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Authors: Rett MacPherson

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BOOK: Thicker than Water
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I tapped my lip with the edge of his check and wondered. I wondered about the prowler Sylvia had the night before she died. Obviously, if none of the alarms had been tripped, it had been her imagination. Still, it bothered me. She had been an old lady, all by herself. I had been in Minnesota. And why had she called the sheriff's station and asked to speak to somebody the next day?

The next day when she had been found dead by Helen Wickland.

I wandered back into my office. Matthew was throwing paper everywhere, and Mary was giggling at him, a contagious giggle that showed the sheer joy she was sharing with him. I smiled at them. “Mom?” she said.

“Mary?”

“What?” she asked.

“If I'm the only mother in the room, why do you have to start every sentence with ‘Mom'?”

She shrugged. “Mom?”

“Yes?” I sighed.

“Every little kid should have a cat, you know.”

Four

Two hours later I was seated in my favorite booth at Fräulein Krista's Speisehaus eating lunch with Mary and Matthew. Fräulein Krista's is our little Bavarian gem stuck in the middle of midwestern America. The waiters all wear velvet knickers, and the waitresses all wear dirndl skirts, and the whole place has the general feel of an inn deep in the Black Forest. Even Fräulein Krista resembled a character from the Brothers Grimm, with her yellow-blond hair, blue eyes, and long legs.

At the end of the bar sat the stuffed grizzly bear that the townsfolk had nicknamed Sylvia. Sylvia, the big ferocious bear.

“Mom?”

“Yes, Mary?”

“How long are you going to be mad at Dad?”

“If he's lucky, just until he's dead.”

She giggled into her soda cup. That's the great thing about my kids, they understand my sense of humor. Some kids would have been horrified by that remark, but not mine. The sad part was, at that moment, it wasn't a joke at all. I'd meant it.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“What exactly is a slimebucket?”

“It's a slimy bucket.”

“Mom?”

“Oh, my God, Mary. You have to stop saying ‘Mom' or I am going to scream.”

A rotten grin spread across her angelic face, and her green eyes sparkled like crackling jade. “Mom?”

“You are not funny.”

“Do I have to eat all of my food?”

“Of course you do,” I said.

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” I asked.

“Because there's starving children in Africa?”

“Exactly,” I said.

“Why don't they just move?”

“What?”

“If they're always starving in Africa, why don't they move to … I don't know, Australia or something? Then they won't be hungry. And I won't have to eat all my food.”

“You are killing me,” I said.

Just then Sheriff Colin Brooke came walking into the restaurant. He always seemed to know when I was there. Of course, his being married to my mother might have had something to do with that. She still had her old network of spies from when I was a teenager. My mother was proof that you didn't need expensive equipment and a badge to know exactly what was going on in a small town.

“Hey, Torie,” he said and squeezed himself into the booth next to Mary. I say “squeezed” because he had a very large frame and being married to my mother—the greatest cook in the world—had done a lot to flesh that frame out.

“Paw-Paw Badge,” Matthew said. For some reason, Colin is known as “Grandpa with the Badge,” like some sort of Native American name. Colin won't admit it, but he likes this immensely.

“How you guys doin'?” He stole a french fry from Mary.

“Fine,” I said. It is disturbing beyond belief to know that I cannot eat lunch in this town without being interrupted.

“I hear your mother-in-law's coming to visit,” he said.

“How did you know about that?”

“Your mother told me.”

“How did Mom find out? I haven't talked to her.”

“Rudy called her and asked her to talk some sense into you,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

“How's things going over at the house?” he asked.

“The Gaheimer House, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Stephanie is coming to help, but not until tomorrow.”

“Things'll work out,” he said.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Just, you know. Things might seem … bleak now, but it'll get better,” he said.

He was actually trying to make me feel better. It was sweet. Wonder what my mother bribed him with? “Can I ask you a question?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said and plopped another fry into his mouth.

“Have you read the reports on Sylvia's death?”

Colin stopped chewing and stared at me. His eyes narrowed, and then they widened, and then he sighed with exasperation and pinched the bridge of his nose with his right hand. “You are a piece of work.” He swallowed the fry. “She was a hundred and two years old.”

“What has her age got to do with anything?”

“She was old. Her body was tired. She stopped breathing. End of story,” he said.

“And the end of her,” Mary added.

Colin and I both stared at her. She shrugged and took a bite of her chicken. Matthew took that moment to squish his mashed potatoes between his fingers. “Matthew!” I said and held up his hand. Colin handed me a napkin, and I wiped Matthew's hand. “Don't play with your food.”

“Cats play with their food,” Mary said.

“All the more reason not to get one. It'll be a bad influence on your brother,” I said.

“Mary wants a cat?” Colin asked.

“Yeah,” Mary answered and gave him the big Mommy-is-being-mean eyes.

“What kind?” he asked.

“I'd like one of those patchy-looking ones,” Mary said, smiling up at him. See? If she looks sweet enough, Grandpa with the Badge will buy her a cat and the hell with what her mother says. My daughter is a con artist.

“Oh, a calico,” he said.

“She's not getting a cat!” I said. “Don't encourage her.”

“Ah, come on. It's just a cat,” Colin said. Great, that was all I needed, the man with the badge to take Mary's side. There'd be no living with her.

“We have a dog,” I said.

“So?” he asked. “What's a dog have to do with a cat?”

“Can we forget about the cat?” I said.

“I'm going to name it Patches,” Mary said and batted her lashes.

“Aw,” Colin said and gave me that look that said I was a hardened criminal and a terrible mother. “She's already got a name picked out for it.”

“Colin!”

“Yes, Torie, I read the report,” he said.

“And?”

“What do you expect? You expect that there was a smoking gun lying on the bed and I'm just ignoring it?”

“No, Colin,” I said. “It's just that it's weird that she'd call somebody out because she thought she heard a prowler. In fact, she called
twice,
and then she was dead the next day. Don't you think that's weird?”

“Not when the victim is a hundred and two years old!” he said. “Why can't you accept the fact that Sylvia was old and just died?”

“Because this was Sylvia. She was supposed to live forever.”

“Well, the powers that be had other plans,” he said.

“I still think…”

“What? She would have told you she was about to die? Is that it?”

“No,” I said, looking around the room for no particular reason other than to hide my discomfort. “I just think if somebody called about a prowler and was dead the next day, somebody would have done an autopsy or something.”

“Well, you are the executor of her will. Why didn't you order an autopsy?” he asked.

“Because I didn't know about the whole prowler thing until this morning,” I said. “Otherwise, I would have.”

“Well, if you can convince a judge that there's reason enough, we can exhume the body and do an autopsy. Is that what you want, Torie? You want to exhume the body?”

“No,” I said, staring at my half-eaten salad.

“Then what do you want?” he asked.

“Mom, how do you resume a body?” Mary asked.

We both ignored her.

“I just wish you had thought of it. You knew about the prowler,” I said.

“If it makes you feel better to blame me, then go ahead,” he said.

“No, that's not it.”

“Look, she was a hundred and two years old. She just died. I saw nothing in the report to make me think anybody other than Sylvia had been in that house all night. The alarms were never tripped, doors and windows locked. I did not order an autopsy because there was nothing to indicate that I needed to order one.”

I crossed my arms. “Whatever,” I said. I always got angry when my girls gave me the crossed-arm-whatever, because that meant they didn't have anything intelligent to say. I guess I didn't have anything intelligent to say.

“You can read the report if you want,” he said.

“Did you ask Helen if she saw anything?” I asked.

“She saw Sylvia. Dead,” he said.

“Mom, were her eyes open or closed when Helen found her?” Mary asked.

“It doesn't matter,” I said.

“Well, if they were closed, then she was sleeping, which is better. Because then she wouldn't have been afraid,” Mary said.

I stared at Colin across the table and across the plates of food. Then I looked away because tears had pooled in my eyes. I didn't want to think about Sylvia being alone and being afraid. “Look, I'm not saying there was any foul play,” I said. “I'm just saying that there might have been more to it.”

“Which means foul play,” he said and laughed. “Torie, you really
are
a piece of work.”

“Thank you very much,” I said. I opened my purse to pay for our lunch. Colin pointed at something sticking out of my purse.

“What's that?” he asked.

“Oh,” I said. “It's a postcard. Found it in Sylvia's things.”

“Of all the stuff in that house, this is the thing you keep with you?”

I shrugged. “Can't help it. I can't forget about it.”

He plucked it from my purse and looked at the front of it. Then he flipped it over and read the back. “What's the promise?” he asked.

“I don't know,” I said. “It's driving me crazy.”

“Well, take it easy, Torie. All right? Let Rudy's mother do some work around your house. Take a load off of you. Let her cook a meal or two. All right?” He handed the postcard back to me.

I rolled my eyes.

“Grandma O always rolls her eyes at Mom, too,” Mary chimed in.

Five

I ate my dinner mostly in silence. Yes, I was pouting, but it wouldn't have mattered. Rachel never stopped talking about these two unbelievably cute brothers in marching band. How one would say this, and the other would say that, and just when she'd come to a conclusion on which one was the cutest, she'd blush and change her mind. Her brain had turned as sticky as our macaroni and cheese.

Rudy, of course, was seriously disturbed about Rachel's newfound interest in the opposite sex. She'd always liked boys, but now that she was in junior high, well, I felt like we were guest stars on one of those teen sitcoms. And just think, we had all of high school left to go through.

“So what instrument do these brothers play?” Rudy asked, obviously irritated.

“Instruments?” Rachel said. “Oh, yeah. Uh … I think trumpets.”

“You think?” he asked.

“Well, I didn't pay much attention to the instruments.”

“Okay,” I said, and stood up. “I'm going to the Gaheimer House.”

“What?” Rudy asked. “You don't work in the evenings.”

“Well, I do today. Didn't get a whole lot done with the kids there earlier, so you can watch them. Have fun.” I put my plate in the sink.

“My mother will be here Saturday morning,” he said.

“That's nice, dear,” I said. I kissed each one of the kids on the head, gave them all instructions for the rest of the night, grabbed my purse, and walked out the door. Since I didn't have the kids to haul around, I walked the few blocks down to the Gaheimer House.

The truth of the matter was that the postcard was driving me nuts. It was like this little hot ember burning a hole in me. I had to find out something more about it. I'd be happy if I could figure out who the little girl was. I got in the house, turned off the alarms, and went to my office. I switched on the light and found my magnifying glass in one of the drawers. Then I took the postcard out and studied the back of it. The date was the eighth of something, 1930. It was postmarked from … The state was definitely Iowa. I had figured that out before. It was the city that I couldn't make out. I squinted my eyes, as if that would help. One word. Something and then a “que.”

I got out my road atlas and turned to the page for Iowa. I scanned the map quickly, and the first town that jumped out at me was Dubuque. Seven letters. I looked back at the postcard. The word had seven letters. The first letter could have been an
O,
but I had been thinking all along it was a
D
. Now I was almost positive it was Dubuque.

I didn't remember Sylvia ever talking about Iowa, much less Dubuque, about having been there or having family there. In fact, I wasn't at all sure Sylvia had ever left Missouri. I slumped back in my chair and twirled the magnifying glass in my hand.

I turned the postcard over and studied the photograph for the fiftieth time since having found the blasted thing, only this time I used my magnifying glass. The background was sort of desolate, not a lot going on, just some empty space with buildings on the right-hand side and something big and dark on the left. A person stood in the distance, but other than that it was a person, I couldn't make a whole lot out. The girl held the doll, but this time I noticed she had something clutched in the other hand. I couldn't tell what it was.

BOOK: Thicker than Water
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