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Judith K. Ivie
2nd in the Kate Lawrence mystery series set in historic Old Wethersfield, Connecticut.
ISBN 978-0-615-27167-5 trade paperback
Small-town gossip can be murder—especially when a ruthless blackmailer is involved. If you enjoyed Waiting for Armando, you’re sure to like this sequel. Set entirely in historic Old Wethersfield, Connecticut, Murder on Old Main Street features the same smart, sassy heroines who abandoned their law firm jobs in Armando to launch their own real estate business.
As the annual Autumn Festival gets under way, Old Wethersfield is in an uproar over a proposed smoking ban throughout the historic district. Then a vicious murderer strikes. It’s truly a case of “speak no evil” as amateur sleuths Kate Lawrence and Margo Farnsworth race to discover the truth before a local business owner is unjustly convicted of murder, or even more unthinkably, Kate’s daughter Emma falls under suspicion.
In the background, Kate’s longtime romance hits the rocky shoals of culture shock, Margo is caught up in an unlikely romance of her own, and Emma is intrigued by a man in uniform. When Kate is forced off the road by a sinister Trans Am, she knows that she has been warned. Can she identify the murderer in time, or will someone’s indiscretion make her the next Murder on Old Main Street?
It’s not that I don’t understand why people smoke. I do. I myself enjoyed cigarettes for some 20 years, on and off. The “off” part was during the two pregnancies that had produced my son Joey and daughter Emma, so obviously, I always knew that smoking was an unhealthy indulgence. But it took the sudden and untimely deaths of my father and mother, both lifelong smokers, to get me to lay that lighter down for good.
First Dad, a pack-a-day man since World War II, suffered a massive coronary at the age of 63. After lunch one day, he just fell to the floor of the warehouse he managed, and the paramedics abandoned their attempts to resuscitate him after half an hour. A few years later, Mother’s heart gave out as she was clearing snow from the sidewalk in front of the house where I grew up. The exertion triggered the attack, said the nice young resident whose job it had been to break the news that Mother hadn’t survived emergency surgery, but the real damage had been done over the previous decades, one cigarette at a time. “That’s what people your mom’s age can’t seem to get,” he said sadly. “Every time she lit a cigarette, she was holding a gun to her head. It just takes longer for the bullet to kill you.”
My decision to stop wasn’t a conscious one. I simply holstered my lighter and never had another cigarette after that day. My habit had been moderate. I had smoked only half a dozen cigarettes a day, so quitting wasn’t really a big deal. I was one of the lucky ones who hadn’t become physically or psychologically addicted, which made it all the more incomprehensible that I had ever taken it up. But I did, and then I lost my parents, and then I stopped. End of story, right?
Fast forward 17 years. It’s a new millennium, and the war between smokers and nonsmokers is in full spate. There’s no avoiding the issue, and you have to choose a side. Because of the overlapping rights of both groups, there’s no middle ground to occupy, no way to live and let live. The obese woman shoveling down a banana split at the next table is endangering only her health, not yours, so it’s her life, her choice. The smoker who’s dangling his Marlborough out the window of the car in front of you is a different story, however. It’s his choice to inhale the deadly toxins, but the secondhand smoke he huffs out the window pollutes your air almost as lethally. His rights have to end where yours begin. That was at least part of the reason underlying the local business association’s recent proposal. Smoking inside eating establishments was already prohibited by law throughout Connecticut. The business association now proposed to ban smoking anywhere in the historic district of Old Wethersfield, indoors or out, as of October 15th. “Why do smokers do that anyway?” choked my partner Margo, waving away the fumes emanating from the Bronco idling in front of us at the light. I had collected Margo and her constant companion, a chocolate Labrador Retriever named Rhett Butler, at the dealership where her ancient BMW had been left for servicing. Rhett accompanied Margo nearly everywhere, asking nothing more than to be allowed to walk adoringly by her side. He had been enjoying the morning breeze through an open window, but now Margo raised it. He whined in protest and flopped full-length across my back seat, which meant he took up all of it. “I know, Sugar, but what can I do?” Margo told him. “If that silly Yankee wants to smell disgustin’, let him roll up his windows and keep the smoke all to himself, but I just had this suit drycleaned, thank you.”
I could understand Margo’s concern. The understated Donna Karan in shades of taupe and black set off her southern belle good looks to a fare-thee-well. Definitely worth not stinking up. I, on the other hand, could safely drop my easy-care Susan Gravers into the washer and dryer.
I’m Kate Lawrence … well, Sarah Katherine Lawrence, actually, but who wants to go through life tagged as an Ivy League institution? Margo Farnsworth is one of my business partners, as well as my dearest friend, and we were on our way to work on a crisp, late-September Monday. In the year since we had opened our new real estate brokerage in historic Wethersfield Village, where we shared office space with my daughter Emma and her lawyer boss in a renovated barn on Old Main Street, business had grown steadily. It hadn’t been easy, but we hadn’t expected it to be, and the problems had been far outweighed by the excitement of launching a business of our own. That was the point, after all: to create something that was our own.
The temporary absence this month of our third partner, Charlene “Strutter” Tuttle, was a small setback. In a classic case of bad timing, from Margo’s and my perspective anyway, the Jamaican beauty had fallen madly in love with a mortgage broker who turned out to be wooing more than our referral business, but hey, what are you going to do? She and her young son Charlie deserved a good man like John Putnam in their lives, and things at the office would get back to normal as soon as they returned from their extended honeymoon.
Fortunately, the real estate market was red hot, and business was booming. Margo and Strutter had been on the road from one end of the day to the other, checking out new listings, showing properties, and holding open houses for the slow movers on weekends. For my part, it was all I could do to keep up with the phone, which rang constantly. I also managed all the sale documents, the preparation of which I was happy to hand off to Emma and her boss, real estate lawyer Jimmy Seidel, and coped with the myriad administrative details that were part and parcel of running any business.
Emma and Jimmy occupied the Law Barn’s loft area along with another young lawyer, Donatella Puccini, and two more paralegals. More often than not, Jimmy or “Pooch” represented our clients at the closings, and Emma and her assistants shepherded them through the maze of pre-closing paperwork. The entrance area of the building was presided over by pretty Jenny Morris, a law student by night and our receptionist by day. Jenny answered all of our phones, took prodigious messages, placated nervous clients, and somehow managed to get everything properly filed before dashing off to her evening classes.
The remaining Law Barn office was occupied by Millicent Haines, a middle-aged mortgage broker who had rented the small, first-floor room off the area where our copier and fax machine were housed. Having relocated from California this past July, Millie spent most of her days on the phone or out of the office, so the noise of the machines didn’t bother her. She seemed pleasant enough, on the few occasions our paths crossed, and the clients we referred to her for help with their financing seemed well pleased.
As hectic as our days were, it never occurred to us to complain. MaCK Realty was ours—no more strutting, egotistical bosses to humor, as we had endured at the law firm where Margo, Strutter and I had been legal assistants until last summer. As Margo put it so well in the honeyed Georgia drawl that kept the northern fellows hanging on her every word, “No more arrogant, demanding bosses for us to placate, Sugar, not for us spirited, not to mention gorgeous, business women.”
Strutter had concurred dryly, “Yessirree, it’s nothing but arrogant, demanding clients to placate from now on!”
Things were going well for me on other fronts, too. Following a bumpy settling-in period, during which my neighbors and I had snarled regularly at each other as we chafed under the rules and regulations of condominium living, I was enjoying life in my spacious unit at The Birches. Situated on the acreage of one of Wethersfield’s oldest farms, the freestanding Colonial homes were beautifully landscaped and backed by EPA-protected woods and wetlands, which gave Jasmine and Simon, my feline housemates, plenty of visual entertainment from their sunny windowsills.
Perhaps best of all, things were going swimmingly with my longtime love interest, Armando Velasquez—so swimmingly, in fact, that we were considering what both of us had sworn never to consider again: sharing a roof. My roof, to be precise, since home for Manny was a one-bedroom efficiency in a pet-free building in West Hartford. But after luxuriating in our individual spaces for more than a decade following our respective, amicable divorces from our respective, amicable ex-spouses, cohabiting was not something to be entered into lightly. We weren’t kids anymore, and while our attraction to each other was undeniable, we were no longer slaves to the hormones that had driven us at a younger age into marriage. Still, we had been going together for more than five years. Although the idea of marriage still made us both skittish, we were at least beginning to consider combining residences.
So I had plenty to think about on the way to work that morning. I drove down Welles Road and crossed the Silas Deane Highway, Wethersfield’s commercial thoroughfare. A mere 100 yards farther along, a wooden sign pronounced quaintly that I was entering the Village of Wethersfield, “Ye Most Ancient Towne,” established in 1633-34. One long curve to the left, and suburban Connecticut circa 2006 gave way to the New England ambience of earlier centuries. The 25 m.p.h. speed limit seemed entirely appropriate to the venerable elms and oaks shading stately homes, set well back and interspersed with more contemporary dwellings, on Old Main Street. As always, I enjoyed the transition, noting the spreading colors in the sumac of the hedges and the sugar maples. In late September, the school buses had been on the roads for several weeks already. The two family farm stands on the Broad Street Green were still open for business, but apples and mums had joined the late tomatoes and the last of the sweet corn offered for sale, and pumpkins would soon appear. A third farm around the corner was beginning to offer hayrides. It was my favorite time of year, since I was not fond of Connecticut’s humid summers, but my enjoyment was bittersweet, knowing that the cold rains of November would soon be with us.
In a week, the Autumn Festival would be in full swing with local businesses and nonprofits awaiting the formal judging of the annual Scarecrows Along Main Street competition, in which entries could be almost anything, so long as they were at least partially constructed of straw. Up and down the length of Old Main Street, dozens of whimsical displays already adorned front yards and porches, with dozens more under construction. Some were perennial favorites, welcomed back as old friends, such as the overall-clad farmer holding a lapful of corn as he sat on a sunny bench outside the museum. Many were the work of first-timers, like this year’s “Baby Broomers,” a motley collection of brooms with faces propped against a white picket fence. The “Ghoul-Aid Stand” on the corner of Garden Street gave everyone who passed a chuckle. Old and new, we all enjoyed the collective creative effort.
I pulled the Altima into my favorite space just south of the Law Barn’s driveway. Margo checked her make-up in the visor mirror and winked at herself. “Sugar, nobody would take either one of us for a day over forty,” she pronounced with satisfaction.
“Well,” I demurred, “forty-two maybe …”
“… but a great forty-two!” we chorused, ending our standard gag.
I waved so long as Margo and Rhett disappeared into the building while I stayed in the car to wait for my daughter. At least twice a week, I met Emma before work, and we power-walked to the cove at the end of Old Main Street and back. The exercise cleared the cobwebs from our sleep-fogged heads. It also gave us a chance to catch up with each other’s lives before the demands of the clients we shared crowded into the day. On the return leg of our walk, we stopped into the Village Diner for coffee to go, then sipped and chatted as we completed the circuit at a more leisurely pace.
I laced my feet into white Avias as I waited for Emma. Just thinking of her made me smile, as did the thought of my son Joey, who at the age of 28 was on the road seeing the country as a long-distance trucker. The tractor cab of his “reefer,” which was trucker lingo for the refrigerated trailer he hauled, was better-appointed than most of his friends’ apartments, and he was enjoying the adventure of his gypsy existence. Emma, at 27, preferred her snug loft apartment and job as a residential real estate paralegal, at which she excelled. Both my kids were bright, strong, and funny as hell, and I was proud of them both. Better yet, they seemed to like me, despite all of my parenting mistakes, and to seek out my company without inordinate prodding from me. The same went for their relationship with their father, who had remarried happily a few years back.
Life was good, I congratulated myself on this September morning. Promising shafts of sunlight pierced the low fog that rolled off the nearby Connecticut River, and it looked to be another glorious day. Despite the early hour, I noted a number of cars parked in front of other business establishments, whose owners were also attempting to get a jump on the day. As I waited, I admired the scarecrow in front of the Law Barn, which had been the brainchild of Emma and her colleagues. A stern-faced black crow in a judge’s robe sat behind his bench made of hay bales. Before him stood a braying ass clad in a suit and tie fashioned entirely of writs, deeds, subpoenas, wills and other legal documents. An overflowing briefcase leaned against his left foreleg. The exhibit was entitled, “Lawsuit.” Biased though I was, I thought it might just be a winner.
“Hey, Mamacita!” Emma greeted me, using the nickname she had assigned to me following a long-ago semester of high school Spanish. She flashed me a dazzling smile and U-turned in the empty street to pull her silver Saturn up to the bumper of the Altima. Her face was free of make-up, and she efficiently wound her long hair, which was the same shade of ash blonde as my own short mop, into a casual knot and secured it firmly to the top of her head before hopping out of the car. Within minutes, we were stumping past the small shops, bed-and-breakfasts, and private residences, most with a creative scarecrow out front, that lined the street. “So give with the latest on you and the Colombian,” she said, making reference to Manny’s South American roots.
“We’re talking,” I huffed, struggling to keep pace with her younger legs, “but there are issues. We’ll see.”
Emma rolled her eyes at me. Her brown irises flecked with green were another of our shared traits. “By the time you two get through hashing out your issues, you’ll be sharing a room at the old folks’ home and driving the nurses crazy. It’s been more than five years, ‘Cita. Face it, you’re stuck with each other.”
“What you mean is, at this point, no one else would have either one of us!”
Emma prudently didn’t comment. “Manny’s got his kinks, but you’re no walk in the park either. When you come right down to it, everybody has their little weirdnesses. You always told me that the only thing that matters in a relationship is that you can live with his kinks, and he can live with yours. So, do you think you can?”
“Hard to say,” I commented tersely, trying to conserve my oxygen. “He likes the TV and music on all the time, and I like silence. He’s a packrat, I’m neat.” Pant, pant. “He sleeps late and stays up late, and I’m up at 5:30 and in bed by 10.” I stopped walking and put my foot up on a convenient bench, ostensibly to retie my shoelace. Emma wasn’t fooled.
“Get moving, old woman,” she said, steaming forward mercilessly, “or no bagel with your coffee today.” I groaned and trotted to catch up with her. “Besides, who’s to say you can’t make those differences work in your favor?”
I remained silent but raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“Think about it. You’ll each have your own bedroom and bathroom, so you won’t need to tiptoe around each other. When you get up at the crack of dawn, he’ll still be tucked up. You can have your coffee and crossword puzzle in the silence you love, then hit the shower. When you’re ready to leave the house, he’ll just be getting up and can blast the Today show. At night, it’s the reverse. You get to come home to an empty house and wind down in peace. He gets home from work at 8:00, warms up the extra plate of supper you’ve left in the microwave, you chat a little, and you’re off to bed with a book while he does TV.”
I considered Emma’s scenario as we passed a row of business establishments on the opposite side of the street. The line-up included Antiques on Main, which sold a fascinating collection of antiques and furniture oddments; Blades Salon, where all the really good local gossip was exchanged while hair and skin and fingers and toes were whipped into shape; Mainly Tea, which served up luncheons and high teas to eager locals and tourists alike five days a week; and Heart of the Country, another lovely gift shop. Apparently, the salon and the antiques shop had collaborated on their scarecrow exhibit, which featured two ladies of advanced years, seated under old fashioned dryers. Their hair was in rollers, and they sipped tea from lovely old cups. A third scarecrow presided over the bone china teapot and an antique cash register set atop a hay bale.
“What about weekends?” I demanded as we passed the Village Diner on the corner, unwilling to be so easily swayed. We would stop in on our way back to get coffee to bring to the office. Early morning patrons already sat at the counter and tables, hoping to be waited on soon by surly Prudence Crane, widely acknowledged to be the worse waitress in town. None of us could understand why Abigail Stoddard, who managed the diner, put up with her.
“Oh, get a grip! You’re together all weekend now. What will be any different?”
She had a point. I trudged on mutely. Then, “How about the packrat versus neat freak thing?” Ha! I had her there, I thought, but Emma remained serene.
“He can get only so much stuff in his room, and if you can’t stand the sight of it, do what you did with Joey and me when we were teenagers. Just close the door. Besides,” she added, playing her ace, “there’s Grace.”
I had almost forgotten about Grace. By this time, we were on the outskirts of the Old Main Street business district and began to descend a small slope into the parking area for Wethersfield Cove. Despite the early hour, a few cars were parked facing the water, a seemly distance apart. Their occupants gazed out at the cove, sipped coffee, or paged through the morning newspaper, according to preference. Henry Ellis, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Old Wethersfield Gazette, our weekly newspaper, stood outside his car pointing his digital camera at the birds warming themselves in the early morning sun. Clara Seymour’s old Dodge was tucked into its usual spot under a low-hanging tree limb down by the water’s edge. Clara was the high school principal’s wife. It was an open secret that she sneaked down to the cove mornings to enjoy a cigarette with her coffee, a practice of which her husband did not approve. I lifted a hand to Ephraim Marsh, the owner of Marsh Pharmacy, which had occupied the space across the street from the diner for at least three generations now, but in accordance with local etiquette, we refrained from approaching his Ford, thus intruding on what would probably be the most peaceful few moments of his day. On our way down to the water’s edge, Abby Stoddard passed us in her old van en route back to the diner, her brief respite over. The new ordinance would be particularly hard on Abby, whose smoking customers had been accommodated on the brick patio behind her establishment but would soon be deprived of that privilege. A few scruffy seagulls argued over the remains of a bran muffin, while the ducks and pigeons feigned indifference. Suddenly, a rapidly approaching flock of Canada geese honked us to attention. Emma and I exchanged broad grins and turned to watch the show. At this time of year, flocks came and went regularly, flying at night and settling onto any friendly body of water to rest and feed by day. I never tired of watching the landing ritual.
As the volume of the honking increased, the leader appeared over the treeline to our north. The rest of the flock trailed behind in an ever-widening vee-formation. Hundreds of the sleek birds soon darkened the sky above us, honking excitedly at the sight of a potential resting place. Instead of landing immediately, the leader decided to make a scouting pass. He made one complete circle of the cove, then led his troops back over the treeline. Their sounds ebbed, and we held our breath. Had we passed muster? Did the cove meet their stringent criteria for safe harbor, or had some goosey eye spotted a suspicious glint of metal in the marsh grass that might be a hunter’s rifle or some other peril, real or imaginary?
We waited five seconds, ten. Then whooping joyously, a consensus reached, the geese burst back over the trees and swooped down to the water in a graceful half-circle. The leader splashed down in the center of the cove, leaving room for his cohorts to follow suit and create a feathery blanket atop the water. They landed feet-first to slow their forward momentum, so utterly in unison that the maneuver seemed genetically choreographed. Within half a minute, they were all at rest, gabbling to each other companionably as they bobbed on the surface. Time for food and rest, and if the weather was good tonight, they would depart on another leg of their journey to more hospitable winter quarters in the Carolinas.
It was magical. Emma and I smiled happily at each other. We turned back toward the street, setting a more leisurely pace. “Grace will be an enormous help, I know,” I said, picking up our conversation where we had left off, “but she can only clean around the stuff. She can’t prevent it from accumulating.” Grace Sajak was my twice-a-month cleaning person and a godsend to every one of her clients.
As soon as we pushed through the doors of the diner, the mingled aromas of hot coffee and cinnamon something-or-other washed over us, and we hurried to the counter to place our order. To our surprise, but not displeasure, Prudy was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we were greeted by Deenie Hewitt, the perpetually worried-looking college student who filled all the take-out orders during the morning shift before rushing off to afternoon classes. “Hey, Emma, Miz Lawrence. Having the usual, or is this an off-your-diets day? We have some nice, fresh sticky buns.”
Emma and I exchanged done-for looks. Abby’s sticky buns were truly awesome. At the same moment, we said, “We’ll split one,” and as always, Deenie pretended to be surprised.
“Coming right up then,” she said and busied herself removing one of the larger of the fragrant pastries from the doughnut tower on the counter. Deftly, she cut it in half, wrapped it up, and deposited it atop two coffees in a paper bag.
“Where’s your sidekick?” Emma asked Deenie, while I dug in my jeans pocket for exact change.
Deenie shrugged, her attention already shifting to the customer in line behind us. “No clue,” she said, nodding in the direction of Abby Stoddard, uncharacteristically taking an order at a booth in the rear. Normally, Abby spent her time tending to business in her cluttered office behind the kitchen. “Just didn’t turn up this morning. Didn’t even have the decency to call and make excuses. Miz Stoddard’s fit to be tied. You have a nice day now.”
We got out of her way and pushed back through the diner doors to the street. By unspoken mutual consent, we immediately rummaged in the bag for the still-warm sticky bun. We each bit deeply and groaned in ecstasy, rolling our eyes at each other as we strolled back toward the Law Barn. Three big bites, and we were licking icing off our fingers as we approached the Blades salon. We paused at the three-ladies scarecrow, circling around front to admire the exhibit more closely.
“This is amazing,” I said, lapping shamelessly at a final drip between my thumb and forefinger. “I know they’re scarecrows, but the wigs are such a great touch. Putting them in curlers and getting them to sit right on those straw noggins underneath the dryers must have taken forever.” I frowned as I noticed that some disgruntled smoker, no doubt protesting the new ban, had stubbed out a filtertip in one of the saucers. “And look at the hands on the one on the left! The skin is so realistic looking against her blue dress …” I trailed off uncertainly, my stomach tightening.
I looked at Emma, who had remained motionless during my commentary, clutching the bagged coffees to her chest. She was frozen, staring at the scarecrows while the color drained from her face. “Momma?”
Not a good sign, I thought. She only calls me Momma when she’s sick. Or scared. The little hairs on the back of my neck prickled atavistically as I approached the exhibit on stiff, unwilling legs. From across the street, the three characters in the little tableau had looked like elderly sisters, but up close, the differences jumped out. Which of these things is not like the others? I thought idiotically, remembering the old Sesame Street jingle. The lady seated on the left was the obvious answer. Although dressed in similar clothing and sporting tufts of straw at her cuffs and hemline, the hands balancing her teacup in her lap were distinctly human, unlike the knotted straw ones of her companions. The skin, though bluish in tint, looked absolutely real as did the nails, which were both dirty and broken. While it was as gray as the others, her hair was clumped hastily around a few mismatched rollers in contrast to her neatly-set seatmate. Perhaps most alarmingly, her head drooped forward to rest against the front of the dryer, hiding most of her face.
Very deliberately, Emma placed her bag on the sidewalk and came to stand next to me. I didn’t want to, but I put a bracing hand against the woman’s right shoulder as Emma tipped the dryer hood up and back. The full weight of the upper body sagged against me, and Emma pushed on the left shoulder to help me sit blue-dress lady upright. Wearing her habitual dour expression and a slash of duct tape over her mouth, Prudence Crane sat before us, no longer among the missing, and very dead.
“Guess we’d better let Abby know that Prudy won’t be coming in today,” Emma commented matter-of-factly. She dug her cell phone out of her pocket and looked at it blankly. Then she sat down hard on the curb.