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Thursday Morning

Death, Guns and Sticky Buns

CASSIE HAD RUSHED OVER TO BE WITH ME AFTER I called her from the mansion. She intercepted the visitors who arrived in a constant stream bearing offerings of casseroles and cakes. In Lickin Creek, misery was a magnet, pulling people I'd never seen before to my back door.

Let's put it on the dining room table, she suggested, surveying the quantities of food that covered the kitchen counter. That way you can serve a buffet lunch.

To whom? I asked, following behind her with my arms laden down with Pyrex dishes. Just who do you think is going to be here for lunch?

You never know, she said cryptically, making a small pile of paper plates near the edge of the table.

The first to arrive was Luscious Miller, accompanied by a stranger, a small man in an ill-fitting gray suit who reminded me of a mourning dove-no chin, pouffy chest, and scrawny legs.

Like you to meet John Strainge, Luscious said once they were inside.

That's spelled S-T-R-A-I -N-G-E, the man said as he shook my hand.

Strange spelling, I said. He didn't smile. I guess he'd heard that one before.

Before Luscious could tell me why the strange Strainge man was there, the door swung open and Henry Hoopengartner entered.

Please come in, I said.

I already am in, Henry said, not getting it. Cassie wiped the smile from her lips and removed a dish of baked lasagna from the oven.

Everything's ready, she announced.

Would you like to have lunch? I asked the three men.

Of course they would. In fact, they followed Cassie like the children of Hamelin following the Pied Piper.

As the men loaded their plates with food, I heard knocking at the back door. That would be Chief Yoder, Luscious explained. I asked him to drop by.

The fire chief was already inside by the time I reached the kitchen. And, Yes, I would like a bite to eat, thank you.

The six of us sat down in Ethelind's large front parlor, the one that had been recently refurbished due to fire. Henry and Mr. Strainge sat on the modern couch that Ethelind had unwillingly bought to replace the charred Empire sofa. It was much nicer to lie on but not nearly as elegant-looking. Cassie and I sat side by side on the piano bench, while Luscious and the fire chief took the carved rosewood chairs that I knew from experience were even more uncomfortable than they looked.

I picked at my food and waited for the men to tell me why they were there. Surely they hadn't just dropped in for lunch! They appeared to be in no hurry as they all went back for second helpings.

After a long, quiet interval, where the only sounds to be heard were the sounds of chewing, lip smacking, and an occasional dainty belch, Cassie asked if anyone would like to have dessert.

What do ya got? Chief Yoder asked.

Pumpkin, apple, shoofly and Montgomery pie, molasses cake, cornstarch cake, cracker pudding, cherry fritters, and sticky buns. Shall I continue?

No sticky buns for me, Henry Hoopengartner said with a shudder. That's what that poor bastard was eating when his throat was cut.

Luscious shook his head solemnly. Just imagine, you're sitting there, quietly minding your own business, when zap

Looks like he tried to grab the guy behind him. All he managed to do was yank out a big hunk of his own hair. It was right there in his hand. Henry smiled at me as if talking about a man's death throes was normal at mealtime.

Please! I screamed. I don't want to hear this.

Sorry, the two men said in unison.

Why don't you tell me who Mr. Strainge is, and what he's doing here today, I said.

Luscious nodded. Okay. But first, let me explain how he got here.

Whenever you're ready, I said.

After I got back to the office, I got to thinking that a working merry-go-round was a real peculiar thing to find in a barn. And because all them things in the boxes was stolen, I thought maybe the merry-go-round was stolen, too. So I called my nephew Sam and asked him to check the Internet and see if he could find something out.

And did he? I asked.

Sure did. Didn't take him long, either, so his mother made him go back to middle school for the afternoon.

So what did this sixth- or seventh-grade genius determine? I'd get the story out of him even if I had to pull it out word by word.

This. Luscious handed me a black-and-white laser printout. $10,000 REWARD, I read, for information leading to the return of this carousel. Below the message was a photo of Darious's carousel, only it had been taken many years ago, for it was out-of-doors, under a pavilion. Happy-looking children straddled most of the animals.

It looked like the same merry-go-round to me, Luscious said.

It is, I'm sure of it. I recognize my favorite animal, the hippocampus.

So I called the number. Turned out to be this gentleman, Mr. Strainge.

Mr. Strainge took up the narrative. When I got Chief Miller's call, I told the wife I was going straight up to Lickin Creek to check it out for myself. It's my carousel. No doubt about it.

Yo u re sure of that? I wanted to doubt him, but in my heart I knew he was right.

It was made by the Dentzel factory in 1920 for my pap-pap's amusement park down in Boiling Springs. It ran there until my father closed the park in 1950. He had the carousel took apart and stored it in the barn on his farm in Dillsburg. It's my farm now, since he passed.

So how do you think it got to Lickin Creek? Cas-sie asked.

I'm getting to that, Mr. Strainge said, frowning slightly. Three summers ago a young guy came by, driving an old pickup truck, and offered to do farm work for nothing if we'd give him a place to stay. I told him he could sleep in the barn if he liked, and he said that would suit him just fine. He'd been injured during Desert Storm, he said, and all that Agent Orange Juice he drank there gave him Gulf War syndrome. Said the docs at the veterans hospital told him fresh air was the only cure.

Cassie threw an amused look my way. I pretended I didn't notice.

Me and the wife both got jobs down in Harrisburg because farming don't pay enough to leave us stay home, so we was glad to have the help. Especially when it didn't cost us nothing except for his meals. Round about the end of that September, he just up and disappeared one day. I didn't mind too much because most of the hard work was done.

In fact, I never gave him another thought till a few months later. That's when a couple of men showed up at the door with a magazine-I think it was called American Carousel-something like that. They showed me an article about collecting carousel horses, and I'll be darned if there wasn't a picture of my pap-pap's carousel right there in the magazine.

I told them it was stored in my barn, and they got all excited and said they'd be willing to pay me a million dollars if the animals was in restorable condition. A million dollars! The wife near burst with excitement. We went right down to the barn, and guess what

The carousel was gone, I said.

Yep. Every last bit of it. All I could think of was that young guy spent all summer hauling it away while me and the wife was at work. He must have seen the article about it, too, and tracked it down just like the collectors, only he got to me before they did. The buyers was real disappointed, and they suggested I offer a reward. I thought ten thou was too much, but they reminded me I'd get a million from them when I got it back. They took care of putting ads in the carousel magazine and on the computer. It's been so long without any word that I darn near forgot about it. That is, till Chief Miller called this morning.

The young man you think took it-do you remember his name?

Oh yeah, it was Darren Detweiler. I thought he was related to the Detweilers over in Littlestown. He never said he weren't. Good-looking man the wife said often enough. If you like that type.

Yes, I wanted to say, I liked that type.

I got a picture of him. He pulled an envelope out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket and handed it to me. I was snapping a picture of the wife with my new John Deere, and it turned out he was in the background painting the house.

I had to force myself to look at the photo. Behind the large yellow tractor and the dumpy little woman was a golden-haired, bare-chested man, so busy with his paintbrush that he never knew his picture was being taken. Darious hadn't changed at all in three years. My eyes misted over, and I passed it over to Luscious.

So I guess the reward's yours, little lady. I'll see you get a check as soon as I get my million bucks.

I don't want it, I told him. Why don't you give it to Luscious's nephew Sam? He's really the one who did all the work in finding you.

Luscious beamed with pride. That'll take care of Sam's college.

One semester of college is more like it, I thought, but I didn't disillusion Luscious.

Mr. Strainge shook hands all around and left. Now we were five, Cassie, Luscious, Chief Yoder, Henry

Hoopengartner, and me. I wished they'd all go and leave me alone to process what had happened, but they all seemed firmly ensconced in their places.

Now that he's gone, I've got some bad news for you, Chief Yoder said with a cheerful smile that seemed out of place. I had the contents of your teapot analyzed, and it was loaded with Ambien, a prescription sleeping medicine.

I knew there was something in it, I said.

Worse news, Luscious added. We found a half-empty prescription bottle among Darious's personal effects.

I'm not surprised. I'd already decided he was the one who tried to kill me. I just don't know why I thought he liked me.

Cassie patted my hand reassuringly. She seemed to sense something had gone on between Darious and me. I'm sure he did, Tori. But when he discovered you were a reporter, he probably thought you were tracking down the antiques he'd stolen. Remember I told you P. J. has received several threats to her life. It comes with the job, Tori.

I wonder if he's also the one who shot Professor Nakamura while aiming at me?

Luscious and Chief Yoder exchanged glances. Luscious cleared his throat and said, We found some guns in the barn. I've sent them out for a ballistics check, to compare them to the bullet that was in Nakamura's chest. I have a feeling we'll find out Darious was the guy what shot at you. There's something else you should know, Tori. I hate to tell you this because I know you and he was kinda friends.

Not friends. Acquaintances. Tell me.

There's a good chance one of them guns killed Dr. Washabaugh. We'll know for sure in a day or two.

But why would he have done that?

Probably looking for drugs. Luscious opened his eyes wide trying to look wise, but the result was merely that he looked pop-eyed.

The kind of man who'd steal from a fire department would do anything. Chief Yoder was full of righteous indignation.

One more thing, Luscious began.

What else? I groaned.

His name wasn't Darious DeShong or even Darren Detweiler. Fingerprints identify him as Douglas Digby from Pittsburgh, a felon with a record as long as my arm: DUIs, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon

Please don't tell me. I couldn't bear to listen to any more evidence against Darious. Evidence that proved to me all too well that my atrocious taste in men was still alive and well. With the exception of Garnet, all my life I'd been attracted to the wrong kind of men, ones who were good-looking and charming on the outside, but inside were rotten to the core. Did it have something to do with my father being that kind of man? Maybe the time had come for me to join a therapy group and look into this major character defect.

Why don't you two stop telling me bad things about Darious and tell me who you think killed him?

They looked at each as if nothing like that had ever crossed their minds. Finally, Luscious spoke up, He was involved in lots of shady deals. I figure one went bad. Double-cross, maybe.

Henry and the fire chief nodded their agreement. To me, it looked as if they didn't care. The borough was rid of one of its more unsavory residents, and that was all that mattered.

After the three men left, Cassie and I busied ourselves with cleaning up, carrying the half-full casserole dishes back to the kitchen, throwing out the paper plates, putting the silverware in the dishwasher. While I was refilling the cats dishes with Tasty Tabby Treats, the phone rang.

I'll get it. Cassie picked up the receiver and said, Hello, Miracle residence.

I liked the sound of that.

Who's calling? Just a minute please. She covered the mouthpiece and whispered, Someone wants to talk to you a woman she won't give me her name. Sounds upset.

Probably someone who wants me to rush over and take a five-generation photo before great-great-grandma dies. I took the phone from Cassie and glanced at the caller ID unit, then said into the receiver, Hello, Lillie.

The woman's voice on the other end was faint. I couldn't tell if it was because of a bad connection or because she wasn't talking into the mouthpiece. She gasped and asked, How did you know it was me?

It's a journalistic secret. What can I do for you?

Do you remember me? Lillie White? You done come and talked to me at the Brick Shed House.

Yes, Lillie. I remember. How can I help you?

There's something you said I want to know can you like, you know

Impatiently, I said, Lillie, would this be easier face-to-face? Do you want to meet me at my office?

I don't have a sitter. Can you come here? To my place?

She gave me the name of a building, and I said I'd be right over. After I hung up, I asked Cassie if she knew where the Overholtzer Arms was.

It's on Main Street, about a block and a half south of the Chronicle building, on the west side of the street.

Now if I had my handy-dandy Girl Scout compass with me, I'd know exactly where that was, wouldn't I?

Turn left, cross the next intersection, the Over-holtzer is on the right side of Main Street, before you cross the next street. It would really help if you would learn directions, Tori. Can't you remember Main Street runs east and west?

Sure. I just don't know which way is east and which is west.

After a little trouble getting the car to start, I drove to the Overholtzer Arms, which was a Late Victorian brick building overlooking a bend in the Lickin Creek. Its balconies, large windows overlooking the waterfront, and stone gargoyles peering down from the roof were reminders of Lickin Creek's glory days. I imagined this building, at one time, had been a prestigious place to live.

Sagging floorboards creaked as I crossed the front porch and pushed open the door. The hallway inside was dim and smelled of mildew. After my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I spotted a row of doorbells set in the wall to my right. I peered at them until I found one that said L. WHITE and pushed it. Somewhere upstairs a door opened and a woman called out, Who is it?

Tori Miracle.

Come on up. Be careful of that railing. It wobbles.

Not only did the railing wobble, the whole staircase swayed as I groped my way up in pitch-blackness to the third and top floor.

Lillie was waiting for me at the top of the stairs. Without her thick stage makeup and with her hair pulled back into an unadorned ponytail, she looked about twelve years old. She held open the door to her apartment and urged me to enter.

The living room was tiny, even by my New York standards. The furnishings were a green sofa, a reclining chair upholstered in mauve velour, two white plastic end tables, a wicker coffee table with the white paint peeling off, a floor lamp, and a large TV. That was it. There was no place more depressing than my Hell's Kitchen apartment, but this was definitely a runner-up in the not-fit-for-man-nor-beast category.

A little girl sat on the bare wood floor in front of the TV, watching cartoons with her thumb in her mouth. Her free hand clutched a faux Beanie Baby. She didn't acknowledge my presence.

She don't hear so good, Lillie explained. Want a soda?

I shook my head, sat down on the edge of the sofa, and watched her refill two glasses from a half-empty Coke bottle on the coffee table. She handed one to the child and took a long drink from the other before sitting on the recliner.

Looks like we're in for a weather change, she said. Turned kind of cool after that windstorm.

Mmmm, I agreed. Local custom called for starting every conversation with a discussion about weather conditions.

Good thing. I don't like hot weather.


Maybe if I had an air conditioner.

Always heard you don't need air-conditioning in Pennsylvania.

That's true. Fresh air's always the best. The first killing frost always hits near Halloween.

That was enough weather-channel chatter for me. Lillie, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?

She took another long swig of her Coke. It's something you done said to me on Sunday. I wanted to ask you if like you know Her voice trailed away, and she began to shred a Kleenex into little bits of confetti.

Please, Lillie. Just ask me. I don't have all day.

It's what you said about Kayla's dad.

Who's Kayla? I'm sorry, Lillie, but could you give me a little hint? I don't know what you're talking about.

Kayla, she said, nodding at the little girl on the floor. You said I could track her dad down with dee and ay. Can you tell me how to go about it?

Sure. It's a DNA test, just the letters DNA. A lab can compare people's blood samples to prove paternity. She looked blank, so I added, Prove who the dad is. I believe they can even do it with swabs from the inside of the mouth. Do you want to find Kayla's dad?

Lillie's ponytail bounced as she vehemently shook her head. If he don't want to be her dad, then I don't want him nowhere near us. We're getting along just fine without him.

Then why did you want to know about DNA testing?

When you was talking to me the other day, it got me thinking. Do you know if they can test a guy's DNA after he's dead?

Of course, I said. If they can get a tissue sample. Why do you ask?

She patted her skinny midsection. Because Mack promised me that this kid would have everything it deserved, and I want to make damn sure it gets it.

You're pregnant! By Mack Macmillan?

She smiled and nodded. Mack never had no kids with his other wives. He was real excited about the baby. Wanted us to be a real family.

Did he tell you he had cancer?

Her eyes opened wide with surprise. Mack didn't have cancer. He would of told me.

He knew, Lillie.

If he'd known, he would of made a will and put me and the baby in it. He said he'd take care of us, no matter what.

I must have been exhausted because suddenly a vision flashed through my brain of me sitting in an attorney's office preparing for my own death. And to my neighbor Murray Rosenbaum. I leave my aspidistra. I shook the crazy idea away; I don't even know what an aspidistra is. I just like the sound of the word.

You probably should call your lawyer, I suggested.

Yeah, right. People like me don't have lawyers.

I tore a page from my notebook, wrote down Buchanan McCleary's name. Not only was he the borough solicitor, but he had his own private practice and loved to champion the underdog. They'd be a match made in heaven, of that I was sure.

As I crossed the room I reached down and gently touched Kayla on the shoulder. The child looked up and smiled at me. I gave her a thumbs-up sign that caused her to giggle. Have you sought out any help for her? I asked Lillie as she held the door open for me.

Like what? I don't have no money for fancy doctoring.

I sighed. This was what happened when children had children. Try Easter Seal, I suggested.

Mack's wife volunteers there, teaching sign language, and I sure don't want to bump into her.

When I was back on the street, the cold wind rushing down from the mountains felt good to me after the cloying atmosphere of the small apartment. I buttoned my sweater and wondered if this was the start of that killing frost Lillie had mentioned.

At least now I understood why Lillie had told me Mack Macmillan was going to marry her. Quite possibly, she was right. As I got into my car, it occurred to me to wonder why a man would commit suicide when he was excitedly expecting his first child. Sure, he'd been told he only had about ten years left, but from my thirty-something viewpoint, ten years was a long time, especially for a man who was already in his seventies. He'd told Lillie he'd take care of her and the child-did that mean he'd changed his will in their favor? I decided the person to ask was Buchanan McCleary.

I drove the couple of blocks to his office in the old Pizza Hut building the borough council had bought to use as a town hall annex. Buchanan had told me it was a real bargain because it shared a parking lot and snow removal costs with the Church of God. That church, located in what used to be a service station, had a new sign up: NO JESUS, NO PEACE. KNOW JESUS, KNOW PEACE. How easy life must be for the faithful, I thought. There certainly wasn't much peace in my life these days.

Perhaps it was my overactive imagination, but I was positive I smelled garlic as I entered through the glass door that faced the parking lot. Buchanan, six foot eight if you counted his seventies Afro, came around the desk to give me a hug and a peck on the cheek.

Ugh! he said, straightening up and rubbing his back. Wish you'd grow about eight inches.

I will if you'll agree to shrink by the same amount.

A grin crossed his dark, handsome face. How about a cup of Darjeeling? He'd once told me tea drinking was a habit he'd picked up when he was a Rhodes scholar in England.

I'd love some.

While he busied himself at the hot plate in the corner, I wondered how his relationship with Garnet's sister, Greta, was going. They were both aging hippie activists who espoused many causes, such as the rain forests, the whales, dolphins, the Bay, and recycling. If I'd ever met two people who were destined to be soul mates, they were Buchanan and Greta.

Buchanan was reputed to be the best lawyer in the tri-state area, and his private practice was quite lucrative. I often wondered why he worked for the borough council as a part-time attorney, but then I realized, that Buchanan, with his penchant for good deeds, probably thought of the work he did for the borough as his charitable contribution to Lickin Creek. He came back carrying two blue-and-white Spode mugs full of fragrant hot tea. He'd remembered I like mine with milk and sugar.

What do you hear from Garnet? he asked, taking his seat behind the giant library table that served as his desk.

He called Wednesday.

Will he be coming home before he leaves for Costa Rica?

I had no idea. Of course, I said.

Damn shame about that young man getting himself killed. Luscious told me it looks like he was responsible for the recent rash of button-and-bullet robberies. Sounds like someone he double-crossed got revenge. No honor among thieves.

What do you mean by buttons and bullets?

That's what we call most of the Civil War collections around here. Most contain a lot of objects, but none are particularly valuable.

But there were some really important artifacts stolen from the Gettysburg museum, weren't there? Did everything turn up in the barn?

Buchanan shook his head. Not everything. The two rangers who were at the barn all morning stopped by the police station an hour ago to tell Luscious the rarest items are still missing.

Anything in particular?

General Meade's sword, for one, and some battle flags. They left some photos to help Luscious identify them if they should turn up. Luscious came by to use my scanner to make some copies. He pulled three pieces of paper out of his in-box and handed them to me. This is the clearest. You can easily read the letters and numbers on the banners.

I studied the photos. Two showed the banners. The third was of the sword, and something about it bothered me, but I didn't know why.

Putting the pictures to one side, Buchanan leaned back, cocked his head, and looked quizzically at me. May I ask why you have honored me with this visit?

I want to know about Mack Macmillan's will. Has it been filed for probate?

Buchanan nodded. It has. Shouldn't take long at all to take care of the few bequests he made and wind it up.

Were there any unusual or unexpected bequests?

Not unless you count the ten grand he left to the animal shelter. I guess his conscience got the better of him.

So you know about the puppy mills?

Sure. Everybody does. And thanks to Mack, it's still not illegal to run one.

Can you tell me how long ago the will was written?

Of course. He came to see me at my office, the real one, not this place, about a month ago. Asked me to tear up the trust he'd written immediately after he and Charlotte were married. He replaced it with a simple will, the kind that costs about fifty bucks, leaving the bulk of his estate to Charlotte. When I pointed out to him that his estate was large and complicated and better served by the trust, he told me to mind my own business. That he knew what he was doing.

I wonder why he did that, I said, thinking of Lillie White and the baby she was expecting. Had Macmillan lied to her about taking care of her and the child? For all that it was worth, I didn't even know if she'd told me the truth about his being the father. Maybe she saw his death as an opportunity to grab some of his money for herself.

What if there was a child? I asked.

But he and Charlotte never had Wait just a minute. Are you telling me there is a child?

There might be. It hasn't been born yet.

But Charlotte uh isn't she a little old for

Not Charlotte, Buchanan. Another woman.

That explains why he didn't let me scratch that line out of the will.

What line?

The one that's in most standard wills-leaving half the deceased's assets to be divided up among his children.

If what you're saying is true and there is a child, it could change things. Give me the woman's name.

I'll have her call you, I said. For once, I decided, I would not be caught in the middle of another Lickin Creek scandal.

Wednesday Afternoon | Death, Guns and Sticky Buns | Halloween Morning