Thyme to Live: A We Sisters Three Mystery

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Thyme to Live
A We Sisters Three Mystery
Melissa F. Miller
Brown Street Books

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 Melissa F. Miller

All rights reserved.

Published by Brown Street Books.

Brown Street Books eBook ISBN: 978-1-940759-16-6

Acknowledgments

As always, I’m beyond grateful to my crack editing team for polishing my work and to my family for keeping the noise down to a dull roar while I’m writing.

This one’s for my own sister, whose personality includes a bit of Rosemary, a dash of Sage, and a hint of Thyme.

1


T
high-me
. Thigh-me?”

The barista’s flat New York accent cut through my daydream and I squinted at the coffee bar to see if my almond milk chai latte was up. It was.

I jostled my way through the sea of people and snagged the cup.

“You Thigh-me?” the harried woman behind the counter asked. “That’s an unusual name.”

“It’s Thyme, actually,” I said for probably the seven thousandth time in my twenty-two years.

“Time for what?” She asked, genuine confusion flooding her face.

“Nothing. Never mind.”

I grabbed the steaming cup and elbowed my way out of the crowded shop onto the equally packed sidewalk, silently cursing my parents.

Who names a kid Thyme, anyway? Mary Jane Holloway and Bartholomew Field, that’s who. My parents had their children very late in life. Dad was nearing fifty and Mom was well into her forties when my oldest sister, Rosemary, was born. Sage followed eighteen months later. And I brought up the rear fifteen months after that.

In what I have to imagine was a sleep-deprived haze, my parents decided to be good, aging hippies and name their daughters after the old Simon and Garfunkel song “Scarborough Fair.”

Oh, I can hear what you’re thinking. Don’t those lyrics actually go “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”? Yes, yes, they do. But as Mary Jane and Bart would be quick to point out, Parsley is hardly an appropriate name for a child. (They gave it to the cat.)

Thyme, however, is a perfectly reasonable name for your third daughter and should in no way be viewed as a reflection of the fact that your change-of-life birth control method failed.

My name was hardly at the top of the grievance list as far as MJ and Bart were concerned, though. They had done far worse by their daughters than bestowing ridiculous flower power names on us. They had somehow so badly mismanaged the family business—an upscale holistic retreat—that when they stunned us by suddenly gifting us three equal shares of Tranquility by the Sea, the real surprise had been the mountain of debt and half a million dollar balloon payment due twenty-four months out.

Our parents handed over the keys and then sailed off in their houseboat bound for tropical sands out of reach of their personal creditors. Rosemary and Sage had both abandoned their callings to take higher-paying jobs. I’d had one semester left at college, and my sisters had strong-armed me into finishing.

After graduation, instead of enrolling in the psychology Ph.D. program, I’d taken the highest paying job I could find, despite the fact that “personal yogalates instructor to demanding CEO” didn’t exactly put my undergraduate degree to good use. Well, I did occasionally have to employ my understanding of reverse psychology on Cate Whittier-Clay to get her to stretch. But, otherwise, no.

Thinking about my client got my heart racing and I reflexively checked my watch. Ten minutes to six. And four long blocks to go. I broke into a jog, keeping a careful grip on the hot drink.

If I was late, she’d blow a gasket. It was critically important that we finish her thirty-minute morning stretch and tone by six thirty and not a moment later.

Her days were scheduled with military precision. Cardio with Rubio from five-thirty to six; then our session; shower, dress, and gulp down a green smoothie from six thirty to six forty-five; spend the next ten to fifteen minutes giving the day’s marching orders to her husband, Evan, and Helena, little Audra’s nanny. Finally, she slipped into the back seat of her waiting car at seven o’clock on the dot for the short drive to her Wall Street office, where she did whatever it was she did that enabled her to spend in the mid-six figures annually on her personal staff—not that I was knocking it, mind you.

I was more than happy to help the Mistress of the Universe with her pursuit of increased flexibility for the low, low rate of one hundred and fifty dollars an hour. Her goal was to execute a perfect center split. Mine was to have several hundred thousand dollars to add to the Save the Resort fund by the end of the year. Thanks to my roster of rich, tense Manhattanites in search of toning and relaxation, I was well on my way.

Cate was my highest-paying client, though, so I really couldn’t set her off and get myself fired. I checked my watch again and took a big gulp of the chai, scalding my throat with the hot liquid. Then I reluctantly pitched it into the nearest trash receptacle and ran flat out the rest of the way to the Whittier-Clay co-op, skidding through the entrance, which the doorman managed to jerk open just in time to prevent me from bouncing off the glass like a confused bird.

“Thanks, Hercules!” I shouted as I raced over to the elevator bank and pounded the button for the penthouse car.

“Wait, Thyme, hang on.” He trailed me to the elevator lobby.

I turned and saw worry in his brown eyes. I liked Hercules. I wasn’t sure if it was based mainly on some stupid name solidarity, but he was kind and friendly, unlike almost everyone else I’d run into in this city.

“Is something wrong?”

He grimaced. “I just wanted to warn you.”

“Warn me?”

“Helena didn’t show up for work today. Mrs. Whittier-Clay’s in ... well, she’s in a mood.”

As the elevator doors opened, my stomach sank. I could only imagine the abuse Cate had rained down on everyone from her husband to the doorman when it became clear the nanny was going to be a no-show. If it was anything like the time her chef had used 1% cow’s milk instead of rice milk in her morning smoothie, today was going to be a nightmare.

“Thanks for the head’s up,” I said, reluctantly forcing myself to step into the waiting elevator car.

He gave me a sickly smile. “Good luck.”

The doors closed on his concerned face and the elevator began its ascent to the 4,000 square feet of luxury the Whittier-Clays called home.

I’m gonna need more than luck,
I thought.
I’m going to need a miracle.

N
o miracles came to pass
, however, and while Cate bustled around the vast apartment shouting orders on her way out the door, I found myself building a tower out of magnetic tiles with Audra. My efforts to convince Cate that I wasn’t a suitable substitute babysitter had been met by a blank look and an arched eyebrow but no verbal response. I just hoped she squeezed in some time to call and lambaste her nanny service into sending over a new one at some point during her day.

Don’t get me wrong. I like kids. I just don’t really understand them. How was I going to entertain Audra all morning?

As Audra concentrated on balancing a triangular tile on the roof of the structure we’d constructed, I pulled out my cell phone and called an expert.

Sage answered on the second ring.

“Hey, Thyme.”

“Hi. Are you busy?”

“Medium busy. Skylar and Dylan are building a sand castle. I just need to supervise. What’s up?”

“Cate’s babysitter seems to have quit,” I whispered into the phone.

I didn’t know if Audra was attached to Helena or not, but I didn’t want to be the one to break the news. Besides, it was possible Helena was just really sick or something and hadn’t been able to call in. Unlikely, given that she would have known the fury that would spark, but possible.

“That’s not a shocker. If Cate’s as intense as you say, she probably runs through nannies like tissues.”

“Tissues? Heaven forbid. Just use a handkerchief.”

We shared a laugh at that. Paper products were verboten in our childhood home. Then I got serious. “But Helena didn’t call the service or anything. She just ... didn’t show up this morning. So take a guess who’s watching Audra?”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. I told Cate no, but it was clear she was leaving no matter what I said. What am I gonna do? Leave a three-year old to her own devices? So that’s why I’m calling. What do I do with her?”

“Just play with her.”

“We’re building blocks right now. What else, though? She’s going to get bored, isn’t she?”

Sage laughed. “She’s not an extraterrestrial, Thyme. She’s just a small person. Ask her what she wants to do.”

She made it sound so easy. I narrowed my eyes suspiciously and glanced at Audra. She was gingerly adding another magnetic tile to her structure. I understood her caution. Those tiles collapsed into a heap if you breathed too hard. But at least she didn’t get upset when they fell. Unlike her mother, Audra seemed to be the human embodiment of placid.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. Wait—she’s three, right?”

“Yeah, I think. Maybe four.”

“She might need help in the bathroom.”

Yay.

“Okay. Thanks. I should go.”

“Hang on. Have you talked to Rosemary today?”

“No. Why?”

“The bank called with an update.”

I steeled myself. “Good news or bad?”

“Good, for once.”

I exhaled. “Hit me.”

“The loan officer reviewed the papers we put together objecting to the sale of the debt back to that scumbag Herk and agreed not to transfer it.”

“Really?” I nearly melted into a puddle of relief. “So the terms don’t change?”

“The terms don’t change, and we don’t have to get in bed with a nasty loan shark.”

It had been a tense couple of months. We were chugging along, making great progress on paying off the debt, when out of the blue the bank had decided to sell it back to the low-level criminal who’d put the squeeze on our parents in the first place. It had been Sage’s idea to come clean with the bank about Herk’s less savory activities, and it seemed to have worked.

“You just made my day.”

“I know, right? Oh, hey, I gotta run. Dylan’s heading for the water.”

She ended the call, and I turned my attention back to Audra. If Sage could take care of two preschoolers basically full-time, I could hang with Audra for a morning. How hard could it possibly be?

2

V
ery hard
, that’s how hard. I felt like a wrung-out dishtowel by lunchtime. The sort of noodly, limp feeling that followed an intense hot yoga class. Only instead of working my body to its limits, I’d stretched my imagination to its breaking point.

Audra was a sweet kid. But she was all go, go, go, and no rest. At no point did she just want to veg in front of some educational programming on PBS Kids.

After she tired of the building tiles, we fed and bathed her endless collection of baby dolls, read an assortment of cardboard-backed picture books (some of them a half-dozen times), cooked in her pretend kitchen, and were acting out an elaborate family drama with three stuffed tigers when Hercules called the apartment to let me know a visitor was on the way up.

Hallelujah, the nanny service sent a replacement!
I could go home and veg out in front of some grown up educational programming on PBS. Maybe Helena had just needed a mental health day. This nannying stuff was exhausting. I was suddenly grateful that I didn’t have any afternoon clients on Mondays.

I handed Audra the mommy tiger, told her I’d be right back, then set off for the door at a near-jog. I yanked it open just as my savior rang the doorbell.

“Hi, you must be from the service,” I said, trying to keep my enthusiasm within the bounds of social acceptability.

A baffled man stared at me. He was tall, at least six feet, with an olive complexion and lively brown eyes. He flashed me a tentative smile, and I was blinded by the whitest teeth I’d ever seen other than on a movie screen.

“Uh, sorry, no.”

Gah.

“No, I’m sorry. I was expecting a replacement sitter. Audra’s nanny didn’t show up for work today,” I said in an effort to explain my weird, overeager behavior.

The stranger’s face dropped and his skin paled to an ashy gray-white. His eyes were wide and full of terror.

“Are you okay?”

“Pardon me,” he said, struggling to pull himself together. “I’m looking for Helena. I hoped she’d be here.”

Ooooh. Awkward.

“The Whittier-Clays haven’t heard from her,” I told him gently.

He gripped the doorway and took great gulping breaths as if he were trying to swallow the oxygen.

I didn’t know who this guy was—a jilted lover, a landlord looking for the rent, but he sure was taking Helena’s absence to heart. I scanned the hallway.

“Why don’t you take a seat on that bench over there and I’ll bring you a glass of water?”

He nodded and collapsed onto the padded bench with the scrollwork back that was positioned under a gigantic gilt-framed mirror just across the hall from the Whittier-Clays’ front door. I watched him for a moment to make sure he wasn’t going to pass out or barf on the Persian carpet or anything. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall.

I shut the door gently and trotted toward the kitchen to get the water. As I passed Audra’s playroom I realized that while I definitely couldn’t invite a complete stranger into the apartment, I also couldn’t leave her alone inside while I talked to him in the hallway. This whole being responsible for a small child thing was fraught with difficulty.

I stopped in the doorway to her room after I fetched the water. The baby tiger was climbing on the daddy tiger’s back for some reason.

“Hey, Audra?”

She glanced up at me with somber blue-gray eyes. “Yes?”

“There’s a man out in the hall looking for Helena, and he’s not feeling very well. Want to come with me to give him some water?”

“Sure,” she chirped, dropping the tigers to the carpeted floor. She skipped across the room and slipped her small, warm hand into mine. “Maybe he needs some crackers, too. Helena says crackers will settle your tummy.”

“Good idea. We’ll ask him.”

I returned to the hallway with Audra in tow to find my mystery man holding his head in his hands. His elbows were braced on his knees and he stared down at the plush carpet.

“Hi, mister,” Audra said in her little-girl squeak of a voice.

He lifted his eyes at the sound of her voice. It was obvious he’d been crying. His eyes glistened.

“Hi, there. You must be Audra. Helena told me all about you,” he said in a hoarse, cracking voice.

“She did?” Audra breathed.

“She sure did. She said you love going to the zoo. The tigers are your favorite.”

Audra clapped her hands together in delight. I handed him the glass of water. He took it gratefully and gulped the entire glass in three big swallows.

“Thank you,” he said. “I was just so sure I’d find her here.”

I cut my eyes toward Audra then said. “How do you know Helena?”

His eyes widened and he shook his head. “Where are my manners? I apologize.” He stood and extended a hand. “I’m Victor Callais, Helena’s brother.”

I smiled. “Thyme Field. I work with Audra’s mom. I’m her trainer.”

“Ah, yes, the yoga-Pilates woman.” He smiled, and his eyes crinkled. That’s my favorite—when a guy’s eyes smile along with his mouth.

“So you don’t know where Helena is either?” I asked, keeping my voice light for Audra’s sake.

“No. We were supposed to have brunch yesterday, but she never turned up. She hasn’t returned any of my calls, and I had to be up here for a story this morning, so I thought I’d drop by her work and make sure she’s okay. I guess she’s not.” The haunted look returned to his eyes.

“Are you a librarian?” Audra piped up.

We stared down at her in mutual confusion, until finally comprehension dawned on me. “You said you were on the Upper East Side for a story,” I explained.

Victor laughed. “No, I’m not a librarian. I’m a reporter. I write stories about things that are happening.”

“Magazines? Like my mom.”

Victor lifted an eyebrow at the comparison. “Sort of. I work for a newspaper.” He glanced at me. “I’m a reporter for the
Times
.”

Sure, stringer for
The New York Times
and publishing mogul overseeing a behemoth multimedia empire were totally the same, but the answer suited Audra.

“Maybe you could make a poster for Helena,” she suggested. “Like when Mrs. Andreau lost her kitty. She put up a picture of Fluffles in all the elevators. He was in the storage basement chasing mice, and he came home.”

He nodded gravely, soaking in her preschool wisdom. “Great idea. Hey, did Helena say anything to you on Friday about taking a trip or going away?” he probed gently.

It struck me that at no time during the morning’s crisis had anyone else thought to ask Audra if she knew where Helena might be. One point for the journalist.

Audra thought for a moment then gave her head a shake, sending her long blond ponytail of hair whipping across her shoulders. “No, no trips. But she was crying right before it was time to go home.”

“She was crying?” I echoed.

“Uh-huh. I asked her if she hurt herself. She said no, she was crying because she was going to miss me. But then we sang the days of the week song, and I said only two days and then we’d be able to play again. There’s Sunday and there’s Monday, there’s Tuesday and there’s Wednesday, there’s Thursday and there’s Friday. And then there’s Saturday! Days of the week! Bum, bum. Days of the week!”

I giggled at her performance, but Victor blanched again. He swallowed hard. “Thank you, ladies. I’ve taken up enough of your time.” He bent and shook Audra’s hand then stood and pulled out a business card.

“Please, if you hear from Helena, call me. That’s my cell phone number, day or night.” He pressed the card into my hand.

I glanced at it then slipped it into my sweater pocket. “I will,” I promised.

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