By the Book (A Gracie Andersen Mystery 2) (5 page)

“Animals do strange things when they’re involved in a fire. Horses are very likely to run back into a burning barn. I was at a bad house fire a few years ago, The family’s dog got away from the dad, and ran back into fire. There was no way to get him.” He sighed. “Of course, people do strange and dangerous things in a fire too. You were smart not to go back after the dogs.” Marc said, leaning forward to grab a mug. He took a quick gulp.

“I wanted to go back in, but the firemen pulled me away. Your brother didn’t waste any time going in to look for them though. I’ll never be able to thank him enough. And you, Gracie,” she quickly added.

“It’s the good neighbor policy around here.” Gracie suddenly blushed with embarrassment.

“Speaking of policies, I hope Mrs. Harris will cooperate. I didn’t have a renter’s policy.”

“Oh, wait a minute. I totally forgot. She left some paperwork here.”

“That’s a relief. She wasn’t too happy about reporting my losses when I called her earlier. Must be she changed her mind.”

“She should be happy to cover your losses. Faulty wiring and a bad space heater are pretty big liabilities. All in all, she’s lucky that nothing worse happened,” Marc snapped.

Gracie rose and picked up the wrinkled papers from the kitchen counter.

“Here you go,” she said handing them to Terry. “I hope you won’t run into any snags. Insurance can be tricky.”

“I know what you mean.” Terry answered, glancing at the forms. “Oh, these look complicated. My mind is too tired to start on them tonight.” She yawned, stretching her arms overhead. “Now to find a new house or apartment. I’d like to get settled and out of your hair.”

Gracie smiled. “I’m sure something will turn up. But you don’t have to rush out of here.

Terry finished her coffee and took the cup to the dishwasher. “I just hope there’s something available here. It may not be easy with the dogs, though. I’d really prefer a house over an apartment. Max and Sable need the space, and a yard would be nice.”

“You have a place here, Terry. Take your time. Haley loves having friends sleep over. They may help her shape up into a more respectable dog too.” Haley opened one sleepy eye, and her tail thumped. “See? Haley approves.”

Terry smiled. “I know, but we don’t want to wear out our welcome.”

“Have you been in touch with your family to let them know you’re OK?” Gracie hadn’t heard her guest even mention family. She hadn’t mentioned anyone was close to her.

“Uh, not yet.” Wariness crept into Terry’s hazel eyes as she stood at the sink, wiping her hands on the towel. “We’re not exactly … close.”

“Oh,” was all Gracie could manage. She looked at Marc, whose expression remained uninterested.

Terry went to the French doors and called for her dogs. They bounded out ahead of Haley.

“I think I’ll just go to bed if you don’t mind. I want to get an early start at the library, and I meet Sybil tomorrow.”

“You’ll need some rest then and a well-developed sense of humor,” Gracie chuckled as she took the mug and plate from Terry.

Terry let the panting threesome back inside. Sable and Max followed her down the hallway to the bedroom. Marc helped himself to another cup of coffee, and they settled back on the sofa.

“I wonder why she won’t talk about her family. That seems pretty odd to me.”

“Not really,” Marc responded. “I’m not close to my family. I haven’t seen my mother and sisters in two or three years. One lives in Oregon, and the other one is in Indiana. My mom lives with the sister in Indiana. We email, but that’s about it.”

“Why don’t you see each other? I can’t even imagine being that far apart.”

“We’re just not close. I’ll probably drive out to see my mother and my younger sister this summer. What are you talking about anyway? You’re always finding ways to avoid meeting up with relatives.”

“Not my brother and parents,” Gracie said defensively. “I have a boatload of cousins that are really annoying, and some are downright strange. I’m just selective, that’s all.”

Marc laughed. “Selective? You’ve mentioned moving to an island and leaving no forwarding address for family just the other day, as I recall. I’m pretty sure that included your parents and brother.”

Gracie made a face. “It was a bad day, that’s all. I just have a feeling about Terry. She’s not quite telling us everything.”

“Not unusual for someone new in town. Give her some time to get to know people. Deer Creek can be a tough place to fit in.”

Gracie knew he was right. Most everyone in Deer Creek was born and raised there. Newcomers, who were infrequent, were always looked upon with a little bit of suspicion. She thought she’d been open-minded and big-hearted about strangers. Maybe she was losing perspective.

“OK, I’ll be more sensitive.” Gracie tried batting her eyes at him and looking demure.

Marc laughed. “Good idea. She’s been through a lot and has a ways to go.” He glanced at his watch. “I’d better head home. It’s getting late, and I go back on duty tomorrow afternoon.”

“All right. Just drive carefully.”

“I will.” He leaned over and kissed her lightly on the mouth.

Chapter Six

 

 

Midge was scraping off the grill when Gracie found her favorite red stool at the counter.

“Morning, Midge. Looks like the rush is done.”

Midge turned toward Gracie and rolled her eyes. “None too soon. For some reason, everybody and their brother was in here today, and I’ve got two waitresses sick. I’m out of sweet rolls if that’s what you’re here for.” Midge waved her spatula at Gracie and turned back to the grill.

“Rats! I knew I’d be too late today. How about a cup of coffee?

“Help yourself.”

Midge was thin as a rail, but she was probably stronger than most men. Her arms flew over the worn surface with a spatula, and then she buffed it with a cloth soaked in vegetable oil. Gracie wondered how many pancakes and burgers had been flipped there over the last 20 years. At least a million was her first guess.

Gracie slid from the stool and walked behind the counter, grabbing a dark brown mug and filled it to the rim from the Bunn. Midge gave the grill a final rub down and stood back to admire her work.

“Looks good, Midge. Now you’re ready for the lunch crowd.” Gracie plopped back down on the stool and sipped the hot coffee. She slipped her parka off onto the stool next to her.

“It’ll be here soon enough. Here come the boys for coffee break now.”

Gracie swiveled her seat toward the entrance to see several men getting out of pickups. They jammed their trucks haphazardly against the snow banks, attempting to keep Main Street clear. Most wore brown Carhartt’s and called to each other as they stomped their way to the door. She recognized a few dairy farmers in the crowd. The rest were on the street maintenance crew. The restaurant was soon filled with jabbering men who were sorely disappointed that the sweet rolls were gone for the day. Molly, Midge’s lone waitress, was run off her feet serving coffee and pie. Midge grudgingly fired up her clean grill to cook more eggs and bacon for those who wanted a second breakfast. Gracie smiled to herself, watching Midge sigh and throw bacon on the gleaming surface.

Dan Evans stomped through the door minutes later. He pulled his navy blue ski cap off, shaking the snow, which fell like dandruff onto the floor. Gracie called for him to join her at the counter. She picked up her coat and stuffed it underneath her. The big man slid onto the now- vacant seat.

“Thanks, Gracie. Staying warm?” He blew on his hands and rubbed them together.

“Trying to. You did a great job putting out that fire the other night. I don’t know how everybody stood the cold.”

“I don’t know either. It was pretty bad, but I guess adrenaline kicks in. How’s your houseguest doing?”

“Good. Considering all that’s happened. She’s looking for another house to rent.”

“In town?”

“I think so. Gloria and my mother are on the hunt, so I’m sure they’ll find something.”

“How are those dogs of hers? I’ve always been a little leery of German shepherds.”

“They’ve been fine. Warmed up to Haley right away. They’re better behaved than she is too. It’s kind of embarrassing, in fact.” She laughed and finished the last of her coffee. Molly came by with a mug for Dan and refilled Gracie’s cup. “So everyone is sure that it was faulty wiring?”

“We’re sure. This is the second house of Alice Harris’ that’s had a fire. Last summer, one of her houses on Railroad Avenue had a kitchen fire. The range was the cause. At least we contained it to one room there.” He ran a large, calloused hand down his curly dark blond beard and took a slurp of coffee with the other.

“I heard that she’s had some tenant problems lately.”

“Yeah, well, she’s not taking care of her properties. She used to, but now it’s a different story. Not sure what happened. Hey, Molly, how about a piece of apple pie?” Dan motioned to poor Molly, who was balancing two plates of eggs and two mugs of coffee.

“I’ll get there when I can. Just hold on,” she called over her shoulder, slamming the loaded plates onto the table and sloshing coffee. The men dug into the pile of eggs and hash browns as soon as the plates hit the counter.

“Molly! What about that pie?” Dan was growing impatient. He tapped his booted foot on the checkered tile that bordered the U-shaped counter. He had a one-track mind about food.

“Hang on. Here it is.” Molly blew back a trailing wisp of platinum blond hair from her eyes and placed a large slice of mincemeat pie in front of Dan.

“This has raisins. I asked for apple.” Dan frowned and studied the unacceptable pie.

“No apple left. What about banana cream then?” Molly’s well-endowed chest leaned over the counter, giving Dan a great perspective of her cleavage peeking from a scoop-necked red knit sweater. Molly had just dumped her third husband and was once again on the prowl. It didn’t matter that Dan’s wide gold wedding band was prominent on his left hand. She smiled and winked, taking the pencil from behind her ear. Her hand was poised to write on the green order pad.

“Banana cream is fine. Just get the raisins out of here.” He shook his head when the waitress turned to get his pie. “Molly never changes, does she?”

“I guess not. Here, let me take that. I love mincemeat,” Gracie slid the plate her way, licking the fork. “It’s not a sweet roll, but it’ll do.” Gracie happily dug into the warm mince pie.

“To each his own,” Dan grumbled, shoving meringue and banana cream filling into his mouth.

“Sure is. Don’t know why you’re afraid of a few little raisins,” Gracie teased.

“They’re dead grapes, wrinkled and disgusting.” The last of the banana cream disappeared from the plate and Dan wiped his beard with a napkin from the dispenser.

“Whatever. But this Alice Harris deal. Is she in trouble with her tenants then?” Gracie asked.

“Maybe. She’s gone after a couple of families for breaking their leases. They had every right, with some of the safety issues. Roof problems with one and a bad mold issue in the house she owns on Ash Street. The Crawfords’ kids were getting sick. Wasn’t good.” The big man swung around on the stool and stood. “Gotta get back to the store. It’s been pretty busy. Selling a lot of heat tapes and kerosene heaters.” He tossed some singles on the counter from his worn wallet and shoved the ski hat back on his head.

“Not surprising. I think we’ve been a good customer for you this week on heat tapes.”

“Right. That Marc, uh …”

“Stevens,” Gracie supplied.

“Yeah, Stevens. He picked up a few yesterday. Well, see ya around, Gracie.”

Gracie turned thoughtfully back to her pie and took another sip of the coffee that was now lukewarm.

The restaurant was quickly emptying again. Men stuffed on insulated orange hats with earflaps, laughing and milling their way into the frigid air. The clank of plates and flatware was steady as Molly quickly cleaned off tables and the counter. Midge was taking her kitchen help to task in the back. The expletives drifted past the coffeepot, and Gracie determined it was a good time to leave. Midge’s mood was not improving. She dropped some cash on the counter and swung her large tote bag onto her shoulder. A blast of icy air introduced more customers pushing through the front door. Gracie smiled at Albert Minders, her pastor, and his wife, Gloria.

“Good morning, Gracie,” Reverend Minders cheerfully greeted her.

“Good morning, Pastor. And you too, Gloria.” Gracie decided to delay her departure. Maybe Gloria had information about a house for Terry.

“How’s our new librarian doing?” The pastor’s wife plunked down at a table set for four. Her chin-length salt and pepper hair remained perfectly coiffed even though the wind was brisk. Gracie slid out a chair as did the pastor to join Gloria at the table.

“She’s doing OK. She’s even working at the library already.”

“I’m so glad. Terry … it’s Terry, right?”

“Right.”

“Terry seems like such a nice person. She was introduced at the Community Club last week. What a horrible start in Deer Creek though. Such a shame.” Gloria’s voice was compassionate, and her eyes moistened.

“Yes, indeed. That poor young woman, and all on her own too. I’ll come out for a visit today or tomorrow and see how’s she’s doing.” Albert Minders was scanning the countertop toward the pie and where the sweet rolls were usually stacked.

“Sorry, but the rolls are gone, if that’s what you’re looking for. I think there are only a couple of pies left today,” Gracie said solemnly. Disappointment dimmed the minister’s eyes.

“That’s all right. Albert really doesn’t need any sweets. He needs to watch his sugar anyway. The doctor says he’s borderline diabetic.” Gloria’s tone was firm, and her husband’s face drooped. Molly was now standing by their table, ready to take the order.

“You’re right as usual, dear. I’ll just have some coffee and salt rising toast, Molly.”

“I’ll have the same.” Gloria leaned back in the brown vinyl chair.

“Sure thing. I’ll be right back.” Molly smiled demurely and headed for the coffeepot. Gracie noticed that Molly had adjusted her sweater to eliminate most of her cleavage display. The pastor went to the counter and picked up a discarded newspaper. He was immediately engrossed in the headlines when he sat back down.

“Have you been able to find a house for Terry? I haven’t heard from my mother on the progress.”

“Not yet, unfortunately. I called Huntington Realty for some help, but they don’t have anything either. Winter is such a bad time to find a place. No one wants to move this time of year. There might not be anything for another month.”

Molly arrived with two mugs of coffee. The pastor folded up the newspaper and laid it on the table next to Gracie’s elbow. He reached for the sugar packets, but his wife stopped his hand from pulling them out of the container.

“I’ve got yours here, Albert.” Gloria pulled artificial sweetener from her stylish DKNY bag and gave it to her husband. He sighed and tore off the end of two packets and dumped them into his coffee. The toast arrived with its pungent aroma. Before his wife could tell him otherwise, Albert Minders slathered his with homemade strawberry jam from the glass jam pot in the center of the table. He took a large, victorious bite. Gloria sighed and spread her toast with the jam.

“Sounds like I may have a long-term guest then.”

“Could be. Your mother and I will keep looking. I think she’s calling realtors in Perry and Warsaw to see if they have anything available for the short-term.”

“I don’t think Terry wants to live outside of town.”

“I know, but maybe she’d consider it, if it were just two or three months.” Gloria brushed toast crumbs from her lap.

“Maybe. But I’d hate to move twice. Plus, with this horrible weather, I wouldn’t want to be driving any more than I had to.”

“Well, talk to her then, Gracie. If you’re comfortable having her stay with you, and she feels the same way, it might be a good arrangement.” Gloria finished her coffee and wiped her mouth with a white paper napkin.

“I’ll think about it. I don’t want to push her into anything. It’s been fine for right now, but …” They were two women who were used to being on their own. They didn’t know each other and actually living together, well, it could be awkward or maybe downright tense.

“It won’t hurt to try it out. You are the perfect hostess for a fire refugee with dogs.” Gloria’s brown eyes twinkled with humor.

“I guess. It’s been OK so far, so maybe it’ll be all right for a few weeks.” Gracie was feeling torn. It was sort of good to have company in the house, but she was a private person. She didn’t like feeling obligated to keep Terry entertained, but that was sounding just a touch selfish. Her pastor interrupted her little reverie.

“I’m sure Terry needs a friend in Deer Creek. It can be hard to be part of the community here. You can help her break the ice.”

“Everybody needs help breaking the ice this winter,” Gracie laughed, trying to change the subject. She rubbed her palms together, which were a little sweaty.

“That’s for sure. No one wants to come out for a worship service since we’ve had this awful cold snap. Attendance is way down. We’ve missed you, Gracie.”

“Uh, I guess you’ve caught me. I’ll try to get there this week.” Gracie grabbed her parka and zipped it up quickly.

“Gloria, dear, I need to make my hospital and nursing home visits. Are you coming with me today?”

“I’d better go with you. Mrs. Thompson will never forgive me if I don’t stop in to see her.”

Gloria slipped on her black wool coat, while her husband paid the bill.

“Mrs. Thompson is still alive?” It didn’t come out quite right, but Gracie hoped that Gloria knew she meant well. Gloria’s eyebrows went up and she half-smiled.

“She is, and as feisty as ever. Her mind is as sharp as a tack, but the arthritis is really taking its toll on her body. Poor thing, she’s confined to bed now.”

Mrs. Thompson had taught Sunday School and played the piano at church for as long as Gracie could remember. She’d also taught the third grade at Deer Creek Elementary School. Her husband had died from cancer over 10 years ago, and when living by herself became too much a few years ago, the diminutive widow had checked herself into an assisted living facility.

“She’s got to be at least 95 now.”

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