Authors: Ellery Adams
Tags: #mystery, #Bible study, #cozy, #church, #romance, #murder
“Oh, it was nothing.” Trish gestured at the heaping plates. “Shall we get started?”
Cooper looked down at the five pieces of gold-plated silverware surrounding her white china plate. There were two forks, two spoons (a teaspoon and a long, thin spoon for iced tea), and a knife.
“This is more silverware than I use in a week,” she joked. Trish smiled and picked up her salad fork.
“Let’s talk about what’s weighed on our hearts all week,” Savannah began. “As most of you know, one of the elders took me to visit Wesley this week. His visitation time is very short, but he told me where his spare house key is hidden and asked that I arrange for someone to care for his birds and get the mail. He gave our group permission to search the house.” She sighed and absently pushed at a wedge of quiche on her plate. “He said that he had no secrets from his wife, the police, or any of us and he accepted our offer to find out what happened to Brooke.”
“How’s he holding up?” Bryant asked, his handsome brow creased in concern.
“I won’t bend the truth,” Savannah said. “He seemed defeated. He told me that without Brooke, he doesn’t care what becomes of his life, and he’s trying to hold it together for Caleb’s sake.”
Trish dabbed at her lips with her napkin. “Oh, dear.”
“Were you able to ask him any personal questions?” Quinton wanted to know.
Savannah folded her hands together. “According to Wesley, their marriage was strong. He and Brooke had their ups and downs like any other couple, but they loved each other and were very committed to keeping their vows.”
“There goes the jealousy motive,” Jake said as he inspected the contents of the pastry tray. He stuck his fork into the center of a pecan pie the size of a yo-yo and plopped it on his plate.
“One of Brooke’s closest friends works at the Tuckahoe library,” Savannah continued. “I often take the bus there to borrow audiobooks. I could speak to this friend—find out if there was anything out of the ordinary going on in Brooke’s life.”
Nathan caught Cooper’s eye. “I believe something
bothering her,” he said. “I think it had to do with work. But Cooper can tell you more about that.”
Cooper told her tale about meeting Brooke yet again. When she was finished, she could practically hear the gears turning as the Bible study members tried to discern the significance of Cooper’s experience.
“And the pieces of the document were from inside her copier?” Nathan prodded. “Were you able to tape them back together?”
“I’m about half done.” Cooper wound her napkin around her index finger. “I’ve been working on it every night and now my daddy’s helping too. Much of it is unreadable and all I could figure out so far were numbers, the name
followed by the letter
and what might be a date on the upper left corner.”
“You think Hazel is a name and not a color?” Savannah asked.
Cooper considered the question carefully. “It’s capitalized.”
“Wasn’t one of the rabbits from
named Hazel?” Quinton asked and then hastily added, “Well, I have four nephews, so I read a ton of kids’ books.”
Trish tapped her lips with her index finger, clearly lost in thought. “I’ve never ever sold a house to a Hazel. I would have remembered if I had.”
“Well, I’m a media guy, so all I can tell you is that Shirley Booth played a maid named Hazel on a TV show in the early sixties,” Bryant said and then quickly shook his head. “But that’s not very helpful. Hazel must have been someone Brooke knew.”
“She could have been a client,” Quinton suggested as he loaded his plate for the second time. “Brooke was the head of Fraud over at Capital City. Maybe Hazel’s account was being investigated.”
“Would someone commit murder to keep their fraud from being discovered?” Trish asked Quinton, who consumed a crustless egg-salad sandwich in two bites before answering.
“Depends. You can go to jail for a long time for credit card fraud. Banks don’t think too highly of people who try to get away with it and they’ve gotten better at recognizing the difference between fraudulent charges and real ones.” He reached for a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Cooper noted that though he ate voraciously, Quinton was very tidy. There wasn’t a crumb on his silk tie or a single spot on his starched dress shirt. “Plus, they have people on the lookout for fraud all the time. In most cases, a credit card has been stolen and the thieves will use it for a couple of quick purchases and then ditch it, but sometimes thousands and thousands of dollars are at stake.”
“Computer hackers can gain access to credit card information too,” Nathan said. “If you’ve ever ordered anything online, your numbers can be stolen. The possibilities for financial theft in cyberspace are countless.”
Trish swallowed hard. “I’d better stop buying stuff from Overstock.com.”
“So Hazel might have been involved in credit card fraud,” Bryant mused aloud. “How are we going to find out who she is?”
The group fell silent. Having a single name as their only clue was quite a challenge.
“What’s next?” Jake asked. “We’re doing a whole lot of talking, but we need a course of action.”
“I think we should all go to the Hughes house over the next couple of days,” Savannah said. “You might notice something that another person wouldn’t.”
Cooper had a suggestion as well. “Maybe we should go in pairs. We all look at different things inside a person’s house,” she continued. “Trish might notice the curtains while I might fix my sights on their answering machine or security system.”
“That’s a terrific idea,” Savannah agreed. “And since I can’t help in that regard, I’ll concentrate on Brooke’s librarian friend.”
“I can swing by Wesley’s store—see if I can pick up any gossip from his female employees.” Bryant grinned. “After all, the ladies
like to talk to me.”
Nathan glanced at Cooper. “I’m pretty decent at puzzles. Do you want some help on the document? I could come to your—”
“Thanks, but no!” Cooper quickly interjected. “I’ll have it done in the next two or three days.” She smiled weakly at Nathan, regretting that she’d been so abrupt, but she wasn’t ready to introduce him to her parents or to let Grammy get her hooks into him. If Cooper invited him over, Grammy might have Earl build a man-sized pen and keep Nathan caged up unless he swore to marry her elder granddaughter.
Nathan nodded. “It’s all you, then.”
“Okay, friends.” Trish went into the kitchen and returned with a calendar. “Let’s pair off and pick a day to look through the house. I have a mammogram tomorrow, but I’ll reschedule it for another time, so I’ll put myself down for Monday.”
“Aren’t you a little young for a mammogram?” Savannah asked gently. “Is everything all right?”
“There’s a history of breast cancer in my family so they want me to get checked out early.” Trish shrugged. “But I’m not worried about it.”
Jake pointed his pie-encrusted fork at Trish. “Just make sure to reschedule, lady. We don’t want anything happening to you.”
Promising Jake that she would see to it, Trish passed the pen to Quinton.
The group divvied up the days of the week. Cooper and Nathan were paired for Wednesday night, and when Nathan saw the calendar, he turned to Cooper and grinned.
“Partners?” He held out his hand for a high five. She returned the gesture and nearly spilled her glass of tea.
Jake’s hand shot across the table and steadied her tumbler. “We need to cut you off, girl.” He then looked around at the rest of his table fellows. “So are we going to have another lunch powwow after we all check out the Hughes place? I don’t have digs like this though. How about we meet at a restaurant? Not a fancy one, mind you.”
“How about Panera Bread?” Quinton said. “It’s close to church and the food is good.”
Everyone agreed, thanked Trish for her hospitality, and headed outside. As she walked to her truck, Cooper glanced around at the yard. It was comprised of stunted creeping junipers, tamed red-tip bushes, and an electric-green lawn. There wasn’t a stray twig in sight, but the landscaping was utterly devoid of personality.
“I bet it takes a whole staff to take care of this place,” Nathan murmured in a low voice as he walked alongside Cooper. “Must be nice, huh?”
“I don’t know. It looks like the office buildings I visit. I prefer a yard to be a little less perfect, but with more personality.” Cooper thought about her greenhouse and her cluttered studio apartment. “Plus, I like to do things myself.”
“Yeah, I get that sense about you,” Nathan said and then let his gaze linger on her face. “By the way, your eyes are really cool. Both of them,” he added and then, after touching the tip of her chin with his fingertips, turned and got into his truck.
Cooper stood frozen in the driveway. It had been months since someone had touched her with such tenderness and she felt both elated and confused. Although she liked Nathan Dexter as a friend, the brush of his fingers against her skin reminded her of her last romantic moment with Drew and that memory provoked a renewed feeling of loss.
She and Drew had driven to an apple orchard in the western part of the state, hoping to collect apples for pies, strudels, and apple cakes. After filling several brown bags with luscious, ripe fruit, Cooper and Drew had spread out a blanket and shared a picnic lunch in the middle of the orchard.
“Can I tempt you with my apple?” Cooper had teased, playing Eve.
“You can tempt me anytime, baby.” Drew had grabbed the apple, taken a vicious bite, and laughed as a trickle of juice ran down his chin.
Cooper had leaned over to kiss his sticky face as the sun burnished the leaves a golden russet and pumpkin orange. She remembered feeling so secure, so loved, so utterly content.
Standing in Trish’s driveway, she prayed that she might someday feel that way again.
By Wednesday evening, Cooper and her dad had finished piecing the document from Brooke’s copier together. It was a mess of tape, jagged tears, and ink smears, but groups of words had emerged. There was an unreadable signature on the bottom written in blue pen and a company insignia on the top. The insignia, which was covered by a thick stripe of black toner, was just a dark blob beneath the layer of ink that cruised the length of the paper like a newly paved highway.
As Cooper sat in her Jeep waiting for Nathan to join her outside the Hughes home, she studied the document again. The letter hadn’t provided any kind of revelation, but she hoped someone else in the Sunrise group could shed light on the few readable words. Tucking the paper in her purse, she hoped she and Nathan would find a tangible clue inside the Victorian-style home. Painted butter yellow with gray shutters and a dark purple door, the large house had wraparound porches, wicker rockers with floral cushions, and a rolling lawn graced by ancient magnolias, oaks, and dogwoods. Checking her watch, Cooper decided that she had time to wander to the backyard.
After opening the gate of a waist-high picket fence, Cooper stepped into an English cottage garden ornamented by benches, fountains, birdbaths, and a dozen different birdfeeders. Bluebells, wild pink geraniums, chickweeds, and perky white forget-me-nots were amassed among lavender and fuchsia azalea blooms and a stunning crimson barberry bush. Above her head, a vibrant redbud tree provided shade for the wide serrated leaves of several hydrangeas. Cardinals, blue jays, finches, and sparrows darted about the yard, making the most of the remaining daylight to feed and splash about in the shallow baths.
“This is really nice!” Nathan’s voice cut into the silence.
Cooper swiveled around as dozens of startled birds flew to higher perches.
“Sorry,” Nathan lowered his voice to a whisper. “Man, what a tranquil place. I’d love to live in a home like this.” They walked around to the front of the house and Nathan plucked a brass house key from its hiding place beneath a ceramic squirrel statue on the porch. “You know, I feel really weird about rifling through their house. I barely knew them and now I’m going to be sifting through their drawers. It feels wrong, even though we’re here to help.”
“Tell me about it,” Cooper agreed. “I only met Brooke once, but she was very kind to me. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be caught de—” She stopped herself.
“Come on.” Nathan gestured toward the door. “We just need to keep in mind that we’re entering their home in order to bring about justice. Peace for Wesley and, well, hopefully for Brooke too. If we keep reminding ourselves about that, our job will be easier.”
Nathan fit the key into the brass lock and swung the massive oak door inward. Once inside, Cooper said, “I think we should see if Brooke had a home office. I made copies for her the day I met her, after fixing her machine. Maybe she brought something home that could tell us why she was so anxious at work.”
Together, they entered a spacious hall with wide-planked pine floors covered by a blue and gold wool rug. To the left, the doorway to the large, bright kitchen had been roped off with electric-yellow crime-scene tape, but it looked like the authorities had already pored over every inch of the room. Black fingerprint dust spotted the pale lavender walls, beige granite counters, and cherry cabinets. Even the stainless steel appliances were smudged with powder.
Cooper stared at a dark red stain on the floor and shivered. Trying to block the image of Brooke’s body splayed upon the polished wood, she lifted her eyes to the lovely hand-painted border of African violets that ran along the perimeter of the walls. The delicate flowers seemed in defiant juxtaposition to the ink smears and disheveled drawers, some of which were stuck open—spatulas, knives, cheese graters, and tongs poking out at odd angles. Cooper stared at the utensils and the overturned trash can and then turned away from the room where Brooke Hughes had been murdered.
“What a mess.” Nathan shook his head sadly. “Let’s keep moving.”
Grateful to avert her gaze from the once-cheerful kitchen, Cooper trailed behind Nathan as they walked past a sophisticated living room done in salmon and forest greens, opened the door to a downstairs bath, a book-lined reading room, and a sunroom filled with comfortable chairs and mammoth potted ferns. The room faced the back garden and looked like a heavenly place to spend an afternoon with a good book and a cup of coffee. There was a formal dining room with filmy draperies floating from ceiling to floor in romantic folds of ivory silk. Cooper ran her finger over the upholstered chairs and thought about how the window treatments resembled the train of a wedding dress.