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When Libby Dorset drowns in her backyard fountain, the neighborhood children spread wild tales of a living statue, while their parents gossip about suicide. Only her next door neighbor, Cressa Hannett, suspects that a flesh-and-blood killer forced Libby into the water to her death. Puzzled by strange happenings in Libby’s now deserted house and plagued by the vandalism of a mysterious young girl, Cressa sets out to unravel the mysteries that surround Libby and her white Victorian house.


Chapter 1

Someone was watching me.

I stood still in my vast sunny backyard. My hand tightened on the rake and my heartbeat raced. Quickly I looked around.

No one was there. I was alone, except for the ultra-realistic satyr statue next door, surely the most decadent piece of art ever crafted.

Horns poking up through marble white curls, gaze frozen in a perpetual leer, he stood in the center of my neighbor’s fountain, trapped in a circle of falling water. His eyes burned in the morning sunshine, and he held his left hand out in an unmistakable invitation. If it weren’t for his goat legs and long tail, he would have been quite handsome.

It—not he, I corrected myself. It’s a stone carving of a satyr, more suitable for a Roman villa than a backyard in Maple Creek, Michigan. Sensuous and wicked, but only a pricey lawn decoration that contrasted sharply with the wood-cut daffodils and bunnies in front.

Why would a sedate piano teacher like Libby Dorset keep such a monstrosity on her property?

Still, the fountain was a fixture on Beechnut Street, as old as the elegant white Victorian that towered over my modest ranch-style house, and, although it couldn’t be seen from the sidewalk, passersby knew it was there because of the constant splash of water.

I looked away and tried to concentrate on raking last fall’s dried leaves out of the tulip bed. The warmth and high humidity had dampened my enthusiasm for spring clean-up, and I felt uncomfortable with the statue so near.

He was disconcerting, a little disturbing, almost disgusting.

Don’t be silly, I thought. It’s a slightly risqué hunk of stone. Nothing more.

My unease was an ongoing state with clear causes that had nothing to do with the satyr fountain. Not making the cut on the Texas Starfall Project. Starting over at the age of twenty-nine in my hometown. The endless porch renovation I’d set into motion. Too many changes; too little diversion.

In truth, I didn’t feel settled in my new house yet. Maybe that would never happen.

You can’t go home again. Why did you think you could?

Having no answer, I guided the garden debris carefully into a lawn bag. Neatening my slice of the environment was something I could do.

A screen door squeaked open, and the fountain’s owner, Libby Dorset, glided down the steps of her wraparound porch. Dressed for an afternoon piano recital in a bright floral print, she carried an enormous basket filled with spring flowers.

“How pretty,” I said.

“Good morning, Cressa.” Libby set the arrangement down on a long table set up under the yard’s lone maple tree. “They came from the Farmers Market. Everything has to be perfect today. My students worked so hard. They deserve the best.”

Her face was flushed, her voice and hands fluttery; and a few blonde strands had wandered away from her neat chignon. “I ordered individual strawberry tortes from the Swiss Bakery. We’d love to have you join us for refreshments.”

“I’d like that,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Around three-thirty then? I’m wrapping up the program with one of my own compositions.”

“The piece you were practicing this morning?”

“Yes, Fountain Music.” Libby pulled the yard’s other fixture, a white wicker rocker, over to the table to join a collection of mismatched lawn chairs. “Now if the storm holds off . . .”

She glanced at the sky, a spring-blue expanse with clouds floating above the treetops and not a sign of rain.

“It should stay dry until tonight,” I said.

Two slender girls with streaming yellow hair burst through the screen door, trailing bunches of multi-colored balloons. They’d traded their traditional denim for long sheer dresses and chandelier earrings that sparkled in the sunlight. They were Libby’s oldest students, Aleta and Linda, soon to be high school graduates.

“Where do you want these, Miss Dorset?” Linda asked.

“Around the table. Then in the maple if you can reach that low branch.”

“I’ll give one to the satyr.” Aleta stood on the fountain’s narrow edge and tied a purple balloon to the statue’s beckoning hand. I noticed that his fingers were long and curving. Like talons.

“Be careful,” Libby said.

“Oh, Miss Dorset. You worry too much.”

Libby fussed with the flower basket while the girls decorated the table and tree. The statue cast a long, odd-shaped shadow on the grass, but nobody seemed to notice it. The sound of splashing water blended easily with light chatter and laughter. The festive air was contagious, and soon the day would be filled with music.

Since the weather had turned warm, Libby left her windows open. If I was working outside, I could hear the scales and sonatas and sweet airs that evoked the graciousness of a bygone age. Libby, who practically lived at her piano, had a special fondness for the songs of Stephen Foster. She often played them in the evening, after her last student had gone home.

In many ways, I was fortunate in my choice of neighborhood, even though I’d imagined myself renting a cottage on Marble Lake for the summer. Instead, I was of renovating the smallest house on a street known as Victorian Row. For the rest of my life?

I sent that thought away. Nothing in my life was certain anymore. Nothing was forever. Like the seasons, the best laid plans had a way of changing. The secret to survival was to change with them. I suspected that I was suffering from a delayed case of buyer’s remorse.

Or perhaps envy. I’d like to have been able to purchase a grand old mansion with gables, gingerbread trim, and a charming storybook turret. The house I could afford was a plain white frame with green shutters and three porches, one in front and two in back. It looked as if it had been set down on its lot long after the block was complete, but it had a bountiful spring garden and a magnificent weeping cherry. Its blossom-laden branches swept down to the ground like a pink waterfall, brushing the tops of the purple violets that bloomed in the grass.

I leaned the rake against the tree and gazed at the soft mix of color that surrounded me. After a chilly, rainy April, nature was working overtime. The flowers appeared to be growing even as I watched them. They were familiar plants in happy Easter colors: showy hyacinths and several varieties of golden daffodils, all planted by the house’s previous owner.

Now to enjoy the fruits of my labors.

I picked up the shears and cut a large bouquet of tulips for myself. Red and deep pink, purple with fringed petals, orange, and bright yellow, their colors formed a rainbow in my hands. They matched the balloons and the splashy florals in Libby Dorset’s dress.

Fresh flowers always made a house more cheerful. Feeling almost happy, I climbed the wooden steps to the porch and went inside.

* * * *

Later that afternoon, I changed into beige pants and an ivory blouse, clasped my star pendant around my neck, and joined the small group of piano students and guests who had gathered in Libby’s backyard to celebrate a successful recital. While the strawberry tortes rested on paper plates, the tablecloth was linen and the punch bowl was made of antique cranberry glass. Libby’s refreshment table was as elegant as her house.

Throughout the day the temperature had climbed steadily, but a light breeze and deep shade transformed the yard into a cool oasis. No one ventured near the fountain. Still, nobody could escape the statue. It was at least six feet tall, and its shadow seemed taller. The purple balloon moved frantically in the falling water as if trying to free itself from the stony grasp.

I didn’t see Libby, but several people had remained in the house where it was undoubtedly cooler still. In a far corner of the yard, some distance from the statue, the children clustered around a smaller table of their own. Like bright little birds, they chattered about the recital and decorated their ice cream with chocolate syrup, crushed nuts, and maraschino cherries.

Helping myself to a torte and punch, I found a vacant lawn chair and settled back to listen to the soothing splash of water. Snatches of conversation swirled around me. The women nearest to me were talking about the fountain in subdued tones. One quiet exchange caught my attention:

“They say that as long as the water runs, the satyr will protect the family.”

“Who are they?”

“It’s something I heard a long time ago. Call it a neighborhood legend.”

“What happens in the winter?”

“It keeps going. There’s a heater inside.”

“That fountain must cost a fortune in energy bills.”

“Consider it a propitiatory offering. Anyway, Libby Dorset has plenty of money. She only buys the best.”

As I sampled the torte, I had to agree. The strawberries in the batter were fresh, and real whipped cream topped the little squares. I finished the last bite and glanced at the table. Libby had set out at least four dozen servings for a handful of people. Should I take another one? They were smaller than cupcakes. Miniatures, actually. If they stayed out too long in the sun, they would spoil.

Apparently someone else had the same idea. A woman emerged from the overgrown area between the houses and made her way up to the refreshment table. Her gaudy patchwork skirt and the blue bandana tied in her hair suggested that she wasn’t one of the guests.

But she must be. How else would she know about the recital?

As I watched, she grabbed six tortes, squishing them together on a single paper plate. She trailed her finger through whipped cream and licked it clean. Then, with a furtive glance behind her, she slipped into the brush and thin woods that arced around the house behind Libby’s Victorian. In her wake, twigs snapped and leaves rustled.

No one had taken any notice of her. Or so I thought.

“Who was that person?” The voice was loud, the tone angry. A hush fell over the yard. “Does anybody know her?”

The woman fixed me with a belligerent glare, obviously waiting for an answer.

“I’ve never seen her before,” I said.

My mind registered stray details. The angry woman might have stepped out of the seventies with a stiff, sculptured hairdo in a glossy brown shade. Her dress had a high waist and short, youthful hemline.

Her companion, who was plump, fair-haired and pretty, had squeezed her ample form into a hot pink sundress and applied matching lipstick with a heavy hand. She waved a fan lazily back and forth. “I didn’t see her inside,” she said.

“She’s not one of us then.” The angry woman’s gaze fixed on me.

“Libby Dorset invited me,” I said quickly. “I live next door.”

Her frown rearranged itself into a hint of a smile. “In that little white house? You must be the girl from Texas. I noticed your license plate.” In a minute she would add, “You’re not one of us then.”

“I was raised in Maple Creek,” I said. “My name is Cressa Hannett.”

The smile broadened but didn’t offer any warmth. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Gwendolyn White. Welcome to the neighborhood, Cressa.”

The other woman said, “I’m Patti Graham. Gwendolyn and I live right across the street.”
“Not together,” Gwendolyn said quickly.

Patti giggled. “Good heavens, no. We’d never make it as roommates. Tell me, Cressa, why do you have a Texas license plate on your car?”

“Well . . . I’ve been working on the Gulf Coast,” I said.

“What do you do?” Patti asked.

I hesitated, uncertain of what else to say. Naturally new acquaintances would be curious about my Texas years, and I couldn’t give them any details. I’d better order a Michigan plate as soon as possible and be vague about my past.

“I had a government job, but I can’t talk about it,” I said.

Gwendolyn’s eyes lit up. “Top Secret! How fascinating! Do you mean you were a spy?”

“Nothing so glamorous. I worked in an office.”

“Oh. As a secretary?”

“Gwendolyn, she can’t talk about it,” Patti said.

I shifted in the chair, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. I could excuse myself, wander up to the table for a second torte, and find another place to sit. Or I could start an interrogation of my own. Which did I want to do?

“I see you ladies have met.” Libby appeared with an enormous bakery box. “I’ve brought reinforcements. There’s a fresh pot of coffee inside and hot tea. Anyone?”

“Lord, no,” Patti said. “I’m burning up. It’s too warm for May.”

“Well that’s a Michigan spring. Forty degrees one day, a heat wave the next. How about you girls? Gwendolyn? Cressa?”

“The punch is fine,” I said. “It’s delicious, and I enjoyed the music. You have a talented bunch of students.”

Libby nodded. “We put together a good program, and all the kids did their best.”

“My Aleta was amazing,” Patti said. “She puts so much sparkle into her performances.”

“She certainly does. Aleta can have a career as a concert pianist, if she wishes.”

“Did you see that woman with the scarf over her head, Libby?” Gwendolyn asked.

“She looked like she was dressed up for a costume party,” Patti added. “Like a gypsy.”

Libby frowned and surveyed the gathering. “I didn’t notice her. Why?”

“She just stole a bunch of your cakes and took off in the woods.”

“That’s strange.” Libby looked around again, just as another twig snapped. This time the sound was farther away. “I know everyone here.”

“Like I said, she’s gone.”

“I won’t worry about it. I have more than enough of everything.”

“We could follow her.” Gwendolyn started to rise. “Bring her back. Call the police.”

“No, let her go.” Libby walked over to the table and began to bring the new tortes out of the box. “If she’s hungry, I guess she’s welcome to what I have.”

That was what she said, but a slight tremor in her voice didn’t match the words. Quietly, she threw the empty plates in the trash can and glanced once again toward the woods.

They were shadowy and secretive, the way woods should be, with trees growing too close together, saplings vying for light and space, and weeds taller than I was. They provided a haven for birds and squirrels and no doubt other wild creatures. I’d never seen anyone walking in them before, or even considered the possibility of an intruder on this quiet street.

“That’s somebody’s property, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It belongs to the old Maywood house over on Poplar,” Gwendolyn said. “The owner wants to keep the acre in its natural state. It’s the largest undeveloped tract of land in Maple Creek.”

“I always meant to have a privacy fence put up,” Libby said. “It’s something I never got around to doing.”

“Oh you should, Libby,” Gwendolyn said. “It’s so much safer when people can’t see into your backyard.”

“I’ve always felt safe here.”

“Times are changing, even in a little town like Maple Creek. A strange woman just crashed your party. Little kids come to your house all the time. Someone could swoop down and carry off one of them off into the woods.”

“Gwendolyn, you’re spouting gloom and doom today,” Patti said.

“I like to think of myself as forewarned. Give that cute Lieutenant Gray a call, Libby. Have him check out the gypsy woman.” She turned to me. “If you’re in the market for a man, Cressa, you should meet him,” she added. “He’s Maple Creek’s finest.”

* * * *

Later still, in the last hours of daylight, I heard a familiar melody coming from the street. I couldn’t quite identify it, but the merry notes conjured happy memories from the past. A song from my school days? Square dance music?

Then I had it. Oh, there never was a fiddler like old Zip Coon, he can play all night on the same old tune . . . Or something like that. The Good Humor man’s theme. The music was near and coming closer every minute, growing louder with each repetition.

I thought ice cream trucks had vanished from Michigan’s towns, along with soda fountains and street cars, but here was a tiny bit of Americana alive and well in Maple Creek. It had been a lifetime since I’d answered its siren call. Why not do it today to celebrate the first warm day of the year?

As the music ended in mid-refrain, I slipped a few coins and a house key into my pocket and hurried outside to the gleaming white truck parked at the corner of Beechnut and Eversleigh. The giant ice cream cones painted on its side were as bright as beacons. If the music didn’t draw a crowd, the pictures would.

A gaggle of noisy children had converged on the driver, a person in a clown costume and bright Raggedy Ann wig. A little apart from them stood a tall blond man in jeans and a plaid shirt. He was stocky and muscular with handsome features. His warm, lazy smile made me feel as if we’d already met in some distant place, perhaps under a hot Texas sun, but, of course, I’d never seen him before.

As the man stepped to one side to make room for me on the sidewalk, I noticed that he walked with a limp and that his eyes were attractive, a blend of green and blue with light flecks that matched the streaks in his brown hair. “Ginger is the most popular girl in town today,” he said.

“Who’s Ginger?” I asked.

“The clown. My neighbor’s daughter.”

“Oh . . .” I looked again. The Good Humor person had pale hands with four rings on her fingers and long red nails. She handed a cone to a towheaded boy and turned to a little girl waiting patiently beside her tricycle. “What’ll you have, honey?”

“Chocolate, please. Double dip.”

“That’s my favorite flavor,” the man said. “Ice cream is a surefire way to beat the heat.”

Yes, the heat. It was warmer now than it had been only a few hours ago. Away from the shelter of the maple trees that lined the street, the sun beat down on my head, and my rayon blouse felt as heavy as wool.

“Mine is rocky road,” I said. “How long has it been since you patronized an ice cream truck?”

“A long, long time.” He laughed, and his eyes seemed to grow lighter. “One day last August.”

“Just a minute, young man.” Ginger held a fudgsicle in mid-air, well out of the grasp of a sandy-haired little boy. “You don’t have enough pennies. You need five times that many.”

“How ’bout if I give you the rest tomorrow?” the boy asked.

“It doesn’t work that way.” She turned to the man. “What’ll you have, Mr. Emmerton?”

“One chocolate cone, and here . . .” He reached into his pocket and, bringing out a crisp dollar bill, nodded toward the boy. “This should cover it, Miss Ginger.”

Matt patted the boy’s shoulder roughly.

“Thanks loads, Mr. Emmerton.”

“Okay, then.” She took the money, relinquished the fudgsicle, and handed the man—Mr. Emmerton—his cone. He gave her a special smile.

“Eat it up before it melts,” he said to the boy who scampered away with another mumbled thanks, holding his treat tightly in his grasp as if afraid that someone would snatch it away.

“That was a nice thing to do,” I said.

“It’s called sharing the wealth.”

Ginger turned to me. “For you, Miss?”

“I’ll have an ice cream cone,” I said. “Rocky road.”

A few seconds later, it was in my hand. I bit into a nut that lay on top of my scoop. “This is absolute perfection.”

“So is mine. Stay cool,” Mr. Emmerton said and limped away, heading west toward Main Street.

The children had already run off in different directions. Ginger cranked on the fiddler song again and moved the truck slowly down the Eversleigh, where she made a right turn. As the merry notes faded, I began the short walk home, feeling unaccountably happy as I savored each marshmallow bit and nutty chunk.

This cone was even better than the Libby Dorset’s strawberry tortes. And why had I never taken the time for a leisurely stroll in my new neighborhood? I really needed to slow down.

Overhead, the leaves moved languidly in a gentle breeze, and blossoming trees scented the air. I breathed deeply and felt instantly lighter, practically rejuvenated. Oh, to be in Michigan now that May’s here! I was home, and this street where I lived was spectacular.

The houses were vintage Victorians set on wide, shady lots. Each one was slightly different from its neighbors in color, style, or degree of gingerbread trim, but all had spacious front porches and graceful gables reaching up to the sky. Atmosphere and nostalgia hung in the air with the fragrance of lilacs.

Although I walked on a paved sidewalk past twenty-first century vehicles parked in the street, I felt as if I were traveling backwards through the years. Each step seemed to bring me closer to a distant era when life was easier. For the first time in days, I felt calm and optimistic about my choices.

In spite of the dozen concerns that chipped away at my sense of well-being, I had to admit that my world was stable, reasonably satisfactory, and, at the moment, blessed with the magic of this wondrous season of rebirth. I had new people to meet, a host of career opportunities, and a future in a town to which I had strong ties.

Everything was going to be all right.

Then, like a dark shadow, an image of the woman in the patchwork skirt slipped into my mind. The gypsy, scooping up six strawberry tortes and disappearing into the darkness of the woods. She was someone whom Libby didn’t know and Gwendolyn White wanted to report to the police, a person who might pose a danger to me.

The Maywood acre adjoined my property as well as Libby’s and every other house on Beechnut Street. Perhaps I should think about installing a high fence to keep unwelcome visitors at bay.

A splash of falling water broke through my thoughts. Soft, insistent, soothing—but not entirely so. Always there. Without realizing it, I had begun to walk faster. Three more houses, and I would be home.

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Worldwide Re-Release
May 2009

Original Cover

September 2007






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