Foxglove Home Meet Dorothy  

 

2006

Book 5 in the Foxglove Corner Mysteries

When aspiring book burner, Marla Holland, falls to her death on the stairs of the Foxglove Corners Public Library, nobody realizes that she has been poisoned. During her life Marla antagonized several people, including Jennet Greenway only a short time before the murder, but which one of her enemies killed her? Distracted by a battle to save Marla's collie from will-ordered euthanasia and a Halloween prankster who threatens Jennet and her dog, Jennet doesn't realize that she is in line to become the poisoner's next victim.

Excerpt follows.

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Chapter 1

The maple tree swayed in the wind, its branches brushing against the bay window in the Foxglove Corners Public Library. Vibrant color against sparkling glass gave me an inspiration. Crimson leaves would be the perfect decorations for the dozen wreaths I had just volunteered to create for the holiday craft show. All I'd need was a glue gun.

With that settled, I turned my attention back to the women seated around the table in the office of Elizabeth Eidt, the town's founding mother and revered librarian. Eighteen people had joined the group organized to raise money for renovations to the white Victorian house that had served Foxglove Corners as a library since 1938.
Apparently two-thirds of our number had found more enjoyable pursuits on this warm Friday evening. I had a sudden desire to be one of them, driving down the dark country byroads in the moonlight. Maybe at some secluded intersection I'd meet a handsome gray-eyed deputy sheriff waiting in his cruiser for someone to break the law. The thought of a chance encounter with Crane Ferguson cheered me. I hadn't seen him since last week, but we had a dinner date tomorrow night.

Fortunately, the meeting appeared to be winding down. Not a minute too soon. I suspected that I wasn't the only member of the renovation team who was growing restless.

Dressed in a long black jumper, Lucy Hazen, Foxglove Corners' resident horror writer, was drawing a pair of pumpkin people in a scratch pad, the gold charms on her bracelet clinking softly against the table's polished surface. I studied her artwork, always interested in Lucy's whimsical creations.

The pumpkin faces resembled the women who sat across from us. One of them had Alethea Venn's high cheekbones and long braid that brushed the top of her diamond fox pin. The other was a mirror image of Marla Holland whose pixie-spiked blonde hair warred with her classic navy blue dress, double strand of pearls, and haughty expression. Lucy had drawn a likeness of me as well, topping my shoulder-length dark brown hair and wispy bangs with a tiara.

Apparently adjournment wasn't going to happen soon. Miss Eidt's new assistant, Ivy Clark, emerged from an alcove at the back of the office, teapot in hand. Like a gray-clad wraith, she moved around the table, quietly filling cups. As she slipped into the chair at Miss Eidt's left, she glanced at the china server. "More oatmeal cookies anyone? Jennet?"

"Thanks, Ivy." Why not? One little cookie wouldn't torpedo my diet, and I was hungry. The school day had been long and hectic with a shorter lunch period and an English Department meeting after my last class. On the way to the library, I'd stopped at home to feed my dog but hadn't eaten my own dinner yet.

I bit into a cookie and swallowed hastily, trying to appear as if all were well. The morsel had the consistency of gravel and seemed to be missing sugar but must have a triple measure of salt.

As I took a long sip of tea, Lucy cast me a sympathetic smile and moved her own half-eaten cookie around on the napkin. "Mrs. Holland provided the refreshments," she said.

With a fleeting smile for Lucy, Marla took a jewel-studded pillbox out of her purse and pried it open with her fingernail. She tipped a white capsule into her palm and swallowed it without a drop of water.

"Are you feeling ill, Marla?" Miss Eidt asked.

"A little. I may be coming down with something," she said.

"It's this weather!" Miss Eidt drew her long plaid shawl closer around her shoulders. "Jennet, dear, would you close the window, please? There's a chill in the air."

I did as she asked, shutting out the late September warmth and a smoky fragrance of burning leaves.

"Ah, that's better," she said. "A new furnace will be our first priority. Then windows for every room. Attic insulation. Copper piping . . ."

Alethea helped herself to a cookie. As I had done, she took a single bite and set it aside. "We'll never pay for all those improvements on your wish list with bake sales and craft shows, Elizabeth."

"Every dollar helps," she said.

Alethea sat a little straighter in her chair. "My thousand dollar contribution will help a lot."

"Indeed it will, Alethea. You're very generous."

"With rehearsals and hunting weekends, I don't have time to bake." Alethea pushed her braid away from the fox pin. "I'd rather just give money."

I longed to add an aside on busy people but decided against it, as long as Miss Eidt remained silent. Alethea's words rankled. Who among us besides Alethea and Marla had a surplus of time or a thousand dollars to donate to even the worthiest cause? I could make wreaths, bake brownies, and sacrifice an hour a week to restore the library, but I was an overworked English teacher, always searching for a free minute or two.

"The ticket sales for Dark of the Moon should bring in a bundle," Marla said. "I talked the Lakeville Players into doing that."

"They were going to donate the profits from one performance to the library anyway," Alethea countered.

Ignoring her comment, Marla added, "You'll all have to come to the play on Halloween night. Alethea and I have major parts."

"Yes." Lucy's smile was sly. "Alethea is the Dark Witch, and you're the Fair Witch."
"I'll definitely be there," I said. "Dark of the Moon is one of my favorite plays."

Alethea ran her hand over her tawny braid. "I'm thinking of dyeing my hair black for the part," she said.

Marla shook her head vigorously. "Don't. It wouldn't go with your complexion. Just wear a wig."

"Ladies," Miss Eidt's teacup clanged as it hit the saucer. "Can we please return to the business at hand?"

This was her most forceful request of the evening. Although Miss Edit was the leader of the group, Alethea had been trying to seize the reins from her fragile hands for an hour, while Marla contributed a stream of personal anecdotes, reminding us several times of her ticket sales coup.

Before tonight, I'd only known Marla Holland as the woman who wrote rambling, zany letters to the editor of the Banner. Now, based on an hour in her company, I simply disliked her. I'd never been fond of Alethea either. The women with their designer clothing and expensive jewelry treated the rest of us as if we were invisible.

Miss Eidt folded her list of improvements. "Before we adjourn for the evening, Marla would like to say a few words."

"Yes." Marla reached into an embroidered tote bag and rose, holding a romance novel as if it were a carcass that she'd retrieved from the roadside. The illustration on the jacket depicted a pair of lovers entwined in a passionate embrace. They were practically naked.

"I was shocked to find this book with the new fiction yesterday, Miss Edit. I'm sure you'll agree that we shouldn't allow salacious material in our library."

"That was a donation," Ivy said quickly. "It's popular with our readers."

Alethea laughed. "Oh, for heavens sake, Marla, sit down. Put the book away."

Marla did neither. "I have a young girl living with me now, my niece, Nikki. She's always in the library, and I won't have her exposed to lascivious lifestyles."

In the brief silence that followed this vehement declaration, I glanced again at Lucy's scratch pad. A skeleton with a pearl necklace and a smiley face had joined the pumpkin ladies.

"How old is your niece, Mrs. Holland?" Lucy asked.

"Twenty."

"Join us in the real world, Marla," Alethea said. "Let Nikki chose her own books and live her own life. You do."

"This is important to me." Marla's cheeks flooded with rosy color, and her dark eyes seemed to grow brighter with every word she uttered. "Here are two others." She took out The Grapes of Wrath and The Scarlet Letter and banged them down on the table in front of Miss Eidt. The sexy romance novel was in good company.

"I can't imagine where you find time to do all this reading, Marla," Alethea said.

"Those are the library's books," Ivy added.

"That's what I just said. On the shelves where everyone has access to them."

"But those two novels . . . They're American literature. They're classics." Ivy glanced at Miss Eidt who reached for The Grapes of Wrath.

"Nevertheless. I don't approve of people living in sin." Marla held up The Scarlet Letter and pierced Ivy with a frosty look that dared her to disagree.

"In sin?" Lucy asked.

"Without benefit of clergy."

"Oh."

"Then would you please explain why you're acting in an immoral play," Alethea demanded.

Marla glared at Alethea. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Dark of the Moon. Barbara Allen and John make love on the mountain in the starlight. Without benefit of clergy. You should withdraw from the cast to protest lascivious behavior."

The flush in Marla's cheeks deepened. "That's different. John was a witch. He cast a spell on Barbara. Besides, at the end of the play, Barbara repents."

With the window closed, the office seemed excessively warm. I closed my eyes for a moment thinking of mountains and starlight. Country byroads and Crane. Sanity and the stew I planned to reheat for dinner. Couldn't Miss Eidt bring this dispute to a graceful end?

With an exasperated sigh, Alethea stood up and reached for her handbag. "I don't know why I'm arguing with you about this. The meeting is adjourned. Goodnight, all." With a triumphant look at Marla, she glided out of the office.

"Oh, dear." Miss Eidt stared after Alethea's departing form. "Now she's angry."

"Who cares?" Marla set The Scarlet Letter down next to the cookies and picked up the romance novel. "Women who lead immoral lives weaken the fabric of the family."

Her withering gaze skewered me and lingered while the silence in the room grew. She couldn't be referring to me. Or could she?

Impossible. Before this evening, I hadn't even met the woman. I'd allowed myself to become overly tired and was imagining the condemnation in Marla's dark eyes. Still, a wave of warmth washed over my face. I lifted my cup and found it almost empty. Maybe there was more tea in the pot.

Ivy spoke softly, but her voice had a jagged edge. "In this library, we don't believe in censorship, Mrs. Holland."

"But we're discreet," Miss Eidt said. "You didn't find those books in the children's section."

"Nathaniel Hawthorne didn't condone immorality," I added. "All of his characters paid for their sins."

Marla said, "Let me start over. I have nothing against good clean love stories, but that's not what we have in Touch of Fire. She opened to a page marked with a postcard. "I'll read an excerpt."

"Please. Not tonight," Miss Eidt said. "It's too late to debate such a weighty issue."
Lucy closed her tablet. "Are we adjourned then?"

"I think we'd better be. Leave the books with me, Marla. I'll look them over and let you know what I think."

"As you wish." Marla sent the romance novel sliding down the table toward Miss Eidt. "I'll stop by in the morning for your answer." She grabbed her belongings and swept out of the office without a further word. Her heels tapped on the vestibule tiles like sharp outbursts, ending abruptly as the front door slammed.

"That woman is unbelievable," Lucy said.

"Marla can be difficult at times." Miss Eidt surveyed the mound of oatmeal cookies and shook her head. "They weren't very good, were they? Well, the birds will enjoy them."

"Where do you find good clean love stories?" Lucy asked. "Aren't they an endangered species?"

"Along with sweet little murder mysteries," I said.

"Marla Holland targeted me last year. She wanted the library to throw out my Chilling Hour series."

Mrs. Eidt said, "We overruled her. We'll do it again, for Hawthorne and Steinbeck and-Valeria Haver." As I began to collect the teacups, she added, "I'll take care of the clean-up in the morning. You two run along. It's getting late. Listen to that wind!"

Ivy opened the window and spilled the cookies out onto the lawn. Miss Eidt was right. While we'd listened to Marla's case for book burning, the world outside had turned dark. The vivid crimson of the maple leaves was lost in shadows. It was a typical fall evening, windy and a little spooky like the after-hours library.

As I completed the thought, a muted scream broke through the deep evening silence. "What was that?" I asked.

"A bird?" Lucy said.

"It's probably looking for cookies. Goodnight then. We'll see you next Friday."

I led the way through the dim rooms, past the deserted tables and tall, shadowy stacks. The weekend was beginning at last. I was half an hour away from my home and still had a chance to run into Crane.

"I can't wait to breathe fresh air," Lucy said. "It was too stuffy in there - in more ways than one."

I stepped out on the wide porch into a rush of strong, warm wind. Brushing my hair away from my face, I looked up at the sky. Above the gables of the Foxglove Corners Post Office, the quarter moon glowed like a milky white gemstone. Grasping the post, I looked down the eight steps that led to a broken-concrete walkway.

In the shadows below lay a limp figure clothed in a navy blue dress, her form washed in the pale glow of the gas lamp. Golden leaves had drifted over her blonde pixie-spiked hair, and she wasn't moving. The fallen woman was as still as a statue that had tumbled off its pedestal.

Horror wrapped me in an instant freeze.

"Jennet, what's the matter?" Lucy asked.

"Marla!" I dashed down the steps, almost tripping over an object that lay on the third step. Holding on to the railing, I steadied myself and finished the descent, while Lucy called after me to be careful.

"Marla?" I whispered. "Mrs. Holland? Can you get up?"

She didn't answer. She didn't stir or moan, and her eyelids never fluttered.

Lucy's voice seemed faraway, even though I sensed her presence behind me. "Is she conscious?" she asked.

I touched Marla's cool wrist and moved my hand up to her throat. Her head lay at an awkward angle, resting uneasily on a pillow of leaves.

"She isn't breathing," I said. "She doesn't have a pulse."

"Should you perform CPR?"

"I think it's too late."

Marla had left the meeting . . . How long ago? Five minutes? Not even ten. She had been lying outside the library unseen and unheard - if she'd had time to cry for help.

She had. The scream.

I knelt on an uneven slab, gently brushing the leaves away from her face. The concrete had scraped her forehead, leaving the skin raw and red. In the moonlight, her pearls had a mesmerizing shimmer. She'd told us that she usually wore her heirloom jewelry only on special occasions. Then why did she have the necklace on tonight for a renovation meeting in the library? And why entertain such a meaningless thought now?

The pearls appeared to be melting as my eyes filled with tears for a woman I had disliked at our first meeting. For my deplorable haste to judge someone I didn't know.

Lucy leaned over me, touched Marla's throat, and shook her head. "She must have died on impact, Jennet. This was the culprit, I think." She held a stylish navy shoe with a broken stiletto heel, no doubt the object that had tripped me on the step.

She set it down alongside Marla's body. The mate still clung to Marla's right foot. "I'll run back inside and call 911. You stay with her."

As she moved away, something meowed in the space beneath the bay window. A coal black kitten sat in front of a low row of holly bushes, green eyes glittering in the dark. I wasn't superstitious, but the creature's plaintive sound chilled my soul.
Lucy rushed into the library just as Miss Eidt and Ivy appeared in the doorway. Miss Eidt carried an umbrella. In the light of the porch lamp, she looked small and frail.
"Lucy! Did something happen?" Her voice was a tinny squeak, scarcely louder than the kitten's cry. "Jennet?"

"Marla Holland had a fall," I said. "It doesn't look good."

"She didn't break anything, I hope."

At that moment, Lucy reappeared on the porch, out of breath, her long black hair blowing around her shoulders like wings. "They're on their way."

Miss Eidt sank into a wicker chair, maintaining her grip on the umbrella. "Is Marla badly hurt?" she asked.

"I don't think she survived the fall," I said.

"Oh, no! That can't be. We were just talking . . ." Miss Eidt covered her eyes with her hands. "I wish I'd had those steps rebuilt this summer."

"You didn't have the money until tonight," Ivy said. "Besides you couldn't know anyone would fall."

Miss Eidt took off her shawl and handed it to Ivy. "Give this to Jennet, please. For Marla."

I smoothed the length of material over Marla's shoulders. "It was a terrible accident. I might fall too if I wore shoes like that."

"While we were talking about her, Marla was lying out here dead and alone," Miss Eidt said.

"And I threw her cookies out the window." Ivy's voice trembled, and she turned her head away.

"They weren't very good, and the birds will like them," Lucy said quickly. "Marla wouldn't mind . . . " She trailed off. Neither of us knew how Marla would have felt about her homemade offering being tossed outside.

With a mournful little meow, the black kitten padded out from the holly bushes and placed its front paws on the bottom step.

"I wonder if Mrs. Holland tripped over Blackberry," Ivy said.

"That's it! I told you not to feed those wild cats, Ivy. Now look what happened."

As her voice rose, the kitten darted back into the shrubbery, and Ivy seemed to shrink.

"The heel on Marla's shoe broke," Lucy said.

That was true, but for all we knew, she could have first tripped over the kitten. At the moment, with Marla gone, exactly how the accident had happened was irrelevant. Ivy shouldn't feel guilty for feeding a hungry animal.

"We ought to let Alethea know," Ivy said. "She and Marla were friends."

No one responded. No one went inside to make the call. The police would contact Alethea Venn when they arrived and also Marla's niece. Whenever that happened. Time seemed to slow to a standstill. If only the ambulance would hurry, but in Foxglove Corners, we were twenty-five minutes away from help. The FCPD was closer.

I climbed the steps and sat down in the wicker chair next to Miss Eidt. Suddenly I remembered how tired I was and my hope to find Crane waiting on some isolated intersection and the stew in the container.

Slowly, the evening's warmth drifted away in the wind. Suppose I had tripped over Marla's lost shoe and fallen to my death beside her on the concrete walk? I shivered at the forming image, wanting desperately to connect with Crane, to hear his voice and feel his touch.

"I won't have to read those books now," Miss Eidt said.

 

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