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Death Will Attend: Chapter One

DWAWith the second installment of Morgan C Talbot’s Caching Out series not due out till next month, It’s Not About The Numbers is pleased to offer an excerpt from Death Will Attend to tide you over.

CHAPTER ONE

“It’s not going to snow on us, is it?”

Margarita smiled over her shoulder as her Australian roommate shifted restlessly in the back seat of Drew’s sky-blue electric car. The seat beside Bindi was overflowing with shrouded costumes, and she had barricaded herself away from the plastic bags with a pair of toiletry bags.

“Forecast says light rain.” Drew took his eyes from the road long enough to glance at the pale, shapeless cloud cover that lay low over the valley.

Margarita took a longer look. Hazelnut orchards flew past the windows. Back home in Silver Creek, the plentiful tree cover seemed to hold the low, thick clouds at a comparative distance. Shady Bend didn’t have forests to give the illusion of height because so much of the land lay as fields – mostly fallow in February -so the clouds bottomed out against a layer of air so low that Margarita felt nearly smothered by their featureless gray presence.

“Good thing I brought my Adirondacks. My only green Uggs, actually. I should get another green pair.” Bindi shook her short brown and blond bangs out of her eyes. “You think I’ll need a flotation device too?”

Margarita smiled at the arch tone of Bindi’s voice. “This is Oregon, not Queensland. Besides, the forecast said tomorrow would be dry.”

“Oh, think meteorology is a real science, do you? Then I’ve a fabulous waterfall to sell you. Smack in the Outback, can’t miss it.”

Margarita laughed, fingering the heart-shaped diamond pendant Drew had given her the night before while they had cozied up in front of his gas fireplace. “It’s made with science, not slavery,” he’d said as he affixed the chain around her neck with a delicate touch and a kiss on her nape. How like Drew to show his unique love for her with a big, glittery gem that helped to save the planet. She looked over at her tall, slender boyfriend fondly, enjoying the sight of his light brown hair and auburn sideburns.

Drew, focusing on the road, asked, “What’s the name of the cross street I’m looking for?”

Margarita checked the directions printout. “Heritage Lane.”

“There’s a bloody Heritage Lane in every town we’ve driven through.” Bindi’s brow furrowed, and she took a brief sniff against the skin of her right forefinger where she’d rubbed some strongly scented floral lotion. “Back in Geelong, the names on the street signs are so unique, tourists get their photos taken with them.”

Margarita knew Bindi was likely exaggerating the glory of her former home, Victoria, Australia, as she often did, but Drew frowned and said, “I apologize for America’s confusing street-naming system. If you were going to be so easily upset by words on green signs, maybe you shouldn’t have come this weekend.”

Though Bindi giggled appreciatively, Margarita tensed, sensing Drew’s frustration with the abrasive girl in the back seat. Though he’d quickly adapted to Margarita’s quiet spells as she worked at either solving or creating another geocaching puzzle, whether at his house in Salem or her duplex in Silver Creek, he’d yet to really click with her transplanted roommate, especially regarding Bindi’s quintessentially Australian take on things. The last thing Margarita needed on a getaway weekend was her new boyfriend butting heads with her roommate. She cringed every time she thought about having to choose one over the other.

After passing two tree nurseries, a field owned by a grass seed company, and a rectangular block of eight fields strung with hops trellises, Drew turned onto Heritage. He pulled into a long, newly-blacktopped driveway that took a curving route through beautifully trimmed trees which likely represented a nurseries’ entire tree stock catalog as well as the local varieties: mature willows, thin limbs drooping like green spaghetti; broad-leaf maples; twisting, pale-barked oaks; pruned dogwoods and Japanese maples; sturdy pines and brushy Douglas firs; orange-barked cedars; and rangy, long-limbed lilacs.

The trees’ bare limbs made the approach to the historic boarding house look rather sinister, but one last curve past neatly landscaped grounds revealed a three-story butter-yellow building bursting with gables, shutters, and pillars along its tall facade, central rotunda and wings.

Its windows looked out on the world through narrow, old-fashioned casements, but a double row of electric street lamps lit the short front walk and curved around the driveway circle, lighting the road in full blaze as if affronted by the barely-dimming sky overhead. A few other guests mingled on the broad covered porch despite the chill evening.

One of them, a young woman with strawberry blonde hair, eagerly waved a greeting as Drew’s car approached. “You ladies want to get out here?” Drew asked. “I’ll park in the lot over there and bring in your bags.”

Margarita and Bindi hopped out and detached their plastic-shrouded costumes from the hanger loop in the back seat. Margarita handed Bindi her toiletry bag, then snagged her own and shut the car’s back door. “I can’t believe I get to dress up for this. Best event cache ever. I haven’t worn a costume since high school.”

“What was the last one, then?” Bindi asked.

“I was a zebra in Our Town.”

Bindi looked at her askance. “Is this another American thing?”

“No, it was another Mr. Zoeller thing. He crossed The Lion King with Our Town and called it art.”

“Whacka if you ask me. I hope your stripes were flattering.”

Drew pulled away toward the parking lot. Bindi fell into step beside Margarita as they marched toward the broad steps of the old building, flanked by its old-fashioned street lamps.

“Did you bring your puzzle notebook, Bellisblossom?” Bindi asked, using Margarita’s geocaching name.

Margarita gave Bindi a sly look. “Yes, Chuckayewy. But I’m still not going to let you see my logic puzzle until it’s done. You know how this works. I finish the puzzle, then you test it.”

Bindi barked a laugh. “You haven’t started it yet.”

“I have too! I’ve got my matrix all ready. I … just need a little inspiration for the categories.”

“This weekend should be plenty inspiring. But don’t hesitate to ask if you need some ideas.”

“Ask you, or ask Redbeard’s Good Twin?” Margarita asked. Drew liked the idea of growing a red beard more than he liked the reality of doing so, so he’d picked a cacher name that let people know he could be piratey if he wanted.

“Your man’s still a bit uptight. Best come to me, love.”

“Ha.”

Bindi hefted her rustling outfit and ran a hand through her short, tousled hair. “At least your costume doesn’t have five yards of unnecessary tulle on it. Don’t know what I was thinking, trying to make a simple Greek girl into a prom queen.”

Margarita laughed. “It’s beautiful, and it’ll probably fit better than any of the rented costumes the rest of us are bringing.”

“Just bloody lucky I can sew. I can’t imagine suffering through the evening with my nose full of two dozen other people’s sweat and spilt wine.” Bindi looked askance at Margarita’s bundle. “No offense. I’m sure the costume blokes dry clean their wares every year whether they need it or not.”

Margarita lifted a smug chin. “Mine smells like lavender.”

Bindi merely snorted.

They reached the bottom of the stairs, and Margarita got her first look at the guests on the porch. A dark-haired man and a blonde, stylish woman stood in the far right corner. They didn’t acknowledge Margarita’s and Bindi’s arrival, being too deep in quiet, fast conversation. The strawberry blonde who had waved earlier looked down with a friendly smile from the edge of the porch. Beside her stood a slender man with dark auburn hair and an older gentleman with gleaming teeth and a too-perfect tan.

“Hi there,” the girl said, reaching out a hand in greeting once Margarita and Bindi came level with her. “I’m Heather. My boyfriend – can I call you that?” she asked. Her tall companion nodded. She giggled and  finished, “My boyfriend Jason. And this is Rich Sweet.”

“Oh, Rich Sweet. I like the sound of that. A ready-made sugar daddy,” Bindi purred, shifting her belongings to one arm in order to shake hands. “Do you come with a free chocolate sample?”

“Bindi,” Margarita began in exasperation. The Aussie had just broken things off – whatever those things were – with her significant other of all of three weeks. Perhaps she thought someone named Sweet would smell better than the former acting chief of police?

“Oh, an Aussie girl,” Rich said, taking Bindi’s hand. “A real pleasure.”

Heather flashed an eager smile. “Are you excited for this weekend? Jason just got me into geocaching, so I’m absolutely thrilled to get to hang out with a group of experienced cachers. I’m going to pick up so many useful things.”

Margarita nodded and turned to Jason. “How long have you been caching?”

“Only a couple of years, but I get out and do it whenever I can. I drive a tow truck down in Eugene, so learning the streets is part of my job.”

“Sounds like you’ve found the perfect hobby.”

He smiled. “I think so. How about you? You’ve got that veteran air about you.”

Margarita raised her dark eyebrows. “I do? Let me think. It’s been just over five years now. Does that make me a veteran?”

“In this company it does,” Bindi said. “I started caching in Australia just over a year ago. How about you, Rich Sweet? Are you greener than I am at this?”

The older man’s brilliant smile faded, and he cleared his throat. “About the same, I suppose. I mean, I’ve been out and about a bit, but in some regards, I really do feel like a pure novice at this.” His smile brightened again. “But I love this sport so much that I just had to come this weekend. Really looking forward to some quality looking.”

Quality looking? Margarita wasn’t familiar with that particular geocaching phrase.

In the brief moment of silence that followed Rich’s awkward statement, Margarita caught an out-of-context snip from the other couple’s conversation as it rose loud enough to hear.

“If you really respected him, you’d call him Derick,” the man accused.

“Let’s not forget where – and when – he got his nickname, shall we? I need to get out of this humidity,” the woman added, perhaps realizing she’d been overheard. “It’s murder on my hair.”

As the woman’s heels clicked across the hardwood porch and through the front door into the stone-tiled lobby, Drew reached the bottom of the steps, his arms full of bags.

“Let me give you a hand with those,” Jason offered, taking a long-legged step around Margarita and pounding down half of the stairs to take two of the suitcases from Drew’s arms.

“Thanks,” Drew puffed, shaking out the twisted sleeve of his plaid overshirt.

Margarita felt instant guilt for not offering to carry more. Drew had been ill when she first met him last Halloween, and though he had recovered, he’d had two more mysterious bouts, the details of which he refused to share with her. She knew he was trying to appear self-reliant in her eyes, as if his strange periods of sickness didn’t exist, but one side effect of brushing off his condition was that Margarita only worried about his health whenever he showed weakness or tiredness and somehow forgot about it in the face of his ebullient recovery periods.

Margarita followed Bindi into the rotunda lobby. Two brass-and-red-velvet staircases of pale wood curved up the sides of the room and arced into a railed balcony twenty feet above the lobby. The sides of the balcony were shadowed with hallways that led into the left and right wings of the building. No doors or landings marred the staircases’ perfect curves; it seemed that the three-storey appearance of the building’s facade was exactly that.

Overhead, a circular stained-glass window filled the very apex of the dome, drenching the upper walls with deep reds and purples in the last of the daylight. Four small chandeliers supported by brass chains hung from the edges of the dome and lit the lobby with a warm golden light that bounced and gleamed from the brass trim on the banisters and door handles. Across the way, a pair of French doors opened into a central hallway where Margarita could see various doorways trimmed in deep gold. An older couple swanned past the French doors, and Margarita heard faint murmurs in the distance.

“Good evening,” a woman said in a pleasant low voice.

Margarita lowered her gaze from the balcony to a front desk set into the curve formed at the base of the left-hand staircase. In her awe, she’d completely overlooked it.

“Welcome to Bonney House. I’m Annalee Bonney. May I have your names, please?”

Margarita stepped forward and gave her information. Annalee’s short pearly nails clicked over the keys of a thin laptop on the low counter in front of her. Out of the corner of her eye, Margarita saw that everyone who had been on the porch had also come inside.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Margarita turned to see the blond woman’s male companion looking at Drew with a puzzled expression. Filled with curiosity, she waited to hear how Drew could possibly know a rich stranger in a tailored suit.

Drew’s expression displayed a fleeting moment of apprehension, but before he could reply, Annalee handed Margarita three keys and said, “You ladies are in Room 205, and Mr. Lexington’s room is 207. Take these stairs behind me, hang a left, and your rooms will be the fourth and fifth doors on the left.”

Margarita thanked the woman and handed Bindi her key, disappointed that she’d been unable to hear any reply Drew had made to the rich guest. She’d have to ask him about it later.

“Real metal keys,” Bindi commented. “Too bad they’re not skeleton keys.”

“Morbid much?” Margarita asked as they headed up the stairs with Drew and Jason in tow.

“Not a bit. Skeleton keys let you open more than one door. In an old place like this, you don’t want to explore in the dark with a single candle?”

“You and your horror movies,” Drew said.

But Margarita grinned. An old building had to have a few secret nooks and crannies. Despite the beautiful furnishings, she could smell the aged wood and the tang of old metal that gave the late-1800s structure its centenarian appeal. And that was just in the lobby. Imagine what fun secrets I could find in the back rooms and the cellar!

At their doors, side by side in the hallway, Margarita and the others thanked Jason for his help in hefting their bags. She gave Drew his key as Bindi opened the door to 205 and booted her wheeled suitcase in with the toe of her ever-present Uggs.

“See you in a couple minutes?” Margarita asked Drew.

He nodded and bestowed one of his charming half-smiles.

Hand on her suitcase handle, Margarita recalled her co-workers’ suggestive oohs when she told them she was taking a weekend trip to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Liz Tolliver, the empathetic front-desk lady at Silver Creek General Hospital, had given Margarita a wink and a nudge, as if they were characters in an old comedy routine. Eva and Julie had demanded details when Margarita got back on Monday morning. Greg, the lone man in the small hospital’s patient business office, had merely grinned and wished her a pleasant weekend. Margarita’s boss, Bev, had done so as well, adding that if Margarita decided to elope on the spur of the moment, she wouldn’t blame her – Bev had met Drew at the New Year’s party – but that she still needed to show up for work at eight o’clock on Monday morning.

None of them had known Margarita was taking her roommate, or that she’d be spending her nights chastely in the single bed next to Bindi’s. None of them knew that the sleeping arrangements had been Drew’s idea. And none of them knew how confused and hurt Margarita had been by Drew’s decision. Even Bindi had been uncharacteristically circumspect, keeping her own counsel aside from an initial boggle-eyed expression.

Margarita sidestepped into her room, sliding her suitcase across a thick cream entry rug covered in sage green paisleys. The rest of the narrow room’s floor was composed of thin strips of hardwood, dark with over a century’s worth of aging. A pair of single beds, each with a fluffy pillow and a thick floral comforter, rested their headboards against the right-hand wall, with a small lamp stand between them. A tiny round table and a squat chest of drawers sat against the opposite wall. Creamy lace curtains framed a view that may or may not have contained the distant Willamette River. It was hard to tell in the twilight.

Margarita dumped her toiletry bag and the zippered sack containing her costume onto the second of the beds, then tested the bounciness of her mattress.

“Cozy,” Bindi said, eyeing the small room. She picked up the old-fashioned double-bell alarm clock on the lamp table between the two beds and gave it a wind. On the wall above the tiny round table hung a pair of paintings depicting turn-of-the-century dockworkers unloading a barge and three women waving hankies at a small pleasure craft. “Think that’s Shady Bend?”

“Undoubtedly. A place like this relying on its own history as a draw for business? I’ll bet Annalee Bonney knows everyone in that picture by name.”

Bindi laughed. “I’m calling that strapping bloke atop the highest crate Rich.”

“You are not. Leave the poor man alone. You don’t even know him, Bindi, and the last thing you need is to rebound from one relationship into another based entirely on the appeal of the man’s last name.”

“Is this romantic advice from the one-man sheila, then?”

Margarita stilled, hurt.

Immediately contrite, Bindi said, “That was a dig too far. I’m sorry.”

Margarita took a slow breath. “Me too. I shouldn’t be commenting on your decisions. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

“No worries, love. I’m mostly scar tissue by now. No harm done. Just look around, though, and you’ll see I’m at the other end of that boat you’re in. You need to tell him.”

Since Christmas, Bindi had known Margarita’s last secret: Jake and the last thing he’d given to Margarita before his death 10 years ago. “I will.”

“You’re bloody wearing it out there for everyone to see. Only a matter of time until he figures it out.”

“I said I’ll tell him.”

Tinny music, an old-fashioned flourish, briefly filled the hallway, followed by Annalee’s soothing voice. “Ladies and gentlemen, a brief announcement to inform you of the evening schedule. Our weekend will commence with the Valentine’s Day ‘Til Death Do Us Part costume ball in the Grand Ballroom in one hour.

“If you didn’t bring a costume with you and wish to borrow a mask for the evening, we have several extras you may pick up at the front desk before joining the festivities. We will enjoy socializing and hors d’oeuvres in the ballroom until dinner commences at eight. And keep your eyes peeled for a special themed performance brought to you by your fellow guests. Welcome again to Bonney House! Whether you’ve elected to stay the weekend or merely the evening, we hope you enjoy your time with us.”

Margarita and Bindi stared at one another for a long moment.

“I need a shower,” Bindi said abruptly. “Since there’s no plumbing in here, I guess I’ll be racing everyone else for one of the bathrooms we passed at the top of the stairs.”

As Bindi rifled through her bags, collecting shampoo and soap and tossing Uggs all over her side of the room, Margarita sat on the end of her narrow bed, feeling her stomach twist. She’d just promised Bindi that she’d tell Drew her secret. But she couldn’t for the life of her come up with a scenario in which to do so. How does one segue into “Oh, by the way, my entire adult life isn’t what you think it is”?

*Follow the Double Caching Out blog tour here but don’t forget to check back with It’s Not About The Numbers on March 13th for a guest post by Morgan C Talbot (GC handle: Frumious Jane) and Death Will Attend book giveaway, as well as on March 27th for our review.

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