The killer envisioned the old woman lying in bed sleeping, a slight smile on her face. That smile would disappear when their eyes met.
It’s not that he disliked her. On the contrary, she hadn’t annoyed him that much, not like the other idiots who fluttered in and out of his life. So many weak people living useless lives, constantly getting in his way. Their overwhelming stupidity forced him to take control—sometimes in a subtle, manipulative way, sometimes not.
Fate’s odd sense of humor had brought the old lady, one of the few people alive who might recognize him, to this tiny town in the Hudson Valley. One of them had to go.
He’d decided to stage the murder as a burglary gone wrong with dresser drawers opened, possessions scattered on the floor. Elderly women always hid their good stuff in the same places. All her jewelry and other valuables would disappear, including the gold wedding ring on her finger.
Strangling her would be fun for one of them.
It should take twenty minutes, flat. Too bad killing wasn’t an Olympic event. No need to worry about cameras in the small older complex she lived in. Management had never gotten around to updating their security. Why should they? Oak Falls was as safe as safe could be.
It would be a perfect murder on a perfect winter’s night performed by a perfect killer.
Blood dripped from the zombie’s brown cracked lips. He staggered toward me. I dodged right only to spy a pair of vampires closing in on my left, their yellowed fangs bared and ready.
“Oops. Sorry,” said the tiny Cinderella in a blond wig who collided with my leg.
It was Halloween night in the Hudson Valley, and the residents of Oak Falls had come out to play. With Main Street closed to traffic, kids of all ages could safely trick-or-treat. Even the shops got into the act with employees dressed as ghosts or elves or whatever, handing out samples and gift certificates to the crowd.
“Kate, isn’t this great?” asked Mari, my friend and veterinary assistant. Dressed as Harpo Marx to take full advantage of her natural halo of curly hair, she’d dragged me out to experience this annual spooky celebration, which the town was famous for.
“Fantastic!” I yelled my reply over the lyrics of the “Monster Mash” blasted from speakers set up in the town square. A pair of tinfoil-wrapped robots broke into an impromptu dance. Passersby clapped and joined in. Everyday troubles faded for one night as young and old cavorted in the street.
She eyed my Halloween outfit. “I still think you should have gone with the Meryl Streep look. You’d look great with a pile of awards in your arms.”
Mari was referring to the superficial resemblance I had to the famous actress. My straight blond hair, longish nose, and blue eyes were to blame, I supposed. Despite her suggestion I went to the costume school of throw-some-stuff-on-and-pretend-it-works.
My last-minute outfit consisted of an old pair of surgical scrubs smeared with clotted catsup blood. A greasy black wig provided by Mari paired with a stained surgical mask across my face made me unrecognizable as the local veterinarian from Oak Falls Animal Hospital. I’d insulated myself from the October cold with two pairs of long johns and tall green rubber boots, lightly sprinkled with more catsup. With my absentee boyfriend Jeremy’s big tweed jacket pulled over everything, I’d morphed into an androgynous mad scientist.
This was my first Halloween in the village since being hired to run the Oak Falls Animal Hospital, while the owner, Doc Anderson, took an around-the-world cruise. Known as an artistic community, the town vigorously cultivated an eccentric and carefree vibe, making it particularly attractive to residents of nearby New York City. Only a two-hour drive away, but light years from the city’s noise and pollution, Oak Falls attracted visitors, many of them ending up as weekend residents.
I’d been unprepared for the hectic workload of house calls and hospital appointments at an animal hospital. Although rewarding, being the only veterinarian on staff had proved quite stressful. My coping strategy of reckless pie-consumption and amateur sleuthing didn’t help solve that problem, resulting only in tighter-fitting pants and alienating the chief of police. I hoped the coming winter might bring a sense of calm into my life.
I was wrong.
Very, very, wrong.
• • • • •
Ten minutes later the lively crowd around us appeared to have doubled. Live music blared from the loudspeakers as a local group calling themselves the Ghouls performed classic hits. Parents hoisted kids on their shoulders and the costumed audience rocked to the music. Mari called out something inaudible and disappeared. I walked onto a side street to check my phone only to discover its battery was low.
A harried Marilyn Monroe stepped out of the throng, a confused-looking elderly woman in tow. “Now wait here, Aunt Gloria,” she said, gently guiding the woman toward the brick wall of a storefront a few feet from me, stroking her white hair to soothe any fear. “I’ve got to track down the kids.”
“Is this a party?” Gloria asked. “Where’s my drink? I’d like a martini, please.”
“No drinks, Aunt Gloria. Please. Please just stay here for a few minutes.” While the younger woman talked, her eyes anxiously searched the crowd.
“Excuse me.” I lowered my bloody surgical mask. “If you like, I can wait here with your aunt until you get back. My name is Kate Turner. I’m a veterinarian at Oak Falls Animal Hospital.”
Suspicion turned to relief at the magic word, “veterinarian.”
“Oh, Dr. Turner. Yes, I recognize you now. I’m Irene Zeidman. We brought our cat Picasso in to see you a few months ago.”
Her face looked familiar, but like most vets, I remembered the cat better.
“If you could help keep my Aunt Gloria company that would be great. My teenagers are running around here somewhere and deliberately not answering my texts. They’re in big trouble, let me tell you.” A frustrated scowl clashed with her iconic Marilyn Monroe get-up.
“Don’t worry, I’ve gotten separated from my friend too.” I’d expected Mari to pop up by now. “After you get back, could I text her from your phone?”
“Sure.” Without a backward glance she secured her wig and disappeared into the crowd.
I took a closer look at my charge. Gloria appeared to be in her early eighties, her sweet face surrounded by a thin cloud of white hair. The top of her head barely came up to my shoulder.
“You look familiar, dear. Don’t I know you?” Watery blue eyes stared into mine.
“I’m Picasso’s doctor,” I explained.
She patted my hand and shook her head. “You’re much too young for that.”
“For Pablo Picasso. He was before my time and I’m much older than you.”
Feeling we were talking at cross-purposes I leaned in closer so she could hear me above the noise. “I mean Picasso, the cat.”
A slow dawning of understanding spread across her face. “Oh, that makes much more sense. Pablo was a great artist, you know, but he’s dead.” A tut-tut sort of sound escaped her lips.
Frankenstein walked past and nodded in our direction, his dark eyes wide and weird.
“He looks very familiar. Don’t I know him?” Gloria stared at the departing back.
“You might. Do you live here in town?”
“I live near my grandniece. She got me an apartment close to her family so they can keep an eye on me.” Gloria’s moving hand, dotted with age spots, beckoned me closer. In a conspiratorial whisper she added, “I’m getting older, you know.”
“We all are.” I gave her a hug. She smelled vaguely of dried lilacs.
Twenty minutes later the crowd started to thin out and the band wrapped it up for the night. The air felt colder. I hoped Irene wouldn’t be too much longer. While I kept a watch out for Mari, Gloria rambled on.
“I’ve always loved the Hudson Valley, but I haven’t lived here in many years. My husband and I sold our home to move to New Jersey to be closer to our daughter.” Tears glistened for a moment in her faded blue eyes. “You plan and plan but then things happen…why, who knows?…they’re all gone now…my husband, my daughter. Our grandsons are left, but one’s in Indiana and the other is living in New Mexico. Irene is my sister’s girl.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond.
A tall man in a New York Yankees baseball uniform complete with cap walked quickly past, in work boots instead of sneakers, almost knocking into my elderly charge.
“Excuse me.” He reached out to steady her, his back toward me. “Are you alright?”
“Don’t I know you?” I heard her ask him.
“I don’t think so. Happy Halloween, ladies.”
I tried to thank him but he crossed the street, narrowly avoiding colliding with a police officer, before continuing on his way.
“Why, I swear that’s…what’s his name? I haven’t seen him in years.”
I followed her pointing finger. Walking along the sidewalk I saw someone dressed as a creepy clown, the kind that gives kids nightmares, talking to a teen-aged girl wearing devil horns and carrying a plastic pitchfork. Another, more friendly Frankenstein, lurched behind them. The baseball player disappeared into the crowd.
Gloria grabbed my sleeve. “Of course I can’t be positive… my eyes aren’t what they used to be. I wonder what he’s doing at my party? And when is Irene coming back with my martini?”
Obviously Gloria appeared able to focus on some things, but became confused about others. I started to explain that we were at the town Halloween party when she tilted her head and asked a familiar question, “You look familiar. Don’t I know you?”
Her smile revealed suspiciously perfect white teeth.
“Yes, you do know me,” I reassured her. “I’m Kate.”
“I’m Gloria. Gloria LaGuardia.”
“That’s a famous name. Did you know…?”
“Mayor LaGuardia? No. But my husband swore he was his cousin, twice-removed.” Her laughter reminded me of Glinda, the good witch of the North, tinkling like the top keys of a piano.
A couple dressed in full-length bunny costumes strolled by. “Let’s stop for a second, honey,” a muffled voice said. “It’s stuffy in this thing.” They leaned against the storefront across from us and removed their elaborate costume heads. The man, still wearing his pink rabbit nose, reached into a hidden pocket, pulled out cigarettes, and lit up.
“Yuck. You promised you were going to quit.” The female bunny began fanning the smoke away with an exaggerated sweep of her hand, barely missing her companion’s eye.
“This is only my second cigarette today.” After sliding the rabbit ears off, his handsome face leaned into hers. With strong black eyebrows and curly dark hair streaked with silver, the male bunny cut a dashing figure. I guessed he was in his late forties or early fifties. His well-maintained girlfriend appeared slightly older.
Gloria stared at them in disbelief. “I’m confused. Are you really rabbits?”
They both laughed. “Don’t I wish,” the woman replied. “Life would be much more simple.”
“All I’d need to keep you happy would be some carrots, and I don’t mean diamonds,” her boyfriend chimed in. He picked up her paw and kissed it.
“You look familiar. Don’t I know you?” Gloria’s attention now focused on the man with the cigarette.
I was beginning to realize that Gloria thought everyone looked familiar.
Before the rabbits could answer, Irene appeared with a teenage boy and preteen girl in tow, neither looking happy. I wasn’t sure if the ripped jeans and dreadlocks the boy wore were a costume or his everyday look. On the other hand, the girl was definitely a witch.
“Wait. Is that you, Peter?” Gloria stared at her grandniece’s children. Her demeanor became more and more agitated.
The boy scowled while the girl checked messages on her phone.
Irene gave her daughter the evil eye. “Put the phone away, Jillian.”
“Mom,” the girl whined. “Stop treating us like children.”
“Don’t press your luck,” her mom snapped back.
Just in time, it was my turn to see a familiar face walking toward us. Mari/Harpo Marx and I waved to each other through the thinning crowd.
“Thanks so much for taking care of Aunt Gloria. Sorry it took so long.” Behind Irene’s back Jillian stuck her tongue out. Her brother slapped approval with a high-five.
Gloria started to mutter to herself.
I didn’t envy Irene, this poor woman, who had her hands full with two scowling siblings and a senior citizen expecting a martini.
Irene waved them along and said in her happy voice, “Come on, everyone. Time to go home.”
Gloria latched onto my arm. She stood on her tippy toes trying to whisper in my ear, eager to tell me something.
I leaned down.
“Kate,” the elderly woman said, “I’m afraid.”
Her eyes looked clear and focused even though her hands clenched and unclenched my arm. I felt her body tremble. “What’s wrong?”
“It all came back to me just now. Someone evil is here. I saw him.” She gestured to the costumed crowd streaming past.
I stared into the ghosts and goblins, witches and robots heading home. No one acted crazy or out-of-line. If evil walked in front of us, I didn’t see it. Perhaps my elderly friend had had enough Halloween partying for one night.
“Who are you talking about?”
Instead of answering she moved away from me and told her waiting niece in a plaintive voice to take her home.
Irene gathered her little group together then shepherded them toward the town parking area, holding her aunt’s arm while shooing the complaining kids along.
Bewildered by Gloria’s sudden fear, I didn’t know what to think. In the midst of the confusion Mari called out my name.
When I turned back toward the street the rabbits had disappeared.