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Halloween Afternoon

Death, Guns and Sticky Buns

CAN I GIVE YOU A RIDE TO THE RESTAURANT? Charlotte Macmillan leaned in the window on the passenger side and smiled at me. Sounds like your battery is dead.

It's my own fault, I said. I left the key in the ignition, and it must have drained the battery. I got out and kicked a front tire in frustration. The only thing that accomplished was to hurt my already sore toes.

Ride with me, then, Charlotte said.

I'd better stay with the car. Will you please call Triple A from the restaurant?

I insist. You don't want to miss the bridal procession.

My car

Hardly anyone comes here in the off-season, she said. It will be perfectly safe.

Reluctantly, I followed her to her Mercedes SUV. She tossed me the keys. I'm very tired. Will you drive, please?

I don't know how, I said, staring helplessly at the Mercedes's complex dashboard.

Nonsense. It's automatic transmission. Just turn the key. Take a right as you leave the parking lot.

I pulled slowly onto the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tail end of the bridal procession. But it was nowhere to be seen. We drove for a long time on the deserted road.

Turn right just up ahead.

I did as she ordered, and drove past the park service visitor center and the Cyclorama building. Turn right again, then make a left. Charlotte 's voice was flat, as though she were very tired.

I turned into a long driveway lined with red, white, and blue banners. The sign said GETTYSBURG NATIONAL TOWER.

The park service has been trying to get this torn down for years, Charlotte said. People say it ruins the skyline. Park over there. She pointed to a weathered wood building.

This doesn't look like General Pickett's Restaurant, I said.

She pulled the keys from the ignition and dropped them into her purse before I had a chance to react in any way. Let's go, she said. I stared at her and saw her eyes, looking at me from behind her mask, were bloodshot. I felt distinctly uneasy.

Charlotte took my arm as if we were old friends, and we walked up to the brown building with a sign over the door that said SUTLER'S STORE in yellow letters. Inside, standing behind a central desk, was a young man who smiled at us as we walked in.

Two tickets, please, Joey.

I'm real sorry, Mrs. Macmillan, the man behind the window said, but we're closed for repairs.

Oh, come on, Joey. We'll just be a few minutes. I want to show my friend the view of Gettysburg, and she won't be here tomorrow.

He looked like he was about to change his mind.

That's okay, I said. I really don't like heights anyway.

The man laughed. That's what they all say. Okay, Mrs. M., just because it's you, I'll let you go up-but don't tell my boss. He handed her a couple of tokens.

Charlotte laughed girlishly. Don't worry, Joey. No one will ever know. Come on, Tori.

I don't want- Something jabbed me just above my waist.

Charlotte leaned close and whispered, This isn't one of those toy guns they try to sell to women. This one can blow your head right off your shoulders. For the benefit of the young man, she said loudly, Let's take in the view, Tori.

As the elevator rose three hundred feet through the metal struts of the tower, I closed my eyes, not sure whether I was more frightened of Charlotte 's gun or the dizzying ride. I've always thought if I were trapped in a high building by a fire, I'd be one of those people who'd die before climbing down a fireman's ladder.

A bump told me we had reached the top. Out, Charlotte ordered.

I opened one eye to a narrow slit, saw through a glass window how high we were, and clung to the grab bar inside the elevator. My knees were jelly, and I was close to collapsing. Can't, I whimpered.

Big baby. Charlotte pushed me in the back, propelling me onto the glassed-in observation platform. Open your eyes, Tori. Both of them. If you're too chicken to look down, just look at me.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the cannon-size gun she was pointed at me. I focused then on her masked face, and it seemed as though her eyes had grown larger and blacker.

Keep your eyes on her, Tori. Don't look over the edge. I fought back the panic that threatened to engulf me. I wanted to get her talking-to postpone the inevitable for as long as I could. Without looking away from her face, I asked, Why are you doing this? I don't understand.

Charlotte laughed. Mack's cousin's daughter, Reba, answers the phone at Hoopengartner's Garage and police station. Nothing very exciting happens there, so when you called and asked her to relay some questions to Luscious having to do with Darious DeShong's death, she couldn't wait to tell someone. So she called me. Now what I want to know is, what gave me away?

If I hadn't been sure before, I was now. The sticky buns you brought him as an excuse for being there. Everyone around here bakes sticky buns but the ones in Darious's workshop were from the bakery in Gettysburg you always shop at. I saw the box and it was dated that day. The date was one of the things I had wanted to ask Luscious about. And the hank of hair Darious pulled from your head as he was dying. Tests have already proven it was yours. The other question I had for Luscious-was the blond hair Darious clutched in his hand his own or someone else's?

Unconsciously, she raised one hand and touched the side of her mask. There's no proof I even knew him.

But there is. I've seen two copies of a photograph of your husband in a Civil War general's uniform. And, having just seen a picture of General Meade's sword, I realized that the sword Mack wore in the picture was the missing sword from the Gettysburg collection. His ego couldn't resist the urge to be photographed with his stolen treasure, could it? Did he get a thrill out of having that picture on display in his office at the college and at home for everyone to see? Did he commission Darious to steal it, or did he simply pick and choose from whatever Darious brought him? How did a man like your husband get mixed up with a common thief like Darious in the first place?

Questions, questions, questions. My grandma used to say to me, Charlotte, you'll go to your death with a question on your lips.

I hoped I wouldn't. But there didn't seem to be any way for me to escape. The pounding in my chest had slowed down a little while I was talking, but it had started up again. My heart felt as if it was about to burst from my chest.

I don't mind answering your questions now, Charlotte said. It won't matter. My knees threatened to buckle when she said that, and I had to concentrate on her mask to keep myself from fainting from fright.

You asked how Mack met Darious. I introduced them, Tori. Months before my accident, I was riding on the battlefield and came across Darious, hunting for artifacts with a metal detector. When he realized I wasn't going to report him, we started talking about collecting, and I told him of Mack's constant search for good-quality Civil War collectibles. He said he had some items Mack might be interested in. Mack was delighted to buy them with no questions asked. One thing led to another, and before long Darious was picking over various collections for certain pieces Mack wanted. I suppose he planned to sell the other things to other collectors.

And after Mack's suicide, you killed Darious to keep him from talking about the sales and to protect your late husband's reputation?

Good guess, Tori. But wrong motive.

What then? I asked. You might as well tell me why. I'm obviously not going to tell anyone.

I eliminated Darious because he was a blundering idiot. He couldn't do anything right.

Like what?

Like killing you, for one thing.

It was Darious who shot at me.

Shot and missed. He couldn't even set your house on fire properly. When you survived being pushed off the staircase at the college, I decided I'd had enough.

But Darious liked me. I know he did. I don't understand why he would want to kill me.

That carousel was all he cared about. When I learned you'd visited him, I told him you were conducting an undercover investigation about carousel robberies for a story. When you showed up the second time, he believed me. I invited you to come riding, let Darious know by cell phone when we left so he had time to hide in Devil's Den, then led you to where you'd be right in his sights.

Why not do me in yourself?

I wanted to make sure I had an alibi when an attempt was made on your life. She sighed. My grandma always said, If you want a job done well, do it yourself.

But why me? What did I do to you?

When I suggested to President Godlove that he ask you to quietly look into my husband's death, I thought doing so would give me plausibility as the bereaved widow. I had no idea you'd take your assignment so seriously. You asked too many questions of too many people. I knew it would be only a matter of time before you figured everything out. You reminded me of a bulldog I had as a kid. Once he got hold of something, he wouldn't let go. You're the same way.

I only did what I thought should be done.

Exactly. But you were supposed to come to the conclusion that Woody Woodruff was a bumbler who accidentally put real bullets in the guns.

But, Woody isn't the kind of

Charlotte sighed. I know, Tori. I underestimated both of you. You got too close to the truth.

What do you mean? The truth about what?

She snickered. It wasn't a pleasant sound. Oh, Mack committed suicide, all right. After I told him he would die painfully in less than a month. We agreed suicide made to look like an accident would be the ideal solution. He'd die quickly, I'd get the insurance money, and I'd split it with Lillie White to take care of her brat.

How did you convince him he was going to die? The nurse at Dr. Washabaugh's office said he had Oh my God. You killed Dr. Washabaugh, didn't you?

Technically no. Darious did it. To cover up destroying Mack's medical records. It was supposed to look like a robbery gone wrong.

But Vesta was there; she told me how hard Mack took his diagnosis.

She'd be dead, too, if she'd gone to work when she was supposed to. But Vesta has such a reputation for making up stories that nobody in their right mind is going to pay any attention to what she says. In this case, though, she was right about what she saw. She just didn't understand what was going on. You see, I interpreted for Mack using sign language, but what I told him was not what Dr. Washabaugh told me. Very simple. I'd interpreted everything for him for the last four years. He trusted me.

And look what it got him. That's disgusting!

Charlotte shrugged. I did what I had to do. After we got home that day, while he was still in shock, I convinced him that staging an accidental death was the only way he could avoid dying slowly and painfully and still provide for Lillie and the baby. We planned his accidental death down to the last detail. The plans were already under way for the mock execution, and it was easy for Mack to persuade Janet to let him play the convicted man. We even planned for me to be away for the weekend, so I couldn't be suspected of doing anything wrong. It was easy to change the ammunition; he simply substituted his key for the storeroom key while Janet Margolies was in the bathroom, then went back later that night to reload the guns.

And his plan would have worked, if he'd switched the keys back again.

He was supposed to bring the key and the ammo home and put them in the safe. After all the fuss died down, I'd be able to dispose of them. But when I opened the safe to get them, they weren't there. I guessed, wrongly, that he'd managed to get rid of them on Friday night. I never realized he'd done something as stupid as putting the evidence in his desk at the college.

What was the purpose of his leaving a suicide note, then, if you wanted it to appear to be an accident?

That was a CYA letter. You know, cover-your-ass. If somehow the authorities came to suspect what happened and that I'd had something to do with his death, I was to bring it out. We never thought it would get to that point-not with that idiot Luscious Miller running the police department. If you hadn't come by with your prattle about Wonder Wads and suicide, that letter would still be in the safe, and I'd have enough money to make a new life for myself.

And so would Lillie White, I pointed out.

Like I'd share it with that tramp. Wasn't it enough she stole my husband's love from me? The only reason he turned to her was because he couldn't stand to look at me after I was burned. The hand holding the gun dropped as if she'd forgotten it was there. He told me he was going to leave me was going to marry her I loved him too much to let that happen.

Was Darious involved in the plot to kill your husband?

Hell no, Mack was his goose who laid golden eggs. But I knew Darious was so crazy to get money to refin-ish that carousel, he didn't care where it came from, so I offered him part of the insurance money to kill Dr. Washabaugh and make it look like a robbery gone bad. He was a man with no morals, Tori. He tried to blackmail me!

Like she had scruples! So you killed him.

I had to, to keep him from talking. Just like I have to kill you, Tori.

That was a bluff, Charlotte. If he'd gone to the police, he would have implicated himself. You didn't have to kill him. You didn't have to kill your husband either. I'm sure he would have provided for you.

There was no money left. Mack was the worst businessman in the world. Even the farm had a double mortgage. There was no way he could have supported two families. But it wasn't really about money, she said. I could never give him children, and that's the one thing he always wanted. With the baby coming and me so ugly, he said he never wanted to see me again. I couldn't let that whore have him. I'd devoted myself to taking care of him and all he cared about was having a baby. He didn't love me. He probably never did.

Charlotte 's empty left hand rose. Look! Before I realized what she was doing, she pulled the mask up over her head. Her sleek blond hair tumbled loose, covering her face, and she swept it back. Look, she cried again. Look at me.

I stared at her in silent shock. I don't know what I had expected to see, but this was definitely not it.

Have you ever seen anything so hideous?

Charlotte you're you're beautiful! The face she had uncovered was unblemished, so far as I could see.

No, she wailed. I'm ugly. There're scars beneath my skin-maybe you can't see them, but Mack could. He couldn't bear to look at me after the fire. Or touch me. He said nobody would ever want me again. Then he said he was going to leave me. Leave me alone. Alone and hideous. And poor. You understand why I couldn't let that happen, don't you, Tori?

No, I did not! Charlotte been responsible for three deaths: her own husband, Dr. Washabaugh, and Dari-ous. And she'd nearly killed Professor Nakamura and me. I could not feel any sympathy for her.

I also knew the only reason she'd told me all this was because she had no fear I would tell anyone. And the only way she could be sure of that would be to kill me. This was the end. Tori Miracle would be another casualty on the battlefield of Gettysburg, only there would be no beautiful monument erected in my memory. I'd be lucky if my father sprang for a tombstone.

We're going up to the top, Charlotte announced. She pointed to a flight of metal steps while keeping the gun trained on me.

Please, don't make me go up there, I whispered.

Climb, or I'll shoot you right now.

Even another minute of life was precious at that moment, so I climbed with Charlotte close behind me. We emerged onto an open-air platform near the top of the tower, with only a waist-high metal railing between us and the blue sky beyond. Stacks of metal gratings lay on the floor, waiting to be placed around the edge so that no one could fall or jump off.

Walk over to the railing, Charlotte ordered. And don't try any funny stuff.

I minced my way to the edge, where I grabbed hold of the railing and hung tight. The world spun around me, and I already felt the terror of my death plunge. She wasn't going to shoot me, I realized. She was going to force me over the railing. Make it look as though I'd fallen by accident. But I wouldn't climb over it. She'd have to shoot me first.

Don't turn around, she said. She wasn't going to shoot me. A blow on the head would knock me senseless, then she could simply shove me over. The mark the gun made on my skull would never be noticed amid the trauma caused by the fall.

I'm not a bad person, Charlotte said. Circumstances forced me to do what I did.

How many more people would you have been forced to kill, Charlotte?

Only one more. Lillie White was next.

I steeled myself for the blow that would surely follow what I was going to say next.

You're not as smart as you think, Charlotte. Your husband outwitted you.

What are you talking about?

Mack was no dummy, Charlotte. He must have known you wouldn't share the insurance money with Lillie. That's why he left the Wonder Wads and the keys in his desk instead of bringing them home. He knew someone would find them there and figure out his death was a suicide. Then you'd have to produce the suicide note to save yourself from being charged as an accessory to insurance fraud. The letter might save your skin, but it also meant you wouldn't get the insurance money.

That's ridiculous. Besides, there's other money- the collection is probably worth a million dollars.

Your husband wrote a new will, Charlotte.

Her gasp of surprise told me I was right. Macmillan had double-crossed her.

He left half his estate to his unborn child, Lillie's baby. While half a million dollars might seem like a lot of money to some people, it wouldn't support your lifestyle for long.

Behind me, there was absolute silence. I'd apparently shocked her into silence. I braced myself for the blow. Please let it be over with quickly, I prayed.

Didn't you hear me, Charlotte? Your husband outsmarted you. He made sure his child would be cared for and that you would be out of the picture. I looked over my shoulder at her, but I didn't see her. I spun around, still gripping the rail. She was gone. She must have slipped down the stairs while I was talking. For some reason, she had decided to spare me.

I slid down the stairs, two at a time, to the observation room. The elevator door stood open. There hadn't been time for her to ride it down. She had to still be up here with me, somewhere. I leaped inside the elevator and pressed the down button. After a long, frustrating wait, the door slid shut and the elevator lurched downward.

I stood an inch away from the door, ready to spring from the elevator as soon as it came to a stop. When at last it opened, I ran screaming for help toward a small group of people standing in a semicircle. Why did they pay no attention to me? I stopped. Something was horribly wrong. They were staring at a crumpled object on the ground. As if I were walking underwater, I slowly moved toward them and saw that the object was beige and streaked with red. And as the realization of what it was hit me, my wobbly knees gave way, and I collapsed in a heap on the sidewalk.


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