearly full.
I parked on the edge of the lot in front of a sign that informed me that Nutro pet foods and lottery tickets were available here. Foster's Elevator, Inc., certainly looked like a prosperous, going concern, so I wondered why the bulletin board facing the road announced a going-out-of-business sale. I approached the front door of what appeared to be the main office building. Two porch lights on either side illuminated the front steps, which led to a wide veranda. The front door was slightly ajar, and a tattered poster advertising Vacation Bible School, apparently left over from last summer, flapped loosely in the evening breeze as I pushed open the door and entered the office. Inside, the office was deserted, except for some old oaken furniture, but I heard a lot of noise coming from the stairwell in the back of the room, indicating the party was being held upstairs.
The dark wood banister felt as smooth as satin beneath my fingers as I climbed the wide steps to the second floor of the building. I could almost imagine myself coming down that staircase in an elegant ball gown while Rhett Butler waited eagerly at the bottom for me. That's when I realized the building must have once been someone's lovely home.
The entire second floor was one large room, and it was filled with more women than I'd ever seen in one place. I paused for a minute at the top of the stairs and looked around trying to see if I could recognize anyone.
“Tori,” someone cried. “Come in, come in.” Janet Margolies was at my side, propelling me into the mob. “Hey, everybody. Look who's here. Tori Miracle, the writer.”
“Please, don't make me out to be something special,” I said demurely.
“But you are special, Tori.” We ’d reached the refreshment table, where Janet introduced me to a middle-aged woman who was ladling punch into little plastic cups. “Mom, this is Tori Miracle. Tori, my mother, Mrs. Foster.”
“Welcome,” Mrs. Foster said with a warm smile. “Have some punch?” Without waiting for my answer, she handed me a cup of red liquid. “Cookie?”
“Chocolate chip, please.” I accepted two cookies wrapped in a paper napkin.
“I've heard lots about you,” Mrs. Foster said while I shuffled my feet and tried to blush. “You'uns must be mighty relieved to have that cancer scare over.”
The punch I'd just sipped went down the wrong way, half choking me to death. When I'd finished coughing it up, I spluttered out, “What… what are you talking about?” But it was too late for an answer, for she and Janet were heading toward a table covered with presents.
As Janet began to open her gifts the women pressed forward, overwhelming me with the combined odor of their perfumes, hairs sprays, bath powders, and makeup. My eyes began to water, and I finally had to push my way through the happy throng to the back of the room, where I found a row of metal folding chairs and sank into one next to Lizzie Borden. She had a napkin spread over her lap with a selection on it of every kind of cookie I'd seen on the table.
“I understand you left the college,” I said.
Lizzie grinned. “For what they paid me, they could only push me so far.” She raised her hands and held them about six inches apart. “I was expected to do my work, Janet's work, and anything else that nobody wanted to handle. Like I told President Godlove, they'd have me in the classroom teaching if they thought they could get away with it.”
I nibbled at my cookie. While I didn't care for a lot of Pennsylvania cooking, I'd never found fault with the baked goods. “Who's taking over?”
Lizzie shrugged. “Who knows. Who cares. I emptied my briefcase on Janet's desk and walked.” She giggled. “I hear you're going to take over my job at the ghost tour.”
“Word does get around quickly. But I'm not going to do your job, I'm going to be a ghost.”
“Well, don't let them stick you in the attic. It gets hot as hell up there at night. Spooky, too.”
A tiny gray-haired lady was perched on the edge of the chair next to me, balancing herself with a collapsible cane. “Congratulations, young lady.” she whispered. “I done heard you been cured of the big C.”
“Where on earth did you hear that?” I blurted out.
“Shhh…” Several women stared at me with disapproval.
“Sorry.” When I turned back to the woman, she was hobbling toward the unattended refreshment table.
“What do you suppose she meant?” I asked Lizzie. “She's the second person this evening to congratulate me on my ‘cure.’ ”
“And she probably won't be the last,” Lizzie assured me.
“But I haven't even heard my test results yet. Dr. Washabaugh's office has been closed since her death.”
“Someone's seen the report. And since the Grapevine's never wrong, let me be the third to congratulate you.”
A roar of laughter up front caught our attention. Naturally, there were some mandatory gag gifts: a baby bottle that looked empty until turned on its side, a DO NOT DISTURB sign for the parents’ bedroom door, and a little pair of blue booties for the “next” baby.
After the last of the offerings was opened, Baby Mar-golies made her grand appearance in the arms of her doting grandmother. Her name, I learned, was Parker, which I was sure would lead to confusion in the future. After we had all dutifully oohed and aahed, she was carried off to bed.
Janet sat down on the empty chair beside me With one hand, she held out a plate. “How about a sticky bun, hot from the oven?”
I accepted one and quickly put it down on my napkin so the syrup wouldn't burn my fingers.
“Seems like everywhere I go, someone's insisting I eat one of these. And of course, I can't say no.”
“I'll come teach you how to make them if you like. My secret is I use a packaged hot roll mix, so they're fast and easy.”
“And good.” I licked a piece of nut off my sticky finger.
“Tori, I love the little suit. Parker will look really cute in it next summer.”
“Is it too big? It looked really small to me.”
“That's okay. They outgrow those newborn sizes really fast.”
“Sorry about the wrapping paper.”
“I didn't even notice that it said ‘Get Well Soon.’ ” She laughed heartily, and I joined in.
“This is the first elevator I've ever seen,” I told her. “The buildings look quite old. Has it been in your family for a long time?”
Janet nodded. “Since before The War.” Like most local people, she referred to the War Between the States as “The War.” “ My dad's the fifth-generation Foster to run it.”
“I noticed the going-out-of-business sign out front. Does that mean you don't want to take over?”
Her face grew grim. “I'd love to, but I don't have any choice. The elevator's being torn down next year.”
“To make room for the new highway.”
I laughed. A highway here in the mountains? She couldn't be serious. “Highway to where?”
“From nowhere to nowhere. It was dear old Mack Macmillan's last bit of pork barreling before he retired. His lasting memorial to himself. We call it the Mack Macmillan Highway to Hell. Darn it, I'm letting my emotions ruin my party. Sorry about that. Speaking of the devil, has President Godlove still got you looking into Mack's death?”
I shook my head. “He's satisfied with pinning it on Woody Woodruff's incompetent handling of the guns.”
“The reenactor?” She sounded incredulous. “He's the best in the business. He'd never make a mistake like that.”
“That's what I thought. But no one else had access to the guns after they were locked up, except…” Except you. Just how affected was she by Macmillan's plans for the Highway to Hell? “Those keys were in your possession all night, weren't they?”
Janet looked wary, as if she could read my mind. “Yes, Tori, they were. There's absolutely no way… wait a minute… I just remembered something… no, it's too silly.”
“After we were finished, I went upstairs to get my briefcase. Woody, Darious, and Lizzie got out of the elevator on the first floor, but Mack rode all the way up with me.”
“Did he come into your office with you?”
“No. He said he had to pick some things up from his office. I'd no sooner got inside than I had the urge to go to the bathroom. That's the worst part of being pregnant-you have to go all the time.”
“What does this have to do with the keys?” I asked.
“You asked me if they were in my possession all night, Tori. I'm trying to tell you they were, except for about five minutes when I was in the john. My purse and my keys were on the desk in my office where I dropped them when nature called.”
“But the only person on the floor with you was Mac-millan. Are you suggesting he switched keys with you? Why would he do that?”
Janet got to her feet and threw her hands up in the air. “I'm not suggesting anything, Tori. I'm only telling you what happened. I know what you're thinking, and I did not, I repeat, I did not reload those guns. Excuse me. I think my mother needs help.”
She stomped off through the throng of guests. From where I sat, it looked to me like her mother had everything under control at the refreshment table.
The clock was chiming half past nine when I got home. The cats were waiting for me in the kitchen, and by the furious swishing of their tails they let me know they were all alone and not happy about it. On the table I found a note from Ethelind saying she'd gone to the Shepherdstown Opera House with some friends and would be home late. I hadn't had an evening to myself since I'd moved in, so I decided to use the time alone to curl up with a good mystery and a cup of tea and try to forget that Garnet was in Washington, D.C., probably having a great time without me.
I was transferring boiling water from the kettle to Ethelind's Blue Italian Spode teapot when the telephone rang. I finished pouring, dropped in two Darjeeling teabags, then answered.
“Hi.” It was a man's voice. A very husky-sounding man's voice.
“Who is this?” It wasn't Garnet. I'd recognize his voice anywhere. “Darious.” “Oh!”
“You didn't tell me you're a reporter.” “If you don't know that, you're the only person in
Lickin Creek who doesn't.”
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Getting ready to have a cup of tea. Why?”
“Just wondered if you wanted to take a ride tonight.
I put the jumper on the carousel.”
I sighed. This wasn't right. I couldn't let myself fall into a relationship I didn't need or want. “Sorry. I'm not up for it tonight.”
“The hippocampus misses his sea nymph.” “Darious, please stop. I'm not coming over.” “You and that college professor got something planned?”
“She's not even here. I'm reveling in the solitude. I've fixed a pot of tea, and I'm going to read for a while, then go to bed early and catch up on my sleep.”
“Heard your guy left. Thought you might be lonely.” He was beginning to annoy me. “Look, Darious. I'm afraid I've given you the wrong impression.”
“I don't think so.” His voice was low and intimate. “Good night,” I said firmly, then hung up the phone.
Had I misinterpreted? I thought not. He knew Garnet was gone, and he was ready to move in. I didn't want to get into that kind of messy situation, and I knew I'd have to straighten him out before much more time went by.
Before I was finished placing the teapot, milk pitcher, and a cup and saucer on a tray, the telephone rang again.
“Hello,” I snapped, knowing I sounded impatient.
“Hi, Tori. This is Woody.”
All I could think of saying was, “Oh no!”
If he thought that was an odd greeting, he didn't say so. “I wondered if you were busy this coming weekend?”
Another man trying to make a move on me, and Garnet barely out of town! “Busy? Yes, this weekend and every weekend for the rest of my life. And don't ever call me again.” I banged the receiver down hard enough to rupture his eardrum. The nerve of these men! Garnet had only been gone one day, and already two guys were trying to pick me up.
Ethelind was a confirmed Anglophile, and her library contained all the great English female authors of the Golden Age of Mystery, the period between the two world wars. I selected an old favorite, Dorothy L Say-ers's Gaudy Night, and settled down in the front parlor under a crocheted afghan to lose myself in Oxford. Outside, an autumn wind was howling through the trees, a sure sign that our beautiful but hot Indian summer was near an end. But inside, I was warm and cozy, with my cats, my tea, and my book.
My peace was shattered abruptly when I heard a ringing noise coming from the upper reaches of the house. Fred and Noel heard it at about the same time. Fred reacted by crawling beneath the afghan to hide, while Noel stared intently at the ceiling as if she could see through it.
“It sounds almost like my alarm clock,” I told them. “Could I have accidentally set the alarm for ten at night when I was trying to turn it off this morning? I'll be right back.”
After marking my place in my book, I ascended the grand front staircase to the second floor and my bedroom at the end of the hall. Sure enough, my alarm clock was cheerfully ringing next to the bed. I pushed the button to quiet it, then reset it to ring at eight tomorrow morning.
The cats were pacing nervously in the front parlor when I came back. I apologized for leaving them, and they settled down after I'd stroked them for a little while. I poured myself another cup of tea, opened my book to the marked page, and returned to the world of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. After a short while the pages began to blur. I yawned and tried to keep reading, but it was all I could do to hold the book upright, much less turn the pages.
I gave up and let the book drop to my chest. With my eyes closed, my thoughts drifted back to the investigation I'd been trying to put out of my mind for the evening. I gave in and decided to think about who might have had a reason to kill Mack Macmillan. His wife? Because the spouse is always number one on suspect lists. But Charlotte was away the weekend he was executed, and everyone who'd known the Macmillans as a couple spoke of her devotion to him.
Woody Woodruff? He and Macmillan had had some sort of row about property development. But would he be stupid enough to kill an enemy in a way that made him the obvious suspect? I didn't think so.
Janet Margolies? Her family's business was being torn down to make way for the Macmillan Highway to Hell. The execution was her idea, and she had invited Mack to play the role of the victim. She had the keys to the storeroom where the guns were kept in her possession. Janet Margolies could be a suspect.
Darious DeShong? Involved, like Woody, with loading the guns. But other than that, there was no reason to suspect him. I could see no connection between him and Macmillan.
Ken Nakamura? Had he held Mack responsible for his brother's death and his family's disintegration? The old professor claimed to be a pacifist, but was he really?
Gloria Zimmerman? She'd said she was glad he was gone. Had a grudge against him because of his lobbying support for puppy mills. Not really a motive for murder, unless there was something I had missed.
Lillie White? Mack hadn't spent as much time with her after Charlotte had gotten out of the hospital. Did Lillie, a woman scorned, seek revenge?
Helga Van Brackle? Still furious with Mack for dumping her for Charlotte. Being at the college, she might have had the opportunity to get hold of the storeroom key.
Was there anybody in the Caven-Adams County area who didn't have a motive for killing the man? Maybe Cassie was right about me being obsessed. Maybe I should move on as she had suggested. I wasn't concentrating. I yawned and stretched, feeling very sleepy.
Someplace very far away, the wind whistled through the treetops. Almost as if it were a living creature, it sniffed at the windows, looking for a way to force itself into the old house. I pulled the afghan up to my chin as protection against the drafts and drifted off to sleep.
A man stood in the room, his back to me. “Garnet?” I tried to sit up but couldn't. I was paralyzed, unable to move a muscle. The man turned, ever so slowly. I smiled and started to reach out to him, but his face was a blank void, as if he were wearing Charlotte Macmil-lan's elastic mask. A gaping hole appeared where his mouth should be, only it was larger and blacker than any mouth I'd ever seen. Cold permeated my body. I wanted to scream, but no sound came out. The mouth hole grew larger. I thought of a wide-mouth bass, coming closer as if it wanted to swallow me whole. And as it drew near, I could smell evil. The mouth laughed, and it was not a man any longer, but a dragon. The foul smoke rushing from his mouth nearly choked me.
Gagging from the stench, I mustered all my strength and turned my face away from the beast, and something soft touched my cheek. A tear? Not paralyzed anymore, I brought my hand up slowly to wipe it away. Something sharp raked across my nose. I flung my arms out, connected with a cat, and was scolded by a sharp cry, followed by another, and another.
I sat up, choking, trying to figure out where I was, why everything was so dark. The disgusting smell from the stranger's mouth was still there, making me cough, choke, wheeze.
Softness pressed against me. “Fred?” I muttered into the darkness.
The stranger with no face and a huge black mouth- he had to have been a dream. I was awake now, wasn't I? Why was I having so much trouble seeing? Why was the terrible odor still there? I must still be dreaming, I decided, and lay back on the couch.
This was no dream. Fred was head-butting me and yelling at me in cat talk to get up. This time I flung the afghan off and got to my feet. And I realized that the room was not dream-darkened but was instead filled with a thick, acrid smoke. An orange glow on the small Persian carpet under the tea table was actually a smoldering fire, and little tongues of flame were already creeping up the afghan.
Wide awake at last, I grabbed the smoking afghan and rushed out of the room with it, wrestled open the front door, and heaved the thing onto the front lawn. Then I ran back into the room and with superhuman strength, born from desperation and need, dragged first the rug then the couch out of the house, onto the grass, and as far away from the building as I possibly could.
Back inside, I threw open the parlor windows and let the air circulate. The fire seemed to have been confined to the rug and couch, but I called the volunteer fire department and stood by the door, ready to flee if anything flared up again.
Fred and Noel stayed close to me as the firemen charged in wielding a ton of fire-fighting equipment. The men checked the ceiling and walls, pulled down the drapes, and chopped a big hole in the floor to make sure the fire hadn't spread to the floor joists. After about an hour they seemed convinced that there was no further danger. By the time Ethelind walked in the worst of the smoke and smells had dissipated.
Most of the trucks departed, leaving the fire chief and a few men to try to determine what had started the blaze. I tried to watch them, but my eyes kept blurring, and I grew so dizzy, I had to sit down. I hadn't felt this peculiar since the morning of my biopsy when I'd overdone the anti-anxiety medicine. I saw Chief Yoder bend over and pick up an ashtray that must have overturned during the commotion, perhaps as I'd knocked the tea table over trying to get the rug out from under it.
“Looks like you were a lucky young lady,” he said, scooping a few cigarette butts off the floor. “Don't imagine you'll be doing much smoking when you're sleepy from now on.”
“Look, Chief, I don't smoke.”
He cocked his head and looked skeptically at me. “Your voice sounds kind of slurred. Were you drinking?”
“I was not drinking. Except for some tea.” Ethelind's beautiful teapot and teacup lay on the floor, but by some miracle they didn't seem to be broken. “And I wasn't smoking. Why should I lie about it? Everybody who knows me will tell you I detest the smell of cigarettes.” Ethelind nodded her confirmation. “In fact, if that ashtray full of butts had been on the coffee table, I couldn't have sat down in here to read without emptying it and washing it out first.” I blinked, trying to bring the offending container into focus.
“Are you trying to tell me that someone came in here and planted a dirty ashtray in the room while you were sleeping?” He laughed. I couldn't blame him. It did sound ridiculous.
“Hey, Chief.” One of the firemen who'd been outside entered the room. “Take a look at this.” He held out a bag for Chief Yoder to inspect.
“What is it?” I asked, after the chief had looked, smelled, and even tasted the contents of the bag.
“Stuff I found on the rug you dragged outside,” the firefighter said. “Looks like a pile of dirty clothes that near burned up.”
Chief Yoder looked thoughtful and nodded. “Did you leave some of your underwear on the floor?” he asked me.
“Of course not. Wait a minute, do you think someone deliberately set this fire?”
“I'm beginning to think so, miss. Did you hear anything? See anything?”
“No, of course not.” Then I remembered something had happened. “My alarm went off upstairs at about ten o'clock. I thought I'd set it wrong. Now I wonder if it wasn't a trick to get me out of the room.” I looked at the empty teacup on the floor and began to shake. “My God, someone must have put something in my tea while I was upstairs. I got really sleepy a little while after I came back down. No wonder I feel so groggy.”
Chief Yoder and one of the men got down on their knees and inspected the teapot and cup. “There's a little tea left in the pot,” the chief said. The assistant carefully carried the teacup and pot out of the room. “We'll check the contents,” the chief said. “Do you have any idea how somebody might have gotten in?”
I started to say no, then realized I really had not checked to make sure anything was locked before I'd settled down to read. I'd been in Lickin Creek long enough to almost think like the natives that a locked door was “unneighborly.” Certainly locking up wasn't a major concern the way it had been in my Manhattan apartment.
“You need to be more careful,” the chief warned.
“Can you think of anybody who'd want to hurt you?”
“Nobody. I mind my own business and expect everybody to mind theirs. Why are you laughing like that?”
“Because I've heard you're the biggest buttinsky to hit town since the Secret Service organized a fishing trip here for President Carter back in the seventies.”
“But I haven't done anything to warrant this.” I gestured to the ruined parlor. “Oh my God!”
“I just thought of something. Did you know that Professor Nakamura, from the college, was shot over in Gettysburg?”
“Yeah. I heard about that. Damn shame. Nice guy like that. Probably some poacher out on the battlefield shooting at deer and hit him by accident.”
“That's what I thought. But what if it wasn't an accident?”
“You think he was shot deliberately?”
“No, but I was standing right next to him when he was hit. Now that this has happened, I wonder if someone was aiming at me.”