Book 11 in the Foxglove Corner Mysteries
The dogs began to bark before there was any reason for canine agitation. At least none that I could perceive. One jet black collie, and one whose coat brought together all the colors of the autumn leaves, they dashed through the daffodils that lined Jonquil Lane, effectively shattering the Sunday morning silence. When they reached the lane, they froze, tails held high and long noses pointed skyward.
“Candy!” I shouted. “Gemmy! Come!”
They didn’t even turn their heads to look at me.
Dogs, I knew, could see things invisible to the human eye. Whatever had captured their attention was above us.
I scanned the sky, expecting to see a marauding hawk, a flock of feathered terrors, or perhaps a cloud shaped like a velociraptor. Instead I saw an endless expanse of azure and shreds of cottony fluff moving languidly to the south.
“Nothing’s up there,” I said.
But I was wrong. A moment later a hot air balloon glided into view. The magnificent flying object had wide bands of bright red, yellow, blue, and green. It flew low over Jonquil Lane.
So low that I could see its four passengers clearly. Two rosy-cheeked, tow-headed children, a young woman in a green sundress whose long auburn hair struggled to escape from the confines of an orange scarf, and a man with his hands resting protectively on the shoulders of the two youngsters.
So low that the people in the balloon could conceivably jump to the ground without harm. Apparently arriving at the same realization, Candy leaped up into the air, jaws open to fasten around the flying machine and pull it down to earth. With her black fur blown back, she was a vision of beauty in motion.
Entranced by her antics, the children laughed and waved. The little girl yelled, “Lassie!” a cry echoed by the boy at her side.
Lassie isn’t black, I thought, but I waved back and repeated in my sternest tone, “Candy, Come!”
Gemmy looked at me but decided she wasn’t included in my latest command.
I made another attempt to regain control of the situation. “Both of you! Come!”
Not a chance. The lure of the colorful UFO was stronger than the voice of their mistress. The little girl leaned over the edge of the balloon, and the man thrust her firmly back to the center.
It was the kind of day for man and beast to go slightly wild with joy, the first truly warm day of spring with a fresh, sweet breeze and new green leaves on every tree and plant. A day to fly through the air far above the ground where no evil thing could get you.
But that didn’t give the dogs a free pass to wretched behavior.
Halley and Sky, my good, docile collies, were barking in the house where they had gone when I’d issued the order that should have ended our long play session. Wanting my canine family all together, I reached for Gemmy’s collar, but she danced saucily away before I could grab her. Candy, who knew better than to come close to me at a time like this, kept her distance.
Thwarted, I glanced up at the balloon. A single detail in the sky scene had changed. The orange scarf, having come untied, was on its way to the ground, fluttering gaily in the breeze. The young woman’s long hair blew freely, obscuring her features.
As I watched, something small and white broke free from the orange folds and fell in its own direction. The balloon sailed over the old yellow Victorian across the lane, then on above the woods. Skimming the treetops, it vanished from sight.
“All right,” I said. “Excitement’s over.”
But not for Candy and Gemmy. They bounded after the balloon. Foolish, deluded dogs, thinking they could catch a balloon that rode the airways by running through the woods. I could hear them barking, already far away. Should I even bother to call them?
No. They’d chosen not to listen to me today. At any rate, they could outrun me. We all knew that.
At times like these I had to admit that four collies were three too many for a busy high school English teacher and the wife of a deputy sheriff.
During the months after I’d rescued Gemmy, she had learned dozens of new tricks from the incorrigible Candy. Candy would come home without her flying prize when she was ready, and Gemmy would follow Candy. I, Jennet Ferguson, would relax on the porch with a cup of tea and a mid-morning muffin.
But first I wanted to retrieve the orange scarf.
I waded through the meadow where weeds competed with wildflowers for air and precious light. The scarf had landed in a tangle of white blossoming vine. It was oblong in shape, the color of orange sherbet, and as light as the air. Far too pretty to lose in a country meadow, but the woman in the balloon obviously wasn’t coming back for it.
Stuffing the scarf in the pocket of my denim skirt, I made my way to the path that led to the kitchen door. A bit of debris lay amidst the tulips. I picked it up, recalling, as I did, the white object that had fallen from the balloon with the scarf.
Limp and damp with dew, it contained a single word, written with what appeared to be deep rose red lipstick. Help.
How strange! An SOS from the sky. If that’s what it was. Strange and melodramatic.
Things like this didn’t generally happen. Except in Foxglove Corners, headquarters for mysterious and untoward occurrences and an occasional ghost.
This message had to be a joke.
In the kitchen, I bestowed grateful pats on the heads of Halley, my first collie, and Sky, my gentle blue merle rescue, and sat down to examine the missive more thoroughly. It appeared to be a piece ripped from a paper napkin and folded in two, suggesting desperation and haste. The red smear at a corner could be strawberry or raspberry jam.
A napkin from breakfast, most likely.
But what if it wasn’t a joke?
I filled the teakettle and reached for a blueberry muffin. Who needed help and why choose this bizarre method to ask for it? The hot air balloon was long gone, and the family with it. I assumed they were a family. A traditional nuclear family on an unconventional Sunday outing in the sky.
“I don’t know what I could do,” I murmured.
Halley nudged my hand with her nose. A whimper that might have been sympathy but more likely was a reminder that she and Sky were past due for their snack. I opened the Lassie tin and set three heart-shaped biscuits alongside each dog’s water bowl.
While they crunched the treats, I tried a few scenarios on for size. The mischievous little boy had seized his chance to play a trick on his elders. One of the passengers was afraid the balloon would leak propane gas and crash. The auburn-haired girl had blotted her lipstick on the napkin, creating a stain that only looked like a word.
That last was ludicrous.
Crane, my husband and Foxglove Corners’ favorite deputy sheriff, was currently on duty patrolling the roads and byroads of Foxglove Corners. He would know what to do about the message from the sky, if anything. Probably he’d tell me to ignore it, as the unorthodox plea for help sounded suspiciously like a mystery.
To Crane, mystery was synonymous with danger. Although he lived with danger every day, he wanted me to be safe; and neither one of us wanted our happy peaceful lives disrupted any more than necessary.
So forget the balloon for now. Most likely there’s no real emergency. Think of something ordinary and down-to-earth like lesson plans and Sunday dinner.
And I did. For the moment.
With my schoolwork finished and a chicken roasting in the oven, I took Halley and Sky out to the porch and sat in a wicker chair gazing across the lane where the yellow Victorian house that belonged to my, neighbor, friend, and aunt by marriage, Camille Ferguson, baked in an unseasonably warm sun.
Vacant ever since Camille’s winter wedding to Crane’s uncle, Gilbert, the house had quickly reverted to its previous state. Desolate and lonely. Almost haunted. The way it had been when I’d first come to Foxglove Corners and wondered what secret it held.
Tall grasses and weeds pretending to be flowers grew unchecked amidst the giant foxgloves in Camille’s once-pristine perennial beds. It was every plant for itself until Camille came home in June with her husband and restored the gardens to order. But that wasn’t now. I missed her more than I would have thought possible.
If she were across the lane instead of in her new home in Tennessee, I’d tell her about the message that had fallen from the sky while we sampled her latest nut bread or sponge cake. And I’d confide my worry about Candy and Gemmy. They hadn’t come home yet. I wished I’d been more assertive with them, wished I’d followed them into the woods.
I reminded myself why I hadn’t done that.
They were probably safe. There was little traffic on the country lanes that surrounded Jonquil Lane, but people tended to drive fast and might not see a dog in the road until it was too late to stop.
I willed this heartrending scene to dissolve. If I lost one of my dogs today, it would be the fault of the hot air balloon.
They’ll come home in time for dinner, I told myself. Like most dogs, Candy and Gemmy loved to eat. Almost as much as they loved to explore in the woods.
If they were home now, I could never have set the chocolate meringue pie I’d baked for dessert on the kitchen table to cool.
There were too many if’s in my thoughts today. Too much anxiety with members of my canine family missing.
Candy and Gemmy, come home, I said.
Crane locked his gun in its special cabinet and kissed me again. A light outdoorsy scent enveloped me. Woods and air, a touch of balsam soap, and a new shaving cologne. His fair hair was damp from the shower, and his frosty gray eyes sparkled.
Next Sunday was the day of our first wedding anniversary, and he still had the power to unsettle me with a touch or a word. Definitely with a kiss. It was corny, but true.
“Need any help with dinner, honey?” he asked.
“No, but thanks,” I said. “Everything’s ready.”
And so was I, serviceable denim traded for a pink cotton dress with a flattering square neckline and a vase filled with wildflowers on the table.
I took the chicken out of the oven and reviewed the other items on my Sunday dinner menu. Stuffing, salad, vegetables, and biscuits. Halley and Sky had eaten already and settled down to wait for leftovers from our plates. Neither Candy nor Gemmy had come home yet.
I tried to make every meal Crane and I shared a special occasion, and we’d both agreed to forego any school or sheriff conversation until after dinner. So I made my one serious observation before we sat down.
“Dogs always give you grief,” I said. “They’ve been gone all day.”
He answered in a comforting I’m-in-charge tone. “They’re probably chasing rabbits or deer. After dinner, we’ll drive around and look for them.”
“Through the woods?”
“I was thinking of Squill Lane. We’ll start there and branch out in every direction.”
The orange scarf and the piece of napkin lay on the buffet in full view. Earlier, I’d told Crane about the hot air balloon that had precipitated the dash into the woods and, of course, about the SOS.
“That’s odd,” he said. “Just ignore it.”
I knew him well.
“It was the balloon that distracted them,” I’d said.
“Still, they should have obeyed you.”
“They listen to you.” I tried not to sound envious.
“Yes, but you’re with them more than I am. Maybe you should enroll them in obedience class this summer. No dog should make its own decisions. Running free can be a death sentence.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Halley had a diploma from obedience school, and Sky quiet and inclined to be clingy after a traumatic experience, wouldn’t dream of disobeying her humans. But Candy and Gemmy wouldn’t hesitate to do so; they were wild cards.
I lit the tall white tapers in the heirloom candlesticks that had once belonged to Crane’s Civil War ancestress, Rebecca Ferguson. That was the signal to end all talk of domestic troubles.
“I’ve wanted to go up in a hot air balloon ever since I saw one on my first morning in Foxglove Corners,” I said. “Cameron Lodge was riding in it to advertise Skyway Tours. He said, ‘Come fly with me.’”
“You never told me.” He winked at me. “Maybe we can celebrate our anniversary in the air.”
“That would be unique. But we could wait until fall and make it a color tour.”
I passed him the platter of chicken in a surround of his favorite bread stuffing. Yes, fall was the perfect time for a memorable air ride. The woods of Foxglove Corners would be ablaze with color; the air would have a gentle bite. Then we’d come back to earth to celebrate properly in a restaurant like the Adriatica where we’d had our first date.
“We’ll do it,” he said.
Halley started barking, and Sky lifted her pretty blue head moments before I heard an ominous grating sound at the door. Nails raked the wood, creating an appalling sound reminiscent of a hand scratching desperately at a coffin lid.
That was another trick Candy had taught Gemmy.
“It looks like the wanderers have returned,” I said.
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