Also by Arlene Kay:
Nicole Nelson trudged up a hilly street toward the Goodhaven Town Hall, pulling her muffler tight against her skin. Brisk April winds straight off the ocean had cooled down the entire waterfront. Might as well enjoy the chill while she could. Once she entered the political arena, things would warm up in a hurry. When the verbal fireworks started, the town’s heating bills would plummet.
Tonight’s community forum should be a doozy. Doozy. That was Grandma Duffy’s word, old-fashioned but spot-on for these proceedings. There was a whiff of the Roman Coliseum about them, too, and Nik wasn’t sure where she stood: observer, martyr or rapacious lion. She felt certain of only one thing. A fierce and bloody battle was likely with casualties on both sides.
The agenda, boldly posted on the town’s website, provoked a tsunami of protest. Mayor Morgan Haas had really done it this time. By proposing a one-time special assessment on every residential property owner, he’d put the cat squarely among the pigeons. His reasoning was flawless. Goodhaven’s Cultural Center needed a quick infusion of cash. If roof repairs weren’t made, the spring recital, not to mention the sacred summer tourist season, would be imperiled. The town counted on income from the plays, poetry readings and private functions to subsidize other activities, like the food pantry, children’s story hour and after-school clinics. It made sense except for one thing: Shelby Whitholm.
Nik’s relationship with Shelby was complex. Since they’d met at Lifelines, the no-kill animal shelter, the woman had shown her limitless kindness combined with an odd sort of maternal interest. When she’d needed a cheap place to roost, Shelby offered Nik her old carriage house for a paltry sum. It was a generous impulse that meant the world to a penniless grad student. Her new digs weren’t large, but the cleverly renovated space became Nicole’s sanctuary. Shelby housed her old Jeep in one of the garage bays, converting the remaining two into a comfortable family room and office. Nik’s living quarters, two bedrooms, bath and kitchen were upstairs.
Shelby’s nephew Jarrod had chided his aunt, reminding her of the outrageous sums she could extract from summer renters. Fortunately, he had no influence with Shelby, an ardent environmentalist who’d banished him one day when he’d appeared in her driveway, flaunting a shiny black Hummer.
Nik was a loyal soul, but gratitude didn’t blind her to Shelby’s eccentricities. You couldn’t ignore them if you tried. Shelby Whitholm was a seething, pulsating mass of contradictions even in a Cape Cod town that celebrated the bizarre. An environmentalist who smoked like a chimney? A crusty scold with a soft spot for pets and vagrants? Nik was both puzzled and intrigued.
To many, Shelby was a virulent pest, a strident voice at every public function, who couldn’t be appeased or silenced. Kinder folks termed her a gadfly and political activist. Everyone agreed that her constant presence at Goodhaven events was the stuff of local legend, a type of free entertainment to wile away the winter months. When even the most mundane items piqued her interest, she’d stage a show brimming with a dramatic monologue spiked with vitriol.
Every citizen was entitled to five minutes of airtime at township meetings. Shelby never missed the chance. She arrived at the podium armed with statistics, surveys and clippings, making her point with devastating accuracy. Everyone knew the drill: mismanagement, fraud and municipal waste were her constant refrain. When the buzzer rang, Shelby nodded politely and shut up. No fuss, no muss, end of chapter. Her age helped a bit. After all, a seventy-four-year-old woman got some deference in the court of public opinion, even a curmudgeon.
Nik chuckled as she recalled Shelby’s latest letter to the Goodhaven Times. She’d likened Morgan Haas to King Louis XVI, whose wife’s profligate spending had cost him his head. As a scholar Nik knew that was an overstated, somewhat misogynistic view. Historians had given the luckless Marie Antoinette a bad rap. Morgan’s wife, who had probably never cracked a history text in her over-privileged life, was not amused by the simile. She was a transplant, a Manhattan product who couldn’t or wouldn’t adjust to New Englanders’ sly wit and understated appearance. Amanda Haas bustled about town like affronted royalty, railing against Shelby as if the first amendment didn’t exist.
Small town drama was more grist for Nicole’s mill. After all, that’s why she’d left the urban jungle for Goodhaven’s placid streets. If all went well and the stars aligned, she’d finish her dissertation, get her Ph.D. and become solvent by next year. Hallelujah! They’d chuckled at Boston College when she announced her plan. Her thesis advisor had actually chortled. Nobody leaves Boston for the lower Cape in search of original material. Nobody with sense, that is, especially during the winter. When Nik persisted, he’d shuddered, wished her well and washed his hands of her. Undaunted, she’d packed up her ancient Jeep and headed south, envisioning the looks of shock and envy when her tome, Impact of Local Activism on Social Mores, hit The Journal of Politics. Optimism was a genetic quirk of the entire Nelson clan, one that Nik embraced. After all, she was only twenty-four. Time was her ally.
She shook her head, fanning long black hair around her shoulders. Nicole was proud of that hair, a legacy from her Italian forebears. It contrasted nicely with the sapphire eyes and ivory skin bequeathed by the Duffy side of the family. An act of sheer willpower let her ignore the mirror nestling in her purse. How many times had the nuns lectured her about vanity? Too many, she told herself. There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your appearance. Still, she recognized that beauty was fleeting, outlasted by intellect every time. Brains, not beauty, would ultimately set Nik free.
She’d done the research. All the indications said that Goodhaven was an incubator for citizen activism, the perfect spot for her research. The permanent population was small. Well under five thousand intrepid souls braved the frigid climate and fierce winds that buffeted the lower Cape in the winter. They were a tough, independent lot, better educated than most and big believers in citizen activism. Nik saw the living proof of that every time Shelby opened her mouth.
“Yo, Nicole! You’re walking around in a fog.” Mayor Morgan Haas patted her shoulder. He grinned as he looked around him. “Don’t see your mentor anywhere. What are you, the scouting party?”
“Maybe she won’t show up.” Amanda Haas appeared at her husband’s side, clutching an outsize leather purse. “Honestly. That woman has some nerve.” She shivered despite the thick shearling coat she wore. “Can’t you do something, Nicole? It just isn’t right.”
Amanda often said that civilization began and ended at the East River. Goodhaven was her husband’s dream, not hers. He’d been somebody in New York, a god of finance, master of the universe. That made her somebody, too. By selling his holdings and trading arbitrage for seashells, he’d robbed her of that lofty perch. Amanda didn’t fit into the cozy Cape Cod hamlet. Even she knew that. The town wags sneered at her clothes, called her a name-dropper and an airhead because she cared more for Armani than Aristotle. She, in turn, scorned most of them. Women without makeup, manicures and leg waxes were a curious breed to Amanda. She hibernated until the arrival of the summer people, that horde of outsiders who actually understood her. Flocks of them came from New York or Connecticut each year with priorities that matched Mandy’s.
“I’ve been working at Lifelines all day, Mandy, so I haven’t seen her. Shelby’s probably busy checking her data. Don’t worry. She’ll be here.” Nik ducked her head to hide the grin that peeked out. No sense in alienating anyone, especially the mayor’s wife.
Shelby was definitely up to something. She’d sounded mysterious this morning when they’d shared their daily toast and espresso. “Get a good seat tonight. You don’t want to miss the fireworks.” That’s all she’d said except for her daily quote from The Bard. “Check your Macbeth, Cookie. You’ll see what I mean.” Shelby Whitholm, superannuated Shakespeare groupie.
“Come on, hon.” Morgan steered his wife toward the door. “We’ll get you the best seat in the house.” He pivoted, winked at Nik, and disappeared through the heavy oak portal, leaving her to ponder the laws of attraction. There was something rather sexy about Morgan even though he was old, fifty at least. She’d never had a daddy complex. No Electra here, no sir. But Morgan’s shaggy brown hair and twinkling eyes were engaging. Maybe it was the shreds of bravado that clung to him like a monarch’s cloak. Money and power, the ultimate aphrodisiacs. Hadn’t Kissinger or some other luminary said that? No man made big bucks in the City without having sharp elbows, a nimble mind and steely nerves. Morgan needed that forbearance to deal with Shelby. Why else, short of a sick streak of masochism, would he endure her taunts and still act as her attorney? For free, no less.
Mandy was another thing entirely. She epitomized the social x-rays so famously described by Tom Wolfe. Any day, Nik expected an ocean wind to lift the woman’s frail frame aloft until she floated, kite-like, back to home base.
“Joining us tonight, Ms. Nelson?” Harris Goldman’s reedy voice cut through the frigid air. “You’ve been our guest for eight months now, so I suppose that dissertation’s almost done.”
Nik’s hands balled into fists. Something about this wizened professor made her skin crawl. Calm down, she told herself. The guy’s older than your grandpa, for heaven’s sake.
Goldman’s lips stretched into an unnaturally tight grin as he adjusted his muffler. Dr. Harris Goldman, retired professor of philosophy, had a slew of academic credentials and limited social skills. Under that veneer of civility was a flawed human with a dim view of his fellow creatures. Nik was positive about that. Since her arrival in Goodhaven, she’d observed him at a number of meetings and social venues. Each time, he waited until others took a risk before committing himself with a weasel-worded sentence that said nothing. Shelby loathed him, especially after he’d called her an atheist. “Watch out for him, Cookie. He’s a sly one.” Nik recalled Shelby’s puckish grin. “Still as the grave. The Bard got Goldman down pat.”
She checked her watch before answering him. Five minutes ’til show time. “I’m still plugging away, professor. I just may take you up on your offer to help.” She gave him her most winsome smile. Most men came close to swooning when Nicole Nelson turned on the charm. The guys at B.C. called her an intellectual bombshell, someone who could lure admirers to their doom like Circe. Harris Goldman reacted differently. He recoiled, stepped back as if he’d been propositioned.
“Any time.” He scrambled up the stairs. “I’ll just go take my seat.”
In the background someone snickered. A stocky young man with round glasses, wispy beard and an impish grin stepped into the light. Jett Hall had been eavesdropping, and he made no attempt to hide it. He bared a set of gleaming teeth as he approached Nik.
“Another conquest, Ms. Nelson? Hmm. Guess I’m too young for you if octogenarians turn you on.”
“What makes you think that age is the only reason?” Nik tossed her curls. “Shouldn’t you be tending your bookstore or something, Jett?”
He squeezed her shoulder, nudging her toward the welcoming warmth of the hall. “Don’t be snippy, my beauty. When your opus is published, you’ll sing another tune. Independent bookstore owners can make or break you. For sure, Barnes & Noble won’t give you a tumble.” He thumped his chest. “But I, on the other hand …”
“What’s this about a tumble? You have sex on the brain.” Danielle Stevens brushed past them with a silken swish. Nik deflated like a child’s balloon as she eyed the svelte form of the real estate broker. Danielle Stevens, mistress of the night, was beautiful, a constant vision in splendid blonde on black outfits. She exuded a chilly blend of hauteur and scorn that made Nik shrink into her worn Gap pea coat and rough wool scarf. Some day, she told herself, I’ll have nice things, too. When I’m finished with school and too old to care.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” Jett said. “I plan to leave right after Shelby’s speech. Wouldn’t miss that for the world.” He raised his eyebrows in a pathetic imitation of Groucho Marx. Both Jett and Danielle were star players in Goodhaven’s community theatre, and Jett never missed an opportunity to test his skills.
Danielle risked a mini-frown. As Jarrod Whitholm’s fiancée, she couldn’t afford to badmouth his Aunt Shelby, no matter what the provocation. She pasted a faux smile on her face and said nothing.
“Come on, ladies. Hubba, hubba. Half the town’s already in there.” Jett made a sweeping gesture and sprinted up the weathered wooden steps. He was Nik’s only friend in this small, cliquish town, closer in age to her than most of the others. Shelby tried, she really did, but she couldn’t shake the need to mother her lodger and ply her with unsolicited advice. The bits on local politics were worth remembering, but not Shelby’s acerbic take on everything else. Life was too short for unrelenting cynicism.
Nik loved the town hall with its gnarled mahogany pews and sculpted spire. Speakers used the old pulpit to address the gathering, lending their remarks a perceived link to the Almighty that was quite undeserved.
Tonight’s gathering, the community forum, was one of six special sessions convened each year. It was a stroke of genius and the product of sheer desperation. A decade ago Goodhaven had been torn asunder by political disputes so rancorous that the town threatened to implode. To avert disaster the Forum was established, giving each citizen the chance to learn about and comment on issues. Original democracy at work. Nik savored every bit of it. The link between the forum and town government was the key to her dissertation, the jewel in her academic crown. She crossed her fingers, praying that Shelby wouldn’t disrupt the proceedings too much.
Turnout was exceptionally high that evening despite the winter chill. Money or the prospect of losing it seemed to pump life into even the hardest hearts and arteries. Nik flipped open her iPad, ready to record every bon mot. She never took sides; that would be unprofessional. She was an observer, not a participant. As such, that accorded her a neutral status akin to a U.N. peacekeeper. A few hardliners groused at her association with Shelby, but most folks in this academically inclined town applauded the effort.
Three other council members sat at the dais, counteracting Danielle’s insolence and Morgan’s hubris. They were forgettable town fixtures, providing the small community with continuity and peace of mind.
The imposing walnut grandfather clock chimed seven times. Nik loved the beautiful antique, a relic from a long-ago sea captain’s house. Several townspeople craned their necks as if waiting for the fireworks to start. Waiting for Shelby, of course. Dramatic entrances weren’t typical of her, but she did enjoy the element of surprise. Harris Goldman leaned forward in his seat, looking pointedly at his watch. He glared at the mayor and heaved an exasperated sigh.
After Danielle elbowed him Morgan gave a startled yelp and gaveled the meeting to order.
“Great turnout tonight,” he said. “I’ll read the proposal aloud and allot thirty minutes for comments and questions. Let’s see,” he fumbled through a sheaf of papers, “We’ve got eight speakers. That’s forty minutes.”
Danielle’s pained expression spoke volumes. She seemed jumpy, eager to dispense with the nonsense.
“Check out Amanda,” Jett whispered. “Is she in a trance? Maybe she hypnotized herself.”
“Hush,” Nik said. “We’ll get thrown out of here if you don’t shut up.” She had to concentrate in case Morgan made some salient point. If he succeeded in winning over the town, he’d score a major coup. Shelby would be apoplectic, but that was one of the dangers of living in a democracy. You made your case, and sometimes you lost. Speaking of which, where the hell was Shelby? She was always punctual to a fault. Her front row seat stayed empty, adding to Nik’s growing anxiety. After all, Shelby was no kid. What if she’d had a stroke or something? Even worse, she might have had an accident and be lying out in the road somewhere, freezing. Shelby insisted on pedaling all over town on her ancient Schwinn despite the impenetrable New England darkness and the hint of ice. She activated her venerable Jeep Wagoneer only in emergencies.
“Where is she?” she hissed to Jett. “Shelby always speaks first.”
His shrug said he didn’t really care. “Chill, for Christ’s sake. It would take the entire Sixth Fleet to derail her. She just wants to make an entrance.”
Morgan droned on, cataloging the repairs needed for the cultural center and their cost. In a clever counterpoint he also listed the revenue stream that a fully functioning facility could generate.
“We’re talking about a self-sustaining venture for Goodhaven,” Morgan drawled. “All you merchants can get on board with that, I bet. With the right inducements our tourist traffic will double.”
Amanda Haas sprang to life, startling them all by clapping her hands like a child. Danielle was too sophisticated to cheer, but she brightened as Morgan discussed revitalizing the moribund real estate market. Business had stalled during the recession, even for the high-end properties she represented.
Nik stole a glance at Amanda. Her eyes looked unnaturally bright in her otherwise pallid face as she stared up at her husband. How odd to see that look of adoration. Did the wives of even minor politicians acquire it by osmosis, or was it a cool, calculated piece of theatre? Mandy’s pupils looked dilated, but Nicole couldn’t really tell. Maybe the woman just needed a good meal instead of another pill.
“Okay. Let’s start our citizen commentary.” Morgan hesitated and pushed a paper toward Danielle. She shook her head, whispering a reply into his ear.
“I’m going to ask our esteemed professor, Harris Goldman, to lead off.”
The crowd stirred as townspeople craned their necks. Probably looking for Shelby, Nik thought. Speaking slots were assigned impartially on a FIFO basis, but somehow, Shelby Whitholm’s name always surfaced before any of her fellow citizens could even blink. Her absence tonight upset the natural order of things.
Goldman trotted up to the pulpit like a racehorse at the starting gate. Even Nik had to admit that he was spry for his age. There was no Mrs. Goldman. Rumor had it she’d decamped to Florida with her chiropractor the year before. That humiliation should have made Harris a sympathetic character, but most of the town still rooted for his wife.
Nik understood betrayal, even though she considered Harris Goldman an insufferable insect. Her fiancé, Mark Murray, had unceremoniously dumped her last year for the heiress to a German munitions fortune. Nik managed to behave reasonably well every time they encountered each other, even though she longed to claw his eyes and throat. Three months ago Mark had suddenly appeared at her front door. Instead of proclaiming his love, he’d begged for a hookup. Just sex, no emotion. His fiancée, Hilda or Helga or something equally banal, was spending the semester in Berlin, and Mark was lonely. Horny, more likely. She’d sent the bastard packing without shedding a tear, and the next morning, Nicole Nelson escaped to Goodhaven.
The ping of an iPhone signaled that Goldman’s five minutes were over. Nik elbowed Jett in a panic. “Where is she? Now I’m really scared.” She gathered her things and inched toward the edge of the pew. That’s when everything fell apart.
The hall door opened, admitting a new player. Sheriff Bob Fuselli entered the room, accompanied by a long, lean stranger with masses of unruly black hair and tons of attitude. The audience sat in stunned silence as a scene played out in a thousand horror movies became real. Fuselli strode toward the podium, exchanged a few words with the mayor and took the microphone.
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