Read the First Chapter
“Hi Nancy,” I said, tucking the phone between my ear and shoulder as I bent down to pull the freshly baked pumpkin pie out of the oven. The pecan pie I had baked earlier was cooling on the counter, and the kitchen smelled of sugar, cinnamon and pumpkin. Midnight, my black cat, was snoozing in his favorite chair, which was positioned right next to the window so the sun would slant across him. “You’ll be happy to know the pies are baked and cooling.”
“Hey Charlie,” Nancy said, her voice hesitant. “Glad to hear it. And, well, that’s what I was calling about,”
I paused, one hand on the handle of the open oven door. Although I had turned the oven off, the heat was still wafting up toward my face, and I could feel the sweat start to bead on my forehead. “Is there a problem?” I wondered if she was calling to cancel her annual Thanksgiving dinner, which would mean no turkey for me. On the flip side, I would have plenty of pie to eat.
Nancy owned the Redemption Inn, and every year she hosted a small Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel for a handful of us who had no family in the area, plus any hotel guests who also had nowhere to go for the holiday. I had been a regular for Thanksgiving since I first moved to Redemption, Wisconsin a few years back.
“I’m not sure,” Nancy said. “How many pies did you make?”
“Two,” I said. “One pecan and one pumpkin.”
I ran a hand through my brownish, blondish hair, damp with sweat from the heat of the kitchen, and took a step back from the oven. I was sure my cheeks were bright red. “Was I supposed to make more? I thought we agreed that two would be enough. There are eight of us, right?”
“Well, actually, I think there’s going to be eleven now,” Nancy said.
“Eleven?” I studied the pies. If there were going to be eleven of us, then we all couldn’t have a piece of pumpkin pie. Did I have enough pumpkin to make another pie? “How did we get to eleven?”
“Well, there’s you and me,” Nancy said, “and Pat and Richard.” Pat was my best friend, and Richard was her husband. Normally they would be celebrating Thanksgiving with their daughter, but she was spending Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family, so Nancy had invited them to join us. “And Tilde. You know Tilde, right?”
“Of course I know Tilde,” I said, trying to keep the sigh out of my voice. Tilde was a retired nurse who had now decided to start a second career as a private investigator, and she had chosen me as her mentor. I, unfortunately, didn’t have much to say about it. Hopefully, I wasn’t going to be spending the entire Thanksgiving meal answering questions about the sleuthing business, especially since I didn’t even consider myself a sleuth. I was a tea maker—I grew herbs and flowers in my backyard and turned them into custom teas that I sold out of my house. The sleuthing part was a side benefit for any tea client who found themselves in a bit of a pickle with the law, which was a lot more of them than you might imagine.
I never expected to be a sleuth, much less have a knack for it. Most of the time I had no idea what I was doing, which made Tilde’s questions… uncomfortable.
Hopefully, she would decide Thanksgiving was an excellent time to take a break from her “mentoring.”
This would be Tilde’s first Thanksgiving, at least since I had been attending. Tilde was active in the Redemption community and had many friends, plus she had a sister who lived elsewhere, Riverview I think, who she would sometimes see over the holidays. They were more or less estranged, but Tilde still made an effort, as she was close to her niece. I wasn’t sure why all her normal plans fell through this year, but regardless, Nancy had invited her.
“Oh, that’s right,” Nancy said. “I remember Tilde mentioning something about you being her mentor in her new side gig.”
I closed my eyes. This was going to be fun. “So, that’s five, and you had two guests joining us as well, right? Or are there more?”
“No, it’s still only two. Both single men with no families back home, so it made no sense for them to leave for Thanksgiving.”
“Okay, we’re up to seven, if my math is right. And Ginny is going to be there again, right? So that makes eight.” Like me, Ginny had been a fixture at Nancy’s Thanksgiving get-togethers. Also, like me, the reason why she was there was because she was more or less estranged from her family, although she would never say it like that. She had three adult children who all seemed to be way too busy with their own lives to make time for her at Thanksgiving.
“Yes, Ginny is going to be there.” The hesitation was back in Nancy’s voice. “Along with her three kids.”
I paused, not sure I heard correctly. “Ginny is coming with all three kids? Why would she do that? If they’re all here, why doesn’t she have Thanksgiving at her house?”
Nancy let out a long, deep sigh. “It’s complicated. So Elias? He’s the eldest and normally has a quiet Thanksgiving at home with his wife and kids. Except he got divorced this year. It was very messy and painful, but I guess the plan was he was still going to be there for Thanksgiving. For the kids’ sake. They’re trying to keep things normal or … something for them.” Her voice held a skeptical tone. “Anyway, he and his ex had a dreadful fight a couple of weeks ago and that was it for Thanksgiving, so he called Ginny to see what her plans were, and of course she told him to come home. Then she called me and asked if it would be okay if she brought him as well. She didn’t feel up to doing a huge Thanksgiving meal for just her and Elias, so I said absolutely.” She paused and her voice sounded almost embarrassed. “I didn’t call to tell you, because it was just one more person, so I figured two pies would be fine.”
“Two pies would have been fine,” I said.
“Okay, so we were up to nine. But then, a couple of days ago, Ginny calls back a second time and apparently her daughter Miriam was going to be joining them for Thanksgiving. Miriam travels a lot for her job. She’s some high-powered executive. Always flying to Europe and Asia. Anyway, she’s rarely home for the holidays. She’s rarely home at all. But I guess it was a last-minute cancellation, so she called and asked Ginny if it would be okay if she came home for Thanksgiving. Of course Ginny said yes, and then …”
“Ginny called you,” I said.
“I was going to call,” Nancy said, her voice now sounding a little pleading. “I figured even with ten people, two pies would be okay, but we’ve been so busy, just crazy busy, and Lee has been home sick with the flu, and it’s been a zoo. I completely lost track of time.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t expect you to run everything by me. And ten people and two pies isn’t a big deal.”
“Well, Ginny was very apologetic as well,” Nancy said. “She said it was still only the three of them, and she only had a couple of days to prepare, but if it was going to be too much hassle, she would have figured it out, but I told her ‘nonsense’, and that we’d be happy to have both of them.”
“And you were right to do it,” I said. “I would have said exactly the same thing.”
“Oh, that’s what I thought you would say,” Nancy said, her voice sounding more relieved. “I know ten is cutting it a little close. I mean, if it wasn’t Thanksgiving, two pies would be plenty, but you know everyone is going to want a second piece. Especially since your pies are so good.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” I said, opening the fridge to see if I had enough ingredients for more pies or if I was going to have to also make a quick run to the store, and fight all the other last minute shoppers who had forgotten some important item. “So, what’s the story of the third child?”
“That would be Caleb and … that’s kind of a strange one.” Her voice changed, sounded more pensive. “He’s the black sheep, you know.”
I shut the refrigerator door, my attention perking up. “Black sheep?”
“Oh, that’s right. I keep forgetting you haven’t lived here all that long. Caleb left Redemption the moment he turned eighteen and has never been back.”
Now I was definitely intrigued. “Never?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“I’m not sure about the details. There was some … unpleasantness while he was in high school. If I remember correctly, he was expelled over it.”
“Expelled?” My jaw dropped. “And you don’t remember why?” Redemption being a small town, with gossip being its main currency, I was having trouble believing that.
“They tried to keep it kind of hush hush, out of respect for Ginny. She was always such a pillar of the community. Plus, Elias and Miriam were always such good kids, no one wanted whatever Caleb got mixed up in to rub off on them. I do remember he was bad news, always getting into trouble. It may have all just gotten too much, and they expelled Caleb. But I think there was something more, something no one wanted to talk about much. Or, at least, no one who might know something. And once he left, that was kind of the end of it.”
“That makes it sound like there was some major issue,” I said. “Otherwise, why wouldn’t he have come back?”
“I don’t know the whole story, but it seems like Caleb didn’t get along with his siblings,” Nancy said. “At least, that’s how Ginny explains it every time it comes up. Although she doesn’t like to talk about it much. I get the feeling she really misses Caleb.”
As a fellow black sheep, I could commiserate with Caleb’s situation. I, too, rarely went home as it typically ends up being an unpleasant experience for everyone, but I was still in touch with my family. I regularly spoke to my sister Annabelle, even if some of the calls were … chilly. To have no contact at all for years seemed to indicate this was more than just lots of ‘getting in trouble’ incidents.
And if that was the case, why would he come back now?
“I don’t know,” Nancy said when I asked her. “Ginny didn’t say. She sounded flustered when I called. I got the impression Caleb just sort of … showed up.”
“He didn’t call or write?”
“Like I said, she didn’t get into specifics, but it sure sounded like he rang the doorbell this morning and when she answered, there he was.”
“This morning?” No wonder why Ginny seemed flustered, and why Nancy sounded so apologetic.
“I know, I know. So, of course, now it’s really too late for Ginny to try and cobble together a Thanksgiving meal, which leads me back to the pies …”
“I can make another pie,” I said quickly, even though I wasn’t looking forward to the mad dash to the grocery store. “It’s no problem.”
“Oh, thank you.” Nancy’s voice came out in a rush, as if she was holding her breath this entire time. “I know this is a lot to ask …”
“Truly, it’s not a problem. I’m happy to help.”
“Great. So do you think three pies will be enough, or do you think we need four?”
It was pretty obvious what answer Nancy wanted to hear. “I can make two more pies.”
“Oh, perfect. So, the dessert is taken care of. Now I just have to make sure Tilde is bringing enough stuffing and Pat is bringing enough green bean casserole. And then I have to get back into the kitchen and start the rolls and the mashed potatoes, at least the turkey is in the oven.”
“I can talk to Pat,” I said, taking the hint.
“Oh, would you? That would save me a lot of time. I’ll just give Tilde a quick jingle, but she’s probably made enough for an army as it is.”
“No problem at all,” I said. “I’ll give her a call right now.” That way, if Pat needed something from the store, I could add that to my shopping list. No sense both of us wasting time running to the store.