The vintage Cadillac sailed slowly through the cemetery gates like a battleship looking for its berth. The elderly driver peered over the long hood, carefully navigating the narrow roads, searching for the parking lot he always used. The walk from there to the grave was a little longer than he liked, but there was enough space to easily turn the car around. Today, cars were short. Compacts, they called them. Or SUVs, whatever that meant. Everyone stuffed them full of kids, dogs, and toys. In his day, the dog stayed home. So did the kids, if you could swing it. No one drove big, comfortable cars like this one anymore. Why, he had no idea. Didn’t know what they were missing, that was for damn sure.
He was in luck. The lot was empty. Last time there had been that stupid woman. He’d never understood why she made such a fuss. Her silly little car was barely dented. Slowly he maneuvered so that he faced the exit and stopped. He sat for a moment, took a deep breath, and pushed open the door.
Gravel crunched. He hated gravel. Why couldn’t they pave this lot? The roads were paved. Didn’t the groundskeepers know gravel could trip people? Especially people who used canes. Not that he had to, of course. Use his cane. It was just that, well, sometimes lately … He hung onto the driver’s door as he inched his way to the back one, swung it open, and took out the hated cane. There was a small hill to climb, and, as much as he didn’t want to admit it, he’d need it to get himself and his flowers to the grave he’d come to visit. Flowers. Where were the flowers he’d brought? Damn it. They’d fallen over. Water had seeped onto the mat, soaking the back floorboard. He’d told that fool girl to prop them up with something. She hadn’t listened, of course. No one did anymore. He took the roses, red as usual, out of the container, examined it to make sure there was some water left, and placed them both on the ground. He pulled out the floor mat and laid it flat beside the car. Maybe it would dry a little while he was gone.
He stuffed the roses back in the plastic vase and picked up his cane. Should he fill the container from the faucet at the head of the path? No, it’d just slop over and get his trousers wet.
This was the old part of the cemetery. Families who had lived in this town for over a hundred years were buried here. Granite monuments were scattered liberally over the slight hill, many with generations of names inscribed on them. Others, like the family plot he headed for, had marble statues on pedestals. Angels mostly, guarding the dear departed, waiting to take the next in line to heaven. He wondered if he would get into heaven. A small smile turned up the corners of his mouth. Sure he would. Francis would lobby for him. Almost there. Just up the path a little way and around the bend. He paused for a moment to get his breath. He loved this moment, going toward her, being with her again.
Everyone said that time would dull the ache, but it hadn’t. Even after two years, the hole she had left in his life was so huge, the cavern so great, he couldn’t see the other side. Francis. He had been everything to her. The children she’d wanted had never come, so she had devoted her life to him. He wondered fleetingly if she thought he’d devoted his life to her. Stupid. Of course she had. He’d never looked at another woman. So what if he hadn’t been much on sweet talk. She knew.
Something was wrong. He struggled forward, staring ahead. Was he in the right place? There should be an angel standing there, almost directly over Francis’s grave. But there was no angel, just the pedestal. Where was the angel? Oh God. There it was, lying on its side. What happened? Kids. He hurried forward, anxiety filling his chest. That was Francis’s angel. He’d always hated the damn thing, but she loved it. Her parents were buried under it, and her sister, May.
A branch lay across the fallen angel. A big branch. He looked up. A white scar marred the side of the old oak tree that sheltered the graves. That storm on Thanksgiving night. Must have broken off then, landed on the angel, and knocked it right off its pedestal. It seemed intact. No. It was missing an arm. He looked around. No sign of it. He leaned heavily on his cane as he examined the angel. Probably could be fixed. If they could find the arm, of course.
A shadow fell across the grass, and a figure emerged from behind the neighboring monument. He stared at the person for a moment, surprised. He squinted a little, trying to focus. Eyes weren’t as good as they used to be, but after a moment he was sure.
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.”
“You’re supposed to be …”
He never finished. The missing angel arm hit him across the side of the head, crushing his skull, splashing brain tissue and blood on the grass, the path, and the body of the fallen statue. He only had time to think “why?” before he folded slowly onto Francis’s grave.
I love a good murder mystery and this one seems to have all the right ingredients. There is no shortage of suspects, all with ample motive. There is the handsome police chief, Dan, who is in love with his childhood sweetheart, Ellen, whom he will marry on New Year’s. There is the fiancée, who manages to solve the mystery long before the professionals do, and who is warned by the professionals at every turn, not to get involved and leave the crime solving to them.
Now add in a couple of mysterious new arrivals on the scene, who happen to be residents of Grace House which helps abused women to get a new start in life. Who are they, what is their background and what are their motives? Can one of the men who abused them be responsible for the mayhem that has invaded?
When someone burns Grace House to the ground, the women end up living with Dan and Ellen, while she tries to plan a wedding, ably or ‘unable-ly.’ Assisted by both their mothers who keep inviting more guests to the wedding, the complete lack of a caterer for New Year’s Eve, an oblivious baker who wants her to have a red poinsettia wedding cake, and an old fashioned Scarlet O’Hara wedding dress that her mother insists she wear.
As clues and suspects pile up, and wedding jitters compound, the culprit is finally fingered, and all is well.
Ellen reminded me of Goldie the caterer, Stephanie Plum, with her crazy family, and a few other female sleuths currently in vogue. I am also a realtor in real life, and was happy to see that the writer has a similar background. The only complaints I would have is that in a small town, given the economic climate and continuing problems with banking and mortgage industries, Ellen seems awfully busy with sales that are not short or bank-owned. She also is among a very small majority of realtors who actually work out of an office. Ninety-nine percent of realtors now maintain their own home offices and never darken the door of an outside office. They also almost never take sheets of listings to their clients to peruse; they send the listings by email to buyers. And they spend way more time arguing with bankers than actually doing real estate work.
Those differences aside, which no one but a fellow realtor would recognize, Murder Half-Baked is a cracking good mystery, which you won’t guess before its time.
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