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Wednesday Afternoon

Death, Guns and Sticky Buns

BACK IN LICKIN CREEK, I DROVE IMMEDIATELY TO Hoopengartner's Garage, where I found Luscious in the tiny police office in the back of the station. He'd been drinking, I was sure. I smelled vodka, the daytime drink of choice for alcoholics who mistakenly believe it has no odor. But it did have an odor, one I was all too familiar with, having smelled it on my mother's breath for many years.

What's up, he said, lurching to his feet. I feared he'd topple over if he tried standing for long, so I quickly sat down on the solitary guest chair and he followed suit with a relieved look on his face.

This is what's up, Luscious. I positioned the letter on his desk so he could read it. He frowned, pulled back a little, squinted, then hunched forward. I'll read it to you, I said, retrieving the letter. It's Mack Mac-millan's suicide note.

Wow! Luscious cocked his head, reminding me of a chicken. Mack committed suicide?

Yes, Luscious. I read the letter to him.

Wow, Tori. That sounds like he was trying to con his insurance company.

Exactly, Luscious. And I have the foam wads and the keys he mentioned in the letter to back it up.

Luscious shook his head sorrowfully. Mack Mac-millan. I just can't believe it.

He had cancer. Guess he didn't want to die that way.

Mack Macmillan. Who would have thought it?

I interrupted his head shaking and pondering to say, Luscious, you'll have to call his insurance company, get someone started on this. They'll have to come to some agreement with Mrs. Macmillan to get the money back.

My oh my oh my! Mack Macmillan. I can't believe it! He went to school with my pap-pap. Pap-pap's what we always called my grandfather, he explained. Guess this lets Woody Woodruff off the hook. I'll tell the D.A. to drop charges against him.

I left the letter and other items with him, hoping he wouldn't lose them. I was depressed about Charlotte 's plight. She'd gone from beloved wife to wealthy widow to impoverished widow in a very short time. She was extremely popular throughout the tri-county area, and I knew sympathy would be on her side. Once again, I would be Tori Miracle, the troublemaker from New York.

I drove back to Moon Lake with my brain spinning, coming up with all kinds of ridiculous ideas, like organizing a fund-raiser for Charlotte, having a bake sale, or whatever it is they do here in Lickin Creek to take care of their own.

Uriah's Heap, the only taxi in Lickin Creek, was parked in the driveway. There were two suitcases sitting by the back door. Could Ethelind really be leaving? It was too much to hope for, but when I opened the door, there she was, pacing the kitchen, purse in hand, fleecelined raincoat draped over her shoulders. Tori, am I glad to see you. I didn't want to leave without saying good-bye.

You're actually leaving?

Yes, I just had a call. The QE II finally has an empty cabin. I'm flying to New York this afternoon and sailing in the morning.

I'll miss you. And oddly enough, I realized I would.

She gave me a boozy kiss on the forehead. You take good care of my house-and yourself, luv.

I waved until the Heap was out of sight, then went back inside and closed the door behind me. This time, I made sure it was locked. I'd never spent a night alone in a house as big as this, and I felt rather nervous, especially after the things that had happened to me in the past week.

I poured the contents of a can of chili into a bowl, heated it in the microwave, and sat down at the kitchen table. Fred and Noel sat quietly by their own dishes, not eating, as if they, too, suddenly felt deserted. I ate half the chili, washed it down with a Diet Coke, had a Snickers bar for dessert, then rinsed my dish. My meal, including preparation time, had taken only five minutes.

The ringing of the telephone echoed throughout the empty mansion. My former neighbor and good friend in New York, the almost-world-famous actor/Italian waiter, had warned me many times never pick up on the first ring-it makes you appear desperate. I ignored his advice and grabbed the receiver, cutting the second ring off before it had a chance to get up to speed.

Tori, is that you?

Garnet! Joy welled up inside me.

Tori, are you all right? I've been so worried, ever since I heard about-

How did you hear? I interrupted.

Aunt Gladys called.

I should have known. I'm really okay. My arms are a bit sore from all that hanging, but at least I'm not lying flat as a pancake in the LCCFW's marble halls.

Hanging? What are you talking about?

I fell off the staircase at the college. Isn't that what you called about?

He groaned. Aunt Gladys told me you'd been in a fire. She never mentioned the other thing.

Ooops!

Tori, don't try to be funny. I've only been gone a short while and you've had two disasters. Why can't you take better care of yourself?

There's no need to worry. Did your aunt Gladys tell you Professor Nakamura was shot?

No! Is he all right?

Last I heard, he was recovering nicely. Someone mistook him for a deer.

Dare I ask what else is new?

I told him the whole story about Mack's death being a suicide. He waited until I was finished, then said, You did a good job getting to the bottom of it, Tori. I couldn't have done better myself.

I felt my cheeks flush with pleasure.

But please, I repeat, please do not undertake any more investigations while I'm gone. No matter how incompetent you think Luscious is, he is the police chief. And I don't want anything to happen to you. You are much too precious to me. I've got to go now. Got tickets to see Manon Lescault tonight at the Kennedy Center. I'll call you on Sunday as we planned.

There was a click, followed by the buzz of an empty phone line. I hadn't asked him how his Spanish lessons were going. Or if he had a comfortable bed, like the one he slept in at home, the bed he'd been born in. Or if he was eating properly. I hadn't told him about poor Dr. Washabaugh, or my biopsy either. I'd be better prepared on Sunday, even if it meant making a list of everything I wanted to talk about and keeping it by the telephone. While I was digging in Ethelind's junk drawer for a notepad, it occurred to me that I wasn't the only one who hadn't asked questions. Garnet hadn't asked me about the results of my biopsy.

I ate a Snickers bar for dessert, then realized I'd already done that. These long, quiet evenings were going to be perfect for finishing my book. I could set my laptop up on the kitchen table and work all night if I wanted to. This was going to be a great winter, I just knew it.

So why didn't I feel like setting it up now and getting started? There was something preying on my mind, and I decided I had to put it to rest before I could concentrate on my work.

I'll see you guys later, I told the cats. They were still sitting by their bowls, side by side, as if waiting for something good to happen. I'll bring you a special treat. Maybe a can of tuna. Their ears perked up. They always recognized the word tuna.

My little car protested, but eventually started, and I drove through the quiet streets of Lickin Creek. Although only a little past eight, the few stores that remained downtown were closed. The trees that lined the streets had already lost their leaves, and their stark branches sparkled with tiny white lights that looked like Christmas to me, but stayed up all year round. The fountain was illuminated by several spotlights, and I was glad to see someone had placed carved jack-o-lanterns around its base between the pots of chrysanthemums. At night, downtown was as magical as the Emerald City of Oz. The mood was broken when a teenager in a souped-up car roared past, and a beer can flew out of the right rear window. I quickly passed through town and out of it, and was soon on one of the farm roads that wound its way through the peaceful countryside. The peaceful and dark countryside. I was alone in more ways than one.

Somehow, I missed the peach stand and drove nearly to West Mountain before I realized how far I'd come and had to turn around. I drove more slowly on the country lane until I found the mailbox that said Hostet-tler farm.

Flickering lights in the lower windows of the farmhouse indicated the oil lamps were lit. I couldn't imagine why people would chose to live in such a primitive way when there were so many modern conveniences available, but I had to admire the Amish for the way they held on to their beliefs in the face of the encroaching American culture.

The narrow road down the hill, which had been washed away the last time I was here, had been filled in with gravel, and I drove right down to the barn. I parked close to the building, then waited a moment to steel my nerves. Tonight I was going to tell Darious there was absolutely nothing between us, not now, and not in the future. Never ever. Hearing Garnet's voice on the telephone tonight had reinforced my feelings for him. I didn't need any other man in my life. Not now, not in the future. Not ever.

I was surprised to find the door to the barn slightly ajar. The other two times I'd been here, Darious had kept it locked, a precaution I could understand since I now knew how valuable carousel animals were. I pulled it open wider and listened to the carousel organ playing In the Good Old Summertime. I smiled, as I could imagine Darious riding the newly repaired jumper on his carousel. Perhaps, after I talked to him, he'd let me take one last ride. There were no lights on in the little anteroom, so I crossed it slowly and carefully, until my foot bumped against a stone step.

After climbing the short flight of steps, I pushed open the door. The carousel music was much louder than it had been on my other two visits. Even though I called Darious's name, there was no way he'd hear me over the din. I slipped inside. The barn, as usual, was un-lighted, except for the spinning carousel. Before me was a blur of lights, bouncing from the sparkling jewels on the animals and the gilt trim and mirrors of the carousel itself. I leaned against the wall for a moment to regain my equilibrium, for the sight and sound were overwhelming.

Regaining my balance, I walked slowly toward the merry-go-round, savoring the beauty of the moment, the lights, the colors, and the music. The golden chariot passed by me before it registered on me that someone was sitting in it. Darious, of course. Apollo the sun god riding his chosen chariot. I smiled and waited for it to come around again.

This time, I saw Darious was indeed in the chariot, but although I waved and tried to catch his attention, he paid me no attention as he spun past.

There was something about the way he looked that triggered a frisson of fear in me. The way he was slumped to one side, the way his head hung, the way he ignored me. Something was wrong.

If there's one thing I hate, it's being ignored, I muttered. Here goes. I jumped onto the moving platform and caught hold of the head of a tiger to keep from falling off. Steady, Tori, I admonished myself. After a moment I got my sea legs, or carousel legs, as I guessed they should be called, and started to work my way toward the chariot, walking against the counterclockwise direction of the machine.

I called his name but Darious didn't look up. There was a stain on his shirt. Like a salmon swimming upstream against the current, I moved slowly past the jumping horses that stood between me and the chariot, drawing closer and closer to Darious, who still seemed not to notice me. His eyes were open, yet not seeing. Not seeing, because oh God because his throat was slashed from side to side. Blood was everywhere. On the chariot, on his clothes, splattered on the horse in front of him.

I grasped the side rail of the chariot and found it sticky. Reluctantly, I touched his wrist with two fingers. It was still warm, but there was no pulse. Darious was dead. Beautiful, mysterious Darious. Apollo had returned home to Mount Parnassus.

Tears burned my eyes as bile rose in my throat, and the carousel continued to spin and the music continued to play. This had to be some sort of bizarre nightmare, I told myself. This is too surreal to actually be happening. I blinked and tried to will myself awake, but when I opened my eyes, Darious's body was a gruesome reminder that this moment was all too real.

I had to get away. I leaped free of the carousel and landed painfully on my knees. I rushed to the door with only one thing on my mind, getting away from the awful thing behind me.

I was terrified. What if the murderer was in here with me? Frightened half to death, I pushed on the door. It didn't move. I pushed, I pulled, I jiggled the latch, I even kicked it, but nothing budged. I was locked in. The windows were boarded up. There was no way out.

Darious's workshop. Maybe there was a way out through it. With my back to the barn wall, I cautiously worked my way toward that part of the barn. The carousel music was unbearably loud. The monster who'd cut Darious's throat could be right behind me, and I'd never hear it.

At last, I came to the workshop door. A frightened glance around convinced me that no one was close, and I took a deep breath and pulled on the door. It, too, was locked. I dropped to the floor, drew my knees to my chest, and covered my face with my arms. I wanted to cry but didn't dare. The monster lurking in the dark might hear me.

This was the moment when the cavalry should crest the hill or a knight in shining armor should ride in on a white horse to rescue me. But I knew I'd seen too many movies, read too many books, and there was no one coming to save me. No one even knew where I was. My life was in my hands and my hands only.

I had to find a way out. There must be another entrance. I tried to remember what the barn looked like from outside. Of course! There were huge double doors at one end, large enough to drive a tractor through. With any luck, they wouldn't be locked. Staying close to the wall, I inched my way across the barn until I reached the opposite end of the building. My fingers touched a metal hinge and I knew I'd reached the doors. Ignoring the danger that hid in the darkness, I turned around, found the latch, released it, and shoved. It, too, was locked. I collapsed on the floor, too terrified even to cry.

Windows. There were windows. All boarded up, but maybe I could pry some boards loose. Not even thinking about the danger, I ran across the barn to where I knew there was a window. Grabbing hold of a plank, I tugged on it with all my might, but it was firmly fixed to the window frame. If I had a crowbar or some kind of tool, I might be able to pry it off, but everything was locked away in Darious's workshop.

I closed my eyes and tried to envision the barn from the outside, again. There were shuttered windows on the levels above this floor. If I could find the stairs, perhaps I could break through the shutters. By now, my eyes were thoroughly accustomed to the dim barn interior lit by the flashing lights of the carousel. And I saw no one. I remembered a ladder, next to the workshop door, which led to a dark hole in the ceiling. Taking a chance, I ran across the barn. And still, the monster didn't come.

The ladder looked to be about one hundred feet high, and the opening at the top of it was as black as a moonless night. I clenched my teeth, took a deep breath, and started to climb. It took forever, and I had nearly reached the hole when I heard a sound coming from above. A faint, rustling noise, as if someone who was waiting there for me had changed position.

It took me two seconds to slide back down the ladder. I was attempting to pull the ladder out of the hole when I heard Meow. I looked toward the sound and saw two glowing cat's eyes looking back at me.

Not a monster. Just a cat. Now I realized the murderer must have slipped out and locked the door behind him as I checked Darious for signs of life. I was still trapped inside, but I was alone, and I was going to get out if I had to tear the barn apart board by board.

Rather than do that, I moved the ladder back to the opening, and when it was firmly in place, gritted my teeth and climbed it. The cat was sitting on a cardboard box watching me when I pulled myself onto the floor. Hi, kitty, I said, cheerfully. Sorry to bother you.

With a twitch of its tail, it let me know it didn't mind. The shuttered windows at this level were firmly closed, but I recalled seeing a double set of doors right under the peaked roof of the barn. There would have been no need to lock something that high up. I found a rickety flight of stairs with no railing, and climbed it on my hands and knees.

My luck had returned. When I pushed on one of the doors, it swung open so easily, I had to grab the door-jamb to keep from tumbling out. My head reeled as I looked down. Even a person who didn't have acrophobia would get dizzy up here, and I'd had a fear of heights ever since I could remember.

I tried to concentrate on looking at the horizon. The barn was facing east, and the moon was already over the mountaintops. From my vantage point I saw the farmhouse, and I screamed for help as loudly as I could. Nothing happened so I took a deep breath and yelled the word every farmer fears, Fire!

The farmhouse door burst open, and two figures came running out.

Help! I cried. Please help me.

The couple ran down the hill to the barn and looked up at me in wonderment.

I'm locked in, I called. Do you have a key?

No key, the man called back.

Then please call the police. And tell them there's a dead man in here.

He turned his back to me and sprinted up the hill. Right past his house. I wondered why, until I remembered the Amish don't have phones. I hoped he didn't have far to go.

He returned in about ten minutes. They're coming, he yelled. Yo u uns okay in there?

I'm all right. Thanks.

By the time I'd maneuvered down the scary stairs and the even more scary ladder, I heard a siren. Trying not to look at Darious, I waited, and after a short while someone began to attack the barn door. The wood splintered as an ax broke through, and I saw a face peer through the opening. It might not have been the cavalry, and it certainly wasn't a knight in shining armor, but right then Luscious Miller looked better than anyone I could have imagined coming to rescue me.

He enlarged the hole he'd made and stepped through. Wow, was all he said as he gazed in astonishment at the whirling carousel. A smile lit his face, and I knew he was experiencing the childlike wonder of it all. But the smile faded when he saw the body in the chariot.

How do you stop it? he asked.

There's a switch inside the workroom, but it's locked.

Luscious picked up his ax and let me lead him to the workshop door. After a few minutes of being hacked, the door disintegrated. Come on, he said. Show me how to turn it off.

I pointed to the lever halfway up the wall. When he pulled down on it, the music stopped. I'd nearly forgotten how blissful silence could be, after listening to In the Good Old Summertime for more than an hour. I'd probably hear it in my dreams for years to come.

While I waited, Luscious examined Darious's body. I looked around for something to sit on and found several piles of cardboard boxes in one corner that looked fairly strong. I was resting on top of one of the piles when Luscious returned, looking shaken and pale. I gotta call the coroner.

He pulled out his cell phone and made the call. Then he asked me to tell him why I was in an Amish barn on the edge of town with a dead body riding a carousel.

Have a seat, I said, and waited until he sat on another pile of boxes. Then I told him everything that had happened from the time I arrived and discovered the body until I spotted the farmer and called for help. Luscious didn't interrupt, except to go tsst, tsst from time to time.

But why did you come here in the first place, Tori? How well did you know this Darious guy?

I had hoped I wouldn't have to explain why I was there. It would probably be relayed to Garnet before I got home that I'd had an assignation with a good-looking guy, who just happened to have his throat cut before I arrived.

More tsst, tssts from Luscious accompanied my explanation of how I had first met Darious. He was hissing like a snake by the time I finished telling him I'd only come to the barn to tell Darious I wasn't interested in him.

Seems kinda funny to me you had to come out here to tell him you wasn't gonna see him no more. Couldn't you have done it by phone?

He didn't have one. But I wouldn't have done it by phone, even if Darious had had one. Memories of when my ex-fiance, Steve, called to tell me he was going to marry someone else still hurt. It was the coward's way to break someone's heart, and I couldn't turn around and do it to another person.

He took his policeman's hat off and smoothed his three strands of pale blond hair over his bald spot. Still seems kinda peculiar.

To hide my irritation and embarrassment, I stood up and turned away from him. In doing so, I knocked over the box that topped off the pile I'd been using as a seat, and some newspaper-wrapped articles tumbled onto the wooden floor. A few items came unwrapped, and I stared aghast at them. Although I'd only seen the items once before, I recognized them immediately for their uniqueness. Then, they'd been in a glass display case in the Lickin Creek Public Library. Now, scattered about on the rough wooden floor were some of Gerald Man-ley's gutta-percha collectibles that had been stolen from the library last Sunday night.

Luscious recognized the collection almost as quickly as I did. Holy cow, he said. So that's where them things went to.

The other boxes, Luscious. We'd better see what else is here.

We opened one box after another, and in one I found the hexagonal bracelet with seed pearls I'd last seen on Maggie's wrist at the library. And there were other things, too, that I didn't find very interesting but that were valuable Civil War collectibles, according to Luscious. Whether or not they had also been stolen, we didn't know. But when we opened the box of antique fire chief's trumpets that both of us knew had been stolen from the volunteer firemen's company museum, we knew for sure that Darious had been a thief.

There are more boxes on the upper levels, I said. Without even looking into them, I was sure we'd find the antiques stolen from the Gettysburg collection. Anger surged through every inch of my body. Anger with Darious for deceiving me into thinking he was nothing more than a harmless carousel lover. And anger with myself for being so easily deceived. I knew carousels cost a small fortune. Darious had no visible means of support. I should have realized right away something wasn't right.

Henry Hoopengartner, the coroner, arrived and showed some mild interest in what we'd discovered. Looks like we caught ourselves a rat, he remarked.

We didn't catch anybody, Henry, I retorted. The man is dead.

I can see that, he said. Question is how?

Why don't you examine the body and find out? I snapped.

Good idea. Wish I'd thought of that. He grinned and slowly moved toward the still carousel.

I stayed behind while he took his camera over to the carousel and snapped flash pictures from different angles. Okay, he announced. I'm ready to examine him. Luscious, can you give me a hand?

I could sense Luscious's reluctance, but he knew his job and was up to it. Choosing not to observe the coroner at work, I concentrated on picking up the scattered gutta-percha jewelry and daguerreotype cases and rewrapping them in the crumpled newspaper pages, torn from the Chronicle. At least one of our subscribers had recycled!

Having finished my tidying up, I peeked out to see what was happening and wished I hadn't. I sat down on the high stool and surveyed the workroom. Darious and I had had one thing in common: We both survived on junk food. The worktable was covered with the remnants of former meals: two pizza boxes, a bakery box, half a dozen Chinese food carry-out containers, and many soda cans, as well as pieces of the carousel in various stages of repair. A horse's jeweled bridle lay waiting for Darious's hand to restore it to glory. Next to it was the picture of me from the Chronicle that Darious had framed, and I decided to take it with me. I wasn't really removing evidence, I told myself, because it didn't have anything to do with the crime. I slipped the cardboard back off the frame, and as it came out, so did a picture. Only it wasn't of me; it was a snapshot of Gloria Zimmerman, the animal control officer who lived with Moonbeam Nakamura. And it was signed LOVE ALWAYS, GLORIA. I folded it along with my picture and stuck both of them in my pocket. I had some questions to ask Gloria the next time I saw her.

Absentmindedly, I pushed aside the overflowing ashtray that offended my senses of sight and smell, and as I glanced at it, I realized where I'd seen similar cigarette butts recently. On the floor of Ethelind's parlor, where they had ignited a pile of my clothing that should not have been there. I hadn't thought much about it at the time of the fire, but now I recalled that Ethelind smoked only ugly brown cigarettes that resembled miniature cigars, not common American filter cigarettes like these.

I searched the workroom like a crazy woman, looking for flammable liquids, and of course I found many. I eliminated turpentine as being too smelly. Ditto lighter fluid, gasoline, and kerosene. The fire chief would have identified any of them immediately. Finally, I came upon a large drum containing seventy percent solution hydrogen peroxide, with a warning on the label saying it was an oxidizer, which would initiate combustion in other materials by causing fire through release of oxygen. I was afraid to open it, but as far as I knew, peroxide had no recognizable odor.

Darious was not only a common thief-there was also the strong possibility he had tried to murder me!

I frantically pulled open drawers, dumping contents of the desk and file cabinets on the floor. I found what I was looking for jammed into a box on a shelf, hidden behind a carved rooster head. A long blue skirt, blouse, white apron, and a white cornette, its angel-like wings crushed and sagging. Now I was sure Darious had not only set fire to my house, he'd also shoved me over the bannister at the college. Only by dumb luck had I survived either attempt to kill me.

But why? Why me? What had I ever done to him? The questions spun through my head, but the answers did not come.


Wednesday Morning | Death, Guns and Sticky Buns | Thursday Morning