Chapter One of Penny’s Second Case

 THE BODY IN THE BRANTLEIGH GLEN — Chap­ter One

Penny’s great-great-great-grand­fa­ther was mur­dered by Yan­kee bush­whack­ers and bled to death, right there.” My great-aunt Zel­ma point­ed out the bare­ly-vis­i­ble blood­stain on the floor where Per­ci­val Porter died. “Pen­ny, tell your friends how it hap­pened.”

I hadn’t vis­it­ed my great-aunt’s North Car­oli­na home since I was ten, more than twen­ty years ago, but I would nev­er for­get the tale. “It was in June, a hun­dred and fifty years ago,” I said. “The Civ­il War wasn’t yet over. A half-dozen bush­whack­ers dressed as Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers came to the door ask­ing for food and Per­ci­val Porter invit­ed them to share the family’s mid-day meal. When they fin­ished, they killed him.”

One of them had a lousy aim,” Aunt Zel­ma added, and point­ed to a chip like a bro­ken tooth at the edge of the mar­ble man­tel where a lead bul­let had ric­o­cheted.

Percival’s son ran to the gun cab­i­net,” I said, “and man­aged to shoot two of them before they got out the door. Killed one.”

Only a few min­utes ear­li­er, six of us from a gar­den design class in Mary­land had arrived at my great-aunt Zelma’s big stone house in Flat Rock, in the Great Smoky moun­tains of west­ern North Car­oli­na. “I’m so hap­py all y’all decid­ed to stay with me,” she said. “Wel­come to Flat Rock.” Her big black poo­dle, Andre, sniffed each of us, wag­ging his tail. He lin­gered over my jeans, twitch­ing his nose here and there.

He’s found a new friend,” Aunt Zel­ma said.

Prob­a­bly catch­ing Cookie’s scent,” I said. “…a Dober­girl I adopt­ed last year when her human was sent to an insti­tu­tion that doesn’t per­mit pets.”

After a hearty South­ern-style hug with my great-aunt, I intro­duced my class­mates to her. “Roy Schaf­fer, our token male, was an Annapo­lis High var­si­ty quar­ter­back only a cou­ple of years ago.” Roy doffed his cap and bowed the­atri­cal­ly.

I shift­ed to the tall brunette beside him. “Hol­ly Sil­ver­thorne is in her final semes­ter in the Hor­ti­cul­ture and Land­scape Pro­gram. She had a brief career as a bank teller before real­iz­ing the error of her ways.” Holly’s smile was gen­er­ous.

Aunt Zel­ma said wel­come, again.

And this is Bren­da Gale. She’s been my class­mate in both the Woody Plants and Design course.” Bren­da was a blonde like me, but both her hair and her stature were a bit short­er than mine. “And this is Ellyn Brock. She’s keep­ing her nurs­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion while she pur­sues the idea of own­ing a small gar­den cen­ter.”

A the end of the semes­ter, sev­er­al of us in Land­scape Design 101 were intrigued by our teacher’s idea to vis­it Brantleigh Manor, the final res­i­den­tial design by the famous “Father of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture,” Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed. When I real­ized that Brantleigh was very close to Flat Rock, where my great-aunt Zel­ma lived, I’d shot her an email. She’d instant­ly invit­ed all of us to stay at her moun­tain home, a lit­tle more than a half hour from Brantleigh. We were the only ones from our class who could ante up for the trip. At 33, I was the old­est  stu­dent.

Karen Ler­ri­more, our teacher, was a stat­uesque brown-haired 40-some­thing. “You remem­ber me men­tion­ing Karen,” I said. “She orga­nized the trip.” My aunt took Karen’s hand and nod­ded with a broad smile. “Of course.”

Thank you for your invi­ta­tion, Ms. Porter,” Karen said.

It’s my plea­sure, to be sure,” Aunt Zel­ma replied in her gen­teel South­ern lilt. “But please just call me Zel­ma.”

Although Brantleigh’s land­scaped gar­dens were the pri­ma­ry pur­pose of the trip, Karen had recent­ly learned that her estranged step­fa­ther, Way­land Mor­gan, was a land­scape docent there. I was sure that an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect with him had also been a rea­son for her to come to North Car­oli­na.

I’m curi­ous how you can live here sur­round­ed by all the grue­some reminders of that hor­ri­ble time?” Karen asked my aunt.

The War of North­ern Aggres­sion,” Aunt Zel­ma said, with a smug grin for all of us Yan­kees, “wasn’t very recent. So even though old Per­cy was our ances­tor, his mur­der seems more like a leg­end than a fam­i­ly anec­dote. But there’s one thing we know for sure about old Per­ci­val. When he was in school, before he became a wealthy rice grow­er, he must have stud­ied Greek, because he named this place Kalo­rama. It means ‘Beau­ti­ful view.’”

When I was a kid, our fam­i­ly drove from Annapo­lis to North Car­oli­na almost every sum­mer. I have a slew of mem­o­ries from those sum­mers: slid­ing on gen­tly-angled water­fall rocks, hik­ing in the Pis­gah Nation­al For­est, watch­ing bear cubs play, and canoe­ing on the French Broad Riv­er. The only bad mem­o­ry I have from those sum­mers is when my lit­tle broth­er Ted drowned in the swim­ming pool. We had been play­mates in spite of the dif­fer­ence in our ages. His death left me with a rup­tured soul and a fear of swim­ming pools. I had won­dered if I could bear to be at Aunt Zelma’s house again as an adult. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, my child­hood hor­ror fol­lowed me here, even now. I wouldn’t haz­ard as much as a glance at that pool.

After that sum­mer, our fam­i­ly nev­er came back, most­ly, I sup­pose, because Moth­er left us that fall. And although my great-aunt had come to Annapo­lis for her old­er broth­er Jack’s funer­al a few years ago, she and I hadn’t set eyes on each oth­er since the sum­mer Ted  drowned. I hadn’t been at my Grand­pa Jack’s funer­al because I was half a world away on the air­craft car­ri­er Enter­prise, a Navy pub­lic affairs offi­cer dur­ing the Iraq War.

After we decom­pressed with liq­uid South­ern hos­pi­tal­i­ty from Aunt Zelma’s drinks cart, and a sup­per of grilled bass fil­lets, my aunt showed us her eight bed­rooms. We could choose among them. As I’d remem­bered it, the huge house was a muse­um. Antiques were every­where, many col­lect­ed by my great-great-grand­par­ents (who hadn’t known they would become antiques), oth­ers added by my great-grand­par­ents, and sev­er­al by Aunt Zel­ma. In the  bed­rooms, I remem­bered my aunt’s home-mak­ing skills. Her exper­tise was every­where: match­ing quilts and bed­spreads, valences and cur­tains on the old win­dows, and canopies over four-poster beds. Every bed­room had a fire­place and every man­tel dis­played fam­i­ly pho­tos and memen­tos. In stark con­trast, my Annapo­lis con­do was plain jane Ikea. I had inher­it­ed none of her dec­o­rat­ing capa­bil­i­ties.

Karen was appar­ent­ly still wor­ried about ves­tiges of Great-Great-Grand­fa­ther Per­cy in the house. At the door of her bed­room, she asked me if his ghost was still in the house. I frowned at her with a you’ve got­ta be kid­ding look, but she wasn’t fazed.

I’ve nev­er seen him,” I said, hon­est­ly, with­out telling her that I didn’t believe there were such things. “The only ghosts I know here are my mem­o­ries. From long before my world got com­pli­cat­ed with the Naval Acad­e­my, six years in uni­form, a faith­less fiancé, and the mad­ness of pub­lic rela­tions—”

Grand­pa Jack, Great-Aunt Zelma’s old­er broth­er, who always had helped me when I was younger, occa­sion­al­ly pass­es along obser­va­tions or advice from beyond the grave. I heard his whis­per, Did you know Karen wor­ried about ghosts? Like I said, I hear from him from time to time, but it didn’t occur to me to won­der how he knew about Karen.

On the third floor, I copped the bed­room I’d always had when our fam­i­ly came south in the sum­mer. Karen chose the room next to mine. There were four on the sec­ond floor for Roy, Hol­ly, Ellyn, and Bren­da. After we’d all claimed a bed­room and stashed our lug­gage, Karen took the SUV to vis­it her step­fa­ther at his apart­ment. She’d told me she’d brought him a favorite herbal tea and hoped she could con­tin­ue the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion they’d begun by phone.

Tell Way­land I’ve missed him,” Aunt Zel­ma told her. “I haven’t seen him since last fall.”

After Karen left, my class­mates changed into swim-gear, found brews and went down to the swim­ming pool. That was the last place I ever want­ed to see again.

Aunt Zel­ma asked me to join her in the kitchen, where, I noticed, she had col­lect­ed piglets and pork­ers of every size and col­or on near­ly every cup­board shelf and in every nook and cran­ny. Chi­na, wood and even tin. A bou­quet of spring flow­ers sat in the cen­ter of a bright plaid cloth on the table. She opened a low cab­i­net and extract­ed a bot­tle of amon­til­la­do which she poured gen­er­ous­ly into a pair of heir­loom gob­lets. We tin­ked to each other’s health and took our first sips.

Your friends seem nice … for Yan­kees,” she said with a broad smile. After I chuck­led at her jibe, she set her gob­let down. “Tell me what’s new in Annapo­lis.”

After six-years in uni­form, I’d left the Navy and returned to my home town to pur­sue the civil­ian life. A pub­lic rela­tions job has kept me and my Maine Coon house-cat, Thaïs, rea­son­ably well fed. Last year, on a whim, I’d signed up for Mas­ter Gar­den­er train­ing. It agreed with me and vice-ver­sa. I found that I loved play­ing in the dirt and decid­ed to go pro.  I’d pro­claimed myself the Gar­den­er-in-Chief of Sum­mers Breeze Gar­dens. This was, in my not so hum­ble opin­ion, a clever play on my name, Pene­lope Sum­mers. Which explained why I’d tak­en the design course that led to this oppor­tu­ni­ty to vis­it Fred­er­ick Law Olmsted’s hun­dred-year-old design lega­cy.

Same town, same stuff,” I said, “but you know what Grand­pa Jack used to tell me when I had a lot of projects going?”

I remem­ber,” Aunt Zel­ma said. “‘You’ve bit­ten off more than you can chew.’”

First off, I shouldn’t real­ly have tak­en the time to come here. Don’t get me wrong. I love being here and hav­ing time with you. And the vis­it to Brantleigh will be like a design mas­ter class. But the math semes­ter in the St. John’s Grad­u­ate Insti­tute is, shall we say, chal­leng­ing. I’ve nev­er been good at math.”

Your grand­pa would have been proud of you.”

I’m also in the mid­dle of a huge project at my day job … ”

… And your gar­den­ing busi­ness,” Aunt Zel­ma said.

On top of that, I’ll be tak­ing more hor­ti­cul­ture and design cours­es. I’m think­ing of study­ing land­scape archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land.”

Fol­low your heart, my dear. But don’t quit your day job until you have some sav­ings squir­reled away.”

I get enough calls to keep me busy most week­ends,” I said. They’re small jobs, but, you know, word of mouth is the best adver­tis­ing. Mat­ter of fact I already have a small design job,” I said, “small part of a big land­scape.”

Using what you’ve learned in Karen’s class, I assume.” I nod­ded and took anoth­er swal­low of the sweet wine. “My sec­ond client meet­ing is next week. So I can’t afford to hang around after the week­end.”

For near­ly an hour, we caught up with each other’s news. I sum­ma­rized the project at my pub­lic rela­tions job and told her about my short-lived affair with a classmate—even though I’d known we had no future. That had been like all my ten­ta­tive grop­ings for a kin­dred soul that Aunt Zel­ma had encour­aged since I left the Navy.

When I asked my aunt what she’d been up to since we’d last trad­ed emails, you could have knocked me over with half a feath­er when she said dur­ing her morn­ing med­i­ta­tion, she’d had a vis­it from old Per­ci­val.”

I had no idea how to inter­pret what she’d said. I made myself a men­tal note: Find out if Aunt Zel­ma was on the brink of senil­i­ty.

Back in a minute,” she said, as she start­ed for anoth­er room. She returned with a shal­low Chero­kee bas­ket of min­er­als and crys­tals, just col­ored rocks to me. She picked up a rough-edged green­ish one about the size of a robin’s egg. “I med­i­tat­ed on this emer­ald,” she said, “and Per­ci­val just mate­ri­al­ized. It was like he was sit­ting beside me.”

An errant ray of ear­ly evening sun­light pro­ject­ed tiny rain­bows from a parade of facets in Aunt Zelma’s cut glass gob­let. If I believed any of this non­sense, I shouldn’t have doubt­ed that old Percival’s ghost might hang around his house. But I real­ly couldn’t under­stand my great-aunt hav­ing an abil­i­ty (in her own mind, at least) to con­verse with peo­ple who weren’t there. I’d thought I knew her pret­ty well, but I had no idea she med­i­tat­ed on stones, much less con­versed with spir­its. When, as a pre-teen, I’d been here last, she hadn’t men­tioned any of this. Maybe she hadn’t want­ed to fright­en me. Today, it scared me to imag­ine her as a psy­chic crys­tal crunch­er.

Then I had an awful epiphany: I heard reg­u­lar­ly from Grand­pa Jack. Might I, too, car­ry a Porter gene for the “sec­ond sight”? I hoped not.

Have you told any­one else about your … uhhh … con­ver­sa­tions?” I asked her.

There’s already enough rumors about me bounc­ing around Flat Rock. Although the one about com­muning with Carl Sand­burg is untrue. I don’t want to be known as a witchy-woman.” A men­tal image emerged of Aunt Zel­ma in a pur­ple cloak blend­ing herbal potions and telling for­tunes. It was almost eas­i­er to pre­tend that she had actu­al­ly had a spir­it vis­it from my great-great-great grand­fa­ther Per­ci­val Porter.

This was over the top, def­i­nite­ly more than I could grasp. “I’m sor­ry,” I said, “but I have no place in my brain for any­one or any­thing I can’t see. Now please don’t mis­un­der­stand. I’ll defend your right to believe any­thing you want, but please don’t expect me to believe it too.” I now knew I’d need to be wary of any­thing my great-aunt said. “Should I ask him tomor­row if he felt your pres­ence this morn­ing?”

Aunt Zel­ma sipped her gold­en wine. My mis­chie­vous query hadn’t deserved a reply. Final­ly, she asked, “How’s your friend at the Naval Acad­e­my?” Last year Aaron Hunt and I had sleuthed togeth­er to track down his girl-friend’s killer.

Aaron? He’s sta­tioned at the King’s Bay Sub­ma­rine Base in Geor­gia now. He’s the Com­mand Mas­ter Chief of one of the sub squadrons. We keep in touch, but we’re just friends.”

My aunt shift­ed a tulip in the bou­quet. “Pen­ny … I’m just say­ing … King’s Bay is only a one-day dri­ve from here.”

That would be nice, if I had the time. But I real­ly have to get back to my client next week.”

Lat­er, when I climbed up to my bed­room, I had an invol­un­tary trem­ble think­ing of Aaron. Had we kept in touch all these months because we felt we might be more than friends? Had Aaron been on my mind two weeks ago when I broke it off with Jere­my? Admit it Pene­lope, I said to myself, the answer to both is Yes. I lay awake think­ing of Aaron and his planned vis­it to Annapo­lis next month. From this dis­tance I couldn’t make up my mind where we would eat, but I could imag­ine the warmth of his pres­ence in a can­dle­light glow.

Final­ly, I sift­ed through mem­o­ries of my child­hood vis­its to Flat Rock. The first was the one I least want­ed to remem­ber. It will haunt me for­ev­er. At Aunt Zelma’s swim­ming pool, the sum­mer I was ten, I’d let my atten­tion stray from watch­ing my three-year-old broth­er while I read The Secret Gar­den. I remem­ber hear­ing the lit­tle splash. I saw what had hap­pened and screamed my heart out for help. The hor­rif­ic con­se­quence was that he drowned. Thoughts of that pool, where my class­mates were par­ty­ing, still give me the creeps.

Just after mid­night I woke briefly when I heard Karen close her bed­room door next to mine.

It was near­ly three when her screams wak­ened me again. Sure­ly, I thought, vis­it­ing her step­fa­ther couldn’t have pre­cip­i­tat­ed such a night­mare. It must have been one hell of a bad dream. Or could have old Percy’s ghost paid her a vis­it? Or my lit­tle brother’s?

Then I remem­bered I didn’t believe in any of that non­sense. Her shrieks sub­sided before I could pull myself out of bed and go to her.

Even­tu­al­ly I wan­dered back into the arms of Mor­pheus.

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