The phone was ringing.
Its incessant shrill sliced through
the afternoon silence that hung over Beechnut Street. In the
thick June air, the sound was unnaturally loud, as nerve-wracking
as any sudden disturbance in a quiet place.
One more annoyance, I thought as I
turned the key in the lock of my house. Then, What phone?
The only phone in my newly-purchased
Victorian cottage in Maple Creek was a vintage black dial
tone landline, mounted on the bright yellow kitchen wall.
It had been disconnected, or so the realtor, Dinah Deering,
Therefore it couldn’t ring. Still,
it did. Three times; four times; five . . .
Turning the knob, I pushed open the front door and dashed
through the dining room to the kitchen. As I reached for the
receiver, the ringing stopped, leaving a lingering echo in
the close air.
Feeling foolish, I said, “Hello
. . . Hello?”
No one answered. The echo faded; welcome
silence returned. I heard the muted hum of the refrigerator,
the faint drip drip from the faucet, and the ticking of the
clock in the dining room. All familiar sounds. I was home—Home
Sweet Home—in my own house, a mile from the clamor and
chaos of Louisa M. Alcott Middle School. Nothing could touch
I replaced the receiver and brushed
a speck of dust from its top with my finger. How could a disconnected,
dead phone ring?
The answer was simple. Dinah Deering
I had never questioned her. I’d
never even taken the receiver off the hook. In the age of
cells and blackberries, landlines were extraneous. I’d
only given the phone a passing thought. When I painted the
kitchen a softer shade of yellow, I would remove it and fill
in the hollowed-out space. Until then it could stay.
Besides, who would call Violet Julaine,
the previous owner? She was dead, murdered a long time ago
in this very house. Anyone wishing to contact me knew my cell
phone number. I’d probably just missed a telemarketer.
Setting my purse and school books
on the table, I told myself, It’s Friday. Forget the
But it wasn’t that easy. Wouldn’t
Dinah know whether or not the phone was working?
I lifted the receiver again and listened.
There was no dial tone. Nothing but dead air. Well, then,
Dinah was right.
Still puzzling over the mystery, I
climbed the stairs to my bedroom to change out of my white
blouse and navy skirt and reached for a silky peach dress
with an empire waistline. For the first time all day I felt
comfortable and cool.
The rest of the afternoon was mine.
* * * *
Every day after school I drew a heavy
black X through the date on my kitchen calendar. On Friday,
I counted the days left until June seventeenth and the end
of the school year. Then I celebrated the survival of one
more week with a fabulous dinner at the Blue Lion Inn on Main
Street. They offered Prime Rib, Fish, Spirits, and the best
desserts I’d ever eaten.
Usually I dined alone. Still relatively
new in town, I hadn’t met many people yet, and most
of my school friends had their own lives.
I always walked the half mile to the
Blue Lion, reveling in the fresh air and scenery. The leaves
on the maple trees along the way were fully developed now,
vibrant green and russet red. They rustled in the breeze and
cast shadows on the gleaming sidewalk. Stray sunbeams filtered
through their canopy and danced off the geraniums and impatiens
in my neighbors’ yards.
This was one of those rare days in
June that inspires poets and revives the weary; when vegetation
is young and fresh, not yet weighted down by the summer heat,
and pesky insects are still hatching. Feeling free and grateful
for my life, I breathed air filled with the scents of freshly-mowed
grass and spicy stock.
I still marveled that I had found
a unique fairy-tale home in this picturesque town. Known to
the locals as Valentine Villa, the nineteenth century cottage
was the soft pink color of strawberry fluff. Beneath the highest
gable, a heart-shaped stained glass window glowed in the light
like a rosy jewel.
The Victorian was exquisite, a veritable
jewel itself, yet it had languished in Michigan’s dying
house market for over a year. I couldn’t understand
why no one had snapped it up at the incredible twice-reduced
On that sunny day last month when
Dinah Deering had showed me the property, she had offered
an explanation. “That’s because of the murder
that was committed here. It’s part of the house’s
colorful history, but some folks don’t want to live
with . . .” She paused, looking away. “. . .unfortunate
“Well . . .” I’d
let my gaze rest on the heart window and thought about my
savings that would cover the down payment; about the affordable
mortgage; and, most important of all, my present long commute.
If I lived in Maple Creek, I’d avoid snowy weather and
road rage on the freeway. My drive time would shrink from
an hour to ten minutes, and I’d save hundreds of dollars
on gas. “If this murder happened some time ago . . .”
“It did,” Dinah said quickly.
“And it wasn’t a bit gory.”
“If the murder is part of the
past, then it won’t bother me,” I said.
An historic murder. A Valentine window
swimming in a light May mist. Cascades of pink blossoms on
the weeping cherry tree in the front yard. Delicate gingerbread
trim, a spacious front porch. Here was everything I had ever
dreamed about; more than I ever thought I’d have.
I gazed at the white picket fence
that enclosed the yard and thought, Now I can have my dog.
“Let’s walk around to
the back,” Dinah said. “The flowerbeds need a
little work. With all the rain we’ve been having, the
weeds have taken over.”
They had, but against the west fence,
tulips and hyacinths bloomed in the shade of the closely spaced-elm
trees that gave the yard the look of a forest. Wild ferns
and lilies of the valley threatened to choke the weeds Dinah
had mentioned. I’d never had a chance to work out of
doors. Neatening this unkempt garden would be a pleasure.
“The back yards on this street are unusually deep,”
she added. “You could plant a vegetable garden if you
“Not in all this shade,”
“In containers then?”
The first half of the property was
level; then it sloped slightly downward to what might have
once been a grape arbor. A white aluminum tool shed with a
pink roof and doors, was the sole structure in this extensive
“The last owner left a few tools
and gardening supplies in the shed,” Dinah said. “There’s
an old lawn mower. I think it still works.”
Behind my property a white house sat
diagonally on its lot. The largest weeping willow tree I had
ever seen shaded a pond bordered by huge rocks. From the small
back porch of the pink Victorian, the view was breathtaking.
“You’ve decided, haven’t
you?” Dana asked with a smug smile.
“Yes. I’m going to make
an offer today. Do you think it’ll be accepted?
“Count on it,” she said.
So, after the traditional inspections
and paperwork, after the hassle of packing my belongings and
moving up north, I became a first-time homeowner, a resident
on the street called Victorian Row.
I’d never regretted my hasty
A deep masculine voice calling my
name cut through my reminiscing. A vintage blue Cadillac convertible
as sleek and gorgeous as a prehistoric winged creature had
landed gracefully at the curb.
The man behind the wheel was gorgeous
too. Incredibly handsome and tanned, with eyes the blue of
a Michigan cornflower opening to the sun, he wore a deep blue
shirt rolled up to his elbows. The color matched his eyes
and the car’s custom paint.
Out of uniform and away from his intimidating cruiser, Lieutenant
Dalton Gray of the Maple Creek Police Department looked like
a different man, friendly and approachable.
I had met him at school on the worst day of my teaching career.
Then his handsome features had been chiseled into a grim mask,
and his eyes were as unyielding as stone. His presence had
commanded instant silence from my class, the first I’d
ever experienced. I could almost have been afraid of him myself.
“Hello!” he said again.
“Lynette, isn’t it?”
He pronounced my name incorrectly,
as almost everybody did.
“It’s Linnet,” I
said. “Like the bird. Accent on the first syllable.”
Then, realizing how pedantic that sounded, I added a smile
and a compliment. “That’s the most beautiful car
I’ve ever seen, Lieutenant Gray. It looks like you just
drove it out of the show room.”
He beamed with pride. “I found
her rusting away in an abandoned barn and restored her from
scratch. She doesn’t look a half century old, does she?”
“Not at all.” I touched
the shining fender. It felt warm and smooth, kissed by the
“What are you doing in this
part of the country?” he asked. “Don’t you
live somewhere downstate?”
“Not anymore. I moved to Maple
Creek last month. That pink house down the street is mine.”
He smiled. “The one with the
stained glass heart. I know it. We’re almost neighbors.”
He hesitated a moment, his eyes bright with excitement. “Would
you like to go for a ride? This baby is as swift as a missile
and soft inside. Like marshmallow.” He patted the pristine
The temptation was strong, but something
made me hesitate. His well-known reputation with the ladies,
perhaps. And spontaneity wasn’t one of my virtues.
“Thanks, Lieutenant, but after being cooped up in a
classroom all day, I like to walk.”
He glanced upward at the small patches of blue sky that managed
to break through the leaves. “It’s going to rain
any minute now,” he said.
I couldn’t see the clouds, but
the sun burned down on my bare arms. There wasn’t a
hint of rain in the air, nor in the day’s forecast.
“Not till this evening, I heard.”
“Believe me, Linnet. Police
have access to secret weather information. What do you say?
I can raise the top, and we’ll stay snug and dry.”
Now my stubborn streak took over.
“Some other time, maybe.”
He shut off the ignition, apparently
settling for a casual exchange on the street. “How are
the little monsters at the Alcott Middle School?” he
His question dragged me back to my
fourth hour class and its rogue students, the ones I wished
fervently to forget when I didn’t have to deal with
“They’re under control,”
I said. “Sort of.”
“No sinister plots against authority?”
“None that I’m aware of.
The principal suspended the two ringleaders for the rest of
the school year. That helps a little.”
“Let’s keep it that way,”
he said. “School’s almost over, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “Just about. For students,
on the fifteenth. Two days later for staff.”
“Next fall you’ll have a whole new bunch of kids.
I hope they’ll be better.”
“They can hardly be worse,”
But next fall’s freshmen would
have heard of what I referred to as the Plot. Unfortunately,
now I had a reputation too.
Lieutenant Gray slid over to the passenger’s
seat and laid his hand on the door handle. “How about
joining me for a coffee?”
I glanced down at my wrist and realized
I hadn’t worn my watch today. “I’d love
to, but I’m on my way to dinner. I’m already late.”
“What can we do about that?”
This man didn’t take defeat
lightly. Being unable to think of an appropriate response,
I felt at a disadvantage.
From school gossip, I knew that the
handsome Lieutenant Gray had several girlfriends. He thrived
on variety. Many women hoped they could snag his interest
on a permanent basis, but the word ‘commitment’
wasn’t in his vocabulary.
My friend, Jill Carlton, in Social
Sciences, had summed him up in three words: “He’s
To be truthful, I wouldn’t have
minded joining the ranks of the favored few for a date or
two, but it didn’t seem prudent to initiate a social
relationship with a man I might meet again on another official
Don’t be so stuffy, Linnet,
I thought. The man asked you for coffee. It’s not as
if your engagement calendar is filled, and if you’re
late for dinner, who cares?
I started to speak, but Lieutenant Gray appeared to have accepted
“How about a rain check then?” he said. “A
welcome-to-Maple Creek drink. Sometime when you’re not
A loud crash of thunder overhead underscored
his words. His eyes held a glint of triumph, and he winked.
“Change your mind?”
“I’ll take a rain check,
and I’d better be on my way. It was nice seeing you
again, Lieutenant Gray.”
In a stern policeman’s voice,
he said, “It’s Dalton . . . Linnet. Don’t
keep him waiting. Whoever he is.”
I smiled, ignoring the wave of warmth
that broke over my face, and began walking briskly toward
Main Street. A few raindrops fell on my bare arms, then a
I should have brought a cardigan, should go back home for
an umbrella. Should have accepted Dalton Gray’s invitations.
But I walked on. A little water wasn’t deadly.
Behind me, the Cadillac’s ignition purred into life.
Soft music drifted into the humid air. The melody was vaguely
familiar, a jaunty little tune from an earlier era, the sixties,
perhaps, to complement the age of the convertible. It practically
demanded that the listener sing along and be happy.
The music lent me an illusion of new-found
energy. Or perhaps it was something else. An invitation from
a man like Dalton Gray was a dose of spring tonic. Even if
I didn’t need one. Even if he was a player.
* * * *
Dalton’s rain proved to be a
gentle spring shower. By the time I left the Blue Lion with
a take-out container of strawberry cheesecake, the sun had
reappeared, and the sidewalks were already drying. Raindrops
glistened in the grass and dripped down from the trees. The
world smelled even fresher than it had before.
We were both right about the weather.
A severe thunderstorm, complete with lightning, made its appearance
at ten o’clock as I lay in bed, thinking about the pleasant
after-school encounter with Lieutenant Gray and berating myself
for not accepting one of his offers. Why did I always do the
opposite of what I really wanted to do? It made no sense.
“Would you like to have your
piano lesson on the spinet today, Linnet?”
“Uh, no.” I sat down at
the Baby Grand and opened my Bach.
I was seven years old.
Of course, I wanted to play on the
little piano. As it turned out, I never had another opportunity.
But with Dalton, there was still that
rain check, if he was serious about it.
I turned on the bed and listened to thunder rolling over my
roof. It seemed close. Too close. The rain pounded against
the old windows. Intermittent lightning flashes illuminated
the room’s shadows.
I wasn’t afraid of electrical
storms, but I didn’t like them.
In the humid air, my light cotton
gown felt like wool. The one amenity the pink Victorian didn’t
have was air-conditioning, and I couldn’t afford another
expensive purchase, only a pair of humble fans, one for each
This had been the warmest, rainiest
spring in my memory. People planted their flowers between
showers and postponed their barbecues and outside projects.
A rained-out weekend would be bad enough. But a rained-out
On the other hand, dismal, wet weather would keep the kids
from going wild on these last hectic days of school.
My eyelids grew heavy. I wished I
lived in Camelot.
Rain for school days, sunshine for
vacation time, and a handsome blue knight riding down Beechnut
Street on his azure winged steed . . .
Downstairs, the phone rang, yanking
me out of my doze. Its impervious, persistent sound was so
loud that it might have been in the room with me instead of
in the kitchen. I counted ten rings. My heart rate speeded
up and my hand closed around the sheet.
Someone knows you’re home. Someone’s
waiting for you to answer.
Eleven. Twelve. Silence.
I stayed in bed. It was dangerous
to rush down the stairs at night. In any event, I could never
have reached the phone before it stopped ringing.