Chapter 1 – FRIDAY MORNING

 Flash squeezed through the cat-door sporting what looked like a handlebar moustache.

“What’ve you got this time?” Addie dropped her wet nightgown back into the washer and wiped her hand on her overalls.

The gray tom strutted forward and dropped a black object at her feet. It clinked as it bounced once on the mudroom’s linoleum tile, then lay still.

She peered down through her bifocals. Oh crumb! Herbert Elwood’s pipe. There was no mistaking the rustic bowl and tapered stem he’d thrust toward her so many times in the forty-two years he’d owned the big Colonial next door.

“How many times have I told you not to bring things in? I don’t need more trouble with Herbert.” She scowled at the cat. “I don’t suppose you’re going to go back there and apologize.”

Beneath unwavering yellow eyes, Flash’s nose and whiskers offered one twitch.

“I didn’t think so.” Addie picked up and inspected the tooth-scarred stem and empty bowl. Of course, no tobacco. Herbert had given up smoking after Janet was diagnosed with cancer. “Don’t know how to talk anymore without holding the damn thing,” he’d said. Nothing was safe from Flash, outdoors or in.

“You keep doing this, I’m going to take you back to the shelter. And you can wipe that smirk off your face.”

Addie placed the pipe on the narrow shelf above the dryer, finished transferring her clothes and started up the machine. Flash sprang onto the dryer and settled down as if preparing to nap.

“You’ll kill yourself jumping up there, one of these days. We’re not getting any younger you know.” Addie took the pipe from the shelf and stuffed it into the pocket of her overalls. “Now I have to go make excuses for you again.” She gave Flash the look her children had dubbed “the MAHIB,” for Ma’s-Had-It-Big-Time. “You could have the grace to look ashamed.”

Flash yawned.

I’ve lost my touch, she thought as she went for her windbreaker. Well, at least the children had turned out decently.

*                                 *                              *

Addie rang Herbert’s front doorbell. Good apple picking weather, she thought. Have to get to Hammett’s Farm early tomorrow. Being Columbus Day weekend, half the town would go there to pick apples. She rang the bell again, then rapped the door knocker against its brass plate and waited. Maybe Herbert was working out back.

“Herbert?” she yelled. Stupid. He’d never hear her if he was in his tool shed. At 70, she was eight years younger, and she’d already lost some of the higher tones. How could his hearing be much better?

She started around the cedar-shingled house. His lawn was still damp from Wednesday’s rain, the sod thicker and greener than hers, and his rhododendrons looked a lot healthier. Give credit where credit was due, but — “You are such a pain in the ass, Herbert Elwood,” she muttered. “In my face when I don’t want you, gone when I do. You’d think you were my husband.” Thank God he wasn’t. Her ex had shown her the folly of catering to men. How did Bella put it? “So? You picked a bad apple and he ran off with a tart. It’s not the end of the world.”

In back of the house, the bulkhead gaped open, its rust-pitted green door as inviting as the upper jaw of an alligator’s yawn. Probably airing out his basement workshop. “Herbert!”

She glanced back at the shed where he kept his riding mower and garden tools. Padlocked.  Behind the shed, the trees were ablaze with fluttering orange and red leaves. No sign of Herbert on the path into the woods. Perfect day — she’d leave work early enough to take a walk.

“Herbert!”she called. A blue jay darted up and away. Addie shook her head and turned back toward the house. To the right of the bulkhead, she saw glass sparkle on the top step to the back door. She walked toward the steps. Did he break a glass, cut himself, run to the bathroom? She looked up at the bathroom window. “Herbert!” she yelled. What if he’d fallen upstairs, or in the basement, or had a stroke? “Herbert, it’s Addie — I’m coming down!”

She stooped and extended a hand to the side of the bulkhead, then carefully descended the steps. “Herbert?” The overhead fluorescents were on; one emitted a barely audible hum.  Next to the bulkhead entrance, the faded sweatshirt he wore when gardening was draped over the chair on which he sat to change into his gardening shoes. No socks or shoes on the floor today. The fresh air drifting in behind her hadn’t fully eliminated odors of sawdust and something like lacquer or paint thinner. She glanced at his workbench, saw a pair of birdhouses styled like red barns, an electric sander, and a few paint brushes sticking out of a coffee can. The only other hand tools visible were neatly hooked to the wall.

Addie moved around the table saw and stopped short. “Herbert!” At the bottom of the steps to the kitchen, he lay face down, his arms extended as if he wanted to rise. She rushed forward, then saw dark blood and bits of brain around an opening in Herbert’s bald head. She clutched her belly, collapsed to her knees. “Oh, my God!  Herbert!”

*                          *                          *

“I hate throwing up,” said Addie. “I haven’t done it since I was twelve and had appendicitis.”

“Drink the tea, Ma,” George said. “It’ll be good for you.”

She felt comforted with her son sitting next to her at the kitchen table. He was dressed in the dark blues of the Millbrook police department, concern on his craggy face, holstered gun at his side, clearly ready “to serve and protect” his mother. George had placed his cap on top of the refrigerator, where it was safe from Flash. The cat was sunning himself on the folded towel Addie kept on the radiator next to the side window. Still, the sunlight streaming through the café curtains had done nothing to chase away her chills.

Addie picked up the bone china tea cup. “It was so — sudden.” Her hands were trembling, so she set the cup down on the saucer. “I’m sorry that someone will have to clean up my mess.”

“It’s okay,” said George. “The state police techs are used to cleaning up worse. Drink the tea.”

“Techs? Like CSI? I didn’t mean to contaminate the crime scene.”

“Ma, it’s not like on television. You didn’t harm the crime scene.” He leaned forward. “You didn’t touch anything.  You got out of there and called me  —  you did all the right things.”

Addie nodded. There was comfort beyond words in her son’s blue eyes, all the more because they were the only facial feature he had from her. The years had turned his blond hair a lusterless brown, furrowed his brow and even thrust out his chin like his father’s, but George’s concern for her was no less fervent now than it was after Dave abandoned them.

“Drink the tea,” he said.

“Could you pour it into a mug, George? There are only four of these cups left from my mother, and I’m so shaky right now.”

“Sure.” He got up and took her cup and saucer to the counter between the stove and refrigerator.

“I just can’t believe that Herbert’s dead. Not that way.” Addie closed her eyes and tried to focus on her breathing, but images of Herbert’s bashed-in head were overpowering. Her eyes popped open, her body trembled, her fingernails dug into her palms. “Horrible – so horrible.”

“It is,” said George. He set a white NPR mug down in front of her, then moved behind her chair to gently massage her neck and shoulders. “I’m really sorry you saw that.”

“So am I. At least he didn’t have to lie there until his cleaning lady came on Tuesday.” She grasped George’s hand. “Who’ll tell his children? This will be awful for them.”

His mouth tightened as if he didn’t trust himself to speak. He patted her hand, then cleared his throat. “Don’t worry.  Detective Barker and I will tell them personally.”

Of course George was hurting, she thought. Herbert’s three kids had grown up playing with her four, and George, the eldest and most serious, had always been their protector. “It’s so hard to believe,” she said. “I mean people may have wished Herbert dead at times, but to kill him? In Millbrook, Massachusetts? When’s the last time this town had a murder?”

He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Maybe ten, twelve years ago. Remember that convenience store guy?”

She snuffled and reached for the napkin holder. “He was trying to resist a hold-up.” She wiped her nose with a napkin. “They said the killer was on drugs. To me, this looked deliberate.”

“Just drink your tea, Ma.  Let us get the facts and draw the conclusions. That’s how we earn our pay.”

“At least it’s Sergeant’s pay now. That must help.”

He sat down next to her. “Mostly it helps Luisa’s orthodontist. Please Ma, drink some tea.”

The tea was hot and bracing. “You sure you don’t want some?”

“Uh-uh.” He rubbed his temple with his middle three fingers, his telltale sign of a worry he was trying to spare her.

“So?” she asked. “Let’s have it.”

“When you’re ready, you’re going to have to talk to Detective Barker.”

“Do I know him?”

“He’s Rona Barker’s nephew.”

Addie sniffed. “He has my sympathy.”

“You mean the choir?”

“I’m not the only one who left the choir because of her bossiness. But not only there. That woman comes into Auterio’s every week, fills up her shopping basket, then decides at the register she doesn’t want two or three items. Good thing for her I’m not the one who has to put them back on the shelves. The cashiers say she never even apologizes.”

“Detective Barker isn’t like his aunt.”

“You sure?”

“He doesn’t shop at Auterio’s. And I once heard him apologize to the Chief.”

“Herbert told me he was very offended by her.”

“By Rona? Herbert was in the choir?”

“No. He attends – attended a fundamentalist church. But two weeks after Janet died, Rona started calling him to sell his house. He said she asked him, now that he was a widower, why did he need such a big house? As if it was her business.”

“Ma, real estate is her business.”

“She could’ve waited a decent interval. She has no sensitivity and no tact. And she pestered him about it every few months. I surely hope her nephew’s very different.”

“He’s not pushy like Rona. But play it cool, anyway. With Marbury out on disability, Barker’s our only detective.”

“I never met him at one of your barbecues, did I?”

“No. We just work together. He doesn’t live in town because he doesn’t want his kids hassled.   So, you ready?”

“No, but let’s get it over with.” How do people ever get over something like this? she thought.

George took out his cell phone and speed dialed a number. He cocked his head toward Flash.  “Maybe you should put the beast in the bathroom.”

“He won’t like it.”

“Detective Barker won’t like his shoelaces used as dental floss — Hello, it’s George. My mom’s ready… No, in the kitchen.  Use the back door.” He pocketed the phone.

Flash was licking a paw. “I hate to disturb him,” she said. “He’s so comfortable there.”

“Ma, this is a murder investigation. Detective Barker doesn’t need distractions.”

“You’re right. I can’t let Flash out, either, or next thing you know he’ll be down that basement again.” She pushed back from the table. Flash jerked his head toward the sound of chair legs scraping the worn oak floor. “That’s where he must’ve gotten the pipe, don’t you think?”

“We’ll know better once they put it under a microscope and see what’s on it.”

She stood up. “I probably messed it all up by handling the pipe.”

“You didn’t know he was dead, Ma.”

“I still can’t believe it.” She remembered Herbert’s face lighting up with appreciation of her pies, his rage when he felt betrayed by her ex-husband, his grief and confusion after Janet’s death.  She shook her head. “Poor Herbert.” She walked to the radiator. “Come for a ride, Flash.”

In her arms, the cat was a purring bundle of warmth. “See, he’s on his good behavior today.”

“You should’ve been a public defender, Ma. I hear the little beast bit Robert hard yesterday.”

“No harder than usual. Robert shouldn’t have sat down on the couch. Flash knows you and your brother don’t like him.”

“You’re wrong. It’s Bess and Joanne that don’t like him. Robert and I hate him.”

“Oh, dear.” She sighed. “I have only myself to blame.”

“For adopting him?”

“For failing to teach you how to be tactful. But I don’t think the police department succeeded in that, either.” She left the room before he could reply, walked down the hallway to the powder room under the steps, closed the door behind her and gently deposited Flash on the mat. “You stay here.” She scanned the surfaces for errant socks or other potential playthings, picked up her comb and hair brush and scowled at the white strands that were once red. Even cut short, it was her hair, not her face, that gave away her age. Maybe Bess was right about trying a mild coloring.

She put the comb and brush in the medicine chest. Who did she need to impress at this late date? A homicide detective?  My God! Her thoughts were all over the place, today.

“Take the toilet paper out of there,” George yelled from the kitchen.

Addie took the toilet paper off its roller. Flash regarded her with angelic calm, as if all this fuss was unnecessary. “Sorry, sweetie, I can’t have you tearing it up again. You probably wouldn’t like Rona’s nephew, anyway.” She closed the door securely and returned to the kitchen, brandishing the roll of toilet paper. “You didn’t have to remind me. I’m not dotty, yet.”  She put the toilet paper on top of the refridgerator. “But do remind me to put it back in before you go – I mean leave.”

“I know what you mean,” said George. A double knock on the back door brought him quickly from his chair. “I’ll get it.”

She heard a muffled exchange and then they were back, the detective ducking his head as he followed George through the doorway. “Ma, this is Detective Barker. Harris, this lady, I’m proud to say, is my mother.”

“George says that when he wants me to be good.” She offered a polite smile and her hand to the burly, gray-haired detective. As he reached down for her hand, the jacket of his brown suit opened enough for her to see a holstered gun.

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Carter.” His voice was husky.

She smelled lime and cigarette smoke, felt engulfed in his hand and withdrew hers quickly.  She’d not felt so dwarfed by a man since childhood. Barker was at least six inches taller than George – a good six-seven, maybe six-eight. She wondered if he’d ever played football.

Barker’s small mouth stretched into a teasing smile. “George always raves about you.”

“I’m sure he does.” She didn’t like the way Barker’s dark eyes shifted away to assess the old ceiling fan, fading paint and worn appliances. “Almost as much as he raves about my cat.”

“Ma –,” warned George.

“Would you like to sit here or in the living room, where it’s more comfortable?” she asked even while recognizing it was an unfair test. He had no way of knowing she preferred the informality and comforting memories of her kitchen.

“Here’s fine.” Barker pulled a maple chair out from the table. “Okay, George?”

Maybe he’s smarter than he looks, thought Addie.

“It’s your show,” said George. He signaled Addie to sit.

She turned to Barker. “Would you like some tea or a glass of juice, Detective?”

“I’m afraid we need to get right down to business, you know what I mean?” He smiled with lips sealed. A faint scar linked the center of his upper lip to his oversized nose.

“Yes,” said Addie. She reclaimed her seat. “About the murder.”

As the men sat down, Barker’s chair squeaked like a piglet in pain. Addie wondered how long  the re-glued joints would hold him.

“First off, Mrs. Carter, I want to assure you that you are not suspected of doing anything wrong. But if you feel that you need an attorney present – ”

“Not at all. I generally don’t like attorneys. In my experience, most seem to charge double for being too clever by half.”

“Okay, no attorney. So then, what makes you think Dr. Elwood was murdered?”

“He –” She swallowed hard. “He was face down and the back of his head was bashed in. His wooden steps aren’t hard enough to do that.  I broke a leg on steps like that about five years ago.”  She reached below her right knee. “I was in a cast for – how long was it, George?”
“We’re talking about Elwood, Ma.”

George was right – she needed to focus. “Yes. I suppose the cement floor could do it, but if the back of his head smashed onto it that hard, I doubt he’d have lived to turn completely over.”

“That’s an interesting theory.” Barker rubbed his ear as if it bothered him. “Say hypothetically – you know what hypothetically means?”

She glanced at George. He sat poker-faced. “Yes, I imagine I do,” she said.

Barker acknowledged her sarcasm with a tight smile. “Right. Well, assuming that Dr. Elwood was murdered, do you have a theory of who might have done it?”

“I haven’t the foggiest. Some of the neighbors didn’t like Herbert, but I never heard anyone out-and-out threaten to kill him.”

Barker’s eyes lit up. “But you heard some kind of threat?”

“I think it was merely a stupid remark from a hot-tempered young man. You remember the controversy over the ice-cream truck, George?”

“Ray Miggens?” asked George.

“I think I know him,” said Barker. “He’s been down the station a few times, hasn’t he?”

“Yup. Drunk and disorderly. One DUI that I know of.  Way before that, he served a little time in a juvie lock-up for assaulting a store clerk and a mall security guard who tried to stop him from shoplifting. You went to his trial, didn’t you, Ma?”

“His mother asked me to go with her. They had a public defender.”

“There wasn’t much he could do,” said George. “We also thought Ray spray-painted the high school after he dropped out, but we couldn’t prove it. I’m not aware of any trouble in the past year or two. Must be about 35 by now, but still lives across the street with his mother.”

“He has his rough side,” said Addie. “But he’s always been nice to me. And devoted to his mother. When he was young, he used to help us shovel snow from the driveway, and I’d give him some hot chocolate and cookies.”

“And pay him,” said George. “Ray always liked money.”

“Who doesn’t?” said Addie. “I think we got along so well because Raymond had an alcoholic stepfather, and I let him know I’d survived one, too.”

“So what was this loser’s connection with the deceased?” Barker stared at her, his face expectant.

This man has the sensitivity of a garbage disposal, she thought. “Two summers ago, Raymond bought a used ice-cream truck and started driving around town selling ice cream – you know, like popsicles and ice cream sandwiches.  He had some old freezers in his garage to keep some stock there, but one or two mornings a week – usually early — a big refrigerator truck from Deighton’s Dairy would come up the street to deliver cartons of ice cream. Living right across the street, Herbert didn’t like the noise, and he complained about the pollution from the diesel fuel. It really wasn’t that bad. I think it was Herbert being Herbert – trying to control, like with the hedge.”

“The hedge?” asked Barker.

“That awful privet hedge down my driveway. Herbert had them plant it a foot beyond his property line. In the winter there’s no room to push the snow to that side. It’s not as if he needed more space for his cars. His driveway is all the way on the other side of his house.”

“Ma – We know. We’re parked there.”

She flashed him a MAHIB look. “And when he cuts the hedge, he cleans – cleaned up his side, but not mine. He would just smirk and say ‘what falls on your property is yours.’ You were right, George. I should’ve taken him to Court years ago.”

“Too late now,” said George.

“How angry did you get at Dr. Elwood?” asked Barker.

She stiffened. “Enough to give him what for, not to kill him.”

“Were you ever his patient?”

“No. Root canals are bad enough as it is. I certainly didn’t want his face smirking over mine.”

“They’ve been feuding on and off for forty years,” said George. “But a lot less since his wife got sick, right Ma?”

“Janet and I always got along fine — we were close toward the end. And Herbert wasn’t always a curmudgeon. Now and then he’d act like a human being and talk with me about gardening or lend me a tool or a helping hand. And I’d be sure to bring over a casserole or something to show I appreciated it. But you’re right — he wasn’t the same after she got sick.”

“In what way?” asked Barker.

Addie picked up the mug, cradled it in her hands. “He was much more — solicitous of her – all of us were. Janet told me he had a lot of difficulty seeing her in pain. Until she got very sick, she tried to hide it from him. Herbert really did love her – and it ate him up inside that he couldn’t do anything about her cancer, or the fact that he was going to lose her.” Addie took a sip of tea, then put the mug down on the table. “I remember once, when Janet was worrying about how Herbert would do after she was gone, I told her he’d do okay – he was as stubborn an old donkey as I am.”  She smiled at the memory. “She told me Herbert was older, but I was more stubborn. She said – ” Addie shook her head. “That’s not important. What did you ask me?”

“How Dr. Elwood wasn’t the same,” said Barker.

“What did Janet say?” asked George.

Addie looked at her son. “She said there was a bigger difference. Herbert got stubborn to contain his anxiety; she said I got stubborn to survive.” Addie shifted her gaze to Barker. “At the end – it’ll be two years this coming January – he was really overwhelmed. Grieving, but not coming out of it. In a lot of ways, she was his compass.” She rubbed her forehead. “I can’t believe he’s dead. Who on God’s earth would do that to an old man?”

“We’re going to find out,” said Barker. “What happened between him and Ray Miggens?”

“Herbert complained to Raymond about those big trucks coming up the street, but Raymond didn’t have the money to rent commercial space – he was just starting up the business. So Herbert went to the Zoning Board, and there was a hearing which I didn’t attend. They both asked me to go, but I didn’t want to be put in the middle. Legally, Herbert was right, this area is strictly residential. On the other hand, we only have ten houses on the street, so it’s not like he was inconveniencing a lot of people.  Raymond was trying to turn his life around and that should’ve mattered to his neighbors — especially me, because I once worked with his mother. After that hearing, Delia – that’s his mother – stopped talking to me for almost a year.” Addie looked down at her hands. “Not that it would have changed the outcome, but I should’ve gone and spoken in support.”

“They shut down Ray’s business?” asked Barker.

“They gave him thirty days to find commercial space, after which the town was going to impose fines for every day he operated out of his house. I don’t know that his ice cream truck ever made a profit, but once he couldn’t build the business from home, he couldn’t – or at least he didn’t – go on with it.”

“And he blamed Dr. Elwood.”

“Yes. I was weeding out front one morning before the thirty days were up – it was one of the last times the big delivery truck was there – and Herbert had come out to watch. You know how some people can gloat without saying a word? Raymond must have felt that, too. He ignored the ice cream cartons in his driveway and walked over to Herbert’s front lawn and ranted about people who didn’t mind their own business ruining his life.”

“And you heard some kind of threat in his rant?”

“I think he was merely blowing off steam.”

“What did he say, Ma?”

“Raymond yelled ‘I’ll fix you, you old blankety-blank.’ Except it wasn’t blankety-blank. He used the mother of ‘f’ words.”

“What happened after that?” asked Barker.

“Nothing. I didn’t hear Herbert say a word. He just turned around and went into his house, and Raymond went back to getting his ice cream into the freezers. And I never heard any more about it. Toward the end of the summer, Raymond got a job at Doyle’s Autobody, over on Route 111.  Frankly, I think he’s better off.”

“We’ll see,” said Barker. “Do you know of any other arguments Dr. Elwood had – or possible grudges against him?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any.”

“Was he upset or angry at anyone lately?”

“Lately?” Should she? Well, it was true. “He was upset by that realtor.”

Barker’s eyes narrowed. “What realtor?”

“Rona Barker.” She tried to look innocent. “Oh, is she related to you?”

“She’s my aunt.” He glanced at George, but her son’s facial expression was impenetrable.

Barker turned back to Addie. “You’ve been in that basement before?”

“Yes.” Why had he changed the subject?

“Aside from the dead body, notice anything different, anything out of place today?”

She bit her lip. Is that all Herbert was now — just a dead body? “I’m afraid Dr. Elwood’s – condition – blew everything else from my mind.”

“Naturally. But be sure to let us know if anything else occurs to you.”

She tried to recall her entry into the basement. “His shoes — ”

“He wasn’t wearing shoes,” said George. “He was wearing slippers.”

“Yes, but he usually kept his gardening shoes and a pair of socks under the chair near the bulkhead. They weren’t there. That’s why I thought for a minute he might be outside.”

“What color were the shoes?” asked Barker.

“Dark brown, but quite worn. They were ankle high lace-ups. He had heavy brown socks to go with them. Maybe they’re in his closet.”

“We’ll look. You know anything about the birdhouses?”

“You mean who he was building them for? I’ve no idea.”

“Was he interested in birds before he retired?” asked George.

“Not especially – at least as far as I know. I suppose like all of us he enjoyed looking at them.”

“He didn’t know squat about birds,” said Barker.

“How do you know?” asked George.

“Bird lovers around here wouldn’t use bright colors. They attract predators. Most people who know birds wouldn’t paint a birdhouse – they’d leave it natural or stain it. And Elwood cut the entrance holes too big – starlings or house sparrows would’ve taken over.”

“You like birds, Detective?” asked Addie.

“I generally find them prettier and more predictable than people,” said Barker. “But let’s go back to last night.”

“I told George. Flash and I went to bed at nine. I didn’t see or hear anything after that.”

“Then take us through today from the time you got up.”

Addie sighed. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like a mug of tea first?”

“No, thanks. I’m not much of a tea drinker.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said. “I’ve never seen an American detective on television asking for tea. Of course, all I know about detective work is made up by someone. I’m very curious about how it really is. Have you uncovered any clues next door?”

“That’s police business, Ma. You know all those yellow tapes that say ‘stay out?’”

“I’ve already been to the basement, George. From now on, all those yellow tapes will say to me is ‘too little, too late.’”

 

Chapter 2 – SATURDAY MORNING

 

Addie slipped out the back door at sunrise, closing it quietly so as not to announce her departure to the two reporters who were drinking coffee at the bottom of her driveway. She locked the door, tucked her purse into a pocket of her windbreaker, then crossed her back yard to the path through the woods. The cool air was invigorating, the silence a blessing.

What a miserable night.  Reporters, neighbors, the phone ringing off the hook, then the nightmares – yes, she’d be better off at work. The walk through the woods and a talk with Bella would clear her head. How lucky to have always had both a place of refuge and a trustworthy friend. Poor Herbert. He’d lost his best friend when Janet died and neither his basement workshop nor the garden seemed to give him much solace.

She dawdled along the path, listening to the birds. Against the dark background of pine and spruce, the autumn leaves danced in spotlights of sun. She missed the elms with their drooping branches.  She never thought they’d all die before she would.

That huge detective seemed an unlikely bird watcher. She hoped he wouldn’t think to do that here. Not that she’d ever seen many strangers in these woods. Herbert had often walked here, and    the abutters, of course. It had always been a great place for hide and seek, and a paradise for dogs.  And thanks to the Herbal Woodland Trust, there’d been no development to ruin it.

The maple under which she’d discovered Nancy Drew welcomed her under its multicolored canopy. Addie kissed two fingers and touched the furrowed bark. “That’s for being more wrinkled than I am.” A squirrel scurrying along a branch reminded her she needed to get to work.

She passed the modest houses on Parsons Street, stopped to allow a delivery van to pass, then crossed diagonally onto Juniper. Andy Marston’s brown terrier barked at her from behind his picket fence.

“Oh hush up, Rigby. You know who I am.”

Rigby wagged his tail, but he chased and scolded her until he came to the end of the lot.

Alongside a garage, a tractor peeked from beneath a tarp. Already the stacks of wood were covered and bushes were wrapped. Everyone buttoning up for the winter.

As she crossed the Main Street Bridge, the wind nipped her cheeks and ears. The water level alongside the bankrupt Sawmill Museum was only half-way up the retaining wall. She missed seeing blue-roofed cottages upstream and wondered where the children of the workers in the paper and shoe mills ended up after those industries died and the cottages were sacrificed for a power plant. Not that Millbrook ever had a chance once the giant mills of Haverhill, Lowell and Lynn got rolling. Now those giants were dead, too.

“You’re the hope,” she whispered to the renovated factory downstream. Yes, everyone in town was hoping, but few had faith. How could a start-up like Nascent Technologies compete with the giants of I-495 and Silicon Valley? Still, it was lucky for Millbrook that Erik Cortland made it through MIT and wanted to bring his company home. If only Ruthie had lived to see her son and the Governor cutting the ribbon.

Across Main Street, Robby Smith was sweeping up in front of his Shell station. Addie waved but he didn’t look up.  She hurried by the red brick monstrosity that had been rehabbed into senior housing, then the row of offices and stores. Out on the Common, an old man was walking his chihuahua across the grass, defying the PLEASE KEEP PETS ON THE PATHS signs in full view of the brick police station across the street. George hadn’t liked her arguing at Town Meeting about the stupidity of that ordinance. Bella had suggested having her friends stand up and chant “Save our sidewalks! Save our shoes!”

“It’s one of your saner ideas,” she’d told Bella. “But it really would make me uncomfortable.”

“You’re such a prig.”

She couldn’t really disagree, so she’d said, “Why should I believe the opinion of an insane friend?” Then they’d had another glass of wine.

As she approached Auterio’s Supermarket, Addie saw Carlo taping bargain signs in the front windows. His silver hair, moustache and wire-rimmed glasses made him look more like a retired professor than the fruit peddler who’d built a thriving business by dint of street smarts, determination, and equal effort from his wife. Their son Anthony once joked that his parents split their work fifty-fifty: his father always wore a white shirt and tie to deal with employees and customers, while his mother always wore the pants to deal with Carlo.

Carlo acknowledged Addie’s wave by raising his thumb.  She understood he wasn’t indicating that things were fine – it was that Bella was waiting upstairs.

*                              *                                *

“And that was it?” Seated at her desk, Yoplait cup in hand, Bella paused between spoonfuls of yogurt. Her black trousers and cardigan were topped by a pink and yellow striped scarf. “What did you leave out?”

“Nothing I can think of,” said Addie. She shook her head at the jumble of letters, memo slips, food magazines and recipe cards competing for space with Bella’s laptop. Her own desktop,

back to back with Bella’s, was clear except for her computer, a box of tissues and a mug. She saw

Bella’s lips twist into the same skeptical smile she’d flashed as a chubby, outspoken little girl in elementary school. Only now Bella’s dark hair was permed with chestnut highlights and her lips were primed hot-pink — to divert attention from her jowls and age spots, she’d said.

The clang of a shopping cart slamming into others reverberated up to their office from the supermarket floor. Bella looked to the door. “I hope it’s not Anthony doing that. I can’t fire my son.” She turned to Addie. “I don’t want to have to worry about you, either. Why did you throw half your toast away?”

“I’m not hungry this morning.” The odor of chickens roasting on the spits downstairs in the deli had made her queasy. No, the real problem was with her nerves. Too much excitement in the last 24 hours. “Detective Barker did come back in the afternoon, without George, but he kept repeating the same questions he’d asked in the morning. After a while, I was saying things like, ‘No, I didn’t hear anything go bump in the night. No, I haven’t seen suspicious gypsies lurking in the woods.’”

“He asked you about gypsies?” Bella’s gravelly voice broke on a note of incredulity.

“He asked about strangers. I didn’t actually say gypsies.”

“You did in fourth grade.”

Addie looked up at the wall clock. Oh, crumb! She’d never get all the vendor checks out this morning. “I don’t remember.”

“Oh, you do so. You remember everything. You just hold out on me, sometimes.”

“It’s not personal. There are times I need to think things through before sharing them with anyone, even my best friend.”

Bella leaned back in her chair. “If I recall correctly, your best friend has helped you think through some very tough things.”

“That I will never forget.” Bella had always been there for her — Carlo, too, once he came to Millbrook. They’d supported her through her divorce, given her a steady job, and backed her as she struggled with Bess’ drug addiction. She could never repay all they’d done for her. When she’d run out of the stamina needed to manage the store’s front end, they’d insisted she stay on as a bookkeeper, paying her more than she was worth. Without that money, she would’ve had to sell the house, move into senior housing and share cat chow with Flash.

“So what are you remembering?” asked Bella.

“Nothing. Everything. Don’t you have to get down to the deli counter?”

“Why? You think I own this place to work here? If I wanted to work, I’d go home.”

“You and Carlo still work harder than anyone.”

Bella’s plastic spoon waved the compliment aside. “Stop trying to change the subject.”

“I wasn’t.”

“See! Another lie.” Bella’s eyes danced. “I remember what you said. You told Miss Sayers that gypsies wouldn’t let you cut through the woods unless you gave them your homework.”

“Book bag and lunch.”

“Same thing.” Bella chuckled. “The gypsies ate your homework.”

“I couldn’t say my stepfather was drunk and threw them into the furnace.” Her muscles tightened as if to resist his grip and his image as he dragged her toward the furnace. She’d been terrified he’d go through with his threat to incinerate her along with the book bag over which he’d tripped.

“But gypsies?” said Bella.

Addie leaned back in her chair. “It worked out okay. I had to stay in for recess and write ‘I will always tell the truth’ a hundred times, but then Miss Sayers gave me half of her sandwich.”

“You never told me that.” Bella sounded aggrieved.

“She swore me to secrecy. Not that it makes any difference now — she’s gone, too.” That entire generation and more and more of their own. Now Herbert. “At least Miss Sayers passed away in her sleep. I remember she made me do a report about gypsies. Stories about them fascinated me. I guess that’s what comes of living in one town my whole life.”

“I lived here since I was six. I never once thought of a gypsy until you came out with that ridiculous story – and I certainly didn’t give much thought to them afterwards.”

“You were always very practical. Speaking of which, I need to get the checks done.” She hit the spacebar and the computer awakened, bringing the Moonstone Bakery account onto the screen.

“It won’t kill them to get paid a day later, Addie. This is the biggest thing to happen here since the hurricane of ’38. Didn’t you watch the news on TV last night?”

“No. Flash and I went to bed early.”

“‘Murder in Millbrook’ was the lead story. Didn’t you see the TV people on your street?”

“I wouldn’t talk to any of those vultures.”

“That nifty reporter should have interviewed you instead of Walter Highsdale. Walter’s a blowhard. You could have described finding the body.”

Addie reached for her mug. “I don’t even like to think about that. And George told me not to talk about it. That way only the murderer is aware of the details, and not those people who confess to everything.” The tea was cold. She got up and went to the printer table, where she set the mug on the electric warmer and glanced down at the traffic. Most of the cars were heading toward the rotary and the highways beyond. “I don’t need to be on TV. Let Walter have his fifteen seconds of fame. I want fifteen more years of peace and quiet.”

Bella snorted. “At our age, peace and quiet are going to come all too soon. A little excitement let’s you know you’re still alive.”

“So does sciatica. That doesn’t mean I prefer it to a football game.”

“You and your football. I bet if Herbert’s murderer came to kill you during a Patriots game, you’d ask him to sit down and wait until the game ended.”

Addie smiled. “No, I’d just ask him to let me record the game for later. Seriously though, Herbert’s murder has been a terrible shock. And I have my doubts about this detective.”

“Because he’s a jerk?” Bella dropped the plastic cup and spoon into her wastebasket. “What did you expect from a relative of Rona’s?”

“I didn’t expect him to be handsome and smart like the detectives on TV. But I also didn’t expect him not to ask one follow-up question when I said that Herbert had been angry at Rona’s attempts to get him to sell his house. For some reason, he seemed fixated on Raymond Miggins.”

“Maybe Detective Barker already knew about the house issue from Rona.”

“So why didn’t he say he was aware of it? He sure had more than enough questions about everything else.”

“You think he’s covering something up for Rona?”

“I don’t like to think he is, but it’s possible.”

“Listen, everything’s possible. For all you know, he could be the murderer. Have you talked with George?”

Addie shook her head. “I’m sure he’ll tell me I’m still in shock and my imagination is running wild, and maybe that’s right. Also if I start raising doubts, it puts George in a difficult position.”

“So are we going to investigate?”

“Don’t be so dramatic. This isn’t TV and I’m not a detective. I just want to make sure the one we have is on the up-and-up.”

Bella lifted her hands from her lap. “And how are we going to do that?”

“Stop with this ‘we’ business. I have a few doubts, that’s all. And the quickest way to get rid of them is for me to hold my nose and talk to Rona.”

“You think, if she was up to something shady, she’d admit it to you?”

“I think all she’s guilty of is being overeager to get another listing. She might admit to that.”

“Why bother when there are no buyers in this neck of the woods – although come to think of it, I did see her driving a Chinese guy around in her car last week.”

“Chinese?”

Bella shrugged. “Maybe Korean. I only got a quick look as they passed me. But it’s the Chinese who are buying everything these days.”

“Probably some engineer who’s come to work for Nascent Technologies. Although why he’d want to live out here where there’s no Asian community is a mystery.”

“You could ask your nephew.”

“Marty? Ask him what?”

“To talk to Rona – you know, interview her for the Millbrook Messenger.”

“No, if she won’t talk to me about why she was pestering Herbert, she’s not going to want a story like that in the town newspaper.  Besides, Marty’s all caught up in covering Herbert’s murder. He wanted to come over last night, but I was exhausted. I had to promise not to speak to any other reporter before I talked with him.”

“I’ll bet lots of reporters were here. On Channel 7, they said that one or more thieves broke in through the back door, and it was possible Herbert got killed because he tried to stop them.”

“That sounds right. I did see glass on his back steps. His back door has glass panels like mine, and his storm door has glass.” Addie saw the warmer’s green light go on. She picked up her mug and headed back to her chair.

“You should get an alarm system,” said Bella.

“Thanks, but I don’t have anything anybody would want to steal.”

“You have a TV, don’t you? And a nice piano.”

“Nobody breaks into a house to steal a piano. And my TV is ten years old.”

“So what was in Herbert’s house that was so special someone would want to steal it?”

“I haven’t the foggiest. His furnishings are pretty worn. And Herbert wasn’t a fool. I doubt that he kept much cash at home.” She tapped the spacebar to awaken her computer.

“He probably had plenty somewhere,” said Bella. “Root canal dentists make a bundle, and he was at it a long time.  He certainly didn’t spend it on Janet.”

“Janet wasn’t one to ask for expensive clothes or jewelry. Her life was in doing for her kids.”

Bella slapped her desk. “It just hit me — what if the murderer comes back to the scene of the crime? Does that really happen?”

“How should I know?”

“You read a lot. Doesn’t that happen in a lot of  books?”

“Books aren’t real life,” said Addie. She heard footsteps coming up the stairs.

“You definitely need to put in a burglar alarm. If it’s the money, Carlo and I — ”

“No. It’s not the money. The kids are grown now and I’m just responsible for myself. ”

“Still, Carlo and I would —  ”

“Carlo and you would what, Bella?” Carlo’s deep baritone preceded him through the doorway.  Addie was always surprised by how such a big voice could emanate from such a short, slim man.     He walked toward his wife. “You think the store can run on a Saturday without you downstairs?”

“Addie needs a burglar alarm.”

“No I don’t.”

“Because of the murder?” asked Carlo.

“Yes,” said Bella.

“No,” said Addie.

Carlo stepped toward Addie’s desk. “Addie.” His tone was fatherly. “How many years have you known my wife? You know her longer and better than I do, right?”

“Longer, but not – ”

“Listen, my dear friend. If  Isabella Maria Bavarone Auterio says you need a burglar alarm, you need a burglar alarm. I learned long ago, if she says the Pope is wrong, the Pope is wrong.”

“That was only twice,” said Bella.

“With this Pope, twice. And the one before?”

“She needs the money, Carlo.”

“I don’t!

“She says there’ve been gypsies lurking behind her house.”

“Bella!”Addie glared at her.

“Gypsies? A murderer’s not enough? Write her a check,” said Carlo.

“I won’t cash it.”

Carlo dismissed her refusal with a wave of his hand. “So post it on the refrigerator where the murderer can see it. But later, Bella, later! For now, please, may we all go back to work?”