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The only warning Frankie Moorehouse had that twenty gallons of water were going to fall on her and her desk was a single drop. One drop.
It hit the financial statement she was reviewing, right in the middle of the page that suggested the White Caps Bed & Breakfast was dangerously close to going under.
She groaned, figuring the roof must be leaking again. The sprawling mansion had all kinds of nooks and crannies, which made for an elegant and interesting floor plan. Unfortunately, the roof covering all of these architectural treasures was a complicated warren of angles that trapped old leaves and moisture, creating little pockets of rot.
Squinting her eyes, she glanced out the window, searching the dimming light for a rainstorm that wasn't there.
She looked up with a frown, saw a darkened spot on the ceiling, and had just enough time to get out the words "What the hell" before the torrent hit her.
The water carried with it chunks of horse-hair plaster from the ceiling and an evil tide of filth that had collected in the rafters. It hit her in a stinky mess, splashing all over the desk and the floor in a great whoosh of noise. When the torrent ceased, she took her glasses off and lifted her arms, watching brown rivulets drip off her skin.
It smelled, she thought, like bat guano.
The sound of pounding footsteps heading her way was neither reassuring nor welcome. She shot up from the desk and shut the door to the office.
"Hey, Frankie, what happened?" George's booming voice sounded characteristically confused. He'd worked for her for about six weeks and sometimes the only difference she could find between him and an inanimate object was that occasionally he blinked.
In the kitchen that serviced the White Caps dining room, George was supposed to be the fry-guy, the sous-chef, thepdtissier and the busboy. What he did do was take up space. At six feet seven inches, and tilting the scale at well over three hundred pounds, he was a big oaf of a man. And she'd have fired him on day two except he had a good heart, he needed a job and a place to stay, and he was nice to Frankie's grandmother.
"Frankie, you okay?"
"I'm fine, George." Which was her standard reply to the question she despised. "You better go make sure the bread's cut for the baskets, okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Okay, Frankie."
She closed her eyes. The sound of dripping, dirty water reminded her that not only did she have to pull off yet another magic trick to balance the account for the month, she had to clean up her office.
At least she had the Shop-Vac to use for the latter.
Much to her dismay, White Caps had financial problems she couldn't seem to solve no matter how hard she worked. Housed in the old Moorehouse mansion, on the shores of Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains, the ten-bedroom B & B had been struggling for the past five years. People weren't traveling as much as they used to, so overnight guests were fewer and fewer and there wasn't enough local traffic in the dining room to cover the costs of the operation.
It wasn't just a general reduction in tourist trade that was the problem. The house itself was part of the reason the reservations were drying up. Once a gracious summer home from the Federal Period, it needed a major overhaul. Band-Aid fixes such as a fresh coat of paint or some pretty window boxes could no longer hide the fact that dry rot was eating up the porches, the eaves were rotting and the floors were beginning to bow.
And every year it was something else. Another part of the roof to fix. A boiler to be replaced.
She glared at the exposed pipes over her desk.
Plumbing that needed to be rehauled.
Frankie wadded up the spreadsheet and threw it in the trash, thinking she'd prefer to have been born into a family that had never had anything rather than one that had gradually lost everything.
And as she picked some of the plaster out of her hair, she decided the house wasn't the only thing getting older and less attractive.
At the age of thirty-one, she felt more like fifty-one. She'd been working seven days a week for a decade and couldn't remember when she'd last had her hair done or bought a new piece of clothing, other than work uniforms. Her fingernails were chewed to the quick, her hands shook all the time and her diet consisted of coffee, breadbasket leftovers and more coffee.
Her sister's voice was subdued as it came through the door and Frankie had to struggle not to scream back, Don't ask me if I'm okay!
"Are you okay?"
She squeezed her eyelids closed. "I'm fine, Joy."
There was a long silence. She imagined her sister leaning into the door, one pale hand against the wood, a worried expression on her perfectly beautiful, Pre-Raphaelite face.
"Joy, where's Grand-Em?" Frankie knew that asking about their grandmother, Emma, would channel the concern somewhere else.
"She's reading the telephone book."
Good. That was known to quiet the dementia at least for a little while.
In the pause that followed, Frankie stood up and started to grab hunks of plaster off the floor and the desk.
The reply was so quiet, she stopped cleaning up and strained to hear Joy's voice through the wood panels. "Speak up, for God's sakes, I can't hear you."
"Ah, Chuck called."
Frankie pitched some plaster into the trash can, nearly knocking the thing over from the force.
"Don't tell me he's going to be late again. This is Friday of the Fourth of July weekend." Which meant with the way things had gone last season, they would probably have a couple of people come for dinner from town. With two sets of guests in the house, there could be nine or ten expecting food. The number was nothing like it used to be, but those people needed to be fed.
Joy's voice became muffled again so Frankie threw open the door. "What?"
Her sister took a quick step back, cornflower-blue eyes stretching wide as Frankie brushed a wet length of brown hair out of her face.
"Don't say one word, Joy, unless it's about the message from Chuck. Not one word."
Her sister started talking fast and Frankie got the gist. Chuck and his girlfriend Melissa. Getting married. Moving to Las Vegas. Not coming in, tonight or ever.
Frankie sagged against the doorjamb, feeling her wet clothes and her apprehension cling to her like a second skin. When Joy reached out, Frankie shrugged off the concern and snapped to attention.
"Okay, first, I'm going to go take a shower and then here's what we're going do."
Lucille's life ended not with a whimper but a bang on a back road somewhere in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
Going seventy miles an hour, the 1987 SAAB 9000 blew a gasket and that was game over. With a burst of noise as loud as a gunshot, she relinquished her usefulness with protest and wheezed to a stop.
Nate Walker, her first and only owner, let out a curse. When he tried the key, he wasn't surprised when the response came from the starter, not the engine.
"Aww, Lucy, honey. Don't be like this." He caressed the steering wheel but knew damn well that begging wasn't going to fix whatever had made that kind of noise.
It was probably hydraulic lift time.
Opening the door, he got out and stretched. He'd been driving for four hours straight, heading from
New York City to Montreal, but this was hardly the kind of break he had in mind. Eyeing the road, which was just a little asphalt and some yellow paint away from being a footpath, he figured his first move had to be getting Lucille out of the way of traffic.
Not that he had to rush. He'd seen one other car in the last twenty minutes. Looking around, there was only thick forest, more of the thin road and the gathering darkness. Silence pressed in on him.
Putting Lucille in Neutral, he braced his shoulder against the doorjamb and pushed, steering through the window with his right hand. When she was safely on the rough, scratchy grass at the side of the road, he popped the hood, got out his flashlight and gave her a look-see. As Lucille had aged, he'd gained a proficiency in auto repair, but a quick inspection told him he might be out of his league. There was smoke coming out of her and a hissing noise that suggested she was leaking something.
He shut the hood and leaned back against it, looking up at the sky.
Night was coming on fast, and being far to the north it was cool even in July. He didn't know how much walking it was going to take to reach the next town so he figured he better be prepared for a hike. Going around to the front seat, he threw on his battered leather jacket and collected some provisions. Stuffing the bottle of water he'd been nursing and the remnants of the turkey grinder he'd had for lunch into his backpack, he reckoned he had enough to last him.
Before locking up the car, he grabbed his knife roll. The heavy leather bundle, which was tied tightly with a strap, felt good in his hand. Inside were six pristine chef's knives made of carbon and stainless steel, and taking them with him was second nature. A chef's knives were never to be left unattended, even locked in a car on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.
The rest of his crap he couldn't care less about, not that there was a lot of it. He had some clothes, all of them old, most of them repaired in one manner or another. Had two pairs of boots, also old and repaired. And he had Lucille. Who was old and repaired but now not so usable.
His knives, however, were not only new, they were state of the art. And they were worth more than Lucille.
Which probably wasn't saying much anymore.
Kissing his palm, he laid it on Lucille's still warm hood and started out.
His boots made a heavy noise as they hit the asphalt and he settled the backpack comfortably on one shoulder. While walking along, he looked up at the sky. The stars were incredibly bright, particularly one dead center above him. The thing was flickering like a broken light and he started to think of it as a companion.
Mailboxes soon sprouted at the side of the road. Mailboxes and imposing stone gates. He figured he was getting close to one of the old-fashioned resort areas where the Victorian wealthy had once escaped the heat of New York and Philadelphia in the days before air-conditioning. The rich still came to the Adirondacks, of course, but now it was strictly for the area's rugged beauty rather than from a lack of Freon in their life.
He titled his head back to the sky.
Man, that star was alive. Maybe it wasn't even a star. Maybe it was a satellite, although then it would be moving
Nate felt his boot tip and the next thing he knew he was ass over elbow, falling into a ditch. On his way to the ground, he made himself go limp as he prepared for a rough landing. Fortunately, the earth was soft, but a shooting pain in his lower leg told him he wasn't going to walk away from the fall without a limp.
He lay on his side for a minute. He couldn't see his star anymore from the new vantage point, although he had a good shot at the ravine he'd almost rolled into. He sat up, brushed some leaves off his jacket and felt okay. When he got to his feet and tried to put weight on his left leg, however, his ankle let out a howl of protest.
Great. Out in the middle of nowhere. Car dead at the side of the road. And a mission-critical body part that was not passive aggressive in its opinions.
Nate grit his teeth and started walking. He knew he wasn't going to make it farther than a quarter mile on the ankle. And that was if he had crutches.
The next mailbox, the next driveway, the next car was going to be it for him. He needed a phone and maybe a place to spend the night. By morning, he figured his ankle would feel better and he'd be able to get Lucille going somehow.
Hobbling along, pain shooting up his calf and down into his foot, Nate thought this was not exactly where he'd planned for his drive to take him.
Frankie caught the burning smell first and raced for the oven. She'd been so distracted trying to clean pears for poaching that she'd forgotten all about the chicken she'd put in to cook.
When she opened the oven door, smoke poured out and she grabbed two folded side towels for the evacuation. Holding the roasting pan away from her body, as if the thing was radioactive, she threw it down on the counter.
The sound of a pot on the stove boiling over drowned out most of her curses.
"That don't look right," George said.
Frankie let her head fall forward, trying to keep from cursing again. The temptation was nearly irresistible, especially when he followed up with, "Maybe you should try that one more time."
Joy rushed into the kitchen from the dining room in mid-sentence. "The Littles, that couple whose bureau wouldn't open when they went to unpack, they want their dinner now. They've been waiting for forty-five minutes andoh."
Frankie took a deep breath. Even if the Littles hadn't been rude as hell about the bureau, the lumpy pillows on the bed, the cleanliness of the windows and the fact there were wire hangers in the closet, she didn't see how she could serve them the desecrated carcass.
But now what? If White Caps was closer to civilization, she would have called for take-out from some other restaurant in the first place rather than take a chance on her cooking skills. Deep in the Adirondacks, though, the closest food emporium with anything ready to eat was the Bait Shoppe.
Although feeding the Littles night crawlers disguised as gourmet cuisine had some appeal.
"What are we going to do?" Joy asked.
Frankie reached over to turn off the oven and saw that she'd put the thing on broil, not bake. Of all the stupid mistakes
She could feel Joy and George staring at her and to avoid their eyes, she looked down at the chicken. Her mind went blank. She was aware of a humming in her ears and that was about it. Except for her feet. She could feel them pounding inside the ancient running shoes she had on, as if someone had a vise to her toes.