Vera squeezed the last container of red velvet cake into the cooler and closed the lid. “I think that’s everything.”
Ashley, one of Vera’s fourteen-year-old granddaughters, wheeled the cooler down the ramp into the garage and levered it into the sedan’s trunk. Her twin was usually at hand, but this morning, the first Saturday of their spring break, Hannah was already up the street at Miss Betty’s. Which sparked a little Q and A in the car.
“It wasn’t dark when Hannah left, was it?”
“Why couldn’t she wait for us? There’s a lot of traffic in the morning.”
“She wanted to help Miss Betty get ready.”
“There’s no sidewalk there. You sure the sun was up?”
“There’s a sidewalk on the other side, Mimi, and yes, the sun was up.”
From a distance, the white-haired woman in the little veiled hat and floral shirtwaist appeared much younger than her ninety-one years. The shoes were a dead giveaway though. Sturdy black oxfords with Cuban heels, straight from the Forties. A matching snap-clasp handbag hung over her wrist. While Miss Betty climbed into the front seat, Hannah stowed a vintage green tote in the trunk, slid into the back with Ashley, and stretched out her everyday prosthetic with its matching tennis shoe and lifelike cover. Vera knew the cover was for her benefit. For school, Hannah wore one resembling black lace or no cover at all. Both girls had on skirts with shorts underneath. Hannah’s skirt was yellow, Ashley’s pink.
The drive from St. Augustine to Gainesville usually took around two hours, but today Vera planned to stop at Miss Betty’s country house on the way. Curtis Brown, a distant cousin of Miss Betty’s in his sixties, was supposed to be taking care of her country house in exchange for free rent and utilities. After repeated calls to the landline went unanswered, a friend’s daughter drove by and reported a padlocked gate, waist-high weeds, and a ton of downed trees. Before Miss Betty worked herself into a state, Vera suggested she join them for a weekend of museums and softball, and see for herself.
Miss Betty looked out her window now and grumbled, “Curtis is probably fishing in the Keys. He’s got an ex-brother-in-law in Marathon. Never could count on that side of the family. One of the nephews is a real piece of work. Killer Kenny, they call him. One time—”
“How long has Curtis lived there?” Vera didn’t want to hear any more about Killer Kenny. Miss Betty’s family stories verged on horror tales at times.
“Close on twenty years, I reckon.”
Vera smiled to herself. “If he’s moved, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding somebody else to live there and take care of the place. I bet one of the neighbors can suggest someone.” The traffic was heavy, as usual. Though most of the cars were heading toward the ocean, not away from it, as they were.
“There’s no air conditioning,” Miss Betty said. “You know how people are these days.”
“Make them an offer they can’t refuse,” Vera said. “Like you did with Curtis.”
“Can’t you install some window units?” Ashley said.
“Wiring might not be up to the challenge, Ash,” Vera said. “It’s an old house. Your father built it, didn’t he, Miss Betty?”
“Helped. He was still a kid in 1913. The wiring’s not that old, of course. Place was remodeled in the Fifties. Still, Curtis had a devil of a time hooking up his fish freezer.”
Ashley said, “Maybe you could sell the place.”
“Oh, I can’t do that,” Miss Betty said.
“Why not?” Vera said. “The land itself must be worth a pretty penny, all the development going on everywhere these days.”
“There’s graves in the back.”
Hannah turned to her twin. “Ooo, graves.”
“Don’t start,” Ashley said.
Vera glanced sideways. “Like a family cemetery?”
Miss Betty’s eyes shone. “Daddy’s family. There’s even an angel.”
“We’re here.” Vera drove through an open farm gate in the middle of nowhere. So much for neighbors.