Authors: Deb Donahue
“I’m Harlan Hunter.” He pocketed his keys and stepped forward with one hand outstretched. Miranda couldn’t help noticing his disapproving frown as he glanced toward her handgun. “We spoke on the phone.” His hair needed combing and his eyes seemed to study her intently. His handshake was firm and lingered longer than Miranda expected.
Harlan Hunter was her nearest neighbor. He had been hired by her grandmother’s attorney as caretaker for the property until Miranda decided what she planned to do with it. They had spoken only twice, the last time just a week before when she’d asked him to make arrangements for her arrival.
“Mr. Hunter,” Miranda said rather coldly, stepping back after he let go of her hand. “Are you coming to find out why the house isn’t ready for me?”
“Not ready?” he asked. “What do you mean? My housekeeper and I just dropped by to present you with a welcome basket to tide you over. This is Sissy Morris.” He swept one arm toward the older woman who joined them at the porch steps. “We live on my farm just to the south of here.”
“Oh dear, is something wrong?” Sissy’s eyes had smile wrinkles in the corners, but now her brow was layered with concern. “I’d have come over yesterday to see if I could make it more presentable, but I always visit my sister on Sundays. We do sort of a sleepover every Sunday night. Reminds us of when we were kids, watching old movies, eating ice cream and staying up late.” She sighed, but with a smile of contentment. “As soon as I got back this morning I had Harlan help me put a care package together and insisted we drive over right away. What’s wrong, dear? I know the place must be a mess.”
“Yes, that’s true, but I wasn’t expecting help with that,” Miranda said. “It’s just that there’s no electricity and the furnace doesn’t seem to be working either.” She gave Harlan an accusing look.
“I believe you were planning to take care of the electric company, Miss Preston.” The way Harlan said it made Miranda flush. “And the repair man was out here two days ago. He told me the furnace was in as good a shape as could be expected, given its age. The propane should have been delivered yesterday.”
“It’s Ms. Preston, Mr. Hunter,” Miranda said, trying to get her equilibrium back. It was true that she had been the one to call the power company, but she was sure she remembered that Harlan had agreed he would visit the house to make sure all was in order before she got there. She sighed, relenting. “But you should call me Miranda.” These were the first people she’d met and her nearest neighbors. It didn’t make sense to cause friction over something that was probably an oversight and easily fixed.
“And you just call us Sissy and Harlan, sweetie,” Sissy said. “Now where should I put this?” She stepped onto the porch and headed into the kitchen. Miranda and Harlan followed her in. Sissy stood for a moment, casserole dish held in two hands, and looked around in consternation at the cluttered, dust-laden kitchen.
“Here,” Miranda said, taking the dish from her. “I’ve just started cleaning up in the dining room here.” She led the way and put the dish down on the table, glad she had dusted it off earlier. The log left in the fireplace had caught a good flame and added a cheerful note to the room despite the fact that everything in it was still in quite a bit of disarray.
“Oh just look at this place,” Sissy said, looking around. “It’s been years since I was in here. Your Grammy wasn’t so well the last few years, you know, wasn’t really up to having visitors. I didn’t realize how downhill it had gotten. Good bones, though. The old girl has good bones, doesn’t she?”
It took Miranda a moment to realize Sissy meant the house and not her grandmother. The housekeeper took a tissue out of her pocket to wipe the carved mantelpiece, sneezing at the dust she stirred up.
“Go fetch those canned goods, would you, Harlan?” Sissy picked up the poker and jabbed the burning log a few times. “Looks like this poor girl is going to need a few sweet peaches until she gets that kitchen in order.”
The canned goods Harlan brought in from their car were more than just peaches, and weren’t in cans. The box was filled with Mason jars that held peaches, green beans, tomatoes, corn and three small jars filled with something purple. “My blueberry preserves,” Sissy explained proudly, dusting off the top of each jar as she set them on the dining room table, despite the fact that each lid looked spotlessly clean.
“She won first prize at Greenville’s Blueberry Festival last year,” Harlan added. He had thrown another log on the fire from the pile Miranda had placed next to the hearth.
Sissy blushed and waved off the compliment with an “Oh, shush now,” but it was obvious she was pleased.
Harlan dusted sawdust off his hands and rose to his feet. “If you have a flashlight, I can go take a look at the furnace to see if there is a problem.”
Miranda’s earlier resentment dissolved immediately. “Oh, thank you!” She was grateful for any reason not to have to go down into the dark cellar herself to check. She handed him the flashlight.
“While Harlan does that, why don’t we see if there’s anything we can do about setting your kitchen to rights,” Sissy said as Harlan tromped down the cellar stairs. “A house isn’t a home unless it’s got a nice cozy kitchen, I always say.”
Sissy headed straight to the towers of cardboard boxes and started opening them up without even asking permission. She did it so cheerfully Miranda couldn’t find it in her to object.
“Harlan and Bob had the best of intentions, I’m sure,” Sissy said, shuffling through the clothes she found in the first box. “But men don’t always know the value of things, if you ask me. They keep the most worthless junk sometimes and throw away gems that should be passed down to the next generation.”
“Bob?” Miranda glanced in another box, finding only old table cloths.
“Bob Meeks, our hired hand. Harlan’s, I should say. I’ve been housekeeper so long you’d think I own the place. Twenty years, I’ve been there. Hard to imagine. Ever since Mrs. Hunter passed away, poor thing. Cancer.” She made a tsk, tsk sound and started putting the boxes they’d already looked through into a separate stack. “I told them they should let me go through things over here with them, but Harlan knew the dust would set off my asthma. He’s always so solicitous of my health, that Harlan.”
“So Harlan and Bob were going through my grandmother’s things after she died.” The idea felt intrusive, as if it had been her own possessions strangers had been pawing through rather than her grandmother’s.
“Oh, I hope you don’t take offense, dearie.” Sissy laid a soft plump hand on Miranda’s arm and looked at her with troubled eyes. “They were only trying to help. When a family lives in a place as many generations as yours has, the most useless junk tends to pile up. I wouldn’t call your grandmother a hoarder, but if you had seen this place before, you’d have run through the door screaming and headed straight back to the big city by now.”
Sissy patted Miranda’s arm with a small laugh and picked up the last box to look through. “Looks to me like they did a better job of sorting than I expected. I’d say all these things should be given to Goodwill.” She held up a flowered shirt dress that had been folded so long the creases looked permanent. “Something like this must have belonged to your Grammy’s Grammy, it’s so old.” She chuckled. “Well, maybe not that old. But I swear this looks like something from fifty years ago, don’t you?”
In fact, the faded blue dress peppered with tiny pink flowers had been one Miranda could remember her grandmother wearing many times. She could picture her in it as she’d seen her so many times, bib apron tied in a bow at the back, bent over the open oven as she took a fragrant batch of cookies from the oven.
“No, here,” Miranda said quickly, taking the dress before Sissy could pack it back up. “I think I’ll keep that.” Then, feeling silly for being overly sentimental, she added, “I can use it to make dust rags.” She flushed, not sure if her red cheeks meant she felt embarrassed or guilty.
Sissy folded the dress and set it aside. “How about Harlan and me take some of these with us when we go?” Sissy asked. “Drop them off at the drop box in Riverside? Then you won’t have so many to deal with yourself.”
Miranda agreed. She would have enough to sort through and dispose of throughout the rest of the house. She helped Sissy load as many boxes as they could into the back seat of Harlan’s car. The rest they pushed into the corner of the kitchen by the back door for Miranda to take away later. Now that there was a clear space on the kitchen floor, the room began to look more like the cheerful place Miranda remembered from her childhood.
Harlan came back upstairs just as they finished. “Furnace seems fine to me,” he said. “Pilot light’s lit and everything.” Walking to the ancient stove, he found a box of matches on a shelf and turned on one of the controls. Holding the match flame close to the cast iron burner, he waited until the gas caught fire then shook the match out and turned the stove off again.
“Propane is working, too, looks like.” He gave Miranda a look that said more than just words. “I suspect the only reason the thermostat didn’t do anything is because the blower requires electricity to run.”
Of course! Miranda grew warm as her cheeks flushed red again. She hadn’t thought about that, and hadn’t realized the stove was old enough to need manual lighting. She thanked them profusely for both the help and the food, following them back to their car as they prepared to depart.
“Don’t you worry any,” Sissy said, leaning to give Miranda a hug before getting in the car. “You call us if you need any little old thing, you hear? If Harlan or I can’t come over right away, one of us will send Bob.”
That reminded Miranda about the lack of cell phone reception, but she didn’t want to mention it. Harlan already thought she was completely helpless, probably. She’d figure it out herself later.
“I will. Thank you for coming. And thank you again for the casserole. I’m sure it will be delicious.”
“You’re welcome, though it wasn’t all my doing. Harlan already had the sauce going when I got home, using my recipe. That man was so tickled to have a new neighbor he just about cooked the whole thing himself. Didn’t you, Harlan?”
Harlan patted Sissy’s arm agreeably and closed the passenger door. Then he and Miranda walked around to the driver’s side. Before getting in, however, he turned to her with a serious expression. “You know,” he said, “I understand you’re wanting to come out and see the old place. I’m sure it holds many fond memories for you. But it’s obvious you don’t feel entirely safe here.” He motioned to the .38 in its holster. She’d had it on all morning and halfway forgotten it was there.
“Don’t you know that carrying a gun around like that is more likely to get you killed than keep you safe?” he asked. She half expected him to shake a scolding finger at her, but all he did was narrow his eyes in disapproval. “Besides, a little girl like you doesn’t want to be shackled with a white elephant like this. I didn’t want to say anything on the phone, but now that we’re face to face, I would like to offer to take the place off your hands.”
“Take it off my hands?” Miranda asked.
“Buy the place. You know. I can offer a very generous settlement, I can assure you. Very generous.” He leaned toward her and grinned patronizingly. “I guarantee you could buy a great condo back in Chicago with the proceeds, and even have enough left over to get you a cute little car to replace that old junker you got there.” He pointed to her rusted Chevy.
Harlan had a way of pushing her buttons she didn’t quite understand. One minute she felt grateful for his help and the next she felt like he was insulting her. Remembering how wrong she’d been about the propane and furnace, Miranda took a deep breath and counted to five before forcing herself to smile and saying, “I’m not interested in selling, Harlan. Not now. Not for a long time, if ever. But thank you for your help today and while the attorney sorted things out with the probate.”
She thought he was going to argue with her. His frown certainly made it clear he was displeased, and she saw his hand tighten on the car door he had just opened. But all he did was mumble, “We’ll see, missy, we’ll see,” then got in the car and backed up to drive away.
Miranda watched until the lane of pines swallowed their car from sight. What a strange pair. Sissy was so bright and cheerful but Harlan— Miranda couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Harlan had an edge to him that tended to put her on her guard. Whether there was a reason for her to feel that way or not, only time would tell.
Still, she felt uneasy as she turned back to the house. And that feeling didn’t get any better when she looked toward the barn and saw that the huge door there stood slightly open. She could have sworn the doors had been completely closed that morning. Hadn’t they?
She looked at Rufus, who had found a stick and was busy chewing the bark off of it. He didn’t seem concerned at all with what might be happening in the barn. Maybe Miranda was remembering wrong.
But that didn’t stop a chill from running down her spine as she hurried into the house.
Luke Gregorio watched through the loft window as Harlan and Sissy drove off. He’d hoped the woman would leave with them. When her car had pulled up to the house the night before, Butch’s barking had alerted him to the intruder. Remembering, Luke reached down to scratch the German Shepherd behind the ears. “Good boy.”
He’d first thought it had to be Harlan Hunter or Bob Meeks in the car, just waiting for the rain to let up. In fact, he’d been sure of it. It was always a Sunday when they came to the farm. But when nothing happened, he’d approached the car to look in, only to see the woman and her small dog. Even then, he’d hoped she was just lost, maybe pulling off the road to wait out the storm.
Because of her arrival, he had changed his mind about hiking over toward Harlan’s again this morning to watch the man’s activities from the hunting blind he’d found in the woods. Whatever was going on there, something big was about to happen. He knew it. A BMW had pulled up in front of the place four days ago, on Thursday. The man inside had spoken to Harlan’s hired hand, Bob Meeks, through the open car window. Though too far away to hear anything, Luke had seen enough to know they were not discussing the price of pork bellies. Through his binoculars he noted the man’s expensive suit, slicked-back hair and sunglasses. He’d even caught the glint of a gold tooth as he spoke.
Luke moved away from the window and turned to look at the little nest he’d carved out for himself in the hayloft. Bales of hay hid his lair from a casual eye looking up from the ground floor. Bunk beds had been built into the walls and he’d laid his sleeping bag out on one, using straw as a mattress. An electric lantern sat on an overturned wooden crate. Butch’s dog dish and bowl of water had been placed off to the side to keep crumb-sniffing rats away from the sleeping area.
The abandoned property had seemed the perfect place to use as a base camp. After watching the woman all morning, apparently readying the house for habitation, it no longer looked like that was true.
Until Harlan Hunter’s car had driven up, Luke had been thinking of approaching her to introduce himself. Curiosity now made him uncertain. What was the woman’s connection to Hunter? He’d been tempted to creep closer to the house when they went inside, trying to listen to their conversation, but he’d already risked detection when he opened the barn door to let Butch out earlier. The terrier had almost given their position away, but if the woman had seen anything, she seemed to have written it off and gone about her business.
Luke sat down on a straw bale and pulled his backpack closer. Reaching into the outside pocket, he pulled out the creased and worn photograph he’d been carrying for months. Two identical faces looked back at him, except Luke doubted that he had ever smiled as huge, or had that same mischievous glint in his eye which his twin always seemed to have.
Where was that bright smile now? Was he off on another adventure like Hunter claimed? Luke didn’t believe it was true. As twins, they’d always sensed when the other was in trouble. And what Luke’s gut was telling him now was something he was afraid to listen to too closely.
No, he decided. He wouldn’t pack up and leave. Until he found out what had happened to his brother, he would stick to the plan. And if that woman—Luke glanced toward the window again. If that woman, as young and innocent as she looked, had anything to do with his brother’s fate—
He scratched Butch’s head again and put the picture away.
“God help her,” he whispered.