Discovering a box of antique handcrafted lace and old photographs in the loft above her shop, China hears ghostly humming and smells lavender from an invisible source before a series of strange occurrences in the building she shares with Ruby reveals the story of a young widow lacemaker who died under suspicious circumstances a century earlier.
Susan Wittig Albert is the New York Times bestselling author of the China Bayles mysteries, the Darling Dahlias mysteries, and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter.
A pragmatic former lawyer finds it hard to believe that her store is haunted.China Bayles retired from the bar to run Thyme and Seasons, a store that sells all things herbal and floral to the citizens of Pecan Springs, Texas. Ruby, the best friend who runs the Crystal Cave in part of China's historic building, asks her to help clean out the old attic storeroom that's the only part of the property not in use. After moving a lot of junk, they discover a wooden chest with the flower Queen Anne's lace carved on the lid and filled with beautiful pieces of handmade lace. China is spooked at hearing someone humming as they work. They both smell fresh lavender, but Ruby doesn't hear the humming even though she's the one who believes in mystical things. Ringing store bells, whiffs of lavender, and a glimpse of a strange woman make China wonder whether she's going crazy or ghosts actually exist. As her curiosity, which has been finely honed in cases ranging from theft to murder (Bitter sweet, 2015, etc.), gets the best of her, she begins a search for the former owners of her building, starting with photos and clippings she found with the lace. As China searches for clues to her haunting, Albert treats readers to stories of 1880s tragedies that may be causing the ghostly manifestation in the present. China, whose detective husband is out of town, also has her hands full helping Caitie, their adopted daughter, get her chickens, Dixie Chick and Extra Crispy, ready for the County Fair, where Crispy is bird-napped and China led into unexpected danger. One of China's more interesting adventures weaves a tragic past into the fabric of Pecan Springs while indicating some clever and dangerous uses for botanicals. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota, aka wild carrot) traveled to America from Europe and hopscotched across the continent with a recklessly joyful abandon. Some herbalists speculate that its use as a morning-after contraceptive made Queen Anne's lace a valuable must-have herb for pioneer women, so they made sure to carry the seeds with them wherever they went. With this in mind, I suppose it's no surprise that we find this plant growing everywhere-along roads and in ditches, in farmers' fields and urban backyards.
Queen Anne's lace earned its common name from the lacelike delicacy of its doily-shaped white blossoms, each of which is centered with a single, tiny bloodred flower.
"Anne's Flower" China Bayles Pecan Springs Enterprise
I love Mondays. I really do.
Thyme and Seasons is closed on Monday and I can slop around in my grubbiest jeans and T-shirt, doing all the housekeeping I can't do when customers are asking for my attention every few minutes. On Monday, there's time to appreciate the old stone walls, the well-worn wooden floors, and the beamed ceilings that create a lovely setting for my herbal wares. I can dust the antique hutch and wooden shelves stocked with herbal vinegars, oils, jellies, and teas. I can rearrange the books in the bookshelf and tidy up the old pine cupboard that displays bath herbs, herbal soaps and shampoos, fragrances, and massage oils. I can restock the wooden rack that holds the bottles of extracts and tinctures and the large glass jars of dried culinary and medicinal herbs. I can rearrange the wreaths and swags on the walls and reorganize the buckets of fragrant potpourri in the corners, as well as tall stalks of dried sunflowers, baskets of dried Queen Anne's lace, Silver King artemisia, yarrow, and tansy. And when the weather's good, I can work outdoors in the herb gardens around the shop and replenish the shelves of potted herbs for sale-basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives-outside my front door.
No offense to my friends and customers: I enjoy you, and if I want to stay in the herb business, I need you. But if I were Queen of the World, it would be Monday all week long.
This particular August Monday was hot and steamy, so I worked outdoors for less than an hour, pulling weeds, trimming plants, and cutting some parsley, thyme, and rosemary for the tearoom kitchen. Then I cooled off with a little dusting and tidying-up and planned to spend the rest of the morning peeking at my monthly income and expense reports, reviewing the tearoom menus that Ruby and Cass had proposed for the next couple of weeks, checking out a couple of things on the website, and looking over the handouts for September's classes on wreath-making. Lovely things. Lovely Monday things.
With this in mind, I took my laptop to the counter and sat down on my stool. Khat-our shop Siamese and quite an autocratic creature-jumped up beside me, placing a proprietary paw on the computer keyboard and watching with interest while I pulled up the previous month's financial data. I didn't need a degree in economics to see that while July's bottom line wasn't quite red, it wasn't quite as black as it should be. Sales had been a little slow, and on top of that, I had paid a couple of sizeable bills for the loft renovation, which happened because I decided that the empty space over our heads really ought to be generating some income. There was also a big bill for the veranda construction, which was rather a whim but has made an attractive difference in the street appearance of our shops.
I knew my building was old-well over a hundred years-but I didn't know much about its history. It has been extensively remodeled, of course, but it was originally built, I've learned, as a house. When I started planning the loft project, I happened to look at a photograph from the early 1900s and discovered that there had once been a wood-frame veranda across the front. I loved that veranda at first sight. No matter how much it cost, I had to have it.
And when the job was done and the building looked very much the way it did when it was first built, the Pecan Springs Historical Society installed a handsome plaque beside the front door. It says The Duncan House, 1882-Duncan, the name of the family who originally built the house. Jessica Nelson, a reporter from Pecan Springs Enterprise, wrote an interesting article on its history, with photos. I've framed it, and it's hanging on the wall behind my counter.
The loft is finished, too, and rented to Lori Lowry, a textile artist who uses it as a studio and teaching space. Which is a good deal for Ruby and me, for on top of the rental income, Lori's students like to browse through our shops and stop for lunch in our tearoom. The local weavers' guild is planning a show there in October, which will mean even more traffic.
I finished running the July numbers, frowned at them for a moment, then decided that if I didn't count all those extra expenses (which are really an investment in the building), the bottom line didn't look all that bad. Cheered up a little, I found the file of tearoom menus that Ruby and Cass had emailed me for posting on our website, and began to study them. Khat and I were considering the merits of grilled chicken with carrot and couscous salad when Ruby came through the door from her Crystal Cave, which is also closed on Mondays. At six-foot-something in yellow sandals, she was dressed for her day off in a sleeveless yellow top and lipstick-red shorts. Her hair is the color of fresh carrots, finely frizzed, and today, her eyes were green (a sure sign that she was wearing her green contacts-otherwise, they may be blue or brown).
She leaned against the counter. "A little voice woke me up this morning telling me that today would be a good day to clean out the storeroom upstairs. If you're not doing anything, why don't you give me a hand?"
Cleaning out that storeroom had been on our joint to-do list for some time, but it has never seemed very urgent. "I am doing something." I pointed at the computer screen. "I'm doing menus. And then the website."
"You can do menus and the website later." Ruby stroked Khat's tawny fur and he began to purr. "There's not all that much stuff in that storeroom. It won't take more than a couple of hours."
"And then what?" I asked. "We don't really need the space, do we?"
Khat arched his back under Ruby's hand, turning up the volume on his rumbling purr. "Of course we do," Ruby said. "We can use it to store all the stuff we're keeping under the stairs."
"Then what will we put under the stairs?" There's a bathroom there-well, a toilet and sink. And piles of junk. When you sit on the john, you're staring at boxes and bins of our out-of-season decorations. Christmas lights, Halloween ghosts and goblins, Easter bunnies, stuff like that. "Most of our customers don't use that bathroom," I pointed out. "They use the restroom off the tearoom."
"Yes, but sometimes people have to wait." Ruby twiddled a frizzy lock of her red-orange hair. "There are times we could use a second bathroom. If we move the holiday decorations to the storeroom upstairs, we can put in a new vinyl floor and paint the walls. Maybe add a cabinet under the sink and some decent lighting, so it doesn't look quite so much like a toidy in the Pecan Springs jail."
"How do you know what a toidy in the Pecan Springs jail looks like?" I asked, interested.
Ruby rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean, China. Our customers will appreciate another bathroom. We'll be killing two birds with one stone."
It sounded to me like a whole flock of birds and a big basket of stones. Not to mention a lot of work. "Well, maybe," I conceded. "But we don't have the money to fix up the bathroom right now. And while the loft is air-conditioned, that storeroom isn't. It'll be an oven up there today. We'll roast."
Ruby pulled her gingery brows together. "China," she said seriously, "that little voice is telling me that we ought to do this today. Lori doesn't have classes on Monday, so we can haul that stuff out and not worry about getting in her way." She bent over and planted a kiss between Khat's charcoal ears. "You know what Benjamin Franklin said. Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today."
"I'm more familiar with Mark Twain," I countered. "Never put off to tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." I thought for a moment. "Or was it Oscar Wilde?"
The Victorian-style shopkeeper's bell mounted to my front door tinkled pleasantly, and both of us turned around to look. But the door was locked and I had hung up the Closed sign to deter prospective customers. Nobody was there.
Khat arched his back, hissed, and jumped off the counter. Ruby frowned. "What's wrong with him? And why is your bell ringing?"
"Dunno." I shrugged. "Vibrations or something, I guess." I waggled my eyebrows. "And maybe Khat is telling us that today isn't a good day to clean out the storeroom."
"Maybe he's telling us that it is," Ruby said decidedly. "Come on, China. Let's do it."
I pressed my lips together. When Ruby has an idea, I can either stand back and watch or be a good sport and join the party. After a moment's reflection, I joined the party.
"If you insist." I closed the menu file and shut down my laptop. I glanced down at Khat, who was sitting on the floor, gazing fixedly at the bell. "Come on, Khat," I said. "You may find a mouse or two up there."
The bell tinkled again, affirmatively.
"You see?" Ruby said in a meaningful tone. "It's telling us that we're supposed to do this."
Looking back now with the wisdom of hindsight (funny how that works, isn't it?), I wonder what would have happened if Ruby hadn't listened to that little voice telling her that today was a good day to clean out that storeroom.
Or if I had said, Sorry, Ruby, but I absolutely positively have to get these menus uploaded today? How long would it have been before we discovered the wooden chest and the carton of old photographs? Maybe we wouldn't have discovered them, ever. How would that have changed what happened?
Or if I had removed that bell.
We'll never know, of course, because Ruby did hear that voice, and when she asked me to help I did say yes. We did discover that chest, and after that, the photos. And the bell continued to ring.
And thereby hangs a tale.
But before I tell you what happened when Ruby and I went upstairs, it might be helpful if we took a few moments for introductions. If youÕre a regular visitor to Thyme and Seasons, you know who we are and what weÕre all about, so you have my permission to skip the next dozen or so paragraphs. If youÕre new to Pecan Springs or just want to see if anythingÕs changed since the last time you were here, youÕre invited to read on.
My name is China Bayles. In a previous incarnation, I was a criminal defense attorney with a large Houston law firm that catered to big bad guys with bottomless pockets who could hire our top-dollar dream-team defense. There were a lot of things I enjoyed about being a lawyer-and yes, money was certainly one of them. In those days, I was as ambitious and greedy as anyone else and willing to fight for my place on the ladder with whatever weapons it took. But after spending a decade of my life in that knock-down, drag-out environment, I began to wonder whether the justice I was engaged in seeking was the kind of justice we needed in this world-and whether Houston was the place I wanted to live for the rest of my days.
When the answers to both of these urgent questions finally came up no, I turned in my resignation, cashed in my retirement account, and bailed out. I landed in Pecan Springs, a small, friendly town just off I-35, halfway between Austin and San Antonio, at the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country. I bought a building on Crockett Street and opened an herb shop I called Thyme and Seasons. When people ask me "Why herbs?" I give them the short answer: "Because plants don't talk back." When they ask "Why Pecan Springs?" I reply, "Because it seemed so crime-free and peaceful."
And then I laugh out of the other side of my mouth, because while Pecan Springs is a great place to live, it is not and never has been crime-free. Don't be fooled by the cozy images you see in the glossy Why You'll Love to Visit Pecan Springs! brochures handed out by the Chamber of Commerce. Our nice little town has its fair share of crime, just like every other nice little town, everywhere-maybe even a little more, since we're conveniently located in the I-35 Corridor, the narco-corridor, some call it: the main artery for the nation's south-north drug trade. If you come here expecting Mayberry, you'll be disappointed.
Pecan Springs and Thyme and Seasons were just the first of several major earthquakes in my life. After years of insisting that marriage required too many compromises, I married Mike McQuaid, whom I had met years before in a Houston courtroom. McQuaid is a former homicide detective, currently a private investigator with his own firm (McQuaid, Blackwell, and Associates) and an adjunct professor on the Criminal Justice faculty at Central Texas State University. We are the parents of two great kids. McQuaid's son, Brian, will be a sophomore at the University of Texas this fall, majoring in environmental science. He lives with his girlfriend in Austin. Caitlin, my fourteen-year-old niece and our adopted daughter, lives with McQuaid and me in a big Victorian house on Limekiln Road, about a dozen miles west of Pecan Springs. We share the place with a gloomy basset hound named Winchester, a grizzled orange tomcat named Mr. P, Caitlin's flock of chickens, and a legion of fugitive lizards escaped (or descended) from Brian's collection of reptiles.
And then there's Ruby. She is my business partner, sidekick, and owner of the Crystal Cave, the only New Age shop in Pecan Springs. Together Ruby and I jointly own and manage the tearoom behind our shops (Thyme for Tea) and a catering service we call Party Thyme. We also co-own (with Cass Wilde) the Thymely Gourmet, which delivers packages of healthy precooked food to upscale singles who want to eat right but don't have the time (or don't know how) to cook. Ruby has two grown daughters and a granddaughter, although you'd never know it to look at her. After an early divorce, she has managed to stay unmarried, although she is partial to intelligent men and cowboys. Just now, she is seriously dating a very nice guy named Pete who manages an olive ranch, a relationship that is complicated by the fact that the ranch is a couple of hours away and Pete's job doesn't allow him a lot of free time.