By the Book (A Gracie Andersen Mystery 2) (3 page)

The smell of strong coffee trailed out to the reception area, and Cheryl sniffed appreciatively when she came through the door.

“Jim’s making the coffee today, right?” Cheryl laughed.

“Right. You can always tell.” Gracie grinned. She smoothed her long curly red hair back against the nape of her neck and slipped an elastic band over the thick mass.

“It has real body to it, that’s for sure.”

“Are you complaining?” Jim stuck his head around the corner.

“No way. It’ll keep me going all day.” Cheryl flashed Jim a grateful smile and headed for the office to hang up her navy pea coat. She pulled the warm, thick fisherman’s knit hat from her head and hung it on the next hook. Melting snow dripped steadily off the coats into a small puddle on the boot tray below.

“Did I hear Tom say the fire chief was coming today?” Cheryl grabbed a mug from the rack by the coffeemaker.

“Yes, and it’s quite a story. I’ll fill everybody in.” Gracie plunked down into her desk chair and shared her fiery adventures of the previous night.

 

By afternoon the snow slowed. Jim didn’t have to plow again before closing time. The sky was threatening with more dark clouds in the north and to the west. Gracie toyed with the thought of sending everyone home early to get ahead of any storm. She was still studying the sky when a Wyoming County Sheriff’s cruiser drove into the parking lot.

“Hey, Cheryl, the sheriff’s department is here. I’m going up to the house.” Gracie pulled her parka on and found her gloves in the deep pockets.

“Sure thing. We’ve got it under control,” Cheryl called back from the grooming room winking at Marian, who smiled knowingly.

Max and Sable were in the middle of a deluxe beauty treatment with Marian and Cheryl. The big dogs had warmed up immediately to the women’s relaxed and confident manner. Gracie was sure they’d feel like new dogs before the treatment was over. She wasn’t so sure about their mistress. Terry had made a couple of phone calls after the fire chief’s visit. She’d been stoic about the loss of her property, a little too stoic, Gracie thought. I sure wouldn’t be so calm about losing practically everything to fire and smoke. An emotional meltdown was inevitable, but maybe the librarian was still in shock. Gracie didn’t want to rush to judgment about a stranger’s mental health. She was just finally getting her own balanced.

Deputy Marc Stevens got out of the cruiser. Gracie was more than glad to see him. Marc had saved her life last summer, and they now had an understanding. The “status” as Facebook would say, was complicated.

“Find out anything about the fire, Marc?”

“Looks like Dan has it wrapped up. Everyone is pretty sure it was a faulty space heater and not arson. The wiring was old, so likely it was a combination of the heater and wiring. What a tough break for her though. She’s supposed to start work this week and loses everything in a fire. She says she doesn’t have any family or other connections around here either.” The handsome deputy zipped up the heavy gray uniform jacket against the cold.

“I know. I’ve got a call into the church for some help for her. She lost all of her clothes, furniture, and some kitchen stuff. I think Gloria Minders is hunting down a couple of rental properties for her. Terry was renting the cottage from Alice Harris, so maybe there’ll be some insurance to help.”

“Don’t count on the insurance, but, if I know Mrs. Minders, she’ll have a replacement house in no time.”

Gracie laughed in agreement. Her intrepid pastor’s wife was known to perform a miracle or two when it came to taking care of people.

“Let’s go in the house and get warm.” She stomped her feet for warmth and hugged herself.

“Fine by me. I’m glad I’ll be off the roads tonight. There’s another storm coming in off Lake Erie.”

Wyoming County lay in the snowbelt of Western New York and enjoyed lake effect snow from both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, depending on which way the winds decided to blow.

“Just great. I think I’ll send Cheryl and Marian home early. Go on in the house, and I’ll tell them to finish up and leave in the next hour.”

 

The house smelled delicious and homey. Gracie had thrown a beef stew together in the crockpot after the kennel’s morning rush. The aroma of rich beef gravy made her stomach growl.

Marc had one more report for Terry to sign, and they spoke in low tones in the living room, while Gracie adjusted the stew’s seasonings. She’d stir up some cornbread when the kennel closed, and they’d be set for the evening. Terry appeared a little better than in the morning, but the look of resignation on her face caused Gracie’s stomach to tighten. It was like Terry had no fight left and had already accepted her fate. The poor woman was alone, homeless, and had lost most of her worldly possessions. What a disaster for her! Maybe Terry had family or friends that could give her some support. None had been mentioned yet.

"Always help your neighbor," a voice in her head admonished. "Yes, Mother," she said to herself. Where should she go from here though
?

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

The snow began in earnest after Gracie and Terry finished eating the hearty stew and cornbread. The wind picked up, howling and battering the white flakes into blinding whiteouts. Gracie could hardly see the kennel from the kitchen window when stronger gusts of wind surged. She decided to do one last bed check on her kennel guests before settling in to talk with her houseguest. Satisfied that her charges were snug and happy for the night, Gracie punched in the code for the security alarm and fought her way back to the house through the swirling snow. The wind chill was well below zero, and the warmth of the house was instant relief.

Gracie had dug out some clothes for Terry earlier in the day. She’d come up with some sweaters and jeans. They were a little big, well, maybe a little baggy on the trimmer woman, but weren’t too bad. Gracie’s mother, Theresa Clark, had stopped by at lunch time and insisted on taking Terry to Warsaw to pick up socks, boots, shoes, and underwear. At least Terry had a few basic supplies that were her own.

Gracie stirred hot chocolate mix into two large mugs of steaming water and carried them into the living room. A crackling fire in the fieldstone fireplace made the room toasty. Terry was watching the local news on Channel 13. There was a brief report on the fire, but no names were mentioned. Gracie saw a frown on the woman’s face as she stared at the screen.

“Weird to see a report about yourself, isn’t it?” Gracie set the mugs on the large coffee table and sank onto the deep cushions of the sofa.

“Kind of, I guess. I’m just glad no names were mentioned. I really don’t like the attention.”

“I understand. Of course, you’re a celebrity in Deer Creek now.”

“I was hoping to be just the quiet librarian and enjoy small town life here.”

“That probably won’t happen for a while.”

The conversation turned to the details of the fire and what was lost. She’d had the presence of mind to grab her purse, so Terry had her wallet and cell phone. Her laptop had been in the car and that was OK.

“How’s Alice responding to all of this?” Gracie asked.

“She’s called a couple of times today. She’s the one who gave me the space heater. It seemed to work okay, but the house was still so cold. I don’t think the furnace was working right.”

“I’m sure she’s a little concerned about her responsibility in all of this,” Gracie responded.

“She does seem worried about a lawsuit. I haven’t said anything, but she’s awfully nervous,” Terry paused. “I’ve lost everything though, and the dogs and I nearly died.”

Gracie grimaced. “It’s awful. I’m glad you’re all safe. I imagine a lawsuit … well … let’s just say Alice Harris has had some financial challenges lately.”

Terry’s eyes widened. “Really? She led me to believe that her business was pretty successful. Doesn’t she have a lot of rental properties?”

“That’s true. And she has her own accounting business.” Gracie hesitated. The rest of what she was about to share was gossip straight from Midge’s. What the heck. Terry would hear it from her or from someone else. “Alice has quite a few empty properties and one went into foreclosure not too long ago.”

“Oh. That’s not quite the same picture Mrs. Harris painted for me. She’s a CPA, so she must do all right with that.”

“That I’m not sure about. I don’t use her, but I know a couple of the bigger farms do.”

Gracie turned the TV off and finished the dregs of hot chocolate. The three dogs were stretched out in front of the fireplace, soaking up the warmth. Haley was snoring softly, as usual.

“Maybe she’ll rent me one of her empty properties then. Although the wiring should be checked out before I move in.”

“You don’t have to rush into anything, Terry. Give yourself a few days to get things figured out.”

“I really do want to thank you for taking us in, Gracie. I’m not used to relying on anybody for help and …” Terry’s voice cracked with emotion.

“It’s not a problem. I know it’s hard to accept help. I’m that way myself. Just ask my mother,” Gracie said lightly in an attempt to put her guest at ease.

“She did mention something about that today.” A slight smile appeared on her thin face.

“No doubt.” Gracie now wondered what else she’d told Terry. “So, are you from Wyoming County?” She decided to take the plunge and find out what she could about the new librarian.

“No,” Terry shook her head slowly as if considering her answer. “I’m a city girl, from New York.”

“Really? You don’t have that New York City accent.”

“I went to Long Island University for my undergrad work. I was offered a job at a small university outside of Albany where I got my MLS, so I stayed on. I really enjoyed it there.” Terry looked away from Gracie and gazed at the steadily burning fire.

“What brought you here, then?” Gracie’s curiosity was awakened by Terry’s sudden change of geography.

“Just tired of the academic scene, I guess. I saw the opening in a state library newsletter and decided to apply.” Terry looked down and focused on the three sleeping dogs.

“Deer Creek will be quite a change from a university library. We’re small potatoes compared to that.”

“That’s OK. It’s a good change for me.” She rubbed Max’s hindquarters with her warmly slippered foot. The big dog stirred, lifted his head, and then went back to sleep. “I’ve never seen my dogs so relaxed. The country air here and Haley must be doing them a world of good, even after last night.”

“Haley’s a good dog—a great dog in fact. She’s saved my life—literally. How long have you had Max and Sable?”

“I’ve had them for … awhile. Got them as adults. Max is four and Sable is five.”

“Don’t care for puppies then?” Gracie queried.

“Didn’t have the time to train them and I needed the … company. Living by yourself can be a little scary sometimes.” Terry brushed a strand of hair from her face and drew her legs up into the large overstuffed chair.

“You’re right. I don’t know what I’d do without Haley. Were they rescue dogs?” Gracie knew the answer before it came. The shepherds were well bred and well behaved. She was sure they were very expensive dogs.

“No. I had a friend who knew a breeder. He had several adult dogs that needed homes. I was lucky to get both of them. So, how long have you had the kennel, Gracie?”

“Just about a year.”

“Sounds like your business is doing well.”

“We had tough start, but when you have the right people, things go a lot smoother.”

“You’re right. I hope taking this job was the right thing for me.” Terry went to the patio doors and looked out into the darkness. Her shoulders slumped, and she took a step back from glass. “I hate to be a party pooper, but I think I’m going to call it a night. I’m scheduled to start at the library tomorrow.”

“I’m sure the board understands if you need more time off.”

“They do. The president called today, but working will be better for me.” She sighed. “Except for the clothing situation. I’ll have to go somewhere by the weekend to get a few outfits.”

“Hopefully the weather will clear, and you can go to Rochester. We may be snowed in for a while tomorrow. We’ll see if Jim can get us plowed out, or if the snowplow will even make it down through here tonight.”

“What a way to start a new job!” Terry nudged her dogs awake.

“I guess country life can be exciting too,” Gracie smiled, stifling a yawn.

Terry forced a small laugh and then headed toward the guest bedroom with Max and Sable on either side of her.

Haley groaned and rolled over on her back before standing and following her mistress toward the master bedroom. Gracie slid under the flannel sheets and turned the electric blanket controls to high. Haley stretched out on top of the blue down comforter and was immediately asleep. Gracie lay listening to the moaning and gusting wind. She knew the storm was driving snow into deep drifts. She missed Michael on these long winter nights, especially during a blizzard. They’d watch an old movie and drink hot chocolate. Inevitably, a calf would be born or a cow would get sick on a night like this, and they’d both be up half the night in the barn. She stopped the swirling memories. It wouldn’t lead to anything good. She pulled the covers up over her head and finally fell asleep lulled by the blizzard’s keening wind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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