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
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
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
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,"
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
Alethea sat a little straighter in
her chair. "My thousand dollar contribution will help
"Indeed it will, Alethea. You're
"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,"
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
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?"
"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,"
"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."
"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
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
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
"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,"
"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
"Along with sweet little murder
mysteries," I said.
"Marla Holland targeted me last
year. She wanted the library to throw out my Chilling Hour
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?"
"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?"
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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,"
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
"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.