I’ve often said I don’t want to have children, and now I know why. I already have three. This bright Sunday morning in September, I came downstairs to find three heads bent over a patchwork of brightly colored cards spread across the kitchen table. The black hair braided with yellow beads belonged to Denisha Simpson, age ten. The green and purple hair sticking up like wiry weeds was attached to her best friend, Austin Terrell, also ten. The light brown hair that could benefit from a good combing belonged to my best friend and new husband, Jerry Fairweather, who is thirty going on ten.
“Okay, we’ve got all the Pond Palace series except the Drawbridge of Death and the Dungeon of Despair,” Denisha said.
Austin moved one stack of cards to another. “Here’s all Bufo’s Webbed Foot Guard except for Rayford the Sticky-Tongued and Bart the Beeper.”
“Weapons over here,” Jerry said. “Sword of Destruction, Sword of Light, three Sword of Revenge cards. Can we trade one? What does Ronald have, Austin?”
“I asked him. He won’t trade.”
“Sword of Justice, Sword of Peace. We’re missing the Sword of Illusion.”
“That’s really hard to find.”
I went to the coffee maker. “Good morning, Warrior Toads.”
Three heads came up. Three voices said, “‘Justice Rules the Swamp!’”
“So I’ve heard,” I said. “How’s the collection coming along?” “We need about twenty-five more to complete the first set,” Jerry said.
“Set two comes out this week and set three in December just in time for Christmas.”
“Someone is a marketing genius.”
Austin rearranged the cards. “We weren’t doing too well on our own, but when we combined our sets, we had almost all of them.”
“And Jerry bought some more,” Denisha said.
I pushed back my tangle of dark curls and poured a cup of coffee. It was typical of Jerry to spend his money on Bufo the Warrior Toad cards instead of buying normal things or paying outstanding bills, but I really couldn’t complain. Being married to him is everything I hoped it would be: intensely satisfying, especially in the bedroom, without sacrificing the fun we’ve always had together. And he was actually working. Before we’d got married, Jerry and I made a bargain that if I’d go back to my artwork, he’d give up his scams and get a legitimate job. To my surprise, Jerry had found a job at the local bookstore and enjoyed it.
“Can we go to Georgia’s today and get a few more packs?” Austin asked him.
“Sure. I’ll be working there today.”
I leaned against the counter and sipped my coffee. As for my part of the bargain, well, I hadn’t been as successful. The portrait of children I painted for the local theater had brought me a few more commissions, but I wasn’t painting as much as I should. I kept telling myself my detective work kept me busy, but that was stretching the truth.
You can’t fuss at Jerry for stretching the truth, now, can you? I told myself, and a little worrisome thought wormed its way into my mind. I looked at my slim, youthful husband, his gray eyes shining as he and Austin argued the merits of Bufo’s Glowing Sword versus Bufo’s Wart of Power. I’d known Jerry since we met in college, and he’d been very good at keeping his schemes and his problems secret from me. But I recognized the signs. Something was going on, but I couldn’t tell what.
He looked up and smiled that smile that had won my heart from the first time I met him. “What’s up with you today, Mac?”
“I thought I’d go in to my office for a while.” “Meet you for lunch?”
“Shana wants me to meet a friend of hers. I’m hoping this will lead to another case.”
I tried to put my worries aside and concentrate on my new career. My fledgling detective agency could use all cases possible. I’d known when I moved to Celosia the small town wouldn’t have much use for a private investigator, but I’d already solved two murders.
“It’s been almost two months and no one’s felt the urge to kill,” Jerry said. “Either you’re slipping or Celosia is.”
“People are beginning to eye me strangely. I thought about putting the Grim Reaper on my business cards.”
“What do you want for breakfast? The kids and I had cheese toast.”
“That would be fine.”
I took my coffee to the front porch and looked out across the fields surrounding the Eberlin house, the house Jerry had inherited from his uncle. We were still in the process of remodeling. Goldenrod and white Queen Anne’s lace shimmered in the morning heat. In the oak trees, cicadas whirred like tiny buzz saws. Beyond the dusty driveway and wandering rail fence, the highway led about a mile into town where Georgia would be opening her bookstore and maybe a few minor crimes would occur. Some shoplifting, perhaps, or a serious case of littering. Something calm and normal. I really didn’t want to get involved with another murder.
After a while, Jerry came out with my cheese toast on a plate. “Breakfast is served.”
“Curb service. How nice.” I sat down in one of the rocking chairs.
Jerry perched on the porch rail and admired the view. He had on his khaki slacks, white shirt, and a yellow tie decorated with flying pigs. “And it’s going to be another hot day.”
I set my coffee cup beside my chair. “I hope Nell’s coming to install the new air conditioner.”
“She said she’d get to it today.”
The ancient upstairs unit had finally died. Fans helped a little, but in our part of North Carolina, the heat can continue long into October. “Great,” I said. The cheese toast was a perfect combination of crunchy toast and gooey cheese. “This is great, too. Have you ever thought about being a chef?”
“One career at a time, please.”
I licked an extra bit of cheese off my finger. It had taken a lot of wheeling and dealing to get Jerry to find any sort of job. I wasn’t going to push. “How are things at the bookstore?”
“I’m helping Georgia rearrange the magazines. She wants to put in a line of greeting cards.”
He continued to look at the fields, but I could tell his gaze was miles beyond the trees and wildflowers. I never dreamed he would ever settle down, much less with me in an old house in a small town, so I wondered if he missed his wandering life. I was glad Austin’s and Denisha’s Bufo obsession was keeping him occupied.
He brought his calm gray gaze back to me. “Ready for seconds?”
What a loaded question. “With the kids here?”
He grinned. “They need to go get more Bufo cards.” “What were you thinking about just then?”
“Not getting restless, are you?” “No.”
“Not feeling the urge to sell fake pocketbooks or play mind reader?”
“Just let me hold an occasional séance and I’ll be fine.” He put his arms around me. “Actually, just let me hold you.”
We were enjoying a long soulful kiss when behind us we heard Austin say, “Eeeuww.”
Denisha said, “Austin Terrell, that’s perfectly all right now that they’re married. You ought to watch and see how it’s done.”
“There’s no way I’m kissing you!” Denisha was unfazed. “One day you will.”
Jerry gave me another quick kiss before letting go. “Come on, kids. We’ll ride into town with Mac and see what’s at the store.”
# # #
We have just one car, my light blue Mazda, so, after dropping Jerry, Austin, and Denisha at Georgia’s Books, I went to my office. My office is located in the Arrow Insurance building, just down the hall from Ted Stacy, a tall, dark Southern gentleman, who was one of my first friends in Celosia. The letters on my door still say, “Madeline Maclin Investigations.” I’d wanted to add “Fairweather,” but Jerry convinced me that would be too long. Jerry and I had spent most of Saturday in Parkland visiting his brother, so I hadn’t had a chance to check my messages and look through my mail. Besides the usual bills and flyers, there was a card from my ex-husband, Bill, announcing the birth of his third child. I sat looking at the card for a long time. Hooray for you, Bill. He’d always wanted children, the main reason our marriage fell apart. Never mind that Bill was also domineering and thoughtless. I’d never felt any maternal stirrings, and to him, this made me less of a woman. Between Bill and my mother, who tried her best to make me into Miss America, it’s a wonder I have any sense.
Well, now Bill had babies and I had my own career so we were both happy. I had to chuckle as I read the new baby’s name. Darlan Kyle. Boy, girl, or alien?
The next piece of mail was a letter from a friend in Richmond, congratulating me on my agency. Thank you very much. I took a moment to look around the room. I had a small oak desk, bookshelves, filing cabinet, a beige and green armchair for my clients, and a view of trees and the swing set in the next yard. Pleasant and useful, a direct contrast to the hot dusty office I had with an agency in Parkland. There, I had been one of many investigators hoping for a scrap of a case. Here, I was my own boss, and even if I didn’t have a lot of work, at least I was in charge.
The third letter was from the Weyland Gallery, one of the many art galleries in Parkland. I frowned as I opened the letter. I didn’t know anyone at the Weyland Gallery. I’d like to know someone at the Weyland Gallery, because it’s one of the most prestigious in the city. I wondered how I’d gotten on their mailing list. My frown turned to open-mouthed astonishment as I read the letter. I’d been invited to enter the New Artists Show.
“Dear Ms. Maclin,” the letter read. “We are pleased to inform you that your application for our New Artists Show has been favorably reviewed, and we invite you to enter three pieces of your choice. Please bring your work to the Weyland Gallery on Monday, September 23. The show will be on Saturday, September 28, at 8:00 PM, followed by a champagne recep- tion. We look forward to presenting your work to our patrons and sponsors.”
The letter was signed, “Letticia Booth, curator.”
I read the letter again. I looked at the envelope. Was this a joke? Application? Favorably reviewed? I hadn’t sent in anything in to any gallery! How had I managed to get into a show in Parkland? Who in the world knew that I even painted Jerry.
I knew something was up! Oh, my lord, I was going to wring his neck! I was punching the book store phone number furiously into my phone and growling about the various means of strangulation when I stopped. A man stood in my doorway, one hand raised as if to knock.
“I can come back,” he said.
I felt the heat rise to my face. “No, please come in. Sorry about that. A little burst of temper. Nothing serious.”
The man looked about thirty years old. He had reddish hair and little round glasses. In his neat buttoned-down shirt and sharply creased slacks, he reminded me of one of my history professors. He smiled. “A dissatisfied customer?”
“No, no. Just a little family matter. I apologize.” I held out my hand. “I’m Madeline Maclin.”
He shook my hand. “Nathan Fenton. I was hoping to find you in today.”
“Please have a seat, Mr. Fenton. What can I do for you?”
He sat down in the chair opposite my desk. “Well, here’s my problem. I’ve received a very curious gift from my late uncle, and I’m hoping you can help me figure it out.” He took a piece of paper from his pocket and slid it across the desk to me. “I’ve inherited some money from my uncle, but I can’t get it unless I solve what appears to be a riddle of some kind.”
The flowing script was easy to read. “To my nephew, Nathan Ellis Fenton, I leave a fine fortune, provided he unlocks this puzzle and finds the one true key.” The next part made little sense. “‘From west to east the river flows, from ancient times the sparrow flies. Trust animals that live in packs, and listen where the portrait lies.’” I looked up. “Do you know what any of it means?”
“There’s a river near by, but it doesn’t flow west to east.” “What about the portrait? Have you looked behind all the pictures in your uncle’s house?”
“That’s another problem,” Nathan Fenton said. “He moved out of his house. He lived in a trailer. He didn’t take any portraits with him. I’m at a loss.”
“And the sparrow? Did he have a bird?”
“No pets. He hated animals, so the trust animals line doesn’t make any sense.”
“The poem must mean something else,” I said. “What else can you tell me about your uncle? When did he pass away?”
“Last week. He was seventy-five and had been in poor health for years.” Nathan Fenton sighed. “He wasn’t the friendliest man in the world, but he loved games and puzzles. I’m really not surprised he would leave a riddle. The trouble is, he probably sent this riddle to other people. It would be just like him to have folks competing for the same prize.”
“Was there a will of any kind?”
“Yes, he left the family home to my cousin’s wife, Victoria Satterfield, as well as enough money to maintain it. Apparently, this riddle is his idea of a treasure hunt.”
“Any idea how much money is involved?”
“Elijah did well on the stock market and owned quite a bit of land that he sold. I imagine the prize is several hundred thousand dollars, maybe even a million.”
“Who else is likely to be included in the hunt?”
“I have the one cousin, Aaron Satterfield, but Elijah could’ve sent the riddle to anyone.”
“Does your cousin live here?” “No, he’s in Parkland.”
“Give me a few days. I’ll see what I can do.”
Fenton looked relieved. “I don’t want you to think I’m anxious about the money, but I have a chance to buy a camp about ten miles from here in Westberry. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Camp Lakenwood?”
Being in Little Miss pageants gave me no time to enjoy summer camp. “No.”
Nathan’s eyes gleamed. “It used to be a wonderful camp. I went there every summer. I learned to fish and row a canoe and build a campfire. But the owner can’t keep it up and wants to sell it. It’s my dream to fix it up and have a camp, not only for the kids who can afford it, but have it free for underprivileged children.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
“But according to Misty May, my uncle’s lawyer, I have to solve this riddle by Monday, September 23, or the money goes to—well, I honestly can’t believe this, but she says it’s true—a fund to build bat houses.”
“Bat houses?” Jerry’s Uncle Val had studied bats. I thought we were through with them. “You mean the little wooden shelters to put on trees?”
“Yes. Isn’t that the craziest thing you ever heard of? And he hated animals! It’s some kind of stupid joke.”
When Jerry and I moved to Celosia, we thought it was pretty small, but since then, we’d learned that the town had a population of over eight thousand—ten thousand, if you included some of the little adjoining neighborhoods. And yet there were two batty uncles in the neighborhood.
“Did your uncle know Val Eberlin? This sounds like one of his projects.”
“I don’t know where Elijah got the idea. Probably to drive us all bats.”
“Is Ms. May in Celosia? I’d like to speak to her.”
“She has an office in Rossboro.” He dug in his pocket for his cell phone. “I have her number.”
Nathan Fenton had to solve the riddle by September 23, the day I was supposed to have three pieces ready for the Weyland Gallery. That gave me a week. I hesitated just a moment and decided if I wanted to paint and detect, here was a chance to see if I could do both.
Nathan gave me the lawyer’s number. “I don’t have Aaron’s, but he’s in the phone book.”
“I’ll get right on it.”
After discussing my fee, Nathan Fenton wrote me a check, shook my hand, and left. Since this was Sunday, I didn’t expect either Misty May or Aaron Satterfield to be at work, so I left messages on their answering machines, asking them to call me. I read the poem again. Well, you have a case that doesn’t involve murder, I told myself. Solving cryptic riddles may not be your idea of fun, but you need the work. Besides, something like this will keep Jerry occupied for hours.
Which reminded me. I called the book store and asked to speak to Jerry. He sounded extremely innocent.
“There was a certain letter in the mail today from the Weyland Gallery.”
“It seems I’m invited to enter three pieces in their New Artists Show.”
“That’s great news.”
“I’m wondering how I managed to enter a show without knowing about it.”
“The world is full of unexplained phenomena.” “Jerry.”
My tone of voice must have warned him not to go any further along the psychic highway. He began to laugh. “Congratulations!”
“Jerry, how did you do it?” “I know people.”
“In the art world?”
“I asked Tucker, and he asked around and found out about the show. I took a picture of ‘Blue Moon Garden’ and sent it in. I forged your signature, by the way. Hope you don’t mind.”
After my first and only art exhibit, which had been a disaster, I’d thrown away most of my work, but Jerry had rescued “Blue Moon Garden.” It was hanging in the living room at home. I didn’t know what to say.
“Mac?” He sounded worried. “Are you still there? Look, if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. But they accepted you. That oughta count for something.”
Actually, it counted for a great deal.
“Don’t be angry,” he said. “I thought it might give you the push you need.”
“I’m not angry.” I really wasn’t. I should be used to this kind of thing from him by now. “I didn’t realize how sneaky you were.”
“Oh, I can be much sneakier. So you’ll do it?”
“That’s three paintings I have to have done by Monday after next.”
“Two. You can count ‘Blue Moon Garden.’”
That made things a little easier. “Okay, two, but I have a case to consider, as well.” I checked my watch. “I’ve got to meet Shana. We’ll have a talk later. A long talk.”
# # #
At noon, I met Shana at Deely’s Burger World, our local burger place. Shana Amry is better known as Shana Fairbourne, author of several steamy historical romance novels where words like “passion” and “desire” figure prominently. A tall graceful woman with red-gold hair and tiger-like yellow eyes, she could easily be the heroine of her novels.
I sat down at Shana’s table. She introduced me to the woman sitting beside her. “Madeline, this is Rachel Sigmon. She teaches art at Celosia Elementary. Rachel, Madeline Maclin Fairweather. Madeline’s our resident Sherlock Holmes.”
Rachel Sigmon was a small, slim woman with shoulder-length black hair and wide brown eyes. Her daisy earrings matched her sundress, and she was wearing an extra little cuff high on the edge of her right ear. This piece also had a daisy dangling from a tiny chain. “Hello, Madeline, nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” I said. “I like your ear jewelry. Did you make it?”
She touched the cuff. “You mean this? Yes, I did. I have this odd little notch in my ear, and this covers it nicely. I made the earrings, too.”
“I’ve often told her she should start her own line,” Shana said.
“Oh, but I’m not here to talk earrings,” Rachel Sigmon said. “Madeline, I saw the portrait you did for the theater lobby. Would you be willing to come show my classes some portrait techniques?”
I turned to glare at Shana. She was pretending to examine her perfect fingernails. “I’m not a teacher.”
“Oh, I’m not asking for a complete lesson plan. The kids would enjoy seeing a real artist at work.”
I’m not a real artist, I started to say, and since Jerry wasn’t there to kick me under the table, I gave myself a mental kick. Yes, you are! You’ve got to start believing that. You’re going to be in a show!
“You know,” Rachel said, “I’ve seen art change children’s lives. Sometimes art is the only thing in which some of them can excel. Maybe they can’t do math, or have poor reading skills, but they can draw. You’d be amazed how it builds their confidence.”
And isn’t that what you need? I asked myself. A big shot of confidence?
“Okay,” I said.
“Great! How about tomorrow?” “Tomorrow?”
“Unless you’re busy with your cases?”
Well, I certainly wasn’t busy with cases. I had one lone riddle to solve. Might as well jump right in. “Sure. Tomorrow’s fine.” “Great! Come around one o’clock. I’ll have all the materials for you. Just show the kids how you start with a sketch and then go from there.”
“I think I can do that.”
Rachel spent the rest of the lunch talking about her daughters, Bronwen and Magwen. Shana avoided making eye contact with me. I could tell she was having difficulty keeping her laughter inside. She knows I have a thing about little girls’ names. With so many lovely names to choose from, I am often astounded by the choices people make. Exhibit A: Darlan Kyle, who may or may not be female. Shana also knows how I feel about children. I’m pretty sure her young husband, Hayden, fulfills her need to have a child. And, as I’ve indicated, Jerry has more than his share of childlike tendencies.
“So Bron has three dances in the recital, and Mag has two. They wanted to go to cheerleading camp, but I told them they had to choose. They couldn’t do cheerleading and dance. They’re both Girl Scouts, so we don’t have time for another activity. I was so pleased when they decided to continue their dance lessons. Of course, whatever Bron does, Mag wants to do, too.”
Bron and Mag. Good grief.
“Did I show you their latest pictures, Shana?”
“Yes,” she said with a smile of pure innocence, “but I don’t believe Madeline has seen them.”
I’ll get you for this, Shana Amry. I put on my most interested expression and made all the right comments about Rachel’s little girls, who sadly had not inherited their mother’s looks. In every photo, they looked round and glum, squinting in the sunlight, their expressions annoyed, as if they resented having their pictures taken.
“What do you think about putting them in a Little Miss Pageant, Madeline? They’ve asked me about it. I think Bron would do well. She’s more outgoing. But Mag’s the better actress.”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” I said.
Rachel looked surprised. “Really? I thought you won several Little Miss titles.”
“All my mother’s idea.”
“Oh, you were pushed into it? See, I’m not like that, at all. The girls want to do it.”
I’d heard that excuse a thousand times. “Wait until they’re teenagers. Then they’ll know what they’re getting into.”
“What do you think, Shana?”
“You might want to wait until the girls are older,” Shana said.
Rachel Sigmon was one of those people who ask for your opinion but never really want it. “Oh, I think it’ll be fun. They love to dress up.”
She chatted on about her daughters until she had to go pick Bronwen up at her dance lesson. As soon as she was gone, I leveled my darkest look at Shana. “You’ll pay for that.”
She laughed. “Which part? Having to look at her pictures, listen to her gush, or talk to her class?”
“All three, but the last one in particular. I thought she might have a case for me.”
“You’re not hoping for another murder, are you?”
“Of course not. I’m very good at finding lost umbrellas, too.” Shana laughed again. A lost umbrella had made an effective weapon when a murderous woman had attacked me in the library. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to find something more lurid next time.”
“How’s Hayden’s work coming along?”
“He’s doing very well. He actually finished a poem yesterday, one very nice elegant, incomprehensible poem.”
“And your latest?”
“I’m up to page four hundred and thirty-four. And how’s Jerry? He looks like he’s having a good time at the store.”
“Oh, he’s having a good time, all right. He’s entered me in an art show in Parkland.”
“Really? Are you going to do it?”
“I’ve got to find time to finish two paintings.” She smiled. “Are you a little annoyed with him?”
“Just a little. Now that I’m over the shock, I have to agree I never would have entered on my own.”
“So aside from Jerry’s schemes, how’s married life?” I had to admit it was great fun.
“And the wedding? I hear you ran away to the beach.” “The Fairweather family has a beach house in Bermuda.” “How convenient.”
“I enjoyed it much more this time. The last time I was there, I was recovering from my one and only art show.”
“Oh, yes, the disaster.” She gave me a long considering look. “Then it’s time for another one, isn’t it? Another show, I mean, not another disaster. This show will be perfect. Any idea what’s holding you back?”
“Well, I’d like to say I’m swamped with cases, but I just have one.”
“Maybe Celosia is too small.”
“I really don’t want to move back to Parkland. It’s too big.” “You might want to consider Rossboro, then.”
Rossboro was home to Elijah’s lawyer, Misty May. I started to ask Shana about the town when Annie, one of the waitresses, stopped by to refill our tea glasses. “Anything else for you ladies?”
“No, thanks,” we said.
“I’m half way through Total Surrender, Shana,” she said. “It’s wonderful. I love the scene where Vixen tells Slate he’s not the only man for her. She’s just saying that, isn’t she? She doesn’t really mean it. He really is the only man for her.”
“She’s going through a rough time,” Shana said. “You know how it is when you have to make a tough decision.”
“I’ll say! We’re wanting to add another flavor of milkshake to the menu, and trying to figure out what kind is driving us all crazy. What do you think? Banana or blueberry?”
“Oh, I vote for banana.” “Me, too,” I said.
“That’s what I want. Nobody really likes blue drinks, you know.” She tore our bill off her pad and put it on the table. “Thanks, girls.”
“Decisions, decisions,” I said. “Banana or blueberry? Slate or—who is it? Dirk?”
“Yes. Dirk Steel.”
“Dirk Steel.” I snickered, and Shana pretended to be offended.
“It’s a difficult choice.”
“Now what’s this about Rossboro? I just called a lawyer’s office there.”
“It’s larger than Celosia, but not as large as Parkland. I’m not trying to get rid of you, you understand, but there might be more work for you. It’s only about forty minutes from here. We could take a little road trip.”
“That sounds like fun.”
Shana set her elbows on the table, laced her fingers, and propped her chin on her hands. “So. What’s really holding you back from showing your work?”
I sighed. “Fear, of course. Fear of failure. Fear of ridicule. The usual.”
“But you faced Chance Baseford, the man who critiqued your first show. You said you felt good after that encounter.”
“Oh, I did. But he’s not my worst critic. I am.”
“Well, you’ll never know if you don’t give it another try.” “That’s true.” I was surprised by my growing feelings of excitement. The gallery had liked “Blue Moon Garden.” Why wouldn’t they like my other paintings? Paintings, however, I hadn’t done. Suppose they liked those, too? Suppose they said, let’s have an exhibit of your work. And those pieces sold, and I had more commissioned, and more shows, and I tuned back in time to hear Shana say, “So tell me more about the wedding. What did you wear? Did you get married on the beach?”
“Yes. I had a very nice flowing flowery dress, and Jerry wore a white shirt and pants and, in honor of the solemn occasion, a white tie with golden flying fish on it. We left our shoes on the porch.”
“Jerry’s brothers, Des and Tucker, and Tucker’s new wife, Selene. My mother wasn’t very happy.”
“She didn’t really expect to be invited, did she?”
“Oh, I invited her, but she decided not to come. She was upset to learn that Jerry still doesn’t want any of the Fairweather money.”
“Does Jerry need something more to do? Maybe working in the bookstore’s not enough of a challenge.”
“He still holds séances.” “You’re kidding.”
“Flossie Mae Snyder and Sylvie come faithfully every week to talk to their dead aunts.”
“Well, if they’re silly enough to believe him.”
“I thought once I solved the mystery of his parents’ deaths he’d stop the paranormal stuff.” For years Jerry felt responsible for the fire that killed his parents, but I’d pieced together the real story. “He and his older sister Harriet are on good terms now, and he’s even visited Tucker at the family home.”
“He may need a little more time to adjust, that’s all. Which opera is he listening to these days?”
Jerry liked opera, and his choice usually mirrored his mood. “The Tales of Hoffmann.”
“I don’t know that one.”
“Oh, he’s dragged me to it many times. The opera’s an odd mix of three fantasy stories. One story’s about a mechanical doll, one’s about a woman who sings herself to death, and one story takes place in Venice, where Hoffmann’s soul is stolen by a beautiful courtesan. The character of Hoffmann was a restless man searching for the ideal woman, embodied by those three very different characters. He ends up drunk and alone.”
Shana shook her head. “Okay, I have no idea what that could mean.”
“Me, either,” I said.
# # #
I couldn’t wait to have that long talk with my husband, so after leaving Shana, I stopped by Georgia’s Books. Jerry was helping Austin and Denisha sort through packs of Bufo cards. As usual, the kids were arguing about proper procedure.
“You need to pick a pack from the bottom, Denisha. That’s where all the best cards come from.”
“Austin Terrell, don’t you think I know that? Besides, if other kids have already been through the packs, the ones that used to be on the bottom are now on the top.”
“How are we ever going to complete our set if you don’t hurry up?”
They finally reached a settlement and dumped their change on the counter.
“Do you have enough?” I asked. “Yes, thanks,” Austin answered.
Denisha dug in the pocket of her shorts for another quarter. “I have more money right here. Go ahead, Austin.”
Jerry handed him the cards. I don’t know who was more excited, the kids or Jerry as Austin tore off the green foil and quickly flipped through the cards. He held one up in triumph. “The Lily Pad!” Denisha grabbed his hand. “Let me see! It’s the white one! Now we’ve got all three.”
I looked to Jerry for enlightenment. “The Lily Pads come in white, yellow, and pink,” he said. “Open another pack, Austin.” The other packs yielded the Horned Toad of Death, the Evil Frog Prince, and a pile of other lesser cards.
“I’m getting a new shipment soon,” Jerry said. “We’ll try again.”
After Austin and Denisha left, I gave Jerry a look.
“That’s very good,” he said. “I see you’ve perfected the Long Stare.”
“You’re lucky I’ve had time to think about this.”
“Then you know it’s a great idea.” Before I could answer, he said, “I know, I know, my methods were less than legal, but there was a deadline for the application, and I didn’t think I could talk you into it before that time was up. Now you can decide if you want to go through with it.”
“If I can get two more paintings done by Monday.”
“Of course you can. I’ve had a peek in your studio. There’s a picture of the house and one of the kids and even one of me that’s already a masterpiece.”
I laughed and gave him a kiss. “I’ll give it a shot.”
“Great! I knew you would. Did Shana have a case for you?” “She wanted me to meet her friend, Rachel Sigmon. Get this: her daughters are named Bronwen and Magwen.”
He made a face. “That’s attractive. Our daughter will be named something much more pleasant, like Hortensia.”
“So her friends can call her Horry.” “A cute nickname is always a plus.”
“Did Rachel want you to find something for her, aside from a new baby name book?”
“She wants me to talk to her classes about art.” Jerry brightened. “That’s encouraging.” “What?”
“That you now have a reputation as an artist as well as an ace detective.”
“I suppose,” I said. “I’m a little nervous about talking to a group of fourth graders.”
“They’ll love you. All the little girls will want to look like you, and all the little boys will be dazzled.”
“You are the only boy I like to dazzle. When we get home tonight, there’s a riddle you can help me solve.”
“Okay,” he said, “but I have a séance at nine.”
The gleam in his eye made my heart sink. “Are you still leading Flossie Mae and her niece on about that watch?”
He tried to look offended. “We’re very close to finding it.” “You are not. You’re making things up as you go along and you know it.”
“But Flossie Mae and Sylvie are having such a good time.”
Flossie Mae Snyder and her niece Sylvie had been coming to the house for weeks so Jerry could get in touch with Aunt Marge and Aunt Marie. In life, the two aunts had fought bitterly over a gold watch engraved with an “S.” In death, according to Jerry, Marge and Marie had reconciled and any day now would reveal the whereabouts of the watch. I had to admit that Flossie Mae and Sylvie thoroughly enjoy their trips to the Other World, but Jerry’s act was getting on my nerves.
“How long are you going to keep this up?” Why did I ask this question? As long as Flossie Mae pays him, he’ll keep pretending to talk to Marge and Marie. “You’re going to have to disappoint them.”
“Or Marge and Marie could come through with the watch.”
He can say things like this with a totally straight face. I started to say things he didn’t want to hear when Fiona Kittering came into the store. Fiona’s a small dark-haired woman who works at Holiday Travel across the street from the bookstore. With her sharp little nose and determined manner, she reminds me of a rat terrier who’s out to convince the world she’s the biggest dog in the neighborhood.
“Madeline, did Nathan Fenton come see you this morning?” “Yes, he did.”
“Good. I told him to.” “Thanks.”
“We’ve been going out for a couple of weeks now, and he mentioned this inheritance and how he needed some help with the riddle. I told him you were pretty good at solving mysteries.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Did he mention Chateau Marmot?” “No.”
“I didn’t think he would. You need to go to Chateau Marmot.”
“Isn’t a marmot something like a groundhog?” Jerry asked.
I thought I knew all the landmarks around Celosia. “He mentioned a family home. Where’s this chateau? I’ve never heard of it.”
Fiona pointed out the bookstore window to the left. “Down that way on Satterfield Drive. It’s not far from here. Nathan’s cousin Aaron used to live there, but he and Victoria are separated. She never speaks to anyone.”
“Then what makes you think she’ll speak to me?”
“Well, it’s a worth a try. You’re new in town, so you don’t have any preconceived notions about some of the older families.”
“What can you tell me about the Fenton family?”
She leaned against the counter and folded her arms. “Well, there were three Fentons. Elijah was the oldest, then Ellis, and then their sister, Eulalie. Ellis was Nathan’s father. Eulalie married Thomas Satterfield. They had a son named Aaron, who married Victoria Dewey—only she was known as Tori then.”
“Nathan and Aaron are cousins.”
“That’s right. I don’t know a whole lot about Tori, though. She and Aaron got married and moved into the chateau. He moved out, and I don’t think I’ve seen her since then.”
“Nathan hasn’t been back to the family home?”
“I honestly don’t know all the details. She refuses to talk to him, and she certainly wouldn’t talk to me. That’s why he hired you.” I wondered why Nathan hadn’t told me these important details about his family and the chateau. “Okay, what about the rest of the riddle? What’s this about a river and a sparrow?”
“The only river around here is Parson’s Creek. As for the sparrow, your guess is as good as mine.”
“I understand Uncle Elijah was fond of word games.”
“He was an evil old coot. Ask anyone. Nathan says he was always rude to Tori. I guess he didn’t like the idea of his nephew Aaron marrying a Dewey. The Deweys weren’t on the same social level.”
“But he left her the house and some money.”
“Because he loved the chateau and knew she would stay there.”
“And Aaron’s in Parkland.”
“Oh, he left Celosia years ago. I don’t think he was very kind to Tori. She was probably glad to see him go. Aaron might be able to shed some light on this riddle. Then again, he might not want to help. He and Nathan are quite different.” She straightened from the counter and gave her clothes a brief tug to make sure everything was in line. “I tell you, Madeline, Nathan is a fine man. Good manners, educated, and this dream of his to open Camp Lakenwood for underprivileged kids—what a wonderful thing. That’s why it’s so important we find his fortune.”
I noticed she said “we.” “Then I hope Mrs. Satterfield will agree to talk to me.”
“I think she will. I understand you’re an artist, and Tori’s somewhat of an artist herself.”
Jerry grinned at me. “Notice this is another connection to art.”
“The chateau’s full of old pictures,” Fiona said. “One of them’s bound to be the portrait in the riddle.”
Nathan hadn’t mentioned this, either.
“Is this the riddle you wanted me to see?” Jerry asked.
I took the paper out of my pocket. “There’s not a lot to it.”
Jerry read the riddle and frowned. “It doesn’t make much sense.”
“That’s why you need to go to the chateau,” Fiona said. “I’ll bet all the answers are in there.”
“How do I get in touch with Mrs. Satterfield? Is Chateau Marmot listed in the phone book?”
“1-800-Rodent,” Jerry said.
“I have it with me,” Fiona said. She reached in her pocket and handed me a piece of paper. “Here you go.”
“And thank you for helping Nathan. He didn’t want to come to you. I think he’s embarrassed by the whole thing—oh, not that you’re a woman detective. Having Elijah Fenton for an uncle is embarrassment enough. He must have been a real butthead.”
“I’m glad to be on the case,” I said. I was glad to be on any case.
Fiona thanked me and left. Jerry took the riddle. “Leave this with me. I’ll see what I can figure out.”
“I’m going to call Mrs. Satterfield,” I said.
I went to the small room at the back of the store the employees used for a break room and took out my cell phone. I was expecting a harsh rebuff, but Victoria Satterfield had a light little feathery voice that trembled with excitement.
“I would very much like to meet you, Ms. Maclin. Could you come tomorrow morning?”
“That would be fine.”
“It’s the large stone house on Satterfield Drive. Well, actually, it’s the only house on Satterfield Drive. Just ring the front doorbell.”
“I’ll see you then.” That was puzzling, I thought. She sounded very pleasant. As I closed my phone, Georgia came in, her arms full of magazines.
“Oh, hello, Madeline.” She plopped the magazines on the small table.
“I just stepped back here to make a phone call,” I said. “Anytime, dear.” She took off her half glasses and let them dangle on their pearl chain. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you.” Another case? I was pleased and appalled at the same time.
When would I find time to paint? “Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Well, it depends on how you look at it. Business is a little slow right now, and as much as I love having Jerry around, there’s just not enough for him to do. I’m going to have to cut back on his hours.”
Uh-oh. “Business picks up around October, though, doesn’t it?”
“Usually. How do you think he’ll feel about this?”
I knew exactly how Jerry would feel. Free! Free, at last! “He’ll be okay.” Oh, my gosh, I’d have to find something for him to do. “I’m sure I’ll have more work for him during the holiday season, but I have to keep my other workers on the payroll. They’ve been with me for years.” She peered at me anxiously. “This isn’t going to be a financial burden on you, is it?”
“No, we’ll manage,” I said. “I have a case right now.” “Good. I was worried. I wanted to sort of find out how things were before I told him.” “He’ll be fine, Georgia.”
“I think I’ll go ahead and let him know today.”
My mind whirled with this information as I walked back to the counter. Jerry was laughing and joking with two women who’d been in the community theater’s recent production of The Music Man.
“Are you going to play for South Pacific next summer?” one asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to plan that far in advance.” “Would you be interested in playing for our Christmas cantata?” the other woman asked. “We’re desperate to find somebody. The music isn’t hard. I’ll bet you could sight read it.”
“I’ve never played for a church program,” he said.
“Oh, it’s easy. It’s basically lots of Christmas carols with a few extra tunes thrown in. Why don’t I bring a copy by and let you look at it? Then you can decide.”
“Okay,” he said.
“This might work into a good job for you,” she said. “Do you play the organ, too?”
“Never tried that.”
“Think about it.”
Jerry needed plenty to do, but I knew he didn’t want to be tied down every Sunday. He told the women he’d look over the cantata, but he couldn’t make any promises. After the women left, there were a few more customers, and then Georgia came up.
“Jerry, dear, I hate to tell you this, but I’m going to have to cut back on your hours. You’re a very good worker, but business is slow, and the other employees have been with me for years. I’m just going to need you a few hours every day, if that’s all right.”
I saw the gleam in Jerry’s eyes. “That’s fine with me.” “You’re sure?”
“Georgia, there are all kinds of things I can do.”
She looked relieved. “I’m glad to hear that. I’ll have a new schedule for you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Jerry said. “See you tomorrow, then. Ready to go, Mac?”
“All set.” I kept my smile in place for Georgia’s sake, but as we walked down the sidewalk to the car, I said, “I’m a little concerned about this.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll find another job.” “Seriously?”
“You’re going to enter the art show, aren’t you? We have a deal here.”
“Yes, but what sort of job do you have in mind?” “Oh, something will come up.”
“You’re not bored here, are you?” “No, not at all.”
“We could always take a trip somewhere, do something a little more exciting.”
“Don’t worry about me. I can make my own excitement.” “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
He grinned. “I seem to recall we made a bargain not long ago. I’ve kept my end of it. I am legally employed. You were supposed to continue your art work, right, Mrs. Fairweather?”
“Yes, and the minute we get home, I’m going to see what can be done.” In fact, I’d been anxious to get to my studio. My fingers were practically itching to hold a brush or pencil. “I can’t neglect Nathan’s case, though.”
“It’s not a very huge case, is it?”
“Shana suggested I might find more work in another town.”
“You want to move?”
“No, just commute. Maybe to Rossboro. Know anything about it?”
“Oh, Jeff and I did Rossboro.” “I’ll bet you did.”
“The knife trick.”
“You weren’t throwing knives at each other, were you?” “No, you set a knife point up and cover it with a paper cup.
Then you turn away and have the mark—excuse me, the audience member—put three more paper cups on the table, and you slam your hand down on the ones without the knife. It’s very exciting.”
“Ow. I’m glad I never saw you do that one.” “It’s very easy if you know the secret.”
“How long were you in Rossboro before you were chased out?”
“Long enough. It’s a nice town. Bigger than Celosia, but most towns are.”
“I think I want to have a look.” “Okay.”
I felt a little guilty. After all, I’d convinced Jerry to settle down, something I never thought he’d do. He liked the house. I liked the house. If I found work in Rossboro, or anywhere else, a long commute would quickly get old. Well, it was too soon to start worrying about this.
“Do you remember if there were any museums or art galleries?”
“A forger I knew worked in the museum.” I wasn’t going to ask.
“When do you want to go scope it out?” Jerry asked.
“Some time soon. Shana’s already suggested a road trip, but you can come, too.”
“Ride with the most beautiful woman in town?” He paused just long enough. “And Shana? Great! I’m there.”
“We might leave you home.”
On the drive home, Jerry put in a CD. I recognized the “Barcarole” from The Tales of Hoffmann. It’s a slow, sensual duet that flows along like the gentle rocking of a gondola. I heard this tune a lot in college. Jerry liked to listen to it just before an important exam.
He took the piece of paper out of his pocket. “I need inspiration for this riddle you gave me.”
“Got it solved yet?”
“I wonder what it means by a sparrow from ancient times.” “A really old bird?”
“I looked up ‘sparrow,’ in the store, thinking it might have another meaning. Here’s what Mister Webster says, ‘Any of several small dull singing birds.’”
“That’s harsh. Not only are they small, but they’re dull.” He turned the music down a little. “When are you going to Chateau Groundhog?”
“I called and set up an appointment for tomorrow morning.” “So she’s really going to see you?”
“I guess being an artist has its uses.”
“You’re using the power, the power isn’t using you.” I leaned over and gave him a kiss. “Thank you.”
He looked at the riddle again. “How much money will Fenton get if he solves this riddle?”
“He didn’t say. But if he doesn’t solve the riddle, all the money goes to—and you’re going to love this—building bat houses.”
He laughed. “You’re kidding.” “Elijah and Val must have been pals.”
“Sounds like they were drinking buddies.” Jerry folded the riddle back into his pocket. “I’m glad to know I’m not the only one with a screwy uncle.” He dug into his other pocket. “We got a new shipment of Bufo cards in today. I had to beat the crowds back with a stick. Want a sticker? I thought I’d decorate the kitchen.”
“No, thanks. I have enough to do for tonight.”
Besides reviewing my own paintings, I needed to work on some sort of presentation for Rachel’s class, so when we got home, I said, “I’m going to do some art stuff now, so don’t give me any more grief.” I was halfway up the stairs when I heard the steady hum of the fan. “Didn’t Nell fix the air conditioner?”
“She called and said she needed a part. She’ll be by tomorrow.”
Nell Brenner’s our resident handywoman. She said she’d always wanted to get her hands on the Eberlin house. I think she got more than she bargained for. She certainly has her hands full with all the repairs the old house needs. When Jerry and I first saw the house, Jerry was delighted by its spooky appearance, but I was appalled by its rundown condition. We soon realized most of the scabbiness was on the outside. Jerry’s Uncle Val hadn’t felt the need to mow or paint, but he lived very simply. We didn’t find clutter or piles of clothes and food wrappers. Inside, the rooms had been bare and dusty with Victorian style furniture. Now the hardwood floors were shiny and the high ceilings free of cobwebs. The kitchen needed just a little updating. We kept the sturdy white wood cabinets and wooden table and chairs. Most of the upstairs bedrooms just needed a paint job, and with Jerry’s unwanted assistance, Nell transformed the living room into a calm blue room with a white sofa and crystal lamps. Jerry hung the rescued “Blue Moon Garden” over the mantel.
I needed two more pictures to go with “Blue Moon Garden” to the Weyland Gallery. I checked by my parlor studio. Tacked to my easel was Austin’s latest offering, a pencil drawing of an impossibly big wheeled car with a forest of huge tailpipes jutting out behind and a grill like a shark’s grin. Denisha hadn’t shown an interest in art, but Austin had notebooks filled with detailed sketches of fantasy cars, motorcycles, dinosaurs, and spaceships. I decided I wouldn’t mind showing kids how to draw. I’d helped Austin with perspective and shading. I could start with some simple shapes and explain the same concepts to Rachel Sigmon’s class.
I sat down for a moment in one of Uncle Val’s beautiful old Victorian chairs. I had coveted this room from the beginning. The size and shape, the light, everything was perfect for a studio. I had all my art supplies neatly arranged and lately, I’d had plenty of time to paint. Now that I’d confronted the critic who made my first and only exhibit a nightmare, I felt much more confident in my work, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for another show. And what could I possibly use for the New Artists Show?
Propped along the walls of the parlor were my on-going projects: a landscape of the fields and trees in front of the house, some small drawings of wildflowers, a couple of abstracts, Austin and Denisha holding Austin’s boxer puppy, and Jerry’s portrait, which was only a rough pencil sketch. Still, I’d manage to capture the sparkle in his gray eyes and a hint of his smile. I’d drawn him leaning over the front porch railing, his head turned toward me, his impish expression suggesting I’d just caught him planning some grand scheme. Okay, so it wouldn’t take a lot of work to finish that, and maybe I could use the landscape, if I added more light and color. Of course, there was another painting I’d started of the fields in front of the house that would be a perfect complement to “Blue Moon Garden” if I could get it ready in time.
I looked around the parlor, imaging all the paintings framed and hanging on the walls of an art gallery or museum. I needed to prove to myself that I was a legitimate artist. But the cost of framing, hiring a hall, publicity—I’d have to solve several cases for some very wealthy people before an exhibit was possible, but this Weyland Gallery show was a huge first step toward making this dream a reality.
And you have a case, I told myself. If you help Nathan Fenton get his fortune, who knows? He might be willing to sponsor you. At least he paid his fee. At least you don’t have to hold fake séances like your husband. Of course, if I had my way about it, this would be the last fake séance he would hold.
By the time Flossie Mae Snyder and her niece, Sylvie, arrived promptly at nine, I’d made a lot of progress on the fields painting and decided that was enough for tonight. Jerry had a table and chairs arranged in the middle of the parlor and several fat candles glowing. Flossie Mae does not look like the kind of woman who’d believe in talking to the dead or anything paranormal. She’s a tall, thin woman with a stern demeanor. Sylvie, who is plump and excitable, looks exactly like the kind of woman who’d believe in ghosts. There must be something in Jerry’s performances that enthralls them, because they keep coming back for more.
“Let’s see what Aunt Marie and Aunt Marge have to say tonight,” he said as they took their places around the table. “Mac, would you mind getting the lights, please?”
I sighed and turned off the parlor lights. Jerry, Flossie Mae, and Sylvie held hands. Jerry closed his eyes and took some long deep breaths. “I call to the spirit world. I request your guidance. Come to me. Show me the way.” After a while, he spoke in a distant voice. “I am here.”
Sylvie was almost bouncing in her chair. “It’s us, Aunt Marie!”
“This is your Aunt Marge, my child.”
“Sorry, Aunt Marge. We wanted to know about the watch.” “The watch. Yes, my child. Soon we will reveal the door.” “Door?” Flossie Mae said. “What do you mean?”
Yes, Jerry. Where are you going with this?
“The door that leads to understanding,” he said. “Understanding what?”
“To find what you seek.” “There’s a door somewhere?”
Jerry made a funny gargling noise that made Flossie Mae gasp. “The spirits are restless,” he said in his faraway voice. “Let me try again.”
Flossie Mae and Sylvie sat absolutely still. When Jerry opened his eyes, the women jumped.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s a lot of confusion in the spirit world tonight. Did Marge or Marie come through?”
“Marge did,” Flossie Mae said. “She mentioned something about a door to understanding.”
He nodded. “Sometimes the spirits speak in their own language, and we have to figure out what they mean. Is there a door in your house or in one of their houses you haven’t tried?”
“Oh!” Sylvie said. “Flossie Mae, that little door that goes out to the porch Uncle Ray boarded up. Have we been out there?”
“There’s nothing out there but trash and spiders.” “Maybe we ought to look.”
“Well, all right. It’s worth a try, I suppose.”
Jerry saw them to the door. Sylvie chatted on about how it was always such a thrill to talk to her aunts. Flossie Mae tried to hand him some money, but he folded the bills back into her hand.
“This one’s on the house, Mrs. Snyder.”
“Thank you, but we really should pay you for your services.” “How ‘bout you pay me when we find the watch? It won’t be long now.”
“Very well. But I’ll insist you take half of whatever the watch is worth.”
“Well, that was nice,” I said, after Flossie Mae and Sylvie had gone. “But they’re never going to find a watch that doesn’t exist.” “Have a little faith. All I have to do is go into Parkland and find a big gold watch with an ‘S’ on it and make it magically appear during a séance.”
“And how are you going to pay for this big gold watch? Aren’t they expecting it to be worth a lot of money?”
“I’m working on that.” He blew out the candles and moved the table and chairs back to one side of the parlor. Then he said, “Were you serious about little Horry?”
His question took me by surprise. “What?”
“Earlier today, when we were talking about girls’ names. You want to have a Hortensia?”
Where was all this coming from? “Sure, and a Dorcas and an Ermintrude and a Trumilla.”
Seriously? Jerry was rarely serious about anything. I tried to keep things light. “But we already have two children, one of each.”
“Those are on loan. Do you want kids?” “We’ve had this talk.”
“Yeah, but we’re married now. That might make a difference.” “Not to me,” I said.
I could tell he wanted to say something else. “How important is it to you?”
“It’s not,” he said. “I just thought you might have changed your mind.”
“No, I haven’t.”
But later that night, as I lay curled up next to Jerry in bed, my head on his shoulder and my hand on his chest, listening to him sleep, I wondered, as I had many times before, what our children would be like. I had finally married my best friend, and our relationship was stronger than ever. I’d always said I didn’t want children, but now that I had someone who would be a wonderful father, maybe I should reconsider.
No, I thought as I snuggled in closer. I had all I wanted right here.