“I can’t believe it.” Mia dropped her phone on the butcher block kitchen table with a clatter, a stunned look on her face. “Penny Schroeder is dead.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said. Admittedly, I was only half-listening as I stood behind the counter, measuring dried lavender for the custom tea blends I was making. It had been a productive, relaxing day—I’d caught up on all my orders and was even getting ahead.
The afternoon sun slanted through the side window, and Oscar, my black cat, soaked it up as he slept on a chair beneath it. The kitchen smelled like potpourri and coffee, as Mia had just made a fresh pot. Ever since she’d decided to return to school to become a lawyer while continuing to work part-time as a waitress at Aunt May’s Diner, her coffee consumption had gone way up. I was surprised she was able to sleep at all with all the caffeine coursing through her veins. Although now that I thought about it, she had been drinking a lot more wine in the evenings as well … probably to counteract the coffee. “Who is Penny Schroeder?”
Mia ran a hand through her straight, dark hair, which was cut in a chin-length bob. Half-Japanese from her father’s side, she was petite with a narrow face and high cheekbones. Like me, she was in her early thirties, but since returning to school, she appeared significantly older. “I always forget you haven’t lived here very long,” she answered.
“Nope. Barely a year,” I reminded her.
I had moved to Redemption, Wisconsin, from New York with my husband at the time and 16-year-old stepdaughter Chrissy. My Aunt Charlie had died, leaving me the big, rambling old farmhouse Chrissy and I currently resided in, along with Mia, who had moved in to save money while she went to school. She paid for the utilities in lieu of rent, and we split the grocery bill.
The house, along with being well over 100 years old, was also haunted. Not so much by Aunt Charlie, although I did suspect she was one of the ghosts, but by former occupants “Mad Martha” and Nellie. Back in the early 1900s, Martha’s husband built the house for his blushing bride, but sometime after the birth of their second child, Martha lost her mind and ended up killing her maid, Nellie, and then herself. No one was sure why Martha did it, but supposedly, Nellie and Martha’s husband were having an affair. Ever since, the townspeople were convinced that Mad Martha, and probably Nellie, were haunting my house.
My house wasn’t the only haunted place in Redemption, either. In fact, the entire town had the same reputation, ever since all the adults disappeared in the winter of 1888, leaving only the children behind. The children all swore they knew nothing about it—when they went to bed, the adults were there, but when they woke up, they were gone. To this day, it’s still a mystery.
I wasn’t sure how much I believed the children’s story. I had a sneaking suspicion the kids knew more than they’d let on. But alas, since none of them were still around to question, I suspected the truth was also dead and buried.
“Penny Schroeder is, I mean was, a fixture in Redemption,” Mia said. “Her family has lived here since the 1800s, and her great-great-grandparents—maybe it was her great-grandparents … I can’t remember how many greats—were two of the adults who disappeared.”
I paused, a sprig of lavender in my hand. “Seriously? I didn’t realize there were people here who could trace their lineage back that far. That’s actually really cool.”
Mia didn’t respond, as she seemed to have stopped paying any attention to me. Instead, she pressed her hands to her cheeks and slumped over in her chair. “Man, I can’t believe she’s gone.”
I put down the lavender and walked around the counter to sit next to her as she stared down at the table. “I’m so sorry. Were you two close?”
Mia didn’t respond, and I put a hand on her knee. I expected to see tears, but her eyes were dry. “I can leave if you need some time alone.”
She still didn’t say anything, but just as I was about to get up to give her some space, she released her breath in a heavy whoosh and shook her head. “No. Stay. It would help to talk. I’m just … I’m in shock, I think.”
“I can imagine,” I said, rubbing her knee gently. “Getting a text like that would definitely be shocking.”
She scrubbed at her face. “That’s part of it, sure. But mostly … I guess I just thought I’d have more time with her.”
“So her death wasn’t … expected?” I wasn’t sure how to phrase it delicately.
“Not exactly. It’s just …” she sighed again and dropped her hands in her lap. Her skin was bright red where her fingers had dug into her face. “The last time I saw her, we had a terrible fight.”
“Oh no,” I sympathized. “That’s really rough.”
“Yeah,” she said, her voice wooden. “It was really bad. I’ve known Penny nearly my entire life. She was like a second mother to me. But in the past couple of years, she … wasn’t herself.”
“That’s so sad. Was she sick?”
“Well, yes. But there’s more.” Mia blew the air out of her cheeks. “She was always busy … always doing something. She constantly volunteered while working full time as a teacher AND maintaining a massive garden in the summer. So, several years back, when her health started to decline, she had no choice but to stop doing so much. She put a good face on, but it was clear it upset her to not be as involved as she was used to. She started getting worse, and I suspect it became a vicious cycle—as she stopped being active, she became depressed, which made her health decline even further, causing her to stop doing even more stuff. Regardless, it was clear she wasn’t doing well physically, which would have been bad enough. But then she started to deteriorate mentally, and it was just …” She paused and shook her head again.
“That’s when you argued?”
“Yeah.” Her head was bowed, and her voice was so quiet, I had to lean forward to hear her. “It was awful. She was saying all these crazy things. Just … really nutty stuff. All sorts of conspiracy theories and other insanity. There was no talking sense into her or convincing her otherwise, and if you tried, she would accuse you of being a part of it.”
“Oh, Mia,” I said, feeling my heart break for her. “I’m so sorry. Was that why you had the fight?”
Mia dipped her head in acknowledgment. “In retrospect, I think she was having a particularly bad day when it happened. She was convinced someone was sneaking into her house at night and poisoning her food. She had reduced her meals to items that came out of a can. The only exception was coffee, which she carried around with her constantly. She even slept with it at night, so it couldn’t be contaminated. Since she wasn’t eating much, she was losing an incredible amount of weight. One day, I decided to bring her groceries—some canned food, yes, but I also brought things like meat and cheese and bread. She told me not to leave the perishables, as she wouldn’t be able to keep it all with her all the time. I tried to convince her that she was safe … that no one was trying to poison her. And she just blew up at me. Threw me out of the house and told me to never come back.” Mia paused to blink rapidly, and I noticed her eyes glistening. “So, I didn’t. That was the last time I saw her.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I tried to reassure her. “When someone is that paranoid, there’s not much you can do.”
“I get that. Logically, I know you’re right, but emotionally?” She pressed her hand to her chest, over her heart. “I feel like I should have done more. I should have gone back sooner or tried to get her help. Something. But …” she raised her shoulders helplessly. “I didn’t. I didn’t want to upset her any more than I already had. Plus, I had heard through the grapevine that people were keeping an eye on her and making sure she was eating and whatnot, so I thought it best to give her space. She had a doctor who was working to get her stabilized on the right meds, too. I honestly figured it was just a matter of time before she would be better, and I could go see her. But then it was one thing after another. I met you and decided to go back to school. I’ve been trying so hard to balance everything, and … I guess I ran out of time.”
She looked so miserable, I leaned forward to give her an awkward hug. “Do you want anything? More coffee? Tea, or wine? I think we might have ice cream, as well.”
“Maybe a glass of wine,” Mia said.
I immediately got up and fetched a bottle of white from the fridge along with two glasses. “Did Penny have any other family?”
“No. Her husband died years ago, and she never remarried.” Mia mashed her lips together in a flat line and stared off into space. I sensed there was more to the story, but she wasn’t ready to share. I turned all my attention to opening and pouring the wine. When I handed Mia her glass, she immediately gulped down half of it without looking at me. I left the bottle on the table and returned to the kitchen and my custom tea blends. I figured if she wanted to keep talking, she would, but I didn’t want her to feel pressured.
The house was quiet as I worked and Mia sipped wine. The only sounds that broke the silence were the ticking of the grandfather clock and Midnight’s quiet snores, so when we heard the front door opening and closing, it seemed louder than normal. Both of us jumped, and what was left of Mia’s wine sloshed in her glass.
“Becca? You here?” Daniel’s voice floated in from the living room.
“In the kitchen,” I called out.
A moment later, Daniel appeared in the doorway, still wearing his Redemption Police Department uniform. His blonde hair was messy, like he had been running his hands through it, which he did a lot whenever he was stressed or preoccupied. His dark-blue eyes looked exhausted. He leaned forward to give me a quick kiss, his eyebrows raising when he saw the wine. “You two are starting early.”
“There was a death,” I explained.
His eyes went wide. “Oh no. Who?”
“Penny Schroeder,” Mia said, taking another sip.
“What?” Daniel looked stricken. “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. She was one of my favorite teachers.”
“Mine too,” Mia replied. She was still staring off into space, her glass almost empty.
Daniel watched her for a moment, his expression torn. He obviously wanted to say something but didn’t quite know what. I came to his rescue, lightly touching his hand. “Would you like something to eat or drink?”
He turned to me, raking his hand through his hair. “Absolutely … but unfortunately, I can’t stay. I just stopped by to tell you I have to cancel our date tonight.”
“Oh, bummer,” I said, feeling deflated. We had plans to go to Mario’s, my favorite restaurant in town.
“I know,” he said. “I normally would have texted, but I was close by and was hoping to at least see you for a minute.”
“What’s going on?”
Daniel sighed. “Oh, it’s that case I’ve been telling you about.”
“The gangs?” I asked.
That got Mia’s attention. She swiveled around in her seat to face us. “Gangs? What gangs?”
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Daniel said. “It seems at least one, maybe two, have moved into Redemption, but we haven’t narrowed down which ones they are yet.”
“But it’s been years since we’ve had any gang activity,” Mia said.
Daniel nodded. “Exactly. Well over 20, actually, but it appears to be starting up again.”
“That’s scary,” Mia said. “Is it drugs?”
“Drugs and theft, mostly, along with a little graffiti and vandalism. Thankfully, there’s been nothing violent, but we know how fast that can change.”
“Do you have a lead? Is that why you have to work?” I asked.
Daniel’s expression darkened. “I wish. There’s been another break-in.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Another one?”
“Fifth this week alone.” Daniel shook his head.
“Wow,” Mia breathed.
“Yeah, ‘wow’ is right. Anyway, it’s all hands on deck, at least in the short-term, to try and get ahead of it.” His phone buzzed then, and he pulled it out of his pocket to look at it. “Oh, I gotta deal with this. Call you?”
“Of course,” I said as he leaned over to give me another kiss, this one a little longer than the first.
“I promise to make it up to you,” he said. The look in his eyes sent a shudder up my spine.
“You better,” I teased.
“Oh, please,” Mia said, her voice sounding more like herself. “Get a room.”
Daniel laughed as he headed out of the kitchen. “Bye, Mia.”
Mia waved at him as she drained the rest of her wine.
I went back to making my tea as Mia swiveled around to refill her glass. She eyed me as she poured. “Have you guys talked about which one of you is going to sell your house?”
“Why would either of us sell our house?” I asked.
“Well, unless you’re planning a pretty unorthodox marriage, one of you is going to have to,” Mia answered.
“Two marriages are more than enough for me,” I said lightly.
Mia gave me a look. “Uh huh.”
“It’s true,” I said. “Besides, I have Chrissy to think about. And you. Is that why you’re asking? Are you worried I’m going to kick you out?”
“Just don’t want any surprises,” Mia said, setting the bottle back down.
“Trust me, you have nothing to worry about,” I reassured her.