The last time I was in Western Pennsylvania I was running away from my crazy fiancé. My sister never forgave me for breaking off the engagement. After all, she’d introduced us and never acknowledged that he turned out to be a thug, an art thief, and a smuggler. He was found burned to death in one of his storage warehouses. Franklin Pratt was a sociopath and my sister had no discernment in men. Still doesn’t considering who she married. Now I was back in Western Pennsylvania and again a death was involved, but this time it was my Aunt Aggie’s.
The air hovering over the parking lot was so cold it felt like brittle ice. I was surprised my breath didn’t freeze when I exhaled. The local weather station mentioned the feared words that I remembered from my youth: lake effect snow. Southwest Pennsylvania is downwind of Lake Erie and wind going over the lakes picks up moisture and dumps bands of snow across a wide swath of the western quarter of Pennsylvania until the lake’s surface freezes. So far this year the lake’s surface was still unfrozen. I glanced at the heavy clouds, but nothing was falling.
I shivered as I moved away from the entrance to the Route 30 McDonald’s with my morning coffee in hand. My glance swept the parking area and I noticed the accident. Across the parking lot a woman wearing a leopard robe and boots covered in black fake fur was berating a skinny teenager dressed in a blue hoodie. She backed the young man against a green Jeep with a dented right fender and a side view mirror hanging by a few wires.
“You have the brains of a turnip,” the woman growled. “You backed into my car without even looking to see if anyone was behind you. Worse still, you made me spill my coffee. I’m no good without my coffee.” She pushed closer to the young man.
He tried to move away, but was stopped by his new Toyota. He shrugged and his hood fell from it precarious balance on his head. He brushed aside a lock of dirty hair and squeaked. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.”
“See me,” the woman was winding toward a finish. “Didn’t I say that you didn’t look?” She shook her cell phone at him.
I usually don’t get involved in accidents, but the pair was blocking my car, and I was due at the lawyer’s office soon.As I walked toward them, the woman turned away from the teenager. Her eyes widened and she shouted at me, “Watch out!”
I sensed a malevolent black tendril reaching out for me even before the shouted warning. I swung to face the oncoming danger. A battered pickup raced toward me. For a nanosecond reality winked, then returned to normal; a split that I hadn’t experienced for months. Finally, adrenalin hit my system and I dashed from the path, escaping the pickup as it passed so close by that my coat lifted in its wake. The driver fled the parking lot without stopping.
“That guy was aiming at you.” The woman in the leopard robe grabbed my arm and pulled me close as if to further protect me. “Some people just never watch where they’re driving.” She glared at the young man again emphasizing her original complaint. She turned to me. “By the way, I’m Virginia Allingham, Ginny to my friends. I hope you’re OK?”
“Jessie Griffin,” I introduced myself as I labored to catch my breath.” And I’m fine.” Only I wasn’t fine. My stomach was curled in a tiny ball and breakfast threatened to make a reappearance. Ginny was right. The nut driving the truck had been aiming for me. I knew this as I knew that tendril of darkness preceded the attempt. Knowing is the price I pay for having been trained by my late Aunt Agatha. She was a shaman, but she always claimed that my talents exceeded hers. True to her nature, she never said exactly what my talents were. But that winking of reality seemed to be one of them. It usually accompanied a period of danger. I felt my skin crawl and wondered what sort of danger my coming back to southwest Pennsylvania had stirred to life.
“Are you sure you’re fine?” Ginny asked. “You seem a little distracted. Not that nearly getting hit by some crazy isn’t enough to distract a person.”
“It was probably someone who had too little coffee.”
“I’ve had too little coffee in me, but it never inspired homicidal tendencies in me at least not yet.” Ginny glared at the cowering young man. “Ah, about time they got here. I made the call what seems like hours ago.”
I followed Ginny’s gaze and saw two state police officers driving into the lot. The driver parked and both got out and headed toward the Jeep accident. I figured it was time to make my escape.
“Thanks for the warning,” I said to Ginny. “But I’m late for an appointment. Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“I live in Walnut Springs,” she called after me.
“Then I probably will see you around. I’m here to settle my aunt’s estate. Agatha Morgan, she lived in Walnut Springs.”
Ginny’s pleasant face wrinkled in a frown and she brushed aside a wisp of hair that had fallen from the scrunchie securing it to the back of her head. “Aggie, I knew her, the whole town did.”
Before she could add anything, one of the officers asked a question and she turned to them and repeated that the teenager had the brains of a turnip. I hurried to my car and waited until Ginny’s Jeep and the young man’s car were moved to a different area of the parking lot. It was only then that I let my mind look at the image of the pickup that had nearly made roadkill of me. I kept thinking why? And why was there such an intense feeling of hate leaking from the truck? I didn’t know the driver. I hardly knew anyone in the area since I hadn’t been back to Pennsylvania for almost fifteen years. Maybe it really was someone who’d had too little coffee. But I didn’t believe that for a moment.
Reality had winked. That’s what I call the sensation of losing your breath and seeing a distortion in an area around whatever was the danger. In this case it was the pickup. For a brief moment it looked as if the space around the pickup was distorted. I’ve never been able to tell what actually happens, only that this winking as I call it, is associated with danger and not just present danger, but past as well as future danger.
The past was beyond me and no time to worry about the future. I had an appointment to keep and too many other questions crowding my brain to dwell on what happened. I drove away trying to tamp down the niggling thought that someone I did not know had just tried to kill me.
~ * ~
I’ve always thought of myself as a chameleon, blending in with my surroundings, carefully camouflaged. But over a half-century of experience makes any good chameleon ragged around the edges. It’s worse if you have to return to the place where your chameleon-like behavior started. Aunt Agatha’s unexpected death and my buy-out from a university in New Mexico where I taught Forensic Archaeology and History put me in this position. It also doesn’t help if you were almost roadkill.
I smoothed my navy wool jacket, touching the lump that was my cell phone hidden in my side pocket. I like to keep the phone within easy reach, though only a few people have the number. It would also be helpful if I turned it on once in a while. But I hate it when the phone rings and interrupts whatever I’m doing. Maybe it’s just that I hate it when other people use it and I have to be privy to others’ communications. The thoughts were just nervous responses to waiting in Sam Barton Esquire’s office. He was my late Aunt Agatha’s lawyer.
“Mr. Barton will see you now,” his secretary announced as she held the door open for me to enter.
I hurried toward the door since I had many questions to ask Mr. Barton. The most pressing was what had happened to my Aunt Aggie. I stopped just inside and regarded the lawyer. He gestured to one of two comfortable leather chairs before his desk.
“Dr. Jessie Griffin, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He stood and offered his hand. I moved to shake it.
I knew he was a full partner with Haber, Wilcox and now Barton. His dark almond eyes followed me as I sat. A head of wavy auburn-tinted hair stood out against skin the color of rich mocha. He looked all of twenty. I guess once you make it to the half-century mark, everyone younger than you looks too young to be a lawyer, doctor or whatever. When my students began to look too young to be at a university, I took early retirement. Sam Barton had to be at least thirty.
“Your aunt told me a lot about you.”
“Not too much, I hope.” There was a lot to tell and I hoped she’d left out most of it.
“She was very fond of you.” He opened a folder on his desk. “I’ve acted as Aggie’s lawyer for the past four years since Mr. Haber retired. Mr. Haber stays with the firm now in name only.”
What sort of response should I make? “He is getting older.”
“He turns ninety-one this year.”
“Look, Mr. Barton –”
He interrupted. “Please call me Sam.”
“Ah, Sam, I don’t understand any of this. I spoke with Aggie two weeks ago telling her I’d be back in April. A day later I got the phone call from the hospital that she was in intensive care, then your call that she died. What happened?”
“Her SUV went over an embankment on Walnut Springs Road.”
“Her SUV? She drove a Honda Civic, a four door if I remember correctly. She was barely five foot one. She would never drive an SUV.” This made no sense. Aggie loathed anything larger than a Civic and she’d just bought a new car last year.
“Her car was in the garage for some minor repair and the rental car service gave her an SUV,” Sam explained. “I offered to take her anywhere she wanted to go, but you know Aggie.” He paused. “Knew, in any case, she refused and said it was only one day.”
“Where was she going?”
“I have no idea. But she was a good driver, better than drivers a fourth her age.”
“She was a hundred and three.” But Aggie emailed that her license had been renewed and she had passed her driver’s test. She chuckled about the man testing her suddenly yelling stop. She slammed on the breaks and he flew forward, restrained only by the shoulder harness. Aggie had better reflexes than someone seven decades younger.
Sam bit his lips, “The police report said she lost control of the car. She died from massive internal injuries. The SUV had an accident alert system and the ambulance got there not long after it happened. I’m so sorry to have to give you this news.”
I nodded. Sorry for your loss, the old standby phrase. At least he didn’t say that. “But why were the funeral arrangements taken care of so fast? I didn’t even get a chance to get a plane out of New Mexico.” I was on standby because of a snowstorm in Albuquerque and stranded again in Chicago for two days before I could head east.
“It was in her will drafted last December. She insisted on a simple cremation immediately after her death. She made me promise that I would do this act for her.”
That made no sense. Not the cremation, Aggie had insisted on that many years ago, as it was part of her beliefs. But to do it immediately after her body was released sounded as if she was worried about someone disturbing her spirit. That was also part of Aggie’s belief. My near miss this morning coupled with Sam’s revelation about Aggie put me more on edge. Something was not quite right here, but what?
“Where are her ashes?”
Sam glanced out the window at a view that encompassed the beginning of the Laurel Highlands. “They were scattered over the mountains; again at her insistence.”
I followed his gaze, thinking about Aggie’s remains drifting down over the snow. That was a new one, Aggie requesting that her remains be scattered over the Laurel Highlands. She never said anything about that to me.
“Did any of my relatives attend the cremation?”
Sam frowned. “No, there wasn’t time since everything was done immediately. Members of the university community and her friends held a memorial service later. None of your family attended.”
How like my family. They never liked her in life and now ignored her in death. Still, it surprised me that members of the local community and Laurel Mountain University held a memorial service. I knew she had local friends but not how many. Apparently they were good ones.
“You inherit her entire estate minus some minor bequests.” Sam’s voice stirred me from my thoughts.
“It can’t be much. I sent her money monthly to supplement her Social Security.” Aggie had never been wealthy to my knowledge.
Sam plucked at the folder on his desk. “The CDs and stocks are worth about ten million dollars.”
I doubted my own ears; ten million dollars.
“Where did she get so much money? She sold the old farm and the hundred acres that went with it, but she couldn’t have gotten anywhere near that much for it.” An image of the apple orchard in bloom on a warm spring day flooded my mind. I could even smell the blossoms. I had played there as a child. Aggie raised me after the deaths of my parents. Funny, they also died in a car accident.
My father’s family took my older brother and sister, but I was four at the time and for some reason they didn’t want me. Aggie, my mother’s oldest sister, became my parent, guardian, and teacher.
“Actually she told me it was a million five, but she was a shrewd investor.” Sam again stared at the scene beyond his window and I sensed he was avoiding telling me something.
I glanced around the room as if actually seeing it for the first time. His desk was of heavy mahogany, an old-fashioned style that seemed to be coming back into vogue. The large window with the magnificent view had powder-blue drapes open to bring in the light. The carpet was a muted gray and the rest of the furniture came from a very upscale catalog. I knew this particular partnership catered to some of the wealthiest clients in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“She asked me to come back when I told her I was taking early retirement. I thought it was because she wanted someone to help her. She was always sending away anyone I hired for her.”Probably because she didn’t want them to bother her. Aggie practiced shamanism since her early twenties. She had spent time with tribes in the Amazon and the southwest and learned much of her lore from these people. My father’s family never approved of her ‘abilities’ and it always surprised me that they permitted her to raise me, knowing that she would train me in the same practice.
“These are the keys to her house and her car. I took the liberty of having the locks changed after her death.” Sam offered me a keychain that had three keys on it. “The car is parked in her garage. Walnut Springs is not that far from Greensburg.”
At least I would not have to spend another night in the motel trying to reconcile my feelings about Aggie’s death. I knew her new address, but not the location. I hadn’t been back to Pennsylvania in fifteen years and the area was unfamiliar to me. There were many changes that no longer reconciled with my memories. She bought this property in Walnut Springs ten years ago, right after she sold the farm.
“I don’t know exactly where she lives.” My mind’s image of Walnut Springs was of a small resort town near the entrance to the Laurel Highlands that I had visited as a child.
“You haven’t been back since you left?
“No, I preferred to keep a distance from the rest of my family and Aggie understood.” My brother, Perry Griffin, was fourteen years my senior and we were never close. He had two boys. My sister, Lenora, was married and had one boy and one girl, but she was ten years my senior and unhappy that I never married. But since I broke off the engagement and he died the same day, she managed to keep any communications between us at a minimum.
“You can drop off your rental car and I’ll give you a ride to her house. The house sits on five acres and there is a small guest cottage with it.” He busied himself with the folder, removing several documents and a large, square envelope. “You’ll need to sign some papers and then visit the bank so that you can get access to her accounts. I’ve notified everyone about her death and I sent a copy of the death certificate to those places requesting one.”
“Thank you for all your help. I would like you to remain as my lawyer.” After all, he knew more about the estate than I did. “But I think I need to settle in and try to, well think about what happened. I also have boxes that are being sent from in New Mexico.” I’d sold the small house near the university last year and rented until I planned to return east.
Sam stood and carried the mysterious envelope to a DVD player. “There is one other thing. Three days before the accident she brought this sealed DVD to the office with instructions to play it for you if something happened to her.”
“She brought it to you before…” but I knew. What had been haunting me, the thing I had not wanted to think about. That she knew death was coming for her. I had always known when something was going to happen to someone close to me: had sensed it or dreamed it. Why had I no such warning about Aggie’s death? She knew. Why didn’t she call me? Warn me? Maybe I could have helped.
Sam placed the DVD in the player and pressed the button. Aggie’s image came onto the screen. She was sitting in a wicker chair with a blue and white hand-crocheted afghan tossed over the back.
“Jessie, sweetie, if Sam is playing this for you then I’ve failed. But I grow old and things change. Even I can be deceived. You must know that my death was not an accident. I was murdered. Sorry, sweetie, but you are going to have to find the culprit and finish what I started. I just ran out of time. But you have to finish it. Everything depends on your finishing because you inherit.”
“Finishing what?” I whispered. It was just like Aggie to be cryptic. She believed that solving a mystery made you grow and mature if it didn’t kill you first. Sam told me I was her heir, but why did being her heir depend on solving the mystery of her death? That made no sense.
The DVD ended and I glanced at Sam. He was staring at the blank screen. “It has to be the Village.”
“Your aunt has been having trouble with a developer wanting to take Laurel Wood Village. She owns, it along with Myra Comfort and Ronald Blaine.”
“What is Laurel Wood Village? Who are Myra Comfort and Ronald Blaine?”
“Laurel Wood Village is a small mall. She went into partnership with Ms. Comfort and Mr. Blaine when they were having money troubles. Blaine is a contractor, who does metal sculpture on the side. Myra is a local psychic.”
I was not certain I wanted to know what she did on the side: this side or any other side. I suddenly wondered what I’d come home to and what else I inherited. At the same time my mind offered up the image of a battered pickup coming toward me. Aggie claimed that she was a target. The murderer had found his or her mark. I thought about Aggie’s death and my near miss. I felt sure I was next on the list.