Restoring the Castle Ch. 06byolivias©
Ally sat by her mother on Lois' sunporch, holding Miranda's hands in hers and talking soothingly to her. Angela was hovering nearby. Lois and Sheriff Shiflet were concealed in the hallway just beyond the sunporch door, where they could hear but couldn't be seen.
It was no use, however. Miranda had recognized her daughter when she came in, Angela already having been there and prepared her friend for the visit. But the more Ally gently tried to draw information about the past from her mother, the more glassy-eyed and withdrawn into some world of her own Miranda became.
"The ballroom, Mother. You remember that nice ballroom in the castle. And how you had it partitioned off . . ."
Ally just stopped there, seeing that there was no use going on. Miranda wasn't agitated and she was still smiling, but she just wasn't there anymore.
"Perhaps if you took her up there and let her see what you're doing at the castle, she'll remember more," Angela said in a quiet voice.
"That could work, yes," Ally said. "But you saw her reaction when I brought the subject up. Or rather her nonreaction. She isn't disturbed by the question. There's no fear in her awareness about the ballroom and the partitioning of that room. And I brought it up without preliminary warning. You saw her face when I introduced the topic, didn't you?"
Ally wasn't looking at Angela when she said this; she was looking toward the door to the hallway. And she had lifted her voice. Angela caught the drift and she used a louder voice too that would clearly convey to the ears of the sheriff where he was standing just on the other side of the doorway.
"Yes, I saw. The topic didn't seem to disturb her at all. If anything she seemed pleased that you were talking about the castle. You had said you thought that taking her out occasionally might lessen her depression and therefore sharpen her awareness, so, yes, it's certainly worth a try."
Ally left Miranda with Angela after saying good-bye to her mother and went out into the hall. Lois slipped past her onto the sunporch, and Ally walked the sheriff to his cruiser out in front of the house.
"I don't think she's holding anything back, and I'm trying to get answers—truthful answers—from her," Ally said as they reached the car.
"Yes, I can see that. And you're sure there are no records around on the construction documents?"
"I haven't found any in the castle, and I'm not aware of any storage unit she has about. I've checked our safety deposit box at the bank and haven't found anything. As far as I know, the only box she has at a bank is our shared one. Mother would have kept all of the paperwork, but there have been fires in her living area in the castle. Chances are good all of her papers on construction projects went up in smoke."
"But you'll try taking her to the scene and seeing if that will jog her memory?"
"Yes, of course. I'll take her for a few rides in the countryside and maybe to Angela's for a visit first to see how well outings set with her. But I'll get her up to the castle as soon as I can. What about the identification of the body? Won't it help a lot to know who died?"
"Yes, of course it will. But the medical examiner was only willing to tell me that it was a male. Old Horace keeps his cards close to his chest; he stays well this side of speculation. All he would tell me other than that was that he had sent stuff off to the lab. He doesn't think we'll get anything back on that for a couple of weeks. The findings will have to go from the lab to the State police to see if an identification can be established."
"OK. In the meantime I'll try again to coax something out of my mother."
"I'll be in my office all afternoon in case you think of anything that will help," the sheriff said, as he muscled his bulk behind the steering wheel of the car. Neither one of them had said a word about Ally having stumbled across him at the mountain still, and, as long as it was making the sheriff a whole lot nicer to her and standoffish on Miranda, Ally would just leave it that way.
Lois was at the door when the sheriff had driven off toward Washington and Ally came back up the walk.
"I'm not sure what all of the fuss is about," Lois said as she stepped back and Ally entered the house. "I don't like Miranda being upset like this."
"Upset? Do you think Mother was upset by my asking her those questions?" Lois knew Miranda's reactions better than anyone. If Lois thought that the questions about the partition in the ballroom had been upsetting to Miranda . . .
"No, not by you or anything you asked her. But that sheriff. First thing Miranda did when she knew he was gone was to ask for a cigarette. And she only does that when she's been agitated. He'd intimidate almost anyone. He certainly scared the stuffing out of my Felix."
"Yes, he would," Ally said, with a little laugh. "But he stayed out of sight in the hallway. I'm sure Mother didn't even know he was here."
"Well, I suppose not . . . but I knew he was here, and I don't know what the fuss is all about. So they found a body in a wall in the castle. What does that have to do with my missy down here in my house?"
"Don't you listen to the village rumors, Lois?"
"Not if I can help it. And I don't contribute to them either. Let me make that darn well sure."
"Of course, Lois. But mother's name has been connected with fighting with various men, and the men then disappearing soon thereafter. One of those men was your husband, Felix. So, when a body is found in the wall in her house . . . well, it could be your own husband, you know. It could be Felix who was walled up in the castle. I thought you would have considered that possibility. And there's that mountain man who was bothering her up at the castle for a while and then just stopped coming around after she'd gone after him with a broom."
"My Felix? Up there in Ms. Templeton's wall?" Lois snorted and then gave a dry laugh. Ally shot her a sharp look.
"You think that's funny—or not possible? I assure you that suspicion is laying on Mother over this. The sheriff isn't the least of those who is suspicious."
"Funny and not possible both," Lois said. "And your mother knows it." She paused, though, and her face took on a more serious look. "Of course I guess there's no reason anyone else knows it—probably including Mrs. Harris. I told you I don't gossip. And neither does your mother. But maybe one or both of us should have paid a bit more attention to the gossip and nipped it in the bud."
"I don't understand," Ally said.
"My Felix—and that drifter, Hank Morris who bothered your mother—I can tell you that it was because he was sweet on her, and I don't have to tell you that she wasn't sweet on him—ain't dead. I knew that, and so does your mother, when her memory isn't on the fritz. My Felix has created a different family from me and is living in Lynchburg—with another wife. And she's welcome to him, thank you very much. In fact he already was living with both her and me when your mother got wind of it and gave the deadbeat a tongue lashing that sent him all the way down to Lynchburg for good. And as for Hank Morris, he gave up on your mother and got sweet on some woman over in Luray. All of his jaunts out of the secret hollow of his in the mountains are out on the other side of the Blue Ridge now. And it's a good riddance to him too."
"They are alive? They can be contacted?" Ally asked in disbelief.
"Yep, always could have. All folks need to have done is ask—or done a little checkin' themselves. Your mother and me just didn't think it was anybody else's business."
"God, Lois, that's great news," Ally gushed. "Where's your telephone? The sheriff said he'd be at his office all this afternoon. This cuts the field considerably. You've got to tell him what you know and tell him where he can contact these two."
"Um, OK," Lois said, still not completely getting it.
"Don't you understand, Lois? The sheriff is including those two as possible identification for the body taken from the castle. If he can eliminate these two, that will help the investigation—and it will also take some of the cloud of suspicion from over Mother's head."
This development didn't fully solve Ally's fears, though. The body still could be that of Dennis Harris, although she wasn't about to offer that possibility to anyone. If that was the identification, she would like it to be one made by the medical examiner and the police.
"Oh, I see," Lois exclaimed. And she was off double time for the telephone hanging on the wall in her kitchen.
* * * *
The morning had gone well. It had been a week and a half since the body had been found in the ballroom wall. Nothing had transpired on that investigation. Ally was still waiting for an identification of the body. If the authorities knew anything on that front, they were keeping it to themselves.. But the sheriff's department wasn't bugging either Ally or, through her, Miranda hard. Lois's revelation that not all men Miranda had chewed out in the last five years had disappeared had taken the edge off that rumor.
Miranda hadn't really become lucid enough to ask about the partition construction, but she seemed to be improving a bit, helped, everyone thought, by the short trips away from Lois's farm. Ally had checked every other day on Miranda's condition, and if she showed any spark of recognition of the world surrounding her, Ally took her someplace for a short excursion. They'd been for drives through the village of Washington and then to Flint Hill to the northeast. They'd been up on the Skyline Drive, where they sat on the stone wall at an overlook and ate ham sandwiches and watched life go on in the valley below. And just this morning they'd driven over to Angela's house for tea. That had gone so well that Ally might have extended their stay if she didn't have to go across the mountain to negotiate a bill with a lumber supplier in the Shenandoah Valley town of Luray.
Ally thought that the next outing could be up to the castle. She was looking forward to that both with the hope that it would bring Miranda back closer to reality and with trepidation that it could push her deeper into depression.
Hugh Coles hadn't returned with his Airstream and the sheriff was still looking for him. When Ally asked the sheriff if he'd found Hugh yet, Shiflet had just muttered and said something about folks in Luray knowing something but stonewalling him. Ally couldn't help but feel relieved about that. She'd grown fonder of Hugh than she had realized; something inside her didn't want him to be the one the sheriff was looking for, and, she felt more guilty, something inside her didn't want to see him caught even if he did have something to do with that body in her wall. She couldn't bring herself to believe that the Hugh Coles she had come to know would have done anything like that except in self-defense.
Hugh had gotten electricity to some parts of the castle before he had disappeared. Jake Monroe had continued working on the castle, and the basic rooms Ally had wanted fixed up to live in during the bulk of the restoration had been finished the previous week, and Ally had been in residence there for three days. It wouldn't be long before Jake's crew would need another electrician, though. And the one Jake had brought in for Ally to meet was off on another extensive job in Lexington.
Even though Ally was quite peeved at Hugh for leaving her in the lurch, she also missed having him around the castle. He'd always been quick with a witticism or an appropriate comment on national or local events, and Ally had taken to eating a picnic lunch with him under the trees in the yard.
Jake had continued to take her to dinner, and quite often to expensive country restaurants. And when he did, he treated her like a princess, even though she'd had to stop them both from reaching the brink of a far different attitude more than once.
But she felt more comfortable and found she enjoyed the conversation better with Hugh in those days before he drove off the job. She probably should have known, she thought, that he was a lot better educated than the degree he'd produced for her indicated. He could have held his own in conversations with her worldly wise colleagues in the Foreign Service. He and she shared much the same ground in their opinions on national and world events, while Jake would teasingly mock her liberal leanings. She found she avoided topics in talking with Jake that she hadn't in her conversations with Hugh.
Of course Hugh was too young for her, and although she was about the same number of years younger than Jake, that age difference just didn't seem to matter much.
The negotiations had gone well in Luray. The story of the castle restoration, riding on the discovery of the body in the wall, had traveled fairly widely already—as had the side tale that Ally had survived a terrorist bombing in Jordan before returning to Virginia—and the lumber supplier was anxious to have his company's name attached to her effort. He thus gave her a good cut in costs in exchange for her permission to use the castle connection in his advertising and with any newspapers he could get to run the story in the valley.
She was celebrating her good fortune by treating herself to lunch at the artsy Artisans Grill on the main downtown street of Luray. She'd finished with a sampler salad and was perusing the dessert list when she was stunned to hear a familiar voice saying her name.
"Well, hello there, Ally. What's brought you to Luray?"
It took Ally a moment to lift the jaw that had dropped nearly to the table top at seeing Hugh Coles standing there beside her table, cool as he could be, wearing a natural smile, and giving no indication that he was hiding from anyone.
"Hugh. What are you doing here? Don't you know you're wanted over in Washington."
"Yeah, I heard. May I sit?" He laughed at her reaction to that. "We're in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Do you think I'm going to be a mad killer in here?"
"No, I guess not," Ally answered, with a somewhat nervous laugh, though. "You left me high and dry, you know."
"Yes. Sorry about that. I was going to come across the mountain this afternoon and talk to you about that. And I was going to stop at Sheriff Shiflet's office first. I've been tied up. Still, I should have called. Sort of steeped in high drama for a while, though."
"I guess being wanted for questioning for murder can do that to a man," Ally countered.
It was Hugh's turn to give a nervous little laugh at that. He was sitting at the table now, though not really sitting at the table. He'd reversed a bentwood chair and was straddling it backwards. This, with the baseball cap turned backwards, made him look boyish and a bit like he was going to launch from the table at any minute and up the split staircase at the back of the restaurant.
Ally tried to calm down, because she really didn't want him to leave until she got some semblance of an explanation from him on why he had left—and, possibly more important, why he had been there in the first place if he had a doctorate in engineering.
"So what kept you from contacting either me or the sheriff earlier? And, more important, why did you skip out on me? And, be advised, those are just my preliminary questions if you stay around here long enough to hear the others."
"How about what to have for dessert first. My treat. I did tell one of the EMTs to tell you I had to go. He didn't pass the word on?"
"No, no one told me you checked out that day."
"Sorry, then. Really my bad for not contacting you before now. Will buying you two desserts make up for that? They serve them good here."
"In that case, the blueberry cobbler and a cup of coffee." She couldn't help but give a little laugh at how neatly he had segued into that.
"Same for me, Donna," he said to the waitress who had miraculously appeared on cue. He turned back toward Ally and gave her a little grin.
"Anyone ever tell you you had a nice laugh—and a husky voice. Just like that actress, you know . . ."
Ally didn't save him. She wanted to know if he'd come up with what so many others did—and then he did.
". . . Kathleen Turner. That's it. That sexy husky voice. Not that I'm saying anything by that. But you look quite a bit like her too." He was blushing.
Ally felt like she was blushing too—at the pleasure of the comparison that others had also made in the past. But she jerked herself back into the present. "Donna? You called the waitress by name. You know her?"
"Yes. Everyone knows Donna in this town. This is my town. I know the sheriff has been looking for me here, but I'm from Luray and everyone knew had something important to attend to here that couldn't be put off. Luray folks watch out for their own. I was born and raised here."
"Before you went off to Georgia Tech?"
"Yes, before that."
"And before you got a doctorate from Georgia Tech in electrical engineering but decided that you'd use that to string wires in people's houses?"
"Ah, you know about that."
"Yes, the sheriff was quite knowledgeable about your past."
"Ah. Well, then, perhaps I should first answer the question why I left the castle without giving you proper notice that day."
"That would be a good place to start, yes."
"It ties in with some of the rest. One aspect of the answer is just what you said. Sheriff Shiflet is quite knowledgeable about my college boy past. I sowed a lot of my oats in his neighborhood because my family wouldn't stand for me to do it over on this side of the mountain. Guess you noticed that Jake Monroe and I don't get along very well."
"Yes, I have." Ally answered. What she didn't say was that she fancied that the two were in some sort of struggle for her attention. She did think that was a factor, and it was a struggle that she couldn't help but take as flattering as both were good looking, intelligent men. And even though she'd slept with Jake, strangely enough she gave the edge to Hugh in terms of her interest in any man. He wasn't as muscular as Jake was, but he was very well put together—and by far the easier of the two to relate to.
"A lot of it is that his younger half-brother, Craig, ran with the gang I was running with. I suppose Jake thinks I was misleading his younger brother, but the truth is that Craig was the one who came up with most of the hell-raising ideas. I think Jake has had it in for me ever since then. Boys will be boys in rural Virginia, though, and I guess I was a bad boy with the best of them. Not much I can do about that now. Best I can say is that I straightened out and went to Georgia Tech and got those degrees. I earned those with hard work, by the way."
"The quality of your work on the castle shows it. But that's only an aspect to the answer."
"Yes. You probably noticed I wasn't there that morning when you arrived. I had been called home, over here in Luray. Because my father was dying. I only came back to the castle to get my Airstream and to tell you I had to be gone for a while—probably not more than a couple of weeks based on the prognosis my dad had been given. Then I got over there and saw the ambulance and all the cop cars—and Sheriff Shiflet, who I didn't ever want to see face to face again, and I just gave a message to an EMT to pass to you when you had settled down from the shock you got, and then I split. I could see you sitting on the back of the ambulance, and one of the cops I knew told me what they'd found inside the castle. It didn't have anything to do with me, so I split. And I'm sorry about not calling you after that, but it got pretty dicey with my dad. He didn't go into that good night easily. He always was a cantankerous soul. Put my mother in the grave I think because of his difficulty. He's what I was modeling on when I got into all that trouble over on this side of the Blue Ridge. Anyway. No one else would come within ten feet of him in the end, so I was stuck at his bedside. Not at home. In a nursing home, which is probably why Shiflet never found me."