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July 2011

Book 12 in the Foxglove Corner Mysteries

 

Excerpt

Chapter 1

It was the silence that struck the first wrong note, the utter absence of sound that gave the Foxglove Corners Animal Shelter an alien ambience. The shelter, housed in an old white Victorian on Park Street, was never quiet. This morning its yard was empty except for the shade and the shadows. No curious canine faces appeared at the windows of the house, noses pressed to the glass.

Most telling of all, the chain and lock were missing from the gate. It was merely closed.

Where were the dogs? And where were Lila and Letty Woodville, the elderly sisters who ran the animal shelter? Their car was gone, but they usually took turns going out so that someone was always home watching over the animals.

Stunned by the contrast of the happy noise drifting over from the children playing in the park across the street, I struggled to accept this anomaly.

Still, hoping to hear at least one answering yelp, I rapped on the door.

Nothing. Silence. I felt as if I had stepped into another dimension.

There had to be an explanation. I’ve learned there usually is, even if it originates in the Twilight Zone. Maybe Henry McCullough, the sisters’ neighbor and their close friend, would know where they were.

I cut across the shelter’s lawn to Henry’s house, built around the turn of the century in the same style as the sisters’ Victorian, with bay windows and a gingerbread-trimmed front porch.

Henry’s car, a gleaming white Chevy, sat in the driveway where it spent most of its time as Henry rarely drove these days.

Something was wrong here, too, though. The silence again. Henry’s old collie, Luke, likes to bark at anything that moved on the sidewalk. Surely he would sound the alarm when someone ventured onto his porch.

But it seemed that Luke was one more dog who wasn’t where he should be, and apparently Henry was gone too.

I knocked on the door, not really expecting a response.

There was one more place to look, not for the people but for answers.

The library on the other side of the shelter was another old white Victorian situated on a double lot at one of the town’s four corners. The house had been the family home of the librarian, Miss Elizabeth Eidt, until she donated it to the town and accepted the position of chief and only librarian. From her desk, she managed to know all of the local news and gossip. Heartened at the prospect of enlightenment, I turned to face the street.

In the park, children clustered around the slides and swings, some pushing, some riding high. Up to the sky or down a slippery slope. Others ran in and out of the dark woods that bordered one side of the park brandishing water pistols. Their bright colored clothing and excited screams created an illusion of summer morning normalcy.

Clutching the bag of rawhide treats I’d brought for the shelter foundlings, I set out at a brisk pace for the library. The sooner I solved this little mystery, the better.

~*~

The strangeness continued.

Enveloped in cool air and tranquility, I stood in the doorway and stared at the stranger who sat in Miss Eidt’s place at the main desk. With her neat silver chignon and lacy lavender blouse, she was a woman of Miss Eidt’s generation, stately and a little fussy in appearance. She wore a long strand of pearls, as Miss Eidt often did, and knotted it continuously as she turned the pages of a magazine.

Where was Debby, Miss Eidt’s young assistant?

As I approached, the woman at the desk looked up and smiled. “May I help you find something?”

I felt lost, adrift in an uncertain sea. “I’m looking for Miss Eidt.”

“She’s in her office,” the woman said and raised her voice. “Elizabeth? Somebody to see you.”

Thank heavens. The world settled back in its proper orbit. Miss Eidt was in her favorite haunt. But there was still the mystery of the abandoned shelter.

“Why Jennet!” Miss Eidt stepped out of her office and adjusted a pink scarf that lay on her crisp white dress. She always looked overjoyed to see me and always faintly surprised, even though I stopped at the library at least once a week. “You’re out early on a hot morning.” She eyed the bag. “Did you bring doughnuts?”

“They’re treats for the shelter dogs,” I said. “I came to call on Lila and Letty, but… What happened over there?”

“Nothing good.” Miss Eidt glanced out at the long tables where readers were engrossed in their books and all was well. “Come on in. I’ll tell you about it.”

Bright morning sunshine flooded the cozy inner sanctum. Miss Eidt had been sitting at a small maple table addressing envelopes, a steaming mug of tea at her elbow. They looked like invitations. On the stove rested a copper teakettle, still humming.

Without asking, she reached in the cupboard for another mug and a package of cookies and spilled them out on a paper plate. “It’s gotten so hot so fast I’m going to switch to iced tea one of these days. Have some cinnamon cookies?”

“About the animal shelter, Miss Eidt…”

“Ah, yes.” She sighed. “The dogs are gone. Yesterday someone cut through the chain and set them free. Unfortunately they were all out in the yard at the time. It’s been so warm…”

She trailed off, opening a canister of Queen Mary, shaking out a stream of loose tea leaves into the cup.

“But who could have done that?”

“Rima. She left a note on the gate.”

I’d heard that name somewhere. Not in connection with dogs, though. Where? In a science-fiction story? Miss Eidt spoke as if she knew her.

“It’s intrusive, isn’t it?” she said. “The silence. You can almost hear it. I’m used to the sound of dogs barking all day. Now there’s nothing.”

Dognappers, I thought. Every now and then they stole into town, intent on snatching unattended dogs which they’d then sell to laboratories. We were always ready for them.

Miss Eidt poured boiling water over the leaves, and I gave them a stir with a silver teaspoon. It was sterling, a romantic Baroque pattern from her own service. She kept all the comforts of home in her library.

“Who is Rima?” I asked.

“A character in the novel, Green Masnions. A sort of jungle girl. Or you mean the thief or vandal or whatever you want to call her. That’s how she signed the note. It was written in green ink,” she added.

Dognappers didn’t usually leave notes.

“What did it say?” I asked.

“Something about civil rights. I can’t remember the exact words.”

“Could you start at the beginning?”

She sat down and took a sip of tea. “That would be yesterday afternoon when Letty burst into the library all upset. She wanted to know if I’d noticed a disturbance next door. The gate was open, and all the dogs were gone. All eighteen of them. The lock and chain were in the grass. I hadn’t,” she added. “One of us should have heard something.”

“That’s unreal,” I said.

The thought of Wafer leaped into my mind. Wafer was the collie I’d rescued from the wild last month and placed in the Woodville sisters’ care. The last time I’d talked to Lila, she’d told me that Wafer was about to be adopted.

Was she safe in her forever home when the dogs had been set free?

“I don’t understand it myself,” Miss Eidt said. “The shelter is a good place. Who wants a pack of dogs running wild through town? Except they’re not in town anymore.”

“Where do you suppose Letty and Lila went?” I asked.

“Out looking for the dogs probably, but how they’ll ever corral them is anybody’s guess.”

That would be a Herculean task. Last month I’d set out to find one runaway collie puppy. Multiply one search by eighteen. Even if the dogs stayed together, which wasn’t very likely, they might never be found. By now they could be anywhere in the county. Or some other county.

But I was going to offer to help Lila and Letty search for the dogs. There was no doubt in my mind.

“Letty says one of the dogs will probably bite. He’s new. And some of the dogs need their medication. What’s going to happen to them now?”

I shook my head. “We just have to find them quickly.”

Miss Eidt moved the plate of cinnamon cookies closer to me. I took one.

“Where’s Debby?” I asked.

“She’s going to summer school. She’ll be here on Saturday afternoons. That’s Annabel, my new assistant, out in front. She used to own a bookstore downstate.”

“She’s new in town then.”

“Brand new. She bought a farmhouse out in the country.” Miss Eidt stirred her tea idly. “Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”

I’d only been on vacation since Wednesday, but yes, I had lofty plans. Freed from creating lesson plans and correcting papers for my English classes at Marston High School, I was going to write a book.

The thought of my modest beginning and a blank computer screen taunted me. It’s easier to talk about writing while you’re gallivanting around town than to sit at your desk and write. Especially when sunshine and warm temperatures beckon. Still summer hadn’t officially arrived yet. I deserved a few days of fun.

“I’m writing a book,” I said.

Miss Eidt’s eyes brightened. “How wonderful! What’s the title?”

“The Phantom Skater of Sunset Lake.”

“That’s lovely. Is it one of those Gothic novels you like to read?”

“Not exactly. It’s about my own supernatural experiences and those of others.”

“You should find plenty of material in Foxglove Corners,” she said. “As you know, we’re a ghostly little community.”

I smiled. During my two years in Foxglove Corners I’d arrived at the same conclusion.

“All of the stories will be local and recent,” I said. “Well, dating from the last century.”

“Let me know if I can help. My file is filled with clippings of supernatural occurrences.”

“I will.”

The tea had cooled nicely. I finished it in two gulps. “I’d better be going. I have a few errands in Lakeville.”

“Maybe you can include what happened at the shelter in your book,” she said.

“I don’t think so. It’s a strange incident, but it was no ghost who cut the chain and let the dogs out.”

And the foolish, ungrateful creatures had fled to parts unknown, leaving their comfortable temporary home for a future wrought with peril.

“No,” Miss Eidt agreed. “That was Rima, whoever she is.”

Rima, I thought. Green Mansions. Green ink. Could that possibly be anyone’s real name?

~*~

In the hope that Lila and Letty had come home while I was at the library, I knocked on the shelter door again, even though I didn’t see their car. I needed to know more details. I could leave them a note or call when I got home. I’d better call. Another note would no doubt alarm them.

But I was loath to go on my way. Ever since the shelter had been established as a memorial to my friend, the slain animal activist, Caroline Meilland, I’d been a frequent visitor to the house on Park Street, bringing treats and strays to this safe haven. I felt very much at home here, felt that the animal shelter was an extension of my own house.

Even in its current quiet state, the shelter was alive with memories for me. Long conversations with Lila, Letty, and Henry over coffee and cake in the kitchen. Frightened dogs cowering in crates whom Lila would transform into healthy happy animals with her special magic. Castaway pets and new owners brought together for a second chance at happiness.

Caroline’s portrait hung in the vestibule. In life she had been a vibrant, charismatic woman with long chestnut hair and a zealot’s fire in her eyes. The artist had captured her essence, and at times it seemed as if Caroline’s spirit presided over the Woodville sisters’ endeavor.

She had inspired countless people with her passion for protecting all the animals that shared the earth with us.

She had certainly inspired me.

“We’re under siege again, Caroline,” I said quietly. “You have to help us.”

This blow to the shelter was bad enough, but sometimes a terrible, isolated act was only the beginning of something evil. I hoped this wasn’t one of those times, but it was best to be prepared. Just in case.

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