By Connie Berry
days have passed since the killings began. This has been a difficult time for us
all. We’ve given our separate statements to the police, but certain questions
remain unanswered. I suggest we meet at A Likely Story to talk through the
events that have taken place these past days. Melody has graciously agreed to
host us, and I’ve asked Detective Torres to drop by if he can. Will today at 4:00
p.m. be convenient? Please let me know. Your friend, Helen Hornsby
Helen read through her
email one last time and pushed send.
# # #
The late afternoon sun slanted through the picture window of
A Likely Story, highlighting the pan of brownies Helen had baked that morning.
The large coffee urn was almost finished percolating. Melody had set out paper
plates, cups, and napkins.
was there, except Ashley. No one knew how to begin.
yourself to a brownie,” Helen said. When no one made a move, she added, “I’m
hoping Detective Torres will join us—and Ashley. She’s apparently been at
police headquarters all day, giving evidence in the murder of her ex-husband.”
was no response, Helen continued. “Melody said it two days ago—there are too
many unanswered questions in this case. MacGuffins, she called them.”
literary term.” Melody was filling paper cups with coffee. "I was an
English major, you know. It means something that seems important but turns out
to be irrelevant.” She handed Helen a cup. “Of course, the unanswered questions
could also be red herrings—details that lead you in the wrong
voice was flat, and Helen couldn’t help noticing that her usual brisk manner had
vanished. Her skin had taken on a gray cast, and the lines on her forehead and
around her mouth had deepened.
“Each of us holds a piece of the puzzle,” Helen said. “If we
pool what we know, we may begin to understand what really happened.”
Charles said. “One of the false clues was that red envelope found in Iris’s
apartment the day she was murdered.”
“And those little toy trains,” Melody added. “They turned up
Helen turned to Philip. “Perhaps you can explain.”
“The murders had nothing to do with me.” Philip’s Adam’s
apple bounced in excitement. “The red envelope contained the bill of sale for
the last lot of the Lionel train collection.” He blinked. “Although that must
have been what triggered the attack on you, Charles. I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean?” Helen asked.
“I’d added a note of personal congratulations to the
receipt. Iris told me about her fiancé, and I scrawled something like Congratulations
on your forthcoming wedding.”
“Yes, I see,” Helen said, nodding slowly. “Renee denied
looking inside the red envelope, but I knew she was lying. She must have read your
note, Philip, and believing Charles was Iris’s secret fiancé, dashed over to
his office to confront him.”
Charles’s hand went to the bandage on his head. “Just so you
know, I never promised Renee I would marry her. I do regret not considering her
feelings.” He rubbed his nose. “Actually, it was you who triggered her jealousy,
Helen. You told Renee that Iris and I had a date Saturday night.”
“I thought you did.”
“Wait a minute.” Melody put her hands on her hips as if she
were accusing Charles of stealing cookies from the cookie jar. “So, you and
Iris really were planning to marry?”
“No!” Charles’s head whipped around. “It wasn’t me. I told
Renee my relationship with Iris was professional. She didn’t believe me, but it
“Then Iris’s fiancé must have been you.” Melody pointed her
finger at Philip. “There aren’t that many older men with full heads of silver
hair around here.”
“That’s preposterous.” Philip wrinkled his beaky nose. “Not
that I wouldn’t have been interested—at least at one time. After Lionel died, I
asked her out. She laughed at me. She actually laughed.” His pale face turned
Helen could believe that of Iris. She remembered how Iris had
mocked Philip and his choice of All Aboard! My Life in Model Railroading.
And how cruel she could be.
“Well, then, the only remaining candidate is poor Gus,”
Melody said. “I’d never have believed it.”
“You shouldn’t,” Helen said. “I asked Gus straight out. He
denied it—and I know he was telling the truth.”
“So, who was her fiancé?” Charles asked. “Or was it just a
“You should know,” Helen said. “Weren’t you the one who drew
up the contract for the purchase of that villa?”
“Yes, but the contract was in Iris’s name alone. I did ask
her who the lucky man was. She just winked and told me I’d have to wait to find
“Maybe Detective Torres knows,” Melody said. “If he comes
tonight, we’ll ask him.”
“Let’s get back to this MacGuffin thing,” Charles said. “If
you weren’t involved, Philip, why all those miniature trains at the crime
“I didn’t know they were crime scenes, did I? They’re just
cheap things—I buy them by the lot, give them out to everyone. Advertising for
Choo Choo Pharmacy.”
“You left one in Iris’s apartment along with the receipt in
the red envelope,” Helen said. “But I found one in the freight elevator.”
“Must have dropped it.”
“How about the one in Charles’s office?” Melody asked.
“I can explain that,” Charles said. “Philip left my
office just before Renee arrived. He’d dropped off an official accounting of
the money Iris received for the sale of the Lionel trains. I was handling her
purchase of the Harris-designed villa. Since she’d offered them cash, they
required proof that the money was in the bank. Philip left a model train. I
didn’t know he did that all the time.”
Helen cut the sheet of brownies into generous squares and
transferred them to paper plates. “Someone has to eat these.”
Melody took two. “Speaking of food reminds me of that book
on toxic wildflowers. I must admit that when I first heard Iris was dead, I
assumed someone had poisoned her. What was the big deal with that book anyway?
I’ve never had so many orders for the same book.”
“The book is about wildflowers in general,” Helen said. “Not
just toxic ones. If you’d been listening in on the garden club committee
meeting, you’d know that this year’s gardening contest is a wildflower garden.
It seems to have captured everyone’s imagination—including mine.”
“All this is interesting,” Philip said, rolling his hand
impatiently. “But the real question is who killed Jared Ahlgren? We know Betty
August’s death was an accident. Gus’s death was a heart attack, probably
triggered by witnessing the murder of Jared Ahlgren.”
Helen felt a stab of grief. She’d always had a crush on Gus,
and the time they’d spent together after Iris’s death had rekindled her
Philip was still
talking. “We know the attack on Charles was triggered by jealousy. Renee’s obsession
with Charles got the better of her. And Nella killed Iris—she’s admitted it.
But who stole Helen’s letter opener and thrust it into Jared’s heart?”
Melody Smart, who’d been quiet during this discussion, burst
Helen leapt to her feet. “Quick, someone bring her a glass
“I don’t need a glass of water.” Melody waved away Helen’s
ministrations. “I know I wasn’t a good mother. I gave up my twins and look what
happened to them.” A fresh stream of tears rolled down her cheeks. “Nella will
spend the best part of her life in jail, and Jared is dead.”
“None of that was your fault,” Charles said. “You did what
you thought was in their best interests. You were young. Their father had
“Do you think we should we try to locate their father?”
Philip asked. “I’m sure there are military records.”
“What good would that do?” Melody blew her nose. “Charles
told me he died a long time ago.” Melody blew out a long breath. “I never
guessed the identity of my twins, although I did wonder for a time if Ashley
was my daughter. I’ve always cared about her, the poor thing—raised in such a
bad environment. We bonded over books, and I loved those twins of hers.” Melody’s
forehead creased. “By the way, I found the note Ashley left, telling me she’d
picked up the twins. It must have been swept under a bookcase when Betty fell.”
“Makes sense,” Helen said without thinking. Her thoughts
were with her own child, her daughter, the one she was told had died because it
was “deemed best.” Had her baby been adopted by a loving family? Was she now
married herself? If she was, Helen might even have grandchildren. I can’t
think about that now. She refocused on the conversation, which had turned
to Iris’s will.
“Who will inherit all that Vermillion money?” Philip asked.
“With the sale of the Lionel trains, Iris had a fortune.”
Melody started to say something, but Charles cut her off. “I
can answer that as well. You probably know I drew up the wills for both Iris
and Lionel Vermillion. We know Iris promised a quarter million to Nella and
then reneged in favor of Ashley and her twins. The problem is, Iris actually
owned nothing in her own right. All the money was Lionel’s, put in a trust for
Iris during her lifetime. Now that Iris is dead, his entire fortune—including
the proceeds from the Lionel train collection—will go to Lionel’s next of kin.”
“But Lionel and Iris never had children.” Helen shook her
head in confusion. “Was that why Iris pretended to be Nella’s mother? A way to
control the estate, even after her death?”
“What you have to understand,” Charles said, “is that Iris
lived much of her life in the realm of fantasy. As her lawyer, I was sworn to
secrecy, but now that Iris is dead, it doesn’t matter. Early on in their
marriage, Iris had a series of false pregnancies. The medical term is pseudocyesis.
She would actually develop symptoms—nausea, fatigue, swelling of the belly—but
there was no conception and no fetus. After the last episode, Lionel had her hospitalized.
I think that’s why Iris got involved in the adoption business. Maybe she hoped
to adopt one of the babies and pass it off as her own. Lionel’s death ended
that. Or maybe Iris really convinced herself that Nella was her daughter.
Magical thinking—if she said it enough, it would become true.”
“But then she turned to Ashley,” Helen said. “Why?”
“That’s something I can’t explain,” Charles said. “When you
lose your grip on reality, anything can happen.”
The bell on the shop door jingled. Everyone looked up as Ashley
Ahlgren entered the room with Detective Torres.
Charles Fairweather scooted his chair over to make room for
the newcomers at the table.
Detective Torres pulled out a chair for Ashley and took a
seat “I have news. We know who stole Ms. Hornsby’s letter opener and used it to
kill Jared Ahlgren. I thought you deserved to know.”
Helen, who’d always known the answer in her heart, moved
closer to Melody and took her hand.
“Nella Williams killed Jared. She denied it, of course, but
when we showed her the footage from Ms. Hornsby’s electronic doorbell, she
confessed. “Ironic. She was the one who insisted Helen install the thing.”
“But why?” wailed Melody. “Why did Jared have to die?”
Ashley jumped up and threw her arms around the older woman.
“Jared might not have been the best husband in the world, but he was the twins’
father. He didn’t deserve to die like that.”
As Ashley and Melody hugged, Detective Torres said, “When
Iris told Nella she was changing her will in favor of Ashley and the twins, she
also told her she’d found copies of Nella’s and Ashley’s birth records in one
of Lionel’s safe deposit boxes, and she’d decided to give the quarter million dollars
to Jared Ahlgren—so he could leave his life of crime, support his twins, and
possibly get back together with Ashley.”
Ashley huffed. “That was never going to happen. I’m sorry,
Melody, but Jared and I were never going to be a family again. He was a good
father, but he was never a good husband.” She squared her shoulders.
“So, Nella decided to eliminate her rivals,” Philip said “It
was all about money with Nella, wasn’t it? If she hadn’t been caught, you would
have been next, Ashley.”
Melody stroked Ashley’s hair. “I believe it. After all, she
didn’t hesitate to kill her own brother, her twin. Nella was a monster.” She
sobbed once and dabbed her eyes. Then, looking up, her brows drew together. “Ashley,
do you mind if I ask you about Philip? You two have been spending time
together. We all thought you were involved romantically.”
Of course not,” Philip hooted. “Hunhk, hunhk. I’m old
enough to be Ashley’s father.” He held up one hand. “I’m not her father,
in case you’re wondering, but I could be.” His face softened. “Like you,
Melody, I’ve known Ashley since she was a girl. She and Jared used to help me
build my train layouts. That’s how they met. Of course, it ended for Jared when
his boss at the hobby shop caught him stealing cash. That’s why he went to
jail. Ashley came to me because she needed a reason for Jared to leave her
“I guess I was looking for a father,” Ashley said. “I needed
“Here’s a question we’re all asking,” Melody said. “Who was
Iris planning to marry? Was she lying?”
“She wasn’t lying,” Detective Torres said. “The day after
Iris’s murder, an older gentleman stopped in the police station. He said he was
Iris’s fiancé. His name was James Turner.”
Helen clapped her hand over her heart. “He’s the head of the
Garden Committee.” She turned to the others. “You know--the one who handed Iris
the trophy at the banquet.”
“Yes, of course,” Melody said. “I never considered him.”
“Not surprising.” Detective Torres made a face. “The poor
man said the whole thing was Iris’s idea. He didn’t know how to tell her no.
While he was sad about her death, I got the distinct impression he was also
Everyone was silent for a moment, taking this in.
“You haven’t said anything about Renee.” Charles looked at
Detective Torres. “I told you I’m not going to press charges. It was as much my
fault as hers.”
Detective Torres tilted his head and shrugged.
“Unfortunately, the law doesn’t see it that way, Charles. She assaulted you. You
might have died. She will have to face a judge, although I believe the
prosecutor has agreed to ask for a suspended sentence. Maybe community
“She can volunteer for the community garden committee,”
Helen said, still feeling guilty for telling Renee that Iris and Charles had a
“Well, the whole thing is just sad, isn’t it?” Charles said.
“Nella was a good friend to Helen, and she had so much potential. Think of all
the good she did for children with psychological problems.”
“It is sad,” Helen
agreed. “A tragedy on all counts.” She covered her face with her hands. “There
was a side to Nella I never saw.”
“There’s one last unanswered question,” Philip said. “Why
did Iris tell Renee that if anything happened to her, the police should look to
“That’s a question that may never be answered,” Detective
Torres said. “Iris isn’t here to tell us. At any rate, we’re satisfied that Ms.
Hornsby had nothing to do with her death.”
“I must say, I’m relieved,” Helen said, but she couldn’t
help noticing that Charles was looking at her with an odd look on his face. Did
he still suspect her?
“I think it’s time to do what we came for,” Melody said. “I’ll
be right back.” She dashed out of the conference room and returned with a
bottle of brandy. “Let’s raise a toast to our missing club members.” She poured
a small amount of the amber liquid into paper cups and passed them around.
Charles stood, and everyone joined him. “To Gus O’Boyle—a good
friend. Once a cop, always a cop. He died as he lived, trying to right a wrong.”
Everyone raised their glasses. “To Gus.”
Helen’s eyes filled with tears. She brushed them away before
“And to Iris Vermillion,” Charles said in his lawyerly voice.
“A lover of fiction—in books and in life.”
They’d started to sit down when Ashley stopped them. “And to
Jared Ahlgren.” She lifted her chin. “He lived a troubled life, but he loved
his kids—and he didn’t deserve to die like that.”
Everyone mumbled their agreement. “To Jared Ahlgren.”
As they took their seats, Melody said, “Ashley and I have
some news as well, and we’d like you to be the first to know.” She reached over
and took Ashley’s hand. “Would you like to tell them, dear?”
Ashley nodded. “This has all been a bit difficult to
process, but the papers Lionel Vermillion kept hidden in the safe deposit
box—the ones Iris found—revealed that he was my biological father.”
Helen’s heart jumped to her throat. “Who was your mother?”
“The records didn’t say. Iris gave me a name, but it can’t
be true. Actually, she said you were my mother, Helen, but she was just making
it up—playing God as usual.”
“Anyway,” Melody said. “That means Ashley is Lionel
Vermillion’s heir, and she can prove it. It will take time to process through
the courts, but Ashley will inherit the Vermillion fortune.”
Ashley patted her heart. “The twins will never have to
wonder where their next meal is coming from.” She smiled at Melody. “And I’ve
decided to make something of my life, put that money to good use. I’m going to
be a partner in the bookstore, A Likely Story.” She laughed. “Appropriate, I’d
say. Truth is always stranger than fiction. We’ll make a go of it
together—Melody’s expertise and my money.”
“To celebrate,” Melody said, “Ashley and I have decided to
offer Howard’s End to the members of the Page Turners at a twenty-five
percent discount. Now, who would like to order a copy?”
Every hand shot up.
Excited conversation followed as the members of the club
took turns congratulating Ashley and Melody. Helen was still thinking about
those hidden papers. She stared at Ashley, searching for a resemblance to dear
And to herself.
As everyone pulled on their jackets, Charles Fairweather surreptitiously
handed her an envelope. “I hope this will right an old wrong,” he whispered. “You
were told your daughter died at birth. It wasn’t true. What you do with the
information is your call. My lips are sealed.”
# # #
Later, back in her small condo, Helen held the envelope with
Slowly, she opened the flap, pulled out the single sheet of
paper inside, and read the words three times.
been so angry. Would she ever be able to understand? It was all so long ago,
and Ashley was happy now. She had Melody and Philip to support her and the
twins emotionally. She had her father’s money to provide security. And Helen
couldn’t help noticing the way Detective Torres had looked at Ashley. Was a
romance brewing there?
in a ragged breath. All’s well that ends well, Shakespeare had said.
Yet, there was a hole in her heart.
would tell Ashley the truth one day. Not yet.
reached for her glass of red wine and clicked on the final episode of As
Time Goes By.