Authors: Marlene Chase
Tags: #Mystery, #Fiction
Table of Contents
The Stolen Canvas
Copyright © 2012 DRG.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews. For information address DRG, 306 East Parr Road, Berne, Indiana 46711-1138.
The characters and events in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental.
Library of Congress-in-Publication Data
The Stolen Canvas / by Marlene Chase
Annie’s Attic Mysteries
Series Creator: Stenhouse & Associates, Ridgefield, Connecticut
Series Editors: Ken and Janice Tate
The willowy girl with hair the color of champagne dreaded the summer she would have to spend in the sleepy little Maine backwater, but she would have to endure it.
“It’s a lovely place, honey. There’s swimming and boating—and a real lighthouse.” Her mother patted her face and smiled, wrinkling her newly molded nose. “You’ll see; it will be great fun.”
The prophecy had proved patently untrue until she met a street-smart girl from Boston who would have been forbidden in the wealthy circles in which her parents moved. She had neither the breeding nor the money so important to them. What she did have was a thirst for adventure and a dinghy with a real outboard motor, which she sort of “borrowed” from an old man who lived up the coast.
Her new friend’s mom had “dumped” her there for the summer. And so the two lonely teens had forged a common and devoted bond.
The wiry fifteen-year-old had dark chestnut hair that curled naturally; when it rained it became as kinky as corkscrews. “You can call me ‘Corky’ if you want to. And you’ll be ‘Carlotta.’ Wasn’t she some hoity-toity princess or something?”
“I’m not a hoity-toity princess. Take that back!” the other protested. She was used to being snubbed for being rich, but secretly, she liked the name “Carlotta.”
When Carlotta’s mom went shopping in the nearby city of Portland with her luxury tour group friends, the girls agreed to meet at the dock. Carlotta pulled on jeans and a halter top, and paused at the mirror. Maplehurst Inn was supposed to be the best hotel in town, but even the double suite her Mom had rented was hopelessly out of date. No television set. No
, and what would the weekend be like without
Saturday Night Live
The eventful day was picture-perfect, though whether the girls took note of the climate or not, one couldn’t be sure. They did notice the fishermen down at the dock, especially the ones with sinewy muscles and deeply tanned shoulders. The girls sunned near the point, their boom box turned up as loud as they dared. They giggled and chatted over the magazines and candy Carlotta had bought at the gas station on their way to the beach.
When they grew restless, they walked out to Butler’s Lighthouse, wandered around the cove, and up and down a country road before heading back toward town. That’s when they spotted the car—a sleek silver Mustang Mach 1—its chrome shining with blinding brilliance.
“Will you look at that? A girl could fly to the ends of the earth in that thing!” exclaimed Carlotta. She had never driven a car, and it would be a whole year before she could get a permit to learn. But to go anywhere she wished with the wind blowing through her hair would be heaven.
The car was parked along a shady street some distance from the marina. There were no homes or shops in the vicinity and no other cars. It was as though the Mustang had just suddenly materialized, a magnificent silver horse galloping out of a dream.
Corky, who always pretended that nothing impressed her, shrugged her thin shoulders. When asked how anything was, she would always respond, “boring.” Now she craned her head forward and narrowed her eyes.
Carlotta drew in her breath as they stood behind the car. She could feel it like it was something living. The heat rising from the metal, like hot breath against her skin, made her heart pound; she’d never seen anything so beautiful, so powerful. “Someday I’m going to have a car like that!” she whispered.
“Why not now?” said Corky, with studied nonchalance.
Carlotta turned to stare at her. “Sure,” she said with a sardonic grin. She shook her head in wonder at the shiny chrome and the racing-horse emblem affixed to the front grill. “This makes my Mom’s Caddy look like a museum piece,” she murmured. “I’m going to ask for a car just like this for my graduation!”
A click resounded in the summer air. Corky had opened the Mustang’s door. They peered inside at gorgeous leather upholstery the color of crimson. The shiny dashboard looked like something out of
“What are you doing?” Carlotta stammered. “Are you crazy?”
“We’re just taking a look. There’s nobody around. Come on.”
Someone had left the key dangling from the ignition, as though inviting a test drive. Corky scooted behind the steering wheel. Then Carlotta slid onto the smooth leather of the passenger seat. Impulsively, Corky turned the key, and the engine roared to life. They were off, the automobile lurching and bucking like a wild bronco. The wiry, dark-haired girl drove with high confidence. Carlotta sucked in air as they flew down the dusty roads, the wind tearing at their hair and beach robes.
Neither girl spoke, each feeling the rush of wild abandon. They whizzed along Ocean Drive past the beautiful Victorian home perched atop the hill. In the distance, the peak of Butler’s Lighthouse shone in the midsummer sun.
After a while, they changed places. Carlotta tumbled over Corky in her eagerness to get into the driver’s seat. She clutched the steering wheel fiercely and pressed her sandaled foot hard on the accelerator. They were one with the wind, the sky, and the ocean. They could drive forever and go anywhere they wanted. Nothing could stop them.
Only something did.
Ironically, the accident didn’t happen until their initial frenzy had abated. They had slowed to a crawl, prepared reluctantly to return the car to the place where they’d found it. Carlotta negotiated a U-turn, but the road was too narrow. The tree loomed up in front of them like an alien thing.
Dazed but unhurt, they scrambled out of the car. The left fender was a mangled mess. When the distant wail of a siren sounded, Carlotta ran. She ran harder and faster than she’d ever run in her life. Corky, ashen-faced, seemed immobilized.
It would be hours later before Carlotta learned what happened next, hours before she knew that Corky had been taken to the police station and her mother sent for from Boston. Soon, the truth would come out that she had been with Corky. She had been the one driving and crashed into the tree. Corky would tell them, or someone who saw them would give the terrible details. The police would come for her. Her life would be ruined. Images of reform school loomed over her.
But the police didn’t come. When her mother returned from her shopping trip, Carlotta said she had spent the morning alone at the beach and had taken a nap in the afternoon. How easily the lies spilled from her lips.
The following day she learned the worst.
A semitruck driver had fallen asleep while southbound on Interstate 95. Crossing the grassy median, he had crashed head-on into a southbound sedan with Massachusetts plates. Corky’s mother never reached Maine alive.
Annie Dawson stepped onto the front porch of Grey Gables. Before her, summer lay full blown in shim- mering waves of heat. She drew in the scent of the ocean mingled with fragrant rose and lavender. Her gray cat, Boots, scampered past, took a few brief steps and spun around on delicate white paws to regard her. Then, lifting a well-groomed tail in the air, she padded off into the sunshine.
Annie dropped down on a wicker chair, feeling sublimely at home. The sun’s fingers cupped her face and wrapped her body in golden warmth. Who would have thought it? She certainly had not expected it when she’d first taken on the estate of her grandmother, Betsy Holden, that repairing the graying old house with its cache of dubious treasures and neglected gardens would turn from duty to pleasure.
She had planned a quick disposition of Gram’s things, none of which she needed or wanted—at least not then. She would put the house at 1 Ocean Drive up for sale and go back to Texas. After all, Stony Point was two thousand miles away from her family, and Maine winters were terrible to contemplate, let alone survive.
But she’d done more than survive. She stayed only part of the winter at Grey Gables. She’d reveled in the artful symmetry of the land when snow turned its contours into a wild white sea, and the sun made it sparkle like a faceted diamond. She’d relished walks along the ice-encrusted beach and learned to listen to a silence so deep it felt like a physical presence. She understood now why Gram had been so reluctant to go south in winter. Right up to the end she’d preferred the comfort of her own fireplace and let the elements rage and blow.
Annie had chosen to go home to Texas for Christmas and extended her holiday well past February. Alice MacFarlane, her best friend and childhood companion from summers spent with Gram, had watched over the house faithfully in her absence, and had taken care of Boots. Wally Carson, handyman par excellence, was only a phone call away to check the furnace or pipes. When Annie had come back in early March, winter still clung to the landscape with the tenacity of a white bulldog. While she enjoyed every minute in Texas, she had been anxious about the well-being of Grey Gables.
She had been eager to see her friends in Stony Point too—especially her fellow Hook and Needle Club members. She watched the slow birth of spring and took to Gram’s garden with a vengeance. Now the fruits of her labor flowered along the walkway and in the circular gardens she had so patiently dug. Peonies flourished among purple and red salvia; hydrangea and Michaelmas daisies blossomed with unrestrained ardor.
“Good to be home, isn’t it, Boots?” She glanced at Gram’s gray cat preening her white paws in a patch of sunlight. They’d long since adopted each other but took care not to intrude when one or the other preferred solitude. Now, Boots gave her an indulgent stare, her feline face resembling a smile.
Annie sighed. It wasn’t that she hadn’t enjoyed spending time with her daughter LeeAnn, Herb and the twins. She had delighted in the games and banter of John and Joanna. She was delighted to see them in the matching sweaters she had crocheted. She begrudged not one stitch of the difficult design she’d labored over the long year past. She was so proud of the twins; she had soaked up their developing personalities, each so different from the other. Both excelled in school and gave every indication of becoming heads of Fortune 500 companies or even president of the United States. Of course, they’d have to learn their times tables first and grow permanent teeth.
They had been full of questions. “Grandma,” Joanna had asked, “what was it like in the olden days?” LeeAnn had giggled behind her hands, and Annie had given her daughter a swat with a towel.
She was only in her forties, for goodness sake. She was no gray old lady yet. And if claiming John and Joanna was the price for being called “Grandma,” it was worth it and more.
Serious-minded John, who loved to draw, wanted to know, “Was Gram Holden really an artist?”
LeeAnn had been quick to respond, her blue eyes taking on a proud luster. “She was one of the best! She hand-painted her own canvases and stitched them in the most gorgeous colors you can imagine! Why, she’s as famous as Florida’s Jane Nichols or Kaffe Fassett of England.”
The children had no idea that Nichols or Fassett drew world scrutiny for their original canvases. Still, they seemed suitably impressed.
To illustrate, LeeAnn pointed to the large wall hanging of children playing on a beach. The stitching was so fine and uniform that one had to look closely to be sure it wasn’t a grand painting.
It was one of the first major pieces Gram had stitched, a gift to Annie’s mother when Annie was born. Annie passed it on to LeeAnn at the birth of the twins. The canvas was large—at least 24 by 36 inches—and needed a large airy spot, which LeeAnn had found in her high-ceilinged dining room. The heirloom was beautifully crafted with a delicate gray-blue ocean in the background and sand in rich hues of gold, brown, and ivory. You could almost feel the warm grains beneath your feet and hear the lapping of the waves against the shore.
“Not many can say they actually own a Betsy Original!” LeeAnn had said proudly.
Annie was surprised at the amount the Hook and Needle Club had raised at the previous summer’s charity art fair. The bulk of it came from the auction of Gram’s old lighthouse canvas for which a collector had paid $2,000. Inquiries about other New England pieces followed, amazing them all. Gram would be astounded that her canvases had become valuable to anyone but her.
“Hey, dream girl! You ready to go?”
Jolted back to the present, Annie jumped at the sound of Alice’s light soprano call. She’d been practically lulled to sleep by warm thoughts of her family.
“Good grief! You scared me!” she quipped as Alice dropped down beside her. “Is it that time already?”
“We’ll miss half the Hook and Needle Club gossip!” Alice said lightly. “But Mary Beth won’t start scolding until the meeting really begins at eleven. After that, watch out!”
Alice MacFarlane smelled of roses. Her bracelets clinked pleasantly as she coiled her hands around the arms of the wicker chair. Rings tacitly advertising Princessa jewelry glistened on each well-groomed finger, even the thumbs. Alice’s presence only heightened that sense of well-being that had seized Annie from the moment she’d wakened. They had so quickly resumed their friendship; it was great getting reacquainted with Alice’s fun-loving ways and to recall long-ago days of sun and sand along the coast.
Summers in the quaint old town of Stony Point, Maine, encompassed some of her most cherished recollections, many of which she shared with Alice.
Grey Gables, the Victorian home of Charles and Betsy Holden, was built on an eastern hill that overlooked the ocean. The spacious lawn gave way to a winding path through wild grasses scrolling down to the rocky shoreline. On the right side of the Victorian house, with its wide front porch, was a small pond alive with tadpoles, creepers, and dragonflies. She’d forgotten how much she’d loved it during those long-ago summers spent with Grandpa and Gram Holden. And now Grey Gables was hers.
“I was just thinking how good it is to be alive,” Annie said. “I love to look out at these flowers, these trees, and that magnificent ocean!”
Alice turned radiant blue eyes on her friend and grinned. “Same trees, same ocean as yesterday,” she said with a teasing lilt. “Same Miss Philosopher. But we need to get going.” Tossing her auburn hair, she tugged at Annie’s hand.
“OK, OK,” Annie said, rising. “I’ll just get my purse and project bag.” She went inside, Alice following close on her heels.
“Each time I’m in here, I have to marvel at how you’ve done wonders with Grey Gables, Annie.” Alice crossed her arms over her pale blue shirt and cast admiring glances around the house. “Inside and out! Your grandmother would be so pleased!”
“Well, between the work Wally has done and the work I have done, I guess it looks presentable,” she said, scooping up a newspaper and dropping it into the magazine basket. “But you were the one who papered all those hand-cut roses over the vanity in the bathroom.”
“It was no picnic either, believe me!” Alice said in mock distaste, and then added, “You’ve made Grey Gables a showplace that would bring a pretty price. Not that I think you should … well … sell it, I mean.” She detoured into the living room. “I’ve gotten used to having you right next door!”
Annie looked at her friend fondly, recalling that spring she had thought Alice might leave to join her photographer friend, Jim Parker. But the two had shared an on-again, off-again romance, and Alice was still entrenched in the carriage house that was originally part of the Grey Gables grounds. She gave her friend a quick wink. “You just want someone to help you with your parties! Some of them are no picnic either, you know!”
“Is that a new table by the window?” Alice asked.
“That, my dear, is Gram’s old Pembroke drop leaf that Wally worked on for me. It must have been quite a chore to restore the inlay.”
“Even has a Hepplewhite pull,” Alice murmured. “That Wally is a genius with his hands.”
“He is that,” Annie agreed, “and a sensitive guy too. Did you know he carries binoculars in his tool chest? He’s taken to watching birds, especially when he goes fishing. I bet he could craft wooden birds as well as model boats.”
“You got him started on that. I bought one the other day for my nephew in San Diego.” Alice stepped further into the room, continued her appraising glances. “Betsy’s pillows look great against that dark green sofa cover. Very chic! But maybe you ought to put them under lock and key, now that Betsy Originals are in such demand. That one with the orange poppies is absolutely to die for!”
Crochet tote in hand, Annie paused to stand next to Alice and study the canvas. “It is lovely.” She traced the vibrant poppies intermingled with delicate ivy. An intricate border design incorporated the brilliant orange of the flowers and the ivy’s verdant green. Annie swallowed the lump in her throat. Gram’s unique artistry touched her with singular beauty—a beauty that reflected her life and spirit. And to think she could claim such a heritage for her own.
Annie sighed. She was so richly blessed. The emotion washed over her with such force she felt nearly dizzy. The joy of it all lingered as she rode to town in Alice’s sporty Mustang. And soon they were surrounded by the women who had become their friends and confidantes.
The Tuesday morning Hook and Needle Club welcomed women of all ages. From Stella Brickson, who had grown up with Gram, to Kate Stevens’s teenage daughter, Vanessa, a bond had been forged among them. They not only shared their passion for needlework but the everyday pathos of living. When Kate went through a divorce after years of enduring Harry’s alcoholism, they had all lived through her tears and triumphs. When Peggy Carson’s little Emily had been injured, they had showered her with cards, balloons, and visits.
Stella Brickson was just settling herself at the table and caught Annie’s eye. “Well, Annie Dawson, good morning to you.” In her mid-eighties, she sat ramrod straight, her hair a smooth gray cap on her regal head. She no longer wore it high and coiled with tortoiseshell combs; such a style probably worked havoc with arthritic fingers and aching joints. Still, there was an air of elegance about Stella.
“And to you,” Annie answered with a smile. Stella could be formidable when challenged, but she was really a gentle soul. And because Annie had learned that elderly people often missed the tenderness of touch, she put an arm around the woman’s soft shoulder and lightly kissed her cheek.
She waved to Gwendolyn Palmer and Kate Stevens who pored over a pattern spread out on the table. Kate wore a pale green jacket embroidered with hummingbirds on each pocket—no doubt her own creation. Gwen, impeccable in dress as in reputation, wore slacks of pale turquoise and a Polo Club knit in petal pink. She and Kate were by far the most dress-conscious of the group, but they didn’t look down on the rest who preferred a more casual approach to fashion. Vanessa, in “air-conditioned” jeans gave new meaning to summertime grunge. With high school out for the summer, she could wear whatever struck her fancy—and almost anything did.
“I’m here, everyone!” Peggy Carson spilled into the room, whipping off the apron she wore as a waitress at The Cup & Saucer. Her quilting skills were improving rapidly, and everyone enjoyed her life-of-the-party spirit. Then, too, it was always entertaining to see what Peggy’s beautician sister had done to her hair. Today, pink streaks had been woven in and out of her dark tresses.
Good-natured gossip and chatter prevailed as the women pulled out their projects. A Stitch in Time had flourished over three decades under the capable management of Mary Beth Brock, whose prowess with a needle was legendary. She ran a tight ship, too, which included the tutoring of Stony Point’s needlewomen.
All eyes turned when Mary Beth suddenly pushed through the back-room door in navy blue slacks and a blouse accented with a burgundy smock. She pivoted on sturdy shoes and clasped the handles of a wicker basket big enough to obscure her portly frame.
“What on earth?” Stella Brickson intoned, dropping her knitting into her lap.
Vanessa leaped up to help, but Mary Beth had a firm hold on the basket, which Annie could see was covered with a cloth the size of a baby blanket.
A look of pride—or joy—or both beamed from Mary Beth’s face as she approached the table with the basket. She looked flushed and almost young. Certainly she’d lost a good ten of her sixty years. “I’ve a little surprise for you!” she warbled. And Mary Beth, who had never been known to “warble” in her life, set the basket down. Gingerly she pulled the blanket back.
A mewling mass of multicolored kittens tumbled about in the basket, all furry tails and awkward paws. They blinked filmy blue eyes and emitted plaintive little cries from wide-open pink mouths. Everyone gawked at Mary Beth’s surprise with little sighs of wonder.
“Vanessa and I found them last week—abandoned in the window well, the one right over there on the south side of the shop.” Mary Beth, who had never married, beamed like a new mother. “We’ve been taking care of them, feeding them from a bottle! Would you believe it?”