Authors: Victoria Hamilton
“I can’t settle down. Lauda upset me terribly this afternoon.”
I sat on the edge of the coffee table, a low round antique, and peered into the dimness, letting my eyes adjust. Soon I could tell that Becket was sprawled across her lap, purring. “The scene upset me, too,” I said, in my most soothing manner. Between me and Becket we ought to have her calmed down in no time.
“I don’t know what to think. Cleta has always exaggerated
everything, so I thought Lauda was just . . . but Lauda seemed positively fruitcake nutty today.”
“Vanessa says she’s always been good to Cleta, though.”
“And Vanessa asked me how I would react if someone I loved accused me of trying to kill them. I didn’t know how to answer. I might go a little nuts, too.”
“I suppose. Cleta would try the patience of a saint. Do you know what she said to me once? That looking at my darling daughter, Pattycakes, she would guess I had an affair with the plumber. As if I would
cheat on my husband! If I had any guts, I’d murder her in her sleep, just to shut her mouth. She can be so mean!”
“Mrs. Schwartz, most of you seem to dislike Cleta. Why do you put up with her behavior?”
“We’ve all known each other for such a long time,” she said, her tone reflective.
“There has to be more to it than just long familiarity.”
“We play bridge together once a week every week, unless one of us in the hospital, or on vacation. That kind of bond . . .” She trailed off and I could see her shrug, my eyes finally adjusting to the dim lighting in the parlor. Patsy was always playing with her rings, a mass of sparklers on her thin fingers, but that moment she was stroking Becket, running one hand down the length of him as he sprawled over her, too big to sit compactly.
“As much as friends like that drive you crazy,” she said, picking up the thread of the conversation once again, “they’re the glue that holds your life together. My kids are all grown and gone. They don’t have much time for me; too busy with their own lives.”
I felt a complaint coming on about ungrateful children.
Surprisingly, she didn’t go there. “Your friends are always there. You know them in ways you don’t know your children. You know their weaknesses, their problems, their
“Secrets? What secrets?”
I waited, but when she didn’t go on, I said, “Do you think Lauda is really trying to kill Cleta?”
“Of course not. That’s just Cleta dramatizing herself. Though there have been incidents lately, little things.”
“I heard about food poisoning at an event?”
She stiffened and Becket gave a little interrogatory murmur. “That was nothing, nothing at all. I did
like her implying it had to do with my Pattycakes, who catered the event. Just her own stomach playing tricks, or . . . or a touch of indigestion.” She paused and played with her rings, moving anxiously in her chair. Becket shifted and jumped down, his restful snooze over. “But there have been a couple of other troubles. Someone pushed her from behind into traffic at Christmas. She had quite a scare.”
That had happened to me once in the subway, and I still felt that sick lurch of my stomach. I was lucky I didn’t lose my balance. “She wasn’t hurt?”
“A young fellow pulled her back to safety in the nick of time.”
“Did she see who pushed her? Wouldn’t she have known if it was Lauda?”
She shrugged and shook her head.
Interesting. “Mrs. Schwartz, what I can’t figure out is why any of you told Cleta you were coming here to stay. Surely if you all wanted to get away from her, it would have been easy just to leave town, no forwarding address.”
“I understood that’s what we are doing, but
told her where we were going, and
invited her to come along. It certainly wasn’t me! I had been looking forward to getting away from her for a few months.”
That’s what each one of them said. No one would cop to being the one who’d let their destination slip.
She yawned. “I’ll go up to bed now. Thank you for a marvelous dinner, dear.”
“You’re welcome,” I said absently. After she left I sat for a few moments, dusting cloth dangling from my hands. What I had heard worried me, but if the stories Vanessa and Patsy told me were true, Cleta was only in danger if Lauda was nearby.
I separated the logs and knocked the ashes into the grate, then closed the fire screen securely. In the winter months I had become accustomed to looking after the fire and other household duties, things I had never done before. But this was beginning to feel a lot like a forever home to me. Becket butted his head against my leg and I leaned down to scratch his ears.
“You like Mrs. Schwartz, don’t you? I’m assuming that’s partly because she feeds you tidbits under the table, but I don’t suppose that’s the only reason.” Patsy made a fuss over him, and he therefore spent a lot of time on her lap, which they both appeared to enjoy.
Cleta Sanson, on the other hand, ignored Becket and he returned the favor. I had promised myself that if she gave me grief at the tea that afternoon I’d evict her, but though she had been a little crabby, what happened with Lauda wasn’t her fault. I had been pondering and picturing kicking Cleta Sanson out of the castle since about three days after the Legion of Horrible Ladies arrived. Everyone at Wynter Castle would heave a sigh of relief if she were gone. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be able to afford keeping Emerald and Juniper around if they all left. I’d have to think about it and take it up with Pish in the morning.
I headed up to bed, Becket at my heels, with those intentions, but of course when morning came there was no time. Pish was going to Stoddart’s house for a few days—the man was wealthy, with a gorgeous house in the country—and left at dawn. It was Sunday, and with one thing and another I didn’t have a moment to sit and think until late that night.
I’d just have to wait until Pish came home to talk to him about sending Cleta back to the city.
* * *
Monday morning I was up early. I served breakfast, then baked muffins and got ready to take them into town. In the kitchen Emerald was reading a technical book on reflexology, which she was learning to combine with massage. Consciousness Calling had made her curious about the physiological aspects of emotional distress, and it was as if a light turned on within her; she had never been a reader, but now had gone though all of CC’s literature and was on to spiritual healing, which she talked about often as she tried to reconcile the differing approaches of holistic medicine with Consciousness Calling’s very specific methodology. I didn’t pretend to understand any of it, but I listened when she talked.
Juniper was doing her usual silent cleaning act.
Cleta Sanson hobbled into the kitchen and glared at me. “Are you going into town to peddle your wares, Merry?”
She made it sound dirty, like I was going to loiter on a street corner with my skirt hiked up. “May I do something for you in town?”
“You can take me with you,” she said, chin up. She clutched her large black pocketbook, hugging it to her as if she were being set upon by a gang of street thugs. “I have need of the local bank.”
I hesitated. I had no idea yet where Lauda was, and I worried about taking the woman with me into town, where her crazy niece may still be lingering. As long as I kept my eye on Cleta it should be all right, though. If Pish were home, I would have insisted he go with me, but she was
guest, after all. “I’ll drop you off outside the bank and wait for you, if that’s okay, and you can accompany me on my rounds. I
have to drop muffins off at Golden Acres, then the Vale Variety and Lunch.”
“I’ll await you in the car.”
As we headed toward Autumn Vale she berated me on the subject of her latest trouble: three pairs of missing knickers, as she called them. With a straight face I assured her I would try to get to the
of the problem. She did not get my joke. I dropped her off at the entrance to the bank. I leaned over to the open passenger window and yelled, “I’ll circle the block a couple of times and pick you up. Or I can park farther down and wait, if you like.”
“Circle,” she said, firmly, clasping her pocketbook to her breast. “I believe my business will take no longer than fifteen minutes.” She grabbed the handrail and heaved herself up the three steps to the bank doors, which took up the curved corner of the building.
The bank had been subjected to a variety of investigations over the last months, due to the problems caused by Isadore Openshaw, the previous teller, who had been blackmailed into participating in some underhanded tricks by a woman who now resided in the prison, awaiting trial on a variety of charges. What Isadore had done was illegal—she’d opened accounts for companies that did not exist, shells that were then used to launder money—but there was still some consideration being given to her part in uncovering the irregularities. She continued to cooperate fully; without her help it would have been much trickier.
Pish was hoping to help her work out a plea deal. Isadore was a difficult and prickly recluse, but she was Pish’s pet project. He invited her to everything—she came if there was food to be had—and had been trying to befriend her. Instead the stubborn woman resisted my charming friend’s offers of amity, preferring to go her own way, spending her time mostly reading and looking for work. Her only friend, as
far as I knew, was Helen Johnson, a nosy church lady who seemed to worm her way into every group or event.
Simon Grover, the bank manager, had been allowed to keep his job after extensive retraining on current FDIC regulations. His wife, Janice Grover, with whom Pish shared a passion for opera, was happy he had been given a second chance. I adored Janice, too, and we met often at her Main Street shop, Crazy Lady Antiques, where I bought far too many pieces that I toted back to make the castle feel warmer. The bank had a temporary teller imported from Buffalo, but would soon need to hire someone permanent. It was proving difficult to find someone local who had the necessary education and ability.
I circled several times, looking for Cleta on each round. I saw the usual downtown denizens, including Doc wearing one of his favorite hats, a prairie-style sunbonnet. I tooted the horn and he waved. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and then thirty. After forty-five minutes I parked and climbed out of the boat I now captained, a Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, part of my uncle’s estate. I trotted into the bank, which was empty, not a customer in sight. I asked the teller, and she told me that Miss Sanson had done her business and then asked if there was another way out. She had been pointed toward the back door.
The woman had slipped my grip. Why? I didn’t give a rat’s patootie what she wanted to do in town. I would have
her, unless she was planning on knocking over the local liquor store, though there wasn’t a liquor store in Autumn Vale.
“That woman is some kinda weird,” the young bank teller said, taking out her phone and checking messages. “She took out two thousand dollars.” She looked up at me, fine blonde eyebrows knit together. “What does an old lady need with two thousand dollars? This isn’t even her bank, so she had to write a check to cash.”
I was inclined to ask if she should be telling me Cleta’s
private business, but I was too interested to complain. “Did she say what it was for?”
“She said the woman who owns Wynter Castle was bleeding her dry and she needed more cash to give her.” She lowered her voice and added, “Old man Grover had to come out to authorize the withdrawal. She called him ‘lard-ass.’”
I sputtered then clamped my mouth shut. Cleta paid me by check, not cash. Whatever she wanted the money for, it was not for me. And insulting Simon was just too easy. He was a solemn sort, ill-equipped to handle a spiteful old lady, since he was invariably polite. I returned to my car. If Cleta wished to evade me, then I was not going be overly concerned about her, I decided, fuming. I went on with my business, delivering muffins and baked goodies to Golden Acres, then heading to the post office to send out a parcel and clear my post office box.
Autumn Vale’s post office was in a bland little building on Main Street. Minnie Urquhart, who ran it, had made plain her disdain for me from very early on in our relationship. She spent the whole time, as I cleared my PO box, complaining loudly about Cleta Sanson, who had been in just minutes before. Cleta had insulted her, deeply wounding her sensitive soul, and it was all my fault for inflicting the harpy upon the hitherto peaceful village of Autumn Vale. She didn’t say that exactly, but my version is more eloquent than her rant. “Join the crowd,” I snapped. “Cleta offends every person she meets. You’re just one of dozens.” I slammed my PO box closed and locked it.
Her tone changed dramatically. She leaned across her counter, her pillowlike cleavage cushioned on her chubby arms. “Heard there was some kind of set-to out at the castle Saturday. Heard that Miss Fancypants Sanson was acting like a big weenie.”
I sighed and stifled an urge to retort. “It’s fine, just some tiff with her niece.”
“Her niece. Huh. Gonna get the whole family here before long. What’s her niece like?”
“Crazy as a loon,” I said.
She was silent as I discarded junk mail from my box into a recycling bin. Finally she said, “So, is that Cleta as bad as everyone says? She sure acted like a stinkhead here. How does that woman even have family that’ll talk to her?”
I glared at her. “Minnie, it is a mystery to me how miserable folks still have loyal family who defend them.”
She reddened. “You stick your nose out of my family’s business. My nephew is a good cop. He did his job, didn’t he?”
“I wasn’t talking about him.”
It was not the end of my hearing about Cleta, though. I headed to the Vale Variety and Lunch to drop off muffins. The Vale is a variety store in front, and then at the back a lunch counter–slash-café. Cleta’s masterwork that day was a confrontation there where she managed to insult everyone, including Binny, my baker friend, who wasn’t even there. As I unpacked my tubs of muffins and squares the coffee shop manager, Mabel Thorpe, spent ten minutes telling me in detail Cleta’s transgressions, which included buying one of Binny’s cream puffs, biting into it, then pronouncing that the cream was tainted.