Authors: J. A. Jance
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To J. B., perhaps you’ll see yourself in this.
She threw that into the bag, along with a scissors, needle and thread.
—FROM “MOLLY WHUPPIE” BY WALTER DE LA MARE
s the snow started to fall in thick, feathery flakes, Betsy Peterson, seated in front, checked the tension in the seat belt against her collarbone, clutched her purse to her chest, and peered out through the headlights into the dark night. Marcia Lawson was a good driver, but a fast one. She seemed to be under the impression that just because she was driving a four-wheel-drive Kia, an older and decidedly dilapidated model, she didn’t need to worry about road conditions.
It wasn’t that Betsy was particularly concerned about the snow. Eighty-plus years of living through Minnesota winters had seen to that, but she had a healthy respect for ice, and that was the problem. A week of unseasonably warm temperatures had been followed by freezing rain, leaving a thick layer of ice coating the small country road that led to her farm. And she was right to be worried. As they approached the turnoff on Grange Road, Betsy knew Marcia was going far too fast. They skidded past the turnoff and came within inches of taking out a pair of mailboxes before finally coming to rest on the shoulder of the road.
“Sorry about that,” Marcia muttered, slamming the gearshift into reverse and shooting back onto the narrow ribbon of iced-over pavement. “It’s times like this when four-wheel drive comes in handy.”
Betsy said nothing. Now that a combination of cataracts and macular degeneration made it impossible for her to drive anymore, Betsy had to count on the kindness of friends and relations to get her to and from wherever she needed to go. For decades Marcia had been Betsy’s hairdresser. Once Marcia closed up shop and retired, she came to Betsy’s home once a week to do her hair while also supplementing her meager retirement by ferrying people around and running errands as needed. In this case, she was driving Betsy home from Monday Night Bingo at the local VFW.
Monday Night Bingo, along with her lifetime membership at Bemidji’s First Lutheran Church, were Betsy’s main social outlets. She went to church on Sunday, Bible study on Tuesday, and Prayer Group on Wednesday. On Fridays she had Marcia come do her hair before the VFW’s weekly evening fish fry. At bingo and at the fish fries, Betsy allowed herself a single sloe gin fizz. After all, those were her only purely social activities.
As far as bingo was concerned, it didn’t hurt that her old high school beau, Howard Hansen—still Dr. Hansen, even though he no longer practiced, and now a widower twice over—came to both bingo and the fish fries, with a group bused in from the Sundowner’s Assisted Living Center. He teased her about being too stubborn to give up living alone and dropped hints that it would be slick if she’d consent to taking up residence in his two-room “suite,” always allowing as how he’d be willing to marry her if need be in order to keep her from living in sin. She liked the twinkle in his eye when he said those things.
Other people in the room might think he was just joshing her, but she knew there was more to it than that. Yes, he was teasing, but he also meant it. After their high school romance came undone, they had both gone on to love and marry other people, but the connection forged by young love remained a glowing ember in both their lives.
“I’m sick and tired of these Minnesota winters,” Marcia was saying. “My one daughter keeps inviting me to come live with her in Florida, but I don’t think I could handle all that heat and humidity. Besides, she takes care of her four grandkids when her daughter is at work. I definitely couldn’t handle living in that kind of chaos.”
Again Betsy said nothing. Her own son, Jimmy, was a dentist right here in Bemidji, but she wouldn’t live with him on a bet, not ever, because living with him would also mean living with his wife, Sandra—never to be referred to as Sandy, by the way—who could charitably be referred to as a ring-tailed bitch. That was one reason Betsy didn’t want to move into assisted living in town. Being in town meant that she would be living that much closer to Jimmy and Sandra, giving them that much more opportunity to stick their very unwelcome noses into her business.
Betsy’s granddaughter, Athena, had made it clear that Betsy was welcome to come live with her family in Sedona. Betsy adored Athena, and her husband, Chris, was clearly a treasure. Their twins, Colin and Colleen, were cute as buttons, but when it came to living with little kids, Betsy was on the same page as Marcia. Having grandkids and great-grandkids come to visit was great—twins were especially good when it came to bragging rights over bingo cards—but living under the same roof with them? Nope, that wasn’t gonna happen.
“I’d hate it if you moved away,” Betsy said. “If I didn’t have you to take me back and forth to bingo, I wouldn’t have any idea about what’s really going on in town.”
For Betsy, playing bingo was the least important part of going. Gossip was the central purpose of those Monday night gatherings: whose kid had been sent to jail or gotten out of jail; whose grandson had joined the Marines; whose granddaughter had staged a big church wedding even though her baby bump was clearly visible to all concerned; whose daughter had been picked up for dealing drugs in Minneapolis. All those little tidbits were grist for the bingo gossip mill.
“It’s a shame about Tess Severson’s older son,” Marcia added. “This has to be the fourth or fifth time he’s been through rehab. Maybe this time it’ll take.”
“I hope so,” Betsy said. “It’s got to be tough on his wife and kids.”
“I’ll say,” Marcia agreed. “Why his wife sticks with him is more than I can understand.”
With that, Marcia turned onto Last Road, the one that led to Betsy’s farm. For a long time their road had been the last road, but the name had become official only a few years earlier when all the country lanes, most of which had been nameless before, were assigned names. Sometime after that, the intersecting road was extended as far as the new gravel pit. At that point, Last Road had stopped being last, but the name stuck.
Betsy’s late husband, Alton, had loved having Last Road as part of their official mailing address, and it had certainly been the last road for him. Betsy suspected that despite Howard’s sly invitation, Last Road would most likely be the last one for her, too. She had scattered Alton’s ashes on the farm, and that was where Betsy had asked to have her own ashes scattered as well. At least that’s what it said in the final directions part of her will, right along with her Do Not Resuscitate directive.
“Here we are,” Marcia said, turning into the driveway and skidding to a stop in front of the house. The snow was already starting to stick. Betsy knew that beneath that thin crust of snow was a thick base coat of ice that would make for treacherous walking. She had meant to ask Harold, her next-door neighbor and general handyman, to come by and apply deicer to the walkway after that last bout of freezing rain, but she hadn’t quite gotten around to it. Before she left for bingo, she had left the porch light switched on, and the lamps in the living room were lit as well. Leaving lights on when they were away for an evening was the kind of extravagance Alton never would have tolerated. Tonight, though, Betsy was glad the house looked warm and welcoming through the falling snow.
“Thank you for the ride,” she said as she opened the car door and got out.
As Betsy tottered carefully around the vehicle, Marcia rolled down her window. “Want some help with those steps?”
“No, thanks. I’ll be fine.”
“I’ll wait until you’re inside all the same.”
Marcia was good to her word. She waited patiently in the idling vehicle while Betsy carefully inched her way up the slippery sidewalk and then used the handrail to haul her protesting body up the front steps. She could have used the wheelchair ramp, but with the ice, the zigzag layout would have made for a longer and possibly even more hazardous walk. Crossing the front porch, she pushed the key into the lock. Then, before opening the door, she paused long enough to use the key-fob control to shut off the alarm.
Jimmy and Sandra had given her the alarm system and had it installed as a Christmas present two years ago. Betsy despised the annoying beeping sound it made—not unlike the obnoxious racket her hearing aids made whenever she turned them on or changed the batteries. As a consequence she always tried to turn the alarm off before she entered the house. Once inside, she turned back and waved at Marcia, then stood in the open doorway and watched until the Kia’s departing taillights faded into the snowy darkness.
After closing and locking the door, Betsy dropped her keys into the bowl on the entryway table and put her purse on the shelf in the coat closet. Still wearing her coat, however, she went to the laundry room to rescue Princess.
Living alone in the country, especially now that she could no longer drive, was inconvenient. It would have been incredibly lonely had it not been for the presence of her beloved and very spoiled long-haired miniature dachshund. Princess was the other reason Betsy Peterson couldn’t and wouldn’t move into assisted living. Sundowner’s Assisted Living in Bemidji didn’t take dogs.
Princess suffered from what the vet called separation anxiety and wasn’t entirely trustworthy if given the run of the house in Betsy’s absence. Locking the dog in a laundry room equipped with food, water, and her favorite bed limited the amount of damage Princess could do. After picking the squirming little dog up and being given an ecstatic whimpered greeting, Betsy fastened the retractable leash on Princess’s collar, and then stood in the doorway while the dog went to the far end of the leash to do her business.
Betsy had considered installing a doggie door but had given up on the idea. She had heard of too many instances where other critters, raccoons mostly, had let themselves inside houses and done plenty of damage. Due to Princess’s tiny size and the many predators roaming the nearby woods, the dog was never allowed outside without being on a leash.
Once back inside, Betsy removed her coat and hung it in the entryway closet. Then she went through the house, turning down thermostats and shutting off lights. She kept the bedroom door closed and the thermostat in there turned off. Betsy and Princess both slept far better in a chilly bedroom than in a warm one.
By the time Betsy undressed and took out her hearing aids, Princess had already burrowed her way to the far end of Betsy’s duvet, where she functioned as a living foot warmer. Snuggling under the covers, Betsy turned on her iPad and read a few pages in the most recent Mma Ramotswe story before turning off the device as well as her bedside lamp and falling asleep.
She was awakened sometime later by Princess, who was whining piteously and licking her ear. The glowing hands on the bedside clock said it was ten past one. Betsy was a little surprised that Princess would need to go back outside so soon. Usually she could make it through the night without a problem. Sighing, Betsy climbed out of bed, pulled on her robe, and headed for the door.
As soon as she opened the bedroom door, Betsy smelled gas. Gas? The whole house seemed to be full of it. How was that possible? Where was it coming from? With her heart pounding wildly inside her chest, Betsy raced toward the kitchen, limping as fast as her arthritic feet would allow. She entered the room and switched on the overhead light. Even without her hearing aids, she heard the ominous hissing of the unlit burners on her gas stove top.
Alton had insisted that pilot lights used too much of the LP gas kept stored in a tank outside the kitchen wall. Even though her husband was long gone, Betsy still had the same pilotless stove top he had bought for her and that necessitated the use of matches to light the gas ring burners.
Rushing to the stove top, Betsy twisted the knobs to shut off the gas. Then, coughing and choking on the foul-smelling stuff, she staggered through the laundry room to the back door and flung it wide open. The instant the door opened, Princess slipped between her legs and tore outside, into the yard and up to her belly in six inches of new fallen snow.
“Princess, come here!” Betsy yelled.
Most of the time, Princess would have ignored her and gone in the opposite direction. This time, the desperation in Betsy’s voice must have impacted the dog. She stopped where she was and waited. Terrified and heedless of the danger of slipping, Betsy limped down the steps, scooped up the dog, and then hurried, barefoot, to the far end of the yard. Standing with her bare feet ankle deep in freezing snow was nothing short of agony. Still, she stood there shivering for what seemed like forever, holding her equally shivering dog and waiting to see if the house would be blown to smithereens.