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First pages

One

It wasn’t the food. Happy Haven Retirement Community’s chef prepared delicious, artistically-plated roast beef and mashed potatoes every Sunday evening.

Emma Twiggs set down her fork. No, the food wasn’t the problem.

It wasn’t the chatter or the whispers in the dining room, nor the sidelong glances of other Happy Haven residents. Happy Haven was a hotbed of gossip and rumors. Being the topic du jour was nothing new.

It certainly wasn’t her dinner companion. Arnie Bracken was always charming, kind and intelligent, no matter what her best friend Olli thought.

No, Arnie was not the cause of her uneasiness.

It was—

“I know what you’re thinking, Em,” Arnie said.

“Do you?” Emma picked up a glass of lemon-spritzed water and tried to swallow over the tightness in her throat. She could only hope he had no idea of what she was thinking.

“Sure.” Arnie leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You’re wondering how someone as fit as Jo accidentally drowned in the swimming pool.”

Emma froze. Her fingers tightened on the glass. The chatter in the room faded into muted background noise. She had deliberately not been thinking about Jo. She would not think about Jo.

“I’ll tell you how it happened,” Arnie said. “Jo was murdered, and Cahan did it.”

“I am not thinking about—murdered?” The lump in her throat expanded to the size of the Brussels sprouts on her plate. “By Todd?”

“Murdered. By Cahan. And we need to prove it.”

“Arnie.” Emma set the glass on the table and uncurled her fingers from it. She cleared the non-existent Brussels sprout from her throat. “The paramedics told us Jo’s death was accidental. An accidental drowning.”

“Yeah, I know all the euphemisms they used.”

Emma did, too. The headline in Harmony Notes, the local daily, had read TRAGIC ACCIDENT AT HAPPY HAVEN. Unfortunate was the word murmured most frequently at the funeral service, followed closely by regrettable.

“Harmony’s police department and the district medical examiner agreed with the paramedics, Arnie.”

“They’re wrong.”

She said nothing.

A trickle of condensation wept down the side of the glass and puddled into a teardrop on the table. All the words used to describe Jo’s death were wrong. Wrong and inadequate. Words were inadequate now, too.

Because this was the problem she had been avoiding.

Her role in Jo’s death.

“I did the research on the Internet,” Arnie said. “Drowning victims either sink or float. It depends on things like how much salt is in the water, the temperature of the water and the body’s buoyancy.”

The body.

Arnie went on, explaining something called the Archimedes principle, water displacement and bodily gases released in decomposition. Each word was as sharp as bullet casings pinging off pavement.

“She died in the water.” Arnie wrapped up his gruesome recitation and tapped the table with his index finger to make his point. “Bottom line is, it doesn’t add up.”

Emma grasped the bottom line. Jo had sunk instead of floating in Happy Haven’s pool. That meant she’d had little or no air in her lungs at the time of her death.

“And that’s not all.” Arnie checked to make sure no one in the crowded dining room was listening and began talking about investment portfolios, wills, insurance policies and beneficiaries.

Emma shivered. Arnie was as reliable as the numbers he calculated for Happy Haven’s finance department in his part time job there. He hadn’t reached his horrifying conclusion on a whim.

But was he right? Everybody else thought Jo’s death was an accident. Accidents happened every day. People died every day.

Jo herself had said so a week ago, during what had turned out to be their last conversation. “Old people die,” she’d said.

At seventy-one, Emma was uncomfortably aware the words were true. Even so, she didn’t have to like thinking about death. She’d said, “We have a lot of other flaws, too, Jo. We’re stubborn and silly and not half as funny as we like to think we are. We never admit to any of that. So how come everybody is so eager to talk about dying?”

Jo had laughed and shrugged. The discussion had shifted away from her upcoming doctor’s appointment and back to the water aerobics certification course she and Emma had recently attended.

Arnie touched Emma’s wrist.

She refocused on what was passing for their Sunday evening dinner conversation. “Everyone believes Jo’s death was an accident.”

“And I’m telling you they’re wrong. I’m sure Cahan’s guilty. And I think Olli could be next.”

She gaped at him as her heart stuttered. Then she shoved back her chair, jumped to her feet and hurried out of the dining room before Arnie could launch into another round of nightmarish evidence.

Two

At nine the next morning, Emma yanked open the glass-fronted staff door of Happy Haven’s administrative offices and stepped into another scene of violence.

“—and I won’t tell you again!” Martin Grumbach, Happy Haven’s administrator, stood in the middle of the corridor. His pale, freckled face was mottled red and his blue eyes were narrowed into slits. “Will I have to?”

Nincs.” Sarika Kis, a round, fiftyish Hungarian, slumped beside her housekeeping cart. Her head hung low, her square chin almost resting on her neat green and white uniform. She shifted her weight from one thick soled black shoe to the other.

“What’s going on?” Emma asked.

Marty looked at her.

The fury on his face set her back a step. The temper outbursts had started on his first day at the retirement community six months ago, but this was the closest she’d ever been to a first-hand experience. The power of what Jo had called his forceful personality radiated off him in waves, scattering her thoughts.

“Oh...Mrs. Twiggs.” His anger lost strength as rapidly as a hurricane coming ashore. He blinked twice as if awakening from a trance. Then he turned back to Sarika and growled, “Understand?”

The housekeeper nodded. “Igen. I get.”

“Don’t let it happen again.” He stepped to one side. “Go back to work.”

Sarika grabbed the handle of the overloaded cart and clattered down the hall. As she rounded the corner leading to the staff offices and the east wing of the assisted living section, the cart teetered on two wheels.

“Sorry you had to witness that, Mrs. Twiggs.” In spite of the smile curving Marty’s lips, the skin around his eyes was tight. “We have a reputation to maintain here at Happy Haven. Sometimes the staff has to be reminded to do their part.”

“You remind them quite frequently.” Did he honestly believe his reputation as a bullying boss enhanced Happy Haven’s status? And why the heck hadn’t she spoken up on Sarika’s behalf? “Too frequently, in my opinion, and far too loudly.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree about that.” Marty reached for her.

Emma jerked away.

“Got it.” He plucked a lovebug from her shoulder and crushed it between his thumb and forefinger.

Emma gagged on the acrid stink of insect juice. She edged back another ten inches.

“Nasty things. All they do for the entire month they exist is mate. I will be exceedingly glad when May is over and they vanish back into whatever vile place they emerge from each spring and fall.” Marty took a crisp monogrammed handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped his palm. “Were you looking for me, Mrs. Twiggs?”

“No.” And she was sorry she’d found him. She glanced down the hall. “I want to talk to Olli. She’s meeting with Todd this morning.”

If Arnie was right, the scheduled meeting meant Olli was alone with a killer.

A telephone rang in one of the offices. The air conditioner kicked on at the same moment. The blast of chilled air raised bumps on every inch of Emma’s skin.

“Cahan is meeting with Mrs. Donner? Interesting.” Marty tucked the handkerchief away. “I haven’t seen either of them.”

“They could have slipped in while you were…busy with your reminders.” While you were screaming at Sarika, you bully.

“I doubt that.” Marty shook his head, his close-cropped red hair moving in waves like the bristles of a brush. He checked the slim gold watch he wore turned to the underside of his wrist. “I’ll have to talk with Cahan. He’s supposed to be making his rounds, not fraternizing with the residents.”

“They’re discussing the tai chi class Olli wants to start in the community center.” Emma moved away from Marty. Ten steps, twelve. “If you remember, she’s volunteering in the activities department until you hire a new director.”

“Oh, I recall Mrs. Donner’s generous offer to fill in temporarily.” He tugged his suit jacket into place and raised his voice as the distance between them widened. “Whatever they’re doing, Cahan’s not where he’s supposed to be at 9:18 in the morning. When you find them, tell him to report to my office this evening after his shift for a discussion on time management.”

When she found them, that would not be on the long list of things she had to say to Todd Cahan. She made a sound she hoped Marty would assume was agreement and broke into a jog.

Behind her, the automatic swing operator on the staff entrance door swished. Emma glanced over her shoulder as the glass door closed. Marty strode down the sidewalk toward the cafeteria, no doubt on his way to further enhancing Happy Haven’s reputation.

She rounded the corner and made a beeline for Todd’s office.

The door was closed.

She knocked. Twice. Hard. After a long, silent moment, she gave up on politeness. She shoved the door open and poked her head inside.

A paper- and Styrofoam-cup-strewn desk, one battered plastic trashcan, and two dented metal filing cabinets greeted her. The curled toes of a pair of lace up athletic shoes peeked out from under the desk. The stink of sweaty feet overwhelmed the lemony furniture polish the housekeeping staff sprayed everywhere. A locked-in-mating pair of lovebugs crawled across the far wall, a small black blotch on the faded white paint.

No Todd. No Olli.

Where was Olli meeting Todd, if not here?

She contemplated the mess a moment longer, then slammed the door shut and ran down the hall.

Three

Happy Haven’s activities office smelled like warm tuna fish. The microwave whirred, competing with a slightly-off-key rendition of Like a Virgin.

When Emma rushed through the open door, the singing stopped.

“Emma!” Olive Donner’s pink plastic jelly sandals gave off a chick-like peep as she stepped back, and her brown eyes widened. She clutched her silk pareo. The jeweled rings she wore on every finger flashed red, yellow, and green under the harsh fluorescent lighting. “Is something wrong?”

Olli was alone.

She was unharmed.

And she was staring as if Emma had lost her mind.

No wonder. Based on the reflection in the glass door of microwave, Emma resembled a panicked elf, with her bobbed white hair askew and her dark eyes wild.

“Ah...no. No, Olli. Everything’s fine.” She patted at her hair and launched into a foursquare breathing routine.

In four, hold four, out four, pause four.

Her tension faded as she counted. Numbers made sense when everything else in an upended world seemed senseless. Numbers were soothing—

She jumped when the microwave timer beeped.

“You sure nothing’s wrong?” Olli’s forehead wrinkled into worry lines beneath a damp layer of color-enhanced blond bangs. “You look like you had a fright.”

She’d believed she’d find Olli with a murderer. That was enough to scare anyone.

Now, standing in the cluttered activities room with Olli safe and sound, the suspicion seemed less plausible than it had minutes earlier. Arnie’s theory about Todd seemed silly too. Silly enough that she and Olli would have laughed over it not so long ago.

“I’m sure. I thought you were meeting Todd.”

“I did. We walked over here together after my morning swim. You just missed him.” Olli relaxed her grip on the pareo, revealing a black strapless swim tank that barely covered her curves. “He had to start his rounds. Do you need him for something?”

“No. Marty wants to talk to him, though.”

“In that case, poor Todd.” Olli’s mouth turned down. “Maybe you can forget to pass the message on. I wouldn’t want Marty to know Todd had a few minutes before his first patient consult and decided he’d like to spend it with the kittens. I’m sure admiring them is listed as a prohibited activity in the employee handbook.”

With perfect feline timing, Clarissa The Community Cat poked her round face from the cream colored faux-fur kitty igloo where she was nursing three miniature versions of herself. She squeaked out what passed for a meow. It could as easily have come from an overfed mouse.

“What’s that you say, Clarissa?” Olli asked.

Clarissa squeaked again.

Emma knelt to pat the always-hungry ginger tabby. “She wants to know how much longer breakfast is going to be delayed.”

As if in answer, the microwave beeped a reminder.

“Coming right up.” Olli opened the oven door and took out a plate heaped with flaked fish. “I missed you at the pool this morning, Emma. I hope you’ll feel like starting the aerobics classes up again soon.”

She rose to her feet. She’d been unable to go into the pool since Jo’s death, even though the maintenance staff had drained and refilled it. “Maybe next week.”

“That’s good to hear. I’d hate for us all to turn into quivering slabs of pudding from lack of exercise. Playing Marco Polo isn’t having the same effect as your exercises.” Olli chuckled. She set the plate on a paper towel next to Clarissa’s water dish. “Rumor had it you were breakfasting with Arnie at his cottage this morning. You know, making up for your little spat.”

“What spat?”

“The one you two had last night in the dining room.”

“We didn’t argue.”

So her hurried exit from the dining room had already made the Happy Haven gossip tour. No real surprise. Rumors raced through Happy Haven like errant grandchildren. Last year, Arnie and Jo had been the hot topic. A month and a half ago the whispers hinted at a relationship between Jo and Todd. Now it was her and Arnie.

She wondered about the status of the betting pool. So far the expected outcome of their friendship advancing to the next level was not in Arnie’s favor.

Clarissa emerged from the igloo and began nibbling the tuna as Emma imagined cash exchanging hands and clandestine murmurings in the Happy Haven hallways.

Did you see her run away from him last night?

Yeah. Bracken’s fighting a losing battle. She’s been a widow for thirty years. Still in love with that missing husband. Put my money on no romance.

The tiny silver bell dangling from Clarissa’s collar jingled like tinkling coins.

“I’m glad you’re not arguing with Arnie,” Olli said. “The two of you are quite an item.”

“Are we?”

“Oh, yes. You’re hotter than Florida asphalt in August.”

How did people get things so wrong? “I wasn’t at his cottage this morning, for breakfast or anything else.”

“Oh, too bad. I guess that means no after-fight make up session.” Olli started humming Like a Virgin.

The vintage tune was one of Olli’s favorites, but maybe this time the song was an indication the rumor had serious legs. Maybe Emma had been wrong about the bets on Arnie. If she protested, would she raise the odds or lower them? When had telling the truth become a crapshoot?

“I haven’t seen Arnie since dinner yesterday. I was home, thinking about Jo.”

Olli stopped humming. “Oh, Emma. You weren’t the only one who slept through it.”

“That doesn’t matter. I live forty feet from the pool. Forty feet.” Emma breathed one-two-three-four. “I should have heard something.”

“Nonsense. No one in the cottages near yours—including Arnie—heard a thing that night. It was an accident. The police said so. So did the medical examiner. Jo got dizzy, fell, hit her head and drowned. I wish you’d stop thinking there was something you could have done.”

Olli draped an arm around Emma’s shoulder. Some of the recent inexplicable, almost imperceptible, coolness between them dissolved.

Emma leaned into the embrace. If she could convince herself she bore no responsibility, the dreams would go away. The horrible nightmares of the past week, where she struggled to change the ending, to have heard something, anything, that would have sent her rushing to save Jo—those would vanish.

Was it selfish to want to believe, to want to forget she’d slept, unaware, snuggled in her warm bed, while Jo battled for her life?

“Stop whatever you’re thinking that has your face so grim.” Olli tightened her hug. “It was an accident.”

Was it?

“Arnie thinks there’s more to it. That maybe it wasn’t an accident. He thinks you may be in danger.”

“In danger? Me? So that’s what has you so upset again.” Olli stepped away. “Arnie and his ridiculous theories. Honestly, I wish he’d quit reading Mystery Monthly Magazine. That rag convinces him everything’s a crime, and that he’s a detective instead of an old fool.”

“Why are you so angry with him?”

“Who says I am?”

“I do. And lately I get the feeling you’re angry with me too.”

Olli’s lips tightened.

After a silent moment, Emma said, “Arnie’s theory didn’t come from Mystery Monthly.”

“You mean he made up this foolishness on his own?”

“I don’t think he made it up. He’s been piecing together everything he knows.”

“Like what?”

“Like Jo’s meeting with her life insurance agent before she died. Arnie says she changed the beneficiary on her policy.”

“I suppose that means he has a suspect in mind for his imaginary crime.” Olli set her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes. “Who’s the guilty party, according to Happy Haven’s very own private detective?”

“Todd.”

Olli inhaled a brief, hissing breath.

Clarissa dashed for the igloo, the decorative collar bell clinking. Emma wanted to hide too.

“Todd! I cannot believe this.” Olli shook her head as if trying to dislodge the thought. “Arnie suspects Todd had something to do with Jo’s death?”

A clatter outside the office made them both start. As Clarissa curled protectively around her kittens, Emma rushed through the open door into the empty lobby.

The reception area and the east hallway housed one section of the assisted living patient rooms. Both were unoccupied. Nobody stood at the table, working on the half completed jigsaw puzzle. Nobody lingered by the huge piano, flipping sheets of music. The nurse’s station was deserted, the single chair pushed away from the desk as if the morning duty aide had gone to check on a patient. The facility might have been empty, instead of home to two hundred residents.

Olli came to the office doorway. “What was that noise?”

“I don’t know.”

Emma hurried to the adjoining T-shaped corridor. The south hallway, leading to the administrative offices where she’d interrupted Marty’s temper tantrum, was empty, too. The north wing of the assisted living section was not.

Todd Cahan stood in front of a patient’s room, retrieving his clipboard from the tiled floor. Happy Haven’s recently hired forty-something physical therapist was jungle-cat sleek and muscular. His longish blond hair was streaked by stylist’s art and Florida sun and his perennial tan was the color of a coconut shell. The shapeless standard-issue green and white uniform all Happy Haven staff members wore failed to conceal why the female residents called him “the boy-toy.”

He glared at Emma, his face a dark mask that would have sent his most ardent admirer into shock. Without a word, he shoved open the door to the patient’s room. He disappeared inside and the latch clicked shut with a snap, like teeth coming together.

The hair rose on Emma’s arms. Had Todd overheard her conversation with Olli? If Todd was guilty, she’d given him enough warning to set him on guard. Worse, she’d made proving his involvement in Jo’s death difficult, if not impossible.

“Emma?” Olli pulled the door to the activities office closed.

And what if she’d put Olli in more danger by voicing Arnie’s suspicions?

Olli walked to her side and peered around the corner into the now-empty hallway. “What did you see?”

“Not what. Who. Todd dropped his clipboard.”

“Is that all? The way you were staring, I thought you’d seen something scary.”

I did.

“We need to talk.” Emma hurried to the entrance and jerked the door open. “Outside.”

“We ought to be talking to Marty.” Olli walked past the reception desk. “I’d like to know when he’s going to hire a new receptionist.”

“I’ll ask the next time I see him. Hurry.” Emma grabbed Olli’s elbow and dragged her out of the building.

“Let go!” Olli pulled her arm free as the glass door closed behind them. She rubbed her elbow. “What is your rush?”

“Sorry.” Emma started down the sidewalk. Even though Todd could not possibly overhear them now, they were still too close to the building. “I think Todd heard me. I mean, I think he heard what I said about Arnie’s theory.”

“I hope not.” Olli swatted lovebugs out of the way as they walked toward the cottages. “Todd has enough problems. The last thing he needs is to worry about being suspected of an imaginary crime.”

“Are you sure it’s imaginary? What if Arnie’s right?”

“He is not right!” Olli snapped. “Everybody but Arnie knows Jo’s death was an accident. If you want the truth, I think that old goat is jealous of Todd.”

“Jealous?” Emma stumbled over a nonexistent crack in the smooth, curved walkway. “Why would Arnie be jealous of Todd?”

“Use your imagination.” Olli softened her tone. “Listen, there’s no way Arnie could be right. I know Todd. He reminds me so much of my youngest son. He’s exactly like Tony, in fact. A wonderful young man. Handsome, kind and considerate, and always walking around with a black cloud hanging over his head, getting in trouble for things that aren’t his fault. It happened at Todd’s last job in Miami. And thanks to Arnie, it looks like—Oops.”

“Looks like what? What happened at Todd’s last job?”

“Never mind.” Olli waved her hand at the lovebugs again. Her rings sparkled in the sun. “Forget I mentioned it. In fact, let’s forget this conversation ever took place. Have I told you about the activities schedule for this week?”

“What happened?” Emma’s voice rose. The windows in the nearby building remained unshattered, but a sleek squirrel raced from the walk in front of them and darted up a bonsai-ed young dogwood tree. As the branches shook, a blue jay shrieked in outrage. Emma knew the feeling.

“Nothing. Nothing happened.” Olli’s tone hardened. “I’m not discussing this. If Arnie has to play detective, you tell him to focus on solving an actual crime. Like the thefts at the cottages here. That would be more useful than stirring up unfounded suspicions about innocent people.”

“I think we have to discuss it. If you know something—”

“I don’t.” Olli sped up. “Are you excited about the Willaby Gallery art lecture tomorrow? I still can’t believe I managed to get Mr. Willaby himself to agree to speak. He’s an international expert.”

“Olli, do you know something about the thefts? What trouble did Todd have at his last job?”

Olli walked even faster. “Did I tell you the rest of the schedule? On Wednesday, Harmony’s very own celebrity Mindy Devereaux is bringing her famous cat, Blue Sanouk, for a visit as part of her community service. We’ll get a sneak peek at the trailer for their new movie, and...”

Emma missed a few words because Olli was running by the time she stepped off the sidewalk into the portico of her cottage. Emma caught up with her again as Olli stuck the key into the lock of the elegant brass and glass door.

“Olli—”

Olli twisted the doorknob. “…then, for Thursday afternoon, I’ve scheduled Roger Arthurs, the executive director of the Alton Center. He’s going to bring tickets to next month’s Sultry June Evening Charity Ball to give out after his talk about the MonkeyShines Program. And for Friday morning, I’ve chartered a mini bus so we can all attend the ribbon cutting at the hospital for the Galveston Children’s Wing. I’m going to enjoy that, and I know you will, too.”

“We have to talk about Todd.”

“No, we don’t.” Olli yanked her key out of the lock and shoved the door open. “I refuse to listen to another word of Arnie’s absurd suspicions. Besides, I’ve lots of work to do, with this week’s activities schedule so full. Did I mention it’s my turn to host the knitting club meeting this afternoon? We’re putting together afghans for the earthquake victims in Afghanistan. I’ve got to arrange the refreshments. And on top of everything else, I have to pack for my trip to Miami this weekend.”

“Olli—”

Olli stepped into her cottage. “I know you’re not a knitter, but you’re welcome to come to the meeting. We’d be happy to teach you, and we can always use the help. Otherwise I’ll see you at dinner tonight.”

She wiggled her fingers and shut the door.

Emma stood on the sun-whitened sidewalk enveloped in a dark cloud of lovebugs and the even darker suspicion that Arnie was right.

 


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

HL Carpenter is the pen name of a Florida-based mother/daughter duo who writes from their studio in Carpenter Country, a magical place that, like their stories, is unreal but not untrue. When they’re not writing, the Carpenters enjoy exploring the Land of What-If and practicing the fine art of Curiosity. Their work is featured on their website [http://www.hlcarpenter.com]

Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
We invite readers to visit us in Carpenter Country, a magical place that, like our stories, is unreal but not untrue. [HLCarpenter.com http://www.hlcarpenter.com]
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
Having to stop writing when all the mysteries in the story came together. We LOVE Emma and we wanted to keep right on going to the next adventure in her life.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
We enjoy solving mysteries and we think cozy mysteries are the best because they’re warm, fuzzy and friendly even though the crime itself is a serious matter. We’re fans of the idea that an ordinary person can make a difference and bring a measure of justice into a sometimes messy world.

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