An Angel to Die For

Augusta Goodnight Mysteries (Volume 2 of 7)

Mignon F. Ballard

Minotaur Books

CHAPTER ONE
Uncle Faris wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Dead men don’t just get up and walk away, and according to his overturned stone, Faris Haskell had been dead twenty-five years, a couple of years after I was born.
An icy numbness worked its way from my toes to the top of my head. How long had I been standing there with an empty grave yawning from the lower part of the family cemetery, a pile of rocks and gooey earth mounded beside it? The chasm-deep pit was dark and full of water the color of blood and the name on the marker was just about obliterated by terra-cotta splatters. I almost slipped in the mud as I turned to go.
I had come here to make peace with my sister, whose grave was marked by a serene stone angel with a rather insipid face. Maggie would have hated it. But it was as close as our mother would come to having angelic off-spring, and what did it matter now?
Graveyards are meant to be lonely, and today this one was. Bare oaks clawed at a somber February sky. Brown leaves whispered beneath my feet. Our nearest neighbor was over a half mile away, yet until my father died last year, I had never felt afraid here, or even sad.
This was family land and all the grands and great-grands were buried here—as they should be. It was comforting to know they were there. Maggie and I played hide-and-seek among the grave markers, follow-the-leader along the crumbling stone wall. If I closed my eyes I could see her dark hair blowing in the wind, hear her laughter as she ran ahead chasing butterflies.
“Look out for your baby sister,” our mother used to tell me, and I did—or tried to. Once when she stepped on a bee I carried Maggie piggyback all the way to the house with her screaming all the way.
We knew the names on these stones as well as our own: Sarah, Minerva, William, James. All Dobsons, Scotts, or McCaffertys. Still, it always made me feel a little weird to look at my grandmother Dobson’s marker because we had the same name. Prentice. Prentice Scott Dobson. My little sister Maggie used to say when my time came they could just toss me in on top of her and save the price of a stone. Who would have thought Maggie would be here first?
Loneliness spread through me like a cold pain, and I ached from the inside out. A squirrel scurried over a limb above me. I took a few steps back and looked about. Anyone could be watching from the bleak winter woods. The pine sapling on the hillside seemed to tremble. I stood in one spot so long I felt I had grown roots there. If I could find someone to blame, maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid. Who would do such a thing? And why? My fingers knotted into fists in the pockets of Dad’s old khaki jacket, scorching words ready on my lips, but whoever had done this was gone. Long gone, I hoped.
I had to get away from that obscene hole in the red Georgia clay where Uncle Faris had been. Ahead, in the curve of the hill, gray in the gloom of late afternoon, I glimpsed the first sprinkling of daffodils where my great-grandmother’s dooryard had been. I came here meaning to pick an armful for Maggie and for Dad. The two, who hadn’t shared a spoken word in the last three years of their lives, could at least share this flower they both loved, a symbol of new beginnings.
“Forgive me for resenting you,” I was going to tell them. “For all the rotten things I thought and said.” I had a speech all prepared, but I wasn’t going to deliver it looking over my shoulder on this forsaken, wind-swept hill.
Six weeks ago Maggie had been alive. A month ago I worked at a job I loved as assistant editor of Martha’s Journal, an Atlanta-based magazine for women. Now both were gone.
Sticking to open spaces, I skirted the hill, shivering in the brisk wind as I tramped across fallow fields past the tumbled foundations of the old Dobson place. My granddaddy had been born here, and his granddaddy before him. My own dad remembered Christmases here with seven kinds of cake and syllabub made in a churn. Now a clump of cedars guarded a hearthstone, gray with moss, in what once had been the parlor. I watched a cardinal flit from limb to limb of the blackjack oak that long ago shaded the porch. There were too many shadows here.
Did Aunt Zorah know that someone had made off with her husband’s remains? Would she even care? I doubted it. Uncle Faris had been the black sheep of the family. It was whispered that he drove his car off that nasty curve on Poindexter Point after being incriminated in some kind of shady deal. Of course, our dad often reminded us, he wasn’t really a member of the family, he only married into it. Maybe that’s one reason Aunt Zorah had him buried so far from the rest. I must’ve been five years old before I realized his first two names weren’t That Fool. That fool Faris, my aunt always called him. She buried him at the foot of the hill, she said, so he wouldn’t have so far to go. Mama said it just about did in my straight-arrow aunt to have her husband go against the law and tarnish our good name. Aunt Zorah never did get over it.
Water gushed with a clamor in the creek bed that zigzagged through the pasture. Maggie and I made daisy chains there, waded and splashed in the cool, shallow water. Oh, Maggie! How am I going to get through this alone?
Home, the house where I grew up, waited on the other side of the next hill. We called it Smokerise. If I could just reach Smokerise I would be safe. Maybe. But I would be alone. My mother had taken her clothing, her piano, and that expensive set of cookware she ordered from a catalog and moved in with an old college friend in Savannah. “I just can’t stay here, Prentice,” she said. “The memories hurt too much.” Now there was just me—unless you count Noodles. Only I call her Silly Cat, and she wasn’t speaking.
I plodded through the stubble of awakening woods, eyes straight ahead. To anyone who might be watching, I was a solitary stroller on an afternoon jaunt. But how did one pretend not to notice the jolting gash of an empty grave?
Breathless, I tromped through the crust of the cornfield Dad had plowed under in late September, only a few weeks before he died of a heart attack soon after his sixtieth birthday.
“Maybe it’s just as well your father didn’t live to learn about Maggie,” my mom had said. And for once I agreed. Maggie had split with our parents more than three years before when she roared away on the back of a big gleaming motorcycle to live with a beer-swilling lump of oozing testosterone named Moose or Sledge or something. In spite of Mom’s efforts and mine, our father refused to forgive her, to even mention her name.
I remembered when Dad laughed freely, played rollicking tunes on his fiddle, and called me Jemima Puddleduck because of my waddling steps when I learned to walk, but my sister’s rebellion had turned him into a sad, stony-faced man. I missed the loving daddy I used to know, and now it was too late.
At last I could see the slate-gray roof of Smokerise, twin chimneys russet against the pines. Just a little farther and I would bolt the heavy oak door behind me and—what? Call the sheriff? Aunt Zorah? I had never felt so alone.
I didn’t stop to look back until I reached the gate that led to the barnyard. Even then, I didn’t expect to see anyone watching me. Why would they? Everyone knew where I lived. Out of habit, I took the time to latch the gate behind me—a waste of time since there weren’t any animals here, and hadn’t been since Dad sold Maggie’s mare Cindy the day after she left home. Only the calico, Noodles, remained bathing primly on the back porch. Maggie had adopted her as a kitten while I was away at college, and from Noodles’s point of view, I was an intrusive stranger who sometimes invaded her house. Whenever I approached, she usually ran. Today I expected the same.
“Silly Cat, I’d welcome the company—even yours—if you’d care to join me,” I said, pretending not to watch her as I pulled off my shoes and opened the door. So far she had avoided the house for the few days I’d been home.
I was surprised when she streaked in front of me and bolted into the kitchen. In the dark sitting room, Dad’s old leather chair waited by a cold hearth. A novel Mom had set aside gathered dust on the end table along with a folded newspaper two weeks old.
I felt a dark heaviness rising, spreading inside me, making me a prisoner within myself. I should turn on a lamp, light a fire, make tea. Anything to bring myself out of this dungeon, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t.
What had happened to my life? My family?
“Prentice, I’m scared. Can I sleep with you?” During thunderstorms, Maggie would crawl into bed beside me and I’d tell her silly “knock-knock” jokes to calm her fears. But I couldn’t protect my little sister from the worst fear of all.
And Rob, the man I had thought I loved, had vanished from my life to the other side of the ocean. I sank into my father’s worn chair and hugged myself because there was nobody else to hug. I cried. And finally I slept.
The smell of chocolate woke me, the sweet, dark, milky kind like Mom made for us when it snowed, and for a minute I thought she had come home. According to the clock on the mantel, I had slept almost two hours. My foot was numb and a pile of soggy tissues filled my lap. Behind me in the kitchen I heard the clatter of a spoon against metal and the sound of someone lightly humming. It was a tune I’d never heard, and it wasn’t my mother’s voice.
Earlier when I carefully locked the door behind me, it hadn’t occurred to me that somebody may have already been inside, that I had locked us both in. Was this the same person who dug up the grave? Why hadn’t I checked? Quietly I rose from the chair.
A light shone from the kitchen and I heard the homey rattle of china, only it wasn’t comforting today. Whoever was in there mustn’t know I was here. I took a silent step toward the wall phone. Another. And another, my hand reaching out.
But I had forgotten about the loose floorboard. It squalled like a cat in heat, and I felt vibrations all the way through my teeth!
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” she said. “The chocolate’s almost ready, and I hope you like cinnamon toast.”
She looked like one of those women from an old cowboy movie. The one who always gets her man, but never gets kissed. A Dale Evans look-alike stood in the doorway with the light from the kitchen behind her. But this person was taller than Dale Evans, younger—surely not much older than thirty. And she had longer hair. Her hair, worn in soft waves about her face, trailed in a thick, bright braid over her shoulder. I had never seen hair like that outside of a painting and I’m sure I must have stared. Except for the outfit she wore, she might have stepped from an early canvas. Her blue and white Western blouse was stitched in something that gleamed like gold, and around her neck a strand of stones glimmered like crystallized sunlight. A gored skirt in blue denim and calf-high boots with brass studs completed her attire.
“The rodeo left in October,” I said, sidling toward the door.
I think I hurt her feelings because she lowered her eyes and gave her skirt a little flounce. “Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Prentice. I wear this for line dancing,” she explained. “Helps to stay in practice, or one tends to forget the steps.” She fingered the fabric for a minute and sighed. “Though I am ready for something a little softer, a bit more buoyant, I think. Don’t you just love the way a skirt twirls when you dance?”
I was about to demand that she dance herself right out the door when it occurred to me that Aunt Zorah might have sent her. After all, she knew my name. “Are you from some kind of agency?”
She smiled. “You might say that. I’m here to help you.” Silly Cat curled about her legs and the stranger scooped her up in her arms. “I hope you’ll let me.”
The kitchen could use a good cleaning, and dust was deep enough to plow, but I didn’t think that was what she intended.
“How do you mean?” I looked past her into the kitchen where chocolate steamed on the stove and my stomach rumbled.
“There’ll be time enough for that.” She stepped aside, then followed me into the kitchen and pulled out a chair, indicating where I was to sit. I sat. It was the chair near the window that had always been my place, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had tucked a bib around me. Cinnamon toast, arranged in dainty triangles, looked tempting on Mom’s violet-painted cake plate. The stranger sat across from me and poured chocolate into cups.
“You knew my name,” I said. “How?” I might as well taste the toast and chocolate—just to be polite. Meanwhile, I had to think of a way to get rid of her.
The sparkling necklace shifted through her fingers, the colors winking from turquoise to violet to deep-water green. I’d never seen anything like them. “It’s my business to know these things. Now, drink up before your chocolate skims, it’ll warm you up a bit. It’s most unpleasant out today.”
I didn’t argue. The chocolate was perfect. Warm and smooth, sweet and bitter. I licked cinnamon from my thumb.
“More toast?” The woman offered the plate. “Such lovely china. Your grandmother painted it, didn’t she? I don’t suppose you—”
“Who told you that? Does my mother know you’re here?” But the strange visitor only smiled in answer. Mom was particular about her hand-painted platter, bringing it out only for special occasions. She wouldn’t like this woman making herself at home with her treasures, and I started to say so, but I didn’t want to annoy her. Who knew what she might do?
“How did you get inside?” I asked after gobbling most of the toast and downing two large cups of chocolate. “Did Aunt Zorah give you a key?”
She looked at me over the rim of her cup with eyes the color of the sea: gray and green with a hint of blue. Gentle ocean eyes. I let their calmness wash over me.
“Let’s move into the sitting room,” she said, scooping up Noodles and nuzzling her against her cheek. “We can warm ourselves by the fire.”