Authors: Theresa M.; Jarvela
Barry Jackson had a motive. He would be sole owner of the farm. But did he have the opportunity?
shrill ring woke Meggie. She fumbled for the bedside phone.
Meggie, I'm sorry to bother you,” Vera's voice quivered. “Eldon fell during the night. He's in the hospital.”
Meggie sat up in bed. “What can I do?”
“I'm dreadfully worried about him. I know he would appreciate it if I were by his side.” She paused a moment and caught her breath. “Could you possibly look after the shop for me today? I don't want to put you out. If you can't make it, I'll understand.”
“Don't worry about the shop. I'll get dressed right now. Eldon needs you.”
Meggie arrived at Hearts and Flowers to find Vera in a dither. She paced back and forth across the tiled floor and darted glances out the front window of the shop. “I'm so relieved you're here, Meggie. I've been beside myself with worry.” Her voice faltered. “Nettie's due here any minute to drive me to the hospital.”
Meggie heard a low rumble. She turned and glanced out the window. Nettie's car screeched to a halt in front of the shop. Its right front tire nearly hit the curb, her idea of parallel parking.
“There she is now,” Vera exclaimed. “Thank you so much for watching my little shop.”
Meggie followed Vera out to the car. After greeting Nettie, she turned to Vera, “Say hello to Eldon for me. Tell him to get better soon. He has a wedding to go to!” She stepped away from the curb and folded her arms.
Nettie ground the gears. The car lurched forward. She braked, reversed and squealed away from the curb. Seconds later she stuck her hand out the driver's window and waved over the top of the car.
Meggie shook her head and shuddered. She glanced around to see who else witnessed Nettie's bizarre driving. Thank heavens there were few people on the street. Had the time finally come for someone to speak to Nettie about relinquishing her driver's license? For all the good it would do.
After the car disappeared from sight, she walked back into the shop and turned the sign on the door to let the public know Hearts and Flowers Gift Shop was open for business.
Later that morning, the bell tinkled over the door, and two mature women breezed in. They spent several minutes inspecting merchandise, made a mess of Nettie's crocheted pillowcases and walked back out. Meggie straightened the goods. She yawned and looked up at the wall clock. The morning dragged on.
By afternoon Meggie had accomplished several tasks in the shop, received a report from Vera regarding Eldon's broken leg and fielded several calls from would-be customers. Now perched on the stool behind the counter, she jotted notes to herself.
The phone rang and echoed through the shop. She grabbed it on the second ring and recognized Molly Riley's voice.
“I'm sorry to bother you at work but when I called your house Walter told me it would be all right to call you at the shop.”
Meggie brushed aside her apology and slid off the stool. “It's been slow here this morning. You say you have some sort of emergency? Are you all right?”
“I'm fine but I can't say the same for my yellow lab. That's why I'm calling. I think I told you about that lump I found on him? Well, I took him to the vet, and he is going to need surgery.” She went on to explain that Brandy would spend the night after surgery in the animal hospital and then return home to recuperate.
“It's a lot to ask after everything you went through when you housesat before, but would you want to sit one more night? I arrived at work this morning and found out I'm scheduled to work the first night Brandy comes home from the hospital. I don't want to leave her alone.”
Meggie slid her reading glasses on. She jotted down the date of Brandy's surgery, the time she would need to arrive at the farm and the time Molly would return home the following morning.
When she checked her appointment calendar, she found she had nothing pressing to do for most of that day. “I'm free that afternoon and evening. I might have to help Vera that morning in the shop, but I won't know for sure until I speak with her. Either way, I would love to visit the farm again and watch over Brandy.”
Molly thanked her profusely and suggested that perhaps Shirley would like to join her since she had expressed an interest in riding Beauty again. When Meggie agreed to the idea, Molly promised to extend an invitation to Shirley.
A few minutes later the phone rang. Meggie wasn't surprised to find Shirley on the other end of the line. Her friend admitted she would love to ride Beauty again, but expressed concern about staying overnight. At the same time she didn't want to hurt Molly's feelings.
Meggie downplayed Shirley's fear of ghosts and laughed at the possibility that a ghost would attach itself to her. She found it unlikely anything unpleasant would happen while they were at the farm.
After a certain amount of coaxing, Shirley changed her mind. “I really would love to ride Beauty again. I told Bill if we were younger I would have him buy me a horse. He just laughed.”
Following some discussion, plans were made. Meggie laid the phone in its cradle and breathed a sigh of relief. She wouldn't have to spend the night alone at the farm. She admitted that some of Shirley's fears were founded. She would be the last person to tell her that.
Several days later, when the yellow farmhouse came into view, Meggie experienced dÃ©jÃ vu. A brief glimpse from the past flitted through her mindâflashbacks of a white horse, the smell of Old Spice and cigars, cold air swirling around her. She quivered and for an instant wanted to turn the car around and go home.
Meggie pressed a fist against her mouth and reprimanded herself. She wouldn't waste another minute on worry. Instead she would rid her mind of unpleasant thoughts and focus on the blue sky, sunshine and green fields. Nothing would blemish her visit. Besides, she wouldn't be spending the night alone.
“I don't see Black and Beauty in the side pasture,” Shirley blurted out. “I hope they're nearby. At the very least, I hope they've learned to come when called. Look, there's Molly now.”
Meggie braked the car in front of the farmhouse. The pretty young woman held her hand up to stop the car. She laid the broom down, brushed her long brown hair out of her face and hurried towards them.
Her lips curved into a smile as she leaned into the driver's window. “Hello. You can park in the garage if you'd like. I've spent hours this week cleaning it. Now there's actually room for a vehicle.”
“That sounds like a good idea.” Meggie slapped a mosquito on her arm. “I heard the weather report this morning. They're predicting heavy rain and hail later today.” When Molly stepped away from the Bug, Meggie shifted the car into reverse and backed into the garage.
The building had definitely been given a face lift. Michael's tools were gathered together, organized and mounted above the work bench. All leftover odds and ends from remodeling were gone and the entire cement floor appeared to have been washed. The old hutch sat in the same spot but no paraphernalia surrounded it.
“Sure looks different, doesn't it?” Molly followed them into the garage. “Michael will go into shock when he sees it.”
“You don't have to tell me how much work goes into cleaning a garage.” Shirley lifted her bag out of the car and ambled towards Molly. “I don't clean our garage anymore. I figure if Bill messes it, he cleans it.”
Molly laughed. “I'm glad you're both here. Not only because Brandy needs a sitter. I really enjoy company. It gets lonely way out here at times.” She glanced at their luggage. “Can I help you carry anything?” When they declined, she led the way to the house.
A woodpecker knocked its beak against a rotted pine tree. Their host acknowledged the red-headed bird. “Thanks heavens for wild birds and farm animals.” She nodded at the hummingbird feeder suspended from the porch eaves. “Even those tiny birds are a godsend.”
Meggie watched a tiny bird suck nectar from the feeder and thought about Molly's reluctance to be alone on the farm.
“When I first suspected this house might be haunted I was afraid. But I wouldn't admit my fears to anyone. Over time I learned to live with the situation. But when Fred Jackson was found in the well, my old fears set in.” She paused. “The solitude has become almost unbearable. I pray every day Michael will find work closer to home.”
Meggie tried to think of something reassuring to say, but Molly changed the subject and continued on.
“I'll be leaving early for the hospital to cover for a co-worker who needs to take off early. I'll probably be napping when you return from riding. I don't want to fall asleep at the wheel.” Molly pulled the screen door open and motioned her guests into the entryway. “Shirley, you can have either bedroom upstairs, whichever you prefer. They're both ready.” She glanced down at Shirley's bag and held out her hand. “Are you sure I can't help you with that?”
Shirley shook her head. “No thanks. I can manage. It's not heavy.”
Molly drew her hand back and watched Shirley climb the stairs. “As soon as you're settled in, come down for some lunch.”
In the master bedroom Brandy slept on a mat near the head of the bed, her food and water dish nearby.
“I hope you don't mind if you share the room with a dog.” Molly shifted her eyes from Meggie to Brandy. “I thought it made more sense to have her in the bedroom than anyplace else. She might wake during the night. If she slept in another area, you probably wouldn't hear her.”
Meggie assured Molly she had no qualms about sharing the bedroom with man's best friend. She admitted to feeling safer with Brandy close by.
“Thanks, Meggie. I really appreciate what you're doing.” A smile spread across the young woman's face and her eyes rested on Brandy. “The vet told me she would sleep most of the day and into the evening. She's gone through a lot.”
Shirley crept into the bedroom and stood beside the other women. Brandy moaned and twitched, but her eyes remained closed. “I don't think she'll be much company tonight, but maybe she'll keep any unwanted visitors away, if you know what I mean.”
Meggie nudged Shirley. She widened her eyes and shook her head slightly in an attempt to warn her friend against mentioning the strange happenings that had taken place on the farm. The less Molly thought about them the better.
The three women crept out of the bedroom and Molly closed the door behind them. “I hope you don't mind sleeping upstairs, Shirley.” She slipped an apron on and began pulling dishes out of the cupboard. “After all that's happened I wouldn't blame you if you did.” She turned to her guests. “Make yourselves at home. It'll only be a minute. I hope you're hungry.”
Shirley cleared her throat and crossed her fingers behind her back. “Don't think for a minute that I'm worried about ghosts. The thought never crossed my mind. I couldn't have been more excited when you invited me to spend the night.”
eggie sat down at the kitchen table to enjoy the light lunch Molly prepared earlier that morning. A small vase of pansies sat in the center of the kitchen table and brightened up the occasion.
Their hostess poured three glasses of iced tea and then passed around a small bowl of lemon slices. She encouraged them to eat as much as they wanted and mentioned a pan of lasagna in the refrigerator for their supper.
Soon after sitting down, the subject of Michael's job came up. Molly talked about the oil boom in North Dakota, what Michael actually did on the job and how he landed it in the first place. “So although he makes good money working for the oil company, he misses home. He's hoping to find employment in the area so he can move back here.”
Shirley kept the conversation lively with her rendition of Bill and Walter's annual fishing trip to the cabin on Gopher Lake in northern Minnesota. “I don't understand their idea of fun. They hole up in a cabin in the sticks and do nothing but fish.” She helped herself to more fruit salad and elicited laughs when she said, “Fruit salad with real whipped cream. I'm starting my diet on Monday.”
“Meggie, I can't tell you how surprised I felt when you told me about the secret staircase. When I told Michael what you discovered, he couldn't believe it.” Molly lifted her glass of iced tea, took a sip and set it back down on the table.
“I know it sounds crazy that we never discovered the secret passageway ourselves. But in all honesty, we seldom go upstairs and we rarely have guests.” She picked up her pork sandwich and bit into it. “And remember, we purchased the house long before we used it as a residence. It served as a weekend getaway for some time.”
Meggie thought about Fred and how he disguised the panel door in the bedroom wall. “Building a small bookcase over the panel took some doing,” she said. “I really admire Fred's handiwork. Amelia told me he liked to tinker around and come up with unusual ideas.”
She realized Molly didn't know the full details about the discovery of the hidden staircase and what led up to it. She proceeded to fill her in. When she finished her tale, she set her napkin on the table. “. . . and if I hadn't been checking out the attic, we still wouldn't know it existed.”
“That is quite a story. We're so pleased you made the discovery.”
Molly asked if anyone would like more tea. Both women nodded. She refilled their glasses and encouraged them to have another brownie while she cleared the dirty lunch dishes off the table.
When she returned to the table, she sat down and picked up a brownie from the desert plate. “Anyway, I've been waiting to tell you something you'll both find interesting.” Her eyes sparkled. “After I returned home, I checked all the stairs to see if there were any more hiding places. Guess what I discovered?”
Meggie's stomach fluttered. She set her iced tea down on the table and waited in suspense to hear what Molly would say.
“After all my searching, and I mean every stair in this house, I didn't find any more secret hiding places but I did find . . .”
Shirley's eyes lit up. “Tell me you found something that will point to Fred's killer.”
A heavy sigh escaped Molly. “I wish I could tell you the name of the person who murdered Fred, but I can't. But I can tell you I discovered a key in the stair where you found the letters. It had gotten stuck in a crack.”
“That's interesting.” Meggie's gaze focused on Molly. “Did you let Barry know what you found?”
Molly nodded and stated she called Barry the same day she found the key. He had no idea what the key belonged to. Although he figured it probably was garbage, he asked her to drop it in the mail. Molly's face tightened. “I wondered if sending it in the mail would be taking a chance. What if the key turned out to be for something important and it was lost in the mail?”
“Maybe Fred had cash stashed somewhere in a locker,” Shirley babbled. “Or maybe he had other valuables hidden away.”
“It doesn't matter because I didn't send it.” Molly looked sheepish and rubbed her finger up and down her glass of iced tea. “Actually, I forgot all about it until I cleaned out that hutch in the garage yesterday. I came across some old photographs and a few paper documents.”
Molly went on to say she called Barry earlier in the day to let him know about the photos and documents. He wasn't home but she spoke with his daughter who happened to be at his house visiting. “I asked her to tell Barry I'd box up the key along with the photographs and documents and get them in the mail tomorrow.” Molly nodded to the package on the table.
The conversation turned to the history of Fred's antique hutch and why Molly and Michael had it in their garage after all these years. “I'm embarrassed to say I planned to refinish it early on, but I just haven't found the time.” Molly sucked on a piece of ice then bit into it. “When I returned home from North Dakota I promised myself I would finish the job and move it back into the house.”
A few minutes later she pushed her chair back and stood up. “You two better hurry if you plan to ride the horses. I kept them in the corral this morning so you wouldn't have to look for them.” She glanced out the window. “You never know how long this weather will hold out.”
Later that evening after Molly left for work, the women rested on the front porch. The floor creaked beneath their rocking chairs. The wind chime tinkled. Both women seemed lost in thought.
“It's interesting, isn't it?”
“What are you talking about?” Shirley scowled and popped a last piece of brownie into her mouth. “Did you know you have a really bad habit?”
Meggie laughed and turned her head toward her friend. “I'm not sure what you're referring to, but I have no doubt you're going to tell me.”
“You think about something, blurt it out and expect me to know what you're talking about.”
Meggie leaned her head back and chuckled. “You're right. I'm guilty as charged. Walter has accused me of the same thing.” She paused a moment. “I've been thinking about the hutch and the fact that it's still on the farm after all these years.”
“Why is that such a big deal?” Shirley asked. “Barry didn't want to keep the hutch so he let it go with the house. He could have sold the hutch outright, but he didn't. Molly wanted to refinish it. End of story.”
Meggie drummed her fingers on the rocking chair and thought about Barry and his reason for not keeping the hutch. Simply stated, he didn't like old furniture. The hutch had no sentimental value to him. It was less work to give it away than try to sell it.
“You're right. I'm making a mountain out of a molehill.” Meggie swatted a mosquito on her leg. “Perhaps Molly will refinish it, move it into the house and enjoy it. I think Fred would like that.”
Meggie sipped her water and gazed over the front yard. “I suppose he just missed them.”
“There you go again.” Shirley stopped rocking and turned her body to face her friend. “Who missed what?”
“The documents and old photos Molly found in the hutch.” Meggie wrinkled her brow. “I wonder how Barry missed them when he cleaned out the hutch.”
“Molly said the photos were bent and the documents faded. She found them crammed behind a drawer. How do you know Barry even cleaned it out?” Shirley's lip curled. “Why are we talking about this anyway?”
Meggie sat up straight. “What if . . .”
“She's on a roll,” Shirley muttered mostly to herself.
“What if the old hutch was never meant to leave this farm?” Meggie's eyes bored into Shirley's. “What if, for whatever reason, Fred wanted someone to find those photographs and papers?”
“Oh, yeah.” Shirley sighed heavily and threw up her hands. “I'm spending the night with a nut job.” Before Meggie could say anything, Shirley rattled on. “If you're so curious about those documents why don't you open the package and read them? It wouldn't be the first time you pried into someone else's business.”
“No. We'll drop the box off at the post office in the morning like I promised Molly.” Meggie stood up and walked to the edge of the porch. She studied the sky. The sun had hidden behind ominous looking clouds and left in its place a blanket of hot air. It would get dark early. She turned back to Shirley. “If Barry finds something in the papers, it's up to him to investigate. Not me.”
“And that's the smartest statement you've made in a long time.” Shirley pushed herself to a standing position. “By the way, you never did get around to showing me the hidden staircase. I'm curious.”
A diversion couldn't have come at a better time. Meggie motioned Shirley to follow her into the house. In the entryway she reached inside the closet door and found the flashlight. She checked to make sure the batteries were good. “We'll need this. It's dark up there.”
Shirley told Meggie to give her a couple minutes and headed for the bathroom. While waiting for her, Meggie decided to take Barry's box out to the Bug. That way she wouldn't forget it. By the time she returned, Shirley stood waiting by the stairway.