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Authors: Carolyn Hart

April Fool Dead

BOOK: April Fool Dead
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CAROLYN HART
APRIL FOOL DEAD

A DEATH ON DEMAND MYSTERY

To Trish Lande Grader,
who laughed when she read the manuscript

Contents

One

THE EARLY-MORNING SUN slanted through the pines, throwing huge shadows…

Two

MAX WAGGLED the putter. Maybe he should order one of…

Three

ANNIE LIFTED her chin, glared at Emma. “Wait a minute, Emma.

Four

MAX LEANED out the car window and peered up the…

Five

CARS INCHED UP the dusty road away from the cemetery.

Six

FIVE POSTERS TUCKED beneath one arm, Max pushed in the…

Seven

THE SIGN, scrawled in huge red letters, was taped next…

Eight

THE VOLVO WAS parked behind a pine tree, out of…

Nine

ANNIE LOVED coming home. The dusky lane meandered among live…

Ten

THE MOTORBOAT ROSE and fell in the deep swells. Laurel…

Eleven

“THERE SHE IS!” Annie pointed at the somber figure standing…

Twelve

ANNIE WALKED FAST. It was her natural gait. Moreover, the…

Thirteen

MRS. RILEY'S HANDS trembled as she smoothed her hair against the…

Fourteen

MAX RESTED comfortably in his reclining red leather desk chair.

Fifteen

ANNIE PACED up and down the kitchen. “Nobody answers at…

Sixteen

DUST PLUMED beneath the wheels. Annie knew she was driving…

Seventeen

ANNIE WRINKLED HER NOSE. “Hmm, that coffee smells wonderful.”

Eighteen

MAX GLANCED toward the clock. Almost three. Confidential Commissions was,…

Nineteen

ANNIE WORMED her way through the crowd. Death on Demand…

T
HE EARLY
-
MORNING SUN
slanted through the pines, throwing huge shadows across the dusty gray road. Bob Tower's face was flushed, his heartbeat elevated. He was suffused with runner's euphoria, his arms swinging easily, his stride long, his shoes thudding rhythmically on the soft dirt. He smiled, at peace with the world. When his run was over, Jessie waited for him, eager and loving. The kids would be off to school. God, what a wonderful—

He was thinking of Jessie, already loving Jessie in his mind, when the Jeep careened around the curve. Suddenly the roar of the motor was upon him, louder and louder and louder, enveloping him. His head jerked. For an instant, he looked into the eyes of the driver. Pain was sudden and absolute, overwhelming, unendurable.

Crumpled in the ditch, too hurt to moan, eyes clouding, throat closing, the last thing Bob heard was the dwindling of sound as the Jeep raced away.

 

Tulips bloomed in red glory in a circular bed in front of the high school. Teresa Caldwell was chair of the
moms' committee that had planted the flowers, kept the weeds pulled. She'd been presented a plaque at the recent Mothers-Daughters Banquet: “To Teresa Caldwell, Who Always Puts Her Family First.” Teresa bit her lip. Why had she looked at the damn flowers? She didn't want to think, didn't want…

“Mom! Stop. We're here.” Lily's voice sullen.

Teresa was accustomed to Lily's exasperated tone when confronted with what she judged to be yet another example of parental stupidity. Teresa had struggled with irritation at being viewed as only marginally competent. But oh, how she wished Lily would say, “Oh, Mom!” and flip her ponytail in mock disgust. Instead Lily, avoiding her mother's quick glance, yanked open the door of the Range Rover and lurched onto the sidewalk, a slightly built girl with frizzy brown hair and uncertain blue eyes, burdened by a backpack big enough to carry provisions for a jaunt to the Himalayas.

Teresa opened her mouth, closed it. Lily wouldn't listen. She wouldn't listen about the weight of the backpack and Teresa could not bear to ask Lily why she was cold and withdrawn.

Without a word of farewell, Lily moved slowly up the sidewalk, tilting to the left from the burden of the pack. Her head was down, her gait plodding.

Teresa stared after her daughter and then, at the sound of an impatient horn, pulled out from the curb. She drove sedately around the curving drive, her lips stretched into a determined smile, nodding, waving. She knew what other mothers saw: a superbly groomed, Lesley Stahl–pretty suburban mother in a bright blue Range Rover with
MOMSCAR
plates. They
couldn't see, would never see, must never know about the fever that raged within, the fever that might yet cost her everything. No one knew, of course. But Lily had looked at her oddly in recent weeks. What if someone had told Lily about the Range Rover parked on that dirt road? What if Lily had overheard one of those late-night calls? Oh, God, would Lily tell anyone? Would Lily tell her father?

Teresa drove automatically, slowing as she reached Sand Dollar Road. All right, she'd turn left. Go home. Clean out the garage. Bake brownies, Ralph's favorite dessert. He was getting in tonight on a flight from New York. He'd had a hard week. When they talked last night, after Lily was in bed, she'd heard the weariness, even a touch of fear, in his voice. The corporate world was always uncertain, and never more so than now. He loved brownies, a nice way to welcome him home. The car eased to a stop. Her hands clenched on the wheel. She heard the rumble of an SUV behind her. She checked the mirror. Cherry Sue Richards. She had to make up her mind. Now. This instant.

If she turned right, if she drove a mile and a half, turned onto a rutted gray road that jolted the car, streaked the gleaming blue paint with so much dust that Ralph kidded her, asked whether she'd been plowing the fields, if she drove as fast as she dared up that narrow road to the cabin nestled among a grove of willows, Paul would be waiting. She knew how he would look—thick, curly black hair, dark eyes, sensuous lips. He'd probably not shaved yet, he'd be bare-chested, his old, paper-thin Levi's hung on slim hips. Paul. Damn him.

As the SUV stopped behind her, Teresa gunned the motor, turned to the right, the fever raging within her.

 

Frank Saulter moved stiffly in the mornings. He welcomed the late-March sun, a cheerful precursor to spring. Only a few more days and it would be April. In summer the heat from the Low Country sun rolled against his skin hot as oil and just as soothing; yet he loved the crisp sunny days of spring. He smiled. He might be stiff, but arthritis never kept a man from fishing. He had his day planned. The lagoon off Belted Kingfisher Road was full of crappie, bass and bream, and he was just the man to land himself a mess of good eating. He took his time as he walked down the crushed-oyster-shell walk to the mailbox by the side of the road. He didn't expect anything much. Too late in the month for bills. Maybe a note from his daughter, but Sue liked e-mail better than writing letters and every week sent a cheerful message catching him up on the kids: Megan off at school in Australia, if that didn't beat the band; and Tom, who'd decided hang gliding off mountains in Montana had a lot more pizzazz than college. Frank shook his head as he pulled open the mailbox. Kids today…He grabbed a handful of magazines—
Sports Illustrated, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Fly Fisherman
—some circulars from the grocery and the Wal-Mart on the mainland, and a letter and a postcard. Oh, hey, the card was from Tom in Butte: “Granddad—Wish you were here. Almost as much fun as our trip on the Amazon. Lots cooler. Love, Tom.”

Frank was still grinning when he glanced at the long
gray official-looking envelope with the return address of the warden at the state penitentiary.

Frank's smile froze, slipped away. He no longer felt the springlike warmth of the sun or heard the honk of northward-bound geese or noticed the swarm of no-see-ums swirling around him as he stared at the long gray envelope. He hadn't received official letters of any kind since he'd retired as the island's chief of police. He told all his friends when they met for coffee at Parotti's that he didn't miss the job. He didn't tell them how he had to steel himself not to respond when a siren shrieked or how he sometimes worried about the drugs being unloaded late at night in hidden inlets at the docks of million-dollar houses. He insisted that Pete Garrett, the new young chief, was doing fine. Pete didn't know the people yet, not as Frank knew them: where they worked and how many kids they had and who had cancer and all the other heartbreaks—hidden abuse, kids on drugs, and love dragged and tattered to nothing by troubles heaped on troubles.

Frank pulled his jackknife from his pocket, neatly slit the envelope. The paper was fancy office-proud, crinkly onion sheet. But the message was scrawled by hand:

Dear Frank,

Thought you should know. Jud Hamilton's been paroled. I've got a trustee who keeps his ears open. He says Hamilton's out to get you. Do you remember Hamilton? Back in '90, he…

Frank crumpled the letter into a tight, hard ball. His mouth tightened into a thin, straight line. He remembered Jud Hamilton and the flicker of sheer hatred in Jud's eyes when he stared across the courtroom at Frank.

 

Laura Neville Fleming was halfway down the steps, almost to the cabins for the crew, when she stopped. She would wait until tomorrow, tell Captain Joe she'd changed her mind, tell him to turn
Leisure Moment
around and sail back to the island. After all,
Leisure Moment
was hers to do with as she pleased. But what would Keith say? Did she even care what Keith said?

Laura turned and trudged slowly and carefully up the companionway to the main deck. She shouldn't have had that last drink. It was a little hard to walk and the lights blurred in her eyes. She'd go to the stern, lean over and gulp in fresh air. The dizziness would pass. She was Laura Neville and she never drank too much. That would be unseemly. She gently smoothed the skin on the bridge of her nose with her thumb. She mustn't frown. Nothing made a woman look older than lines on her face.

This whole evening had been odd, uncomfortable. She didn't like the young people from Keith's office. They laughed too loud, and often she didn't understand what they thought was so funny. And she didn't like Keith's booming voice or the way his eyes had followed that girl—what was her name?—oh yes, Cameron—when she walked across the saloon. And that dress—spaghetti straps and a black silk that clung to her. She might as well have been naked.

Laura stumbled. She gave a little exclamation of pain. Who'd left a deck chair here? She would speak to Captain Joe tomorrow. Things were simply not being done correctly. It was so easy, wasn't it, if people only did the right thing?

She reached the stern, leaned against the railing, looked down at the wake from the propellers, the streaks of foam as shiny as satin ribbons in the moonlight. Her head ached. Tears stung her eyes. Why did she have to be so unhappy? But she wasn't going to cry. Nevilles didn't cry….

It all happened so quickly that her scream clogged in her throat: the violent push from behind, the crack of her hip as she banged over the railing and the hideous realization that she was falling into the wash of the propellers. The propellers…

 

Meredith Muir dropped her pink cotton shorty pajamas on the floor. She glanced down in disdain. Stupid pajamas, nothing like the scarlet silk bikini lingerie from Victoria's Secret hidden at the back of the closet in the bedroom of the cabana. She sped past the thought that she hadn't needed to hide the lingerie. No one ever looked at the back of that closet. Nobody cared…. Her pleasure seeped away until she glanced at the full length mirror, at her smooth young body, the breasts high and firm, her hips curved, her legs long and shapely. She remembered the feel of the silk and the even more delicious sensation as the lingerie dropped away….

At first, she didn't hear the ring of the telephone. She stood irresolute for a moment, glancing at the bed
side clock. It wasn't the right time for a call. Not the call that mattered. It would probably be somebody who needed a ride to school or wanted to copy her homework. School was stupid. Kids were stupid. She wasn't just a schoolkid anymore. Meredith shivered. Suddenly she felt cold, no longer warmed by her thoughts. She'd better get dressed. The damn phone—the peals continued. Meredith gave an impatient sigh and reached for the receiver.

 

Her face drawn in a worried frown, Kay Nevis stepped out on the deck, looked at the sun-splashed inlet. She'd planned to get to school early this morning. There was always so much to do, and there was that wonderful new video retracing the Lewis and Clark expedition that should arrive today. But she wanted a moment of peace. The deck had always afforded her peace. She moved slowly across the wooden planks to the railing.

Kay loved the marsh, loved the way it changed by seasons: the cordgrass a rich yellow-green in spring and summer, a soft downy brown in fall; the song of the frogs in the spring, the scampering of the raccoons in winter. Spring was her favorite time of the year. In April the painted buntings arrived, the green-winged teals headed north, sulphurs and painted ladies and monarchs drifted near the plants like pieces of angel wings, their beauty yet another easily seen miracle.

Kay shaded her eyes against the brilliant sunlight. But she wasn't looking at the still, green water or the pelicans skimming low in search of food. She wasn't thinking about the marsh she loved. She felt isolated and disturbed. The perfection of her quiet way of life
would not return until she'd met a terrible responsibility. If only she didn't know…But she did know and her knowledge imposed a duty. She had to do what was right, no matter how difficult.

 

Laurel Darling Roethke placed a pink-tipped finger on her cheek, tilted her head and studied the assortment of divining rods. And wasn't that simply the best description of them! She smiled, the beatific smile of a creature overwhelmed by a cornucopia of good fortune. Max's secretary had been so helpful. Laurel took time to wonder if her son truly valued his secretary as he should. When was Secretaries' Day? They must do something special for Barb. Of course, Barb had simply served as Laurel's agent in obtaining the divining rods. The idea had been Laurel's alone. Although she always made every effort to eschew vainglory, wasn't it appropriate to give credit where credit was due? Self-esteem was essential to mental health. Laurel permitted herself to bask. Truly, her idea was simply brilliant. More than that, there was no reason why it wouldn't work. As she had reassured a tearful Rosa on the drive to the airport—Rosa well hidden in the back seat beneath a huge papier-mâché butterfly that Laurel had been intending to get out of the attic for years—it would be no time at all before Rosa could fly home from Mexico; Laurel would see to everything and Rosa was not to worry for a minute.

Laurel smiled, a smile of utter confidence, and walked slowly past the divining rods. Five of them. A tiny frown marred the perfection of the elegant features. Would five be enough? Of course, she also had
a pendulum, although a hex nut dangling from a short length of gold chain didn't seem quite as impressive as the divining rods. One rod was rather dark and heavy, fashioned from gnarled cypress. A pink plastic rod, its two arms glittering with paste jewels, was propped against the sofa. The third, made of aluminum, reflected a shaft of early-morning sunlight. Hmm. Quite lightweight, and that would be a plus. The fourth resembled a crimson broomstick that curved into sharp prongs at one end. Long silvery ribbons dangled from each prong. The fifth was majestic, shiny antlers with flashing lights at the tips. Laurel gave a soft coo, envisioning an expanse of snowy tundra glistening in sunlight. One, two, three, four, five—Laurel beamed. Tallyho!

BOOK: April Fool Dead
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