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Authors: Mary Daheim

Fowl Prey

BOOK: Fowl Prey
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MARY DAHEIM
Fowl Prey

A BED-AND-BREAKFAST MYSTERY

To all those empty places at the Thanksgiving dinner
table—we miss you. Lots.

J
UDITH
G
ROVER
M
C
M
ONIGLE
brought her full weight down on her suitcase and jumped. Angling one foot carefully, she clicked the lock shut and let out a sigh of triumph. She was ready.

Hopping off the handsome brown leather case, she smiled in anticipation. It wasn't a honeymoon in the Bahamas as she might have hoped, but even a three-day trip to Canada with Cousin Renie would be a treat after the past two years of struggling to get the bed-and-breakfast under way. Hearing the squeal of tires in the driveway below, Judith knew that Renie had arrived on the dot of nine.

Judith paused, gazing around the third-floor bedroom under the eaves of the old Edwardian house on Heraldsgate Hill. Her last-minute inspection took in her handbag which contained her birth certificate, the dark green leather coat over her arm, and the brown suitcase which was finally shut.

And moving.

Judith couldn't believe her eyes. The finely tooled
case she'd received the previous month as a birthday present from Renie and her husband Bill was sliding across the braided rug. Not an earthquake, surely: November in the Pacific Northwest usually held no seismic terrors. Judith's big black eyes stared at the mobile luggage. Then she pounced.

Flipping open the latch, she swore aloud as the contents heaved, a growl erupted from the vicinity of her neatly stacked underwear, and Judith's cat, Sweetums, emerged with teeth bared and scraggly fur on end.

“Insufferable mange-ball!” cried Judith, diving in vain after the cat.

“What are you doing?” demanded Judith's mother, Gertrude, who was standing in the bedroom door. “Customs won't let pets in, you dope! You want to start a war with Canada?”

Judith made another swipe at Sweetums who was now tearing around the room, leaving a trail of tangled clothing. In an orange and white blur, the cat raced for the door, sailing between the legs of Gertrude's walker—and Gertrude.

“I'll kill him!” Judith vowed, flinging scattered apparel back into the suitcase. “How'd he sneak in there? No wonder I couldn't shut the blasted thing! I wish I'd squashed the little fleabag!”

Gertrude staggered slightly in the wake of Sweetums's flight. “Probably sniffed that new perfume you got in there. Smells like rat bait to me,” she declared in her raspy voice. “But then,” she added, her beady eyes narrowing at her daughter, “that's who you got it for, I'll bet. The Rat.”

Judith gave her mother a baleful glance, but avoided the verbal trap. “You know I got it from Mike for my birthday.”

“Hunh!” snorted Gertrude. “My grandson has screwy taste in perfume. What's it called, Obnoxious?”

“Obsession, and I love it,” replied Judith, closing the suitcase a second time and brushing the salt-and-pepper
curls from her high forehead. “There's Renie at the doorbell. Move it, Mother.”

But Gertrude was deliberately barring the way with her walker. “A fine thing,” she muttered, “you and Serena running off to a foreign country like a couple of gallivanting hussies! Just before Thanksgiving, too. I suppose I'll end up doing all the work. As usual. You've probably even got paying guests coming here while you're gone.”

“Of course I don't. Nobody's booked until the day after Thanksgiving.” Judith tried to wedge her way out into the little foyer that had once been part of the servants' quarters in a bygone era of Grover affluence. “Mother—you know I've got everything ready for Thursday. We'll be back early Wednesday evening. All you have to do is make the creamed onions.”

Gertrude's small eyes darted up at her daughter. “And the cranberry sauce. I suppose Deb will be too puny to fix the green beans and Renie will ruin the gravy again.”

“Renie will break down the door if you don't move it,” said Judith, using her statuesque size to nudge her mother's walker a couple of inches to the right. “Do you realize that except for visiting my mother-in-law in Arizona this is the first vacation I've had in over twenty years?”

“Big deal. It's not my fault you married a lazy slob.” But Gertrude gave way as Renie's buzzing turned to banging.

Judith raced past her mother and down the short flight of stairs to the second floor with its four guest rooms and two baths. Taking the front staircase, she called out to Renie to hold on. The pounding stopped. Sweetums poked his head around the corner of the living room and hissed. Judith ignored him.

“Hi, coz,” greeted Renie, looking amazingly alert for a woman who didn't usually function in a human capacity until after ten a.m. “Where were you?”

“Upstairs, packing my cat. Here,” said Judith, swinging the suitcase across the threshold, “let me put this in my car. Then I'll go out to the toolshed.”

Suddenly solemn, Renie shook her head. “I'll do that. I already put my stuff in your trunk. It was open.”

“I know, I was just coming down.” Judith peered out the front door, briefly savoring the crisp scent of autumn. “Give me your keys so Mother can turn them over to Bill when he collects your car tonight.”

“Right. I'll load your suitcase, then I'll go get…
the box
.” Renie and Judith exchanged meaningful gazes along with luggage and keys. The Jones family sedan would be picked up that evening by Renie's husband after his daily stint as a professor of psychology at the university. The two-and-a-half-hour drive to Port Royal would be made in Judith's blue Japanese compact.

Renie disappeared around the corner of the old house while Judith watched with an anxious eye. It was just as well that Gertrude hadn't gotten downstairs yet. Judith preferred that her mother didn't know what Renie was doing in the toolshed.

After a final check of the kitchen, Judith was back in the entry hall when Gertrude clumped down the stairs. “Where's that moron of a niece of mine?” she growled around the cigarette she was attempting to set off with an ancient red lighter bearing the inscription Harold's Club or Bust. “That little screwball never did learn any manners from Deb. Can't she say hello to her old aunt?”

“She's loading the car.” Judith avoided her mother's gaze, glancing out the window in an attempt at distraction. “See, the Rankers are up and about. Carl's just leaving for work.” She waved; their favorite neighbors waved back. “Don't worry, they'll keep an eye on you.”

Gertrude puffed away, looking vaguely appeased. “Arlene's making lasagne tonight. It's better than yours.”

“Arlene's a super cook,” Judith agreed, willing to concede any point to keep the peace before departure. “She and Carl are super people. I'll call tomorrow after five when the rates go down. You
will
answer, won't you?”

Gertrude turned cagey. “If I hear it ring.” She hated the telephone, and resented the fact that Judith not only
had six of them installed in the house, but two separate lines, one for business and one for the family.

In deference to her mother's professed hearing loss, Judith gave a thin smile. “I'll hang on until you get there, okay?”

Renie sailed through the back door, making straight for her aunt. “Hi, you ornery old coot,” she said, giving Gertrude a big smack of a kiss. “You look good enough to eat—if I were a grizzly bear.”

“You look like Mrs. Astor's horse, rear view,” retorted Gertrude, taking in Renie's red wool blazer, navy slacks and white silk blouse. “It's Thanksgiving, not the Fourth of July. You're getting as daffy as your mother.”

“Hey,” replied Renie, tugging on the baggy green and orange cardigan that Gertrude wore over her garish Hawaiian print housecoat, “at least I don't glow in the dark. You take care of yourself while we're gone. Mom will call you.”

“At least fifty times,” muttered Gertrude. Her sister-in-law's obsession with the telephone was as great as her own antipathy. “All right, all right,” Gertrude moaned, clumping after them to the back door, “go off and leave a pair of old widows, live high on the hog, get drunk as skunks, pick up sailors—but don't worry about your mothers! Our day is done, our sun is set, we're over the hill…”

“You're over the limit,” broke in Judith, giving her mother a hug and a kiss. “See you day after tomorrow. Try to keep from getting arrested for impersonating a helpless old person, okay?”

Looking miffed, Gertrude stood on the back porch, watching her daughter and niece get into the car. As the blue compact reversed and started to back out the driveway, she lifted a limp hand in farewell. “I could go at any minute,” she called after them. But the car was already heading down the street that led to Heraldsgate Avenue.

“Nitwits,” breathed Gertrude. “It'll serve 'em right. I forgot to tell them not to drink the water.” At her feet,
Sweetums weaved in and out, making importunate noises. “I
am
a helpless old person, dammit.” For an instant, her small, wrinkled face crumpled. Gertrude enjoyed her solitude, but she didn't much like being left alone. Not that she'd ever admit as much to Judith. Along with “I appreciate you,” “I need you,” and “I love you,” such phrases had long ago been excised from her vocabulary, if not from her heart. Gertrude looked down at the cat which came to rest next to the walker, whiskers drooping, green eyes narrowed. “Okay, hairball, it's just you and me,” she growled with an effort to straighten her stooped shoulders. “Why the hell can't you learn to play cribbage?”

 

The long stretch of interstate highway was crowded for the first twenty miles out of the city as Judith and Renie headed north. Having expended all her early morning energies, Renie now lapsed into silence. Judith checked the digital clock on the dashboard, noted that it was 9:33, and decided to let her cousin's brain fog over until her mental alarm clock went off at its regular time.

The distance between Heraldsgate Hill and the Canadian border already seemed great. Judith hadn't been to Port Royal since before her marriage. The city, Renie assured her, had changed a lot, evolving from a frumpy colonial outpost into a cosmopolitan gateway to the Pacific. Having seen little outside her own hometown except for her mother-in-law's retirement village in the Arizona desert, Judith was excited at the prospect of three days of relaxation at the Hotel Clovia on Prince Albert Bay. It was not the autumn outing she had planned, of course. In winter, with snow on the ground and hope in her heart, she had nurtured vague plans for a honeymoon with Joe Flynn. But the six months that Joe had asked her to wait had turned into ten. The Catholic Church's wheels ground slowly when it came to granting annulments.

She had seen Joe only once since he'd investigated the fortune-teller's murder at Hillside Manor Bed-and-Breakfast in his official capacity as a homicide detective.
Indeed, their only encounter since had been by accident, when Judith had been buying Mike's birthday present in August at Nordquist's men's department. The six months had already slipped by. When she came eyeball-to-eyeball with Joe over a rack of leather jackets, Judith had been angry. He had been embarrassed. It probably would be the first of the year before he heard anything definite, he'd told her. For one thing, his wife, Herself, wasn't cooperating. For another, the shortage of priests in the archdiocese made the entire process more difficult. And, Joe had asserted, his round face looking unusually earnest, he had not wanted to come to her until he was actually free. Did she believe him?

She didn't. She wasn't even sure she believed he was getting an annulment. Almost a quarter of a century earlier, they'd gone together for over three years, had been passionately in love, and experienced more fun than two squirrels on a peanut farm. Then, inexplicably, Joe had dumped her. On the verge of their planned trip to Mexico, he had married another woman. Judith had neither forgiven nor forgotten. Worse yet, she had never stopped loving him. If she had, she'd always reasoned, she could have done both. Yet the shock of his elopement to Las Vegas with Herself, a thrice-married divorcee and the mother of two children, had never worn off. Judith had never understood what had happened to change her life and send her into a disastrously hasty marriage with Dan McMonigle. Joe had promised to explain it all someday. But if his past promises were anything to go by, Judith wasn't going to hold her breath.

Nor could she see why Joe would leave his wife at this late date. Her logical mind made hash of his pie-in-the-sky pledges. Besides, she was too old for illusions. So when she'd accidentally run into him last August, Judith had rebelled against Joe Flynn and the world at large by purchasing Mike two cashmere sweaters, four pairs of slacks, and a half-dozen designer shirts. Her son had never had such a lavish birthday.

Judith slowed down behind a logging truck as Renie stirred in the seat next to her. The stands of fir and hem-lock now grew close to the highway, orderly rows of dark green ranged against the clear blue sky. They were almost to the turnoff for the cabin.

“You're sure you want to do this?” Renie asked somewhat dubiously.

Judith kept her strong profile looking straight ahead at the red flag on the end of the cedar logs. “I promised Dan I would. He really liked the cabin.”

Renie shrugged and stretched, her toes peeking out through red leather pumps. “Okay. I'd better put on my boots. It's going to be wet by the river.”

Judith pulled off the interstate at the turn for Glacier Falls. The car wound through farmlands where cows grazed and dogs slept, among the foothills to the rugged mountains that divided the state in half, past sawmills and RV campgrounds and little stores with signs that read Food-Beer-Bait.

They slowed down to pass through the tiny town of Glacier Falls, stopped at the only light, and turned left. The car seemed to drive itself down the long hill leading to the bridge by the falls that gave the town its name, then curved upward and eastward, climbing higher into the foothills where Judith and Renie caught their first glimpse of Mount Woodchuck. Dusted only slightly by snow, its craggy pillars stood sentinel over the river valley. The familiar sight was reassuring, and both cousins smiled. They had been coming to the family cabin since they were babies, gathering every summer weekend with the rest of the Grover clan. Then, as the older generation passed into history, the get-togethers became less frequent. Bill Jones preferred the ocean; Cousin Sue's husband frequented the racetrack; only Dan McMonigle had enjoyed rusticating at the river.

BOOK: Fowl Prey
5.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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