Read Murder at the Azalea Festival Online
Authors: Ellen Elizabeth Hunter
MURDER AT THE AZALEA FESTIVAL
By ELLEN ELIZABETH HUNTER
Published by: Magnolia Mysteries
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
This is a work of fiction.
Copyright 2004 by Ellen Elizabeth Hunter
Cover and book design by Tim Doby
Books by Ellen Elizabeth Hunter
Magnolia Mysteries series:
Murder on the Ghost Walk
Murder on the Candlelight Tour
Murder at the Azalea Festival
Murder at Wrightsville Beach
Murder on the ICW
Murder on the Cape Fear
Murder at the Bellamy Mansion
Murder at the Holiday Flotilla
Stand-alone suspense novels:
"Ashley, where have you been?" Jon Campbell asked. "I can't believe you haven't heard that three bodies washed ashore at Fort Fisher! The first was on Sunday, another on Monday, then the third yesterday."
On the Wednesday of Azalea Festival week, Jon and I were driving south on River Road. Jon is an architect. I'm Ashley Wilkes, historic preservationist. We work together restoring old houses and were on our way to inspect Moon Gate, a crumbling Greek Revival mansion with a mysterious past.
"I've been busy," I said in my defense. "Interviewing clients, evaluating properties. I'm not a news junkie!"
The truth was I'd been in a funk--what Holly Golightly called the "mean reds"--ever since I learned that the love of my life, Homicide Detective Nicholas Yost, had returned to Wilmington yet hadn't spared a minute to give me a call. Keeping my chin up off the ground was what I'd been doing all week. I'd buried myself in work.
"So, tell me about it," I invited, gazing idly out the window of Jon's Jeep Cherokee at the flowering dogwoods and redbuds. Wild pink azaleas grew right up to the road, as plentiful as orange daylilies in summer.
Fueled with excitement about the drownings, Jon said, "There's been something about it in the Star-News every day, and the TV stations have been broadcasting live from the scene. The police say the bodies are male, but they don't know who they are. And if they know the cause of death, they aren't saying. The newscasters refer to them as homicides."
"Well, I've been too busy poring through archives, researching Moon Gate to bother with watching the news," I replied.
Jon continued, "The sheriff has formed a special task force to investigate the unexplained deaths."
That got my attention. "So that's why Nick is back in town!" I exclaimed.
"Nick's back?" Jon asked.
"Melanie saw him and told me."
Melanie is my older sister, Melanie Wilkes, realtor extraordinaire. Mama was besotted with Gone With the Wind, naming us girls after Margaret Mitchell's characters. We've often laughed that it was a good thing we didn't have a brother, for surely Mama would have named him Rhett Butler Wilkes!
Right after Christmas, homicide detective Nick Yost had transferred from the Wilmington Police Department to Atlanta PD's cold case task force. We'd promised to stay in touch and visit on weekends.
In January he'd kept his part of the bargain with long "missing you" and "needing you" telephone calls and occasional e-mails. As he got more and more immersed in his cases, the calls and e-mails dwindled to a stop, and he did not respond to the messages I left on his voice mail.
Throughout February, I checked my e-mail a dozen times a day, his picture propped on my desk so I could moon over it as I prayed for a hotmail message. A dozen times a day, I experienced disappointment.
When the hurt became too acute to bear, I stopped looking for e-mails, gave up on prayers, stashed his picture in a desk drawer under a pile of papers. What does it mean when one face is the only one you long to see? When no other face will do? Is it love? Or obsession?
I mustered self-discipline from somewhere and went back to checking my e-mails twice a day in a business-like fashion. On the surface, I was the same, good-old Ashley, but inside I felt like someone was ripping my heart out.
One good thing came of this experience, I lost seven pounds. My normally robust appetite disappeared, and along with it my chunky waistline. Melanie's been nagging me to go shopping for new clothes. She objects to what she calls my "construction-wear chic."
"So Nick took a leave of absence from Atlanta PD to help out here," Jon said thoughtfully. "And he hasn't called you?"
"No," I said softly.
"Well then, it's because he's busy, Ashley. But he will just as soon as he gets a breather. Those cases have got the authorities baffled. If the police don't solve this by Memorial Day, the summer tourist season will take a beating. Who wants to bring the kiddies to the beach if there's any danger a corpse might wash up?"
"I'm sure you're right, Jon," I said with a determination I didn't feel. "He's busy, that's it." But in my heart I wasn't convinced. No one was that busy.
Jon shook his blonde head. "I know how you feel. I just learned that Christine is getting married."
"Yeah, some marine biologist she met in graduate school. They're going up to Maine to save the whales, or whatever."
"How could she know anyone well enough to marry him when she's been dating you since December? I have to tell you, Jon, the two of us--we have a knack for picking fickle lovers."
"Well, obviously," Jon said bitterly, "she was dating him too. Only I, sucker that I am, didn't suspect a thing. I'm swearing off women forever."
I reached over from the passenger seat to pat his arm. "I hope you aren't including me in that vow."
"You? Of course not. We're friends. How long have we been working together now? A year and a half? I trust you. But other women? They're so devious."
"Well, I'm sorry. You're way too good for any woman to treat so shabbily."
How could she dump him? I wondered as I studied his profile. He's a sweetheart, one of the last true Southern gents. And a real hunk with golden blonde hair, a ruddy complexion from working out of doors, laughing brown eyes that shine with sincerity and truthfulness. Jon's as transparent as a bride's negligee, an easy target for an unscrupulous woman. I'd have to keep an eye on him--on both of us from now on. A couple of softies, that's what we are.
I wanted to wrap my arms around him and give him a big hug but that was impossible in our divided seats. "I know what," I said, "let's do the festival together. Want to? There's a shag contest on Saturday?"
That should tempt him. Jon loves to shag.
"Suits me," he replied. "I'm free for most of the festivities."
"Then it's settled; we'll go together. But it'll be mobbed. There were more than 350,000 people here last year, but they bring in the big bucks, $5 million, at last count."
We followed the course of the Cape Fear in silence, each of us reflecting about our lost loves. Under the sunny April sky, the river was broad and majestic, sparkling with ribbons of silver and gold. In the days before radar and other navigational marvels, it had been a dangerous body of water. First called Charles, then Clarendon, eventually it was named Cape Fear after the treacherous cape at its mouth, the Cape of Fear, a sandy shoal that shifted unpredictably, capsizing ships and striking terror in the hearts of sailors.
"They're dredging the shipping channel," Jon said. "Deepening it from 38 to 42 feet."
As we drove alongside the 300 acre State Port, I spotted the giant gantry crane the port authority had installed in the fall. It was huge and white and reminded me of a praying mantis.
Further out in the shipping lane, the dredge rose, red and raw and skeletal, with a scoop-like mechanism that dredged sand from the bottom of the river and deposited it onto a barge. The barge would ferry the sand to an offshore disposal area. Eventually it would be deposited on Bald Head Island's South Beach.
"They had a real knock-down drag-out over who would get the re-nourishment sand," he continued. "Caswell Beach and Oak Island had been promised the sand, but Bald Head Island wanted it too, claiming the harbor project was eroding Bald Head's South Beach."
"All the beaches are eroding, Jon. Every major hurricane carves out a new channel."
"The Army Corps of Engineers argued just that point, that South Beach is historically a fluctuating shoreline, but when the debate turned to who might sue, they found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place."
"I've been to South Beach," I said. "It's been sandbagged since the nineties."
"Who knows when the project will be completed," Jon said.
Passing the Beau Rivage golf course on our left, I craned my neck for glimpses of scarlet azaleas.
"Okay, the Talliere place is coming up soon," I cautioned, "only the road's not marked, so it's easy to miss. Slow down after this curve. There, that's it. Turn right there."
Jon steered into a narrow, paved driveway.
"Last week when I was out here," I said, "this was little more than a rutted lane. It had to be paved to accommodate the Azalea Festival garden tour."
"I'm anxious to see the restored gardens," Jon commented. "It's been ages since I've been out here. Sure is remote."
"You'll be impressed. The Tallieres used to have a reputation as recluses. Tiffany has changed all that. She's determined to restore the house to its original state, and that's where we come in. Lordy, that house is going to be one stupendous challenge for us, Jon; the family has really let that place go."
"But that means there will have been few improvements. The architecture will be pure; no fake ceilings to remove," Jon said.
"True. A restorationist's dream house. Tiffany's also determined to restore the Tallieres to society. And bringing Caesar Talliere's terraced gardens back to life and putting them on the tour was the first step. She and her brother are not clannish like their ancestors. They're open and friendly. She's really made a name for herself in television. There's an Emmy in that girl's future."
Tiffany Nicole Talliere, an actress on an evening soap called Dolphin's Cove, is twenty years old. The show is a hot new TV series, set in the fictitious town of Dolphin's Cove, a town very similar to Wilmington; most scenes are shot locally. The cast are twenty-somethings playing at being seventeen. The story-line features a group of high school seniors, four girls and four boys, who frequently fell in and out of love with each other. Adolescents on the brink of adulthood, they face the challenges of college admission and living away from home for the first time.
"There's the moon gate," I said as we approached a circular gate set in a high, crumbling brick wall.
Ancient oaks and understory grew right up to the road. Through the trees I caught glimpses of the eerie, swampy cypress gardens.
After passing a dilapidated carriage house, the Talliere mansion came into view. My restorationist's eye took in the disrepair. "Yes, we've really got our work cut out for us, Jon. This isn't going to be easy."
"You can say that again. I had no idea this place was so run down. I can't even remember the last time I was out here."
"I don't think much has been done since Caesar's day," I remarked. "And that was a hundred and thirty years ago. I don't know how the Talliere descendants managed to hang on here."
"Besides Tiffany and her brother, who's left? Didn't their parents die in an Amtrak crash? Something tragic, like that?"
"Yes, a train wreck. Now there's only the two of them left."