A lost love and a murdered aunt push a shy teacher out of her shell and into the path of trouble. The detectives on her murdered aunt’s case see Jessica as a possible killer. The murderer sees Jess as a risk to his safety. Her aunt’s best friend thinks Jess is the person to solve the mystery surrounding the aunt’s death. Together the two women team up to bring the killer to justice and discover in the process other people’s secrets and longings and quirks.
Lolly Groves answered my knock on her front door with one child in her arms and another in tow — both boys, both clearly unhappy.
The child in her arms was about three, I guessed. He wailed loudly. The other, who looked about six, stamped his foot and tried to pull his hand free from his mother’s grasp. He yelled, as Betsey and I stood there gaping, “But Mom, you promised.”
“I know I did,” she said to him, while smiling steadfastly at us, “but things have changed. Get over it.”
She used her elbow to unlatch the storm door and her foot to push it open. “Please, please, come on in.”
The home we entered was tidy, which was a marvel, considering the amount of activity swirling around us. She released the older child and told him he could go to Joey’s house now if he wanted. He grinned and shot past Betsey and me in a flash.
“What about the rain?” Betsey asked in his wake.
“Oh, a little rain won’t hurt him. Besides, he’s only going next door.”
Meanwhile, the younger child continued to howl and squirm in Lolly’s arms.
“Come on out to the kitchen.” She took our dripping umbrellas into her free hand and led the way through a living room filled with bric-a-brac, fading furniture, and an oversized TV.
“Jimmy’s just hungry. That’s all. He’ll quiet down once I feed him. Take a seat,” she said and pointed to a set of ladder-back chairs neatly standing around a trim, wooden table. Our umbrellas went onto a small mat in a corner.
She then slid Jimmy into a booster chair and assembled lunch meat, crackers, and some sliced apples onto an unbreakable plate which she slid before an already quieted, little tyke.
If she entered the corporate world, I thought, she’d make an extraordinary efficiency expert. I was impressed.
“You know, I’m so glad you stopped by,” Lolly said. “George, that’s my husband, has been plowing snow at your aunt’s place for years. He does the driveway with his pickup truck. Then he comes back and does the sidewalks with his snow blower. I told him you’d probably want him to keep doing that. I couldn’t see you or Harriet wanting the place to look abandoned,”
“No,” I protested. “We wouldn’t.”
She picked up a napkin from the table and gave Jimmy’s mouth a quick swipe.
“Anyway,” she continued. “They say we might see snow sometime late this week or next. Well, George has been slow to call about it. Said he didn’t know just who’d be looking after Ruth’s things now. But I said he should get in touch with either you or Harriet. Bound to be one of you who will be looking after things.”
“Sure. Tell him to go ahead. Mom and I will cover it. I doubt I’d have given a thought to snow removal. But you’re right. Somebody needs to do it.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it. I suppose with all the pressure you’re under Jess, this must seem a small thing. But at least it’s out of the way now.”
“Pressure?” I asked.
“Oh right, you probably don’t know.” She chewed her lower lip a moment. “I maybe . . . possibly . . . shouldn’t be telling you this, but anybody who knows you, knows you’re not a killer. ”
I felt my stomach tighten as I wondered where this conversation was going?
“Anyway, George’s cousin works over in lock up at the county jail?”
George’s cousin? I nodded.
“Well, he overheard the biggest row between Devine and Sturn the other day. Apparently, Sturn thinks you should be in jail. But that’s just old feud talking, that’s what I told George. I mean that stuff goes all the way back to his granddad, for pity’s sakes.”
“Feud?” I asked, blinking. “His grandfather?”
“I can’t remember the details, but I heard the story once from Sturn’s wife. Your granddad did something at some time to his, and the Sturns, every last one of them, are still fuming over it. He’s just out to get you because his folks are still mad at yours.”
Such things could happen, I thought, unbelievably. One of my childhood friends had been asked to remove herself from the family section at a funeral because of long-term hard feelings. It was her aunt, no less, being buried, and her uncle who had come over and had asked the entire family to move.
“But Devine doesn’t believe I did it?” I asked, my mind falling back to the potential in the other half of her message..
“Well, what George said . . . was that Devine kept screaming about there being no actual evidence pointing to you. Like duh.”
Like duh, indeed, I thought.
By then little Jimmy had finished his lunch. Lolly scooped him up out of his chair with a brief apology, saying that she had to get him down for a nap.
“Don’t go away now,” she said over her shoulder as she exited the room with the now smiling child clutched tightly in her arms. He waved at us on his way out the door. Feeling somewhat foolish, I waved back.
“Sturn?” Betsey chirped after their departure.
“Sounds a charming sort of a man.”
“Apparently he’s the one pushing for my arrest.”
“All the more reason for us to press forward with this,” she said with a firm nod.
I could see no reason to argue the point.
We sat mute for the next few minutes. I was wrestling with the meaning of Lolly’s comments,. Betsey was apparently lost in her own speculations.
Lolly re-entered the room before either of us had managed to pull ourselves out of our ruminations. The young mother bounced back to the table, slipped into her seat, and continued her tale as though an interruption had never occurred.
“Well, anyway, I think you’re in good hands with Devine on your side,” she said. “George and I both like him. And he’s got the cutest little boy. Same age as my Billy. They were in kindergarten class together this year over in Porter City. The little pumpkin looks just like his dad, and that guy is a hunk.”
I felt myself stir in my chair.
“I presume there’s a Mrs. Devine,” Betsey said.
“Nah. His wife died before Devine moved here. That’s one of the reasons he came. He told George once that if he . . . Devine . . . had to raise his boy alone, he wanted to live in a nice, small, quiet place.”
Small towns were quiet, I thought, as long as you didn’t listen to the sound of all that gossip swirling around you.
“Speaking of Devine,” I said, clearing my throat, “did he talk to you after the murder?”
“Well, sure. He and Sturn both came by since I cleaned for your aunt. They wanted to know everything I knew.” She rolled her eyes.
“Did you have anything to give them? Any information that you think might have helped them figure out what happened?”
“Well,” she said looking rather sheepishly at me, “they did want to know about Ruth’s fellow. I guess it’s okay to tell you that, you being family and all.”
I nodded, encouraging her, but my conscience didn’t like what I was doing one bit. I was rather certain that neither Devine nor Sturn would want her telling me anything. I probably shouldn’t push her to reveal even more to me than she already had. But curiosity and fear trumped my scruples.
“So there was a ‘fellow?’” I asked.
“Not that I met. I want you to know that. I didn’t know who he was. But there were little signs of a man in the house, you know. Hard to hide something like that from someone who cleans for you.”
I felt as though Lolly had punctured some part of my world. I sank back in my chair.
I thought I’d known Aunt Ruth. This seemed so unlike her. I wasn’t opposed to her finding happiness, even at her age. How sad that it came with such secrecy or that she’d felt unable or unwilling to share news of her joy with others — even with her own sister or niece.
As I sat there stammering over a response, Betsey reached out and patted my hand.
“We’d better be going,” Betsey said to Lolly. “We appreciate your time, and you’ve been very generous with your information. Thank you.”
Betsey stood; I rose also. Lolly handed us our umbrellas and then led us back to the front door.
“George thinks, Jess,” Lolly said as we were about to depart, “Devine’s soft on you. Said he could tell by the way the man stood up for you.”
She nudged my arm with her elbow.
I felt my jaw drop. I stood there speechless.
Finally, Betsey grabbed my free arm and pulled me through the doorway — back into the real world.
Back into all that rain.
We clicked open our umbrellas and made a mad dash for my car.
Anna Drake is a retired small-town journalist and dreamer; a mother and grandmother; a quilter and a gardener. She lives in a small house beside a wooded ravine with her cat, Jasper. Together they watch and enjoy the wild critters that sometimes wander into their yard. Anna grew up on a small grain farm in northern Illinois and still lives in the state. Reading and writing are her two favorite passions.