Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal
Tags: #Cozy Mystery
Copyright © 2012 by Vanessa Gray Bartal
This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
“The building, constructed from bricks in nearby
, is slated to be finished before 1890 dawns. Our own Robert Stakely, the building’s namesake and financier, assures this reporter that his creation will be a boon for new development downtown.
‘The innovation of modern steel technology will make this building the first of its kind in our area,’ Stakely is quoted as saying. ‘While the exterior will be made of local brick, the frame will be steel, allowing the building to be four stories high—a skyscraper, if you will. This building will never fall.’”
The weathered piece of newspaper fluttered to the floor and another behind it jumped to the forefront.
“Susan Pendergast, a local merchant, was found dead this morning inside the Stakely building. Police have ruled it a homicide and are asking the public for their help in…”
The article was crumpled before being tossed forcefully into the trash can. The newspaper clippings arrived every year like clockwork, and the game was growing old. As if any reminders were needed; as if the day wasn’t committed to memory already.
Suddenly, it was too much. At more than twenty years, things had gone on too long already. The lies caused by that long ago day in the Stakely building had built and built so that life itself had become one giant web of intrigue. But what to do? How to solve all the problems at once?
The gun locked safely in the desk drawer beckoned, promising an answer to all life’s problems. A gun had started the trouble so long ago, wasn’t it poetic justice that a gun end it, too? On the desk was a blank piece of paper, lying there as if waiting patiently to become a murder plot. Trading the gun for a pencil, the paper was soon filled with a plan to solve everything, and this time it would be done right.
“We have a problem.”
Lacy Steele looked up from the pile of fancy French underpants she had been sorting. Her friend, Tosh, was studying her with a troubled expression. “Are you referring to the fact that my deceased biological grandmother owned sexier underwear than I’ve ever even seen?” she asked.
Tosh grimaced. “No, that’s your problem. Good luck in therapy. I’m talking about me.”
Lacy put down the underwear and gave him her full attention. Tosh rarely spoke about himself. He was a good listener and a caring friend. “What is it?”
“My brother is coming. Here,” he added emphatically when she failed to look concerned.
“And that’s a problem because…”
He sighed and sat back. “You don’t understand. This is my closest brother, both in age and relationship. He’s your age, only two years younger. Before I became serious and felt called into the ministry, he and I had some notoriously wild times. He doesn’t approve of my chosen vocation. He’s been disappointed in me since I became a pastor.”
“I would think he would appreciate the fact that, by becoming an Episcopalian minister, you rebelled against your Catholic roots,” she said.
“You would think that. But the irony is that he’s incredibly loyal to the church. So, to him, becoming a protestant pastor is a double betrayal.”
“And that’s why you’re upset that he’s coming here?” she asked.
“No. Our disagreement has been raging for years. The problem is that he sort of thinks we’re dating.”
“Tosh, you told him we’re dating?” she asked.
“Of course not,” he said. “That would have been a lie. He arrived at the idea on his own.”
“How?” she asked, suspicious now.
“Well, he was sort of giving me a hard time about moving to a town where I brought the median age of the population down to eighty. I told him there was a young woman here I had been spending time with. He asked if you were hot, and I told him yes.” He paused to smile at her, waiting to see if she was pleased by the statement. His smile slipped when her expression remained neutral. He cleared his throat. “So, anyway, then he said ‘Wow, Tosh, I can’t believe you moved to a new town and found a girlfriend on the first day.’”
“And what was your response to that?”
“Um, I believe it was uncomfortable laughter and a topic change.”
“Tosh,” she exclaimed.
“Well, you have to admit our relationship is sort of confusing, Lacy. We spend a lot of time together, don’t we?”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“And we’ve kissed.”
“Okay, but my point is that we’re not exactly strangers. We’re sort of caught between, wouldn’t you say?”
“Was law your second career choice? Because I think you’d be a shoe-in for Ed McNeil’s second chair.” Ed McNeil was the lawyer who had gotten Lacy’s grandmother out of jail after she was arrested for murder.
we dating?” Tosh asked.
“You said you wanted to take things slowly because of your position in the community,” she reminded him.
“Slow and stopped are two different things,” he said.
She stared uncomfortably at the pile of underpants between them.
“Admit it, Lacy, we both know we’re not together because of him,” Tosh said.
Lacy looked up. “Jason and I haven’t spoken in two weeks.”
“And why is that?” Tosh tipped his head and studied her. “What happened between you two?”
Lacy didn’t answer. She didn’t want to remember the tumultuous kiss she and Jason had shared, the way she had thrown herself at him, and then the way she had flown from the house in a panic after the kiss was over.
“Suspenseful silence doesn’t make me any less curious,” Tosh said.
“I’ve been busy,” Lacy hedged, and it was partially true. Two weeks ago she had learned that the woman she had always thought was her grandmother wasn’t her grandmother at all. Since then, she had discovered that she was her biological grandmother’s sole heir. Now she found herself not only sorting through some very mixed emotions, but also trying to sort through Barbara Blake’s belongings as well. What was she to do with the designer clothes and shoes that cost more than the house was worth? And what of the million dollar bank account?
So far Lacy hadn’t spent any of the money. After learning the type of woman Barbara had been, Lacy wasn’t sure she wanted anything to do with her, not even the large sum of money gathering dust in some bank.
“Have you called Riley back?” Tosh asked. Absently he began to sort the pile on the floor before realizing with a grimace that he was touching a strange woman’s underwear. He wiped his hand on his shirt and sat back on his heels, awaiting Lacy’s answer.
Lacy sighed. If there was one thing she wanted to talk about less than Jason, it was her younger sister, Riley. “No,” she said.
“I wasn’t pressuring you to do so,” Tosh said with a sweet smile. He reached out, clasped her hand, and gave it a squeeze. “I’m on your side, Lacy.”
She smiled and returned the gentle pressure of his hand. Taking her gesture as a sign of encouragement, he scooted around the pile of lingerie between them and put his arms around her. She rested her head on his chest, thinking how much her life had changed since she met him. Unbelievably that had only been a few weeks ago. What had she done before Tosh?
Ever since her fiancé dumped her for her little sister, Lacy had felt like her heart was in tatters. Moving from
back to her tiny hometown had been a difficult, yet necessary, step in her recovery. Here she wasn’t faced with daily reminders or sightings of Robert. Her grandmother’s loving indulgence was another soothing balm, and now there was Tosh. He cared. He understood.
They sat in comfortable silence a few minutes.
“I should go,” Tosh said at last. “It’s bingo night.” He was the pastor of her grandmother’s church and, as such, was in charge of the weekly cutthroat bingo session. “Are you going to be okay here?”
“I’m leaving, too,” Lacy declared. There was only so much time and energy she could devote to sorting Barbara’s belongings before she became exhausted and overwhelmed. The many unresolved piles all over the house bore testament to that fact.
“You could move in here,” Tosh said suddenly. “That would give you more time to sort, and also more privacy.”
“I love living with Grandma,” Lacy said. She and her grandmother had always been close. Learning they weren’t biologically related had done nothing to change that. Plus there was the fact that her grandmother cooked for her every day. Lacy couldn’t imagine how lonely it would be to live alone and eat all her meals by herself.
“Maybe your grandma wants some privacy now that she has a boyfriend,” Tosh said.
Lacy hadn’t thought of that. Her grandmother was now dating Mr. Middleton, Lacy’s biological grandfather. Lacy was enjoying the opportunity to get to know him better, but maybe the feeling wasn’t mutual. Maybe the older couple wanted some privacy to explore their newfound romance. Somehow the thought that her grandparents might consider her a nuisance was intensely painful to Lacy. She withdrew from Tosh and sat with her hands resting in her lap, staring at the blank wall across from her.
“Uh-oh, you got all quiet. That usually means I said something insensitive,” Tosh said.
“I guess I never really thought of myself as being in the way before,” Lacy said.
“You’re not in the way,” Tosh said. “Of course they want to be with you, Lacy. Who wouldn’t? You’re sweet, and adorable, and…I was just thinking out loud. You should know by now not to listen to half of what I say.”
“Yes, but usually the other half is good advice,” she said. “Maybe it is time I moved out. I can’t ride on Grandma’s emotional coattails forever. At some point I need to rejoin the real world and be a grownup again.”
Tosh glanced around the house. “This place could look really good with a few updates.”
Lacy bit her lip and looked up at him. “Tosh, when I move, I’m moving away. I’m not staying here.”
He blinked at her in astonishment. “Are you going back to
She winced. “No, definitely not.”
That question brought her up short. She had complete freedom to go anywhere now. Where should she go? There were only three places in the world she knew people:
, her parents’ retirement community in
, and here---her tiny hometown.
“It’s not like you have to decide right now,” Tosh added hurriedly. He looked a little panicked over the possibility that she might soon disappear. Not that she could blame him. He hadn’t been exaggerating about the geriatric population in their town. Seemingly she, Jason, and Tosh were the only people in town who didn’t receive a social security check.
Tosh checked his watch. “I should go.” Leaning forward, he pressed a light kiss to her forehead. “Want to walk out with me?”
“I’m going to stay and close up.” She patted his chest. “You go ahead. Thanks for keeping me company today, Tosh.”
She remained seated on the floor, watching Tosh as he let himself out. He paused at the threshold to give her a smile and a wave, and then he was gone.
The house felt quiet and empty without him and Lacy was disconcerted by her loneliness. She had always prided herself on her ability to enjoy her own company. An introvert by nature, she had never shied away from being by herself. After having a constant stream of roommates, first in college and then in
, privacy had become something she treasured.
But now, faced with the possibility of moving out of her grandmother’s house, Lacy found she was almost afraid to be alone. She told herself it was because she had nowhere to go. She couldn’t stay in this town, and even if she wanted to, the house she had inherited wasn’t ready. There were too many piles to sort, and it was woefully outdated.
The truth, however, was that she was afraid to be alone. Alone she would have no choice but to deal with all the emotions she had been avoiding, emotions brought on by the double betrayal of her sister and fiancé, emotions brought on by learning that her biological grandmother had been a man-eating user, hated by all and mourned by none.