Death Comes Silently

Carolyn Hart - Author

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ISBN 9781101561393 | 304 pages | 03 Apr 2012 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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National Bestselling Author and winner of multiple Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards, Carolyn Hart continues to dazzle mystery fans with an all new Dead on Demand Mystery.

Winter has arrived in Broward's Rock, South Carolina, and business has slowed for Annie Darling, owner of mystery bookstore Death on Demand. So when the island's resident writer publishes the latest in her popular mystery series, Annie jumps at the chance to host a book signing, even though it conflicts with her shift at the local charity shop, Better Tomorrow.

Luckily, fellow volunteer Gretchen Burkholt agrees to sub for her. The signing goes well, but Gretchen interrupts the event multiple times, leaving voice mails about scandalous news she's dying to share. Even though Gretchen tends to be excitable, Annie heads over to Better Tomorrow, where she finds Gretchen dead on the floor, an axe by her side.

Annie enlists the help of her husband, Max, to piece together a puzzle involving an overturned kayak, a stolen motorboat, a troubled love affair, and a reckless teenager. And she must tread carefully in her investigation, because a killer is on the loose, and that killer works well in the foggy days of winter...

Chapter 1

Nicole Hathaway drew the covers over her head to block out the pale winter moonlight. Alone. She felt so alone. How had her life gone so wrong? She stifled a sob. Always, she’d wanted to find the right man. She’d been thrilled when Everett pursued her. He was such a gentleman. Not rough or crude like so many boys she knew. He was older, distinguished. He’d treated her with such courtesy. His manners and cultivated background dazzled her. She’d taken great pride in being Mrs. Everett Hathaway. She wasn’t sure when she began to see him for what he was, fussy and pretentious and sometimes not very nice.

She hadn’t expected what happened, a man who occupied her every waking thought, a man who brought her ecstasy. By that time, she’d moved to a bedroom of her own, at first with the plea that she had such a cough from her allergies and she would sleep better alone, and then the days continued to pass and they slept apart.

She didn’t want to go on this way. Why live a lie? But when she spoke of being together, there were reasons and excuses, and soon her lover didn’t meet her as often.

There had to be a way to make it happen . . .

Brad Milton massaged one temple. Another silent migraine. Pretty soon the Coke and Excedrin would take effect. He pushed the spreadsheets away. He couldn’t work anymore tonight. It didn’t matter how many times he looked, the numbers wouldn’t get any better. There was no way out. He glanced at his desk calendar. Fourteen more days and the notes could be called. If only he could have six more months. He was close to lining up two good– sized jobs.

But Everett Hathaway had shrugged and said, “Sorry, old man.” Everett had affected a slightly British accent and pseudo upper class attitude ever since he dabbled in art history at a provincial university more than twenty years ago. “Business is business.”

Leslie Griffin maintained a bright smile. She tossed her head, a favorite mannerism. Her eyes flicked to the mirror in an art deco frame. As always, she was pleased at her image, long golden hair, creamy complexion, china blue eyes, an image as bright as Jane Lynch on Glee. Her cool gaze swung back to the man in the large red leather chair behind the blond wood desk. The chair wasn’t suited to his weedy frame, making him look insubstantial. It had been perfect for his burly older brother whose place he’d taken.

Though Leslie’s smile never wavered, she dissected him as only the young and arrogant can . . . Reddish hair and eyes like green slime . . . Thinks he’s gorgeous in that dorky checked sweater . . . Reminds me of that stupid goat at the stables . . . big, round, dumb eyes . . . All he does is read stupid poetry . . . Looks silly behind Uncle Eddie’s desk, like a kid playing grown–up . . . Wonder if he knows about Nicole . . . That would distract him from her, that was for sure . . . Usually she could get in and out of the agency without dealing with him . . . If she had to listen to him very often, she’d rather be at school, boring as it was . . .

Everett Hathaway cleared his throat, appeared uncomfortable. “I’m deeply disappointed in your behavior, Leslie.”

She tried to look bored. But there was something in his voice . . . She clutched her neck in faux distress. “Has that pointy– headed math teacher complained? Honestly”—she heaved an aggrieved sigh— “I don’t see any point in algebra.”

“This isn’t about school, although there is a good deal we might discuss there. Your grades are deplorable. Perhaps your lack of attention to your duties is part of a larger picture.” He folded his arms. “I am aware that you did not stay with a friend last Friday night. Instead, you were in Savannah with one Steve Raymond.” He spoke the name with distaste.

Leslie made an effort to appear distressed. “Steve and I were just having an adventure.” Uncle was such an old sap, maybe he’d believe her. She’d been fooling him for years. “Some of the kids dared me to spend the night with a guy in Savannah.” She tried to sound casual, amused, like the old movies where they stood around drinking martinis and smoking and talking smart. “We stayed at a Holiday Inn, but we were kind of like on a scavenger hunt and we went around town getting trinkets to prove we’d stayed and we had the ferry tickets, too, with the time we came back the next morning.” She clapped her hands together. “I won the bet and now a bunch of them have to take turns doing whatever I say.” She tilted her head. “I’m going to make Margo walk down Main Street in a bikini.” For an instant, she wished her fabrication were real. It would be delicious to make tall, skinny, elegant Margo shiver. She was pleased with her invention.

Everett’s grim face remained hard. “You spent the night with him in a motel. One of your teachers saw you and called me. You’re under age. I understand he’s nineteen. If I call the police, he’ll go to jail.”

Leslie stiffened. “It was a joke. Come on. And I’m almost eighteen.” He was a dried–up old stick. No wonder Nicole cheated on him. What was it Mr. Wingate said in English the other day about somebody in a novel? That he was a dunce. She liked that word. That’s what Uncle was. A dunce. She wished she could tell him.

Everett glanced at a legal pad on his desk. “Where did you

meet him?”

She gave a casual wave of her hand. “On the beach last summer. A bunch of kids hang out together. It’s real laid back.”

“Where does he live?”

Her shrug was elaborate. “I don’t know. We were over at Bunny’s”—she was pleased with her casual tone; she could almost believe her own lies—“and the idea came up and he was the one who said, sure, he’d play along, why not? He’s a real joker.” And so good in bed. “But I can’t tell you all that much about him.” She had a quick memory of the shabby cabin where Steve lived and the fun they had with his dad usually out of town.

Everett’s tone was frosty. “The teacher knew a bit about him. She said he dropped out of school a couple of years ago. His mother ran off with a drummer in Savannah. His father’s rarely home, always on the road.” His derisive tone dismissed Steve and his family as undesirables.

Leslie felt a rush of panic. If he kept nosing around, he’d find out about much more than a single night on the mainland. She managed a tinkling laugh. “It was just a joke. I promise I won’t do it again.” Since there had been no joke, that wouldn’t be a hard promise to keep.

“You are forbidden to see Steve Raymond again. And”—he looked at her with that slimy gaze—“unless you agree, I’ll cut your allowance.”

Leslie played a mean hand of poker. She knew when to fold them. Again she gave a shrug. “No problem. This was no big deal. A joke. Steve played along. And don’t even think about going to the cops.” There was an edge to her voice. “That would be sooo humiliating. I couldn’t show my face at school. So let it go and Steve will be history.”

As she walked out of his office, she was thinking fast. Would he keep checking? He might. If he did, he might keep his threat to cut her allowance. He didn’t live in the real world and he had no idea she had more money than anyone she knew. She had her future planned. As soon as she got out of boring, awful high school, she would rent an apartment in Savannah, maybe take enough classes to keep her uncle agreeable. But she wouldn’t be able to do anything without money. Why had their grandfather left a will where she couldn’t get her hands on her inheritance until she was twenty– five? Until then, her uncle controlled the checkbook.

Trey Hathaway worked two phones. His round–faced, plump secretary, her expression harried, stood in the doorway fl aping a FedEx envelope. He pointed at his desk, continued to talk. “Yeah. Sure. We’re about to get that one buttoned down. I’ll call you back, first thing in the morning.” He put down the landline, picked up his cell, and spoke in a mollifying tone. “Thanks for holding, Regina. There was a mix–up here, but I’ve straightened everything out.” He swung to face his computer, moved the cursor to attach a file, typed an e–mail, tapped send. “I just sent an e–mail with the updated campaign. I’m sorry about the delay. I think you’ll be pleased and your project is high priority. I promise it won’t happen again.” He winced at the edge of anger in the client’s reply and the harsh click as the phone slammed down. He put down the receiver and picked up the FedEx envelope. He ripped it open and pulled out a sheet. The words in the second paragraph burned in his mind: Consider our contract with Hathaway Advertising Inc. null and void due to lack of performance . . .

Blood rushed to his head. He pushed up from his desk, strode across the room. Trey was a thin version of his late father, sandy haired, brown eyed, always moving like a man in a hurry. His late father’s firm resolve was evident in the tough set of his face. Now was the time for a showdown. His uncle shut him out of everything, made stupid decisions, missed deadlines, and royally screwed up old accounts and new. Trey was eager to take over. He loved planning campaigns. He’d do whatever he needed to do to make the agency tops again, sought out by big companies all over the South. He’d had a great idea for tourist promotion for the Broward’s Rock Chamber of Commerce:

Broward’s Rock

Jewel of the Sea

Surf, Sand, Sun

Fun for Everyone

Cross the Sound for Island Delight

Dance Away the Night

Lovers’ Rendezvous

He’d make the letters big, bright, shiny, maybe emerald green, surround them with a montage of holiday shots, golfing, kayaking, surfing, sunset beach strolls, the island’s ferry since Broward’s Rock was a good forty minutes from the mainland.

As per usual, all outgoing material passed over Everett’s desk. Everett had called him in, advised Trey in his pompous manner that he was glad Trey had some ideas but this sort of thing was better handled by a more mature approach, and the project was shelved.

Trey reached the door, one lean hand on the knob, when he remembered. Everett usually left early on Fridays. He played backgammon at the club in the winter, golfed in good weather.

Trey’s thin face hardened. When Everett was in the office, he lounged in his late brother’s oversized red leather chair and played with his iPad. A few more months of “work” by Everett would spell an ignominious end for Hathaway Advertising, its reputation shot. It shouldn’t be this way. Dad had built a great agency. After his mother’s death so long ago, Dad had focused on the agency. Sometimes Trey thought the agency gave his dad something to love after their mom died. He’d worked furiously. When he’d died, Trey wanted more than anything to keep the agency going, keep his dad’s dream alive. His cousin, Leslie, thought he was a sap to work. The only reason she came to the office was to get out early from school, claiming an internship at the family business. She did her nails and surfed the Net. Why work when you were rich? Not that either he or Leslie controlled their inheritances yet. Everett was their guardian until they were twenty– five. He paid their bills and provided a monthly stipend. That was infuriating, too. Worst of all had been Everett taking over the house. Until his dad’s death, Everett had lived on the mainland. The house ultimately would belong to Trey. Now he had to share it with Everett and his wife and his cousin. There was plenty of room, but the house should have been his. Instead, he had to live like he was a teenager in somebody else’s home.

Was Everett taking revenge on his older, handsomer, successful brother, destroying the business Edward Marlow Hathaway II built by sweat and effort? It wasn’t about money. There was plenty of money from the estate of Edward M. Hathaway, his grandfather, for Everett and the grandchildren to live on. They didn’t need income from the agency, but it wasn’t a matter of money for Trey. His dad had been a man with charm and brains and energy. Hathaway Advertising had been the joy of his too– short life.

Trey turned away from the door, jammed his hands in his trouser pockets, walked to the window that overlooked the harbor, and stared moodily out at white– flecked swells. He had to do something. Time was running out for Dad’s dream and for his. He couldn’t even start a new agency until he had control of his inheritance at twenty– five.

Everett blocked him any way he tried to turn.

Sgt. Hyla Harrison, as always, wore a crisp, fresh uniform. Her auburn hair was drawn back in a bun beneath her cap. She zipped her dark blue uniform jacket against the biting chill of the breeze off the Sound as she studied the white fiberglass hull of the empty MasterCraft ProStar 197. She noted the uneven tilt of the boat where it had been run aground. A sweet boat. She liked its name, Sunny Daze. The empty boat moved ever so slightly in the rising tide. She pulled a printout from the pocket of her uniform. A bird– watcher found the obviously abandoned craft and notified police, who traced it to owners who were very surprised that it had been taken from its mooring. She gazed at the mushy ground and broken cordgrass where the bow had come to rest.

Hyla knew the island well. This cove abutted a picnic area, deserted on this raw New Year’s Day. The boat might have rested here for weeks except for a hardy bird– watcher surveying the area with binoculars because a friend had spotted a rare snowy owl the previous day. The boat had been taken sometime after dark yesterday, according to the owner.

She studied the interior of the boat that was visible from the bank. There appeared to be no damage. She reached into a pocket for a slim digital camera. She worked slowly, always patient, always thorough, taking photographs that made clear the boat’s location, then moving nearer for a series of shots. When done, the camera in a zipped pocket of her jacket, she pulled plastic gloves from another pocket, slipped them on, and picked up a black vinyl fingerprint kit.

She reached across a couple of feet of marsh water to the transom and stiff – armed to vault lightly into the boat, the kit in her free hand. She walked slowly forward, eyes scanning the cushions. All were in place. At the front, the key was in the ignition. The owner had been defensive. “Sure the key was in the boat. We’ve never had a problem. We never worried about the boat.” Officer Harrison’s smile was sardonic. Broward’s Rock wasn’t immune to crime.

She placed the kit in the captain’s seat, lifted the lid, retrieved powder, and dusted the steering wheel. When the coat had been applied, she stared down in surprise. No fingerprints. None. Not a single whorl or line. Last night the driver might likely have worn gloves as well as a thick jacket to ward off the cold. Even so, there should have been traces of smudged prints. Instead, the grey plastic wheel was clean and shiny. Obviously the wheel had been carefully polished. No gloves? Or simply great care?

The latter seemed out of character for a joy ride.

Joy ride . . .

The police officer’s thin, freckled face squeezed in a frown. Kids did nutty things for sure, but a late– night jaunt on a low– forties December night, even colder out on the water with the wind, made no sense. On a hot July night, “borrowed” boats, skinny– dipping, smoking pot behind a sand dune came as no surprise.

Again her probing gaze moved slowly over the boat. No bottles. No trash. If kids took the boat, there should have been some trace. She felt a prickle up her back. Something was off – kilter here. She studied the railing, moved nearer the transom. A scratch on the near gunwale marked the fiberglass. She bent closer, saw a greenish streak. Possibly something metal had struck the fiberglass, left particles of paint. She again used the camera. She almost turned to leave, then stopped. That green streak bothered her. It wouldn’t do any harm to get a sample. She picked up the evidence kit. She carefully lifted green paint particles to a transparent rubber– backed gelatin layer. As she removed the layer, she saw a tuft of material adhering to the railing. She methodically finished her task, then used a magnifying glass to look more closely. Her eyes narrowed. The scrap might be black cotton or wool snagged by a cracked spot in the plastic. She visualized a dark figure, moving fast, possibly swinging out of the boat to jump to shore, a gloved hand gripping the rail. Had a jacketed arm grazed the railing and a scrap torn free? She hesitated, then once again used the kit, bagged the scrap, applied a label. Whoever took the boat had tried not to leave a single trace, but that was hard to do in a physical world. Sometimes a tiny scrap would be enough to electrocute a man. Anyway, she’d turn in a complete report. Lou Pirelli would ask when was she going to stop trying to be a super cop, then grin and toss her a jelly donut, like a treat to a retriever. Sure, this wasn’t a big– deal heist, no harm done, but she liked to be meticulous. If there was evidence, she would gather every scrap. Never taking anything for granted was her way of keeping a structured world even though she well knew life could turn dangerous in a heartbeat. She swallowed, pushed away a memory that would never leave her, the night she called in from patrol in Miami, officer down, as her partner died from gunshots to his chest.

She closed the evidence kit and focused on the slight rock of the

boat and the chill breeze, anything to fill her mind.

Jeremiah Young handled the axe easily. He was chunky with big shoulders and sturdy legs. He liked to feel the ripple of his muscles as he chopped kindling. Poor folks in real need of firewood came by Better Tomorrow now that the temperature dipped into the forties at night. Not that a sea island was ever real cold, not like Minnesota. Bad days up there. He swallowed hard. He’d been stupid. Stolen a car and tried to get away when a siren sounded. They told him he was lucky. Two years in jail. His mind shied away like a horse smelling a snake. Lucky . . . He’d never told anybody how bad the nights had been. That guy named . . . His mind shied again. Remembering made him feel sick, made him want to cry. He’d rather die than ever go to jail again. He’d been like a whipped dog when he made it back to the island. His aunt took him in, helped him get the job here at Better Tomorrow. He paused, wiped sweat from his face. Despite the cool day, the chopping made him hot, but he savored the sweat and the freedom. It was good to feel hot, to be outside, free.

An old Chevy rattled up to one side of the shabby frame building and parked in the shade of the lean–to where the mower was stored along with ladders and some of the canned and boxed groceries.

The car door slammed. He knew the driver. Mrs. Burkholt. He called her Mrs. Big– Eyes to himself. She sidled past him with a wide skittery stare like he was going to grab her. He’d opened the back door last week when she was on the phone . . . She spent a lot of time on the phone . . . chatter, chatter, chatter . . . Her high voice had risen and he couldn’t help hearing. “. . . supposed to help people who’ve been in jail, but he’s so big and he has such long straggly dirty hair and he always looks sullen. I swear, he scares me to pieces . . .” He’d walked inside, his steps purposefully heavy, and thumped the case of Cokes on a counter by the shelves. He saw a flicker of fear in her eyes as he passed. The old cow. He didn’t care about her. She’d be damn lucky if she never really knew what it was like to be scared.

The axe head swung up and crashed down. The log splintered.

On the back steps, Gretchen Burkholt gasped at the sharp crack. “Oooh. I hate that noise.”

Billy Cameron’s big broad face, usually genial, was studiously inexpressive. The Broward’s Rock police chief sat with his hands planted solidly on his thighs in an office that gleamed with fine woods, a mahogany desk, oak paneling, heart pine floor, and expensive furnishings, an oriental rug, shining gold brocade drapes, a suit of armor on a pedestal. Billy’s observant blue eyes never wavered as he gazed across the room. Blond and husky, he was solidly built with massive shoulders and hands. In his crisp khaki uniform, he looked like what he was: a cop’s cop, a tough cop, a good cop. He stared impassively at a plump– cheeked, rotund man in a baby blue cashmere sweater who appeared small behind his massive desk.

Only someone who knew Billy well would realize he was coldly angry, unblinking gaze, lines tight at the corners of his full mouth, shoulders braced.

Mayor Cosgrove’s green eyes shifted from that steady stare. However, he continued full stride, his high voice penetrating. “. . . expect some accommodation of distinguished visitors. I told that policewoman of yours that I could drive, but she wouldn’t listen. She made Buck Troutt get out of the car and treated him like a common criminal. Rude. Uncalled for.”

“Sergeant Harrison’s actions were appropriate.” Billy’s tone was even. “The car was driven erratically. Mr. Troutt failed the field sobriety test.”

“He’s a CEO.” The mayor’s voice was reverential. “He’s thinking of buying the Mansfield property on the beach, developing it. Do you realize what that could mean to the island? The jobs, the people, the growth!” The mayor’s voice rose to a squeak. “This matter must be dealt with immediately. None of this should have happened. Why, we just had a few drinks at the club. Nobody was on the road. He had a little trouble seeing in the dark. And there’s no reason why that unattractive woman should have had her car parked outside the country club gates.” The mayor’s eyes slitted. “Let’s be clear. If the officer filing the report doesn’t appear in court, the charge will be dropped. I expect Sergeant Harrison to be off the island that day.”

Billy slowly stood. “Sergeant Harrison will continue to perform

her duties.”

The mayor bounced to his feet, his penguin– plump face malevolent. “Your contract comes up before the council in three weeks. As police chief, you are expected to make the island attractive to investors.”

Billy nodded gravely. “Anyone interested in living on Broward’s Rock can be assured that the laws are properly enforced.” He turned and walked toward the ornate hand– carved door, a fancy office for a small— but powerful— man.

Annie Darling stopped on the boardwalk and leaned against the railing, drawing a deep breath of chilly sea– scented air. The marina hosted a respectable number of boats even though it was January. A crewman in a heavy wool jacket hosed down one side of an ocean– going yacht. Chugging out into the Sound was a boat with the unpretentious name Just Plain Vanilla. Annie liked unpretentious people and houses and belongings.

As if on cue, she heard a distant throaty rumble and recognized the roar of Max’s Maserati. They usually drove separately to the marina shops, she to her mystery bookstore and he to Confidential Commissions, his rather unusual office where he offered counsel to people in trouble. Max was quick to insist he wasn’t a private detective, which required particular qualifications in the sovereign state of South Carolina. He was comfortable in his job description. He provided advice. If discovering information was essential to serving his clients, that certainly didn’t make him a private eye.

The Maserati’s engine cut off .

Annie pictured the man in her life swinging out of his red sports car. Max loved his Maserati, but he didn’t drive the powerful and swift car because it was expensive. He savored the power and elegance of the ultimate driving machine. Annie was willing to spot everyone an indulgence. The Maserati was Max’s. Hers? She possessed an original perfect first– edition— complete with color plate illustrations— of The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Certainly the Maserati was hugely more expensive than the book, but for both of them, the joy was in the object and never in the price.

Annie’s smile was wry. Her husband often suggested she was a captive of Calvinistic attitudes, not, he airily continued, a difficulty he’d ever faced. Yes, they were different. Max grew up rich. She and her single mom worried about paying the bills. Annie’s home had been in wind– swept Amarillo; Max’s in an affluent Connecticut suburb. Annie couldn’t imagine life without work; Max firmly believed life was made for pleasure. But one unforgettable night, their eyes had met at a crowded after– theater party in Greenwich Village. She’d thought them too diff erent ever to be together and she’d run away to the little South Carolina sea island of Broward’s Rock. Max had followed. Perhaps they weren’t suited in some ways, but there was never any doubt that they could not live without each other. What was love? Passion, yes, always, but love meant trust and faith and laughter. To know that Max was in a room with her made that place a haven. They’d known happy days and tough days, but it was always the two of them together.

She crossed her fingers. On both hands. Not, of course, that she was superstitious. But she and Max had come near the unraveling of their lives, and she never ceased to be thankful for their escape. Underneath their cheerful banter, they possessed a sober realization of life’s uncertainties.

She turned to look across the boardwalk at the shops that curved in a semicircle facing the marina. Death on Demand, her wonderful mystery bookstore, beckoned her, though she was braced for a frazzling day. She shivered, drew her cheerful peacock blue wool jacket close.

Her cell phone rang.

Annie slipped the cell from the pocket of her wool slacks, glanced at the caller ID, raised an eyebrow. “Hello.”

“Don’t think she hasn’t spotted you.” Ingrid spoke in a whisper.

The connection ended. Her clerk was giving her a heads–up. Another day, another encounter with Annie’s always unpredictable mother–in–law, Laurel Darling Roethke. Where Max was handsome, Laurel was gorgeous. Silver blond hair framed a fine bone structure. Yet there was more than beauty; there was a hint of rollicking adventure and enthusiasm and eagerness for life. When Laurel walked into a room, everyone suddenly felt touched by magic. Laurel’s Nordic blue eyes might sometimes be slightly spacey, but they could also be incredibly perceptive.

Annie moved toward the steps to the shops. Annie had survived Laurel’s flirtation with cosmic karma, her delight in saints, most especially the remarkable Teresa of Ávila, and most recently her determination to decorate the bookstore with photographs of exotic cats. Cat photos now hung on the walls among book posters— Harlan Coben’s new thriller, Mary Saums’s clever new Thistle and Twigg—and were adored by customers.

Annie enjoyed looking at them as well. As she well knew, cats ruled, especially Agatha, Death on Demand’s sleek black resident feline.

Annie reached the front door, thoughts whirling. Laurel was no stranger to the store, but today was challenging, a Beaufort book club arriving for a talk by Emma Clyde and a light lunch. Had the chicken salad been delivered? Emma, the island’s famous crime writer, would sign copies of her new Marigold Rembrandt mystery, The Case of the Convivial Cat. Woe betide Annie if they ran out of books. Woe betide Annie if she’d ordered too many, making the author feel the signing was a flop.

Annie drew a deep breath. Chicken salad . . . the new books . . . Leave a couple of boxes in the storeroom? She didn’t have time for Laurel this morning. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the charm of Laurel’s most recent preoccupation, but she insisted— nicely— upon audience participation. Annie wasn’t sure why she objected so strenuously, but she’d always refused to wear silly hats, watch Charlie Chaplin, or draw undue attention to herself.

She stopped with her hand on the knob. Good grief, was she a

pompous ass?

What harm would it do to play along? Get in the spirit?

Annie gave a decided head shake. Responding quickly to a question before she had time to think was too much like a public Rorschach test. She took a deep breath, opened the door, activating the new Inner Sanctum door recording that Ingrid’s husband, Duane, had installed before Halloween. The satisfying creak of hinges foretold chills and thrills, exactly what readers would find in the finest mystery bookstore north of Florida’s Murder on the Beach.

Annie stepped inside, drew another happy breath, this time of books and bindings and coffee.

Slender and intense, her graying hair in a new short cut, Ingrid worked at the front counter, smiling, chatting, and ringing up sales with practiced efficiency. A long line of customers snaked toward the coffee bar. Annie didn’t spot her mother–in–law. She smiled in relief. No doubt Laurel was sharing her new vision with one of the ladies from Beaufort. Wonderful. Annie had plenty on her plate. She needed to make sure there was enough chicken salad and help Henny Brawley take orders at the coffee bar. Emma’s crusty tone— oh, dear, was she being combative with a reader?—was commandingly audible over the twitter of the club ladies who had arrived way too early and—

“Annie dear!” Her mother–in–law popped from behind the beaded curtain that screened the alcove to the children’s mystery section. “Think of the sun!” Laurel beamed. Was it accidental that she was positioned precisely in the glow of a ceiling spotlight? Whatever, her silver gold hair gleamed and her patrician face with deep– set blue eyes, fine bridged nose, and dimpled chin was strikingly lovely.

Annie stared. On anyone else, Laurel’s costume would have looked absurd, a pink straw farmer’s hat, a red– and– white plaid shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows, navy denim overalls accented by gold buttons at the straps and pockets, and a pink leather version of farm boots. On Laurel, the result was fetching. The farmer’s hat boasted, of course, a sunflower tucked beneath the cerise hat band.

Laurel plucked a two– foot sunflower from a capacious pocket, held the blossom out to Annie with a winning smile. “Sunflower time,” she caroled, the pink boots giving a quick Cossack tattoo. “Quick now— five seconds to answer— picture a Sunflower and sweet potatoes. First thought?”

Involuntarily, an obedient mouse in Laurel’s mental laboratory, home popped into Annie’s mind, a memory of a sunflower spoon handle as her mother lifted steaming sugar– streaked candied sweet potatoes to her plate. Annie’s lips parted, clamped shut.

“Time’s up.” Laurel’s tone was kind, not chiding. Her manners were exquisite. The five– second limit served two purposes. A quick response was certain to reflect innermost thoughts, but the deadline also afforded an unobtrusive escape hatch for those unwilling to participate. Laurel’s smile was approving, whether she received an answer or not. She continued with no hint of irritation, “I’m sure the magic of Sunflowers will be with you now, adding warmth and happiness to your day. Here is a Sunflower just for you.” When she spoke, the flower’s name was clearly capitalized.

As the days had shortened and the onshore breeze freshened, Laurel had received a bouquet of sunflowers from a new beau. Always seeking the inner meaning of events large and small, she discovered that sunflowers were considered happy flowers, their faces reminiscent of the life– giving warmth of the sun. Ergo, she devised her Sunflower Game, the better, she assured Annie, to encourage happy thoughts that everyone needed, especially in winter.

Annie took the bristly stalk, looked at the flower, noted two opposite spirals, which indicated this was a disk sunflower . . . With an effort, she yanked her mind back toward the work harness. She had learned more about sunflowers in the last few weeks than she’d ever wanted to know, and today she didn’t have time for extraneous sunflower thoughts.

“It’s gorgeous, Laurel.” And, of course, it was, the petals as softly gold as summer sunshine. “Thank you.” Clutching the stalk, she edged down the congested center aisle, heading for the coffee bar area where the ladies would lunch and, at one side, Emma Clyde would regally hold forth as the Queen of Crime.

Despite her sunflower–be–damned mood, she couldn’t help overhearing Laurel confide to a cherubic elderly lady listening with a slightly bemused expression, “Sunflower disk flowers are both male and female and are fertile. Isn’t that a happy thought on a cold winter day?”

Fertile. If anyone ever knew about . . . Annie wrenched her mind away from any consideration of her oft– married mother–in–law’s romantic proclivities as well as sunflower trivia. There was much to be done . . .

The next hour passed in a frantic blur, food served, spilled iced tea mopped up, a controversy as to seating settled, cell phones hopefully turned off , and finally spiky– haired Emma Clyde in a caftan that looked like a cross between a ship’s billowing sail and a flannel nightgown rose majestically to her feet. Stalwart, sturdy, stern–visaged, self– absorbed, and a sponge for attention, Emma looked benignly at her audience. “Marigold Rembrandt and I”—she might have been describing royalty—“have perhaps enjoyed our finest moment—”

Annie watched with a cool gaze. Was Emma grandiose or what?

Emma’s knife– sharp blue eyes paused in their sweep of the room.

Annie promptly rearranged her face in what she devoutly hoped would pass as an entranced expression.

“—in The Case of the Convivial Cat. Marigold once again takes Inspector Houlihan to task as she insightfully, really quite brilliantly—”

Annie maintained her pleasant expression. Implicit was the premise that Marigold was simply a reflection of the incredible sagacity of author Emma Clyde.

“—follows the cunningly inserted clues—”

Annie’s cell phone rang. She’d been thrilled when Duane Webb had downloaded the Inner Sanctum creak to serve as her ringtone, mirroring the sounds when Death on Demand’s front door opened, but the piercing squeal blared in the hushed quiet of the bookstore.

Emma came to a full stop. Her icy blue eyes slitted. She folded her sturdy arms across her chest and gazed at Annie with a stony expression.

Annie fumbled in her pocket. Creeaaak . . . She’d gone from table to table and pled with charm for all cell phones to be turned off. How could she have forgotten her own?

Phone in hand, she flipped it open, whispered, “I can’t talk now . . .”

Emma waited, the Empress Dowager contemplating a lower life form.

Some of the ladies turned to stare. A few made disapproving murmurs.

Annie heard a familiar semihysterical voice. “Annie, you have to come . . . Such a fright always . . . I don’t think I can stay here with that big hulking brute . . . and”—her voice puffed with self–importance—“I have to decide what to do about that index card that I found . . .”

Annie took a deep breath. Gretchen Burkholt lived in a world of extreme stress, a gentle rain heralded a nor’easter, any stray cat was surely rabid, the potato salad at the picnic might harbor salmonella . . . Annie and Gretchen were among volunteers at Better Tomorrow, the island charity shop, which offered groceries, clothing, job tips, firewood, help with bills, and encouragement to those in a financial bind. Better Tomorrow’s client base had swelled during the recent bad times. Gretchen had switched volunteer slots today so Annie could host the luncheon and book event. Therefore, Annie was in no position to be abrupt.

Emma cleared her throat. Emphatically.

Annie heard snatches of Gretchen’s increasing frenzied patter. “. . . I always check the clothing, especially when someone’s recently deceased . . . family members can be too distraught . . . and everyone was so puzzled that he was out there . . .”

Annie broke in, hating to be rude, but she had to end the distraction before Emma rose and departed with the grace of an off ended rhinoceros. “Gretchen, sorry. Have to go. Call back. Leave me a message. As soon as the signing’s over”—anything to be free—“I’ll do whatever you want.” She ended the call, clicked off the phone, dropped it in her pocket.

“I’m very sorry. Unexpected call. I forgot to turn my phone off .” This last in a mumble. “Now I know Emma will forgive me and share with you the wonderful”—great emphasis—“scene where Marigold Rembrandt”—Annie always did her duty and had read the new book even though she loathed the supercilious redheaded sleuth—“realizes in the nick of time that the inverted coffee cup means that Professor Willingham is not what he seems to be.”

It was touch and go. Finally, almost graciously, Emma resumed her talk. Fortunately, discussing herself or her work always put Emma in a great good humor.

Peace reigned at Death on Demand. Imperious Emma, pleased by adulation and substantial book sales, had departed. A huge sunflower in a vase on the coffee bar was the only evidence of Laurel’s earlier presence. The book club ladies had spilled into the wintry afternoon, clutching filled book bags, ready to cap their island visit by a thorough survey of other marina shops. The tables had been cleared.

Annie lifted a cappuccino in a toast to Henny Brawley, longtime customer and mystery connoisseur. Henny was not only a good friend, she always offered an extra hand at special events. “Thanks, Henny. You were great.”

Ingrid nodded in agreement. “To help with cleanup is above and beyond.” She also raised her cup, a steaming Kona brew with a dash of raspberry sauce.

“You are very welcome.” Henny’s well– modulated voice reflected her accomplishments as a valued actress in local theater productions. “You know it’s my pleasure. Emma was . . . Emma.” Her tone was amused.

The three women exchanged understanding glances. Emma

Clyde was a terror.

Henny’s smile was wicked. “I wish you could have seen your face, Annie, as you tried to disengage from that call.”

Annie sat bolt upright. The phone call . . . “Gretchen subbed for me this afternoon at Better Tomorrow. I told her to call back and leave a message. There’ve been a couple of calls. I had it on vibrate.” As she spoke, Annie retrieved the messages, lifted the phone to listen.

Ingrid murmured to Henny, “It’s good that Emma didn’t have a dagger!”

Gretchen didn’t bother with a salutation in the second call. “Hope you can come pretty soon . . . really awkward . . . Maybe it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie . . . Oh, there he is again”—the voice dropped to a whisper—“always clumping in and looking mean . . .” A long silence. “He’s gone back out.” She spoke normally. “I don’t want to be here alone with him any more . . . I’m going to tell Henny. If she doesn’t schedule somebody with me, I’m not coming back . . . Anyway, I don’t know what to do about the card . . . I heard the police or maybe it was the Coast Guard asked anyone with information to contact them . . . Nobody saw him leave the house . . .”

Annie concentrated. What on earth was Gretchen talking about?

“. . . but the card makes it clear . . . No wonder he took the kayak out without telling anyone . . . I don’t want to cause trouble, but I think I should let the family know . . . Of course that’s what I should do . . .”

The call ended.

Her second message, left twenty– six minutes later, began, “I told the housekeeper.” Gretchen sounded disappointed. “It would have been nicer if I could have spoken to Mrs. Hathaway, but the maid said she was out. Anyway, I hope the maid got everything straight. I mentioned the names in the note, but I didn’t want to say too much. That wouldn’t have been right. I tried to be tactful.” She sounded plaintive. “I explained I was going through Mr. Hathaway’s clothes and found a very personal message in the pocket of a jacket. I told her the card seemed connected to his going out that night in the kayak. Well, obviously it was. There were several names and one of them was in a different handwriting. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what that meant. I mean, the card named names, said what was happening ’tonight.’ ” Her tone put the word in quote marks. “No wonder he went out in the kayak. A scandal really . . .”

Annie now understood Gretchen’s mention of the Coast Guard. Two weeks earlier, well– known island resident Everett Hathaway’s dead body, buoyed by a life vest, had been found floating not far from his overturned kayak. An autopsy listed drowning due to unconsciousness as a result of hypothermia as the cause of death.

“I know the note to Everett is important because I found it in the pocket of the tweed jacket he wore the day he died. I saw him that last day in the jacket, a blue– flecked tweed with blue leather buttons. You know how he dressed. He always wanted to look like he was a Brit. Anyway, he died that night . . . The note was in the right pocket. Obviously that wasn’t what he wore in the kayak. Jeans and a warm jacket probably. Anyway”—Gretchen’s tone was bright—“I said the note and some coins and a pocketknife were here and could be picked up anytime. I have them on the table in the sorting room. So, that’s that. Oh.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Here he is again. He scares me. When the signing’s over, please come and keep me company.”

The connection ended.

Annie gave an exasperated sigh. She took a hearty sip of her now lukewarm cappuccino. “Gretchen’s more trouble than she’s worth.” Her smile at Henny was rueful. “I should have asked you to take my turn, but I wanted you here today.” Henny both volunteered and scheduled volunteers at Better Tomorrow. “Gretchen claims she’s scared of Jeremiah. I’ll admit he’s scruff y. That straggly brown hair under a ratty do–rag makes him look like a mean biker, and sometimes he doesn’t shave.”

Henny looked concerned. “Has Jeremiah done anything to frighten Gretchen?”

“He clumps when he walks inside.” Annie’s tone was dry.

“Oh, horror.” Ingrid was disdainful.

“She wants me to come over.” Annie swung down from the coffee bar stool. It would be pleasant to be out in the cool late afternoon. “I don’t mind. She did me a favor.”

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