Authors: K.J. Emrick
First published in Australia by South Coast Publishing, March 2015.
Copyright K.J. Emrick (2015)
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and locations portrayed in this book and the names herein are fictitious. Any similarity to or identification with the locations, names, characters or history of any person, product or entity is entirely coincidental and unintentional.
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The month of March was always a pretty time of year in Misty Hollow. The days were getting longer, the snow had melted away under the warmth of shifting weather, and trees and flowers had started to grow green and vibrant again.
Spring had come early to Misty Hollow this year. Darcy took it as a good sign.
Or maybe it was just the way she was looking at it through the front window of her bookstore. Her glasses were pretty rosy these days.
She hummed as she put the last of the books by Carson Middlemiss on the display rack. “A View From The Mountain” had sold briskly not just to the tourists who came to Misty Hollow for the small town charm, but to the local residents as well. Carson had a humorous, down-home writing style that brought his anecdotal stories to life. The one about the snake who liked to smoke cigars was one of her favorites.
Darcy checked the clock on the wall again. The Sweet Read Bookstore had been open since eight in the morning, like usual. It was after nine now, and Izzy still wasn’t here. Not that they had time clocks to punch, either one of them, but it wasn’t like Izzy to be late to work. With her fingers, Darcy combed strands of her dark brown hair away from her face, and stepped back to scrutinize the book display. Where was Izzy?
Isabelle McIntosh was Darcy’s next door neighbor and her only employee here at her store. Izzy practically ran this place by herself, truth be told. There had been lots of times when Darcy had left the store in her hands for days and never worried once about, well, anything. She was always cheerful, always worked hard, and was always on time.
Except for today.
This really wasn’t like her friend at all. Darcy wondered if maybe she should try to call her. Or even get her fiancé to check if anything was wrong.
Her fiancé. There she went again, smiling like a schoolgirl having her first crush. Jon Tinker was going to marry her in just two weeks. March Twentieth. She could hardly wait.
Last night she had dreamed about what her wedding would be like. It had been an amazing dream. Her friends, her family, everyone smiling and dancing and having a good time. She’d been wearing an odd dress, in the dream. Not her own. This dress had been an old style, with long sleeves and a wide sash around the waist. Pretty, in a way, but it didn’t do anything for her slender frame. Jon had been wearing a steel gray suit and bow tie, which didn’t suit him at all, either. He always seemed to be looking away from her as the dream played on, but even so she could see how happy he was.
She only hoped the real thing turned out as a wonderful as the dream.
She sighed and set thoughts of her upcoming wedding aside. Again. Izzy wasn’t at work yet, and it was getting even later, and this was not like her. Darcy went to the little office at the back of the bookstore and picked up the phone to dial Izzy’s number.
The little brass shopkeepers bell over the door jingled before she could. Izzy swept inside looking out of breath like she’d run the whole way here. That was possible, Darcy supposed. The road they lived on was just outside of town, well within walking distance. In better weather like this Darcy preferred to ride her bicycle but she’d walked it plenty of mornings, too.
Izzy’s long blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail today but a lock of it had come loose to fall forward and lie across her right cheek. Her face was flushed. In her jeans and shirt with the store logo on it, Izzy was definitely dressed for work. Darcy wondered what had kept her.
“I’m back here.” Darcy called to her. “Where’ve you been all morning?”
“Oh, Darcy, I’m really sorry.” Izzy took off her light spring coat, the purple one with the butterflies stitched near the left shoulder, and hung it from the pole just inside the door. “I lost track of time. We were talking over at Helen’s this morning when I stopped for coffee and I just couldn’t tear myself away. You are not going to believe this!”
Darcy leaned against the sales counter and smiled at her friend. This was Misty Hollow. She could believe almost anything. “Wow. It must be really heavy gossip to make you this excited.”
Darcy knew all about the gossip mill in town. It was a better way of spreading information than the local newspaper, that was for sure. Quicker than the internet, too. Cora Morton and Evelyn Casey and the other old women in town always managed to find out every little thing happening in Misty Hollow and they loved nothing more than spreading the news to everyone they could. It was like a contest with them.
Izzy looked to her left, and then to her right, lowering her voice. “Are we alone?”
Nearby, two pink t-shirts fell from a metal rack of clothing for sale. They were printed with the same logo on Izzy’s shirt. “The Mysterious Is All Around Us.”
There was no earthly explanation for why they would have slipped off the rack. It was like some ghostly hand had dropped them.
Which was exactly what had happened.
Izzy and Darcy shared a look. Great Aunt Millie was always hanging around the bookstore that she had started all those years ago. Her ghost had been Darcy’s constant companion ever since she’d passed away. Izzy knew about the old woman’s spirit, and Darcy had to give her credit for taking it in stride instead of freaking out and running for the hills. One more reason why Darcy could trust her.
So, they were alone…but not really.
They knew they could talk in front of Millie. Izzy looked like she was ready to burst if she didn’t get to tell her news.
“So I went in for my morning coffee down at Helen’s café,” she started, leaning in closer to Darcy in spite of there only being the two—well, three—of them there. “As I’m about to leave I hear Dawn Wagner talking to a group of people at one of the tables. It’s all over town now, I bet.”
Darcy was confused. “What’s all over town?”
Izzy’s voice almost trembled with excitement, and her eyes danced, as she said, “The bones in the boxes.”
There had been a long list of things that Darcy had imagined Dawn Wagner gossiping about over tea and croissants at Helen’s Café. Bones in boxes had definitely not made that list.
“Um. Maybe you should explain that more?”
Izzy smiled conspiratorially. “It’s all a real mystery. You know the old county coroner? Maven Sirles?”
“Well, I didn’t know her.” Darcy thought back. Sirles had been an older woman with a facial tick and a raspy voice. She lived a few miles outside of Misty Hollow, between here and Meadowood. Maybe. She wasn’t even sure of that. “I mean, I saw her at a few times at police scenes with Jon. I know she died last month, right?”
“Uh-huh. That’s right.” Izzy went and picked up the shirts that Aunt Millie had dropped and set them back in place on their rack. “So they appointed someone to take her place. Now, the new guy takes over and goes to Maven’s house looking for some files or something. Apparently, she was quite a packrat. So anyway. He’s looking through her house and he can’t find the files. He finds bundles of old newspapers and piles of empty cereal boxes and bags and bags of dirty clothes. Turns out Maven was one of those hoarders. Couldn’t throw anything away.”
“What’s that got to do with—?”
“I’m getting to that,” Izzy interrupted, eager to get every detail out. “So. The new coroner….oh, what’s his name? Um. Baxter. Baxter Sams? Or was it Sam Baxter? Something. It’s one or the other. Anyway. Baxter called the health department to come go through the house. It’s probably going to be condemned. The fire department might have to burn it down. Maven didn’t have any family so there’s no one to inherit the house or go through her property or anything like that. It’s really sad, when you think about it. Here she was, living this secret life as a hoarder, working for the county as a coroner, and no one even knew.”
When she paused for a breath, Darcy figured she would launch into the rest of the story and finally explain what she had meant by ‘bones in boxes.’ Instead, Izzy held up one finger to ask Darcy to wait, and went back into the office where the little refrigerator and coffeemaker were. Darcy had added the coffeemaker recently, because some days she was here late and there just wasn’t any time to go out for some from Helen’s café or Clara Barstow’s deli.
The coffee smelled rich and aromatic as Izzy poured some into a random mug and stood there, sipping, watching Darcy over the rim.
Darcy leaned into the doorway between the office and the shop, crossing her arms, letting her friend have her moment. Izzy didn’t usually like to get into the gossip that spread around the town. This thing must have really caught her attention.
“Didn’t you already have coffee?” she asked after Izzy had taken another few sips.
“Sure, but I’m just so wired, I need some more!”
Darcy couldn’t help but smile. “All right. So what happened at Maven’s house?”
“Baxter had to go look in the garage for the files.”
“Okay.” This was becoming a very long conversation. No wonder Izzy had been late for work. “So did he find them?”
The shopkeeper’s bell rang again. Behind them, a woman entered the store. She was wearing a long black dress that draped her slim figure and emphasized the curves of her hips and the elegant slope of her shoulders. Not something Darcy would expect to see a casual tourist wearing as they roamed around the rural townships on a lark. A narrow-brimmed hat was pinned at a slanting angle to the coiled bun of her hair.
She smiled with pouty lips when she saw Darcy and Izzy. “Hello. I was looking to find a nice, light read. A cozy mystery, perhaps?”
“I can help you with that,” Darcy said. Customers before gossip, after all.
The woman was taller than Darcy by nearly a foot, six inches of that provided by the heels she was wearing. When she followed Darcy back into the stacks, she unpinned her hat and shook loose her hair. It was a light brown color, like warm cocoa. She was the kind of woman, Darcy thought, who could have graced any number of beauty magazines.
“Now, I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for,” Darcy said, scanning the shelves until certain books caught her eyes. “What about
The Five People You Meet in Heaven
“Oh, no,” the woman laughed softly. “I’m not looking for anything that I have to think about. Just something light, and airy, and maybe with a little romance.”
“Okay. Well, we have
Big Little Lies,
that’s a New York Times bestseller.
is really good. A little mystery, a lot of humor, a little romance. It helps if you like Walt Whitman, too.”
“Excellent,” she said, reaching for the book as Darcy took it from its slot. “That’s exactly what I look for when I’m reading. I’m not sure who Walter Whitman is, but it sounds perfect.”
Darcy bit her tongue. She wasn’t going to try to explain Walt—not Walter—Whitman to someone who had never heard of him. That sort of struck her as odd. Even people who had never read Whitman’s poetry had usually heard of him.
“Is there anything else we can get you?” Darcy asked, ringing the sale up and making change.
The woman told her no, and then turned, carrying the little paper bag with her book inside in one hand and her hat in the other. Outside on the sidewalk, she blinked up at the sun for a brief moment, then crossed the street in the direction of the town center, where the park was. Maybe she planned on sitting for a while on a bench and reading. Darcy enjoyed doing that herself, when she had the time.
Izzy joined her at the sales counter again and launched back into her story like there hadn’t been any interruption at all. “So. Baxter goes into Maven’s garage. He’s looking for a box of files. There’s dozens of cardboard boxes out there and he goes through each of them, one at a time.”
In spite of herself, Darcy found she was engrossed in the story. She could picture the new coroner looking through a box of junk, setting it aside, taking down yet another dusty box, and opening it up to find…
“Then, he goes to the next box,” Izzy said, giving color to Darcy’s mental images. “Baxter picks it up and notices how heavy it is. He wonders, why is this box so heavy? It sounds weird, too, like there’s parts of something inside of it. So he puts it on the floor of the garage, and opens it up, and the whole box is full of bones! Human bones!”
Darcy had already figured out where Izzy’s story was going, but still it shocked her. A box of human bones stored away in someone’s garage? Somehow it was made worse by knowing the person keeping the bones was a county coroner. Their whole point to their job was to determine the manner of people’s deaths and then make sure they got a proper burial, for Pete’s sake. Or cremation, she supposed, but still. Nobody should end up a collection of bones in someone else’s garage.
“That’s terrible,” Darcy heard herself whisper.
“I know!” Izzy still sounded more excited than horrified. “It’s all a big mystery and everyone is buzzing about it. I can’t believe it. Can you?”
No, she couldn’t. She was just glad that this particular mystery was happening outside of Misty Hollow. She and Jon wouldn’t be getting wrapped up in this one. They could spend their time concentrating on their wedding plans.
Wouldn’t that be a nice change?