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       Moon Signs, p.23

           Helen Haught Fanick
 

  #

  Finally we were in the car on our way to Birdie Lancaster’s. I was so excited, thinking of talking to a former employee of the Alpenhof, that I was inclined to forget the murders and look forward to our visit. My better judgment prevailed, though, and I decided to mention my doubts about Stefan.

  When I finished telling Andrea what I’d been thinking about the murder of Olga and how that, and finding the Monets, could profit Stefan, she nodded and continued driving. After a while she said, “I’ve had those thoughts, too, but I’m having a hard time believing he’s anything but a sincere young man who wants to marry our niece. And if the murders of Olga and Franklin Stuart are connected, it couldn’t have been Stefan who killed them. He was on the lift with us.”

  “Of course, we don’t know they’re connected. His story about Olga’s husband trying to murder him in Paris and thinking he saw him at the ski area could be a cover-up, something he made up to put the blame on someone else.”

  “I realize that. My intuition tells me it isn’t, though.”

  That was the first time in my life I ever heard Andrea mention intuition, and I was flabbergasted. Reasoning was always her big thing. I simply said what she always says: “It remains to be seen.”

  And as I said this, we were pulling into Birdie Lancaster’s driveway. Her house was surrounded by snow, but I could tell she had a yard full of flowers in the summer. It was just that type of place. It was a two-story frame house with a picket fence out front. A flagstone sidewalk was clear of snow, although at least a foot covered the yard. We didn’t have time to knock on the door when a smiling lady opened it. She was small and chipper-looking with gray hair cut in what we used to call a boyish bob.

  I speculated about Birdie’s age—she appeared to be about our age, in her sixties—as she urged us to come in out of the cold. We introduced ourselves as she ushered us to a couch beside a stone fireplace and a fire that was burning merrily along. She excused herself and went to the kitchen for coffee. In addition to the three cups of coffee in classy-looking china on a large wooden tray, there were cream and sugar in the same china and a similar plate stacked with chocolate chip cookies that were obviously homemade. This certainly was a fine climate for eating cookies, here in the mountains. I just hoped I wasn’t gaining weight as I helped myself to one. I wouldn’t have to worry about it if I had agreed to try skiing, but that wasn’t about to happen.

  “Thanks so much for seeing us,” Andrea said. “We’ve been collecting information about the hotel since we got here. We knew our grandparents had owned a hotel in the valley at one time, but we never knew exactly where it was. Then our niece, Maggie, started working there and discovered some records from the time they owned it.”

  “Oh, I know Maggie. She’s a sharp girl. I stop by the hotel now and then for a chat with whoever’s working the desk, since I worked there myself for so many years.”

  I added what looked like Half and Half from the flowered pitcher, and then took a long drink of Birdie’s excellent coffee. “We’re not exactly sure when our grandparents left this area, but I suppose that was before you started working at the hotel.”

  “Yes, your grandparents were gone from here before I was born. When I started at the hotel, working on weekends as a teenager, it was owned by a man named Evans. He owned it for several years, and then Harley Wainwright bought him out. He operated the place for several years. He retired, and no one else in his family was interested in running the hotel. It was closed for a few years, and I think the present owners bought it from the Wainwright heirs.”

  Andrea had pulled a steno pad from her purse and was taking notes. “Do you know Mr. Evans first name?”

  “I believe it was Everett. Yes, I’m sure it was. He was a drinker, but he did do a pretty good job of running the hotel. I was real sorry to hear about the death of one of the present owners. Have you heard—has the sheriff made any progress in finding out what happened?”

  “We haven’t heard anything,” Andrea said.

  “And poor Franklin Stuart. That was a real tragedy. There isn’t a nicer family in the valley. We go to the same church, and his wife and I have done volunteer work together for years. The sons are a real plus in this community, I can tell you. I don’t know what this world’s coming to.”

  I saw an opportunity to get some information about the sheriff. “Sheriff Sterling seems like a really competent man. I expect he’ll get to the bottom of things before long.”

  “Oh, he’s an excellent sheriff. He gets re-elected time after time with no problem. No one would think of going up against him. Even after his wife died, his interest in this community has kept him going. We all think the world of him.”

  Aha! I just couldn’t help pursuing the matter further. “I guess he’s a widower, then. He’s such an attractive man; I’m surprised some lady from this area hasn’t won him over.”

  Andrea gave me a sidelong look that told me to cease and desist with this line of questioning. “We found a list of items that were bought by our grandparents when they went to France. One thing on the list was a vase they brought as a present for your mother.”

  “My, yes, I still have that vase and use it all the time in the summer, when my flowers are blooming. I keep cut flowers in the house all the time.” Birdie went to a what-not shelf in the corner and took down a medium-sized opaque glass vase. She handed it to Andrea, who looked it over and passed it on to me. All four sides of the vase had lovely young girls in profile molded into the blue glass.

  I looked at the bottom but couldn’t find any markings. “Do you think it could be Lalique?”

  “I think their trip over there would have been a little early for Lalique.”

  “What’s Lalique?” Birdie asked.

  “He was a French glass-maker,” Andrea explained. “His work became pretty well-known. If you ever get a chance to go to the Antiques Roadshow, take the vase and have an appraiser look at it.”

  “Or you might have a chance to have a reputable antique dealer appraise it,” I said.

  “I certainly will. Of course, I’ll never sell it. It’s for my niece, Flora.”

  “Of course you’d want to keep it in the family,” Andrea said. “Another item on the list was two chandeliers. There was no description of them, but we thought probably they were the ones in the lobby and the kitchen.”

  Birdie nodded. “I’m sure they’re the ones. That kitchen used to be the dining hall for the lumberjacks who boarded there. That must have been a job, cooking for them. I wouldn’t have wanted it. I always thought that chandelier in the dining hall was a little fancy for a bunch of lumberjacks.”

  “I wondered about that, too,” I said. “Our grandparents had champagne tastes, it seems.”

  Birdie laughed. “They had that reputation. Not that I knew them, of course, but folks in this area still mention them occasionally. It seems they liked living high on the hog.”

  Andrea was working her way up to the paintings, and I was getting impatient. Finally, she said, “The list also mentioned two paintings. We’re curious about them, but haven’t been able to locate them.”

  Birdie looked puzzled. “I don’t know. There were a few paintings in the hotel, but not all rooms had them. Then Mr. Wainwright bought all the black bear pictures and dishes. That was while I was still working there. He made all the frames for those pictures himself. Well, that isn’t exactly correct. In the rooms that had pictures, he just used the old frames if they fit his pictures.”

  I took another cookie, but just sat there holding it. “I wonder what he did with the pictures that were in those frames.”

  “I’m not sure, since it’s been a long time ago. I think he just put the new pictures over the old ones. He probably didn’t know what to do with the old ones, and didn’t want to throw them out.” She got up to bring the coffee pot.

  “If our Monets had frames that were right for the new pictures, they could still be under the black bear prints,” I murmured to Andre
a.

  Birdie returned and poured coffee for all of us. “Please help yourselves to the cookies.”

  “They’re delicious,” I said.

  Andrea took another. “You mentioned that the present owners of the hotel bought it from the Wainwright heirs. Did he pass on some time ago?”

  “Yes, and his wife died shortly after. His children have left this area.”

  “What happened to the Wainwright home place?”

  “It’s been sold several times. The last owners remodeled it completely. We have so many new folks moving into this area, you know. Everything’s changing, but that’s the way of the world.”

  I wondered if they did all that remodeling with the money from the sale of two Monets. If the paintings weren’t under the black bear prints, it looked like we’d be at a dead end. At least I couldn’t think of anything else to try. Maybe Andrea, with her nose for digging into mysteries, could think of something.

  We spent another fifteen minutes finishing our coffee and commiserating with each other about the changing world. At least Birdie and I commiserated. Andrea always adapts to changes better than most folks our age.

  I couldn’t think of anything else to ask, and Andrea obviously couldn’t either. We got into our parkas and said goodbye, promising to come and see Birdie on our next visit to the Canaan Valley. She was nice, and it was fun to have a friend in the valley. In addition, she made wonderful cookies and had insisted we take a bag with us. We certainly would plan to visit her again, if I had anything to say about it. We’d have to think of something to bring her from Pine Summit. She even gave me her cookie recipe:

  BIRDIE’S CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

  1 cup granulated sugar

  1 cup unpacked brown sugar

  1 teaspoon baking soda

  1 teaspoon salt

  1 cup butter, melted

  2 eggs, unbeaten

  2 tablespoons vanilla extract

  4 cups all-purpose flour

  2 cups chocolate chips

  1 cup pecan pieces

 

  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl, stirring after each addition. The batter will be thick. Shape dough into balls and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 10—12 minutes. Watch cookies carefully, as ovens may vary.
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