Authors: Laurinda Wallace
The stack of Styrofoam clamshells teetered precariously in Gracie’s arms as she made her way across the snowy and slippery driveway. Haley was at her heels, sniffing the aroma of crisply fried haddock appreciatively.
“Hang on, Gracie. I’ll help you.” Her brother Tom hurried out the kitchen door without coat or gloves.
“Thanks. No one wants to have a snow-crusted fish fry.”
Tom grabbed the tower and ran for the warmth of the house. Gracie wasted no time to join him in their mother’s oversized country kitchen. Haley shook snow off her back once inside, spraying the floor with white. The warmth was a welcome relief from the cold spell that just wouldn’t end. She’d left her gloves in the SUV, and her fingers were already tingling from the cold.
“Wow! When is it ever going to warm up? I’m really tired of winter.” Tom said with exasperation, setting the dinners on the counter.
“No kidding. It’s time to find a place in the Bahamas,” Gracie agreed.
“You kids need to toughen up. This is nothing like the winter of ‘66. Now that was a real winter.” Bob Clark appeared from the living room, smelling of Vicks and sporting a chapped red nose. Theresa followed behind her husband, carrying an empty tea mug.
“Let’s not talk about the cold, let’s eat,” she said putting the mug in the sink. “Tom, get the plates, and Gracie, get the water glasses.”
Tom and Gracie smiled at each other. Some things never changed. Theresa arranged napkins and flatware, making sure each place setting was correct. Eating out of foam containers was forbidden in Theresa Clark’s house. Conversation drifted quickly to the disappearance of Alice Harris and then Terry’s scare in the library’s parking lot.
“This is terrible after all she’s been through with the fire,” Theresa commented. “Who would try to frighten Terry? It’s probably some kids pulling a prank.”
“I don’t know, Mom. I hope that’s all it is.”
Theresa held her fork in midair. “Don’t start snooping around. I don’t like thinking about what almost happened last summer.”
Gracie didn’t like thinking about it either. Her near-death experience last summer was still fresh and made her shiver.
“I know, but this is different. It has nothing to do with me and …”
“My point exactly,” said Tom with finality. “Let Marc look into it.”
“All right, all right,” Gracie conceded.
“What about Alice?” Her father’s voice was still a little raspy from his bout of bronchitis.
“No one knows, Dad,” Tom replied. “Her financial problems have been building for quite a while. Who knows, she may be in the Caymans by now.”
“I hope this missing money won’t stop Terry from getting that nice house,” Theresa said.
“I don’t think so,” Gracie said. “I’m helping her take some stuff to the house tomorrow. Isabelle apparently has parted the Red Sea to facilitate the move.”
“I told you she would help.” Theresa beamed.
“Yes. Yes, you did.” It’s awful, Gracie thought, when your mother is constantly right.
The snow was falling fast and thick when Tom and Gracie left the Clark homestead. Haley jumped into the back seat, carrying a new rawhide bone. Dropping it on the seat, she pressed her nose to the frosted window. Gracie threw the SUV into four-wheel drive and squinted against the driving snow. It was a slow trip back to Milky Way.
The sky was still dark when she and Terry loaded up their vehicles with the librarian’s few recently purchased possessions. The new snow accumulation had to be at least another five or six inches.
“I need to stop at the library and grab my laptop. I forgot it last night,” Terry said as she slammed shut the car’s trunk.
“No problem,” Gracie answered.
The streetlights were starting to flicker off as the gray sky whitened. Gracie decided to park on the street. Jack Greene was clearing the library parking lot with the plow attached to the front of his large black pickup. The snow had drifted over two feet in some places, and the plow methodically pushed the snow to the back of the lot. Terry pulled into a space near the sidewalk, giving Jack a wide berth. Max jumped out with Terry and began barking in high short yips.
“Quiet, Max. It’s all right,” Terry said sharply. The dog continued to bark running toward the truck.
“Nein, Max. Hier!”
Gracie exited her vehicle, leaving Sable whining in the back seat. What was going on with Max? Terry looked frantic. Max swerved out of the way of the plow, leaping to the top of one of the huge snow piles. Terry waved her hands to get Jack’s attention.
“Wait, please wait, Jack!” she yelled.
The truck ground to a stop, the plow still lowered. Jack rolled down his window, glaring at Terry.
“What are you doing here? Get that dog outta my way. I have a job to do,” he shouted over the engine.
“I’m sorry. I’ll get him down.” Terry scrambled up the hard-packed snow. Max dug furiously in the snow, still barking. “What’s wrong with you, Max? Hier!”
Jack revved the engine, his hand poised to honk the horn. Terry lost her footing reaching for Max’s collar and slid down the snowbank. “Gracie, can you help me get him down?” she called.
Gracie stumbled over the chunks of snow, calling the dog.
“Jack, can’t you shut off that truck for a minute?” she shouted over the engine.
“What are you doing?” Jack was out of the truck and furious.
“Give us a minute to get Max out of your way.” Gracie yelled back.
“That dog is dangerous and should be put down. If he bites me, I’ll sue.”
Gracie shook her head at him, muttering unladylike sentiments about the man’s behavior.
“What’s the matter with Max?” Gracie asked Terry, who seemed at a loss to get her dog.
“I don’t know. He’s acting so strange.” She backed away from the hard-packed wall of snow and began calling him again. Gracie looked at where the dog kept digging. A spray of icy snow tumbled down the sides of the snowbank. The dog suddenly stopped his frenzied excavation. A claw-like gloved hand appeared out of the white depths. Terry screamed.
“Holy …” Gracie backed away in disbelief. “Jack, do you see that?”
“What are you freakin’ talkin’ about?” Jack’s face was beet-red with rage. He turned to get back in the truck. “Get outta my way if you want this parking lot done. I’ve got five driveways to plow beside this. You’re wastin’ my time. And don’t ever touch my truck.”
Gracie grabbed his coat sleeve. “There’s a hand in the snow up there. You need to check it out.”
He glared at her. “Somebody probably dropped a glove in the snow. I’m not checkin’ anything with that mutt up there.” Max looked steadily at Jack, his hackles raised.
“I’ll get him.” Terry’s voice shook.
“All right. I can’t believe there’s all this fussin’ around over a glove.”
She ignored his tirade and called the dog again. This time Max came without hesitation. She grabbed his leather collar and pushed him into the car. Gracie followed Jack to the huge mound of snow.
Jack scrambled up, peering down into the hole. He swore loudly and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “You’d better call the cops.”
The Wyoming County Sheriff’s Department showed up in force, along with Ralph Remington. Ralph had been the county’s coroner for at least 100 years. Slightly bent, irritable, and wondering why he hadn’t retired yet, Ralph got out of the old station wagon. He stood by the gurney, examining the large and very frozen body of Alice Harris. It had taken a good 45 minutes to dig her out of the snow. He turned up the collar of his new black wool coat against the cold. His wife had bought the thinner coat for him, saying it was more suitable for a man of his position. It was a bucket of hogwash, he thought. He was freezing and wished he had his old Carhartt’s on. He shoved a worn black babushka down over his ears.
This was going to be a dilly of a case. It was no doubt a murder. The handle of what promised to be a large knife pinned down the blood-soaked quilted coat she wore. Who knew what else he’d find once he got her thawed out? He might have to call in some help on this case. He didn’t want any mistakes or second-guessing on the D.A.’s part. He zipped up the body bag as far as he could. The arms stuck out almost at 90-degree angles. It was a little disconcerting. Ralph liked bodies fully contained when he took them in the wagon. He nodded for the deputies to load her up.
He needed some hot coffee, and he could use one of Midge’s sweet rolls. They’d have to stop at the restaurant before they headed to Warsaw. He got into the passenger side, noticing more pain in his deteriorating knees, and grumbled for his new assistant to get them out of there.
Two deputies were winding yellow crime scene tape around metal stakes stuck into the piles of snow, which essentially blocked three quarters of the library’s parking lot. Gracie watched the black station wagon pull into the street. The whole scene was surreal. Terry sat on the steps of the library, talking to Investigator Hotchkiss. Marc was questioning Jack, who’d finally calmed down enough to respond without turning the air blue. Marc clapped Jack on the shoulder and indicated he could go. The look of relief on Jack’s face and his quick departure from the parking lot made Gracie smile. Marc walked over to the Accord, where Gracie stood. She’d cracked the window for Max, who sniffed at the opening, whining.
“He’s quite the cadaver dog,” Marc said.
“I guess. I wonder when the body would have been found with all this snow piled up,” Gracie said thoughtfully.
“Maybe not for a week or two,” Marc responded, stomping his feet against the cold. “Why don’t we go inside? The dogs would probably appreciate that too.”
“Sure. Let me ask Terry for the key.”
Once inside the library, the dogs wandered through the stacks, sniffing the carpet.
“I guess that’s about it, Ms. Castor. We’ll be in touch.” Investigator Hotchkiss pocketed her notebook in her heavy navy pea coat. The investigator merely nodded at Gracie, who was extremely grateful Marc had questioned her. The gruff policewoman hadn’t made her life very easy last summer. Now she was in close proximity to another dead body, which probably sent off warning signals to the investigator. With any luck, she wouldn’t end up being a suspect in this death. The breeze of cold air announced the woman’s departure.
“Are you OK? You’re not looking so good,” Gracie said to an ashy-looking Terry.
“I’m not really sure. I must have a cloud of doom hanging over me. Mrs. Harris is dead in the parking lot. What is going on?” She sat down heavily in the chair by the front of the desk.
“This is terrible, no question,” agreed Gracie. She swallowed hard, trying to think of something comforting to say. Her mind was a complete blank.
“Terrible doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Terry moaned. She covered her face in her hands. “Everything is falling apart.”
“Well, this explains in part Mrs. Harris’ disappearance,” Marc said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us now. It’s going to be a challenge to come up with a time of death, I would think.”
“Oh. Good point,” Gracie said. She leaned against the oak counter and rubbed her temples. A headache was threatening, and she didn’t have any ibuprofen with her. “I guess Ralph will need to figure that out.”
‘If he can,” Marc replied. “Are you both OK? Do you want me to stay?”
“It’s not our best day, but I think we’ll manage. Right, Terry?” Gracie tried to sound optimistic.
“Sure, whatever.” Terry sat listlessly in the chair, staring at the grandfather clock on the opposite wall.
Gracie and Marc exchanged looks. “We’ll go back home, I guess. Terry can move in a day or two. You know, after all of this is figured out.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Marc said, zipping up his jacket. “Some hot coffee and scrambled eggs might help too.”
“Come on, Terry. Let’s go back home.” She nudged the woman, who stood up slowly. “I’ll get the dogs.” Gracie whistled, and Max and Sable scrambled down the stairs from the offices above, their toenails clicking on the metal treads.
Marian was pulling on her coat when Gracie finally stepped through the door.
“I wasn’t sure you’d be back in today,” Marian said, wrapping a bright blue and white scarf around her neck.
“Me neither. Will Dover’s been talking to Terry all afternoon. He’s more worried about next month’s fundraiser than finding Alice stiff as board in a snowbank. And a knife in her too.” Gracie flopped into a chair in the waiting area.
“Really? Awful … just awful. Who would stab her?”
“That’s the big question. The police have been questioning a lot of people. Dan Evans called me today about his trials and tribulations with Jack.”
“Hey, Chief. How’s the librarian?” Jim stuck his head through the doorway.
“Holding up, I guess. Did you know Dan laid off Jack yesterday?”
“Yeah, I heard about it. It’s been a tough go for the hardware for the last few months. Jack probably didn’t take it too well.”
“That’s an understatement. He really reamed out Dan.” Gracie slid off the chair, and blew on her hands. “Back to the salt mines for me.”
“Well, I’m going home. Cheryl is finishing up feeding everyone right now.” Marian drew blue and white mittens that matched her scarf from the coat pockets and stuffed them on her hands.
“Thanks for coming in today, Marian. See you on Monday,” Gracie said.
“Drive safe, Marian,” Jim called after her.
“I will. See you all on Monday.”
Jim followed Gracie into the office and went straight to his ragged, green-striped recliner.
“Did you hear about the knife?” he asked, pulling back the lever to tip the chair back.
it. It was a very big knife by the looks of the handle.”
“I was at Midge’s this afternoon, and the buzz is that it’s an antique. Civil War to be exact.”
“How could anybody know that already?”
“The investigator was seen up at Woodson’s. That’s direct from Harry.”
Harry was Hillside Feeds longtime driver, who knew everybody’s business at any given moment.
“I pray to God that we don’t ever have an incident at the kennel when Harry’s here. Just get the kibble off the truck and get him out of here.” She glanced at the mail on the desk, sorting out a few pieces of junk mail. “I guess I don’t understand. Why Woodson’s?”
“Roger’s an antique weapons collector. Haven’t you ever seen the pistols and swords he has? It’s a big collection.” Jim’s eyes were bright.
“Apparently I missed the tour. I don’t know them very well anyway. How would Alice get stabbed with something like that?”
“I guess that’s why the police are up there asking Roger some questions.”
“Hi, guys!” Cheryl said, walking into the office. “Everyone’s fed and bedded for the night.”
“Thanks, Cheryl,” Jim said.
“I guess I’ll see you on Monday then.” Cheryl hesitated and looked at Jim as if she wanted to ask something.
Gracie suddenly felt like a fifth wheel. Was something going on between Jim and Cheryl?
“I’ll give you a call,” Jim said quickly.
“All right, then. I’m outta here.” She turned to the grooming room where the coats were hung.
Gracie tilted her head and raised her eyebrows expectantly at Jim.
“It’s no big deal.”
“Really? What’s going on?” The bell signaled Cheryl’s departure.
Jim cracked his knuckles and shifted in the chair.
“Well, Laney and I are done, I guess. She wants to pursue her career, which means she’s on the road all the time. It’s hard to date somebody who isn’t here.”
“I thought things were going well, except for the last few weeks. What’s her new job?”
“It’s PR for this new company she went to work for in December. They’re launching some new product—something to do with wireless.”
“You don’t know what the product is?”
“Haven’t talked to her about it. She’s been too busy.”
“I see. Sounds like both of you have been too busy. I don’t think dating Cheryl is such a hot idea. We don’t need an office romance.”
“It’s nothing serious. She’s nice, and I like her daughter. We’ve only been out a couple of times.” Jim raised the chair back into position and stood. “Don’t get your shirt in a knot. It’s cool. Honest.”
“I hope so. Cheryl’s such a great worker; I’d hate to see her quit because you break up or something.”
Jim’s blue eyes darkened with flash of temper. “Don’t worry, Chief. I’ll lock up the barn, and then I’m outta here too.”
“OK.” Gracie sat staring at the computer screensaver of squiggly lines. “Oh, Jimmy. You’re making a big mistake,” she said softly.
Midge was plating a stack of buckwheat pancakes when Gracie arrived right before church time. Midge had a large sweet roll, dripping with white icing, waiting for her along with a cup of strong coffee. It looked like there were at least two waitresses working, and the place was humming with conversation.
“I was hoping you’d be here today,” Midge said, handing the plate of pancakes to Molly.
“I’m really glad I stopped in. Thanks for saving me a roll.” Gracie bit into the warm gooey mass of soft roll, brown sugar cinnamon syrup, and icing.
“Well, I felt bad the other day when I ran out. Didn’t make as many pans as usual. Wasn’t feeling so hot. I think I got a touch of the flu that’s going around.”
Gracie was shocked. Midge was never sick, and if she was, she’d never admit it. The tough, wizened restaurateur must have been feeling awful.
“Hope you’re better now.”
“Yeah. It was one of those 24-hour things.” Her phlegmy cough sounded painful. She quickly covered her mouth with a napkin. “I guess I need some fresh air. I’ll be right back.”
Gracie knew that was Midge code for “I’m going out the back door for a smoke.”
She glanced toward the table section off to her left and saw Will Dover with his wife. Dan Evans slid onto the stool next to her, and she swung around in surprise.
“Mornin’, Gracie. Did I scare you?”
“Hey, Dan. No, just surprised me. Guess I was lost in thought.”
“Are you all right after, you know … seeing the body?”
“It was pretty bad, but I’m all right. Terry is more shook up than I am.”
“She’s had her share of problems for being here less than a month. But there’s enough for all of us.” The big man sighed and stroked his bushy blond beard.
“Problems? What’s going on, Dan?”
“It’s business. I’ve been hanging by a thread for a couple of years now. I just can’t compete with the big guys.”
“Deer Creek needs a hardware store. I can’t imagine having to run to Warsaw or further for what we need at the kennel.”
“You just might have to, Gracie. Since I laid off Jack, it’s just Darlene and me to run everything. She’s trying to get a job at the bank, or somewhere, even if it’s part-time.”
“Geez, Dan. I didn’t know it was that serious. Sorry about Jack. He’s been there for a long time.”
“Ten years. I had to cut his hours a couple of months ago. He’s been picking up some side jobs to make up for it, but I just can’t pay the salary and benefits anymore. I’ve got a high school kid coming in after school, just part-time. He comes pretty cheap. He doesn’t mind if he doesn’t have health insurance or a 401K right now. I can’t even pay those for me.”
Gracie’s stomach churned, thinking about the benefits she paid for her small crew. Partially paying some health insurance was all she could manage right now. The kennel was just starting to make a small profit, and adding one more employee expense could tip them back into the red. It was a real balancing act to keep the prices reasonable for customers and pay employees right. It had been the same way when she and Michael had the farm with Jim. They had purposely kept the dairy herd small to try and handle as much work as they could themselves. She knew of two dairy farmers that had gone under last fall and had to sell everything to cover their bank loans.
“Dan, the kennel will support your business as much as we can. Hang in there.” Gracie didn’t know what else to say. Times were always tough for the small business person.
“Thanks, Gracie. I appreciate that. The next couple of months will tell us if we can make a go of it.” He finished his coffee and left his money on the counter.
She contemplated talking to Will to find out what the police were asking, but just then Midge came back from her “fresh air” trip and took Gracie’s empty plate.
“Look. There’s Will and Iris,” Midge said, leaning her elbows on the counter. Her head turned to watch the couple who’d pushed the restaurant’s door open.
“Will had a hard day yesterday, trying to deal with the sheriff’s department,” Gracie said, sipping her coffee.
“Will’s been having a very hard time in general,” Midge huffed. “That Alice Harris got him in some sort of investment with the new subdivision, and it’s going south already. He mentioned it to Howie the other day. I feel bad for him. He just retired last year, and he’s lost a bunch of money.”
“Not good. I’d heard something about that.”
“So is that librarian moving over to Maplewood?”
“Today’s the day. After church, I’m helping Terry take some of her things over.”
Gracie’s cell phone began buzzing in the depths of her tote. Fishing it out, she saw that the kennel was calling. “Gotta take this, Midge.”