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Halloween Evening

Death, Guns and Sticky Buns

SOMEONE HELPED ME UP AND LED ME TO A BENCH near the small pond at the foot of the tower. Another brought me a cup of ice water, and I dipped my fingers in it and rubbed some on my cheeks and forehead. I'm not sure when Luscious Miller arrived, but he was suddenly there.

How did you know to come here?

I heard on the scanner that a woman had fallen from the tower. I knew you was in Gettysburg for the wedding, and I kind of thought I'd find you in the middle of things. He turned bright red. I was afraid it was you what fell, Tori. I prayed for you all the way over the mountain.

I took his hand and squeezed it, loving him for his unabashed concern. Suddenly, we were nearly overrun with white police cars. The only differences I could see was that the park rangers vehicles had green stripes on the sides, the Gettysburg police cars had blue stripes, and the state police cars had black stripes. Close behind the white fleet came an ambulance and the Adams County coroner.

With little confusion, the allied forces herded the witnesses, three tourists, Joey from the Sutlery, and a groundskeeper into one area, then turned to me for an explanation. My heart sank when I recognized one of the rangers who had interrogated me at the visitor center. His grin told me he recognized me as well.

I turned my back on the grisly scene and spent about fifteen minutes explaining what had happened. Then another fifteen minutes explaining why it had happened and why I was involved. Luscious, bless his heart, stood by my side with an avuncular arm around my shoulders. Fortunately, one of the park rangers had been to Darious's barn to identify the stolen items from the park's collection and was able to verify parts of my story. Both rangers were ecstatic when they learned they were going to get General Meade's sword and other treasures back. After ordering me to go home and stay there until they could come and question me some more, the police and the park rangers went back to measuring, photographing, and taking affidavits from the witnesses who were huddled together near the revolving entrance to the tower area.

While Luscious and I walked to the Lickin Creek police car, slowly on account of my sore feet, we saw three cars hurtling down the driveway toward us. The first screeched to a stop and was nearly rear-ended by the car behind, which in turn was gently bumped by the car behind it. When the dust and noise settled, I realized Woody, Moonbeam, and Tamsin were in the backseat of the front car. Professor Nakamura sat in the front seat beside the driver, his son.

Moonbeam climbed out, bells atingling, and embraced me. We just heard someone from the wedding had fallen from the tower. You and Charlotte were the only guests missing. I was so afraid it was you, Tori. She burst into tears.

I patted her back. I'm not always the victim of foul play; it just seems like it's been happening that way, lately.

Gloria Zimmerman emerged from the second car. She'd changed from her gray silk gown to a slinky silver mini dress that wouldn't have gone around one of my thighs. Helga Van Brackle and Dr. Godlove got out of the third car and assessed the damage done to their bumper. Gloria was the first to see the body, now covered with a white cloth. What happened? Her voice was barely more than a whisper.

I was too exhausted to talk, so Luscious filled them in with what he knew.

Charlotte was a murderess I can hardly believe it. She did so much for everybody in the community. Good people like her don't kill other people. Moonbeam shook her head, nearly dislodging her gold tiara, and Woody put a protective arm around her.

Look, I said, I really want to get home. Can we talk later?

They moved their cars so Luscious could get out. As we went around the traffic circle, I realized they were following us. I groaned. When I said later, I meant later as in next week, not later as in twenty minutes from now.

Luscious patted my hand. I'm sure they just want to show you how much they care.

For me, or for Charlotte? That wasn't a very nice thing to say, and Luscious sensibly chose not to answer it.

When we were assembled in my large front parlor, I confronted Moonbeam and Woody. Shouldn't you two be at your reception?

Moonbeam smiled. They won't miss us. Right now you're what's important. Besides, we brought some champagne. We can celebrate right here.

Nods and smiles all around confirmed what she said. Even Helga didn't look as disagreeable as usual.

With Tamsin's assistance, I set the dining room table with the platters and bowls of food left over from my last two disasters. I hoped my neighbors had run out of patience with me and wouldn't be showing up on my doorstep with more goodies. We put everything out, except for the half-empty box of sticky buns Charlotte had brought, which I tossed in the trash. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to eat another.

This is almost as nice as the General Pickett, Moonbeam said, surveying the table. Let's have a toast. Where are your glasses?

In the sideboard, over there. I'll put on some coffee. Gloria, can you help me? She looked surprised but followed me into the kitchen. I started the coffeemaker, then said to her, I saw your picture-in a frame-in Darious DeShong's workshop.

She gasped. You didn't think I had anything to do with his death, did you?

While such a thought had crossed my mind, I didn't need to tell her that. What was going on between you? And a much younger man, I wanted to add.

Nothing. Well, nothing anymore. We did have a thing going for a little while. I met him while I was investigating the puppy mill the Hostettlers ran at their farm. It was one of the worst I've seen; I gave them six weeks to clean it up or go to jail.

They haven't, I said.

I know. I should have gone back there, but I didn't want to run into Darious again. Tori, there was something wrong with that man. But he was gorgeous, don't you agree?

I nodded, agreeing with both statements, Darious was gorgeous, and there had been something wrong with him.

I can't put my finger on it, but shortly after we I mean well you know, I began to suspect he wasn't all he appeared to be. And that carousel if you're rich enough to own one, you don't have to live in a barn. And you don't try to hide it. He'd disappear, sometimes for days at a time, and get furious with me when I asked him where he'd been. He hit me-once- that was enough. After that, he called maybe half a dozen times. I hung up on him every time. Then that ended. I never saw him again.

You were lucky to get away with only being hit, I said. He tried to kill me. And he did kill Dr. Washabaugh.

How do you know?

Charlotte confessed everything to me. She and Darious were truly a team made in hell. I don't know which of them was worse. Let's go into the parlor, so I can tell everybody at once what happened on the tower.

The eight people in the parlor had already helped themselves to food and had begun to eat. I sat down and waited for Gloria to fill a plate.

How did you figure out Charlotte killed Darious? Tamsin asked, too eager to wait. Did you find a big clue?

I smiled. No big clues, Tamsin. I'm not really Nancy Drew. I drew a blank stare from her on that one. The Hardy Boys? Sherlock Holmes? Blank again. Kids these days. What do they read anyway?

Champagne? Moonbeam asked me.

Just a little.

She filled a glass to overflowing and handed it to me. Then how did you figure it out? Moonbeam asked.

I guess you could say there were a lot of little clues that didn't mean much until they were added up. As you know, my attention was focused on discovering how Mack Macmillan could have been shot. Everything pointed to an error on Woody's part, but somehow I couldn't believe that a professional like Woody could ever make such a tragic mistake.

Moonbeam smiled at Woody, who beamed back at her.

But nobody else had access to the room where the guns were, except Janet Margolies, and although I learned she resented Macmillan because he decided to put a road through her family's business, I couldn't really picture her, at nine months pregnant, doing such a thing.

So that meant someone else had to have access to the key, and according to Janet the only person who could have gotten hold of it was Mack himself. I knew he had the opportunity to load the guns, but I also had to look for a reason. What would make a man stand in front of a firing squad when he knew it would be firing real bullets at him?

The answer came when Vesta Pennsinger, Dr. Washabaugh's assistant, told me Mack had been devastated when he heard his cancer diagnosis. That was what suggested suicide to me. I thought perhaps Charlotte had helped him plan his death, but when I confronted her with my suspicions, she produced a suicide note, in Mack's handwriting, absolving her completely. Case closed, I thought.

Wait a minute, Tori, Moonbeam interrupted. More champagne anybody? She poured drinks all around while Woody opened another bottle.

When they'd settled down, I continued. Case closed-until the next day when I learned that Lillie

White, Mack's mistress, was expecting a baby, and he'd told her very recently that the child would always be provided for. Buchanan McCleary told me that Mack tore up his trust recently and had written a simple will, which had the clause in it that stated half his estate was to go to his children. I think, Luscious, if you read Mack's will, you'll find that that provision will cover Lillie's baby.

Providing her baby is Mack's child, Helga sniffed.

There's always DNA testing, Moonbeam said, refilling her glass.

I still didn't have any reason to suspect that Charlotte killed her husband, though. After all, she was at Penn National racetrack that weekend. Not until last night when I couldn't sleep and was mulling everything over-I remembered she always interpreted for him, converting everything said to him into sign language. And Vesta had told me how upset he was when he learned about the cancer. Naturally, he would be upset, for using sign language that Vesta and the doctor didn't understand, she told her husband he was going to die slowly and painfully, and very soon.

But she loved him dearly, President Godlove said. That was obvious. At faculty parties she never left his side. Seemed to adore him. He wiped his mouth with his paper napkin. Now you're saying Charlotte convinced her husband he was dying and coerced him into planning his own death so she could get his insurance money? That sounds rather improbable.

But I can understand how she did it, Helga said. She made him so dependent on her, interpreting for him even when he was in Congress, that he trusted her completely. He was enchanted by her, as if she were a witch casting a spell. She stole him right out from under me.

What was he doing under you? Moonbeam giggled. Too much wedding champagne, I thought.

Fas devant les enfants, Woody said, looking at Tamsin and surprising me.

I'm old enough to know what's going on, and I'm in second-year French, Tamsin huffed.

What made you suspect her? Gloria asked.

I answered President Godlove's question, which had almost been lost in the champagne-induced gaiety. Her heart was broken when he told her about Lillie and the baby and asked for a divorce. Her passionate love for him turned to passionate hate, almost overnight. She'd rather see him dead than with another woman. She knew she could persuade him to commit suicide, but she was a practical person. If he was killed in an accident, she'd get the insurance money. She convinced him she'd share it with Lillie. That was all the assurance he needed. He still trusted her.

This is awful, Ken Nakamura's son spoke for the first time. I really don't think Tamsin should be listening to this.

Leave her be, Moonbeam snapped. She's almost grown up. As you'd know if you ever spent any time with her.

The ex-husband's jaw clamped shut and his face reddened. Moonbeam and Tamsin exchanged knowing smiles.

There's a thin line between love and hate, Moonbeam said with a hiccup. I couldn't tell if she was talking about Charlotte and Mack or herself and her ex-husband.

How did you figure out she killed Darious? Tamsin asked eagerly.

More little clues. When we found the stolen antiques in his barn, we discovered that much of what was there had been stolen from Gettysburg, but the most valuable article of all, General Meade's sword, was gone. Later I remembered seeing it in a photograph-of Mack-hanging in his office for everyone to see.

What? President Godlove looked as if he were about to have a fit. That picture the one in his office in the general's uniform? What nerve!

I waited for him to stop sputtering and continued. So that proved there was a connection between Dari-ous and the Macmillans. In his barn, enough evidence was found to convince me that it was Darious who had tried to kill me three times.

Like little birds, words fluttered through the air: Oh my! Can't believe it! Poor Tori! What a shock! Tsk-tsk.

The night Darious was killed, I found a picture in his workroom that led me to suspect the wrong person. Gloria shifted nervously in her seat.

I'm not going to say who that person was there was no connection with the crime. But at the same time I saw the photo, I also noticed a box of sticky buns, from the new Gettysburg bakery Charlotte liked to use. In fact, she'd dropped a box off here after my first near-death experience. The bakery dates its product, and the box had that day's date on it. I assumed that Charlotte dropped by, carrying a box of treats as an excuse for being there, then killed him as he sat on the carousel eating.

Oooh, neat-o!

Don't be juvenile, Tamsin. Moonbeam was curled up in a ball on the sofa, with her head in Woody's lap.

I just could not figure out why she did it. I thought it probably had something to do with the stolen goods we found there.

Why did she come after you at the wedding? She couldn't have known you'd figured all this out. Doctor Nakamura asked.

I'd already ruined her chance of getting her husband's insurance money. And she was faced with losing half of whatever was left to Lillie and her baby. She knew she was done for, especially after Reba called from the garage to tell her I was asking questions that would eventually point to her. I glared at Luscious. You need to tell Henry to hire more trustworthy people.

Like you can get anything better for minimum wage, he muttered, and drained his glass.

Was she going to kill you? Tamsin asked.

I think she planned to. But she realized it would be futile; even if I died, someone else would look at all the clues and figure it out sooner or later. She knew that the lock of her hair in Darious's hand would identify her eventually. And so, she jumped instead. I didn't mention that my taunts about her husband had most likely been the final straw that led her to jump; I didn't feel very good about that.

The silence that fell upon the group was broken first by Moonbeam's gentle snores, and then by the front doorbell.

Who could that be? I wondered.

Trick-or-treaters, Luscious said. It's already past seven.

I opened the front door and peered into the darkness. There was a large moving van in the circular driveway.

You Tori Miracle? a male voice called out.

Yes. Who are you? I strained to see who was there.

Got a delivery for you.

Can you bring it around to the back? I don't trust this porch roof.

Sorry lady. Truck's too big to go back there. A burly man in a Grateful Dead T-shirt materialized from the darkness. Here's the message that goes with it.

I opened the envelope.

Dear Ms. Miracle, After we bought the carousel firm Mr. Strainge, he told us you refused the reward he offered. We will honor your request to give the money to young Sam Miller, but we also want you to have something as an expression of our gratitude for finding the carousel. We understand the hippocampus is your favorite animal. Sincerely, Rick Langley and Bill Moorehead.

Oh no! I exclaimed. It can't be.

Where do you want it, lady? The man stood on the porch, holding the aqua-blue hippocampus in his arms.

I don't want it. Please take it back.

No can do. Do you want me to leave it here on the porch, or can I come in and set it up for you like I'm supposed to?

I stepped aside. Better bring it inside.

The people from my parlor, with the exception of Moonbeam, gathered around to watch as the beautiful steed was set on a wooden base in the front hall.

I tried to tip the man, but he refused, another sign that I was a million light-years away from New York City.

My guests, no, my friends, left shortly after, Woody carrying Moonbeam over his shoulder as if she were a golden-wrapped package of elderdown. Tamsin kissed me good-bye and left with her father and grandfather. Gloria walked out with them. Luscious swigged down the dregs of the last bottle of champagne and thanked me. I urged him to stay for coffee, but he wouldn't hear of it. We'll drive him home, President Godlove said, and he and Helga led the bewildered young officer to their car.

Trick or treat, give us something good to eat. The four children standing on the back steps held king-size pillowcases open to make it easy for me to add to the loot. I pretended to be scared, which they seemed to find discomfitting, then sprinkled a few miniature Snickers bars in each bag. They scampered away, and I noticed a parent holding a flashlight standing in the shadows beneath a huge tree. He waved at me and followed them at a close distance.

As I popped a Snickers bar into my mouth, I noticed one of the children had dropped a mask. I picked it up and started to call out to them, but they were already out of sight.

Back in my kitchen, my very quiet kitchen, I laid the mask on the table. It was the kind that always scared me. Clear, colorless plastic. You could see through a mask like this, but the face beneath would look strange, almost alien. The mask would allow no expression to show through.

I poured a glassful of fresh cider for myself, then, noticing the cats were wild-eyed and panic-stricken at having gone at least an hour since their last meal, I poured Tasty Tabby Treats into their bowl before sitting down with my cider and a ginger cookie from the Farmers Market.

The mask stared up at me, and it occurred to me that all the people I'd been involved with recently had worn masks. At first I thought I'd seen them as they really were, but beneath the transparent masks there was something else. Perhaps everybody wore a mask, I thought. Maybe even I had been wearing one for years, letting people see me but not really know me.

Charlotte, of course, was the most obvious because she had worn a real mask. The face she hid beneath the elastic was beautiful by anyone's standards, but she had seen herself as hideous. She was loved by her students at the college, volunteered hours of her time working with hearing-impaired students, and acted as an interpreter for the library. No matter what the Charlotte who wore the mask had done, the Charlotte known to the people of Lickin Creek and Gettysburg would be missed.

Her husband, Mack Macmillan, had worn a mask for years. Mack Macmillan-a man like you. He'd been elected over and over to represent the good old boys of his district, and he wore the mask of a humble man whenever he was out in public. But at home, he lived in luxury hardly ever seen in Caven County, allowed lobbyists to buy his votes, collected stolen treasures, owned a strip joint, and kept a mistress. Not exactly the image he'd tried to portray all those years.

Who else? Woody Woodruff's mask had come off to reveal a much nicer person than I'd expected to find. He wasn't really a letch or a leech, but a kind person who worked hard and truly seemed to be in love with Moonbeam. I hadn't seen past the mask there.

Then there was Darious. I winced at the thought of him. Beautiful Darious, Apollo in his golden chariot, the artist who sacrificed his morals and finally his life to bring a carousel back to life. How could anyone who appreciated beauty as much as he did have turned out to be so rotten?

Lillie White wore a tough, slutty-looking mask, and while she wasn't exactly the prostitute with a heart of gold beloved by so many writers, since she'd knowingly had an affair with a married man, she was a child struggling as best she knew how to support a child, now two. Life might be a little easier for her now, I thought, for the DNA tests would surely prove Mack Macmillan had fathered her baby. Her baby would inherit all that was left of Mack's estate.

Helga Van Brackle had covered her passion for Mack with a prim, schoolmarm mask. Ken Nakamura had hidden his family's tragedy beneath a smiling face. Vesta Pennsinger pretended to be a caring professional, but her gossipy persona was the real Vesta. Thank goodness for that, I thought, or I'd never have realized how Charlotte had fooled her husband.

Moonbeam Nakamura was one of the few people I could think of who was just what she appeared to be. A good-natured kook without a mean bone in her body. I wasn't sure about her daughter, the sullen teenager who'd announced before she left that she finally had found a purpose in life. Unfortunately it was go-cart racing. Woody had cringed when he heard it, but I was sure Moonbeam, when she came to, would be grateful that her daughter was showing an interest in something.

Another person who was just what she appeared to be was Cassie. Good old dependable Cassie, who'd kept the paper going despite me. Thank goodness some people are just what they seem.

I'd left Garnet for last. Did I really know him? I wasn't sure. I thought I did, but then when he'd abruptly left me, it occurred to me that maybe I didn't. I was willing to spend more time finding out, though. As soon as he got settled in Costa Rica, and I could take some time off from the paper and finishing my book, I might head down to Central America for a long visit.

Even Lickin Creek wore a mask; on the surface it was a charming, old-fashioned town, but under its placid surface rumors and gossip moved as quickly and as surely as sewage sludge flowed beneath the streets.

My thoughts were interrupted by someone pounding on the back door. I shoved Fred from my lap, grabbed the sack of Snickers bars, threw open the door, and screamed.

Instead of the children I had expected to see, there stood a nun wearing a blue habit and a fluttering cor-nette. The nun's face was hidden by a dime-store skull mask.

Her hand came up to pull off the mask, revealing my friend Maggie Roy, the librarian.

I didn't mean to scare you, she said. I thought it would be funny-me dressing up like the ghost of the Lickin Creek College for Women.

I breathed deeply three times to slow my pounding heart then said, It is funny, Maggie. It's just that I've had a bad day. If you've got time, why don't you come in and hear about it?

I was hoping you'd ask, Maggie said. She bent over and picked up a large box, which I hoped didn't contain sticky buns. I brought a pizza-just in case- and a video. You told me once you love old sci-fi movies, so I got The Day the Earth Stood Still. Have you ever seen it?

I smiled and stepped aside so she could enter. Of course I have, dozens of times. It's my favorite. Gort, Klaatu barada nikto.

She was taken aback for a moment by my quote from the movie, then responded with, You're welcome. What language is that, anyway?


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