Ice Cold Murder
“Are you out of your mind?” Pat’s hand paused mid-air, chocolate chip cookie halfway to her mouth as she stared at me, eyes wide.
Forsaking her cookie like that, I knew she was serious.
“She asked,” I said matter-of-factly. “I’m being a good friend.”
“You’re being insane,” Pat muttered as her hand finally completed its journey. “Do you have any idea what you’ve agreed to?”
“Why yes,” I said. “I agreed to accompany Claire to her grandmother’s reading of the will.”
“In a haunted house,” Pat added.
I gave her a look. “Well, first off, as you know, I live in a haunted house. Why on Earth would spending the weekend at someone else’s bother me?”
“And that leads me to the second issue,” Pat said, waving the hand holding the cookie. Crumbs scattered everywhere, making me momentarily wish I had a dog instead of a cat. A dog would be on it already, cleaning up the mess. Midnight, my black cat, could care less. “Why would a reading of a will take an entire weekend?”
“Well, I grant you, that IS weird,” I admitted.
“Did Claire have any explanation for it?”
Pat raised her eyebrows, clearly waiting for more.
I sighed. “I guess there are some … issues, in the family.”
Pat yelped. “Issues? You’re willingly going to spend an entire weekend in a haunted house with a family working through their issues?”
“But she mentioned the issues,” Pat said. “And that didn’t stop you from agreeing to this insanity?”
“It’s hardly like that makes her family some sort of weird anomaly,” I said, thinking of my own strained relationship with my sisters. “All families have issues. Which is part of why I decided to go. It’s not my family, so I won’t be triggered. It might be a little uncomfortable, but so what? I’m sure I’ll survive. And Claire is worth it. If she needs a neutral, supportive person to help her through this, I’m happy to be that for her.”
Pat gave me a look but kept her mouth shut. I was sure the same thoughts were running through her head that had gone through mine.
Ever since she had gotten pregnant with Daphne two-and- a-half years ago, Claire hadn’t looked well. While I knew some of it was the result of grief—a couple of her good childhood friends had disappeared without a trace around the time she got pregnant—I had a feeling there was more to the story.
Something else was wrong with Claire. I wasn’t entirely sure what, but my hope was that by accompanying her to this rather strange family obligation, she might trust me enough to share the truth of what was really going on with her.
“I don’t know, Charlie,” Pat said. “There’s something about this that doesn’t feel right.”
Claire was the first person I met when I first arrived in Redemption, Wisconsin, completely by accident. The truth of the matter is that I was on the run from an abusive fiancé and only stopped in Redemption because I was lost. I never meant to stay, but as I’ve since learned, Redemption has its own ideas about who stays and who goes. Before I knew what was happening, I had bought a house (and not just any house, but what the locals considered the “most” haunted house in an already haunted town) and had opened a tea business out of it.
Pat was one of my first customers, and she also became one of my best friends … despite being well over a decade older than me. She was my “partner in crime,” so to speak, as I found myself inadvertently roped into helping solve crimes related to my tea customers. Like everything else in Redemption, this was not anything I’d planned. I would have been quite happy to spend my days quietly puttering around in my garden and creating blends and tinctures. I very much disliked calling attention to myself, which unfortunately, solving crimes had a tendency to do.
But, alas, what I wanted had little to do with what I got.
At least this weekend trip, as uncomfortable as it might turn out, would provide me a reprieve from mystery-solving.
“I agree that it doesn’t feel right,” I said. “The fact that I’m going instead of Doug doesn’t exactly help.” Doug was Claire’s husband and the father of her daughter.
“Speaking of which, why isn’t Doug going?” Pat asked, selecting another cookie, even though I knew she’d end up complaining about the added calories ruining whatever current diet she was on. The best way to describe Pat was “round”— round face, round body, round black-rimmed glasses, and short, no-nonsense brown hair that was turning grey.
“Claire said because of Daphne. They don’t have anyone who can take her with such short notice for three full days, and they think she’s too young to come with them. Not to mention the house isn’t exactly baby-proofed.”
Pat rolled her eyes. “That’s an understatement.”
“It made sense when she explained it,” I said. “The house is old, and I guess it hasn’t been used a lot. Although Claire was rather vague about why.”
“I’ll tell you why,” Pat said. “Because it’s haunted. That’s why.”
I sighed. “All right. I’ll bite. Tell me more.”
“Well, I don’t remember all the details,” Pat said as I shook my head in exasperation. “Hey, it’s Redemption,” she said de- fensively. “I can’t keep track of all the weird things that happen here. That’d be a full-time job.”
“So, you don’t have all the details, but I assume you have some?”
Pat glared at me. “You’re so funny. Okay, this is what I know. About twenty or thirty years ago, or …” she squished up her face. “Maybe it’s longer. I can’t remember anymore. Anyway, Florence, that’s Claire’s grandmother, decided to have some work done on the house. Was she redoing the kitchen? Maybe it was the basement. Anyway, whichever it was, something hap- pened, and the contractor was killed.”
My eyes widened. “Killed?”
Pat nodded. “Yeah, it was some freak accident. He fell off a ladder or something. Well, when they were investigating, it came out that there had been all sorts of weird stuff happen- ing. Things kept getting moved around, even though everyone at the site swore they hadn’t touched anything. Tools stopped working, and batteries would die, even if they were fresh. His assistant flat out refused to go back after his boss was killed. Said it was too creepy, and he didn’t want anything to do with it.”
“Wow,” I said. “Was the work ever finished?”
Pat frowned. “I’m not sure. I do know it wasn’t easy. A lot of contractors refused the project, and the few who took it ended up walking off the job.”
“What did Florence say? She was living there when all this was happening, right?”
Pat shook her head. “No, it was always a second home. I’m not sure how Flo ended up with the house. If I recall, her hus- band’s family bought it, and somehow, she ended up with it. But she always lived in town. She loved spending long week- ends out there, though, even in the winter. She was big into cross-country skiing and ice skating. She just thought it was too remote to live there full time.”
“Did she still go out there even after everything happened?”
“For a while, yes,” Pat said. “Flo used to laugh about it. The ghosts, I mean. Said it was nothing compared to Helen’s … well, your house, now.”
“So she didn’t believe.”
Pat hesitated. “Nooo. Not then, anyway. Although I think it did cause a rift in the family, as Claire’s mom, Daisy, did believe in ghosts. I don’t remember all the details now. It wasn’t until Billy disappeared that everything changed.”
“Flo’s only son. Claire’s uncle. I think it was, well, it has to be twenty years or so by now, which is why I think the contract- ing work was done earlier. Anyway, he disappeared, and Flo was so devastated, she quit nearly everything. Stopped going to church, stopped seeing friends, quit going up to the ‘cottage,’ as she called it, even though it’s apparently huge. Bigger than most houses, anyway. So now do you see why this is all very peculiar? Her having the will reading in a house she probably hadn’t even been to in twenty years?”
Now that Pat had explained the whole story, I was starting to understand her reaction to my going with Claire. “Did you know Flo?”
Pat nodded, her eyes sad. “I knew her through church. She was one of my Sunday School teachers, and later on, we served on some of the same volunteer committees. It wasn’t like we were best friends or anything, but I liked her. Every time she was involved in something, it was always more fun.” Pat picked up a napkin to dab her eyes. “I’m sorry she’s gone, and I’m especially sorry that she never recovered from Billy’s disappearance.”
“What happened with Billy?”
Pat frowned. “It’s been so long now. I seem to recall there was some sort of family fight. Billy was upset with someone else … Daisy, maybe?”
I gave her a surprised look. “Claire’s mom?”
“Yeah, there was some conflict between Daisy and the rest of the family. Claire, too. I’m not sure about the details.” “What do you mean, ‘Claire, too’?”
Pat sighed. “Again, Flo was always vague on specifics. The only thing that was clear was both Daisy and Claire are, well, I guess ‘estranged’ from the rest of the family. Although that’s not quite the right word either, as I think they occasionally attend the big family get-togethers.”
“Claire doesn’t get along with the rest of her family?” This was news to me.
Pat gave me a look that clearly said, “Now do you get it?” “It started with Daisy. Flo never really talked about it, but it was obvious Daisy was the black sheep. Then, when Claire and Amelia came along, Claire took on the same black-sheep role as her mom.”
“Claire has a sister?” More news.
Pat sat back in her chair with an “I told you so” smile, shaking her head. “Still think it’s a good idea to go?”
“I think it’s a little late to back out now.”
When I first arrived in Redemption, lost and confused, I had decided to take a break and have a cup of coffee and bite to eat at Aunt May’s Diner. I hoped it would clear my head and help me figure out how to get back to the main highway. Claire was my waitress. One thing led to another, and eventually, she became one of my best friends.
Which is why I found her not telling me about her sister peculiar. While I had never assumed she had shared all her secrets with me, having a sibling seemed like a pretty big life detail to have never mentioned.
Pat shrugged. “Your funeral. Hopefully, not literally.”
I rolled my eyes. “Hopefully. Although I will say, this does shed a new light on the ‘family issues.’ A sister she doesn’t talk about and the fact she and her mother are the black sheep of the family … I wonder why she doesn’t just go with her mother, then, instead of asking me.”
Pat shifted in her seat as she reached for her tea. “I take it you also don’t know that Daisy has dementia.”
I pressed my hand against my lips. “Oh no.”
Pat nodded sadly. “Yes, the whole situation is tragic. She’s in a nursing home.”
Again, I wondered how well I knew my friend. “When did this happen?”
“Oh, it’s been years,” Pat said. “A decade at least. Maybe longer. Long before you arrived. It was early onset, very early. I remember when it happened. Flo was beside herself with grief. First Billy disappeared, and then Daisy’s health … Flo was starting to feel like the family was cursed. Anyway, Claire never did like talking about it, so I’m not that surprised she never told you.”
“Wow,” I said, trying to take in everything Pat had shared. All that tragedy in one family. A haunted house. And a will reading on top of it all. No wonder Pat thought I was crazy.
For a moment, I toyed with the idea of backing out, but even as the thought entered my mind, I dismissed it. Claire needed me. The tone of desperation when she asked me to go made that clear. I didn’t understand it at the time … thought maybe I’d mistaken grief for desperation. But now, I knew that wasn’t the case.
She needed me to be with her. Not Doug, her husband, but me.
And I couldn’t let her down.
“Still going?” Pat asked me, raising an eyebrow.
“I think it would be really crappy of me to back out now,” I said. “Plus, it’s only a weekend. I can survive a weekend.”
Pat let out a guffaw.
“You’ll still keep an eye on Midnight, right?”
Upon hearing his name, Midnight opened one green eye and looked at me. He was curled up on the seat of one of the kitchen chairs, which of course was pushed close to the win- dow, so he could bask in the sunlight.
Pat shifted her gaze over to the cat. “Of course. A poor, innocent animal shouldn’t have to suffer for his human’s mistakes.”
Midnight closed his eye and presumably went back to sleep.
“Clearly, he appreciates you feeling his pain,” I said.
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