The blog I will be visiting later in the month, Jungle Red Writers, is uploading excerpts from their first chapters of their latest works in progress. [JRW has seven female authors.] So I decided I would do the same with chapter one of Marry in Haste, the second Endurance Mystery, which will be out next year. The first book, Three May Keep a Secret, is available now.
Marry in Haste (the Second Endurance Mystery)
The heavy glass and metal doors of the Second National Bank of Endurance swung open silently, and Grace Kimball nudged her way in, checking each footstep. Her scarf hung lopsidedly, mostly to the left, and her purse strap dangled at an odd angle from her right arm. One hand was mittened, the other was bare, and her coat was covered in snow and slush, some of which dripped from her hem and onto the floor. As Grace tried to catch her balance, her boots slid unpredictably. She watched out for people brushing past her, maneuvered right along, and concentrated on her footing. Anyone familiar with her usually composed face would have been surprised to see it so flustered.
The receptionist rose from her chair and rushed over. “Oh, Ms. Kimball, what happened? Are you all right?” Frantically, she brushed snow off Grace’s coat, all the while clutching her arm as if both women might end up in a pile on the floor.
“Nothing a little cleaning won’t fix,” she said. She struggled to unbutton her coat with frozen fingers. “I hate to be late.” Grace shook her head in frustration. “I slipped on the ice as I got out of my car, and went down like an avalanche.” She sighed. “My dignity is all that’s hurt.” She shrugged off her coat and held it out and away from her clothes in disgust. Then she looked at the receptionist, and asked, “What’s going on? Why are so many people out and about?”
“I suppose they’re still taking back Christmas rejects and using gift cards,” the receptionist answered. “By January third you’d think that would be over, but the weather’s kept most people inside.”
“Whew. Well, I’m here, I guess. Finally.” She checked the hands of the grandfather clock near the front door, and her eyes scanned the bank. “Any idea where Jeff Maitlin might be?”
“He’s over in the loan department waiting for Mr. Folger. I’ll walk over with you. We have coffee and hot chocolate to warm you up.”
“That sounds wonderful.” Grace followed her, shaking off snow as she went. She remembered the receptionist. Sylvia Lansing. Years ago in high school she played a main role in the class play, “How to Succeed in Business.” Guess she’s made it this far. If she can work so long for a man like Conrad Folger, she’s quite a successful woman.
That was the thing about Endurance. Grace had taught high school English in the small Illinois town of 15,000 for twenty-five years. And even though she retired last year when she was fifty-six, she often ran into former students who still lived and worked in the area. She supposed it was good that those students-now-adults couldn’t read her thoughts because Grace remembered ridiculous, trivial details from their shared high school histories. It was her curse—the high school teacher curse—that those details stuck in her head as if they had a direct line to the “door of yesterday” part of her brain. At the same time, current details she needed to remember eluded her, often returning at two in the morning.
“Here’s Mr. Maitlin.” Sylvia pointed Grace to an attractive man sitting in a brown leather chair. Jeff Maitlin stood up, his six-foot frame unfolding at a slow pace, and he grasped Grace’s cold hands, a warm smile spreading across his face. His gray-threaded, brown hair fell back in a gentle wave behind his ears. She, of course, noticed his blue eyes immediately—cornflower blue. He had moved to Endurance the previous year to take up a part-time, semi-retirement job as editor of the Endurance Register, and only recently had he and Grace begun to date. He grinned like a snowman, and Grace gave him a quick hug. As always, she almost came up to his chin.
“I’m sure it won’t be long now,” Sylvia promised, and she smiled at their hug. Then she turned and left.
“How long have you been waiting?” Grace asked. She shook her brown hair back into place and finger-combed it after its snowy beating.
“Not long. You look like you’ve been through a blizzard. You have a cute—but red—nose. Can I get you some coffee? Hot chocolate?”
“Ah, hot chocolate would be grand.” She sat down in the chair next to Jeff’s and looked ruefully at her wet boots. “Why does it keep snowing?”
“Because it’s January in the Midwest. When I spent all those years in New York City, I was simply preparing to survive Midwest winters. Obviously, some universal plan is at work.” Jeff turned and wandered a few steps to a round table filled with coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and cookies, and he came back with a paper cup of hot chocolate. “Here you go. Say, I had several people in for a meeting this morning—town advisory members—and they raved about your latest history article. We should put more of those pieces in the newspaper.”
Grace sipped her hot chocolate. “I already have in mind an article about the Victorian house you’ve almost bought. I’m going over to the courthouse to trace its owners. After all, ‘Newspaper Editor Decides to Stay in Small Town’ is such big news. At the least it would fit on page three, wouldn’t you say?”
“More like back in the ‘Bits and Pieces’ section. Maybe you should wait until I sign the loan papers for sure. Who knows? The bank might pull out.”
“I’m glad you invited me along. Coming with you gives me a chance to grill Conrad Folger about the old Lockwood house you’re buying. I’m sure he knows a great deal about the history since his family goes back several generations in town.”
Jeff smiled and put his hand on hers. “I missed you while you were in the desert.”
“Good to be back from seeing my kids in Arizona, but it’s sure an enormous change from sixty-five degrees and sunshine to twenty-five degrees and snow. It’s as if people in Arizona live in a parallel universe, and when I was out there, the Midwest weather was often the lead story on the evening news. I began to wonder if my plane would be able to get me back here with so many flight cancellations.” She sipped her hot chocolate and glanced up at him. “Any big news while I was away?”
Jeff took a last drink of his coffee and said, “A new restaurant debuted downtown—The Depot—but you knew it was opening before you left. Your former students—I forget their names for the moment—started the place a week ago, but I think they’re waiting to have a grand opening. Oh, and the Christmas tree lighting was an unmitigated disaster, but quite humorous. It was Mayor Blandford’s big moment to shine, and he was primed and ready to deliver the spectacular tree lighting on the Public Square to kick off the Christmas season. After a few chosen words about the pioneers and the town, he pulled the switch, and several bulbs didn’t light at all, but a few other bulbs exploded with a glass-shattering bang, and the breaking bulbs spooked at least five dogs in the crowd. They got loose, made a frenzied leap at the tree, and knocked it over, pinning Emily Dunsworthy against the historic fountain the Mayor had so eloquently just described. But after we brushed Emily and the tree off and stood them back up, all was forgiven, and the crowd sang, ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ ” He shook his head and chuckled at the remembered sight of the elderly former postmistress pinned against the fountain.
Grace was laughing at the Christmas disaster when suddenly a voice exploded from behind the closed door of Conrad Folger IV’s office. A second angry voice rose in disagreement—a woman’s voice, Grace thought. Then it grew very quiet again, as if the arguers realized people might hear them. She looked at Jeff, barely able to conceal her concern, and he smiled and patted her hand. “That must be why he’s running late. I deduced from people’s reactions that an unplanned appointment is in my time slot. Must be a loud, disagreeable, unplanned appointment.” His eyes softened, his shoulders relaxed, and he changed the subject. “So, tell me about Phoenix. How are your kids? Still dropping huge hints that you should be out there full time?”
“Roger Junior wants me to move there and be a nanny to my granddaughter, Natalie. He calls her ‘Little Pumpkin’ because she loves eating plain pumpkin pie filling. Crazy kid. And said granddaughter, who is only four, has decided I am at least ten years old and can’t be trusted. Daughter Katherine wants me there because I think she misses me, and James hasn’t rendered his reasons. Now that I’ve retired from teaching, they think that I can pull up stakes and move. I must admit I’m torn.” She paused and collected her thoughts. “But I enjoy the newspaper, and I like to write and research, as long as it doesn’t get me into another life-or-death situation. Last summer’s murders are still fresh in my mind. After that happened, my kids decided I should stick with ‘safe’ topics, so I explained I’d be researching the historic old house you are about to buy and fix up. That should be safe enough.” She searched Jeff’s eyes for several seconds, and then she said, “Isn’t that what the guy says in the movie before he’s squashed by a giant, flame-breathing lizard? On the other hand, the town’s murder quota should be met for another hundred years after last summer. Maybe two hundred.” She looked down at her hot chocolate, cradled in her hands on her lap. Then she turned, relief in her voice, and said, “The decision about where to live has been temporarily tabled.”
Grace had just stuffed a dropped mitten into her coat pocket when, again, passionate voices rose behind the bank president’s door. Both Jeff and Grace listened intently. She caught a word or two like, “can’t” and “regret it,” and they were quickly followed by the sound of a heavy object falling hard on the floor. Then silence. Folger’s assistant, shocked, started to rise from her chair, thought about it, and sat down again. Grace turned to Jeff as they both heard the sound of glass crashing and breaking.
“Oh, dear,” said Andrea Dunning. This time she rose from behind her desk and took a few tentative steps toward the office door. As if the door sensed her anxiety, it opened, and a furious Conrad Folger motioned her over. He focused on her and ignored the other inquisitive faces, and Grace watched him whisper something. Andrea left and returned with a broom and dust pan. The door closed. A few minutes later the executive assistant came out, broom at her side and dust pan horizontally squared. Focusing on the dust pan, she marched past Grace and Jeff and disappeared through a door near the back of the reception area.
Jeff looked at Grace, his eyes puzzled. “Well. Maybe this isn’t such a good day to sign loan papers.” Then they were both silent for a moment. Jeff spoke first, asking, “So, teacher lady, what do you know about Conrad Folger IV, bank president?”
Grace thought for a moment. “I heard he had quite a temper in high school, but I doubt that he throws objects at his customers. You understand, I never had him or his brother Will as students, but I hear things. I try to be fair, but I’d have to say that he wasn’t terribly likable. He was smart enough, but not a genius. He was a bit arrogant—well, more than ‘a bit’—and usually got his way. And if he didn’t, his father made sure he did. Went to an Ivy League school,” she lowered her voice, “though he hardly had the grades to get in. My guess would be that his father arranged that also. And, of course, he had the bank waiting for him if he managed to graduate, which, somehow, he did. But you must understand that I heard much of this secondhand. Roger, my husband, had dealings with Folger’s father and certainly heard a great deal about his son’s temper. Folger married Emily Petersen. Never could figure out how that happened. But he must have some good qualities for Emily to marry him. Maybe he’s changed.”
“Why? What was so puzzling about his wife?”
“Emily? She was a clever girl who found her footing when she left for college. Don’t get me wrong. In high school she was quiet, but she had friends and graduated near the top of her class. I worked with her closely on class plays, and I got to know her well. She was wonderful—I thought of her as my other daughter. College was where she gained her self-confidence. Can’t think why she married someone like Conrad. Maybe it’s that ‘bad boy’ syndrome—you know, nice girl attracted to bad boy.”
Just as Jeff was about to reply, the door to Folger’s office tore open, slammed against the wall with a shattering crash, and a blond woman, swearing loudly, her face flushed, stormed out of the office. She adjusted her sunglasses, stalked toward the front door, and anyone in her wake quickly moved back, giving her considerable space.
“Who was that?” Jeff asked, and his eyes followed the woman out the door.
“Got me. I’ve never seen her before,” Grace replied.
“Probably someone we shouldn’t invite to our loan-signing open house?”
Grace paused and turned to Jeff. “Really? You’ve planned a party?”
“Well, the guest list only has one. Thought I’d stop there. No need to have the house too crowded.” His fingers grazed the collar of her blouse, and he gave her his most charming smile.
“I’ll have to check my calendar, Mr. Maitlin, and see if I’m too busy.”
“Thought you might. Hope you won’t be … too busy.”
She raised her eyebrows and gave him a bemused look.
Just then, Andrea Dunning returned, wiped her hands as if that situation were over, and stood before Jeff and Grace. Her usually assured voice was flustered. “Sorry for all the noise. I can promise you those events rarely happen here. Well, not always … I mean, never … but, actually, I guess ‘never’ doesn’t work after this morning.” Shaking her head in confusion, she picked up some files from her desk and delivered them to Folger’s office, knocking on his door. Grace heard a muffled reply.
Andrea disappeared inside and closed the door momentarily. Next, the door opened and Conrad Folger walked out, turned down a hallway, and disappeared. Then Andrea returned, her equilibrium restored, and said, “Mr. Folger will see you shortly. Follow me, and you can wait in his office.”
“Is it safe?” Jeff asked.
She turned and looked at him to gauge if he were joking. Seeing the smile on his face, she answered, “Oh, yes. He didn’t throw the vase. He seldom throws glassware at customers. Maybe only twice a month.” Then she smiled.
So, readers…what happens next?