January and February were cold, windy and snowy, but to Ginny’s relief, uneventful in the Roark household. Brian was looking forward to graduation, Molly’s adoption was final and Ginny was content with the progress Anita’s students were making in the classroom. Life was good.
Ginny stayed in touch with Gwen, Abigail, Charles and Nick, but there hadn’t been a frantic call or a report of vandalism in weeks. When she’d last talked to Gwen, Gwen’s voice had been full of venom. “Those two reprobates are probably sunning themselves on some exotic island, living off the profits from Sweet Justice. Good riddance to human garbage.
"Ginny, I’m haunted by the thought that Granny knew she was going to die. Worse yet, that it was her own daughter who was going to cause her death.”
“Don’t go there, Gwen. If Ruth were here, she would tell you that bitterness is destructive. She’s counting on you to keep the Northrop legacy alive.”
In truth, Ginny had similar feelings. She hoped that someday Christine would be held responsible for the chaos and misery she’d caused. She sensed that they hadn’t heard the last of Christine. Her daily prayer was that when Christine finally made her dramatic appearance on the scene, nobody would get hurt.
Because it hadn’t once occurred to her that the victim would be Christine, an unexpected call at eight am on a lovely spring-like Saturday in early March, left her with very mixed feelings.
“Ginny, it’s Roger.” His voice was shaky, so she suspected bad news. “I received a call from Officer Seaborn last evening. He was contacted by a police officer named Riles Umstead. Umstead is one of two officers on the police force in Centerville, a rural town in the Tennessee mountains.
"Christine’s body was discovered by the cleaning crew in a motel where she and Levinson were staying. Her throat had been slashed. When Umstead arrived at the crime scene, he recognized Christine from a BOLO that was issued by the Summerfield police when Christine disappeared.”
“Please tell me that the police apprehended Levinson.”
“Unfortunately, he was long gone. Umstead intends to issue an all-points bulletin on him.
“I’m leaving this morning to fly to Tennessee to make arrangements for Christine’s body, and to give a statement to the officers who are handling Christine’s case. For now, the details are sketchy.”
“I’m sorry is inadequate, Roger, but I’ll say it anyway. Is Gwen going to go with you?”
“I’ve informed Charles and Nell, but I haven’t told Gwen. I wanted you to be prepared in case she reaches out to you.
“I’ll be in touch as soon as I know more.”
At three, the same afternoon, the timer on Ginny’s stove dinged and the doorbell rang at the same time. Ginny looked up from spooning cookie dough on baking sheets. “Molly, honey, can you see who’s at the door while I take the cookies out of the oven?”
Molly nodded and skipped out of the kitchen.
Ginny was transferring cookies to a cooling rack when she heard a squeal of delight.
“Mr. Nick, what are you doing here?”
“I was in town on business, so I stopped by to say hello to my favorite eight-year-old.”
“I’m glad you are here. I hope you like chocolate chip cookies. Ginny and I had so much fun baking cookies on our birthdays that we decided to start our own tradition. The last Saturday of each month will be cookie backing day. We’re going to try a new recipe every month until we run out of recipes.”
“What are going to do with all those cookies?”
“We’ll eat some and give some away.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Come on back to the kitchen. The first batch is just coming out of the oven, and Ginny promised that we can sample them while they are still warm.”
Ginny looked toward the kitchen door and brushed a lock of hair out of her face with her wrist. “Hi, Nick. If you don’t mind a messy kitchen, you’re welcome to join Molly and Brian for milk and cookies. Chocolate chip cookies are at their best straight from the oven.”
“Brian and Molly? Isn’t the master chef going to join us?”
“I still have two more batches to bake, so I’ll be up and down.”
“I’ll take you up on your invitation. I don’t remember the last time I had milk and cookies, but the smell in your kitchen is bringing back fond memories. When I was a kid, Mom wasn’t much of a baker. It was my Grandma Ellie who filled up the cookie jar when she came for a visit. It was a happy day when I got home from school and the aroma of baking cookies greeted me at the door. During my freshman year in college, Grandma Ellie kept the guys on my hall supplied with all kinds of goodies.”
“What about the rest of your college years?”
“She had a stroke in June of that year, so her baking days ended.”
Molly piped up. “Stoke? Isn’t that what Ms. Abigail had?”
“Yes, it was, Molly, but my grandma’s stroke was worse. In her last years, she was confined to a wheelchair. Fortunately, Ms. Abigail is up and going strong.”
Ginny said. “I was lucky. My mom was and is a great cook. Some of my happiest memories include food.”
“Sounds like we’re among the lucky ones.”
“Yes, we are. Molly, would you please knock on Brian’s bedroom door and tell him that the cookies are out of the oven.”
When she was out of earshot, Nick whispered, “I came very close to commenting about parents who are more concerned about their rights than the rights of their children, but I didn’t want Molly to think that I was referring to her dad or her grandparents.”
“She’s perceptive, but she’s still a child, and she’s been sheltered.”
“And, since I’m used to dealing with adults, I forget to be cautious. As delighted as I am to see Molly, I’m here because I have details about Christine’s murder. I’ll fill you in later.”
“I’ve been trying to stay busy, so I wouldn’t have to think about the way Christine died. There’s no denying that she had serious issues, but nobody deserves to die the way she did.” She glanced toward the door. “Molly doesn’t know.” She didn’t have time to say more before Molly and Brian entered the kitchen.
Later, when the last of the cookies were baked and the kitchen was back in tip-top shape, Brian challenged Molly to a game of Crossfire.
Ginny watched them disappear down the hallway. “Molly has been such a blessing, Nick. She is a remarkable child. Actually, she’s been the glue that’s held us together these past few months.”
“She is a remarkable child, but your success as a family has been a team effort. Put the three of you together and you’re extraordinary. Was there one moment when you knew that you were going to proceed with the adoption?”
“I still had reservations after Tom and Beth Kendrick endorsed the adoption. Then, the next day, I overheard Molly talking to Mac, Brian’s macaw. If you remember, it was her conversations with Mac that helped me break through her silence after she came to us. I guess I should feel guilty about listening, but I don’t. She didn’t trust Brian and me, and I was desperate to find a way to reach her.
“I was delighted that she and the elder Kendrick’s formed an immediate attachment, but that bond also made me wonder if I should foster her until they returned to the States. But, back to the conversation with Mac. She told him that she really liked her dad and Katie and her grandparents, but that she wanted to live with Brian and me. That did it!
“I’m not naïve. Our relationship won’t always be easy. But with your support, my folks and Carol’s family’s support, we’ll get through the tough times.”
“I don’t doubt that for one minute.”
She sighed. “Let’s not put this off any longer, Nick. As much as I dread hearing the gruesome details, I need to know what went on in that motel room. Don’t be surprised if I get emotional.”
“Rant, rave or cry. It’s the kind of situation that makes you wonder about the sanity of the people involved. As far as the actual murder, no one knows exactly what happened, and probably never will. There appeared to have been a struggle. Christine was disheveled and had several defensive wounds. The fingers on her right hand were broken. She had a small scrap of paper clutched in her left hand that had Molly’s name scribbled on it. The scrap may not have any bearing on the case, but Roger, Charles and I aren’t willing to take chances with Molly’s life. We’ve hired a security team to protect your family until Levinson’s whereabouts are known. If Levinson shows up in Archdale, he will be apprehended.”
“What kind of security are you talking about?”
“Bob and Evie Hamilton are scheduled to arrive at your front door at six. Bob and Evie are aliases and they aren’t married, but it’s important that they appear to be married friends of yours. With a little luck, they’ll be out of your hair by the first of the week. Until then, no one is to leave the house without either Bob or Evie with them. For your own protection, follow their directions implicitly. They are professionals.”
Ginny was shaking her head. “Is security really necessary? I don’t have room for two extra people, Nick. If they stay here, they are going to have to rough it.”
“No problem. Your home is a palace compared to some of the accommodation’s security people encounter. Most have slept in cars, on sofas, in sleeping bags and a variety of other places. They will be fine.”
It was obvious that Ginny wasn’t convinced. “You can’t seriously think that Levinson will try to kidnap, Molly. He’s got to know that he’s on the police’s radar.”
“Do you really want to take a chance?”
“No. I don’t. What’s the police’s thinking? Do they suspect that Levinson murdered Christine because she was trying to thwart his plan to kidnap Molly?”
“That’s one of the possibilities. His letters in Christine’s studio referred to Julie as his daughter. Now that Julie is deceased, his affections could have been transferred to Molly.”
“What a tangled web. So, what do you think that I should tell Molly? She’s already experienced so much tragedy. In one year, she’s lost her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. It seems unnecessarily cruel to tell her that her grandfather murdered her grandmother; especially since it’s probable that her grandmother was responsible for Ruth’s death.”
“Kevin and Christine checked into the motel ten days ago. Both were seen coming and going from the motel until two days before her body was found. Witnesses claim that Christine was eating alone at the restaurant across from the motel on the evening she was murdered. Levinson’s car was not in the parking lot. Even though he is the prime suspect, the police don’t have enough evidence to charge him with the murder. For now, it would be better not to mention him at all.
Nick glanced at his watch. “If you want to tell Molly about Christine’s death, you should probably do it now. It’s possible that Bob and Evie will arrive early.”