Murder Most Foul
by C Paradee and Lois Cloarec Hart
Disclaimer: Though the lead characters may resemble certain TV characters, these are original and all ours. If same sex love disturbs you, this isn't a story you want to read.
Acknowledgement: Our thanks to our wonderful beta reader, Day, aka The Goddess of Punctuation, Grammar and Style. We offer her our congratulations on the recent arrival of a bouncing, baby Dell, and condolences on the laptop's final departure to the great laboratory in the sky (as Carol and Lois do a wild dance of joy that the dreaded NEC is gone, gone, GONE.) Ahem, where were we? Oh yes...without the marvelous Day, our story would not be nearly as seamless and error free (though any errors overlooked are our responsibility.)
Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural - Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 5
Jaye MacLaren barely noticed the light rain dripping down the neck of her dark trench coat, as she stood motionless, staring at the gleaming mahogany of her aunt's coffin. All the other mourners had long since departed the gravesite, but the tall, dark-haired woman had no desire to join her aunt's numerous friends at the post-funeral reception. A husky cough disturbed her deep reverie, and she blinked her blue eyes at the man who gazed apologetically at her from across the open grave, a thick-handled spade in his hand.
"Beggin' yer pardon, ma'am..."
He trailed off as if unable to give voice to his purpose, but Jaye understood and nodded stiffly. Unable to watch as the mounded earth was shoveled over her beloved aunt's earthly remains, the woman turned away, her normally graceful gait absent as she plodded back to her vehicle.
Sliding behind the wheel, she closed her eyes in exhaustion. After making all the funeral arrangements by phone, Jaye had driven straight through from Toronto to Tucker's Way, the small Maine coastal town that had been her aunt's home for the past forty years. Arriving mere hours before the service, she hadn't even dropped her luggage at her aunt's cottage...her place now, she guessed, in the absence of any other living relatives except her own father. Given the cool state of affairs between her American aunt and Canadian father, she doubted that Delia Blake had left Thom MacLaren anything.
Fumbling with her keys, she turned the ignition, cursing under her breath as the old Jeep's engine failed to catch until the third try.
"I oughta sell you for scrap, Henri."
The threat was meaningless, but it was second nature to Jaye now. She had a longstanding love-hate relationship with the vehicle that she'd named after an ex-boyfriend who'd been all looks and no substance. More forgiving now that Henri idled steadily, she patted the dash.
"Got me here in one piece though, didn't you? Auntie D always says..."
A lump rose in her throat and her eyes filled with the tears that were rarely far from surfacing since she had received the news that her aunt had been murdered three days previously. After spending every summer of her childhood under her aunt's firm, but loving care, Jaye couldn't believe she'd never again wrap her arms around the softly rounded, diminutive frame; never see her own blue eyes sparkling merrily back at her from under a messy halo of white hair; and never tease her Auntie D about the older woman's nightly tot of black rum. That brought a smile, even as the tears rolled down her face. Delia swore that rum, always taken neat, kept the chilblains away.
"Didn't keep the arthritis away though, did it, Auntie D?"
The anger, held at bay until now, swept through her. If not for her aunt's worsening arthritis, the viper that had been hired to help Delia would never have been allowed into her home. Jaye quivered with fury at the thought of the young woman who had murdered Auntie D.
"Lindsay fucking Daniels...may you rot in hell for all eternity!"
Jaye slammed her hand against the steering wheel, causing the horn to blare and momentarily venting her rage. Taking a deep breath, she put the Jeep in reverse and began the trip to her aunt's cottage.
Delia's cottage was in fact a sprawling single story house, with grey siding and white trim, set on the edge of a bluff with a magnificent view of the turbulent Atlantic. Fifteen minutes outside of Tucker's Way, Jaye's aunt had owned twenty acres of prime shorefront, the object of more than one developer's lust.
As Jaye turned off the highway and drove slowly up the long, winding, gravel entrance road, overhung with thick dripping foliage turning fall shades, she allowed herself to imagine for a moment that this was just one more of a thousand times she had come home to Auntie D's. For a moment she let herself believe that when she rounded the last corner, she'd see her aunt's small form standing in the doorway, waving an enthusiastic hand and welcoming her back again. Her imagination furnished the enticing scent of Auntie D's famous homemade peanut butter cookies; and the ache of knowing that she'd never again be welcomed in her aunt's traditional way threatened to overwhelm her.
Savagely wrenching the gears into neutral, she let the Jeep coast to a stop as her head dropped forward against the steering wheel. Long moments went by as the tears fell to her lap in concert with the rain beating on the canvas roof.
Finally the tall woman sat up, dashing away the tears. "Enough! You've cried enough. Now get on with it."
Even as Jaye instructed herself firmly, she knew she was a long way from the end of her tears. Resolutely, she shifted into first gear and resumed the trip up the driveway. When her aunt's home came into view around the last bend, she simply bit her lip and tightened her hands around the wheel. She tried not to notice the absence of smoke from the chimney and the forlorn air to the deserted house.
Parking in front, the tall woman wondered absently where her aunt's elderly Buick was, but put it out of her mind as she unlocked the front door and pushed it open. On automatic pilot, Jaye hung her trench coat in the hall closet then carried her duffel bag to the room that had always been hers. She tossed the duffel at the chair that had traditionally stood beside the door, only to stare dumfounded as the bag hit the floor. Blinking, she gazed around the room, noting the pretty green and white bedspread with matching curtains, the new bureau, and the stuffed animals littering the bed--which most certainly weren't hers.
A brief hurt swept through Jaye as she realized that her aunt had given her old room to the serpent, but then a morbid curiosity about the murderer took precedence and she began wandering about the large room, examining Lindsay Daniels' possessions. There was no chance of being interrupted or rebuked since the young woman was safely incarcerated in the Tucker's Way jail, having been charged with the murder scant hours after Delia's death.
The tall woman ran her hand lightly over the clothes in the closet, noting absently that the caregiver favored softly tailored clothes in autumn hues. She kicked at an errant hiking boot, whose mate was half under the bed, and made her way to the light oaken bureau. A pretty blue music box sat in the center of the polished top, with delicate crystal knickknacks to the right side. A silver-framed picture sat prominently to the left side, and Jaye picked it up curiously.
Her aunt stood with an attractive, slim, blonde woman on the beach, the green and grey ocean a perfect backdrop for the two. Both women were wind-blown and laughing at the photographer. Jaye stared at the photo, entranced by the sight of her aunt's arm snugly around the slightly taller blonde. The younger woman had her arm resting casually about Delia's shoulders, and Jaye suddenly slammed the picture against the bureau, infuriated that the evil bitch had taken such liberties...had taken her place in her aunt's life.
The glass had barely finished shattering and falling when Jaye heard an unmistakable clucking from behind her. Whirling, the broken frame still in hand, she stared in disbelief. Her aunt's form stood behind her, hands planted firmly on solid hips as she shook her head disapprovingly at her niece.
"Is that any way to behave, Eeyore?"
Jaye gaped at the apparition, part of her numb brain registering the old nickname that always signaled her aunt's displeasure, before her knees gave out and she sat down hard on the floor.
"Oh for heaven's sake, girl, you're going to cut yourself if you're not careful!"
Auntie D's gently chiding tone sounded vaguely like she was talking from the bottom of a barrel, but the voice was unmistakably the same one she'd heard on countless summer days, waking her up in the mornings and calling her in from the forest or beach in the evenings. Jaye blinked her eyes rapidly, but the preternaturally insubstantial form didn't disappear. She surreptitiously pinched herself, wondering hazily if grief, exhaustion and lack of food had conspired to make her hallucinate. When Delia's thick, white eyebrows lifted in amusement, she knew she wasn't imagining it.
Jaye cleared her throat, trying to erase the embarrassing squeak that had come out on the first try. "Auntie D?"
"You were expecting maybe the Pope?" The apparition cocked her head and smiled affectionately at her niece.
"Well, I sure as hell weren't expecting you either!" Jaye protested as she struggled to get up.
Delia pursed her lips. "No, I don't expect you were. Didn't suspect I'd be haunting you either, if you want the truth of it."
Jaye managed to sit heavily on the edge of the bed, still clutching the picture.
"Um, why are you haunting me, Auntie D?" She hastened to add, "Not that I'm not glad to see you." Unbidden tears filled her eyes again and she ducked her head. "I miss you so."
The ghost obviously heard the mumbled sentiment, as her next words were soft and loving. "I miss you too, J-mac. Didn't expect to be leaving this soon or I'd have insisted you drag your butt home sooner."
"I'm sorry." Jaye raised her head and stared at her aunt remorsefully. "I was planning to come home next month, but I shouldn't have left it so long." Her lean, angular features darkened. "Maybe if I'd come sooner, I could've stopped her from hurting you."
"Oh pish!" Her aunt's tone was indignant now. "Surely you don't believe that nonsense about Lindsay murdering me. Thought you had better sense than that!"
"But...but they have her in jail for your murder. Her fingerprints were on the murder weapon and you wrote her into your will..." Jaye stopped, unable to deal with further evidence that an outsider had usurped her place in her aunt's life.
The ghost uttered a most unladylike snort. "Oh for heaven's sake! Like there's never been a false arrest in the history of mankind. Lindsay didn't even know I'd changed my will to include her. Bill Webster just jumped to the handiest conclusion. He never was the sharpest tack in the box. His daddy was the dumbest thing in a sou'wester, and young Billy didn't fall far from the tree. I'm telling you that girl never raised a finger to me, except to help. She's no more capable of murder than that stuffed lion you're sitting on!"
Jaye jumped and dug the toy out from underneath her. Tossing it aside, she studied the photo in confusion. Troubled, she looked up at her aunt.
"Are you sure, Auntie D? Did you see who did do it?"
The ghost glared, but Jaye knew it wasn't directed at her.
"Some slimy, lily-livered, scum-sucking coward, I can tell you that much! Snuck up behind me after I sent Lindsay back to the house to get the goat puppet and hit me over the head with my own hatchet. My own hatchet, for crying out loud!"
The tall woman couldn't help a tiny grin at her aunt's indignation. She wasn't sure if Delia was angrier at the murder or the insult of being killed with her own possession.
Not quite sure how to broach the subject, Jaye glanced around the room, uneasily aware that her aunt's shade wasn't reflected in the mirror, before asking tentatively, "So you don't know now...I mean, being where you are and all?"
"Wouldn't be hanging around if I did, J-mac. Trouble was I didn't die right away, so by the time my spirit was released, the culprit was long gone. Saw Lindsay come in and find me though." The ghost shook her head sadly. "Lordy, I wish she hadn't had to go through that. Damn near shattered her; and then to have that pinhead sheriff accuse her of the crime...more than the poor kid could handle all at once." Translucent blue eyes focused on Jaye's with vivid clarity. "I tried to reach her, but I couldn't get through, so I need you to go to her for me."
"Me?" Once again, as she struggled to deal with the abrupt switch from viewing Lindsay Daniels as her aunt's rightly incarcerated murderer to accepting her as an innocent victim, Jaye was reminded of her aunt's inimical ability to reduce her to the level of a recalcitrant teenager.
"Yes, you. You know I'd do this myself if I could, but you're going to have to be my agent until we solve this murder. Lord knows you've seen enough crime scenes in your occupation."
"But I only photograph them!" Jaye protested. The tall woman exhaled explosively and grimaced as she rapidly considered potential courses of action. Finally, shaking her head in exasperation, she looked up and regarded the ghost intently. "You know I'd do anything to help you."
"I know," Delia acknowledged affectionately, "and if anyone can do it, you can. You've got a terrific head on your shoulders, even if your taste in men is abysmal." She smiled widely. "Besides, you have me on your side, so you'll have the edge on the low-life, snake-bellied weasel who did this."
A reluctant grin stole over Jaye's features. "He really pissed you off, eh?"
"Damn right! I had plans, J-mac, and they sure didn't include departing to the great beyond for another couple of decades, I can tell you that!"
"Okay, I'm in." Jaye nodded decisively at her aunt, who smiled triumphantly in return. "I'll just extend my leave of absence from the department and let Ronald know I'll be delayed getting back."
Delia rolled her eyes. "Don't tell me you're still dating that imbecile?"
Jaye frowned, part of her well aware that as usual her aunt's perception was dead-on. Ronald was a...convenience at best, but he'd lasted longer than most of the men in her life. Lamely, she argued, "He's not that bad, Auntie. You just never gave him a chance."
"He's handsome all right, but he has shifty eyes. Never trust a man who won't look you firmly in the eye when he shakes your hand," Delia instructed firmly. "You can do way better than that, girl."
Eager to turn the conversation away from her lackluster love life, Jaye said, "Right then, I guess the first step is to get Daniels released." She could tell by the skeptical look that she hadn't fooled her aunt for a moment, but Delia allowed her to get away with the switch in topics.
"Yeah. Poor kid's in such a funk that she isn't even eating, and believe me, I never thought I'd see that day!"
"Any suggestions for a good lawyer?"
"Go talk to her first and then ask Ed. He should be able to recommend someone."
Jaye nodded. Ed Romero had been her aunt's attorney for decades, but only dealt with civil matters.
"Gotta be a pretty flimsy case since I know that she didn't do it, so it's just a matter of picking it apart and getting her out on bail until we can track down the real murderer...the yellow swine!"
The tall woman stood, gingerly picking her way through the shards of glass from the broken frame. Catching her aunt's disapproving eye, she promised, "I'll clean it up when I get home, honest, Auntie."
She exited to the sound of her aunt's muttered, "You'd better. You're not too old to have your backside tanned, you know."
Rolling her eyes in amusement even as she decided it was more prudent not to ask how her aunt's ghost would accomplish that, Jaye returned to her Jeep in a much better frame of mind than she'd left it. She had a goal, and she had her aunt on her side. Beginning the search for justice was enough to return the spring to her step and the determination to her eyes.
When Henri started on the first try, Jaye chuckled. "Well, that's gotta be a good omen." Shifting into first, she muttered threateningly, "I'm coming, ya bastard...wherever you are."
Accelerating away from the house, the newly inducted detective didn't notice the ghostly form perched comfortably on the roof of the Jeep, tipping her white head back and opening her mouth gleefully, as if catching raindrops. The apparition never even wavered as the vehicle side-slipped in the mud then regained its traction with a roar of the engine. As the Jeep disappeared into the thick woods, the shade reached playfully for passing branches, but the foliage moved only under the impact of the falling rain.
Lindsay Daniels sat on the cot in the small cell, staring unseeing at the opposite wall. Her normally bright, sparkling green eyes were dull and red rimmed, her shoulders slumped as the young woman grieved deeply for her best friend. Finger-combed only, her short, shaggy blonde hair was disheveled and unkempt.
The blonde ignored the tray of food that had been shoved inside the door, knowing the guard would return for it soon. She'd proclaimed her innocence at the time of her arrest, over and over again, but her pleas had fallen on deaf ears. A tear tracked down her face, surprising Lindsay - she hadn't thought there were any left.
She had begged the sheriff to attend Delia's funeral that morning. More tears welled from overflowing eyes as she shuddered at the memory of hate filled eyes and an incredulous voice snarling, 'You've got to be kidding! You kill her and now you want to attend her funeral?'
The young woman heard the sound of the door opening and the tray being removed, but didn't bother looking up when the deputy spoke.
"You're gonna starve if you don't start eating." The red-headed man sighed audibly and removed the tray.
Moments later, Lindsay jumped as the cell bars echoed from a hard blow. Familiar by now with the sheriff's habit of announcing his presence with his night stick, she slowly turned her head to hear what venom was going to be directed against her this time.
Webster laughed humorlessly. "You've got a visitor." Inclining his head toward a tall, dark haired woman standing next to him, he added mockingly, "Gonna try telling Jaye here you didn't kill her aunt?" He crossed his arms, obviously eager to witness a confrontation between the murderer and Delia's blood kin.
Briefly glancing at the beautiful woman standing expressionlessly next to the thick-bellied sheriff, Lindsay returned her gaze to the wall. She couldn't even summon any interest at the appearance of the woman she'd secretly been fascinated with. There had been a time she had pumped her friend incessantly for details about her niece, drawn to photos and stories of Delia's twin sister's daughter, but that seemed a distant memory now. It was another life. One of innocence, joy and simplicity. Now Delia was dead and buried, and the town had convicted her without a trial.
Lindsay instinctively tightened her shoulders against the onslaught she was sure would come.
"Would you mind leaving us alone?"
The words were spoken quietly, but that didn't diminish the order's authority and Lindsay directed her gaze toward her visitor only to find the sheriff glaring at her. She closed her eyes against the malevolent stare and when she opened them again, he was slowly traipsing down the short hall to the outer door separating the two cells from his office.
The blonde looked up and searched the intense blue eyes regarding her solemnly for condemnation, but found none. The gaze wasn't warm, but troubled and sad. She waited for Delia's niece to speak.
"Did you kill my aunt?"
Lindsay met the gaze pointedly, anguished green eyes bespeaking her innocence. "I loved Delia. I could never kill her."
Jaye nodded slowly. "What happened that day?"
After taking a deep breath, Lindsay began talking. "Everyday, your aunt read stories to the children at the library after they got out of school. That day we went in early because we were going to set up, then go check out a new novelty shop that had just opened. We unpacked everything, but couldn't find the goat puppet."
Lindsay smiled wanly at Jaye's raised eyebrow and explained, "She used puppets to act out parts in the story. She was going to read Billy Goat's Gruff. I told her it would only take me a few minutes to go home and get it."
Lindsay noticed Jaye's shoulder's tighten and suddenly realized why. "It was my home, too. I wasn't just your aunt's caregiver; she was my best friend. I loved her and if you can understand that, you'll know that I'm innocent."
"History is rife with murder committed in the name of love."
Gazing sadly at Delia's niece, Lindsay was unable to dispute the observation.
Jaye shifted uncomfortably and looked away from the younger woman's gentle scrutiny. Clearing her throat, she asked, "Then what happened?"
Haunted green eyes stared off into the distance as Lindsay related the scene imprinted indelibly in her mind.
"I walked into the reading room. I remember a very strong feeling that something was wrong and when I didn't see Delia, I became alarmed and called out.
"I remember wondering where she went. I hadn't been gone more than a half hour, if that. I walked over to the table her props were on, and glanced behind it. I saw Delia laying face down on the floor..."
Lindsay took a deep breath, desperately trying to maintain her composure. Her hands had instinctively closed into fists, knuckles white with the effort of trying to control her emotions.
"There was a big pool of blood beneath her. I ran around the table and knelt beside her, screaming for help. I carefully turned her over trying to find a pulse, but she was cool...too cool. Then I looked into her eyes..." Lindsay choked back a sob, and buried her face in her hands.
"Oh God! It was horrible. I was too late...I shouldn't have left her..." Her body was wracked with the pain of remembering and the loss of her friend. Of how she'd cradled Delia's broken head in her lap, knowing it was too late and murmuring over and over again. "Please no."
Blue eyes glistening, Jaye nodded abruptly. "All right. If you didn't do it, then I've got to figure out who did."
Regaining control, Lindsay turned toward Jaye, not sure she'd heard correctly. "You don't think I did it?"
Jaye shook her head. "The sheriff said no one saw you leave the library or come back. Why?"
"There were a bunch of teenagers at the checkout desk when I left, so Sam never saw me walk out. When I got back, he was in a heated discussion with Adam Norton and never saw me."
Lindsay stood up and walked over to the bars. Her red-rimmed swollen eyes stood out starkly against her pale face. "Do you believe me?" She held her breath, as she waited for the answer, aware that not being seen leaving or returning to the library had convicted her in most of the town's people's eyes.
Pursing her lips, Jaye nodded slowly. "The hatchet...?"
"Of course my fingerprints were on it. Who do you think chopped the wood? We were going to drop it off to be sharpened at the hardware store before we stopped at the new shop. Someone took it out of the car. It was on the backseat. Anyone could've seen it and Delia didn't believe in locking the car or even the house half the time for that matter. Neither does anyone else around here."
Musing aloud, Jaye commented, "So whoever murdered my aunt had to know she was alone."
Lindsay nodded in agreement. "Right. Unless it was someone who didn't know about me. But if that's the case, it can't be a local."
"First thing we're going to have to do is get you out of here."
Lindsay snorted mirthlessly. "Fat chance of that. I'm sure everyone in town thinks I did it. No way I'm going to get bail."
"Leave that up to me. It might take a little while, but I'll be back. I might need to ask you some more questions so I can figure out who really killed my aunt."
Reaching through the bars, Lindsay extended her hand to Jaye's arm, briefly touching her. "Thanks. I can't tell you how much it means to me to have someone believe me."
Jaye quirked a rueful half smile. "Let's just say Aunt Delia would expect no less."
Lindsay furrowed her brow as she watched Delia's niece turn away. That last comment seemed fraught with hidden meaning, but she shrugged off the feeling attributing it to her roiling emotions.
She didn't blame Jaye for being so distant, but Lindsay had no intentions of sitting on the sidelines while the tall woman searched for the real killer. She snorted. Providing I get out of here.
Jaye turned back around, and reached into a brown paper bag she was carrying. "Here. You need this more than I do."
Taking the sandwich, Lindsay smiled for the first time since Delia's death. "Thanks."
Watching Jaye walk fluidly down the hall, the blonde felt faint stirrings of hope for the first time since her arrest that justice would prevail after all. She didn't understand why Jaye had chosen to believe her when no one else did, but she wasn't about to question it.
Lindsay sat down on the cot, unwrapped the sandwich, and quickly devoured it. Wiping her hands on the napkin, she realized that along with hope, her appetite had returned.
"I hope you gave that murdering bitch a piece of your mind. Killing such a good person as your aunt and all."
Jaye brushed past Bill Webster. "She didn't do it."
"Are you crazy? 'Course she did it. She was the only one back there with Delia and the hatchet's got her prints all over it."
Ignoring the sheriff, Jaye walked out the door narrowing her eyes at his parting words.
"'You're a disgrace to your aunt's memory!"
Jaye thought over her brief conversation with Lindsay Daniels. It was hard to reconcile the laughing, happy young woman portrayed in the picture she'd broken with the devastated, heart broken woman she'd witnessed in the jail cell.
She smiled, remembering the indignation in Lindsay's voice as she talked about her aunt's home being her home too. Jaye still wasn't sure how she felt about that sentiment, but she admired the woman's spunk.
Navigating around a group of locals ambling across the street, the tall woman mused over the prisoner's dramatic change when she realized that Jaye believed her. Lindsay's whole body had been reanimated, and her startling green eyes had regarded her savior with equal measures of hope and wariness. Jaye wasn't sure how she felt about bearing the responsibility of the younger woman's tentative trust, but she knew she couldn't let her down, for her aunt's sake if nothing else.
She parked Henri in front of Ed Romero's office a few minutes later and entered the small nondescript building that housed his office.
Jaye stopped in front of the secretary's desk, not recognizing her. "I'd like to see Ed Romero."
Brenda Evans opened the appointment book, looking up when the stranger standing in front of her desk spoke.
"I need to see him now."
"I'm afraid you're gonna have to make an appointment. He's not here right now."
Jaye struggled with her temper for a moment before asking politely. "When do you expect him back?"
Brenda closed the book. "I'm not sure. He went to a friend's funeral. I would imagine he went to the wake afterwards."
Jaye turned as she heard the door open, smiling in recognition. "Ed." She met him midway across the room and returned his embrace.
"It's good to see you, Jaye. I just wish it were under other circumstances. I didn't see you at Martha's house. People were asking about you."
"I never could see the sense in getting together and eating after a funeral. Seems too much like a celebration to me. Just not my thing."
Ed nodded, unsurprised. "Come on into my office." He closed the door, then commented, "I didn't expect to see you here. The reading of the will isn't for another couple of days."
Jaye rolled her eyes in amusement. "I didn't come about the will. I need a good criminal lawyer. Who's the best around here?"
Ed stared at Jaye in surprise. "Why? You're not in trouble are you?"
"Not for me. I need to get Lindsay Daniels out on bond. She didn't kill my Aunt."
Ed sighed. "I wish you were right. She always seemed like such a good kid, but there seems to be a strong case against her. What makes you think she's innocent?"
"Have you met her?"
"Oh, yes. Anyone who knows Delia has met her. Those two were downright inseparable. It was quite a shock when she was arrested, but money makes strange bedfellows."
Jaye nodded. "True. But I just met with her and this whole thing doesn't feel right. She says she didn't do it. I believe her." Riveting her gaze on her aunt's friend, she added, "I intend to find out who did it, but I may need Lindsay's help. So who do I get?"
Ed answered without hesitation. "Frank Collins. He's young, but smart as a whip. He's your best bet not to leave any stone unturned."
"Thanks, Ed. Where do I find him?"
"Over on Main Street next to the courthouse."
Trailing the tall woman as she moved toward the door, Ed said, "I hope you're right."
Jaye looked over her shoulder, a half-smile on her face. "Count on it."
A few moments later Jaye parked Henri, climbed out of the driver's seat and made her way toward the small building clearing identifying the occupants in a placard near the door.
She quickly located Frank Collins' name and entered the structure looking for room 107. Pushing open the door, Jaye pulled up short, finding herself facing a young man sporting a chestnut mustache that matched his unruly hair.
Jaye quickly recovered. "I'm looking for Frank Collins."
The man cleared his voice and smiled boyishly. "That would be me. How may I help you?"
Smiling inwardly at his enthusiasm, she hoped Ed knew what he was talking about. The mustache did nothing to age his baby face, but she was encouraged by the warm, intelligent gray eyes gazing at her curiously.
"I need to arrange for bail to be set for Lindsay Daniels."
Frank shook his head. "Who are you? A relative of hers or something? That's going to be just about impossible. She's accused of killing one of the most beloved people in this town."
Jaye extended her hand. "Jaye MacLaren." After releasing Frank's hand, she said, "Delia is my aunt."
Staring, Frank sputtered, "Why...she is accused of killing your aunt! Why would you want her out of jail?"
Jaye shrugged. "Simple. She didn't do it."
"Do you have any proof of that?"
Jaye leaned across the desk and spoke slowly. "Since when is someone guilty until proven innocent?"
"I didn't mean..."
"You could've fooled me. Webster found the hatchet with her finger prints on it and is too lazy to look any further. Since the hatchet belonged to my aunt and Lindsay lived there, makes sense it would have her finger prints on it."
Nodding, Frank commented, "True. But last time Sam saw her was when she and Delia walked into the reading room. Sam would've seen her if she left like she claims."
Riveting Frank with her eyes, Jaye asked, "Even if he was busy?"
"That's stretching it, because he didn't see her leave or return."
"It's a library. There are always people in the library that time of day." Jaye walked over to the window, and gazed out for a moment before turning back to the attorney.
"There is nothing I want more than to see my aunt's murderer brought to justice. But I want the real killer convicted, not an innocent. The hatchet proves nothing. Sam not happening to see her leave or arrive proves nothing. Now are you going to help me get her out of jail or have you already convicted her, too?"
"Of course not!"
"You going to help me then?"
Frank sighed and nodded. "Yes. I'll help you. I'll file for a bond hearing and request it be expedited. If I get it, the bond's probably going to be high since it's a capital murder case."
"You get the bond set, I'll worry about raising the money."
"Agreed." Frank shifted from one foot, then to the other, looking at Jaye expectantly.
Jaye pulled a wad of money out of her pocket she just withdrawn from the bank. "How much?"
"$250.00 to cover court costs for the bond hearing and my fee. Then it'll be a flat $120 an hour until we go to trial. If we do go to trial, I'll figure out a flat fee that's acceptable to both of us. Deal?"
Nodding, Jaye peeled off the bills, handing Frank the money. "I'll call you in an hour to find out what time the hearing is."
"Wait. I'm not sure the judge will set a hearing right away."
Jaye smiled. "I'm sure you can convince him how shaky this case is and then insist he expedite the bail hearing."
"Right. I'll do my best."
Jaye watched as Frank issued instructions to a dazed looking Lindsay. She felt a touch of sympathy for the young woman. Even she'd been surprised at how fast events had transpired. She had expected that her aunt's caregiver would have to remain in jail for at least another twenty-four hours, but Frank had succeeded in having her released by the end of the day.
With a little help from Dolan and me. Jaye's smug reflection was interrupted by a distinct chuckle right beside her ear.
"Not bad, J-mac. You're off to a fine start."
The tall woman couldn't help starting as she hissed, "Don't do that!"
Lindsay and Frank turned to her curiously.
"Uh, a fly, yeah...just a pesky, annoying fly," Jaye blurted, brushing furiously at the air beside her head. "Um, I'm going to go bring the Jeep around."
Without waiting for an answer, she strode off, leaving the mildly bewildered pair staring after her.
"Got a bee in your britches?"
Jaye could hear the amusement in her aunt's voice. Ducking into an alley that would provide a shortcut to the library's parking lot, she allowed herself to glance over to where her aunt's ghost floated along beside her.
She gestured at the open air between the ground and her aunt's feet. "Do you have to do that?"
Delia chuckled. "Well, I'm finding it rather refreshing. I haven't been able to keep up with you without double-timing since you were eleven years old and turned into a baby giraffe. 'Sides, it's not like anyone else can see me."
Jaye sighed and conceded her aunt the point. Picking up her pace again, she asked, "So you saw what happened today?"
"Yup, every bit of it. I was right proud of you for finding the clues that idiot sheriff overlooked."
"It was hard to go there..." Jaye's voice trailed off and her throat closed as she recalled going from Frank's office to the library reading room earlier that afternoon. A veteran crime scene photographer who had shot some of the worst examples of man's inhumanities, she hadn't expected to be as deeply affected as she was.
Jaye left the lawyer's office and paused on the street to consider her options, barely noticing that the persistent rain had finally let up. Getting Lindsay out of jail was her first objective, but aside from employing Frank to begin that process, she was momentarily stumped as to where to go from there.
Sliding into Henri, Jaye sat quietly considering her next course of action. Deciding she needed to see the crime scene, she drove over to the library. Parking in the nearly empty lot, she surveyed the area. Thick hedges lined the parking lot and two picnic tables sat amidst a small copse of young trees. The building itself was a substantial size for such a small town and the photographer knew her aunt had played a big part in the drive to build and maintain a fine library.
Steeling herself, Jaye walked to the double front doors, pausing to read a handwritten sign; "Closed for Delia Blake's funeral." She frowned slightly, but trying the doors, found the right one open. Entering, she saw a thin young man sitting disconsolately at the checkout desk, idly turning a pen over in his fingers. He didn't even look up as he called out, "We're closed."
The young man's head jerked up. "Jaye?" He rose and came around the desk, holding out his hand. "I didn't get a chance to talk to you at the funeral, but I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for your loss...hell, for all our loss. She was a fine woman, your aunt was."
Jaye nodded. "Yes, she was. None better." Firmly pushing the resurgent sorrow down, she asked quietly, "Do you mind if I take a look in the back?"
Sam looked a little uncertain. "I dunno, Jaye. They still have the police tape up blocking off the room."
"I won't touch anything, I promise. I just need to see where..." Helpless to prevent the tears that filled her eyes, she saw Sam duck his head in sympathy.
"Aw, heck, it can't hurt anything. Go ahead," he said roughly, motioning her on.
Ducking under the yellow crime scene tape that blocked the doorway, Jaye crossed to the table at the front of the room and stopped short at the sight of the large, rust-coloured stain on the tan carpet in front of a magnetic white board, still gaily adorned with blue plastic letters and numbers. She felt a wave of nausea, knowing that stain represented her aunt's final moments of life.
Sucking in a deep breath, she forced herself to conduct a dispassionate survey of the room. The children's reading room was painted in a bright mixture of yellow and white, with colorful cartoon characters decorating the walls. Short bookshelves filled with children's stories, games and puzzles lined the room. Two large side windows admitted weak sunlight, filtered through grey clouds that were only now beginning to dissipate.
Thrusting her hands into the pockets of her black, tailored trousers to ensure she didn't touch anything, Jaye made her way to the windows. If she accepted that Lindsay wasn't the murderer, which she did--based on her aunt's words and the young woman's own demeanor, then whoever had killed Delia had to exit either back through the libraryunlikely given that he'd probably been stained with bloodor through one of these windows.
Jaye examined the exterior, noting the proximity of the forest. A killer could have easily vanished there without being detected. Dropping to her knees, the tall woman peered under the metal facing used to raise the window. She felt a thrill as she spied a rust-colored smear on the underside. Halting the instinctive movement of her hand towards the evidence, she rose gracefully to her feet.
Jaye jumped, not having heard anyone approach. Turning, she broke into a broad smile. "Dolan!"
The red-haired deputy sheriff nodded soberly. "Good to see you, Jaye, but you shouldn't be in here, you know."
"I know, but I believe a very big miscarriage of justice has occurred, and I had to see if I could find something to set it right."
The deputy's shrewd brown eyes regarded her intently. "You don't think the kid killed her either."
One ebony eyebrow shot up as Jaye shook her head. Her onetime boyfriend obviously wasn't convinced of his prisoner's guilt.
"No, I don't. I take it you have your doubts too?"
Dolan sighed heavily. "Come with me. I want to show you something."
Jaye followed the man outside, and squatted beside him as he knelt on the grass beneath the reading room windows. Flowerbeds lined the building, mostly barren at this time of year except for some hardy perennials, and Dolan pointed at the faint impression of a man's shoe in the wet earth under the window.
"Took a cast of this the afternoon of the murder, and pictures of these spots." He indicated another couple of blood smears on the exterior of the windowsill. Sighing, he leaned back on his heels. "I'm guessing DNA would show it was Delia's which won't help nab the killer, but I found one other footprint that looks the same at the edge of the trees and took a cast of that too."
Jaye looked at him incredulously. "You had these and you still arrested her? For God's sake, Dolan, that's reasonable doubt if nothing else!"
The deputy had the grace to look shame-faced. "I told Bill about these things, but he says the footprints could've belonged to one of the workmen who were replacing the gutters last week. Thing is, that's not a workman's boot print. That's a dress shoe, from the look of it."
"And the blood?" Jaye knew her voice had risen in anger, but she was shaken at the realization that Lindsay should never have been subjected to her ordeal in the town jail.
"Aw, shit. Bill claimed that the kid panicked and started to escape out the window, then realized she'd be caught, so tried to play it like she found the body."
The tall woman stared at him incredulously. "That is the biggest load of..."
Holding up one placating hand, the deputy nodded. "Yeah, and I wasn't going to let it go, Jaye. I just figured the kid would be safer in a cell than out where the real killer could get her too. See, I don't know why anyone would ever want to kill your aunt, and given that those two were practically joined at the hip, I thought if Auntie D was in danger, Lindsay might be too."
Jaye's wrath ebbed as she realized Dolan hadn't gotten stupid or corrupt in the years since they had dated as teenagers during her summer vacations in Tucker's Way.
"Sorry, it's just that it's so wrong." She shook her head in frustration. "Couldn't you have gone over that idiot sheriff's head?"
"Not and kept my job. Hannah and I are expecting our fourth in a couple of months, and I can't afford to be out of work." Dolan shrugged apologetically. "I figured I'd just compile all the available evidence and then turn it over to the kid's lawyer."
Standing, Jaye smiled affectionately at the deputy. She'd always admired his rugged stoicism and strong personal code of ethics. Even as a teenager, he'd exhibited a definite sense of what lines they couldn't cross as they prowled the town after dark looking for excitement.
"She has a lawyer now. Frank Collins. He's making a bail application this afternoon, and he could sure use what you have to buttress his arguments."
Dolan nodded. "I'll go see him." He started to walk away, then turned back with a grin. "I think Uncle Jack has the bench this afternoon. Maybe I'll keep Frank company when he goes to court."
Jaye laughed as she watched the husky man amble away. She'd been away from Tucker's Way so long that she'd almost forgotten how incestuous small towns could be.
Clearing her throat, Jaye murmured to her aunt, "At least it didn't take long to get her out once we presented the evidence.
Delia snorted. "And didn't you just love the look on the sheriff's face when Jack chewed him out for 'laying charges precipitously'?"
Jaye laughed. "Yeah, I thought he was gonna have a coronary when the judge ordered him to set Lindsay free on bail." She turned the corner, spotting the library half a block down. "He certainly was nasty about not releasing your car though."
"That's okay. It'll give Dolan more time to check for fingerprints other than Lindsay's or mine. Besides, Lindsay will be sticking with you until we solve this, so she can ride along in that junk heap you call a vehicle."
"Hey!" Jaye's protests over the insult to Henri's dignity were offset by her aunt's implications. "Wait a minute...I'm not babysitting her while I try to solve this, Auntie D."
"Don't be foolish, Eeyore," Delia said firmly. "That girl's mind is just as quick as yours; she'll be invaluable. She knows what's been going on around here the last year. You don't."
That stung, and Jaye maintained a sullen silence until she was seated in her Jeep. She refused to look at the ghost now comfortably ensconced in the rear seat and mumbled, "We'll talk."
"That we will." The cheerful answer didn't reassure her. She'd yet to win one of these arguments with her aunt, and she glumly resigned herself to having an unwanted assistant.
Swinging by the front of the courthouse, Jaye picked Lindsay up and drove back out to her aunt's house. They said little on the drive back from town, two strangers thrown together by circumstances, and extremely uncomfortable circumstances at that. Jaye noticed Lindsay casting the occasional speculative glance her way, but concentrated on her driving.
Delia had vanished from the back seat to...well, wherever she hung out. The tall woman shied away from considering that too closely. Raised on a mixture of her father's religious conservatism and her aunt's unstructured spiritualism, she'd long ago thrown up her hands in confusion and declined to incorporate any theological considerations into her life, preferring to live in the here and now. Just one more thing Dad has against Auntie D.
The younger woman stopped her at the entrance to the property to pick up the four days of mail stuffed in the rural mailbox. Their arrival in front of her aunt's home shook Jaye out of her somber reverie, as she parked in the driveway. The women entered the house, and Lindsay wordlessly set the mail on the sideboard, kicking off her shoes before heading straight for her room.
The blonde was just reaching for the doorknob when Jaye suddenly called out, "Wait!"
Startled, Lindsay turned, her head cocked curiously.
Blushing faintly with embarrassment, Jaye explained, "Um, I sort of broke something in there. Let me clean up the glass so you don't get cut."
The tall woman wasn't sure if she really heard her aunt's soft 'I told you so,' or only imagined it, but she grabbed a broom and dustpan and hastened to sweep up the shards of glass from the broken picture frame.
Jaye stood with the pan full of broken glass and, refusing to meet Lindsay's eyes, muttered, "Sorry."
A hand reached out to stop her as she tried to get by the young woman in the doorway. Reluctantly she looked up, startled to see amazing compassion in the soft green eyes regarding her.
"It's all right. I'd have been just as angry in your shoes."
Jaye ducked her head in acknowledgement.
"I'm going to grab a quick shower. Why don't you see if there's anything in the kitchen we can heat up for dinner? I think I left some stew in the freezer."
Relieved that the incident hadn't caused any further difficulties between them, Jaye took the debris to the kitchen and dumped the broken glass into the large dustbin. Suddenly aware that her stomach was reminding her that she'd eaten almost nothing since being notified of her aunt's death, the tall woman eagerly rummaged in the freezer and dug out a loaf of frozen bread and a plastic container labeled 'beef stew'.
By the time Lindsay made her appearance, her hair still damp from the shower and dressed in jeans, moccasins and a fisherman's knit sweater, Jaye had managed to scoop enough of the frozen mixture into a pot to satisfy them both. The loaf was warming in the oven, and the tall woman had put the kettle on for tea.
They consumed the simple meal in relative silence, but once it was done and the dishes cleared away, they settled in to compare notes. After reviewing the basic facts of the case as they knew them, Jaye asked, "Did Auntie D have any run-ins with anyone lately?"
Lindsay considered the questions. "Well, there was Ab Saunders, but she's been feuding with him for years. We chased him off about a month ago, but I don't think more than a few weeks go by at a time that we don't have to run him off again. I really can't see him committing murder though."
Jaye nodded, thinking of the cantankerous old outdoorsman whose family had once owned Delia's property. Ab had never reconciled himself to the loss of his boyhood land, even though his father had lost it for failure to pay taxes over forty years ago. He'd been a thorn in Delia's side for decades, sneakily poaching and using the land like it was still his own. Her aunt occasionally got angry enough to have Ab arrested, but the slaps on the wrist he received never deterred him for long. Ab was a mouthy eccentric who alternately bragged about his activities and swore vengeance on Delia for imagined crimes, but the tall woman was pretty sure he was all talk.
"Yeah, if he was going to do anything, you'd think he'd have done it years ago. Why would he wait until now? Still, it doesn't hurt to look into what he's been up to."
Lindsay got up and found a notebook in a kitchen drawer, then returned to the table, Jaye watched, amused, as the blonde neatly labeled the first page, 'Ab Saunders', then diligently noted down dates and incidents going back a year.
When she was done, Lindsay looked up and smiled a bit sheepishly. "I can't help it. I'm a compulsive note taker. Delia used to complain that I left stickies all over the house."
The pair sobered at the thought of the absent woman, before Lindsay sighed and carried on.
"Anyway, as near as I can recall, these are the approximate encounters we had with Ab since I've lived here."
Jaye looked them over and nodded her approval. If nothing else, it would give them ammunition to pass on to Dolan. "So, anyone else? Anything recent that you can think of?"
Lindsay furrowed her brow in concentration and the tall woman remained silent, giving her time to think. The blonde bit her lip in frustration and ran a small hand through her hair.
"I can't think of anything. I mean, she had a pretty nasty exchange with Derek Mains a little while ago, but she hasn't heard from him since."
The name was unfamiliar to Jaye. "Derek Mains?"
The other woman waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, just a land developer who was trying to convince Delia to sell. He wanted to build a resort or something on her land, but of course she turned him down flat."
Azure eyes hardened as Jaye said slowly, "Tell me more about this Mains character."
Before answering, Lindsay turned a page and labeled the new one 'Derek Mains'. Writing as she thought, she filled her companion in.
"He first approached her about three months after I came here to live, so that would be a little over a year ago. Delia let him give his spiel, and he promised her everything under the sun if she'd sell; then she politely told him she wasn't interested. He wouldn't take no for an answer though. Kept writing, and approaching her on the streets."
Jaye laughed. "Oh yeah, I can see where that would've gone over well."
Lindsay chuckled in response. "Uh huh. Delia was about to spit nails by the twentieth time she'd said no. Then Mains got the bright idea that she wouldn't deal with him because he was an 'outsider', so he enlisted local help."
A groan greeted the recounting of that brilliant ploy. "I'll just bet Auntie D was impressed by that!"
"No kidding!" Lindsay giggled. "And it didn't help that he hooked up with Mary Reynolds."
"Reynolds, Reynolds... The only Reynolds I remember are Neal and Tessa Reynolds and their brood of kids."
"Well, Stu Reynolds is their third son and he's married to Mary Fessler, now Mary Reynolds."
"Not one of the Fesslers?" Jaye shook her head remembering a perpetually whining, discontented brood. "Do they all still have badly dyed hair piled to the skies?"
Lindsay grinned at her. "I take it you're acquainted with the Fesslers?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Serena Fessler was my age. She had her eye set on Dolan, so when he and I were dating, she kept trying to come between us. Just about drove me crazy one summer!"
To Jaye's surprise, the younger woman's good humour seemed to vanish, and she picked up her narrative in a subdued tone. "Anyway, Mary is a local councilwoman, and she tried approaching Delia on the basis that this new resort would be great for the community, and shouldn't that be Dee's first consideration. She came on really strong, trying to convince Delia that she was being selfish. Honestly, if her arthritis hadn't been particularly bad that day, I swear Dee would've picked her up herself and thrown her out on her ear. As it was, I was instructed in no uncertain terms to show the greedy money-grubber out."
Jaye felt a trace of excitement. "Hmm, so Auntie D thought Mary was getting a kickback from Mains?" Money was one of the oldest motives in the book for murder, and the Fessler crowd had never had a scruple to share among them.
"No, not exactly. Actually we talked about that later. It was common knowledge that Mary and Derek were having an affair. They weren't all that discreet about it. Delia figured Mary thought Derek was going to take her out of this place to live the high-life that was her proper birthright."
"Money AND sex...even better as motives."
"I suppose." Lindsay looked doubtful. "I don't particularly like either of them, and I feel really sorry for Stu, but I'm not sure I could see them murdering Delia. How would that help their cause? Would you sell to them?"
"Wouldn't just be my decision, would it?" Jaye asked, a trifle stiffly. She was coming to like this young woman, but her aunt's inclination to treat Lindsay like family still rankled.
Puzzled, Lindsay asked, "What do you mean? I thought you were Delia's only living relative?"
"You really don't know?"
Jaye could tell that the younger woman was genuinely puzzled, and any lingering doubts about her innocence vanished. "Delia included you in her will. That was supposed to be your motive for killing her."
Lindsay gaped at her, obviously stunned at the revelation.
Curiously the tall woman asked, "Didn't they accuse you of that when they arrested you?"
Green eyes dropped. "They accused me of so many hideous things. The sheriff wouldn't let me clean her blood off me, and he just kept hammering at me hour after hour, trying to get me to confess. I'm afraid I blanked most of it out of my mind. I got the impression that they thought we'd had a falling out or something. They kept asking about arguments we were supposed to have had." She shook her head, her voice dropping to a whisper. "We've never argued once. Not once."
There was a long silence as Lindsay struggled to regain her composure. Finally, trying to lighten the atmosphere, Jaye asked jokingly, "Not even over her nightly tot? I'd have thought that, as her caregiver, you'd have clamped down on that habit."
Jaye was inordinately pleased to see that elicit a small grin as Lindsay shook her head.
"Actually, she got me into the same routine. We used to sit outside and watch the stars come out while we had a glass of rum. I'm not a professional nurse or anything. I just needed a job; and I'd had experience looking after my mother when she was ill so when I saw her notice, I applied and was hired." Her smile grew soft and contemplative. "It was the best decision I ever made. Your aunt was a very special person."
"Mmm hmm. No question there." Jaye realized that the affection she'd sensed from her aunt for this young woman hadn't been one-sided. The two women had obviously developed a close bond in the year and a half they'd been together. Slowly her jealousy faded, to be replaced by a growing sense of gratitude that her aunt had had such a cherished companion in her final months.
Visibly pulling herself out of her thoughts, Lindsay turned a new page and asked, "What about you? Do you know anyone who hated Delia?"
"Aside from my father, you mean?" The dry question got Jaye a raised eyebrow.
"No, he's not a suspect. He and I were having lunch in Toronto about the time Auntie D was killed." She paused thoughtfully. "He did thoroughly dislike her, though. He once told me that if my mother hadn't made him promise on her deathbed to let Delia be involved in my life, he'd have cut her off and never let her see me again."
"Why did he hate her so much?" Lindsay's head tilted curiously in a gesture that Jaye was coming to recognize as characteristic.
"You know, I've never really been sure. I asked him once, but all he'd say was that she wasn't a proper influence on a growing girl. Still, I have to give him credit. He kept his promise to Mom and let me stay with Auntie D every summer." She laughed ruefully. "Mind you, he deprogrammed me rigorously every September. I had to go to church three times a week for the first month after I came back from Tucker's Way."
Jaye glanced over at Lindsay, only to see an oddly comprehending look on the younger woman's face. She was about to question the origin of the enigmatic look when Lindsay closed her notebook firmly.
"It's late. I think I'm going to call it a day and enjoy sleeping in my own bed tonight. Those jail cots are gawdawful!"
"Okay. I'm going to go have a few words with Mary Reynolds tomorrow, and see if Derek Mains is around right now, too."
Lindsay paused and turned in the doorway of the kitchen. Fixing Jaye with a stern glance she corrected, "We're going to go do interviews tomorrow."
Without waiting for a response she left, and Jaye could hear her walking down the hardwood hallway. The tall woman grunted to herself. She hadn't thought that she'd get away with unilateral action, but she'd had to at least try.
Deciding that she might as well retire herself, she cleared away the teacups, turned out the kitchen lights and made her way to her aunt's room. It wasn't until she was settled in under Delia's thick down comforter that Jaye remembered she'd forgotten to call Ronald. Feeling mildly guilty that she hadn't thought of him at all, she justified it to herself. Been a busy day. He'll understand. I'll call him tomorrow.
Lindsay surreptitiously glanced at Jaye as the dark-haired woman maneuvered through the hilly streets to Mary's house. Her baffling companion vacillated between friendliness and the current aloofness.
"We timed it right. Her car's here. You ready?"
Nodding, Lindsay said, "Yeah. Even though our visit might seem kind of sudden, Mary's so money hungry, she won't question it."
Lindsay firmly pressed the door chime a moment later, both women determined to elicit information from the greedy councilwoman.
Frowning at the sound of the unexpected doorbell, Mary sprayed a last bit of hair spray onto her hair before even glancing at the door. Reminding herself that Stu was in the shower, she took one last look in the mirror before going to answer it.
Opening the door, Mary stared in amazement and gave an exaggerated gasp. "Don't even think about coming in my house, you killer! Jaye, you come on in. It's nice to see you again and I'm so sorry about your aunt. It must have been a terrible shock."
Lindsay just rolled her eyes, prepared to remain outside, until Jaye smiled sweetly and extended the bait. "I asked her to come, Mary. I'm convinced of Lindsay's innocence. She's out on bail and assisting me in plans to sell my property. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have known you and Derek Mains were inquiring after it."
"Oh. Well, that's true, we have been. Come in, come in."
"Both of us?"
"Of course, Jaye. Since she's with you, I suppose it's all right." Mary ushered her two guests into the living room, beckoning them to sit down as she followed suite.
"I hear you got elected to the city council. Congratulations."
Mary smiled warmly. "Thank you. It was time to get some of that old stagnant blood out of there. We need to attract newcomers to build up the economy, and that takes fresh ideas."
Barely pausing for breath, Mary continued, "That's why I was talking to your aunt about that land. She didn't take kindly to Derek just because he was an outsider, but I knew how important it was for this town's economy to attract developers like him. See, Derek already has all the financial backing in place to build a brand new resort. Think of all the revenue that would generate from those rich playboys looking for a pristine hideaway. If this town can't come up with the land, he'll just take his business and go elsewhere."
"I'm not so sure that would be a bad thing. He is an outsider. What if he doesn't have the backing he claims to have? Has anyone checked his background or credentials?"
Mary grinned conspiratorially. "Now don't you worry about that. He's definitely got the financing in place." Seeing the indecision on Jaye's face, Mary hastened to assure her, "Let's just say I have some inside knowledge."
Jaye winked, and said teasingly, "I heard you have more than just inside knowledge. Word's out that you've been getting your information during pillow talk."
Mary's eyes shone with triumph as she looked around furtively, placing her finger against her lips. "Shhh. That's just gossip. Surely you don't believe everything you hear."
Jaye drawled, "Well, no, not everything. But when the whole town is saying the same thing..."
Abruptly standing, Mary asked, "Would you like some coffee?"
Lindsay shook her head, and Jaye said, "No thanks, but you go ahead."
Once Mary left, Lindsay leaned close to Jaye. "Stu must still be here. She's awfully worried about us mentioning her affair. He's gotta know about it."
"Probably so. I feel sorry for him. I expect since he can't take her any higher up the social ladder, Mary will discard him like an old dishrag the first chance she gets. I'm betting all Derek had to do was wave a few bills under her nose and she fell right into his bed. What a lowlife."
Coffee cup in hand, Mary walked back into the living room smiling. "So where were we? Oh yes, I was telling you how good such a development would be for the town. You know, if we could come to some sort of preliminary agreement, I could make the announcement at the next council meeting." She beamed at Jaye.
Lindsay struggled to keep from rolling her eyes. This woman was unbelievable. It was obvious that what the land meant to her was status in the town. That was powerful motivation. So how did Derek fit into the equation?
Jaye returned Mary's smile. "Did you explain to my aunt how vital it was to the town? I'm sure if she had realized the economic potential for Tucker's Way, she would've been interested in doing her part."
"Yes. We both explained to her how important it was and she refused to give us the time of day. Why last time we went to her house, she even ordered Derek to leave." Aggrieved, Mary looked at Lindsay. "Ask her. She was there. Your aunt was getting up in age and I think... No, I shouldn't speak ill of the dead. It's obvious that you care enough about the town to come to me and offer the property."
"We'll, I wouldn't exactly say I'm offering it. More like selling it. What's the offer?"
"$100,000. That's top dollar."
"Mary, you insult me. That's only a fraction of what the property's worth."
Chuckling, Mary said, "Business is business. Can't blame me for trying. Derek told me he was willing to go to $200,000, but not a dollar more."
Jaye shook her head. "The property is worth $350,000 in the private market and triple that in the commercial market. I think you'd better have another discussion with Derek while I'm in the mood to sell. I could change my mind tomorrow."
Mary stood up. "Now, please don't be hasty. He's out of town until tonight, but I'm supposed to meet him at the Seafood Loft for dinner. I'll talk to him then and see how high he'll go."
"Why don't you just set up an appointment for us to meet?"
"I'll do that and call you tomorrow morning, okay?"
Jaye and Lindsay stood up.
"That would be fine, Mary. Thanks for your time."
Lindsay shook her head as they walked toward the car. "She's a trip. All she cares about is getting her name in the paper. That's garbage about the resort. This town is doing just fine, and Delia specifically chose not to sell because she didn't want a big influx of strangers."
"I know, but Mary bought it. I need to talk to Derek. He just might be in over his head with the investors. If he were, that would give him motive. Mary has a motive too. Status. She's just using Derek as a stepping-stone to escape this town. Talk about grandiose plans. That woman is so stuck on herself it's unbelievable."
Stu sank onto the bed in anguish, and lowered his head to his hands. The whole town knew. Jaye hadn't even been back in town for two days and she'd already heard the rumors. How was he supposed to face the guys at work, or walk down Main Street knowing the whispers that were going on behind his back? "Stupid, stupid!" Stu pounded his fist against his thigh.
For months now he had tried to ignore the evidence right under his nose, tried to deny that he smelled the scent of an unfamiliar cologne on his wife's body when she came to bed after late night 'business meetings,' tried to overlook the furtive phone calls and hide his hurt at the way Mary avoided his slightest touch.
He wracked his brain trying to figure out where things had gone wrong. He worked all the overtime he could get, so that his wife could enjoy the nice things that she coveted so much. He had never even looked at another woman since they'd been married. None of it mattered, though. It was obvious that Mary had no regard for the sanctity of marriage, and did nothing to hide her indiscretions from the town's folk.
As Stu rocked back and forth on his bed, his imagination summoned unwanted images of that slimy city slicker fucking his wife, and his agony slowly turned to anger as he pictured the two of them laughing at him, mocking his slow speech and country ways.
When he heard his wife's car start up, he raised his head, chillingly aware that she no longer even bothered to say hello or goodbye. Standing, he jammed his meaty hands into his coverall pockets and stood by the window watching his wife drive away. His eyes hardened with a new determination. It was personal now. He couldn't let them get away with what they'd done.
"We'll be lucky to catch Ab at home. He spends most of his waking hours out in the woods."
Lindsay grinned mischievously. "It's still early. We could sit on the front porch and wait for him. I have a feeling he'd know we were there. Ornery as he is, he'll probably beat feet to chase us off his property for trespassing."
Jaye chuckled at the image. "You're probably right. I can just see him come storming out of the woods. Be a good way to catch him off guard."
Arriving at the end of the rutted, dirt road, Jaye pulled Henri off the lane and the two women exited, making their way to the simple log cabin. Tall pine trees shaded the dwelling, which was fronted by a neatly cleared area.
Lindsay looked around, surprised. "I've never been here before. I didn't expect..."
"Ab's always been at one with nature. He wouldn't harm anything he didn't need. Even when he poaches on Aunt Delia's property, it's only for food. He smokes his own meat and pretty much lives off the land."
"I wonder why he..."
"Hunted on her land? To irritate her, and to show her she could have him arrested all she wanted and he'd still do as he pleased." Jaye shrugged. "He's just plain cantankerous."
"I guess." Lindsay sat down next to Jaye, who was already perched on the front steps.
"He should be here any time now. Keep your eyes open. I want to see if he comes from the direction of my aunt's property."
Lindsay nodded, training her eyes on the trees, but very aware of Jaye's presence next to her.
They didn't have long to wait. Ab Saunders came stalking out of the woods, his twelve-gauge shotgun aimed toward his porch.
"Git offa my propaty."
"Ab, put that gun down. We want to ask you some questions."
"I ain't answaing none of yah questions. Now git outta heya."
"We can leave now. But if you don't talk to us, you'll be talking to the sheriff." Jaye pointed over to the trees. "Over there, where you came out? That's my property now, and I bet if I go look, I'll find the dinner you caught for yourself on my land."
"It ain't yah land no mowan it was Delia's. She waited, plottin with the bank to foreclose on it."
Jaye's blue eyes started flashing. "Ab! Now you know that's a lie. She bought it after your Daddy lost it to unpaid taxes so the developers wouldn't come in here and build it all up. Now you know that. You think just because she's dead you can go around slandering her?"
Lindsay looked from one to the other. "We only want to ask you a few questions. It won't take long."
The stare down continued until seconds turned into minutes. Lindsay briefly touched Jaye's forearm. "Come on. Let's go file charges. Bill and Dolan can take care of this."
Nodding, Jaye turned away and began moving toward the Jeep with Lindsay.
"Wait. What do you want to know?"
Jaye turned around slowly when Lindsay began speaking.
"Where were you the afternoon Delia was killed?"
"Yah gotta be kiddin' me! Wayah the hell am I everyday? Right here at home." Ab's gray eyes drilled into Lindsay. "I heard you done it. If'n yah thinkin' a puttin' the blame on me, it ain't gonna work."
Jaye snorted. "You know as well as I do, she didn't do it. You, on the other hand, have been giving my aunt a hard time ever since I can remember. I heard she had you arrested last month."
"So? Old bitch was always calling the cops on me. Now all of a sudden I'm gonna kill her. Don't think so. 'Sides, if I wanted her dead, she'd a been dead a long time ago."
"She was not always calling the cops on you." Lindsay felt her temper begin to rise. "I can't remember how many times she asked you not to poach on her land, and you ignored her every time. If she'd gone to the police every time she caught you out back in the woods, you'd have a rap sheet longer than my arm."
"Well, if that's all you wanted to ask, you come to the wrong place. Now you can both just git offin my land." He turned around and strode back to the cabin, muttering, "Of all the horseshit, tryin' to pin a murder on me."
Jaye gazed at Lindsay. "Hey, you okay?"
"Yeah. He just made me mad. Every word that came out of his mouth about Delia was a lie, and I had just had enough. She never treated him unfairly and all he ever did was aggravate her."
"It's been that way for years. I just don't see him harming her, though. Deep down he has to know that she's protected the land by not selling out to developers. He wanders into town just enough to get the gossip and slips right back out."
"I didn't really think he'd done it either, but I still don't like him."
Jaye chuckled. "His bark is worse than his bite. I'd be playing in the woods when I was a kid, and he was always trying to scare me. I got pretty good at outsmarting him, and let me tell you, that didn't go over very well."
Lindsay smiled. "No, I don't imagine it would've. How about calling it a day? We can't interview Derek until he gets back to town, and after meeting with Ab and Mary, I need a break."
"Okay. I need to pick up some groceries, anyway." Jaye looked at the green eyes gazing at her from underneath a raised eyebrow and amended, "We."
Jaye tried to ignore the insistent voice of her aunt. In her waking dream she was a child again and trying to sleep in, but Delia kept insisting she get up. If she kept pretending to be asleep, her aunt might give up.
The voice got louder and more insistent. "Jaye, get up right now! The house is on fire!"
As she rose toward consciousness, Jaye smelled the faint tinges of smoke beginning to permeate the air in her bedroom and broke free of the cobwebs of sleep. "What the hell..."
Casting the sheet aside, her feet were on the floor before she realized the ghostly apparition of her aunt was present, and the voice hadn't been a dream.
Delia frantically said, "Come on, hurry up. You've gotta wake Lindsay and get out of here."
Jaye slid on her loafers, barely hearing her aunt as she raced to the door and down the hallway toward Lindsay's bedroom. Grabbing the blonde's shoulder and shaking it hard, she said urgently, "Wake up. The house is on fire." Ignoring the look of alarm on the younger woman's face, Jaye literally pulled her from the bed.
She saw comprehension dawn on Lindsay's face a nanosecond before the blonde began moving of her own accord, jogging next to her down the hall.
Amidst the thickening smoke, Jaye grabbed Lindsay's hand as they sprinted toward the front door. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the younger woman grab the phone from the coffee table, never missing a step. Impressed with Lindsay's quick thinking, Jaye finally breathed a sigh of relief when they cleared the steps to the front yard.
Her head jerked to the left at a slight movement near the tree line, and she began sprinting toward a dark figure disappearing into the deep woods. "Call the police!"
Lindsay watched Jaye give chase as she dialed 911, hearing the faint wail of sirens in the distance. She reported the fire, wondering who had already called in the alarm. After requesting the police, she momentarily trained her eyes on the woods where Delia's niece had disappeared.
As the town's lone fire truck pulled into the yard, she moved back out of the way. Three of the town's volunteer firemen quickly dismounted and began pulling hoses from the truck, aiming them toward the growing smoke adjacent to the back door. Within moments, the fire was out, but smoke continued to drift upward.
Chuck Tillman walked up. "You okay, Lindsay?"
Smiling at the fire chief, she answered, "Thanks to Jaye, I'm fine. I don't know how she woke up so quickly. The smoke wasn't even bad until we got into the living room."
"You're both lucky. Much longer, and that fire might've really caught on." Chuck gestured toward the still smoking woodbin outside the kitchen door. "Not much damage except for smoke. Where's Jaye?"
"She saw some guy over there by the woods and took off after him."
"Well, the fire is definitely arson." Chuck scratched his head. "Doesn't make sense to set a woodbin on fire. You can smell the kerosene on the kindling." He snorted. "I see Jaye hasn't changed. Still rushes headlong into danger."
Lindsay smiled. "I think she was pissed."
"Can't say I blame her..."
Jaye reached the wood line within seconds of the man's disappearance. She paused momentarily to ascertain the direction of his flight. It was obvious by the noise he was making that he was more intent on getting away quickly than on concealing his presence.
The tall woman was no stranger to these woods and smiled knowingly. From the sounds of it, he was headed toward the Back Bay dock. Made sense that he'd come by boat. Gambling that she'd guessed right, Jaye took a shortcut she'd learned as a child and arrived at the clearing just before Stu Reynolds crashed out of the timber.
His eyes wide, Stu started backing into the woods.
Tensing in case he bolted and she had to give chase, Jaye said what was obvious to her. "It's not going to do you any good to run, Stu. You're caught red handed."
Stu's shoulders slumped as he stopped. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
Jaye approached Stu and gestured to the woods. "Come on. You can tell that to Dolan."
As they walked back toward her aunt's house, Jaye puzzled over the strange events. First her aunt was murdered, and now an old acquaintance had bungled an attempt to set the house on fire.
"Here she comes." Lindsay frowned. "That's Stu Reynolds. I wonder what..." She trailed off, puzzled.
Bill Webster pulled into the driveway, exited the police car leaving the emergency lights flashing, and sauntered over to the growing group of people. Scowling at Lindsay, he said coldly, "Fire looks under control. Why'd you tell dispatch you needed the police?"
Lindsay pursed her lips, but was spared from further insult by Jaye's arrival.
Crossing her arms, Jaye met Webster's cold eyes with a glare. "Last I heard, it's your job to protect the citizens of this town."
"Yeah. So? In case you hadn't noticed, the fire's out."
Chuck interrupted. "The fire was arson."
"I was just trying to get their attention. Hell, I even called the fire department before I took off."
Four sets of eyes turned to Stu.
Bill sighed loudly. "Get their attention? You set a fire that could've burned down Delia's house to get their attention? Why don't you start at the beginning?"
Stu blurted out, "I heard my wife and that damned developer plotting to murder Delia to get her land. Next thing I know, she turns up dead, and they're just going to walk. I had to do something."
"So you try to burn down's Delia's house. What the hell was that supposed to do?"
Looking down at the ground, Stu murmured, "I was going to frame them for the fire. Had to make them pay for killing Delia somehow. I was careful so they'd have time to get out."
"I've known you, what? Mor'in thirty years now, right?" When Stu nodded, Bill continued, "So can you explain why you just didn't come and tell me?"
"Would you have believed me? More likely you'd have thought I was just trying to get back at Mary for having an affair with that bastard."
Nodding, Bill said, "Well, maybe so. I'm gonna have to take you in and charge you. If you're lucky, you might get released on your own recognizance, but I wouldn't lay any money on it. Damn stupid thing to do, Stu!" Shaking his head in disgust, Webster glanced at Lindsay and added, "You mighta just got lucky. "Pears I'm gonna have to haul Mary and Derek in for some questioning. Damn outsiders."
Jaye commented dryly, "It would kill you to say you were wrong, wouldn't it?" She grinned mirthlessly as the sheriff ignored her and gestured for Stu to follow him to the cruiser.
Lindsay stood next to Jaye, watching all the emergency vehicles leave. "I still can't believe Mary and Derek would kill Delia. No land is worth someone's life."
"People have murdered for less. I hope they both rot in jail for the rest of their miserable lives. It still wouldn't be enough punishment for killing my aunt out of greed."
"It'll depend on what evidence they come up with. I doubt they're going to confess, and Stu's statement will be weak. He was right about that. The defense will play up the jealous husband aspect."
Jaye sighed. "Yeah. But you can testify about Derek's interest in her property and how he refused to take no for an answer. That should count for something."
Lindsay nodded, then glancing at Jaye, she tried unsuccessfully to swallow a chuckle.
Trying not to laugh, Lindsay commented, "Do you always go chasing people through the woods in your pajamas?"
Jaye glanced down at herself and deadpanned. "At least I had the bottoms on."
Chuckling, the two women walked into the house to survey the smoke damage.
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