Traveling secretary Hattie Davish is returning to her once-quiet hometown, where a deluge of deadly secrets leaves her feeling anything but welcome…
When her good friend Virginia Hayward’s father passes away, Hattie Davish rushes to her hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri. She’s looking forward to visiting the place where she grew up, even if the circumstances bringing her there are bleak. But upon her arrival, she learns that all is not well in St. Joe. Virginia is cold and distant, Frank Hayward’s death is shrouded in mystery, and a string of troubling incidents have descended on Hattie’s alma mater, Mrs. Chaplin’s School for Women. Frank was the school’s bookkeeper, and as Hattie begins investigating the bizarre goings-on, she becomes convinced that someone other than Frank was in the casket—but who? Her search for the truth takes her from the town cemetery, to the home of an infamous outlaw, to the dungeon-like tunnels beneath the State Lunatic Asylum—and brings her face-to-face with a killer bent on the deadliest lesson of all…
Release date: August 1, 2015
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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A Deceptive Homecoming
So, why was I hesitating?
Was it the whispers I heard as the girls spoke to each other behind their hands? Did they think I hadn’t noticed their stares? Was it the surprise and dismay that flashed across Ginny’s face when I arrived? Was it the unpleasant transformation of a room I’d laughed in, played in, felt at home in? Or was it the memory of other dead bodies I’ve seen in less familiar settings?
“Ahem . . .”
I turned to the buxom woman waiting behind me in line at the casket. The plumes of gray egret feathers on her hat dangled down, tickling her cheek. She ineffectively tried to blow them away.
“Are you going to pay your respects, miss?” She blew at the feathers again.
“Yes, of course.” I took a deep breath and took a step forward. I glanced across the room at Ginny once more, now deep in conversation with a woman I faintly recognized, before turning toward the body.
Poor Ginny, I thought as I gazed down at the dead man. And then I froze, breathless. Despite seeing my share of dead bodies, nothing had prepared me for this. I’d known Mr. Hayward in life. Besides being my friend’s father, Frank Hayward had taught me everything I knew about bookkeeping.
Oh my God, what happened to him?
“I heard he was disfigured,” the woman behind me said, leering over my shoulder, “but I had no idea.” I could feel her breath on my neck as she blew at her feathers again.
Frank Hayward had aged considerably since I’d last seen him: His hair was completely gray, deep wrinkles stretched out about his eyes and mouth and across his forehead, and the skin beneath his throat sagged. I couldn’t resist the urge to gently touch his cheek. His skin felt waxy as I expected but was dotted with strange indentations, as if someone had periodically poked him with a pencil. And then there was his nose, or at least what the undertakers had made of it.
“Trampled by a horse, they say,” the woman, her breath reeking of onions, said against my ear. I jerked my hand away.
Why must she stand so close? I glanced behind me hoping she would take a step back, but her eyes were focused on the body in the casket in front of me. She blew at her feathers again.
“Un, deux, trois . . .” I began counting in French to calm down. The woman wasn’t going anywhere, so I took a deep breath and turned toward the body once again.
The animal had smashed the left side of the dead man’s face, crushing his left cheek and completely disfiguring his nose. The undertaker had attempted to reconstruct his face, painting his face with a tan cosmetic, filling his cheek with something to try to puff it out again and adding painted clay to his nose. Whether he was working from a poor memory or a bad photograph, the undertaker had failed in his effort to make the deceased appear as he had in life.
Something’s not right, I thought.
We all turned at the sound of glass breaking and startled shrieks. Marigolds, periwinkle, rosemary, and branches of cypress, mixed with small shards of glass that twinkled in the candlelight, littered the floor. A wreath stand, one of its three legs broken, lay sprawled on top of the flower heap. In its descent, it had knocked down several glass vases set on a table beside it. Two middle-aged women, both with red faces and hands held to their chests, stood a few feet away. One took a deep breath and giggled in embarrassment.
“How silly to be startled by flowers,” she said to no one in particular, “though the stand did nearly hit us.” The other woman nodded as she continued to stare at the jumble of glass, ribbon, wood, and flowers near her feet.
A young girl appeared almost immediately with broom in hand. A stout woman with dimples rushed in to help. I glanced over at Ginny. She, like the rest of us, stood watching, transfixed by the unfortunate scene. When she looked up, our eyes met. She immediately turned to the portly man beside her. I turned my back and stared down once again at the corpse. I instantly felt the overwhelming sense of anxiety again.
“Please move along.” The woman behind me nudged me with her elbow. I ignored her and stood my ground as I searched the dead man’s face, hands, and body for a clue to explain my misgivings. The woman behind me, in danger of herself being replaced at the casket’s side by an elderly man with a cane, not so gently bumped me with her ample, plump hip. “You’ve had more than your share of time.”
“I’m sorry.” I stumbled a few steps away from the casket, not so much from the woman’s push but from the growing apprehension that I was missing something vital.
“What’s wrong with me?” I mumbled to myself. The face of the dead man had been disfigured and then reconstructed almost beyond recognition. What was it I expected to find? And then it hit me!
I glanced in horror at the tableau before me. The white casket, the flickering candlelight, and the bouquets of brightly colored flowers struck a sharp contrast to the lifeless figure lying prostrate, the line of grieving well-wishers, and the distraught daughter receiving more friends and family all dressed in black. It was wrong, all wrong.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I nearly jumped.
“Miss Davish, are you all right?” Miss Clary, a slender young woman, stood before me with concern in her large blue eyes. “You look like a specter tapped you on the shoulder.”
I’d met her when I’d first arrived and had to wait to speak with Ginny. She was the secretary to the president of Mrs. Chaplin’s school. I stared at her, unable to respond.
“Are you all right?” she repeated. I nodded but allowed her to guide me to a nearby chair. I sat, staring at Ginny. Did Ginny know? How could she? How could she not?
“How could who know what, Miss Davish?” Miss Clary was standing beside me. I’d no idea she was still there. I’d no idea that I had said anything out loud.
“It’s not there,” I whispered, barely audible to myself let alone the young woman beside me.
“Did you say something, Miss Davish?” Miss Clary bent down to hear me. I shook my head. What could I say? I couldn’t tell her the truth. But I knew whom I should tell. I rose from my chair, aware of Miss Clary’s hand on my arm. “Feeling better?”
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to speak with Miss Hayward.”
“Of course. Poor Virginia.”
I merely nodded in response, still in shock and baffled as to how I was going to tell Ginny what I discovered. Her father wasn’t the man in the casket.
What am I doing here?
Ginny had asked me the same question when I arrived earlier.
I had traveled hundreds of miles across the country to be here and had come straight from the depot. Thinking only of her, I’d immediately scanned the Haywards’ parlor for Ginny. Little groups of people, dressed in black and speaking in hushed voices, had mingled about, and the room was bursting with bouquets, wreaths, and colorful, fragrant flowers. The fireplace was lit to warm the crisp morning air, but the room was dimmed by the thick, drawn curtains. I dabbed my eyes with my handkerchief as I stared at the mantel. A portrait I knew to be of Mr. Frank Hayward was draped in black crape above it; the end of the fabric had been singed by the fire. I then glanced at the white coffin against the far wall, its lid raised like a flag and glowing in the reflection of a dozen candles lit nearby.
I spotted Miss Gilbert, the longtime typing instructor, a tall, thin woman with pursed lips and gray hair with a few lasting black streaks, who must now be in her late fifties. She chewed on the nails of her long fingers as she watched over the proceedings. I caught her eye and gestured to her in recognition. She nodded slightly before focusing her attention on a group of young girls, students most likely, who were whispering behind their hands as I passed by. Each stole a glance at me and then giggled.
What’s that all about? I thought.
“That is her,” I heard one whisper before they all openly stared at me.
“Girls!” Miss Gilbert hissed, appropriately chastising the girls into silence.
And then I spied Ginny and forgot about the girls. She was standing near the piano, the instrument barely visible beneath dozens of garlands of marigolds. She was flanked by a portly, middle-aged man, with a profusion of white curls and long, thick burnsides, who held her hand in both of his, on one side, and a stout woman of similar age, with wispy, fawn-colored hair, deep creases about her eyes, and dimples, pronounced despite her clouded countenance, on the other. Both were dressed in the highest fashions and wore black mourning jewelry, embellished with diamonds.
With porcelain skin, silky, perfectly coiffured yellow hair, Ginny stood out, as she always did in any crowd. It didn’t matter whether it was a ball, an etiquette class, or a stroll in the park; she always drew everyone’s attention. So I wasn’t surprised that even at her father’s funeral, dressed in a black Henrietta, embellished with black ribbon and crape, and a simple bonnet with a long crape veil, she was stunning. I pulled a stray strand of hair behind my ear, brushed my skirt for soot (a useless task as I was wearing black as well), and straightened my hat before making my way across the room.
“Hattie?” Ginny said when she saw me approach. She was fiddling with the gold heart-shaped locket her father had given her on her eighteenth birthday. I was one of only a few people who knew it contained a lock of her mother’s hair.
“Oh, Ginny. I’m truly sorry.” I leaned in to give her a hug. She barely returned my embrace.
“What are you doing here?” It wasn’t the response I’d anticipated.
“What do you mean? As soon as I learned what happened, I had to come. How are you doing? Is there anything I can do?”
“How did you find out?”
“Someone sent me the funeral notice from the newspaper.” Why does that matter?
“It was nice of you, Hattie, but you really didn’t need to come all this way.”
And with that she turned to the man who’d been standing beside her since the moment I walked in. He put his arm around her and whispered something in her ear. I stood still for a moment, half expecting her to turn back to me, half waiting for her to introduce me to her companions. When she didn’t, I glanced behind me at the line of callers waiting to speak to Ginny and slowly stepped aside. When an elderly lady in a half-mourning hat of black and brown stepped in front of me to catch Ginny’s attention, I took the moment to study my long-time friend. Her deep-set frown was understandable, but not at all the expression I expected. I’d seen my share of sorrow, especially of late, but Ginny didn’t show any visible signs that I recognized: red-rimmed, puffy sad eyes, and bowed, trembling shoulders. Her countenance bore deep-seated dismay or displeasure, and not grief. She hadn’t even been holding a handkerchief. The Ginny I knew would’ve been inconsolable, not simply put out.
Has she changed that much in the time that I was gone?
At Mrs. Chaplin’s School for Women, Ginny, Myra, and I had been close, the Three Musketeers, Mrs. Chaplin had called us. We’d taken every class together, attended every lecture, picnic, and concert together, and shared with each other the dreams only young girls dare to have. When my father died, I’d been so shaken, so despondent, I’d thought of leaving school. Ginny and Myra had convinced me to stay. After we graduated, we corresponded regularly. Myra had taken a post as a stenographer in the mail order department at Jordan Marsh in Boston while Ginny stayed in St. Joseph to run her father’s household. Like me, Ginny’s mother had died when she was young and her father had never remarried. Tragically, Myra died of influenza a little over a year ago. Ginny had been my last true friend, until I met Walter. Ginny and I had continued to write. In fact, she’d written me less than a month ago voicing concerns about the school. She hadn’t confided any details and I’d been left to wonder. When I’d learned of her father’s sudden death, I didn’t hesitate to attend the funeral and do whatever I could to ease her pain.
Yet now, after seeing the wrong body in the coffin, I wished I had never come.
“May I have a moment, Ginny?”
“Of course, Hattie. What is it?” She glanced around the room instead of looking at me. I followed her gaze and noticed the gentleman with the muttonchops who had comforted her earlier now preoccupied by several women in a corner of the room.
Who is he? I wondered as I watched him nod his head in earnest agreement to something one of the ladies had said. He then embraced the woman. When I returned to Ginny, she was still watching him.
“It’s very important, Ginny.” I needed to pull her attention back to me. I touched her lightly on the arm. She flinched at my touch.
“Well, what is it?”
Her impatience took me aback and I hesitated. What had happened to the girl I knew? Grief alone couldn’t possibly explain her coldness, her altered behavior. I hadn’t been sure how to broach the subject, but now it took all I had to tell her the truth.
“You might want to sit down.”
“Thank you for your concern, but I’m fine.”
“What I have to say may come as a shock.”
“My father’s dead, Hattie. What could be more of a shock than that?” She still refused to meet my glance. She began twiddling with the locket again. I leaned in closely even as she shied away from me.
“The man in the casket isn’t your father, Ginny,” I whispered. My friend’s head snapped around and her eyes flared open.
That got her attention. Was that hope, shock, or fear I saw flash across her face? In an instant, the look was gone, replaced by a very distinct snarl of anger.
“How dare you?” she seethed under her breath, grabbing my arm and pulling me to the side.
“I know it sounds inconceivable, but it’s true.”
“Hush, Hattie. You hush up!”
“Ouch, Ginny, you’re hurting me.” She released the pinching grip she held on my arm and took a step back.
“I’m sorry,” she said, unable to meet my gaze.
“I’m sorry too. I didn’t know I’d upset you this much. I actually thought you’d be relieved.” If someone had given me hope that my dear father had been alive, I would’ve been grateful, not livid. “I thought it would bring you hope.”
“What are you talking about, Hattie?”
“The man in the casket doesn’t bear your father’s eyebrow scar.” It was the one distinguishing mark I knew Mr. Hayward to have, a prominent scar above his right eye, across his eyebrow. I remember staring at it as a student wondering what had created the wound. Being that close, it must’ve been a relief when his eye wasn’t damaged. I’d asked Ginny once, I’d been so curious, but she didn’t know.
Ginny’s shoulders sagged as she took a deep breath. With her eyes still averted, she shook her head. Finally, she looked at me. “I’d heard you’d been mixed up with the police and murders and other ghastly business, but I never thought it would affect your judgment. You’ve always been a very rational, practical girl, Hattie Davish.”
“I still am. Your father had a scar above his right eye, across his eyebrow.” I motioned to the exact placement of the scar with my finger above my own eye. “The man in the casket doesn’t bear that scar.”
“It was above his left eye, Hattie. His left.” His left side was the side damaged by the horse. Any trace of the scar would’ve been destroyed by the trauma done to the poor man’s face.
Oh my God, what have I done?
As realization of the mistake I’d made dawned on my face, Ginny surprised me again. Instead of railing against me for my ghastly mistake, for the false hope I’d placed in her, for the spectacle I’d made at this most solemn of occasions, her countenance softened and she patted me on the cheek.
“I’m his daughter, Hattie. Do you think I wouldn’t have noticed?”
“I’m sorry, Ginny.” I placed my hand on hers. “I don’t know how I could’ve made such a dreadful mistake.” Truly, I’d no idea. All of my memories of Mr. Frank Hayward had the scar cutting across his right eyebrow. Could time have tainted all my memories of home? “Can you forgive me?”
“Of course, Hattie. You meant well. Coming all this way after all these years. I remember how difficult it was when your father died. You were trying to spare me the same grief.”
She was right. If my memories of anything or anyone in St. Joseph were tainted it was because they were clouded by the loss of my father and the memory of his horrible end.
“Thank you for coming, Hattie.” She gently pulled her hand away. I nodded, still shocked by what I’d done. I was suddenly eager to put distance between me and the friend whom I’d traveled hundreds of miles to see. I’d come to comfort her, not to cause her more pain. “Be safe returning home.”
Home. She’d said it gently, but the irony wasn’t lost on me, even in my present state. Where was home? Newport? Where Walter waited for me? Richmond, where Sir Arthur lived? Any of the countless cities and towns I’d visited in my travels? No. Wasn’t St. Joe supposed to be my home? I’d been born and raised here. I was baptized here. My parents and baby brother were buried here. Yet clearly Ginny knew, whether I wanted to believe it or not, that St. Joseph wasn’t my home anymore.
“We will begin.” A broad man wearing the clerical collar of a minister took his place near the casket.
As I made my way toward my seat, I heard Ginny call out, “Mr. Upchurch,” a slight pleading in her voice. I glanced back to see Ginny reaching out to the man in the muttonchops. He immediately left his companions, crossed the room in a few long strides, and took her hands in his.
“Are you not well, my darling girl?” Tears began to stream down her face as she shook her head. He gently guided her into his comforting embrace. He then led her to her seat.
I turned away before the tears welled up in my own eyes. I nodded greetings to a few girls who inappropriately waved and giggled as my gaze fell upon them. Before I had time to ponder why they were acting silly, the minister began the service. I put my head down, unable to look at Ginny or the casket, while the minister’s voice rose and fell in accordance to the sentiment he was trying to convey. I heard little of his actual words. Instead, I prayed: for Mr. Hayward’s soul, for Ginny’s peace, and for forgiveness for my unconscionable mistake. When I finished, I glanced up and wished I hadn’t. Ginny sat stiff in her chair, a handkerchief clenched in her hand in her lap. Her face was frightfully pale, even her normally rosy lips were pale. She looked straight ahead, her clear eyes unblinking. For an instant she glanced my way and our eyes met. Mortified, I dropped my gaze once more. When I finally glanced about again, a small bouquet of flowers caught my eye. In a vase, set between a large wreath of intertwining cypress and weeping willow, and a bouquet of marigold, heliotrope, and forget-me-nots, was an arrangement of zinnia and mullein with sprigs of agrimony tucked in.
How odd, I thought.
If I’d been anywhere else but a funeral, I would’ve dismissed the message the flowers conveyed as accidental or ill-conceived. But here, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could make such a blunder. Or maybe I could, immediately recalling what I’d just done.
How could I’ve made such a horrible mistake?
I glanced at Ginny. Her posture and gaze hadn’t changed. With a tightening growing in my chest, I focused again on the flowers. The sprigs of agrimony must’ve been added as an afterthought, for surely the florist would’ve corrected the error. Obviously someone hadn’t realized the message they conveyed by adding the tiny yellow flowers. Agrimony means “gratitude” or “thankfulness.” What an unfortunate sentiment to make at someone’s funeral.
With the service finally over and one last glance at the bouquet, I rose from my seat as quickly as decorum allowed. I slipped past the mirror and the paintings draped in black crape in the hall, and was one of the first out the door. The warmth of the sun on my face was cold comfort knowing that I wasn’t the only one who’d made a dreadful mistake today.
“I can’t believe I’m talking to Miss Hattie Davish,” the girl squealed. She, and several of the girls around her, giggled.
“Hush, girls. This is a place of mourning. You will pay more respect to the occasion, and that includes not pestering Miss Davish.”
“Yes, Miss Gilbert,” the girls answered in unison.
“Thank you, Miss Gilbert. It was very nice to meet you all, though.” I was still taken aback by the attention I’d received from the students.
After the funeral, I’d taken a place toward the back of the procession that walked to the cemetery. After the interment of the body, many of us walked back to the Hayward house for a light meal. The moment I stepped in the door, I’d found myself surrounded by starry-eyed, giggling students from my alma mater, Mrs. Chaplin’s School for Women, who bombarded me with questions.
“What was it like to find your employer in a trunk?”
“Is it true that you saw a dead Santa Claus?”
“Were you really poisoned by a traitorous copperhead?”
“Wasn’t it glamorous to work for Mrs. Mayhew?”
Other than Mrs. Trevelyan’s death, which, due to her political prominence, had made several national newspapers, I’d no idea that word of my misadventures had preceded me. From their smiles and giggles, these silly girls had no idea how horrible it was to find a dead body. Their enthusiasm was ghoulish and particularly inappropriate. My friend’s father had been brutally killed and these girls wanted to know about how many times the Newport socialite changed dresses during the day. I was quite relieved when Miss Malinda Gilbert, the school’s typing instructor, stepped in.
“Besides, you’d think Miss Davish was a celebrity for all the hullabaloo.”
“But she is, Miss Gilbert,” one of. . .
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