Authors: Marsha Qualey
Tags: #Literary Fiction
Leigh nudged the balky door with her shoulder. When it opened, she kneeled to pick up limes that had rolled out of the plastic grocery bag she’d set down. Peach rushed passed her into the cottage. A strong sweet scent invaded Leigh’s nostrils as organdy brushed her face. She rose and sneezed.
She pressed a sleeve against her nose. “Thank you very much for the ride—” Leigh caught herself. What the hell was she thanking her for? After all, the buxom bitch with a crown had slammed into her car. “I’ll be in touch when the garage—Mrs. Wickham, are you okay?”
Peach Wickham had melted into a purple ball on the floor. One of her hands stroked the honey-colored boards, while the other gripped a leg of the desk. She turned her head and smiled at Leigh through tears. “I just can’t believe I’m here,” she said as she shifted to a sitting position. Her hand continued stroking the floor as she gazed around the room. “The desk,” she whispered. “The big brown chair.” She pointed toward the kitchen. “The stove where Dr. Grace cooked Maud’s favorite pudding on winter nights.” She rose and stumbled toward the fireplace. Her fingers stroked the blue vase and then floated along the mantel. She gripped the scarred and notched wood and swooned. Suddenly she stiffened, her expression curdled, a fist landed on her hip. She walked toward the Matisse copy. “
the red lady?” she murmured. “How disappointing.” She shrugged, looked around the room, and her dreamy happy smile reappeared.
“Mrs. Wickham,” Leigh said, “time to go.”
Peach ignored her. She picked up her purple handbag and began riffling the contents. She pulled out a camera and started taking pictures. She snapped quickly, turning in a circle, hitting the shutter release with each step.
Before she could get out of the way, Leigh was caught in a few of the shots. “Please, stop.”
Peach’s fingers tapped away, catching Leigh several more times. “I need to share this with the world! Now, move!”
“Stop taking pictures!” Leigh lunged for the camera, but Peach turned and hurried into the kitchen, her finger pressing down repeatedly on the silent shutter release.
She had to get the film. She couldn’t let photos get out, not if she wanted to keep this job. It had been years since her face was all over the news, but she still didn’t dare risk it.
Peach noticed a yellow spoon rest on the range. She gasped, set the camera down, picked up the spoon rest, and cradled it in both hands. Leigh grabbed the camera. She hit the menu button just as Peach began pounding on her shoulder.
“Give it to me!”
Leigh took a breath. “I’ll give it back, but please, at least erase the ones with me. I need to see you do that.”
Peach grabbed the camera. She talked under her breath as she hit buttons. “Here,” she said, holding it out so Leigh could see the view screen. “Watch.”
“There were more,” Leigh said.
Peach made a noise, but erased five others. “Why so phobic? It’s not like I’d use any that had you in them.”
“It’s not just that. This isn’t my house and I shouldn’t have let you take any. Time to go, Mrs. Wickham.”
Peach Wickham looked at Leigh through narrowed, considering eyes. “That bitch Lanier got to you, didn’t she? She was in here first, I bet. Did you let her take pictures?”
“I don’t know a Lanier, bitchy or otherwise. Once more, Mrs. Wickham: Please leave.”
Peach put the camera back in her bag and smoothed her skirt. “I won’t hold this reception against you,” she said. “I’m still good for the repairs on your car.”
“I’ll be in touch about that.”
As Peach pushed open the door she caught her breath. “Oh!” she murmured. Her hand ran up the scarred door jamb, and then just before she exited, Peach Wickham leaned forward and kissed the wood.
Leigh didn’t have to work side by side with the men who hired her to ghostwrite their books, but she’d realized early on that it was easier to do so and well worth the trouble and discomfort of being a house guest or resident of a furnished room in a strange town. Proximity was essential for making her employers succumb to the flattery of her attention, which in turn was essential for coaxing out the real stories, honest rumination, secrets, and desires that sometimes surprised even their owners.
Not that the books she produced included much of that. The end product was always the story that families, friends, colleagues, and sycophants wanted and applauded and not the one they feared. But she always knew what she was leaving out, and that gave spirit and voice to the books she did write. So she put up with the small rooms in small towns that were available for short-term rental. Put up with or turned a blind eye to the grime-coated miniblinds, food-crusted refrigerators, stained bathtubs and carpets so that she could get close to and look in the rheumy eyes of these men who had reigned in their financial, political, and industrial kingdoms and who now paid her well so they’d have one more dance in the spotlight.
The Bancroft cottage was free, clean, comfortable, secluded, furnished with a mesmerizing copy of a priceless painting, secluded, and appeared to be the perfect place for retreat and writing. It should be a haven. Why then, Leigh wondered as she stood at the window in the study of the big house and gazed toward the copse, why did it feel like a trap?
She turned and watched Terry read the chapter draft. He sensed her watching and lifted his head and smiled. “This is good, Leigh.”
She knew that and only nodded.
“You’re a wizard. I gave you all the details, but you’re finding the story. If the other chapters you’ve drafted are as good as this one, we’ll be finished in no time.”
She sat in one of the two chairs opposite his and poured fresh coffee. “I’m glad you’re pleased. But now I need something clarified.”
“What’s the deal with the cottage, and why have you put me there?”
“You don’t like it?”
“Of course I do. Geneva filled me in a bit on the history of the place, but I think there’s a lot more going on. Want to help me out?”
He yawned. “Maybe we’ve done enough today. When can I see the other chapters?”
“I need to rework a few things. If I don’t have any more surprise visitors, tomorrow afternoon.”
Gotcha. Like every other politician she’d ever known, he was a born gossip, always thirsty for news of the comings and goings around him because those comings and goings mattered, made a difference in who was attending to business, who was full strength for fighting, or who was vulnerable and could be easily manipulated.
Who’d lunched with whom? Whose wife had moved back to the district? Whose kids were in rehab? Whose husband needed a job? Who could help, who could hurt?
Who had visited the cottage?
“An intruder, would be more like it,” Leigh said, settling back. “Yesterday after we talked I went to the grocery store to get a few things and had a little problem. Do you know a Peach Wickham? I think she deliberately smashed into my car just to get into the place.”
“Charlie Ewald’s daughter. Good god. The leader of the pack. Smashed your car? Geneva usually keeps me informed about what’s going on in town, but she hadn’t brought back that item. How bad is the damage?”
“Might be totaled.”
In an instant his expression changed from amused to pained to vacant.
After a moment she realized she was holding her breath, matching his stillness with her own. This wasn’t the same nodding-off drowsiness she’d witness on their first morning together. “Terry?”
He lifted his head slightly. Eyelids flickered as he reentered the room. “Charlie Ewald and I were born on the same day. Charlie was the world’s biggest donkey ass, and his daughter’s turned out just the same. It’s my fault your car got smashed, Leigh. Use mine when you need one. I can’t drive anymore, and Geneva prefers hers.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“It is. Geneva gave me hell for playing a trick on you. I didn’t think of it that way, but I guess she’s right. Of course it’s my fault that woman smashed your car. I put you smack in the middle with no warning.”
“Middle of what?”
Full color returned to his face as he studied hers. Finally: “Are you the only woman in America that hasn’t heard of those damn books or the wretched television show? My god, you must be. And you’re a writer. I thought it was a rule: All lady writers of a certain age were devoted to the
Little Girl, Big River
Lady writer. She’d once flung an ashtray at a leering city editor who’d called her that. “I’ve heard of them, of course. And there’s a connection to you?”
“You’re staying in the author’s childhood home. Ida May Turnbull. Her mother was my grandfather’s lover. The mother was a doctor, a young widow. My grandfather met her in Chicago on a business trip. They fell in love. He built the cottage for her and installed her and her daughter right under my grandmother’s nose. Story is, the girl and her mother were outcasts in town. The doctor must have had it bad for my grandfather to stay here and put her daughter through that kind of treatment from people. Well, that kind of passion sours anyone eventually. She killed herself. The daughter got her revenge on my family with those books because for years there have been fans trying to get into the place. I’ve only been in it a few times, myself. Granddad lived there after the doctor killed herself. Secluded himself for nearly thirty years. My grandmother moved down to the Palm Beach house. She had the cottage closed up after he died. She hated the sight of it, hated the thought of it.”
“Why not just tear it down?”
“He wrote a tricky will, Leigh. Anticipated she’d want to do that. Basic terms of the family trust are that if anything happened to the cottage or anything in it, or if any of us sold any part of this property, there’d be no money for anyone. All of it would go to Ida May or her heirs. And it’s still a lot of money. Like most things, Leigh, it’s all about money.”
“And betrayal and love, it sounds like.”
“No one remembers that part. It’s just the money that keeps my cousins and our children bitter.”
“But you’re not. And that’s why you opened the cottage and put me in there.” She gently rocked the coffee cup, watching the rich brown liquid spread and recede across bone white china.
Installed me like your grandfather’s mistress.
She looked up to see his smile. Had he read her mind?
“I simply thought that the place had been inspirational for one writer, so why not another? It’s yours for the duration. Welcome any guest you want, but I’d rather you not open it to a large group. You’ll be asked to do that, you should know. There’s some sort of gathering of these nuts every few years, and this is the year. I’ve hired security in the past to keep them from prowling around and I’ll do that again.”
“You think that’s necessary?”
“Only if you don’t want strange women wandering in at all hours of the day. It’s up to you. As I said, it’s yours for the duration. Just don’t burn the place down. Promise me that? The trust expires next year; after that anything can happen.”
“I don’t smoke or light candles or fry foods. You’ve had the wiring fixed, so unless lightening hits, it’s probably safe from fire.”
He closed his eyes and stretched out his legs. “That’s good, because if anything happens to the place before time’s up, every penny my children are counting on lands in the lap of Charlie Ewald’s donkey-ass daughter.”
The front entrance to the Pepin library was blocked with a sagging web of yellow caution tape. Stone chips littered the top step, and birds’ nests filled the gaps in the brickwork above the wide oak door. A small laminated sign screwed to a headless wooden lamppost directed visitors to a side door. Leigh examined the rust and dirt on the screws. The library must not have been a priority on the town’s budget for a long time, probably not since Andrew Carnegie was handing out money.
The building’s glass side door was covered with flyers announcing meetings for various groups. Manga lovers, William Blake fans, knitters, nature photographers, and troll collectors apparently all used the decaying brick building as a clubhouse.
The library’s main floor was a single large room. Leigh stood at the entrance and looked around, noting the older men reading newspapers, the two rows of occupied computer stations, several browsers in the fiction section, the short line of people waiting for help at the unmanned reference desk. “This town needs a new library,” she said.
“We’ve been trying to get one for years,” a soft voice replied. “Maybe you could talk to the vice president and make something happen.”
A slender younger woman in a sleeveless pink linen dress looked over her shoulder at Leigh as she walked past and sat in the chair behind the reference desk. She tugged slightly on her blonde ponytail and leaned forward to listen to a patron. As the agitated man went into the details of his question, the librarian glanced at Leigh and smiled.
The assistant bartender at Dee’s Café.
Library salaries, thought Leigh, must be about as high as the repair budget.
The children’s section was in a light-filled corner with tall windows. “T, T, T,” she whispered until she was at the right spot. Books by Ida May Turnbull packed four shelves of a bookcase. Didn’t the locals ever check them out? She wiggled one free from the others.