Donna stood beside the detective’s car staring at the personnel milling around The Painted Lady Inn. Initially, she thought the name provocative since it could have several meanings. The exterior would sport varying hues of lavender, pink, and blue similar to the homes she saw when she visited Savannah.
An errant cold breeze tugged at the ends of her hair, blowing a lock across her face. The dropping temperature and gathering clouds heralded a weather change. Perfect, exactly what she needed to make her day complete. The way her luck was running, it would be a blizzard. Curious neighbors drifted back indoors due to a combination of falling temperature and no immediate scenes of blood and mayhem. Only a few gawkers remained. The non-athletic ball throwing father herded his prodigy into the house. Pajama pants worked for a casual looksee but didn’t make the long haul. An overly made-up blonde attired in a tight sweater, jeans, and stiletto heel boots kept Daniel from making his way to Donna’s side.
Her brother didn’t seem to be trying too hard to get away. His natural charm insisted he speak to everyone who talked to him, which made it difficult to go anywhere with him. The majority of the people eager to exchange a word were women. His wife, when she accompanied her husband, could stop female traffic with a single icy look. Maria’s initial meeting happened because of an inane question she’d posed. Not surprising, she questioned other women’s motives when they did the same. It was tough to keep the women away when her brother seldom wore his wedding band due to his job in construction. More than a few men lost a finger and even a life when a ring caught while using power tools. Maria accepted his explanation but didn’t like it. Donna suspected the truth had more to do with he liked attention, always had.
Taber promised to retrieve her purse and coffee. So far, nothing indicated a result of his search. A couple of police officers jogged from the impromptu gab session huddled on her front lawn and headed for cruisers. The whine of the siren indicated the possibility of a crime somewhere else. Yep, the party was over. A lone person attired in a parka with a trailing crocheted black muffler shuffled along the sidewalk with the help of a cane. Someone could possibly be out for an early morning walk. People do that even when a murder doesn’t happen in the immediate vicinity. Whoever it was dressed more appropriately than the woman talking to Daniel. She kept dancing on one foot and then the other until her brother predictably offered his jacket. A sigh escaped her lips as she shook her head. Yeah, her brother meant well, but sometimes he just didn’t get it.
Like a good sister and even better sister-in-law, she’d have to intervene before the woman invited him in for coffee and a pastry on the side.
“Looks like Delilah has located another good looking sap.”
Her indignation over an insulting summation of her brother’s behavior, even though she’d mentally already done the same, heated her blood. She threw the newcomer a downward glance. The man marched right up to her, without bothering to pretend he wasn’t on an information-gathering mission. She had to admire such forthright behavior.
“That’s my brother you’re talking about.” Her declaration didn’t have the desired effect on the man. No excuses, apologies, or general bluster. Instead, it had no effect. He kept talking.
“Best save him now before she pulls him into the house and throws him out a few days later, just a shell of a man after she’s done with him.” His rusty laugh sounded more like a cough than amusement. Only his twinkling eyes announced he found some humor in his statement.
His words created an image of a pale Daniel with sunken eyes and beard stubble staggering out of one of the surrounding houses. His shirt would be misbuttoned and untucked. An angry Maria would be at the end of the walk casting daggers with her eyes not at Daniel, or the floozy that lured him into her home, but at Donna. As the oldest, the responsible one, her parents informed her early on that it was her job to look out for her younger brother.
“No worries, he’s married.” She hoped her words would reassure her as much as the man.
His eyebrows lifted high, disappearing behind a thick wedge of white hair peeking out beneath the rim of his fur-lined parka hood. “She’s lured more than one married man inside her house. I’m not even sure she’s above using a stun gun to immobilize them when her surface attractions don’t do the trick.”
Would the man ever shut his yap? His constant commentary annoyed her, especially when she wondered if there might be a grain of truth in any of it. The idea of her brother wandering wasn’t one she wanted to examine. It took forever for him to marry after having a buffet of potential mates thrust upon him. Her mother gave up on Donna early, but with Daniel, she had hopes for grandchildren.
She just wanted the man to leave her alone, but then an idea occurred. The man knew the neighborhood and its occupants and had time to spy on them. If he could detail the goings-on, he might be able to give her some history of the house and even better, the dead man.
She thrust out her right hand in the man’s direction. “Donna Tollhouse, your new neighbor.” He took her hand in his glove-clad one and gave it a surprisingly firm shake.
“Herman Fremont. I see you overcame your desire to throw me off your property. Was it my sparkling repartee that did it?” His eyes danced above his drooping mustache.
“Ah, thought it would be good to get to know my neighbors.”
His snort and crossed arms demonstrated his disbelief. “Okay, Donna. You strike me as a woman of sense and determination, which should make you stick out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood. Nothing but frivolous females more concerned about looking good than contributing anything while on the right side of the ground. Oh, and there is one bitter, old biddy who’ll sue the pants off anyone who crosses her.”
“So I heard.” She recognized Taber’s voice as he talked to the few remaining officers standing nearby. He’d be here any minute, ending her conversation with Herman and any chance of getting needed information. “I’d like to know more about the neighborhood and its history.”
“Uh-huh.” He cut her a sly glance before continuing, gesturing to his head. “You saw all the snow on the roof and decided this old geezer probably knows a thing or two.”
Donna stretched her lips into what she hoped was a smile. Normally, she didn’t do it all that much. The fact that it felt strange and awkward meant it resembled the desired expression. “Oh no, I noticed you were a keen student of human behavior.”
“Knock off that fake smile. Looks more like you’re constipated and trying to pretend you aren’t.” He thumbed in the direction behind him. “Live over that way.” A perfect location if he had any need to spy on her house.
Her smile faded. Did he think she acted as if she found him attractive? No, never. She just wanted to stroll through his collective memories.
“Better. I like an honest female. None of this fluttering eyelashes or phony expressions. What is it you want to know?” He shoved his gloved hands into his pockets, shuffled his feet, and hunched his shoulders.
Taber would arrive in seconds. So much, she wanted to ask, but one question would have to do. “Do you know who owned the house?”
His eyes rolled upward as he worked his jaw from side to side, popping it once. “Hard to say, lots of people owned it, passed through hands several times. A few folks were attracted to the legend. A couple, like you, had hopes of making it into a B and B.”
How did he know what her plans were? She’d told the realtor who initially walked her through, who must have mentioned it to some else. The gossip train must make a regular stop at Herman Fremont’s place. Legend, interesting.
“What legend?” Her imagination raced ahead creating romantic triangles, suicides, and consequential haunting, and even disappearing residents. Such things could either hurt or help her business. It’d be best she knew the story, too.