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Authors: Penny Richards

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BOOK: An Untimely Frost
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illy squinted against the cold wind blowing in her face as the horse and buggy traveled down the rutted road. The sky had grown even more overcast and snow had begun to fall, even though tentative sprigs of green pushed valiantly through the soil here and there. Though the days were growing subtly longer, and spring was just around the corner, snow wasn't uncommon this time of year. As a child, she'd once seen it snow on the first day of spring.
A hawk circled silently overhead, riding the air currents, searching for some unsuspecting mouse or inattentive rabbit to snatch for its dinner, a subtle reminder that bad things could happen unexpectedly.
The thought reminded her of Tim, and she felt a rush of regret for having given him even a portion of her life. Already, the brief interval spent with him seemed dreamlike, a few months plucked from another time. She'd been happy with him and equally miserable. She recalled Rose once telling her that without the low points in life, the high points would not be nearly so breathtaking and memorable.
She supposed it was true, but when she ever fell in love again—no,
she allowed herself to fall in love again—she would make certain that it was with a man who was not crooked, moody, and difficult like Tim, but steady and dependable and even tempered. A gentle man who made her feel safe and loved every moment of the day. Someone like . . . like Simon Linedecker, perhaps. Certainly not like the stranger she had run into on the train. Everything about that man cried out trouble with a capital “T.”
The snowfall grew heavier. She thought of turning back and postponing her trip on a more suitable day; she didn't want to get stuck in an abandoned house in the midst of a snowstorm, but she was anxious to investigate the place for herself. Actually, she thought with a wry smile, with the dark, overcast skies, it was perfect weather to explore a house that was rumored to be haunted.
Her thoughts turned to her upcoming task, mulling over her conversations with Helen Holbrook and Billy Bishop. In spite of the tiny voice that told her ghost tales were nonsense, the story definitely piqued her interest. No matter how it turned out, her first assignment was shaping up to be more than a boring missing-person mission. Ghost story aside, it was beginning to look as if something had happened at Heaven's Gate. Perhaps something heinous.
What was it about the preacher and his family that upset Virginia Holbrook so much she'd gone from warm and welcoming to cold and distant? Lilly had no answers to any of her questions, and she had a lot of them. Like, why hadn't the agency's clients, the Stephenses, found out about the possible murder in the house when they searched for the Purcells? Was there any way they couldn't have heard about it? Perhaps the answer was simple. Maybe they had heard of the vacant house and learned nothing except that the preacher had taken the money, left town in the dead of night, and no one had any idea where he'd gone.
It didn't take a seasoned operative to see that few people were willing to discuss the incident, and it made sense that the Stephenses would have given up when met with such resistance. Most would. Should she send a telegram and ask William if their clients knew of the belief that someone had been killed at the property they wanted to purchase? It might make a difference in their desire to buy the place.
No. She wouldn't say anything until she knew more.
Tomorrow, she would make it a point to talk to the sheriff and see if he could shed more light on the story. Though Billy Bishop assured her that Mayhew had done his job, she wondered just how hard he'd tried to trace Purcell. Had the sheriff checked to see if there were signs other than the bloody bed that indicated a murder had been committed? Did he suspect, as she was beginning to, that the reverend could possibly be a murderer as well as a thief?
She gave a little shudder. What a horrible, disturbing thing to think about a preacher! Nonetheless, it was not an impossibility. She wondered if anyone else in town had come up missing at the time. A new thought occurred to her. What if the Purcells hadn't done anything wrong but take the money? What if someone had come in unannounced, killed one of
and taken the others somewhere else to do them in? It was a possibility worth considering.
Seeing the fork in the road and the dead tree Billy Bishop had mentioned, she peered through the falling snow to make certain she was at the right place. What was left of the sign canted to the right. Snow was already starting to obscure the peeling paint, but there was enough print visible that she could make out the name of the estate.
She tugged on the reins and turned the buggy down the lane. The wet snowflakes had begun to accumulate on the limbs of the trees that grew on either side of the road, creating a snowy archway that might have been plucked straight from a fairy tale or fantasy story of some kind. She half expected a wood nymph dressed in crystal flakes to step out of the silent woodland.
There was no sound except for that of the horse's hooves striking the ground. It was almost as if the forest creatures were afraid to break the profound silence of the moment with their chatter. Soon the canopy of branches would be covered with tender green leaves that would dapple the road with a pattern of sunshine and shade. It would be just as magical then as it was now.
Lilly guided the horse around a curve in the road shielded by trees. The buggy rounded the bend, and the house came into view. The front was encircled with black wrought-iron fencing. A wide archway with attached gates stood at the entrance of the brick pathway leading to the wide front door. Spelled out in ornate lettering were the two words: H
Drawing in a deep breath, she got down from the buggy, tied the reins to the rickety hitching post, and pushed through the opening. The unused gate grated on rust-encrusted hinges, screeching a protest, almost as if the house loathed giving anyone entrance.
She stopped just inside, taking stock of the once-elegant dwelling. Perhaps it was the brooding cloud cover, but something about the place felt . . . wrong. She was not a fanciful person by nature, yet her first impression was that the house was not heavenly at all, but rather a place somehow sinister and foreboding.
Or as Billy Bishop claimed,
A shiver ran through her, and she reminded herself that the very nature of old, neglected houses lent them a spooky air. Add the tale of the ghost to the equation and there was no wonder the hair on the back of her neck stood on end.
Forcing herself to be analytical, she stared at the former beauty through the veil of snowflakes. The framework of the three-story house was simple. The left side was a gable front with a wing to the right, from which jutted two smaller gables. The front porch, which was deeper on the wing side, spanned both house sections and boasted an elaborate turned spindle railing. Even with her limited knowledge of architecture, Lilly recognized the style as Victorian. That influence was further revealed in the fancy eave brackets.
Once-immaculate white paint had peeled away like scabs from a wound, leaving the bare wood beneath exposed to the elements. In time, weather would cause it to decay and crumble. Thus far, only the corners of the house where wind had blown off the cedar shingles had succumbed to the rain and rot. Slate-blue shutters framed dirty windows whose emptiness reminded her of the vacuous expression in Colleen McKenna's eyes.
Lilly's critical gaze moved to the side garden to her right: a tangle of snow-dusted, winter-dead weeds, English ivy, and climbing roses run amuck. The wrought-iron fence gave way to stone walls circling the backyard, and the occasional absent rock reminded her of missing teeth.
The house was surrounded by huge maple trees as well as elms and cedars and oaks whose fallen leaves had been decomposing for two decades. Still, for all its spooky dereliction, there was something imposing about the place, like a proud woman who knows her beauty has faded yet refuses to acknowledge the fact.
Ready for further investigation, Lilly made her way to the front porch, where two wicker fern stands with long-dead plants stood sentinel on either side of the wide, leaded-glass door. More dead plants resided in the fernery on the right-hand side. The porch was rotten at the edges but sturdy enough further in. As she expected, the front door was locked.
Undeterred, she went down the broad front steps and picked her way through the side lawn and around the house, tugging her skirt free of the thorny rose brambles and hoisting it high to step over fallen limbs, some as thick as her thighs. At the center of the garden stood a bronze fountain, a life-size figure of a woman holding an urn that once trickled water into the pool below. The statuary was dusted with a film of snow, scaly with lichens, and come summer it would be slick with moss. The urn held the remnants of a bird's nest.
The Grecian-style statue was nude but for an intricate rose vine that swirled strategically over her breasts and across her most private places. While Lilly was impressed with the beauty of the piece, she felt it a strange choice for a minister's home and found herself wondering if it had come with the house or if the sculpture had been an addition of the Purcells.
Near the edge of the clearing at the back of the house, a low iron fence surrounded what must have been the family burial plot. She would have a look at it before she left. Passing through what was once no doubt an herb garden, she saw that the kitchen door stood ajar. Her pulse skittered and she paused, feeling for the gun in her pocket. Then she noticed that the aperture was filled with undisturbed leaves. The door had probably stood open for years. Testing the rotting floorboards nearest the door, she leaped over them into the Purcells' kitchen.
Inside, she pulled off her gloves, shook the snow from her clothing, and threw back the hood of her cape. A copper kettle stood on the wood-burning cook stove. Open shelving held sturdy crockery and an assortment of cooking pots, all covered with twenty years of dust. A pair of corroded scissors lay near a porcelain washbasin edged in gold and adorned with a pretty floral pattern. There was little doubt it was the very one Billy Bishop had seen as a boy. A flakey residue caked the bottom.
Next to the basin lay the yellowed remnants of a muslin towel with strips torn from one edge. A delicate china cup with ancient dregs of coffee or tea scaling the bottom sat next to a matching dessert plate. Any crumbs left there had long ago become a meal for the mice that had left behind their own contribution to the neglect of the house, testimony to the belief that the Purcells had left in a hurry—one step ahead of the law.
She shivered, unable to rid herself of the feeling that she was trespassing into the Purcell home and not a house they had abandoned with so little care. She made her way to the hallway and began her inspection of the lower floor. Even in a state of decline, the former glory of the parlor was easy to see. Magnificent. Yet it all seemed . . . too much.
Sun-faded drapes of crimson brocade hung in dry-rotted tatters. A tea cart held a crystal vase with a droopy bouquet of dried and dusty roses that sat next to a silver coffee service that was black with tarnish. Charred wood and ashes of a long-dead fire littered the fireplace, scattered about by tiny mouse feet. An exquisitely carved clock stood on the marble mantel, flanked by a pair of porcelain pheasants. Behind it hung a large landscape in the style of Landseer. The paint and gilt of the ornate gold leaf of the frame had begun to flake in the extremes of heat and cold that were slowly destroying the house and its contents. Dusty lace-edged silk antimacassars with delicate floral embroidery protected the backs and arms of the davenport that was upholstered in faded striped brocade.
An open Bible lay on a dainty table next to a gold damask wingback chair placed near the fireplace. Curious about what the reverend or his wife had been reading before they'd left in such a hurry, Lilly bent to blow away the dust and went into a paroxysm of sneezing. She wiped at her watering eyes with her fingertips and then swiped them down the side of her skirt.
One of the Purcells had been reading Psalms. There were five selections on the facing pages, and she scanned their beginnings.
“By the rivers of Babylon . . . ”
“I will praise thee with my whole heart . . .”
“Lord, thou hast searched me . . .”
Nothing the psalmist had written struck a chord until she reached Psalms 140.
“Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; Which imagine mischiefs in their heart . . . ”
The words resonated in the deep recesses of Lilly's heart. A memory of Tim flashed into her mind, followed by a thought of the man who had taken her mother's love and then her life. She swallowed, her throat dry with sudden distress. She understood the evil and violence of men very well.
Drawing a deep breath and wondering if the passage held a special meaning, she straightened and let her troubled gaze roam the room's faded elegance once more. With a bit of surprise, she realized that the house conveyed something else. Sorrow. Something about the place reminded her of the whores at MacGregor's—any beauty once possessed faded with the passage of time and abuse.
No, not abuse. For some reason, no one had abused the empty house. What she saw was neglect, not destruction. Was it possible that the townsfolk were too frightened of the haint rumored to occupy the house to rob it, or did they have more respect for the man of God's property than he had theirs? Whichever it might be, it was strange, since even she knew the furnishings were worth a small fortune.
Recalling what she'd told William about preachers being unable to afford such costly things, her lips twisted into a bitter smile. The grand lifestyle suggested by Heaven's Gate and its furnishings would have been easily attainable if the reverend routinely fleeced his flocks.
BOOK: An Untimely Frost
8.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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