Authors: Leighann Dobbs
Tags: #Paranormal, #Ghost, #New Hampshire, #Mystery
I was barely paying attention, more concerned with going over my mental to-do list than with watching the road as I turned the corner onto Main Street. It took a while for the flashing lights to register. Police car lights. My gut tightened.
Were they in front of my shop?
I pressed hard on the gas and then realized it wasn’t my shop. It was Paisley’s, and by the look of things, it had caught fire.
The police had the street half-blocked off and I slowed down, noticing one of Gus’s deputies, Jimmy Ford, in the middle of the road directing traffic. Since I was the only car, I stopped next to him and rolled down my window.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“There was a fire.” Jimmy stated the obvious, glancing back at Paisley’s shop over his shoulder where the fire engines were just pulling away. A stream of water ran out of her shop, into the street. “Luckily, there wasn’t a lot of damage to the front room. The back is burned pretty badly, though.”
I looked over in the direction of the photography shop. The front of the shop still looked intact, but the back section was black. Gus was inside, her long, blonde hair drawn back into a severe ponytail. As if sensing my eyes on her she turned, looking out into the street, narrowing her own eyes when she saw me.
She stomped over to the door and opened it.
“Keep it moving!” she yelled to Jimmy, whose cheeks turned pink at the tone of her voice.
“I guess you better just go on through to your shop, Willa.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “She’s in a rare mood this morning.”
I did as I was told. No one wanted to cross Gus when she was in a rare mood.
Inside the bookstore, Pandora and I looked out the picture window, craning our necks to see what was going on in the photography store across the street. It looked like they were sorting through some of the items. I could see one of Gus’s deputies with plastic evidence bags.
Had someone set the fire on purpose? Didn’t photographers use a lot of chemicals when developing photographs? It seemed more likely to me that would’ve been the cause of the fire. It was probably just an accident.
I figured Gus was probably just doing her job. She was a good cop and she was thorough, so it didn’t surprise me that she was going over the scene with a fine-toothed comb. Every once in a while she would look in my direction, her amber eyes drilling into me and causing me to shrink back from the window as if I was doing something wrong. Pandora watched the action with equal interest, shrinking back along with me when Gus turned her attention our way.
I couldn’t tell much about what was going on in there, but judging by the way things looked, the shop had not been on fire for very long, which meant it must have started in the wee hours of the morning. Paisley would have been long gone by then. The shop would have been closed and unoccupied. I breathed a sigh of relief that the building had been empty and no one was hurt just as an ambulance screeched around the corner.
My brows pulled together … if no one was hurt, why did they need an ambulance?
I was too far away to see what was going on. Where had I put those binoculars? I cast around the shop for them but came up empty, so I settled for squinting my eyes tighter to try to see better.
Gus bent over, out of sight, then stood up again with a camera in her latex gloved hand. She handed it to one of her deputies, who put it in a plastic bag. The EMTs where clustered in a pack, bending over.
Why were EMTs there?
The answer to my question came in the form of a four foot tall, wizened old lady who pushed her way onto the scene—Gertie Sloan, the county medical examiner. She would only be there for one reason—there was a dead body inside that store.
I could almost hear Gertie’s knees creaking as she slowly bent down out of sight. Who could possibly be in there? Paisley would have been long gone by the time the fire was started.
My mind went back to the art show judges’ meeting the day before and Maisie Beardsley’s parting words ran through my head. “
Paisley Brown’s work will be included in the art show over my dead body
A movement at the end of the street caught my eye and I saw Bing, Josiah, Cordelia and Hattie making their way toward my store, their faces riveted on the activity over at Paisley’s shop. I knew they wouldn’t want to miss getting an up close scoop on the action. The Mystic Notch grapevine would be in full swing later today.
I was glad to see they had already been to the coffee shop and Hattie had an extra Styrofoam cup in her hand.
“What’s going on?” Hattie’s face was pinched with concern as I opened the door to let them in.
“I guess there was a fire.” I took the cup from her and pressed the plastic tab back. “Gus has been a wealth of information, as usual,” I added sarcastically.
“Well, now, she has her job to do,” Bing soothed as the four of them crowded next to me at the picture window.
Cordelia sucked in a breath. “Is that Gertie?”
“You mean Paisley is dead?” Hattie asked.
I chewed my bottom lip, standing on my tiptoes to try to see the body. It was no use—the bottom of the storefront blocked my view. “I’m not sure who it is. The fire didn’t burn very much of the store so it seems like it must have started only a few hours ago. Why would Paisley have been in there that early?”
“Maybe it’s not Paisley,” Bing said.
“Did someone set the fire on purpose?” Josiah asked. “I mean, why else would the police be investigating like they are.”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Back in Boston, they would investigate every fire until arson was definitively ruled out. It’s probably the same up here.”
“I’m sure it was an accident,” Cordelia said. “I mean, why would someone purposely set Paisley’s shop on fire?”
“Maybe they had a beef with her.” Josiah shrugged. “She
be rather abrasive at times.”
Across the street, Gus chose that moment to whip her head around and pin us with a glare. All five of us stepped back from the window.
“You don’t think it could have something to do with the art show, do you?” Hattie asked.
“That’s crazy,” Josiah said. “Who would kill someone over an art show?”
I thought again about Maisie’s parting words. They hadn’t been a threat, though. She had said ‘over
dead body’, not over Paisley’s. Then again, I wasn’t entirely sure that
Paisley’s dead body in there. What if Maisie had done something drastic and ended up dead in Paisley’s shop?
“I hate to say this out loud,” Cordelia ventured. “But you don’t think Neil Lane found out Paisley landed that last slot in the art show and got mad? I’m sure he wouldn’t kill someone, but maybe he didn’t know Paisley was in there.”
“We still don’t even know if that body
Paisley.” No sooner were the words out of Bing’s mouth when Gertie and the EMTs stood. They raised up the gurney and we got a full view of the body. Unfortunately, it was covered in a body bag. We couldn’t tell who it was.
Across the street, I saw Gus strip off her gloves. She flung open the door of the photography store and started across the street. My stomach clenched when I realized she was headed in our direction. The regulars must have realized it at the same time and we all scrambled toward the purple micro-suede couch, jockeying for position and just managing to settle in as Gus ripped the door open.
“Good morning, Augusta,” Hattie said conversationally, as if it was just another normal day.
“Morning.” Gus’s voice was short. Her gaze raked over us as she stood with her feet shoulder width apart, hands on hips. Even the boxy lines of the sheriff uniform didn’t hide her petite, hourglass figure. I felt a pang of envy. Strangers were always surprised to discover that we were sisters—Gus was built like a living Barbie doll whereas I was more … padded. I wasn’t overweight. I just had more curves, though some people, like Striker, said they were all in the right places. My cheeks turned pink at the thought of Striker and I caught Gus giving me a strange look.
“What do you know about what happened over there?” Gus tilted her head and looked at me with wide eyes.
“Me?” I lifted my shoulders up to my ears. “Why would I know anything?”
“I just thought maybe by the way you were staring out the window you might know something.” Gus turned to the others. “And what about you guys? What’s the Mystic Notch grapevine have to say on this?”
Hattie shook her head. “Nothing yet. We were as surprised as anyone to see the police when we came down the street.”
“Was it arson?” Josiah asked.
Gus’s eyes narrowed. “Too early to tell.”
“We saw a body.” Cordelia’s voice shook. “Who was it?”
“I’m asking the questions here,” Gus said. “Did you guys see anything strange going on at the photography shop?”
The regulars looked at each other and shook their heads. “We don’t hang around here all day just staring out the windows, you know.” Josiah spoke for all of them.
Gus turned to me. “What about you? Did you notice anything going on over there? I know you spend a lot of time spying out the window … or at least you did this morning.”
I bristled. “I don’t
out my window…” Then I remembered the night before when I’d been leaving and had seen George’s car.
Gus saw me hesitate and was on me like a hawk swooping on a baby rabbit. “What is it? You saw something, didn’t you?”
“Well … I’m not sure if it means anything and I really wouldn’t want to get anyone in trouble,” I said.
Gus sighed. “Come on, Willa. If you saw something you have to tell me. A dangerous person could be out there and if it was something innocent, then you won’t be getting anyone in trouble.”
“Okay. I guess you’re right. When I left here last night, I saw George Witt over in Paisley’s shop.”
Gus’s forehead wrinkled. “So? What’s unusual about that?”
“Nothing, really. Except it looked like they were arguing. But that must’ve been way before the fire was started.” I gestured toward the window. “I mean, that was at six thirty last night and the fire couldn’t have been burning that long or the whole building would be gutted by now.”
“Do you know how long George was in there? When did he leave?” Gus asked.
“I have no idea. I was on my way home when I saw them. They were still there when I left.”
Chewing the inside of her cheek, Gus's gaze drifted across the street to Paisley’s shop. “Hmmm. Okay. Was there anything else?”
I shook my head.
“All righty, then. You know the drill. This is an ongoing investigation. You are not to get in the middle of it.” Gus fixed me with her sternest look before turning toward the door. “I mean it, Willa. I know how hard it is for you to mind your own business, but this time I’m going to have to insist.”
And with that, she pulled the door open and disappeared out into the street. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realized she’d never told us who the unlucky person being carried out on the gurney was.
Despite appearances, Gus and I got along pretty well. It was only when it came to on-going investigations that we argued. It wasn’t like I tried to get in the middle of these investigations on purpose. But for some reason or another, I always seemed to end up there.
It rubbed Gus the wrong way because she didn’t like amateurs meddling in police work. Never mind that I had spent most of my adult life as a crime journalist—she still didn’t like me getting involved.
The regulars cleared out soon after Gus left and I found myself alone in the shop … well,
I was behind the counter trying to catch up on my book cataloging activities when I noticed Pandora acting strangely at the end of one of the bookshelves. First, a silvery gray paw snaked out into the aisle then Pandora leapt out sideways, spinning around and rolling on her back. A cloud of swirling mist followed her. That swirling mist indicated the other side effect from my car accident—a ghost.
That accident had left me with more than a damaged leg. It had also left me with a strange ability to see ghosts. At first it had been quite disturbing, but now I was getting used to it, especially since two of those ghosts were regulars in my bookstore. And not just any ghosts, either. The ghosts that haunted my bookstore were the poet Robert Frost and the fourteenth President of the United States, Franklin Pierce.
I watched the swirl grow bigger, becoming less misty and more solid and finally forming into a ghostly version of Robert Frost standing in the middle of the aisle with his hands on his hips.
“Can’t you do something about it?” he pleaded.
“She’s ruining the store.” Robert could be overly-dramatic at times.
I stepped out from behind the counter. The ghosts like to play practical jokes on me and I wasn’t sure if this was one of their antics.
Usually, the jokes were aimed at the customers, though. They’d do things like push books off the shelf in front of people, drip water onto the book pages people were trying to read and pass through people, giving them a cold chill. But there weren’t any customers in the shop right now. Maybe this was some kind of a new joke.