Authors: Laurinda Wallace
“It’s probably a good thing it’s not,” Marc laughed. “We’d all weigh 500 pounds. I’ll be on a treadmill the rest of the week.”
“You’re right,” she said, suddenly remembering Isabelle’s pointed remark on her weight. Absolutely no seconds for her tonight. A slowing metabolism was tough on an almost 40-year-old figure. She looked across the room and was shocked to see Will and Iris eating with Roger’s parents, Chuck and Irene.
“Looks like a Deer Creek convention up here tonight,” she commented.
Marc glanced over his shoulder to where she was looking. “I guess so. He’s had kind of a rough time lately.”
“It was pretty scary. I’m glad Will’s all right.”
Marc nodded, concentrating on spreading butter over the pile of pancakes that had just been placed in front of him. She watched him pour syrup over the stack as her plate was plunked in front of her. It seemed like weeks since they’d been by themselves, well, except for the pizza night. Marc wanted to move forward with their relationship. He’d made it clear on the drive to the pancake house. It was up to her. Why did she have to make a decision? It would happen naturally if it was meant to be. He was like Michael in a lot of ways. That should make it easier, but it didn’t. Marc’s blond hair had shots of silver on the sides and was cropped short in military style. His chiseled features made him great eye candy. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, displaying strong forearms that only months ago, had kept her from plunging to her death. She owed him her life, and here she was messing with his mind and possibly their future. He was gorgeous, and he liked her. He was a good man. Honest, thrifty, brave, and reverent. What was she thinking?
“So, what’s your work schedule looking like for the next week?” She kept her eye on the Dover and Woodson table and then turned back to Marc.
“Actually, I have a few days off. Maybe we could do a little more cross-country skiing on our own or something else. I’m even game for a little shopping.” His eyes crinkled with humor, and he finished his last sausage link with gusto.
“Skiing sounds good. I’ve been a real slug this winter. Haley could use the exercise too. She’s putting on a few pounds, as is her mistress.” Gracie eyed the plate of pancakes sitting in front of her and deliberately put down her fork. “Weekends are usually better.”
“Works for me. Why don’t we make it Saturday afternoon, and then we’ll go to dinner or pick up some wings.” Marc lifted three more pancakes to his plate with his fork and drowned them liberally with golden maple syrup.
“Perfect.” She hesitated, calculating how successful any questions about Jack might be. The time wasn’t right though. Maybe a quick chat with the Woodson and Dover table would be a good segue. She should say “hello” after all. Gracie crumpled up her paper napkin, sticky with syrup. She should have brought some wipes to really get her hands clean.
“I’m going to say hi to Will and Iris. Be right back,” she said brightly. Before Marc could respond, she hustled to the table.
“Why Gracie, what a nice surprise to see you. Are you here by yourself?” Iris asked.
“No. I’m here with my … friend, Marc Stevens.” She motioned to the table where Marc sat with his back to them.
“Oh, how nice,” Iris said, nodding toward Marc.
“I just wanted to see how Will was feeling, and now that Jack’s in jail, if I should be doing anything … well …” She ended up with no place to go that wasn’t awkward.
“I’m feeling much better, Gracie. It’s a shame about Jack, but at this point, we’ll wait and see.”
“That’s right. I don’t think Jack will be cooling his heels long,” Chuck Woodson grumbled. “He’s just an easy arrest for the sheriff. If you ask me, it was probably one of Alice’s creditors.”
“Really?” Gracie said in surprise. “Why’s that?”
“Because that development has been a loser from day one. Ask Rich McMahon. He’s got a lot of reasons to stick it to Alice.” He seemed pleased with his gory pun. Will reddened, and the ladies simultaneously sucked in their breath.
“Now, Chuck,” Irene crooned.
“Pipe down, Irene. It’s the truth, and nobody’s even said “boo” to him.”
“Well, gee … I hadn’t even thought about him.” She really hadn’t. But Maplewood Estates was going down the tubes. They’d bent over backward to get Terry in there. Two of the six spec houses had tenants, and then there were all those empty lots. If Isabelle was trying to fill it up, she had her work cut out for her. And then again, maybe Isabelle knew something about Rich.
“Unfortunately, it was a bad investment,” Will added. “Our retirement plans are being adjusted because of that.”
“Shoot, Will, we can work out a deal for your collection. Everybody loses some money on real estate. Why, I remember—”
“You were asking about Jack,” Will hastily cut off Chuck. Irene looked extremely grateful.
“Right. Do we owe him any vacation time or anything?”
“No. He doesn’t get any benefits. Dan’s going to fill in if we need any repairs, and Sybil will clean. I don’t want to take away any more money from them. I think it’s the right thing to do. And Gracie, I appreciate all you’re doing for the library. You’re really a godsend.”
“Thanks. I’m not doing all that much. But I’m happy to help. Oh, there’s one more thing. I was just curious, Chuck. I was kinda surprised that Roger would have Alice sell the knife for him.”
“He’s a goldarn idiot. I told that boy of mine …” He slammed his fist down on the table, which made everyone jump. Gracie could feel the eyes of other diners behind her staring at the small spectacle.
Gracie cringed. Chuck Woodson hadn’t mellowed any since he retired from farming. Michael had come home angry and frustrated from many Dairy Co-op meetings because of the old tyrant. Woodson Dairy had the distinction of being a century-old dairy farm, and Chuck never let anyone forget it. Michael had been extremely happy the day the reins of Woodson Dairy had been handed to Roger, whose temperament was sunny compared to his father’s.
The elder Woodson had snowy white hair with a matching moustache and a broad leathery face, evidence of many years on top of a tractor. His hands were big knuckled, and his fingers were little crooked with arthritis. His black and white plaid flannel shirt was open to show a sinewy neck. He still looked as strong as an ox. His wife Irene sat quietly beside him, her white hair pulled back into a tight bun. She was thin and short with distinct frown lines on her face. Her eyes were lifeless and helpless. She wore a bulky cable knit ivory cardigan over a ruffled white blouse with navy blue polyester slacks. Gracie imagined that her life with Chuck was not an easy one. She didn’t know the woman well. Irene didn’t participate in many community events and didn’t attend church—not the D.C. Community Church anyway. Gracie guessed that waiting on Chuck was a 24/7 job.
“Hi, everyone.” Marc had walked quietly up beside Gracie and put his hand on her shoulder. “Nice to see you, Mr. Dover and Mr. Woodson.” Authority exuded from Marc, and Chuck Woodson flattened his hand against the tabletop and slid it back toward his lap.
“Thank you, Deputy Stevens. It’s good to see you,” Will said.
Relief flooded the faces of Irene and Iris.
“Well, I guess we’d better get some coffee and dessert,” Gracie said, ready to escape. “Thanks for rescuing me,” she whispered to Marc, who still kept a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s what I do, remember?”
“Right. I remember.” She smiled. “But Chuck Woodson sure hasn’t changed. He’s as cantankerous as ever. Michael sure hated …” She stopped, embarrassed suddenly as they sat down at their table.
“Gracie, you can talk about Michael. I’m not offended, jealous, or anything. He was your husband. In fact, we
to talk about Michael since he’s always with us.” Marc’s voice was weary.
“You’re right. We do,” she half-whispered. She unclipped her red mane and twisted it back into place, securing it again. She wasn’t ready for that talk, and Marc was more than ready. Besides there were so many other questions that seemed more important. The ideas in her head were working like sourdough starter, bubbly and a little smelly.
“Before we do, I really want to know why Jack was arrested.”
She was still mulling over the answers Marc had given her about Jack. He’d been seen in the parking lot that night. His fingerprints had been on Alice’s car. He denied moving it back to her garage, but only his and Alice’s fingerprints were on the car. Jack denied killing Alice. There were no fingerprints on the knife. Wasn’t that a little odd? Why would the knife be clean and the car not? It didn’t make sense. Anyway, the conversation about Michael had been deftly avoided in her mind. They were still set to go cross-country skiing Saturday afternoon. She now sat staring into space, tapping a pencil on her desk, trying to make sense of her lack of relationship skills at the present time. Her mother would shudder to think that she was ruining a good thing with such a great guy.
“Gracie, sorry to interrupt, but can I talk to you for a minute?” Cheryl was suddenly in her office. Gracie hadn’t noticed her enter. Her employee’s eyes were red and swollen. Gracie groaned inwardly.
“Sure. Are you OK?”
“Well, sort of. Not really. I don’t know. I need to talk to someone about this.” Cheryl’s normally cheerful face was decidedly un-cheerful. She shifted uneasily on her feet. Gracie motioned for her sit on one of the brown plastic chairs that took up space in front of the desk.
“It’s my daughter. This new boyfriend and all.” She stopped and took a ragged breath.
“What’s going on? Is he that bad?” Gracie had no intention of getting involved in a mother-daughter dispute over a boyfriend, but she needed to make an effort to help. However, her people acumen was at the present time in question, so there were no guarantees she could even make a coherent response. If she kept asking questions, maybe she could avoid giving any advice.
“Jen thinks she’s in love with this guy. She’s talking about getting married and … I can’t even think about this,” she sobbed.
“Married? Does her father know?”
“He knows. I don’t think he cares. With that live-in girlfriend he’s wrapped up with, it’s been all about him,” Cheryl said bitterly.
“She’s only fifteen, right?”
“Right. That’s what scaring me. I met my ex-husband when I was 16. I got pregnant, dropped out of school … I don’t want that to happen to Jen. She won’t listen, and I’m afraid she’ll just take off with him.” Cheryl pulled a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose.
“Do you think she’d listen to a disinterested party?” Gracie was desperately trying to come up with something or somebody who would get her off the hook.
“She might. Would you talk to her?”
“Uh … no. But my pastor, Reverend Minders, would. He’s helped me out a few times. He’s easy to talk to. I could give him a call if you want.”
“I don’t know. A minister?” She was hesitating. “I’m not big on church.”
“You could talk to him first. I’d trust him to give you some good advice. Cheryl, I’m really not an expert on teenagers. I know my mother said she made it through the teenage years with my brother and me by the skin of her teeth.”
“I can’t talk to my parents about it. I was a really wild teenager and gave them a lot of problems. I married Greg because they pushed me into it, and then I lost the baby at 15 weeks. I got my GED after that and then got pregnant with Jen. I just don’t want her to make the same mistakes I did.”
“Does she know about that?”
“I’ve told her. Of course, she says it’ll be different for her and this … guy … boy …” she sputtered, taking a sodden tissue from her pocket to wipe her eyes.
“Here,” Gracie said, holding out a box of Kleenex. Cheryl pulled a couple from the box and blew her nose again. “Listen, I’ll give you my pastor’s number. If you want to talk to him, then it’s your move. He really is a good guy, and I know he could at least give you some solid counsel about teenagers. I’ve got nothing there. I hired teenage workers last summer, and well, let’s just say they’re not my forte.” The lawsuit that almost cost her the kennel last summer was still very fresh in Gracie’s mind. She quickly scribbled the church office number on a sticky note and handed it to the sniffling Cheryl.
“Thanks, Gracie. I’ll think about it.” She folded the square of paper and pushed it into her jeans pocket. The bell on the door jingled in the reception area.
“I’ll get it. Why don’t you go wash your face and take a couple of minutes for yourself?”
Cheryl nodded, smiling gratefully, still wiping her eyes.
Jim was the jingler of the bell, but he came bearing the gift of warm glazed fry cakes in a pink bakery box.
“Here you go, Chief. Sustenance for the troops.”
“Thanks, but none for me. I’m not passing the jeans’ test.”
“Let’s just say I’m cutting out sweet rolls, doughnuts, and anything else that tastes good.”
“Sad for you, but glad for me,” he said flipping the carton open and grabbing a fry cake. “I’ll take them back by the coffeepot.”
“Way too close to me. You’d better leave them …. Oh, who cares? Let me have one of those.” She snatched the box from Jim’s hands and helped herself.
“A short-lived diet, then?” he asked with a smirk.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I just can’t resist …”
She gave him a glare. “You are hateful. Changing the subject, have you priced out that cabinet project?”
She and Jim had decided they needed a classier display for assorted dog equipment in the reception area. Gracie hated the metal stands and hooks they were currently using. Jim had come up with the idea of an old-fashioned custom sideboard and hutch with plenty of display area and storage.
“Just on my way over to Castile now. I’ll see what kind of deal Elitsac will give me on the walnut lumber.” Elitsac was the closest lumberyard, and the kennel supported local businesses as much as they could.
“Why don’t you price out walnut and oak?”
“OK by me. I think the walnut will look best, though.” He popped the last bite of fry cake into his mouth and licked the sticky glaze from his fingers.
“You’re probably right. I do like walnut, unless it’s really expensive.”
“I’ll check it out. See you later.”
Jim was out the door in a flash, and Gracie sighed with relief. No questions about last night’s date, so far. She’d have to make sure she kept Jim distracted from that topic. Now she had to find time to see Alice’s sister Pearl. Maybe the appraisals were in Alice’s files, along with a few other things.
The afternoon was sunny; the brilliant white of the snow on Alice’s lawn sparkled like a field of crusty diamonds. Pearl was congenial when Gracie knocked at the door with an apple pie in her hand. It was a good thing Midge had a whole one left. Since Terry and Sybil hadn’t been able to locate any appraisals or documents about the bequest at the library, there was only one other place to look. Alice’s records were under investigation anyway by the D.A., so Pearl was more than happy for a friendlier face at her door. She led Gracie to a small, but comfortable office in the rear of the old Victorian house. Sunshine streamed through the sage-colored sheers on the small bay window. The hardwood floor gleamed, and an oval green and brown braided rug lay in front of the antique tiger maple writing desk. Gracie took the offered seat in a well-worn Jacobean print overstuffed chair.
“I stopped over to the office after you called and pulled out everything I could find on the library,” Pearl said, lowering herself into the companion chair. She wore gray knit slacks with a teal shirt and matching hip-length jacket. “Hopefully you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
“Thanks so much, Pearl. I’ve never had an audit done by the D.A., so I can’t imagine what a pain that must be.”
“It hasn’t been too bad, but I am tired of the D.A.’s geek squad. I think they’re pretty much done.”
Gracie slowly thumbed through the monthly reports that had been prepared by Alice’s CPA firm. The library’s finances were in good shape from what she could see. The Woodson bequest had an appraised value of $300,000. But where was the appraisal? She grabbed another file, and finally she found the missing documents.
“Here they are!” she exclaimed. “Everyone’s been looking for them, and I was beginning to think they didn’t exist.”
appraisals,” Pearl said, nodding her head.
“And they were done by … reallllly?” she dragged out the last word. “These weren’t done by Dr. Aaron. It’s an art appraisal service in Batavia. This is weird.”
“Why?” Pearl asked. She leaned forward to look at the papers Gracie held out for her inspection.
“I understood all along that Dr. Aaron at Seneca University had done the appraisals for the library, or at least had arranged for them. Wasn’t Alice a friend of his?”
Pearl waved away the papers. “So you know about Aaron then?”
“I read the newspaper back there online. It said she was connected to Aaron as a business associate or something like that.” She wished she could remember what the reporter had actually said about Alice.
“Jon Aaron was an old boyfriend of Alice’s back in college,” Pearl explained. She exhaled and continued. “He was a ladies’ man, and Alice was taken by him. Another one of his conquests, I guess. They were classmates, but he ended up being a big shot at Seneca. The state police have been asking a lot of questions about him.”
“I guess they haven’t found his murderer yet.” Gracie said.
“I haven’t heard any more about it. Alice was questioned by the police at the time.” Pearl fingered the remaining files on the desk and sighed. “I know my sister was involved in things she should’ve left alone. Alice was really in over her head in the real estate game. We tried to tell her that real estate was not the investment for her, but she wouldn’t listen. Rich McMahon is a pretty smooth operator, and as far as I’m concerned, bilked her out of a lot of money.”
“Will Dover had money in that development too, didn’t he?”
“I think so.” Pearl rose from the chair went to the window. She stared out at the quiet street. She pulled the drape back as if enjoying the sunshine and slid it to the middle of the rod again, shielding the view of the room from the street. “She got a couple of people involved with Maplewood. The development needed quick cash, and she talked Will Dover into a large amount of money. He’ll be lucky to get half of it back. They haven’t sold any homes up there.”
“Alice knew she’d really messed up. She’d made McMahon her property manager, and he wasn’t paying the bills or taking care of the properties. Everyone was after her for money and …” She paused; her hands were clutching the drapes. She let the fabric drop from her fingers.
“I’m really sorry about Alice. Sounds like everything was coming down around her,” Gracie commiserated.
“It really was. And Camille and I couldn’t help her. I don’t know what she was thinking.”
“Do you know why she had the Woodson knife? Is it true that she was selling it for him?”
Pearl returned to the chair. “This is where her relationship with Aaron comes in, I think.”
“But he’s …”
“I know. But Alice knew who his buyers were. She’d handled some private sales for him before. One of them actually had the nerve to show up at the funeral.”
Gracie mentally scanned the small crowd that had been at the funeral home. And then it came to her.
“Did he have a bald head and nice suit?”
“That’s him. Roberts … uh … Robinson. That was his name. He actually told us he was disappointed not to have met Alice that night. Disappointed he didn’t get the knife is more like it. Unbelievable!”
“That is pretty awful,” Gracie said thoughtfully. She pulled the two appraisals from the folder. “Could I take these or make a copy?”
“Oh, sure. There’s a copier here. Let me take them. I’ll be right back.”
Pearl whisked from the room, and Gracie sat pondering. Absently, she opened the next file that was marked “Cornelia/Boyd/Parker.” Her eyes widened as she saw the letters to Will Dover and Col. Marvin Wilson. They were from Jon Aaron.
The letters of Cornelia Becker of Schoharie have been authenticated, and I enclose the appraisal, along with the provenance of the current owner. Bids must be placed in writing to the undersigned by November 10. A final examination of the documents may be arranged between November 5 and November 10. The winning bidder must deliver the purchase price in cash at the date and time designated. I await your further instructions.
The letter was signed illegibly, but she could definitely make out “Aaron” in the sprawling signature. She pulled her phone from her tote bag and quickly snapped a picture.
“Is there anything else you need?”
Gracie nearly jumped from the chair as Pearl entered the room.
“Uh … no. I think that’s everything.” She quickly shut the folder, sliding the phone back into her bag. “Thanks again. Let me know if I can help in any way. I am so sorry about Alice.”
“Thank you. I’ll be here another few days unless the police subpoena something else. You can call me if you need anything for the library.”