Book excerpt

Angel at Troublesome Creek

Augusta Goodnight Mysteries

Mignon F. Ballard

St. Martin's Press

Angel at Troublesome Creek
CHAPTER ONEI, Mary George Murphy, was at the end of my rope. And then it broke.Okay, so I chickened out and latched on to the banisters before that rotten old cord gave way, but you'd think I could do at least one thing right in my life. Now, it seemed, I couldn't even put a merciful end to it. The night before I hadn't enough gas in the car to properly asphyxiate myself in the closed garage, and those sleeping pills dissolved in hot tea tasted so bad I couldn't get it down. Like liquid garlic. Awful! Makes me gag to think of it.Now maybe whoever killed Aunt Caroline will finish the job for me. I only hope they'll do it as quickly and as painlessly as possible.The police might think my aunt's death was an accident, but I know better. Aunt Caroline wouldn't have been messing around at the top of those attic stairs unless somebody was with her. And whoever it was must have given her a push. But why?I crawled to my knees in Aunt Caroline's dusty back hall where my only kin had died four days before and slapped at the grime on my pants. "Damn!" I hollered as loud as I could. "Damn! Damn! Damn!" Why couldn't I at least have sense enough not to try to kill myself wearing white?Disgusted, I pulled the frayed noose from my neck, sat on the bottom step where they'd found my aunt's twisted body, and cried."I've heard just about enough of that," someone said behind me. "And do you really think it's necessary to use profanity? It makes you sound so coarse."She sat on the stairs above me looking as if she'd just stepped out of an old movie and stopped to rest a minute. She wore a fitted suit--Easter grass green--with a skirt that came just to her knees. Her almost-hat, a little bit of fluff with a little bit of veil, sat atop braided hair the color of nutmeg. "Will you look at that?" the strange woman said with a frown. "I've a snag in my rayons. Now I'll have to stand in line who knows how long to get another pair!""What? Who are you? Are you nuts or something? What on earth are you doing here?" I stood and backed away from her. If this crazy woman on Aunt Caroline's attic stairs decided to rush me, I wanted as much room between us as possible."Earth. Oh, good, then I am in the right place." When she stood, I could see she wasn't quite as tall as I was, and I'm a fraction under five eight, and was just a shade on the plus side of chubby. "Been a while, you know," she said, bending to straighten her seam."No, I don't know, and if you don't explain yourself in about three seconds, I'm calling the police." For the first time I noticed the woman's thick-heeled shoes. Ugly. Mega-ugly. Looked uncomfortable too.But what did that matter if the stranger ran me through with the menacing hat pin she wore? I was going to die anyway, wasn't I? If only I could figure out a way to do it. Sniffing again, I searched my pockets for a tissue."Here, now, don't be such a sad sack." The arrogant woman stepped down and pressed into my hands a dainty, lace-edged hankie that smelled faintly of strawberries. Then, glimpsing her reflection in Aunt Caroline's streaky hall mirror, she paused to adjust her ridiculous hat."Apparently I've been assigned to you," she said. "Although I'm beginning to wonder if I'm not in over my head. If you've snafued the rest of your life like you have the last twenty-four hours, seems I'll have my work cut out for me.""Excuse me. Just what do you mean by that?" The gauge on my temper valve whirled past Hyperventilate and came dangerously close to what Aunt Caroline would call a Bad-Word Situation, just as it had the week before when my office manager at MultiPack Industries asked me to pick up (one) his cleaning, (two) his coffee, and (three) his bratty kids from nursery school. Unfortunately I had dispensed several of my choice selections on the spot.The strange lady in green took a lipstick from her purse and applied it carefully, then observed herself for a minute, obviously liking what she saw. "New color--'Fighting Red'--don't you love it?" She tossed the lipstick into her bag and sat on the big oak chest in the hallway, the one where Aunt Caroline kept extra blankets, and patted the space beside her. "Here, for heaven's sake, I won't hurt you, although I don't know why you're worried if you really mean to do away with yourself.""Well, of course I really mean to--eventually!" I touched the raw rope burn on my neck. "Do you imagine I like thinking up ways to kill myself?"The woman smiled at me and shook her head until the saucy veil ruffled her elegant eyebrows."Why won't you believe me?" I said. And why should I care if this intruder in the Greer Garson suit believed me or not? But strangely I did care.I watched her walk over and pick up the discarded rope, wondering how she could move gracefully in such shoes."Just look at this." She dangled the rope in front of me. "Rotten. Frayed. Where did you get it?"I shrugged. "Found it--hanging in the garage.""I see. And how long do you imagine it's been there? Don't tellme you didn't suppose--even hope--that old piece of rope might give way before you grabbed a convenient stair railing."How did she know? I jumped to my feet, shoving her aside so that the silly hat slid over one small, perfect ear. "Now listen--""No, you listen, Mary George Murphy." I felt myself being pressed firmly back onto the seat. How could someone this prim-looking be so strong? "Let's talk about last night in the garage," the woman said."How do you know about that? And who told you my name?""Never mind. Don't you think if you really wanted to kill yourself, you'd have remembered to buy gasoline? And need I remind you just how thoughtless and wasteful that was with rationing the way it is?""Rationing?" Was she serious, or did she just have a warped sense of humor? I was beginning to get a peculiar sensation in my head. Scary."And the tea," the woman went on. "Nasty as it was, if you were serious about taking those pills, you'd have held your nose and forced them down. After all, what's a little garlic?"So it was garlic! "But--how--are you clairvoyant or something?"She leaned against the newel post, crossed her rayon-clad ankles and smiled."Don't tell me you've forgotten your aunt's habit of switching things from one container to another. When she used up the garlic in that jar, your aunt Caroline stored her extra teabags there, then forgot about them. They've been on that shelf since last fall."This is impossible, I thought. How could anyone know these things? Yet it sounded just like something my aunt would do. I closed my eyes--just for a second; the woman was still there. Maybe I had succeeded in killing myself. I was in some sort of limbo zone, or hallucinating from lack of oxygen. I patted the wall behind me. It seemed solid enough--familiar flower basket design, once a bold burgundy, now a listless pink--like the last rose of summer, Aunt Caroline joked. And the paper peeled in that same spot above myhead. Beside me my aunt's blue-striped umbrella leaned in the tarnished brass stand. I felt my pulse. A little rapid, but strong. "I don't understand," I said."Don't worry, you're not dead.""You sound disappointed," I said. "Am I supposed to be?""Certainly not. If that were the case, I wouldn't be here." The woman cocked her bright head and sniffed. "Is that really chocolate I smell?"I nodded. "Fudge cake. Delia Sims from across the street brought it over this morning. She and Aunt Caroline were close friends--best friends, really--and--hey, could we backtrack here for a minute? Exactly why are you here? I don't believe you told me your name.""My oversight. Please excuse." The woman pulled off her hat to smooth her glorious hair, and for a moment I thought I saw a flicker of a glow. The radiance of it made me blink. The visitor held out a slender hand. "Augusta. Augusta Goodnight. I'm your guardian angel."Now, do you think I could have a piece of that cake?"An angel. Well, why not? I looked at a spot on the ceiling to avoid her eyes. Just humor her, Mary George. Surely someone will come for her soon. I didn't believe the woman was dangerous."Of course," I said. "I didn't know angels were into food.""It isn't absolutely necessary, but I haven't had chocolate since ... well, since I was here last. And with the shortage and all ..." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Where did your neighbor get all that sugar? It's not black market, is it?" "Oh, I'm sure it isn't." I led the way into the kitchen, making sure there weren't any sharp knives lying about. Aunt Caroline's big old house seemed bleak and empty without her. The rest of the world looked much the same.I puttered about the kitchen, watered the African violets drooping in the window while keeping an eye on my cake-eating guest. Aunt Caroline's favorite cookbook, Troublesome Creek Cooks, publishedby the local Women's Club, lay open to the dessert section, its pages splotched with food and use. My aunt had been president of the club for years, and her recipe for blackberry cobbler was in there, as well as favorite dishes of many of her friends--familiar foods I'd grown up with. She was due to entertain her bridge club this week and had circled that sinfully fattening coffee-based concoction made with dates, nuts, and real whipping cream. Her silly apron with the pigs on it hung by the sink. I gulped back a sob.Augusta Goodnight finished her fudge cake and dabbed her mouth with a paper napkin, which she folded and put into her large handbag. "Now," she said, "why don't you tell me why you think you want to end it all? Is it because of your aunt, or something else? A Dear John from your sweetheart? A flyboy, I'll bet. You'd think they were the only ones with wings."I put on a pot of coffee. Yes, real coffee, I assured my guest, and sat down to wait for it to brew. So what if this person had escaped from a lunatic asylum? At least she seemed interested, and now that Aunt Caroline was gone, she was the only one who was.Before I knew it, I found myself telling her about being dumped two months before the wedding by my fiancé, Todd Burkholder, pond scum extraordinaire. Three weeks after that hussy aerobics instructor moved in next door to him, his mind turned into tofu.Augusta tasted her coffee and made happy noises. "Well, you're no Betty Grable, but you have potential. Besides, obviously he wasn't the one for you. Sounds like a glamour boy to me. Not worth the worry, dear."True, but still degrading. And I hurt. Bad. I could scarcely bear to speak his name. And then there had been that unpleasantness at work, I said. Consequently I was fired.Augusta held up her cup for more. "And what work was that? Tell me about it.""Not much to tell. Filing mostly, but I had a chance to move up.""Move up to what?" Augusta yawned."Well, assistant manager. Manager. I only went to college acouple of years. Jobs are hard to find." Aunt Caroline did the best she could for me after Uncle Henry died, and I always meant to go back to school, maybe become a teacher, work with young children. Kindergarten age. I remembered what it was like to be five. And alone."If you're really my guardian angel," I said, "where were you when my parents were killed in that wreck, leaving me to fend for myself with a name like Mary George?""I'm getting to that." Augusta took another sip and looked at her watch. "But first, what time does Charlie McCarthy come on? I've really missed that show.""Who? Come on where?""Why, the radio, of course! Surely you listen to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy! I know Charlie's just a dummy, but he seems real to me. And Edgar's so patient with him. They always make me laugh."I tried to explain about Charlie McCarthy and radio in general, but I don't think she believed me. I didn't want to even attempt to bring her up to date on the subject of television."Seems to me if you were my guardian angel all this time, you'd know what was or wasn't on the radio," I said. "And what's all this about rationing? We don't have--"Augusta put down her cup. "Did I say I was always your guardian angel? I don't think so. I believe you misunderstood.""Oh. Then you weren't responsible for my landing in a pile of leaves when Daddy's car slammed into that big tree?" I had been five when my parents died, but I'll never forget that horrible day. Since I had no living relatives, I was taken to the children's home at Summerwood Acres where I cried every day for a week. Until Sam befriended me. Sam. A funny little boy with hair that wouldn't stay down and a turtle named Imogene. Together we waded in the creek and wandered through fields where daisies grew, eating blackberries until our lips turned purple. I almost smiled. I hadn't thought of Sam in ages until Aunt Caroline sent me that old clipping.Only a few weeks before I had received in the mail a yellowed, dog-eared newspaper photograph of a long ago Easter-egg hunt at Summerwood. It showed Sam, who must've been about ten, and me sitting on the lawn in front of the main building sharing a chocolate egg. It was the prize egg, which Sam had found, and since I didn't find many that day, he had generously but oh-so-slowly peeled off the golden foil and divided his gooey treasure with me. A reporter snapped the picture and it made the Charlotte paper.While dusting the living-room bookshelves, my aunt had discovered it in the pages of a book of poems where she'd placed it years before. She mailed it to me with a short but loving note.When we saw this picture, your uncle Henry and I knew you were the little girl we'd been waiting for. A month later you were right here with us in Troublesome Creek--where we knew you belonged! Ran across this recently while cleaning and thought you'd like to have it.With much love your aunt CarolineI thought of Sam now as I had many times since Aunt Caroline sent me the clipping. Where was he now? And would he remember me? I glanced at Augusta Goodnight, whose lips were moving, but I hadn't heard a word she'd said. "What?" I said."Hortense. I said your guardian angel was Hortense." The woman studied her neat, pink nails. "Say, you wouldn't have an emery board, would you?"Oh, never mind," she added, apparently noticing my chewed nubs."Hortense? My guardian angel's named Hortense?" I tried not to laugh. Didn't want to offend her, maybe send her over the edge."That's right. But she's on R and R just now. I'm merely filling in."So I had a stand-in angel. With my luck, I could almost believe it."I'm usually in charge of strawberries," she said. "Or at least five hundred acres of them. It's a big place up there.""They have five hundred acres of strawberries in heaven? Why?""Oh, more than that! Much more than that. Think of all the people who say, 'I don't want to go to heaven if there are no strawberries.' Same thing goes for animals. One of my best friends works on a puppy farm, another spends most of her time not calling cats. Cats hate to be called. Being ignored is pure heaven to them." Augusta Goodnight looked gloomily into the empty coffeepot and turned away. "Of course I also dabble in flowers. We've so many of them there. I didn't want to mention it, but I'm afraid you've over-watered those violets."I leaned over the table to face her. "Okay, since you seem to know so much, how did my aunt end up at the bottom of those attic stairs? Who did kill Aunt Caroline?""Oh, I can't tell you that," she said."What do you mean, you can't tell me? Why not?"Her eyes were wide and innocent. "Because I don't know. I'm an angel, dear, not a clairvoyant. Besides ..." Augusta Goodnight air-touched my face. "I imagine that's for you to find out."ANGEL AT TROUBLESOME CREEK. Copyright © 1999 by Mignon F. Ballard lives in Fort Mill, South Carolina, with her husband. She is the author of the award-winning children's novel, Aunt Matilda's Ghost, as well as several acclaimed mysteries, including The Widow's Woods, Final Curtain, Minerva Cries Murder, Angel at Troublesome Creek, and An Angel to Die For.