On the drive to the school, Cora thought about Jane and Sarah and how she was going to prove Jane's innocence.
She knew her way around the court system, unfortunately, from years of working as a counselor for battered women. But only to a point, and most importantly, she had no idea how to go about investigating a murder.
The first thing she planned was to find out more about Sarah. That seemed to be the place to start. She intended to Google her when she returned home from picking up London.
Cora parked the car and walked into the school, the same way she had the day before. This time, the woman behind the counter stiffened when she spotted her, and two other women came up behind her. No welcoming smiles met her. They stood like cardigan-wearing soldiers, flanking either side of the receptionist.
“Hi,” Cora began, “I'mâ”
“I know who you are,” the receptionist said. A clipped tone and an icy eye sweep let Cora know exactly what the woman thought of her. “I'll get London for you.”
“It such a pretty day outside,” Cora said, nervously trying to make small talk.
A few moments later, London came traipsing into the office.
“Hey,” she said. “Is Mom at the police station again?”
Did she really just say that?
“No, sweetie,” Cora said, drawing in smooth and steady breaths. “She's a bit tired today so I decided to help her out.”
The room felt like it was closing in on her, so she grabbed London's hand and walked toward the door. She needed to get away from there; away from the prying eyes. Jane was right. Cora had thought maybe she was exaggerating. But Jane was definitely right.
She tried not to show her anger or embarrassment to London. She inhaled air deeply before she slipped into the driver's seat and started the car.
Her hands gripped the steering wheel all the way home.
London hummed her own tune in the backseat. Cora thanked the gods that the child wasn't in one of her questioning moods.
When they arrived at the carriage house, they were greeted by a note from Jane pinned to the door:
I need some time away. Be back soon.
She needed time away? For what?
“Where's Mommy?” London asked.
“She wanted a little time to herself,” Cora said, after a minute. Trying to calm herself, she was reminded of how typical this was of Jane. The fight-or-flight response was developed by years of abuse. But to leave Cora to deal with this pressure alone? Anger thrummed through her body.
“When will she be back?” London said, crossing her arms.
Cora fished around in her bag for the carriage-house keys. She didn't want to alert London that anything was amiss, but at the same time, she wanted to drive her fist through something, anything.
“I don't know, sweetie,” she said, her voice an octave higher than usual. “She didn't say. But you and me . . . we'll have a good time. How about pizza tonight?”
It was the only thing she could think of to cheer the girl up, plus Cora didn't have time to cook. She had a blog post to write and a few more phone calls to return.
She finally found the key and slipped it into the door. It opened to the downstairs studio, which was full of Jane's pottery, stacked on shelves, on tables, and on the floor. At this moment, Cora's hands itched to throw one of Jane's goddess-shaped cups across the room.
In the meantime, London's hand reached for hers, and the child looked up at her with questioning eyes. Cora's rage began to slip away.
“Let's go upstairs and get your pj's and whatever else you think you'll need tonight,” Cora said.
“Are we having a sleepover?” London asked.
“I don't know. Best to be prepared.”
London stopped in her tracks, her face crumpling. “I want my mommy!” she wailed.
Sometimes Cora forgot that such a bright and mature child was still just a child.
Cora scooped her up into her arms, with her heart turning to mush.
“C'mon, we're going to have a blast, right? And who knows? Your mom might be back tonight.” She kept her voice light and breezy.
“Okay,” London said, calming down and rubbing her eyes. “I'll get my Princess Anna pj's and my favorite books.”
“Don't forget your toothbrush.”
As London scampered about the tidy apartment, Cora peeked in the closet where Jane kept her suitcaseâstill there. Reassurance swept through her. Jane must be planning to come back. Perhaps she just needed a few hours to collect herself, away from her daughter. Cora hoped Jane just needed a little time. She trusted Jane wouldn't buckle under the pressure.
Cora had known Jane a long time. She knew that deep down Jane was strong. But sometimes Jane didn't realize her own strength, and her first inclination was always to run away.
But the retreat started in two days. Surely Jane realized the stress Cora was under and would be back soon. Cora choked back her fear and anger. Jane was being accused of murderâwhich had to be terrifyingâbut running away never solved anything. Jane should know that by now.
“I'm ready.” London interrupted Cora's thoughts. She had a little suitcase in one hand and a few books in the other.
Cora couldn't help but smile. It reminded her of the first time she had met Jane. Jane had just moved into her neighborhood in Pittsburgh and decided she didn't like it there and ran away. Cora happened upon her, with her suitcase and books, behind the garage between their families' properties.
That garage between the properties became a haven for both Cora and Jane as they grew up, dated, had spats with their parents and grandparents, studied for tests, and practiced the latest dance moves.
On the day they met, Cora didn't know Jane was running away. She only knew she had found a friend.
“What are you smiling about?” London asked her.
“I'm thinking about how you remind me of your mommy. And about how much fun we're going to have,” Cora said.
London reached for Cora's hand once more. “Do you have more of those cookies?”
Later, after London was sound asleep, a rapping came at Cora's apartment door. Fully expecting Jane, she opened it without asking who was there. She was surprised and disappointed by the person who stood before herâRuby.
“Cashel has been looking for Jane. He says it's important. I went over to her place and she's gone. What's going on?” Ruby asked. “Besides all that, I've been hearing rumors and they are doozies. I need to talk to you.”
Rumors? Jane was right. The news was spreading through the little town quickly.
“Please calm down,” Cora said to Rubyâand to herself in her head, yet again. “Come in. London is in the guest room sleeping.”
Most of the attic apartment was an open floor plan, except for the bedrooms. Tonight, she was glad London was tucked away in one of them.
“So, it's true, then,” Ruby said, following Cora into the kitchen, then sitting at the kitchen table.
“Can I get you something? Tea? Juice?” Cora said.
“No, thanks,” Ruby said with a flat tone. She clearly just wanted Cora to get on with it.
Cora put the kettle on, anyway. She might need a little herbal tea to help her get to sleep tonightâand to handle Ruby's interrogation. Ruby was difficult to figure out. At first, Cora didn't think they could work together, but as she got to know her, she realized she was just brutally honest and impatient. Even now she was sitting at the table, tapping her fingers, watching Cora. Waiting for answers.
“So where is Jane?” Ruby asked, more forcefully.
“She went for a drive.”
“A drive?” she said, with her eyebrows drawn-in. “The day before the guests start to arrive? She takes a drive? Honestly!”
“She's just upset because of this fingerprint business,” Cora said, sitting down in the chair across from Ruby.
“When will she be back?”
Cora blinked and glanced at the clock. Her fingers found the edges of a placemat and picked at a frayed thread.
“You don't know,” Ruby said.
Cora didn't know what else to say. She couldn't lie to Ruby. After all, she had a vested interest in the craft retreat as well.
Cora sighed. “She will be back for her daughter, if for nothing else. I'm sure.” She would, wouldn't she? But she'd not heard from Jane, and it was getting late. Could it be Jane was more fragile and more damaged than what Cora knew? Was Jane just not going to be able to handle this situation?
“It's so hard for single mothers. I know that. If it wasn't for the previous owners of this place taking me in, I don't know what would've happened to Cashel and I when his father died. But I never ran away.”
“Jane just needs a little time to think.” She said it with more conviction than she felt. In truth, she was more worried about Jane, at this point, than the retreat. Possibly it was all too much for Jane. Maybe she was cracking.
“They say she tried to kill her husband,” Ruby said. “Is that true?”
There it was. The very thing Jane didn't want people to know about her. She'd worked so hard at starting over, yet it just kept following her around like a bad penny.
“Please do me the honor of telling me the truth. You wouldn't believe the wild rumors. I can't fight back if I don't know what the heck is going on,” Ruby said.
Cora hesitatedâshe felt this was Jane's business and hated spreading around her personal history. But then again, Ruby had a point. She was a part of their new life, of their business, and she was vital to its success.
“Jane did shoot her ex-husband. It was in self-defense, after many years of her husband . . . hurting her, she took matters into her own hands,” Cora said. “She didn't kill him. But she perhaps would have if she wasn't such a lousy shot. He was trying to kill her. Make no mistake about that.”
Ruby grimaced. “Poor girl,” she said. Her voice softened, revealing what Cora had known all along: Ruby was a big softy beneath her gruff exterior. “What a terrible thing to live with.” She blinked slowly as if remembering or thinking deeply.
“So you can see why the incident with the fingerprints and Sarah's murder and all that is freaking her out a bit,” Cora said.
“I can see that, but running away?” Ruby said, sitting back against her chair now.
“I'm not sure that she's run away. I think she'll be back tonight or tomorrow. I think she just needs some alone time,” Cora said. Was she trying to convince Ruby, or herself, as well?
The tea kettle whistled. Cora made her way over to the counter. “Are you certain you don't want some tea?”
“On second thought, I will have a spot of tea. That looks like quality stuff,” Ruby said. “I love chamomile.”
After they had made their tea, they sat back down at the table with their steaming cups.
“You have more faith in Jane than I do,” Ruby said, after stirring some honey into her tea. “I just keep thinking about what we will do if she doesn't come back.”
Cora didn't want to think about that. Her best friend would not leave her in the lurch this weekendâwould she? She took a sip of her tea, ignoring the queasiness coming over her, and inhaled the mist of the chamomile tea.
“You know, my mother just took off once, sorting herself out about something. I never did know why. She was gone a few weeks. I stayed with my granny. Oh, I loved staying with her, way back in the hollows. She knew her herbs,” said Ruby.
“Is that where you learned it all?” Cora seized the opportunity to change the subject.
Ruby nodded. “That was the start of it. I learned a lot from her. She was one of these old wise women, you know? Midwife. Herbalist. I wanted to be just like her.”
Cora smiled. “We all need people like that in our lives, didn't we? Especially when we're kids.”
“She had the sight, too,” Ruby said, brightening.
“The sight?” Cora asked.
“You know, she had dreams and visions. Things that would come true,” Ruby said.
Cora didn't know what to say to that.
“There's a lot more to life than what we can see with our eyes, you know? Some of us are gifted, some cursed, with a second sight.”
Was Ruby trying to tell her something? Did she think she was psychic or something? Cora had seen a lot of people who claimed they were psychic. She wanted to believe it could exist, but it had never been proven to her.
“I've been worried about Jane,” Ruby said. “I have a weird vibe about her, like she's not quite as together as she appears. She's hiding something.”
“I just told you about her past.”
“No,” Ruby said. “It's not that. I'm not quite sure what it is. I've been keeping my eye on her.”
“She's a grown woman, Ruby. She doesn't need you fussing over her,” Cora said.
“I know that. That's not at all what I mean. I think she's fragile and full of fears and secrets.”
That actually was a pretty good description of Jane. But then again, thought Cora, to believe fears, secrets, and fragility were Jane's only qualities would be selling her short.
Later, after Ruby left, and London was still asleep with Luna the cat curled up next to her, Cora texted Jane. There was no reply. Was Ruby correct in thinking she wouldn't return?
Jolts of panic and worry zoomed through her. Jane was not going to leave her hanging all weekend, was she? This, of all weekends, she wouldn't abandon herâright?
Cora sat at her computer, trying to focus on her blog post. She ran a spell check and set it up so the post would publish in the morning.
She needed to occupy her mind with something other than the missing Jane. So, she turned to Googleâand Sarah Waters.
She keyed in her name. A whole slew of links came up: newspaper articles and the obituary. And an auction. An auction?
She clicked the link.
Sarah's family had held an auction of her things last week. She had been quite the collector. The auction ad listed first-edition books, Victorian sunglasses, antique opium kits, and a priceless broom collection. Priceless broom collection? Antique opium kits? Whoa! There was more to Little Miss Librarian than met the eye. There usually was when it came to people, Cora reminded herself.
Why would anybody collect opium kits? Cora did some more Googling and immediately saw the reason. The silver-plated tools were encased in intricate etched and carved cases. Elegant designs on enamel cases flicked on her screen. One was a necklace, and tucked inside its huge locket were little sharp instruments. She had a vision of opulent opium dens, flappers dressed in sheer sparkling dresses, lounging on overstuffed velvet couches with jazz music playing softly in the background.
Cora had been around the drug culture long enough to be aware that the romance of any drug was short-livedâno matter the era. She hated the fact that she herself had had to rely on drugs to help control her panic attacks at one point. Now she only took a pill when absolutely necessary.
Cora mulled over the whole “collector” thing in her mind. She didn't understand the desire to own a lot of objects. She did gather objects she could use in her upcycled crafts. Old tea cups and saucers and silverware, mostly. She fashioned them into all sorts of thingsâgarden markers, chandeliers, candleholders, and so on. But to collect “things” for the sake of it? She just didn't have that disposition.
Evidently, Sarah Waters did. Cora looked over the list of Sarah's collections once more. She clicked on a link about the priceless broom collection.
A beep announced a text message from Jane, at last:
I'm on my way home. More later. Is London asleep?
Cora's neck and shoulder muscles unraveled. Had she been holding all that in?
Yes, she texted back. Everything is under control.
I'll take her to school in the morning. Get some rest. XO.
Her phone beeped again, indicating a new message from Jane:
Cora was more than relieved. She chided herself: Did she really think Jane was going to run away? She had come so far. Their bonds of friendship were deep. Why this glimmer of mistrust when it came to Jane? She was ashamed of herself. Back to the brooms.
One of Sarah's brooms was from Italy and was gorgeous, with a colorful, intricate basket weaving on the top of it rather than metal or wire. Evidently, it was an altar broom from a church in Rome during the eighteenth century.
Another was an old Shaker broom, which delighted Cora. She loved the Shaker brooms with their stark simplicity. It was utilitarian art. She knew the Shakers invented the flat bottom broomâuntil then, brooms were round, with mostly ragged bottoms. Sarah's broom dated back to the 1800s.
Another broom, called “Morganna's Broom,” was Welsh. Ragged and undated, the broom belonged to a woman who was burned at the stake for witchcraft. Cora felt a chill along her spine. Who'd want a broom like that? She read on. The broom was said to have special magical qualities. It was made by a powerful broom maker in Wales who used particular twigs and grass gathered during auspicious timesâa full moon during May.
There was one last broom in Sarah's collection to read about, a Native American broom that dated from twenty thousand years ago.
Cora blinked. That must be a typo. No broom on this planet could be twenty thousand years old. She read on.
The broom had been found in a cave between Indigo Gap and Asheville, North Carolina, and truly did date back twenty thousand years. It was basically a stick with grass at the end of it, but apparently made to last.
Why and how would Sarah be in possession of what was basically a museum piece? Just how much money do school librarians earn, anyway?