Authors: Audrey Claire
Annie debated whether to risk talking to her aunt about Killer to see whether he was just stirring up trouble out of jealousy. He might know Paul in some way. Their city of fifty thousand was big enough for residents not to know everyone, but despite that, the world was still a small place. Coincidences existed. In the end, Jane pulled her into the house while she made up a take home plate for Annie and made her forget all about the teller.
over in bed and curled into her favorite position. She considered whether she wanted to get up at six a.m. or sleep until seven. Either way, she needed to drop off soon to get enough rest by morning. If she rose earlier, she could squeeze in an hour and a half for plotting before starting her new book. Sleeping an additional hour meant pantsing it, her normal routine. She grinned and shut her eyes. Why the heck did she have this debate with herself every night?
Just sleep, silly woman.
She yawned and started to doze, but a noise brought her back to alertness. What was that? Sitting up in bed, she strained her ears to pick up any sounds within her house. Not for the first time, she thought of getting a pet to keep her from feeling so alone in the family home.
Had the noise come from the attic? Raccoons had once gotten in. “Could be squirrels or any number of other creatures running wild in South Carolina.”
A black bear popped into her head, and she chuckled under her breath. The attic could no doubt hold a bear as it expanded big enough to be a separate living quarters. That is, if the summer heat didn’t make it intolerable.
Of course, a bear would never go up that high, and he would have to enter through the narrow hall doorway to get there. If he could leap far, he could take a tree to the windows on the third level of her house, but size of the windows was an issue.
Annie laughed out right. She wondered what her readers would think if she titled her next book,
The Bear in the Attic.
“Fun,” she whispered and settled down in bed again. Whatever lurked, it could wait until morning. Slumberland called her name.
Shortly after six a.m., Annie stumbled into the hall bathroom. The master bedroom contained a bathroom of its own, but she had never taken possession of it. She knew it was ridiculous, but the room used to belong to her parents. They were the last to sleep there.
While Annie had laborers come in and remove all the furniture to feel more comfortable, she refused to use the space. For that matter, she occupied just a few rooms in the house—her bedroom, the office, originally a den, the hall bathroom, and the kitchen. Even the dining room remained unused. Sure, to live in such a huge house and not take advantage of it was a waste, but she owned it, so she could do what she liked.
Recalling the noise from the night before, Annie finished in the bathroom and delayed getting dressed to check out the attic. Barefoot and wearing a faded and stretched nightie, she headed to the door in the hall that led to the upper level.
Annie didn’t keep the door locked. What was the point when the attic contained nothing but old junk? She hadn’t gone through it all, but they never owned much of value other than the house when she was growing up. At least, she didn’t think so, but the attic might as well be an extension of her parents’ bedroom—off limits.
Annie opened the door and looked up the steep heart pine steps. The narrow passage curved to the right, so she couldn’t see the upper floor from where she stood. Might as well get up there. She started climbing, and dust stirred in the air making her sneeze.
At the top, dim lighting outlined various weird shapes, and the hair on her arms stood on end. Stretching her hands out before her, she felt for the pull string that would turn on the overhead light bulb. Before she found it, her arms hit a pile of boxes, and the unsteady mountain fell over. Something crashed, and material brushed her foot.
Annie screamed and leaped backward, almost tumbling down the stairs. She caught herself in time on the banister and sagged against the wall, heart pounding. Her legs turned to jelly, and her calves ached.
Wait. That’s because of the climb up the steps. Good grief, I need to exercise.
At last, she found the string and pulled it. The bulb didn’t do much, but she saw the mess she’d made. The boxes must have been topped with old curtains. Her mother changed out the curtains from winter to spring and back again. These heavy drapes were what brushed her foot, and they lay in a heap on the floor along with the contents of the box.
Spotting pictures scattered about, Annie swung away toward the opposite end of the attic. Farther on, a small window let the light of dawn in through four panes.
Nope, no bears here.
She moved that direction anyway to be sure a smaller animal hadn’t found a way to open the window.
The lock held fast, and she stooped to see if there were any holes in the floorboards or gaps in the walls that would lead outside. When she stood straight, she glanced out at her back yard. If she leaned to the side, she could get a view of the side of the property. A smaller street led that way, but Annie’s home sat on one of the most generous plots of land with so many trees and bushes she enjoyed tons of privacy and shade.
Through a tiny sliver of space among the foliage, she spotted the color brown. Just three families lived on that street, and none owned a brown vehicle. For that matter, they each included driveways. The owners had no reason to park alongside her house unless one of them entertained guests. Annie didn’t mind. She didn’t own the street. Yet, curiosity got the better of her, as it usually did.
She turned back to the attic and surveyed the mess of pictures from afar. The same old feelings washed over her as she observed them—reluctance, fear, panic, and so on. There came a time when a person needed to let go of the past and live for the now and the future. Annie believed she did so, but pictures brought back memories and picked at old wounds.
Like the little coward she was in this situation, she bypassed the photos and moved down the steps. Maybe she would set aside some extra money next month and have someone come in and clean the attic for her.
Most of the junk could be thrown away, but she would ask Jane if she’d like to take a look for what she might like to keep. No, Jane was the more put together of the two of them. Annie didn’t want to stir up pain for her sister.
Since Jane had signed over any rights she had to the house, she probably wanted nothing to do with any item within its walls. Annie was convinced Jane lived two doors away for no other reason than to be closer to her. Otherwise, she might have left the state to forget the past. Annie didn’t blame her. She wished she could forget.
Annie puttered around in her kitchen, debating whether to cook the chicken from the day before or eat the leftovers from Jane’s party. The doorbell delayed the decision, and she walked to the side door. No one used the front door except those who didn’t know her.
She pulled open the door without checking through the closed blinds. A small round face with a determined expression met her gaze. “Who are you?”
A bottom lip poked out. “Aunt Annie, this is serious!”
She laughed and stooped. Five-year old Ben wore shorts showing off his knobby knees and a T-shirt that said Snack Attack and included a picture of a hungry shark. On his back he had slung his favorite teddy bear pack, and he clutched the straps in tights fists, one of which also held a plastic grocery bag.
Annie brushed the bangs from his eyes that looked so much like Jane’s. “Why is it serious?”
He raised his chin. “Because I’ve run away from home.”
“Oh. Well, come in then. That does sound serious.”
She suppressed another laugh and guided him into the house. Once they were in her kitchen, she offered him a seat at the table and grabbed a chair across from him. Morning light shined through the window above the sink, but the day hadn’t brightened by much.
“Mommie let you leave the house this early?”
“She couldn’t stop me. I’m five now.”
“Plus she’s been baking stuff since she woke up.” He heaved a sigh. “This is for you.”
Annie frowned at the grocery bag. She didn’t have to peek inside to know Annie had sent another bundle of fresh warm cookies. “You ran away, but she sent you with cookies?”
“That’s because she didn’t believe me.” He waggled the bag. “Do you want them?”
“I told her not to keep sending me this stuff. It ruins my diet.”
“So you don’t want them?”
Annie groaned and took the bag. She rose and set it on the counter. Jane had gone through so much trouble, and it would be rude to send them back. Perhaps she could give them to one of the ladies in the neighborhood or take them to a shelter. For a moment, her hands hovered above the bag. The delicious scent tickled her nose.
Annie managed to swing away from the forbidden treat and sat down again. “So, what was the fight about this time?”
Ben appeared scandalized, as if he needed a reason to strike out into the world. After all, he was five. With dramatic flare, he came clean. “I wanted to stay up late and watch TV, but she wouldn’t let me. It’s summer. Why do I have to go to bed early like a baby? Quinn and Paisley don’t have to!”
“Sounds reasonable to me,” Annie assured him. She didn’t mention she knew for a fact that Quinn being twelve did have to turn in at a reasonable hour. Paisley at fourteen was another stubborn story altogether. “So you told her you were leaving?”
He nodded his head, too cute with a pout. “
said wait until it’s daylight. I told you she didn’t believe it, Aunt Annie, but here I am.”
“Here, two doors away,” she said. Good thing Ben hadn’t learned sarcasm just yet. “What’s in your pack? It looks lumpy.”
He removed his pack and handed it to her. She unzipped with a bit of struggle because Ben had stuffed it to capacity. An assortment of dinosaurs met her gaze, not one T-shirt or change of underwear.
“They were mad, too,” Ben said.
“Okay. Well, let’s have some cookies and milk.”
Ben brightened. “Yay! I love you, Aunt Annie.”
“I love you too, Ben. Best to not tell Mommie we ate cookies for breakfast.”
Annie never claimed to be anywhere near Jane’s level when it came to caring for kids. After all, she had none of her own, and interaction with her niece and nephews living so close hadn’t taught her much. Jane lectured her that she was too lenient, but Annie doubted she would ever change.
She plated oatmeal raisin cookies for herself and for Ben and poured them each huge glasses of milk. After the fact, when Ben had trouble balancing his glass, she halved his portion into a smaller cup. They munched away, Annie feeling the fat gathering in her thighs with each bite.
Fifteen minutes later, the doorbell rang again, and Annie opened the door to Paisley. She flipped long silky dark hair over one shoulder. Nothing obstructed the other because she had shaved it almost down to the scalp. Jane had given birth to a cow when she found out.
“Is the twerp here?” Paisley tapped her foot, already irritated and impatient so early in the morning.
“You mean your brother?”
“That’s what I said.”
Ben appeared around Annie’s leg. “Aw, why did Mommie send you, Paisley?”
“Just come on. I don’t know why you bother pretending to run away when you always run to Aunt Annie. You should have gone to Mexico or something.”
“I don’t know where Mexico is,” Ben shot back in a reasonable tone.
“Well to the end of the block then!”
“Now, now, kids.” Annie patted the top of Ben’s head. “You can stay here longer if you want, sweetie, but I have to work.”
“She doesn’t have cable, twerp,” Paisley told him. “Plus, Mom, says your show is on in five minutes.”
Ben let out an alarmed squeak and ran to his sister. She grabbed his hand and spun on her heel. Ben waved to Annie. “See you later, Aunt Annie. I’m going to give Mommie another chance.”
“That’s a good idea, Ben. She’ll straighten up and fly right.”
He appeared confused as to the meaning of the expression but dismissed it with a shrug. Annie shook her head watching them walk to the end of her property and disappear around a group of trees. They had been through this routine before, and she expected to repeat it many more times. As she shut the door, she recalled the mystery brown through the hedges and hurried to her bedroom for her shoes.
t the back
of the house, Annie cut across the yard to reach the side. Rather than a fence like the white one surrounding Jane’s rear property, bushes and trees sectioned off Annie’s yard. If one wanted to risk being poked and scratched, one could cut through to the neighbors’ grounds on the street behind hers. That is, if one didn’t know where the gaps lay.
The area that caught Annie’s interest was located at one of these spots. She trudged through the grass thinking she needed to call the lawn service some time in the next two days. Otherwise, she might get slapped with another citation from the city. Darn grass kept growing back, and she forgot about it.
“If I get on a schedule like he suggested,” she muttered and moaned. The commitment didn’t appeal in the least. So silly she felt that way, but she never managed to change her habits.
As she neared the spot, flashes of brown met her gaze through the trees, along with a bit of gold writing. Now she knew what it was. Why would the delivery truck be here at this time of morning? Paul usually drove through around ten a.m. and again at three in the afternoon. Once in a while, someone else delivered late packages about eight in the evening.
“So what’s he doing here now?” she whispered as she shoved aside a branch and scurried through the opening.
Annie stepped out onto the walk, arriving at the side of the big brown truck. The door lay open as usual, but this time, a pair of tanned legs with black running shoes hung out over the step. Annie had never heard of Paul taking a drink while on the job. The gossiping ladies would have made sure to pass that tidbit around.
Something about the stillness in Paul’s legs sent a cold chill down Annie’s back. Dread tightened the muscles in her throat, limiting her air supply. She told herself to look away, but her head refused to turn. A stumbling step caused a branch to poke into her right hip, and the sting brought her to life. She swung on her heel about to return to her house.
“Annie, what’s Paul doing around at half past six in the morning? Are you two having a secret rendezvous?”
Annie froze. Stacy walked toward her, being one of the residents who lived on the small side street. Annie looked past her friend to the house beyond. Stacy’s rancher, one of the newer properties unlike Annie’s Victorian and others like hers, lay in the middle of two other ranchers. Each of the properties was situated just yards away from the spot where the truck was parked. Stacy should have a good view of the spot from inside her house.
“I think we need to call the police, Stacy,” Annie said. She twisted her hands together.
Stacy’s eyes widened. “Why? What happened?”
Annie moved toward Stacy, wanting to get away from the body and keep Stacy from seeing it at the same time. She worked on automatic, her mind somewhat clouded. Stacy zipped around her, ever nosy, and squeaked in horror.
“Paul!” Stacy rushed forward but then dropped back to grab hold of Annie’s arm. “Is he…”
She all but dragged Annie closer.
Exercise and strength training is what I need.
Stacy’s grip was insanely strong.
“Paul?” Stacy called as if she expected him to snap out of it and answer her. Annie longed to go back home and wished she hadn’t ventured out. “He’s not moving.”
“He’s dead, Stacy.”
“How do you know?”
They crept closer to the truck, Annie with reluctance and Stacy almost eager to stare death in the face. Annie swallowed. The cookies roiled in her belly. Paul appeared to have fallen off the seat and landed face down on the floor, his feet hanging out the door. Thank goodness they couldn’t see into his eyes. No doubt about it from the way he lay, he wouldn’t be able to draw a breath if he had been alive when he hit the floor.
Annie tugged on Stacy’s hold. “Come on. We have to call the police.”
“I have my cell phone right here.”
When Stacy dug into her pocket, Annie noticed the bathrobe. Annie had stepped from the bushes seconds before Stacy called to her. Even as close as she lived, she would need more time to notice Annie and then make her way across the circle to where they stood.
Okay, Annie’s brain had started to function again. “Stacy, did you see the truck here last night?”
“No, I just saw you. Then I noticed the truck. I was just getting my morning coffee.”
Annie blinked at her in surprise. For some reason, Annie felt sure this was a lie.
“I’d rather move away from here,” Annie said. “Do you mind?”
“Come to my house while we wait. I’ll pour you a cup of coffee.”
“I have to lock up. My back door is open.”
“Pish, no one will break in while we’re gone. You don’t want to miss when the police show up.”
“Paul’s dead. He’s young, and probably didn’t have a heart attack. He’s parked somewhere he has no reason to be at a time he’s never around.”
“Um, good point. That’s why you’re a mystery writer. Okay, lock up. I’ll call. Hurry.”
Annie thought she was fine and that she’d snapped out of her initial shock and horror. Stacy being there with her chipper attitude helped. Yet, as Annie approached her house, she clutched her hands together tighter.
When she walked along the hall and passed her kitchen, she stopped and hurried back to the sink. Hot water stung her skin and turned it red, but she added more hand soap and dish detergent to her palms and scrubbed. A fifth wash would do it.
Someone rang the front doorbell. A stranger, she realized. An authoritative voice shouted through the door. “Police.”
Annie’s head spun. “Okay, Annie, this is what you do for a living. You solve mysteries, even if it is in print. Get it together, woman.”
Curiosity washed over her, and she grinned. That was better. Now that she had cleaned her hands, her mind settled a bit. Annie opened the door to a balding sixty-something policeman with a round belly that said too many donuts or too many beers, maybe both.
Guess I don’t get the handsome detective hero in this adventure.
The policeman checked his notes. “Are you Annie Holloway?”
She stood straighter and smiled. “Yes, you’ve heard of me?”
“Obviously.” The man looked peeved for having been called out. His shift probably didn’t start until later, but surely someone was on duty at six-thirty every day. “I’m Detective Lawson of the Amberlon Police Department. One of your neighbors informed me you were the one who found Paul Granger’s body. Why did you leave the scene of the crime?”
“Because I didn’t commit it. So he is dead?”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You seem pretty calm under the circumstances. This kind of thing doesn’t happen often in Amberlon.”
“It’s happened five times in the last five years,” Annie informed him.
“Why do you know that?”
“I’m a mystery writer.” Annie hugged herself. “I don’t have to come down there again, do I?”
His gaze swept her with suspicion. Annie got the feeling he thought she put on a show, pretending to be afraid when she wasn’t.
“I didn’t kill him if that’s what you’re worried about.”
He pursed his lips. “So you know it was murder, do you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
Voices reached her, and Annie glanced past the detective to find that her neighbors popped into view from various directions. Some had started migrating along the street, headed toward Stacy’s. She spotted the reflection of a police car in the window of someone else’s vehicle, so there were other policeman probably cordoning off the area.
The detective cleared his throat. “Describe for me why you were the one to discover the body and not one of the people who live on the street where the truck is parked. What were you doing over there, especially since you can’t see that area from your house.”
“On the contrary,” she began, and an arm came around her waist from behind. Annie glanced over her shoulder to find Jane had walked up from inside her house.
Jane wore her mother hen expression that most people cowed before. “Why are you berating my sister and not trying to find out who has done this terrible thing?”
“Shush, Jane, don’t sass the cops.”
“I will sass him when he’s obviously decided you’re guilty with no facts! No one is going to treat you like that.”
Annie rolled her eyes. “Really, Jane, it’s fine. I don’t have a motive, and Stacy was right there with me.”
Jane didn’t appear convinced, and neither did the detective. Her sister had a key to Annie’s house, and Annie had one to Jane’s. They never used them, but she suspected Jane had done so because she ignored the knock on the side door. Someone probably informed Jane of what happened just after Annie discovered the body. News traveled at the speed of light around their neighborhood.
Annie recited what happened from the moment she spotted the delivery truck from the attic window until she met up with Stacy on the street. She left out the tidbit that Stacy seemed to already be on the street when she arrived but pretended she spotted Annie from inside the house. If she were wrong, or a simple explanation cleared up the matter, she didn’t want to cast suspicion in Stacy’s direction.
Detective Lawson took notes, and when she was done, he slapped his notebook closed. “I’ll be in touch when I have more questions. Don’t leave town, Ms. Holloway, for any reason.”
At his retreating back, she called. “Now, when you say leave town, do you mean I’m free to travel anywhere in South Carolina, even if it’s another city? Because I have research I’m conducting in Fort Mill this week. I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
He scowled at her over his shoulder and then continued down the walk until he reached one of the fancy new police vehicles parked there. Annie couldn’t fit the grumpy and pudgy detective with the sporty style of the car, but one never knew.
Once the policeman had driven around the corner, she hesitated, wondering if she should join the rest of the crowd to gawk. Jane squeezed her shoulder and then grasped Annie’s hand. Neither of them spoke as they stood in the doorway. Annie knew what must be running through her sister’s mind. Hers refused to dismiss what occupied her thoughts.
“This has nothing to do with us, Annie,” Jane said. “Don’t let it bother you. Continue on with your day like nothing happened.”
“Easier said than done, sis.”
Annie smiled and hugged Jane. “My life is all about trying.”