In this historical mystery, set in Arkansas in 1961 when the mob still ruled Hot Springs, babies are being kidnapped, and the local sheriff has to put this case to bed before the bosses come down from Chicago. They don't need the heat, and they have the leverage with the sheriff to make him do whatever they want. It seems like a good move to arrest Leslie Richards, the new woman in town, even though there is only thin circumstantial evidence against her. Better for it to be a stranger taking those babies and not one of their own. Leslie has left New York with her ten-year-old daughter, Mandy, hoping to escape from her past and the ruins of a relationship, only to discover that there is little peace for her in Pine Hollow, Arkansas.
March 6, 1961
Leslie Richards sat on the ground, idly picking at the strands of dry grass beside her. No sign of green yet, not even in Pine Hollow, Arkansas. Not that she really expected it. Early March is still winter whether in Arkansas or New York, but at least the breeze blew a little warmer here. She definitely wouldn’t be sitting on the ground if she were still in New York.
Easing herself against the thick trunk of the old oak, which stretched leafless branches high into a shimmering blue sky, Leslie thought of how her agent had reacted to the news of her impending move. Merrill had stolen the response Leslie had expected from her parents.
“What on earth do you want to leave New York for?” Merrill rolled a well-chewed pencil between her slim fingers, staring at Leslie in frank astonishment.
“You’re the one who keeps telling me a writer should be well-traveled. Let’s just say I’m broadening my horizons.”
“Some podunk town in the South is hardly what I had in mind.”
“That ‘podunk town’, as you so colorfully put it, is part of my heritage. My grandmother was raised there. I can reconnect with my roots.”
“Right. Like that’s been a burning issue in your life.” Merrill flashed one of her lopsided smiles. “I think you’re holding out on me, kid.”
“Oh, Merrill,” The tears Leslie had vowed not to burden her friend with welled in her eyes and spilled unbidden down her cheeks. “Everything’s such a mess. Since Ronald … I can’t think. I can’t work.”
Leslie stood abruptly and took an angry swipe at the tears. “I can’t keep doing this. Don’t you see? Ronald was so important. Not just to me, but for Mandy. And he just walked out on us.”
“Don’t you think in time …?” Merrill expressed the rest of the question with a shrug.
“I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’d want him.” Leslie paused to take a deep, ragged breath. “That’s why I want to get away. Change my scene entirely.” She offered Merrill a weak smile. “Who knows, I might even find the atmosphere conducive to working. Write a national best seller.”
“You mean you’re finally going to do an adult novel?”
The memory of that unexpected reaction brought a smile to Leslie’s lips.
Merrill had been after her for years to branch out of the young adult and children’s field, tempting her with statistics on how much more lucrative an adult book could be. But the truth was, Leslie enjoyed writing for kids. Maybe that came from having her life revolve singularly around Mandy. She wasn’t sure. Or maybe it was just because she found kids much more fun than most adults she knew.
That thought brought to mind the first two people Leslie had met here in Pine Hollow.
The first encounter had been with an elderly lady who appeared as cheerless as the black dress she wore. Mrs. Reba Stacy, who also wore a black pillbox hat and white gloves, owned the house Leslie hoped to rent if she could pass the inquisition.
“You divorced?” Mrs. Stacy patted the wisps of gray hair that had escaped the confines of her hat. Leslie was faintly amused. Ladies in New York no longer wore hats on a regular basis. She could remember her mother wearing a similar hat to a family funeral some years ago, but it had been a long time since Leslie had seen her mother don a hat.
“No,” Leslie responded to the woman’s question, then waited as Mrs. Stacy glanced away as if to render her question harmless.
“That’s good. Not too many divorced folks ’round here. We don’t think much of ’em.”
A moment of stiff-lipped silence had followed as the woman eyed Leslie, taking note of her faded dungarees, brown leather sandals over bulky socks, and long dark hair hanging unrestricted down her back. The next question had come five seconds late, according to Leslie’s timetable.
“Where is your man, then?”
That had seemed to satisfy Mrs. Stacy as everything settled into a neat explanation. A widow with a ten-year-old daughter was apparently much more acceptable than a divorcee with a young child.
Leslie had considered telling the woman the truth, just for the shock value, but her need for a home had kept her lips closed.
Sighing, Leslie picked up her notebook and opened it. She was supposed to be working, not daydreaming, but her mind behaved like a willful child. She couldn’t stop thinking about the sharp contrast between the cool reception she’d received from her landlady and the delight of making her second acquaintance, a boy of about eleven.
Matt had come to her door late in the afternoon of the day Leslie moved in, and she had been immediately drawn to his tentative smile and sparkling blue eyes.
“Hello, my name is Matt Henson.” With the introduction, he’d offered his hand in a very grown-up gesture. “This is my paper route. And since you’re new … well, I wondered … maybe you’d like to get the paper?”
“Is it as good as the New York Times?”
The boy had given her a quizzical look, then hurried to defend the Pine Hollow Chronicle. “Well, it’s not very big. But it has everything. Anything you need to know that’s happening around here.”
“If it’s that good, you’ve got yourself a customer. Why don’t we finalize the deal over a bit of a snack?”
Matt had come in, eyeing the cardboard boxes cluttering the kitchen. Some were open, with newspaper spilling out where Leslie had put it after unwrapping dishes. She moved a box from the table and offered him some cookies and milk. They then spent a pleasant half an hour getting beyond the awkwardness of strangers, which was so much easier with kids who don’t waste time with superficial issues. She quickly learned that he was twelve, and the reason he was not in school was because the teachers had some meetings that day. Just for the middle school, he explained when Leslie mentioned Mandy was in school.
Matt’s reaction to the news that Leslie had brought with her only one child, a girl, still made Leslie chuckle, and she could remember the conversation almost word for word.
“Just a girl?”
“Gee. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. I was only … I mean … Sometimes when we’re playing ball at the park, we need an extra outfielder. Another boy would be good.”
“Mandy can hold her own.”
“Well, I dunno, uh, the other guys might not like playing with a girl.”
The stricken look on his face had testified to the depths of his conflict, and Leslie remembered how his expression made her smile. While she understood the difficulty of staying safely in the known or risking the unknown, it had been a bit amusing to see the poor boy wrestle with his dilemma.
That memory was shattered by the raucous chatter of a blue jay that landed in the branch above Leslie’s head. The bird danced across the smooth bark in a rhythmic staccato that seemed to punctuate his diatribe.
“Okay, okay,” Leslie laughed. “You can quit nagging.” She opened her notebook and looked at the blank page. The deal had been that Mandy could explore the park for an hour, leaving Leslie alone to get some work done. Well, so much for plans. The truth was, she didn’t have a good story idea. She needed something to stir the passion that is so important for writing and so far had come up with nothing.
Catching a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye, Leslie turned to see Mandy racing across the field toward her.
“Someone chasing you?” Leslie asked with a hint of amusement as Mandy flopped to the ground beside her. “I’m looking for a new story.”
“Oh, Mom!” Mandy rolled onto her back. “I will stop telling you things if you write about them.”
“I’ll be discreet. Promise.” Leslie smiled as she regarded her daughter’s affected pout.
Mandy’s sudden awareness a few months ago that her mother sometimes used real people when creating characters for her books had been a surprise. Yet it had also established a new dimension of relationship between them. Mandy loved to read. No surprise since Leslie did, too, and had been reading to her daughter from the time she was born, but Mandy had never understood what went into creating the books she enjoyed. Now they were able to talk about how characters were created and how stories could come from real life. Leslie really enjoyed those conversations. They weren’t quite on the adult level she had with Merrill, but that vast distance separating parent from child had closed a bit, and Leslie found it a comfortable place for the most part.
“Hey, what do you say we go home and eat?” Leslie started to close her notebook. “I’m starved after all this work.”
“What work?” Mandy swiped the notebook, waving the empty page in her mother’s face. “Fine writer you turned out to be.”
“Ah! Just shows what you don’t know,” Leslie grabbed the book and stuffed it in her large canvas bag. “The story is carefully hidden between those blue lines. It’s magic.”
Mandy laughed and pushed herself to her feet. “Come on. Let’s race.”
Leslie didn’t really try. She knew it would be a futile gesture when matched against someone who’d taken a quantum leap from crawling to running.
Mandy was built for speed, tall and slender with powerful legs that drove her effortlessly. Watching her daughter pull ahead, her hair a light brown stream behind her, Leslie focused on how much Mandy looked like her. So why can’t I run? Because you spent your entire life lost in books instead of training for this race.
Glad that the little rental house was only four blocks from the park, Leslie stopped in front to catch her breath. Mandy had already disappeared inside, but when Leslie stepped in, there was no sign of the girl. Maybe she had gone to wash up.
Leslie dropped her notebook and purse on the library table in the entry, then went into the kitchen to light the gas stove. She held her breath every time she did that. Not because of the gas, although she did hate the smell, but she held her breath because she hated having to strike a match to an open gas valve. Mrs. Stacy had shown her how the stove worked; telling her there was no danger of an explosion as long as she synchronized the lighting of the match with turning the knob to release the gas. Leslie wasn’t sure she had ever been good with synchronization, and she really missed the electric stove she’d had in her small apartment in New York.
That wasn’t all she missed, but she kept pushing those thoughts far away. She was determined to make this a happy place for Mandy.