Monday, Oct. 23
If I didn’t know better, I’d think the repairman was about to tell me he’d found a dead body buried in the museum’s basement.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He took off his ball cap, scraped a hand through his thinning hair, and put the cap back on. And all the while, he kept his eyes fixed on my office floor.
Finally, I couldn’t take any more stalling. “So, how long will it take to repair the furnace?”
He took off his cap again and raised his eyes to look at me with pity. “I’m sorry, Miss Ballard. Repair isn’t an option. The museum needs a whole new system.”
Nerves tightened in my stomach. “A whole new system? What happened?”
“Your heat pump had multiple leaks in the coolant lines, and they caused the compressor to seize up. When it went, the motor failed, and then the electronics fried.” He cleared his throat. “It all has to be replaced.”
Was there an option to go back to when he was stalling? Because as the director of the Dogwood Springs History Museum, ultimately it was up to me to keep the place running, and to be honest, a hastily buried dead body might have been easier to deal with.
We were a small, private museum in a little tourist town in southern Missouri. Our endowment helped fund the salaries for me and two other paid staff, but it wasn’t set up to provide for big expenditures. A significant part of my job was fundraising to cover basic operating expenses. At the moment, we were planning a historic homes tour to raise seed money for a capital campaign to add a much-needed elevator. We weren’t hoping for all the money for an elevator this year, just enough to say we’d gotten started.
I glanced across my desk at Alice VanMeter, the president of the museum’s board of directors and its number one volunteer, who had been meeting with me about the homes tour.
Her eyes looked tense.
I needed an actual number from the repairman. “How much are we talking to replace the system?”
“I’ve got someone back at the office checking prices to be sure, and we do offer the museum a small discount because it’s a nonprofit, but I’d say you’re looking at around $15,000.”
The knot in my stomach edged into nausea. My parents had paid less than half that when they replaced their heat pump a year ago. Of course, the museum—a big, white Greek Revival built in 1920 as the home of a wealthy local businessman—was a lot larger and older than my parents’ house. But still… “That seems awfully high.”
“Well, you know, we’ll have to redo wiring, replace duct work, and bring things up to code.” The repairman hooked his thumbs in his back pockets, making his company shirt stretch across his broad chest, distorting the logo that said Jack’s Heating and Cooling. “This is going to be a big job.”
Just what I didn’t want to hear.
It wasn’t the repairman’s fault. As I knew all too well, even if he had serviced the unit in the past and recommended replacement or preventive measures, my predecessor would have vetoed them. This wasn’t the first problem I’d encountered that had been caused by her reluctance to spend money on building maintenance. Only the most expensive.
I stood, shook his hand, and gave him one of my business cards. “Thank you for coming out today. Please email me as soon as you have a firm estimate.”
“Will do.” He tipped his ball cap and left.
I sat back down and looked over at Alice.
Alice was about my mom’s age, in her midfifties, but she dressed well and looked younger. Her teal blouse and black pants were polished and professional, and the cut of her chin-length, light brown hair flattered her face. But it was her cushioned, low black heels that told the real story. Alice was a doer, a cornerstone of the community who volunteered not only at the museum but also at the hospital, the library, the food pantry, and her church.
She was not normally thrown by obstacles, but her face looked grim. “I’d say we should get another estimate, but Jack’s is the best HVAC business in town, and I know Jack personally. We won’t find a better price.”
Given what I’d learned of Dogwood Springs, Alice’s friendship alone had probably cut $2,000 off the estimate. The woman was incredibly well connected.
But $15,000. Where were we going to get…
The reality of the situation sank in. “The museum’s not going to have an elevator any time soon, is it, Alice?”
“I don’t think so.”
I’d had such big plans.
Currently, if you needed to go to the second floor or the third-floor attic of the museum, you had two choices—the elaborately carved walnut main staircase or the much plainer and narrower back stairs. With an elevator, we’d be able to develop display space on the second floor that was unused because of accessibility issues, and we’d make things easier for our staff and volunteers. Moving artifacts from storage on the third floor down either set of stairs could be quite a challenge.
Our goal with the homes tour was to sell 150 tickets at $35 a head for a tour of five local homes, each a distinctive architectural style from a different time period, spanning a large portion of the town’s history. My colleagues at the museum, Imani and Rodney, and I had been working up scripts for the tour guides. We’d found some fascinating stories about former owners of the homes, stories that would not only entertain the visitors but also help them see the connections between themselves and the past.
The homeowners would be rewarded only with our deep praise and the chance to show off their homes, meaning that if we sold all the tickets, the day should net the museum more than $5,000. Not nearly enough for an elevator, of course, but enough for a symbolic start. Only yesterday, one of our donors agreed to pitch in $10,000 after we raised the first $5,000.
That was before the news about the HVAC system.
But dwelling on my disappointment wasn’t going to solve anything. I needed to take action.
Ordinarily, I liked to psyche myself up a bit before calling a big donor, but sometimes, as director, I had to deal with crises as they arose “I think I need to go ahead and call the man who was willing to contribute $10,000 to the elevator and see if he’s willing to give that money toward the HVAC system instead. Do I need to run that by the board?”
“No. You and I are in agreement, and this is an emergency.”
Alice nodded and sat, twisting her hands together. She knew as well as I did that $15,000 was not in the budget. If we couldn’t pivot and use the projected elevator seed money, we’d be struggling to pay our bills all winter.
I looked up the number on my computer. Then I smoothed my shoulder-length brown hair and straightened my favorite green blouse, the one that normally gave me confidence because it matched my eyes. At last I straightened my pearls so that the clasp was in the back and dialed.
After the bad news about the HVAC system, I expected to get voice mail. Instead, the donor answered on the first ring.
Adrenaline did a jerky dance in my veins. Why hadn’t I taken the time to plan out my talking points? I’d just been so flustered that I acted out of character, but there was no backing out now.
As calmly as I could, I laid out what we’d learned.
The donor listened quietly and asked what HVAC firm had given us the estimate. “Let me think for a moment,” he said.
There was a long pause, during which my stomach churned, and then he agreed to switch his $10,000 donation to the furnace once we raised the first $5,000 with the homes tour.
I thanked him repeatedly, told him how much he was helping the museum, then hung up and exhaled.
Alice, who had leaned forward, listening in, sat back in her chair. “You did it. And you were amazing. That was some very persuasive talking.”
“Maybe he heard the shock in my voice when I mentioned the price,” I said. “I guess I knew we might one day have to replace the HVAC system, but I never dreamed it would be so expensive.” In my previous position as part of a much bigger staff at a historic home in Philadelphia, I’d never given building maintenance a thought. “I’m grateful the donor was so flexible.”
“I’m grateful we already had the homes tour in the works,” Alice said. “It was a good idea before, but now it’s essential.” She pointed at the brochure mock-up on the desk. “This is such a great plan, though, that I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to raise the money.”
“We’ll do it.” I squared my shoulders. “Once we let the community know the situation, they’ll be even more eager to support the tour.”
“They will.” Alice’s eyes shone. “Goodness, I’m awfully glad you’re here, Libby.”
“Me too.” In spite of the broken furnace, in spite of what would be a long delay in my plans for an elevator, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
She tapped her watch. “Well, I’d better get going. I’m picking up my grandsons and taking them to our house to spend the night. It’s my daughter- and son-in-law’s anniversary. My husband and I thought they might like a night without the twins.”
“I’m sure they will appreciate it.” I shut down my computer. “I guess I should head home as well. Bella will be ready to go outside.”
“I’ll walk out with you.” Alice stood and shot a glance at the shoebox sitting on my desk. “Okay, I know it’s none of my business, but why do you have a box of men’s leather slippers, size 11, on your desk?”
I took my oversized purse out of the bottom desk drawer and patted the lid of the box. “I think that’s the only box Rodney had available. He put a new artifact in there, something he thinks Imani and I won’t be able to identify. Tomorrow, he says I get to look inside, and I have a week to figure it out. Then I pass the box to Imani, and she has a week. If one or both of us figures out what it is, we win. If he can stump us, he says he wins.”
“Does this game of Rodney’s have a prize?” Alice walked out into the hall.
“Oh, yes.” I turned off the lights and shut and locked the door to my office. “Bragging rights. And the loser—or losers—buy lunch at the Dogwood Café.”
“You all do seem to have a good time here,” Alice said as we started down the ornate walnut staircase to the first floor. “Do you think you’ll be able to identify the mystery object?”
“I don’t know. I normally feel confident in my knowledge of antiques, but Rodney seems sure he’s going to win.”
“I bet you figure it out.” Alice smiled at me, said she’d use her key to lock the back door, and exited toward the parking lot behind the museum.
I left through the front door, locked it behind me and armed the security system, and then stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked back at the museum.
When I became director in early June, I viewed this museum in the small town where my mother grew up as my last resort. Not in any way where I wanted to be professionally at age thirty-two.
After my husband’s infidelity, our divorce, and the way he finagled things so I lost my job back in Philadelphia, I’d come to Dogwood Springs beaten down, clinging to my belief that second chances were possible, that I could make a new life for myself.
Now, less than five months later, how things had changed. I’d found friends like Alice and my upstairs neighbor Cleo. I’d adopted the best dog in the whole world, a lovable golden retriever named Bella. I’d met a man who—if I could release the insecurities left by my ex—I could see myself happily dating. And I’d grown to love the little town of Dogwood Springs and my role sharing its history, a history that included my own ancestors.
I gave the museum a nod of approval, shifted my purse strap higher on my shoulder, and started my walk home.
That new HVAC system would be paid for before we knew it. Because I was going to make sure the homes tour went off without a hitch.
One of the wonderful things about Dogwood Springs was how close everything was, like my apartment, which was only a fifteen-minute walk from the museum.
I headed down Main Street, detouring around groups of tourists who were admiring the quaint shops, the café, the three-story library, and the upscale restaurants of downtown. The last rays of the afternoon sun illuminated the maples that lined the street, creating a warm red glow against the bright blue sky. Pots of chrysanthemums near the door of each shop coordinated with the colorful awnings that lined both sides of the street. And the sweet aroma of apple and cinnamon wafted out from the bakery and filled the air.
Eventually, I turned onto Fourth Street and followed it over to Elm, where I lived. My apartment was the first floor of a simple, white, two-story house built in 1900. The house wasn’t anything fancy, but it had bits of historic character, it was easily affordable, and it was in a neighborhood filled with other older houses, lots of trees, and friendly neighbors.
Three houses away from home, I heard a familiar woof.
A moment later, Bella, my four-year-old golden retriever, galloped down the sidewalk toward me.
“Well, hello, girl.” I knelt to greet her.
She wriggled around me with her tail swooshing back and forth at top speed, and when I petted her, she licked my cheek.
My heart swelled. Was there anything more wonderful than the pure, uncomplicated love of a pet? Not a day went by that I didn’t realize how lucky I had been to adopt her.
The day I moved to Dogwood Springs, Bella had shown up on my doorstep. Her first owner had been the previous occupant of my apartment, a retired FBI agent who passed away. Although his daughter took Bella into her home, it hadn’t worked out well, and Bella soon became mine. And what a wonderful addition she was to my life. Not only did Bella seem hardwired to show love to everyone she met, but she was also smart. Earlier in the year, when I’d been involved in investigating a murder, I was pretty sure she’d been one step ahead of me.
I gave her a pat on the back. “What are you doing out?”
She grinned at me with her tongue hanging out one side of her mouth.
I told her how much I’d missed her and carefully petted the soft fur on the top of her head, avoiding her right ear.
Before leaving for work that morning, I’d noticed her shaking her head and rubbing that ear against the couch. From what I could tell, it was giving her some discomfort. “Don’t worry, girl. I’ve got an appointment for you tomorrow at the vet. They’ll figure out what’s wrong with your ear.”
“I’m so sorry, Libby.” My best friend Cleo, who lived upstairs in the house we shared, hurried toward me. “I used my key to go into your apartment to get the ladder from the basement, and when I brought it outside, Bella must have heard you coming. She darted out before I could stop her.”
“No harm done,” I said as we walked toward the house with Bella following behind us. Really, Bella was so well behaved that if it hadn’t been for the local squirrel population, I would never have needed to use a leash. Luckily, the squirrels all seemed to be hiding at the moment.
I looked over at Cleo. “How was your Monday?”
“Great!” Cleo owned a local hair salon, and although she occasionally changed things up for a client with an emergency, she normally took off Sunday and Monday.
As you might expect, since she was the most sought-after stylist in town, her blond hair always looked good. She wore a pixie cut with long bangs and oversized glasses, and she tended to dress in bright colors. Today she wore jeans, black ankle boots, and a vivid purple sweater. She was taller than me, five feet, eight inches to my five feet, five inches, and while I was fairly self-contained and preferred to have a plan, Cleo talked loud and fast, used lots of gestures, and withered with too much routine.
She was also a key part of my world, having welcomed me like a long-lost friend the moment I moved in.
I pointed toward our house. “What’s the ladder for?”
Cleo went to the covered front porch, bent down near two Adirondack chairs, and came out onto the lawn, holding a rather goofy-looking ghost with an electrical cord that she’d plugged into the outdoor outlet on the porch. “This!” She held the ghost by a string attached to its head and patted its face like she thought it was adorable. “The package says his name is Haunting Harold. I’m going to hang him from one of the branches up there.” She gestured to the big maple in our front yard, then pressed a button at the base of Harold’s neck.
His eyes lit up, and he shouted a dramatic “Boo!” After a few seconds, in a lower voice, he said “Bwa-ha-ha!” and let out a somewhat eerie “Oooooh,” all about as frightening as Scooby-Doo.
Bella, who had been rolling in the grass, sat up and angled her head at Harold. She couldn’t, of course, tell us her opinion, but I gathered that she wondered why we’d want such a thing in the yard.
Cleo listened to the sounds repeat on a loop a couple of times, then silenced Haunting Harold. She sat him in one of the Adirondack chairs on the porch and returned, her eyes twinkling with delight over her newest purchase.
Why was I not surprised? Every few days since late September, Cleo had added another decoration to our house. An enormous potted yellow mum, a collection of gourds, a bale of hay… Bit by bit, the place had been decorated for fall and, more recently, for Halloween.
I’d drawn the line when she mentioned the giant, hairy spiders she’d seen at the craft store. It was bad enough that I occasionally had to smash a real one with my shoe. No need to add pretend creepy-crawlies to my life.
Most of her ideas about fall décor, though, I’d easily agreed to.
I pointed toward the big, orange pumpkin that we’d bought at the local farmers’ market, which now sat at the edge of the porch. “So after we put up the ghost, we’ll do the carving, right?”
“That’s the plan,” Cleo said.
We’d agreed that today, eight days before Halloween, was carving day. That gave us plenty of time to enjoy the jack-o’-lantern but not have it rot before the big day.
“What do you think?” I asked. “A big toothy grin or a scary face?”
Cleo gave me a look that could only be interpreted as pity. “Really? We can do better than that, can’t we?”
I wasn’t sure what could be better than a big, toothy grin, but clearly, she had something in mind. “I, uh, I guess. Just a minute.” I went inside, changed into jeans and a T-shirt, and returned to the porch.
“Here.” Cleo held out her phone, which she had open to a Pinterest board she’d titled “Halloween Decor.” On it, she’d collected images of pumpkins artistically carved with flowers, words, fall leaves, and one that even had the silhouette of the head of a golden retriever.
My eyes widened. “I’ll scoop the insides,” I said. When it came to the crafty part of the process, I needed to leave the job to her.
“Sounds good,” Cleo said. “I’ll get my tools.”
An hour later, Cleo and I sat in the Adirondack chairs on the porch. In the distance, I could hear a kid bouncing a basketball, and occasionally, a car went up or down Elm, but in general, the street was quiet.
Bella lay stretched out on the concrete between us. Her head rested on my shoe, and she gazed up at me every now and then as if reassuring herself I was home for the evening.
After three attempts to get the perfect position, Haunting Harold had been hung from the maple tree. Cleo even scrounged through her Christmas decorations and found a timer she connected to his power cord. Starting tomorrow, from six thirty until eight thirty each evening, our house at 406 South Elm Street would officially be haunted.
A pumpkin carved with the image of a bee landing on a sunflower sat at the edge of the porch near the sidewalk. Thank goodness I’d left the carving to Cleo. She’d gone way beyond my skill level, removing only the top layer of the pumpkin when she carved and leaving a thin layer of flesh still visible in the design. “It will keep better that way,” she said. “And it will glow beautifully.”
“It really is a work of art,” I said. And, despite my initial skepticism, I was pretty sure Haunting Harold would be a favorite of young and old alike. He hit what I thought was the perfect Halloween spot—lightly spooky, but incapable of scaring even the youngest of children. “You’ve made the house look great.”
“Thanks.” She settled back in her chair. “I love decorating for holidays. Besides, we can leave most of these decorations up until Thanksgiving. I want the place to look extra nice for when your parents visit a week from Saturday.”
“Oh, that’s sweet.” She was such a considerate friend. “My mom will definitely be impressed.”
Cleo surveyed her decorations and gave them a satisfied smile. “Your parents are only in town the one night?”
“Yep. They’ll go on their vacation out west and stop back by again on their way home. Both times, they’re staying at the Hilltop Bed and Breakfast. You know, the one run by my mom’s high school friend, Faye Burke?”
“Sure, I know it. We’ve got so many great B & Bs here in town, but that one is especially nice.”
I agreed. I had stayed there when I came into town for my job interview. Of course, Mom and Dad could have slept in my bed while I used the couch, but Mom wanted to see Faye and support her business.
Cleo rubbed Bella’s back. “I hope they have a fantastic visit.”
“Me too. Although I’m a little nervous about that Saturday night.”
As if sensing my tension, Bella got up and laid her head on my knee.
Cleo looked over at me. “The three of you are having dinner with Sam, right?”
“Yeah.” Much to my surprise, Sam Collins, a tech genius who’d made a fortune in California, then retired at forty to teach computer science at the local university, had asked me out two months ago. We’d been dating ever since. “It’s way too soon for the whole meet-the-parents routine, but everyone—Sam, Mom, and Dad—seemed to take it for granted that we’d eat together.
“I’m sure it will be fine.” Cleo gave me an encouraging smile. “If they’re not worked up about it, you shouldn’t be either.”
“You’re probably right.” Mom did have a tendency to be too eager to share her rather blunt opinions, but hopefully, she would be on her best behavior.
“If nothing else, you all can talk about that Clayton Smithton painting that Sam found out at Ashlington,” Cleo said. “And what you’ve learned about it so far.”
I nodded. Some couples went on hiking dates, some went to concerts. Oh, Sam and I had typical dates like dinner out, but we also spent some of our time together trying to solve a historical mystery.
Two years ago, before I moved to Dogwood Springs, Sam had bought Ashlington, a house originally built by my ancestors, from one of my aunts. When he explored the attic, he found a valuable painting by a well-known American artist.
The work was a portrait of a family that we identified as Blanche and Horace Whitfield and their daughter, Florence. When the painting was restored, we learned that another daughter, Ivy, had originally been in the portrait. For reasons we had yet to figure out, a later, lesser artist had painted her out of the portrait, covering her entire body with a window.
A light breeze ruffled Cleo’s hair, and she ran a hand through it, smoothing it back into position. “I still think it’s incredible that a painting worth a quarter of a million dollars was found in an attic here in Dogwood Springs.”
“Yeah, that part might get a little awkward. Let’s hope my mother remembers that even after the sale of Ashlington was final, Sam offered to give the painting to my aunt.”
When my aunt refused to accept it, he’d paid for the restoration and donated the painting to the history museum, where it brought in a steady stream of art-lovers. He’d even paid for the new security system.
“If your mother mentions the money from the painting, just elbow her under the table,” Cleo said. “But I bet she won’t, especially if you keep the conversation focused on the mystery about Ivy.”
“You’re probably right. After all, Mom’s the one who taught me to love mysteries on PBS. And maybe by the time my parents arrive, Sam and I will have found another clue.”
Bella thumped her tail as if she agreed.
I exhaled and told myself not to worry.
The next morning, as soon as Bella came back inside after a quick trip to the backyard, she scratched her ear again.
“Come here, girl.” I got out a flashlight and sat down on the couch.
She trotted over.
“I’m going to look inside.” I clicked on the flashlight and carefully lifted her big, soft floppy ear.
She let out a soft whine.
My heart twisted, and I gently laid down her ear. “I’m so sorry.” The last thing I wanted was to hurt her. “You poor thing. I can see some redness in there.” Thank goodness I’d made an appointment for her today.
I rubbed her back and told her how much I loved her.
Her big brown eyes shone.
I added a spoonful of wet food to her normal breakfast of dry kibble, and before I left for work, I gave her two doggy treats to nibble on.
I got to the museum before nine and found the official estimate from Jack’s Heating and Cooling waiting in my inbox. It was only $50 shy of $15,000.
As soon as Rodney, the curator, and Imani, the education coordinator, arrived, I called them into the first-floor conference room.
Once they were seated, I broke the news to them about the HVAC system.
“I was afraid of that.” Rodney ran a hand through his short gray hair. “If only your predecessor hadn’t been so darned cheap. We should have focused on raising the money to replace that unit instead of pouring money into repairs.”
“I’m sorry this is going to delay the fundraising for the elevator.” Imani, who was eight months pregnant, squeezed my arm, then pulled her box braids around the back of her neck and over one shoulder. “I know you really want to be able to use that display space on the second floor.”
“I do. I also want us to have a way to get to our offices if we can’t handle stairs.” I didn’t want to mention it, but before Rodney’s recent knee replacement, he had often worked in the conference room instead of going up the stairs to his office. “What if I fall and break my ankle?”
A look of appreciation flashed through Rodney’s eyes.
“I’m not giving up on the elevator,” I said. “But first we need to make the homes tour a hit so we can raise money for the HVAC system.” I pulled my sweater closer around my shoulders. “That doesn’t mean you both need to work here all day, turning into ice cubes. We can work out a system to take shifts here for the next few days.”
They looked at each other, then turned back to me and shook their heads.
“We’re staying,” Imani said. “What if one of us was here alone helping a guest and another guest wanted to buy something from the museum gift shop? Or what if someone stopped in to buy a ticket and no one was at the desk to sell it?”
“I want us to sell every ticket we have available,” Rodney said. “Not just because we need to raise the money, but because we’ve got a great historic homes tour planned.”
We did. First up on the list was a one-story midcentury modern with the low roofline, clean lines, and minimalist design so typical of the period. Then, a darling one-and-a-half story 1925 Craftsman owned by a nurse and a local construction worker who had poured hours of time into restoring the home. It had even been written up in a magazine as an excellent example of a Craftsman that had been modernized while respecting the initial design elements.
Next on the list was a large, elaborate Italianate home from the late 1800s, followed by Sam’s house, Ashlington, a Queen Anne-style home.
And, finally, perhaps the most unusual home on the tour, at least to tourists from out of state, was a 1930s Giraffe house. Popularized by the University of Missouri Extension Service during the Great Depression, the Giraffe house building style had allowed people in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas to use available resources—large, flat slabs of local sandstone—connected with wide swaths of mortar to build the walls of their homes. From the outside, those sandstone slabs looked like the spots on a giraffe.
Rodney, who had said something to Imani that I didn’t catch, stood up. “I’m going to go up in the attic and bring down the space heater for Imani’s office.”
“That’s sweet of you,” she said. “But I’ll be fine. Honestly, being pregnant makes me hot, not cold.”
“I’m still bringing it down, just in case.” He left the room, and we heard his footsteps go up the main stairs.
“Such a sweet man,” Imani said, and then her eyes narrowed. “Ooh! I’ve got an idea. I’m going to commission a girlfriend of mine to sell tickets to the homes tour. That girl could sell ragweed bouquets in an allergy clinic.” Moving a lot more slowly than Rodney, Imani rose to her feet. She rubbed her lower back and left the room.
My staff members were so wonderful. Good at their jobs, but also such great people. And I was sure, given Alice’s example, that the volunteers would be just as understanding about the chilly museum, and just as eager to work even harder to make the homes tour a success.
I fixed myself a cup of hot tea and headed upstairs.
Back in my office, I peeked in the box at Rodney’s mystery item and grinned.
The mystery item, which was about the size of half a large loaf of bread, had two parts. The first was a roller on a handle, sort of like a lint roller, except that it was extremely heavy, and the rolling surface was metal and had deep groves across it. The grooves of the roller fit into the second part of the mystery item, a flat piece of metal with matching grooves. With a stretch of the imagination, you could almost imagine that it was used to cut pasta.
But I knew what it really was.
I closed the lid, sent Rodney an email with my guess as to what it was, then composed an email to the board of directors, explaining about the HVAC issue.
Late that morning, I gathered everything I’d need for several hours out of the office. I was having lunch with a potential donor, speaking at a local women’s club in the early afternoon, and, finally, visiting one of the homes on the tour to drop off signage the owners had requested to use to keep visitors out of areas they wished to keep private. Plus, Bella’s vet visit.
My meeting with the potential donor, a retired Navy officer, seemed to go okay. To be honest, I couldn’t judge the woman well. She listened, and she asked good questions, but she gave no indication of whether she would donate.
After the luncheon, I ran home to check on Bella. Her ear was still bothering her. The vet visit couldn’t come soon enough.
In contrast to the retired Navy officer, the women I spoke to in the afternoon were easy to read. They thoroughly enjoyed my presentation and fed me some fabulous homemade pecan pie. Then, while I answered follow-up questions to my talk, the club treasurer sold twenty-two tickets to the homes tour for me.
By the time I’d finished at the meeting, it was nearly three thirty, time for Bella’s vet appointment. I’d scheduled myself an hour off, so I got in my car and tuned the radio to an oldies station. Maybe it was because I was a historian, but whether it was a nice piece of antique furniture or a classic song from the ’70s, I liked things that had been tested by time. I cranked up “Cecilia” by Simon & Garfunkel and headed home. Once I arrived, I let Bella out in the backyard for a moment, then said the magic word, car. Two minutes later, we were on our way to see Susie Parsons at Dogwood Springs Veterinary.
Dr. Parsons examined Bella, said that, most likely, she’d gotten water in her ear, and asked if she’d gone swimming.
I nodded. About a week ago, on an unseasonably warm day, she’d run off when we were visiting Sam and come back sopping wet.
The vet cleaned the ear and showed me how to give Bella eardrops.
The drops seemed to give Bella some relief almost immediately, and Dr. Parsons told me to use them for a week and bring her back in three weeks for a checkup.
The staff at the clinic, who were well acquainted with Bella, went out of their way to talk to her, scratch her back, and tell her how brave she’d been. For a dog as extroverted as Bella, the attention was probably almost as important to her healing as the treatment.
At last, we climbed back in my car, ready to make one last drop-off for the homes tour.
My last stop of the day was the Italianate home from the late 1800s. It belonged to a friend of Alice’s, Gail Wellston, and her husband, Karl, a local family practice doctor.
When I’d first met with them, I’d liked Gail right away. But although I was grateful that Karl wanted their home included on the tour—an idea that seemed much more his idea than hers—I had to admit I didn’t like the man.
Normally, I found family practice doctors to be practical and unassuming, but Karl seemed to be the exception. He wasn’t rude to me, but glimpses of his true personality slipped out, a personality that seemed more suited to a prima donna surgeon. And it had been clear that both the purchase of the elaborate home and the extensive work by a pricey local designer had been his ideas. Even his precisely trimmed hair and beard and gleaming cuff links screamed “notice me, I’m rich.”
Gail, who handled the bookkeeping at his medical practice, was a rather plain woman with short, straight brown hair and barely visible makeup. She was soft-spoken and dressed far more simply than her husband.
Despite the arrogant vibe Karl gave off, like almost every other person in town, he had succumbed to Bella’s charms. Bella had met both the Wellstons when we were downtown one day, and they had encouraged me to bring her along any time I visited.
I got out, opened her door, and clipped on her leash. “C’mon girl. No need to stay in the car.”
She climbed out and sniffed at some new mulch around the annuals that lined the walkway to the front door.
The Wellstons’ home, which for Dogwood Springs would be considered a mansion, was two stories, but had high ceilings, so it seemed even taller. It was white and had a low-pitched roof with a bracketed cornice topped by a tall, square tower. Every element of the property, from the columned portico around the front door to the arched windows to the landscaping, had the sheen of highly paid professional maintenance. I knew it would be a favorite on the tour.
When I’d called to say I’d be stopping by, Karl said he’d be home after four and had been eager to show me some work they’d had done in the basement. Apparently, it wasn’t quite up to his standards, but he did think it was an improvement.
I led Bella up the three steps to the big arched double doorway and pressed the doorbell.
It echoed inside, and Bella stuck her nose at the edge of the door and gave a loud woof.
I shushed her. “Be good, Bella.” I tugged her leash to get her to move back a bit. I didn’t want her charging inside before we were invited.
But no one opened the door.
We waited on the porch for a few more minutes, and I rang the bell again, but Karl didn’t answer.
“Oh, well.” I tucked the signs into a wire rack near the front door. “I guess Karl got tied up at the office. Maybe some medical emergency.”
We started down the stairs just as a green Subaru pulled into the driveway.
Gail rolled down the passenger side window and called out. “Did you see the basement?”
Bella and I walked down to meet her.
“Karl didn’t answer,” I said. “Maybe he’s still at work?”
Gail’s face clouded. “No, he left two hours ago and texted me after he got here. Give me a minute to park, and I’ll show you the renovations. I know he’d want you to see them.” She drove past us, toward the detached garage.
While we waited, I admired the flowers along the sidewalk, and Bella sniffed at a toad who hopped out from the base of a shrub.
“His car’s here.” Gail walked up behind me. “I bet Karl is upstairs and didn’t hear you.”
Bella moved to Gail’s side and looked up at her with a happy doggy smile.
Gail knelt for a moment, patted Bella’s back, and told her that they had a koi pond in the backyard that she thought Bella would enjoy seeing.
Bella lolled her head to one side, blissful with Gail’s attention.
After a moment, Gail stood and rubbed one thigh as if kneeling might have been a little painful. She walked up the steps to the porch, unlocked the front door, and called out for Karl.
“Maybe he sat down to read and fell asleep?” She turned toward the living room.
From the doorway, I scanned the room, which I remembered from when I’d first seen the house. The decor was quite elegant, done in burgundy, rose, and a rich green, with beautiful hardwood floors, a thick Persian rug, and wide, dark wooden window trim and baseboards. Two large couches sat off to the left, and a pair of rose-colored armchairs flanked a small table along the right wall. Large green draperies were open at each of the four windows. And a few tasteful fall decorations sat on a table near the entrance, along with a plate of chocolate truffles. For a half second, I glanced longingly at the plate.
Gail stepped farther into the room. “Maybe he fell asleep on the couch and—”
She let out a scream.
I hurried toward her.
At the far end of the room, an end table held a crumpled napkin, a half-empty glass, and a whiskey bottle.
And between two large couches lay Karl’s crumpled body.
Home Tours, History & Homicide releases April 20, 2023, and will be available in Kindle, Kindle Unlimited, and paperback from Amazon. If you’d like to pre-order a Kindle copy, please click here.