Authors: Carlene Thompson
“It’s none of your business,” Laurel started to snap, then caught herself. Kurt had enough problems with this harridan without her adding to them. “No, Mrs. Henshaw, we didn’t have a fight. I had a bad scare—someone following me—so I came here.”
“Someone followin’ you?” she repeated. “Old boyfriend or somethin’?”
“No, I’m certain it wasn’t. Just some crazy person, but I was frightened. Do you know where Kurt is?”
“What do I look like? His social secretary or somethin’?” Laurel had never known anyone who could end almost every sentence with “or somethin’.” “Alls I know is he went out a couple a hours ago.”
“Oh. Well, maybe I’ll wait a few minutes.”
“Suit yourself,” Mrs. Henshaw said and slammed her door.
Thank you so much for inviting me in, Laurel thought sourly. Kurt always said she was the most disagreeable person he’d ever met and that her wimpy little husband had probably died at forty-five just to get away from her.
Laurel sat down on the stairs, her eyes fastened on the door leading outside. What would she do if the driver of the other car came in after her? God, she didn’t even know what the other driver looked like. But if anyone who seemed threatening entered the building, she’d…she’d what? Bang on Mrs. Henshaw’s door and hope the woman would take pity and let her in? What if she wouldn’t? Monica said they should carry Mace. She had none. She had
with which to defend herself.
She looked at her watch. Twenty minutes had gone by and still no Kurt. And here she sat, backed into a corner, totally defenseless. She waited another five minutes, then decided she couldn’t take it any longer.
She crept down the stairs, opened the main door, and peered out. Cars were parked along the street but she didn’t see anyone in any of them. No one strolled along the sidewalk—it was a cold night. Clutching her keys, Laurel ran for her car. When she opened the door she checked the back to make sure no one was hiding on the floor. Then she jumped in.
As she drove toward home, she glanced in the rearview mirror every few seconds. Nothing but ordinary traffic. After what seemed like an hour she turned into her long driveway. Trees lined the drive so it would be difficult to hide a car along the way, but a person could easily conceal himself.
She pulled up to the garage, planning to open the door, pull in, then dash inside the house door leading to the garage. She pressed the automatic opener. The garage door didn’t respond. She pressed again. The door remained down.
Oh, hell! Laurel thought furiously. The last few days the door had been sluggish, meaning that the battery in the opener was weak. Now it was dead. Why couldn’t I have taken five minutes to buy a new battery? she berated herself. Just five minutes.
But thinking of what she should have done was no help at all. Reluctantly she separated her front door key from the car keys, took another look around, drew a deep breath, and ran to the front of the house. She was stabbing the key at the lock when her eyes lifted and she froze.
The cheerful Christmas wreath she’d hung on the door two weeks ago was missing. In its place hung a wreath with white silk lilies and a large black satin bow.
A funeral wreath.
Laurel nearly fell in the door, slammed and locked it. Both dogs rushed to her, alternately barking and whining, Alex bouncing on his hind legs the way he did when he was excited. They were upset. They led solitary lives with Laurel gone six days a week and rarely entertaining anyone except Kurt. The dogs’ agitation meant they had seen or heard something unusual. Laurel looked at the couch. Its back, usually covered with a bright russet, green, and gold afghan, faced the big front window. The afghan lay in a heap on the seat of the couch. Both dogs had stood on it, bracing their front legs on the couch’s back. They’d seen whoever had come to her house and put the wreath on the door. Maybe the person had even tried to break in.
Although her legs were still trembling, Laurel knelt and pulled the dogs to her. “Did someone scare you?” she asked. “Did someone look in the window at you or try to open the door?”
April nuzzled as close to her as possible but Alex continued to bounce, making little talky noises as if he were trying to explain.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve wished we could really communicate,” Laurel said. “If only you could tell me what you saw.”
Suddenly she thought of the dog door leading from the kitchen into the big backyard. Usually she never bothered with the lock panel—only a small person could wriggle through the opening and she’d never been bothered with prowlers—but now she quickly slid the lock panel into place. The dogs eeled around her feet, her fear adding to their own.
“I think all three of us could use a tranquilizer,” she told them. “Instead you’ll have to settle for treats and I’ll have chamomile tea.”
She filled the tea kettle and put it on the stove, then found their sausage treats. Luckily, they loved the treats so much they temporarily overcame their nervousness long enough to gobble them all in record time.
When Laurel finally sat down in the living room with her tea, she realized she hadn’t even looked at her car to see how much damage it had suffered. It seemed insignificant compared to what happened, what
have happened. She’d almost lost control of the car when the other driver actually rammed her. And the presence of the wreath on the door erased the last of her doubts that the driver was merely trying to frighten a woman alone in a car. He’d been after her.
Someone rapped on the door and Laurel jumped so violently she sloshed tea onto her lap. She sat rigid on the couch while the dogs barked and the rapping continued, growing louder. Finally a man shouted, “Laurel, it’s Kurt. Open the door!”
Was it really Kurt? she wondered for a terrified instant. Then he called to her again. She recognized his voice.
She opened the door. Kurt looked at her for a moment, his eyes worried, then enfolded her in his arms. “What’s going on, Laurel? When I got in, the Henshaw woman came tearing over to tell me you’d been there pounding on the door and saying you were scared because someone was following you.”
Laurel clung to him for a moment, then pulled him inside. “I was coming back from Wilson Lodge—”
“What were you doing there?”
“Monica is staying there. She called and asked to see me.”
“Why didn’t she come here?”
“The light show,” Laurel said quickly. “You know I always go. I took the tour and stopped to see her.” Not quite the truth but almost, she thought. “As I was coming home, someone began riding my bumper. They hit me lightly twice, then they rammed me.”
“I know. I saw the back of your car.”
“I started to turn in here, then changed my mind. I went to your place, but the ever-charming Mrs. Henshaw said you’d left a couple of hours ago.”
“I had a few beers with Chuck. He needed to talk.”
“I hope you convinced him to go back to Crystal.”
“Not much chance of that happening from what I heard tonight.” Kurt gazed at her earnestly. “Laurel, why did you go to my place? Why didn’t you go to police headquarters?”
Laurel shook her head. “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking. I was so scared.”
“It’s not like you to lose your head like that.” Kurt’s voice was rising. “Don’t you realize how dangerous it was to come to my place and sit around in an empty hall when I wasn’t home?”
Laurel stepped away from him. “Don’t get mad. Yes, now that I’m calmer I know it was stupid, but I told you I was scared silly and not thinking clearly. Besides, the car wasn’t still following me.”
“As far as you know.”
“Okay, as far as I know.” Laurel felt tears rising. “Look, Kurt, after all that’s happened tonight, the last thing I need is for you to come over here and yell at me.”
Kurt took a deep breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry, honey. I’m just worried.”
He hugged her again. She clung to him with more than her usual fervor. “We haven’t even shut the door yet and it’s freezing outside.”
Kurt stepped back, took hold of the knob, and started to swing the door shut. Then he stopped, staring. Finally he asked, “Why the hell is there a funeral wreath on your door? It’s not for Angie, is it?”
“No. It wasn’t there when I left to see Monica. I think whoever rammed my car put it there.”
Kurt gave her a hard look. “You’ve been acting strange ever since Angela Ricci was murdered. Now someone’s following you and hanging a funeral wreath on your door.” He paused. “I’m not leaving here until you tell me what’s going on.”
As she drove to work the next morning, Laurel tried to convince herself she shouldn’t feel guilty about not being open with Kurt. She’d told him the truth about having no idea who the driver of the car was. She’d also told him the truth when she said she didn’t know who’d hung the wreath. “You just didn’t tell him you received pictures of Faith and of Angie’s mutilated body, and you didn’t say you’re afraid the person who was after you last night is the same person who murdered Angie,” she said aloud. “No, you didn’t leave out anything at all important.”
But she’d promised Monica she wouldn’t talk to the police, she told herself. She didn’t tell Kurt because she didn’t want to break her promise, that’s all. And that is a very convenient excuse, the voice of her conscience said. You didn’t tell him because
don’t want anyone to know, either.
Not coming forward to tell the truth thirteen years ago was a shameful, craven act she could never forgive herself for and wouldn’t expect anyone else to forgive. Isn’t that why she’d broken her engagement to Bill Haynes five years ago? She’d tried a dozen times but couldn’t bring herself to tell him. Obviously Denise had been able to marry without baring her secret, but Laurel would not pledge herself to a man who didn’t know the truth, whom she felt could not
the truth and still love her.
Last night Kurt had stayed for an hour asking questions. He seemed frustrated she couldn’t tell him more about the car except that it was large and dark. He badgered her for a description of the front grillwork, the placement of the headlights, whether or not there had been a hood ornament, until she was nearly in tears. “Kurt, I was being chased down the hill, rammed for God’s sake. I was trying to keep my own car on the road, not studying the grillwork of the other car.”
At last he relented, apologizing for his persistence. He asked if she wanted him to stay the night and she said no so definitely that he looked slightly hurt, but in spite of her fear she needed to be alone to think about her meeting with Monica, Denise, and Crystal, and especially what had followed. Before he reluctantly left, Kurt insisted on checking every door and window, told her he would buy Mace for her and take the car to several garages for estimates on the cost of fixing the damage because “mechanics think they can get away with highway robbery when they’re dealing with a woman. Besides, the other car must have sustained a little damage. I can ask if any cars with dented grillwork have been brought in.”
“Thank you, Kurt,” Laurel said. “That’s great of you.”
“Checking garages about the other car is just part of my job,” he assured her. Then he looked at April and Alex, who for some reason never came near him. They stood together near the fireplace, looking at him warily. “I wish you had a real watch dog instead of those two cowards.”
“I like these two just fine,” Laurel said tartly. “And they are
Kurt smiled. “I’ve never known anyone so touchy about a dog. I didn’t mean to insult you, but you should think about getting a Doberman, one that’s trained to attack.”
“I don’t want an attack dog,” Laurel said stubbornly. “April and Alex can protect me just fine.”
“Yeah, sure. They look like it.”
Laurel glared at him and he let the matter drop. Finally, on his way out, Kurt retrieved her pretty Christmas wreath from the shrubbery and rehung it. “I’ll throw this one away,” he said, holding up the funeral wreath.
“You’re not going to check it for hair and fibers?”
“Laurel, this is not a crime scene and we don’t live in New York City or Los Angeles. We don’t have a forensics lab downtown.”
“I’m kidding, Kurt. I’ll keep it for a closer look. Maybe I can get an idea of where it was made.”
He shrugged. “You know more about this kind of thing than I do. See you tomorrow, honey. If anything happens, let me know immediately.”
After he left, she’d studied the wreath. The wreath form was exactly like the ones they used at Damron Floral, but that didn’t mean anything. Probably every floral shop in the area ordered wreath forms from the same wholesaler. There was also nothing distinctive about the flowers, although Laurel rarely bought white silk lilies. She carried many silk flower arrangements for household decoration. Sometimes people ordered artificial flower arrangements for funerals, and often she used silk flowers, sometimes lilies, to brighten up planters, and of course at Easter many churches ordered live lilies in vases to place on the altar in honor of those who had died during the past year. At this time of year, though, lilies of any color weren’t too popular.
The flowers and the black leaves were wired onto the form with ordinary .22 gauge floral wire. There was nothing unusual about the wreath except that funeral wreaths seemed to be a thing of the past. Laurel had never had an order for one. Nevertheless, she decided to take the wreath to the store with her and see if it elicited any reaction from Mary.
The night had been long and dream-torn, images of fire and of plunging off a hillside in her car constantly awakening her. Now, driving into town to the store, she felt more tired than when she’d gone to bed.
Laurel stopped at a bakery for pastries and tried to stifle huge yawns while she waited for her order to be filled. Ten minutes later she pulled her battered car into its usual parking place, carried the wreath inside, tucked it in a cabinet, and started the coffee. She hadn’t eaten at home and was halfway finished with a Danish and a fresh cup of coffee when Penny and Norma arrived. “Where’s Mary?” Norma asked. They were mother and daughter, but Norma looked only slightly older than her twenty-two-year-old daughter. They had dark, shiny hair in identical pixie cuts, dark brown eyes, and small, compact bodies. They wore jeans and sweatshirts in the winter, jeans and T-shirts in the summer. “Mary’s always here before we are.”
“Help yourself to some pastry,” Laurel said. “Mary hasn’t called in, so I assume she’s coming. She’s only ten minutes later than usual.”
Another fifteen minutes passed before Mary appeared, pale and flustered. “Laurel, I’m so sorry to be late,” she said in a rush, shrugging out of her coat. “This wasn’t a good morning for Papa.”
Mary still lived with her father, Zeke Howard, whose wife, Genevra, had deserted the family when they lived in Pittsburgh and Mary was two, Faith six. Shortly afterward they’d moved to Wheeling. “What’s wrong?” Laurel asked. “Is he sick?”
Mary hesitated. “Not physically. It’s just that…well, his mind seems to be going.” She gave Laurel a half smile. “I know most people in town think he’s never been in full possession of his faculties, but he was. He just has a different way of looking at religion. Now he’s getting strange. He gets confused easily and he forgets things.”
“Everyone forgets things, especially when they’re older.”
“He’s not a
forgetful.” Mary closed her eyes. “This morning I found him wandering outside looking for Faith. He was terribly upset. I had quite a time getting him back inside and convincing him that Faith is dead.”
“Oh?” was all Laurel could manage.
“Yes. Then he started sobbing that Faith didn’t kill herself. She knew suicide was a sin and she wouldn’t commit a sin.” Laurel looked at her in silence as Mary poured a cup of coffee. “I guess he’s forgotten that she was unmarried and pregnant. She wasn’t the saint he remembers.” She sighed. “But I still miss her so much. I adored her. I don’t think I’ll ever get over her death.”
Laurel wanted to run from the room, but she forced herself to ask casually, “Did your father always believe Faith didn’t commit suicide?”
Mary frowned. “I honestly don’t know. He refused to talk about her death until lately. But the last couple of months I keep coming home to find him in the attic going through her things.”
“You kept her things?”
“Oh yes, everything.” Mary stirred milk into her coffee and reached for a doughnut. “After her death I carried it all to the attic.
.” She looked at Laurel. “Is something wrong?”
Laurel’s mouth was dry. “No. It was just so sad. Faith’s death, I mean.” Her chest felt tight as she fought for composure. Was it her imagination or was Mary taunting her? “Is your father all right now?”
“Yes. The doctor prescribed Valium about a month ago. I gave him one.”
“If you feel you should go home—”
“No. He was settling down by the time I left. He’ll be fine. Once again, I’m sorry I’m late. I’d better get to work.”
Laurel stood in the kitchen after Mary left. She pretended to be wiping off the counter in order to hide her turmoil. What had bothered her so much about the exchange with Mary? Was it the almost challenging way Mary had looked at Laurel after she announced she’d saved everything of Faith’s? What comprised
? Clothes. Photos. Faith’s school photos, no doubt. And what about papers? Letters or a diary,
in which Faith wrote about the Six of Hearts? Perhaps Mary had known about the club all along or maybe she had learned of it when Zeke began rummaging through all of Faith’s papers and Mary had taken a second, closer look. Did she and Zeke now know about the Six of Hearts?