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Authors: Katherine Hall Page

Small Plates

BOOK: Small Plates
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D
EDICATION

With thanks to Dr. Robert E. DeMartino
For his treasured friendship and expertise

E
PIGRAPH

One cannot think well, love well,
sleep well, if one has not dined well.

—
VIRGINIA WOOLF
,
A Room of One's Own

C
ONTENTS

Dedication

Epigraph

Introduction

The Ghost of Winthrop

Death in the Dunes

The Would-Be Widower

Across the Pond

A Perfect Maine Day

Hiding Places

The Proof Is Always in the Pudding

Sliced

The Two Marys

A Few Tastes from
Small Plates

Cardamom Raisin Bread

Mussels with Pasta

St. Germain Cocktail

About the Author

Also by Katherine Hall Page

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

N
ot that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short,” Henry David Thoreau observed to a friend. Edgar Allan Poe, a master of the form, wrote, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” Taken together, these are a fine summation of the challenge posed by short story writing: that paring-down process, the examination of each word essential for a satisfactory result.

Cheever, O'Connor, Fitzgerald, Carver, Welty, Salinger, Saki, Cather, Joyce—to name a very few favorites I discovered early and have reread often. From time to time, I have published short stories myself, journeying away from my mystery series featuring inquisitive amateur sleuth Faith Sibley Fairchild, a wife, mother, and caterer who is prone to stumbling across dead bodies. I find the short stories more difficult to write than the novels—hard as they are. (I like to go back to that small 1939 gem,
Writing Is Work,
by Mary Roberts Rinehart, to commiserate.) Yet, I have written a number of short stories and this volume is a collection of some of them, as well as a few new ones.

The settings for these stories range from coast to coast in the United States and across the pond. Although I have set books in other countries, most of my short stories seem loath to travel, except in terms of time. One of them takes the reader to a century still bathed in gaslight.

The characters in these stories are an assorted lot. A man who longs for widowhood, dreams of the attention from the casserole brigade—good women lining up at his door, hopefully presenting unburnt offerings and perhaps themselves as offerings as well. A newlywed discovers her husband's ingenious hiding places for objects like spare keys. One spinster turns to friends for help with the supernatural. Another unmarried lady, who raises goats on an island off the coast of Maine, finds a baby named Christopher in her barn on Christmas eve. In another Maine story, an elderly lobsterman proves to be an extremely acute observer. Faith Fairchild herself appears in most of these stories, though sometimes just as a cameo. She encounters an ideal couple on vacation in Cape Cod and takes an immediate dislike to them. Why? She discovers that a deep-seated superstition of her mother-in-law's is based on fact. Faith and her sister team up to safeguard a bride in peril. And her own culinary prowess is tested as she tries to avoid being “Sliced” in a cutthroat mock reality cooking show.

The title of the collection,
Small Plates,
refers not only to the length of these servings but also to the pleasure that ordering tapas, or two appetizers instead of an entrée, often provides. It is my hope that the tastes here will linger long on the palate.

P
rudence Winthrop sat straight up in bed, rigid with fear, her quilt clutched to her chin. There it was again! The sound of the ancient elevator slowly making its way from the basement to the upper floors of the Beacon Hill town house that had served as Prudence's home for twenty of her forty years.

She held her breath and listened. Silence.

The noise had awakened her from an uneasy sleep, and at first she'd thought hazily that it was Aunt Eliza coming to bed after doing the crossword or acrostic that she claimed always guaranteed a good night's rest. “A little brain stimulation just before it shuts down,” she was wont to say.

But Aunt Eliza had been sleeping in her sitting room on the ground floor for some time, and, more to the point, the sleep she was sleeping now was not only guaranteed but also did not require any brain stimulation.

Eliza Winthrop was dead.

The sudden screech of metal gears in need of greasing made Prudence jump; then a steady whirring began. The elevator had started up again—inexorably rising closer and closer. Prudence got out of bed and quickly locked her door. Her heart was pounding so loudly, it threatened to drown out the noise. She pressed her ear to the door and listened. The elevator ground to a stop with a gasping shudder. The gate rattled as someone pulled it back; she heard the door to her floor open. Then silence.

“Who's there?” Prudence called out in a quavering voice, summoning all of her courage. There was no answer.

“Who is it?” she asked again. “Nicholas? Nora?” But she knew the queries were in vain. Both the butler and the housekeeper were away until the following morning, an earlier visit to Nora's sister on the South Shore having been postponed by recent events.

The house was completely still. Prudence fancied she could hear the Simon Willard longcase clock purchased by Josiah Winthrop in 1790, placed in the entry hall that year and never moved an inch. Once more she pressed her ear to the solid door. The thick Oriental runner would muffle footsteps, but she strained for a cough, the rustle of a garment—something that would indicate the presence of a human being standing just outside her bedroom. Nothing—and she realized that what she had imagined was the ticking of the clock was really her own rapidly increasing pulse rate.

And then the elevator started up again, descending. Prudence ran for her bed, trembling. She didn't have a phone in her room, and going downstairs to use the one in the library was out of the question even though she knew she must be alone in the house. All the doors and windows were locked. Nicholas would have checked, but she'd still gone around to be sure before retiring. There was no way anyone could have gotten in. She wished Aunt Eliza hadn't been so adamant about not installing an alarm system—“Waste of money. Finicky things too. Most likely you, Nicholas, and Nora would set it off by accident.” Someone with a system had given her some window stickers, but she didn't want to put those up either. “An invitation. Might as well put up a sign:
VALUABLES INSIDE WORTH PROTECTING
.”

Prudence heard the elevator stop several floors below.

“I must be going mad,” she said out loud.

F
aith Sibley Fairchild looked over at Prudence Winthrop, who was sitting in her family pew surrounded by a rather intimidating-looking phalanx of Winthrop relatives that had gathered in full force for Eliza Winthrop's funeral. Pru definitely looked peaked, Faith thought, then gave a small inward start of surprise. Quaint words like
peaked
seemed to be invading her vocabulary with alarming frequency since she'd left the Big Apple for the more bucolic orchards of New England. It had been difficult to abandon her native city, but her first chance meeting in Manhattan and further acquaintance with the young Reverend Thomas Fairchild, parson in Aleford, a small town west of Boston, happily had left her no choice.

She studied Prudence's face more closely. There were tears glistening behind the lenses of the woman's horn-rimmed glasses, but Prudence's aunt had been well over ninety. Could grief alone account for Miss—somehow Ms. seemed inappropriate—Winthrop's extreme pallor and lined brow? It looked as if the woman hadn't slept in months, or had a decent meal. Faith was a caterer, and her thoughts quite naturally turned to food. They also turned to mystery. There was nothing suspicious about Eliza Winthrop's death, though. The wonder was that she'd lived as long as she had with her self-described “delicate heart.”

There was nothing else delicate about Aunt Eliza, who had ruled the Winthrops as a not-so-benevolent despot. Never married—self-appointed Keeper of the Flame—she had controlled much of the family fortune and did not suffer fools gladly. Eliza had been known to banish individuals from her Sunday dinners for crimes ranging from voting for the wrong party to planting gladioli, flowers she detested.

There were no gladioli banking the coffin, Faith noted. She turned her head slightly and looked back at the Winthrop pew. Winthrops had been among the founding families of Aleford some three hundred years ago. Since that time, the Winthrops had migrated into town, colonizing Beacon Hill and the Back Bay—when it was filled in. Winthrops did not claim to walk on water, despite what some of their detractors might say.

Yet there had always been some family members who had stayed true to the Aleford congregation, and Eliza Winthrop was one of the most steadfast. At exactly quarter past ten every Sunday, Nicholas, her chauffer and butler, brought her vintage Cadillac to the front of the house on Louisburg Square. At exactly quarter to eleven, Miss Eliza entered her First Parish pew with Prudence scurrying along behind carrying their prayer books. An entire city could safely set its clocks by Eliza's unvarying routines of neighborhood walks, Friday afternoons at the Boston Symphony, and nightly bedtime puzzles accompanied by one small glass of Port—taken for medicinal purposes, she'd told Faith.

Living with Aunt Eliza could scarcely have been one long madcap whirl of pleasure, Faith thought. Perhaps Prudence's tears were tears of joy, although knowing Pru, this was unlikely. She had been devoted to the aunt who'd given her a home when Prudence had been orphaned many years ago. Faith had never heard any mention of a career—Aunt Eliza had plenty for her young niece to do. Nor were there gentlemen callers—not surprising, since they'd have had to get past Eliza first.

Faith continued to scrutinize Pru. There wasn't a whole lot to see. Prudence Winthrop was an ordinary-looking woman with thick auburn hair cut rather unattractively. Yet, she had large, very pretty blue eyes. Faith had a sudden mental image of an old movie in which the Cary Grant–type hero gently removes the heroine's glasses and a bobby pin or two and voilà! She's a raving beauty. Prudence was never going to be that, but Faith itched to get the woman into the hands of a good hairdresser, slap a little makeup on her, and tell her about the wonderful new invention called contact lenses.

Her mind was wandering, as it often did in church, despite having not only a husband but also a father and grandfather in the business. But suddenly Faith's imaginary pictures of a rejuvenated Prudence Winthrop became blurred as she realized there was something much more evident in Pru's blue eyes. There was another reason for her ashen color and the way the woman's hands were gripping the edge of the pew—so hard her knuckles were deathly white. It wasn't grief. It was fear.

Prudence Winthrop was exhibiting all the signs of a woman living in utter terror! And Faith intended to find out why.

I
t turned out to be easier to start the investigation than Faith anticipated. As they were leaving the church for the cemetery, Prudence herself approached Faith, drawing her aside.

BOOK: Small Plates
7.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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