A Woman of Her Word
(Prequel Short Story to Word Has It)
“I got it.”
Wanda Lee Turner nearly danced a jig on her sixty-something toes as she chatted with her life-long friend, Betty Sue Simpson, on the phone.
“Has Todd seen it?”
“Not yet. I want to surprise him when he comes for brunch tomorrow.”
Wanda couldn’t recall when she had been so happy. Her nephew, Todd Martin, the newest addition to the Scrub Oak PD, had been back at her kitchen table twice a week for the past three months, eating her cooking, and playing word games. Just like old times.
One problem, though. After half a century, her Scrabble board game had become worn out. The box taped one too many times. An E tile had been misplaced somewhere along the way. When Todd had played the game with her in his teens a snack always substituted for the vowel. Usually, a caramel square or Reece’s miniature cup. The winner got to eat it.
Somehow that seemed too juvenile now that he was a police officer so she’d substituted a ring tab from a dog food can. Todd never said a thing, but she decided to put sentimentality aside and buy a new one. It was time.
She pried the lid open and took a whiff of the new game the mega discount store delivered. Brand new things always smelled wonderful. The wooden tiles and holders held a delightful aroma. Plus, this one had a plastic turnstile so each player could see the board from their vantage point.
Wanda placed it in the center of the kitchen table. Hmm, maybe it could double as a lazy susan. Or not. She gently laid his old high school dictionary next to it. Todd had given it to her the night before he left for college six years ago. Inside he had written, “We will always have words with each other.”
The pun always made her smile. Smart witted lad. Graduated at the top of his academy class. Could have taken a position in Houston or Dallas. Yet he chose to come home.
“I am tired of the big city crime, Aunt Wanda,” he had told her over the phone when he called with the news. “Six years of living in Austin has worn me out. I want to return to the quiet life. Settle down. Know my neighbors. Walk the beat and pat kids on the head.”
Wanda wondered if he’d been watching too many Andy Griffin reruns. Scrub Oak hardly could be described as Mayberry, yet she understood. So many young adults ventured away from small-town life seeking fame, fortune, and friends in the metropolises only to discover the glitz and glamor came with a price―animosity could produce loneliness.
This sheep had returned to the fold and it warmed her heart. Now if he would only find a nice girl to share his life. Oh, well.
With dusk beginning to settle, the winter temperatures would soon plummet into the thirties. She decided to take her dachshund, Sophie, for a walk. She needed to return the rose-colored glass serving dish Hazel Perkins had left at the Epiphany party at Holy Hill Church anyway. Stretching her legs would do her good.
Or so she tried to convince herself. Her life-long friend, Betty Sue, had shed forty pounds in six months walking about town instead of driving. Well, and taking those Zumba classes at Zelda’s. No way would Wanda be caught dead in there.
On second thought, she would be caught dead. All that wiggling and kicking and sliding might very well give her heart failure! Not a great way to leave earth. She hoped God had plans for her to stay at least another twenty years, and she didn’t want to jeopardize that.
Better stick to a nice easy stroll. After all, Sophie was a senior citizen, too…in dog years. Would be cruel to overexert her.
She and her dog plodded across Spruce along the edge of the park then turned up 8th toward the Ferguson Mansion. Hazel lived catty-cornered to the property half-shielded by an acre or so of woods. The three-story, six thousand square-foot monstrosity loomed over Scrub Oak like a centurion on guard.
As Wanda walked near the edge of these woods, she halted at the corner of West Elm. Through the bare limbs, she detected a flash. It came from the back of Aurora Stewart’s house aimed at the resort across the lake. Then a light signaled back. Weird.
They had never gotten along. Aurora had been everything Wanda wasn’t. Cute, petite, the cheerleader and prom queen. She had snared a millionaire land developer, Richard Stewart, as her third husband and persuaded him to retire in Scrub Oak a few years ago.
Richard decided to try his hand at managing the old Woodway hunting cabins. An investor friend of his had turned them into resort accommodations for seasonal hunters from the DFW Metroplex, and even as far away as Houston and Oklahoma City. The area now boasted a firing range, a four-star restaurant, a tennis court, and a private dock to the lake as well as air-conditioned and heated cabins with kitchenettes. A good moneymaker, Wanda had to admit. And good for the local economy, too. Plus, the resort had provided a large potential customer base for the Stewarts. The man had been born with smarts, even if he had let himself be snared by Aurora’s manicured claws.
After Richard’s death in a hunting accident last November, Aurora holed up in their four-bedroom, three and a half bath chalet refusing to welcome any well-meaning visitors after the funeral. She even spent the holidays alone. The woman needs prayers.
Wanda sighed and started to move on. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a figure dash from the side of the house into the woods in the direction of the mansion, which also sat opposite the resort on the lake.
Perhaps Aurora wasn’t as lonely as people thought. In that case, she might need even more prayers.
“Don’t recall seeing anything unusual.” Hazel invited Wanda inside. “Of course, the mansion has been vacant since Old Man Ferguson passed. Gives me the creeps seeing it all dark and cold.”
“The heirs are still feuding over it?”
“I guess. Won’t you come inside for a bit?”
“Well, I …” Wanda hesitated. She had come unannounced and didn’t want to be a bother. Yet, unlike Aurora, this widow loved drop-in visitors.
A large sigh sounded at Wanda’s feet. Her dog had sprawled flat on her tummy across the parquet floor of the foyer. Her pink tongue danced back and forth in short pants. Maybe a short rest would be in order.
“Yes. If we may. That would be nice.” She looped Sophie’s leash to the front doorknob.
“Poor pooch. Let me get you both some spring water.” Hazel offered her a chair in the parlor. “Please, sit.”
“Thank you, for both of us. From the way Sophie is acting, I may have to carry her part of the way home.”
Hazel returned with a bowl of water for Sophie and a crystal glass tumbler of water for Wanda, along with a plate of lemon snaps. “Made them fresh this morning.”
Wanda groaned inside. How could she resist? She smelled them as soon as her hostess entered with them on the tray. Oh well, one couldn’t hurt. Maybe two.
Hazel smoothed her slacks and sat opposite of her guest. “However, I did hear through the grapevine that there had been a rash of small thefts at the resort.”
Wanda halted, a piece of cookie in her mouth. “Really,” she mumbled through the crumbs.
“Well, after Richard’s funeral, the investors shut it down for the holidays but reopened it for this year’s youth deer season. The teens were out of school until the second week in January so the resort had been booked solid then. Word is they may have left with more in their luggage than they came with.”
“Ah. Such as?”
“Small things. Microwaves, hairdryers, knickknacks, a few paintings. Well, prints, that is.”
Wanda nearly spit her water up mid-gulp. Why had she not known of this before?
She always figured she had a good finger on the pulse of the town. But ever since the Mr. Baker incident some of her fellow citizens had given her a wide berth. Thinking him to be a burglar out to glean personal information from the townfolk, Wanda had called Todd to come and arrest him.
How was she to know he rooted through trash cans to feed his stray cats? He figured the higher-income homes north of downtown were more likely to throw out pieces of meat.
It caused them both embarrassment. However, six months’ worth of cat food appeared on his stoop within a few days, donated by concerned citizens. So some good had come from her intentions.
“How did you hear of this, Hazel?”
“Mary Lou Buckley. She’s the receptionist at Shiller & Smith. You know, the attorneys in town who are handling the Ferguson estate and Robert’s as well. We are in the garden club together.”
“Yes, I know her. She lives one block away from me. Her daughter, Rebecca Epson, went to school with Todd. They moved back here to be near her parents when her first husband died in Iraq.”
“Yes, that’s when Mr. Schiller took her on. He and Esther’s first husband were fraternity brothers at TCU. I remember that now. Then she met Finn and remarried. Gosh has it been twenty years?”
“Almost. She’s the age of my younger sister.” Wanda stopped and took another lemon snap.
Her sister, eleven years younger, had gone through a scandalous divorce. Half of the town sided with her ex-husband, the other half with her. As a result, both had left town and plopped Todd and his sister, who decided they didn’t care to live with either of them, in Wanda’s lap during their tumultuous teen years. Along with her own wayward teen daughter and a studious son in community college, Wanda had a house full once again. She almost missed that now.
After a few more moments of catching up on other happenings in town, Wanda set her glass down on the cocktail napkin.
“Thanks for the refreshments and the chat. I enjoyed visiting with you but I better get this pooch home before dark.” Though Wanda didn’t know why she should. It isn’t as if crime ever happened in Scrub Oaks. Until now, that is.
Wanda unhooked Sophie’s lead and yanked on it to arouse her pet. The dog snorted and yawned before rising to her feet at the pace of a sloth.
“Let’s go home. Get a treat.”
At hearing her favorite word, the dog became more animated.
Hazel giggled and walked them out the front door. “Come back anytime, you two.”
As Wanda plodded home, allowing Sophie to rest every five minutes, she had plenty of time to mull over what Hazel had told her.
As she reached West Elm, she couldn’t help but pause and gaze through the edge of the woods across the lake. No lights from the Woodway resort cabins danced on the ripples. In fact, all appeared dark. She could barely make out the roof outlines.
On a Wednesday, most of the cabins would be vacant. A good time to pilfer since weekend renters wouldn’t filter in from the cities until after work Friday evening. Could the thefts still be going on? It would explain the flash of light she saw and the shadowy figure. They could be staking out the mansion as well.
Then again, the sun’s late afternoon shadows casting across the bare limbs of the trees could have played tricks on her eyes earlier. Most likely. Now that darkness settled in…
Wait, there it was again. A quick flash of light across the lake in the direction of the Stewart home. Who would be there by themselves and who were they signaling?
Perhaps the investor’s groundskeeper kept an eye on the resort and the attorneys had asked Aurora to monitor it until he found a new manager since she lived across the way. Maybe that was their mutual signal that all was well.
Doubtful. Why would Aurora agree to such a thing? Hardly like her to do so. No, something else went on over there. Wanda felt the tingle of suspicion wiggle up her spine.
Then Sophie tugged on the lead.
“Okay. You are rested, huh? You want your treat and your bed, I guess. Let’s go.”
Back home, she waved to Evelyn Joseph, her next-door neighbor, who had wandered in from her Bible study class at First Baptist.
“Just been to see Hazel. Guess what she told me.”
Evelyn set her Bible and notebook down on her car hood and walked over to Wanda’s front walk. “Spill.”
Wanda did. She also told her about the weird lights.
“Ya think something fishy is going on over there?”
“Well, it does make me wonder.” Wanda reached down to pat Sophie.
“If there has really been thefts or has Aurora hired someone to pilfer.”
“Why would she do that, Wanda?”
“So, she could pawn the stuff to maintain her lavished lifestyle. Would be just like her.”
Evelyn shrugged. “Maybe you should tell Todd?”
“He’d think I was being an old busybody again. I’ll need some proof first.”
“Yes, you do.” Evelyn smirked.
Wanda figured she thought of Mr. Baker. Would no one in this town forget?
“How do you plan to obtain it?”
“That I don’t know, Ev. But I’ll work it out. See ya later.” She waved good evening, gathered Sophie in her arms, and went around back to the kitchen door.
As she warmed some soup and Sophie gnawed her milk bone, Wanda wondered how she could get a list of the so-called stolen items. Had anyone even reported it to the police? Would that be public record?
Somehow, she had to find out.
Wait. She knew how. She clapped her hands.
Hearing her master’s abrupt noise, Sophie scooted to her bed in the corner of the kitchen by the fridge.
Wanda chuckled. “It’s okay, Soph.” She bent and massaged the velvety ears, assuring her pet all was well.
But her brain began to swirl like cotton candy on a stick at the fair, gathering bits and pieces from thin air. Hazel had heard about it from Esther Mae. That means someone must have reported it to the attorneys who handled the estate.
Wanda had to somehow get the list from Ester Mae. And the best way would be to chat her up. The woman did love to talk. Maybe ask her if she knew if the investor would be selling any of the prints hanging in the resort. Feign interest in them.
Then she could scan the online metroplex sites that offered up used items for sale to see if any of the stolen items turned up. Why not? That’s how her son found his couch after he graduated.
Follow the money. That’s what Evelyn told her the crime shows always said.
Okay. She would and see where it led.
Wanda wanted to take her dog for a stroll again tonight to see if a pattern emerged. Then she could chat with the neighbors along West Elm. Perhaps a few of them noticed something.
But she would have to have a valid reason to knock on their doors. A survey perhaps. How about the possibility of crime creeping in? She had read an article about that in the Oakmont County Gazette recently. When the Lakeview Apartments went in, another investment deal of Robert Stewart, many feared the younger couples renting them would usher big cities ways into the community.
“Yes, Sophie. That’s it. I will ask people if they still feel as safe in Scrub Oak as they did five years ago. Lead into then asking if any had noticed any unusual activities. It could work.”
She quickened her step around the kitchen as she tidied up and mopped, energized by a new project. Sophie, being a smart dachshund, huddled in her bed.
Not that Wanda wanted to find Aurora guilty of anything. Of course not. Her good intentions were for her community. If burglars were fleecing things from Woodway, and maybe staking out the mansion, what would keep them from trying their luck in town?
She, as a long-time citizen, had a duty to help keep her town and its people safe since her nephew was on the police force now. Besides, helping him to nab thieves would show the town his worth.
She retrieved her copy of the newspaper off the front stoop and caught Evelyn getting her mail out of the box. She opened her front door and called out to her.
“Hey, Evelyn. Got a minute for coffee and chat?”
“Sure.” Evelyn’s long strides made it to Wanda’s side of the driveway in no time. She plodded up the steps onto the front porch. “Got something on your mind?”
“You know me too well. Yes, I do. Come on in.”
“Through the front door. My, how formal.” She feigned an exaggerated Scarlet O-Hara accent as she pretended to fan herself with her mail.
Wanda laughed. Tall, lanky Evelyn always lifted her spirits. Widowed in her 30’s in the late 1980s when her Naval Intelligent husband was killed in action, Evelyn filled her days volunteering in committees at First Baptist downtown where she worshipped as well as reading mysteries and watching prerecorded TV crime stories. She had the novels and DVDs in her four bookcases cross-cataloged by title, author, and criminality.
Evelyn pulled out one of the kitchenette chairs. “Aha. A new Scrabble game? Is this in honor of Todd’s return?”
“Indubitably, Dear Watson.” Wanda used her best Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes imitation as she handed her neighbor a cup of coffee fresh from the pod machine and winked. “New era, new gameboard. He’ll be over at ten today.”
“But this is not why you lured me over here, right?”
Wanda pulled her own mug from the machine after it had groaned and swished to let her know hers had brewed. “Correct. So, tell me. Why do you think Chief Brooks decided to hire Todd?”
Evelyn eyed her for a moment. “Is this a rhetorical question? Because if it isn’t then I gather it is because it was time to add to the force. Those Lakeway Apartments that Stewart invested so much money into, God rest his soul, have brought in close to 100 new souls to the community. And the resort seems to be picking up in membership and activity as well.”
“And in other things, as we know per Hazel. Here is how I plan to find out if things were really lifted or not.”
Evelyn set her cup down and leaned in. “Okay. I’m all ears.”
Wanda explained what she had conjured in her mind. From her friend’s expression, Wanda could see she was interested. Good, Wanda thought. A partner in the making.
Between them, they could solve the first serious crime in Scrub Oak since the 1950s.
This could turn out to be the best thing she ever did for her town. Nobody would dare call her an old busybody then.
It took every ounce of gumption she had not to mention her thoughts to Todd as they played Scrabble.
“Something on your mind, Aunt Wanda, or are you being generous to me today?”
Todd showed her the scorecard. “I’m almost 80 points ahead.”
“Have you heard anything about burglaries at the resort?” She asked the question in as nonchalant tone as she could while rearranging her tiles. Then glanced at him to judge his response.
His face lost some of its color. “Who told you about that?”
“Hazel. She seemed quite concerned. I don’t blame her, especially with that dark old mansion filled with treasure so nearby. And she displays her grandmother’s sterling tea set on her buffet, too. You can see it through her front window.”
He waved the concern away. “We know about it. No need to worry. Isolated incident.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll let her know.” Why did she feel he dismissed the topic too quickly? To keep her from worrying? Or prying?
He played a word ending on double word score square and grinned. “I would be happy to give her home a looksie and give her advice on how to protect her belongings.”
Wanda thanked him and played the word quizzical, ending on a triple word score square. “That catches me up. 90 points plus 50 for using all my tiles.”
Her nephew leaned back in his chair and groaned.
“So, I understand the police chief convinced the town council to give Todd a permanent position on the force after his probationary period. Good thing. Guess he wouldn’t cut it in the big city as a cop, huh?”
Aurora flashed Wanda a saccharine smile as she grabbed a grande skinny latte from Priscilla at the Coffee Bean, a coffee bar inside of the Grocery Mart.
Wanda swallowed her anger. Some people never change. She handed Priscilla her money for a plain coffee with cream while she gulped down what she really wanted to say in retaliation. Instead, she took her pastor’s advice from his sermon on Sunday. Take your time in responding so you do not escalate the negativity. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your words.
“Actually, he had several other offers, including ones from Houston and Dallas. He chose to come home because Scrub Oaks is growing and he cares about the people here.”
Aurora rolled her eyes.
She peered into the woman’s contact-enhanced pupils and flashed her a sweet smile. “I thought you, for one, would be glad they added more patrols considering the recent string of robberies at the Resort. You live so close to it.”
The woman sputtered. “Whoever told you that is spreading rumors.” She strutted away in her red-bottomed high heels.
Priscilla wiped the coffee ring from the counter. “Meow. She sure had her claws out.”
Wanda clucked her tongue. “We were never friends. Why would I expect her to be nice to me now?”
“Does that mean you can’t be one day? You’re both widows.”
“I honestly do not see how. You saw how she tried to trash me just then.” Aurora’s stab had hit Wanda in the heart, though she would never show it. That cinched it, though. She would find out who had been pilfering and give that information to Todd. If the trail led to the widow Stewart, so much the better.
“Gotta run, Priscilla. Thanks for the coffee.”
She darted to her car, unloaded her groceries in the trunk, and drove the three blocks to Hardware Heaven to see what they had that she could use. Perhaps they would have binoculars. They had other things during hunting season. She’d seen ponchos, camouflage clothes, and orange jackets in their display window.
With her last gulp of coffee, she swallowed down the guilty feeling that she should be reducing her thighs by walking instead. Her feet still hurt from her trek with Sophie by the woods. Maybe tonight she would leave the pooch at home and ride her bike. Except she would have to duct tape her flashlight to the handlebars.
No, if any of her neighbors noticed her wheeling by they would definitely phone Todd. Within a day he’d be touring assisted living centers with her in tow.
With a sigh, she entered the store.
“Yes, I have three different kinds.” Harry gave her a huge salesman grin. “Are you going hunting?”
Wanda had to laugh. In a way perhaps she was. “No, I want to spy on my neighbors.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
Harry leaned back and let out a hearty laugh. “I didn’t mean to pry. But I want to make sure you have the right kind of binoculars. Some are for night vision, others for astronomy, others for indoor events such as sports, concerts, and operas. Some for bird watching.”
“Oh, I see. Well, night vision, I guess. I want to see what nightlife is making noises around the lake. Hazel told me she’s a bit concerned.”
Harry nodded. “Raccoons in the garbage is my bet. Or opossums. Of course, some nutria have been spotted along the shoreline and an occasional armadillo will root near the banks.” He bent down and pulled a box from behind the counter. “These should do nicely. Have a nice range of vision. Pricier though than the normal roof prism ones used during the day.”
Wanda blanched at the three-digit number on the price tag. “You can only use them a night, right?”
Harry leaned on the counter. “Yep. I have others for daytime use. There are wide focus, no focus, zooming binoculars, and high-powered ones. They range from $40 all the way up to $300.”
“I had no idea.” What had she gotten herself into? Paying over a hundred and fifty dollars for night vision ones seemed absurd. “Maybe I need to think about this some more.”
He pushed off from the counter and winked. “Always wise to research. If you have any questions, let me know. I’ll find what you need at a good price.”
“Thanks, Harry. You’re the best.”
Wanda had an inkling she should buy something to support the local merchant. She glanced around but quickly felt like a fish flopping on the dock. All these gadgets and gizmos. Her late husband, Big Bob, had been the tool collector. After the funeral, she opened the garage and the neighborhood men eagerly took them off her hands. She made over $400 in an hour. But her backdoor neighbor, Frank made her keep a set of screwdrivers, a hammer, pliers, and an adjustable wrench. That way when he came over to do repairs he didn’t have to lug his tools.
“Um, Yes. Do you have those rulers that wind up by themselves?”
“Retractable measuring tape? Absolutely. Over here.” He led her to the correct section. She chose a small red one, paid her five dollars, and waved goodbye. Well, at least it fit in her purse.
Little good it would do for measuring Aurora’s involvement, though. She’d have to do things the old fashion way. Camp out. Who did she know who had a tent? Or a sleeping bag?
Well, Todd might but… Guess she could make another trip to Harry’s Hardware Haven. Nope. He might wonder why she was so intent on observing nocturnal critters and phone Todd.
Then what would she say? Mayberry-like or not, small-town living did have its downside. Everyone considered your business as theirs.
Wanda asked her phone’s app for directions to the nearest mega-chain sporting store. An hour and a half later, her trunk was filled with things she never knew she’d need, much less want.
“You’re nuts.” Betty Sue clicked her tongue. “When our kids were in scouts you hated to go camping. Bugs, dampness, having to use the bushes. Remember?”
“I know. But how else am I going to keep a watch out? I can’t afford to stay even one night in a cabin at Woodway Resorts.” Wanda pouted.
“Well, most likely if you did whoever is doing something illegal, if they are, wouldn’t as long as you were there.”
“Meaning what?” She perched her hands on her hips. “Are you accusing me of being a busybody, too?” Surely her best friend knew her intentions were good.
Betty Sue chuckled. “Unruffle your feathers, my dear. I only meant because your nephew is a police officer now. And because you are a local, they would wonder why you left the comfort of your own bed.”
“Oh, well, true.” Wanda slumped deeper into her chair at the kitchen table and returned her attention to their Scrabble game. “Humph. I’ll be. Look what word I can spell off of your S.” She placed the tiles C,A,M, and P down onto a double word score square.
Betty Sue’s laugh lilted like a bird’s call. “Camps or Scamp. You could play either one.”
“Camps give me more points.” Wanda grinned, but deep inside a shiver worked its way outwards. Coincidence? The other word fits as well, in more ways than one. Aurora had always been a bit of a…oops, sorry, Lord.
She grabbed four more tiles from the bag. H-O-N-D. With the A in her hand, it spelled out the brand of car she drove. But proper names were not allowed.
Besides, what did the car she own have anything to do with the going-ons at the resort? Wanda rested her chin in her hands and sighed as she watched Betty Sue ponder what to play in order to catch up in points.
Then it hit her, as things often do. She could stay in her car. A stake-out. Why not? Unzip the sleeping bag and use it as a cuddly throw. Pack a thermos of coffee and snacks. It almost sounded fun.
Maybe Betty Sue and Evelyn would like to join. A widowhood slumber party. They could stay up all night, tell ghost stories, sing old church camp songs…well, maybe not.
And as far as including her friends? They might attract too much attention. She’d be laughing most of the night, especially with Evelyn’s wit. And what if Todd spotted them on his night patrols? What would her explanation be then?
Visions of manicured lawns, white columns, and nurses pushing wheelchairs floated in her head.
Better to keep her plans to herself…for now.
Finding an open U, she spelled H-O-U-N-D upon her next turn. Sophie padded over and rested her long face on Wanda’s foot. Her mournful eyes gazed up.
Wanda patted her head.
No, she didn’t plan to buy a watchdog. One pooch was enough, thank you.
Hmm, she wondered if the resort needed one, though? That would mess with Aurora’s plans, now wouldn’t it? If she recalled correctly from an article in the Oakmont County Gazette, a nonprofit no-kill refuge for strays had been set up not too far up the road. Maybe she could get a Doberman for cheap. Or a German shepherd.
She yawned and covered her mouth to keep Betty Sue from detecting the sly smirk that wanted to spread across her face.
After she left, Wanda called Evelyn and bounced the idea off her brain.
“Who’d feed the thing?” Evelyn’s voice shrilled an octave higher than normal.
“Well, I hadn’t thought about it. I guess it would fend for itself. They do in the wild, right?”
“Wolves, Wanda. Coyotes. Not domesticated dogs. Trust me, the animal would wander off and find a sucker to feed it. It wouldn’t hang around.”
Wanda rubbed her temple. “You do make sense.”
“Besides, it is not your property and not your worry.”
“But something is going on over there. I don’t like the idea of criminal activity happening in my town.”
Evelyn harumphed. “Who does? Look, it’s almost nine and that new CSI show is on. Talk later.”
Wanda told her goodbye and tidied up the kitchen before saying her nighttime prayers and crawling under the covers to read some more of the historical novel set in Scotland in the 1500s.
In Chapter 10, the soldiers of James IV threatened the lairds if they refused to unite the kingdom. Pilfering their lands and killing their deer weakened each laird’s influence and persuaded the townsfolk to depend on the king for security and stability.
Wanda set the book down. Did Aurora hire someone to ruin the resort’s reputation so it could be sold cheaply to her? Then she could turn it around for a nice penny.
Aurora’s late husband had been in investments and real estate. He’d bought the land that the Lakeview Apartments sat on for cheap and then sold it to a developer. Perhaps Aurora had picked up some tools of the trade.
Wanda had to find out.
She tapped a fingernail against her teeth. Todd lived on the third floor in the Lakeview Apartments but his windows faced toward town, the wrong way. Too bad.
The Ferguson Mansion’s third-floor balcony overlooked the northwest edge of the lake, but the woods would block her view, even in the wintertime. Besides, how would she get inside? With all of Old Man Ferguson family heirlooms tucked in there, it had to be secured tighter than a woman’s figure in a 1950’s Playtex girdle commercial.
“Well, Sophie. I guess you and I are going to be getting a great deal of evening exercise, then.” She decided a couple of nights walking along West Elm would suffice. Then if she saw the mysterious signals again, she’d camp out in her car someplace along Woodway, the road to the resort.
And pray Todd didn’t come along and ask her what she thought she was doing.
With a sudden burst of energy, she got up, redressed, and jostled Sophie off the bed. “Let’s go for a nighttime walk.”
Her pooch cocked it’s head, the long ears flapping slightly.
“No, I’m not nuts. Let’s go.”
The dog obediently plodded down the hallway to the backdoor and waited for her to click the leash onto its collar. Then Wanda grabbed her jacket and a flashlight. The two-headed off, past the park and up 8th.
She stopped at the corner of West Elm and Lake Drive. If anyone asked, say Aurora if she happened to be looking that way from her house, she’d say Sophie needed a rest. The dog did pant a lot.
As Sophie sniffed the curb for any signs of other canine activity, Wanda squinted with her new $40 binoculars across the lake. She could barely hear the lapping of the water against the roots of the old Cyprus trees. The peaceful, lulling sound made her stifle a yawn. She resisted the urge to curl up in the grass.
Up above, the stars twinkled as if tossled by the night breeze. Somewhere a Chuckwill’s widow cooed for its mate. To her left, a rustle in the leaves startled her. She flashed her light in its direction and two iridescent eyes shone back.
Sophie let off a slow, quiet growl.
Then the creature flipped and disappeared into the woods before she had time to take a breath.
Her heart thumped in her chest and she pressed her hand to it. Common sense began to replace the fear. Too small to be a predator or a human. Probably a raccoon or opossum as Harry stated. Maybe an armadillo.
Suddenly another flash caught her attention. It came from across the lake. Yes, definitely in the direction of the resort.
Had someone seen her light and think Aurora had signaled?
It flashed again, this time twice quickly.
Wanda didn’t know whether to signal back or not.
Instead, she scooped up Sophie and trotted over to 8th Street then sat on the curb out of breath.
Wouldn’t you know it? Todd pulled up in his cruiser.
He flicked on his flashlight and aimed it at her eyes.
She raised her arm to shield the white brightness.
“Hi, Todd. Nice night, huh?”
She kept quiet on the ride back to her house. Riding in a police car unnerved her. What if one of the neighbors saw? Would they assume she had gotten drunk? Or worse, had an episode of dementia.
Oh, why did she get herself into these messes?
She quietly unopened her backdoor and let Todd follow her inside. Time for the interrogation.
She unhooked Sophie's leash. The dog dashed down the hall to the bedroom. Wanda wished she could follow. Would there be enough room for both of them to hide under her bed?
“What are you scheming, Aunt Wanda? You’ve been acting awfully strange the past few days.”
“Hmm?” Wanda blinked as his sentence sunk into her grey cells. “Oh, remember when you used to go camping in scouts. You enjoyed it, right?”
“I know the park is nice, but not exactly outdoorsy. Then I thought about the space at the break of the woods. We could build a campfire. Make gooey s’mores. Just like old times.”
She ignored his eyebrow arch. “So I walked over there with Sophie to check it out. It is public property, right?”
“I don’t believe so. Either the Fergusons or the Stewarts own it.”
“It isn’t fenced. Want some coffee?” She turned to the brewer and pointed at it.
“No, thank you.” He leaned against the sink. “You’re telling me you walked over there at almost ten o’clock at night in thirty-seven-degree weather to see if it would make a good campsite?” He shifted his weight to his other foot. If he began to tap it she knew she’d be in for a lecture. Luckily, he didn’t.
“Aunt Wanda. Something tells me you are up to one of your hair-brained schemes. Remember Mr. Baker?”
How could she forget?
“I want you to stay out of trouble. If you come up with any off-the-wall plans you run them by me. Promise?”
She fluttered her eyelashes. “Why, Todd. Of course. I am a woman of my word.”
And as soon as I have enough evidence to prove I am not delusional, you will be the first to know.
Wanda tossed onto her back, then on her side, then on her stomach. It didn’t matter. No position made her drowsy. With a sigh, she threw the covers back, donned on her slippers and robe, and wobbled to the kitchen to make a cup of herbal tea. Sophie followed behind, her black nails clicking on the floor.
“Sorry to wake you.” Wanda handed her a treat. The dog sniffed it, groaned, and curled up in her doggie bed with a sigh.
“Are you mad at me, too?” She tapped her fingernail on the kitchen table as she sipped her tea. There had to be a way to find out what went on at the resort without drawing attention to herself. Today was Friday which meant it would be filled with hunters for the next few nights, so she doubted anything shady would be going on.
That gave her time…
Then it hit her, as things often do. The Woods Grill. It sat on the south end of the lake with a view of both the Stewart house and the resort. If she could sneak into the ladies’ restroom and leave the window open a crack, then she could slip in after they closed. If she recalled correctly, the dining room faced the lake, so she could sit at a table and watch with her binoculars in warm, cozy comfort.
She dashed back to her bedroom, got out her laptop, and made a reservation for two for a late dinner Monday night. Surely Evelyn would come along.
“I don’t know, but I am always up for an adventure.” Evelyn grinned as they chatted across the driveway Sunday afternoon.
“I am doing this because the idea of crime seeping into this town that I love irks me.”
“And it has nothing to do with Aurora, huh?”
Wanda ignored her. “We’ll have to park the car a few doors down and walk, though. It would draw suspicion to see a car in the parking lot after hours.”
“Or we could walk back. It’s only five blocks or so. Hasn’t Betty Sue been nagging you about getting more exercise?”
Wanda gave her a pained expression. “I’ve walked enough the past two nights. My arches won’t be the same for weeks. Let’s take the car in case we need to make a quick getaway. We can park it in front of the King’s house and walk up a block.”
“Deal. Diner at eight?” Evelyn sniffed with her nose in the air acting like an Edwardian aristocrat.
They arrived Monday evening at 7:55 both dressed in their Sunday clothes. An hour later, a few minutes before the restaurant closed, Wanda went to use the ladies’ room. She scanned the window to make sure there was not an alarm wired to it. Seeing none, she pushed open the window a crack then slid three folded paper towels in the sill and closed it almost all the way down again.
She and Evelyn were the last to leave. They went back to home, changed into black jeans, and drove around town for fifteen minutes before circling back. As they passed by the Woods Grill, the manager waved goodnight to one of the staff, and then both drove away. The parking lot now lay vacant and the building dark except for the streetlamp’s gleam.
“Okay. Let’s find a place to park.”
They did and walked back in the cloak of night. Wanda tiptoed around the side to the small window that led into the restroom. Wiggling the wad of paper towels, she slipped her nail file underneath and pulled up. The window cracked.
Wanda waited, holding her breath. No piercing siren. Good.
She motioned to Evelyn to join her then slowly raised the window as far as she could on her tippy-tiptoes.
“You’re taller. Open it the rest of the way.”
Evelyn did, and got it almost all the way open as she stretched her arms up over her head.
“Now, give me a boost.” Wanda placed her heel in Evelyn’s interlocked hands and wiggled her way through the sill, landing on the tiled bathroom floor―bang―on her shoulder.
She screamed as an icy hot pain shot through her neck and arm. “Help! Evelyn, I think I broke my rotator cuff.”
“I’ll go get help.”
She heard Evelyn’s footsteps fade.
Okay. Now she knew the assisted living center loomed in her future. She rolled onto her back and the pain shot through her again. Then everything went black.
Wanda woke to bright lights and beeps.
Her shoulder ached, but something prevents her from moving it. Where was she?
She heard Todd’s voice.
“You came through the surgery simply fine. A month in rehab and you should be as good as new.”
Wanda groaned. Her tongue tasted like cardboard and her throat ached as if someone had been rubbing it with a cheese grater.
She heard a screech and focused as Todd pulled up a chair next to her hospital bed.
“You know what I wrote in that dictionary? Well, we are about to have words now. What on earth were you thinking?”
Wanda tucked her lip into her teeth.
“Evelyn told us everything. So, I went to check. That flash of light? It was the winter moonbeam reflecting off a metallic windchime on Aurora’s back deck. It hit the flagpole at the resort and bounced back.”
“Yes, oh.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Don’t worry. I talked the chief out of charging you with breaking and entering since all you broke was your clavicle and you barely entered. Aurora Stewart is not so forgiving, though. She is talking about filing a slander lawsuit.”
“And the whole town is laughing at me again, right?” Wanda turned away as a tear trickled down her cheek. “I’m sorry. I just want Scrub Oak to be quiet and peaceful with no crime.”
“That’s why I’m here, Aunt Wanda.” Todd’s voice softened and he squeezed her hand. “Let me do my job.”
She smiled. “I will.”
He bent and brushed her cheek with his lips. “Right. And you can still beat me at Scrabble, even one-handedly. But to be fair, I’ll wait to bring the game until you’re off the morphine drip.”
“I’d like that, Todd. It’s good to have you back.”
He rose to leave, but she called his name. He swiveled back around, his hand on the hospital room doorknob. “Yeah?”
“Todd, you know if I had uncovered anything shady, I’d have told you.”
He winked. “I know. You’re a woman of her word.”
Yes, she was, and she’d make sure Todd knew of anything suspicious going on in the community from now on.
…After she investigated to make sure a crime had been committed, of course.
1 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. sugar
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
½ tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp lemon juice
¼ c. lemon rinds, grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift together dry ingredients. Fold in eggs, extracts, and lemon juice and rind then blend until well mixed.
Roll into balls about the diameter of a silver dollar.
Place cookies two inches apart on a parchment-coated baking sheet and flatten with the underside of a spoon until about ¼ inch thick all around.
Bake for 12-15 minutes until light golden in color.
Push an almond slice into the center with your finger.
Dust with powdered sugar if desired.
Cool on a cookie rack.
Now that you've met some of the characters in Scrub Oak, Texas, enjoy the Cozy Mystery Series - Wordplay Mysteries.
Book One - Word Has It
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