Too Late for Angels

An Augusta Goodnight Mystery (with recipes)

Augusta Goodnight Mysteries (Volume 5 of 7)

Mignon F. Ballard

Minotaur Books

TOO LATE FOR ANGELS (Chapter One)

Where's Mama? Is she here?"

The woman who stood on her porch would never see sixty again, Lucy Nan Pilgrim thought. Then she smiled. This was one of Ellis's pranks. Her friend had teased her about advertising a room to rent in yesterday's paper. "No telling what kind of loonies you'll attract," she'd warned.

"I'm looking for my mama." The woman spoke again, this time in a tiny, childlike voice almost plaintive in its urgency.

Lucy stepped closer, keeping a firm grip on the doorknob. There was no one about except for a car at the stop sign on the corner. She watched as it moved on. "I'm afraid she's not here," she said softly.

"Where is she?"

"I'm sorry. I don't know." Lucy smiled. The poor woman was clearly distraught. Now a lone tear began a start-and-stop path down her rose-tinged cheek. "I believe you have the wrong house," Lucy said.

"No, I don't!" The stranger straightened, grasping the strap of her pocketbook in one hand while smoothing the collar of her blue cotton dress with the other. "This is my house--Mama's house. She's here. I know she's here!"

She looked past Lucy and frowned, her gaze taking in the grandfather clock in the corner, the Windsor chair across from it. Both had come from Lucy's grandmother, to her mother, to her.

"Mama!" she hollered again, and pushed past her to stand looking about with such a frantic expression, Lucy began to fear for her own safety. The woman's boldness had taken her by surprise and she wasn't prepared to deal with her.

"Mama, I'm home!"

"No, wait...don't go back there!" Too late. Her desperate visitor had already started down the hallway that led to the back of the house. Now she turned and smiled. "Why, I'll bet she's in the kitchen--in the kitchen with Martha."

Oh, Lordy! Why is this happening to me? And who in tarnation is Martha? The woman seemed harmless enough and looked to be at least seventy, a good fifteen years older than Lucy, but she was obviously delusional. And what if she had a knife or something in that huge pocketbook she carried?

Since the stranger seemed to have reverted to her childhood, maybe she should use the maternal approach, Lucy thought.

"Why don't we sit down and have a glass of lemonade while I see if I can find her?" she called out sweetly. She was sure she still had that can of frozen concentrate stuck back somewhere in the freezer.

But the visitor stood transfixed in the kitchen doorway, still smoothing the collar of her dress. Although her clothing seemed to be of good quality, the woman's dress was wrinkled and the front spotted with stains, but her hair looked as if she'd made a recent visit to a beauty parlor and still smelled faintly of apricot shampoo. Now and then she fingered the two large rings she wore on her left hand, slipping them off and on. One was set with a glassy red stone about the size of a marble. The other was green and rectangular. Both looked fake.

"The big table's gone," she said. "Where's the big table? Where's Martha?" Stepping forward, she reached out to touch the back of an oak-stained captain's chair, one of six Lucy had bought at an estate sale. "This isn't my chair," she whimpered. "Mine has a pretty pillow on it."

Lucy Nan Pilgrim took a deep breath and tried not to sigh out loud. She wouldn't have been a bit surprised if the three bears returned from their woodsy walk at any moment.

"You look tired," she said. "And I'll bet you're thirsty, too. This chair might not be the same as yours, but I think you'll find it comfortable. Let's sit and rest for a minute, have something cold to drink."

She was relieved when the woman accepted the offered chair, plopping her bulging purse on the floor at her feet. "Do you have any cookies?" she asked. "I had breakfast last night, and again this morning, but I would like a cookie. Martha keeps them in the pantry--in a bunny jar."

"A bunny jar?"

She giggled, holding a frail hand over her mouth. "Not a real bunny! It just looks like one. And I'd like two, please, if they're molasses."

The best she could do was peanut butter--the kind with a chocolate kiss in the middle. Lucy baked them for her grandson, Teddy, and hid them in the freezer from his sugar-free mother. It was a delicious secret the two of them shared, and Lucy took a certain wicked pleasure out of putting at least one thing over on her rigid daughter-in-law.

Lucy watched as the woman carefully removed the chocolates from her cookies and set them aside before nibbling the edges as daintily as any kitten. She waited until the childlike stranger was on her second glass of lemonade before making a move for the phone.

Her visitor took a bite of chocolate, then popped the whole thing into her mouth. "You're not leaving me? Don't go!" She licked her fingers between words.

"I'm not. No, of course I won't." Oddly touched, Lucy returned to sit beside her. "I just thought I might call and try to find your mother." She felt as if she were speaking to five-year-old Teddy, assuring him she would be sleeping all night in the room next to his. "You are looking for your mother, aren't you?"

The woman drained the last of her lemonade and crunched a piece of ice. "She's probably at The Thursdays," she said, glancing about. "Martha will look after me."

"The Thursdays?" How did this stranger know about what was probably the oldest social organization for women in Stone's Throw, South Carolina? Her own grandmother had been a member; her mother, too. Lucy, who'd considered the whole idea a lot of tommyrot, had tried to decline the invitation when her time came--Roger had been a colicky infant at the time, just too sickly to leave with a sitter; she'd tut-tutted in an oh-so-disappointed voice. But The Thursday Morning Literary Society (which now met on Monday afternoons) wouldn't take no for an answer. Lucy had been a member for thirty years and the reluctant secretary for ten of them.

"Your mother was--is a Thursday?" Lucy asked, and received a nod in answer.

"A Thursday, yes. I knew she wasn't in California! Martha should be here now. I want Martha!"

Oh, please, don't cry! Lucy patted the woman's hand. "I know," she said, although of course she didn't know. And she had no idea what California had to do with it. "Tell me, what's your mother's name?"

This was met with a frown. "Her name? Why, her name's Mama."

"But she must have another name. What does your daddy call her?"

Now she began to pleat, then smooth, the collar of her dress. "I don't remember," she said finally.

"My name's Lucy. What's yours?"

"Shirley." This time there was no hesitation.

"Shirley. That's a pretty name. Shirley who? Can you tell me your last name?"

The woman stood, pushing back her chair. "I'd like to rest now. I think I'll go to my room. I want to see my dollhouse. Papa Zeke made it for me, you know."

Papa Zeke! This couldn't be happening! "Papa Zeke sounds nice," Lucy said, trying to remain unruffled. "What's he like?"

"White hair. He has white hair." The woman frowned as she shoved a strand of her own silver-streaked locks from her face. "I don't remember.... Oh, he gives me jelly beans! We count them." She smiled at Lucy. "I can count to a hundred."

"You can? That's wonderful! Can you count for me?" Lucy eyed the telephone on the other side of the kitchen. If she could just stall her, maybe--

"I'm tired. I don't want to count now." Shirley, or whatever her name was, was out the kitchen door and halfway down the hallway before Lucy could catch up with her.

"Will you show me your room?" Lucy asked, following her up the stairs. She was surprised that someone as old as Shirley could move that fast, and guessed where they were going before they reached the top of the stairs. She was right. The woman led her to the purple room at the front, the one that had belonged to Lucy's daughter. Julie had always loved purple and Lucy hadn't bothered to redecorate even after her daughter moved out after college.

"I'm afraid the dollhouse isn't here," she said as they stood in the doorway.

"Where is it?"

"It's...well, it's being painted." Lucy smiled. "Just like new. Won't that be nice?"

"What color?"

Lucy Nan didn't know. Her friend Ellis had shown her the dollhouse when she redecorated it for her granddaughter's fourth birthday, but for the life of her, Lucy couldn't remember the color. "The same," she said finally.

Shirley seemed to accept this, just as she accepted as her own the purple room with the flea-market furniture Lucy had collected piece by piece. Now, sitting on the side of the bed, she untied her shoes and slipped them off, letting them drop to the floor. The gray leather oxfords were sadly in need of cleaning and her hose had ladders wide enough to climb. Probably tracked that sticky whitish mud all over the house, Lucy thought, and she had been too overwhelmed to notice.

"Tell Martha I want my blanket," she said, falling back against the pillow.

Bossy old soul, whoever she is, Lucy thought. She took a flower-sprigged throw from the window seat and gently tucked it around her guest. The woman's eyes were closed and her breathing deep and even. As Lucy stood looking down at her, she seemed to smile in her sleep.

Satisfied, finally, that she could safely leave her there, Lucy tiptoed from the room, paused for a couple of deep breaths, and made a beeline for the telephone in the hallway.

"Ellis? Thank heavens I caught you! You'll never believe who's asleep in Julie's old room."

"Look here, Lucy Nan, you know good and well I'm expecting close to a hundred people here for that drop-in tomorrow night. This had better be good!"

Lucy was glad Ellis couldn't see her expression. She had almost forgotten her friend was hosting a bash for her husband's nephew and his fiancée, and that she, Lucy Nan Pilgrim, of unsound mind and runaway mouth, had promised to make six dozen cheese straws.

"What was your cousin's name--the one who disappeared?" she asked.

"Who?" Ellis gave one of her impatient little snorts. "What on earth are you talking about, Lucy Nan?"

"You know--that little girl--the one they think was kidnapped or drowned or something back before we were born. Her family lived in this house."

"You mean poor little Florence?"

"Yeah, that's the one! Didn't she just up and disappear or something when she was about five?"

"Wandered out of the yard one day--never did find her. They looked everywhere--even dragged the river. Everybody always got teary when they talked about poor little Florence. Why?"

"I think she's back." Lucy spoke in a whisper, looking over her shoulder.

"What?"

"I said, I think she's back. Came here this afternoon looking for her mother. Said she wanted to see the dollhouse Papa Zeke made for her. Ellis, you're the only person I know who called her grandfather Papa Zeke."

"Until now," Ellis said, and paused. "This isn't one of your rotten little jokes, is it, Lucy Nan? Look, I told you I wasn't the one who recommended you as social chairman of the garden club this year--get over it!"

"If I were any more serious I'd be crying," Lucy told her. "And what am I supposed to do with her? She could wake up at any minute." Cradling the cordless receiver, Lucy padded quietly into the unoccupied room across the hall and pulled the door shut behind her.

"Don't ask me! I have my hands full as it is."

"Some help you are! She's your relative."

"Maybe. I mean, how do we know? What else did she say?" Ellis asked.

"She said her mother was a Thursday and asked for somebody named Martha. I thought she was going to cry."

"Martha? You're kidding!"

"Do I seem amused?" Lucy glanced out the window to see if just by chance anyone had come looking for the stranger sleeping across the hall. They hadn't. "Just who is this Martha?" she said.

"If I were Catholic, I'd cross myself," Ellis said. "Don't you remember Marty? Cooked for just about everybody in our family. I couldn't say Martha, so I always called her Marty. Lord, Mama said she wouldn't have known a tureen from a teapot when she first married if Martha hadn't taken her under her wing."

Lucy could hear her friend opening and shutting drawers, clanking silverware. "Looks like I'm gonna be short on forks--would you bring yours when you come, Lucy Nan? And you won't forget the cheese straws, will you?"

"Ellis Saxon! I can't believe you're worrying about silverware and cheese straws with your long-lost kin snoozing in this very house." Lucy opened the door a crack and took a quick peek into the hallway. Empty, thank goodness! "So...our Sleeping Beauty must've known Martha, too," she said.

"Had to if she's who you think she is. Marty--Martha cooked for Aunt Eva, little Florence's mama, for years. Lord, you haven't lived unless you've tasted her tipsy trifle!" Ellis smacked her lips. "She died when I was about twelve, I think...wonder if I have that recipe somewhere..."

"Maybe Shirley will remember how to make it." If words could cut through phone lines, Ellis Saxon would need a tourniquet. Lucy closed her eyes and tried to remember all the positive things her friend had done for her, beginning with that Girl Scout camping trip in the fifth grade when the tent had leaked on her sleeping bag and Ellis let her climb in with her.

"Shirley? Who's Shirley?" More clanking and dish-rattling. "I think twelve more forks should be enough."

"Calls herself Shirley. She doesn't seem to know her last name--obviously suffering from dementia." Lucy spoke in a whisper. "It's sad, Ellis. She's like a child, and she seems to think she's come home. I don't know what to do. Is there anybody I should call?"

"Just me, I guess. My luck for being an only child. Bennett's on the golf course, but he oughta get home before long. It'll be too dark to see in a couple of hours. He'll know somebody who should be able to tell us where to go from here."

Ellis's husband was an oral surgeon with a practice in Stone's Throw, as well as offices in several other surrounding South Carolina towns, and his vast list of patients put him in touch with people in a variety of professions, including some of the top legal names in the state.

"I guess we could use some legal advice," Lucy said, "but how can we be sure Shirley is really poor little Florence?"

"Nettie McGinnis!" Ellis practically shrieked.

"What about her?"

"She's lived right next door all her life, and she's seventy if she's a day. Nettie must have known Florence growing up. She might be able to help if you can pry her away from her soaps." Ellis rat-a-tapped a fingernail against the receiver, a sign that she was thinking. "What about ID? Does she have a billfold or anything?"

"A pocketbook--crammed full, from the looks of it," Lucy told her. "She left it in the kitchen."

"Look and see, then, and let me know what you find. I'm gonna throw together that crab dip everybody likes, then pick up the petits fours from Do-Lollie's. Do you think you can hold the fort till then? I mean, she's not dangerous or anything, is she? I'll get there as soon as I can.

"And, Lucy Nan, about those cheese straws--do go easy on the red pepper this time."

TOO LATE FOR ANGELS Copyright © 2005 by Mignon F. Ballard.