A runaway slave and a society girl lay entombed in an Oak Park cellar.
Renovations turn gruesome when skeletal remains are uncovered in the basement of an old boardinghouse. Forensics adds a twist; the remains were entombed eighty years apart! Separated by age, gender, social status, and basic human rights the mystery of their identities and their deaths is overshadowed by the unlikelihood of their final resting place.
Grace is drawn into the bizarre discovery when early police reports cast suspicion on her friends. That crisis contained she hopes to curtail further involvement. And does, until she sees the specter of the runaway slave. He waits outside the building that has hidden his remains for eighty years. He looks to Grace for justice and compassion.
Could she deny him in death what he fought to gain in life?
"It's getting so it feels weird taking a shower at home. I haven't turned the spigot in the brownstone for ages." My sister-in-law stood in the kitchen doorway, her skin gleaming from hot water and no makeup. "You've been lovely to let us camp in whenever the spirit moves us."
"No thanks required, Hannah. We're thrilled to have you and Connor." I settled my nephew in the baby swing and started it rocking. "Especially Connor."
Hannah smiled fondly at her son before catching sight of the tray sitting on the kitchen counter. "Good heavens, Grace. Who are you feeding? Please tell me you've company coming."
"No, it's just us tonight. I thought we'd evaluate a bottle or two of a new wine Harry bought. I wanted us to have enough food to curb the effects of the alcohol."
Hannah shook her head. "My brother used to tell us how your entire family cooked for the holidays, preparing several main dishes and all the accompanying ones. 'Massive quantities of food,' he'd say." She waggled her finger at me. "You can't make a snack for less than twenty people, can you?"
I might have taken offense if she hadn't spoken the truth. Her cornflower blue eyes, identical to her brother's, sparkled beneath similar dark blonde brows. I always marveled at how the same strong features could bring such charming beauty to one face and sexy strength to another.
I'd been reminded of the resemblance on a daily basis. With the onset of Hannah's newest plan to re-model a house in our compound, I'd seen her more often than usual. The prospect of my sister-in-law and nephew living in the house where Harry's ex-lover and mother of his son Will had once lived pleased me beyond words. The fact that Hannah's life partner and my best friend Karen hadn't embraced the move, and was in fact rehabbing an old boardinghouse in Oak Park, worried Harry and me.
Hannah fiddled with the wine bottle I'd set on the counter. I took it from her hands, deftly sprung the cork, and poured a generous amount of wine into two glasses.
"Let's sit in the nook."
Hannah slid onto the old church bench her grandfather had refinished after it had been damaged in a fire at the family church in Arundel, England. A perfect match for the trestle table, Harry had sent for it when we built our home in Pine Marsh. I watched as Hannah's fingers traced the pattern of the carved roses on one arm of the bench. I wondered if she regretted relinquishing the family heirloom now that she and Karen were settling into a home.
That thought led to another, but I hesitated to voice it. Instead, I placed the over laden tray on the table and passed a small plate and fork to Hannah. Connor's timely coo suggested he might want a nibble of something. My sister-in-law popped up from the bench.
"Hullo, little one. I didn't forget about you."
Hannah pulled a container from the fridge and removed the cover, exposing an assortment of baby biscuits. She held one out and Connor's little fingers wrapped around the treat. He immediately 'nummed' the tasty biscuit.
Seeing his delight, I said, "My uncle Jimmy grins like that when he doesn't put in his teeth, except he usually dunks his biscotti to soften it."
"Maybe when Connor's older he can dunk them in tea."
"Yeah, cause Uncle Jimmy dunks his in his homemade wine. Vino and crumpets."
"Well, yes, as long as he holds out his pinky." Hannah acted out her words.
I sat across from her and held up my glass. "To the wacky blending of our distinctly different cultures, salud."
"Cheers," Hannah responded. We clinked glasses and each of us took a sip.
"Mmmm. My brother does know his wines."
"I don't know. It's a little dry for my taste."
Hannah wrinkled her nose and smiled. "Your taste is bean related."
"Strange you should say that. I was just thinking about brewing a pot of Cinnamon Nut Swirl for later." I sensed the timing was good to voice my earlier thought. "Hannah, it's been great having you and Connor stay with us while you supervise the remodeling. I'm a little confused about the outcome, though. Karen is rehabbing the boardinghouse into a B&B. Are you going to live in Pine Marsh and hire someone to run the place? Or, are you remodeling the house here to sell and pay off the B&B while remaining in the brownstone? Harry says I shouldn't be nosey, but honestly, I can't figure it out."
Hannah's face momentarily reflected a shadow of sorrow. She mustered a 'lips only' smile and reached across the table to pat my hand.
"A fair bit of 'yes' to most of your questions. Karen and I are thinking about separating for a time to figure things out. We've discovered some major differences in our feelings about habitat and parenting. We're not sure about our future."
My heart thudded in my chest and I felt a pinch of tears at the back of my eyes. "You two are great together. It's probably the stress of the babies and the rehab plans. Maybe you should put the projects on hold and work on whatever you're struggling with now. You two love each other, don't you?"
Hannah's wry smile tugged at me.
"Of course we do. But that's not always enough." She rolled the wineglass stem between her fingers. "Gracie, I want to raise the kids out here with space and horses and nature. Karen wants to raise them in the brownstone with early enrollment in a posh pre-school in another brownstone, a brick and mortar environment with the occasional field trip to somewhere green."
Hannah's eyes darkened with what I could only assume was a reaction to numerous conversations on this subject with Karen. I could also assume that her description of the situation was a tad biased, as Karen's would be. I watched her take a healthy sip of her wine.
"I want the kids to take riding lessons to gain confidence and poise. She wants them in Karate to learn self-defense. I want to hyphenate their names 'Kramer-Marsden'. She wants Clare Kramer and Connor Marsden for insurance and legal reasons."
I hadn't heard that one before. It did sound odd to separate siblings by different last names, but then it happened all the time with remarriages or no marriages. There seemed to be something deeper, but I didn't know if I should probe. All at once I felt a prick of guilt at listening to my sister in law's side and not my best friend's. Hannah settled it for me.
"I apologize for going on about our issues. I should be going. Connor and I need to pick up a few things on our way home. There's nothing happening here until Monday. Why don't you and Harry and Will pop over tomorrow afternoon? You can see the progress on the B&B. Karen says the contractor has discovered sub flooring and a dirt cellar, which could make a perfect natural wine cellar."
Her eyes gleamed the happy blue I'd come to associate with a contented Marsden. Maybe separate projects would help them come to terms with their relationship. They say 'absence makes the heart grow fonder', but my cynical friends always added, 'of someone else'. Could that be it? Was there someone else for one of them?
I pulled my thoughts back to our conversation. Hannah waited for an answer to a question I'd missed. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled, but that only bought a frown from my sister-in-law.
"You don't know, or you're not sure?"
"I, uh, I'm sorry. I missed the question."
"No matter," Hannah said with a sigh. "We've had too many. Let's enjoy this marvelous repast you've prepared. We'll talk about this again before I leave."
I smiled my appreciation and filled my plate with small delights. Hannah refilled our glasses, which made me suspect Harry would be driving his sister back to Oak Park. We munched in quiet companionship.
Connor had gummed his biscuit and sat smiling at Elmo, my cat, who had surreptitiously licked the crumbs from the floor and the baby's fingers. My perfect feline stretched prepared to reach up to Connor's inviting biscuit speckled lips.
Elmo stood his ground, one paw on the swing moving to and fro with the baby, as though he were pushing it.
"Elmo, you have your own food. No."
Connor shrieked and reached out with chubby hands when the cat finally turned away.
"Mean, nasty Auntie Grace." Harry stood in the doorway. He walked over to Connor, picked him up, and snuggled him nose to nose. "Hello, my little chap. Won't they let you play with puss? These hens having a peck at you?"
I rolled my eyes at Harry's extravagant use of English colloquialisms. I'd accused him in the past of trying to make the children bilingual, but he'd simply ignored me. He didn't ignore me now, though. Tucking Connor under his arm like a football, he greeted first me, then Hannah with kisses.
"I'm absolutely famished," he said, pointing to the tray. "Would you put some of everything on a plate for me whilst I bond with my nephew?"
Hannah brought another glass to the table and filled it almost level. I shrugged mentally. Maybe no one would be driving to Oak Park tonight.
"Harry, I love this wine." Hannah emptied the last of it into her glass. "Hope you have more."
I piled the small plate with two of everything for Harry and pushed the large tray toward Hannah. "You'd better eat if you're going to drink another bottle."
Harry smiled at his sister. "Does seem like a bit much for a teetotaler like yourself, Hanns. Something bothering you?"
I saw her shoulders twitch. As much as I wanted to stay, I knew the conversation would flow more freely between brother and sister without me there. I murmured an excuse and picked up my plate and wineglass. I looked back at them from the doorway leading to the mudroom. Twin blonde heads dipped closer.
Elmo curled around my legs, perhaps understanding he needed to leave as well. I glanced down at him with a smile
"C'mon, Elmo. Let's go find for your sibs."
Elmo lived indoors with access to the outside. His siblings, Patches and Trey, were barn cats content to hunker down in the straw in one of the stalls housing our two horses. I ate the last morsel on my plate and placed it and my wineglass on a shelf in the mudroom before filling my pockets with feline and equine treats. If we were headed for the barn I had to be ready for four hungry mouths.
"Let's go find those kitty cats," I said as I reached down and scratched Elmo's back. An agreeable meow sealed the plan.
The sound of a car door slamming drew me around the corner of the house. Walter Stahl, Harry's long time friend and odd jobs man, greeted me. "Ah, Missus Grace. I am hurrying to find Mr. Harry.
"He's inside with Hannah."
"Gut, gut. I am wanting her also."
Walter's speech pattern splintered with anxiety. He'd emigrated from Germany fifteen years ago but his accent remained thick. His demeanor made me nervous. "Is anything wrong?
"Ya. I am telling Mr. Harry."
Walter's loyalty to Harry was legend in our family. I released the breath I'd been holding and motioned Walter to follow me. We entered the house through the mudroom and crossed into the kitchen.
Harry and Hannah stopped talking. My husband glanced first at me and then at Walter. Like I had, Harry must have sensed trouble when he saw the older man's face. He immediately rose from his chair.
"What is it?"
Walter ducked his head toward Hannah. "I'm coming to say about Gertrude's house. She call me little time ago. The men who vas moving old floor find trouble. Police there now. Karen and Gertrude are only there with baby."
"Slow down," Harry said, frowning. "What trouble?"
Walter took a deep breath. "Under floor, they find someone dead."