Moonstruck And Murderous

Hanging up the phone, I looked down at my dog Ulysses. “That was totally unexpected. Who’d ever have thought I’d get a call from the grand dame of Ednalee, Oklahoma?”

I plopped down on a kitchen chair to think about the strange telephone conversation. In the first place, the call had been from Evangeline Carver. Evangeline Carver! She was a person from my past, long past. This was the first contact I’d had with her since returning to my hometown. She had figured only briefly in my life during the time my family and I lived here, forty years ago. She was a part of the history of Ednalee; a fixture, sort of like our ancient county courthouse or the two-hundred year old cottonwood tree out at the river. The Carver family and their huge estate had been in place since long before the Civil War. That Evangeline should call me and, to top it off, ask a favor of me was sort of like a bolt out of the blue. Unexpected.

When I was in the fifth grade, our class, including my friends Pat and Jackie, made a field trip to the Carver Farm. Our teacher had thought it would be good, in our study of American history, to see what a huge, thriving enterprise like Carver’s looked like, even though it had undergone some changes to keep up with the times. I remembered the long drive up to the house and the fields which grew acres of soybeans. Sleek, pampered race horses grazed in lush green pastures, and an enormous garden and orchard provided for the family as well as supplying vendors for miles around.

During this school field trip, we were allowed to see the guest or servant’s quarters, the smokehouses, the spring house and the clear, cold creek that ran through it, the barns, and the gorgeous flower gardens that surrounded the house. I remembered getting lost in the boxwood maze and the panic that threatened to overcome Pat and me until Jackie, our level-headed and calm friend, guided us to freedom.

“Just take every right hand turn,” Jackie had told us. “Keep your hand on the right wall and follow those exits.”

Pat and I, who were almost senseless from fright, could barely recall which hand was the right one. But, following Jackie’s advice, we got out.

“How do you know so much, Miss Smarty?” Pat had asked when we were safely outside.

Jackie just smiled and tapped her head. “I researched it,” she said.

Evangeline Carver must have been near middle-age at that time. And, if she wasn’t royalty, she was near enough for my active imagination. She had come onto the porch to greet us and I was suitably impressed with her regal bearing and lovely clothes. But that was all the contact I ever had with the family.

And now, Evangeline had invited me to come to the Carver home. She asked me to come after supper, around 7 o’clock tomorrow night. This, she said, would give the rest of them time to clear out.

Who were “the rest of them?” I wondered.

First, she had asked me if I was the former Miss Nettie Elizabeth Duncan, now McNeil. When I said I was, she told me what her phone call was about.

“I’ve seen your photographic expertise in the paper,” she said, her raspy voice still commanding and clear. “That Daisy Stanton is lucky to have you on her real estate team. I want to talk to you about the possibility of taking pictures of my home. I’ll explain it a little better tomorrow night. Will you be able to come?”

Would I be able? I gulped a few times, found my voice, and stammered that I would be honored.

Ulysses lost interest in hearing about an impending visit to the Carver farm and Penny, my cat, preferred napping to listening. When the phone rang again and caller ID showed my friend Pat’s number, I picked up the receiver, eager to share my excitement. But, her first words completely took the wind out of my sails.

“Ned, I’m worried about Jackie.” Pat paused and my heart rate speeded up.

“Jackie? Why? Is she sick?”

Pat sighed. “No, not really, but she seems so quiet and sad, not like herself at all. I thought maybe if we met at Grandy’s for coffee and a good chat, she’d open up and tell us if something is bothering her, or if I’m just imagining things.”

“I can be at Grandy’s in thirty minutes,” I said.

Pat Morris and Jackie Murray, the dear friends of my childhood, had welcomed me home when I returned to Ednalee from Atlanta. Forty years ago, we had called ourselves The Three Musketeers because we were best pals and did everything together. We rode our bikes around town and to the library, went swimming, and joined the Girl Scouts at the same time. Even though I had been back in Oklahoma for only a short time, our friendship had picked up where it left off when my parents and I moved to Atlanta. We were still The Three Musketeers. To think that Jackie was not her usually cheerful self was worrying. Surely, it was nothing that a visit to our favorite cafe and a good heart-to-heart chat wouldn’t help.

The heady aroma of coffee greeted me as I stepped through Grandy’s door. I loved everything about this place—the comfortable booths with actual padded seats, the individual lighting at each table, the low voices of patrons and the clink of cups and saucers, the friendliness of the coffee shop staff. In those long ago days of childhood, it had been a malt and soda shop. Sodas and sandwiches were still on the menu, but through the years it had morphed into specialty coffee. The cheery and cozy atmosphere was the same, but many of the patrons, instead of being youngsters, were a tad older. It was comforting that the shop had aged a bit, as I had. The wait staff was younger than it used to be, but pleasant.

“Hi, Miss Ned,” my favorite waitress, Janie, called, looking up from behind the counter. “Your friends are in the back booth with their drinks already. Do you want your usual caramel mocha?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Sure do, Janie. Thanks.”

I slid into the seat facing the door, across from Pat and Jackie.

“Want to order lunch?” Pat asked. “It’s nearly twelve.”

Jackie shook her head. “You two order if you’d like. I’m not hungry.”

“Are you feeling well, Jackie?” I asked. Usually, she was carefully made up, every hair in place, but today, she wasn’t even wearing lipstick.

And, she was grumpy. “Oh, goodness! Of course I’m well. I’m just not hungry, that’s all.”

Pat looked at me and rolled her eyes.

I smiled at Janey as she set the hot mocha topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream in front of me.

“I don’t want anything to eat either,” I said. “The coffee is enough. Besides, I think this mug holds my quota of calories for the whole day.”

Pat grinned. “Watching calories, are we?”

I took a sip of the hot, sweet brew. “Not really. At least, not as far as caramel mocha is concerned.”

Pat was right. Jackie seemed listless. She toyed with her cup, gazing down at it as the coffee sloshed. She looked pale and her eyes had dark circles.

I spoke to Pat. “How is the prospective grandmother? Are you making a nuisance of yourself, hanging out at Gerald and Coradee’s?”

Pat faked an offended, “Well!”

“Not that I’d blame you,” I said. “Since they live in my carriage house, it’s entirely too handy for me to just pop in now and then. When their baby comes, I’ll bet you move in with them.”

Pat laughed. “Now, that’s one thing I’d never do, but who knows how I’ll be when my grandbaby actually arrives this fall.”

I nodded. “It is exciting and I’m sure Jackie and I wouldn’t blame you for acting goofy over a grandchild. Right, Jackie?”

Jackie looked up from her cup and I was startled to see her eyes swimming with tears.

“How should I know?” she asked. “I’m not a mother and will never be a grandmother.”

Impulsively, I reached over and covered her hand with mine. “I’m sorry, Jackie. I didn’t mean to make you sad. Obviously, I don’t have children either, but I’m really happy for Pat.”

Picking up her napkin, Jackie dabbed at her eyes. “Don’t pay any attention to me. I guess I just have the mid-life blues.”

Pat shook her head. “No, it’s just the time of year. March is so undependable and strange. Warm one day, cold the next, and to top it off, there are two full moons this month.”

Trying to give Jackie time to recover her composure, I said, “Yes, I noticed last night that the moon is getting rounder. It’ll be completely full in a few days.”

“Bad things happen in a full moon,” Pat murmured, lowering her voice. “March is not a good month. Remember the Ides of March and what it did for Julius Caesar? Well, don’t laugh, but on March 15, I lost my favorite blue blouse—it isn’t in the closet, nor the clothes hamper—it just disappeared. My car had a flat tire, for the first time in years. And, I tried to bake a cake to celebrate Coradee and Gerald’s good news and burned the blamed thing! We aren’t through with this month yet and who knows what else might happen under a blue moon?”

A ghost of a smile hovered around Jackie’s mouth. “You are so superstitious.”

Before Pat could respond, I said, “Hey! Good things happen in March too—really surprising things. Let me tell you about a phone call I got.”

The news about Evangeline Carver’s request got the immediate attention of both women.

“Lucky you,” Pat said. “Do you think it would be all right if I came along too when you visit Miss Carver? I’d so love to see the inside of that fabulous house.”

Jackie frowned. “Silly! Miss Carver wants to talk business with Ned. If you’ll notice, she’s the only one who was invited.”

“I’ll ask her tomorrow night if I can bring both of you if she wants me to photograph her estate,” I offered. “She probably won’t mind.”

“I wonder why she wants pictures of her place,” Jackie said.

I wiped a dab of whipped cream from my nose. “Yes, that is strange. She said she’d explain tomorrow night. Why me, and why does she want the pictures?”

“I understand she’s pretty much of a recluse now,” Pat said. “She lives out there in that great big old house with just some servants and I think a relative or two. She has her race horses. Gerald said she’s paranoid about those horses—our sheriff, Milo Cordray, and his deputy have gone to the farm several times when she called to report someone prowling around her barn. Once or twice, she even called Cade and Gerald. She’s so afraid something will happen to them. She always runs a horse in the Kentucky Derby.”

Gerald Mills, Pat’s son, was police chief Cade Morris’ right hand man. He was also a fill-in preacher at our little country church, Rose Chapel.

“Cade didn’t mention it to me,” I said, “but then, I’m sure he doesn’t tell me everything.”

Pat grinned. “He probably has other things on his mind when he’s with you, Ned.”

I felt my face burning. Since coming back to my hometown, I had renewed my friendship with Cade, my grade school protector against bullies who made fun of my red hair. That friendship had blossomed into something a lot deeper in the past year. Jackie came to my rescue before I could think of a suitable retort.

“I hadn’t thought about her for years until just last week,” Jackie said. “She phoned the office and wanted to talk to Ron. I guess he must be her lawyer.”

Jackie worked part time in her husband’s office. Of course, there was lawyer-client privilege, but what harm could there be in saying positively that Ron was Miss Evangeline’s lawyer?

Pat voiced my opinion. “Don’t you know for sure, Jackie?”

Jackie glanced down at her cup. “Ron doesn’t talk to me that much anymore.”

So, this was the reason for my friend’s sadness—all was not well with Jackie and her lawyer husband. Why? I had always thought their marriage was rock-solid. But, from Jackie’s response, I sensed a crack in that rock.