Authors: Janet McNulty
Tags: #Mystery: Cozy - Paranormal - Ghosts - Vermont
The next morning Jackie and I showed up at the barn in jeans and t-shirts. We told my aunt that the outfits she had bought us had suffered some unfortunate accident at breakfast. You know, the kind of accident where you rip it to shreds with a pair of scissors and stuff it in the trash can.
That morning, my aunt had signed us up for a lesson on how to properly care for horses. Sounded pleasant enough and big animals didn’t frighten me. We waited with some others for the teacher to show up. Turned out that the man who was to teach us about horses was the foreman himself, Joe.
“Morning everyone,” said Joe as he walked up to the corral.
I looked around at the people who had shown up. One woman, who looked to be in her early twenties, stood with a bored stance checking her fingernails. I learned that her name was Liz. She was one of those aspiring actresses from Los Angeles hoping to make it big.
“I’m only here to do research for a part,” she had told me when I asked her.
It looked to me that she was learning how to freeze her butt off in designer clothes.
“Snob,” muttered Jackie in my ear.
“Today we will be learning the proper way to groom a horse,’” continued Joe, “Poppy, bring everyone a horse.”
A tall man with a grumpy expression went into the barn and brought a horse for each of us.
“Now,” said Joe, “I want you each to pick up the brush.” He raised the brush in his hand so we would know what it looked like. “And then you will carefully stroke your horse like this.”
“Uh,” said Liz, “That will mess up my manicure.”
“You’re welcome to leave,” answered Joe, clearly annoyed.
I shared his sentiment.
The woman next to me held her brush at arm’s length while trying to stroke her animal. She had a pained, disgusted look on her face.
“Her name’s Mary,” said Jackie, “I heard some of the others talking about her. A germ-a-phobe who’s here to get over her fear of germs.”
She and I both giggled a little about that. I didn’t think she was off to a good start.
“And those two,” Jackie continued, “are called Gil and Stark.”
The men she referred two dropped their brush, which scared the horse and caused it to knock one of them over.
“The Apple Dumpling gang of the west,” snickered Jackie. “I was watching them at breakfast. They’re not too bright.”
“How is it you seem to know everything?” I asked.
“I pay attention.”
“Hey you two,” said Joe, pointing at us, “Get to work. If you don’t want to be here, then go somewhere else.”
Frowning, Jackie went back to her horse.
I stared at mine unsure of what to do. Every time I reached out to stroke it with the brush, it snorted and moved.
“Come on you,” I muttered, “I just want to brush you.”
The horse snorted again and stepped forward; this time hitting my foot.
“You’re scaring her,” said a voice.
I looked up into the eyes of a man I hadn’t remembered seeing on the grounds. “What?”
“You’re moving too fast,” said the man, “You need to be more gentle. Like this.”
He took the brush from me. With practiced movements, he reached up and gently stroked the back of the horse in long strokes. While grooming the animal, th
e man talked soothingly to it.
“See? Like that. Now you try it.”
I took the brush from him.
“There you go. Long, gentle strokes. And don’t be afraid to talk to the animal.”
I followed the man’s directions. After a while, the horse seemed to have warmed up to me and remained still so that I could finish grooming it.
“Now you seem to be getting the hang of it,” said the man.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Jedidiah.” The man tipped his big hat to me with a bit of straw clenched between his teeth.
“Good job,” said Joe as he walked up. “You’d make a fair horse groomer.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Jedidiah had disappeared. I figured he just went to help someone else.
“Alright,” said Joe, “Next we will learn how to saddle a horse and start riding.”
A scream echoed around us. Mary’s horse had pooped right on her foot causing her to run away in a panic. She shouted something about viruses and bacteria while she darted inside.
“That is so disgusting,” said Liz as she watched the commotion.
Joe ran his fingers over his face in aggravation. I felt for him. “Poppy, the saddles.”
Poppy came out with a saddle for each horse. The next twenty minutes were spent listening to Joe explain how to properly put a saddle on a horse and cinch it up. He explained every detail before letting us try. To my surprise, Aunt Ethel got hers on in the first go.
A scuffle drew my attention. Gil and Stark both lay face down in the mud with the saddle on top of both of them as their horse galloped away. Not too bright was right.
After another half hour of watching a bunch of inept city folk attempt to saddle a hors
e, Joe had had enough.
“City folk,” he muttered to himself. “All right, everyone, that’s it for today. Same time tomorrow if you’re still interested. And assuming I don’t drink myself into a stupor from all this nonsense.”
I didn’t think that last bit was meant to be heard. Most acted as though they hadn’t understood a word out of his mouth anyway.
went their separate ways. Since lunchtime had rolled around, Jackie and I decided to head for the cafeteria/diner they had inside.
“Find us a table,” I told Jackie, “I need to get a spare key for our room.”
Jackie and I parted. I went to the front desk where the lady from the day before sat reading a travel magazine. “Hi,” I said, “I need a spare key from room 206.”
The woman put her magazine down sighing heavily. She walked to the mess of keys behind her and grabbed one. “Anything else?” she said as she handed me the key.
“No. Thank you.”
A couple of voices caught my attention. I moved closer, hiding behind some shelves, not wanting to be noticed.
“I’m telling you his name was Michael Evans,” said one. “He was here from Chicago.”
“Do you know why?” asked the other.
“Probably to experience the Old West like everyone else who’s here. The guy was a pawn broker going on about how he had found something important. Wouldn’t stop talking about it.”
“No wonder he got murdered.”
“Yeah, well, pawn brokers aren’t the most loved people anyway. And I hear that he was a bit of a shyster. Always conned people out of their precious items for way less than they were worth. Then, he’d sell them at a really marked up price.”
“Maybe the killer did us a favor.”
The other laughed. “Maybe.”
The two men walked off continuing their conversation elsewhere. I headed for the cafeteria and found Jackie waiting for me at a table near a window.
“Where’s Aunt Ethel?” I asked.
“She said something about having a prior engagement.”
“Engagement? Like a date?”
“Not a pleasant thought is it? Hey, how’d you get so good at dealing with horses? You’ve never been around them your entire life.”
“Some guy helped me,” I said.
“Well, was he?”
“Yeah, I suppose. Well, he was older, but not bad. But don’t tell Greg.”
“Oh, come on you’re allowed to look,” said Jackie with a smirk.
A bout of laughter interrupted our conversation.
“Rachel,” I said, “We can’t see you.”
Rachel materialized beside us allowing us to see her, but not anyone else.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“You,” said Rachel. “You thought that guy was good looking.”
“Why is that so funny?”
“Because he’s a ghost,” Rachel blurted out. “You thought a ghost was cute!” She started another round of laughter shaking the entire table. All anyone else saw was a table moving by itself.
Jackie and I grabbed hold of it attempting to stop its rocking motion.
“Uneven legs,” I smiled at a couple that passed by. “Rachel, stop it. You’re drawing people’s attention!”
“Really? I’ll show you how to attract attention.”
Rachel took my wallet from my purse and walked over to the salad bar. She picked up two premade salads and went to the cashier. “How much?”
“The lady at the cashier didn’t even look up. “$8.50.”
“Here you go.” Rachel handed her a ten dollar bill and accepted the change.
Only then did the cashier look up. She did a double take as the salads and my wallet floated across the room to where Jackie and I sat.
“Bon apetit!” Rachel placed the tray in front of us.
Jackie and I opened our salads while I scanned the area hoping no one watched us. I thought I saw Poppy looking at me, but he jerked away the moment I turned in his direction. Strange fellow, I thought.
“Salt?” asked Jackie.
Rachel reached over and snatched a salt shaker from someone’s hand before handing it to Jackie. The poor guy just that there with a perplexed look on his face trying to figure what just happened.
“You’ll never guess what I found out about the dead guy in our room,” I said leaning close to Jackie.
“Two guys were talking about him in the lobby. Apparently he was a pawn broker from Chicago going on about discovering something big—something that meant a lot of money.”
“What did he discover?” asked Jackie.
“They didn’t know. But I’m willing to bet that that was why he was killed.”
“Well, this time we should let the cops handle it,” said Jackie. “You remember what Detective Shorts said. And he can’t bail you out this time. Why don’t we forget about the murder and actually enjoy ourselves for once.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I reluctantly agreed. After all, I didn’t have my usual friends here to help me.
“Oh, there you are, darling,” said Aunt Ethel as she sat next to us. “I’m glad you two got started already. I was a little busy. Anyway, I heard there is a great antique shop in town. We should all go there this afternoon.”
Jackie and I both groaned. Neither of us liked antiquing, but it was Aunt Ethel’s favorite pastime. Knowing there was no getting out of it, we agreed.
“Perfect!” Aunt Ethel picked up her bag. “I’ll see you both after lunch and don’t be late.”
“Don’t be late she says,” muttered Jackie. “Maybe we should just not show up.”
I glared at her.
“What? She never said anything about making sure we were there.”
“It’s sort of implied.”
We took my car to town, which was about twenty miles away. Aunt Ethel sat in the back with pursed lips. She did not approve of the paint job on my car.
“I do hope that you plan to get this repainted,” she said.
“Yes, Aunt Ethel,” I replied.
The thirty minute car ride consisted of Jackie and I listening to Aunt Ethel drone on about various antiques and how they would make a nice addition to her home. Relief flooded over me when we finally pulled into the one-street town. I park in the nearest available space.
“Aunt Ethel,” I said, “Jackie and I thought we would look around at some of the other shops. We don’t really feel like antiquing.”
“Well, all right, dear,” said Aunt Ethel with slight disappointment. “Stay out of trouble.”
I waved Jackie onward. We cruised the various tables set up with all sorts of things for tourists to spend money on. Some claimed to have real Indian artifacts. Others had homemade quilts and recipe books with the sort of recipes used by the pioneers.
I walked past all of them. Their stuff looked nice; I just didn’t feel like spending money. Besides, my suitcase only held so much and I wasn’t going to load my car up with stuff I didn’t need.
Someone grabbed my arm and yanked me aside. “Hey!”
“Shush,” said Rachel. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Yeah. For finding the killer.” Rachel gave me an expectant look.
“This time I thought I’d let the cops handle it.”
Rachel placed her hands on her hips. “Oh, so Mel no longer wants to solve mysteries.”
“It’s not that,” I said, “It’s just it might be best if I didn’t get involved.”
“Considering the dead guy was found in your room, I’d say you’re already involved. Come on. Jedidiah said that that Michael Evans was snooping around for the last week.”
“Jedidiah?” said Jackie.
“Yeah. He’s inside waiting for us. Said that that Michael came here a lot. Come on.”