The grave was surrounded by a smooth expanse of green grass, the headstone perfectly centered at the head of a rectangle of freshly turned earth that marked the burial site.
"Too sad?" Georgia Tepper asked, a frown wrinkling the space between her eyebrows.
Ruby Blackthorne was standing beside me. Before I could say anything, she leaned forward, swiped a finger over the earth and popped it in her mouth. Then she grinned and shook her head. "As Goldilocks said to the three bears, 'Just right!'"
Since we were looking at a selection of cupcakes and not an actual grave and since the ground she'd just sampled was made of finely grated dark chocolate and not real dirt, I wasn't going to disagree with her.
Ruby plucked the headstone from the top of the cupcake, broke it in half, more or less, and offered one of the pieces to me. I took a bite. The cookie was delicious—chewy without being too soft and chocolatey but not too sweet.
"Number one, I agree with Ruby," I said. "All of the cupcakes are just right. And number two, is there any way I can add some of these headstone cookies to the order for the adults? Just the cookies? They're so good."
Georgia ducked her head and smiled. She wore her jet-black hair very short and looked like she was in her early twenties when she was in fact ten years older. She was a very talented baker, but she was still a little shy about compliments. "Of course, you can. A dozen?"
"Better make it two dozen," Ruby said, tucking a strand of her purple streaked hair behind one ear. She was wearing a pale green t-shirt with a line drawing of a bunch of kale and the words Kale Yeah! on the front.
I did a quick mental count of the staff and everyone else who was helping with the Halloween party for the kids in the library's Reading Buddies program. Twelve cookies would not be enough for the adults. "Ruby's right. Make it two dozen."
The Reading Buddies Halloween party was just as popular with the teens and adult mentors who helped out as it was with the children. And this year it was also a way to celebrate the success of our garden project.
For the past few months, the kids had been growing their own vegetables in raised boxes just outside the building. One Saturday morning a group of them had appeared in my office doorway to present me with the huge salad they had made for my lunch. Seeing their proud faces made all the work that had gone into the project worth it for me. And the salad was delicious!
Ruby was still eyeing the cupcake. "Maybe someone should try this one," she said. She glanced at Georgia. "Not that I think there's anything wrong with your baking."
"In the interest of quality control, I think you better," Georgia said, straight-faced.
I picked up a fork from the table and handed it to Ruby. "For quality control."
She took a bite of the chocolate cake and creamy frosting and immediately grinned.
Georgia smiled then as well but she wasn't smiling at Ruby or at me. She was looking just beyond my right shoulder. I turned and saw Larry Taylor walking toward us. Georgia and Larry had been a couple for the past several months and I loved the way her face lit up whenever she was around him. The relationship wasn't just good for the two of them. Larry's father, my friend Harrison, had taken a liking to Georgia and not just because he had a sweet tooth. The old man liked talking politics and Georgia always seemed to know what was going on in town. And I knew that Larry's brother, Harry, was happy about his younger sibling's relationship because now their father was focusing on someone else's love life other than Harry's.
Larry returned Georgia's smile then turned his attention to me as he came into the meeting room where we'd been sampling Georgia's baking. Larry Taylor was a big man with blonde hair and green eyes. He wore a red and blue plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled back and a zipper-front navy-blue quilted vest.
"How were the cupcakes?" he asked.
"Delicious, of course," I said.
Ruby had just taken another bite of hers, but she nodded and gave Larry a thumbs up.
I gestured at the long, wooden table. "I had one of the chocolate spider cupcakes and half of a spice cake pumpkin cupcake and if anyone asked me to pick which one was best, I would be stumped."
Larry grinned and patted his midsection. "I know the feeling."
Georgia's cheeks were tinged with pink once again at our praise. It wasn't that she lacked confidence in her skills. It was more that words of praise made her uncomfortable. She indicated a box on the table next to her purse. "Those are for the staff room."
"Thank you," I said. "You didn't have to do that. You've already put in so much effort on the cupcakes for the Halloween party."
"I wanted to," Georgia said. "You know how often Emmy is here and you're all so good to her. That's just a small thank you."
"Seeing her with a stack of books talking about manga with Levi or Anne of Green Gables with Mary makes my day. I've already made my pitch for her becoming the head librarian some day." Emmy was Georgia's daughter. She loved books.
"You should know the old man is already trying to sell Emmy on law school," Larry said.
"Why law school?" I asked.
He shrugged. "It looks like Elizabeth is getting more serious about actually applying to medical school. And Mariah is talking about studying engineering or becoming a mechanic."
Elizabeth was Larry and Harry's much younger sister. Mariah was Harry's daughter.
"He figures if he has a doctor, a mechanic and a lawyer in the family he has all the bases covered."
In the family. So it seemed that at least Harrison had long-term expectations for Georgia and Larry's relationship
Ruby had demolished her cupcake. She licked the last bit of green icing off the back of her fork.
"Would you like the skeleton or the spider to take home?" Georgia asked her.
Ruby put both hands behind her head, linking her fingers together. "I don't know," she said.
"You could just go one potato, two potato," I teased.
She gave me a mock frown. "This is too serious a decision to decide by counting vegetables." She switched her attention to Georgia. "The skeleton is the marble cupcake, right?"
Georgia nodded. "It is."
"Then that's the one I'll take, thank you very much. Number one, I really like marble cake. It has chocolate and vanilla. And number two, that will leave the spider for Kathleen which I know she really wants because she's kind of a chocolate freak."
I put one hand on my chest. "I prefer the term aficionado. And thank you."
Ruby made a gesture like she was doffing her hat and bowed. Then she reached for her camera, which was sitting on the table. "I just want to get a couple more photos," she said to Georgia. Ruby was taking pictures for a digital portfolio of Georgia's work.
I turned back to Larry. "Did you get all the measurements you needed?" I asked.
"I did," he said.
There was a wooden gazebo at the back of the library. In the good weather we often held story time out there. Someone had been staging elaborate practical jokes in the gazebo—everything from fifteen bales of hay stacked in a precise formation to setting up an inflatable swimming pool and filling it was with Jell-O. Black raspberry Jell-O to be specific.
So far, the prankster had managed to elude the security measures Larry and Harry had used to try and catch him or her. In fact, whomever it was seemed to have taken the summer and early fall off. I was hoping the stunts were over. Neither of the Taylors was convinced and Larry had a new, very small camera that he wanted to install just above the back-loading dock doors. He was hoping to misdirect our culprit by putting up a second, larger dummy device. Larry was an electrician with an interest in pretty much anything technological and he'd built this newest camera himself.
"You didn't have to do that today," I said, "considering how it smells outside." Just before lunch a garbage truck had overturned and spilled most of its load on the street in front of the library.
He shrugged. "I played football in high school. You want to smell something foul? Boys' locker room after a game." He gestured in the direction of the circulation desk. "That air cleaner seems to be helping. It's not bad in here."
"Your brother showed up with that about half an hour after the truck overturned. Otherwise we might have had to close."
Larry smiled. "Well, the truck's upright now and about to be towed away by the looks of things and they'll soon have the rest of the garbage cleaned up. Do you know what happened?"
"Apparently the driver took the turn too fast, and then braked too fast when a pair of squirrels ran in front of him," I said. "I guess his load shifted and the truck went over. At least no one was hurt."
The building had shaken when the garbage truck tipped, and I was happy to see both the driver and his helper climb out of the passenger side window of the cab. Nonetheless I'd made them both sit on the curb until the ambulance arrived.
"I should be able to get everything installed on Monday as long as the weather stays good," Larry said.
Before I could offer, once again, to at least reimburse him for the electronics, he raised a hand. "I know what you're going to say, and the library doesn't owe me a penny. As far as I'm concerned it's no different than the old man and that dang groundhog."
Harrison had been battling a cocky groundhog that had been eating from his garden all summer. He'd trying spraying a mix of garlic and hot peppers around the garden, he'd sprinkled Epsom salts on the ground and even planted lavender. The groundhog had not been deterred. In fact, it seemed to like the scent of the garlic and hot peppers.
"Is it still around?" I asked.
Larry nodded. "Oh yeah. I'm not making this up, I swear it's bowling with the pumpkins. It's a sneaky little bugger."
I laughed. "As far as the groundhog war goes, it seems to me the rodent is winning."
He smiled. "Elizabeth got the old man a super soaker water gun. The Taylors don't give up without a fight."
"I've noticed that," I said. "And for the record there will be no sitting on the roof trying to nail our practical joker with a super soaker water gun."
"You don't seem to understand how a good feud works," he said, pointing a finger at me.
Ruby joined us then, holding a small waxed paper bag with her cupcake. "I need to get over to the co-op store for my shift," she said.
I gave her a one-arm hug. "Thank you for being here. The party wouldn't be coming together so well without all your help."
She smiled. "Hey, any time. You know I like the rug rats." She inclined her head in Georgia's direction and nudged Larry—whom she'd known since they were in school—with an elbow. "Don't mess this up," she stage whispered. She gave me a wave and she was gone.
Larry pulled a hand over his hair. "The other night Dad told me if I was stupid enough to blow things with Georgia that the family will really miss...me."
I glanced over at Georgia to see if she'd heard what Larry had just said. She was staring at something out in the main area of the library, clutching her phone in one hand, frozen in place so still she didn't seem to even be breathing. Larry immediately crossed over to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, what's wrong?" he said.
Georgia shook her head very slightly, the movement almost imperceptible. I saw her struggle to swallow as though something had gotten stuck in her throat. I followed her gaze and saw a man and a woman, in their early seventies I guessed, coming toward us. I had seen the woman in the building when I'd arrived just before lunch. She was at least a couple of inches taller than my five six, with soft curls of blonde hair—no gray in sight. She wore tailored jeans, a crisp white button-down shirt topped with a simple black blazer and a black and white plaid scarf at her neck. The only bit of color was her red flats. She was all cool, intimidating elegance. I remembered, when I'd seen her earlier, how she'd frowned at four-year-old Peyton Weston in line to check out three picture books, who was happily singing The Wheels on the Bus while she waited.
The man she was with was a bit taller, five ten or so, dressed in black trousers, a medium blue pullover sweater and black leather jacket. His iron hair was clipped short on the sides and a little longer on the top. Everything about the two of them said money.
Georgia still hadn't spoken. Her lips were pressed tightly together, and her eyes were locked on the couple. I saw her fumble for Larry's hand and when she found it, grip it tightly.
"What is it?" Larry asked again.
"It's them," she said and all at once I realized who the man and woman were. No wonder Georgia looked so stricken. This had to be her former in-laws, the people who had tried to take Emmy after the death of Georgia's husband, their son, Scott. This had to be Hugh and Margery Wyler.
© Sofie Kelly