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Authors: Victoria Hamilton

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But the apex moment was a quarrel between Cleta and Isadore, who was drinking her habitual morning cup of tea in solitude. The manageress is a gray-haired, steely eyed, iron-willed woman who related this all in a grating hiss. She told me what Cleta had said to Isadore, and vice versa, the spat ending with a confrontation of a physical nature. Both women claimed the other attacked first, but it didn’t go beyond a slap and a brief hair-pulling. Hard to believe, but that’s what she said happened.

I sighed. “I’m sorry, but I am
not
that woman’s boss. I was waiting for her outside of the bank, but she slipped away from me and left a trail of ruin.”

“You could sure call it that,” came a deep voice from behind me.

I turned slowly. Virgil Grace.
Sheriff
Virgil Grace. The lunch counter section that gives Vale Variety and Lunch its name is up a couple of steps, so for once I was looking down into his eyes, a delicious chocolaty brown, overhung by thick dark eyebrows. He is broad shouldered, a big man. Since I had started feeding him muffins and cookies he had put on a few pounds, and I liked it.

But his gaze was steely. He often flirts but rarely lets himself be trapped alone with me, I don’t know why.
Something
was holding him back. I thought it had to do with his ex-wife, who was the neighboring town’s sheriff’s daughter. His mother, Gogi, wouldn’t talk to me about it.
It’s between him and me
, she told me, and I suppose she’s right.

“Sheriff Grace,” I said, my breath coming a little more quickly. “How are you today?”

“I’d be better if I didn’t have a prickly senior citizen sitting in my office at the sheriff’s station trying to file a complaint of harassment against virtually the whole town of Autumn Vale.”

“Cleta Sanson,” I said with a sigh. “I’ve already heard about the altercation here between her and Isadore.”

“Then you haven’t heard the latest. Let’s go to the library. I have some questions to ask Hannah and
Isadore.”

Chapter Five

W
E SET OFF
for the library, me having to trot to keep up with his longer stride as I juggled plastic muffin tubs. I’m a tallish woman, but he is a much taller man. “What’s going on?” I gasped between strides. “Please don’t tell me she did or said anything to Hannah or I’ll have to strangle her with my two bare hands.”

“What in hell made you think it was a good idea to release that
woman
on the unsuspecting populace of Autumn Vale?” he griped over his shoulder.

I grabbed a handful of uniform sleeve and yanked him to a halt, stopping to catch my breath in front of Crazy Lady Antiques. “Just hold on, Virgil. As far as I know I didn’t break any laws in bringing Cleta into Autumn Vale.”

“Except the unwritten law about using common sense.”

“Stop trying to bully me,” I snapped, staring into his eyes. I took a deep breath and in a more conciliatory tone, I went on. “Look, she’s impossible. I
get
that, no one better than me. She asked to come into town to the bank, so I said she could
ride along with me. I planned to wait for her outside the bank—I was worried about that lunatic niece of hers—and take her with me on my rounds. She bolted and I got fed up looking for her, so I went about my business.” I paused, my thoughts haring off as usual. “What’s going on with Lauda, anyway?”

He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck with one big square hand. “I talked to her, and she was perfectly reasonable. She said her aunt disappeared from New York with no notice. When she discovered her whereabouts she tried to call, but according to her no one at the castle would tell her anything.” He glared down at me, dark brows raised.

I shrugged. With so many people living at the castle, phone messaging was poor. Who knew how many calls I had missed?

“Then she called Pish’s mother’s condo and that woman told her you were crazy and dangerous and had been holding her son captive for months.” He grinned, with a flash of rarely seen dimples, sexy lines, and big white strong teeth. That expression swiftly disappeared and the annoyed one came back. “Lauda was worried and had worked herself up into a frenzy by the time she got to the castle, she told me, thinking Miss Sanson had been kidnapped and was being held by lunatics.”

“Unbelievable!” I wasn’t sure whether I was referring to Pish’s mother’s remarks or Lauda’s conclusions.

He gave me a look. “I checked with Pish’s mother, and she said much the same thing to me, so I can’t blame Lauda. We had no reason to hold Lauda, so we let her go. I ordered her to stay away from Miss Sanson and not to even drive down the same road as your castle is on. I figured she’d go back to the city.”

“And she hasn’t?”

He frowned down at his shoes. “She’s holed up at some boardinghouse.”

“Whatever. Anyway, what has Cleta done
now
?”

“She claims Isadore Openshaw is following and harassing her.”

It was possible. One never knew with Isadore. “And something went down at the library? That must have been
after
the confrontation at the Vale Lunch. If Hannah witnessed it, we’ll get the truth.”

“That’s what I’m hoping.”

We walked to the side street and turned down it to the library. He held the door open for me and I entered the cool, dim cinder-block room Hannah had made into a library, lined with bookshelves that were low enough for everyone to reach, and with fluorescent lighting that didn’t quite do the trick. Isadore was sitting at a table alone with a stack of books. She wasn’t reading, she was going through each one and correcting the dog-ears, where readers had turned down the corners of the pages as bookmarks. That was a tedious job, but Isadore seemed absorbed in her valuable task. Everything about the library was a labor of love for her, and I appreciated that even if she never spoke to me. She was meticulous when it came to books, and could often be found there helping Hannah out.

“Merry!” Hannah called out. She pressed the joystick of her motorized wheelchair and trundled out from behind her desk. “Sheriff Grace,” she said, acknowledging him with a grave nod of her head. Her huge gray eyes were luminous in the faint light that streamed in from the row of high windows that lined the walls and beamed down from the too-sporadic fluorescents. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” she asked, but I could see by her impish expression and the upward tilt of her pointed chin that she had been expecting Virgil.

I set my muffin tubs down and sat at one of the library tables that lined the center of the room, pulling Virgil down to sit beside me. I hate towering over Hannah. She’s tiny and confined to her wheelchair, but she’s a gracious little lady and deserves every scrap of consideration she usually gets. I glanced over at Isadore and said, my voice loud enough to
carry, “I understand that one of my guests from the castle was here and there was a problem?”

Isadore sniffed and slammed a book down on the table, then took up another.

“There
was
a little trouble,” Hannah said. “What did Miss Sanson have to say?” She looked from me to Virgil and back to me.

“I don’t know. Virgil, why don’t you tell us?”

“I’d rather hear what happened from you, Hannah, and from your friend.” He looked over his shoulder. “Miss Openshaw, would you care to join us?”

She hesitated but obeyed. For months she had been like a shadow in Autumn Vale, occupying a kind of fringe world where she drifted about town but rarely interacted with folks. I had gone from finding her creepy to feeling sorry for her. She listened to conversations and read books; sometimes it almost looked like she wanted to join in. She went wherever she was invited if there was free food to be had, and so had attended a few functions at the castle. As far as I knew the only person she allowed closer was Helen Johnson, of the town’s Methodist church. Pish kept trying to befriend her, but so far, nothing, and if she could resist the charm of Pish Lincoln, she was a rare bird indeed. She did show wonderful sense in preferring the company of books and Hannah to almost anything else.

“Miss Sanson seems to have a bitter wrinkle in her personality,” Hannah said as Isadore pulled out a chair and sat.

“That’s one way of putting it,” I said. “I haven’t forgotten what she said to you at my tea, Hannah. I’ll
never
forgive her for that.”

Her narrow chin quivered. “I feel . . . sorry for her.”

Isadore snorted and folded her bony arms across her narrow chest, shaking her head.

“No, I
do
!” Hannah insisted, glancing at Isadore then back at me. “She hurt my feelings, but I recovered. I’m
tougher than people think. It made me curious, though, like I told you; what went wrong in
her
life that made her so very bitter and angry? I don’t understand.”

“So what happened
this
time?” Virgil said, his voice gentle.

I noticed that Isadore was watching him carefully, her expression still holding fear, but less than before. It was hard to tell how old Isadore was. I would guess mid- to late fifties, though she was lined, purse-string wrinkles around her lips, deep grooves from her nose down to her mouth.

“Miss Sanson came in and looked around,” Hannah said. “Isadore had just gotten here after having an early lunch at the Vale. She’s cleaning up some of the books, erasing pencil marks, turning up dog ears. It’s a lot of tedious work and I appreciate the help. It’s a civic service, you know.”

Virgil was about to speak when Isadore straightened and said, “Books are better than people; even when they’re lying, they’re telling the truth.”

“What is that a quote from?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“I think it’s her own, you know,” Hannah said, softly, glancing at her helper and then at me. “Isadore is very wise. Isn’t that what the best fiction is? Lies that tell the truth?”

Perhaps my friend was right about Isadore’s wisdom.

“As I said, Miss Sanson came into the library and looked around,” Hannah said. She lifted her head until a stream of light glinted in the soft gray depths of her eyes. “I think she saw Isadore, though she made no mention of her. But she said, in a very loud voice,
This is just the library for the dreary, prosaic, bumbling sort of dullard who would enjoy living in a town like Autumn Vale
.”

I clamped my lips into a tight line, trying not to let a snicker escape, not at Cleta’s words but Hannah’s impersonation. Hannah had caught Cleta’s malicious, accented, snobbish tone so well, and I wondered if the girl knew how much
judicious spite was in her perfect rendering. I realized, though, that Cleta’s words came on the heels of her confrontation with Isadore at the coffee shop.

“I asked what was wrong with the library and she said it was dull, in lighting and in patrons.” Hannah had stiffened, and those soft gray eyes were as hard as granite. “I told her if she was counting herself—she did donate, so she is a patron—then perhaps she was correct.”

I grinned and when I glanced over at Virgil I could see he was smothering a smile, too. “Good for you,” I said. “Forgiveness is fine, but it doesn’t hurt to let someone like her know where she stands.”

Isadore’s lips had a slight upturn. Was that a smile or was I imagining it?

“All I really did was give her fuel,” Hannah said, playing with the joystick of her wheelchair. “She said, perhaps since I was helpless and had never been anywhere nor seen anything, I wouldn’t know a truly great library, like the New York Public Library. She said she felt sorry for me.”

“What happened then, Hannah?” Virgil said.


I
told her she was a wicked old woman,” Isadore said, her voice cracking as something seldom used will. “Mean and cantankerous. I said if she wanted to get on her bicycle, maybe a tornado would come along and take her away.”

Eyes wide, I stared at Isadore. “Did she get the reference?” I asked.

“She certainly did,” Hannah said. “She turned as red as my mother’s pickled beets!” Her grin was full of mischief, but then died. “That’s when she started yelling. She said . . . she said
horrible
things. I can’t think what’s wrong with her.”

“She’s a witch,” Isadore said.

Virgil sighed and pulled a notebook out of his pocket. He read what was written, and looked over at Isadore. “Miss Openshaw, did you tell her that she should, to quote, ‘choke on her own spite and die’?”

Isadore stared at him and slowly nodded. Rather nice wordplay, I thought: choke on her spite, rather than spit. I eyed the odd woman with a smidge more respect. I like puns.

He sighed and closed the notebook back up. “So that is why she’s at the station now trying to file charges against you for threatening her.”

“That was not a threat, it was a . . . a wish!” I cried, in exasperation. “And Isadore was just defending Hannah.”

“I know,” he said, standing and stretching.

That was an arresting sight, pardon the pun. He’s a solid fellow, and his khaki pants had gotten a little too tight in the past few months. On him, it looked good.

“That’s why I’m going to leave it this way,” he said, both hands on the table, leaning over and meeting each of our gazes. He finished with Isadore. “Miss Openshaw, I’m issuing you a warning for harassment of Miss Sanson. This is just a warning, and not a charge. We won’t be following up on it.”

“But she didn’t do anything wrong,” Hannah cried, as tears gathered in Isadore’s eyes.

“This is the only way I can handle it. I will also warn Miss Sanson to stay away from the library and not to engage with you, Miss Openshaw. Other than that, my hands are tied.” He straightened and turned to me. “Merry, if you could come pick up your guest, I’d appreciate it, before she drives my officers crazy.”

“If you ask me, you’ve already hired one officer who isn’t far from it, and I think you know who I mean.” I slammed my muffin containers around to passive-aggressively express my lack of appreciation, then followed him out. I ducked back in the door, though, and said, “Don’t worry about it, Hannah, Isadore. It’s no big deal. You both still coming to the opera?”

Isadore shook her head, mute and tearful.

I stepped back in. “Please, Isadore, come. Pish will be crushed if you don’t. He wants to be friends, you know.” I hesitated, then added, “You remind him of someone he once
cared for a great deal.” That was the truth. He was so involved because he once had an aunt who drifted away from the family and ended up in a bad way. He didn’t want to see that happen to Isadore, who had even fewer resources, family, and friends than his aunt.

“I’ll think about it,” she said.

“She’ll come,” Hannah said, tiny chin pointed up, battle-ready light in her eyes. “I’ll make sure my parents pick her up.”

I smiled and nodded. “Good. I know the girls are looking forward to performing with you, Hannah, and I’m so anticipating it!” I stomped out the door, down the street, and strode past Virgil.

“Hey,” he shouted.
“Hey!”

I whirled. “Did you have to be so . . . so
mean
to Isadore?”

“Mean? Me? I did the least I could after that battle-ax you call a guest stormed my police station and gave me no alternative. Take her home, Merry, and find a way to send her back to the city.”

BOOK: Death of an English Muffin
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