Authors: Hope Callaghan
Tags: #Mystery: Cozy - Senior Sleuths - Michigan
A tingle of fear spread down Gloria’s spine and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. The sensation of someone watching them grew stronger.
Brutus glared at the far corner and let out a second low growl.
The girls darted from the room. Brutus was close behind.
Back in the closet, Andrea grabbed the door handle and slammed the door shut. For good measure, she pushed on it.
They carried the boxes out of the closet and through the bedroom. “My parents are leaving in a couple days.” Andrea shifted the boxes she was carrying.
“I was wondering how much longer they would be here,” Gloria replied. “Where are they today?”
Andrea rolled her eyes. “They told me they were heading into Green Springs to find decent coffee. I guess mine’s not good enough.”
When they got to the hall, Andrea pulled the bedroom door closed behind her. “Pretty soon that’ll be Alice’s room.”
That made Gloria pause. “Alice is coming?”
Andrea raised her eyebrows. “Oh! With everything going on, I forgot to tell you. Yeah! Alice is coming to live with me!”
The girls headed down the stairs and made their way into the kitchen. Andrea set the small boxes on the kitchen bar top. “C’mon. I want to show you something.”
Gloria followed her young friend out the back door and into the yard. The girls stopped a short distance from the house and Andrea pointed up. “See? There’s the attic window.”
Gloria followed her gaze and nodded. “Yeah.”
She shaded her eyes from the bright sun and looked at Gloria. “Sometimes I could swear I see a face staring out at me or feel eyes following me.”
A shiver ran down Gloria’s spine. It was the same feeling that Gloria felt when they were inside the attic. “But there’s no one there.”
Andrea crossed her arms. “I’m never going back in the attic. I think I’ll have Brian nail the door shut. Just in case,” she added.
Gloria followed Andrea back into the kitchen. Andrea grabbed a couple of bottled waters from the fridge before the women settled in at the kitchen bar.
Andrea pulled the first box from the stack and opened it. The box contained some old dishes wrapped in newspaper. She unwrapped each piece and lined them up on the edge of the counter. “These are cool. I should put them in my china cabinet.”
Andrea had picked up a beautiful antique china cabinet at one of the thrift stores in Green Springs. She had managed to match the color and grain of wood to her antique dining room table. The large pieces of furniture filled the room. It was comfortable. Cozy.
Andrea reached for the second box. “Did I tell you I’m adding a sunroom on the other side of the living room?”
Gloria shook her head. That was the first she’d heard of a sunroom. Although it would be the perfect spot for one. It faced the east and the morning sun would brighten it right up. Plus, Andrea had planted a large, flowering garden on that side of the house. A sunroom overlooking her garden would be perfect.
“No, but I think that’s a great idea,” she said. “What with the long winters, it would really warm the place up.”
“Exactly,” Andrea said. She opened the second box. It was full of the same sort of dishes.
The third box was a surprise. In it were several small paintings. She pulled the first one from the pile and laid it on the counter between them.
Gloria slipped on her glasses and leaned in. “Will you look at that,” she murmured under her breath. The painting reminded her of the one they had found on the piece of paneling. Except instead of a portrait of a young woman, this one was of a large, cream-colored vase with an array of bright flowers bursting out.
Andrea pushed the first painting to the side and pulled a second one from the stack. This one was of a flower garden, eerily similar to the one Andrea had created in the backyard.
There were five paintings in all. In addition to the vase and the rose garden, there was one of a man in a top hat, and another of a horse drawn carriage. The horse was pulling the carriage down a narrow cobblestone street. Small brick shops lined both sides of the street.
When Andrea pulled the last small painting from the box, they both gasped. Gloria covered her mouth with her hand. It was a painting of Andrea’s house. What it must have looked like when it was new. Two gas lanterns adorned each side of the massive front door.
Gloria leaned in. She pointed at the door. “Is that what I think it is?”
Andrea sucked in a breath. “It’s an old door knocker. An old door knocker with a lion’s head!”
In front of the porch was another horse-drawn carriage. A woman wearing a long, flowing ballroom gown had one foot on the top step of the carriage. A gray-haired man with a pencil-thin moustache, wearing a long, ornate jacket and a pair of breeches was holding her hand, helping her out. It reminded Gloria of something out of Cinderella but instead of a castle, they were in front of Andrea’s house.
Andrea rubbed the tip of her finger over the surface. “This is the coolest picture I’ve ever seen.”
Gloria had to agree. It was an amazing painting. She glanced at the paintings carefully laid out on the counter top. They were all magnificent.
“I’m going to frame this and hang it in the living room,” she decided. Andrea placed the paintings back in the box. She put the one of the house on top of the stack.
There was one box left. She pulled it forward and lifted the lid. The box was full of faded black and white photos. They carefully sifted through the stack as they studied them one-by-one. “These must belong to the Johnson family. I should send them to the family.”
Gloria nodded, certain the family would appreciate the gesture. They were almost to the bottom of the pile when one caught Gloria’s eye. “Wait! Let me see that.”
Andrea slid the picture across the granite counter. Gloria picked it up and pulled it close to her face. It was the old grain mill in town! Standing in front of the mill were several people.
In small, handwritten letters were the names of the people in the picture. “George Ford, Matthew Whittaker, Hank Johnson, Abe Johnson,” she whispered. At the end of the row was a young woman. She was standing next to Abe Johnson, who towered over her.
Gloria’s heart sank. There was no name indicating who the woman was. She tilted the picture to get a better view in the light.
Was that her mother?
she wondered. It was hard to tell. The image was grainy. It was possible. Who else could it be? Unless it was Abe’s wife, Barbara. But the woman was young. A lot younger than Abe. Had Abe Johnson’s wife been decades younger?
She glanced at Andrea. “Do you mind if I borrow this picture?”
Andrea shrugged. “No. Not at all.” She looked up at her friend. “You think this is a clue?”
Gloria nodded. She narrowed her eyes and studied the people one more time. None of the men looked like they were capable of killing Hank Johnson. Then again, maybe he hadn’t been murdered. Maybe he had gone back to Pennsylvania, just as Abe had told everyone. Still, the skeleton in the dumpster was decades old.
Gloria couldn’t wait to find out what the autopsy revealed. That would tell them a great deal about the body.
In the distance, she heard a car door slam. Andrea’s parents and Pierce were back.
Gloria hopped down off the barstool. “I really should go,” she said.
“You don’t have to leave.” Andrea’s eye pleaded. “Won’t you please stay? Help me entertain them?”
Gloria gave Andrea’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “You can do this! Remember, they won’t be here much longer.”
She lifted her purse and the photo from the counter. “Isn’t Brian coming by?”
Andrea glanced at the clock. “He’ll be here at six. We’re grilling steaks.”
“See? Everything will be just fine,” Gloria told her. Andrea led her to the front door. They passed Andrea’s parents on their way in. Her mother had taken the surgical mask off but was still wearing the gloves.
Pierce gave her a warm smile. Andrea’s father gave her a cold stare.
Gloria said a small prayer for Brian. Hopefully, Andrea’s father would take more of a liking to poor Brian.
She climbed in the car and started the engine. It was time to pay a visit to George Ford.
George and his wife, Maxine, had lived in the back of the Belhaven hardware store for decades. When they sold the place to Brian, they moved into a quaint, blue bungalow on the hill just outside of town. At the time they bought it, it was a real fixer-upper, but George was handy and he had managed to turn the place into a beautiful, cozy home. It was the perfect size for just the two of them.
Maxine’s health was declining. She’d had a stroke a year or so ago and now George was responsible for her day-to-day care.
The Garden Girls had added them to their list a while back and faithfully visited them every Sunday, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens. When Gloria remembered or had time, she’d bake an extra loaf of bread or batch of cookies and take them with her.
George always appreciated a homemade treat. Gloria was sure he did the best he could, but Maxine had been the chief cook and bottle washer for most of their marriage.
Maxine was in a wheelchair these days and George had purchased a special van to lift the wheelchair in and out of the van when they had to leave the house.
The two of them seemed like the perfect couple. They had raised their only son, John, in the back of the hardware store. John, like many of the others that had grown up in the area, had gone off to college and then moved away. Gloria remembered Maxine telling her that he lived out in California now.
Gloria parked her car next to their van and made her way up the wheelchair ramp to the front door. She raised her hand to knock when George quietly opened the door. “Hello Gloria.” He frowned. “Do I have my days mixed up?”
Gloria chuckled. “No, George. It’s not Sunday.”
He waved his hand. “Naw! I was teasing! I talked to Doc earlier today. He said you were poking around, trying to find out what you could about Abe Johnson.”
Gloria knew what he
meant was “snoop” but he was too nice to say it.
“Come on in!” He motioned her inside.
Gloria followed him through the small breezeway and into the tidy living room. Maxine was in a recliner, watching TV. She smiled brightly. “Oh! Hi Gloria!”
Gloria walked over to the recliner. She leaned down and gave Maxine a gentle hug. “Don’t you look sunny today,” she complimented.
“I feel pretty darned chipper,” Maxine replied. She eyed her husband. “Course that’s because George takes such good care of me.”
A look passed between the two and Gloria felt a twinge of envy. If James had still been alive, he would’ve done the same thing. Taken care of Gloria until he breathed his last. Unexpected tears burned the back of her eyes.
She shook off the moment and focused on her friend.
Maxine waved to the couch. “Have a seat.”
Gloria sat on the edge of the sofa and smoothed the brown cloth that covered the armrest.
Maxine’s sharp eye noticed Gloria’s ring. “What a beautiful ring,” she exclaimed.
Gloria glanced down. She’d almost forgotten about it. Almost.
She lifted her arm and flashed her ring finger in Maxine’s direction. “Thanks. Paul gave it to me last night.”
Maxine adjusted the afghan around her legs. “So that means you’re getting married?”
Gloria’s cheeks warmed. “Uh, n-not yet,” she stuttered.
Maxine could see she’d put Gloria on the spot. She quickly changed the subject. “I heard they found a skeleton out in the dumpster at the old Johnson mansion.”
Gloria nodded. “Yeah. I’m trying to find out more about the Johnsons. You know, a little bit of history and what-not.”
George settled into the recliner next to his wife’s. “I worked there at the old mill for a few years. Back before I bought the hardware store.”
Gloria nodded. She wasn’t ready to tell anyone about the photo. The one she and Andrea had found in the attic earlier. “I heard Abe Johnson had a stepbrother, Hank, and that he worked at the mill for a few months.”
George’s expression grew grim. “He was nothin’ but trouble.”
“That’s what Doc told me. That he got into fights and such and then one day he disappeared.”
George reached for a glass of water that was on the stand next to him. He took a big gulp. Gloria noticed his knuckles turned white as he clenched the glass in a tight grip. Apparently, he wasn’t too fond of Hank, either.
“Caught him trying to steal from me,” he admitted.
“Now, George.” Maxine shook her head.
George gave his wife a dark look. “True. I couldn’t outright prove it but I’d bet my life on it.”
He went on. “Course, we always heard that he moved back to Pennsylvania. That Abe kicked him out of the house after they got into an argument.”
Gloria shifted in her seat. She had to wonder if there was a single person in the whole town that liked the guy. Even so, could he have done something so horrible someone killed him?
Maxine gasped and clutched at her chest. She began to cough violently. George jumped up from his chair and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He eased his wife upright. “Take slow breaths. Relax.”
Gloria stood up. “I should go. I hope I didn’t upset her,” she fretted.
George looked up. “No. She’s okay.”
Gloria let herself out of the house and got into her car. It was obvious the subject of Hank Johnson brought back bad memories, even after all these years.
She made a last minute decision to swing by Lucy’s place on her way home. Gloria was glad to see only Lucy’s jeep parked in the driveway and not her boyfriend, Bill’s. It wasn’t that she didn’t like Bill. It was just that the girls couldn’t really talk when he was around.
She climbed out of the car and started down the sidewalk.
A loud noise, something akin to a mini-explosion, filled the air. The ground shook under Gloria’s feet.
Gloria darted off the sidewalk in the direction of the noise. There, on the far side of the garden, was Lucy.
Lucy, decked out in camo gear and holding a handgun, was marching towards a tall stack of crates not far from an outbuilding.
She watched as Lucy slid a set of earmuffs from her ears and let them dangle around her neck. She leaned forward and muttered loudly as she studied an object perched on top of the crate.
“What on earth are you doing?” Gloria exclaimed.
Lucy spun around, the gun still in her hand.
Gloria raised her hands above her head. “Don’t shoot!” she shouted.
Lucy grinned and set the gun on the ground before she wandered over to where Gloria was standing. “You scared me,” she said.
?” Gloria sputtered. “I’m not the one with the gun!” she pointed out.
Lucy ignored the comment. “C’mere. You gotta check this out.” She didn’t wait for Gloria to reply as she turned on her heel and headed to the stack of crates.
Lucy pointed at the top of the crate. “I’ve been practicing my shot.”
On top of the stack of crates, strategically resting in the center, was a watermelon. In the center of the melon was a large, gaping hole. Inside the hole was a round, yellow disc. Gloria pointed at the disc. “What in heaven’s name is that?”
Lucy stuck her hands on her hips. “It’s an exploding target. You know, KABOOM!”
Gloria reached over and stuck her hand on Lucy’s forehead. “I need to get you to the hospital. You’re delusional,” she decided.
Lucy swatted Gloria’s hand away. “Naw! It’s just a small one. You know, just big enough to blow up small things like watermelons. Or potatoes,” she added.
“Whatever possessed you to set off explosives?” Gloria asked. She held up her hands. “No! Wait! Let me guess…this was
Lucy nodded. “Yeah! But it’s fun. It’s like target practice on steroids,” she explained.
Gloria had heard it all now. She shook her head. “Isn’t it illegal to buy explosives?”
Lucy wrinkled her nose. “We don’t
these. We make ‘em,” she informed Gloria.
Gloria leaned in to study the yellow disc. “You built that?” She shook her head. “No! I don’t want to know.”
“I’ll be right back.” Lucy picked up the gun and headed to the garage to put it away. She returned a few minutes later. “So what brings you by?”
“My head is spinning over this skeleton in the dumpster,” she admitted. She trailed behind Lucy as they headed up the steps and indoors.
Lucy washed her hands at the sink before she filled a teakettle with tap water. She set the kettle on the stove and turned the burner on.
She leaned against the counter and faced her friend. “I’ve heard bits and pieces but only that the body is old, which gets Andrea off the hook for a change. Rumor has it that the body might belong to Abe Johnson’s stepbrother, Hank, who mysteriously disappeared.”
Gloria nodded. The teakettle started to whistle. Lucy grabbed two teacups from the cupboard, dropped a tea bag inside each cup and then filled them with hot water.
She carried them to the table before reaching into the small pantry next to the fridge. Lucy pulled out a plastic container filled with cookies.
Gloria eyed the cookies with interest and reached for the container. “What kind are these?”
“Variety pack.” Lucy them on the table.
Gloria’s ring caught the kitchen light.
“Oh my gosh!” Lucy grabbed Gloria’s hand. “Did you get a new ring?”
Gloria blushed. “Yeah, Paul gave it to me last night.”
“Does this mean wedding bells will be chiming in the near future?”
“He didn’t ask me to marry him,” Gloria said.
Lucy opened the container and pulled out a peanut butter cookie. She took a big bite then set it on the napkin in front of her.
Gloria grabbed an oatmeal raisin cookie and nibbled on the edge. “His kids are finally moving out.”
“Well, thank the Lord,” Lucy exclaimed. She’d listened to Gloria grumble about it for weeks now. “How’d he managed that?”
Lucy smiled as Gloria told her the story about the cat and how Tina, his daughter-in-law, was allergic to them. “That was a good idea.”
Lucy sipped her hot tea and reached for a second cookie. This time, she went for the chocolate chip. “So tell me what you know about the body.”
“Not much.” Gloria remembered the photo. “I’ll be right back.”
She walked out to the car, grabbed the picture off the passenger seat and headed back inside. By now, Lucy was on cookie number three.
Gloria shook her head. “If I ate cookies that fast, I’d have a stomach ache.”
Lucy nodded. “It takes practice. Years of practice. Kind of like getting ready for a marathon. Cookie-eating is like endurance-building.”
Gloria glanced down at her napkin. She was still working on her oatmeal raisin cookie. She put the photo on the table and slid it towards her friend.
Lucy grabbed her reading glasses from a stack of papers nearby and slipped them on. She picked the photo up and studied it. “Who’s the woman on the end?”
“My mother,” Gloria answered. “Maybe,” she added.
Lucy’s head shot up. “Your mother? She worked at the mill?”
“That’s what Doc Decker told me. He said she didn’t work there very long. Something happened and my dad made her quit.”
Lucy devoured two more cookies as Gloria told her the story of Abe owning the mill. She went on to explain how his stepbrother had come to work for him for a short time until he mysteriously disappeared.
She also told her how everyone she’d talked to disliked the man.
“So you’re thinking the remains in the dumpster belong to this Hank Johnson,” Lucy said. She glanced out the window. “Bill’s here.”
Gloria stood. “What are you two up to today? Blowing more stuff up?”
“We’re going to look at quads,” she said.
Gloria reached for her purse. “You mean those four-wheel thingys?”
Lucy nodded. “Yeah, they’d be pretty fun to take out back in the fields and ride around. You know, look for deer and stuff.”
Gloria could picture Lucy, a rifle slung over her shoulder, as she rode around the fields in search of helpless prey. She shook her head. “How about a lunch date in Grand Rapids? We can go shopping.”
Lucy walked her to her car as Bill got out of his truck.
Gloria smiled and nodded but didn’t stop to talk.
“I’d like that,” Lucy told her as Gloria slipped in the driver’s seat.
Gloria started her car and headed to the road. In her rearview mirror, she watched as Bill slung his arm around Lucy’s shoulders and they walked inside.
Lucy really seemed to like Bill. Gloria only wished he’d do a little more of what Lucy was interested in. Of course, she seemed pretty excited about blowing stuff up, which concerned Gloria a bit.