Death Under Glass
“It was not my idea,” I said.
“Yes, Georgia, it was.” As Carrie removed the keys from the ignition, I pushed open the passenger door and stepped out onto the curb. Creeping past the midpoint of August, the sunny, dry days and warm nights of early summer had progressed to rainy nights, hazy mornings, and steamy afternoons. We had arrived at the large blue pseudo-Victorian home during that atmospheric sweet spot between clear sky and muggy, with patches of ground still damp and soft after an overnight storm.
“You said,” Carrie continued, slamming the driver’s door behind her, “that I shouldn’t be spending all my time at the antiques store.”
I waited for her to join me on the newly poured sidewalk. Mud pooled in the gullies on either side of the pristine concrete, spicing the air with a sweet, moist-earth fragrance. Near the apron of a neighbor’s driveway, a trio of chickadees splashed in a curbside puddle. “I never said that. Why would I tell you that you were spending too much time in the shop you own? That’s crazy. When did I allegedly utter this craziness?”
Carrie sighed and resettled her purse on her shoulder, careful to avoid catching her soft brown curls beneath the strap. “I don’t remember exactly. It was during that whole to-do with Pete.”
“Ohhh.” While the whole town of Wenwood called my grandfather Pete, to me he would always be Grandy. A couple of weeks after I’d moved back to town and into Grandy’s spare bedroom, we’d suffered a little misfortune that Carrie was being kind in downplaying as a “to-do.” The whole story involved Grandy being unfairly accused of murdering the owner of the local hardware store. In all the anxiety and heartache of those days, I could have said any number of crazy things before the real murderer was locked up. “That explains why I don’t remember. But I still don’t think I should be held responsible for anything I said during that time. I was under duress.”
Carrie stifled a chuckle. “Duress or no, you said it and it got me thinking and now here we are.”
She gestured toward the old Victorian, and I gazed up at the sprawling house at the end of the long, straight walkway. Like so many homes in Wenwood, this one had seen better days. Missing balusters gaped like lost teeth on the porch, and gutters hung low in places beneath a much-patched roof. As with very few homes, the owner of this one was investing in bringing the house back to its original beauty, what with the new sidewalks and unpainted patches framing newly installed windows. Revitalization and renewal. The new battle cry of Wenwood.
Carrie took in a deep breath and started up the walk. “The reality is, there’s no reason for me to be in the shop every day. Weekends, sure, but Tuesdays? Wednesdays? They’re just not big days for antiques hunters. Not really worth the cost of air-conditioning, you know?”
As I trailed along behind her, the front edge of my flip-flop scooped up a wet mimosa blossom, its delicate pink stamens slipping under my toes like bubble-gum-colored seaweed. Funny how even the simple act of walking up a path proved problematic for me. “What about all the online sales?” I asked, wriggling my toes and tapping my foot in a foolish attempt to dislodge the blossom. “I thought that was a big piece of the business.”
She shrugged, tossed me a too-bright smile. “Nothing wrong with expanding. This could be a whole new revenue stream for me, working with renovations, finding just the right luminaire or even a fainting couch.”
Though she sounded much like she was trying to convince herself, I couldn’t argue her reasoning. In fact, she was probably onto something. The town of Wenwood had steadily grown smaller and older after its main industry—the riverside plant that had churned out building and paving bricks for nearly a century—had closed. For years residents had moved out and moved on, leaving crumbling roads, empty houses, and shuttered businesses behind.
But nearly a year ago, the Stone Mountain Construction group had bought up the property on which the old brickworks sat and started building a marina in its place. Many remaining residents were hoping a marina would generate tourism sufficient to reenergize the town. A number of folks, in fact, were banking on it, including the woman on whose property we stood. In their quest to bring homes back to their former glory—or, perhaps more accurately, back to their turn-of-the-century roots—who better to advise owners on their decorating or to acquire those hard-to-find pieces than the local antiques expert?
As we climbed the steps to the porch, Carrie pointed to the transom above the door. “That’s the window Trudy and I thought you could do something special with.”
By “something special,” Carrie meant a custom stained glass piece. I gazed up at the window, at the beams of wood keeping the sun off the porch and keeping the heat from our heads. Stained glass was at its most brilliant when sunshine streaked through bringing the spectrum of color to life. Here, where the sun’s rays were blocked, artificial light would be needed to make the glass burst with color. But once the lighting was in place, the effect might possibly be stunning.
“Custom glass was your idea?” I asked.
Carrie nodded and rang the bell. Before I could count one Mississippi, a furious barking erupted on the other side of the door. Neither the yap of a small dog nor the deep timbre of a large dog, the mid-range noise was filled nonetheless with ferocity.
Heart rate instantly increasing, I slid backward a step.
“Don’t worry,” Carrie said. She smiled reassuringly, but I decided the safest place was behind her.
“I’ll wait here,” I said, as a woman’s voice carried through the door, saying hush, hush. The dog did no such thing.
The knob rattled moments before the door swung inward, and a flash of tan and white flew at us.
“Fifi, no,” the woman shouted.
The bulldog ignored her command. With her jaws gaping and her weight vibrating the porch boards, she rushed straight for Carrie. Before Carrie could grab the dog’s collar, Fifi skirted around her and mashed her muzzle against my shin.
I skittered sideways, half fearful, half shocked by the cold nose. But Fifi backed and came at me again, hindquarters rolling side to side in doggie glee while she snuffled at my feet.
“She’s quite harmless, I assure you,” the woman said. “Fifi!” She clapped her hands twice, but Fifi ignored her, preferring instead to drool all over my bare feet
“She smells that creature,” Carrie told me.
“Friday is a kitten,” I said, defending the now four-month bundle of mischief I’d found behind Carrie’s store. “She’s not a spawn of the underworld.”
“Your opinion,” Carrie muttered.
“I’m so sorry.” The woman—slender and tall with gray hair and a somewhat pinched expression—advanced, crouching and reaching for the dog’s collar. “She’s not accustomed to heeding my commands.”
The dog had settled into sniffing my feet, and I reached down to pat her head. “She’s fine, actually,” I managed to mutter. My heart rate slowed and I could once again draw full breath as I stroked a hand across the silky fur of the dog’s head. Thus alerted to my attention, Fifi gazed up at me with huge brown eyes that would put a stuffed animal to shame. I might have mumbled something about her being a good girl but not loud enough for Carrie to hold against me in the future.
Presumably seeing that the dog was no threat to me nor me to it, the woman abandoned her quest for the dog’s collar and straightened.
Her gaze scraped me head to toe, her lips tightening at the sight of my unruly red hair, kitten-holed T-shirt, and dog-slobbered plastic flip-flops. “Have we met?” she asked, blinking.
I couldn’t find words to answer. Seeing her that still, that formally posed, made me pretty sure I’d seen her play the evil stepmother in a Disney cartoon.
Carrie stepped into the breach. “Trudy, you remember I told you about my friend who does stained glass, right? This is Georgia.” As she introduced me, she turned in my direction and held both palms to the heavens in the manner of a spokesmodel presenting a car.
“Georgia Kelly,” I said, reaching a hand toward the woman.
Trudy laid the tips of her fingers against mine, and I ended up clutching her hand as though I were about to kiss it rather than shake it. She repeated my name, a deep furrow forming between her eyebrows, emphasizing the wrinkles she’d earned in her lifetime. “You seem so familiar and yet I don’t recall your name at all.”
“But I told you,” Carrie said, a note of patience coloring her voice.
The older woman waved dismissively. “Yes, yes, I mean aside from that, dear. Well, no matter.” She stepped backward into the house, sweeping her arm toward the interior in invitation. “Please come in. Fifi, you come inside, too.”
Fifi trotted along beside me as I followed Carrie inside. My flip-flops smacked against the worn wood floor, Carrie’s low heels clicked, and the dog betrayed us both by padding along soundlessly. As Trudy tended to the door, we waited in the small entry foyer, cool conditioned air washing over us and the scent of lemon cleaner tickling my nose.
The front door clicked shut, and Trudy strode between Carrie and me, with a simple, “This way” as she passed.
She led us out of the foyer to our right, through an arched doorway and into the sort of space I’d only ever seen in magazines . . . or hotel lobbies. Three tall and narrow windows faced the front of the house, bathing the room in light, while the yellow painted walls helped create the illusion the room sat directly at the end of a sunbeam. I walked slowly through the slanted rays to the couch Trudy pointed us to, and sat on the low-backed ivory couch with the sun warming my back. Ahead, French doors with floor-to-ceiling windows on either side provided a view of an abundance of roses in the backyard.
Fifi jumped up onto the couch beside me, eliciting a “Fifi, no!” from Trudy. But Fifi ignored her, stretching out, and Trudy sighed. “I just can’t make that dog listen.”
“Try giving orders to a cat,” I said.
She gave no indication of hearing me. “It would be different, I suppose, if I had raised her from a pup,” Trudy said. “But her original owner was a bit more—how should I put it?—indulgent.” She lowered herself into one of the striped damask wingback chairs facing the couch, her spine straight and her head tipped to the side. “Georgia Kelly,” she said again, that same pinch across her brow announcing that she was forcing her mind to a question.
I shot a look at Carrie, who leaned forward and smoothly drew Trudy’s attention. “Georgia repaired a Tiffany lamp for me,” she said.
“Tiffany-style,” I said, “not the genuine article.” Repair a real Tiffany piece? I did that in the same dreams in which I was independently wealthy and had a glass workshop in the south of France.
“Still beautiful,” Carrie said, while Trudy gazed appraisingly at me. “And of course I’ve sold several of her other pieces. Stunning, really. So naturally when we talked about that window over your door I thought of her and those roses you have out back. I thought it might be a nice idea to carry that motif into the transom.”
Afraid I might start squirming if Trudy kept staring at me like I was some sort of specimen prepared for dissection, I sprang from my seat and crossed to the French doors. In the center of the little slate patio ringed by roses sat a wrought iron table and a pair of chairs I recognized from the back room of Carrie’s antiques shop.
“And would the name of my business be incorporated into this motif?” Trudy asked.
I looked over my shoulder and met Carrie’s eye, certain she would share my bemusement over motif, but she only raised her brows in question. “What do you think?” she asked. “Can you work it in?”
“Depends on what exactly the name is going to be,” I said, wandering away from the doors and toward the fireplace yawning along the western wall. “Whether you’re going to go with simply Trudy’s or Trudy’s B&B or—”
“Oh, my dear,” Trudy said, managing to get a shudder into her words. “There will be no B&B, thank you very much.”
I bit my lip to keep back a giggle. For someone who didn’t get too distraught by a dog on the furniture, Trudy seemed to be working awfully hard at being classy.
Carrie shifted forward in her seat. “Did you have another name in mind?”
Trudy’s chin lifted a notch and her tone carried a melody of pride. “I’ve registered the business as Magnolia Bed and Breakfast.”
From where I stood I tried to peer through the white sheers on the windows to see if there was, in fact, a magnolia tree on the property that I had failed to notice. But all that was visible was the fronds and blossoms of the mimosa, all pink and green and looking like the nineties exploded on the lawn.
“What do you think, Georgia? Can you do magnolias in stained glass?” Carrie asked.
Pausing to admire the collection of china knickknacks above the fireplace, I caught sight of myself in the mirror hung above the mantel, heartlessly reflecting an image of my hair. The humidity was not being kind. I looked like I Love Lucy’s home perm episode.
I turned my back on my image. Out of sight, out of mind, right? “Magnolias are one of the classic flowers in stained glass,” I said. “Tiffany frequently featured magnolias in their windows and lamps because they’re so lovely. I could bring some designs by and some examples.”
“Tiffany’s did?” Trudy didn’t sit up straighter as much as her neck sort of elongated. I supposed Tiffany was the perfect antidote to B&B.
I smiled and nodded, not bothering to educate Trudy on the difference between jewelry store founder Charles Tiffany and the stained glass innovations of his son Louis. It was all in the family as far as I was concerned. A Tiffany was a Tiffany. And it seemed to please Trudy.
“That sounds marvelous,” she announced. “What color can you make the blossoms?” She shifted her attention to Carrie. “Can we bring the color into this room? Drapes? Pillows? Throw rugs?”
As Carrie and Trudy batted ideas back and forth, I reclaimed my seat next to Fifi. The pooch had rolled onto her back and let out a grumbling whimper as I sat. She stretched and pushed her nose against my thigh. Hoping it was attention she wanted and not some flesh to nibble on, I reached out and carefully rubbed her exposed belly while admiring the rhinestone-ringed name tag hanging from her collar. The sparkle stirred my mind, and I belatedly wondered where Trudy was getting the money for the renovations to the house. Of course it wouldn’t be impossible that she simply had a good deal of money socked away somewhere. And perhaps the hints of neglect outside and in were the result of frugality rather than financial limitations. But Wenwood had been known more for its work ethic than its wealth, and yet there Trudy sat, spine straight in her wingback chair, gold watch heavy on her wrist and precious gems winking over her fingers.
The theme song from Mission Impossible blared from Carrie’s purse, making her flinch, wide-eyed, and bringing me back from my contemplation of Trudy’s bank balance. Carrie and I spent a fair amount of time together, and I recognized that particular tune as her default ringtone for calls from people outside her contact list.
“I’m so sorry,” Carrie said, glancing back and forth between me and Trudy. “I thought I switched it off . . . I . . .” She tugged open her purse, dug frantically for the phone. “I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll just—” Her eyes fell on the display screen and the number appearing there. The pink flush of embarrassment drained as quickly as it had bloomed, leaving her skin magnolia pale. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, standing. “I need to take this.”
While Carrie ducked into the foyer, I smiled at Trudy, searching my brain for the right question to engage her with while I worried over who or what might have caused such a reaction in Carrie. “So, um, Fifi had a different owner. How did she end up with you? Did you adopt her from a shelter?”
Trudy peered closely at me as though looking for an answer to a question only she knew. “Georgia Kelly,” she said again.
“Why do you keep saying that?” I asked.
She shook her head slowly, the movement barely disturbing her drop earrings. “There’s something about you, dear. Something not right with you being a Kelly.”
I fought to keep the surprise and hint of offense from showing on my face. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I didn’t figure it was anything good, or possibly, you know, sane. I opened my mouth to ask her what she meant by such a remark in the same moment Carrie rushed back into the room.
“We have to go,” she said, reaching over me to grab her purse. I froze in response to her sudden haste; Fifi scrambled to her feet, alert to the new charge in the air.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I jumped to my feet, steeling myself for whatever news she might hurl my way.
Swinging her purse over her shoulder, she said, “My husband’s business is burning. I have to go.”
“Do you want me to drive?” I asked, rushing down the path away from Trudy’s house.
“It’s fine. I’m not upset.” Carrie fumbled the keys and they hit the sidewalk with a heavy metallic thud. She hissed a curse, grabbed the keys, and continued stomping her way to the car.
“Are you sure? I only ask because you seem a little, um, wound up.” And I didn’t want either one of us to die in a motor vehicle accident. I stood beside the car, waiting for her to reach the driver’s side, waiting for her to change her mind and hand me the keys.
Instead, she took the time to meet my eyes over the top of the sedan. “Why would you say that? I’m fine.”
Once she was in the car with the door shut behind her, I climbed into the passenger seat. “I say that because we’re speeding off to a fire at your ex-husband’s business.”
“Your ex-husband. This is Russ you’re rushing to help. The guy you divorced. And you’re going off with lights and sirens and a death grip on the wheel. Any reason?” I pulled my seat belt into place without taking my gaze off of Carrie. I had never had the pleasure/experience/bad luck of meeting her ex; they were divorced before I even met Carrie. But over the past couple of months, she and I had shared a good number of tales of woe featuring our former flames. As could be expected, she had little good to say about Russ, though I knew—even though I could be faulted for the same behavior—she was hardly being unbiased in her complaints.
She maneuvered the car into a smooth U-turn, and we sped up the block of grand old houses, centennial trees shading lawns and road alike. I sat in silence for a while, giving Carrie the time she needed to gather her thoughts and answer my question. I did not want to prompt her, or pressure her, and in any case had learned from the beginning that she wasn’t one to stay quiet for long.
“It’s hard, you know?” she asked as she signaled a turn onto the highway. “Well, you do know. You go for so long thinking of someone as your husband”—she shot me a glance—“or your fiancé, your partner, and when everything’s calm and normal you remember they’re not that person anymore. But when things get stressy and crazy . . .”
I did know, she was right. There had been more than a few times in the past eight-plus months after our engagement ended when life events had gone pear-shaped and the first person I thought of was Eric. When things got tough, my addled mind still prompted me to seek his shoulder for comfort. It always took a few tough moments to remember no, he was no longer the person I ran to, no longer the rock in my life—for better or worse. Luckily, that breath-stealing moment of realization was getting shorter and shorter.
Still, I folded my arms across my chest and gave Carrie a stern stare. “I just think it’s best you remember there was a time you might have derived a little guilt-ridden satisfaction from seeing his business burn to the ground, so there’s no need to risk a speeding ticket, or our necks for that matter. You said no one was hurt, right?”
“Then maybe slow down, huh?”
Carrie gave the steering wheel one long last white-knuckle grip, then softened her hold and let up on the gas. “Okay.” She nodded. “Okay. Good point.”
We settled into a legal speed, cruising past trees in full green and wild flowers in full bloom. A general fragrance of flowers snuck into the car with the air-conditioning. Or maybe that was the candle-scented air freshener dangling from the glove box.
“Why did you get the call, anyway?” I asked. “Doesn’t he have anyone else he could call? You said he got all the friends in the divorce. Couldn’t he beg one of them for help?”
“It wasn’t Russ who called. It was the police department.” She kept her gaze fixed on the road ahead. “I’m still part owner of the building.”
We cruised past half a dozen ancient oak trees while I attempted to process that information. “‘Part’ as in equitably divided during the divorce?”
Her grip on the steering wheel tightened again. “As in purchased when we were married. After the divorce, he wanted to buy my half but he didn’t want to go into any more bank debt. And I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t kindhearted enough to offer him any kind of private loan.”
“Doesn’t he have anyone who could front him the money? What about family?” I shifted in my seat, making a futile attempt to lean my arm up against the window ledge all casual-like but my elbow kept slipping down the curve of the door. “Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles?”
“His brother Gabe . . .” She shrugged and shook her head as if she were shaking away a memory not worth revisiting. “Well . . .” She let the statement fade and I opted not to push.
“What about his folks?” I asked. “Are they still around to help out Russ?”
Carrie tipped her head from side to side, lips pressed tight as she considered my question—or how best to answer. “They don’t have the best relationship.”
“No, they . . .” She took a bracing breath. “They helped me pay for the divorce.”
My mouth dropped open but no words fell out; I had none. Maybe the reason Carrie didn’t speak much about her marriage to Russ—other than to inform me he was a talentless slacker with a ready smile, a quick promise, and nothing to back up either—was because its dissolution had divided his family.
She peeked at me from the corner of her eye, then shrank a little in the driver’s seat, looking abashed. “I know. I know. You don’t have to say it.”
I almost laughed, my belly clenching in discomfort at the awkwardness of it all. “I can’t say anything. I don’t know what to say.” Or think. All I seemed capable of doing was picturing the special joy of dinner with Russ’s family. Holidays were undoubtedly the stuff of Tim Burton’s nightmares.
I kept silent for the rest of the ride, leaving Carrie the opportunity to share more surprises with me or not. Uncharateristically, she chose not, so that in the relative quiet of the car, my thoughts bounced from those of Russ’s family to my own. My mother had been home from her honeymoon with husband number five for nearly a month and I’d yet to visit them. I really had nothing against new husband Ben, the latest in a line of men Mom married in a peculiar effort to fill the shoes of my late father—Mom’s “one true love.” Since Dad had passed before I turned two, I had no true memory of him, only memories I created around the stories my mother told, so I never saw the subsequent husbands as trying to fill my father’s shoes. To me they were just a series of guys I got accustomed to thinking of as stepdad du jour before my mother moved on.
To the best of my knowledge, though, none of my family members had ever felt opposed enough to any of my mom’s husbands to pay for a divorce. Given the way Grandy had taken to referring to my former fiancé as “that swine,” I reasoned he would happily fork over any money it took to end a bad situation. I deeply wanted to ask Carrie for more details about her former in-laws but I risked only one more inquiry into whether she would prefer I drove, before maintaining silence until, finally, after a twenty-five minute ride, we turned onto the town of Newbridge’s main commercial road. Small businesses with gold-lettered windows and retail shops with colorful awnings edged the road on either side, its full length blocked by a police cruiser.
Unable to proceed any farther by car, Carrie steered onto a side street. Little more than a wide alley divided the commercial strip from residential property. Single family homes with narrow lawns and empty driveways flanked the street where Carrie eased the car to a stop alongside the curb. As calm and cool as she was pretending to be, her choice of vacant spot betrayed the true tumult within. I climbed out of the vehicle after her, calling over the roof of the car, “Are you sure you want to leave this here?”
She stutter-stepped to a stop. “Why? Is there a sign? Can we not park?”
I pointed upward, toward the unimpeded view of a wide blue sky. “There’s no shade.”
Carrie moved to reopen the car then shook her head. “It’ll be fine,” she said. “Let’s just go.”
Slinging my purse strap over my shoulder, I rounded the car and joined Carrie in the middle of the side street, quiet save the occasional woof of a dog and the shouts of a couple of boys on bicycles.
We walked diagonally across the road to the corner from which we could once again see the squad car blocking access. Clusters of people stood along the sidewalk, talking quietly, shaking their heads. I followed the angle of their quick glances. Eyes on the scene beyond the squad car, I walked full stride into a gutter puddle.
I huffed out a sigh. It was going to be one of those days.
Water swept over my foot and splashed against my ankles. I had just enough sense to keep my other foot dry, and hopped over the remainder of the puddle to join Carrie on the sidewalk.
Side by side, we walked toward the center of the area cordoned off by police with a combination of caution tape, vehicles, and cruisers. My footsteps squeaked from the water coating the sole of my flip-flops and droplets of water splashing up the back of my calf, handily undermining the aura of High Noon that hung over the street.
A Pace County police officer climbed out of the squad car at our approach. “Excuse me, ladies,” he called. “This road’s closed to non-business owners.”
Carrie stopped short. She fluttered a hand against her throat, looked left and right as though searching for someone to give her stage directions. “I—I was asked to come,” she said.
The officer moved toward us, one hand on the butt of his gun in classic patrolman style. “Sorry, can you speak up?” Not to say that I didn’t respect the Pace County PD, but the officer’s toes-out stride, gangly frame, and peach fuzz goatee made him look like a boy scout who’d donned the wrong uniform. And I had never been able to consider a boy scout any manner of authority. It might have been the neckerchief.
I touched my fingers against Carrie’s arm, silently encouraging her to move forward. “It’s okay,” I called. “She is a business owner.” Waving to a vague spot up the street, I edged behind Carrie, just enough to force her to pick up the pace so I didn’t catch the back of her foot with the front of mine
“Georgia,” Carrie whispered as I hustled her along. “We can’t lie to the police. It’s wrong.”
“It’s not a lie. You own your own business, right? And half of an office building. You qualify.” I guided her past a Laundromat with a sandwich board sign out front, big letters advising patrons to enter through the back.
“I don’t own a business here,” she said, but the tension had gone from her voice.
“Someone here wanted to speak to you but I doubt it was the rookie in the squad car. He didn’t look like he was expecting anyone.” I glanced around, looking for some sign of other police officers but finding none. “We’ll find whoever is looking for you.”
A stout man in a gold shirt and a kitchen apron stood in the doorway of a coffee shop, arms folded and eyes on the scene across the road. Even his presence did little to shatter the feeling of walking into a ghost town.
“I don’t suppose you’ve remembered the name of the cop who called you yet?” I asked.
“Officer Reinhart or Reinbach or—” Carrie shook her head. “Something with an R. Once he told me why he was calling, all I could remember of his name was Officer.”
She stopped again and turned to face the other side of the road. After keeping the sight in the corner of my eye, the full-on view of what had, until yesterday, been Russ Stanford’s law office should have been less shocking. But the cream-colored stone façade was streaked black around the windows and door, as though something evil had gripped the jambs and sashes in its violent escape from within. Broken glass glittered, jagged and deadly, across the sidewalk, while police tape cordoned off the entirety of the ruins.
I looked to Carrie, tried to discern from her expression what emotions might be overtaking her, whether any memories—fond or otherwise—may have been awakened by the evidence of fire in her former husband’s place of business. Her face remained unchanged, eyes clear and wide open. Only a hint of resignation tugged down the corners of her mouth.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s see what they want.”
With the squad car blocking vehicular access to the road, we safely crossed the street without looking both ways first. The only thing we might have been struck by was a stray pigeon, or maybe a mosquito.
As we drew nearer the building, a trio of men emerged from behind it, their steps slow and measured, their eyes on the scorched façade. Two of them were unknown to me. The third I previously had tangled with . . . as it were.
He looked our way in the same moment I extended my elbow to nudge Carrie. His eyes narrowed, and I tried to tell myself the action was the result of sun glare and not something personal.
“Miss Kelly,” he said as he and his cohorts ambled toward us.
I nodded, either acknowledging his greeting or agreeing that was indeed my name. “Detective Nolan.”
“I can hardly wait to find out what brings you here,” he said, the barest hint of a smile tugging on his lips.
A scant two months earlier it had been Detective Nolan who had turned up on my doorstep, waking me from a dead sleep and hauling my grandfather—Grandy—into the police station for questioning in relation to the murder of a Wenwood shop owner. Following the ordeal I felt a dozen years older; Nolan, annoyingly, looked the same as he had that morning on Grandy’s doorstep. The same dark hair softly graying at the temple, the same watchful brown eyes, the same tough jaw clenched above a somewhat askew tie—the somewhat askew tie terminating in the gold detective’s badge clipped to Nolan’s belt.
I tipped my head to my left. “This is my good friend Carrie Stanford. She was summoned. I came with her.”
The detective left off his perusal of my muddy foot and shifted his attention to Carrie. “Mrs. Stanford,” he said. “Sorry to have to ask you to come down here.”
Carrie stiffened marginally. “That’s Ms. Stanford, please. Russ and I are divorced.”
Nolan was too much of a professional to flinch at Carrie’s sharp tone. “I’ll remember that.” He introduced the two men with him—one, another gold badge member of the Pace County PD. The other, Chief Fire Marshal Barker, extended a hand to both Carrie and me.
“Thanks for making the trip,” he said in a rasping voice that perfectly complemented his lined face and thick silver hair. “Easier if you see the damage for yourself.”
“Easier how? Why?” Carrie’s brows dived toward the bridge of her nose, and anxiety raised the pitch of her voice. “I was told no one was hurt. Is that not true? Is that why I need to be here in person?”
Nolan rushed to reassure her. “Nothing like that. There’s no evidence of anyone being inside. According to neighbors, the fire started somewhere around four this morning, not within business hours.”
“Wait.” I put up a hand to pause the information. “You said ‘was started.’ Does that mean—”
“Oh, yah,” Chief Barker ground out. “This here’s the most suspicious fire I’ve seen in a long time.”
Chief Barker stood with us, inches from the threshold of what had once been Russ Stanford’s law office, and swept the beam of a flashlight around the interior. He bounced the light against three distinct spots in the fire-damaged space—a blackened desk ahead and to the left, a corner deep to the right, and a doorway straight ahead at the other end of the room. “There, there, and there,” he said as he shifted the light. “See how they look worse than some of the other spots?”
Carrie and I nodded in vague unison. Where the walls enclosing the open-plan office appeared slick with soot or bubbled from heat, the areas Barker indicated were shrouded in almost unfathomable blackness. A piece of furniture that might once have been a desk was slumped one-sided to the floor, waiting for the beat of a butterfly’s wing to bring the rest of it down.
“Those are your likely acceleration points,” Barker said. “We got some testing to do so we can bring the science to the judge, but even just lookin’ at this, this was most likely a set fire, starting in three separate points. Probably garbage pails, a little gasoline thrown in there.”
Following the thought, I murmured, “And three pails at the same time couldn’t be an accident.”
“Exactly.” Barker swung back in our direction, where the sunbeams pushing through the blown-out windows washed away the gleam of the flashlight. “We’ll do all the tests, of course. Check everything out. Meantime, you’re gonna want to get some fencing put up around this place, keep folks from wandering in and getting hurt.”
“Put up fencing?” Carrie asked. “How do I—?”
“There must be a business, a company or something.” I looked to the fire marshal. “Right? Would they need some kind of certification or something?”
Barker’s mouth softened into a kind smile. “You give me a way to get in touch with you, I’ll make sure you get the names of some of the folks we know who do this sort of thing—the fences and cleanup and such.”
We stood in a silent huddle in which I waited for Carrie to say something and Barker waited for one of us to say something.
“After, we’ll let you know when we can turn the property back over to you,” he said slowly, gaze locked on Carrie.
Her eyes widened and she nodded in understanding. “Oh, I’m done? That’s it, right? I can go and you’ll contact me?”
Barker smiled again. “Well I got nothin’ else for you. But the detectives will have some questions.”
We thanked the fire marshal, and I did my best to shake off the sense of incongruity created by thanking a man who had shown us destruction. After Carrie gave him her business card with her contact information on it, she and I shuffled back across the sidewalk to where Detective Nolan stood, arms crossed, watching the other detective stroll away.
His gaze slid sideways as Carrie and I neared. “Let’s get some coffee,” he said. He tipped his head in the direction of the coffee shop and, without waiting for us to agree or decline, started walking.
After a quick, wordless check with one another, Carrie shrugged, I grimaced, and we were off.
“I don’t understand,” Carrie said as we hurried to catch up. “Why do I need to answer questions? It’s Russ’s business. For that matter, where is Russ? Why isn’t he here?”
He slipped pinched fingers along the lapel of his suit, straightening what had never been out of place. “We’re still trying to locate Mr. Stanford.”
“He’s missing?” My question ended in an embarrassing squeak.
I thought Detective Nolan might have grinned, but the unusual tug of muscles around his mouth didn’t last long enough for me to be certain.
“I wouldn’t go that far just yet,” he replied, voice distinctly mirthless. “He’s not answering his phone or his door. Just makes him out of reach, not missing.” He turned back to Carrie. “So it’s up to you. You’re a part owner and his ex-wife,” he said. “You need to answer questions.”
“Yes, ex-wife.” Carrie skitter-stepped and drew level with him. “Ex. What would I know?”
A little breeze of déjà vu stirred the hair on the back of my neck. The temperature may have been rising steadily toward steamy, but I didn’t welcome the chill. “Please tell me you don’t think Carrie had something to do with the fire.”
He glanced over his shoulder at me, his mouth a firm line accustomed to holding in secrets. “If that were the case, you would be waiting in your car.”
“Oh, you think so?” I said. I might have added a smirk, which might have been unwise.
“Still a possibility,” he said.
“As if you—” I began. But Carrie put a hand on my arm, and the quelling look she shot me made the protest slip away.
Carrie may not have spoken a word, but the caution in her gaze reminded me of the wisdom of keeping my mouth shut and smirk-free in the presence of detectives. I walked quietly beside her, all too aware of my capacity for letting my mouth get ahead of my brain. Or, more to the point, letting my default trust in people’s good nature lead me into self-incrimination.
“Go ahead inside,” the detective said, lifting his chin to indicate the coffee shop before veering away. “I’ll be right with you.”
Without a backward look in our direction, he crossed to the squad car blocking the street.
“Quick, while he’s not looking. Let’s make a run for it,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
Carrie kept her voice a fraction above a whisper. “We didn’t do anything.”
“You sure? You’re not lying to me about sneaking up here last night and torching your ex-husband’s livelihood? Sounds like great revenge to me.”
“Except I still own half the property that livelihood sits on,” she said. “Or used to sit on, anyway. Setting fire to it would be a little cutting off my nose, wouldn’t it?”
She was right, of course. And the fact of her ownership would, I hoped, keep her from being dragged down to the Pace County Police Department station house for further questioning or—heaven forbid—arrest, and would keep that shine of innocence around her.
Unless of course there was a great insurance payout to be had if—
I stopped in my tracks and shut my eyes tight to banish the idea of Carrie having anything to do with the fire. Insurance payouts or no, Carrie would never do such a thing. She wasn’t the arson type. She didn’t even go in for decorative candles.
Before ducking into the coffee shop behind Carrie, I looked to see what was more important to Detective Nolan than starting his immediate semi-interrogation of her. He stood beside the squad car that blocked the street, talking with the uniformed officer. Clouds slid over the sun, momentarily softening the glare of the morning, so that when the light reasserted itself, it was easier to spot the sun’s rays picking up streaks of gray and surprising hints of gold in the detective’s hair and splaying a shadow of his broad shoulders across the pavement.
Nolan pointed to the opposite end of the street, the rookie officer nodded and tugged open the door of the car, and I became aware of the hazardous road my mind was about to wander down while gazing at the back of Detective Nolan’s pale gray suit. I mentally smacked myself. The good detective did not merit my attention—not that sort of attention, anyway. What was wrong with me?
The rich, edgily bitter scent of coffee sneaked past me on a breeze.
“Are you coming?” Carrie asked from behind me.
I turned to find her hovering in the open doorway of the coffee shop. The same shop from which the aroma of coffee wafted. My taste buds awoke and my stomach rumbled. Hunger. Low blood sugar. That explained my new perspective on Detective Nolan.
“I think I have to eat something,” I said when I reached Carrie.
“How is that possible?” She held the door open to allow me to precede her into the coffee shop. “How can you think of food when I’m about to be questioned by the police?”
Telling her I wasn’t the one about to be questioned would have been bad form. I smiled at a dark-haired girl wearing black slacks and a waiter’s apron. “Anywhere?” I asked, waving toward the dozen or so booths stretching the length of the left side of the establishment. A dining counter stretched the length of the right. At its end stood the stout man with the apron who’d been standing outside the door earlier.
The waitress nodded. “Two?”
“Three, actually.” Carrie led the way to a booth in front of the windows. She tossed her purse onto the seat and sat down with a thud of butt on vinyl. “I can’t believe I have to talk to the police because they can’t find my ex-husband. Russ and I have been divorced for almost a year and still he manages to ruin my day.”
I eased onto the bench seat opposite her, leaned my elbows on the table. “Carrie, you might still think Russ is a pain in the butt who makes your life miserable, but I don’t think you want Detective Nolan to know that. Don’t give him any cause to suspect you might be carrying a grudge. Or a torch, for that matter.”
She let out a breath, shoulders sagging as the exhaled. “Okay. You’re right. Okay. I can do that.”
The waitress dropped a few menu folders on the edge of the table in the same moment Detective Nolan strode through the door of the coffee shop. “Can I get you something to start?” she asked.
Carrie ordered tea while Nolan echoed my request for coffee and slid into the seat beside me. Prior to his arrival I’d been mainly sitting in the middle of the bench. Now I would have to shift over to avoid his thigh pressing against mine for the duration. With the path my mind continued to threaten to wander, the last thing I needed was proximity.
“Here.” I tapped his arm, the bulk of his suit jacket preventing me from touching the man beneath. “Scoot out and I’ll sit next to Carrie.”
“This won’t take long.” He pulled a pen from his breast pocket and dropped his notepad on the table.
I huffed to cover my discomfort and reached for a menu.
Detective Nolan laid a hand atop the menu, stopping me from pulling it close. “I said it won’t take long.”
“I’m hungry,” I said, doing my best to scowl at him.
At this, he turned his head, held my gaze. “Would you please not order until I’ve gone?”
Strange. Most professional-type people I knew were accustomed to doing business over a meal. Had that particular multitasking brilliance not yet reached the police department? How could that be? And yet there we were, Nolan’s brown eyes locked on mine.
He slid the menu toward me. “Decide, but don’t order.”
It wasn’t a command, but a request, and not an unkind one.
I did a combination nod and shrug, and when the waitress dropped off our coffees and tea, told her I wouldn’t be ordering just yet.
Cup of java in front of him, Detective Nolan opened his notebook and flipped to a clean page. Try as I might, I couldn’t catch the contents of the pages previous to the blank he stopped on. It would have been nice to see, say, a list of suspects, with Carrie’s name absent. But no such luck. She’d have to keep her name off any such list by excelling at the detective’s game of twenty questions.
“You say you’re divorced from Russ Stanford, is that correct?” he began.
With steady hands and perfect posture, Carrie prepared her tea. She confirmed she and Russ were divorced for just over nine months.
“Cause of divorce?” He didn’t take his eyes off Carrie.
“Infidelity,” she said, lifting her teacup. “His.”
I wanted to reach across and pat her hand. The best I could do in the moment was catch her gaze and give her a sympathetic smile.
“You were awarded partial ownership of the property at 832 Broad Street as part of the settlement.”
She shook her head, keeping the teacup close but not yet taking a sip. “We bought it together after we got married. It wasn’t awarded to me like some kind of consolation prize.”
Nolan made some marks in his notebook—the notebook he cleverly kept beside his coffee cup, blocking my view of its contents. I grabbed my own coffee and took a sip, followed by a gulp. My eyes popped wide, my taste buds rejoiced. It was the best cup of coffee I’d had since leaving the city. Sure, the coffee at Grace’s luncheonette in Wenwood village tasted better than the brew Grandy’s old drip coffeemaker produced, but this . . . this was smooth and strong, no undertones of burnt beans, no hidden staleness, all flavor. I closed my eyes and savored another swallow.
“I take it you’re aware of the current value of the property.” He covered his notebook with a loose fist while he took a gulp of coffee. I watched, but he showed no sign of recognizing the amazingness of the coffee. Some detective.
Nolan continued, “Can you tell me how much the building is insured for?”
Carrie set down her cup, catching the edge of the spoon resting in the saucer. The clatter sounded deafening in the quiet of the coffee shop. “I believe it’s no more than current market estimate.”
She let out a little huff. “We were just starting out. We barely had the money to make loan payments. To insure the property for more than the bank required . . . we couldn’t afford that.”
The waitress snuck up to us, order pad at the ready. I cut a glance at the detective who had been adamant I not eat until he left and gave the waitress what I hoped was an apologetic smile. “I need a few more minutes.”
Expression neutral, she wandered off, and I shifted my attention back to the policeman’s version of twenty questions.
Nolan made a note, then looked to Carrie. “Is it likely given current market decline that the property is insured for more than its value?”
Carrie made a flustered little noise, her cheeks going faintly pink. “I suppose. I don’t really know.”
“Any chance your ex-husband might have taken out additional insurance, say, for the business?”
Fueled by caffeine, my mental calculator put two and two together and flashed a sum. “You want to know if it’s possible Russ set fire to his own building?” I asked.
He gave me a subtle nod, but kept his gaze on Carrie.
She shrugged dismissively. “Anything’s possible, isn’t it? If you’re asking me if I think he would do something like that, then no.”
Again, she gave a subtle shrug. Nolan may not have known Carrie well enough to recognize the motion as something telling, but I did. The double shrug meant she was unsure, doubting herself.
“Are you aware of any enemies he might have? Anyone who might want to put him out of business for a while?”
Something skittered across Carrie’s face, something sour with an aftertaste of dark humor. “I really don’t know.”
A check to my right showed Nolan, pen poised above his notepad, eyes on Carrie. I supposed his hesitation made sense. She wasn’t listing names for him to write down. Easy enough to remember a “no.” But his perfectly still, perfectly somber consideration of her spooled out a tendril of uneasiness in my belly.
“Do you have any idea where Russ is now?” He lifted his cup and drank down coffee like it was water.
Her bitter expression morphed into a grimace. “If past experience is any indicator, he’s found himself a bed other than his own to sleep in, preferably one belonging to a blonde.”
And there was the anger she shouldn’t have showed. Under the table, I swung my foot out, hoping to connect with her shin. Instead, I merely scraped the side of her calf with the edge of my flip-flop. She looked to me and I widened my eyes and pursed my lips.
She grabbed for her teacup, rattling it and the spoon against the saucer in her haste. “Which is of course his prerogative,” she mumbled, then raised the cup and took a series of delicate sips.
I did the same with my coffee while Detective Nolan scratched out a few more notes.
The waitress sauntered over to the table, pulling an order pad out of her apron along the way. “Ready to order?” She used the pad as a brace to click her pen against.
“No, I need—” I began.
“Go ahead and order.” Detective Nolan flipped his notebook closed. “That’s all I have for now.” Coffee cup in one hand, notebook in the other, he pushed to his feet.
“For now?” Carrie asked in a voice made even smaller from being blocked by a teacup.
At last, he forced a tight, polite smile. He presented Carrie with a business card he pulled from the breast pocket of his suit jacket. “Call me if you think of anything about Russ that might be useful.”
After one last slug of coffee, he set the mug down. He took one step away from the table before turning back. His expression opened from stern, professional police detective to warm, concerned gentleman. “How’s your grandfather?” he asked.
His question caught me by surprise, and I mentally scrambled for an answer. “I, um, he’s good. He’s good,” I stammered. “Why do you ask?”
“I wondered if he was . . .” He paused, searched the ceiling for the right word. “Unwell. And that his health was what was keeping you in Wenwood.”
I shook my head. “No, Grandy’s fine. Same old stubborn teddy bear.”
Detective Nolan stood motionless, as though waiting for more, as though expecting me to give him the reason I remained in Wenwood. But that was something I had yet to fully discover myself, much less voice.
He sighed slightly. “Glad to hear it,” he said then turned to Carrie. “If I have any more questions, I’ll let you know.”
Without further hesitation, he strode out of the coffee shop.
While the waitress hovered beside the table I pushed aside the stray thoughts the detective’s unspoken question had awoken, the why I stayed and if I would leave and what’s next either way. Those thoughts only ever led me in circles.
Carrie practically dropped her cup into its saucer. “What does that mean, if he has any more questions?”
“What can I get you?” the waitress prompted.
“I . . . ugh.” I held up a “one-minute” finger to Carrie and ordered up an egg and onion omelet and handed back the menu I never opened. When I’m in the mood for eggs, the variety of options present in a menu serves only to confuse.
The waitress swept up the remaining menus and left us alone.
I took a quick sip of coffee before addressing Carrie. “I think it just means he might think of more questions. I don’t think there’s anything sinister there.”
She sighed and sank against the vinyl cushioned backrest. “You warned me to stay calm and I blew it.”
“You didn’t blow it.” Firmly shutting away thoughts of my own life issues, I softened my posture, smiled a little. “Probably if you didn’t get a little cranky talking about your ex, that would be suspicious.”
She let out a reluctant half laugh. “I almost lost it when he asked if Russ had any enemies. I’d be shocked if Russ hadn’t cheated on some other woman who could give me a run for number one enemy by now.”
That little wisp of worry stirred once more, but I mentally stomped it down. Carrie may wish Russ hives in uncomfortable and embarrassing places, but she wouldn’t actually put itching powder in anyone’s shorts. I knew that, and I was certain Detective Nolan knew that, too.
I swallowed down the last of my delicious coffee and looked around for the waitress. It was then, as I turned full around in my seat, that I noticed traffic moving along the main drag and pedestrians strolling by the coffee shop’s plate glass window. Business had resumed in downtown Newbridge.
“Funny thing is,” Carrie said, sitting up again and leaning into the table, “Russ is a pain in the ass, but I really don’t think he does have any enemies. He’s not the type. He’s more the laid-back, everyone-loves-him type.”
Catching the eye of the waitress, I lifted my coffee cup into view—a silent request for a refill. “Maybe he’s changed since you guys split. Maybe his latest conquest has a jealous ex who’s a bodybuilder or a boxer.”
“Or an arsonist.”
I grinned. “And Russ is in hiding from this guy because he’s afraid to have his nose broken. Or his knees.”
Carrie chuckled. “That’s it exactly. He’s hiding out in his brother’s hunting cabin, hoping—” Her jaw dropped and her eyes popped wide. “The hunting cabin. I should have told Detective Nolan about the hunting cabin.” She huffed and put a hand to her forehead. “Russ is probably there.”
An older woman holding the hand of a smiling little girl pushed open the entrance door and cheerfully announced, “Here we are. Waffle time.”
The waitress greeted them like old friends, all the while sliding my omelet onto the table and holding a carafe of coffee. She refilled my mug and checked if Carrie wanted to order anything more.
“Why don’t you have another cup of tea?” I suggested.
Carrie agreed and I waited until the waitress walked off before resuming our conversation.
“Isn’t hunting usually done in cold weather?” I asked, laying a napkin across my lap. “I don’t remember ever seeing advertisements for hunting shorts or tank tops.”
“In summer they fish.” She rolled her eyes and huffed again. “I should call Detective Nolan and tell him. Is his cell number on here?” She picked up the card he’d left. “Maybe I can get him back here before he’s gone too far.”
I shoveled a forkful of eggs into my mouth and threw good etiquette to the wind by speaking with my mouth full. Anything to avoid more contact with the good detective until I understood why I had become so fascinated with the confidence of his stance or the forthrightness of his gaze. “You don’t know for sure Russ is at the cabin,” I said. “I don’t think there’s any need to rush to talk to the detective. Besides, you shouldn’t tempt him to take a cell call while he’s driving.” Yes, I was babbling. I would have said anything to stop Carrie calling and convincing him it would be a good idea to change direction and return to the coffee shop.
“No, you’re right.” Carrie considered this while the waitress delivered a fresh cup of tea and went through the usual “How is everything?” Once I’d assured her the eggs were fine and she sauntered off, Carrie continued. “I bet his staff knows if Russ is fishing, and they should be arriving soon. I could ask them.” She sat up straighter in her seat, peered over my shoulder.
I turned and followed her gaze. From where we sat, though, we had no view of the blackened building.
She dug in her purse and pulled out her phone. “Already after ten, though. Someone should have turned up already.”
Shaking my head, I traded my fork for my coffee cup. “You never worked in an office, did you?” I sipped while Carrie confirmed my suspicion. She had spent her career years to date working at the antiques shop that her family had handed down through generations and visiting estate sales in search of rare and sometimes beautiful objects. I had spent my career years manning a desk and suffering through some seriously bad coffee and high-profile financial scandals. This disparity made me qualified to educate my new best friend on the way the corporate world worked. “Number one rule—no, wait. Number one rule is avoid office politics. Number two rule is if the boss is away fishing, nine o’clock is overachieving. Give them time.”
Carrie slid to the farthest edge of her bench seat so she could watch for arriving employees without craning her neck while I enjoyed yet another refill of delicious coffee.
By the time I finished my omelet, I was well into the third cup of coffee. My stomach was beginning a protest when a dark-haired young woman dashed past the window and slammed open the door. The older woman and little girl enjoying waffles at the counter jumped at the noise. Okay, I did, too. The only one unaffected was Carrie, who had no doubt seen the woman coming all along.
“Susie,” she shouted. “Susie, are you here? What the hell happened?”
Our waitress spoke as she hurried out of the kitchen, more animated than she’d been all morning. “I’ve been trying to call you. Is your cell off? There was a fire,” she said.
“Obviously,” the dark-haired girl snapped.
“Firemen and cops were in and out most of the morning,” waitress Susie said, joining the newcomer by the door “You just missed them.”
“What about Russ? Did anyone get hold of him?”
Carrie abandoned all pretense of not listening to strangers’ business and slid from the booth. “Russ wasn’t answering his phone and he wasn’t at home. Do you have any idea where he is?” she asked.
The girl turned, annoyance bunching her brow. “Who are you?”
As Carrie reached the middle of the café, she extended a hand. “I’m Carrie Stanford, Russ ex-wife. The police called me when they couldn’t reach him. You are?”
Go, Carrie. Cool and calm and a little bit snippy. Not a guaranteed method of grabbing the upper hand but fairly reliable and masterfully executed.
Pink flushed across the dark-haired girl’s cheeks. “I’m Melanie, Russ’s administrative assistant.” She took Carrie’s hand, but from where I sat, her grip looked a little tentative.
“Melanie, would you be able to tell me where Russ is, please?”
But Melanie narrowed her eyes, calculating. “Hold it. You’re Russ’s ex?”
“Yes, now can you tell me—”
“He’s mentioned you. You guys are on pretty good terms, right?”
“Great.” Melanie’s grin was wide and somewhat alarming in its sudden appearance. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”