The Walled Flower
If Katie Bonner's late husband hadn't invested all their savings in the crafts fair Artisans Alley, the Webster mansion could have been hers to remodel into a bed-and-breakfast. Instead that dream belongs to another young couple. But that dream becomes a nightmare when a skeleton is discovered sealed in the walls of the mansion. The bones belong to Helen Winston, who went missing twenty-two years ago. Heather's aunt, a jewelry vendor at Artisans Alley, asks Kate for help finding her niece's murderer. The case may be cold, but the killer is very much alive-and ready to go to any lengths to keep past secrets buried...
Steam seeped through the air holes in the Angelo’s pizza box, along with the aroma of melted mozzarella, pepperoni, sauce, and spices. Katie Bonner clutched the twenty–first century equivalent of “cake on a plate” that housewives once brought to welcome new neighbors and approached the Webster mansion on the east end of Victoria Square. The day was cool, bright, and beautiful. Perfect weather for early spring in Western New York, but Katie felt anything but cheerful, despite her mission to welcome the newcomers.
She opened the sagging gate and stepped into the small front courtyard, which was littered with rocks, weeds, and remains of rusty old garden urns. As she mounted the rather rickety wooden steps, Katie noticed the mansion’s heavy oak door stood ajar. Katie paused in the doorway, squinting into the darkened interior. Yup, it was definitely ocupado. Using her elbow, she knocked on the doorjamb, its blistered, peeling paint just another job awaiting completion on the list of renovation and restoration that was taking place at what was soon to be an upscale bed–and–breakfast.
“Anybody hungry?” Katie called.
A dirt–smudged face appeared around the door. Dusty blond bangs hung over a pair of light blue eyes. More wisps had escaped the faded red bandana that was supposed to protect the rest of the woman’s hair. Clad in a grubby T–shirt and jeans, she held a claw hammer in one hand, the knuckles on her other hand oozing blood.
“Pizza?” the woman said hopefully.
“The best,” Katie assured her, proffering the box. “Where can I set it down?”
“On any flat surface you can find.”
Katie entered and stepped over a fallen two–by–four, tracking through plaster dust to set the box on a makeshift table of boards on saw horses. “Do you need a Band–Aid?”
The woman sucked at the abrasion. “Not for this.”
“Janice,” came a male voice from the room beyond.
Katie glanced in that direction. The owner of the voice, a dark–haired man in his late thirties, stepped through the doorway, just as dirty as his counterpart. Not surprising in the ruin of what, one hundred years before, had been a lovely home.
“Hi, I’m Katie Bonner. I manage Artisans Alley on the other end of the Square, and I’m president of the Victoria Square Merchants Association. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
“Thanks,” the man said and moved to stand by the woman.
“I’ve seen you working here for the last couple of days and figured you might need a break,” Katie said.
“Do we ever.” The woman moved closer, setting the hammer down and offering Katie her hand. “Janice Ryan. And this is my husband, Toby.”
Katie shook both their hands, then pulled a sheaf of paper napkins from the back pocket of her jeans. “Please, help yourself.”
“Thanks,” the couple chorused, and each dove for a slice.
Katie took a long look around the cavernous space. Bare studs gave the room a skeletal look. Lath and chunks of plaster from the ceiling filled plastic buckets, waiting to be emptied into the commercial Dumpster out back. A bare light bulb hung from a cheap 1960s fixture. That, too, would eventually have to go.
“Wow, I can’t believe how much you’ve already accomplished,” Katie said.
Janice swallowed, her mouth flattening into a frown. “Sounds like you’ve been in here before.”
Many times, Katie was tempted to blurt. She and her late husband, Chad, had tramped through the cold uninviting place on dozens of occasions during the four years they’d saved to buy it. Then Chad had impulsively invested instead in Artisans Alley, a going concern quickly going downhill. Chad had passed away the year before—the victim of a car accident—and Katie was now the owner and manager. So far she hadn’t made a nickel of the money back either.
“Once or twice,” Katie said, forcing a smile. “What are your plans?”
Janice beamed. “We hope to open the Grand Victoria Inn in about three months.”
A very ambitious plan, considering the state the building was currently in.
“We’ll have seven guest rooms to start. The property comes with plenty of acreage to add guest cottages if we do well.”
Katie had planned an extensive garden refit, perfect for outdoor weddings and corporate picnics. And if the weather didn’t cooperate, she figured she could always tent such affairs. And she’d wanted a white–painted gazebo at the far end of the yard, flanked by a lovely cottage garden, with lots of pink and white cosmos.
Janice’s eyes glowed with pride. “The entryway will be totally restored,” she said, taking in the space with a sweep of her hand. “As you can see, we’ve just got that wall over there to remove. They divided the place into apartments, but that’s good in a way, because we won’t have to replumb the whole house for the guest rooms.”
That was one of the things Katie had counted on, too. Her plan had been to renovate the old mansion and open the English Ivy Inn. Chad was to be the host, and Katie would manage the kitchen and the financial end of things. It was a solid plan. It was her life’s dream. And now it was forever out of her reach.
“Toby’s good at carpentry and has plans for a lovely oak check–in desk, over here,” Janice said with a wave of her hand. “We’ve got wood salvaged from another site that’ll be just perfect.”
Katie already had a lovely oak reception desk sitting in a storage unit waiting to be stripped and refinished. She’d collected brass headboards, oriental carpets, dressers and nightstands, pedestal sinks, light fixtures, dishes, and silverware, too. Every month she wrote out a check to keep her treasures warehoused, and every month she debated getting rid of it all. Owning all that stuff was just another painful reminder that life wasn’t always fair.
Katie’s anger flared as she noted the sledge hammer resting against the wall. “Are you doing all the work yourself?”
“Just the preliminary demolition,” Toby said, reaching for another pizza slice. “It’ll save us three or four grand that we can better use elsewhere.”
“There’s a certain satisfaction in taking down a wall, especially when you can already visualize how perfect the space will be,” Janice said. She laughed. “I’ve spent the last few months decorating this house in my mind. I can’t wait until opening day when I can show it off to the world.”
Katie, too, had imagined exactly how she’d renovate the old house. Replacement newel posts for the staircase, frosted glass sconces on the walls, delicate rose–patterned wallpaper, chair rails and crown molding. For years she’d longed to swing a sledge and take out an extraneous wall or two.
She picked up and hefted the tool, nearly staggering under its weight. “Would you mind if I took a whack at that wall—just for fun?”
“Go for it,” Toby said, grinning. He put down his pizza, grabbed a pair of work gloves, and accompanied Katie to the wall.
“I’d better cover the pizza,” Janice said.
“We’re taking down the plasterboard first, then we’ll yank out the studs. It’s not a load–bearing wall,” Toby said, handing Katie the gloves and a pair of safety glasses.
That she already knew. Many an evening she’d pored over how–to books in anticipation of applying her own brand of sweat equity to the place.
Toby or Janice had already removed the baseboard molding at the bottom of the wall, leaving a three–inch gap that had never seen a coat of paint. An odd, gummy dark stain marred the middle of that section of pristine plasterboard.
Katie donned the gloves and glasses, grasped the sledge firmly, swung it high, and let its weight slam against the wall. Bang! A circular dimple marred the surface, but not enough to make a break in the drywall.
“Put your weight into it,” Toby encouraged with a smile.
Clenching her teeth, Katie hauled off and swung again.
The anger blossomed inside her, threatening to engulf her.
This should have been her house!
It would have been hers if Chad hadn’t invested—without her knowledge—in that money pit, Artisans Alley.
The sledge careened through the air, smacking hard into the wall, taking a jagged hunk of plasterboard with it.
Katie swung again and again, her biceps complaining at the strain. Clouds of dust swirled in the air.
Hands on hips, Toby watched from her left. “You’re doing great, Katie.” He didn’t sound as pleased as he had a few moments before.
Katie took another mighty swing, sending a fragment of plasterboard flying. She paused to yank a loose piece from the studs.
Janice gasped behind her.
Katie lost her grip on the sledge, nearly crushing her toes. She turned to see what Janice was fussing about.
Open–mouthed and panting, a wide–eyed Janice frantically pointed at the gaping hole in the wall.
Confused, Katie turned to see the source of her distress.
Behind a heavy layer of plastic, empty eye sockets gazed at nothing; the jaw hung open as though in a scream. The remains of long blonde hair were suspended like Easter grass among the bones, and a shiny silver locket dangled from the proximity of its neck.
Katie swallowed, her mouth going dry. “Well, this could ruin your day.”
Yellow crime tape barred the mansion’s entrance. The east end of the Victoria Square parking lot was clogged with squad cars scattered with no regard to the orderly lines painted on the asphalt. Katie leaned against a paint–flaked column on the wide veranda, noting the rain damage at its base. It would be expensive to replace.
“This is a bad omen,” Katie heard Janice complain for the hundredth time from inside the house. “Who’ll want to come to the inn knowing we found a body in a wall?”
The poor woman had no concept of marketing, Katie thought with a rueful shake of her head. A ghost was a great draw . . . if you had a good story to go with it.
She’d been glad to escape the crowd inside. As a material witness, Katie was compelled to stay until the law said she could leave. She glanced at her watch. It was going on two hours now.
She sighed, unsure why she hadn’t felt as shattered as Janice and Toby at finding a skeleton walled up in what once might’ve been her home. Maybe because it wasn’t her home and never would be. Then again, she’d seen Artisans Alley’s former owner/manager dead in a puddle of his own blood. She’d found one of the vendors dead with a broken neck from a fall. An anonymous skeleton wasn’t half as scary. Or maybe she was just in denial. But it was obvious the person behind the wall had been dead a long—well, reasonably speaking—time, and it sure hadn’t been an accident.
A crowd of rubberneckers ringed the cordoned–off area. Katie looked up to see her friend and Artisans Alley vendor, Rose Nash, among the crowd, clutching a card or paper, madly waving to her, trying to get her attention. Dyed blonde curls bobbed around her anxious, wrinkled face. Katie took a step forward, but a hand on her shoulder made her turn.
Detective Ray Davenport of the Sheriff’s Office homicide detail was once again on site, looking just as formidable and bad–tempered as the other times Katie had interacted with him.
“You seem to attract death, Mrs. Bonner,” the balding, middle–aged cop said.
Katie straightened indignantly. “Me, attract death? Detective, that poor woman’s been dead for decades.”
“And how do you know it was a woman?” he asked suspiciously
Katie frowned. “Long blonde hair, a locket—it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the gender.”
Davenport glowered. “Just what were you doing here anyway, Mrs. Bonner?”
“Paying a friendly visit to my new neighbors on behalf of the Victoria Square Merchants Association. Believe me, I didn’t want to find the remains of that . . . that poor person.”
“Detective! Detective!” Rose called, elbowing her way through the crowd. “I heard they found a body.”
“You’ll have to read about it the paper, ma’am,” he said, ignoring the agitation in her voice as he turned back toward the mansion entrance.
“Was it a woman?” Rose persisted. “Blonde hair, brown eyes? Did she have a locket?”
Davenport stopped dead, turned. “Locket?”
“Rectangular, sterling silver. Rhodium plated with a bright–cut floral design,” Rose cried in desperation. She held out a wallet–sized photo, waving it at him.
Davenport trudged down the steps, took the picture from her, studied it, and frowned. Then he lifted the crime tape, motioning her forward.
Katie hurried to meet Rose, steadying the elderly woman as she climbed the six shallow steps into the mansion.
Portable work lights illuminated the crime scene. The room seemed claustrophobically small with so many deputies and technicians crowded in. As the trio entered, they stepped back, quieting as Davenport approached.
The wall had been taken down in one piece, thanks to a reciprocating saw, and now lay flat on the floor. The rest of the drywall had been removed, revealing the earthly remains—just bones—in situ, wrapped in clear plastic sheeting and lying on a fluffy pillow of faded pink Fiberglas. A petrified black substance—rat or insect dung, Katie surmised—was also visible. She shuddered at the thought of how it had gotten there and turned her attention to the wooden studs, which were twenty–four inches on center—not a lot of room. The body must have been wedged in at an angle, the shoulders were cocked, the wrists crossed in front of the pelvis. No remnant of cloth or flesh remained.
Rose blanched, and Katie felt her friend wobble in her grasp.
“Do you recognize the locket?” Davenport asked the older woman.
Tears filled Rose’s eyes and she nodded, the movement causing her to sway. “It belonged to my niece.” She took a shuddering breath and choked on a sob. “Oh, Heather, everyone thought you’d run off to New York—and you were here all along,” she said, and collapsed in a dead faint.
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