Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery) (10 page)

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
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“The wolf I feed will control me,” he said. “So if you stay angry, you feed the angry wolf. He grows strong and powerful, and will take over.”

“He’ll control me?” Amabel asked, sounding a little afraid.

The grandfather nodded.

“Then I will only feed the gentle wolf. I won’t fight with the boy who was mean to me.”

“That is good,” the grandfather said and handed his mask to Amabel. “But he still lives in you. You cannot change that. We all have two wolves within us. Feed the gentle wolf and starve the angry one.”

And with that, Amabel raised the snarling mask and growled quietly while Greg Rapson took the grinning wolf face, hopping around in a circle, howling. His antics made the children laugh, and eventually, Amabel crept away.

Shedding their masks and mop head tails, the pair told several more stories, each longer and more elaborate than the last. Greg tried to dominate the performance, but Amabel’s facial expressions were more engaging than his theatrics.

As she watched the two of them, Olivia couldn’t help but wonder why people who competed against one another for prizes and grants would come together once a year to share tricks of the trade. Flynn had explained that the annual retreat was held in different locations and that having the members of the Southern Storytellers Network come to Oyster Bay would be a boon for his store and for the town, but Olivia hadn’t realized how much the gathering mattered to the performers The entire notion seemed odd to her, but perhaps the bookstore event was an example of how they needed to work together in order to earn money.

When the performance was over, Flynn showed the children a display of picture and easy-reader books he’d set out as a tie-in to the afternoon’s experience. There were tall tales and legends, fairy tales, Cherokee stories, a biography of Paul Bunyan, fables, nonfiction works on wolves and forest animals, and many more.

After clapping loudly, the children rushed the table. They grabbed armloads of books before racing back to their parents with cries of, “Can I have this? Pleasepleaseplease!”

Laurel tried to fend off double entreaties from her twins while Olivia beckoned Caitlyn to join her at the table where the storytellers sat handing out fliers listing their school programs and other regional events.

“That was fun,” Caitlyn told Amabel, who rewarded her with a smile and a paper wolf mask to color. Caitlyn hurried off to show her mother her prize.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Olivia told Amabel softly.

Amabel drew back, immediately wary. Instead of acknowledging the remark, she merely thanked Olivia for coming and turned to look at Millay again.

“I think you guys were better than she was,” Millay muttered quietly. “You’re out here in the middle of the day. No stage. No special lighting. Only a few simple props. You two are the real deal.”

Amabel and Greg were both clearly pleased by the compliment. “Have you been to many of our events?” Greg asked.

Millay gave a noncommittal shrug. “I’m into stories. Mine are the written kind. Not to brag or anything, but I just signed with a literary agent, so I know what it takes to put everything you’ve got into your work.” She looked at Amabel. “See, most people can’t understand why you do this when you already have a totally respectable job. It’s not about the money, right? For me, it’s about getting people to listen. Moving them with words. Kind of being in charge of them. TV, movies, the Internet—all that stuff uses bells and whistles. It’s a trick. It’s not art.”

“Where have you been all my life?” Greg asked, and Olivia peered over the edge of a flier to note that his ring finger was bare. He was staring at Millay as if he wanted to memorize every part of her.

Millay’s mouth curved into a suggestive smile. “Right here. Waiting.” She then turned her attention to Amabel. “Seriously, I’d love to hang out with you guys. The bummer is that I have to work. The bills keep piling up, you know, and my writing hasn’t paid crap so far. But I’d like to buy you a round if you’re free tonight. I’m a bartender, and I can do whatever I want behind that counter.”

Greg immediately accepted, but Amabel hesitated. “I’m supposed to get together with some of the other storytellers,” she said. “Our annual retreat is a chance to find out which schools and libraries still have enough money in their budgets to hire people like us. And I’m not sure if tomorrow’s any better. A group of us, including Greg here, have plans to meet at The Bayside Crab House for dinner. We all have coupons for half-priced entrées.”

“Then we’re all in luck because I work at The Bayside Crab House.” Keeping a straight face, Millay gestured at Olivia. “So does she. The food’s awesome and the coupons will go a long way, but sitting at the bar will help even more. Isn’t that true, Olivia?”

Olivia nodded. “Absolutely. I can reserve seats for you if you’d like.”

The offer was too sweet for the storytellers to refuse. Amabel told Olivia to expect a party of six for dinner and drinks.

“See you tomorrow night,” Millay called sweetly. She and Olivia then joined those waiting in line to check out.

At Olivia’s insistence, Caitlyn selected a book of Jack tales and an easy reader about a group of problem-solving mermaids. She’d also picked out a
Rainbow Fish
board book for Anders. Clasping all three books against her chest, she danced from foot to foot, clearly impatient for the line to move faster. Olivia guessed her niece was eager to get home, to fly down the hallway into her room, and spend the rest of the day reading in the pink beanbag chair Olivia had given her for her birthday. Olivia had had a special reading place when she was a girl too. She liked to sneak a book up the lighthouse stairs and through the door outside to the balcony. There was a full-time lighthouse keeper back then, and he’d reprimanded her once or twice, but after a while, he pretended not to notice the skinny child with the freckles and large sea-blue eyes. After all, she didn’t say much—just smiled shyly and then buried her face in her book.

“Ready?” the cashier asked, recalling Olivia to the present.

“You caught me gathering wool.” With an apologetic smile, Olivia placed the books on the counter and turned to Millay. “What about Fish Nets?”

“I’ll tell my boss I’m sick,” she said. “The guy I split my shifts with needs the money, and I only blow off work when something really important comes up. Some lies are necessary.”

Olivia accepted the bag of books from the cashier and handed them to her niece. Caitlyn thanked her, kissed her on the cheek, and went to show her mother her new acquisitions. Olivia led Millay to the corner where the free coffee station had been placed. Ignoring Flynn’s watery bookshop blend, she touched Millay on the arm. “We all tell lies, but there are times when the truth is best.” She lowered her voice. “I talked with Harris last night and he is miserable. I’m not trying to interfere, but one woman to another, it’s time to fish or cut bait.”

A shadow crossed Millay’s face. “What’s going on between me and Harris is more complicated than a fishing metaphor.”

“Crossroads always are,” Olivia agreed. “Trust me, I’m standing at one myself. And I don’t like it at all. I was perfectly content with the road I was on.”

“Well, that’s better than anyplace I’ve ever been. Contentment sounds pretty nice.” Millay picked up a plastic coffee stirrer and twisted it between her fingers. “I’m never happy for long. I don’t know why. I just can’t seem to hang on to anything good.”

Olivia didn’t know what to say to that, so she remained silent. Laurel signaled to them from the back of the line, and they joined her while she tried to wrestle a 3-D pirate bookmark from Dermot’s hand.

“Should we hang around?” she asked. “See if anything happens?”

Olivia shook her head. “It’s not like the storytellers will show their true colors in front of this crowd. Besides, I expect Rawlings or one of his men to show up any minute now.”

Laurel tried to get the bookmark away from Dermot again, but the little boy was too quick.

“Guess what I heard when I was paying for my books?” Olivia whispered theatrically, and Dermot stopped wriggling long enough to listen. “I heard that any child who doesn’t listen to his mother won’t get one of the really cool masks they’re giving away. You can pick the calm wolf or the angry wolf. Which one would you choose, Dermot?”

Instead of replying, Dermot sprinted to the bookmark spinner, returned the 3-D pirate bookmark to its proper spot, and stood straight as an arrow at Laurel’s side.

“I didn’t realize you were the Child Whisperer,” Laurel teased. She gestured to where Steve was trying to get Dallas to clean up the pile of books he’d strewn across the floor. “Want to work another miracle?” She kissed Dermot on top of his head. “Go tell your brother about the mask.”

He ran to the next room and grabbed his twin by the straps of his overalls. Dallas was about to protest when Dermot pointed at the storyteller’s table. After a long pause, in which Dallas seemed to be weighing whether he’d rather have a mask or further annoy his father, he picked up the books.

The twins were the last in line to meet Amabel and Greg, and Laurel let them rush off to show Steve their masks before shaking the storytellers’ hands and showering them with compliments. They spoke with her warmly enough, but the moment she walked away, Amabel’s eyes followed her distrustfully. Greg couldn’t stop shooting lecherous glances at Millay.

“As if he’d ever have a shot,” Millay said under her breath. “I’m cool with older guys, but not older guys who are thinking X-rated thoughts in a room full of kids. That’s just nasty.”

The two women tarried by a set of shelves filled with Outer Banks and coastal Carolina books. Olivia leafed through a book on indigenous flora and fauna wondering if Oyster Bay would ever turn green again. She missed the purplish pink of the large swamp flowers, the cheerful yellow buds of Saint-John’s-wort, and the star-shaped petals of the dotted horsemint. Even the fiery blossoms of the gaillardia, which the locals called the Indian Blanket, were no longer sprinkling the dunes with color. Only the sea oats, with their thin stalks and brown, featherlike heads, flourished.

Eventually, only the storytellers and a handful of customers remained in the store. Olivia covertly observed Flynn’s interaction with Amabel and Greg. He thanked them both for coming and vigorously shook their hands. They chatted for a moment and then Greg left. Amabel lingered behind, but Flynn had turned away to speak with a customer.

As soon as he was free again, Amabel shouldered her purse and walked up to him. She leaned in, put her palm flat on his chest with an intimacy that clearly surprised him, and whispered into his ear. His eyes went wide, and she laughed at his reaction. She walked out of the bookstore, and he watched her cross the street. Flynn’s body was still as a stone, but Olivia craned her neck so she could follow Amabel’s progress. A police cruiser was parked at the end of the block.

“What was that about?” Millay said, having witnessed the odd interaction.

Suddenly, Olivia remembered how Flynn had introduced the storytellers. She drew in a sharp breath. “Flynn told the audience that Amabel was from the mountains. He said, ‘one of them is from the mountains
like me.
’”

Millay frowned in confusion. “I thought Flynn moved to Oyster Bay from the Raleigh area.”

“Me too. But where was he before that? Does he know some of the storytellers he invited here?” Olivia studied Flynn as he shook himself free of his trance and began straightening a table of new hardcovers. Glancing down at the floor, he bent over to pick up one of the white paper wolf masks. He straightened and eyed it thoughtfully, his expression unreadable. “Which wolf are you, Flynn McNulty?” Olivia asked in a low and troubled voice.

Chapter 9

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp.


U
RSULA
K
.
L
E
G
UIN

O
livia took Haviland to the dog park and sat on a bench in the shade while he chased squirrels and sniffed the base of every bush and tree. When he was panting heavily, Olivia poured water into his travel bowl and watched him lap it up while she wondered what to do next. She had plenty of time to dwell on the riddle of Violetta’s death, which seemed to grow more complicated with every passing hour.

After Haviland cooled down a little, Olivia told him to heel and headed to Circa, Oyster Bay’s antique shop. The proprietor, Fred Yoder, had become a friend of hers, and she often stopped by to browse his wares or to join him when he took Duncan, his Westie, to the park.

Inside Circa, Fred was busy showing a sword belt to a customer. “It’s in amazing condition,” he told a middle-aged man in khaki pants and a polo shirt. “The belt plate shows the seal of Virginia, the state motto, and the two brass hangers are intact. The leather has been repaired here, below the wreath, and it was skillfully done.”

The customer was obviously interested in the belt. He couldn’t stop touching it. “I was supposed to be looking for an eglomise mirror. My wife will kill me if I come home with this instead.”

Fred smiled. “Well, we can’t have that. Take your time looking around. I’ll be right back.”

“Where’s Duncan?” Olivia asked when he came over to greet her.

“Asleep in the kitchen. He’s gotten so lazy that he no longer bothers to get up when the bell above the door rings.” He took Haviland’s paw and shook it respectfully. “Some guard dog, eh?”

Haviland rolled his eyes, which was the canine equivalent of a shrug. Fred laughed and gave him a hearty pat on his back.

Olivia gestured at the man examining the belt. “I don’t want to interrupt,” she whispered. “I can see that you’ve got a fish on your line.”

Fred waved off the notion. “It’s best to give people space where they’re trying to make a decision. And that isn’t an inexpensive item. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”

“I’d better not. In truth, I stopped by to ask if you could think of an antique specific to the Appalachia region. Something very valuable.”

Frowning, Fred rubbed his chin and gave the matter serious thought. “Appalachian antiques? Nothing of note comes to mind. When I come across things from that area, they’re usually quilts, woven rugs, and other textiles. Old farming equipment, tools, household goods like lanterns or tins, but nothing like that sword belt over there. Nothing to give a shop owner the tingles.” He glanced around his establishment. “Honestly, when I think of that part of North Carolina, I think of coal.”

“Me too,” Olivia said. “What about silver coins?”

Fred considered the question. “Possibly. Silver was a common form of currency before paper bills came along. They were probably circulated even longer in remote parts of the country, but the mountains aren’t known for being caches of rare coins. I’ve always had the feeling that the people of Appalachia had to use every cent they could lay their hands on just to get by. It’s a hard place, isn’t it?”

“I believe so, yes. That’s why I keep hitting a wall. I’m trying to figure out what might have been passed down from generation to generation in a mountain family—something that was valuable a long time ago and still worth a notable sum today. But I can’t think of a single object.”

At that moment, the customer turned to Fred and grinned. “What the hell? I’m going to get it! I might spend a few nights in the doghouse, but it’s worth it.”

“Sure thing, sir. I’ll be there directly.” Fred smiled and looked at Olivia. “Give me some time to think about your question. Maybe the family had ancestors who lived in a city or immigrated to Appalachia from another country. Maybe that relative brought a prized possession from another area with them. That’s the only theory I can come up with at the moment, but I’ll post a query on my antique forums and see if I get a nibble.”

Olivia thanked him, accepted a treat for Haviland, and drove home.

In the spacious silence of her house, she did something she often did when she was having a hard time solving a problem.

Opening her hall closet, she selected one of dozens of jumbo glass pickle jars from the shelf. She carried one from five summers ago to the Aubusson rug in the living room and got down on her knees. Unscrewing the jar lid, she inhaled a wisp of salt water and then overturned the contents onto the rug. She ran her fingers over shotgun shells, rings, coins, and belt buckles as names passed through her mind. Greg Rapson, Amabel Hammond, Lowell Reid, Dewey Whitt, and Violetta Devereaux.

“Would Greg really commit murder because he was jealous of another storyteller? He must have a better motive to be viewed as a realistic suspect. Money, perhaps? I wonder how much college professors take home?” Olivia addressed her comments to a battered wheat penny. “After all, there’s no guarantee that he’ll win future competitions even with Violetta out of the picture.”

Olivia let the penny drop and reached for a ball-shaped earring. “And Flynn? Why would he kill a woman he’d invited here to perform? Unless there was another reason he wanted her to come to Oyster Bay. But what would that be?”

Tossing the earring aside, she caressed the smooth surface of a brass buckle and considered Lowell. “What about the thief? Was he biding his time? Waiting until this performance to make his move? Did he want information or was Violetta carrying something on her person? Was he hoping Dixie would hide him after he’d gotten what he wanted?”

She drew the buckle closer. There were too many questions surrounding Lowell Reid. And then there was Amabel. A poor girl from the mountains with the kind of innate intelligence that won her academic scholarships and the chance to escape her family’s hardscrabble lifestyle. Later, after Violetta was already gone, Mabel became a full-time college professor and part-time storyteller. But was the girl named Mabel truly gone? The girl who’d lived in her younger sister’s shadow for years. The girl who had probably fought to be seen and heard in a house haunted by the memory of her brother.

Olivia assigned a shotgun shell to Amabel, believing she was probably a volatile and unpredictable creature. She might be cool and smooth on the outside, but surely some part of Mabel still existed inside Amabel’s calm and collected casing. If not, why take up storytelling at all? Why cling to a past that was Mabel’s if Amabel wanted to deny her existence?

Dewey’s symbol was a silver St. Christopher’s pendant because Olivia pictured the mountain guide as someone who had the ability to lead travelers to safety. Even on a snowy night. The question was, did he lead Hicks where he wanted to go or did he lure him to his death?

“What was up there, Professor Hicks? What did you hope to find?” she asked the assortment of beach trash and treasures, but the metal objects remained mute.

Scooping her collection back into the jar, Olivia screwed on the lid and stood up. She walked around the living room, hoping for insight, but her efforts had only created more questions. Coming to a stop in front of a Limoges pillbox on the bookshelf, she picked up the diminutive piece, smiling a little as she touched the tiny hand-painted poodle resting on a pillow of deep blue. The French words on the bottom of the box gave her pause.

“Devereaux is French. What did this French family do before they were forced to scratch a meager living from the land? Where did they start out?”

Returning the box to its precise place on the shelf, Olivia picked up the phone and dialed Harris’s number.

“I hope you’re about to tell me about some incredible Happy Hour specials. I could definitely use a Happy Hour right about now.” Harris sounded out of sorts.

“How about coming to my house? I have beer and wine. Well, there’s a decent supply at the lighthouse keeper’s cottage anyway.”

Harris hesitated. “We usually go there to solve problems, don’t we?” he said absently, as if he’d forgotten that Olivia was on the other end of the line. “Okay. Yeah. We’ll have a drink, and then I can tell you what I found. I spent my lunch break researching Violetta and her family. It wasn’t enough, but I did come across a few interesting tidbits.”

“Then quit teasing me and get over here. I might even have some cheese in the fridge, and I could rustle up a package of crackers. I don’t know how fresh they are—”

“Just dump everything you have on a plate. You know I’ll eat it. I’ll be there in ten.”

Olivia and Haviland walked the short distance from the main house to the cottage, keeping their faces lowered against the heat of the late-day sun. The gravel crunched beneath their feet and clouds of dust trailed in their wake like diaphanous tumbleweeds.

Olivia had just arranged a platter of food when Harris burst into the cottage. He tossed his briefcase on the sofa, yanked his tie loose, and kicked off his shoes. “It’s hot,” he complained. “And no matter how much I drink, I still feel thirsty.”

“That’s how the drought affects your body. Here. This should help.” Olivia handed him a beer in a chilled pint glass.

He took a greedy swallow. “So
this
is what Nirvana tastes like.”

Olivia tried to be patient, but she was eager to learn what Harris had discovered. Edging closer to him, she drummed her fingertips on the countertop.

Harris watched her and grinned. “Okay, I can see that you’re in no mood for small talk, so here’s what I found.” He pulled a few sheaves of paper from his briefcase. “Violetta’s family hasn’t always been from Whaley. In fact, her grandfather wasn’t born there. Her grandmother was, but Grandpa Quentin moved down South from New York City.”

“New York?” Olivia hadn’t expected that.

Harris nodded. “Yep. I found a record of his Whaley land purchase. He married Virginia Bumgarner pretty soon after that.”

Olivia winced. “I can see why she took his surname.”

“Quentin was fifteen years older than her too, the sly devil. I found all kinds of results using an online database, including birth records for their children and Josiah’s children. And a bunch of death certificates. Between the two generations there were three kids who didn’t make it past the age of eight.” He put the papers down and drank more beer. “It was really depressing to look at those documents. To read their names and wonder how they died. Did they get sick? Did they have an accident? One of the certificates listed the cause of death as ‘Drowned.’ A single word.”

“That’s terrible.” A chill crept into the room, accompanied by the first shadows of the evening. “What about Josiah’s children? Did you find Elijah’s death certificate?”

“Yeah. The cause of death was cited as ‘Unknown illness.’” Harris sighed. “And someone, the doctor I guess, wrote a line underneath about the deceased having blue lips and face. That seemed like a strange thing to make a note on. After all, Elijah died in the middle of winter and who knows how much time passed before anyone outside the family had the chance to examine the poor kid.”

Olivia hesitated and then folded her arms over her chest. “Harris, I’m going to tell you something in confidence. You cannot breathe a word about this to anyone. Got it?”

Harris straightened. “Whenever you look at me like that I want to curl up and hide. But I’ll keep my mouth shut. Scouts honor.”

“No one knows this, but Violetta was blue skinned.”

“That’s not really a secret, it is?” Harris was clearly disappointed. “I mean, she was strangled.”

Olivia shook her head. “Asphyxiated, but that’s not what I’m saying. She had a blood disorder. A rare one, I assume. She was blue
everywhere
.”

“Whoa.” Harris opened his eyes wide. “Seriously? Cool.” He grabbed his laptop from his briefcase, flipped up the lid, and began to type. “You ready for this mouthful? The condition is called Methemoglobinemia. And I’m only saying that right because there’s a pronunciation guide on this page.”

“I’m still impressed,” Olivia said.

Grinning, Harris continued to study the screen. “Basically, once you translate the fancy med speak, it’s a condition in which a person’s blood has a higher amount of a particular hemoglobin than normal. It’s called methemoglobin, and it can’t release oxygen. This gives people a bluish tinge. It can be a hereditary genetic condition or an acquired one.”

Olivia’s brows shot up. “You can catch it?”

Harris nodded. “From repeated exposure to certain antibiotics, nitrates, and anesthetics. The second kind is worse because it comes with other symptoms. If you inherit it, you look like a Smurf, but if it’s acquired, you can also suffer from fatigue, headaches, and shortness of breath.”

“Grumpy’s parents described Josiah as being pretty reclusive. Maybe he had the condition too. And if so, was it passed down to only Violetta or to her siblings as well?”

“Depends if the mom was a carrier, I guess.” Frowning, Harris kept reading. “Even if Elijah had Methemoglobinemia, I don’t think it killed him. Unless he and Violetta were both exposed to the same nitrates or antibiotics. Maybe they both got sick, but she recovered.”

Olivia considered this. “The Devereaux kids did sell wild plants to drug companies. Maybe they traded the plants for antibiotics. We’ll have to find out from Violetta’s sister.” She told Harris that Rawlings had probably spent the latter part of the afternoon interviewing Amabel.

At that moment, her stomach issued a loud gurgle, and Harris gestured at the nearly empty plate in front of him. “Cheese? Cracker?”

“No, thanks. I’m in the mood for a Florentine Pizza. How about you?”

“Hey, if you’re ordering, I’ll take a ham and pineapple.” Harris gave his flat belly a pat. “I’m more than willing to drown my sorrows in an extra-large pizza, a few bottles of beer, and this investigation.”

Olivia didn’t want to talk about Harris’s relationship troubles, so she sifted through the take-out menus in the kitchen until she came across Pizza Bay’s neon-pink menu. “I can’t believe I don’t have this number memorized by now,” she said.

BOOK: Poisoned Prose (A Books by the Bay Mystery)
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