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Authors: Blair Bancroft

Death by Marriage

BOOK: Death by Marriage
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Prologue

 

Golden Beach is a Florida Gulfcoast town with miles of sandy beaches crested by heron, egrets, turkey-headed vultures, and snowbirds. The heron, egrets, and vultures are with us year-round. The snowbirds are seasonal. They migrate south by plane, train, and automobile between October and January and return to their northern habitats between April and June. A few—those less well endowed with green dead presidents—must sometimes confine themselves to a stay of one month. A sad circumstance, as unlike heron, egrets, and vultures, snowbirds are always in season. Hunted assiduously by both Florida natives and johnny-come-latelies for their fine northern plumage and their free-spending self-indulgence.

Some say Golden Beach was named for the color of its sand, but, truthfully, ninety years ago it was one of the first planned retirement developments in the country. And I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion the town fathers were honoring a senior’s golden years rather than golden sand. Or maybe they were simply picturing the wealth the retirees would bring with them. Whatever. The town was named before the market crash of twenty-nine, the one that precipitated the Great Depression, and by that time it was too late to change the name to Deserted, Breadline, or Lost Cause.

Golden Beach rose from the doldrums of hand-to-mouth existence only when the exuberant optimism of post-World War II exploded on the scene. And air conditioning. In two short months my grandparents (adopted) went from acres of oranges to a pink Mediterranean-style stucco mansion in the center of town. Did Gramma cringe when the vast orange grove my family had owned for four generations was platted for the Gulfcoast’s largest trailer park? Maybe. But after twenty years of hard times, she and Grampa probably just looked at their bank balance and smiled.

I never got to walk the orange grove, smell the sweet scent of spring blossoms, or pick a rough-skinned orange off the tree. I grew up in that three-story stucco a block from city hall, four blocks from the library, and a million miles from nowhere. As a child, I was happy as a clam. As a teen, awareness struck. Nothing, absolutely nothing, ever happened in Golden Beach. It was a dead-end far corner of the earth. I was young, young, young, trapped in a time warp where children should be seen and not heard.

Let me out of here!

At seventeen I fled to the Rhode Island School of Design like a rocket into the wild blue yonder.
Life
glowed on the horizon like a great sun rising. Freedom was mine. The world awaited.

Nine years later, emotionally battered, nearly d
own for the count, I came back.

Golden Beach.

Refuge.

 

Chapter 1

 

Five Years Later

Artemis, the strip mall mouser, did his best to trip me as I juggled a freshly washed monk’s robe, my sketchbook, and my oversize purse (containing his breakfast), while trying to insert my key in the Yale lock on the back door of DreamWear—Costumes & Creations. I didn’t quite make it. My sketchbook thudded to the asphalt, Artemis stopped snaking around my legs, and teleported himself behind a Dumpster twenty feet away. Ah well, as long as I hadn’t dropped the monk’s robe . . .

Actually, Artemis isn’t a mouser. He’s a ratter. You would not believe the size of the creatures he proudly drops at my door
. You feed me. See what
fine presen
t
s
I br
ing
in return
. And, yes, I know Artemis is a female Greek god, not a fifteen pound feral tom earning his keep in an alley between a strip mall and one of Florida’s ubiquitous drainage canals. But I felt he was worthy of a distinguished name, and Artemis was the only Greek or Roman god that popped out of the jumble of my sixth-grade brush with ancient history.

Why adopt a feral strip-mall ratter, who allows a pat on the head once in a blue moon and has no concept of lap-sitting? I liked to think it was altruism. Truth is, designers tend to be solitary types, and we take love where we can find it. Even if it’s cupboard love.

I got the rear door open, found Artemis’s food packet in my purse, ripped it open, and dumped it in his dish. I filled his water bowl from the sink in the small bathroom in the backroom and put both containers outside. To beat any other four-footed creatures to the punch, Artemis would be out from behind the Dumpster in a flash. And now . . .

I opened the door into DreamWear’s showroom and stopped a moment, as I often did, to take it all in. The hint of a rainbow glinted in the front window, along with dancing dust motes illuminated by the Florida-brilliant eastern sun. Ambient light drifted over the costume racks, reaching as far as the animal outfits hung along the right wall. Lion, tiger, alligator, polar bear, snowman, rabbit, even a two-person horse. The disembodied heads for each outfit sat on a shelf directly above the limply hanging furry suits. Each morning they seemed to smile at me.
Way to go, Gywn. You made it through another day.

The monk’s robes also hung along that wall, beside genies, pirates, knights, Robin Hood, and Merry Men. Glaring or grinning animal heads sat on a shelf above the drooping, inanimate costumes, gradually giving way to glittering genie hats with veils, sturdy Medieval helms, and green suede triangle hats with jaunty feathers. We kept the sweeping broad-brimmed Victorian hats with ostrich plumes up there too, along with other bulky accessories that didn’t fit in a drawer.

And near the front window was what I called my Carnival of Venice display—a rack of exotically beautiful masquerade masks, available for purchase. They were pricey, discouragingly so, and I was considering adding a few to our rental inventory, along with the cover-all cloaks called dominos, outfits that had been popular with those unwilling to don full costume for at least the last four hundred years. Something to think about over the summer, but not now. From Halloween through the Winter Season when Golden Beach tripled its population due to snowbirds, tourists, and visiting relatives, DreamWear ran flat out.

Nothing as big as Halloween of course, but having survived October thirty-first with a hefty profit, followed by a brisk run on Pilgrims and Indians for Thanksgiving , I was feeling optimistic, as well as prideful, this morning. The ghastly horror masks (DreamWear catered to all tastes) were gone from the window display, replaced by Santa, Mrs. Santa, and Elves. Christmas was good. Nobody would be asking for Lady Godiva (a floor-length blond wig, nothing else). Or our Flasher outfit. (You’ll have to use your imagination for that one.) Just wholesome holiday outfits. Well, almost. The French Maid Mrs. Santa inched a bit over the G line.

Pride goeth before a fall
. I shoved the old saying aside as quickly as it popped into my head. I’d worked hard to create DreamWear—and nearly every last stitch in it. I had a right to stand here and soak it up. Breathe the ambiance. Feel the joy of mine, all mine.
I did this. I really did.

I should have remembered there’s a reason those old sayings have survived the test of time.

I glanced at my watch. Nine-thirty. Not yet time to open the door, but definitely time to get to work. I went behind the counter and took out the rental forms for today’s pick-ups. It was Friday, and we had pick-ups for private Christmas parties as well as the boat parade tonight. Plus afternoon parties at a retirement home and at a group home for autistic children.

The boat parade was a much-loved annual event. Owners decorate their boats with an amazing variety of lights and sound. On the appointed evening, the boats line up at the Golden Beach Yacht Club and parade several miles down the Intracoastal Waterway, where they turn around (the larger ones, ponderously) and head back for private celebrations at their home docks. Many of the owners dress in costume for the parade, adding to the colorful display. DreamWear’s Santa suits were usually fully booked for the parade by early September.

And today was the day. We kept most of our costume accessories, such as Santa’s white gloves, Mrs. Santa’s mob cap, and the elf hats in drawers behind the counter. If left on the showroom floor, they could be too easily lost. Doing one reservation form at a time, I began transferring outfits to our pick-up rack, adding the necessary accessories from the drawer.

That’s odd
. Martin Kellerman was a regular. He’d rented our best velvet Santa every Christmas for the last five years. But a Mrs. Santa too? That was new. I don’t pry into my customers’ lives, but since Mr. Kellerman is a “young” senior, I’d assumed he was married. But maybe he was a widower who had just acquired a girlfriend. A wife? Whoever
she might be
, she’d reserved our eye-catching French Maid Mrs. Santa. Short, pert, red velvet skirt, a fitted top adjusted by sexy lacing, a frilly white apron, and red velvet beret with white fake fur pom-pom. Interesting. If I could find a way not to be too intrusive, I’d ask Mr. Kellerman about this addition to his life when he came in to pick up his order.

That was one of the unexpected things about owning a costume shop. I discovered that I, Gywn Halliday, natural born recluse, enjoyed interacting with customers. Maybe because costumes were such a fun business. Our customers wanted to enjoy themselves or entertain others. Or maybe it was because designing was so solitary, I simply enjoyed having the opportunity to talk to people. To be part of the human race, while always knowing the escape of the drawing board waited, giving me the respite I needed. Thank God business had reached the point where I could afford excellent assistants.

I tucked a pair of white gloves into Santa’s coat pocket and looked up to see a face peering through the glass of the front door.
Oops!
Ten-oh-five, and I hadn’t turned the dead bolt. Martin Kellerman. Alone.

“Sorry,” I burbled as I let him in. “Lots of pick-ups today. I lost track of the time.”

Martin was one of those fortunate businessmen who had been successful enough to retire well before age sixty-five. Though gray streaked his brown hair, his eyes shone with the confidence of a man life has treated well. His well-honed, tanned body spoke of someone who spent a good deal of time outdoors—golf, tennis, and boating. And he was charming, to boot. If divorced or a widower, Martin Kellerman probably had his pick of Golden Beach females, the young as well as women his own age. He was a
catch
. Now well caught?

As I checked off each item of his two costumes, curiosity got the better of me. “I see you’re getting a Mrs. Santa this year?” I said, hoping my comment sounded friendly without intruding on his privacy.

“Got married,” he returned with a beaming grin. “Little darling from Indianapolis. Walked right into her while shelling on the beach. Darn near knocked her over.” Martin winked. “She sure knocked
me
over, I can tell you. Six weeks from meet to marriage. Never thought I’d take the plunge again, but it’s great. What about you, Ms Halliday? Read that article in the
Gazette
. Can’t believe a pretty young thing like you isn’t married. The men around here blind?”

“Not so young,” I told him. “I have school friends with children in their teens.”

“Never too late. Just look at me,” he chortled as I handed him the costumes. “You coming to the parade?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” I was still looking after him, smiling, as the front door closed behind him.

Yes, I’d made the right decision when I came home. I’d leave the rat race to others, the feral cats like Artemis who thrived on hard knocks . . . and worse.

I searched out our brightest clown costume for the children’s party, again making sure all the extras were there. Pointed hat, huge red plastic shoes, oversize gloves. Ten-thirty a.m. at DreamWear—Costumes & Creations, and all was well.

 

Snowbirds laugh when Floridians shiver, but to me it was
cold
as I sat in a folding chair on the bank of the Intracoastal and looked north up the broad canal, waiting for the first sign of floating Christmas lights. Golden Beach is that rarity in Florida, a town with direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. Almost all cities and to
wns, whether on Florida’s Gulfc
oast or the Atlantic, are protected by barrier islands. Which means residents have to drive across a bridge to get to the beach. Golden Beach, however, is directly on the water. You can stroll from the shops on Main Street straight to the beach.

So when the Army Corps of Engineers created the Intracoastal Waterway, they had to dig a canal around the eastern edge of town, transforming it into an area known forever after as “the Island.” You can sit in the bleachers on the high school football field and see masts gliding by on the Waterway. That’s where I was at the moment—along with what seemed like half the population of Golden Beach—east of the football field on a grassy bank above the rip-rap. Many, like me, had carted in folding chairs. Others were spread out on blankets. A few—not as experienced on the parade’s uncertain timing due to the initial boat line-up being tantamount to herding cats—formed a solid phalanx of vertical shadows behind the blankets and chairs.

BOOK: Death by Marriage
5.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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