Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Crouched on the high, open rail of the parapet,
she watched the five cars turn onto a street that led high up into the hills. The senior ladies' street? Yes, the street of her four retired friends, of the house the ladies had bought together for their retirement, the tall old house that they were slowly renovating.
But that didn't mean anything, there were lots of houses on that street, including their friend Genelle Yardley's home. Stretching as tall as she could on the wall of the parapet, balancing on the narrow bricks, she counted the streets and the blocks, counted the rooftops. And she caught her breath, dropped down to the brick paving, and leaped down the tower's winding stairs hitting every fourth step, then took off across the roofs. As she raced across oak limbs and more rooftops, icy fingers crawled up her spine. That
the seniors' house, where the police units had turned in, the home of Cora Lee and Mavity and their two housemates. What was happening? What was wrong?
alf an hour before Dulcie fled across the rooftops
following Max Harper's police units, Charlie parked her van on the wide, cracked drive in front of the senior ladies' tall old house. The dark, peak-roofed structure rose above her, shabby and neglected, but it would not remain so for long; these ladies, given time, would have it looking as fresh as new. They planned for repairs and softer paint, new landscaping, and a granite-block parking apron to replace the cracked drive. In the meantime, the five bedrooms plus the two small downstairs apartments offered ample room for the four ladies and their future plans.
Swinging out, glancing at her aunt Wilma's car, which was parked at the edge of the drive, she looked in through the driver's-side window. Yes, Wilma had left her cell phone on the seat. Had she given up searching for the kit then? If Kit had been foundâhad come homeâWilma would surely have called her.
Moving around the side of the house between tall weeds, toward the backyard, she tried to imagine how the landscaping would look when the ladies were finished with it. The fifty-year-old house had seen many tenants, the more recent of whom had done little to care for it; the ladies
pruned the neglected old apple tree and the pear trees and had dug the choking growth away from them, leaving wide circles of dark, turned earth. The four senior ladies liked to say that their house marked the last boundary between civilization and the wild, unspoiled land that had once graced all of these coastal hills. While the front of their new home stood snug between its neighbors on a tame and civilized village street, the back of the house overlooked the wild, dropping canyon where black-tailed deer browsed, and raccoons and possums slipped through the grass. One might, on occasion, while sitting quietly on one of the two decks, see a bobcat or even a cougar or black bear. Certainly there were coyotes, the ladies heard them at night just as Charlie and Max heard them up in the hills, their primitive song engendering a strange mix of wonder and ancient fear. Their yipping stirred a restless unease in those who loved their cats. It gave rise to added fear in those who knew Joe Grey and Kit and Dulcie, who knew their secret, who imagined those three cats out in the night venturing too near the hungry beasts.
But the cats were wise, Charlie told herself, they were clever. And she could not change their ways. She glanced up at the windows where new white interior shutters caught the light. So far, the ladies had concentrated their limited funds and time on the in
side of the house; the day they moved in they began to renovate the living area and kitchen, patching and painting, then each had designed her own bedroom to please her individual taste. Susan Brittain liked lush potted plants around her and hand-thrown ceramics, lots of sunlight and bright watercolors. Blond Gabrielle Row preferred more formal and expensive furnishings, which, even when purchased used, spelled money. Little, wrinkled Mavity Flowers went in for solid comfort if she could get it cheaply, and lots of bookshelves fitted out with her beloved paperback romance novels.
Tall, elegant Cora Lee French had done her top-floor bedroom and studio with an eye to maximum work space, plenty of white walls where she could hang her bright landscapes, and room to paint and to work on other projects. Now, with the rooms sparkling, the four ladies were impatient to get at the outside. The hired painter would have to wait for dry weather, but the ladies could sure dig out the weeds and tame the overgrown perennials that crowded the back flower beds. Charlie could imagine the masses of colorful blooms they would plant down there, overlooking the canyon.
As she passed the wide back deck she could smell coffee and see empty cups and a thermos on the picnic table. Down below at the lip of the canyon, the ladies were hard at work. She didn't see Wilma. Wherever her aunt was at the moment, she would soon be down there digging enthusiastically; among her other talents, Wilma was an eager and expert gardener.
Now she saw only Mavity and Cora Lee kneeling
in the dirt of the long, raised flower beds, both of them up to their elbows in weeds, attacking the tangle with such vengeance you'd think the plants had attacked them. Stacks of wilting weeds lay behind them. They had freed the geraniums, which now stood leggy and rank, reaching in every direction for the sun. The other two members of the foursome were off in San Francisco for the week visiting Susan's daughter. Maybe Wilma was walking Susan's two big dogs. The standard poodle and the dalmatian were a handful, but Wilma loved them; she'd jump at any chance to walk them. And today, she was likely looking again for the kit. Charlie watched Mavity and Cora Lee fondly.
Both women were in their sixties, and were very different from each other but they got on famously. Mavity's short gray hair was always wildly frowsy, and this morning as usual she was dressed in a white maid's uniform, one of a dozen similar garments, all limp from uncounted launderings, that she bought in the secondhand shops. Her white pants and tunic were streaked with dirt, as were her wrinkled, sun-browned hands. By contrast, Cora Lee was as neat and immaculate as if she'd just stepped out of the house. Not a speck of dirt, not a wrinkle, her cream cotton shirt and beige jeans fresh and clean. Not a hair of her short, salt-and-pepper bob was out of place. Her flawless cafÃ© au lait skin was like velvet, her subtle makeup as carefully applied as if for a partyâbut when Cora Lee looked up at Charlie, her eyes were red from crying.
She searched Charlie's face and put out a hand to her.
“I'm so very sorry,” Charlie said. Cora Lee and
Patty Rose had been close; they had done three musicals together for Molena Point Little Theater after Patty retired.
“She was a fine lady,” Cora Lee said softly. “Such a joy to work with. Who would do this? Do the police know anything yet?”
Charlie shook her head and patted Cora Lee's gloved hand. “There were no direct witnesses, or none they've found so far. Not a clue yet to a motive. Patty's secretary has been out of town; she's flying back this morning.” Charlie never knew what to say to someone grieving; there was so little one could say that would help. Digging a cap from her pocket, she pulled it on and tucked her red hair under, trying to capture the escaping wisps of curl.
Cora Lee tossed another weed on the pile. “Is Lucinda all right?”
Charlie nodded. “She's all right, she's tough. We're all devastated, Cora Lee. But how's Genelle Yardley taking it? She and Patty were such dear friends.”
“I dreaded telling her this morning. But when I went to fix her breakfast, she already knew. She was up, as usual, sitting on her terrace reading the paper, the tears just running down. Iâ¦” Cora Lee shook her head. “I wouldn't have told her, so early. Though I suppose Patty's secretary would have called her, if she'd been here. The paper arrived before I did. But sheâ¦She believes so strongly that death is not the end. Sheâ¦she'll be all right. I'll go over again later.”
The four ladies had been seeing to Genelle Yardley since Genelle had gone on oxygen, helping their
neighbor through what they all knew was a terminal illness. Helping her get around with the cumbersome oxygen cart, fixing her meals and cleaning her house, taking her out in a wheelchair. Genelle had no one, no family. A home-care nurse came in to help with her medications and to bathe her. Genelle, despite her increasing difficulty in getting a full breath, was in surprisingly good spiritsâor she had been until this happened. Belief in an afterlife or not, this had to be devastating for her. Patty had been close to Genelle's family since before Genelle was born. Coming home to the village even during her busy Hollywood years, Patty had always spent some time with the Yardleys. Patty said your real friends were the old friends, before you got famous.
Now, Charlie thought, Patty's death might set Genelle back severely. She could only hope this wouldn't make Genelle turn away from her stubborn battle to enjoy the last of her life as best she could. Wouldn't change her so she let herself go into a deep depression. And Charlie thought,
I will enjoy life while I'm young. I will love and enjoy Max every moment I'm given; I will enjoy my friends while we're all young and strong, can ride and shoot and work and dance. And I will enjoy them when we can no longer do those things.
Kneeling farther along in the flower bed, she began to dig around the roots of a tall old pelargonium. She didn't know what color its blooms would be, but she remembered seeing masses of bright-pink blooms in these flower beds, as vivid as peppermint ice cream.
She knew she wouldn't be at work five minutes be
fore her jacket and jeans would be muddy and she'd have smears of dirt over her freckles and in her escaping hair. And she could never work in gloves, could never do anything in a garden without wallowing. It was a wonder her cleaning and repair customers, who included gardening in their varied lists of jobs to be done, didn't drop her services for someone who looked more professional.
Like Cora Lee,
Charlie thought, watching the older woman with speculation.
Cora Lee French's smooth presence was a talent Charlie knew she'd never master. If she felt rocky, she looked rocky. If she was mad, she knew she looked like a vixen. Max said she was always beautifulâbut Max loved her. Charlie thought, not for the first time, that Cora Lee would make a perfect manager for Charlie's Fix It, Clean It. She was getting to the point where she desperately needed a manager, yet even to ask Cora Lee seemed an imposition. Cora Lee had cut back on her waitress and hostess jobs, for which she was always in demand at the best village hotels and restaurants, to pursue her other interests. She had been painting a lot, these past months, not theater stage sets but exciting canvases. And now she had this new venture, at which she was making such good money that she didn't need to wait tables or manage Charlie's business. Cora Lee's hand-painted chests, cabinets, and armoires were selling for very nice sums through the local interior designers. Ryan's sister Hanni had put Cora Lee's pieces in some very exclusive homes.
No, Cora Lee was not a prospect as manager, she was far too busy. Charlie wondered for a moment if
Mavity would want a stab at the job. Wizened and leathery little Mavity Flowers could still outwork many men; Charlie couldn't run the business without her. She was fast and efficient at cleaning, at painting and plumbing repairs, and at most gardening chores. But planning and directing the crews' work made Mavity nervous. Watching Mavity put all her weight on her trowel to send it deep beside a doomed weed, Charlie shook her head. It wouldn't work; Mavity would balk at the responsibilities of interviewing, hiring, firing, and keeping the records.
Still, she had to find some kind of manager. Her own interests, like Cora Lee's, were moving her powerfully in other directions. She didn't want to abandon the business; she was proud of what she had created and the income was good. Charlie's Fix It, Clean It was the only service in Molena Point where a client could have all manner of small chores taken care of with one phone call, from a broken garden gate to planting spring flowers, from everyday housekeeping to ironing, shopping, helping with parties, or painting a room or two. She would feel like a traitor to her regular customers if she didn't keep the service alive.
Though the rain had ceased early this morning and the sun had tried to shine, moving in and out of cloud, now the cloud cover was lowering heavily, laying a muted silver haze across the garden.
Lucky that the ground was so wet,
Charlie thought. The root structure of the pelargonium she was digging went deep. Even with the softened earth, she was making quite a pit getting the plant out without hurting it. And the weeds the two ladies were pulling had roots
as big as turnips. Suddenly, as she dug deeper to free the last of the root, a chill slid down her spine, a coldness that left her shivering for no reason.
Where had that come from? Frowning, she slipped a pair of clippers from her jacket pocket. Pruning the giant geranium before she replanted it in a big plastic pot, she looked around her, puzzled.
Behind the two kneeling women, the old house rose up tall and awkward, its peeling exterior darker still where rain had soaked the siding. Its blackened roof shingles curled up as if surely rain would leak inside. What a dour old relic it was, hunched in the center of its ragged yard like some unkempt old man in worn-out, smelly garments. But the price had been right. This would be the ladies' last home, a comfortable retirement residence for Mavity and Cora Lee, Gabrielle and Susan, and, perhaps later, Charlie's aunt Wilma. Single, aging women banding together for comfort and security in their last years rather than seeking institutionalized living. Their buying a house together had seemed to be asking for trouble, but so far it had worked very well. Soon they would rent out the two basement apartments, though these, in the future, could accommodate caregivers. Potting the pelargonium, firming soil around its roots, she had set it aside and moved on to the next rangy plant when, again, icy fingers touched her.
And in the next flower bed, Cora Lee knelt among the weeds, suddenly very still. Frozen, her trowel in midair, her hands shaking. Her dark eyes were huge, staring at the earth before her.